Weekly Roundup Friday 24 May 2013

We'll see spices galore at general and specialty spice markets on our 2014 Sri Lanka Tour.
We’ll see spices galore at general and specialty spice markets on our 2014 Sri Lanka Tour.

Good morning

It’s Memorial Day Weekend – the traditional start of our summer.  Yay.

We’ve a slightly lighter compilation this week because you’re probably filled with thoughts of the long weekend, and indeed, one of the two other articles appended to this week’s roundup newsletter is totally and unabashedly off-topic, but to my surprise and delight, is also proving to be unexpectedly popular.  “Hojotoho” to all who understand the term.

More directly travel related is the other article, about a dual-purpose business/leisure type backpack which I’m now using to more conveniently transport the stuff I carry on to planes (and to save three pounds in the process).  I’ve been casting around for an enhancement to the briefcase/tote I have struggled with for many years, and this seems to be the best alternative.

Last week’s reference to Ceylonese tea obviously struck a chord, with three more people signing up for our Sri Lanka tour.  Perhaps if I extend the culinary theme this week, three more people will be encouraged, which would bring us up to twenty people in total.  So, may I point out that Sri Lanka is also a major exporter of spices – so much so that the Spice Council of Sri Lanka even has their own website.

Sri Lanka supplies over 90% of the world’s cinnamon, plus significant quantities of other spices ranging from cardamom (the third most expensive spice in the world, after saffron and vanilla) to betel, from clove to cocoa, and from ginger to pepper.

Yes, we’ll definitely visit spice markets on our tour of Sri Lanka next February, and yes, you’re cordially invited to spice up your 2014 by coming along and sharing this wonderful and wide-ranging experience with your friendly fellow Travel Insiders.

Please read on for articles on :

  • 787 Reader Survey Results
  • A Small 787 Mystery
  • American’s Dubious New Boarding Policy
  • A Reason Not to Carry On, and Not to Use the Overhead
  • Was He Really a Quick Thinking Hero Pilot?  Or Just a Normal and Slow One?
  • Another Embarrassed Air India Pilot
  • Another List of Best and Worst Airlines
  • Plus a List of Best Vacation Spots
  • Proof That Electronics Interfere With Planes?
  • Does Apple Underpay its Taxes?
  • And Lastly This Week….

787 Reader Survey Results

Last week I asked how you’d feel about flying on a 787, now that it has been officially declared as safe again.  I’d asked the same question back in early February, when all the news was about the 787 battery problems and there was not any solution in sight, so it is very interesting to compare the two sets of responses.

If you’re a glass half full kinda guy (or gal) you’ll be cheered to see that the percentage of people feeling positive or neutral about the 787 (the first three responses) has significantly increased from an alarmingly low 25% in February up to 34% now.

If you’re a glass half empty kinda person, you’ll note that although the percentage of people with negative feelings (let’s say the last three responses) has reduced from 46% down to 32%, that still means that one in three potential passengers will actually pay money to avoid flying on a 787 for the foreseeable future.  That’s got to be flashing alarm bells at every airline that has or will have 787s.

Those people with neutral to weakly negative views about the plane’s safety have actually grown, from 29% to 34%.

Although this survey is a better overall result for the 787 than the earlier survey, let’s call this what it is – a disastrous perception problem that remains massively unresolved.  Two thirds of well-informed travelers would be happier avoiding the 787, and one in five flatly refuse to fly it, no matter what the associated cost or inconvenience of their refusal.

Here are two pie charts showing how you voted last time and this time.  Many thanks for your much appreciated opinions.





A Small 787 Mystery

Ben Sandilands, downunder, has been doing probably the best job of any journalist at chronicling the 787 saga, and this week he comes up with an interesting question.

Namely – if the battery fire on the JAL 787 at Boston was as truly insignificant as Boeing likes us to think it was (Boeing actually uses all sorts of synonyms to avoid using the four letter word beginning with ‘f’ when they refer to the smoke and flames ‘event’ on board) – then why is the plane still on the ground and mysteriously shielded from view, some four months later?

Amusingly, just a couple of days after he posed this question here, the plane up and flew back to Japan.  But we’re still none the wiser as to why it was on the ground and quite literally ‘under wraps’ for so long.

American’s Dubious New Boarding Policy

Occasionally we and the airlines find ourselves on the same side.  Boarding a plane is one such thing – both the airlines and we, their passengers, want to be able to get onto the plane as quickly as possible.  It is a problematic process, and for those of us who do not have a premium level frequent flier membership, it invariably seems that by the time we get on the plane (which is already half full) there’s no space in the overheads remaining.

There’s also the biggest problem of all – being in the front few rows of coach, and so being the last to board.  Some people as a matter of policy always put their bag in the very first spot they can just so save the hassle of dragging it all the way down the plane, and others, once they see the overheads filling up, quickly take the first empty spot they can, which ends up meaning the space that sort of was intended for the passengers in the front rows is long gone by the time they board.

American Airlines believes it has come up with a brilliant new idea – albeit an idea which is neither brilliant nor new (Virgin America tried it for six months, a couple of years ago, and decided it didn’t work, so gave up on it).

The first part of the policy is that if you are boarding without a bag to put in the overhead, you can board before those who do have a bag.  This sounds a little bit off target, because the people with nothing to put in the overhead are the ones least worried about when they’ll board.

And then there’s a huge issue about how this would be policed.  Who will check if the bags people are taking on with them are approved for stowing under the seat in front of them?

How will the disinterested flight attendants distinguish between a person boarding and then placing a bag in the overhead who is a late member of the first privileged group of people boarding (and are allowed to place their bags in the overhead) or an early member of the second group who are not allowed to put bags in the overhead?

Or might a person wait until the next group of people starts to board with their overhead-allowed bags, and then quickly take his bag up from the floor and put it in the overhead, pretending he is a member of that group?

It seems that enforcing compliance was a problem when Virgin attempted this policy, and as we all know, there’s nothing rarer than finding an airline employee who will enforce their airline’s carry-on policies.

The second part of American’s new policy is that if you do have a bag that would need to go in the overhead, you can gate check your bag for free and then get to board early, with the other bag-less people.

The good news part of that is you can avoid paying a checked bag fee.  But the ambiguous part is what happens to the gate checked bag – one report said they will then join the other bags in the cargo hold and need to be retrieved off the luggage carousel at the other end, whereas it is more common for gate checked bags to reappear at the jetway when you deplane, saving you the detour to the luggage carousel and the long wait for the bag.  This is an important thing to understand and American’s press release is silent on the subject.

American says that this new policy will reduce their average boarding time by about two minutes, which it then says, defensively, makes a big difference when you consider their narrow-body planes fly 1750 times a day.  1750 flights, times 2 minutes saved, totals 58 hours saved each day – if we assume their planes average about 10 hours flying time, that would seem to save them almost six planes.

But remember the ‘lies, damn lies and statistics’ warning.  Let’s look more closely at the 58 hours saved each day.

The thing is, AA has 480 narrow-body planes, so each plane averages 3.6 flights a day.  You might think that means each plane would save 7.2 minutes a day, but it is actually less when you consider that the first flight of the day can take off whenever it wishes, by simply adjusting the boarding time.  The key measure is the 2.6 turnarounds during the day, or 5.2 minutes saved per plane.

Need we point out that there’s no way you can pool the saved times from the different planes to end up with something actually useful.  A five minute saving, per plane, doesn’t end up allowing you to reduce your fleet, and even if it might theoretically seem to suggest it could, the practicalities of adding extra flights to planes would have to be matched with a very complex calculation of when and where each plane was and needed to next be.

So the operational benefit to AA is close to nil.  How about the benefit to us?  The only people who might benefit are the passengers with no bags, and most of them would rather be the last on the plane than the first.

So, a nice try, AA, but does it actually do anything good for you or for us?  Probably not.

A Reason Not to Carry On, and Not to Use the Overhead

If you don’t find American’s early boarding sufficient incentive not to carry everything onto a plane with you, consider this article, which talks about the growth of thefts from passenger’s carry-on bags.

These are thefts that either occur during the flight, or in some cases, if a passenger does the ‘leave the bag at the front while sitting at the back himself’ trick, they suffer the poetic justice of, when they finally get to where they left their bag, finding some other passenger has already taken it off the plane.

Here’s one quick tip if you must take valuables on board with you – put your bag in the overhead on the opposite side of the aisle.  That way you should have a line of sight from your seat to your bag.  If the bag is directly above you on your side, you have no way of knowing if another passenger is doing something with their bag, next to yours, or to your bag, but if you can see the bag, then you’ve a better idea of what is happening.

This of course doesn’t work quite so well if you’re asleep, in the bathroom, or engrossed in a good movie, and if it is an overnight flight, then all bets are off in the dark.

Really valuable items should be in a bag at your feet, or even more directly on your person.

And as for the alternative of packing valuables in checked bags, well, we all know how 100% safe that strategy is, right?  Not!

Was He Really a Quick Thinking Hero Pilot?  Or Just a Normal and Slow One?

This article, and others like it breathlessly describe a quick thinking pilot performing a heroic – indeed, a miraculous – landing, much to the eternal thanks of the ‘terrified’ passengers.

But isn’t a hero someone who voluntarily risks great harm befalling themselves in order to assist others?  Isn’t a hero someone who has the option to do something special, challenging, and dangerous, or not, and who chooses to accept the challenge, no matter what the risk to themselves?

Surely the pilot had no choice but to respond to – oh yes, to respond to a far from unique situation and one which normally has a happy ending and safe outcome for all involved.  Where is the heroism in doing your job well, and saving your own life as well as those of everyone else on the plane?  What extra risk did the pilot voluntarily assume when he decided to do a ‘by the book’ procedure with a similar textbook style outcome?

And if the passengers were terrified, might that not actually suggest the pilot did a very poor job of reassuring the passengers about what was happening?  You might suggest that maybe he didn’t have time to do so, due to the urgency of the matter and the complex calls on his time?

Actually, no.  After the pilot and his co-pilot (who, as in all these stories, invariably gets very little mention) determined they could not lower the landing gear on their Dash-8, they then spent an unspecified amount of time circling the airport, burning off excess fuel.  The pilot had plenty of time to regale the passengers with any number of tall tales and true.

As some of the reader comments from other professional pilots point out, while it is of course great that no harm was done, the reality is that the landing maneuver was simple and relatively unchallenging.

A competent pilot?  Most assuredly so.  But a hero?  Not in my books.

Another Embarrassed Air India Pilot

We wrote two weeks ago about how both pilots of an Air India flight left the cockpit to have a sleep in business class, leaving the plane in the safe hands of the auto-pilot and the not quite so safe hands of a flight attendant (who proceeded to ‘bump’ the auto-pilot off switch).

The latest Air India escapade involves a pilot going to the toilet and not being able to return to the cockpit.  The door had jammed shut and neither he nor the other pilot on the other side of the door could open it.

This caused the co-pilot to divert and make an emergency landing at the nearest airport.  Ummm – you don’t think that possibly he was desperate to go to the little boys’ room too?

More seriously, the reinforced cockpit safety doors are supposed to be simultaneously resistant to terrorist attacks from outside, but also capable of being ‘kicked out’ from inside if, for example, in a plane crash the door warps shut and can’t be opened by the pilots, keen to evacuate the plane.  It is strange how this door became so firmly jammed shut.

Another List of Best and Worst Airlines

Organizations love to come up with lists of the best (and worst) airlines.  Much of the time, they are of little meaningful value, and those of us who have flown a great deal have come to realize that, ‘in the back of the bus’, there’s very little difference between airline A and airline Z.  Yes, we agree there are some differences, such as airplane restroom density/ratios, and we also agree that in the premium classes, the airlines do spread out in quality much more, rather than bunch together, with some relevant differences.

But, for most domestic flights, they’re all much of a muchness, and the airlines which get marked down tend to get marked down not so much for the subtleties of their services, but for obvious issues such as charging policies for extras.

Anyway, if you are a member of Consumer Reports, you can see their latest airline ranking here.  If you’re not, well, suffice it to say that Virgin America came top and Spirit came bottom.

On the other hand though, a flying experience which does sound rather pleasant – in all three cabins – is American’s new planned A321 service between JFK and LAX/SFO.  8.9″ HD individual seatback screens – and that’s in coach class – bigger in business and first class.

If one had to suggest the greatest improvement in air travel over the last few decades, I think that the IFE (In Flight Entertainment) would probably be most people’s choice.  After all – has anything else got any better at all?

Well, you might say ‘lie flat sleeper seats’ and you might be right.  I’d finally mastered the art of sleeping in the earlier generation of tilting-a-long-way-back regular seats, and now miss them.  Something always feels wrong to me in sleeper seats – I guess the angle of the bed, or the fact it is too short or too narrow, and too hard to get up and down from, or something.

Sleeper seats were an innovation I welcomed and desperately wanted to enjoy, but have ended up being a nearly universal disappointment (at least for me – some people love them).  What’s that, you say?  Oh yes, as disappointing as they may be, they’re still a million times better than a coach seat!

Plus a List of Best Vacation Spots

Okay, so there’s precious little difference between airlines, but we’ll agree there are huge differences between different places in the world to visit on vacation.

Trip Advisor regularly comes up with lists of the best of all sorts of things, and now they’re sharing a list of the top 25 destinations in the world.  I’m under-achieving, having been to only 16 of them.  How many have you been to?

Proof That Electronics Interfere With Planes?

At almost the same time I was writing, last week, that I was unaware of any proven repeatable example of consumer electronics interfering with an airplane’s avionics, this article appeared.  On the face of it, you might think it conclusively contradicts my comments.

I suggest it does not contradict my comments; if anything, it confirms them.

Here’s the thing.  Although it seems to tell the story of a cell phone being proven to have interfered with the plane’s navigation system, in truth no such thing has been proven at all.  If it was an iPhone that interfered with the plane’s compasses, why did the interference only start at 9,000 ft?  Why weren’t the plane’s systems malfunctioning at 8,000 ft?  At 7,000 ft, and so on – indeed, why do planes on the ground work perfectly normally with an entire cabin full of electronics switched on, but then mysteriously and randomly develop glitches in flight?

And – why, if it was the iPhone that did this, does it not happen regularly?  With 30% or more of passengers always leaving their phones on, and iPhones being very common and popular among frequent travelers, why don’t we have these types of cases happening on every flight, instead of very rarely?

Now, I’m not pretending that the plane’s compasses didn’t misbehave for a short while.  And neither am I disputing that something external may have been the cause of the problem.  I’m just saying that blaming it on a cell phone is the least likely explanation.

You want a more likely explanation?  Something was transmitting a powerful signal in the plane’s flight path.  When the plane flew into this zone, the compasses misbehaved.  When it passed out the other side of the zone, the compasses returned to normal.

As a ham radio operator myself (NZ9G) I’m well aware of all sorts of strange and wonderful things that happen all over the radio dial, from lower than any radio you have could tune, to much higher than any radio you have could tune, and to suggest that in the intensely ‘polluted’ electromagnetic spectrum that envelops us all day, everywhere, that the only contributing factor to airplane avionic disruptions is from cell phones, tablets, etc, inside the plane totally overlooks the rich motherlode of other interfering sources that are out there.

Until such time as you can recreate at will, any time and any where, a specific avionics interference event caused by a specific item of consumer electronics, there is no proven case to show them guilty of anything at all.

Does Apple Underpay Its Taxes

Talking about making Apple a scapegoat, the headlines have been full of thunder over the last few days, with senators slamming Apple for not paying enough tax.

‘Apple sheltered $44 billion from taxes’ said one headline, quoting outraged senators who made that allegation.  Another headline asserts that Apple paid little or no tax on tens of billions of dollars in overseas income over a four-year period.

Yet another headline makes the allegations even clearer – ‘Report: Apple avoided billions in U.S. taxes on foreign income’, and if that’s not clear enough for us, its lede spells it out :

Apple Inc. has used an elaborate web of offshore subsidiaries to avoid paying billions of dollars in U.S. taxes on $44 billion in foreign income over the past four years, a Senate investigation has found.

Now, at last, in the next paragraph, we see a startling modification to the implied or outright claims about Apple’s calumny.

Many of the tactics, such as cost-sharing arrangements, are common among large multinational corporations seeking to shift profits to countries with lower tax rates.  The investigation did not find Apple violated any laws [our emphasis].

So if Apple is acting perfectly legally, the same as many other companies, and not breaking any laws, why the outrage?  Why the faux concern that Apple might be ‘cheating’ the Irish government out of taxes?  If the Senate feels there are tax loopholes being unfairly exploited, doesn’t it have the ability to pass legislation closing those loopholes?

There is also the interesting question about just exactly how much US tax any company should have to pay on a product that was made in China, then shipped to (eg) Cambodia, and sold there.  Sure, companies should pay US taxes on their US business activities, but if we’re going to try to tax them on everything they do, everywhere in the world, how quickly will we see the disappearance of the few remaining US high-tech companies as they move entirely offshore?

It has been a settled legal doctrine for over 100 years that people (and companies) are under no duty or obligation to pay any more than the minimum tax they are legally obliged to pay, and that they may of course take advantage of the deductions and incentives which have been deliberately written into the tax code.  Any unfair avoidance of tax is due to a poorly written tax code, which these self-important Senators should be more concerned with.

So, before leaping onto the vilifying Apple bandwagon, please read the prepared text they submitted to the Senate panel.  It puts Apple’s situation in a completely different perspective, and factually rebuts the Senate’s outraged claims.

To be fair to all sides, we’re not sure how Apple bases its claim to ‘possibly’ have paid more tax than any other US company last year – Apple was the third largest company and seems to have paid $14 billion in taxes on its $55.8 billion of pretax profit.  But the two larger companies each paid considerably more – Exxon Mobil had $78.7 billion in pretax profit and paid $31 billion in taxes, and Chevron had $46.3 billion in pretax profit and paid $20 billion in taxes.  None the less, Apple does seem to be the third largest taxpayer, and in addition to $14 billion in federal taxes, paid massively more in other state and local taxes, fees, and whatever else, plus provided direct high paying employment for about 50,000 Americans and indirectly for another 550,000 Americans.  Furthermore, the remaining portion of their profits that weren’t paid in taxes doesn’t go to ‘Apple’, it goes to the company’s shareholders – including, almost certainly, a part of your own future pension plan.

We want to make such companies feel very welcome, rather than shrilly demand more money on top of everything they are doing to keep the US economy afloat.

And Lastly This Week…..

The problem with running a business in an airport is that you get contaminated by airline and rental car thinking.  Well, surely that must be the excuse, for how else to explain the airport restaurant at OAK that added a 2% ‘Employee Benefit Surcharge’ onto its food prices.

What possible surcharge might next appear?  The mind boggles.

I hope you’ll have a wonderful Memorial Day Weekend, and may all your costs be fully inclusive.  Until next week, please enjoy safe travels







1 thought on “Weekly Roundup Friday 24 May 2013”

  1. 1. I think some people will prefer or pay extra to fly on the 787. If that is only 2%, that is a greater percentage than the number of aircraft flying at this time. So I think negative publicy will not be a factor for many years to come. In fact, I would think the 787s have a higher % of seats filled than most other aircraft.
    2. As to saving a few minutes by changing boarding process — I bet 90% of the time we wait at the gate after the last passenger gets on for 5 to 10 minutes before leaving the gate anyway. Not sure why. So no real time to be saved. If they could board 135 people like Southwest does in 10 minutes and schedule 25 to 30 minute turnarounds, then they could save some real time (15 min per flight?) and maybe get an extra leg scheduled for short flights each day

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