Weekly Roundup Friday 27 December 2013

Jet Fuel prices over the last six years.  See article below.
Jet Fuel prices over the last six years. See article below.

Good morning

I do hope you had a wonderful Christmas, and that your stocking was filled to overflowing with wanted gifts (whether they be the same as that appreciatively received by SC Gov Haley or not).

It has unsurprisingly been a quiet week, albeit livened by some weather problems which hopefully impacted neither on your travels or the delivery of anything you ordered online.

Talking about deliveries, it was interesting to read of UPS failing to cope with the larger than ever before last-minute volume of shipments, and I was also surprised to see they had been refusing ground shipments for the two weeks prior to 25 December.

It seems that the online retailers had no problems with their websites, but now the weak link in the chain are the delivery services.  It is easy to scale a website to handle surge volumes, but much harder to scale the capital-intensive delivery services – they need more planes, more trucks, more sorting facilities, and of course more people to handle the huge surges in shipping volumes that are occurring as online shopping grows in popularity.

This year it is estimated that 15% of Christmas season purchases were made online, and online sales in the final week were 37% up on last year.  In years past, we’ve come to accept the traffic and crowds during the Christmas shopping rush, but will we ever come to accept late deliveries?  It is estimated that 15% or more of late orders (but still expected to be delivered prior to Christmas) are not delivered.

I had an Amazon shipment delayed, although in this case it was for inexplicable ‘shipment lost’ reasons rather than due to last-minute overload, and was dismayed to learn that the bold statements on their website ‘Order by xxxx and we guarantee delivery on 24 December’ didn’t amount to much.

The ‘guarantee’ merely means that they hope the shipment will arrive, and are sorry if it doesn’t.  That’s not quite my understanding of what a guarantee is.

Last week I mentioned that the booking window for the Sri Lanka tour is closing.  That remains so, but one of the couples is now cancelling due to unforeseen medical issues.  If you’d like to take over their booking, they’ll split their $1000 deposit with you – giving you a $500 discount off the Sri Lanka trip (normally $5090 for two people, now $4590 after the $500 discount).  Please let me know soonest if you’d like to grab this bargain.

Talking about traveling, while in Europe these last few weeks, I was – as is so often the case – plagued by recurrent internet access problems.  In several places, I could choose between different Wi-Fi services (typically a hotel with multiple routers all in range) and each of the different choices had issues – some were very weak signals, and others were unreliable.

Surely there’s got to be a solution to this type of problem, or so I told myself.  And, yes, indeed there is (well, at least for those of us with PCs).  Which brings me to this week’s feature article, a piece that explains how you can simultaneously connect to and share multiple internet feeds.  With an all up cost of something under $50, this might be the best investment you’ve made in your on-the-road productivity for the entire 2013 year.  The article follows, after the newsletter.

What else this week?  Read on for :

  • Fuel Surcharges Continue, Jet Fuel Prices Stable or Dropping
  • US Flight Delays Significantly Under-Counted?
  • Airplane Boarding Slower than in 1970
  • A Small Rental Car in Hawaii is Costing $339/Day at Present
  • Garmin Implies US Drivers Are the World’s Stupidest
  • Portable Electronics Still Dangerous on European Planes?
  • The Real Reasons for the Demise in Sleeper Trains
  • Another Year Passes

Fuel Surcharges Continue, Jet Fuel Prices Stable or Dropping

As we come to the end of another year, we find the odious fuel surcharges remain firmly attached to air ticket prices, particularly on international routes.  It is true that some times in the past, fuel prices have skyrocketed, arguably at such a fast rate, or on such a volatile basis, as to make fuel surcharges an appropriate means for the airlines to handle the substantially changing nature of their operational costs, but what of the last year – or two, or even three?

As you can see in the image at the top of this newsletter, jet fuel prices peaked in mid 2008, then plunged in the six months that followed, before steadily rising to hit another peak in early 2011, and since that time, prices have wavered but never again reached that early 2011 level.  Indeed, according to this data, jet fuel prices on a world-wide basis are at exactly the same level as a year ago.

So, with almost three years of close to steady pricing, you’d think that fuel surcharges have either disappeared, or dwindled down to reflect the minor amount of remaining volatility, right?

So why is it that fuel surcharges remain so high, and in many cases equal or exceed the underlying ‘base fare’ cost (an agent in Canada recently reported a $432 fuel surcharge added to a base $378 ticket price).

Note only do such charges exceed the total cost of all fuel burned per passenger, they bear no relation whatsoever to any underlying changes in fuel costs since the last time the airline adjusted its overall ticket prices.

This insulting type of commercial deceit – unfair on two different levels – is another reason why we hate the airlines.

US Flight Delays Significantly Under-Counted?

Here’s an interesting article that quotes the Transportation Department’s Inspector General who claims that airline flight delays are being significantly under-reported, due to a loophole in the reporting process.

It seems that smaller regional airline flights, whether operated on behalf of major carriers or as standalone services, don’t need to have their delays factored in to overall counts of delayed flights.  This means that some airports (and airlines) have many more delayed flights than appear in the official statistics – for example, Philadelphia reported 13,800 delayed flights in 2012, but actually had 38,000 flights that were delayed – almost three times the reported count.

On the other hand, apparent delays may have truly reduced over the last decade or so (although with the inaccurate/incomplete data being reported, it is hard to know for sure).  The reason for the improved results (if indeed they truly are improved) is not because flights are being operated more efficiently, but rather is due to airlines adding extra time into their schedules.  In other words, if a flight which should/could take three hours actually takes three and a half hours, that is considered a delay, but if the airline gives in to its inefficiencies and now says ‘the flight will take 3.5 hours’ we are expected to be pleased if it actually takes only 3 hrs 25 minutes – even though it could/should be only 3 hours.

You’ve probably experienced flights that arrive as much as an hour ‘early’ (ie, conforming to the real time it takes rather than the worst case but now programmed time).  Is that truly a good thing?  Certainly not if you’re a limo driver, trying to plan your day around meeting flights!  And maybe not for you, either – if you’ve planned for a certain chunk of time being taken by a flight, you may not be able to salvage and sensibly use the sudden ‘bonus’ time returned to you (especially if the artificially lengthened flight time meant you had to get up an hour earlier!).

Airplane Boarding Slower than in 1970

Talking about efficient flight operations, a key point of supposed focus and area for productivity gains and efficiency with any airline, and a legendary part of Southwest’s ‘success’, is in the turnaround time of planes on the ground.  A couple of thoughts on this topic.

Firstly, I had an interesting experience and learned a valuable lesson with my recent Delta flights.  I paid extra for Economy Comfort, and one of the benefits of the Economy Comfort seating is priority boarding, immediately after the elite level frequent fliers.  As we all know, getting on the plane early is essential if you want to find space for your carry-on, other than at your feet.

But when I got to board – at the very beginning of the Economy Comfort zone of boarding, I found almost all the seats already taken (presumably by elite frequent fliers, probably on free upgrades) and, more to the point, the overhead storage all completely full.  I was one of the very first official Economy Comfort passenger to board, and while most of the rear of the plane had neither passengers nor things in the overheads, the forward zone of Economy Comfort had no remaining overhead space.

I’d have been better off to have saved my money and taken my chances boarding with everyone else into general economy.

Contrast that with the relatively placid approach to boarding on internal European flights – little regimentation when it comes to boarding zones, and – amazingly – empty overhead space, even on full flights with everyone seated.

Another thing that is sometimes encountered on European flights are dual jetways serving both the front and rear of a plane (or even just simple dual air stairs).

There’s no doubt that air travel in Europe is very much more pleasant than domestically in the US.

Secondly, and with the preceding as lengthy preamble, research by Boeing has revealed that, notwithstanding all the various ‘clever’ approaches to airplane boarding in the US, the time it takes to get a plane loaded has increased 50% since 1970.  Note that this slower pace of boarding (and deplaning, too) can not be explained by the fact that planes are bigger and carry more passengers – the rate of passenger flow is being measured in terms of passengers per minute (from a high of 20 per minute to a low of about 9) rather than total time for a plane of varying size to fill/empty.

But the same research also shows how boarding could be greatly improved.  A shame it is not being implemented.

A Small Rental Car in Hawaii is Costing $339/Day at Present

I’ve often viewed car rental rates as one of the best bargains in our travel world.  What other industry allows you the use of an asset that costs $20,000 or more, and which experiences significant wear, tear, and depreciation during the course of each use, for a cost of $20 or so per day?

Some people even rent a car if they are going on a roadtrip rather than drive their own car, because it is cheaper (and sometimes nicer) to use a rental car than to put miles on their own car.

Further proof of the bargain inherent in these rates might be seen in the form of rental company bankruptcies and mergers.  Of course, a cynic might observe that the explanation for the bargains is probably that the ‘back end’ charges – ridiculous rates for unnecessary insurance, and even more ridiculous rates for gas – that some people unnecessarily pay subsidizes the low up-front rates.

But there are exceptions to the bargain nature of car rentals.  A recent survey looked at the cost of rental cars in 30 major US markets for the Christmas period, and found that Hawaii had three of the four highest destinations.  Most shameful were the rates in Kahului (on Maui) – $339 a day, followed by Lihue (the most affordable car there was $272/day).  Honolulu was a comparative bargain at ‘only’ $127 a day for the most affordable car.

Garmin Implies US Drivers Are the World’s Stupidest

Talking about driving, I’ve owned Garmin GPS units for probably 20 years.  Each successive unit has boasted impressive improvements in screen size, color and resolution, massively better GPS receivers and accuracy, smaller size, and lower cost.  What’s not to like about that?

Unfortunately, as their units have shifted from being high-end niche products for skilled navigational enthusiasts to now being mass-market products for everyone, the technical capabilities and ‘raw data’ aspects of the units have been more and more obscured.  Or, to put it another way, notwithstanding the steady improvement in CPU power and interface design, the units are increasingly dumbed down.

I got a Garmin Nuvi 3590 GPS for Christmas, and was excited by its new capabilities.  In contrast to my old Nuvi 680 with a 4.3″ diagonal screen and 480 x 272 pixel resolution, the new unit has a 5″ screen and 800 x 480 resolution, making for a hugely improved picture.  It also has free lifetime traffic and maps, whereas my old unit charged a monthly fee for traffic and a per update fee for maps, and the 3590’s purchase price was perhaps one-third the earlier cost of the 680, too.

But – and here’s the huge but.  The new 3590 unit has an auto-zoom feature that you can’t override.  The unit (un)intelligently varies the screen’s zoom level based on the speed you’re driving at and the distance to the next turning, whether you want it to or not.  There’s no way to switch it to a fixed level of zoom which you vary yourself; worse still, there’s no visible scale on the map so you never have any way of telling whether an inch on the screen corresponds to 100 feet or 100 miles of real-world distance.

Some internet research revealed an interesting thing.  This auto-zoom feature only applies to the units sold in North America.  Doing a hard-reset on the unit and then telling it, when it reboots, that it is located in Australia (or just about anywhere else) sees the unit come back to life and now with the option of auto or manual zooming on the map.

So, Garmin, why is it that you no longer allow US drivers to manually set their map’s zoom level, but you do for drivers in most of the rest of the world?

Portable Electronics Still Dangerous on European Planes?

At the risk of stating the obvious, we’re now almost two months into the new situation where we are allowed to use electronics at all times while on planes, with not a single incident or mishap having occurred in the hundreds of thousands of flights and millions of electronic devices that have been on and operating, no matter how emphatically opponents of this common sense change assured us that doom would surely follow.

The European authorities have been cautiously catching up with the FAA, and earlier this month the European Aviation Safety Agency said airlines could pretty much set their own rules for when electronic devices could and could not be used.  The airlines have been very slow to change their present rules.

We now have the ridiculous situation where airlines allow unrestricted use of electronic items on a plane when it takes off (or lands) in the US, but gratuitously curtail their use below 10,000 ft, on the same plane, when taking off or landing in Europe at the beginning or end of the international flight.

Can any airline executive explain why they are still restricting the use of portable electronics on planes in Europe but not in the US?

Just last week saw the first European carrier lift restrictions – BA now allows electronics at all times.  But how about carriers such as Delta, which boasted being the first US carrier to lift restrictions in the US, within a day of the FAA decision, but still restricts electronics use in Europe?  What are they doing?

Answer – rather than rationalizing their approach, look at their crazy confusing table with 24 different scenarios that they published about what can be used on which flights (click on the third FAQ on this page to see the table).

The Real Reasons for the Demise in Sleeper Trains

I’m not sure exactly what the appeal of a sleeper train is, although I acknowledge the reality of the concept.  I’ve certainly been on plenty of sleeper trains, myself (mainly in Russia) and while I abstractly like the notion as much as anyone else, I’ll also concede that the experience usually comprises a tiny compartment, uncertain security of one’s belongings, unpleasant primitive toilet facilities at the end of the carriage, a narrow uncomfortable bed, and little sleep.

It has seemed that one of the reasons for the demise of the sleeper train – not just in the US, but in Europe too – is the prevalence of faster day trains such as to remove the sense of an overnight journey (if a formerly 12 hour journey now takes over 4 hours, it is as good or better to do it during the day, perhaps).  But, as another sleeper route ends (Paris-Madrid), there’s an interesting article that points to other reasons why sleeper trains seem destined to extinction.  Economic reasons.

A sleeper carriage holds less than half as many people as a regular carriage.  It can only be used for probably one journey, at night, each day, rather than for many day journeys like a regular carriage.  And they are harder to crew, due to the inconvenient work hours.  That’s three strikes – no wonder they are on the way out.

Here’s the article.

Another Year Passes

And so, and seemingly way too soon, another year is about to pass.  Thank you, one and all, long time readers and freshly joined friends, for your support this year, and let’s hope that 2014 proves to be positive in every respect for us all.

Special thanks to the Travel Insider Docents for helping make our new News site/newsletter the outstanding product that it is, in particular the most prolific of them – Steve W, Brian W, Fred H and Jerry K.

Oh – a new year resolution?  Mine might be to order Christmas presents earlier so as to be sure of their delivery.

Until next week and next year, I hope you’ll enjoy safe holiday travels







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