Weekly Roundup Friday 20 July 2012

NASA’s X48 Hybrid Wing Body plane – might we be flying on one of these in the future?

Good morning

It is now a mere one week until the start of the 2012 Olympics.  Last week I featured an article ‘London’s Olympic Sized Mess’ which chronicled many of the problems surrounding the staging of this event.

I’d thought that would be the end of it, and had hoped the run-up until their opening would see problems smooth out.  But the last week has been even worse than the preceding one, and so look for a second article with much more about this terribly managed event in this week’s compilation.

Talking about terribly managed events, I finally got my Google Nexus 7 tablet on Tuesday afternoon – with the release process being a terribly managed event by Google.

But, who really cares about the managing of the release, now that the device is ‘in the wild’, or, more to the point, in my hands.  The more important thing is whether it is any good or not, and whether you should race to get one too.  My conclusion – Steve Jobs was simultaneously right and wrong about the ideal screen size for a tablet, and the Nexus 7 is, ahem, good in places.  Two more articles follow on these points.

And what else this week?  Lots! :

  • $33 Flights to Hong Kong?
  • Understatement of the Week
  • Good News for NZers and NZ Bound Travelers
  • Might This be the Airplane of the Future?
  • Delta Doesn’t Know What to Do
  • TSA Says ‘We’re From the Government, and We’re Here (in London) to Help You
  • TSA Triple Fail
  • Surprising Solution for Ultra-Long Delays at Heathrow
  • The End of an Era at Sea
  • 125 Flavors of All You Can Drink Sodas on RCI Ships
  • The Dangers of Chocolate
  • A New Marketing Idea for Disneyland
  • And Lastly This Week…….

$33 Flights to Hong Kong?

An error on United’s website on Sunday allowed some lucky people to get a roundtrip flight to Hong Kong (or to other Asian destinations with a HKG connection), first class no less, for a mere 4 frequent flier miles and $33 in taxes.

At least hundreds and possibly thousands of people rushed to take advantage of the mistake.  When United became aware of the error, it advised everyone who had bought tickets they either had to come up with the balance due or lose their booking.  The airline refused to honor any of the bookings.

Several of the people complained to the DoT.  As part of the DoT’s new set of consumer protection regulations, airlines are now prohibited from increasing the price of a ticket once it has been paid for, and there’s an up to $27,500 fine that could be levied for each separate violation.  Details here.

But is this really a situation that falls within the DoT regulation?  We all make honest mistakes from time to time, and it seems none of the people booking tickets truly believed it to be anything other than a mistake which they hoped to take advantage of.  The DoT is currently considering its position.

What do you think?  Feel free to comment.

Understatement of the Week

A United 757 flying across the Atlantic to London suddenly plunged 20,000 ft before leveling out, and subsequently made an emergency return to land at the nearest airport, which was in Canada.  Details here.

You can imagine how scary this was for passengers, and how fortunate everyone was that the plane was at an altitude of more than 20,000 ft at the start of its crazy dive.

So how did United Airlines explain the situation?  A spokesman said

There was a mechanical problem with an engine, and out of an abundance of caution, the pilot elected to divert the plane.

A mechanical problem with an engine?  I could be wrong, but even a total engine failure shouldn’t see the plane suddenly drop 20,000 ft – passengers described it as being like on a ferry going up and down in a rough sea.

Methinks we’re not being told the whole truth here.  Which brings up an interesting point.  Shouldn’t airlines be required, by law, to make full disclosure of incidents such as this?

Good News for NZers and NZ Bound Travelers

I wrote a couple of weeks ago about how Hawaiian Airlines is redefining itself.  It is no longer simply an inter-island airline, and it is also no longer merely an airline to get to or from Hawaii on.  Increasingly it is becoming an airline to travel between various places around the Pacific Rim and US mainland, with Honolulu as a connecting hub rather than solely as a destination.

The latest example of this strategy is their announcement this week that they’ll be starting service between HNL and Auckland, New Zealand next March.  With Qantas ending its route between Auckland and LAX, there were only two remaining ways to get to NZ from the US – Air New Zealand, or alternatively, Fiji’s Air Pacific with a potentially complicated stop in the trouble-ridden military dictatorship of Fiji that presumably most of us would prefer to avoid.

The only other way to get to NZ has been to fly first to Australia then double back over the Tasman, adding 7 or more hours to the journey time.  I’ve done it before, but definitely don’t recommend it.

So it is great to see Hawaiian Airlines starting service to Auckland.  Let’s hope it might result in a softening of the too-high fares that are currently the inevitable result of a lack of competition on the route.

Might This be the Airplane of the Future?

I’m no aeronautical design engineer, but I’ve held a long standing view that we are long overdue for a complete redesign of passenger airplanes.  The current concept of a cylinder with wings stuck on the middle, engines hung off the wings, and an inverted T tail at the end has been the dominant design for most of the time airplanes have been out there, and it beggars belief that it always has been, and always will be, the best way to fly people through the air.

New materials, new engines, new expectations and design parameters, new passenger expectations, and new computer modeling all combine to indicate there is surely a rich potential for ‘out of the box’ thinking and a completely new way to design and build planes.  We occasionally see futuristic ‘artists’ impressions’ of possible new airplanes, but they tend to be nothing more than speculative drawings that ‘look futuristic’ rather than reflections of current projects being developed.

There’s a reason for this, of course, and we’ve seen it most recently with the overly-delayed then subsequently partial response by both Airbus and Boeing to their needs to replace the very long in the tooth 737 design (which dates back to the mid 1950s – yes, it is almost 60 years old) and the not quite so dated A320 (25 years old).  Neither airplane manufacturer wishes to risk billions of dollars – probably way more than ten billion – on a speculative new design if it doesn’t need to, and it only ‘needs’ to do this if its competitor were to do so.  Sure, all airlines would love planes that can fly further, faster, and cheaper, but they have little say in the process.

That gives us a stand-off, possibly with an unwritten understanding between the two behemoths – ‘We won’t do anything wildly innovative if you won’t either’.  So apart from incrementally more and more plastic in the planes, the underlying design stays the same old, same old that it always has been.

But if there’s a hint of ‘free money’, then of course all bets are off.  It seems that NASA (remember them – they used to send men into space) is now more focused on matters closer to earth such as new airplane designs, and it has funded a project involving itself, Cranfield Aerospace and, ahem, Boeing, looking to develop a new type of what is being termed hybrid wing body plane (illustrated at the top of today’s newsletter).

I’m sure at this point Boeing would appreciate me pointing out that participating in such projects are not – oh, no, absolutely not – government subsidies.  It is, instead, ummm, something else.

Here’s an article giving an update on the status of this project.  Boeing et al have just finished a 92 flight test series with an 8.5% scale model, and is now getting ready for a new refined model for perhaps 20 more flights.

After the completion of that test series, the next step will be a larger model capable of being flown by an onboard pilot, but that is at least four years into the future.  And some time after that – at least ten years into the future – there’ll be a full sized prototype.

Am I being impatient, or do these seem like agonizingly long and slow lead times?  We’re already five years into this specific project, and it looks like another ten before a full sized prototype takes to the air.

Could someone point out to NASA that the entire man on the moon project took a mere eight years from Kennedy’s speech to Armstrong’s walk.  Don’t they have computers and 3D printers these days to speed things up?  A better underlying body of knowledge?  Why so slow.

Kennedy, in his ‘man on the moon’ speech, concluded with the words

that this nation will move forward, with the full speed of freedom, in the exciting adventure of space.

Apparently the full speed of freedom has slowed down somewhat in the intervening 50 years.  And the exciting adventure of space is now for other nations to savor, not us.  These changes are not what he or anyone else would have predicted (or hoped for) in 1961.

Delta Doesn’t Know What to Do

A passenger gets impatient and ‘caught short’, needing to go to the bathroom on a recent Delta flight.  He can’t wait any longer and so gets a cup and urinates into it up by the cockpit door.  Delta is now wondering what to do – perhaps torn between apologizing to him for his inconvenience (as if!) and pressing federal charges for refusing to follow flight crew instructions.

This is a curious ambivalence on Delta’s part.  The airline and its employees have not hesitated to get people arrested and thrown in jail for similar things in the past.  Could their uncertainty have anything to do with the fact the passenger in question is ten-term Congressman Sanford Bishop (D-GA)?

More details of the incident here.

 TSA Says ‘We’re From the Government, and We’re Here (in London) to Help You

The TSA was formed to replace the mishmash of private security companies that operated airport screening in the US after 9/11.  The circumstances of its being formed were strange – the hijackers did nothing illegal when going through security and exploited no failings or weaknesses in the private screening process at all, because box cutters were allowed to be taken on planes.

But somehow the government seized upon this as an excuse to create a huge new government bureaucracy, and the public all thought it a great idea.  We’ve been suffering the consequences at airports ever since, and while no-one will disagree that security is now more onerous and potentially a great deal more dangerous (X-ray exposure) and unpleasant (have you had one of the new ‘improved’ intimate patdowns yet?), all studies show that as many guns, knives and explosives make it past the TSA as ever was the case before, with private security companies.

The TSA meanwhile has been growing like a cancer on steroids, expanding to our ports, rail stations, and roadblocks on public highways.

Their latest quantum leap forward in growth was announced this week.  They are now sending staff to London, to – I kid you not’ – ‘assist’ US travelers on their return to the US.

The mind boggles.  Does that mean, upon arriving at the screening process at Heathrow, there will be three lanes.  The regular lane, the express lane, and the ‘US citizens returning to the US only’ lane; and those of us fortunate enough to qualify for this ultra-elite status get to be ‘assisted’ by the same friendly people we’ve grown to love and respect so much back home.

Officials on both sides of the Atlantic are not disclosing much more about exactly how the TSA will be assisting us.  Doubtless we’ll find out, soon enough.  More details, such as they are, here.

Let’s hope it is nothing more sinister than a way for some privileged TSA staffers to get free trips to London and a chance to visit the Olympic games.

TSA Triple Fail

Another piece of TSA history juxtaposed alongside modern day reality :  One of the distinctive things about the 9/11 hijacker terrorists is that some/many of them had attended US flight schools prior to taking over the flights on 9/11.  The US used to do a booming business, hosting student pilots from all around the world at flight schools, making good money and helping the balance of payments with their foreign exchange.

But after 9/11, the rules for people coming to the US to learn to fly were massively tightened up – never mind the fact that if terrorists wished to learn to fly, they could choose from countless other countries as well as the US.  We decided to harm ourselves, yet again, by massively impacting on the business model of many flight schools around the country, even though it made us no safer by doing so.

The TSA was placed in charge of ensuring that no dangerous foreigners get to learn to fly at US flight schools.

News this week of a triple fail on the part of the TSA.  Boston police, stopping a driver for a minor traffic violation, discovered that he was an illegal alien.  He also owns and operates a flying school.

It further transpired that 25 of his students were also illegally in the country.  Eight had somehow managed to get in the country illegally to start with, and the other 17 had illegally overstayed their visas.

And due to our government’s refusal to consider the immigration status of anyone these days, for fear of finding out they might be illegal aliens, not only was one illegal alien operating a flight school and teaching 25 other illegal aliens, but six of the illegal aliens had already been able to get pilots licenses, allowing them to fly planes in the US (and elsewhere).

One wonders just exactly how and what the TSA does to ascertain the valid status of flight school students and people requesting pilot certification.  Details here.

The perceived (if not real) difficulties in attending a US flight school has been a bonus for many other countries, including my own home country of New Zealand, which is becoming a preferred destination for would-be commercial pilots.  Reasonable costs for tuition and flying time, high standards of training, and a pleasant environment all make it a great place to learn to fly; I certainly enjoyed learning to fly in NZ myself.

As an aside, a friend of mine’s son recently got his CPL in New Zealand before returning to his home in the UK; he now has some right seat time in A320s, and is looking for any type of entry pilot position, anywhere in the world.  He seems like a fine young man, and of course has been well trained by my Kiwi colleagues.  If any readers know of opportunities, please let me know and I’ll pass them on.

Surprising Solution for Ultra-Long Delays at Heathrow

In other London/Heathrow news, we’ve mentioned several times the 2 – 4 hour waits to get through immigration that arriving passengers have been confronted with.  These delays are due to insufficient manning of the immigration desks, obviously enough.

On several occasions passengers have become unruly.  One time a sizeable number of passengers simply pushed their way through Immigration, refusing to wait any longer.  But what has really upset the Immigration officers is when waiting passengers slow clap them.

Anyway, the British authorities have come up with a very original solution to the problem.  They are hiring extra – no, not immigration inspectors!  Instead of hiring extra immigration inspectors, they are hiring extra security staff to keep the passengers in order.

An innovative ‘solution’?  Definitely!  The best solution?  Alas, probably not.  Details here.

The End of an Era at Sea

You might have known her as the Vistafjord, the Caronia, or possibly as the Saga Ruby.  The ship was built in 1973 and is about to be retired, and the reason for it marking the end of an era is due to it being the last cruise ship remaining that was built in Britain.

As this article wistfully recalls, prior to World War 1, Britain built more ships than every other country in the world combined.  In the 1960s, there were still more than 50 shipbuilders in Britain.  Now there are very few, most of which work on Defense Dept contracts, and none of which build cruise ships.

Interestingly, although cruising is enjoying boom times, with more and more ships being built, nearly all ships come from one of only four different ship builders, one each in France, Germany, Italy. Japan and South Korea (yes, that’s five locations, STX Europe has plants in both France and South Korea).

125 Flavors of All You Can Drink Sodas on RCI Ships

Have you seen the amazing new Coke vending machines?  They dispense soda drinks into cups, but instead of giving you a choice of four or six different drinks, they give you potentially 125 different options.  They combine their main drink products (Coca-Cola, Fanta, Sprite, etc) with not just the usual variations (Diet, Lite, Caffeine Free, and so on) but also with the ability to add from a range of other flavors into the soda too.  When you calculate all the different mix and match combinations, there you are with 125 different possibilities.

They are kind of neat, although almost certainly Mayor Bloomberg would not approve – either of the machines, or of Royal Caribbean’s new program featuring these machines and special all you can drink cups.

The machines are being added to all their ships, and so far are already operational on Majesty of the Seas.  The cups have an RFID (or as it is now called, NFC) chip inside – when the cup is placed in the machine, if the RFID chip is recognized, the machine unlocks and allows you to fill it up with your choice of soda flavor.

The Dangers of Chocolate

Death by Chocolate.  I’m sure I’ve enjoyed desserts by that name, and perhaps you have too; hopefully you’ve not suffered death as a result.  Here’s an interesting story of how death by chocolate almost occurred with dramatic potential results during World War 2.

Apparently this WW2 non-event has established a precedent, at least here in the US.  We are, as far as I know, the only country in the world, the only one out of 196 entities generally recognized as sovereign nations, that bans a children’s candy item – the German Kinder Surprise eggs.  These are chocolate shell type hollow eggs.  Inside the egg is some sort of a child’s novelty toy.

Although they are designed for children, and loved by them the world over, they are illegal in the US because they are thought to be dangerous to children.  Apparently our children are uniquely at risk from these chocolate eggs, unlike children anywhere else – or perhaps our parents are thought to be uniquely negligent, unlike parents everywhere else.

If you should get caught bringing a Kinder Surprise egg back into the US (after all, not everyone knows they are banned, and you’re surely not warned about it if buying one in a store in any other country) you could be in for big trouble, as two Seattle residents found out this week, spending more than two hours in a detention center after being found to have some of these eggs in their car.

They’re not alone.  Last year, our alert CBP agents managed to confiscate more than 60,000 Kinder Surprise eggs, more than twice the number they caught in 2010.

We don’t yet know what happened to the eggs these two gents had with them.  But in an earlier case, a Canadian woman who was merely taking a shortcut through the US as a faster way to travel between two points in Canada also was caught with one egg.  Even though she wasn’t planning on leaving it behind, it was impounded, and the woman subsequently got a seven page letter in the mail from CBP which, among other things, warned her she could be liable for a $250 storage fee for the impounded egg.

Maybe – and it is a big maybe – but maybe we could accept some of this idiocy, if it weren’t for wondering how much resource has been squandered on confiscating 60,000 Kinder Surprise eggs a year, and sending their owners seven page letters – resource at a time when drugs are flooding across our borders, both north and south, at ever greater rates, as the graphic in this article so terrifyingly illustrates.

Is impounding 60,000 harmless Kinder Surprise eggs the best use of our CBP resource?

A New Marketing Idea for Disneyland

One of the nicest places I’ve been to in China is Guilin.  It has some areas of outstanding natural beauty not far out of the city, and is a pleasant city itself, happily removed from the worst of the pervasive smog that covers so much of China.

Clearly the appreciation for natural beauty in Guilin is a wide ranging thing.  For the second summer in a row, the Guilin Merryland Theme Park has offered a special promotion – a campaign to encourage female visitors to ‘showcase feminine beauty’, with the overall promotion name being ‘Love Miniskirt’.

Women who arrive at the park wearing skirts less than 38cm in length (15 inches) get discounted admission.  The park hopes to set a new world record for the number of short skirted women it can get to the park on a single day.

They may well succeed.  Last year’s promotion saw increased numbers of both women – and men too – visit during the promotional period.

More details here.

And Lastly This Week…….

Would you prefer the tasteful or the tasteless version of the story of the unfortunate passenger who was given a pat-down by TSA this week, due to having a suspicious bulge in his trousers (yes, it was indeed what you’re thinking).

I wrote last week about how it costs more to park your car than your plane at Brisbane Airport in Australia.  Reader Duncan wrote in to say that it cost him more to park his car for a week at Gatwick than it cost to fly roundtrip from there to Mallorca (an island in the Mediterranean).

So, and truly lastly this week, perhaps the world’s most expensive parking lot – a multi-billion dollar structure – is one where a privileged few get to park their cars for free.  To understand the reason for the contradiction in the preceding sentence, click to see the parking lot here.

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels






8 thoughts on “Weekly Roundup Friday 20 July 2012”

    1. Hi, Mark

      The Aviation Herald merely quotes the United press release, which provides zero information. Some of the reader comments quote conflicting accounts of alleged altitude losses.

      While the Daily Mail doesn’t present itself as a serious paper, it is actually the most read news site in the world (no guarantee of quality, but means something) and their hard news reporting is actually fairly good.

      All we know for sure is that United isn’t telling us what caused their ‘mechanical problem’, and varying accounts suggest different amounts of descent and different rates of descent. I think I’d believe the passengers on the plane who could see the altitude changes on their in flight entertainment systems.

  1. United SHOULD honor the $33.00 tickets to Hong Kong that it sold to its customers without advising them to pony up the difference or otherwise cancelling the bookings. Are the United people that greedy? Can’t they admit they made a mistake, take their lumps and learn from that mistake. Grown-ups make mistakes and make amends when they do. The folks who sold the $33.00 tickets and subsequently refused to honor them should be ashamed–as should United.

  2. Re: United pricing error. **** happens. No one, even a corporation, should have to honor an obvious pricing mistake. If you post your 2011 “like new” Highlander on ebay for $1,900 vs. $19,000, should you need to honor it? If the price were 20-30% off “normal” prices, then I could see where people would think it was just a sale. However, at 98% off – it was an obvious error. It is crazy how many on flyertalk think UA needs to honor the erroneous price — but then maybe the courts will force them to. On other hand, every company need to have a program running to alert management to any updated price that is, say, 30% lower than normal fares.

  3. If I were to make an error when booking a flight at united.com, be it the wrong date, the wrong destination (Portland OR instead of Portland ME) or misspelling my name, United would make me pay dearly for it. When they make a mistake, they find a way to invalidate the transaction. I hope that the DOT fines United heavily for their mistake.

  4. Pingback: Weekly Roundup Friday 3 August 2012 » The Travel Insider

  5. Pingback: Weekly Roundup Friday 17 August 2012 » The Travel Insider

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