Weekly Roundup Friday 14 June 2013

To help us 'Keep calm and carry on'?  Sign spotted just past security screening at the Minot ND airport by reader Michael.
To help us ‘Keep calm and carry on’? Sign spotted just past security screening at the Minot ND airport by reader Michael.

Good morning

Happy anniversary to Valentina Tereshkova – on Sunday it will be 50 years since she became the first woman in space.

Ms Tereshkova now wishes to be the first woman on Mars.  We wish her good luck – and a long life, because who knows when or even if we’ll see a (wo)manned mission to Mars.

And a happy birthday today – we hope – for the Airbus A350 – described in this article as ‘the aircraft Airbus did not want to build’.  It is expected that the plane will fly for the first time at about 10am (local time in France).  There is widespread expectation that Airbus hopes to have the A350 fly over the Paris Air Show next week as a high-profile introduction of its new plane to the world’s airline buyers.

Continuing the series of mini-features on Sri Lanka, another question asked by several people has been about the weather.  What sort of weather can we expect during our wonderful Travel Insider Tour to Sri Lanka next February?

I carefully chose February for our tour because it seems to offer the very best weather of the entire year (to say nothing of being a great time to escape the US for a couple of weeks).  Although a small island, Sri Lanka actually has a complicated weather pattern, with both monsoon seasons and also inter-monsoons.  An inter-monsoon is not a period of no monsoon, but a ‘bonus’ period of more monsoon weather, between the main monsoon seasons!

The temperatures are warm pretty much year round, so the main focus is on avoiding the heavy rains experienced during the monsoon and inter-monsoon seasons.  As you can see from these charts, February is the month with the lowest number of rainy days in Colombo, Kandy and  Galle and the second lowest number of rainy days in Anuradhapura.  As the charts also show, most days in most places we’ll probably be enjoying daily temperatures reaching up into the low to mid 80s.

So the weather will be mainly warm to hot and hopefully predominantly dry rather than wet.  In other words, close to perfect.

Please do visit our pages of information about this wonderful Sri Lankan tour, and then please do choose to join us on what promises to be a great experience.

There are three other feature articles this week, following the weekly roundup.  Two positively review useful travel products, and one registers my outrage at our inability to fairly and decently welcome visitors to the US, and the huge costs this represents to our US economy as a whole.

In the newsletter itself, we have items on :

  • A New Airfare Pricing Paradigm?
  • Airlines Wonder How Many Tweets are Too Many?
  • Jetblue Unveils Ambitious Future Enhancements to Its Trans-con Jets
  • Fanciful Planes of the Future
  • The Real Planes of the Future – More Seats, Less Room
  • Boeing Publishes its Latest 20 Year Outlook
  • Delta Announces a New Reason for Flight Attendants to Boot You Off the Plane
  • The TSA Has Wasted a Billion Dollars.  Wants to Waste More.
  • Why It is Serious When Airport Perimeter Security Guards Are Asleep
  • More on Dodgy Disney ‘Disabled’ Guests
  • Las Vegas to Experience Massive New Growth Spurt?
  • And Lastly This Week….

A New Airfare Pricing Paradigm?

Something that has been a cornerstone of our western concepts of fairness within the free markets that companies and individuals buy and sell things, is a reasonable expectation of transparency of pricing and the ability of different people to be able to pay a similar price for the same product.

Back in the days of airline regulation, such concepts were enshrined in airfares.  The airlines had a regular fare, a family fare and a group fare, and that was pretty much it.  These days, as you vaguely probably perceive, there can be a dozen or more fares applicable to any given itinerary, depending on when you buy the ticket, what level of penalty you’re willing to pay, and whether the airline is opening or closing short-term discount fares and restricted inventory categories.

However, there has still been an underlying unified concept – any person could as readily qualify for any particular airfare as could any other person, as long as they met the rules of the fare, and all the fares and all their rules were all published for everyone to see and choose from.

With the growing sophistication of customer databases, the airlines are ready for the next evolutionary leap.  They want now to be able to customize individual airfares to individual travelers.  Now for the big question – will the airlines do this to give us all the lowest possible fare, or will they do it to charge us the most they believe we will pay?

Okay, so it isn’t a big question at all, is it.  Of course the airlines will make use of their better knowledge of us, our incomes, our discretionary spending, and our varying degrees of need and desire to travel to make sure that the fares it offers us are within a hair’s breadth of the maximum we’d reluctantly pay.

Furthermore, none of these fares would be published.  We’d never know if we were paying more or less than normal for our travel, because every fare offered to every person would be different, depending on their circumstances.

For example – and these examples are, currently, fictitious, if an airline was able to track us making phone calls to people it knew to be elderly relatives in a far away city, and if it saw from the location of those people’s cell phones that they were in the emergency care ward of a hospital, and if we then called to request a last-minute ticket to travel to that city, the airline would know it could charge us top dollar for the ticket.

But if the airline saw we’d been calling leisure focused hotels in three different cities, and then asked for airfares to only one of those three cities for travel some weeks in the future, it might guess that we were seeking a bargain price and price its fares accordingly.

And if the airline could tell that we’d also spoken to other airlines, it would know to be more competitive.

If the airline saw we’d already made a substantial non-refundable deposit on a tour, charged to our credit card, it would know it had us over a barrel – we needed to be somewhere at a certain time to connect with another commitment.

These are all fanciful examples, but they’re only one or two degrees away from possible today, and as the NSA scandal of the previous week has pointed out, in some cases in different contexts, they are already happening at present.

There is one big hurdle in the way of the airlines implementing such plans, with or without their ability to track all our phone calls.  And that is the DoT requirement for airlines to have publicly filed official tariffs of their fares, open to anyone and everyone to view and buy.

The airlines are now seeking the ability to offer private unique unpublished individual fares, a concept known as IATA Resolution 787 and also described by the innocuous title of ‘New Distribution Capability’.

Don’t be fooled.  The airlines never seek new ways to offer us better fares and values, only and always the opposite.  Here’s a slightly larger-than-life portrayal of what this means, a line by line rebuttal of the airlines’ latest dissembling about what they will and won’t do, and a detailed resource of articles if you wish to wade through them telling you more.

Be afraid.  Be very afraid.

Airlines Wonder How Many Tweets are Too Many?

Here’s an interesting article full of things I find impossible to comprehend about the current nonsense that so much of the marketing sphere is focused on – so-called ‘social media’.

The point in particular that puzzles me is the number of tweets that some of the airlines are issuing each day.  The article approvingly points out that American Airlines is sending out 898.5 Twitter messages every day.

This, to me, clearly shows the craziness that permeates social media.  What normal person would be able to read 900 messages a day?  If we assume a person can read twenty messages a minute, that would require 45 minutes every day just to keep up with the message flow from American Airlines; and for most of us, it would be surprising if more than one or two of them had any interest or relevance.

Even worse, it isn’t a single 45 minute use of time once a day.  These messages are sent individually, and so represent 900 different interruptions to one’s thinking and concentration, and so in total, massively more than 45 minutes of time spent.  If they are spread evenly over, say, 15 hours of the day, that works out to exactly one message coming in, every minute!

As I said, the concept would seem to confound all logic.  But the airlines seem to believe the more tweets they send, the more – well, there’s the issue.  The more what, exactly, do they expect in return?

Jetblue Unveils Ambitious Future Enhancements to Its Trans-con Jets

Jetblue has slowly and steadily built up a good quality airline in the 13 years since it started operation, and while it has won a valuable chunk of corporate traveler business in the process, it has done so with all coach class planes.

It did move things around a bit to create a few rows of seats with extra legroom, similar to that offered by a number of other airlines, but other than that, its planes are all one class.

Until now.

It was revealed this week that Jetblue’s new A321 planes, to be operated on coast to coast flights, are planned to have both business class seating and also ‘mini-suites’ on them as well.  The configuration will be four suites, 12 business class seats, and 143 coach class seats.

That’s got to excite business travelers with the budget to afford such a premium indulgence, and ups the ante on the currently amazingly almost competitive trans-con services, where, most amazingly of all, the airlines seem to be almost at the point of competing on quality rather than on price.

Assuming FAA approval is granted to the cabin layout, Jetblue hopes to have the new planes in service starting from early next year.  More details here.

Fanciful Planes of the Future

As part of the run-up to the Paris Air Show that takes place next week, and as part of the Ted conference in Edinburgh this week, there have been some futuristic speculative flights of fancy about possible future airplane designs.

I love to see such things, of course, but sometimes am left enormously saddened when the vast degree of stunning impracticality sinks back down over the concepts.

For example, here’s a great seeming idea – flying wing airplanes that have detachable passenger compartment fuselages, with the passenger compartments doing double duty as train carriages.

Now that’s truly a bi-modal type of transportation, and echoes faintly the ‘boat trains’ of yesteryear and the Amtrak Auto-trains on the East coast currently.

But is it practical?  Almost certainly not.  Designing something to be simultaneously suitable for high-speed rail travel at ground level and to be flown through the upper atmosphere, three times faster, is, to put it mildly, difficult, and is sure to involve a weight penalty that airlines would refuse to accept.

While the idea of just taking one’s seat at a train station in one city, then staying there while your compartment is first trained to an airport, connected to a plane, flown to another airport, connected to another train, and taken in to another train station sounds like a great idea, one has to wonder if the time it takes for the passenger compartments to be switched from trains to planes and back again would not be such as to make it simpler for passengers to simply get off the train at the airport, walk to the gate, and get on a plane instead.

This also overlooks the large number of people who won’t start or end their journey at the respective downtown train stations.  There will be connecting passengers, plus passengers arriving by car at the airport and wanting to depart by car from the other airport.  How will they get into the passenger compartments?

A simpler solution would be to have trains going close to airport gates on the secure side of terminals – let the security screening be done at the train station or perhaps, make the trains greater than normal size and have people transition through security while on the train.

The biggest problem and most addressable time cost for typical journeys these days is the ‘arrive at the airport two hours early’ nonsense.  Many times, we spend more time at the airport than we do actually being flown from there to the other airport – how about applying some ingenuity to the hassles and delays of traveling through the airport.

Methinks that such issues are amenable to lower tech, simpler, and more effective solutions than these futuristic hybrid plane/train carriages.

Here’s another new concept plane that has a futuristic design and some fancy elements within it, and which uses lots of buzz words and modern concepts, ranging from 3D printing to seats that ‘harvest energy’ from the passengers.

But once you get past the fanciful ‘artists impressions’ and graceful sweeping lines, all this new concept seems to be is another broadly typical sort of plane, flying at the same speeds as currently, and once the airlines replace the spacious high-tech expensive seating with regular dense airline seats, we’re looking at a flying experience close to indistinguishable from current planes.  And all the associated negative hassles at the airports remain unchanged.

Alas, real innovation will require something very different to either of these two proposals.

The Real Planes of the Future – More Seats, Less Room

As we noted sadly, above, no matter how fanciful future plane concepts are, and no matter how extravagant airplane manufacturers and even airlines are with their initial cabin layouts for planes, commercial reality inevitably sinks in and all the extra space gets taken up with more seats.

Not only have we seen the pitch – the distance between rows of seats – get smaller, we’ve seen an even nastier development with the wide bodied planes.  Happily, there’s no way an airline can squeeze seven across seating into a narrow-body plane, but when you have eight or nine or ten across seating, it becomes very tempting to add one more seat across each row, in addition to scrunching up the seat pitch.

Airbus this week suggested that rather than develop a new stretched A380, as has clearly been its earlier plans, the better approach would be for airlines wanting a higher capacity A380 to simply add more seats to the present A380 configurations.  Thanks a lot, Airbus.

We’ve already seen DC-10, 747 and 777 seating add an extra seat per row, and 787 seating is currently ambiguous with either 8 seats across (eg ANA and JAL) or nine (of course, United).  Are we to see the A380 now add another seat to its economy rows, going from ten to 11 seats (on the lower deck)?

Meanwhile, both American Airlines (remember the glory days of their ‘More Room in Coach’ seating, almost a decade ago now) is quietly working out how to add extra seats to some of its 737s and MD80s, and Southwest has added another row of seats to its 737 fleet, reducing legroom by an inch in the process.

As you surely know, at the same time that airline seats are getting smaller and smaller, we ourselves are getting bigger and bigger, and the number of free/empty seats on planes is disappearing, making it increasingly likely that we don’t have any ability to at least spill into an empty seat on one side or the other of us.

Therein lies the problem that traps all fanciful future airplane designs.  Airlines don’t want airy spacious planes.  They want flying sardine cans.

Boeing Publishes its Latest 20 Year Outlook

It is always fascinating to read Boeing’s annually issued 20 Year forecasts – its ‘Current Market Outlook’.  These represent more or less an unshaded best guess forecast for what the next 20 years of new plane sales (bought by all airlines from all airplane manufacturers) will comprise.

Although the surveys tend to be silent on the specific types of planes, there’s little in them to suggest that Boeing is anticipating any new ‘game changing’ aviation developments in the next twenty years, and, alas, it is probably right about that.

The company has just released this year’s forecast, which is not profoundly changed from last year.  The largest part of the market remains the single aisle market (ie 737/A320 series), with an expected sale of 24,670 new single aisle jets over the next 20 years – 1,235 a year.  In total, Boeing suggests that 35,280 planes will be sold – an average of 1,764 a year, and bases that on an underlying projection of annual increases of 5% in both passenger and air freight numbers.

This compares with average annual sales of 1284 planes a year over the last five years, although the last two years have seen booming sales of over 2000 planes each year (due to pent up demand finally being satisfied for new versions of the A320 and 737).

The largest market for future airplane sales?  No surprises there.  36% of sales go to the Asia-Pacific region, followed by just over 21% to Europe, and only then, North America with just under 21%.

Of particular interest to me is the large wide-body category – planes holding more than 400 seats, for which Boeing sees the smallest number of sales being made – 760 in total, or 38 per year.

Based on current sales levels, that will be a bit of a struggle to achieve, and also based on current sales levels, it seems that this market will almost entirely belong to Airbus.

It is interesting to see how Emirates dominates this market; indeed just this week the airline announced their latest upgrade in plane type, replacing 777s on the LAX-Dubai route with A380s.  This is typical Emirates strategy – they start new routes with smaller planes, then grow them up to A380s as quickly as they can.

Emirates seems to prefer operating fewer big planes, whereas most of the western airlines seem to prefer to operate more small planes.

From our point of view as passengers, it is of course more convenient to have twice as many flights and times of departure to choose from, but from the airline point of view, you’d think it to be more profitable to operate half as many flights, each with twice as many people on them.

Hmmmm – maybe that’s why Emirates is so profitable and growing so quickly, while most western carriers are not.  Could that be the secret of their success?

Of course, there’s more to Emirates’ success than a fleet laden with A380s.  Good service and friendly staff have to be an important ingredient too, and – just possibly – a stubborn refusal to join any of the three airline alliances might actually help them too, saving Emirates from the need to drag itself down to the level of competitors.

Delta Announces a New Reason for Flight Attendants to Boot You Off the Plane

Here’s some really worrying news.  Delta has proudly announced that it will give its flight attendants (and all other ‘customer-facing’ staff) a new non-second-guessable reason for choosing to capriciously boot us off flights and getting us arrested by overly-eager law enforcement bodies.

The airline has become part of the US Customs & Border Patrol’s ‘Blue Lightning Initiative’.  This is designed to help airlines and their staff to identify potential instances of human trafficking, and all Delta’s customer-facing employees will complete a training program by the end of 2013.

On the other hand, if you are being plagued by little Johnny, behind you, kicking your seat back nonstop, and being passively encouraged to do so by his parents, maybe you could get them both taken off the flight by claiming that they are acting suspiciously and voicing your concern that they might be a trafficker and traffickee.

As for CBP, see my subsequent article.  Could we suggest to them that these additional efforts, praiseworthy as they may be, should not displace their focus on their prime mission, which is allowing lawful people to conveniently enter the country and spend their money here in the US.

The TSA Has Wasted a Billion Dollars.  Wants to Waste More.

Entrusting ‘ordinary’ people to spot criminals of any sort, and detaining people based on nothing more than behavior deemed to be suspicious gives us the chills.  But, more than violating many of our constitutional freedoms, it just doesn’t work, whether it be airline employees expected to detect human traffickers, or – well, TSA ‘Behavior Detection Officers’ trained to detect terrorists in airports.

The TSA has spent nearly $1 billion on its BDO program, but according to the Homeland Security Department’s own Inspector General (the TSA is part of the HSD, so this is an internal and presumably sympathetic review), the TSA can not establish any degree of effectiveness in the program at all and can not reasonably justify the program’s expansion.

This is an unsurprising evaluation, although from a surprising source.  The program is believed to employ 2,800 people, but it has never detected a terrorist.  Sure, it has hassled ordinary normal passengers, thousands at a time, and during the course of this, has come across various people ranging from parking scofflaws to ‘deadbeat dads’ and others with warrants outstanding, but not at any level measurably different to what would happen if you randomly accosted people at sports stadiums or anywhere else.

As for the terrorists, none have been identified after $1 billion and something in excess of ten million man hours of BDO screening activities.

The TSA makes an impenetrable non-defense of its program by saying

Behavior analyses [sic] techniques add an additional layer of unseen security measures for the safety of all passengers that begins prior to arriving at the checkpoint

I say – take the billion dollars and repurpose it to the CBP (also part of the hydra-headed HSD) so that we can at least process arriving visitors in a reasonable time.  Stop wasting it on hassling innocent people.

Details here.

Why It is Serious When Airport Perimeter Security Guards Are Asleep

Here’s an interesting article, complete with pictures and even video of sleeping security guards at JFK, and making the point that the management of the company finds it easier to look the other way than to fire the guards and hire replacements.

Now you might think there’s little reason to be concerned about these people quietly sleeping away their shifts.  After all, the airport has perimeter fences and various other protective measures to protect against intrusion (although the article also points out the case of a jet skier who wandered onto the airport grounds and it was only after he approached an employee asking for help that anyone took any notice of him).

However, there is a security risk that continues to escalate, and may one day result in a plane being downed.  That is the risk associated with a terrorist firing a surface to air missile at a plane in the several minutes after it first takes off from the airport.  At this stage the plane is flying low and slow with no spare speed or altitude, and emitting a massive heat signature, making it completely impossible for a heat seeking missile to miss the plane.  The fact the plane probably has nearly full tanks of fuel guarantees that in the unlikely event any passengers might survive the plane’s post-missile-hit plunge to the ground, they will be immolated by the spectacular fireball that will follow the plane’s crash.

These vulnerabilities were vividly illustrated in the video footage of the 747 crashing immediately after taking off from Bagram just over a month ago.

There is nothing new about the SAM threat; indeed, there have been one or two civilian planes downed by SAMs every year since 1975.  But what is new is that the ‘rebels’ we strangely decided to help overthrow our then loyal and obedient ally, Libya – rebels who were in main part previously fighting against us in Afghanistan – have now been looting the stores of SAMs after taking over Libya, and it is believed that as a result, these ‘rebels’ – or, to use the more accurate term, al Qaida, now have Soviet SA-7 missiles – wonderfully portable little missiles that would be ideally suited for attacking passenger jets at takeoff close to airports.

As this article points out, the missiles are so small and portable they can be packed in a duffel bag, and they have become so plentiful they can be purchased for as little as $5,000 a piece.

The good news is that a single missile hit on a large multi-engined passenger plane does not guarantee the plane’s instant annihilation.  But it sure doesn’t help, and the odds of the plane surviving even a single hit are perhaps 50:50 (here’s an example of an A300 surviving a missile strike).  Of course, with missiles as little as $5,000 each, maybe terrorists might choose to shoot two at a plane….

So maintaining a safe perimeter around airports becomes simultaneously more important and also impossible – especially the New York airports which are surrounded by light industry and warehousing, such that terrorists could simply drive up on a public street close to the airport in any vehicle, open the door (or sun rof), produce an SA-7 and fire it, then drive off again, all in a total of no more than two or three minutes.

Let’s hope the gratitude of these ‘rebels’ proves to be such that they don’t decide to use the SA-7s they’ve looted against the countries that helped them do so – primarily us, France, and the UK.

In a last-minute update, it seems we’re about to repeat our mistake (nothing new about that) and now provide support to Al Qaida in Syria, too, according to USA Today and most other sources.

More on Dodgy Disney ‘Disabled’ Guests

It has been an open secret for years that the easiest way through a Disney theme park is to have one of your group pretend to be disabled, and it is has been a slightly more closely held secret for some time that, if your conscience balks at the thought of pretending to be disabled yourself, you can simply hire a real disabled person to accompany you on your day at a Disney park.

But it is only now, after the latest round of high-profile exposures in the press, that Disney has ‘discovered’ that some of the disabled people it treats so well aren’t truly disabled.  So what is Disney doing about this?  Nothing.

Correction, it says it is ‘thoroughly reviewing the situation and will take appropriate steps to deter that type of activity’.  But as anyone knows, ‘thoroughly reviewing’ is a code phrase that actually means ‘we’ll do nothing for a long time while ostensibly conducting an unavoidably time-consuming thorough review, in the hope that people will forget all about it and we’ll not have to respond any further’.

It is a phrase beloved of airlines when called upon to explain the unexplainable and inexcusable.

For more, including tips on how easy it is to be designated as ‘disabled’ (my favorite being the child with a doctor’s note diagnosing him as having mild ADHD), please see here.

Las Vegas to Experience Massive New Growth Spurt?

The world’s largest shopping mall (15 million square feet – 50% larger than the current world’s largest mall – which lies empty, and 2.5 times larger than the largest actually in operation mall).  The world’s biggest Ferris wheel (800 ft, 50% larger than the current biggest in the world and almost twice the size of the London Eye).  An additional 45 hotels.  And a new convention center of 6 million square feet (twice the size of the already enormous Las Vegas Convention Center).  Plus lots more.

All these things are planned to be included in a new development that is variously described as ‘off the strip’ or as being located ‘not too far’ from the Las Vegas strip.

How far ways is ‘not too far’?  The reports are vague about its exact location, but we know it would take place on 1200 acres of land currently belonging to the Bureau of Land Management.  As best I can tell from their own records, ‘not too far’ is probably actually not all that short a distance at all and more like 20 miles.

But with everything else big, so big, in these newly announced development plans, a mere 20 mile separation between the Vegas strip and this new development is surely nothing, and you could certainly see the strip in the distance from the top of the proposed very tall ferris wheel, giving some sort of feeling of connection.

Color us skeptical about these plans.  But Vegas truly is a place where the impossible occurs, so who knows.  The developers hope to start construction within 15 months.  More details here.

And Lastly This Week….

Airlines are becoming much more imaginative with their airplane color schemes.  Even AA has abandoned its plain unpainted aluminum look (albeit with mixed results), and the trend, probably started by Qantas in 1993 with its gorgeous Wunala Dreaming plane (here’s a picture of it, chosen at random off Wikipedia, but interesting because the 1998 picture – taken when Qantas was probably at the very top of its form – also shows two other planes, both belonging to now defunct airlines – and for that matter, taken at a now defunct airport that is being transformed into a cruise ship terminal) has now been often copied.

Usually Wunala Dreaming type projects have been ‘one-off’ projects, but even the standard airplane liveries have become more imaginative.  So news this week of Air New Zealand’s plans to change its planes from its traditional Teal color (before it was known as Air NZ, the airline was known as TEAL – Tasman Empire Air Lines, so the color had a significance) to a new black and white color scheme might seem to be going against the trend, but more likely, their new designs (including a few planes that will be painted all black with limited white imagery) will be startling and distinctive.

If you’re a lover of airline nostalgia, you might enjoy roaming through our multi-page history of airline slogans, and here’s a new interesting collection of airline logos as they’ve evolved over the years (click the image for a larger image to open up).

You’ll probably agree that most of the time, logos have steadily improved in legibility, but there are a few unfortunate exceptions.  And, in the case of Emirates and Qantas in particular, one wonders why they bothered changing from the previous logo to the current one.  The same can be said for some trivial tweaks to other airline logos in the past, too.  A fascinating page of imagery.

Finally, there’s been a lot of discussion about the revelations over the last week over the extent of NSA and other surveillance programs and how they are vacuuming up so much about our personal and private lives, all in the name of national security.

But did you know there’s one protected category of people, free from official surveillance?  Muslims.  You might find this surprising – haven’t all the terrorist attacks these last twelve or more years against us have been by, hmmm, muslims?  But while the state is busy surveilling you and me every which way, it turns away from any suggestion of investigating muslim threats, due to muslim pressure groups complaining.  Details here.

I wonder, if we complain, does that mean we’ll be freed from surveillance too?

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels, and, for sure, a very Happy Father’s Day to all dads.  If your children give you half as much joy as my daughter does me, you are truly blessed.







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