Weekly Roundup Friday 26 July 2013

China has announced plans to build the world's largest undersea tunnel across the Bohai strait.
China has announced plans to build the world’s largest undersea tunnel across the Bohai strait.

Good morning

There’s a lot of material this week, with not just one or two but four additional feature articles added to the weekly roundup.

I hope you like me switching some articles out of the main flow of the newsletter and in to their own separate pieces – do please let me know if you feel strongly one way or the other.

In the four articles below, we have a first look at the lovely new Google Nexus 7 (and a last look at a once aspiring-to-greatness tablet), a suggested way to prevent future train tragedies like that in Spain on Wednesday, a hint that maybe Emirates might offer flights between the UK and US, and – best of all – a review of a new type of travel pillow that now becomes my new favorite travel pillow.

Plus, oh my gosh, stories about four airplane problems in a row – I’ll be as happy as you when we can end this appalling string of airplane disasters and near disasters, as well as other items on :

  • Fascinating Pictures of the Asiana 777 Interior
  • LHR 787 Fire Cause Now Found?
  • Breaking News :  Unexpected Reason for Southwest 737 Nose Gear ‘Failure’ at LGA
  • Another 787 Aborted Flight, and Will the 787’s Reputation Recover
  • How to Easily Make the Airbus A380 10%, 20%, or Even More Fuel Efficient Than Currently
  • China Is At It Again
  • An Innovative Solution If the Name on Your Ticket is Wrong
  • A Dismaying Indictment of One of the Best Cruise Lines
  • The New Google Chromecast Device
  • Is the Telephone the Next Device to Become Obsolete?
  • And Lastly This Week….

Fascinating Pictures of the Asiana 777 Interior

Ever wonder what it is like inside a crashed plane that subsequently suffered a major fire through much of its interior?

Well, wonder no more.  Here’s a fascinating set of pictures of the interior of the Asiana 777 that crashed at SFO a couple of weeks ago.

LHR 787 Fire Cause Now Found?

Reports emerged late this week that the underlying cause of the fire in the Ethiopian Airlines 787 has been traced to a pair of wires that were crossed over each other, then squashed together by the Emergency Locator Transmitter battery compartment cover when it was closed over them.  This caused the wires to short, which started the fire.

Clearly this would not be a design fault of the 787 airplane, much to Boeing’s relief.  On the other hand, who installed the ELT?  Quite possibly, Boeing.  And the willingness of the plane exterior to allow itself to be burned through and the implications of the resulting survivability of such an event, were it to have taken place in the air, remain disquieting.

I’m sure the investigators know what they are doing and that their finding is correct.  But, I’m also surprised that the problem manifested itself while the plane was sitting, lifeless and still, on the ground.  A problem such as that would seem much more likely to be exacerbated by the vibration of the plane while flying, causing the wires to abrade through their insulation much more readily.

Some investigators also continue to wonder if high temperatures caused by the plane sitting in the sun without any cooling may have initiated a battery ‘meltdown’ inside the ELT.  Or maybe they just softened the insulation, speeding its failure.

Details here.

Earlier links to higher humidity and condensation levels than are normal on other planes haven’t resulted in any key findings, but remain an interesting subject of ongoing concern.

Breaking News :  Unexpected Reason for Southwest 737 Nose Gear ‘Failure’ at LGA

Most people assumed that the nose gear failure that occurred when a Southwest 737 landed at LGA on Monday this week was due to the nose gear not properly descending or not locking up, but on Thursday evening news emerged suggesting that the plane landed not in the typical ‘nose high’ fashion but in a ‘nose low’ fashion.

Normally planes with the now almost ubiquitous two sets of wheels under the wings and one set under the nose (rather than under the tail as was the case decades ago) land with the nose high and first put their main wheels on the ground.  When the plane has settled onto its main landing gear, then the pilot allows the nose to go down to the ground too, so there is very little stress on the nose gear and the major ‘bump’ (such as it is, most of the time) of the landing happens on the strong main gear.  (Old fashioned ‘tail dragger’ planes try to land level, evenly on all three wheels simultaneously.)

But if this plane came in, nose low, then a much greater stress would have been placed on the nose gear, and it would be unsurprising to then have it buckle and collapse under this stress.

The NTSB deduced this from looking at video and ‘other evidence’ of the plane’s landing.  It estimates the plane was slightly nose-high until the last two or three seconds, and landed with about a 3° nose down angle (planes normally land with about this much angle of nose high rather than nose low).  It declined comment as to why this happened, but now has the black boxes and should be able to form a better understanding of events after analysing the data contained therein.

16 passengers suffered minor injuries; there were no serious injuries or fatalities.

Details here.

Another 787 Aborted Flight and Will the 787’s Reputation Recover

It is getting to be so commonplace as to be almost no longer newsworthy.

Another 787 flight was aborted late last week, with a JAL flight from Boston to Narita having to turn around as a ‘standard precautionary measure’ and return to Boston after a possible fuel pump issue.  It took five and a half hours from take-off to return landing again, including time spent burning off fuel before landing.

Details here.

So, with this slew of ongoing problems, including fires that would have likely caused crashes if in the air a long way from potential landing spots, an almost 100 day grounding of the entire fleet, and as yet still unresolved issues, who really wants to discover that their next long over-the-water flight will be on a 787?

And, more to the point, will the current aversion to flying on a 787 extend into the future?

This article is headlined ‘Why You Probably Won’t Remember the 787’s Rough Start’ and you can guess from its headline what its commentary suggests.

In addition to trotting out the now totally risible claim of ‘teething problems’ (tell me how many other new model planes have had repeated fires and a 100 day grounding) the article also dares to compare the 787 with both the de Havilland Comet and the McDonnell Douglas DC10 as part of its suggestion that ‘this too shall pass’ and we’ll all forgive and forget.

I say ‘dares to compare’ because many commentators consider that even though both the Comet and the DC-10 proved themselves to end up as excellent and safe airplanes, and even though many people will concede that their problems weren’t entirely ‘their own fault’, it is also generally considered that the problems with the Comet were a major part of the death of de Havilland, and the problems with the DC-10 were one of the causes of the demise of McDonnell Douglas (now part of Boeing, of course).

One commentator makes the brave claim that within a year or two, the problems currently engulfing the 787 will all be forgotten.

I disagree.  The 787 is shaping up to be ‘an unlucky plane’.  Napoleon famously said he wanted lucky rather than capable generals, and if I had to choose a plane to fly on, I think I’d prefer a lucky older plane than an unlucky state of the art modern plane.  Wouldn’t you?

Time will tell which of us is correct.  It will be interesting to see, and of course currently, every day, I wake up with the slight frisson of anticipation – will there be a new 787 headline awaiting me when I start to do the rounds of the usual aviation sites?

How to Easily Make the Airbus A380 10%, 20%, or Even More Fuel Efficient Than Currently

As you probably know, airlines will do just about anything to wring even one or two percent more fuel efficiency from their planes.  They’ll spend millions of dollars on new winglets; they’ll take pillows out of the passenger compartments, they’ll replace pilots’ manuals with iPads, carry less drinking water (and less fuel), and so on.

As you also probably know, Boeing and Airbus occasionally come up with reworked designs for their airplane families, and proudly claim anywhere from 5% to 15% improvements in fuel efficiencies as a reason for airlines to upgrade their fleets.  Sometimes these upgrades come as a result of many billions – sometimes way over ten billion – of dollars of R&D on the part of Airbus and Boeing (as is currently the case with new models for the 737, 777, and A320 families).

So how revolutionary is it for Airbus to now say ‘Hey, guys, we’ve come up with a way for you to get 10% or more better fuel efficiency from your A380s, and it won’t cost you or us a thing!’?

It is true that the A380 stubbornly continues to disappoint in terms of the number sold; indeed Airbus is currently staring at the need to reduce its production line speed due to the weakness of future A380 orders and the timeline for their deliveries.  So something like this might jumpstart the market massively, or so they hope.

So, what is this marvelous innovation Airbus has uncovered?

Alas, it is not marvelous at all.  Airbus is simply suggesting that the airlines cram more seats into the planes. It is true that adding a certain percentage more seats is very similar to reducing the fuel costs, per passenger, by the same percentage, and it is also true that there is potential to cram more seats into the A380s – another seat per row in coach class, more rows in total; and possibly taking out some of the space-hogs like bars and other open areas; maybe even rejigging the shares of space used by first, business, premium economy and coach classes.

One has to view this suggestion also as being somewhat an admission of defeat by Airbus.  It implies they are accepting that the business case for the A380, based on current typical configurations, is proving to be insufficiently compelling.

Happily Emirates – the world’s largest A380 operator – has said it has no plans to go to 11 abreast coach class seating.  Let’s hope the other airlines feel the same way.

There’s one other interesting comment in the linked article, where they report

[its spaciousness] …. has created a buzz around the A380, with carriers reporting that passengers will change their travel plans just to sample the superjumbo experience….

This ties in to the question about whether people will continue to avoid the 787.  If we see passengers making itinerary changes to positively select an A380, doesn’t that suggest it is far from improbable that at least some passengers will also make itinerary changes to avoid 787s?

China Is At It Again

There China goes, yet again, impressing the rest of the world with its extraordinary growth and industrial strength.

Scarcely a month after a Chinese company was awarded a concession by the Nicaraguan government to design, build and manage a new canal from the Atlantic to the Pacific, to compete with the Panama Canal, the Chinese how now decided to show us they can also build the world’s longest undersea tunnel.  It would run 76 miles from Dalian to Yantai (see map above), and would shorten the distance between the two regions by 620 miles.

The primary purpose would be for freight.  Currently the world’s longest undersea tunnel is between Honshu and Hokkaido islands in Japan (34 miles) followed closely by the Channel tunnel (32 miles).

More details here.

An Innovative Solution If the Name on Your Ticket is Wrong

If the name on your ticket is wrong by more than one or two letters, the airline will probably refuse to change it, and will insist you get a refund on the ticket in the wrong name and then rebook the ticket in the right name.

There is of course no law or reason why the airline can’t change the name on your ticket as many times as it wishes.  Back in the ‘good old days’ when I was a travel agent, I’d regularly book seats in the name of ‘Mr A N Other’ and hold them until I had exact names.  The airlines knew what I was doing and looked the other way – it allowed me to keep a ‘secret supply’ of seats at hard to travel times of year.

But the airlines decided to stop all this, presumably as a way to now occasionally trap people into needing to spend money, and to prevent people from reassigning their ticket to someone else.  There’s of course no reason why anyone shouldn’t be allowed to reassign their ticket to anyone else – imagine if, when you bought a ticket to a concert event, it could only be used by the person named on the ticket.  Laughably ridiculous and unfair, right?

But if you try to get an airline to help you out with a bona fide problem with your name, they refuse.  They don’t say ‘we could, but we won’t’; they say ‘we can’t’ as if there were an immutable law of nature that they can’t fight against.

So, what do you do if you get trapped with a ticket that is not in your name and an unhelpful airline laughing at your problem?  The cost of getting a partial refund on a discounted ticket, and then needing to rebook at full fare could easily run into hundreds or even thousands of dollars.

One possibility – offered in all seriousness – is to change your name to that on your ticket, and update your driver’s license or passport to show the new name, then change it back to your proper name when you’ve completed your travels.

This UK consumer affairs program offers exactly that advice, and there’s no reason why it wouldn’t work in the US or elsewhere, either.  The enormous pleasure you’d get at beating the airlines at their own game would make it all worthwhile.

Indeed, if you were to transfer a ticket correctly in your name to someone else who changed their name to yours, that would work too.  And with all the strange names and gender ambiguity out there these days, who would dare comment if ‘David Rowell’ turned out to be a woman?

A Dismaying Indictment of One of the Best Cruise Lines

We know that some cruise lines are ‘cheap as chips’ and others do a good job of gouging their passengers, charging for every little thing over and above the cruise fare – remember the good old days when the fare alone was almost all you’d need to pay for a fun-filled week away in the sun?

But we try to cherish some hopes that there are a few cruise lines that have chosen to take the high road (or whatever the nautical equivalent is), and to provide a good honest fair product in return for an albeit very high daily rate for their cruises.  In particular, we’ve dared to hope that Silversea Cruises is a highest quality operation, more or less living up to its advertised promises of luxury and world-class cuisine.

So what to think of an utterly appalling story which hints at an enormous dark underside to the much vaunted CDC Vessel Sanitation Program inspections; and not just on the Silversea Silver Shadow, but probably throughout the industry.

Read this and be massively dismayed, as well as massively horrified, and massively amazed – not just at what apparently goes on to cheat the inspections, but at how the CDC inspections have no consequences and the CDC can’t do anything more than to politely ask ship owners to correct deficiencies.

By coincidence Senator Jay Rockefeller introduced a new bill, The Cruise Passenger Protection Act, this week, but as best I can determine (I’ve been unable to find the full text, merely summaries) the bill has nothing to do with health issues and standards in it and his own self-serving press release is light on details or links to the text.

Meanwhile, in more cruise news you don’t really want to know, three past passengers of Carnival have filed a class action lawsuit claiming that hundreds of passengers have contracted the MRSA ‘flesh eating bacteria’ from hot tubs on their ships.

A motion to dismiss, filed by Carnival, was denied in the US District Court in Florida, and the passengers are hoping that other passengers will join them in their suit.

MRSA is a particularly nasty mutation of the Staphylococcus Aureus that is resistant to most antibiotics, and very difficult to treat.  The bacteria causes an aggressive and sometimes debilitating infection.

The New Google Chromecast Device

Immediate below this is a separate article about the new version Google Nexus 7 tablet, announced on Wednesday this week.  It is a great new tablet for sure, but the announcement event was a bit of a disappointment.  Some of us where also hoping for a new Nexus 10 tablet (now claimed to be appearing very soon) and a new Nexus 4 cell phone too.

We didn’t get either of those, but we did get something unexpected.  Google’s new Chromecast device.

What is it?  It is another way to get internet streamed video from the internet, via your in-home Wi-Fi, and to your television through an HDMI port.  I say ‘another way’ because some televisions now come with some type of this capability built-in, as do some DVD and Bluray players.  There are also excellent standalone devices such as the Roku players which do the same thing.

Google has made false starts in this marketplace before – with the inexplicably go-nowhere Google TV product, and the even stranger massively overpriced Nexus Q device that never even made it to the marketplace at all.  But the new Chromecast dongle has one massively important thing going for it which neither of these other two devices, both costing some hundreds of dollars, did.

The massive positive feature of the Chromecast product?  Low price.  It lists for a mere $35, whereas most other devices cost twice that or more.  On the downside, it doesn’t have the huge broad lineup of channels that Roku has, but it may have good integration allowing you to play video from your phone (iPhone or Android) or tablet or computer.  It also has connectivity to Youtube, of course, and a tie-in with Netflix also.  Netflix has even upgraded its streaming quality to reflect the higher quality capabilities of this device.

I’ve ordered one and will let you know more when I receive it and try it out.  The device quickly sold out of its initial production run, hinting at either a more successful product or yet again Google’s inability to predict market demand for one of its products, and I’m waiting for Amazon to advise a delivery date – probably three or four weeks into the future.

Is the Telephone the Next Device to Become Obsolete?

Okay, you might think this to be the stupidest question with the most obvious answer you’ve seen, well, at least so far today.  Of course the phone isn’t at risk of being obsolete, right?

But, stop and think about it.  For example, when did you last use more than your monthly allowance of minutes on your cell phone?  How often do you make or receive phone calls these days compared to emails or text messages?  And would you generally prefer people to contact you by phone or email (and, vice versa, how would you prefer to be able to contact other people)?

I’m sure you remember when the phone ringing was an exciting and important event, and you of course answered it immediately.  Now, for many of us, we selectively (and reluctantly) answer it or not.  We might let the call go to voicemail, we might know that if it is important, the person will send us a text or email.  If we see no caller ID on an incoming call, we might feel annoyance and possibly even refuse to answer it.

Is life without the telephone as unthinkable as we might consider?  Or is it the way we are headed?

Here’s a fascinating and interesting read on the subject.

As for me, I just checked.  So far this year, I’ve been using my cell phone for an average of 3 minutes call time a day.  But I use it for email, texts, and data in general ten or one hundred times more minutes every day.  And the same at my desk.  The phone seldom gets used these days, and most of the time when any of us do use it, it is ‘unhappy making’ time rather than happy time.  It is time spent on hold or talking to call center staff in far away countries, or fobbing off calls we don’t wish to receive.

You can take my phone and keep it.  But don’t deprive me of my internet and texting services, please!

And Lastly This Week….

The camera never lies – something we rely upon when looking at online pictures of hotels we are considering staying at, and so on.  Or does it?

We know you can do tricks with camera angles and wide-angle lenses, but beyond that, we start to get into the black magic of Photoshop and other similar tools.  Such as, for example, this.

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels







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