Weekly Roundup Friday 15 March 2013

A Boeing 707-100 at Pan Am's Terminal 3 Worldport, JFK, in 1961.
A Boeing 707-100 at Pan Am’s Terminal 3 Worldport, JFK, in 1961.

Good morning

Today is day 59 of the 787 grounding.  But this week saw the FAA give Boeing approval to proceed to test and confirm the validity of its ‘fire box’ fix; assuming nothing untoward is uncovered in what I’m sure will be testing at least as rigorous as that initially conducted prior to the plane’s certification, then the planes could start returning to the air in six to ten weeks time and well before the NTSB has issued any final findings about the battery fire in Boston that was the precursor to the entire grounding incident.

Is that a bit like ready, , aim, ooops?

There’s a lot of extra stuff this week, including a hastily prepared analysis of the new Samsung Galaxy S IV phone which was released late on Thursday (ie yesterday).  If you don’t want to read the entire 2650 word article, the executive summary is ‘It is time to switch from iPhones to Android phones, either this new Samsung phone, or possibly whatever new Google Nexus phone it is that will hopefully soon be announced’.

Talking about Google, there’s a piece about Google’s dismaying transition to a leaner and meaner organization, with the emphasis on the word meaner.

And talking about meaner (don’t you love the way this is flowing!) there’s a piece on hotel loyalty program awards, now giving you even less than ever before.  But don’t just be dismayed, do something about it.  The piece has several strategies for how to wean yourself off hotel loyalty programs, and to get better deals elsewhere.

And now, talking about great deals, our Christmas markets cruise now has 38 people participating.  Wow!  We still have room for you too, so if the thought of a 40% discount off normal prices appeals to you as much as it does to me, please do hurry to confirm.  Only two weeks remain before this offer definitely goes away.

I’m partway through an article on single supplements, which made me realize that single travelers could now go on the Christmas cruise for less than the regular price of a per person, share twin rate.  Yes, the huge discount and the modest single supplement means that single travelers can get their own cabin for only 90% of the normal per person twin share rate.  Everyone can benefit from these deals.

The high-speed high stress race to get a timely piece on the new Samsung phone to you has rather emptied me of creative juices, so the rest of this newsletter is not quite as long as normal.  But with 3000 words in the newsletter and, I guess 4500 words in the other three articles, you’ll not run out of reading before you’ve finished your coffee this morning, that’s for sure.

Lastly in the opening comments, happy 40th birthday to The Dark Side of the Moon.  I was a month into my first year at university in March 1973 when Pink Floyd’s album was first released, and it seems for much of the several years that followed, the music was never far from me – whether I wished it to be or not!  Definitely a character building time of my life….  Here’s some information about its 40th anniversary and some of its history, and if you’re really interested, here’s the Wikipedia entry too.

Please now continue reading for articles on :

  • 787 Update
  • Good News for Boeing
  • More Airplane News
  • Save the Worldport
  • Airplane Crash Survivability
  • New EU Air Passenger Rights Planned
  • Formerly Free Dining on Cruise Ships Continues to Become More Expensive
  • Is That a Bomb in Your Pocket, or Are You Just Pleased to See Me
  • And Lastly This Week….

787 Update

Alarming data continues to surface about the inadequacy of Boeing’s initial testing of its 787 battery systems – for example, here.

Whether it is articles such as the linked one immediately above, or any of the others I’ve pointed out in previous weeks, or the inarguable reality of two potentially catastrophic battery fires that, according to Boeing, were totally impossible, the obvious fact is that Boeing really messed up in testing its new batteries, all the more so because its inadequate testing and faulty conclusions were in spite of a requirement by the FAA to be extra specially attentive to this risky new technology.

Now, I don’t know about you, but I’m reminded of the very true adage ‘When you see signs of one rat, you know you’ve an entire colony of them set up in your house’.

To translate the rat analogy to the 787 – when one massively mishandled testing procedure comes to light, how much confidence do you have in any of the other testing procedures?  Doesn’t one obvious utter totally failed testing procedure make it more likely that some of the others may have similar errors in them, too?  While it is true that the FAA announced it would conduct some sort of review of the overall certification process of the 787 prior to the two battery fires induced grounding of the 787 fleet, shouldn’t everything that has come to light – all of it highly embarrassing to both Boeing and the FAA – mean that the balance of this review should be conducted prior to allowing the plane to take to the air again?

It now seems certain that Boeing can not guarantee any sort of acceptable battery reliability, and so the main part of its fix is all to do with mitigating the consequences of future battery problems, for – not if, but when – they occur.

The general expectation is for the planes to be returned to flying duties in May.  Some people predict early May, others late May.

But there’s one wildcard which most lamentably US-centric commentators don’t seem to have fully considered.  The FAA’s grounding order only occurred after a grounding order from the Japanese equivalent of the FAA had been issued first; indeed only three days prior to its own grounding order, the FAA’s senior executives had been happily lined up on stage alongside Boeing executives assuring us all there were no reasons for concern with the plane whatsoever.

The FAA’s eventual lifting of its grounding order does not automatically guarantee a similar lifting of the Japanese grounding order, and with only a handful of the 50 planes belonging to any US carriers (six to United) the action of the Japanese authorities will have much greater impact on the current delivered fleet (24 in total to ANA and JAL), and as for other certifying authorities around the world, it will be interesting to see what they might do if the Japanese do not accept Boeing’s fix at the same time the FAA does.

So the 787’s future, in all respects, still remains as yet unclear.

Good News for Boeing

Some welcome good news – sort of – for Boeing this week.  It seems they’ve secured an order for 200 current model 737s.  But one has to wonder just how welcome an order it was, because the customer was Ryanair, and the last time they ordered planes from Boeing it was later (and inadvertently) revealed to be at an amazing 53% discount.  Subsequently Ryanair cancelled a re-order from Boeing and complained that Boeing wasn’t offering enough of a super deal again; and now that its new order is about to be officially announced, an industry source is saying that Boeing’s price is ‘unbelievably low’ (see this article).

Why would Boeing go so low?  There is a good reason for doing so.  Currently it seems Boeing has about 1950 ordered but not yet delivered 737s on its books.  It is making the planes at a rate of 35 a month.  This will increase to 38 a month in the second quarter of this year, and to 42 a month at some time in 2014.

The 737 MAX is expected to start commercial deliveries in 2017.  Boeing will probably have delivered about 1900 of the current 1950 planes it has on its books by the time it switches to 737 MAX planes.  Those other 50 planes will represent only a little more than a month’s production.

If there are delays in the MAX program (and there shouldn’t be, but who can know for sure) there could be a terrible period for Boeing, based on its present order book and production rates, where it has an idle assembly line.

So Ryanair’s order for 200 of the present generation 737 gives Boeing another five months of production ‘up its sleeve’.  Boeing mightn’t make a huge profit from the planes, but it keeps Ryanair an all-Boeing airline and deprives Airbus of 200 A320 sales, and it also keeps Boeing’s production line going at full speed for another five months, helping ensure no problems as between completing its production of present 737 models and converting to new 737s in the future.

Maybe not Boeing’s most profitable order, but a strategically important one, nonetheless.

More Airplane News

Boeing is moving uncertainly forward toward announcing plans to start selling a new updated series of 777 planes – the 777-8X which would essentially replace the current 777-300ER, and a new larger 777-9X, with about a 400 passenger capacity, making it not much smaller than the (very slow to sell) 747-8.  If its board gives approval  in the next few months, the first new 777-X model planes could be in commercial service in 2019.

More details here.

Talking about large planes, the A380 enjoyed a milestone this week, with the 100th plane being delivered (to Malaysia Airlines).  The A380 continues to be a very slow seller, although this week it also notched up another two orders from Lufthansa, bringing the total orders for the plane up to 264, and being the first orders for the A380 this year.

Save the Worldport

Built in 1960, and in its heyday, it was the world’s largest airline terminal; Pan Am’s Worldport at JFK.  Today, as Delta’s Terminal 3, it is a largely unloved and neglected building that is slated for demolition.

But of course there’s a small group of aviation/architecture enthusiasts calling for its preservation, much the way that the TWA Flight Center has been (is being) preserved at JFK.

Most of us give little thought to the terminals we try to spend as little time in as possible, and the few thoughts we do have are seldom positive ones.  But if you feel suddenly gripped by a nostalgia for a time you may have little or no experience with, here’s an article telling more.

Airplane Crash Survivability

The UK Daily Telegraph has an interesting but not very substantive article about the classic airline brace position (actually, there are two versions of this – a US one and a ‘rest of the world one’) and whether or not it actually makes you safer.

Unfortunately, the research associated with the brace position is extraordinarily incomplete.  For example, and most recently, a UK television channel paid for a plane to be crashed into the desert in Mexico, but inside the plane were only three crash dummies – one in the brace position, one with seat belt on but normal posture, and one with no restraint at all.

Although the braced dummy appeared to be the most likely to have survived, this is way too small a sample size.  Why weren’t there dummies in every seat (giving us also a further insight into where the safest seats may be on a plane, too)?  Okay, for sure it isn’t the responsibility of a UK television channel to pay for airplane safety research, which rather begs the question – who should be doing this?  Companies such as Boeing spend tens of billions of dollars developing new airplanes – how much is spent, by anyone on researching their safety and how to optimize passenger survivability if/when things go wrong?

There’s one thing about the classic brace position I don’t like.  My feeling is that your feet should be forward, hard against the seat in front of you.  That way they can’t swing forward in the crash, as they can in the classic brace position.  Studies have shown that many passengers in crashes suffered broken legs due to their feet swinging forward and hitting the bar under the seat in front, and so, disabled, the passengers were unable to speedily evacuate the plane and died in the subsequent fire.

I have a detailed four part series on How to Survive a Plane Crash.  Even if you’ve read it before, it is a good idea to occasionally re-read it.

New EU Air Passenger Rights Planned

It is only a couple of months since a European court ruled and seemed to finally settle the outstanding contentious issues to do with airline passenger rights regulations enacted by the EU way back in 2004.

But no sooner has one set of regulations finally been codified and accepted/understood, than a new set is now being mooted.  The EU is talking about adding further rights to the ones created back in 2004 and tweaking some current rights; in particular, giving passengers a right to be rebooked onto an alternate airline if their original flight will be delayed more than 12 hours.

Another welcome change is that airlines would not be allowed to charge for correcting a misspelled name on a ticket.

Full details here.  We hope the DoT are watching and learning.

Formerly Free Dining on Cruise Ships Continues to Become More Expensive

Do you remember when cruise lines sold their cruises on the basis of eating amazing gourmet meals, three or four times a day, every day?  All the food you could eat, and all free?

Well, that’s little more than a distant memory on some cruise lines and some cruise ships these days.  The last week saw both Celebrity and Norwegian increase the fees they charge for the specialty restaurants on board their ships, where you can now find yourself paying as much as $45 per person for an improved dining experience compared to that which still remains on offer for free.

This is bad for two reasons.  First it takes the pressure off the cruise line to provide good food in their normal restaurants; giving them the excuse ‘If you want true first class food and service, you should go spend $45 per person per meal in our deluxe restaurant’.

Secondly, the premium being charged is outrageous.  Sure, I know, you can go to a luxury steak house somewhere ashore and pay very much more than $45 per person for a three course dinner, but that is not the point and it is not a valid comparison.  The $45 is an extra fee you are being charged over and above the allowance that is already provided to you for your food.  And it isn’t costing the cruise line anything appreciably more in terms of space or staff – you take up much the same amount of space in either a regular or premium restaurant, and you require similar amounts of waiter time in both cases, too (but one hopes there is more kitchen staff time involved in the premium restaurant meal).  So unlike the shore restaurant that has no pre-existing subsidy, and has to cover their rent and staff costs right from the first dollar, the cruise line already has most of these costs covered.

The shore establishment might end up netting $20 from the $100 a person you paid.  The cruise line might end up netting $30 from the $45 a person you paid.

There’s a difficult line to tread as between making a fair profit and exploiting your passengers.  Charging $45 for a premium meal, in my opinion, is on the far side of that line.

Details here.

Is That a Bomb in Your Pocket, or Are You Just Pleased to See Me

Embarrassing news for the TSA this week, when it transpired that one of their ‘Red Teams’, groups of TSA employees who test airport screeners to see if they can sneak illegal items past the screeners, succeeded in smuggling a bomb through Newark’s airport screening.

The really embarrassing thing was that the person with the bomb first went through a metal detector with no problems, but then was randomly (?) chosen for secondary screening, but his pat-down failed to detect the bomb in his trousers.

Ooops.  Details here.

Now this event could be interpreted one of two ways.  The first is that the TSA screener is totally grossly incompetent.  The other is that the Red Team member is just too clever.  Before you start to assume that the TSA screener was okay, and it was the ‘fault’ of the Red Team member for daring to be almost as clever as a real terrorist might be, you should read this related article, which comprises a commentary by a former Newark TSA employee.

He pulls no punches in describing multiple layers of incompetency, and pointing out that Red Team exercises are often farcical in form.

Also this week, a wanted rape suspect managed to smuggle a prohibited stun gun past security at JFK.

The TSA’s ‘Blogger Bob’ responded to criticism of the Newark test failure in a blog entry.

Bob does a good job of trying to defend the undefendable, but rather than comment on what he said, just read the reader commentaries below his blog entry, which do it better than I could.

And Lastly This Week….

Here’s an interesting article by a college sophomore; she writes about how Disney(land) has stopped putting the ‘tomorrow’ in Tomorrowland.  I wonder what that says about us (and about Disney).

When I visit a foreign country, I like to visit a supermarket.  I learn a lot about the country and how its people live by walking through the aisles of the supermarket, getting a feeling for food preferences and costs while doing so.

Perhaps another way of learning about a country is not just from its supermarket shopping basket, but its inflationary adjusted basked of goods which is used to calculate the national rate of inflation.

So what do we learn about Britain from this article and the decision to take champagne out of its basket of 700 goods and services, while eBooks are now being added?

Finally this week, we have a new Pope.  Although not a Roman Catholic myself, I – and many other non Catholics too – were gripped by the drama of the new Pope’s selection, and I’m sure we all sincerely wish him the very best of good fortune in the challenging tasks that lie ahead.

His comments on Thursday about how, without the primacy of faith, the church is doomed to become merely a ‘doing good’ international NGO are completely accurate, and is all too sadly evident when one looks at the moral wasteland which too many of the Protestant churches have ended up marooned in, due to putting the need to be ‘popular’ above the need to serve God.

Here’s a lovely piece by Peggy Noonan about the new Pope.

I’m sure the new Pope will give many Irish people even more reason than normal to hoist a glass or too this Sunday, St Patrick’s Day.  Oh – if you’ve ever been interested in Irish whiskey, there’s a free eBook on the subject currently being given away on Amazon.  It is short and readable, and great value at the price.

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels







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