Weekly Roundup Friday 22 November 2013

Boeing's new 777x was formally confirmed this week, with a slew of orders at the Dubai air show.
Boeing’s new 777x was formally confirmed this week, with a slew of orders at the Dubai air show.

Good morning

This year’s annual fundraising appeal – an event that in theory should be enormously popular, due to the very generous reciprocal gifts being given to contributors, is proving to be plagued with problems, largely as a result of my trying to do too many things at once to get as much to you as possible.

Last week’s problem came from one of the remaining subtle issues to do with switching to the new more powerful faster servers that this year’s fundraising is hopefully paying for.  It caused the rather vital ‘Contribute’ button to disappear off our fundraising page, making it difficult for you to support the appeal!  Ouch.

If you didn’t succeed last week, could I ask you to try again, please.  The button is now back on the fundraising page, eagerly waiting for you to click it, and with the new faster server, you should be able to access it even faster than ever before.

Remember, this year you stand to get an amazing line-up of goodies and possibly win from a generous selection of great prizes, matching your generosity with reciprocal generosity from suppliers kindly supporting The Travel Insider.  Plus, there’s a personal gift from me at the $60 and above level, a lovely gun-metal grey brushed stainless steel insulated travel coffee mug.

It is hard to establish the value associated with The Travel Insider (although easier to see the value of all the goodies you get in return for your support this year!).  Sure, you get more than a quarter million words of information, opinion and analysis each year, but what are they actually worth to you?  Possibly a great deal.

Some of the articles might save you considerable money, or appreciably improve your travel and tech experiences – for example, my feature article this week is – as I hope you’ll agree – an example of the type of analysis that is close to uniquely provided only by me.

The new Nexus 5 has been out ‘in the wild’ for three weeks now, and I got my Nexus 5 a week ago.  I write about the experience in the article following the newsletter, but rather than gushing about how wonderful everything is, I find myself confronted by disappointments and limitations, and so write the type of article that almost no-one else seems willing to share, exposing issues that you need to be aware of before choosing what type of phone to next buy.  (Executive single sentence summary – maybe Apple’s not so bad, after all.)

There’s another element to Android and Google as well, and it is well stated by a reader who sent this to me after reading the Nexus 5 review.

Ah. Yes. The “ever tighter grip of Google”.  It’s been on my mind, and nerves too, lately.  I’m finding myself much too conscious of it.  They seem to have crossed a line.

I’ve been a huge fan.  I love Google Docs and Drive and of course Gmail.  I use the free apps for all sorts of things.  But I’m increasingly conscious of and spooked by the advertising and the compromised privacy and the growing “all-ness” of its services.  It’s starting to feel like the Evil Power in a ridiculous sci-fi novel.  Ubiquity is not necessarily a good thing.

And I think it’s just really creepy that when I read emails from a friend, the ads along the side are either for [a personal topic that the writer surely wouldn’t want people to know he may be interested in] or [another personal topic], even when she’s talking about her daughter’s progress at school.

I think I want out. I suspect I may be Microsoft’s new target market.

Has Google gone too far?  That’s a question we each have to answer for ourselves, and it is true that we are increasingly having to hope that Google will only use its growing knowledge about every element of our lives for good rather than for evil.

Microsoft itself is sleepily coming to realize that Google may have gone too far (although Microsoft itself is also less than perfect), and has put together a fascinating site to expose Google’s voracious appetite for things you’d prefer kept private – see their new site scroogled.com.

If Microsoft creates a niche for itself as ‘the company that protects your data and your privacy’ it might well have a chance to catch up and overtake Google’s online market share.

Back to the topic of this year’s fundraising drive; the truth is there’s no such thing as ‘independent’ journalism – well, not unless you’re independently wealthy.  All journalists are dependent on someone or something, and most are dependent on advertising revenues and main stream support channels.

I’ve chosen, with your help, to instead be dependent on reader goodwill.  This allows me to fearlessly upset the obvious mainstream sources of revenue for a travel and technology newsletter (when did you last see an airline sponsor anything here…), but that upsetting translates to raw and unfiltered commentary and analysis, reviews and recommendations, that you’ll seldom find elsewhere.

Please help keep me dependent on you rather than the airlines, and please send in your support now to help our fundraising move towards this year’s goal – currently looking elusive and challenging.

Thank you.

Also attached to this week’s newsletter is perhaps another reason to contribute.  We can now give you more details of the 2014 Christmas cruise.  I’d hinted at it last week, and have more details this week.  Pricing and the ability to formally confirm your places on this tour will come next week, although one couple ‘jumped the gun’ and I’ve already added them to the list (and you can too if you wish).

Now for an interesting consideration.  If you contribute $50 or more to this year’s fundraising, you’ll get – among many other things – a $100 cabin credit on a future Amawaterways cruise, including next year’s Christmas cruise.  That immediately gives double your contribution back to you!

So if you’re thinking of coming on the Christmas cruise, or doing any Amawaterways cruise next year, please send in at least $50 in support now, and get the $100 cabin credit in return.  Plus, you’ll also get a 5% discount on most cruises (but not the Christmas cruise because that will be heavily discounted already).

What else this week?  See below for :

  • 787 Status :  Good News or Bad?
  • Domestic Air Travel Numbers Down
  • Some Carriers Now Liberalizing Baggage Limits – But Not in the US
  • Surprise!  Hotel Group Publishes Report Claiming In Person Business Meetings Are Good
  • Buses Get Mandatory Seat Belts
  • An Easy Way for Al Qaeda to Enter the US
  • TSA Passenger Observation Techniques ‘Worthless’
  • Call, Toll-Free…..
  • First eBook Readers, Now Phones?
  • And Lastly This Week….

787 Status :  Good News or Bad?

Depending on if you’re a glass half full or a glass half empty person, you’ll find this article either reassuring or troubling.

Boeing is now saying that its troubled and troublesome 787 can expect to continue having ‘teething troubles’ for another six months.  This is the plane that has now been in commercial service for two years – just how much longer can its problems continue to be described as ‘teething troubles’?

Suggestion – wait six months before countenancing any flights on a 787.  Whether it be the risk of crashing and burning, or less dramatically, the risk of the flight being delayed or cancelled due to less dramatic ‘teething troubles’, it is just better every which way to spare yourself the hassle and stick to proven planes.

Domestic Air Travel Numbers Down

There’s little surprise in reading that statement these days, because it seems to be commonly made, but this is a particularly interesting occurrence, because on this occasion it sits out there with few complicating factors to muddy its interpretation.

Two air travel statistics were released this week.  The first shows that in August 2013, there were 58.1 million domestic air passengers in the US – a 0.9% decrease compared to August 2013.  The second shows that the cost to fly anywhere, domestically, rose 3.9% in October 2013 compared to October 2012, a rise that ignores the extra impact of ongoing increases in fees (and they’ve probably gone up at least 3.9% as well).

To put these in a broader context, let’s include three more numbers.  The total US population probably grew about 1% in the last 12 months, and the country’s inflation rate was 1.0% for the twelve months through October 2013.

And, finally, worldwide, air travel is up about 5%, year on year.

So, the 0.9% decrease is actually more like a 2% decrease in air travel (fewer flights on a larger population base).  And the 3.9% increase in air fare (plus an increase in fees) is a rate of increase four or more times greater than the rate of inflation.

One last more subjective set of numbers.  Generally, it seems the economy is level or better, this time this year compared to this time last year.  The stock market is hitting all time highs, GDP growth is solid, interest rates remain low and unemployment rates are at least 0.5% below the same time last year.

So the US airlines can’t blame reduced travel on the economy.

Whereas air travel, across the world, is up about 5%, in the US it is down 1%, or 2% when adjusted for the increase in US population.

So, why might this be?  Two possible answers.  The first is that after many years of steady reductions in the inflation adjusted cost of air travel, the last few years have seen significant increases in the true cost of air travel.  Are the airlines pricing themselves out of the market?

The second answer is that air travel has become so appallingly awful, that people do all they can to avoid traveling.  Air travel was once a cost affordable convenience.  It is now an expensive inconvenience.

Now, here’s the scary thing for the airlines.  The more they merge, the less able they become to grow their market.  They are risking getting trapped in a spiral of needing to increase fares to preserve profitability, and finding that the increased fares result in fewer people flying, requiring – what?  A further increase in fares?

In decades now passed, airlines had a ‘buffer’ they could use in such cases.  They could discount their unsold seats on flights, to get some ‘top up’ revenue.  But they no longer have that buffer; they’ve cut back on flights and fill almost all the seats on their remaining flights, such that if they start selling cheap tickets, those cheap tickets will be at a real cost to them because they’ll be replacing higher priced tickets they could have otherwise sold.

Our airline industry is in a very sick situation at present.  Oh yes, it is true they are also enjoying record high profits, but those record high profits obscure the unsustainable nature of their business in its present form.

Some Carriers Now Liberalizing Baggage Limits – But Not in the US

I’m glumly wondering how I’m going to fit two weeks of winter clothing, jackets, coats, boots, and everything else into a single suitcase that must not weigh more than 50 lbs when I head to Europe in a couple of weeks.  With the empty suitcase itself weighing 12 lbs, that leaves me only 38 lbs for actual stuff inside it.  The alternative?  Pay $200 to bring a second up to 50 lb suitcase with me.  Ouch.

Remember when you could travel with two or maybe three suitcases, all for free, and each weighing up to 70 lbs?  We’ve gone from up to 210 lbs for free down to now a mere 50 lbs, and the cost of extra weight/pieces is steadily skyrocketing up – hence a freeze and sometimes even decline in US air travel growth as discussed in the previous section.

But some Asian carriers are seeing the light and realizing that there’s a limit on these things, and that perhaps they’ve overstepped that point.  Singapore Airlines and Malaysian Airline System, as well as several others, have raised their limits, and coach class passengers can now take 30 kg (66 lbs) of luggage with them.  That’s almost 50% more net weight (ie after factoring out the empty suitcase weight) than is allowed with a 50 lb limit – a big difference to us as passengers, and a very interesting reversal of what had seemed to be an unstoppable shift to smaller and sm

Remember to do what the airlines hope you won’t do.  Check not just the ticket price but all the obscured additional fees and charges when choosing your next flight.  Sometimes (not often, but sometimes) there are significant differences that can make a big difference in total travel cost.

Surprise!  Hotel Group Publishes Report Claiming In Person Business Meetings Are Good

Talking about declining passenger numbers, here’s an unsurprising report advocating more business travel.  Of course, the real surprise would have been if IHG had published a report showing that modern means of communication have massively reduced the need for in-person contact and business travel.

Actually, the report obliquely hints about that as well.  The IHG report, based on a survey of just over 2,000 business travelers (not exactly a typical or balanced sample) suggests that while 81% of people surveyed agree that face to face meetings are better for building long-term trust and relationships, 63% reported that the number of ‘virtual’ meetings they are participating has grown over the last 5 – 10 years.

If you’re having a meeting in the UK or US, you’re likely to start off with some small talk about the weather, whereas news and current affairs are the opening topic of meetings in China and India.

Probably no-one would disagree with the value of face to face meeting (well, in this survey, 81% agreed, so perhaps up to 19% disagree) but the big question these days is how frequent the face to face meetings need to be, and how much they can be supplemented or replaced by other forms of interaction – not necessarily video conferencing, but definitely including that as one approach.  My sense is also that the earlier paradigm – of businessmen traveling anywhere at any time for any reason, and being expected by their customers and prospects to do so – has passed.  Everyone now appreciates that business travel is a hassle and expensive and best avoided whenever possible.

Travel costs continue to increase at rates often above inflation, and the travel experience continues to deteriorate, becoming more stressful, more time-consuming, and just generally awful.  At the same time, alternate communication technologies and techniques are becoming less and less expensive and more and more effective.

Is the golden age of travel truly receding behind us?

Buses Get Mandatory Seat Belts

One of the safest forms of travel is by long distance motorcoach.   There are about 29,000 coaches in the US, and they transport about 700 million passengers a year, with an average of 21 people killed in crashes.

You might think such a safety record is exemplary, but some people are never satisfied, and so after years of lobbying, various safety groups have prevailed and new regulations now require all motorcoaches built after late 2016 to be equipped with seat belts.  It is estimated that this might save 10 lives a year, and also reduce the injury rate as well.

Is this ridiculous or sensible?  It will cost about $3000 per new coach to add seat belts, and so after a bit of juggling of numbers, that looks to be about $350,000 per life saved (even less if you factor in the reduced injury cost).  And that’s actually a bargain price for enhancing safety.

School buses and local transit buses are excluded from the new regulations.  Details here.

An Easy Way for Al Qaeda to Enter the US

This is a tale so predictable that one wonders how many other examples are out there.

You’ll be unsurprised to learn that not all the refugees from Middle East/African conflict countries that we welcome into the US with little or no document checking (because they are refugees, with no documents, and coming from countries where record keeping may be dysfunctional or destroyed) might not be the harmless needy refugees they claim to be.

Some of them are al Qaeda activists, and/or al Qaeda retirees, now enjoying a comfortable life living in the country they paradoxically hate, after a long and illustrious career of killing Americans.

Here’s an article showing how these al Qaeda immigrants are now living happy lives in places far from the front lines – places such as Bowling Green, KY.  And while some of them are simply enjoying life as beneficiaries of the Great Satan they so passionately hate, others are organizing insurrection.

So, let’s try to understand this.  Wealthy businessmen and vacationers from China are refused entry to the US when seeking permission to travel for short visits with bona fide business or leisure purposes, and those who do get allowed admittance only do so after a complex paper-trail and demeaning in-person interview.  These are people who would boost our economy.

But people from ‘high risk’ countries that are bulging with anti-American sentiment – people who will move to our country and instantly become public charges on our welfare system – these people can come in with little or no scrutiny.

Does that sound right?

TSA Passenger Observation Techniques ‘Worthless’

Last week, we quoted from some 400 independent studies and the TSA’s own DHS Inspector General, all claiming the TSA’s billion dollar program to detect terrorists based on behavioral ‘clues’ was of no value.

This week, a similar claim comes from someone well placed to offer an opinion – an Israeli who was formerly the security director for El Al and subsequently deputy director of security operations for the Israeli Foreign Ministry.  He said there is potential value in the underlying concepts of passenger behavior observation, but that the TSA

… do it like less than amateurs.  They don’t hire the right people and they don’t train them well.

Who exactly is surprised by that?

Call, Toll-Free…..

There was a time, way back, when calling long distance was very costly in the US (and everywhere else).  I remember, only 20 years ago, when paying 25c a minute was a great rate to pay; and back then, 25c was worth tangibly more than it is now.

Back then, toll-free numbers were a big thing, and much appreciated by customers.  Don’t forget there was no internet or email, either.

But today, who cares about toll-free numbers?  Most of us have unlimited national calling on our cell phones, indeed, if you have a new T-Mobile account, another $10 a month buys you unlimited international calling as well.  I’ve got unlimited domestic and Canadian calling on my home phone, too.

But, amazingly, toll-free numbers – introduced back in 1967 – still seem to be popular.  Their popularity first took off when AT&T lost its monopoly on (800) numbers in 1986 and seems to be growing unstoppably ever since.  You of course know that the first block of numbers with the (800) area code have long since been supplemented by (888) numbers, which came out in 1996.  That was followed by (877) in 1998, (866) in 2000 and (855) in 2010.

Now it is time for (844), which is to be switched on this December 7.

What comes next?  Clearly, 833 and 822 – but not 811 (too similar to 911, I guess).  After 822, the next planned codes would be 880 through 889 (888 already in use).  With about 8 million combinations of numbers per area code (you might think 10 million, but some numbers are reserved) this could see us with a total of 135 million toll-free numbers serving North America (ie the US, Canada, and various Caribbean islands).  Will that be enough?  Who knows.  (Longer term plans have all phone numbers growing to eleven digits plus a three digit area code.)

One thing to be aware of, and an even greater factor now that the original (800) area code has become a mess of different area codes.  Scammers love to call you and leave a message for you to call them back at their ‘toll-free’ number which is actually not a toll free number, but a high cost tolled number in a foreign country such as Jamaica (876) or Trinidad and Tobago (868) that works on a basis similar to a (900) number, giving them a large cut of the outrageous charge you’re unknowingly incurring when you return the call on their ‘toll free’ line.

First eBook Readers, Now Phones?

Another week of in-flight electronics being allowed during all stages of airplane operation, and still no reports of planes falling out of the sky.

Perhaps emboldened by this, the new chairman of the FCC seems to be supporting a liberalization of current restrictions on cell phone use on planes.

His suggestion was met with howls of protest by almost every affected group.  The rest of the world seems quite keen and calm about the concept of phone use on planes, but in the US, the topic creates as close to a unanimity of opposition as is ever possible.

Our view?  All the naysayers who predict chaos, fights breaking out all over the plane, and the loss of quiet peaceful travel will be proven just as spectacularly wrong as those who said that electronic devices would cause planes to crash and burn.

But we’ll probably all be too old to fly before it comes to pass.

And Lastly This Week….

One of the best things to happen to taxis has been the advent of GPS units – better still when they have intelligent traffic-based rerouting built in to them.  While the GPS route mightn’t always be the absolute best, you know for sure that if the taxi driver is following a GPS path to your destination, at least the route is reasonably good and an honest attempt to get you fairly to your destination.

Surely everyone would agree with that, right?  Well, actually, no. The Bath City Council in England passed a bylaw banning taxis in their city from using GPS units.

Say what?  This isn’t due to any imagined safety concerns.  Apparently the fools running the council felt that using a GPS was in some way ‘cheating’.

Taxi drivers have to pass a local knowledge test before they are given a taxi licence, and that test remains in place, and can’t be done with a GPS, but after passing the test, surely every bit of extra help the driver can get is a good thing for the driver and his passengers and in no way ‘cheating’.

It seems that politicians in Britain – well, at least in Bath – are no better than our politicians.

I hope next Friday sees you sleeping in and still feeling overly full with the after-effects of another too-large Thanksgiving Dinner the day before.  Yes, there will be a Travel Insider on Friday morning for you, and if I can, may I encourage you to give some tangible thanks and respond to our annual fundraising drive.

If you had to travel somewhere for Turkey Day, and suffered airport congestion, then on the basis of misery loving company, you might enjoy reading this article.

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels






3 thoughts on “Weekly Roundup Friday 22 November 2013”

  1. What I find sort of interesting is, even though the flight attendants are opposed to phones in-flight, it will probably be approved, but with tiny Swiss Army knives, the F/As opposed and TSA decided not to allow them.

  2. Pingback: Consumer Traveler – Extraordinary bus safety — do we need it?

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