Weekly Roundup Friday 16 December 2011

Is the Black Sea region destined to become one of the new hot tourist destinations of the decade?

Good morning

Are you starting to feel the Christmas spirit yet?  Or just the Christmas cold (in my case, both weather-wise and health-wise too)!

With little more than a week to go before the pre-Christmas sales transition seamlessly into post-Christmas sales, I hope you’ve got your purchasing plans mapped out for the balance of the year, and also hope that men in brown or purple trucks are bringing a regular flow of boxes to your door.

Here’s another ‘full house’ of news and views, both in this roundup and with the other articles published earlier in the week.  Plenty to fill your Friday morning with.

  • Virgin Hopes Lufthansa Agrees a Bird in the Hand is Worth Two in the Bush
  • Air Canada Obliged to Provide Double Seats for Obese Passengers – for Free
  • More Worrying News about Qantas’ 747 Engines
  • Good News for Boeing
  • Airplanes are Not Expensive
  • The Exorbitant Cost of Aviation Bio-Fuel
  • Another Space Flight Startup
  • Iceland’s Volcanoes – Good News and Bad News
  • EU Grows – But Does its Growth Hasten its Demise?
  • The Black Sea – a New Tourist Mecca in the Making?
  • European Trains Keep Getting Better and Better
  • Norovirus Vaccine?
  • Another New Type of Fuel

Virgin Hopes Lufthansa Agrees a Bird in the Hand is Worth Two in the Bush

Just last month we were reporting that Lufthansa was set to conclude a deal to sell its BMI airline subsidiary to BA’s parent company, IAG.

BMI is an airline with most of its value wrapped up not so much in its planes and routes and profitability, but rather in its Heathrow ‘slots’ – rights to fly in and out of Heathrow.  BMI owns 9% of Heathrow’s coveted and very expensive slots.  BA currently has 43% of the LHR slots, and is keen to not only increase its dominance at LHR but also to keep the slots out of the hands of any potential competitors.

Virgin Atlantic and its owner, Sir Richard Branson, reacted predictably to the news of BA’s pending purchase of BMI by going through their ‘underdog’ routine and complaining to anyone who would care to listen (with some validity, I should add) about the implications of BA getting an even greater share of the Heathrow slots than it already has.

But it now seems that behind the scenes, they’ve also been having substantive discussions with Lufthansa, and have reached some type of agreement in principle with LH that would see LH agree to sell BMI to Virgin (VS) instead of to BA – and, get this – for only about half the purchase price that BA was offering.

It seems that VS is saying ‘If you accept our offer, you’ll get a quick and easy deal free of any regulatory hassles or controversy’, and simultaneously is doubtless promising to do all it can to mire a BA purchase in a morass of regulatory reviews and other drawn out proceedings and delays.

It also seems that LH would rather pass the slots and their competitive value to an airline that it views as a peripheral player in its own markets, rather than give them to BA, an airline it views as a more direct competitor, and one it would rather not strengthen, even if the up-front cash it would get out of selling BMI to BA is much greater than what it would get selling it to VS.

Is that possible?  An airline looking into the future, rather than rushing to maximize short term profit without care for the future implications of its short term actions?  We’ll have to wait and see which airline ends up acquiring BMI to know the answer to that for sure.

More details here.

Air Canada Obliged to Provide Double Seats for Obese Passengers – for Free

A judge has allowed a class action lawsuit against Air Canada to proceed.  The lawsuit aims to reclaim fees the airline charged for a second seat that obese passengers were forced to pay.

Prior to 2008 obese passengers had to pay for a second seat on the airline.  This practice was banned by Canada’s transportation watchdog in 2008.  According to court documents, and if successful, the suit would involve a multi-million dollar payout.

The watchdog cited a Federal Court of Appeal decision that found ‘a person who is obese may be (considered) disabled for purposes of air travel if unable to fit in an airline sea'” when making his decision.  The class action lawsuit covers fees paid to Air Canada between December 5, 2005 and December 5, 2008, as well as damages.

More Worrying News about Qantas’ 747 Engines

Qantas’ fleet of 747s, and – more to the point, the Rolls Royce RB211 engines on them – have been increasingly prone to problems requiring engines to be unexpectedly shut down while in flight.

An Australian news network (7News) has revealed documentation suggesting that the engines on Qantas 747s are twice as likely to fail as engines on other planes.  Qantas, for its part, has asked its pilots to avoid using maximum thrust, and even to turn off the air conditioning packs at takeoff so as to reduce the engine loads.

The airline says the risk is very minor and nothing to worry about.  Its pilots disagree.

The engines are due (overdue!) to receive modifications that will restore their reliability, but until that happens, there’s a small amount of extra risk associated with the engines compared to industry norms, as is evidenced by some occasional problems that are occurring.  More details here.

Good News for Boeing

Earlier this week Boeing and Southwest Airlines announced a huge order for 150 of the new 737 MAX airplane, plus another 58 of the current model 737 as well.  This makes Southwest the first airline to actually finalize and confirm a solid order for the new plane.  Deliveries are hoped to start in 2017.

Amazingly, Boeing still has yet to finalize the specifications and design of the 737 MAX, and clearly Southwest will now be in the driver’s seat and able to ensure the plane meets its requirements as closely as possible.  There had even been some rumors that Boeing might have been about to change its mind and cancel the 737 MAX project, in favor of a complete new airplane design, but it now seems this huge commitment has secured a future for the 737 in its latest ‘MAX’ variant.

More details here.

In not quite so good Boeing news, Boeing has only delivered two 787s so far to launch customer ANA (the first was sent to Japan in late September, so this is hardly a stellar production rate), and is now admitting to delays getting the third airplane completed and on its way to ANA.

Although Boeing has literally dozens of the planes parked wherever it can find ramp space in the Seattle area, these planes need various modifications to make them deliverable, and it is proving to be an extended and complex process to get the final tweaks and corrections completed.

Fortunately, ANA is being very polite and patient.  More details here.

Airplanes are Not Expensive

Talking about Boeing, I lambasted a ridiculous article last week that offered up a series of far-fetched excuses for why it is hard for airlines to be profitable.  One of the reasons put forward was because airplanes are expensive.

In response, I calculated that the typical cost for the airplane itself translates into perhaps $6.25 per flying hour per passenger.  Surely it should be possible for an airline to be able to make a profit with what – from my perspective – is actually a low rather than high cost for the plane itself.

And now, here is an interesting article citing a 737 that is claimed to be one of the most profitable 737s in the world.  It earns more than $20 million a year for its airline, and has been doing so for more than six years, having paid for itself many times over in the process.

With airplanes having a typical life in excess of 20 years (and sometimes well in excess of 30 years) it seems likely the plane will have ended up paying for itself twenty, thirty, or even forty or fifty times over if it continues in service as it is already.

So tell me again about how the ‘high cost’ of airplanes makes it impossible for airlines to make a profit?  As I said in last week’s roundup, this is a nonsense excuse put forward by loser airlines and their executives, rather than a valid reason.

The Exorbitant Cost of Aviation Bio-Fuel

I also wrote last week rather scathingly about the likelihood of biofuels ever replacing regular oil-based fuel in airplanes.  I said that bio-fuel was considerably more expensive, thus dooming it to oblivion; but at the time, I didn’t know just how much more expensive it was.

So here’s a relevant article that appeared subsequently, revealing how the US Navy was pressured into buying 450,000 gallons of bio-fuel for its jets at a cost of – wait for it – $16/gallon.

Airlines have recently been paying in the region of  $2.50 – $3.50 per gallon for their jet fuel, and I’m going to guess that perhaps half that cost goes in government taxes.  I’m also going to guess that the US Navy fuel supply contract was not subject to any government tax levies.  Indeed, more than likely, the bio-fuel was manufactured with the help of multiple layers of government subsidies and incentives.

But even if we ignore the tax and subsidy components, the simple fact is that the government forced the Navy to pay at least five times the normal cost to buy bio-fuel instead of regular fuel.

At a time when the government has no money and a huge deficit, and the Navy and other services are all facing budget cut-backs, was this really an appropriate moment to gratuitously increase the Navy’s fuel bill five-fold for no good purpose – other than apparently rewarding a ‘connected’ company with close ties to the present administration?

Another Space Flight Startup

One more related bit of aerospace news.  Although NASA is withering away to almost nothing, and the nation’s manned space flight capability is at zero for the first time in 50 years, it is interesting and reassuring to see private enterprise is rushing in to fill the void left by NASA’s lack of funding.

In particular, here’s an interesting item about another new commercial space venture, being funded by that most Quixotic of investor/entrepreneurs, Paul Allen (Bill Gates’ former partner and co-founder of Microsoft).  The design of this latest space launch system has more than a little in common with the Virgin Galactic concept (not surprising considering the involvement of Burt Rutan in both ventures), and with probably more than adequate funding from Paul Allen, it seems likely to proceed as currently projected.

The growth of several different commercial space ventures, all of which seem to be developing new space launch systems and craft with short lead times and very low budgets almost makes one wonder what the need for NASA was in the first place?  Could we have got a man to the moon sooner, more regularly, and for less money if NASA never existed?

Iceland’s Volcanoes – Good News and Bad News

Moving now from outer space and back down into the thick of the earth’s atmosphere, let’s hit you with the bad news first.  Remember the disruptions a year ago caused by the ash from an eruption of a volcano with an unspellable and unpronounceable name (Eyjafjallajokul) in Iceland (and the lesser eruptions from a second volcano earlier this year too)?

Well, Iceland has plenty more volcanoes, and one of them is threatening to erupt and spew vastly more ash than Eyjafjallajokul ever did.  Happily, it has an easier name – Katla.

That is the bad news.  The good news, such as it is, relates to the rush to develop more accurate ways of navigating planes around the resulting ash clouds, rather than generically closing off all airspace, at all altitudes, for hundreds of miles out of an abundance of ill-informed caution about the exact extent and nature of any ash cloud.

Easyjet has just completed trials of a new system called ‘Avoid’ which allows a pilot to see where, at what altitude, and how dense ash clouds are, making it easier for flights to simply tweak their route and avoid the dangerous part of an ash cloud while still operating.

Airlines hope to start installing the necessary equipment on their planes next year, in what is becoming a race between the next major eruption from one of Iceland’s volcanoes on the one side, and some type of technological solution to avoid the ash on the other hand.

Let’s hope the airlines win this race, and let’s also hope they don’t get undeservedly overconfident in terms of how much ash they can safely fly through.

EU Grows – But Does its Growth Hasten its Demise?

A subsequent article in this week’s compendium talks about another element of stress within the EU at present – we all know about the problems with the Euro, but do you also know about growing problems with the common border within the Schengen zone countries?

At the same time, and in no way detracting from these problems, the EU this week provisionally grew by another country, when it agreed to accept Croatia as a new member.  Croatia plans to formally join the EU on 1 July, 2013, assuming that its populace approves the move in a referendum early in 2012.

Croatia will become the second of the six countries that formerly made up Yugoslavia to join the EU.  Slovenia joined in 2004.  Serbia’s recent request to join the EU was rejected for now, and the other three countries have yet to be approved – Bosnia, Macedonia and Montenegro.

The extraordinary disparity in social values, economies, and everything else between countries such as Britain, France and Germany on the one hand and Croatia, Slovenia, and other similar countries on the other hand points to some of the reasons why the more the EU grows, the more it assures its eventual destruction.  Oh – and Turkey has been persistently attempting to join the EU since 1987.  Should Turkey’s application be successful it would extend the boundary of the EU to the borders of  Iran, Syria, and Iraq, and it would become the first majority Muslim member state.

Clearly the concept of ‘Europe’ is much greater than that we formerly learned in our history books.

The Black Sea – a New Tourist Mecca in the Making?

A country that has experienced an on-again/off-again relationship with the EU and moves towards integration is Ukraine, with the complex internal politics of Ukraine sometimes tilting the country towards Europe (and away from Russia) and sometimes the opposite, and also causing the EU to vary its attitude towards Ukraine from sometimes supportive of accepting Ukraine into the EU and sometimes opposed.

Showing signs of some far-sighted and very western thinking, Ukraine just has announced ambitious plans to build an entire new city dedicated to tourism on the northern shores of the Black Sea, about 30 miles northwest of Sevastopol, on the Crimean Peninsula.  Confirming the potential of this concept, nearby Yalta was recently named the tenth in TripAdvisor’s list of fastest growing European tourist destinations.

The project would include two new airports, and hotels for ‘thousands of visitors’, and is projected to be completed within 3.5 years (I’ll place a small wager against that actually occurring so quickly!).

In doing so, Ukraine is joining with Russia and Georgia; these other two nations are also developing or redeveloping Black Sea tourist resorts.  In Russia’s case, its one-time very popular resort area around Sochi is being rejuvenated and revived in time for hosting the Winter Olympics there in 2014.

At least in theory, Sochi has a lot going for it, tourism-wise.  Winter sports in the winter, and sunny summers.

The Black Sea has mildly salty waters and a warm climate in the summer, with average daily highs exceeding 70 from May through early October, and daily highs in the 80s in July and August.  Winters are not so warm, and while daily highs never drop below 40, daily lows go slightly below freezing in December, January and February.

In addition to Ukraine, Russia and Georgia, and continuing in a consecutive clockwise direction, the Black Sea is also shared by Turkey, Bulgaria and Romania.

Cruisecritic.com describes the Black Sea as :

One of cruising’s best-kept secrets, a perfect antidote if you’ve had enough of the increasingly overcrowded and overtrodden Mediterranean. It offers every bit as much history and culture, alongside fabulous blond beaches and increasingly sophisticated cities, many of which are rich with stunning baroque buildings (despite also being products of the Soviet era). You can look forward to a wide variety of experiences on a Black Sea cruise — one day soaking up the sun on the honey-sanded beaches of Varna in Bulgaria, the next exploring the cobbled medieval streets of nearby Nessebar.

You could find yourself discovering the magnificent parks and fine architecture of Odessa, the region’s most sophisticated city; drinking in the history of Sevastopol, where the Light Brigade made its legendary Crimean War charge; or visiting Yalta, where Stalin, Roosevelt and Churchill gathered to redraw the map of Europe at the end of World War II.

There are beaches in most ports, but the majority of visitors are more concerned with culture than sunning themselves. Lovers of fine scenery, meanwhile, will find some of the coastal roads — particularly the clifftop route from Feodosia to Sevastopol — unforgettably spectacular.

Cruisecritic recommends :

Is the Black Sea worth exploring by cruise ship? The answer to that is yes — and you should go there soon before the modern plague of commercialism starts to erode its unique characteristics.

I’m considering offering a Travel Insider cruise/tour around the Black Sea in 2012.  What do you think – good idea?  Stay tuned for details.

European Trains Keep Getting Better and Better

A great deal is justifiably made of the Eurostar trains that travel under the English Channel, connecting (primarily) London with (primarily) Paris and Brussels.  Each Eurostar train comprises 18 carriages, and can transport up to 766 passengers (206 first class and 560 standard class) between London and Paris or Brussels in about 2 1/2 hours, traveling at speeds of up to 186 mph (300 kph).  14 trains a day travel each way between London and Paris and nine travel each way between London and Brussels.  Other trains go to EuroDisney, and even (occasionally) as far away as Avignon.

Most people would prefer to travel by train than plane on these routes, with a free luggage allowance (two suitcases), short journey times, convenient central city terminals, and minimal lead times to check in for the journey.  Airlines have close to abandoned their efforts at selling competing flights, although flights still exist, particularly for passengers starting or ending their journey further away than the main London and Paris/Brussels terminals.

Europe’s growing network of high speed rail is continuing to attack the competing short haul air services, and is also slowly but surely providing competing ‘intermodal’ connections between planes and trains directly at airports.  This is wonderful – passengers can fly a long distance by plane, then instead of connecting to a second plane for a shorter journey to or from their final destination, can transfer, equally or more conveniently, at the airport, to a train instead.

The latest example of an airport with a convenient intermodal connection is Brussels (BRU) where you can now directly connect to a high speed Thalys train from there to Paris (less than two hour travel time, with fares from €25 in second class and €59 in first).

To put this in context, simply taking a taxi from the main Paris airport (Charles de Gaulle, CDG) to the center of Paris would cost about the same as a first class train ticket from BRU to central Paris, and would take (depending on time of day) about an hour, maybe a bit less to get there.

So – perhaps a new way to get to Paris.  Fly to BRU then take a train from there.

In other European train news, Italy is to get high speed privately owned train service from early 2012, to compete against the Italian government owned existing rail network.

New rail operator NTV will initially deploy 25 AGV train sets (the latest and greatest type of high speed train, characterized by having individual electric motors on all axles rather than power units at the front and back of each train and unpowered carriages in the middle), with initial routes beting between Rome and Milan, then growing to add Naples, Salerno, Turin and Venice.

Each train set will have 11 carriages with accommodation in three classes, satellite based WiFi throughout, and one carriage is dedicated as a 39 seat cinema.  The AGV has set a speed record of 360 mph (575 kph) but will be speed limited to ‘only’ 186 mph/300 kph, at least until better track is laid to take advantage of its greater speed capabilities.

More details here.

Norovirus Vaccine?

I heard from a reader last week who was on a river cruise just out of Budapest, and minorly challenged by the low water levels on the Danube.  She said her Amawaterways cruise was being troubled by an outbreak of the Norovirus; something that happens all too regularly on cruises, and obviously on smaller boats as well as the biggest ships.

I should add that although Norovirus outbreaks are somewhat common, I’ve been on I’m not sure how many cruises (certainly more than a dozen, perhaps even two dozen) and never come across it, so the term ‘common’ needs to be considered in context.  Another measure is the CDC estimate that about 21 million Americans suffer from a Norovirus infection each year.

But, and as the reader says, when it does happen, it sure can change your cruise experience.

The good news for us all is that research is well underway into developing a vaccine that promises to help us avoid a Norovirus infection.

Another New Type of Fuel

I wrote above about the regrettably high cost of bio-fuel.  Of course, regular gasoline is far from cheap these days, too, and so it is unsurprising that some of the nation’s finest minds are being applied to the ongoing pursuit of identifying and developing alternative fuels.

And as evidence of their accomplishment, here’s an encouraging story of a alternative fuel powered car that, in the space of a single short year, has managed to more than double its fuel efficiency on its alternative fuel source.

For more details of this surprising new energy source, please click here.

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels, and good luck with completing your Christmas shopping


4 thoughts on “Weekly Roundup Friday 16 December 2011”

  1. European trains are very expensive if you don’t make a reservation 3 month in advance. Their range of fares is confusing. I am used to them and 25 € is the minimum you can pay for a single trip in second class. Moreover a lot of them stop everywhere and their speed never reaches what the companies claim. And guess what, their rates are going up in 2012!

  2. There has been connecting rail service from Frankfurt Airport to Stuttgart (AIRail) on DB ICE trains that carry Lufthansa flight numbers for ticketing as a connection Lufthansa. There is a Lufthansa check in counter at the Stuttgart and Cologne train stations and there used to be through checked baggage service until 2 years ago. It’s extremely convenient service and faster than flying to and from the Stuttgart Airport.

  3. Pingback: Happy New Year – Friday 30 December 2011 » The Travel Insider

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