Weekly Roundup Friday 17 May 2013

Should we worry?  Only a couple of weeks ago Sir Richard Branson showed us what he wears underneath his kilt.  This week, he indulges in a bit of cross dressing on a competitor's airline.
Should we worry? Only a couple of weeks ago Sir Richard Branson showed us what he wears underneath his kilt. This week, he indulges in a bit of cross dressing on a competitor’s airline.

Good morning

Our Sri Lanka tour continues to create lots of interest, and we’re now up to 15 people coming, all but three being repeat travelers who have enjoyed other Travel Insider tours in the past.

I’ve mentioned several aspects of Sri Lanka and the tour in previous newsletters – for example some of the animal wildlife we’ll encounter – our safaris to see herds of elephants and leaps of leopards (yes, ‘leap’ is the term used for groups of leopards), and last week I mentioned the glorious scenic train ride we’ll enjoy.

Today I thought I’d mention a very different type of activity/attraction we’ll see.  Tiny Sri Lanka, formerly known as Ceylon, is the world’s largest tea exporter, exporting 30% more tea than the world’s second largest country (Kenya).  China is the third and India the fourth largest exporter; surprisingly Britain is fifth, but remember we are talking about tea exported, not tea grown.  As witness the Cutty Sark (originally a tea clipper), Britain imports a great deal of tea, some of which it blends, brands, then re-exports.

Anyway, we’ll have a chance to visit a tea plantation and will travel through the tea growing region of Sri Lanka on our tour, so maybe our group of probably coffee drinkers at the start of the tour will leave Sri Lanka with a new liking for tea, too.

Sri Lanka is an amazing country with a great deal to see, do, enjoy and experience.  Please do come and share this wonderful tour next February with your fellow Travel Insiders.

Also attached to the newsletter this week is a review of a nifty little gadget that all travelers should have, and an article I never expected I would write – a defense of the 787 and the FAA’s approving Boeing’s battery fix.  You’ll have to read it to appreciate why.

Below, please find another reader survey for you to hopefully participate in and other items on :

  • Reader Survey – 787 Safety
  • Unhappy Passengers
  • Happy Passengers
  • Mysterious Flights Over Quincy, MA
  • An Unexpected Proof that Electronic Devices are Always Safe on Planes
  • Google’s Big Non-Event
  • Google’s Big Success
  • Some Great Hotel Insider Secrets
  • An Ugly Disney Secret Revealed
  • Terrorists Testing the TSA?
  • And Lastly This Week….

Reader Survey – 787 Safety

The 787s are returning to the air, and while it is early days yet, no batteries have yet exploded and, most of all, no planes have crashed.  Yes, it is true that yesterday there was a different type of electrical problem on one of the extended series of test flights ANA is conducting prior to allowing its planes to carry passengers again, but it didn’t impact on the plane’s safe operation.

We were assured by the FAA that it wouldn’t allow the planes to fly again until they were “1000%” certain of the plane’s safety, and Boeing made some mathematically improbable boasts about how many hundreds of thousands of hours of research and testing went into its battery fix, now approved by the FAA and being implemented on all 787s.

So, here’s the question.  Would you be comfortable and happy to now find yourself flying on a 787 on a long over-the-water flight, far from airports to land at if an emergency occurred?  Or will you try to book away from 787 operated flights, at least for the next few months until there’s some more history under the plane’s belt?

I had asked this question a couple of months ago, before a fix was identified and approved.  It would be very interesting to see how you view the 787’s safety now that a fix has been officially approved.

Please click the appropriate link below to auto-create an empty email and send it to me.  Your response is coded into the email’s subject line.

Less worried on a 787 than on any other plane.

Totally unworried on any modern plane including the 787 operated by a reputable airline.

Somewhat nervous, but no more than on any other plane.

More anxious than with other planes, but it wouldn’t cause me to avoid the 787.

More anxious, and if there was a non-787 option with similar itinerary times and cost, I would probably choose the non-787.

More anxious, and I’d pay a small amount extra, and/or accept some scheduling inconvenience, to avoid the 787.

Sufficiently anxious to pay an appreciable amount extra, and/or accept considerable scheduling inconvenience, to avoid the 787.

I will refuse to fly the 787, at least for the next year or two.

As always, I’ll collate and report back on the results next week.

Unhappy Passengers

Remember the Candid Camera television series?  These days, we’re living in a 24/7 Candid Camera world.  There’s always someone with a cell phone video camera, and of course there’s YouTube to then share the event, whatever it may be, with the rest of the world.

Sometimes that awareness can encourage people to act more appropriately.  But sometimes, alas, the situation is already beyond repairing, and so YouTube gets a potentially viral new video.

Here’s one such example, detailing an ‘interaction’ between passengers and counter staff for China Eastern Airlines in Beijing with an exciting part of it being filmed.

The narration of the event is actually full of fascinating oblique social commentary on the evolving expectations of Chinese consumers/passengers, and even some dawning demands for passenger rights and compensation.  Wow – China, and Chinese people, are becoming very westernized, very quickly!

Well worth reading.

Happy Passengers

Quick – off the top of your head, can you name three palpable improvements in your air travel experiences last year?  Three things the airlines are doing better than previously?

Okay, unfair question.  But can you name even one?

Apparently many people can.  Or perhaps what was formerly thought of as bad has now been redefined as the new good, because according to an annual JD Power & Assocs survey, passenger satisfaction levels went sharply up last year, and now are at a level comparable to that back in 2006 (remind me – what was especially good about 2006, anyway?).

The top rated ‘traditional’ airline was Alaska Airlines, scoring 717 points out of a maximum of 1000.  Second came Delta, then Air Canada, American, United, and US Airways last (with a score of 630).

For low-cost carriers, Jetblue took top honors, followed by Southwest.  Both scored higher than the top traditional airline, getting 787 and 770 points respectively.

Passenger satisfaction was most strongly up in the category that scored boarding, deplaning, and baggage handling (an average increase of 17 points), followed by the check-in experience (up 15 points) and the airplanes flown on (also up 15 points).

The strangest result?  Although low-cost airlines scored higher overall than ‘full service’ airlines (well, that’s a strange and significant result in and of itself), passengers were less happy with the cost and fees of the low-cost airlines than they were with the full service airlines.

Overall, satisfaction with traditional carriers went up 16 points to 663 points, while satisfaction with low-cost carriers stayed almost unchanged, with a score of 755 (up one point from last year).

Here’s the JD Powers announcement, which has a link within it to more detailed results.

Mysterious Flights Over Quincy, MA

Quincy, Mass (located on the coast, maybe ten miles south of Boston), was recently in the news for having a mysterious foul stench pervading the town.  The odor has now been attributed to a type of rotting algae that gives off hydrogen sulphide gas, the smell associated with rotten eggs.  Although this article suggests the smell is harmless, in actual fact the gas is more poisonous than hydrogen cyanide (the gas used in gas chambers).

Anyway, Quincy is back in the news, this time for a mysterious plane flying low and slow overhead all night long on cloudless nights.  The FAA refuse to disclose who is operating the plane (thought to be a single engine Cessna) or why.  The FAA refuses to say if it is some sort of law enforcement action and also refuses to say if the plane’s operations are safe or if they denote some sort of danger.

Details – such as they are – here.

It is unsurprising that some people have connected the two incidents, and equally unsurprising that some people suspect there is a UFO at the root of it all.  But until we’re told exactly who is operating the plane and what they’re doing – or at least given a plausible possibility, such as the explanation for the smell, we’re all left guessing.

An Unexpected Proof that Electronic Devices are Always Safe on Planes

Another aviation mystery is why the FAA continues to dig its feet in and make ‘progress’ as slowly as it can (and you’ve got to believe that’s really slowly) on the subject of updating its restrictions on using electronic devices on planes.

The proof, such as it is, of the safety of such devices?  Simply this – lots of devices are left on by passengers at present.  Can you guess what percentage of passengers admit to leaving electronics on during take-off and landing phases of flights?

A recent survey shows that 30% of passengers will confess to this sin, so one wonders how large the number truly is; to say nothing of all the people who don’t realize that ‘turning off’ means more than just blanking the screen of their phone or activating the airplane mode.

With only 30% of passengers leaving devices on, that means on a typical single-aisle plane with say 170 passengers, 50 of those passengers have not turned off their device – or, quite possibly, devices.  Don’t forget the pilots, who are lawfully allowed to leave their devices on (even though the devices in the cockpit are the closest to the cockpit electronics and so presumably the ones most likely to send the plane into an impromptu nosedive).  So, maybe 60 or more devices are on at present during these ‘sensitive’ parts of a flight, with no ill effects.

We occasionally continue to hear stories of how a plane developed some sort of anomalous twitch of one of its instruments, and nothing the pilots could do would solve the problem until one of the passengers admitted to leaving his phone on.  He switched the phone off, and the plane miraculously returned to normal flight again.

Call me cynical, if you like, but I do not believe any of these urban legends.  Everyone – whether they are for or against allowing electronics to remain on – accepts that there are currently no officially confirmed readily duplicable examples of consumer electronics interfering with aviation electronics.  You can be sure that if there was even a single scenario where some unlikely pairing of circumstances and equipment could consistently trigger a problem event, that fact would be shouted from the roof-tops by the same ultra-risk-averse people who believe that pocket knives on planes are an appallingly imprudent thing to allow.

Oh – one more thing.  If there was a known vulnerability, it would be quickly resolved – it would be beyond dangerous to leave it unaddressed, particularly with so many electronic devices being deliberately or accidentally left on.

Google’s Big Non-Event

Google’s annual developer conference/extravaganza, ‘Google I/O’, has been underway this week.

Last year’s conference saw the release of a new version of Android and Google’s first ever tablet (the Nexus 7), plus a flashy presentation built around their still being developed Google Glass product.

Anticipation was high for some exciting new hardware releases at this year’s event.  It seemed reasonable to expect a new version of the year old Nexus 7, particularly now that there is a competing mini-iPad (the iPad mini came out in November last year).  People were also hoping for/predicting a new successor to the Nexus 4 phone (which came out in November and has been in desperately short supply/high demand ever since) and an update to Android.

None of these things happened.

Sure, Google did announce some new software, including enhancements to its Google + product that sort of competes with Facebook, better chatting integration in with its other communications offerings, enhanced free cloud storage, a new music streaming service for $10/month, and – the thing that will probably most directly impact on many of us – improvements to its Maps program.

But no new hardware, other than Samsung making nice with Google and hiding whatever it might truly feel about its uncomfortable partnership.  Samsung released a ‘plain’ version of its new Galaxy S4 phone without the Samsung added-on software ‘enhancements’.

But this was massively less than the two different hoped for Nexus 4 successors – one probably to be built by LG, the same company that makes the Nexus 4, and the other to be created by Google’s new subsidiary company, Motorola.

Rumor mills are now desperately seeking for a new possible release date for the still expected latest generation of Google hardware goodies.

Google’s Big Success

The latest data on smartphone sales is out, comparing the first quarter of 2013 to the first quarter of 2012.

Overall, smartphone sales continue to skyrocket up, with a 42% growth recorded.  Google’s Android OS continues to take more and more market share, and has increased from a 59% share in 2012 to a 75% share in 2013.

Some of that share came at the expense of Apple’s iOS, which dropped from a 23% share to a 17% share, but the total market now controlled by either Apple or Google has increased from 82% to 92%, leaving very little for other providers.

Amazingly, the Windows product now comes in at third place, with a 3.2% market share, closely followed by Blackberry with 2.9%.  Nothing else has more than 1%.

Some people have pointed to the ‘success’ of Windows Phone as validating the Microsoft/Nokia partnership, but it is interesting to note that last year, total shipments of Nokia/Symbian phones and Microsoft phones came to 8.8% of the market; this year, Symbian and Microsoft combined comes to only 3.8%.  So clearly ‘success’ is a very relative measure.

Blackberry’s poor showing (6.4% last year, 2.9% this year) is not unexpected and may not be very relevant, because their new phones only started to ship towards the end of the first quarter.  It will be more interesting to see the results for this current quarter (and the one beyond this one), and my guess is that with the surge in sales this quarter, Blackberry will claw back the third place from Microsoft.  True market share relativity will only start to become apparent after the initial surge of demand quietens down to sustainable levels of ongoing sales, and at that point, it is anyone’s guess where Microsoft and Blackberry will find themselves.

It is also interesting to note the significant drop of share that Apple has suffered – not something you’d guess at from the ongoing excellent publicity that Apple generates for itself.  Currently, it seems there may be delays in Apple’s release of a successor to its present top-of-the-line iPhone 5, a delay which must surely be hurting it with each passing new Android model of phone that comes out to compete with the iPhone 5.

How long before the iPhone fades to irrelevance, and the lost halo effect from its brief super-nova role in the smartphone universe depresses interest in Apple’s tablets and Mac computer devices, too?

Interestingly, Apple is losing the smartphone war in two directions.  First, its hardware is losing market share.  Secondly, its apps are losing out as well.  Many people now use Google Maps rather than the Apple product on their iPhones and iPads, many people use Gmail rather than the Apple product, many people now use Chrome rather than the Apple browser, and Google’s intelligent assistant (Google Now) seems to be beating Siri in terms of the breadth of things it can do and help you with.

One could argue that the porting of Google apps to the iPhone is actually saving the iPhone, and that without them, the iPhone’s decline would be hastened even further.  Whether that is true or not, what is clear is that Google’s hold on the smartphone market, either directly through Android, or indirectly through its apps on iPhones, is massive.  Let’s hope they can be trusted with that much market control.

The subject of how the iPhone is being commoditized is considered further in this interesting article.

Some Great Hotel Insider Secrets

Would you like to know the most certain way to get a hotel upgrade, and the best way to complain if you have problems with your stay?  Oh yes, and how to get out of paying for your mini-bar charges (well, at least one night’s worth).

Here’s an article that starts off very weakly with the first of its ten hotel secrets, but if you keep reading, some of the others are winners.

An Ugly Disney Secret Revealed

I’ve commented before that there sometimes seems to be a statistically unlikely number of disabled people at Disneyland.  But of course, who would be as churlish as to complain about, for once in their lives, such people being treated as special in the nicest possible meaning of the term, and getting to go to the front of every line and straight on to every ride.  And how kind of Disney to also extend the courtesy to the people who care for the afflicted individuals too, allowing up to six other people to accompany each disabled person and get similar top priority line-busting privileges.

It is also heartwarming to see how many friends and family members each disabled person has.

But – could it be that there’s more than meets the eye to this?  Alas, that does indeed seem to be the case.  If you know ‘a friend of a friend’ and are willing to pay $130 an hour, you can arrange for a disabled person to accompany you on your Disney day, and thereby enjoy all the privileges of accompanying a disabled person.  Lines that take normal people hours to stand in, you get zipped through in as many minutes.

This article tells the ugly story of how some people shamelessly exploit Disney’s goodwill through this secret loophole.

Terrorists Testing the TSA?

Here’s an interesting story of a Saudi man who was arrested at Detroit airport when he arrived, carrying a pressure cooker with him.  The actual arrestable offense was having an altered passport, but he offered very thin excuses for why he was traveling with a pressure cooker (you almost certainly realize that pressure cookers are coming under greater scrutiny now – they’ve been the container of choice for IEDs in the Iraq for many years, and were used in the Boston Bombing a couple of weeks ago too).

A little known fact, but one I’ve heard from several flight attendants on some international routes, is that they are continually being probed (hmmm – perhaps ‘tested’ is a better word!) by people on their flights who they believe to be researching the security measures on the flights.

Passengers will act strangely to see if it brings any consequence to it, and will even try to get into trouble to see if that causes an Air Marshal to reveal himself or not, enabling them to build up a comprehensive understanding of what they can and can’t get away with, and a feeling for which flights are most likely to have Air Marshals, and what they look like.

While this could be benign – the man says he has no idea how it is that a couple of pages were missing from his passport, and he was bringing the pressure cooker for a relative to ‘make lamb’ in, maybe it was also another probe by terrorists who are keen to see what might happen variously with a pressure cooker or a dodgy passport.

And Lastly This Week…..

They say you know you’re getting old when the policemen look young.  For most of us, we hopefully have more contact with pilots than policemen, and if you’re worried that the pilots are starting to look young, the good news is that it may not be just because you’re getting old.

Perhaps the pilot of this plane was so young that he had yet to lose his fear of the dark?

As you may be aware, I consider Facebook to be the tool of the devil, and Twitter to be its handmaiden.  Apparently, I’m not the only one to feel that way.  The Saudi religious police agree with me.

Hmmm – maybe Twitter ain’t such a bad thing after all…..

Until next week, may your travels by blessed, but perhaps not by the Saudi religious police






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