Weekly Roundup Friday 21 September 2012

Much to Boeing’s relief, Air China confirmed an order for five 747-8 planes this week.

Good morning

It is good to be home again, and after a couple of jet-laggy days, I’m now back with nose to the grindstone.

I’ve written a 26,000 word travel diary to record and report on my experiences in North Korea last week, but it isn’t yet ready for ‘prime time’.  I am currently sharing it with the other people who toured with me for their comments and input to ensure it is a fair record of what we saw, did, experienced and perceived.  It will also take some time to then add a bunch of relevant photos and get it all published; hopefully it will be done next week, although I’ll also be traveling out of town Monday – Thursday, so we’ll see.

Meanwhile, as a quick taste of what will follow, there’s a short article following the weekly roundup on our experience going up to the DMZ from the southern side – ‘Does the TSA Run the DMZ’.  And also, immediately below, pieces on the following :

  • Naughty United?
  • Boeing’s Unloved 747-8 Makes a Sale
  • Airlines Penalizing Passengers Who Don’t Book Direct
  • A New Airline Fee – For ‘Being Stupid’
  • Hotel Fees Too
  • A (Very Much) Faster Future Method of Travel
  • Amtrak, Eat Your Heart Out (Again)
  • In-flight Wi-Fi Unpopular
  • Smartphone Market Trends
  • Free iPhone 5 Case
  • Neat Flight Tracking Program and App
  • X-Ray Scanners Now Completely Banned in Europe
  • 91% of Business Travelers Say TSA Does Poor Job
  • And Lastly This Week…..

Naughty United?

The EU provides considerably greater passenger protection and requires considerably greater compensation to be paid to passengers on delayed or cancelled flights than is the case in the US.

Many people in the US are unaware of this or think it doesn’t apply to us, especially if we are on a US carrier; but the EU regulations apply to all airlines, from all countries, as long as a flight either originates or terminates within the EU.  Your rights under EU regulation 261 are explained in an article I wrote a few years ago and which remains accurate and current now.

American carriers have not gone out of their way to acquaint us with our rights and their obligations under this regulation, even though, among other requirements, the regulations themselves also mandate that airlines must advise passengers of their rights.

There is an exception to the requirement for airlines to compensate passengers for delays if the delay is the result of an ‘extraordinary circumstance’.  But what is an extraordinary circumstance?  The airlines optimistically decided that any simple mechanical problem would be an extraordinary circumstance, but the European Court of Justice ruled against them, holding that a mechanical problem is only extraordinary if it involves an act of sabotage or a recently discovered design defect.

Unfortunately, United in particular has continued to pretend that any mechanical problem is extraordinary, and on that specious basis, refuses to pay compensation (which can go as high as €600/US$800) for any mechanical related delays.

News comes this week of two frustrated UA passengers who filed a suit against the carrier, albeit in IL rather than the EU, for its refusal to abide by these regulations, and their attorney is attempting to make it into a class action suit.

We wish the two passengers and their legal action well.

Boeing’s Unloved 747-8 Makes a Sale

Boeing’s new 747-8 is the biggest passenger plane Boeing has ever built.  It is also the biggest commercial failure that Boeing has ever experienced, having clocked up a mere 36 orders (compare that to over 800 orders for its 787) since it was announced in 2005.

The last week saw the Chinese government confirm an order for five of the unloved plane, for delivery to Air China.  This is the plane’s first new sale this year.

One wonders if the order for five planes reflects a cool-headed commercial evaluation of the 747-8 compared to other planes, or a deliberate decision by the Chinese to spurn Airbus as part of their pressure to get the EU to end its tax on airline operations.

To be fair to Boeing, it is interesting to note that the Airbus A380 is experiencing very slow ongoing sales too.  Airbus has reported a mere four sales of its super-jumbo this year, making its projection of 30 new sales for 2012 seem probably unattainable.  In total, Airbus has received 257 orders for the A380 (and delivered 81 so far) since its 2000 announcement.

Wherever I travel – short or long haul – the flights are invariably (and uncomfortably) full, and as often as not, the airports are congested with delays to both land and take off.  With every part of the aviation transportation system seeming to be pegged at max, pretty much everywhere in the world, it is astonishing that the airlines are not responding to the situation by buying larger planes so as to transport more passengers without further stressing the ‘system’ as a whole.

Perhaps it is telling to note that the airlines making the largest investments in the A380 tend to be the world’s most successful airlines (most notably Emirates, which has single-handedly ordered 90 of the planes).  On the other hand, not a single US airline has ordered a single A380.

Airlines Penalizing Passengers Who Don’t Book Direct

Many years ago, four major airlines owned the four major airline reservation systems, and the four airlines happily kept increasing the fees they charged each other, and (perhaps more to the point) also charging all the other airlines who didn’t have their own reservation systems, for bookings processed through their systems.

This was at a time when the airlines simultaneously weren’t very fixated on cost controls at all – the airline regulation system allowed them to basically price on a cost-plus basis.  The ‘have’ airlines took a sort of a ‘what goes round, comes round’ approach to the fees they variously paid to other airlines and collected in turn from them, and were happy to get in extra fees from other airlines without their own systems.  The airlines without computer systems weren’t too worried, because not a lot of their bookings went through external computer systems, and they were reasonably profitable and could absorb costs as part of high dollar fares.

But things slowly changed from this happy situation.  Deregulation made competition less relaxed, less ‘gentlemanly’ and more intense, and steep increases in jet fuel narrowed the airlines’ earlier profitability.  Simultaneously, more and more tickets were being sold through travel agencies, and all those tickets involved one or other of the reservation systems and the fees they charged.

Competition drove down average ticket prices, while the dollar cost of the reservation system transaction steadily increased, making its percentage of the total airfare become more and more significant.

And then, for reasons best known to themselves, the airlines started selling off their reservation systems, and all of a sudden a part of their business that had been more or less a wash, with costs being balanced by revenues, suddenly become an appreciable and growing cost.  This was a surprising move, because in years past, the most profitable part of many of the dinosaur airlines were their CRS (computer reservation systems) and the then CEO of AA (Bob Crandall) once famously said that he’d give away the airline side of the operations just so long as he could keep SABRE (their CRS).

So now that there’s only financial downside to their computer reservation system bookings, we’ve seen the airlines try and take back the ‘ownership’ of passengers (of course other sensible reasons also exist to encourage the airlines to do this).  First they zeroed out travel agency commissions to try and make travel agencies no longer an attractive option for passengers.  And now they are increasingly trying to shift bookings away from online travel agency type sites too, and they’ve come up with a (somewhat) new way to do that – by penalizing people who don’t book direct with the airlines and charging them higher fares or fees.

This article explains some more about how this trend is unfolding and developing.  Needless to say, this is an attempt by the airlines to reduce the efficiency and transparency of the market, and to make it harder for us to get competitive pricing and quotes that would allow us to easily choose the best fare and schedule for our needs.

A New Airline Fee – For ‘Being Stupid’

Talking about airline fees, we can probably all think of some people who deserve a double dose of this ‘being stupid’ fee, but how exactly does an airline rate its customers on the stupid-scale?

Well, if you are Ryanair, you simply levy an exorbitant and massively unfair fee on people who need to get their boarding passes printed at the airport, and when they complain, you say that it is synonymous with a fee for them being stupid and not printing them out themselves.

Ryanair now charge €60 (about $80) to print a boarding pass for a passenger who arrives to check in without a pre-printed boarding pass.  Headline-loving CEO Michael O’Leary is quoted in this article of saying about a family who ended up having to pay €360 for their boarding passes at the airport :

We think Mrs. McLeod should pay 60 euros for being so stupid.  She wasn’t able to print her boarding card because, as you know, there are no internet cafes in Alicante, no hotels where they could print them out for you, and you couldn’t get to a fax machine so some friend at home can print them and fax them to you.

 Hotel Fees Too

Here’s an article that rather equivocally sort of castigates hotels for outrageous fees, while at the same time doubling back on itself and saying ‘but maybe it is okay’.

You can decide for yourself if a $58/day resort fee, a $21/day energy surcharge, or a $110 per room cleaning fee is fair and appropriate or not.

A (Very Much) Faster Future Method of Travel

I regularly post articles about future projected supersonic planes that will fly at about twice the speed of sound, or even more unrealistic plans for hypersonic planes at four, five, or more times the speed of sound.

But all of that is slow compared to the promise described in this article – ‘warp speed’ on a space ship that could potentially see it traveling at ten times the speed of light – or, if you prefer to think in miles per hour, 6.7 billion miles per hour.  That’s truly fast, although it would still see at least half a year to travel from here to the nearest star (assuming only a minimal amount of time to get up to warp speed and to decelerate again at the other end which may not be a valid assumption – accelerating to light speed at 1G – a 21 mph speed increase every second, would take almost exactly one year of steady acceleration, then another year to decelerate down again at the other end).

There’s only one small catch.  Well, probably there are many catches, but the one I focused in on was the requirement for a ring around the spaceship, to be made of ‘exotic matter’.  What is exotic matter, you might wonder?  It is, ahem, a catch-all phrase used to describe magical mythical materials that don’t exist, but which would be really good if they did exist.

Oh well, back to eleven hour trans-Pacific flights, I guess.

Amtrak, Eat Your Heart Out (Again)

So, to switch from the sublime (6.7 billion mph space ships) to the ridiculous (Amtrak trains struggling to average 45 mph), you really should click over to this article that shows a commuter train (not even a long distance train) in France.

Let’s hope rioting Muslims don’t destroy its extraordinary opulence.

In-flight Wi-Fi Unpopular

In theory, in-flight Wi-Fi is a great way to pass the time, either enjoyably or productively.  After a slow start, US carriers are moving to add Wi-Fi to more and more of their fleets.

But there’s one small problem.  To justify their investment in Wi-Fi installations and to cover their ongoing operational costs, the airlines need about a 20% usage rate, and to make a profit, they of course need an even greater usage rate.  Unfortunately, it seems that the average number of passengers per flight who avail themselves of the Wi-Fi is about 5%.  Details here.

Of course, to the airlines, the solution would seem simple.  If they just increase the cost to access the Wi-Fi four-fold, they’ll immediately reach break even!  Other people might think that some tweaks downwards in cost might actually be a better way to increase usage and overall revenues received per flight.

Smartphone Market Trends

Today sees the release of the new iPhone 5.  Either Apple massively under-ordered stock, or massively under-estimated demand, because within a couple of hours of the phone being available for pre-order last week, the lead time to get one was extended a week and it has successively continued to lengthen subsequent to that.  Currently, new orders are showing a 3 – 4 week delay before they would be shipped, and when you add another week for shipping, you’ll be waiting at least a month if you order one today.

Whether or not you should order one remains a point of some controversy.  The Android powered Samsung Galaxy S3 is probably the best of all smartphones out there at present, and not only does it hold a clear lead over the iPhone 5, but rumors have been hopefully suggesting that Samsung will extend its lead with a new model (almost certainly to be called the S4) that might be announced (but possibly not released) in February or March of next year.  Samsung is currently denying the rumors, which also suggest the new S4 will be even bigger than the S3 (a 5″ screen diagonal, up from the present 4.8″ diagonal).  Both make the new iPhone 5’s 4″ diagonal screen seem pretty puny, and with most of what we do on a ‘phone’ these days involving its screen, the screen size is increasingly a critical parameter to consider.

It was interesting to see some current and projected market share information about smartphones released this week, prior to the impact of the iPhone 5.  This article reports on the continued growth in market shares of both the iPhone/iOS phones and the Android phones, and reports on the installed user base, rather than recent sales.  Its remaining installed user base is probably the only reason why Blackberry still has any measurable market share at all – in terms of actual units shipped, Blackberry’s numbers dropped from 2.7 million in Q2 2011 to 1.6 million in the same quarter this year.

And what about the future – and also, what about Microsoft’s phone OS?  This article reports on an extraordinary claim predicting that, by the end of this year, Android and iOS between them will control 98% of the smartphone market.  That doesn’t leave a lot left over for Blackberry, Microsoft, and the various remaining Nokia OS products.

We’d hesitate to agree with that extreme projection, but we do agree that Microsoft’s phone OS has yet to show any signs of life, notwithstanding the huge amounts of resource Microsoft is putting into both pulling and pushing its products into and through the market.

The bottom line for us as purchasers of smartphones is that we would be prudent to base our choice on an iOS or Android product – they alone seem guaranteed to stay and to continue to enjoy active support from app developers.

Free iPhone 5 Case

We know that an iPhone costs $199, $299 or $399.  But the initial purchase price is only the start of the total cost of buying an iPhone.  Particularly with the new iPhone 5, you’ll also want to buy an adapter to allow things that are designed to connect to the earlier style of iPhone/iPod/etc connector now connect to the new smaller connector on the iPhone 5 – and that tiny little thing, which probably costs Apple all of 29c or less to source from China, will cost you $29.

And then you’ll want to buy some sort of protective case or minimalist ‘bumper’ as well so as to protect (but also obscure!) its wonderful finish.  They can run $30 or more.

Other accessory buying opportunities of course also exist, although possibly the new redesigned ear plugs might be sufficiently good as to obviate the need to urgently buy replacement earphones too.  One can hope.

So there’s quite a bit more to spend, and – oh, what’s that, you say?  Get to the point?  Oh yes, the ‘f’ word – my favorite four letter word beginning with the letter ‘f”.  Free.

If you go to the ZooGue website, you can order one of their iPhone 5 cases and they’ll sell it to you for free, as long as you agree to pay their $3.99 shipping charge.  That’s the best deal on a basic protective cover you’re likely to find, and of course what it means is that ZooGue can afford to give (sell) you the case and pay for the shipping and make a profit, all for the $3.99 you send them.

Simply enter the discount code FreeZooGueAccessory when you go to checkout.

Neat Flight Tracking Program and App

Next time you have a few free minutes, go to the FlightRadar24 website.  You’ll be amazed at how much realtime data about current flights this site places on your computer screen.

You can also download an app to iOS and Android devices, either a free version or a paid enhanced version that is presently on sale for a mere 99 cents.  Among other things, this has a ‘virtual reality’ mode that enables you to point your phone in the direction of a plane that you see flying overhead and have the phone display details of what flight it is, where it is going, etc.  If you’ve ever wondered where a flight is coming from/going to, this is a magic way of having your question answered.

It isn’t an essential thing that anyone needs, but for only 99c, it has a lot of ‘wow’ factor and is a fun thing.

X-Ray Scanners Now Completely Banned in Europe

I enjoyed five flights in Asia over the last ten days, and most of all, I enjoyed a complete absence of probably-dangerous, cancer-inducing, whole body X-ray imaging machines at the various airport security checkpoints.

I also enjoyed not taking off my shoes, and when/if the good old-fashioned metal detector beeped, merely being given a cursory pat-down and wave over with a hand wand.  No-one became intimately acquainted with my ‘manhood’ or shoved their hand between my – yuck, I’m not even going to say.

That’s not to say that the security wasn’t sharp.  I had a 1″ miniature screwdriver detected in my jumbled bag of computer bits and pieces and taken from me when leaving Seoul.  Ignoring the nonsense of such a situation, the reality is that security was effective without being intrusive or objectionable.  Why can’t we have the same in the US?

Good news this week.  The last remaining airport in Europe that had the risky Xray scanners – Manchester in the UK – has now been forced to take them offline and withdraw them from service.  Yay.  Details here.  Unfortunately the US continues to buy deploy more of these machines, even though they’ve been vividly proven to be ineffective at finding ‘artfully concealed’ objects on people and even though valid concerns exist about their safety.

91% of Business Travelers Say TSA Does Poor Job

In July Gallup released a survey suggesting that 54% of people surveyed rated the TSA as giving good or excellent grades to the TSA.  This surprised and dismayed me.

But a new survey of 1852 readers/respondents from the Frequent Business Traveler and FlyerTalk blogs rebuts Gallup’s findings.  91% of these people rated the TSA as doing a poor or fair job, compared to a mere 1.2% who rated the TSA as excellent.

Gallup’s respondents were less frequent travelers than those in this new survey, with the average respondent for the new survey reporting 16.3 trips in the last year.

While the TSA will doubtless seize on the Gallup survey, this new survey more accurately reflects how regular/frequent travelers truly feel about the TSA.

And Lastly This Week…..

You know that I regularly bemoan the lack of progress in airplane design and innovation.  But let’s not confuse innovation with progress, as this series of webpages graphically illustrates.

And truly lastly, here’s the week’s strangest and saddest reason for a four hour flight delay.

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels






3 thoughts on “Weekly Roundup Friday 21 September 2012”

  1. Over the last weekend we experienced a 1.5 hour flight delay on United from SEA-DEN. There must have been three announcements on the flight that the delay was the result of a mechanical issue, which would affect compensation if any of the MANY close connection pax were required to overnight in DEN. So this suit/settlement may have had some impact.

    Also, I tried out the “frozen shoulder” diagnosis on a checkpoint in DFW, as a result of which the metal detector lane that had been “non functional” before suddenly was available to me.

    Another interesting find in DFW was the CLEAR program, apparently a competitor to the Trusted Traveler program. Although trusted traveler clearance is available in DFW, it is so far limited to the American terminal.

    1. Congratulations on the ‘frozen shoulder’ ploy! :)

      CLEAR is a strange thing that really does nothing at all. In theory you have a shorter line, but you don’t have a lesser screening process. The first company operating it went broke, I wonder how successful the second will be.

  2. David,
    I have been educated reading your columns since you started it. Thank you for all the education I had. Now, help me here, “Let’s hope rioting Muslims don’t destroy its extraordinary opulence”.
    Should I read it that you are having fun at my expense for this miseducation or are you simply being Anti-Semite (more then100 million Semitic Muslims in the world). For the record, I have been very critical of my Muslim community. I may even agree with the spirit of what you saying but not in the context where you stated it. Otherwise, keep up the good work.
    Thank you.

    Shabbir Mansuri
    Institute on Religion and Civic Values (IRCV)
    formerly known as Council on Islamic Education

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