Weekly Roundup Friday 28 December 2012

The golden age of flight - and of flight attendants, or air hostesses as they more positively used to be termed.
The golden age of flight – and of flight attendants, or air hostesses as they more positively used to be termed.

Good morning

I hope your Christmas was all that you wished it to be, and that most of the gifts you received were items you wished for.  Here’s an interesting graphic that shows about 8% of all Christmas gifts are returned to the stores each year.

Here’s a related interesting article about the returning goods process.  This year, it is estimated 36% of people will return something, and half of them will ship the item back rather than stand in line in a store – which is sort of understandable.  It is a sad postscript to Christmas to stand in a long line with other people, all returning unloved and unwanted presents.

One thing is for sure – many of the gifts you gave were gifts that you’d purchased online rather than bought from local stores.  Last week I asked you about what percentage of gifts you purchased online this year; the question arising out of my own buying my entire Christmas gift list online.  Many thanks to everyone who replied.

Of the responses, 6% were from people who don’t buy Christmas presents at all, an interesting fact in itself.

As for those who do buy Christmas presents, as you can see in the pie chart immediately below, Travel Insiders typically buy slightly more than half their gifts online.  This is a great deal more than the typical consumer, which reinforces the fact that you tend to be an early adopter of new technologies.


Overall, it is being suggested that online sales were up 16% this year compared to last year, whereas retail in general was up by a much lesser amount, if at all.  Due to the early nature of the results and analysis, the exact results are currently a bit unclear, but the difference between online and regular sales growth levels is huge, whatever it may actually be.

There’s also an article which predicts doom and gloom for retail malls, and while this might feel intuitively correct, rather puzzlingly the figures that the writer carefully hand-picked to prove his contention seem weakly inconclusive and far from alarming.

It has been interesting to see the growth in online shopping, which is of course the modern-day analog to the catalog sales companies of yesteryear, which begs a big question.  Where is Sears in all of this?  Oh sure, they have an online storefront, but so too does just about every other store of any size at all, and Sears’ pre-eminence back in the days of catalog sales has totally been lost in the modern world of online selling.

That’s a great surprise, because the ‘back end’ – the warehousing, the fulfillment, the customer service, the billing, etc – is all identical, the only difference is how the order comes in the first place, and Sears should also have been quick to leverage its bricks and mortar presence to boost its online efforts.  Instead, it has dwindled and declined to be at best an ‘also ran’ player in the online world, and as the article predicting doom and gloom at the malls shows, a declining force in traditional retail too.  Sears couldn’t see the forest for the trees.

There’s a name for that, coined back in 1960 by Professor Theodore Levitt when he wrote an excellent article on the subject that remains as relevant today as when it was written, 52 years earlier.  It is ‘marketing myopia’, and his article marked a revolution in modern marketing culture – a shift from companies being focused on selling ‘what they were good at’ to companies instead focusing on what their customers wanted.

We expect the airlines to read the article any day now.  But we don’t expect them to act on it.

One last and largely unnecessary comment about online sales.  The best online site and experience?  Amazon wins that title yet again in 2012.

I started this paragraph off by saying – even apologizing – that this is a shortish newsletter this week.  But it is 3000 words in length, and I’m reminded of how my original newsletter target length, back in 2001, was 750 words!  So clearly ‘short’ is a relative rather than absolute measure.  However, short or long, we’ll be back with more substance, including a dramatic reveal of our exciting Travel Insider Touring plans for 2013 next week.  So, for now, here are a few pieces of hopefully interest and possibly mirth (I may have got a bit carried away towards the end, but, hey – it’s the end of the year, right?).

  • Who’d Want to be a Flight Attendant?
  • More on Refineries
  • An Ignominious and Treacherous End to a Grand Lady?
  • Where’s Microsoft?
  • What Really Happens When the TSA Views Your Naked Image
  • It’s Not Just the TSA That’s Watching Us
  • Beating the Baggage Fees
  • What Do Potatoes and Bears Have in Common?
  • And Lastly This Week….

Who’d Want to be a Flight Attendant?

Flight attendants delight in telling us how difficult and unrewarding their jobs are these days.  They’ve written books and blogs about it galore, in ongoing attempts to obtain sympathy and to blame anyone but themselves for their bad attitudes, rude behavior, and straight out dishonesty and tyrannical behavior on the flights they so unhappily staff.

So, who would want to be a flight attendant these days?  Apparently, quite a few people.

This article reports on how Delta recently received 22,000 applications for 300 flight attendant vacancies.  However, that ratio of 73 applications for each vacancy is down from the earlier 100,000 applications for 1,000 positions it advertised in 2010 (a 100:1 ratio).

With so many people (still) applying for flight attendant positions, could we perhaps entreat Delta to take advantage of its ability to be selective and to give preference to polite, pleasant, and personable people.  Maybe the airline could even consider attempting to differentiate itself from its competitors by reviving one of the long since forgotten former campaigns airlines would sometimes mount about having friendlier flight attendants than their competitors.

By the way, the opening image this week was taken from this lovely website, with four pages of wonderful pictures of what were truly the ‘good old days’ of flying.  What changed?  What went wrong?

More on Refineries

In case any of you remain interested in some of the esoterica of Philadelphia area oil refineries and their operations and potential profitability (a la Delta) here’s a very detailed article on what is happening to one of the refineries almost immediately next to Delta’s refinery.

Clearly the ‘must do’ action item for Delta is to be able to get cheaper crude railed to its refinery too, so as to reduce its dependence on the more expensive crude shipped in from overseas.

As an aside, it is an amazing thought, but in less than ten years, the US may be once more totally oil-independent.  That’s not to say that we’ll see gas prices plunge, but it does mean that we won’t be shipping money off-shore to nations that don’t always have our interests at heart, and will instead be keeping our money on-shore, helping local industry.

Who would have thought such an unlikely turnabout might have been on the cards, five or ten years ago?

An Ignominious and Treacherous End to a Grand Lady?

The QE2 was sold to a Dubai company, Istithmar, in 2007, and the sale contained an unusual condition.  The buyer agreed not to resell the ship for at least ten years.

We speculate the reason for this provision was that Cunard wished to protect and preserve its former flagship if at all possible, and had some reservations about Istithmar’s plans to convert the ship into a floating hotel in Dubai.

Although Dubai now seems to be turning the corner on its own economic problems, it seems that one of the casualties of the economic slowdown there may now be the QE2, with it reportedly now having been sold as scrap to a Chinese scrapyard.

A spokesman for Istithmar’s parent company, the ginormous Dubai World conglomerate, said they believed ‘a contract modification could be agreed’ allowing them to prematurely abandon their plans to preserve the ship and instead sell it for scrap.

This article points out that a well-funded commercial/preservation group has made an offer on the ship, with plans to moor it on the Thames, alongside the O2 arena, and operate it as a five-star hotel.  But unlike the scrap dealer, their offer is subject to obtaining various UK government approvals – approvals which would almost surely be granted, but which would take a while to be secured.

Let’s keep our fingers crossed that Cunard (ie Carnival) don’t give in and allow the Dubai World owners to renege on the deal they clearly entered into five years ago and which should remain binding on them, with the only variance being one which continues to guarantee the ship’s wellbeing and survival for at least the balance of the initial ten-year guaranteed period.

But with reports suggesting that a Chinese crew have now boarded the ship and are preparing it for its final voyage, things don’t look good.

Where’s Microsoft?

The incredible demise of Microsoft continues at a breathtaking speed.

Here’s a fascinating article that talks about the epic struggles we’ll see next year between Apple, Amazon, Google and Facebook.  The formerly neatly defined and separate territories occupied by each of these companies have changed to overlaps about what they do and offer to their users, with the overlaps growing greater and greater to the point of direct head-on competition.

For example, it is probable next year we’ll see cell phones being offered by Apple, Amazon and Google, and rumors persist of a Facebook phone too.  Apple, Amazon and Google all have ‘stores’ for the sale of digital content, with Google getting more involved in selling just about everything else online too, while Facebook is also working on ways to monetize its role in the middle of helping its users buy products.

And so on and so on, across most of the key areas of electronic/internet functionality.

But what of Microsoft?  The article is silent.  Doesn’t Microsoft have a phone OS too, and a tie-in to Nokia that is almost the same as having its own phones?  Doesn’t it also have a tablet?  Doesn’t it also have a search engine and an online store for selling digital products?

Apparently, no-one cares if it does or doesn’t.  As for its massively disappointing Surface tablet, this article dubs it the most overpriced gadget of all time.  We don’t disagree, and we wonder just how many of the people who purchased the entry-level Surface RT product realized that they were buying a machine that wasn’t fully Windows compatible.  Ooops.

The still unreleased Surface Pro will cost as much as twice the cost of an iPad, and weigh almost twice as much too, but has less than half the battery life (a puny 4.5 hours).  That’s hardly indicative of any great success in the marketplace, is it.

Still, Windows compatibility these days is a dubious distinction to claim.  The Windows 8 operating system continues to massively disappoint, with people like me staring at it in revulsion and horror and wondering why on earth Microsoft destroyed the core functionality of its Windows OS that it had worked so diligently to build up and enhance for the last 20 years.

How could a company that was once so clever now have become so maladroit and just plain stupid, on so many fronts?

Here’s a further insight into Microsoft’s growing problems.  This article reports that of 42 recent government contracts that Microsoft competed on (for ‘Office’ type software – one of Microsoft’s historical greatest strengths), it won a mere 10.  Google won 23, and the remaining 9 went to VMWare.  Microsoft’s response?  It does not yet see a threat, and doesn’t view Google as a serious competitor.

Not a threat?  Not a serious competitor?  I know we made marijuana legal in Washington recently, but even so, how can such statements be put forward with a straight face?  It reminds me of when airlines (notably Bob Crandall, CEO of American Airlines) claimed that Southwest and other budget carriers were not a threat.

Here’s an interesting article that wonders if Microsoft will slowly die or suddenly collapse.  I’ve sat on the article for a month, but the passing of that month has done nothing to refute the article’s lack of a third alternative (ie that Microsoft might recover and grow strong again), and if anything, seems to continue to support that Microsoft’s only two possible futures are slow decline or sudden decline.

Is Microsoft to become the Sears of the new integrated internet based computing paradigm?

What Really Happens When the TSA Views Your Naked Image

Here’s a great new blog, written by a seven-year TSA veteran (and no longer working for them).

He is developing an interesting range of posts, and they tend to confirm our worst fears and speculation about the idiocy of the TSA and its methodologies.  Unhappy reading, even when he talks about the locker-room antics in the private viewing area where TSA officers look at the X-ray naked body type images of passengers going through x-ray screening.

Which is the more disappointing?  That our nation’s aviation security is in the hands of these people, or that we’re spending so many billions of dollars, every year, on this ever-expanding new government department?

It’s Not Just the TSA That’s Watching Us

Here’s an interesting article, published in Britain’s left-wing newspaper, The Guardian, in which the writer decries the rapid growth of drone surveillance in the US and wonders also about the increasing involvement of our military in spying on us, within the US.

It does seem a bit hypocritical for anyone in Britain to complain about surveillance of any sort in the US – they have more cameras (per head of population) and absolutely everywhere – even on country lanes – than we do by a huge margin.  But that’s okay, it is a good article.

It also begs the question – who is it, in the US, who is actually pressuring ‘the authorities’ to watch us so closely?  When you have strong criticism from the left, the right, and the libertarians – from every possible political persuasion – where is the majority support for this steady growth of surveillance and the ever more marginalized interpretations of our right to privacy and the requirement for a search warrant?

This isn’t just a rhetorical question of mine.  It is a sincere one.  Do you know the answer?  What is the demographic of the surveillance supporters?

Beating the Baggage Fees

We’ve probably all done this, ourselves, but not to such a great extent.  Indeed, the Scottevest company markets its capacious multi-pocketed jackets as being a way to take the weight out of your weight-limited bag and into your unrestricted-weight jacket; another example of the paradoxical nonsense whereby airlines pretend all passengers weigh the same, but swoop down on any bag over a trivial weight limit.

I’ve certainly worn a very full Scottevest jacket myself on occasion in the past, and I know other people who’ll wear their heaviest jacket and fill the pockets when checking in, then transfer everything into their carry-on as soon as they’ve completed the check-in process.

But none of us have taken it to its logical extreme, represented last week by a man traveling from Guangzhou to Nairobi.  Security authorities at Guangzhou were puzzled by his odd body shape, and as he went through the metal detector he sounded an alarm.

So they asked him to remove his outer layers of clothing.  In total, he was wearing 61 items of clothing, including nine pairs of jeans.  The portly gent ended up as a very slim man when he was down to the last layer.  He said he was wearing all the clothing (plus carrying sundry electronic and other items in pockets) to avoid excess baggage fees.

Note to our lady readers :  Don’t play strip poker with that guy!

What Do Potatoes and Bears Have in Common?

I bet you can’t answer that question without reading further!

I’ve received a lot of mirthful comments this last week from readers sending in articles reporting on how Boeing has been testing in-plane Wi-fi signal strength, and it has modeled the absorptive effect of human bodies by placing sacks of potatoes on the airplane seats.  Everyone, without exception, has observed that the airlines have been treating us like sacks of potatoes for so long now that Boeing’s simulations are more accurate than they’d have thought.

Here’s one such report.  The research project, and the concept of using potatoes to model human effects, was titled Synthetic Personnel Using Dialectic Substitution….

And now, dear reader, I know what you’re thinking.  You’re thinking ‘But what do sacks of spuds have to do with bears?’.

Well, here’s a rather grisly story about bears being used to model humans in testing of supersonic jet ejection seats.

And Lastly This Week….

Here’s an interesting story of a lady in Australia who suffered an injury while on a business trip.

Although the injury was not incurred while ‘on the job’ (well, depends on how you use the term, as it turns out) and neither was it incurred during working hours, it turned out that she was eligible for worker’s compensation.  It seems she got lucky (but not in the way originally intended).

airportbjbReader Geoff sent in this picture, taken when he transited LHR last week.  He wonders if it indicates a new level of service now on offer for lounge members.

Please research and let us all know.

And truly lastly this week – and this year – because there’s almost nothing one can say after watching this, here’s a Youtube video sent in by reader Mike.

Perhaps I can close by wishing such an experience never comes your way in 2013, and that the new year will be a wonderful one for you and yours.

My thanks again to the 639 people who so kindly supported The Travel Insider financially this year, and to everyone else for reading, and sometimes commenting and/or forwarding in items of interest.  Together, we make a great team!

Until next week and next year






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