Weekly Roundup Friday 12 April 2013

Sir Richard Branson vows to bring 'stiff competition' to flights between Edinburgh and London.  No wonder Scotland wants to separate out of Britain.
Sir Richard Branson vows to bring ‘stiff competition’ to flights between Edinburgh and London. No wonder Scotland wants to separate out of Britain.

Good morning

From the sublime to the ridiculous.

Last week’s lovely picture of a Boeing 314 flying boat has been replaced this week by Sir Richard Branson’s latest publicity stunt – the revealing of his airline’s new slogan for its domestic short-haul services within the UK.

Oh – and doesn’t he know that a true Scotsman never would be seen wearing anything under his kilt?

Lots of readers wrote in about the Boeing 314 and its service with Pan Am.  There’s something about the glory days of flying which strikes a chord in us all.  Here’s another page with lovely photos and fascinating information about this former ‘queen of the skies’.

And now, after the sublime, the ridiculous, and the glorious past, that surely brings us to today, which is day 87 of the 787 grounding.  It seems more likely that we’ll reach triple digits before the plane next takes to the skies bearing a load of brave passengers, and more about that, of course, below.

Talking about batteries, the entire 787 schmozzle stems from Boeing’s decision to migrate from the Ni-Cd type rechargeable battery in its previous model planes to a new Li-ion type battery in the 787.  This got me to wondering – why not use a Ni-Mh battery?  Better than Ni-Cd, and safer than Li-ion.

I did some research, and uncovered the one area where Ni-Cd (or Li-ion) is still better than Ni-Mh – for providing a very high current flow.  Not being one to waste any such research, I did some more research, not on airplane batteries, but on consumer batteries.  A lot has changed since I last wrote about rechargeable batteries (in Dec 2003).  These days batteries hold greater charges (2100 mAh in an AA battery was state of the art back then, now you can get as high as 2800 mAh) and cost about half the price (almost $4 each back then, now about $2).

Best of all, and the development that really caused me to write a new article, is that rechargeable batteries no longer self-discharge at a dismayingly fast rate.  They now truly are a viable alternative to single-use batteries in almost every type of application imaginable – read more in the article that follows this week’s roundup.

Our single lady on the Danube Christmas Cruise now has a companion, but our single gent is still keen to find someone to share with, and we’ve a very few remaining cabins overall.  Let me know if you’d like to share with this well-traveled personal friend of mine, and of course, feel free to come ‘a deux’ too.

I’d hoped to have the Sri Lanka tour ready for you this week, but am continuing to go back and forth with the people in Sri Lanka.  Multiple emails all the way up to the Managing Director of their Tourist Board have enjoyed absolutely zero response, but I’m fine tuning and optimizing the itinerary with plenty of other help, anyway.  Let’s hope to see the details next week, for what is now a thirteen day tour (Feb 15 – 27) and looking really good, even if I do say so myself.

And now, please continue for :

  • This Week’s 787 Update
  • Boeing’s Sad Freighter Alternative to the C-130 Hercules
  • Competition – In Their Own Words
  • Is This Competition?  Or Abuse of Market Dominance?
  • Airport Misery Part 1 :  Our War on Foreign Visitors
  • Airlines Dislike Misery Solution
  • Airport Misery Part 2 :  ‘A Staggering Picture of Incompetence’
  • A Slice of Air Passenger Misery Too
  • Improving Airline Delay Predictions
  • Hacker Takes Over Airplane Flight Management System – Officials Say Not to Worry
  • TSA Mistakes Package for Bomb – So Passenger Cited by Police for Disrupting the Smooth and Orderly Flow of Passengers
  • More Non-Flying Cars
  • And Lastly This Week….

This Week’s 787 Update

It seems Boeing has now concluded its official testing procedures and is sitting on its hands, awaiting what it considers to be pre-ordained approval from the FAA.

This article reports on the end of Boeing’s testing, which culminated in a 109 minute test flight, with no test battery fires – either unplanned, or deliberately created to test the new battery fire containment system.

Now, what’s wrong with that picture?  A problem that Boeing had proclaimed would/could never occur happened twice in 60,000 flight hours, but it takes Boeing less than five flight hours to decide that it will/can never occur again.

Is that really all the testing that is needed?

Meanwhile, and as I’ve commented on before, the Japanese authorities are ‘doing their own thing’.  Boeing’s assumption that if it can resolve the issue with the FAA, other certifying authorities in other countries will immediately fall into line (indeed, it is already sending engineers to Japan ready to implement its FAA approved ‘fix’ in the JAL and ANA 787s when approval is secured), may be embarrassingly tested by actions of the Japan Transport Safety Board.

Although the approval of the JTSB for a return to service for the 787 remains as yet uncertain, one thing is apparently certain.  United expects to start flying its 787s to Japan on 10 June.  This not only assumes both timely FAA and JTSB approvals, but also assumes there are no restrictions in the plane’s ETOPS certification either.

The 10 June restoration of DEN-NRT service is slated to be preceded by DEN-IAH flights commencing on 31 May – a route happily festooned with emergency diversion airports and possible with no ETOPS approval at all.  Details here.

Here’s an excellent article about the state of Li-ion battery technology for industrial (rather than portable electronic) applications in general.  Its conclusion – Li-ion has failed to live up to its expectations and until a new big breakthrough appears, seems to hold less promise and more problems than other mature technologies that can continue to be enhanced.

Boeing’s Sad Freighter Alternative to the C-130 Hercules

In other Boeing news, this article points out an interesting concession on Boeing’s part.  Rather than attempt to bid on the upcoming Pentagon contract to replace the venerable C-130 Hercules freighters (first flight in 1954, first into service in 1957), it has entered into a joint venture with Embraer to help the Brazilian company sell their plane.

The Lockheed (now Lockheed-Martin C-130 Hercules was – and still is – an extraordinary plane, and has been in production for over 50 years, with more than 2,300 having been produced.  Although plans to replace the plane have been raised, on and off, since the early 1970s, the C-130 has remained in production and service all the way through until now, and there’s no clear date for its retirement (other than probably the far side of 2020).

When Lockheed won the tender to produce the plane in the early 1950s, it was competing against other designs put forward by Boeing, Douglas, Chase and Airlifts.  Chase and Airlifts have disappeared, and Douglas is now part of Boeing, and it seems that Boeing is now being reduced to no more than the US marketing (ie political lobbying) arm of Brazil’s Embraer.  Progress is a funny thing.

What’s wrong with Boeing?  Does it have no interest in making its own planes any more?

It is, however, happy to make flying torpedoes.

Competition – In Their Own Words

This article says – and no doubt quite correctly – that it is unlikely we’ll see Samoa Air’s new ‘pay by weight’ approach to passenger fares being adopted elsewhere in the world.

In part of giving her association’s view of the matter, a spokeswoman for the US Airline lobbying group Airlines for America added the bon mot

We believe individual airlines, like other companies in a competitive marketplace, should be free to price and sell their products as they choose according to the market and their own policies

We agree with the statement.  In a competitive marketplace, we would indeed see companies pricing and selling their products as they choose.

But how much freedom and individuality do we see in the airline marketplace?  For example, today Delta announced a $4 price rise on most domestic fares.  Based on every other price rise in the last some decades, one of two things will happen.  Either all other airlines will match and copy the price rise in a sequential series of announcements carefully staged to seem coincidental, or – if unanimity is not quickly achieved, all airlines will hastily cancel their price rise, including Delta.

Airlines charge close to identical fares, and provide flights with close to identical terms, conditions, fees, penalties, and so on.

While we agree with the definition of what constitutes a competitive market, we’d suggest that by the airlines’ own definition of competition, there is demonstrably no competition at all in their field.

Is This Competition?  Or Abuse of Market Dominance?

This article shows us how airlines really truly ‘compete’.  They do so with a viciousness that would shock North Korea, in a no-holds barred fight to the finish, typically marked by the destruction of the weaker competitor.

In this particular case, the entry of Virgin America into the markets from Newark to Los Angeles and San Francisco was greeted by Newark’s dominant carrier, United, slashing its fares on the same routes by 40%.

In a rational market, the existing airlines would either cut back on their flights or keep them at the same level when a new entrant added new capacity to a route.  But instead, using the typical approach always adopted in such cases, United is boosting its flights by 75%.

Fair competition?  Or uncompetitive unfair destruction of a new entrant?

This is not an impossible to answer question (unless you work for the DoT or DoJ).  The most telling part of every one of these episodes is what happens when the new entrant has been chased away.  The extra flights are withdrawn, and fares return back to their earlier high levels.

If this was in the arena of normal trade, with perhaps a foreign country selling their goods into the US against US manufacturers, there would be justifiable shouts of outrage and sustained accusations of ‘dumping’ goods below cost.  We know that dumping is a harmful action, and there are laws against it, and companies that do dump are likely to be successfully prosecuted for their actions.

Why are airlines allowed to dump, but not manufacturers?

Airport Misery Part 1 :  Our War on Foreign Visitors

Our determination to shoo away foreign visitors, and to make it as inconvenient as possible for those pesky few who persist in attempting to come here and spend money in our hotels, restaurants, attractions, and everywhere else continues unabated.

With venal incompetence that verges on criminality, and notwithstanding the fact that the fees paid by visiting tourists for their Customs and Immigration inspections more than covers the cost of providing such services, we are cutting back on these fully funded services as part of our ‘cutting off our nose to spite our face’ sequestration farce.

This article points out the result – for example, the arrivals hall at LAX so full that passengers have to wait on their arrived plane until such time as there is space in the terminal for them to line up and wait to be processed.

Weren’t we the ‘can do’ country that prided ourselves on our efficiency, our high standards, and all the other good things that used to define the US – both to ourselves and to the rest of the world?  What have we now become?  And why?

Foreign tourists spend $5000 and up, per person, when they visit the US.  They create employment, boost our economy, and help our balance of payments.  They also bring back to their home country either stories of how positive their US experience was, or how appalling it was.  Don’t we care about any of this?

Airlines Dislike Misery Solution

One of the great things about flying on some routes, including most from Canada to the US, and the BA route from London City Airport to New York, via Shannon, is the ability to pre-clear US Immigration and Customs in the foreign country.  This means you land into the US as if you are coming in on a domestic flight, and simply go straight to ordinary baggage claim, grab your bags, and walk out of the airport.  Instead of delaying and frustrating you upon arriving into the US, the time that it takes for these procedures is invisibly folded in to your typical two-hour early for departure checkin process at the airport you’re leaving from.

There are plans afoot to add a pre-clearance facility in Abu Dhabi, which would greatly benefit people flying on Etihad, either directly from Abu Dhabi, or via Abu Dhabi from other places, and on to the US.

But no US airlines fly between Abu Dhabi and the US, and for passengers starting their travels somewhere else, that would mean a choice between transiting through Abu Dhabi and enjoying preclearance as part of the change of plane, or transiting some other airport with a US carrier and being stuck in the possibly many hour wait to enter the US upon arrival.

Would it surprise you to learn, therefore, that the US carriers are decrying the concept of adding pre-clearance facilities at Abu Dhabi.  They don’t actually say that this would put them at a competitive disadvantage, but that’s clearly their major concern.

Suggestion to US airlines – rather than argue against improving the traveling to the US experience for some small share of inbound passengers, why not lobby to make the experience better for all other inbound passengers, from everywhere else.  That would benefit you greatly more.

Airport Misery Part 2 :  ‘A Staggering Picture of Incompetence’

That quote sounds like the sort of expression I’d use, but I’m instead taking from this AP article, and the term is used to describe the ongoing and unresolved debacle surrounding Berlin’s new airport.

The saddest part of the entire story (and it’s all sad) is that by the time the wonderful new dream airport finally opens, it might be – oooops – too small for Berlin.  Which adds some sense to the suggestion that perhaps the best thing to do is to level the whole mess and start fresh from Square One.

A Slice of Air Passenger Misery Too

The number of complaints about airlines filed with the DoT increased 20% in 2012 compared to 2011, with United having the most complaints.

On the other hand, all was not bad.  Flights tended to arrive more on time, as did baggage.

The Annual Airline Quality Rankings have just been published for 2012, with the top five airlines being Virgin America, JetBlue, Air Tran, Delta and Hawaiian.  The bottom five (fourteen carriers in total were ranked) were American, American Eagle, SkyWest, ExpressJet and, at the very bottom, United.

As further proof of Southwest’s betrayal of its origins, the airline that once prided itself on its passenger relations scored #8 on the list, just below the midway point.

Details here and here.

Improving Airline Delay Predictions

If airlines could trim a single minute from departure delays, they could save $12 million in crewing costs and $5 million in fuel each year, according to airplane engine-maker, GE.

Beyond that, industry estimates suggest that a typical flight path, travel time and fuel usage is 18-22% inefficient – a staggering inefficiency in today’s world where airlines take single leaves of lettuce out of salads in an effort to reduce operational costs.

Accordingly, GE is staging a competition to develop better flight and delay prediction models, with $600,000 in prize money for the person or team coming up with the best model.  The first round of the competition already saw a 40% improvement over current industry estimating procedures.

Needless to say, if airlines can more accurately plan for where their planes will be, and when, that will flow through to more reliable flight times and connections and an improved passenger experience, too.  So many thanks to GE for sponsoring this research.

More details here.

Hacker Takes Over Airplane Flight Management System – Officials Say Not to Worry

As airplanes become more and more electronic, to the point now where ‘fly by wire’ systems mean that the control actions initiated by pilots in the cockpit are not literally and directly applied to the plane’s control surfaces, but rather are considered by a flight management computer system and then interpreted in a manner that the computer feels most appropriate, we are creating dual vulnerabilities.

I’ve worried about this before – both the vulnerability to software bugs, and also the vulnerability to hacker attack.  A software bug could bring a much more literal meaning to the expression ‘computer crash’ and it seems extraordinary that operating systems and control programs with complexities similar to that of Windows and Office are not crashing planes all the time at present.  Should we be thankful that airplane software is of a high order of reliability, or outraged that what can be done for planes can not be done to the computers surrounding us at every turn of our modern lives?

The main point today however is to draw your attention to this interesting article about how a pilot and hacker purchased spare parts off eBay so as to create an entire airplane flight management computer system and then proceeded to work out how to hack into it and take it over.  His comment doesn’t exactly reassure :

I expected them to have security issues but I did not expect them to be so easy to spot. I thought I would have to fight hard to get into them but it was not that difficult.

He managed to send navigational data to the plane’s computers causing it to change course.  That mightn’t seem too dramatic, but if he can do that, then (a) what else could also be done; and (b) sabotaging an airplane’s navigation systems and causing it to end up flying in giant circles over the Atlantic or Pacific – possibly with the pilots not even realizing it is happening, until eventually running out of fuel, is more than sufficient a means of crashing a plane.

It was also interesting to note that rather than needing to access the plane’s computers via an on-board link (eg through the in-flight entertainment system), he was able to do so remotely by sending data messages to the plane.

The European Aviation and Safety Agency said that there was nothing to worry about, because real planes have additional safeguards built-in to them.  And we believe that statement exactly how confidently?

The hacker himself also seemed to have second thoughts and contradicted his earlier statement by also saying

You would have to have solid knowledge of aviation and its protocols and that’s not easy to get

That’s a nonsense statement that assumes terrorists and others who wish the west ill are stupid.  They are not stupid, and they have access to all the same resources that this gentleman has, especially those being sponsored by foreign powers (and of course including access to eBay – nothing too hard about that!).

The last comment on this matter – from the hacker again, who after having second thoughts then had third thoughts and added that there are lots more ways to hack an aircraft system.

But the EASA assures us we have nothing to worry about.

TSA Mistakes Package for Bomb – So Passenger Cited by Police for Disrupting the Smooth and Orderly Flow of Passengers

This article doesn’t give details, so we’ll just have to trust the TSA version of the story, but apparently a passenger had wrapped and duct taped some items together in his luggage, causing a TSA officer to believe it may have been a bomb.

So Detroit’s North Terminal was evacuated, flights delayed, the bomb squad called, etc etc etc.

After determining that the package was 100% safe and normal and ordinary, the passenger was ‘interviewed at length’ and then charged with the crime of ‘Disrupting the Smooth and Orderly Flow of Passengers’ (I wonder exactly how that is written in the statute!).

So be careful.  If the TSA misidentifies something in your luggage, it seems it is now considered to be your fault, rather than their fault.

Noting how a part of the suspicious nature of the package was that it contained items wrapped together, perhaps this is not a good service to use?

If you read the article, you’ll also see a huge weakness in the luggage wrapping service.  Although intended to give the luggage owner an immediate visual clue as to if their luggage has been opened (and pilfered), some airports have rewrapping services that will automatically rewrap your suitcase if and after the TSA opens it for inspection.  But of course, we all know we have no reason to fear about TSA officers stealing items from our luggage, right (this Google search for “TSA theft” returned 2.65 million web pages!)?

More Non-Flying Cars

There’s something so predictable about the occasional announcements of revolutionary new flying cars.  We’re always told they’ll be affordable, efficient, effective, easy to operate, and so on and so on.  And they’re always expected to be released and made available for sale in just a few years time – with orders (and hefty deposits) being accepted right now.

There’s only one problem that is a common thread to such ventures.  They never end up as commercial practical realities.

Now quite possibly the Terrafugia Transition may yet prove to be the exception that proves the rule.  On the other hand, when I first wrote about it in 2009, deliveries were expected to start in 2011, with the car/plane to cost just under $200,000.

In 2011 I reported that it was getting closer to being released, and its price was now up to $250,000.

Time for another update.  Now we’re being told not to expect anything within the next twelve months (even though the company’s website says late 2013), and the plane has an anticipated base price of $279,000.

I hope to give you another update on this project in 2015.  It first started in 2006.

On the other hand, for a different sort of ‘flying car’, how about this?

And Lastly This Week….

I remember the good old days when one of the great things about flying First Class was a really good amenity kit, including writing pads and pens, gifts, packs of playing cards, and other assorted items as well as the throwaway selection of tiny bottles of liquids and lotions, all presented in a really nice carry pouch.

Nowadays, although First Class remains as extravagantly expensive as ever, the First Class amenities kits are a pale shadow of their former selves, and while this article features the winners of the world’s best airline amenity kit competition, one has to look at them not with desire but with disappointment.

Talking about desire, here’s a possibly interesting list of the world’s top ten sin cities.  Who puts together these lists?  I mean to say, Berlin and Montreal as two of the top ten sin cities in the world?  I better stop, before I embarrass myself…..

And talking about amazing cities, here are some stunning images of Hong Kong.  Those of us blessed to live in our suburban paradises will look at these images and redouble our appreciation of our wonderful lifestyles.  Truly, sometimes the best part of any journey is returning home again.

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels (and happy homecomings)







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