Well, you can already see the photo and its caption, so I should start off with the excellent and exciting news.
We’re able to offer you another Christmas Markets cruise this year, and at a tremendous value (a minimum of $1000 off what you’d pay if you bought it direct from Amawaterways).
More details in the second article in tonight’s compilation, but if you can’t wait, here’s a link to everything about our 2012 Danube River Christmas Markets Cruise.
I do hope you can juggle the dates and squeeze this in to the time between Thanksgiving and Christmas – it is without a doubt our most popular tour and my personal favorite, too. It is a wonderful antidote to the high-stress and overly commercialized pre-Christmas build up in the US (some local stores are already selling Christmas stuff).
My North Korean diary is now at 30,000 words and I’ll see about publishing at least some of it for you next week.
Oh – one more thing. I believe the underlined text issue has been resolved, and also that all links are now obvious and underlined. Please let me know if you still have any problems with the formatting. Meanwhile, please do read on for items on :
- Fewer Airlines, Fewer Flights
- Senate Moves Closer to Confronting the EU over Airline Taxes
- Is Boeing About to Mess Up Another New Airplane Design
- Not only Boeing – Boeing’s Partner, Sukhoi too
- A New Approach to Airplane Take-offs and Landings
- A Possibly Costly Spilled Cup of Tea
- More on in-flight Wi-Fi
- Apple iPhone 5 – Mainly A Disappointment
- Barnes & Noble Also Release New eReading Tablets
- Might Windows 8 be Microsoft’s Worst Windows Ever?
- ‘Promptly’ apparently means ‘within 14 – 20 months’ if you are the TSA
- Win One of Seven Free St Maarten Vacations
- The City with 115+ Mile Traffic Jams
- And Lastly This Week…..
Fewer Airlines, Fewer Flights
A DOT report issued this week points to the continued centralization of airline services among an ever smaller group of airlines. The ‘big five’ – American, Delta, Southwest, United and US Airways – have between them 85% of the domestic air travel market, and with AA in possible merger talks with maybe US Airways, the big five may soon become the big four.
The report goes on to point out that less competition means the airlines no longer feel the need to fly to every last little place, all the time; and so, over the last five years, the number of daily flights has reduced by 14%.
This means the remaining flights are more full, and as loads increase, so too do the airfares.
At the risk of stating the obvious, the report also points out the explosion in additional fees being charged by the airlines.
What the report does not do, however, is reconcile these obvious and unsurprising outcomes with the DOT’s continued Pollyanna-ish approach to authorizing each successive airline merger, and ignoring each successive airline anti-competitive act.
The report also doesn’t consider the real world situation we have to face as passengers. For example, at present, United continues to have appalling computer integration problems, and American is struggling with its fractious pilots who are ‘working to rule’ and crippling the airline’s ability to operate its normal flights, normally. With one airline having massive problems, and a second only slightly better, and if we don’t want to go the Southwest route (no business traveler ever would), we are left with only Delta or very much smaller US Airways to choose between.
That’s hardly a wealth of choices such as we used to have in years now long past. And for all the talk of increased efficiencies and improvements in everything, there’s precious little example of anything except a continued deterioration in the air travel experience every time we reluctantly head to an airport.
Senate Moves Closer to Confronting the EU over Airline Taxes
The elephantinely slow-motion responses by countries around the world to the EU’s unilateral decision to tax all flights in and out of the EU, no matter whether the amount of the flight over EU airspace is 99% or 1% of the journey, continues apace.
The US Senate has now voted to shield US carriers from an obligation to pay the tax. A similar version of the bill has already passed the House of Representatives; and the White House has said it is ‘studying’ the matter, not indicating if the President would sign it or not.
Is Boeing About to Mess Up Another New Airplane Design?
Here’s an excellent piece in the Wall St Journal that sets out some self-inflicted problems that Boeing is suffering from as it works through its concepts for a new model 777.
Boeing’s engineers came up with a design that would make the plane the most efficient plane ever. Boeing’s largest 777 customer (Emirates) loved the concept. Orders of the older 777s were slowing down, and each passing month brings Boeing closer to the day when the 777 changes from having an entire airplane type/size niche exclusively to itself, to having to share it with a competing model A350 from Airbus.
So, deciding to develop the new model 777 is a slam dunk, right? Alas, apparently not. You see, it would cost money to develop this new, best-ever, plane. And Boeing’s management doesn’t like spending money, even on such an essential part of its product range as the 777.
Read the piece for another sad example of Boeing tripping itself up with its timidity.
Not only Boeing – Boeing’s Partner, Sukhoi too
The Soviet Union had a burgeoning aviation and aerospace industry, and made some excellent planes. Sure, their ongoing maintenance wasn’t the best, but particularly the military planes were (and even still are) very highly rated.
The collapse of the Soviet Union was mirrored by a collapse in their aerospace industry, with no money being available for future R&D and new airplane development. Worse, the traditional Soviet airline customers of the Soviet airplane manufacturers also had no money to buy new planes, creating a nasty negative loop which basically froze Russian aircraft manufacturing at close to zero output for more than a decade.
This was all supposed to change, however, and one of the new shining hopes of the Russian industry was the all new Superjet, a project initiated in 2000 by Sukhoi, a company formerly involved in military aviation, and with a number of international partners including Boeing. The Superjet would seat 75 – 95 people was expected to compete against the Embraer E-series planes and the Bombardier CRJ.
Unfortunately, the project has had delays and problems and now it seems their launch customer is refusing to accept further planes. Here’s an interesting piece that only lightly touches on the problems of the plane and its engines.
It seems that airplane development (as well as airline management) is not for the faint-hearted.
A New Approach to Airplane Take-offs, Landings, and Airport Taxiing
Airplanes are amazing creatures, but only when they are flying at cruise height and at cruise power. They are quiet, speedy, smooth, and very fuel efficient.
On the other hand, on the ground, they are like beached whales. They are noisy, slow, bumpy, and very fuel inefficient. It makes little sense that an airplane’s engines, designed to propel a plane at 550 mph in thin air at 35,000 ft should also be used to roll it around on the ground at 10 mph.
It is also significant to note that an airplane only ever needs its full engine power when taking off and climbing the first thousand feet or less. Once it has a bit of ’emergency’ height underneath, the engines can successively throttle further and further back as the plane climbs into thinner air (with less friction) and changes from climbing (requiring extra power) to straight and level flight. It again makes little sense that the plane has to carry with it, throughout its entire flight, an oversized set of engines that are only fully needed for the first three or four minutes of possibly a 10 – 15 hour flight.
There are two interesting developments on the drawing boards. One is simple, the other complex.
The simple one is so straightforward you wonder why it isn’t mandatory practice already, at every airport, everywhere. Why not use the tugs (or modified versions of them, probably with electrical batteries for power) not just to push planes back at the gate, but to tow them all the way to the end of the runway, and then to retrieve the plane again as soon as it lands and to take it back to the gate. In other words, only start the engines a minute prior to take-off, and turn them off again even before completing the landing roll.
This would represent a huge cost saving to the airline – both in the form of reduced fuel consumed and also in the form of fewer hours on the engines (engines need very costly overhauls every so-many hours of operation). It is far from uncommon for a plane to spend an hour on the ground away from the gate blocks, before it takes off and subsequently from when it lands and until it finally is blocked at the gate again. On shorter flights, the plane’s engines spend more time at low power on the ground than at cruising power in the air.
One analysis suggests that airplanes could save 13% of their total fuel consumption (on relatively short 1 – 2 hour flights; less on longer flights) if they didn’t have to taxi around the airports on their own power.
One wonders why the airlines that have taken pillows and blankets off flights, ostensibly to reduce weight on the plane and fuel burned to carry the extra weight, aren’t rushing to adopt such obvious and easy technology.
The second development is considering an assisted take-off (and assisted landing) device that would be a bit like an aircraft carrier catapult (for taking off) and trap wires (for landing) – but with not nearly as intense an acceleration/deceleration. If some form of power assist (and braking assist) could be offered, planes could be built with much less powerful engines that were more closely optimized for cruising flight rather than designed around the brief power spurt needed at take-off only.
Here are two articles arising from an Airbus ‘future of flight’ type presentation in Australia a week ago – the first discussing ground movements, and the second discussing take-off and landing technologies.
While I am keen to see new technologies adopted by airplanes, sometimes it is peripheral technologies such as these, outside the airplane itself, which can also massively improve the air travel experience and economics.
A Possibly Costly Spilled Cup of Tea
The story of the McDonalds customer who spilled a cup of coffee on herself, and then successfully sued the company for millions of dollars because she burned herself with the hot coffee has become the thing of urban legend. (The reality of the case is more complex and is well presented here.)
So how much is it worth if you spill a cup of hot water/tea on yourself, on a plane? A Southwest customer who spilled the hot water over herself that she was given to make tea is suing the airline for $800,000.
More on in-flight Wi-Fi
I wrote last week about how in-flight Wi-Fi has not been widely used by travelers – on average, about 5% of fliers use on-board Wi-Fi; the airlines need four times more users – a 20% usage rate (based on current fee structuring) in order to break even.
One solution, I suggested tongue in cheek, was for the airlines to simply increase four-fold the prices they charge. Another could be to drop rates slightly, and to get an offsetting larger increase in users, bringing in more revenue overall per flight.
But it isn’t as simple as that. Reader Dave wrote in :
Regarding the Wi-Fi Service conundrum for airlines, passengers and Wi-Fi Suppliers, the available bandwidth to each aircraft is limited no matter if supplied by Air to Ground or Satellite Networks. The delivery cost is lower for Air to Ground than for Satellite but both delivery methods to aircraft cost significantly more than the delivery cost our terrestrial networks incur…and there is a much more smaller number of airborne subscribers over which costs can be spread.
The conundrum is: price it too high and few use it, the vendors and airlines lose money but the quality of the experience is usually excellent. On the other end, price it too low or give it away, via sponsorship from advertisers, at wholesale prices, the passenger usage goes way up and the passenger experience begins to deteriorate as too many passengers have to share the available bandwidth. The reaction is “why should I pay for such lousy service.” Many people have a similar experience when using, eg, free airport Wi-Fi.
The challenge for airlines and Wi-Fi suppliers is to keep working on lowering delivery costs, increasing bandwidth and correctly find the pricing sweet spot…price it right, generate maximum revenue from the available bandwidth while ensuring each passenger has a good experience…this is the Wi-Fi in the sky holy grail everyone is trying to find.
Dave makes excellent points, particularly about the limited bandwidth on planes. Perhaps Gogo – one of the major providers of in-flight Wi-Fi – have been already listening to Dave, because they announced some tweaks to their pricing model, which they claim will only affect 2% of flights.
I’m always a bit cynical about any claim that a pricing change will make almost no difference at all, because it begs the question ‘Why change your prices if you’re not materially benefitting from the change?’.
And, for sure, the change from a flat fee for a flight to $10 per hour of usage is a potentially big change in cost, in some cases three times what was charged before.
Curiously, while Gogo is pushing up its pricing (which will almost certainly reduce the number of people using its service) it is also about to treble the bandwidth available for people on the flights. You’d really think that if you were trebling the bandwidth, you’d be willing to encourage more usage, rather than probably reducing the usage.
On the other hand, Jetblue is to do the opposite – it will make Wi-Fi free on its flights, starting in the first quarter next year. Details here.
Interestingly, it seems Jetblue plans to offer limited free Wi-Fi (ie for basic email and browsing) but if you wish to use more bandwidth intensive applications, you would then have to start paying. Sounds like an excellent approach.
The issue is actually even more all-encompassing than merely the bandwidth available between the in-plane network and the broader internet outside the plane. There is a trend towards ‘BYOD’ service on planes – this stands for Bring Your Own Device – and points to the growing desire by travelers to be able to access content and entertainment from the plane’s system (and externally from the internet as a whole) and to ‘consume’ (ie watch/listen/whatever) the content on their own device.
In other words, instead of making do with a sometimes disappointing quality video monitor provided by the airline, you simply connect your iPad or whatever to the plane’s Wi-Fi network and enjoy the plane’s videos and other content through your iPad (or iPhone or whatever else) rather than through the screen in the seatback in front of you.
Being able to stream wireless video to 100 – 300 different devices, simultaneously, in the small confines of one airplane, is an interesting technical challenge. The technical challenge – which is already appreciable on the plane’s own LAN – becomes enormous when people wish to stream movies from their Netflix or Amazon streaming accounts, making for bandwidth requirements in the order of hundreds of Mbps.
Lastly on this point, while there are major challenges involved, they probably can be solved with sufficiently lavish an application of money. But it surely is not likely to be free – for one reason, there are underlying costs to the airline to buy in the bandwidth used by its passengers, and for another (obvious!) reason, nothing is for free on flights anymore.
Which makes the desire, reported in this article, by frequent fliers to have ubiquitous and free Wi-Fi during their travels 100% unrealistic. It ain’t gonna happen.
The point about desiring more proactive communication (reported in the same article) is however a very valid one. Why can’t airlines immediately send text messages to all passengers on a flight each and every time any change occurs. Sending text messages can be very easy, completely automatic, and – best of all – 100% free to the airline.
Apple iPhone 5 – Mainly A Disappointment
The good news was my new iPhone 5 arrived earlier than promised, on Tuesday this week.
The bad news is that it has massively underwhelmed me – and I’m doing a ‘double upgrade’ where the differences and improvements should be more noticeable (ie from the iPhone 4 to the iPhone 5, rather than from the iPhone 4S to 5).
The trivial bit of extra screen length makes no difference at all to just about anything and everything I use the phone for, and I find myself feeling increasing twinges of buyer’s remorse when I compare my narrow little phone screen with the spacious wonders on eg the Samsung Galaxy S3.
Maybe the camera is slightly better, but it is still a cell phone camera compromise, rather than a ‘real’ camera with a real sized lens and sensor chip. Most of the time, the iPhone 4/4S camera is more than adequate for the limited purposes I used it, and also most of the time, a ‘real’ camera (even my sub-compact) is enormously much better than any phone camera, and the iPhone 5 is still a long distance short of offering ‘real’ camera quality and flexibility.
I do agree that the new LTE data speeds are truly impressive (I tested it three times, getting download speeds of 3Mb/sec, 12 Mb/sec and 18 Mb/sec and lower latency than the 3G service on the iPhone 4) but, as good as they are, they are nowhere near the top end of Apple’s claim of up to 100 Mb/sec. My results are in line with AT&T’s current national average of 13.7Mb/sec, although I’ll guess this speed will inevitably decline over time as more and more LTE devices start contending for the same amount of bandwidth. 3G speeds have generally been limited not by 3G technology, but by the available bandwidth provided by the wireless companies, and there’s every reason to expect the same with 4G/LTE.
What else? So the phone has yet another style of back cover. Big deal – not. Every iPhone ever introduced is described at the launch event as being ‘the most beautiful phone ever’. Whether the back cover is plastic, metal or glass really doesn’t matter to me at all.
It is very sad to see the elimination of Google Maps from the phone, and dismaying that Apple’s rebrand of the inferior TomTom mapping product is not very complete or accurate. Yes, one does wonder if Steve Jobs would have let such an unfinished mapping product out if he was still there.
The phone also has a new data/charger connector, and still another size of SIM card. A change to a smaller data connector was probably inevitable (the old style was more than ten years old and way oversized by modern standards) but yet again, Apple thumbs its nose at the world by refusing to adopt the international micro-USB standard. In Europe, the EU has made micro-USB connectors mandatory on phones, so for that part of the world Apple ships a free connector/adapter with its phones, but nowhere else.
My iPhone 3G uses a normal size SIM, the iPhone 4 uses a smaller sized SIM, and now the iPhone 5 uses an even smaller sized SIM again. Three different sizes and shapes of SIMs in three different phones. One change of connector in more than ten years is fine, but three different SIM sizes in three years? Come on, guys – give us a break!
More to the point, there are no exciting new ‘state of the art’ features – particularly no NFC (near field communications) capability, something that is steadily appearing on competing Android phones, and which is driving a whole new generation of imaginative uses. How extraordinary that Apple is at the tail end rather than at the head of this new hardware capability.
So, slightly faster data, slightly better camera, slightly bigger screen, and nothing much else. Not worth the $300 plus tax, etc, that it cost me (for a unit with 32GB of storage). If you don’t need a new phone right now, I urge you to wait until perhaps Feb/March next year and the anticipated release of the Samsung Galaxy S4; if you do need a phone today, be sure to compare the Samsung Galaxy S3 alongside the iPhone 5. And, one more option – the iPhone 4 and 4S are now very inexpensive, you can get an iPhone 4 (with only 8GB of storage) for free with a new contract or contract extension, and a 4S with 16GB of storage for only $99. If you must have an iPhone, maybe your better choice is a 4 or 4S.
This is the fourth iPhone I’ve purchased. Receiving each of the preceding models was an exciting event for me, but this time round was a bland disappointment. I can’t recall the last time I’ve spent over $300 on an electronic item and felt so disappointed.
Barnes & Noble Also Release New eReading Tablets
A couple of weeks ago Amazon brought out its latest Kindle Fire tablets/eBook readers. This week Barnes & Noble responded with its latest two tablet/eBook readers – a 7″ screened Nook HD and a 9″ screened Nook HD+.
The Nook HD is a direct competitor to the Google Nexus 7 and the Amazon Kindle Fire HD. All three units have 7″ screens, and the Nook HD has a slightly higher pixel count than the other two – 1440 x 900 compared to 1280 x 800. The Nook HD also is the only unit to have a Micro-SD card slot.
But it suffers from a restrictive subset of Android, the same as the Kindle Fire HD. Short of doing some hacking, neither the Amazon nor the Barnes & Noble products allow you unrestricted access to all apps in the Google/Android store, and neither allow you to buy and read eBooks from competing eBook providers.
Only the Google Nexus 7 is fully open, and allows unrestricted access to all Android apps and similarly allows one to buy and read books from any eBook source. This makes it the clear winner in the 7″ tablet category, even though the Nook HD is slightly superior in terms of abstract hardware specifications. (Apple still does not have a 7″ sized iPad to compete with these Android devices.)
The 9″ screen on the Nook HD+ is similar to the 9.7″ screen on a regular iPad or the 8.9″ screen on the Kindle Fire HD 8.9″. It is very aggressively priced at $269 (the least expensive iPad is $499, and the large screen Kindle Fire will start at $299.
But – the same problem as with the smaller screen units – neither the Barnes & Noble nor the Amazon tablets are fully open system tablets. Although moving to an iPad is clearly more costly than the ‘crippled’ products offered by B&N and Amazon, most people will prefer the iPad.
Bottom line is that neither the new Amazon nor the new B&N products challenge the Google Nexus 7’s supremacy as the best 7″ sized tablet, nor do they challenge the iPad’s supremacy as being the best 9.7″ sized tablet.
Might Windows 8 be Microsoft’s Worst Windows Ever?
People like to joke that Microsoft alternates between good and bad releases of Windows. The current Windows 7 is generally considered very good, the previous Windows Vista is generally considered bad. Before that, Windows XP was very good (some people still use it) and so on, more or less alternating, before that.
While one would hope that Microsoft learns from each past release, if history is to be a guide, Windows 8 is fated to failure. It will certainly be controversial, because it is bringing a radical new ‘touch screen paradigm’ to desktop computers and their mouse driven interfaces. The Microsoft PR machine and its willing sycophants in the press are already gushing over the new version of Windows, but I’ve been hearing some ugly rumblings from people who I respect, and who have had some experience with the (not yet officially released) new operating system.
And now there’s an article which pulls no punches about the reviewer’s opinions of Windows 8. The article should be mandatory reading for anyone considering an ‘upgrade’ to Windows 8.
What I particularly dislike is the way the new OS interface appears to yet again dumb-down the software. In particular, it seems to default to opening only one window, in full screen mode, at a time – something that overturns one of the core promises of every prior Windows version – multiple concurrent programs all on the screen at once. Power users of Windows can instantly be recognized, because their screen has a series of overlapping windows, none of them full screen, and all open simultaneously. This new review suggests doing this will be difficult in Windows 8, a limitation which would have disastrous productivity impacts on power users.
Could Microsoft’s desire to be ‘hip’ and ‘with it’ again be getting in the way of good sound design sense?
‘Promptly’ apparently means ‘within 14 – 20 months’ if you are the TSA
The TSA was required by the Administrative Procedures Act to undertake a period of public discussion prior to implementing its new and probably dangerous whole body X-ray machines. But the TSA feels itself to be above the law, so it completely ignored this formal requirement and simply proceeded to install the machines without any care or concern, starting to do so in 2009.
The Electronic Privacy Information Center sued the TSA for its breach, and in July 2011 a Federal Court of Appeals held that the TSA could continue to use its radiation machines, but that it had to ‘act promptly’ and hold public hearings on their usage.
By August this year, nothing had happened. No hearings. So the Court asked ‘What’s up?’ to the TSA, and the TSA indicated it planned to publish a notice of future public hearings in the Federal Register by the end of February next year (19 months after it was ordered to hold the hearings promptly). The Court has now given the TSA until the end of March 2013.
Now you might think that the TSA is deliberately ‘going slow’ on this requirement. It takes 19 months just to post a notice about future public hearings? It isn’t as though the TSA is going to do anything other than ignore the public hearings, is it, but even just going through the motions of setting hearing dates is taking 19 months.
The TSA denies such accusations, and says that the delays are due to staffing issues and needing to get approvals from its parent DHS and other government bodies.
There’s something very badly wrong with our government when such flagrant breaches of the laws which are supposed to define how they operate are so blatantly ignored, and with no consequences.
Imagine, instead, it was you, and instead of installing a potentially harmful radiation machine and mandating the public expose themselves to the x-rays, you simply wanted to add a deck to your house, and neglected to get a building permit. What do you think would happen to you?
This is particularly egregious not only because the machines are dangerous, but also because they don’t work as claimed, and also because the TSA is almost the only airport security group in the entire world which uses them. These machines call out for public comment and critical discussion – which is of course probably part of the reason the TSA is so desperate not to have the public comment that the Administrative Procedures Act mandates.
Details of the TSA’s thumbing its nose at the public it is supposed to serve, here.
Win One of Seven Free St Maarten Vacations
It doesn’t include the airfare, but the long established St Maarten informational website www.everythingsxm.com is giving away seven St Maarten vacations at top rated hotels on the island. If you could use a free hotel stay, why not spend a minute of your time and enter.
The City with 115+ Mile Traffic Jams
So you think you have it bad with your commute? So you hate being stuck in traffic and bemoan the time lost to such inconveniences? Don’t we all!
But spare a thought for those less fortunate than yourself – well, less fortunate than you, unless you happen to live in Sao Paulo, Brazil’s largest city. As this article reports, typical Friday evening commutes see 180 km (about 115 mile) traffic jams, and on a really bad day, they can stretch as far as 185 miles. Details here.
And Lastly This Week…..
I wrote last week about a four hour flight delay caused by an argument between two flight attendants on board. At least the problem occurred before the flight took off.
This week we learn of a flight that had to turn around and return to its departure airport due to ‘an altercation’ between two flight attendants. The outcome was a three hour delay for the passengers, but no arrest or charges for the two flight attendants who caused the flight to turn around and return back to the airport.
You just know that if it were two passengers who misbehaved sufficiently as to require the pilot to abort the flight and land back at the departure airport, there would be armed police storming the plane, arrests, and federal charges filed.
Plus, as is increasingly the case these days, the airline would sue the passengers for the cost of the emergency diversion – usually a cost in excess of $10,000.
If the situation was so severe as to cause the pilot to return back to the departure airport, why were no charges filed? Why is it that flight attendants can misbehave, but passengers can’t?
One more question : Do these things come in threes? Stay turned for next week and any necessary update!
Until next week, please enjoy safe travels (and please consider coming on the Christmas Markets Cruise)