Weekly Roundup Friday 29 March 2013

Happy Easter, everyone.
Happy Easter, everyone.

Good morning

Today is day 73 of the 787 grounding.  Boeing conducted a test flight this week, and being as how the short two hour flight saw the plane safely return back to Paine Field in Everett, I guess Boeing considers everything to be a brilliant and confirmed, proven success.

Of course, more comments on the continuing 787 certification saga below.

Five more people responded, so far, to the last chance 40% discount opportunity to join our Christmas cruise advice I sent out on Tuesday.  And now, with this being the last business day before 31 March, today truly is your last chance to bag a 40% discount on a brilliant Christmas cruise that is about as fully optimized as any such cruise ever has been.

Indeed, in discussions with one reader earlier this week, we laughingly agreed that in a way it should be sold not just as a Christmas cruise but also as an un-Christmas cruise.  Why?  Because many of the people on the cruise are ‘refugees’ – people who are delighted at a chance to escape the appalling pre-Christmas frenzy back home, and enjoying instead a leisurely cruise full of feel-good relaxing fun.

Due to interest among those of us already participating, we are now adding a pre-pre-tour extension to Dresden, and a post-tour extension to Berlin as well.  Ask me for details if this tempts you further.

So whether you see this as a Christmas cruise or an un-Christmas cruise, please do consider joining 43 of your fellow Travel Insiders this December.  The ship is now almost full; there is only one top deck cabin remaining, plus twelve middle and five lower deck cabins; so first in, first served!

I’m also attaching a piece on single supplements.  As one who travels alone a lot myself, I don’t like paying single supplements, but I’ve never bought in to the notion they are unfair.  I explain why in the article, along with some ideas about when and how you can sometimes find single supplement waivers.  Indeed, on our Christmas cruise, before our discount expires, a single can travel for 90% of the regular per person twin share rate.

Plus, below, please find a reader survey and other pieces on :

  • Reader Survey :  Weight Based Tickets?
  • The 787 Compromise?
  • It Isn’t Only the 787 That Has Had Problems
  • Where is the Safest Place to Sit on a Plane
  • Southwest Continues to Devolve Into a Dinosaur
  • Iberia Goes From the Frying Pan and now Into the Fire?
  • Planes Pack in More Passengers in Past Year
  • Lufthansa Chairman Expresses ‘Huge Concerns’ over ‘Unbelievable’ US Customs/Immigration Delays
  • Microsoft’s Alternative Reality World Where Windows Phones Outsell iPhones
  • Top Ten Islands for Your Bucket List?  Maybe.
  • More Thoughts on the MPG Rating of an Apollo Moon Rocket
  • And Lastly This Week….

Reader Survey :  Weight Based Tickets

You probably know people who weigh less than 100 lbs, and others who weigh over 300 lbs.  They all pay the exact same amount for their air fare, even though a difference of just a few pounds in the weight of the bags they take with them can add hundreds of dollars more to their total travel costs.

From time to time passengers (usually those of less than average weight!) suggest airlines should charge fares based on passenger weight.  Here’s an article that surfaced a couple of days ago.

The reasoning goes ‘You charge by weight for my bags these days, why not charge my ticket price based on weight too?’.  A supplemental thought is ‘Your costs are based on my weight, so why shouldn’t the fare you charge also be based on my weight?’.  And perhaps the third thought is ‘Why should I have to pay $200 more for me and my bags than the other guy, although the total weight of me and my bags is much less than the weight of him and his bags – why are passengers given a free pass on weight, but not bags?’

These are valid questions, for sure, although there’s no law or reason why airlines should base their fares on underlying costs (they surely don’t at present) and neither is there any obligation on airlines to adopt some sort of conspicuously fair approach to any part of their pricing (again, notably absent at present).

On the other hand, charging passengers by weight would be a stunning new approach to airfares, and many people feel their weight is a personal secret – they’ll reveal their height, maybe also their age, but their weight is private.  Airlines probably don’t like the lesser degree of certainty it would bring in predicting fares, and for sure they’d not like arguments at the counter ‘What do you mean, I weigh that much?  Your scales must be wrong!’.

Some people claim it would be impossible to administer a weight based fare system, or that it would massively lengthen the time it takes for passengers to check in at airports.  I disagree.  If airlines can currently handle the process of weighing passenger bags and charging for them at the airport, why can’t they similarly handle the process of weighing the passengers as well?  If an airline wanted to offer this type of fare, there are plenty of ways it could be made easy and efficient.

There’s another problem, though.  If only one airline offered weight based fares, then people of less than average weight would flock to it, causing the airline to have to push its base rates up to reflect the distorted share of the market it was getting on its flights.

Some people confuse the concept of weight based pricing with the occasional challenge of getting wedged into a seat, sandwiched between two ‘people of size’ who are crowding in to the person between them.  This would not change just because heavier people were paying more for their ticket, alas.  On the other hand, the thought of an airline reconfiguring its planes so that there were a couple of rows of seats where the typical group of three plus three seats was reduce to three plus two, with the two seats being wider seats and released to people who had paid at the top weight surcharge level is an appealing one and could be paid for by the surcharge on heavier weight tickets.

Anyway, what do you think?  Assuming some type of easily administered process, and maybe rather than fares that are expressed solely in terms of dollars charged per pound of weight and varying for every pound change in weight, a stepped scale with a discount for people significantly below average weight and a premium for people significantly above, would you like to see this introduced?

Here’s a two factor table for you to respond from – please choose the column that describes yourself and the row that describes your opinion and click on the link accordingly.  That will send an empty email to me with your answer coded in the subject line.  I’ll of course report back on the results next week.

I am of less than average weight and strongly oppose the idea of weight based fares I am of average weight and strongly oppose the idea of weight based fares I am of greater than average weight and strongly oppose the idea of weight based fares
I am of less than average weight and mildly oppose the idea of weight based fares I am of average weight and mildly oppose the idea of weight based fares I am of greater than average weight and mildly oppose the idea of weight based fares
I am of less than average weight and have no strong opinion either way I am of average weight and have no strong opinion either way I am of greater than average weight and have no strong opinion either way
I am of less than average weight and mildly support the idea of weight based fares I am of average weight and mildly support the idea of weight based fares I am of greater than average weight and mildly support the idea of weight based fares
I am of less than average weight and strongly support the idea of weight based fares I am of average weight and strongly support the idea of weight based fares I am of greater than average weight and strongly support the idea of weight based fares

The 787 Compromise?

I wrote last week worrying about the apparent inadequacy of the testing protocols for Boeing’s battery ‘fix’.  In particular, the incongruity that really troubles me is that Boeing expects the 787 with an untested in the real world battery fire containment system to be approved by the FAA for three hour ETOPS operation again, and is hoping for that to be quickly extended to 5½ hours.

I’m getting the sense – and the hope – that pulling the plane’s ETOPS certification may be part of a compromise the FAA is offering Boeing – namely, the FAA might be agreeing to accept Boeing’s requested fix and to allow the plane to resume commercial operations, even before the NTSB has held its public hearings on the issue, let alone issued a report, findings, and recommendations, but in return for that, the FAA may withhold the ETOPS certification.

That would seem like a compromise that would allow everyone to declare their side a winner (assuming you feel that safety compromises are a good idea to start with, of course).  Without its 180 minute certification, the plane wouldn’t be able to fly on some of the routes that airlines are hoping to use it on, but by getting the plane back in the air, the FAA would allow Boeing and its customers to start building up flight hours and to create a case for restored ETOPS certification in the future.

While Boeing of course doubtless desperately wishes the plane to be allowed to return to service free of any restrictions, a return to service but with diminished ETOPS permission (perhaps 120 minutes?) would allow it to start delivering planes again and no longer have the very public embarrassment of the now two and a half month grounding.

Here’s an article that looks a bit like originating from a controlled leak/trial balloon that talks about this possibility.

United is currently anticipating restarting its 787s in late April.

Meanwhile, in a gentle subtle message of unhappiness, all-Boeing operator JAL has let it be known it is considering buying 20 Airbus A350 planes to replace older 777s.

To put the announcement in fair perspective, JAL operated Airbus planes (A300s) in the past, and five years ago expressed earlier interest in the A350 too.

It Isn’t Only the 787 That Has Had Problems

One of the earlier excuses offered when the first 787 problems started becoming apparent was that ‘teething problems’ are far from uncommon with new planes, on the basis, perhaps, that two wrongs will make a right, or that a ‘teething’ problem is less serious than a ‘normal’ problem.  (Is a crash caused by a teething problem also more survivable, I wonder?)

Here’s an interesting article that doesn’t so much dwell on teething problems as it does on certification problems – it looks at some notable airline crashes (of planes that had been in service for sometimes decades) and blames them on inappropriate FAA certification.

Not that this should excuse either the FAA or Boeing for the current 787 problem, of course.  Although it could also be argued that it is beyond ridiculous to expect any device as complicated as an airplane, with so many moving and stressed parts, to ever approach anything like 100% safety.  We should all see our glass as way past the half full mark when it comes to airplane safety; although that’s no reason to accept any accident which reasonable prudent measures could have prevented.

That’s really the big question.  How safe is safe enough?  How much risk is acceptable, bearing in mind the associated cost of either reducing risk (more expensive equipment and more expensive maintenance/operation of that equipment) or accepting risk (more expensive casualties/deaths).  Although there are tables listing the cost equivalence of a human life (eg this EPA calculation suggesting $7.4 million in 2006 dollars), it seems our society is increasingly unwilling to accept any type of financial equivalence at all.

Where is the Safest Place to Sit on a Plane

So, an easy and obvious segue from the last item to this one – surviving airplane crashes.  Here’s a good article about where is the most survivable place to be if your plane crashes.

Of course, while one has to accept observed data at face value, it is also true that planes can crash in a dozen different ways.  Nose first, tail first, more or less flat down, straight into a mountain, wing-over after landing, and so on.  Each analysed crash only gives us one set of data that relates to that particular plane in that particular crash circumstance, and so the claim by both Boeing and Airbus that no conclusive data is yet available about the safest and least safe places on planes is probably correct.

However, there is one factor that does seem to apply.  The closer you are to an exit, the more likely you are to survive.  This is because most people die after the crash event itself, from fire and smoke inhalation.  The faster you can get out of the plane, the better.

Happily, not only do exceedingly few planes crash, but those that do show a high rate of passenger survival – an analysis of all 568 plane crashes in the US between 1993 and 2000, involving 53,487 passengers and crew, found that 51,207 – or over 90% – survived.  Even on the 26 crashes deemed the worst, more than half the people on board walked away.

Southwest Continues to Devolve Into a Dinosaur

For several years I’ve been pointing out that Southwest is becoming more like a legacy ‘dinosaur’ airline and less like the Southwest that was so successful and so profitable in past decades.  Indeed, in some quarters and possibly even complete years recently, its record of unbroken profits has been salvaged only by one-off windfall profits from fuel-hedging rather than by successfully running an airline profitably.

I’ve also pointed out that Southwest’s labor costs are among the very highest in the industry and – big surprise to many – its average fare, expressed in cents per mile, is among the highest not lowest.

Most recently I’ve also pointed out that their ‘no fee’ promise has been increasingly narrowly defined, and its core offer – ‘bag’s fly free’ is now in jeopardy of being abandoned.

How long before the airline becomes indistinguishable from other dinosaur carriers?  Its devolution took another major step forward with the release of its latest advertising campaign, which now seems bland, institutionalized and corporate, the same as ‘the big three’ airlines, and not at all like the cheeky upstart Southwest used to pride itself on being.

Here’s a good article that amplifies these points.

Iberia Goes From the Frying Pan and Now Into the Fire?

Iberia’s CEO resigned (one wonders – did he jump or was he pushed?) after months of labor unrest and strikes at the money-losing airline (one also wonders exactly why BA chose to merge with Iberia).

While we’re all in favor of seeing the CEOs at the helm of loss making companies leave, there’s just one thing.  The replacement CEO was formerly the CEO of Iberia’s budget carrier brand, Iberia Express – a brand/concept that was (and presumably still is) a major source of tension between Iberia’s management and unions.

Will the unions be more settled now that the head of Iberia Express has taken over at the mainline airline?  Or, possibly, not?  Details here.

Planes Pack in More Passengers in Past Year

The once normal scenario of nearly always having an empty seat next to you and never ending up in a middle seat continues to be ever more a thing of the past.

In 2012 US airlines reported an average load factor of 82.8%, up slightly from 82.0% in 2011.

That’s an unthinkably high load factor; a couple of decades ago the rule of thumb was ‘break even at 50%, make profit at 60%, and never expect more than 70%’.  And remember this is an average load factor.  It includes the unavoidably almost always empty ‘positioning’ flights and awkwardly timed flights that no-one ever wishes to fly.  For ‘normal’ flights, my sense is the load factors are almost always above 90%.

It seems an every-flight ritual now to hear the flight attendants announce ‘We’ve a full flight today, so please only stow one item in the overhead….’.

With these enormous loads, and two years of above-inflation fare increases, it is amazing the airlines aren’t making much more money than they are.

It isn’t just fewer empty seats.  It is also smaller planes, with lower ceilings and less leg room.  In the last ten years, passenger traffic on ‘regional jets’ – a concept once welcomed when they were replacing smaller turbo-props, but now a most unwelcome concept because they are replacing full size jets instead – has more than tripled, whereas passenger numbers on regular jets has increased a mere 10%, according to this article.

Lufthansa Chairman Expresses ‘Huge Concerns’ over ‘Unbelievable’ US Customs/Immigration Delays

Last week we reported a passenger survey that showed 43% of visitors to the US were unhappy with their arrival experience through Immigration and Customs, to the point where they would discourage friends from visiting, and 40% of business travelers said they’ll try to avoid returning to the US any time in the next five years.

Adding fuel to fire, and confirmed the validity of this, Jurgen Weber, Chairman of Lufthansa’s Supervisory Board, had some further comments on the matter this week.  He said he had huge concerns over delays regularly exceeding two hours for his airline’s passengers to get processed at JFK.  He continued :

It’s unbelievable that this nation at the helm of technology thinks about reducing the number of air-traffic controllers, the number of security people at the airport.

Mr Weber pointed out that his own wife is suggesting they avoid the US in the future.  Lufthansa spokesman Nils Haupt added :

Everybody is working hard to give the passenger a superior experience and at the point of arrival, after a wonderful flight, you are stuck for three or four hours. This is really unacceptable.

But he should be reassured.  Ms Napolitano promises ‘We will do everything we can to mitigate lines’.  But lest you should think that ‘everything we can’ is a solid gold guarantee that lines will disappear, she did add ‘There will be lines’.

The Germans have it right.  Our nation’s approach to allowing profitable visitors into our country is indeed unbelievable and unacceptable – particularly when you recall from last week’s item that the lost tourist business is estimated to be costing us half a million jobs and $95 billion in economic activity.

Microsoft’s Alternative Reality World Where Windows Phones Outsell iPhones

According to Microsoft, smartphones using its Windows Phone operating system are outselling iPhones in seven different countries, including such giants as India and Russia, as well as lesser countries such as Ukraine, Poland, South Africa and ‘rest of Europe’.  Oh yes, and in 26 countries, it is outselling Blackberry, although that’s sure not saying much.

At the same time, market measuring company IDC says that both Windows Phone and older Windows Mobile phones had a paltry 2.6% share of smartphones in the last quarter of 2012, and 2.5% for the entire year.  In terms of numbers of new phones shipped, during 2012 there were 497 million Android powered phones shipped, 136 million iPhones, 32.5 million Blackberries and 24 million Symbian phones shipped.  In comparison, Windows based phones totaled a mere 18 million shipments.

So how is it that Microsoft claims to have outsold Apple in Russia, India, and the other four markets?  That’s a very good question, the answer to which is a bit unclear and seems to revolve around vague issues such as parallel importing and grey market sales in those countries that isn’t tracked by IDC.

And, most of all, just how boastful should you be when your phones in reality are being outsold by iPhones at a rate of 7.5 to 1, and being outsold by Android phones at a rate of 28 to 1?

More details here.

Top Ten Islands for Your Bucket List?  Maybe.

Who is it that dreams up these ‘top ten’ lists?  And what are the criteria they use?

In this case, TripAdvisor labels their ‘Top 10 Island’ list as being a traveler’s choice list, so we really don’t know if these are islands that travelers most aspire to go to, or have most enjoyed going to, or thought had the prettiest pictures in travel brochures, or whatever else.

It is a really strange list, including two of Tahiti’s islands (one is understandable, but two?) and also, in my own backyard (figuratively speaking) an island that I enjoy but would hesitate to put on a top 10 list alongside Santorini, Easter Island and Nosy Be (bet you don’t know that one!).

Here’s the list.

More Thoughts on the MPG Rating of an Apollo Moon Rocket

I’d posed a rhetorical question in the caption to the picture of the Apollo 11 moon rocket launch that opened last week’s newsletter.  As mentioned there and at the end of the newsletter, the Saturn V rocket’s five F-1 main rocket engines raced through a total of 2500 tons of propellant during their 165 second burn at the start of the rocket’s flight to the moon.  My question was what would that be in miles per gallon.

It is a rather unfair question, because the rockets don’t just propel the rocket along at a constant speed, they add an extra 6,000 mph to the rocket’s velocity, and as you know from your car, when you’re accelerating, you’re using more fuel than when you’re driving at a steady speed or coasting.  Plus, the rocket traveled 42 miles, but in an upwards direction, and as you know, you use more fuel when going up hill than when going down hill.

So the calculation will be a very ‘worst case’ type of calculation.  But it might be interesting, all the same.

There’s another consideration.  In your car, you are burning a mix of gasoline plus oxygen.  You buy the gasoline at the pump, but the oxygen is free – it comes in through the air filter, from the air around you.  The F-1 rocket motors have to provide their own oxygen as well as fuel (in their case, kerosene rather than gasoline).

In terms of actual gallons, the five motors between them consume 212,767.5 gallons of fuel, plus 341,137.5 gallons of liquid oxygen in just over 2.5 minutes.

If we ignore the oxygen, then we can say that the mpg figure is almost exactly 1 gallon of fuel per foot traveled – 5066 gallons of kerosene per mile (note – this is gpm not mpg).

But let’s not just focus on the first few seconds of the epic journey the craft was embarking upon.  Once the rocket left earth orbit, it then traveled some 200,000 miles with no further fuel consumption at all.

In total, and including both liquid oxygen and fuel, an Apollo rocket consumed about 6.1 million pounds of fuel for a round trip journey of about a half million miles, giving about a 1.2 miles per gallon fuel efficiency rating (ignoring the liquid oxygen).  And that’s not really all that bad, is it.

And Lastly This Week….

We speak a lot about airplane design, but how would you like to build your own and potentially record breaking plane.  Unpowered, that is.  And rather than using aluminum or carbon fiber, it would use paper.

World record paper airplane creator John Collins has now published a book of paper plane designs, complete with very detailed photo instructions, so you too can make such creations.

The book, which includes pre-printed designs on tear-out sheets of ‘official weight’ paper is available on Amazon for $11.55.  Puzzlingly, it is also available in a Kindle eBook format (presumably without the preprinted designs on official weight paper!), and even more puzzlingly, the Kindle format, without the included tear-out designs, is more expensive at $12.99.

I love eBooks, and I love Amazon, but they (and the publishers that still attempt to dictate these things) have really got to get their eBook pricing back in line with something approaching common sense.

Oh – the world record?  As you can see in this video, it is 226 ft 10 in from ‘takeoff’ to ‘landing’.

An item on airplane toilets.  My fear is that the airlines’ search for ‘improved’ toilet configurations does not match with what we’d consider improvements.  How much smaller can they make them?  Oh, in addition to the article, there’s a fascinating video too which is truly interesting to view.

Many of us remember back to the ‘good old days’ when airplanes had air hostesses and stewardesses rather than flight attendants – single young women selected more for their beauty than any other qualifications.  While we may miss the eye-candy offered by such a parade of lithesome lovelies parading up and down the aisle, what we really miss was the underlying mandate that the girls had to be friendly, polite and pleasant to their passengers.  These days we’ve not only lost the ‘pretty girl’ policy but also the ‘be friendly, polite and pleasant’ policy too.

But the good old days still exist elsewhere in the world, and I was reminded of that when coming across this article (a bit old but still relevant) about how China was selecting its train attendants for the then new high-speed train between Beijing and Shanghai.

Lastly this week, may I risk political incorrectness in another form and wish you all the best for the holiest of Christian holidays, Easter, this weekend.  May you find plenty of eggs, and may they be filled with, ummm, whatever you wish!

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels







3 thoughts on “Weekly Roundup Friday 29 March 2013”

  1. Margaret Mackenzie-Hooson

    David: I appreciate your surveys very much and enjoy reading their results, but in this one I wish you had included an option for deeply ambivalent attitudes, and some more about availability of wider seats. Yes, it is miserable feeling squashed between heavy people on a flight, but penalizing people for their weight seems easy to me only when one considers them to be fully responsible for what they weigh, no matter how convinced we may be, and certain from watching them, that fat people eat too much and exercise too little. As a medical and nutritional anthropologist who did research in four nations on eating, body size and body activity over eight years, it became clear that what a person eats and weighs can be due to more than shortcomings in self-discipline, self-control, and self-indulgence. Much about obesity remains a mystery, but what is clear is that there can be individual differences related to genetics, to hormones, to brain chemicals, and even to the natural bacterial flora in the gut, as well as to economic, social and cultural traditions that instill problematic patterns and possibilities in the contemporary world about how and what to eat in poverty and prosperity, let alone to the pressures from marketing calorie-laden foodstuffs, of their being the only available choices in many vending machines and stores, and of the outsized portions served in restaurants. An answer about intense or mild opposition or approval is not easy for me because the discomfort of sitting next to fat people in a narrow seat is real, but at the same time charging fat people more than other passengers can amount to blaming them for what may not be entirely their fault.

  2. Hi David,

    Great roundup as usual, however…

    Personally I think THIS video about airplane toilets is far more entertaining… :)

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