Weekly Roundup Friday 2 August 2013

The ruins of Polonnaruwa, the ancient capital of Sri Lanka 1100 years ago and now one of 6 World Heritage sites in Sri Lanka.  Our tour visits all six.
The ruins of Polonnaruwa, the ancient capital of Sri Lanka 1100 years ago and now one of 6 World Heritage sites in Sri Lanka. Our tour visits all six.

Good morning

Depending on your perspective, it has been either another very bad or very good week for the 787.  Very bad in the sense of a continued procession of problems, very good in the sense that none of the planes have yet to fall out of the sky.  But if things continue as they are, it seems only a matter of time before that too happens.

So how bad is the 787 situation?  That’s a very good question, and my fear is that no-one really knows the full scope of the issues out there.  I say that because we feature this week a separate article about a 787 failure that the airline in question (Qatar) tried to keep secret, which raises the ugly issue – how many other secret 787 problems are out there?

We also have another separate article about improved free internet access at Starbucks, shifting shares in the smartphone marketplace (I’ve not yet commented on the disappointing announcement of the Motorola X on Thursday) an article about how automation might be making our pilots more dangerous rather than more safe, and plenty more below.

Could I also remind you of our Sri Lanka tour next February.  We currently have 25 Travel Insiders participating in this wonderful experience, and have room for a few more.  If you’ve been thinking about this, I’d like to encourage you to sign up quickly, for the strongest of all reasons :  Money.  When I set the tour price back in March, I had to guess at some of the costs for next year.  I now have firm costs for everything, and some of my guesses were a bit optimistic.  Ooops.  No wonder the tour price is so incredibly much lower than the price some companies have been offering similar tours!

I’ll keep the current $2445 tour price open to people who join and deposit prior to 18 August, but on 19 August, the price will increase.  I’ve mentioned in the opening of past newsletters some of the distinctive features of the tour, including the outstanding hotels we’ll be staying in, the friendly people and safe environment, Sri Lanka’s prominence as a spice supplier and the spice markets we’ll visit, its similar prominence as a tea supplier and the tea plantations we’ll visit, the beautiful train journey we’ll enjoy, and our wildlife safaris to see elephants and leopards.

Several people have asked about air travel and air fares to get to Sri Lanka.  Many of us are buying our tickets to Singapore and back either from Singapore or Bangkok, and I’m negotiating a group fare for travel between Singapore and Colombo and back to Singapore or Bangkok on SriLankan Airlines.  That seems to make for easier connections.  But others are traveling to Sri Lanka through India, Malaysia, and other places, so you’re free to travel any way you wish.

There are lots of choices, and I do hope that, however you get there, you’ll choose to join us on our Sri Lanka Nature’s Paradise Tour.

Talking about pricing, last week I reviewed a great new travel pillow, the Cabeau Evolution Pillow.  Its price has been see-sawing over the last week on Amazon (sometimes it seems Amazon plays as many pricing games with products as the airlines do with their ever-changing fares), but as of late yesterday (Thurs 1 Aug) the price seems to have settled at $39.95 complete with free shipping – standard shipping for all, or fast shipping for Prime members.  If the thought of paying $10.20 in shipping fees turned you off last week, now you can get the product with no shipping charge at all.

Still more items on 787 problems below, alas, plus other points too :

  • 787 Crises Narrowly Averted
  • Two Air India 787 Problems in One Week
  • Does Anyone Know How Many 787 Problems There Have Been?
  • What Happened to the LGA Southwest 737 Crash Investigation?
  • Delta’s Baggage Fees Cost More than the Bags and their Contents
  • It’s Only 61¢ a Time, but $2.5 Billion Over Five Years
  • Most Popular Travel Apps
  • It’s Only a Million People, And 17 Years Overdue….
  • Warning – Don’t Try This at Home (or at Work either, apparently)
  • We Can’t Afford to Keep the White House Open to Visitors, But We Can Afford….
  • TripAdvisor – Sometimes Easy, Sometimes Hard to Add New Restaurants to Their Listings
  • And Lastly This Week….

787 Crises Narrowly Averted

Airlines are now inspecting their 787s for wiring problems similar to that which seems to have started the fire on the Ethiopian Airlines 787 at Heathrow a couple of weeks ago.  ANA says two of its 787s had wiring damage, and UA reported finding pinched wires on one of its 787s as well.

We should be pleased these issues were discovered while the planes were on the ground.  Details here.

Inexplicably, Boeing has now asked all operators of all its planes with the same Emergency Locator Transmitter installed to check the wiring on those ELTs too.  We say ‘inexplicably’ because there are thousands – maybe even tens of thousands – of these devices installed on other airplanes, and they have been flying with them for years, maybe even more than a decade, and to date, no other airplane has ever had a problem with the ELT or its wiring, whereas four of the 65 or so delivered 787s have now uncovered problems with their ELTs.

Why is it that one in every 16 ELTs on 787s has problems, but none of the thousands/tens of thousands of other ELTs on other planes have any problems at all?  We also note that none of the inspections on other airplane ELTs have reported any incipient problems either (that we are aware of).

What is the unique element in the 787 that causes these problems?

Two Air India 787 Problems in One Week

Air India only has seven 787s – well, it was about to become eight, but we’ll come to that in a minute.  However, even one 787 is all an airline needs in order to experience problems with them, and Air India is sadly no exception.

First it had a fire in the rear galley area of a 787 on 25 July on a flight between Delhi and Kolkata.  The crew were able to put it out with fire extinguishers and the plane landed safely.  John Goglia, formerly of the NTSB, writes in Forbes that this is thought to be the third time that this particular plane has had these types of problems!  Air India called it a minor incident and did not take the plane out of service, but merely removed power to the rear galley oven.

Some of us would disagree with describing a fire on a carbon-fiber hulled plane a minor incident, all the more so as it is not clear what caused the fire.  When did you last have a fire in/around your oven at home, and if you did, was it a minor incident?  Was it caused by something inside the oven, or the wiring outside the oven?  Airplane ovens are supposed to be massively more fire-resistant than your at-home oven.

And then on what was to be the formal acceptance/hand-over flight of Air India’s eighth 787, the plane suffered an electrical control panel problem with a component that powers the cockpit displays, brakes, and other critical functions.  Ooops.  The plane’s delivery has now been delayed while Boeing replaces the control panel assembly.  Details here.

No doubt this too was a ‘minor incident’.

But all these minor incidents seem to us very much like playing Russian Roulette – when the gun merely goes ‘click’ rather than ‘bang’, that too is a minor incident, but does that encourage the person to then pull the trigger again and again?

Does Anyone Know How Many 787 Problems There Have Been?

Phew – are you keeping up with the apparently never-ending flood of 787 problems?  We know that we sure aren’t because we sure can’t – we’ve no way of knowing how many ‘minor incidents’ we’re missing.  More to the point, is anyone, anywhere, keeping a definitive list of 787 problems?

I often see lists – for example here or here, but none of them are complete (both the two lists just linked to omit the mysterious Thomson Airways 787 turnaround, for example).

When you factor in what now seems to be covered up 787 problems (see the article following the newsletter roundup about the Qatar 787), and problems with planes prior to them being delivered to customers, one has to wonder just how many 787 problems there truly are.

You know the saying about rats.  If you see one, you know you’ve an entire family living under/in your house.  One has to wonder if there’s a similar concept at play with 787 problems.

What Happened to the LGA Southwest 737 Crash Investigation?

Still on the subject of airplane accidents and the mysteries surrounding them, do you remember the Southwest 737 that crashed when lending at La Guardia, just over a week ago (on 22 July)?  We know that apparently it landed nose down rather than nose up, putting too much weight on the nose gear which unsurprisingly collapsed.  But that’s about all we know.

The NTSB issued a bulletin on 25 July telling us not a great deal, and indicating that it had good records from both the black boxes – the data and voice recorders.  It said it would be transcribing the voice tape on 26 July – last Friday.

But, since then, what?  Nothing.

Now normally, we’d hesitate to comment on NTSB procedures or the pace at which they worked through an investigation, but it is interesting to notice the difference between the frenetic pace of disclosures and press conferences they convened after the Asiana 777 crash in San Francisco just a couple of weeks earlier, and what is now happening with the Southwest crash at La Guardia.  As Christine Negroni fairly asks, are we seeing a double standard at work?

Or has the NTSB been hushed up as a result of some pressure groups complaining about their release of too much information in the early stages of the Asiana crash?  Does Southwest have more sway over the NTSB’s public actions than Asiana?

Why have the NTSB gone silent?

Delta’s Baggage Fees Cost More than the Bags and their Contents

Airlines keep putting up the fees they charge for checked bags, and I guess it was only a matter of time before the fees exceeded the value of the bag and its contents.  That time has now arrived.

If you are traveling with four bags, and if the fourth bag weighs 71 lbs and if its combined measurement for its length, breadth and height exceeds 63″, then you’re going to be paying $600 EACH WAY to fly that bag with you, within the US ($200 each for an extra bag fee, an overweight fee and an oversize fee).

Oh yes, highlighting either the nonsense or the unfairness (or probably both) of these fees, you might actually pay a lot less than that to fly the bag with you a much longer distance internationally.  Truly, airline fees are without rhyme or reason.

Anyway, there you are, with your heavy large fourth suitcase, and you’re being told it will cost you $1200 to take it with you to your destination and back again.  Never mind that you – weighing three times the bag’s weight, and measuring way more than 63″ combined height and girth, are flying on a ticket that only cost you (say) $300 for the journey, and that gets you frequent flier miles and a tiny drink, too.  Your bag – smaller and lighter, and not getting a seat or miles, is going to cost four times as much.

That $1200 would buy a lot of clothes at your destination, wouldn’t it.

Apparently a passenger on a Delta flight from Seattle to New York figured the same, because, upon learning that Delta would charge him $1400 to transport four bags with him, one way to New York, he simply left the bags in the terminal and flew without them.  Details here.

This encapsulates the rapacious nonsense of airline fees today.  Charge a bag more than a passenger, and more than its contents are worth.  Probably few of us object, in any context, to paying a fair fee for a fair product or service in return.  But $1400 to transport four bags – something that probably would have cost Delta more like $14 to do?

No wonder we hate the airlines and avoid them whenever we can.

It’s Only 61¢ a Time, but $2.5 Billion Over Five Years

It seems that AT&T have taken the adage ‘Look after the pennies, and the pounds will look after themselves’ to heart.  They’ve added another 61¢ fee onto the monthly accounts of their cell phone users, labeled as a ‘Mobility Administrative Fee’, and described on their Additional Charges explanatory page as

The Administrative Fee helps defray certain expenses AT&T incurs, including but not limited to: (a) charges AT&T or its agents pay to interconnect with other carriers to deliver calls from AT&T customers to their customers; and (b) charges associated with cell site rents and maintenance.

But who really cares about another minor fee when we know our phone bills are festooned with fees already?  That’s clearly how AT&T hopes we’ll respond.  However, according to this article, those fees add up mighty fast.  Assuming no growth in AT&T’s subscribers, that represents $2.5 billion in additional net profit over the next five years.

Looking at AT&T’s shameless list of fees and justifications for them, one gets a feeling of deja vu.  Looks a lot like my last rental car invoice.

Most Popular Travel Apps

Maybe you’ve just bought your first smartphone or tablet, and are wondering what apps to now load onto it.  Here are three lists of the top apps for the iPhone, iPad, and Android devices, based on their sales/downloads over the last six months.  We’re not necessarily recommending them all, and indeed, there are a few we’ve never tried that we’ll have to check out ourselves (and some of our favorites are missing).

But as a quick pointer to some apps you should at least check out, here goes :

Top iPhone Apps (from most to least popular)

  • Hotels.com
  • Expedia
  • Booking.com
  • Kayak
  • TripAdvisor
  • Hotel Tonight
  • Priceline
  • Orbitz
  • Airbnb
  • HomeAway

Top iPad Apps (from most to least popular)

  • Hotels.com
  • Expedia
  • TripAdvisor
  • Booking.com
  • Kayak
  • Orbitz
  • Travelocity
  • Hotel Tonight
  • Priceline
  • Skyscanner

Top Android apps (from most to least popular)

  • Kayak
  • Expedia
  • TripAdvisor
  • Hotels.com
  • Orbitz
  • Priceline
  • Hotel Tonight
  • Skyscanner
  • Travelocity
  • Booking.com

It’s Only a Million People, And 17 Years Overdue….

In 1996 a law required the then Immigration and Naturalization Service to be able to track foreign visitors, and match their subsequent departures with their initial arrivals.

In 2004 a further law reaffirmed that requirement, now falling on the broad shoulders of the Homeland Security Department.

But a new Government Accountability Office report finds that the DHS still can not reliably match departures with arrivals, and there’s more than a million people who they’ve lost track of.

But – don’t despair.  The DHS says it is on track to report to Congress, in time for the 2016 Budget Cycle, on the costs and benefits of implementing such a system.  That’s right – they were told to do it nearly ten years ago, and their predecessors were told to do it 17 years ago, and so their response is to say that in maybe two years time they’ll tell Congress if they think it is a good idea or not.

So nice to know that DHS does what Congress tells it, isn’t it.  Details here.

Warning – Don’t Try This at Home (or at Work either, apparently)

Whatever you do, don’t Google the term ‘pressure cooker’ and then within a short while, Google the term ‘backpack’.  If you do, then you too might suddenly have six mystery law enforcement officers pay you a visit, wanting to know more about you and your interest in such things, as happened to these people.

Since the initial story went viral, various security organizations clearly decided they needed to respond with some sort of explanation – be it credible or not – as to how it is they knew what private people were searching on Google, and one of the police departments that had apparently earlier denied involvement said it knew about what was going on because one of the two searches was done on a work rather than home computer and the man’s employer tipped them off.  Details here.

But note that the woman’s account clearly states that she Googled the term ‘pressure cooker’ from home, and doesn’t specify where her husband was when he Googled the term ‘backpack’.

The truth is out there somewhere, but I’m far from sure the official answer is the complete truth.  On the other hand, my researches have me searching far and wide on a regular basis, and I’ve yet to be visited.  Yet….

We Can’t Afford to Keep the White House Open to Visitors, But We Can Afford….

Maybe we should hold a competition to see who can come up with the most egregious ending to this sentence.  Examples abound of the hypocrisy that sees our own government ‘punishing us’ for trying to, in the most gentle way possible, mildly ease back on their propensity to spend (waste!) money they don’t have without care nor consequence.  The sequestration fraud forced upon us as our punishment is of course intended to chasten us and make us realize that every dollar the government spends is essential and none can be reduced.

To my mind, the most shameful example of this ‘punishment’ was closing one of our nation’s proudest symbols of our freedom and our democratic process – the White House.  It is more than that, by removing visitors from the White House, the President has ever so slightly distanced himself still further from the people he serves, and that’s a bad thing.  He is an elected public servant, not a monarch.  He serves us, we don’t serve him, and having a closer less staged interaction with real people might remind him of that.

It isn’t like this in most other countries.  For example, one time in Berlin, I literally bumped into Chancellor Angela Merkel as we both crossed a hotel lobby in opposite directions.  We both did a double take, and proceeded on our opposite paths.  Years ago, when I was in New Zealand, I was able to telephone the Prime Minister, have him take my call, and chat with him about an inconsequential matter.

Anyway, I’m not going to take cheap shots about the lavish costs of the President’s imperial holidays while his closing of the White House messes up our own holiday sightseeing hopes.  Instead, my contender for best ending to the sentence is :  but we can afford to give half a billion dollars to the Palestinian Hamas terrorist organization.

TripAdvisor – Sometimes Easy, Sometimes Hard to Add New Restaurants to Their Listings

TripAdvisor is continually plagued with problems to do with fake reviews.  That much we all know.

But they have another type of problem too, or so it has now been revealed.  As background to their new problem, I can tell you I’ve had no end of trouble getting restaurants added to TripAdvisor – they magnificently hide the way to request a restaurant to be added, and my last attempt had them telling me the restaurant I asked to be added was rejected because the restaurant failed to meet their guidelines for inclusion.

This astonished me, because their restaurant inclusion guidelines are starkly brief and simple :

We list restaurants that are open to the general public. For chains we list each location as an individual restaurant.

The restaurant in question was probably the best restaurant in a tiny town, and I had provided its name, street address and phone number (they had no website) and confirmed it was open to the public for lunches and dinners, seven days a week, and had a decent menu and sit-down dining with table service.  What else could they possibly require?

I think the answer to the question – which they never answered, although they have now told me they are adding the restaurant – is that they require the restaurant to have a website they can check out.  TripAdvisor is probably too lazy to phone or look up restaurant details in a phone book to confirm.  If a restaurant has a website, it is bona fide, if it doesn’t, it isn’t.  That’s my guess.

So, with that as background, please enjoy this story that reveals another weakness of the ‘great’ TripAdvisor.  I’m sure Oscar’s has a wonderful website…..

And Lastly This Week….

It is almost a year ago now that 35 of us were undertaking an extraordinary set of experiences in North Korea (the link takes you to my photo journal of our tour).  Those of you interested in North Korea might find these luscious photos of this year’s Mass Games of interest.  Truly, North Korea is quite unlike anywhere else in the world (and, equally truly, those differences aren’t all good).

Here’s a rather disappointing story that claims to offer ‘the five golden rules for enduring (aircraft) design‘.  But someone should send a copy to Boeing, just in case.

Something that happily often is enduring, and also often offers great design, is/are railroad stations.  What is it that makes railroad stations such grand buildings in a form never equaled by the stark functionality of airports (and the less said about bus terminals, the better!)?

Here’s a nice pictorial compilation of some great railroad stations, although (like many of such lists) there are strange choices for what was included and excluded.

Not exactly an example of great design however, is this article profiling five puzzling international borders.

Truly lastly this week, if you want a better seat on your flight, should you try bribing someone to get it?  This article doesn’t really answer the question, but at least exposes some of the issues.

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels







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