Weekly Roundup Friday 6 April 2012

An example of the new style of New York taxi, to start appearing on NY city streets from next year.

Good morning

It is a strange and semi-random process, deciding what to write about.  I started off Thursday this week with some half written materials for publication today, and then during the morning, stumbled across a strange news item.

At first it seemed worthy of a single short paragraph in today’s compilation of stories, but as I struggled to distill the nonsense implied in the story down to a single short paragraph, I realized that it was actually destined to be this week’s lead story (Delta’s apparent plans to buy its own oil refinery).

Add another piece on the frustrations of trying to do simple ordinary things on Wyndham Hotels’ appalling website, and that, together with this compilation piece, is what you have for your pre-Easter reading pleasure, including, immediately below :

  • More on Taxis
  • Still More on Taxis
  • United to Shrink its Way to Success (Again)
  • US Airways Wants to Merge with AA
  • Another Airline to Charge for Carry-Ons
  • Seattle Airport’s Asinine Approach to (Not) Making Money
  • Childfree Zone on Malaysia Airlines
  • More Cruise Ship Problems
  • This Week’s Security Horror Stories
  • Witchetty Grubs?

More on Taxis

Last week we wrote about the archetypal London Black Cab, which now is to be made in China rather than England.  This week, it is the turn of the similarly archetypal New York Yellow Cab, which from 2013 will be a Nissan NV 200 and built in Mexico.

The new Nissan NV200 is being outfitted with a ‘low annoyance’ horn – a bit of an oxymoron, I’d have thought.  Aren’t horns supposed to be annoying and obtrusive and attention grabbing?  Perhaps not so much in New York, where many drivers seem to have their hand permanently on the horn button (here in kinder gentler Washington State, if we sound our horn for other than emergencies, we can be prosecuted for ‘road rage’!).

More sensibly, there will be USB chargers in the passenger compartments, giving people a chance to urgently grab a bit of extra power for their phone, and they will be painted a brighter yellow.  The cabs are expected to sell for about $29,000, and it is thought that about 13,000 of them will be sold as cabs during the ten year exclusive contract.

To put the $29,000 vehicle cost into context, a NY taxi ‘medallion’ – the operating permit for a taxi – currently seems to sell for $1,000,000 or more.  Here’s an interesting article showing the rise in medallion values since 1970.

Just as interesting as the vehicle that was chosen are the two that made the short list of three but which failed to win the contract.  One was based on the Ford Transit Connect (okay, so that isn’t too interesting) and the other was a Karsan V-1.

Yes, Karsan.  Not any of the other US marques, none of the other Japanese car manufacturers, not even Korean or European.  And if you’ve not heard of the company before, Karsan is a Turkish company.

Still More on Taxis

Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport has launched a new taxi service – what it calls its ‘business taxi’; and available as either an electric powered vehicle or a regular gas powered vehicle.

Both versions feature Wi-fi service in the vehicle.  The electric powered car has a range of about 66 miles.  Rates are €42 into the business district, €58 to the Amsterdam central rail station and €124 all the way to central Rotterdam – not massively different to normal taxi rates as best I can tell.

Of course, most of us will simply take an inexpensive and fast train from the airport to the central railway station and then either walk or take a taxi from there to our hotel.

United to Shrink its Way to Success (Again)

United says that due to higher fuel costs, it will reduce its domestic flight capacity by about 2.8% this year.

Interestingly, though, United also says it will increase its international flying by up to 1.3%.

Does this mean United pays less for fuel on international flights than on domestic flights?  Or does it more likely mean that the ‘higher fuel cost’ excuse for shrinking its US operations is just that – an excuse rather than a reason.

There’s one other message in this contradictory announcement.  By clear implication, international travel is less competitive than domestic travel.  The sooner the last remnants of international airline ‘treaties’ and the convoluted various ‘freedoms’ which control and restrict international airline travel are removed, the better.

An example of the future of international air travel is a new service soon to start between Boston and Beijing.  The interesting thing about this service – it is operated neither by a US nor a Chinese carrier.  Instead, Japan Airlines will be flying the route.  We need to have truly open skies, whereby any carrier, nominally from any country, can operate any flights between any cities in any countries.

How many more such routes need to open up, I wonder, before United starts announcing that due to the rising costs of jet fuel, they will start cutting back on international services too?

US Airways wants to Merge with AA

Okay, so hardly a stunning headline, but US Airways has now officially stated its desire to merge with American Airlines (the latter currently in Chapter 11).

British Airways, concerned about the fate of its strategic partner, has also indicated an interest in taking up some amount of ownership.

Officials from US are telling AA’s creditors that a merger would create $500 million a year in savings and add an extra $1 billion a year in revenue.  I can sort of see how some savings could be created, but I’m really not sure where the $1 billion in extra revenue would come from.  If anything, it seems to me that all the AA-hating fliers, currently using US flights, will abandon the merged company, as would also the US-hating fliers currently using AA flights.  Rather than a win-win, this is more a lose-lose.

Have another look at my article about the airlines and their revolving market shares, and the graph in it which shows how quickly the extra passengers that AA received when it merged with TWA left the new merged airline.  What’s not to say the same won’t happen again if AA and US merge, too?

Interestingly, rather than negotiating with the official Creditor Committee, US Airways has been selling itself direct to individual creditors.

The whole action is a bit of a waste of time at this stage, one would think, because AA’s current management has an exclusive period to put forward a reorganization proposal for the bankruptcy court to approve, prior to other outside interests being able to also bid for the future of the airline.  Furthermore, the creditors could care less about AA’s future.  Their major preoccupation at present has to be focused on how much of the money AA owes them they will eventually get.

On the other hand, when one learns that AA lost $619 million in February alone (due primarily to declining revenues) it would seem that surely some sort of turnaround would be possible.  AA has now lost $1.76 billion since its bankruptcy filing in late November, of which $663 million are expenses related to its Chapter 11 reorganization.

You have to wonder how long these sorts of losses can continue, and just exactly what AA will do to turn itself around (or, for that matter, what US would do, too).

Another Airline to Charge for Carry-Ons

Back in 2010 Spirit Airlines outraged much of the traveling community when it announced it would start charging for carry-on bags, over and above a single ‘personal item’ measuring no more than 16″ x 14″ x 12″.  Currently, they charge between $20 – $35 for a carry-on, depending on when you pay for it; about the same as they charge for a suitcase.

This week Allegiant has decided to copy Spirit, and will also charge for carry-on bags over and above a ‘personal item’, which must be smaller than the generous size allowed by Spirit.  Allegiant allows one personal item measuring no more than 16″ x 15″ x 7″, and then will charge between $10 – $35 for a carry-on in addition to that, with a maximum carry-on weight of 25lbs.

How long before the major carriers do the same?

Things could be worse, though.  In Europe, not only do some carriers charge for carry on bags, but they will also count airport purchases as chargeable carry-on bags, too.  So there you are, pausing at the airport duty free store to buy a bottle of something, and when you go to take it on your flight, you’re hit up for $50 or so as an unexpected extra fee – much more than the money saved buying your booze at the store.  Ouch.

Seattle Airport’s Asinine Approach to (Not) Making Money

Talking about airports, here’s a story that I’m still outraged about, and not just because it is my home airport of Seattle.

Seattle Airport has an empty space in its main passenger terminal, a space which has been vacant and available for rent for almost seven years now.  The airport commissioners have just now rejected an application to lease the space – an application that would have generated an immediate investment of $2 million in improvements by the new lessee, and revenue to the airport estimated at $5 million over the 12 year lease.  Oh, and it also would have given passengers something that they’ve often complained about the lack of.

In the same meeting that the airport commissioners approved another application for a small store featuring local expensive gourmet cheeses, they declined this application, ostensibly because the airport has yet to create a policy on minority owned businesses and union employed workforces.  (Does an airport really need policies on these matters?)

So how is it that the gourmet cheese shop is exempted from the need to wait for policies on minority owned businesses and union employed workforces, while the applicant seeking to flood the airport with revenue has had their application refused (leaving the airport with a continuing unproductive empty space)?  Could it possibly be because the large applicant was a McDonalds franchisee?

Expensive cheese good, McDonalds bad?  And in case anyone thinks the cheese shop is a local company and McDonalds is not (assuming that the distinction even matters) the franchise is locally owned and would source 70% of the food (and, of course, all of the labor) from within WA.

As this article explains, there’s a ‘hamburger problem’ at the airport at present – a lack of food outlets, especially those offering fast and reasonably priced convenience food items such as hamburgers.  But the airport commissioners have chosen to delay indefinitely a request from a McDonalds franchisee, who promises to provide exactly the food that many travelers currently write and complain to the commission about not being available at present.

Imagine if a suburban shopping mall had a store which had been empty for five years, and had shoppers complaining about the lack of in-mall food outlets.  If McDonalds came along and offered them almost half a million dollars a year in rent and also agreed to spend $2 million to improve the space up front, what shopping mall would say no?

Clearly our elected public officials march to the beat of a different drum.

But when it comes to combining the concepts of elected public officials and airports, there’s another type of story that is worth telling as well.  Visit this article about Murtha Airport in Johnstown, PA – a massive edifice erected with more than $150 million in public money, but which is empty (but of course fully staffed) for most of every day.  A mere three flights travel in and out of the airport each day.

Childfree Zone on Malaysia Airlines

Malaysia Airlines have announced they will make the upper deck coach class section of their new A380 planes child-free.  No children under 12 will be allowed upstairs.

The airline already bans children from first class on its 747s and A380s; it is unclear what their plans will be for the business class section of the A380s, which will also be on the upper deck.

More Cruise Ship Problems

On Friday the Azamara Quest suffered an engine room fire, causing the ship to drift without power for 24 hours slightly south of the Philippines.  Limited power was restored late on Saturday, and the ship made it to port in Borneo late on Sunday, albeit without air conditioning.  Five crew and no passengers were injured, primarily from smoke inhalation.

The passengers were taken ashore and on Thursday all 590 passengers were flown on five chartered planes to Singapore.

Azamara seems to be offering fair compensation, including airfare as well as cruise cost, and expenses to cover passengers’ stays prior to returning home again.

The cruise industry seems to be suffering a run of bad luck at present.

In related cruise news, it has been decided that the salvage of the Costa Concordia will first see the ship righted and floated off the reef it is currently stuck on.

It was decided this would have less environmental impact and would allow for a speedier removal of the wreck than cutting the ship up where she lies.  Insurers have yet to decide if they will then scrap the ship or attempt to repair it.

I’d written, almost immediately after the Concordia disaster, about the lack of stability in modern cruise ships.  Here’s another article that provides further insight and statistics on the changed design approach to cruise ships and which also worries about the safety implications of these changes.

I agree with the writer’s contention that modern cruise ships rely on stability created not by the ship’s underlying design, but by their stabilizers.  Maybe that is an acceptable approach, but may I ask one small question – what happens to the ship’s seaworthiness and stability when a ship loses power?  Fin stabilizers are controlled by fast acting systems that tilt the stabilizers up and down (a bit like ailerons on a plane) to keep the ship steady; if the ship loses power, the fins go inert.

This Week’s Security Horror Stories

Here’s a story telling about how both Democrat and Republican house members have been sounding off against TSA abuse, and citing the latest laundry list of exposed egregious abuses and mismanagement by the TSA.

At first, I was encouraged by the reports of the Congressional hearing, but then a sad realization enveloped me.  There’s nothing new here – neither the stories of the abuses, nor the posturing by Members of Congress.  But can any of you tell me one single wrong that Congress has righted in the ten years of the TSA’s existence?  I can sure tell you of many wrongs that have remained uncorrected, of errors perpetuated, and of millions of dollars misspent.

Is it runaway willfulness on the part of the TSA, or total incompetency on the part of our Congress members who are supposed to be overseeing the TSA and holding it accountable?

Talking about public accountability, here’s an interesting story about a Delta flight that was delayed three hours due to one of the flight attendants being spotted by the TSA as ‘acting in a manner unfit for flight’.

I’ve searched the internet up and down, but nowhere can I see any information on what the behavior was.  I think we, the traveling public, have a right to know what it is/was that caused a flight to be delayed three hours, and further have a right to know what the consequences and outcome of taking the flight attendant off the flight were.

Was the action confirmed as being appropriate, or did it subsequently turn out to be an over-reaction by a paranoid TSA officer?  If the flight attendant was at fault, what negative consequence are they experiencing?  If the flight attendant was faultless, how long did it take to determine this, and who is now being held accountable for the three hour delay?

In other TSA news, it doesn’t pay to complain about the behavior and language of TSA employees (as most of us already know).  This pilot chose to complain, and so the TSA officer he was complaining to/about responded by throwing a full cup of hot coffee at the pilot.

Although the report says the TSA employee has been charged with harassment and misdemeanor assault, there is no word if her job is at all at risk.  Instead, the TSA trots out its usual nonsense about holding its employees to the highest professional standards and says it is investigating the incident, although it does say that it will take swift and appropriate action.  Try not to laugh out loud at the use of the term ‘swift’, because it was used in the TSA’s non-response almost one week after the incident occurred – that’s sure swift, isn’t it?  I wonder how long this very simple short investigation will take?

Interestingly, when the TSA is defending itself, it can ‘investigate’, publish video footage, and comment on matters in less than 24 hours.  But when it is circling its wagons and protecting its own, its ‘swift’ actions become glacially slow.

See this additional report here.

Witchetty Grubs?

Lastly this week, an Aboriginal delicacy in Australia are Witchetty grubs – fairly large pale worm things that, when cooked and eaten, taste a bit like chicken (of course – doesn’t everything?) and also a bit like corn.

Is it possible Qantas was trialing a new type of authentic Australian in-flight snack on a flight from Los Angeles to Melbourne recently, but made a dreadful mistake?  Details here.

If you’re going somewhere for Easter, I hope you’ll have a pleasant time and minimal disruptions to your travel plans, although if you’re flying AA (still recovering from hailstorm damage to planes at DFW earlier this week) or in/out of Britain (lots of airport problems), you may have challenges.

And if you’re staying at home, I hope you find lots of Easter Eggs, and that they contain lots of goodies.  As for me, my role seems to be as the hider of the eggs rather than the finder of them, but I’m sure Anna will have a wonderful time ratting around and uncovering some.

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels






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