Weekly Roundup Friday 21 December 2012

Bled Castle, just out of Ljubljana in Slovenia.  Jour our Balkan and Baltic Bucket List Tour to see this and many more sights.
Bled Castle, just out of Ljubljana in Slovenia. Jour our Balkan and Baltic Bucket List Tour to see this and many more sights.

Good morning

Christmas is in the air – or in the mail, in my case.  This year, for the first time, I managed to buy all my Christmas gifts online.

I should add that I bear traditional retailers no ill will.  Of course not.  But who can beat the convenience (and usually, the prices too!) of armchair shopping at home, without traffic, parking, store crowds, and ill-trained extra holiday staff?

Improved website design is getting closer to allowing one to randomly browse through and ‘shop’, like one does in a store, and programs like Amazon’s Prime program, giving you free second day delivery on all the goods you buy, mean you get close to instant gratification, even with last-minute shopping.

This feat – one which surely strikes fear in the heart of traditional retailers – suggests an interesting topic for a reader survey.  What percentage of gifts did you manage to buy online this year (you can define ‘percentage’ any way you wish; it isn’t an exact survey).

Please click the link below that best represents your answer, which will create an empty email addressed to me with your response encoded into the subject line.  I’ll let you know the results next week.

Bah, humbug!  I didn’t buy anyone Christmas presents

None of the presents I bought were purchased online

Less than 24% were bought online

25 – 49% were bought online

50 – 74% were bought online

75 – 99% were bought online

100% – all of them – were bought online

Last Friday set a new record for blog site visits.  Our new Balkans and Baltic Bucket List Tour drew an extraordinary amount of interest and page views, and we already have the first four people signed up.  Bravo.

If you’ve not yet had a look at it, please do go visit the detailed pages of information and think about joining us for some or all of this extensive tour.

Due to its length, I’ve split it into three smaller pieces, and basically you can choose to join anywhere at any time and leave anywhere at any time, and of course, pay only for the parts of the tour you decide to join us for.

Happy birthday this week to one of my favorite composers.  Many is the mile I’ve spent on flights listening to music composed by Beethoven, born on 16 December, 1770.

Most people know him as the composer of his 5th and/or 9th symphonies, but few take the trouble to visit some of his other work.  His 3rd and 7th symphonies are also very approachable and great stirring stuff, and his 5th piano concerto (the ‘Emperor’) was one of the ‘gateway’ pieces that first drew me into classical music, almost 50 years ago.

People sometimes say, as a conversational opener ‘What is your favorite piece of music’; and as other classical music devotees will doubtless agree, that’s a question that one really can’t answer.  It depends on one’s mood, circumstance, free time available, and so on.

But there is one piece of music that is beyond profound, which I often find myself coming back to on the ultimate short list of transcendental music, and that would be Beethoven’s final piano sonata (Number 32 in c, op 111).

Beethoven wrote many ‘approachable’ piano sonatas (my favorite of these being perhaps his Waldstein sonata – number 21 in C, op 53), but his last (and to a greatly lesser extent, penultimate sonata too) is in a world of its own.  It hints at mysteries that mere men can not comprehend, and is appallingly difficult to play – not from a mechanical point of hitting the notes correctly, but from a phrasing and expressive point of view.

It is only recommended to advanced classical music connoisseurs (I say this not to be snobbish, but the reality is that people new to classical music won’t understand it at all and will be discouraged from trying further) who are willing to sit quietly and concentrate carefully on the piece.

Stick it on your MP3 player and next time you’re on a long flight, and feeling introspective after a good meal and a couple of nice glasses of libation, and particularly if at night with the cabin lights dimmed, expose yourself to it.

What else this week?  I’ve a Christmas Present of sorts for you all, and Travel Insider Supporters (of whom we now have a glorious 636 including one more Super Supporter, Richard H) received another two more presents, too on Wednesday.  And there’s a review of a little thing that could be a stocking stuffer for friends and family members, or a useful thing for yourself and your children.  Yes, you can get it with urgent delivery from Amazon!

Also this week are articles on :

  • The (Southwest) Grinch Who Stole Christmas
  • Southwest Loses $29 million Lawsuit
  • More Strange Refinery Claims from Delta
  • Air Canada’s New Low-Cost Carrier Named
  • Another 787 Problem
  • 787 Flight Review
  • Pity This Poor Guy
  • Amtrak to Go Selectively Faster?
  • And Lastly This Week…..

The (Southwest) Grinch Who Stole Christmas

When the airlines started introducing fees for checked bags, and fees for more and more other things, there was one airline that proudly said it wouldn’t charge fees for pretty much anything at all.

The airline – Southwest – made a big thing about how ‘bags fly free’ when you book your travel with them.  Well done, Southwest, for doing so.

Unfortunately, Southwest has found that people have shown few signs of shifting business to them from other airlines who do charge fees for every last thing.  This is not unique – airlines have consistently found similar things in the past, with perhaps the most notable example being American Airlines and its ‘more room in coach’ promotion whereby it took several rows out of the coach class cabins of its planes, giving everyone extra leg room, and at no extra cost.

Although squashed seating is one of the things people love to complain about, AA couldn’t find any measurable shift of passengers to its services, and so concluded that maybe people liked extra seat space if they could get it, but they would not change carriers for it.  Whether it was frequent flier ties or whatever else, the ‘more room in coach’ program failed to win AA enough extra business to make it worthwhile, and AA withdrew the promotion and added the extra rows of seats back.

Ironically, what has happened is that most airlines now offer a few rows of seats with extra legroom, but charge for it.  Does that mean people will apparently pay for extra legroom, but won’t accept it when it is offered for free?

Back to Southwest, it is preserving the first two bags will fly free policy, but it is changing some of its other bag policies and fees.  For example, if your bag is now even a pound over the 50lb maximum free weight, the overweight fee will double from $50 to $100.  And if you want early boarding, the fee for that will rise from $10 to $12.50.

Southwest is also introducing a totally new fee – a ‘no show’ fee.  If you don’t cancel and don’t turn up for your flight on a restricted ticket, not all the ticket’s value will be available to be applied to other travel in the future.  The exact details of this – how far in advance you must cancel, and how much the fee will be – haven’t yet been announced.

The bottom line is that Southwest plans to add an extra $100 million to its 2013 revenue from increased fees.  With a nice bit of Orwellian doublespeak phrasing, CEO Gary Kelly said ‘We’re looking for our revenue initiatives [our emphasis] to take hold in 2013 in a way that would produce very strong earnings’.

Southwest’s high fee for ‘overweight’ bags – $200 roundtrip, no less, points out an interesting thing.  With some airlines and some routes, it is cheaper to fly a 200 lb (or even much heavier) passenger roundtrip than it is to fly a 55lb bag the same journey.  Don’t forget that the passenger gets a seat, some overhead space, a drink, frequent flier miles, use of the toilet, and maybe some other things as well, whereas the bag just gets thrown in the cargo hold.  The passenger takes up perhaps 15 cu ft of space, or even more.  The bag takes up maybe 6 cu ft of space, maybe less.

How can any airline justify charging more for a bag in the cargo hold than for a passenger in the main passenger compartment?

Southwest Loses $29 million Lawsuit

In other Southwest news, it has just lost a lawsuit costing it a notional $29 million in settlement.

The class action suit relates to WN suddenly refusing to accept drink coupons on its flights that had been earlier issued with no expiry date on them.  The suit claimed that at the time WN suddenly voided the vouchers, there were 5.8 million of them in circulation; in its judgment, the Court ruled the airline had to make good on all outstanding vouchers.  At $5 each, this is sort of a $29 million judgment.

Details here.

More Strange Refinery Claims from Delta

Delta’s Trainer, PA oil refinery is expected to lose the airline $50 million in this quarter.  That’s not strange – indeed, it is entirely as I’ve been predicting all along.

What is strange is Delta’s prediction that it will earn $300 million from the refinery in 2013.  And what is stranger still is the airline’s claim that by having a refinery, it has been able to negotiate lower rates for jet fuel during 2012.

Let’s study that claim from two perspectives.  The first perspective is that Delta has a refinery that is making more expensive than market price fuel, but because of that, it can persuade other refineries to sell it fuel for less than they otherwise would – below market prices.  What’s that – a sympathy price concession?  I think not!

The second perspective is Delta’s claim, in this article, that there is a halo effect from owning its own (chronically loss making) refinery that gives it extra leverage.

That’s simply not so.  Jet fuel contracts are very competitive to start with, and Delta’s own (let’s all now say together :  chronically loss making) refinery doesn’t help it to beat up on price any more than it could anyway.

One oil industry insider predicts Delta will probably sell the refinery in a year or two.  It will be interesting to see how long corporate pride requires them to keep the refinery before they can then sell it along with an orgy of self-congratulation and bizarre explanations about why they no longer need to keep the refinery any more.

On the other hand, I’ve also heard suggestions that maybe Delta won’t be able to sell it again, and if it closes it down, it will then be stuck with a humongous bill for site cleanup resulting from decades of soil contamination.  Maybe Delta will have to keep the refinery up and operating, whether it wants to or not.

Air Canada’s New Low-Cost Carrier Named

One part of the airline business model that doesn’t seem to work well, compared to regular product/service companies, is the concept of multiple brands and service offerings.  While General Motors can offer you Cadillac or Chevrolet or Buick branded cars, on the quite sensible basis that it is better to have distinctive brand names for different parts of the market, airlines have almost never succeeded at having multiple brands.

We have often been promised amazing things from ‘an airline within an airline’ but the only amazing thing, in most cases, has been how the promises have been spectacularly not achieved and how quickly the off-brand division of the airline has been closed down.

Air Canada is no stranger to multiple brands.  It had Tango between 2001 and 2004; Zip between 2002 and 2004, and Jazz from 2002 to 2011.  And now it has announced its latest experiment in branding, with the debut of Air Canada Rouge – a ‘leisure’ carrier (a code phrase that often seems to mean ‘hopefully low cost and definitely no frills where we pack the pax in tighter than sardines’) that will offer inexpensive flights from Canada to Europe and the Caribbean.

The airline is expected to commence operations on 1 July 2013, and is already selling tickets on flights to Venice, Edinburgh, Athens, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Jamaica and Costa Rica.  It will start with four planes (two 767s and two A319s) taken from Air Canada’s fleet, and has aggressive hopes to grow to as many as 50 planes in the next three – five years.

Air Canada says it will make money by cramming more seats into the planes and paying lower wages to its Rouge employees.  Hardly the most visionary of business plans, and we wonder how long it will be before its Rouge subsidiary is heralded as having been an outstanding success – and then closed down.

Another 787 Problem

First United had an electrical problem with one of its new 787s.  Then Qatar Airways had a similar/identical problem with one of its 787s.  This week it is United’s turn again, with a second of its 787s developing the same problem.

Oooops.  But both United and Boeing insist there is nothing to worry about….

787 Flight Review

Patrick Smith, writer of the ‘Ask the Pilot’ blog, bravely went for a long flight on a 787 and writes an interesting review of the plane and his experiences flying on it as a passenger.

Pity This Poor Guy

So you think you fly a lot, do you?  How many flying miles do you usually accumulate a year?

Here’s a fascinating story of a person who has already flown over a million miles.  No – that’s not his lifetime total.  That’s his tally to 6 December this year, with three weeks still to go.

I calculate he spends 58 hours a week going through airports and on flights.  One assumes that many of those hours are ‘off the clock’ – ie he works much of a 40 hour work week in addition to his travel time.

As I said, pity this poor guy.

Amtrak to Go Selectively Faster?

Amtrak could be said, unkindly, to suffer from a ‘multiple personality disorder’.  It is really three different railroads, all bundled together.

There are its classic long distance trains, that amble along at a leisurely pace, being overtaken by slow cars driving on roads parallel to the rail tracks, and offering uncertain and unreliable levels of service, while losing spectacular amounts of money in the process.

There are its newer regional services, often developed in conjunction with state support, with more modern trains, but stuck on slow tracks and unable to provide efficient effective journey times fast enough to draw significant numbers of people from their cars.

And then its third personality facet is the Northeast Corridor route.

This route/region is distinctive for several reasons.  It has the population density and short distances that make it well suited for rail operation, and Amtrak owns its own track – from Washington DC and Harrisburg, both meeting in Philadelphia and continuing north up to New York City, then from New Haven north to Springfield and northeast to Providence.  The gap between just north of NYC and New Haven is owned partially by Metro-North and partially by ConnDOT, and the segment from Providence to Boston is owned by the MBTA.  In all three cases these are passenger operators rather than freight railroads, so there is a more congruent match of similar objectives than is the case with most of the rest of the track Amtrak operates over, operated by freight railroads who dislike passenger operations and have no desire or interest in upgrading their track to permit faster speeds.

Amtrak is being quite spectacularly successful in its Northeast Corridor operations.  For its fiscal years 2012, it carried 31.2 million riders in that region (although that number seems to include short distance regional commuters as well as longer distance inter-city travelers which we think are only about a third of the total).

To put Amtrak’s passenger traffic in perspective, for every person flying between NYC and Washington DC, three people take the train.  Between New York City and Boston, Amtrak carries slightly more than half the total count of air and rail passengers.

These numbers also reveal an obvious reality.  The longer train journey time between NYC and BOS makes Amtrak less competitive with the quick flight time than is the case with the shorter journey time between NYC and WAS.  Amtrak’s ability to grow its market share is very largely dependent on its ability to operate lots of trains, very quickly.

Amtrak is now looking to replace the present Acela type trainsets with faster trainsets that would theoretically be capable of speeds of up to 220 mph.  The current Acela trains are limited to 135mph, and can only attain that on a very short amount of track between New York and DC, and overall average a mere 84mph on the 457 mile journey between DC and Boston.  We don’t know the numbers, but whereas Amtrak is semi-competitive with the airlines for travel between BOS and NYC, and very successful for travel between NYC and WAS, for the total route BOS-WAS, Amtrak gets a very small part of the total traffic, due to the blown-out travel time.

So when will we see a train capable of 220mph along most of the route (and shrinking the total travel time to less than the travel time currently between BOS & NYC)?  Not for a long time, alas.

Current improvements are designed merely to increase the speed on present track up to 160mph; with work on increasing that to 220mph not scheduled to start until 2025, and not scheduled to be complete until 2040.

It is hoped that by 2030, it will be possible to travel from New York to Washington in 94 minutes, and by 2040, from New York to Boston, also in 94 minutes.  Current travel times are 160 minutes NYC/WAS and 214 minutes NYC/BOS.

This is all good.  But, how many of us, reading this today, will be alive to see the completion of this project, some 27 years from now (assuming funding is secured and no delays in completion)?  The first ‘milestone’ in this project is 2020, which sees a mere six minutes shaved off the NYC/WAS time and a mere nine minutes off the NYC/BOS time.  That’s hardly life-changing to us as passengers, and hardly momentous to Amtrak’s ability to compete with the airlines, either.

Oh – the cost of all of this?  In 2011 dollars, it is currently budgeted at $151 billion, including the extraordinarily high cost of re-routing much of the track to a totally different route for much of the route north of NYC and on to BOS.

And how much of that $151 billion has already been secured?  Ummm – none.

Amtrak’s $151 billion plan for its Northeast corridor contrasts with California’s high speed rail plans, which have been estimated at costing up to $100 billion, and which would see high-speed service between Los Angeles and San Francisco in 2029.

Expensive things, trains.  It’s anyone’s guess which of these projects will come to completion first, with the most likely option being, alas, ‘none of the above’.

More information on Amtrak’s plans can be seen here, and this is their current document setting out their ‘Vision for the Northeast Corridor.

And Lastly This Week…..

Thank goodness for LED lighting.  LEDs require only about 1/8th as much power as old-fashioned incandescent bulbs, and last maybe 50 or more times longer.  That’s a good thing anywhere you need a light bulb, and it is particularly helpful if you have a lot of Christmas lights on the outside of your house.

Some of the most extravagantly decorated houses will have 20,000 – 65,000 lights on their exterior.  If each of those light bulbs was a mere 3W, that would be 60kW – 200kW of power consumption.  With 110V power, that’s up to 1800A of power – way more than most domestic distribution panels are capable of handling and requiring special wiring.

And think also about the bulb replacements.  If we say a typical bulb lasts 600 hours, that means as many as 110 bulbs need replacing every hour.  For people who might have their lights on for four or five hours a night, that’s something over 500 bulbs that need to be found and replaced each day.

With LED lighting, you might need to replace a handful of bulbs a day, and your power consumption is down to a relatively normal 7.5kW – 25kW.

Now, what sort of Christmas light extravaganza can you get with 65,000 light bulbs.  Oh – something like this.

Here’s another article showcasing some of the other ‘over the top’ displays some enthusiasts have on their houses.  And for a great Christmas movie that includes an incredible (and also real) display of Christmas lights, may I recommend Deck the Halls .

One last comment about the 65,000 light bulb house.  Its amazing displays, complete with lasers, fog machines and all synchronized to music, are managed by a single iPad.  Amazing.

Well, that’s it from me for this week.  I do hope that, with or without the aid of tens of thousands of light bulbs, you have a wonderful Christmas, and if you have any travels, may they be safe.







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