Weekly Roundup Friday 16 August 2013

An airplane parachute saved a light plane's pilot this week.  Should 787s be fitted with them too?
An airplane parachute saved a light plane’s pilot this week. Should 787s be fitted with them too?

Good morning

The big news this week was not another 787 problem (although there was of course another revelation which, ho hum, seems to now be the new normal) but rather the Department of Justice’s surprise decision to oppose the AA/US merger.  I’ve a separate article, appended below, looking at the implications and absurdities of merger situation.

Other news was the formal release of wunderkind Elon Musk’s latest ‘wild and crazy’ transportation concept.  But he has succeeded with both SpaceX and Tesla, so we should not reflexively dismiss his new Hyperloop system.

As anyone who as struggled through increasingly unpleasant airports and airplanes knows, and as anyone who has suffered the ever worse congestion on our roads would agree, we need a truly disruptive new form of transportation.  Cars, boats, trains and planes are all 100+ years old, with little change in the last 50 years or so for any of these types of transportation, and rather than incremental ‘improvements’ to current systems (and smaller seats!) it is time for a true game changer.  We have a separate article on that, also appended to the newsletter.

What else?  Lots, of course!  In this week’s compendium, please also find pieces on :

  • Another 787 Wiring Problem
  • Should 787s Be Fitted With This Accessory?
  • Ryanair Wishes to ‘Keep the Change’
  • Whistleblower or Saboteur?
  • A Heartwarming Airline Story
  • Congratulations, Amtrak – Again.  But….
  • Online Hotel Discounting Comes to UK but Not to US
  • Are Terrorists Impatient?
  • We Know Your PIN
  • And Lastly This Week….

Another 787 Wiring Problem

ANA, with 20 787s, says it has discovered a wiring problem in three of its planes, related to a system designed to put out engine fires.  JAL checked its planes and found no similar problems.

A Boeing apologist/industry commentator said these things happen with new aircraft.  If his intention was to reassure us all, I think he failed.

The good news is that this wiring problem would only become an issue if a plane’s engine(s) caught fire, and was discovered before it became a problem and threatened an airplane.  Let’s hope that if there are any other as yet undetected 787 problems, they too are detected prior to becoming direct threats (and try not to think how it is these problems occur and remain undetected for so long).

Details here.

Should 787s Be Fitted With This Accessory?

When I was a little boy, I wondered why passengers weren’t given parachutes, and was amazed that not even pilots had them.

Now that I’m older, I understand why the people on a plane don’t have parachutes (the number of times that an accident develops in a way that would allow passengers a chance to parachute to safety are as close to zero as you’ll ever get) but I do something wonder why the planes themselves don’t have parachutes.

Well, as you may know, some planes actually do have a parachute.  Here’s a fascinating story about a pilot who used his plane parachute to safely land (in a suburban home’s back yard) allowing the pilot to walk out of the plane with nary a scratch on him.

This is not a unique event.  The Cirrus airplane’s parachute system is thought to have saved over 225 people during the course of 201 airplane parachute ‘saves’ between 1983 and 2007.

But parachutes for the 787?  Two problems.  The first problem is similar to the ‘why don’t passengers have parachutes’ problem – it is very rare for a commercial airplane to get into a situation where a parachute deployment opportunity would exist.

The second problem is that whereas the Cirrus in this case weighs about 3,000 lbs, a 787 weighs almost 500,000 lbs.  So, if one parachute is good for 3,000 lbs, that would be 167 parachutes for an entire 787 (or a fewer number of bigger parachutes, but you get the idea).

If Boeing will take risks with wiring and batteries so as to save a few pounds here and there, do you really think it would accept a probably 2,000 lb weight penalty to add parachutes to the plane?

Ryanair Wishes to ‘Keep the Change’

To be fair, while this story involves Ryanair, they are only a co-conspirator.

A training manual for their flight attendants, but developed by an outside ‘in-flight retail specialist’ consulting company, suggests to flight attendants that they should deliberately lie and tell people who buy items on flights (and pay cash) that they (the flight attendants) are out of change, and suggest to the passenger that they (the passenger) spend the change they’d otherwise receive on additional item purchases, including such junk throwaway items as low-priced scratch card lottery tickets.

That’s a downright dishonest way to upsell, and beyond even Ryanair’s sometimes craven attempts at getting more money from its customers.  The airline says its policy is to quickly give all money owed back to its passengers, while a spokesman for the consulting company makes the ambiguous statement ‘Retail in Motion apologizes for any confusion caused by the wording of this training document, which has been withdrawn, and we have since revised the text used.’

Revised to say what, we wonder.  Details here.

Whistleblower or Saboteur?

There has been a lot of recent public angst over actions variously described as public-spirited whistle blowing or traitorous betrayal – Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden of course, and previously Julian Assange.

Not quite so high-profile was a claim from a Ryanair senior pilot that he and other pilots were being pressured to load less reserve fuel onto their planes, so as to save money for the company.  After the pilot made this public statement, Ryanair promptly fired him.  Details here.

Now I know that Ryanair is the airline everyone loves to hate, and I know we’re all quick to suspect the worst of airlines and what they’ll do to save money.  But I find myself supporting Ryanair this time.

Consider these points :  First, the pilot’s complaint needs to be viewed in the context of Ryanair’s perfect safety record.  Ryanair is a huge airline with 305 planes and serving 179 destinations in Europe, and has been operating since 1985.  Apart from a bad landing caused by bird strike damage (hardly the airline’s fault) I’ve not found a single example of a Ryanair safety problem at any time in its history.

Second, Ryanair, headquartered in Dublin, is often at extreme loggerheads with the Irish Aviation Authority, and CEO Michael O’Leary has said some very personally insulting things about the organization and its senior executives.  But the IAA came out resolutely in support of Ryanair, saying the airline fully complies with all European and international regulations in all areas of its operations and that it has no concerns currently about its fuel policy, which the IAA says it reviews regularly.

It is also true that Ryanair has a fractious relationship with its pilots, some of whom are keen to unionize.

So – is this pilot a valid whistleblower, pointing out a problem which has yet to become a tangible reality and which no-one else sees, or is he another example of a union-advocate who feels his purposes best served by harming his employer?

Details here.

But, we do wonder why Ryanair actually fired the pilot.  By CEO O’Leary’s own strange values, it seems the pilot was doing Ryanair a favor.  Only a couple of weeks earlier, in a very interesting article, O’Leary said ‘Short of committing murder, negative publicity sells more seats than positive publicity’.

Of course, an ultra-cynic might wonder if by firing the pilot, O’Leary cleverly managed to get a double dose of negative publicity – ooops, such as, even, this article!

A Heartwarming Airline Story

Even the worst of airlines and airline employees can sometimes surprise us, and in this case, we absolutely do not mean to suggest that the airline featured, El Al, is a bad airline to start with.

Here’s an amazing story of the extra lengths El Al went to in an ultimately successful effort to allow an 11 yr old cancer patient to make her flight to a dream summer camp experience this week.

Thank you, El Al.

Congratulations, Amtrak – Again.  But….

This year has seen a series of monthly announcements from Amtrak, regularly advising that they have been setting new monthly records for ridership numbers.

With the announcement this week of their July passenger numbers, Amtrak is not only pointing to its best every July ridership, but its best ever monthly ridership for any month of its entire 42 year history.

On the other hand, total ridership (2.9 million, strongly up from 2.7 million in July 2012) is merely a drop in the bucket of total travel numbers in the US (almost 70 million by air, and who knows how many by bus and car).  All three elements of its business were up – long distance, under 750 mile state supported routes, and the Northeast regional and Acela services.

However, if you look at their fiscal year to date, their long distance services show the slightest hint of contraction (-0.1%), which underscores the ugly reality that Amtrak is really (at least) two different railroads uneasily welded together – the long distance trains and the shorter commuter and regional routes.  While Amtrak has the potential to provide a functional mainstream service on its shorter routes, as a long-haul transportation provider, it can never hope to compete with private cars or airplanes.

Most of all, does its best ever month also translate into a profitable month, the same way the airlines are enjoying record profits?  The Amtrak press release was silent on that point.  I wonder why?

Online Hotel Discounting Comes to UK but Not to US

The distribution of travel products from whoever the company is that provides a travel product or service, to whoever the person is ultimately using that product/service, continues to evolve and adapt to the disruptive effects of the internet,

It is fair to say that the travel industry has always been one of the nastiest back-stabbing industries out there, with everyone in the distribution chain seeking to cut out as many of the other middlemen as possible.  Retail travel agencies would try to reach back past their wholesalers, wholesalers would try to sell direct to travelers, while hotels would do a deal with anyone on any basis at all.

The one thing that companies in each stage of the distribution process in the past – a process sometimes going through say four steps such as from a product owner/operator to a consolidator in their country to a wholesaler in another country to a travel agent to a traveler – had to offer the other participants was efficient access to the companies either upstream or downstream from them.  How could a hotel in, eg, Austria, hope to directly and cost-effectively promote itself to potential guests in Australia?

The answer to that question suddenly appeared as if from nowhere, in the form of the internet, and now all the players are falling over themselves in their eagerness to cut each other out of the loop.  We’ve also seen new types of companies appear, internet based intermediaries that do the job of several former traditional steps in the distribution chain.

As everyone tries to adapt to the new world empowered by the internet, we’ve also seen some clumsy protectionist approaches by various players attempting to control the distribution process.  Strangely (or so you’d think) these approaches seem to be most successful in the United States, where hotels have mandated ‘minimum advertised price’ or ‘rate parity’ policies.  While companies might negotiate any sort of deal from a hotel, the hotel will often insist that the company keep its public pricing at a certain level, no matter how much margin there might be in the middle.  Yes, you might wonder, what is the point of discounting your room rates to an intermediary if they can’t then use that discount to drop their prices to shift market share – that’s a good question with a very lengthy and not altogether satisfactory answer.

This week has seen a ruling from Britain’s Office of Fair Trading that applies to how hotel pricing is established in Britain.  As part of their ruling, Booking.com, Expedia and InterContinental Hotels have agreed to allow their distributors and competitors to discount room rates.  Other online travel agencies are now free to sell hotel rooms at any price they choose, including below the ruling rates.

The OFT indicated that the problem is more widespread than just the three companies it settled with, but it hopes a settlement with these three companies will create a new industry practice without their need to chase down and bully every different hotel and distribution partner.

So you might start to see some variation in hotel room rates for British hotels.  But don’t expect any changes in US hotel rates, where the restrictions still apply with full force.  A class action seeking to overturn the locks on US hotel pricing and competition is going through the courts, but who knows what and when will come from that.  Maybe when the Department of Justice have some spare time after dealing with the Apple/Internet price-fixing on eBooks, and the AA/US merger, they can positively intercede on this point too.

The ironic thing about all of this is that the internet has actually reduced rather than increased hotel competition and deals.  Progress, as we often observe, is a funny old thing.

Are Terrorists Impatient?

A couple of weeks ago, the US Department of State announced it was closing 19 embassies and consulates in the Middle East and Africa, because it felt unable to protect them in response to what it deemed to be credible intelligence indicating an imminent high impact terrorist attack against one or more of these locations.

Some of us found this action, never before undertaken, to be rather at odds with other claims that Al Qaida are either ‘on the run’ or a ‘spent force’, and wondered what sort of message it sends when we close our embassies and consulates rather than pro-actively protect them.  But, of course, the Benghazi disgrace has clearly shown that when our embassies are threatened, the staff can not rely on the support of the most magnificent, powerful, and omnipresent military forces the world has ever seen.

Anyway, no matter what you think, clearly someone decided that the terrorist threat was sufficient to make closing the locations unavoidable.

But – here’s the thing.  A week later, all but one of them were quietly re-opened again.

Does this mean that a terrorist cell was identified and taken out?  Apparently not, because for sure we’d have been regaled with self-congratulatory press releases if that had been the case.  So we have to assume that the reason that what was suddenly dangerous has now become safe again is because the terrorists gave up and went home, deeming it too long to wait any more after a single week of closed embassies.

We’re not sure which was the more surprising event.  The mass closures, or the re-opening a week later.  Details here.

We Know Your PIN

If we were to say ‘1234’ to you, would that ring any bells?  Unlock any debit cards?  Or maybe 1111, or 0000, 1212, or 7777?  But we’ll also wager that whatever your PIN is, it is not 8068.

A study of 3.4 million PINs showed that 11% of the PINs were 1234, and another 6% were 1111.  But, astonishingly, only 25 of the 3.4 million PINs were 8068 (by random chance, it – and every other PIN – should occur 340 times).

Years of birth also featured prominently, making numbers from particularly 1940 – 1990 much more popular than normal.

More details here.

And Lastly This Week….

I was castigated for casting aspersions on firefighters and policemen in Nairobi in last week’s newsletter.  Apparently it was very racist of me to dare to report on the reality of their looting the airport they were supposed to be protecting, and one woman went as far as to deny the event ever occurred, claiming she once visited Nairobi and everyone was very nice.

So it is with some diffidence that I pass on a piece about what the author ponders might be an ‘exciting’ travel destination for young Americans.  The more easily offended may perhaps choose not to click this link.  The rest of us can have a great good laugh, and if it does encourage you to visit, do heed their advice to not drive about in white Land Cruisers, and remember to pack your souvenir jambiya in your checked rather than carry-on baggage.

Here’s an interesting piece of trivia – an Endonym Map.  In case you are one of the probably 99% of us who don’t know what an Endonym is, it is the name of a place in the local language.  Amazingly, 157 countries use English (86), French (41), Arabic (28) or Spanish (21) as their official language.

Talking about trivia, one of the fun things about traveling – whether to an adjacent city or a far away country – is seeing new and different things.  Even common place things become out of the ordinary when slightly repurposed for a different culture – even, indeed, vending-machines.  This purports to introduce us to the world’s wierdest vending machines.

Truly lastly this week, next time you check in to your hotel room, have a look on the back of the room’s pictures and mirrors and in other way places.  You might just find some amusing graffiti hidden there.

We are not, of course, suggesting that if you don’t, you should add some yourself…..  More details here.

Next week finds me and my daughter traveling to Australia and New Zealand.  There’s not likely to be much of a newsletter because of this, but I’ll try to scribble something out in a somewhat jet-lagged blur the following week.  Fortunately, there are no 787s featured on our seven flights.

Until next week or the week after, please enjoy safe travels







1 thought on “Weekly Roundup Friday 16 August 2013”

  1. Margaret Mackenzie-Hooson

    Best wishes for your trip down here to NZ and may the earthquakes calm down during your visit! The newest advice from Christchurch experience I’ve received is to carry a whistle in case you’re under rubble after one, and keep some slippers or jandals near your bed in case you have to get up to broken glass…here in Wellington seems stable now after yesterday’s several significant quakes, but poor Seddon near the epicenter has had extended stress and now notable damage.

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