Weekly Roundup Friday 17 January 2014

Amazingly, this plane - innovative in its day - was built 74 years ago, but apart from the tail wheel instead of nose wheel and four props instead of two jets, isn't greatly different from what you'd see at an airport today.  See article below.
Amazingly, this plane – innovative in its day – was built 74 years ago, but apart from the tail wheel instead of nose wheel and four props instead of two jets, isn’t greatly different from what you’d see at an airport today. See article alongside.

Good morning

Continuing our theme of the last few weeks about slowing airplane innovation, happy belated birthday to the first ever pressurized passenger plane, the Boeing 307 Stratoliner, which first took to the air on 31 December 1938.

The plane, powered by four propellers, cruised at an altitude of 20,000 ft, and a speed of about 215 mph, carrying between 25 – 38 passengers.  It was far from an outstanding success for Boeing – only ten were produced, prior to World War 2 interrupting things, and after the war, a mere five years later, airplane technology had changed sufficiently as to make the 307 now obsolete.

As an aside, its immediately post-war successor, the 377 Stratocruiser, carried up to 100 passengers, cruised at 25,000 ft and at 300 mph, with a range extended from 1750 miles in the 307 to now 4200 miles.  A huge leap forward in every respect, although it too was not a very successful plane (and with no war to offer up as a convenient excuse) – a mere 56 were built.  Its major competitors were the Douglas DC-6 (704 built) and the lovely Lockheed Constellation, which had 856 planes built during its model life.

With products and failures like that, one wonders how Boeing ever managed to vanquish both Douglas and Lockheed (and essentially all the other passenger airline manufacturers around the world prior to Airbus coming into existence).

Talking about airplane development, the new Bombardier C series jet has been delayed yet again.  It was originally expected to have already entered into commercial service (EIS), sometime late in 2013.  Until this week, its revised EIS was September 2014, but now Bombardier have revised that until the ‘second half’ of 2015.  If this new schedule holds, the plane will finally enter service two years later than originally planned.

Depending on what event you use as the start of the development process for these new planes (CS100 and CS300), work first started on them in perhaps July 2004.  So, it will take maybe eleven years and possibly more to go from the drawing board to the airport.  Unimpressive indeed, particularly for planes that are little more than ‘me too’ planes with nothing truly pioneering or revolutionary in them.

Details here.

An anniversary also – but hopefully with no repeats – to the passengers and crew, all happily survivors, of the 15 January 2009 US Airways flight 1549 – the ‘Miracle on the Hudson’ flight that lost power in both engines due to bird strikes immediately after take-off and which successfully landed, with no power, in the Hudson River three minutes later.

This is a comparatively shorter newsletter this week, but there’s an, I hope interesting, piece appended.  Moving forward from last week’s piece about the amazing new video quality capabilities becoming a reality this year, I take a look at one of the main ways that most of us will get to experience this new type of 4K video – the Roku streaming player, and point out a – well, if not hidden, certainly an obscured part of its abilities that makes it even more useful.

I also must mention our wonderful New Zealand tour in October.  We’ve had another couple of couples sign up for it last week, and it is clear this will be a great tour with a great group of people, many of whom I know from previous Travel Insider tours.  If you’ve always wanted to go to NZ, and/or if you’ve always wanted to go back to NZ and see some more of it, then this is a great way to experience my home country.  Details here.

Fuel Surcharges in Context

I regularly bemoan the deception and dishonesty inherent in airlines levying fuel surcharges.  Some readers have wondered who really cares what the total amount they pay is called and how it is made up, but apparently the airlines do or else they’d abandon the whole artifice of creating these meaningless fees.  One of the reasons why they care is because any negotiated discounts or commissions typically apply only to the ‘fare’ and not to the ‘fuel surcharge’ part of the total amount paid.

Furthermore, it enables the airlines to play a game of ‘let’s pretend’ and ‘let’s blame the other guy’; clearly they airlines see value in pretending that the true cost of an airline ticket is less than half what they’re actually asking us to pay.

In the past, I’ve pointed out that fuel surcharges are way higher than the extra cost of the fuel that a plane burns.  But, today, here’s an example of how fuel surcharges are actually more than the total cost of the fuel a plane burns to carry a passenger.  That’s not a surcharge at all.  That’s a gross distortion of the airline’s operating costs – again, it is the airlines trying to pretend that their ‘uncontrollable’ costs are much higher and so when they lose money, it isn’t their fault.

Case in point – reader/travel agent Walter sent in details of a ticket he’d just issued – a $172 airfare with a $518 fuel surcharge, for a flight from JFK to Nuremberg and then from Budapest back to JFK.  That’s right around 8350 flight miles (possibly slightly longer depending on routings taken) and with a modern passenger jet costing 4c per passenger per mile with jet fuel costs in the order of $3/gallon, that means the total cost per passenger on these flights for fuel is $334.

So how can the airline ask for a $518 surcharge when their total fuel cost is little more than half that?  Chalk this up to another reason we hate the airlines.

The Lie – and the Truth – About Low Airfares

One of the tropes the airlines (and their cheer-leading commentators in the press) love to trot out is that how airfares are lower than they’ve ever been and have dropped by almost half since deregulation.  The second half of that statement is usually to then blame us, the passengers, for low fares and even lower service standards (and outrageous new fees).

Well, like so many other things (such as fuel surcharges) the only thing wrong with this statement is that, ooops, it isn’t true, but because it is based on a kernel of truth, too many people accept it unquestioningly.

It is true that airfares did fall for the longest time after deregulation.  Whether that was because of deregulation itself, or whether it was because the airlines swapped out older planes for new more fuel-efficient planes, or because their new more sophisticated load management computer systems enabled them to get better mixes of fares and fill planes more efficiently, or because their new labor contracts massively reduced their earlier sky-high labor costs, well, that’s a good question and one for another day.  But here’s a hint – the airlines didn’t drop fares out of the goodness of their hearts.

Have you ever noticed that usually when this statement is offered, you’ll be shown a chart that covers a time period from the early 1970s through until the early 2000s to ‘prove’ its accuracy.  But don’t you ever wonder what happened in the five or more years between the end of the chart’s time series and today?

And that’s where reality collides with the airlines’ fantasy.  Here’s an interesting article pointing out that in the short time since 2009, airfares have risen at a rate 12% faster than inflation.  Now I could be out by a cent or two, but my guess is that jet fuel prices today are similar to what they were in 2009, while passenger loads are slightly higher (ie better for the airlines).  So those fare increases are not based on underlying cost increases, they are instead a visible proof of how the airlines are becoming monopolistic and able to charge higher prices without fear of competitive push-back from other less greedy airlines.

So, while air fares did drop for a long time, today they are sharply up and have been rising over the last almost five years, and were more or less flat for some years prior to that.  The drops all happened more than ten years ago, so let’s stop using them today as an excuse for all that’s wrong with our air travel experiences.

What about the customer benefits and synergies that are always claimed to support all the airline mergers?  Reconcile the reality of an after-inflation 12% increase in airfares with the illusory claims of benefits and efficiencies and synergies.

Oh – one last thing.  Please also factor in that back in 2009, bag fees were only first starting to sneak in.  We were in the process of transitioning from being able to take two or three 70 lb bags with us for free, to the present day situation where now you can’t even check a first bag for free on just about any airline except Southwest, and any bag over 50lbs starts incurring potentially hundreds of dollars in extra travel costs.  While ticket prices have gone up 12%, total travel prices have gone up massively more.

Boeing’s Battery Problems Are Back

In case you missed the news, almost exactly a year after the JAL battery fire in Boston that sparked the subsequent three-month suspension of 787 flights, JAL suffered another battery ‘event’ on one of its 787s on Tuesday this week.

Boeing described the event as one of the cells in the battery vented some gas.  Mechanics described it as clouds of white smoke emerging from the plane.  Happily, no-one saw flames, and so Boeing is boldly seeing its glass as half full – the lack of an onboard fire ‘proves’ that its new improved battery and containment box ‘works’, or so it asserts.

Oh, before you feel too thrilled by this positive outcome, do keep in mind that the plane has been grounded since the event and has yet to fly again, now nearly three days later.  So it was clearly not a totally trivial problem.

Now, let’s stop and think for a moment.  How many Li-ion batteries do you have in your life?  Maybe three or four cells in any laptop, and one in every phone, tablet, MP3 player, and other sundry portable electronic devices.  Now add to that the batteries in the devices that belong to all your family and friends and co-workers as well, and next think about how many years you’ve owned devices powered by Li-ion batteries.  Multiply the number of batteries belonging to everyone you know by the number of years you’ve all had them, and you’ll probably end up with a number anywhere from 100 to 1000 or greater ‘battery years’ of experience.

Now for the big question.  Have you or any of your friends had Li-ion batteries burst into fire, or ‘vent’ clouds of white smoke?  The chances are the answer is no.  Heck, do you even know one of those fabled ‘friends of a friend’ who suffered an exploding battery?  Sure, we sometimes read about them, but the reason we do so is because they’re so rare.  In other words, and in your experience, it is normal for battery problems to occur less than once every million or more battery/years.

Let’s also think about Tesla.  Each of their Model S cars have 6831 Li-ion cells in them.  They’ve sold perhaps 25,000 cars, maybe more, so they have 170 million cells out there, and apart from three battery problems caused by ‘foreign object’ damage, they’ve had no problems at all.  So their failure rate is something less than perhaps one per 200 million battery/years.

You can see where I’m going, I think.  Boeing has now delivered 114 of their 787s, so that’s about 1000 Li-ion battery cells.  Let’s even give Boeing a ‘free ride’ on the earlier battery problems, and look merely at the period from the 787’s return to service on 28 April 2013 and now – not quite ten months and pretend the earlier multiple battery problems never happened.  Remember also that back on 28 April 2013, there were only half as many 787’s slowly returning to service as have now been delivered.  So Boeing is now experiencing a battery problem rate well in excess of one per 1000 battery/hours.

Bottom line – there’s still something really concerning about the battery systems on the 787s.  Rather than having aviation safety standards many orders of magnitudes higher than for ‘normal’ applications, the 787 batteries are failing hundreds, maybe thousands or even millions of times more frequently than are other Li-ion batteries in other applications.

Still feel good about boarding a 787 for your next long over-the-water flight?

And Lastly This Week…..

Not enough for you this week?  Go visit our News site, and click some of the links you’ll find there.  That’ll easily fill up all the rest of your spare time today!

And truly lastly this week, if you’re from the US, what do you immediately think of when the thought of your homeland comes to mind?  Or maybe you’re reading this in Canada, or the UK?  What are the key identifiers you have for your country?

Here’s a fascinating map which lists one or two things that each company excels in.  You’ll have to look at it to see which of the three mentioned countries is the one where you’re most likely to be killed by lawnmowers, and which of the three is best known for its fascist movements.

And if you were wondering about New Zealand’s claims to fame, it is best known for sheep and rugby.  There you are – two more reasons to come on our October tour to NZ!

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels






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