Weekly Roundup Friday 19 April 2013

Today marks the 238th anniversary of the start of the American Revolution.
Today marks the 238th anniversary of the start of the American Revolution.

Good morning

Today is day 94 of the 787’s grounding.  The rumor mills are starting to obligingly circulate the story that FAA approval for the 787 to be returned to service is expected next week.  More details (of course) below.

A very special happy birthday wish today – to none other than most of us reading this newsletter.  Today is the 238th anniversary of the start of the American Revolution.

On this day in 1775, over 700 British grenadiers and light infantry marched to the towns of Lexington and Concord to confiscate weapons from the Colonists, but were met by approximately 70 Minute Men at Lexington Green.  A shot rang out, the “shot heard round the world” and when the fighting stopped, eight Colonists were killed, ten wounded, and the “assault weapons” of that day were confiscated.

The British then continued to the North Bridge in Concord but this time were confronted by over 300 armed Colonists.  The Colonists, although severely outnumbered, used deliberate aimed fire to strike four of the eight British officers and five of the enlisted soldiers, causing the British to break ranks and run.

As the British retreated, more Colonists joined the fight from behind trees, stone walls, and houses, only appearing long enough to fire, then dropping out of sight to reload.  The British troops endured an 18 mile gauntlet of fire as they retreated, throwing down equipment, arms, and even loot as they fled back to Boston.  The British sustained 273 casualties; the Colonist 93, and the American Revolution was born.

Six bloody years later, the British surrendered at the battle of Yorktown, and a peace treaty was finally signed in 1783; the American (military) Revolution was won, and our country embarked on its remarkable ongoing social and economic revolution of freedom, growth and success.  Happy birthday, the United States of America.

On a more mundane note, it has been a nightmare week, not only again for Boeing, but, alas, here at the headquarters of The Travel Insider too.  The now more than six year old server which hosts the site suffered a hacker intrusion, and so I decided to ‘kill two birds with one stone’ – necessarily reformatting the hard drives and reloading clean uninfected software to resolve the hacker intrusion, and so replacing/upgrading some of the probably soon-due-to-fail components of the server, too.

I’ll spare you the technical details.  Suffice it to say that much of the time from Sunday through Wednesday had the main web and mail services down and the server offline, and currently it is working on a ‘jury rigged’ emergency server while an expert friend attempts to resolve the plethora of hardware issues that came to light when we started to look closely at the server.

I fear it may become necessary to replace it entirely; and my four year old main work computer is in desperate need of retirement too.  It has been wonderful to spend little or no money on computer hardware purchases for four years (it used to be that a work computer would be good for about two years before needing replacement) but alas, the crows are now coming home to roost.

If you sent me any email between Sunday and Wednesday, it is quite likely I never received it.  Feel free to resend, accordingly.

This has unavoidably slowed down the release of next February’s Sri Lanka tour details.  But I can tell you that we’ll be using some of the finest hotels in Sri Lanka, in idyllic settings, we’ll have plenty of animal themed safaris, visit some ancient sites, world heritage locations, enjoy a stunning train journey, and very much more, and at a great value for the thirteen day tour (15 – 27 Feb) of less than $2500 per person.  Computers (and Sri Lankan travel companies!) willing, more details and a booking form next week.

So there’s not as much as normal this week, but here are a few items for your Friday enjoyment :

  • 787 Update
  • Boeing’s Devolution
  • More on Hacking Planes
  • Electronics on Planes
  • Buddy Pass Opportunists
  • Recent Tech Disasters
  • Turkish Jail Threat to US Tourist after Collecting Stones on Turkish Beach
  • Well Done, the TSA!
  • And Lastly This Week….

787 Update

It seems almost guaranteed now that next week will see the FAA allow the 787 to resume commercial flights, with rumors early in the week about approval ‘very soon’ hardening into more definite rumors later in the week about approval next week.

Update – late Thursday saw the Wall St Journal predicting approval may be granted today (Friday).

Two things remain very big unknowns.  The first is whether the Japanese equivalent of the FAA will mirror the FAA’s approval, or if it will continue its own investigation and evaluation at its own speed.  No-one is clear about that.

Another update – later Thursday – it is being suggested that the Japanese authorities may delay their decision and may impose more stringent conditions.

The second unknown is what type of ETOPS certification the plane will be allowed.  Prior to the grounding it had a 180 minute certification, and Boeing had been hoping to get that extended to a massive 330 minutes.  Will the previous 180 minute certification be returned, or reduced, or extended?

This commentator says the 180 minute rating will be reduced.  This commentator says it will definitely not be increased (a very safe bet).  And this commentator says they have no idea at all (the safest statement of all!).

A reduction down from 180 minutes would mean that airlines would need to alter (as in lengthen, of course) the routes their planes take on some of the current longer over-the-water routes (eg US-Japan).  Longer flying times and more fuel burned is hardly a happy-making recipe for airlines or passengers, so the pressure on the FAA to allow the 180 minute ETOPS approval to remain has to be considerable.  Maybe we’ll know their decision sometime today.

Boeing’s Devolution

In other Boeing news, it is interesting to read the obituaries of two recently deceased former Boeing engineers – Bob Kiliz and Kenneth Holtby.  Both evoke an apparently long-ago era where people rather than computers designed planes, and when innovation was excitingly progressing in many fields.

These days, Boeing outsources not only manufacturing but also engineering and design services, and is laying off its own engineers.  Apparently the lessons it claims to have learned about the perils of outsourcing with its disastrous 787 development program have only been selectively learned (if at all).

Furthermore, when it is not outsourcing, Boeing is fragmenting itself.  Not content with moving its management away from the Seattle area and to Chicago (a move which remains as inexplicable and inappropriate now as it was when first announced back in 2001) it is also splitting up its manufacturing and other facilities too.

While Boeing has for decades been split over several states, often as a result of mergers and buyouts, it has now created a new 787 assembly operation in South Carolina, and theatrically wonders aloud where it will locate future assembly lines.  Some people might think that this succeeds most notably in creating a fractured disjoint company with communication problems internally and externally.

Progress is a funny thing, isn’t it.

More on Hacking Planes

The article I mentioned last week about how a pilot managed to hack into an airplane flight management system caused a lot of comment, including a pilot who expressed outrage at the concept, saying ‘This guy obviously knows nothing about flying’.  I pointed out to him that the hacker was a qualified pilot…..

Other people said ‘I know this is not possible, it is nonsense’ but when I pointed out that it had actually been demonstrated, and asked how it was that they knew it was not possible (it being admittedly very hard to prove a negative) they lapsed into silence.

Here’s some more information on what the hacker actually did and how.

Here is another, and fairly scholarly and thoughtful article on the topic of airplane hacking vulnerabilities.  It is unrelated to the hacking exploit, and points out some additional vectors by which planes and their computer control systems could be attacked and compromised.

As uncomfortable as this topic is, ignoring it or refusing to consider it is not the right approach.  I don’t think there’s a computer anywhere in the world that has not been repeatedly proven to have security flaws and vulnerabilities; there’s no reason to assume that airline computers are uniquely the sole exception to this.

Electronics on Planes

More benign that hacking an airplane is simply settling back and reading an eBook on a Kindle, or playing a game on a tablet, or watching a movie on an iPad.

As you of course know, such activities are prohibited during any flight’s initial take-off and final landing phases; prohibitions that are liberally and capriciously extended by airlines and lazy flight attendants as it suits them.  Although pilots can now use laptops and tablets in the cockpit whenever they wish, we passengers still have to fight off boredom any other way we can for these parts of each flight.

The clamor and call for a relaxation of these rules – rules which are based on pseudo-science rather than hard facts, and made worse by people deliberately confusing the ban on cell phone usage by the FCC with the totally different ban on electronics which is sort of an FAA decision – continues to slowly mount.  Here’s a brief mention (near the bottom of this article) which raises an interesting test for what should be allowed :  If the President and his companions are allowed to use electronics all through a flight on Air Force One, surely we should be allowed to do the same thing.  If it is safe for our President, why is it not then equally safe for us?

The FAA is proceeding at glacial speed to respond to the calls for action.  Although it seems it can certify as safe a battery system on the 787 which has twice, for unknown reasons, erupted into spectacular fires, it is very much more cautious when it comes to our eBook readers and other conveniences.  The FAA promises some initial recommendations (whatever that means) by July (presumably 2013).

Buddy Pass Opportunists

One of the perks of working for most airlines is not just the free or reduced rate travel employees get for themselves, but also the ability to get reduced rate travel for friends, too, using what are often referred to as ‘Buddy Passes’.

Buddy Passes are subject to the same terms, conditions, and restrictions as staff travel passes, and it is common that they come with some type of dress code requirement, particularly if the travel is in first class.

Those of us ‘in the know’ often joke that we can always tell the staff and buddy pass passengers in the first class cabin.  With the changing of dress styles over the decades, but the unchanging dress code requirement for staff/buddy travel, the only people in suits and ties in long distance first class cabins these days are the airline employees and their friends.

Goodness knows I’ve been the fortunate beneficiary of a similar type of travel myself on many occasions, and putting on a jacket and tie is a small thing to do in return for massive savings in travel costs.

With that as background, here’s a sad story about two travelers – it isn’t clear from the article, but the comments confirm they were traveling on buddy passes.  They are expressing outrage at being required to change from jeans to slacks, to put on button up shirts, and remove their baseball caps in order to be allowed to fly first class.

Their conclusion?  They were being targeted for unfair prejudicial treatment because they were black.  So they’ve filed a lawsuit against US Airways in a federal court, seeking as much money as possible from the airline.

It is beyond appalling that these opportunists are playing the race card inappropriately, and doubly beyond appalling that they’ve found an attorney to push their case, clearly in the hope that US Airways will settle rather than defend the action.

This time I’m fully rooting for the airline, and hope US Airways will press their case fully and seek a debilitating sum in fees, themselves, when they win, as they surely will and must.

Spare also a thought for the poor airline employee who thought he/she was doing a couple of friends a favor by arranging buddy passes for them.  This unfortunate outcome can hardly be a career enhancing move.

While they’re not the wonderful deal they once were, buddy passes can still be good, but this sort of exploitation of the system may see airlines curtail them, a move which will harm the buddies of airline employees much more than it will the airlines.

Recent Tech Disasters

From time to time, I find myself thinking ‘These days, management and marketing are such mature and well-developed sciences, that well resourced companies can no longer make huge mistakes’.  And a corollary also exists – ‘market research and the internet and faster product development cycles make it easier for companies to ensure their products match marketplace needs and opportunities’.

But I continue to come across examples of companies destroying themselves and their market shares, and realize that no matter how much business science has been distilled and codified in text books and MBA case studies, actual business executives can still colossally mess up as much today as ever in the past.

Now, I grant you, the collapse in Apple’s share price (now under $400 – in the last 48 hours, the company’s market cap has declined by more than the total value of major companies such as Lockheed-Martin) isn’t necessarily a negative commentary on the current Apple company and managers.  Perhaps it shows instead the return to normalcy that I’ve long expected now that Steve Jobs is no longer helming the company, and a realization by the market that Apple’s seemingly unstoppable growth actually does have limits.

But what about Blackberry’s decline into irrelevance?  Or, most recently, the announcement on Thursday that Nokia is reporting its smallest quarterly revenue in 13 years – this in the cell phone industry, which has seen an enormous explosion of growth over the same 13 year period.  Then there is hollowed out remains of Motorola.

Who would have believed us, if ten years ago we’d predicted that Motorola, Nokia and Blackberry would have declined into almost irrelevance in the market?  The ‘big three’ have become the ‘small three’, with the largest cell phone manufacturer now being a company from South Korea (Samsung).

Indeed, think about that, too.  There was a time when the US dominated consumer and cell phone electronics, and a time when Europe (not just Nokia but Siemens and Ericsson too, amongst others) was also a major player.  Then there have been major forces in Japan and even Taiwan, but today we see the largest company as a South Korean company.

In among all these losers is one that stands out from the rest.  The biggest loser of all has to be Microsoft.  There’s a company that was ‘too big to fail’ – a company dominating every sector of the world that it chose to become active in, and a company at the forward edge of all technologies, but now a company reduced – reduced to what?  Its repeated attempts at creating a smartphone operating system are notable only for earning smaller and smaller, rather than larger and larger market shares, and its Kin semi-smart phone was one of the biggest marketing disasters and shortest lived products of the last decade.  Its Zune player was no less unsuccessful, just slower at being killed off.

And most of all, there’s their latest monstrosity – no, not the astonishingly disappointing Surface tablets, but rather the nightmare that is Windows 8.  Do you know a single person who likes Windows 8?  Without exception, everyone I know doesn’t just dislike it, but actively hates it.

Here’s a recent article which suggests that disgust at Windows 8 has caused millions of people to switch to Apple based computers, and many millions more to delay and defer upgrading their current Windows 7 or earlier computers.  Microsoft’s missteps are harming not only itself but the entire PC marketplace which depends on Microsoft as the underlying engine that drives ongoing upgrades and replacements.

How can a company so full of clever people do such stupid things?

Here’s a compelling article published back in August 2012 that answers this question – and the answer is surprising but understandable.  In the eight months since then, the article’s analysis has been vindicated and re-vindicated.  It is no wonder that Microsoft’s share price – once the darling that created ‘Microsoft millionaires’ galore in the Seattle area – has hovered in the same $25 – $30 range for about twelve years, and is down from its highs of twice that level, reached in early 2000.

Turkish Jail Threat to US Tourist after Collecting Stones on Turkish Beach

That’s stones on a Turkish beach, not stoned on a Turkish beach.  But, for whatever reason, someone in the Turkish authorities is not thinking clearly in deciding to press charges against an American tourist, claiming that two of the objects in a collection of stones from beaches the tourist had been staying at, are actually Turkish antiquities.

Turkey doesn’t dispute the tourist’s claim that he found them washed up on the beach along with the other stones, nor does it dispute his claim he collects interesting stones from beaches, the world over.  But it seems that a couple of nondescript stones might be old, and therefore could be considered as antiquities, and rather than letting the guy off with a warning or even a fine, it is pressing charges that have a maximum consequence of twelve years in a Turkish prison.

Details here.

Well Done, the TSA!

The TSA is refusing to retreat from its decision to allow small short bladed knives on planes again.

Just about every possible pressure group has argued that small short knives should be banned – even those uniformed rocket scientists in disguise (the people manning the metal detectors and X-ray machines in the airports) have expressed their concerns and advised that their ‘operational experience’ (whatever that means) leads them to believe that allowing knives on planes would be too risky.  The screeners’ union (sigh) even went as far as to say that allowing knives onto planes would increase the risk to them (ie the screeners on the ground) – this claim also being backed up by their ‘hands on operational experience’.

As I said, rocket scientists, indeed.  Details here.

There is however one group that has not been well represented during such lobbying, and that is the vast overwhelming preponderance of ordinary normal travelers, all of whom are surely delighted at a chance to travel with a Swiss Army Knife or similar in their carry-on once more.

Remember that no hijacker or terrorist has used a knife on a plane.  There’s no history of knives being dangerous or problematic in the past, and no reason to suspect they may be dangerous in the future.

This is one time that the TSA has done the right thing, and stepped gingerly beyond ‘security theater for appearance’s sake alone’ and actually rationally decided ‘Here’s something that isn’t a threat and never has been, and which other countries don’t prohibit, so why don’t we allow it too’.

Well done, the TSA (words you probably never expected to read here!).

And Lastly This Week….

I wrote last week about a contender for the world’s worst airport project, so to leaven the mix, this week here’s another of those silly ‘top ten’ type lists, this time claiming to list the world’s best airports.

Alas, no American airports make the list, although Vancouver comes in at number seven.  The best airport in the world, at least according to this article, is Changi in Singapore.

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels, and through nice airports







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