Weekly Roundup Friday 4 October 2013

That blob, obscured by the flames from its burning batteries, was a Tesla.
That blob, obscured by the flames from its burning batteries, was a Tesla.

Good morning

October 1 not only saw our government slightly shrink in size, but also marked the 71st anniversary of the first jet flight in the US, back in 1942 as described on this page.

Perhaps as a side-effect of being slow into World War 2, the US lagged behind both Germany and Britain in the development of jet technology, but few could argue that we’ve subsequently caught up (although let’s not overlook the ongoing presence of Rolls-Royce in Britain and the much smaller participation of German company MTU in the IAE consortium).

Still on the manufacturing front, the last week also saw the anniversary of the first production line Model T leave Ford’s Piquette Plant in Detroit, back on 27 September, 1908.  I wonder if Henry Ford ever guessed at the robot driven assembly lines of today, and the computerized cars they produce?  Of using aluminum as a material (back then it was more expensive than silver)?  And as for modern thermo-plastics, they were yet to be invented.

This last week also saw the unexpected passing of Tom Clancy, an author who probably single-handedly did more to define and popularize the ‘techno-thriller’ genre than anyone before or since.

A decade or so ago I sort of zoned out with the ongoing profusion of formulistic books bearing his name in big letters although largely written by others, but I still remember the excitement and rush to read his books during his first half-dozen or so releases.

Strangely, it still seems that his first work – The Hunt for Red October – was one of his best works.  And so, as a tribute to Mr Clancy, I uncovered this parody of the book, written by a group of real CIA employees, and full of insider jokes – if nothing else, it gives us an unintended glimpse of what life might really truly be like as a CIA staffer.

Surely the CIA isn’t that bureaucratic?  Or is it?

The other momentous event of the last week was Amawaterways giving us four more cabins for the Christmas cruise, after another group cancelled.  Two couples urgently grabbed two of the cabins, but two remain, both ultra-value D cabins.  If you’d like to take one of these steals of a deal and come along too, the note I sent out on Friday night is repeated, below.

Also below is a review of another business/travel type backpack.  By that I mean not a capacious outdoor camping one, but a medium-sized one that looks demure and discreet.  I’d reviewed a similar backpack in May, and now have two for side by side comparisons.

I’m definitely a convert to the concept of traveling with a backpack rather than a hand carry tote/briefcase/bag, but it seems that the perfect backpack for travelers has yet to be designed.  We’re close, but both products lack some simple but important features.  Meantime, and noting that ‘the excellent is the enemy of the good’, either of the two reviewed products would make a great improvement over most carry bags.

Our continually updated news site continues to get the latest and greatest travel related news out there in a timely manner (last week saw over 70 items added).  I’m enjoying it as much as anyone, because the team of ‘docents’ who are selecting news items to list on the site often uncover great pieces I’ve not seen myself.  Chances are there are plenty of pieces you’d enjoy reading, too.

It is also my sense that the nightly newsletter listing of each day’s new stories is proving popular.  It is getting a very high percentage of ‘opens’ and of clicks on to some of the featured stories.  If you’d like to get each day’s news pushed to you, then by all means sign up for the free news newsletter (the ‘Free Daily Newsletter’ option at the top of the News page).

And now that you might be getting a feeling for what the site is and what it does, if you’d like to become one of our elite team of volunteer docents, please do let me know.

And now, items on :

  • Survey Results – Tipping Flight Attendants
  • Frontier Airlines Sold
  • Another Spectacular Battery Fire – But This Time Not on a 787
  • More Cross-Channel Rail Service
  • Interesting New Travel/Cruise Blog
  • Chinese Touring Costs to Rise
  • Travel Implications of the Government Shutdown
  • More Reasons to Doubt the Success of Apple’s Latest iPhone Launch
  • Exciting Android News
  • And Lastly This Week….

Survey Results – Tipping Flight Attendants

Last week I asked your opinion on tipping flight attendants.  Unsurprisingly, most of you responded that you’ll never tip flight attendants, ever.  But do you see the surprising part of the results?



To me, the surprising part of the results is the 20% of people who don’t currently tip, but would do so in the future to conform to peer pressure.

Or maybe it isn’t really surprising at all – I think all of us, even the most strong-willed, tip as much to conform to social expectations as we do in a voluntary and unplanned act expressing surprise and appreciation at an unusual level of service.

So if the flight attendants can persuade enough of the 68% who adamantly refuse to tip, they’ll get another 20% of passengers tipping as a bonus.

As a quick comparison, here are the results from our survey, a couple of years ago, of tipping hotel maids.  Clearly, Travel Insiders are potentially – but selectively – generous.



Frontier Airlines Sold

After having had a ‘For Sale’ sign dangling out their corporate office window for an embarrassingly long time, it seems that Frontier (currently owned by Republic) is finally getting a new owner.

The new owner is Indigo Partners, and if that’s not a name that immediately signifies anything to you, it might help to explain that Indigo Partners is the investment firm largely belonging to  Bill Franke.  And if his name is not known to you, let me explain that he was, until immediately prior to buying Frontier, the Chairman of Spirit, which he bought in 2006 and transformed into a very low-cost (and very high fee) airline.

Franke was the CEO of America West from 1993 – 2001, and was also an early investor in Ryanair.  His other airline interests include holdings in Tiger Air (Singapore), Volaris (Mexico), Mandala Airlines (Indonesia) and the indelicately named Wizz Air (Hungary).  So he’s far from an airline industry novice.

The expectation is that he now plans to out-Spirit Spirit with his new airline, probably going closer to the Ryanair model of almost throwaway fares and massive fees for everything – but without the (in)famous Ryanair attitude.

Frontier and Spirit are similar in size (each has about 1.5% of the US market) and have few overlapping routes.  The really surprising thing is that Franke wasn’t able to arrange things so the two airlines merged, which would create a carrier of more significant size with a greatly expanded route network.

Frontier under its new ownership can be expected to become a more active player in the industry than it has been of late.  Frontier is almost exclusively a Denver hubbed airline – approximately 93% of all its flights either start or end in Denver.

It will be interesting to see if giant United will choose to use its dominance of Denver (40% share) to squish Frontier (22% share) before it becomes too big to squish, now that it may start to show some resurgent signs of being a bother to United.

And the other always wildcard in that equation is the number two airline at Denver, which you might be surprised (if you don’t live in Denver) to learn is Southwest, which has quickly amassed a 25% market share.

Here’s some more about Franke and the sale.

Another Spectacular Battery Fire – But This Time Not on a 787

During Boeing’s battery crisis earlier this year, wunderkind Elon Musk, founder of the Tesla company, offered to help Boeing with their battery problems.  He claimed his company had considerable expertize and a great deal of success and assured safety with its Lithium-ion battery-powered electric cars.

He also didn’t hesitate to tell Boeing in public what he thought their problems were, and to suggest that the solution would be to build batteries the same way Tesla does in its cars.

Anyway, that was then.  And as for now, well, an embarrassing incident occurred on Tuesday evening this week, here in the Seattle area, when a Tesla’s battery caught on fire and made a spectacular blaze.  And, this being 2013, another passing motorist caught it on video, and immediately shared it on YouTube for the rest of the world to see.

Amazingly, the fire department was on the scene within three minutes.  They soon discovered that using fire hoses and water made the fire worse, not better!  It took them 2½ hours on the scene to be sure they had the fire contained and controlled.

It is interesting to note the comment of the video taker, as heard on his video.  From the far side of the four lane road, he said ‘Wow, I can feel the heat in here’.  Lithium fueled fires burn hotter than the surface of the sun.

The cause of the fire isn’t yet clear.  The driver says he heard a noise and thinks he must had hit some debris on the road, which somehow was flung up by the tires and initiated the battery fire.  That’s a possibility, although no likely debris was found; another possibility is that the noise and slight judder/impact he thought was coming from debris hitting the car’s underside was actually one of the cells in the battery exploding.

But there’s no right answer to what caused the fire.  A spontaneous explosion is really bad, but to have batteries that can burst into flames whenever a car hits some piece of road debris – a far from unique occurrence for us all – is equally bad.

While this was in a car, not in a plane, there’s a chilling lesson that we should take from it.  These lithium-ion batteries are enormously dangerous, and even the ‘best practices’ of Tesla – battery cooling, and having lots of tiny cells, separated from each other, in the hope of preventing a ‘domino’ effect of one battery’s conflagration causing a chain reaction of surrounding batteries then bursting into fire too – failed to prevent a fire that was very hard to put out and burned very hotly for up to 2½ hours.

To extinguish the fire, fire fighters had to tip the vehicle on its side and cut into the battery compartment so they could access the batteries and somehow extinguish the fire.

None of this could be done on a plane in mid-flight.  It seems to have only taken a minute or two from the first indication of something being wrong to flames leaping out of the car – if this was on a plane, there’s no way the plane could land in time, even if it was happily flying over an airport at the time of the event.  And, yes, the intense heat would definitely not just melt plastic but also set it (and also aluminum) on fire.

While it was Tesla with egg all over its face on Tuesday night (and a falling stock price the next days as a result), the implications for Boeing and its 787 are obvious and surely of the greatest concern.  Just how safe can their new battery boxes possibly be, with so much energy that could suddenly let loose from the batteries.

This article discusses the matter some more.

More Cross-Channel Rail Service

Earlier this year, Deutsche Bahn – the German rail operator – announced it would be the first external railroad to access the Eurostar track between London, through the Chunnel, and to the continent.  Its service is expected to start in 2016, and is thought to involve trains between London and several European cities – almost certainly Frankfurt, and perhaps Cologne and even Amsterdam.

Not to be outdone, Eurostar, the current exclusive passenger train operator through the Chunnel, has said that it will add service between London and Amsterdam too (with stops in Antwerp, Rotterdam and Schiphol on the way).  Total journey time between London and Amsterdam is expected to be about four hours, which is comparable to what it takes to fly.

The London-Amsterdam city pair is the most flown one of all London-Europe city pairs, with about 3 million passengers a year.  That’s a lot of plane loads (probably at least 40 a day) and if even only half that switches to trains, well, it will be a few more opened slots at Heathrow if nothing else.

The service is not expected to get underway until December 2016.  More details here.

Interesting New Travel/Cruise Blog

One of our Travel Insider Super Supporters, Steve Wellmeier, has recently ‘gone out on his own’ and is now providing a range of marketing and other services to small cruise ship lines and other niche travel companies; indeed in his first month I see he has already picked up five clients.  As a ‘loss leader’ he shares some of his expertise, analysis, and advice on a new blog; the pieces are of special interest to people within the travel industry, but of general interest to everyone else as well.

He is also our most prolific docent on the new News site, too.  Not sure how he fits it all into each day, but clearly he does.

You might want to visit his blog, especially if you’re in the travel industry.

Chinese Touring Costs to Rise

Anyone who has ever gone to China knows to expect a constant barrage of ‘opportunities’ to buy things – a typical day of touring always seems to involve copious time at a jade or silk or art or other store.

The reason for this is fairly transparently obvious – the tour company, and/or the individual tour guide, gets a kickback from the store based on the value of goods sold to the people in the group.  The kickback can be 30% and possibly even more, depending on the store and the goods it is selling.

Indeed, when I put together tours that include China, it is a struggle to explain to the tour companies that I’ll pay extra for the tour so as to avoid the tourist traps.

This doesn’t just occur in China, of course.  There used to be – and for all I know still are – companies in Japan that would send Japanese people to Australia to spend a week around Brisbane, almost completely for free; they made all the money they needed to cover the costs of the travel they were giving away, plus to make a good profit besides, from the commissions/kickbacks they got from the stores they aggressively shuffled the visitors through.

And before you start to feel too superior, it happens in this country too.  Free flights or coach tours to casinos, for example.

Personally, I think it is not a bad thing at all.  The fools who spend sometimes astonishing amounts of money on overpriced junk subsidize the sensible people who don’t buy a thing but get to enjoy a cheap tour.  Where’s the harm in that?

But China has now come out with a new law making it illegal to reduce the price of a tour based on the anticipated receipt of ancillary income.  This has made the cost of tours skyrocket, sometimes by more than 50%.  Details here.

But do you think that people won’t still be marched through the tourist traps?  Of course they will, but instead of a share of the money the shoppers waste going to subsidize the cost of the tour for the entire group, now that money just goes to the tour company as pure profit.

Meanwhile, the much higher upfront costs of tours is reducing the number of people who travel.  That’s bad for everyone – the tour companies, the airlines/hotels, and the stores who hope to be visited by the now non-travelers.

So who wins as a result of the new law?  No-one.  Perhaps the Chinese government should shut down, too.

Travel Implications of the Government Shutdown

Talking about government shutdowns, the possibly good news is that most of the ways in which we’re forced to interact with our government, whether we wish to or not, at least while traveling, are continuing unabated.

But don’t think for one minute this is the government being magnanimous.  Oh no, not at all.  Instead, it is the government reluctantly doing what it is supposed to do – applying funds directly levied and received to the purposes for which they are intended.  The TSA, the CBP, the ATC and suchlike are all paid for from user fees, not general taxation, and so are removed from shutdown.

But what about people wanting to travel and see public sights, monuments, and the like?  Although in past shutdowns these types of places remained open, inexplicably this time the government is ‘closing’ things like some of the DC memorials.

Why does a granite or other type of stone memorial, in the middle of a piece of public land, need to be barricaded off in this shutdown, but not in past shutdowns?  And how about the foreign graveyards in other countries – why on earth do those need to be cordoned off?

The same goes for national parks.  The only government presence I see in most national parks are the wardens at the entrance booths, taking $20 per car that drives in.  Indeed, in winter, many times the booths aren’t manned and everything operates on an honesty system.  Why couldn’t the same arrangement be extended for what is likely to be a short rather than long shutdown.  Alternatively, if they stayed open, how many staff would the fees thereby collected cover?

This isn’t our friendly government doing all it possibly can to minimize the effects of its shutdown on the citizens it serves.  This is a vengeful government deliberately doing all it can to inflict harm on us.  The government no longer serves us, and no longer pretends to serve us.  (This is not a criticism of the non-policy making federal employees, many of whom read this newsletter, and who are as much innocent victims of the government shutdown as are the rest of us.)

One also reads of the government threatening the annual Army-Navy Football Game.  Sure, that’s not a big part of my annual sports watching (assuming I actually watch any sports at all, of course….), but one has to admire United Airlines for stepping in and offering to fly the Navy team to where the game would be played, rather than let the government ‘punish’ us all by preventing the game from occurring.

There’s been some anguished hand-wringing in public that – gasp – we are having to rely on the airlines to police themselves and their safety standards at present, without FAA inspectors every which where to keep an eagle eye on them.  But that’s a lot of nonsense being put out by people with vested interests.  The truth is that most inspection is ‘self inspection’ already, and furthermore, safety is simply good business sense for the airlines.  They don’t do it for altruistic reasons, they do it for reasons of selfish self-interest.

More Reasons to Doubt the Success of Apple’s Latest iPhone Launch

The basic ‘facts’ appeared to be overwhelmingly positive.  In the first weekend of sales for last year’s iPhone 5 sale, 5 million phones were sold.  In the first weekend of sales for this year’s launch, 9 million phones were sold – a stunning 80% leap upwards from last year’s figure.

Apple was certainly crowing with delight at these figures after revealing them last week, and most reports faithfully echoed Apple’s enthusiasm.

It felt wrong to me.  At street level, and from what insiders were telling me, there just wasn’t as much excitement as last year.  But, hey, 9 million sure beats 5 million, right?

Well, actually, possibly not.

I commented last week about two obvious differences that invalidated the comparison.  Two new models were launched this year, rather than one last year, and into two additional launch markets this year (11 countries rather than 9) including, ahem, the largest country in the world, China.  I said I wanted to see same-store sales to get a better understanding of how the phones were truly selling.

But there is another factor as well.  The number reported for ‘sales’ is not retail sales.  It is sales from Apple to distributors/wholesalers/stores, not the number actually sold by the stores themselves to end users.

In all past years, every last iPhone has been sold out by the end of the weekend, making the number of phones sold to the public the same as the number of phones sold by Apple to distributors, etc.  But this year, for the first time every, some millions of phones remained unsold at the end of the weekend.  So the 9 million needs to be adjusted down to truly count the actual retail sales, not the wholesale sales ‘into the channel’.

According to this article, only 5.5 million phones were actually sold to the public, the other 3.5 million went into channel filling and remained unsold at the end of the weekend.

So – this year, even with two models instead of one, and even with 11 countries instead of 9 (now including China for the first time), and even after allowing for the general growth in the smart phone market as a whole (probably about 20% for that alone) Apple barely managed to lift its sales from 5 million to 5.5 million – a 10% increase.  They had twice as many phone models, 22% more countries (and massively more than 22% increase in population covered) and the market as a whole had grown by 20% or more in the year since the last launch, and with all those boosts, they only got a 10% increase in sales.

Tell that to the Apple fanboys.  The iPhone launch this year wasn’t an extraordinary triumph.  It was a dismal disaster.

Exciting Android News

In exciting good phone news this week, the rumors are getting stronger, telling us to expect Google to announce its new Nexus 5 probably around October 20.

And we’re starting to see a raft of really exciting Android tablets – Dell is bringing some out, and even French company Archos, that always seems to be a day late and dollar short, is bringing out some exciting new models too; all priced way way below the iPad and also all outperforming the iPad on specs.

Meanwhile, at the truly bottom end of the market, Walmart is selling an 8″ screen sized Android tablet from Ematic (model EGP008)  that sells for only $130.  That is a stunning value point for a reasonably good tablet.  Apple’s smaller screened but otherwise comparable iPad Mini costs almost three times that.

Apple’s response to its ongoing huge loss of tablet market share?  Oh, information leaked this week that it was having problems getting new improved screens it desperately needs to release a new improved iPad Mini.  The current iPad Mini has been hugely outgunned by Android tablets right from when it was launched last year, and the latest generation of Android tablets are way ahead of the iPad in terms of value, performance, and market share too.  It now seems possible Apple may not be able to get a new iPad Mini into the market in time for Christmas sales this year.  Ouch.

In not quite so exciting news, it seems that the otherwise appealing Samsung Galaxy Note 3 may have been designed to ‘cheat’ on the standard industry speed tests that are used to rate and compare all smartphones.  Naughty Samsung.

And Lastly This Week….

We sometimes write of pilots being caught napping at the controls.  Well, not only naps.  Sometimes deep sleeps, taking them an hour or more past their destination, followed by some staggeringly implausible excuses as to how they forgot to land at the airport and instead fly over it, while ignoring increasingly anguished and urgent radio messages.

But this article points out that no plane has ever crashed or otherwise been harmed due to having its pilots asleep.  Clearly then, and this is also the article’s conclusion (but for more serious reasons), you are never safer than when both pilots are asleep in the cockpit!

Talking about pilots, here’s a fascinating article that writes about a little known feature of how pilots used to navigate their way across the country in the ‘good old days’.

Not such a joke is the inauguration of Obamacare this week.  My private personal health insurance is being cancelled as a result, and no-one can currently tell me what it will cost to replace it, other than ‘much more’.  So I’m a loser on the deal.  As is everyone else I know – either finding their work hours cut back, or their health insurance gone, or finding a new 1.78% tax on the house they were selling to go towards the costs of Obamacare.

I really don’t know who benefits from this costly new system, but it sure isn’t anyone I know, rich or poor, currently insured or not.

So, whether it be due to parlous health care coverage or just because, until next week, please enjoy safe travels







3 thoughts on “Weekly Roundup Friday 4 October 2013”

  1. Earlier this week, a Model S travelling at highway speed struck a large metal object, causing significant damage to the vehicle. A curved section that fell off a semi-trailer was recovered from the roadway near where the accident occurred and, according to the road crew that was on the scene, appears to be the culprit. The geometry of the object caused a powerful lever action as it went under the car, punching upward and impaling the Model S with a peak force on the order of 25 tons. Only a force of this magnitude would be strong enough to punch a 3 inch diameter hole through the quarter inch armor plate protecting the base of the vehicle.
    The Model S owner was nonetheless able to exit the highway as instructed by the onboard alert system, bring the car to a stop and depart the vehicle without injury. A fire caused by the impact began in the front battery module – the battery pack has a total of 16 modules – but was contained to the front section of the car by internal firewalls within the pack. Vents built into the battery pack directed the flames down towards the road and away from the vehicle.
    When the fire department arrived, they observed standard procedure, which was to gain access to the source of the fire by puncturing holes in the top of the battery’s protective metal plate and applying water. For the Model S lithium-ion battery, it was correct to apply water (vs. dry chemical extinguisher), but not to puncture the metal firewall, as the newly created holes allowed the flames to then vent upwards into the front trunk section of the Model S. Nonetheless, a combination of water followed by dry chemical extinguisher quickly brought the fire to an end.
    It is important to note that the fire in the battery was contained to a small section near the front by the internal firewalls built into the pack structure. At no point did fire enter the passenger compartment.

    1. Hi Gary

      Thanks for posting the official statement from Tesla. It includes pseudo science and nonsense – what, for example, is ‘a peak force on the order of 25 tons’? That’s a meaningless statement, without further data.

      I guess there are two bottom-line take-away points here.

      The first is that this did happen. No amount of PR massaging can ignore the reality of the video we can all watch with our own eyes. And you (or Tesla) will have to try a lot harder to persuade me that the raging inferno we saw on the video is something to feel good about.

      But the second point, if we accept the validity of data supplied by Tesla, is to note that car fires occur all the time in petrol powered cars, and to further note there’s more energy stored in a tank of petrol than a box of Li-ion batteries. Tesla now say that petrol powered cars have engine fires five times more often than battery powered cars. Of course, two wrongs don’t make a right, and if another Tesla has a fire tomorrow, then that 5:1 becomes 2.5:1, and so on.

      My point is not really to question the Tesla S. It’s a lovely car, although I found myself feeling slightly unsettled when finding myself parking between two of them this evening (wow – how uncommon is that – to park not just next to one Tesla S, but to have one on either side!). Debating the wisdom of electric vehicles is beyond the purview of this site, and I’d love to have a Tesla myself.

      My point rather is to use this event to illustrate to the dangers of applying Li-ion battery technology to passenger jets. The FAA already bans battery cargo from airplanes, and jets don’t use petrol, they use a much less reactive jet fuel inside (very similar to diesel). By bringing Li-ion technology onto the new 787, Boeing has added a gratuitous additional risk factor to its plane, and we see just how much of a risk that could be when we see the video of the Tesla in flames.

      1. I posted the official statement because it clearly states that the battery fire was not spontaneous and that the Tesla safety systems what they were designed to do, which was to keep the battery fire isolated to one module, direct the flames away from the car and protect the passenger compartment.

        The debris was identified and enough force in a small spot was created to pierce the battery compartment. The fire was made worse by the FD piercing the armor and allowing the flames into the frunk. Had the FD followed the Tesla recommendations, it is possible the “inferno” would never have happened. If the driver had not hit the debris, it certainly would have happened.

        As for Boeing, it would certainly be soothing if they found the root cause of the battery fires.

Leave a Reply

Scroll to Top
Scroll to Top

Free Weekly Emailed Newsletter

Usually weekly, since 2001, we publish a roundup of travel and travel related technology developments, and often a feature article too.

You’ll stay up to date with the latest and greatest (and cautioned about the worst) developments.  You’ll get information to help you choose and become a better informed traveler and consumer, how to best use new technologies, and at times, will learn of things that might entertain, amuse, annoy or even outrage you.

We’re very politically incorrect and love to point out the unrebutted hypocrisies and unfairnesses out there.

This is all entirely free (but you’re welcome to voluntarily contribute!), and should you wish to, easy to cancel.

We’re not about to spam you any which way and as you can see, we don’t ask for any information except your email address and how often you want to receive our newsletters.

Newsletter Signup - Welcome!

Thanks for choosing to receive our newsletters.  We hope you’ll enjoy them and become a long-term reader, and maybe on occasion, add comments and thoughts of your own to the newsletters and articles we publish.

We’ll send you a confirmation email some time in the next few days to confirm your email address, and when you reply to that, you’ll then be on the list.

All the very best for now, and welcome to the growing “Travel Insider family”.