Weekly Roundup Friday 18 October 2013

This 1958 Lufthansa picture hints at the Golden Age of airline food (and drink).
This 1958 Lufthansa picture hints at the Golden Age of airline food (and drink).

Good morning

An auspicious anniversary this week – happy birthday to airline food.  The first airline meal was both sold and served (yes – we’ve gone full circle back to having to pay for our food on flights, proving the adage that nothing the airlines do is new or innovative) on 11 October 1919, on a flight between London and Paris.

Continuing the ‘what is old is new again’ theme, these first meals were box lunches.  The price back then was 15p in UK money (actually 3/- for those of you who even know what that signifies).  It seems that adjusting for inflation would make that price about £2.10 in today’s money ($3.40) which is also an interesting equivalence – not everything to do with flying has become better value.  That same box lunch would probably be a $10 item today, and a recent article pointed out that airlines charge up to 26 times more for a comparable food item than does a supermarket.

Here’s an article serving up ‘Milestones in the history of airlines’ in-flight meals‘ and another one ‘Airline food through the ages‘.

Tonight’s newsletter is a comparatively short 2700 words, but there are two other attached articles bringing the total up to almost 7000 words, so please don’t feel shortchanged!

One article offers you up 3400 words on the subject of hand warmers.  Okay, so you might not have thought it possible to write so much on so little, but it is actually a fascinating subject, and includes some other cold weather related tips as well.  It arose out of discussions with people on this year’s Christmas cruise, and I realized that some people are massively more concerned about coping with the cold than with the heat, even though, for most of us, we’re probably at greater risk of being hospitalized from sunstroke or dehydration than from frostbite or hypothermia.

Proving that I can write briefly is the other piece, which is a follow-up to an earlier article I wrote a month ago about a lovely new external battery for mobile devices, the Anker Astro 3.  It now has a smaller cousin, the Anker Astro (1), as this article explains, in a mere 660 words.

A quick word, if I may.  We’re about to go in to this year’s annual fundraising appeal, and I’m doing things slightly differently this year, coming up with a range of ‘premiums’ and ‘prizes’ for those of you who so kindly choose to voluntarily support The Travel Insider.

If you or your company has a product or service you’d like to offer as part of this, please let me know and I can discuss the concept and how it could be a win-win-win for you and your company, for other Travel Insider readers, and hopefully, for me too.  :)  We will have a range of items, from one-off randomly drawn prizes, to ‘everyone gets one’ items, and still others awarded as special thankyou items at higher levels of support.

If you might have something appropriate for any category, please let me know.  They can be travel or tech related, but equally could be anything else too.

And now, on to this week’s roundup, and at the risk of sounding like a broken record, if this isn’t enough, please head on over to our new News curation site where there’s close on another 100 items added over the last week – some interesting, some helpful, some outrageous, and some outrageously funny (it not always being clear which category some articles belong in, and possibly all of the above!).  Immediately below is :

  • Ooops –  787 Literally Falling Apart
  • New Low Cost Flights Between Gatwick and the US
  • Alitalia Gets More Money, But….
  • The Big Fat Lie Behind the Airlines ‘Skinny Seat’ Claims
  • Nexus 5 Slowly Materializes
  • Another Sad Tale of a Blogger Who Will Never Visit the US Again
  • And Lastly This Week….

Ooops –  787 Literally Falling Apart

A 4′ x 8′ panel fell off an Air India 787 in flight a couple of days ago.  Opinions differ as to if this was a serious event or not – while apparently not a structural component, exposing the interior of the compartment to the outside air pressures that it was not designed to encounter could have resulted in all manner of unexpected events developing.

The big question though is how did the panel fall off?  It isn’t a panel that is regularly opened and closed.  This article does a good job of looking at the implications, and also touches on aspects of the apparently dismally low build quality of some of the 787s, particularly those from Boeing’s new SC plant.

The article also reports on an amazing analysis by Norwegian Air Shuttle that seems to show that reliability and maintenance problems mean their 787s are costing 50% more to operate than any other planes in their fleet.  Oooops, indeed.

New Low Cost Flights Between Gatwick and the US

Talking about Norwegian Air Shuttle, here’s some exciting news for lovers of budget air travel.  Starting on 2 July next year, the up and coming – and rapidly growing – Norwegian Air Shuttle will start offering service between London’s Gatwick airport and variously JFK (three roundtrips a week), Fort Lauderdale (two roundtrips) and Los Angeles (also two roundtrips).

How low will the fares be?  The airline is currently talking of ‘introductory’ one way fares in the order of $240 (JFK), $285 (FLL) and $320 (LAX) – presumably plus tax, of course.  Not exactly stunningly low, but probably better than you’ll find on other airlines for high-season travel next summer.

Of course, a total of seven flights a week added to the London-US market means nothing in terms of overall market size and share, and serving a market with only two or three flights a week makes any airline little more than an irrelevance.  BA/AA operate more than twice as many flights, every day, and from New York alone (I think 16 or 17 daily flights, ie about 120 a week, compared to Norwegian’s 3).

But Norwegian has big plans for its future, already has service between New York and Oslo/Stockholm, and has also announced new service to start between variously Oslo, Stockholm and Copenhagen, and Fort Lauderdale, San Francisco, Los Angeles and Orlando.  Plus it isn’t stuck with slot restricted service to/from Heathrow, it can grow much further into Gatwick as it may choose to in the future.

In addition to their Scandinavian bases, Gatwick is increasingly becoming a major hub for them, and they currently operate 320 weekly flights to 25 destinations from Gatwick (with these three new destinations to be added to the total).

These services are currently intended to be operated by 787s – the airline has two at present (and struggles to keep one flying while the other seems to be on the ground afflicted with unscheduled maintenance) and six more on order.

This promises to be an airline you’ll hear more about in the months to come.

Alitalia Gets More Money, But….

One of the catch-cries of the EU is ‘Do as I say, not as I do’ with some member nations quite openly ignoring the rules and regulations that they’ll then insist on less powerful member nations following.

An example of this is with airlines, where it is sometimes claimed by the more jingoistic airlines and the nations they notionally represent that their continued success is essential as a measure of the national pride of their home country.

Alitalia is great at playing this card.  I mentioned last week it was on the brink of its latest financial crisis and about to have its fuel supplier refuse to give it more jet fuel, but has now managed to secure further funding, something I also confidently predicted.  It truly is ‘the airline that will not die’.

Of course, much of business at this sort of level in the EU is far from transparent, and the exact details of what Alitalia’s bailout is, and where the funds are coming from, remain very unclear (but apparently were definite enough to at least convince its fuel supplier to keep the fuel flowing).  However, BA and Iberia, in their new merged IAG holding company form, believes it has seen enough of the details to view what is happening as contravening EU laws on state aid.

In as much as anything is clear and detailed, here’s a report trying to establish what is happening.  Meantime, the airline that will not die remains aloft, and indeed, showing that the more things outwardly change, the more they internally stay the same, Alitalia is quoted in news reports today as denying it has any new business plan at all.  They’re proud of this?

Oh – by the way.  There may possibly be a major strike in Italy on Friday and perhaps Saturday too.  Details here.

The Big Fat Lie Behind the Airlines ‘Skinny Seat’ Claims

Sometimes a small truth can obscure a bigger lie hiding behind it.

In this case, it is generally true that recently designed airplane seats have less and less thickness in them, and so the airlines can squash the rows of seats closer in together and still provide passengers with the same amount of legroom.  Instead of an extra inch of cushioning, the thinner seats can be one inch closer together but the net legroom remains the same.  That’s about as close to ‘something for nothing’ as the airlines can get, and indeed, there’s further benefit to them because the newer seats with less material tend to be lighter, too.

There is some dispute, however, if the new thinner seats are as comfortable as the older more upholstered ones, and I’ve sure sat on some really bony feeling seats on recent flights.

Okay, so there’s the truth.  But now for the bigger lie.

It doesn’t matter how thin you make the seat back.  That will never compensate for making the seat narrower.  And that’s the other change that airlines are quietly slipping into their planes – narrower seats with an extra seat per row – nine instead of eight, ten instead of nine, can bring at instant 10% or more leap in flight profitability.

That’s proving to be an overwhelming temptation to many airlines, with seats getting narrower even as people generally get wider.  Even the stately 747 started off with nine abreast seating before becoming the now standard ten, and we’re currently seeing A380s (10 going to possibly 11 across), 777s (9 going to now 10 across) and 787s (8 going to 9 across – that didn’t take long, did it) sometimes having an extra seat per row.  This item touches on some of these changes.

Check with Seatguru.com before choosing an airline.  You really do notice the difference, if you’re a standard or larger size adult, with a narrower seat, and on a longer flight, it is definitely uncomfortable.

Nexus 5 Slowly Materializes

Apple formerly had a brilliant ability to keep all details of their new product launches a tight secret until their formal launch events, which were eagerly awaited with enormous anticipation.  There are good reasons for this, of course – to protect the ongoing sales of your current models as long as possible, and to manage the release of information on your terms and timetable.

Google’s approach to product launches has been very much more haphazard.  Okay, we get they have software rather than hardware in their DNA, but you’d think they could recruit in a few hardware marketeers to save them some of the colossal product release and launch flops they have had over the last few years.

Their latest phone, a successor to the Nexus 4 they launched last year, is expected to be announced almost literally any day now.  This will almost surely be called the Nexus 5, and we already know almost everything about it.  The last few weeks have seen a torrent of leaks – not just pictures of the unit ‘in the wild’ but also complete copies of repair manuals for the phone, specifications, and even video footage, and the general perception is that the only remaining unknown thing is when it will hit the streets.

And now even that is starting to slowly appear from behind the curtain.  Late on Thursday, some people reported seeing images and text referring to it briefly appearing and disappearing on Google’s own hardware sales page, and it now seems probable that the 16GB phone, with 5″ screen and a bunch of compelling must have features, will sell for $349.  You might think that’s more expensive than an iPhone (although who cares, the Nexus 5 is so much better than an iPhone that it is a bargain at almost any price) but you’re not comparing Apples to apples.  The 16GB inferior iPhone 5S sells for $199, but only when you sign a two-year contract with a wireless company, and it is locked to only work with the carrier you bought it through.  The same iPhone, unlocked, and without a contract, sells for $649.  The Nexus 5 is unlocked, and doesn’t require any carrier contract, so at $349 instead of $649, is almost exactly half the price of the iPhone.

The Nexus 5 seems sure to be my next phone.  Chances are it should be your next phone too.

The current best guess rumors suggest a release on 28 October (coincidentally, my birthday, which rather pre-ordains what I’ll be buying myself this year as a present!).  Needless to say, I’ll get a preliminary analysis and commentary posted just as urgently quickly as possible after the phone has been announced.

Another Sad Tale of a Blogger Who Will Never Visit the US Again

Please read the sad and totally unnecessary story of the Dutch author/musician/designer who attempted to travel to the US while vacationing in Canada.  Despite having been admitted to Canada with no problems, and notwithstanding no visa requirement for EU citizens, things went from bad to worse at the border.

These stories, all too commonplace these days, used to be told about travelers and their attempts to enter Russia or China, and we always felt slightly superior when either telling or hearing them, because we knew such things would never happen here.  But now it is easy to visit both these countries (and similarly easy even to visit places such as Cuba, Iran and North Korea – the hardest part of visiting Cuba being the restrictions our own government places on is) but very difficult for citizens of our allied nations to come to the US.

In other visa/border news, the UK has just made it massively easier for Chinese citizens to visit the UK.  A Schengen visa will now essentially entitle them to visit the UK too.  But should a Chinese person wish to visit the US – well, you might think an analogy would be that a visa to Canada (which is comparatively easy for Chinese people to obtain) might allow for a brief visit to the US too, but, alas, no such luck.

And Lastly This Week….

Many years ago, in Wellington New Zealand, we had a well-known downtown public convenience that was known as the ‘Taj Mahal’ due to its distinctive architecture and color.  It subsequently closed down and reopened as a reasonably high-end restaurant, with little trace remaining of its former function, which is of course very much as you’d hope.

Or is it?  What to make of the theming of this new restaurant in the City of Industry, CA – apparently copying a craze that is sweeping through Taiwan?

Of course, we know there are both cultural and language differences between Asia and the west, but even so, some things really make you stop and, well, possibly burst out laughing.

Truly lastly this week (yes, I’m not going to talk about the kangaroo problem at Melbourne Airport out of deference to my many Australian friends – what’s that, you might say – a New Zealander who admits to being friends with any Australians?), I’m sometimes accused of complaining too much in my newsletters.  True, there are a fair measure of comments offered on some of the more regrettable parts of the travel industry, but I like to think most of them are fair and sensible.  Unlike these.

Ooops.  Breaking news that begged to be included.  A new item just appeared on our News site (thanks, docent Brian) which gives a whole new meaning to the concept of ‘under cover work‘, by a federal air marshal at Nashville airport.

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels







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