Oct 052012
 

A Travel Insider receiving a Christmas gift on an earlier Christmas Markets cruise. The wonderfully positive and festive atmosphere that permeates these cruises adds enormously to their charm.

Good morning

Our wonderful – and wonderful value – 2012 Christmas Markets cruise, announced last Friday, has of course met with a positive response.  We’ve one couple signed up already (they’ve been river cruising with me before) and two other couples and one individual (also past Travel Insider tour members) are hoping to confirm their participation in the next few days too.

The good news is there are still plenty of cabins available, although the $1000+ per person discount only runs through the end of this month.  So please do check your calendars to confirm you can make the dates (11 – 19 Dec minimum, possibly starting earlier if you’d like the Prague add-on too) and let me know if you can join us.

This truly is my favorite tour of all.  I hope you can join us this year, and I hope it will become one of your favorite travel experiences, too.  Details here.

Talking about favorite tours, I’ve now got the first half of the North Korean Tour Diary online, lavishly illustrated with plenty of pictures.  There’s a lot of content covering the first part of this tour – the pre-tour options in South Korea and Beijing, and the first three days in North Korea.  The other three days will be published next week, but meantime, feel free to go read the first part now.

And, yes, you can already join the 2013 North Korean tour.  Details here.

You’ll also find, following on from this week’s roundup items below, an article that is either amusing or annoying about ‘Lies, Damn Lies, and Airline Press Releases’.  You can guess which of these three categories are the most offensive.

Below, please find items on :

  • United’s Monkey See, Monkey Do
  • JetBlue Offers to Fly Disaffected Americans Out of the Country, For Free
  • Ryanair’s CEO Complains About His Airline’s High Baggage Fees
  • More on Using Tugs to Move Planes Around Airports
  • The Strangest Reason for Slow A380 Sales
  • Di-lithium Crystals to Power New Rocket?
  • An (Un)happy Birthday to the CD
  • The iPhone 5’s Surprising Paradigm Shift
  • Apple’s Mini-iPad due on 2 November?
  • New York to Get World’s Largest Ferris Wheel
  • Homeland Security’s Multi-Billion Dollar Security Failure
  • A Drunk I’d Like to Sit Next To on my Next Flight
  • And Lastly This Week…..

 

United’s Monkey See, Monkey Do

I’ve written several times and in careful detail on Delta’s purchase of an oil refinery (for example, here and links within it to other articles).  As best I can run the numbers, there’s no way the airline can profit by purchasing a loss-making oil refinery – ie one which sells jet fuel at market prices which are less than it costs the refinery to make.  To profit from this is akin to creating a perpetual motion machine.

But Delta is now saying it hopes its refinery may save it $300 million in fuel costs this year.  Of course, I hope to win the lottery, and for many other wondrous things too…..

Delta’s wishful thinking has attracted the eye of United, which says if it works for Delta, then put them down for buying an oil refinery too, please.

Suggestion to United :  Do some very due diligence on any savings claims put out by Delta before spending money on your own refinery.  Remember – you’re an airline, and not a particularly good one at that.  Get your core business sorted first.

JetBlue Offers to Fly Disaffected Americans Out of the Country, For Free

Okay, so it is a cheesy PR stunt (but not nearly as offensive as the one I write about below).  But it is also quite fun.  We all know that in the lead up to each election, some people – usually empty headed movie stars – proclaim that if one side wins, they’ll leave the country.  They never do, of course, but it is part of the pre-election tradition.

So this year JetBlue is offering to give away 2012 free flights to their various international destinations to people who’d like to leave the US.  There are some catches and fine print, though.

In particular, and this may or may not be a catch – the tickets are roundtrip, so it is actually 1006 roundtrips they are giving away.  Of course, nothing says you have to use the return ticket.

More offensive is that you can only enter the contest if you’re willing to do so via a Facebook account.  The idiocy of companies that seek to encourage the growth of Facebook continues to amaze me – why pass ‘ownership’ of your own clients/customers/passengers to a third party website, and allow the third party website to control the information these people receive and to profit from their website visits?  Details here.

Ryanair’s CEO Complains About His Airline’s High Baggage Fees

Maybe the Spirit Airlines press release I write about below (in the Lies, Damn Lies and Airline Press Releases article) was inspired by Michael O’Leary, CEO of Ryanair.

Not only does Mr O’Leary – renowned for his great glee at being controversial – say that he himself has to pay ‘a fortune in excess baggage’ to Ryanair whenever he takes his own family on vacation, but he adds that holidays are ‘a complete waste of time’ (I guess he’s never been on a Travel Insider tour!).  Details here.

Should someone mention to Mr O’Leary that his airline is almost exclusively focused on leisure travelers – on holiday makers?

And may I urge you to click over to the linked article, and read down to the bottom.  If you don’t end up bursting into incredulous laughter after reading the final paragraph, better have someone phone the paramedics, because the only possible explanation is that you’re dead.

More on Using Tugs to Move Planes Around Airports

I wrote last week about the concept of using tugs – ideally electrically powered – to move airplanes around airports, meaning the planes themselves don’t need to start their engines until they’re almost ready to take-off, and don’t need to continue running their engines after they’ve landed.

This is estimated to save as much as 13% of the total fuel burn on a ‘block to block’ shorthaul movement – surely a compelling reason for any airline.  Not only does it save fuel, it saves on costly engine maintenance as well.  A second compelling reason, should a second be needed.

But for all the benefits that tugs would offer do off course require some adjustments to current airport operations.  And some people see only the negatives involved with change, rather than the positives.  One reader wrote in to observe

While your suggestion to use tugs to tow aircraft to/from runways sounds good, there would be huge problems. Airports would require major redesign since all those tugs would have to return to the terminal and weave around all the following aircraft.  That would create many safety issues, among other things, especially at night and in poor weather conditions. Also consider that some runways are 2 or 3 miles from the terminal building. At busy airports you would need a lot of additional staff just to operate the tugs.

Having a long line of aircraft without engines running heading for the runway would also create big problems when an aircraft encounters problems starting engines, which is quite common. Even with engines running, there’s probably not one significant airport that doesn’t have one or more aircraft that has to return to the gate before takeoff to take care of some mechanical issue. If engines aren’t started until such a late stage before takeoff, and a problem occurs, you have an aircraft stranded in the middle of a long line of other aircraft. How do you get that aircraft back to the gate without delays for following aircraft, as it would often mean the tug would have to tow the aircraft down much of the runway at very slow speed.

Starting engines immediately before takeoff is also often not possible. In cold climates there are warm-up periods needed, and much of the pre-takeoff checklist can’t be completed until the engines so that all systems are powered (hydraulic, pneumatic etc). That would lead to further delays.

Just a few examples of the problems that would exist with that idea. Many aircraft now taxi to/from the terminal on only one engine (2-engine aircraft) where the aircraft’s systems permit.

Yes, all his points are valid, to a greater or lesser extent.  But none of them are deal breakers or reasons not to proceed to implement tugs; they are merely issues to be dealt with.  Perhaps one of the problems with aviation today is that it is constrained by naysayers who can only see reasons not to do things, rather than being peopled by visionaries who can see new solutions to current problems.

I come back to the benefit :  As much as a 13% lower fuel burn; less engine wear and maintenance.  I’m not even going to talk about carbon emissions, but some people would see that as a powerful additional benefit.  Surely that’s worth stepping up to the plate and solving the problems mentioned above?  I’d be delighted to consult with any airport that can’t readily solve the problems itself.

I also had a reader write in pointing me to a curious new idea – a suggestion that airplanes have a built in electric motor traction system to power their front wheels.  The idea is that while taxiing on the ground, the plane would run its auxiliary power unit only and with the electricity generated from that, drive around the tarmac using electric power.  At the risk of appearing to be a naysayer myself, I don’t think that such a good idea.

The extra weight of the electric motors and other electrical controls needed would be appreciable, and the extra fuel burned in flight to transport the extra weight everywhere the plane flies would reduce the ground based fuel saving benefits, and the extra complexity and maintenance issues – and difficulty retrofitting such units to existing airplanes – are other matters of concern.

A major part of the benefit of the tug system is that you’re externalizing one of the airplane’s systems, and avoiding the need to add complexity or weight to the airplane

The Strangest Reason for Slow A380 Sales

I mentioned, a couple of weeks ago, that the A380 has been a slow seller.  Not as slow as the 747-8, for sure, but also not as fast as might have been hoped for by Airbus/expected by the market as a whole.

The ‘brand champion’ for the A380 has got to be Emirates.  They have ordered 90 so far (out of a total 257 ordered) and had indicated they could want another 30 in the future.  Emirates has now said they would like to order not just 30, but actually 40 more A380s; unfortunately, it has a problem that is interfering with placing the order.

The problem?  It has nowhere to put the planes.  There’s not enough space at Dubai Airport for all the planes to be parked there.

Currently Emirates has received 23 of its 90 A380s on order.  More details here.

Di-lithium Crystals to Power New Rocket?

The Trekkies among us will instantly recognize ‘di-lithium crystals’ as a key component of the fictitious fuel that powered the Enterprise in the television series Star Trek.  But, alas, such an element does not exist.

However, here’s an interesting article telling about research towards a new type of fusion rocket engine that could power a rocket ship to Mars in a mere six weeks.  Although the article also talks about more earth-bound and military applications for the technology, that is probably not the case; the type of rocket motor that would propel a space ship to Mars is not likely to be effective in the Earth’s atmosphere and gravity well.

The interesting thing about this – science imitating art – is that the type of fuel it would use could be called, at a stretch, Di-lithium crystals.

An (Un)happy Birthday to the CD

A rather unhappy birthday wish, this week, to the Compact Disc – the CD.

It is interesting to reflect that 30 years ago the CD was a revolutionary new media for recording and playing back music.  Unlike records or tapes, it offered very long life, it would never wear out, and provided much higher quality sound with massively less signal to noise, and could pay 75 minutes of music without stopping.  We could hear music, repeatedly, in a way never possible before.

It was developed jointly by Philips and Sony, with research starting in the mid 1970s, and the first commercially released CD arriving along with the first CD player (the Sony CDP-101) on 1 October 1982, in Japan.  It took another five months for the technology to reach the US – yes, even thirty years ago, our technological ‘leadership’ was a thing of the past (no US companies were involved in the development of the CD format, either).

The CD was originally intended to be about 4″ in diameter and with a one hour playing time.  Legend has it that Sony VP (and subsequently President and Chairman) was a classical music lover, and suggested the CD format should be capable of playing up to 75 minutes (his preferred recording of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony, conducted by Wilhelm Furtwangler at Bayreuth in 1951, ran 74 minutes), which also required a growth in diameter to 4.7″ (120mm).  Subsequent tweaks to the CD specification have enabled up to 82 minutes of music to be squeezed onto a single CD.

The CD quickly displaced records and cassette tapes as the preferred medium for music recordings, and within five years, 400 million CDs were being manufactured every year.  By 2004, 30 billion CDs were being sold every year.

But, as unthinkable as it seemed a mere ten years ago, this new wondrous device was already dying, even with its 2004 sales of 30 billion units.  In late 2001, Apple released its first ever iPod.  At the time, the music quality on an iPod was low, and little digital music was available online – its primary use was as a way to store digitally ‘ripped’ copies of one’s CDs and to play them back on the portable player, analogous to how we’d formerly copy our lp records to cassette tapes to play on our ‘Walkman’ players.

However, as the iTunes store became filled with music, and as ripping data-rates increased, digital music – while even today typically appreciably inferior in quality to CD sampled music – has undeniably displaced the CD as the preferred method for most people to buy, store, and listen to music.

The curious thing about the fade from glory of the CD is that it is one of the rare times in electronics where the successor technology is inferior to the technology it replaced.  So, happy birthday, CD, and on behalf of the few remaining audiophiles out there, may you live on and prosper for many decades to come.  Although an early adopter of many technolgoies, I’ve never purchased a single bit (or byte) of digital music, and still buy everything on CD before then ripping it over to iPods and other digital music stores and players.

The iPhone 5’s Surprising Paradigm Shift

Most of us have become used to always seeking out Wi-Fi wherever we can find it and using it in preference to our phone’s wireless data.  Quite apart from saving us from possibly going over our monthly data allowance, the simple fact is that Wi-Fi – especially in quality controlled environments like at home and work – is almost always faster than the phone’s 3G or whatever wireless data, right?

This is no longer the case with the iPhone 5’s LTE wireless data capability – or so seems my experiences with my new iPhone 5 and the AT&T LTE service in the Seattle area suggests.  I’ve now experienced wireless speeds up to 32 Mbits/sec downloading, and about half that uploading.  My own Wi-Fi network seems to max out at a similar or slightly slower speed.

While the wireless data speeds are unreliable and very variable, they are no longer consistently and appreciably slower than Wi-Fi; indeed, when using a public or congested Wi-Fi signal somewhere, and if I’m in a hurry, I’ll switch the Wi-Fi off and enjoy much faster (two, three, four or more times faster) service through the LTE connection.  No longer do I even bother with the hassle of connecting to free airport Wi-Fi services that require the slow loading of a log-in page, hunting around to find ‘I Agree’ boxes to check, and buttons to push, and waiting for the connection to be initiated.  I just say happily on the lovely fast LTE.

LTE is proving to always be more than twice the speed I used to get from the 3G service on my iPhone 4, and sometimes it is very much more than twice the speed.

Of course, it is seldom that we find ourselves needing to do a data-intense activity with our cell phone, but everything is now much faster; helped further by faster graphics and general processing on the phone, too.  So you can not only download the data for a web page faster, the phone will also then render and display it more quickly too.

I hasten to add that none of this new speed is unique to the iPhone 5, or even new.  Android phones have been offering fast LTE speeds for some months now.  But for those of us who were stuck using older technology (ie an iPhone 4 or 4S) it is nice to now catch up to almost state of the art.

Apple’s Mini-iPad due on 2 November?

Oh, talking about catch-up, the rumor mill has switched into overdrive about an Apple mini-iPad, and is now being quoted by authoritative sources such as the Wall St Journal.

An announcement is expected in just under two weeks about a device that will probably have a 7.85″ screen, and which will go on sale on possibly 2 November.  It won’t come a day too soon for Apple, which has been bleeding market share out of every orifice due to its ignoring this part of the tablet market for too long.

This time last year, the iPad had a greater than 80% market share; at present it is estimated to have ‘only’ a 52% market share, and with the slew of new $199 7″ wonder-tablets being currently released by Google, Amazon and Barnes & Noble, the 52% figure is surely nosediving even further downwards, every day.  At least, that is, until a competing Apple device appears.

It had earlier been thought Apple would announce a mini iPad at the same time it announced its iPhone 5, some three weeks ago; but Apple made no mention of it then.  We still don’t know what the mini iPad might offer as a screen resolution, or other features, but we can be fairly certain it will support 4G/LTE wireless, although in actual usage very few people buy wireless data plans for their tablets, using them solely through Wi-Fi networks.

Most of all, we don’t know what Apple’s pricing will be.  Will it field an entry level unit at the same ‘magic’ and oh-so-appealing $199 price that everyone else offers?  Or will it turn its nose up and start at $249 or even $299?

New York to Get World’s Largest Ferris Wheel

Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced plans for what would be the world’s largest Ferris Wheel, to be built on Staten Island with views out to the Statue of Liberty, the Manhattan skyline, and around the New York harbor.

To be known as the New York Wheel, it would be 625 ft tall, with construction planned to commence in early 2014 and to be complete by the end of 2015, with a cost of about $230 million.  The overall project also includes a 100 shop outlet mall and a 200 room hotel.

Currently the tallest Ferris Wheel is the (built in 2008) Singapore Flyer at 541 ft, followed by the 2006 Star of Nanching (525 ft) and then the London Eye (443 ft) which opened in 2000.

Homeland Security’s Multi-Billion Dollar Security Failure

Although my headline refers to this as a multi-billion dollar security failure, the first failure to report on is a failure to count the dollars.  According to this article, the Homeland Security Department doesn’t even know how much money it has spent on its ‘Fusion Centers’, with estimates ranging from $300 million up to $1.4 billion, and with another three to five times this amount more being spent in matching funds by state and local governments.  So in total it could be an $8.5 billion failure.  Maybe even more.

In return for the billions and billions of dollars spent, the nation receives reports on such ‘threatening’ activities as an analysis of cars with fold down rear seats that could be used to hide people in the trunk, and a report of two fishermen acting ‘suspiciously’ (but never determined to have done anything other than fail to catch fish).  Another report told of a Muslim who gave a day long motivational seminar on positive parenting, with no link to any terrorism related activities alleged or detected.

Janet Napolitano calls these Fusion Centers ‘one of the centerpieces’ of the nation’s counter-terrorism efforts.  A Homeland Security Spokesman said, in defending the program (warning, you might fall asleep reading this)

The (Senate) report  fundamentally misunderstands the role of the federal government in supporting fusion centers and overlooks the significant benefits of this relationship to both state and local law enforcement and the federal government. Among other benefits, fusion centers play a key role by receiving classified and unclassified information from the federal government and assessing its local implications, helping law enforcement on the frontlines better protect their communities from all threats, whether it is terrorism or other criminal activities.

Could someone translate that into simple English for me, please, and talk specifics rather than offer up abstract and meaningless generations.  An $8.5 billion program deserves at least some accountability, surely.

A Drunk I’d Like to Sit Next To on My Next Flight

High on most people’s lists of people they’d least like to sit next to on any flight is a person suffering the effects of too much to drink.  Best case scenario, they snore loudly while slumped over into your seat, and worst case scenario doesn’t bear thinking about.

Except in this particular case, where the gentleman in question tried to give away €50 notes to his fellow passengers.

And Lastly This Week…..

Talking about drunks, I’ve occasionally been stupid and found myself going through airport security with a forgotten about bottle of booze in my carry-on.  When it is discovered and seized, I mentally wave a fond farewell to it and think no more of it.  I mean to say – what else could I do?  Drink a 1 liter bottle of fine single malt Scotch Whisky in one huge big swallow?

Well, shame on me for not being more creative.  Here’s a story of a lady at Dulles who took a less passive approach to having her 1.75 liter bottle of vodka detected.

I wrote last week about bad traffic in Sao Paulo.  In the interests of fairness, other places in the world are also affected by bad traffic, exemplified in this article about this last week’s Moon Festival holiday in China.

To close the week, back to drinking again.  But perhaps it is a sad rather than funny story – in Australia, the authorities organizing the Bathurst 1000 touring car race in NSW have told fans that they will impose a limit on how much alcohol the fans can bring with them into the grounds.  Fans are to be limited to no more than 24 cans of beer per person (or 36 if the beer is only medium or low strength), or for the wine drinkers, a maximum of 4 liters of wine (almost six bottles) per person.

Only 24 cans of high strength beer?  Oh, did I forget to mention – the actual race lasts about eight hours.  Details here.

Of course, there is always this as a possible solution for the thirstier Australians.  To say nothing of slaking one’s thirst with a preliminary dozen or two tinnies at breakfast before heading off to the track.

And lastly, with absolutely no link at all to the preceding theme of wanton drunkenness, please do consider joining us for our lovely 2012 Christmas Markets Cruise.  Yes, it is true the ship serves free drinks with dinner each night, and it is true I’ll be giving you more free drinks too at our exclusive cocktail reception, and it is also true the gluhwein from the market stalls is very tasty and warming, but that’s of course not the reason any of us enjoy these cruises.  Come and see for yourself.

Until next week, please enjoy safe – and somewhat sober – travels

 

 

David.

 

 

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