Weekly Roundup Friday 21 February 2014

Our Sri Lanka tour is unfolding in an amazing kaleidoscope of colors, sights, sounds and smells.  There's no denying 'we're not in Kansas anymore'!  Here's a very 'grey' image though, recounting another highlight of the tour - a mother and her probably less than one hour old baby elephant.  Picture courtesy of a tour group member.
Our Sri Lanka tour is unfolding in an amazing kaleidoscope of colors, sights, sounds and smells. There’s no denying ‘we’re not in Kansas anymore’!  Here’s a very ‘grey’ image though, recounting another highlight of the tour – a mother and her probably less than one hour old baby elephant. Picture courtesy of a tour group member.

Good morning

Another week, another round of weather problems.

As of Monday, there had been more than 75,000 domestic flight cancellations since 1 December – the highest total number and percentage of flights cancelled since when the DoT first started collecting cancellation statistics in 1987.  There have been thousands more flights cancelled since Monday.

As those of you who have been caught out well know, if your flight is cancelled, it might be two days or possibly longer before you get to where you’d expected to be.

My comments about the avoidable nature of ‘weather’ related delays last week drew an interesting response from a professional pilot, who claimed that in bad weather there was nothing that could be done.  In particular,the de-icing ‘protection’ of a plane would expire before the plane got to the end of the runway.

My thought in reply to that was ‘so why not have a second (or the only) de-icing station close to the ends of the runways rather than at the terminal gates’.

His further response was interesting :

The airlines have tried for 35 years to have de-ice pits close to the departure runway but the EPA, OSHA, now TSA and local airports are against it due to water pollution concerns they state. That is a real fact, animals love to drink the sweet fluid and it’s death to them or people.

Also, Ethylene glycol is very slippery the aircraft would have the real possibility of slipping off the taxiway during taxi power-up, sliding into the grass, mud or snow, which is really very likely. Further you don’t want to ingest ethylene glycol into the compressor section of a jet engine, it’s corrosive to the compressor blades and over time the strength of the blades would be compromised. Again SAFETY.

Last but not least it’s a government Legacy Mentality , “we’ve done it this way for 50 years, and we’re not going to change because we are the FAA and the Government.” If the government and the airline stockholders know that it can be done safely but it would cost the government and stockholders a lot of money to retrofit all the airports and neither is willing to pay for it, let alone the customer in a higher ticket price.

Far be it from me to paraphrase his comments, but happily I don’t need to.  His final comment is totally in line with my original position – the only problem in reality is nothing to do with EPA, OSHA, TSA, or any other agency or issue.  It is all to do with money.  In bad weather, it is cheaper to close airports down than it is to keep them open.

But cheaper for whom?  Maybe for the airlines and airports, but not for passengers.  When you miss your meeting, or your very important personal event, do you appreciate not having an extra $5 ‘foul weather mitigation’ surcharge added to your ticket price?

I’m going to guess that a $5 surcharge on tickets, year-round, would enable the US aviation system as a whole to massively curtail the service disruptions it currently allows to occur, and for any of us who miss a flight or spend a day at an airport not knowing if or when or how we’ll make it to our destination, maybe we might happily pay $5 or so per flight for the rest of the year to avoid that?

Faceless ‘experts’ decide on our behalf that we wouldn’t be happy paying extra for a reliable air transportation system.  What do you think?

Let’s have a Travel Insider instant poll to find out.  Please click the answer that best describes your situation and opinion – this will create an email with your answer coded into the subject line.

I’ll share the results next week.

I also wrote, in bemused terms last week, about the TSA Pre-check program, noting how someone with no apparent reason to be given Pre-check status received it when flying with my daughter and me.

Our second flight saw my daughter and me with our Pre-check status again (mine deserved due to my Nexus approval, my daughter’s totally gratuitous), but not the third person.  And, same as the first flight, Anna (daughter) was ‘randomly selected’ to be tested for explosives.

So why did they get Pre-check status on the first flight but not the second?  The system is clearly inconsistent.

I also wonder why or how it is that the same X-ray machine which needs a laptop computer to be taken out of a carry-on so as to be clearly viewed by the X-rays when in a normal line is possessed of a Superman type X-ray vision capability in the Pre-check line.  Indeed, the X-rays apparently could see through not just the computer in my carry bag, but the two iPads on top of the computer, too, and various other things in other compartments of my carry-on backpack.

A reader who didn’t wish his name disclosed for fear of possible TSA retribution (there’s something terribly wrong with our society when that becomes an issue!!!) wrote with some more comments about his Pre-check experiences :

As a PDX flyer who is on AS pretty much 100% or so of the time and is an MVP Gold 75k (for the past 3 years), I was happy to have TSA take my background info from AS and determine if I was a risk.  Once I got Pre-check status, the system worked like a charm.

In exchange for some information about me, I got something in return.  I have many other co-workers who did either that or spent the $85 for Global Entry.  That has all changed.

In the past few months I’ve seen a ridiculous modification of what constitutes Pre-check.  For example, just two weeks ago in Las Vegas, any time the lines got a bit long in the normal security line in terminal 3 where AS and some international carriers fly from, they put people in the Pre-check line.   As I was a few hours early, I sat outside security and watched this happen over and over again. There was no pre-determination of security risk or age or anything – just go over to that line and enjoy.

Forget the fact that now TSA has to have someone in the Pre-check line explaining that anyone there doesn’t have to take off shoes, jackets, belts or pull computers out – it was everyone in and this included foreign passport holders too.

This morning at PDX, in addition to the Pre-check line, they were now setting up three additional “normal” lines and had shut off the x-ray machines for 50% of the access.  That meant that now about 50% of the early morning load was going through Pre-check with nothing on their boarding passes and no pre-qualification whatsoever.  In asking the agents when I see this, all I get is “Ask the airlines, they want us to move people faster here so it’s them pushing us”. What a line of BS that is.

So what’s the point now of Pre-check if this continues?  I don’t know where TSA is heading with this but if it indicates that the very expensive whole body scanners are now in the trash heap, so be it but I seriously doubt that’s their rationale.  It’s a huge hole in TSA’s security plan and the more it’s exposed the more they will have to answer for it.

It is truly counterintuitive that at the same time the TSA continues to obsess over micro-sized plastic toy gun ornaments, it has also developed selective blindness towards the people it randomly pushes through its Pre-check lines.  One might almost wonder if this is the TSA’s tacit acknowledgement that the entire security screening process is nine-tenths nonsense….

Talking about counter-intuitive, I’m attaching an analysis of Amtrak’s latest ask – $200 million to speed up its trains on one of its ‘top financial performer’ long distance routes.  While it might seem that any speed-up of the terribly slow Amtrak trains is a good idea, I end up coming to the opposite conclusion – this would be an unproductive waste of money.  On the other hand, there are better ways the $200 million could be spent (assuming it ever is made available to the chronically un(der)funded railroad.

Also this week, please read on for articles on :

  • The Sorry Saga of the Bombardier CSeries Jet Development
  • Windowless Windows on Futuristic Flights
  • Egypt’s Tourism Under Threat
  • Unhappily Returning to the Apple/iOS Fold
  • Spontaneous Combustion on an Etihad Flight?
  • Never Mind the Passengers, What About the Pilots?
  • And Lastly This Week….

The Sorry Saga of the Bombardier CSeries Jet Development

While riding on a couple of earlier model Canadair regional jets this last week or so, I had time to contemplate the non-event which is the new CSeries of jets.  After an initial flight last year, which was of course acclaimed by the company as brilliantly successful, there has been a curious almost complete cessation of further test activity, and slippages in when the planes will enter into service.

The CS100 was first intended to be operational by the end of 2013, and currently is thought that it may enter into service some time in the second half of 2015, as detailed here.

But the delays are nothing compared to the cost rises.  Back in 2004, when the plane was first being designed, it was estimated to cost $1.5 – 2.0 billion dollars (including engine related costs) to get the new series of airplanes into service.  Within about six months, that cost had increased to $2 billion, plus engine related costs.  In 2013 it was announced as being a $3.4 billion program, and now it is said to cost $4.4 billion, while some industry analysts predict the costs could reach as much as $5.5 billion.  Details here.

How can any company mistake the costs of operating its core business by a factor of three or more?  And how can any such company remain in business?

All of which rather confirms my unthinking thought on the tiny Canadair regional jets – Canada may be great at many things (for example, ummm, errr, maple syrup and hockey) but passenger jets is not a competency that immediately springs to mind.

Windowless Windows on Futuristic Flights

Who doesn’t like a window seat on a plane?  If nothing else, it gives you some uncontested space that you can spill over into, and even the most travel-worn of us can still sometimes find wonder and amazement when looking down to earth, seven or more miles below us.  If only we didn’t have to clamber over the other people between us and the aisle when needing a bathroom break during the flight!

Windows have come and gone in shape and style.  Older rectangular windows became circular and now oval, windows became smaller (Concorde) and larger (787), but for now, they’ve all had a common characteristic.  They are made of a clear material, allowing us to see out of the plane.

But are windows about to go digital, too?  That’s the promise of the design company touting its new super-sonic business jet, which will come with a solid fuselage and floor to ceiling digital screens to recreate a larger than life external viewing experience.  Details here.

The plane is scheduled to go into service in 2018.  Color us unconvinced.

Egypt’s Tourism Under Threat

In some countries, when beset by internal conflict, all parties to the conflict take great pains to not harm the nation’s international tourism business.  In other countries, whether there may be threats to tourism or not, the ruling powers do an excellent job of protecting tourists and insulating them from the ugly underlying conflicts underway.

But then there are the countries where the dissidents decide to ‘cut off their nose to spite their face’ and seek to attack the nation’s tourists, no matter what harm may befall the nation’s international standing and economy.  Sadly, Egypt now finds itself clearly in that latter category, after a warning this week by Muslim extremists, telling all tourists to leave the country by Thursday (ie yesterday) or else become targets for attacks.

The terrorist group had earlier claimed responsibility for a bus bombing on Sunday that killed several South Korean tourists.  Until now, they had contented themselves with killing fellow Egyptians and lobbing the occasional rocket into Israel, but now seem to be broadening their focus.

This was the first tourist-targeted terrorism in Egypt for a decade.  But if we are to take these threats at face value, it may be far from the last.

Unhappily Returning to the Apple/iOS Fold

I generally like my Nexus 7 mini-tablet, and generally dislike my Nexus 5 phone – neither of them are any good for email the way I need to use it, and while they have some neat fancy features, some of their core functionality is simply not as well thought out as with Apple’s equivalent products.

But I was willing to turn my back on my iPad and iPhone in the interest of the greater ‘freedom’ of the Android software, and the massively improved screen of the Nexus 5 compared to the iPhone 5, and – last but not least – their massively better values.

I also wanted a full size tablet, and Google’s continued silence on the subject of its increasingly overdue replacement to its Nexus 10 was becoming an ever greater frustration, as was either the poor coverage of the T-Mobile service or poor reception capabilities of the Nexus 5 that I had signed up with T-Mobile.  Many times I’d find marginal and slow T-Mobile service while the iPhone 5/AT&T combination was working perfectly.

As for the Nexus 10 replacement, the rumor mill, after successively promising a replacement pretty much every week from before Thanksgiving, is now as uncertain as I am about whether Google will ever come out with a new full-sized tablet or not, and if so, when.  The old Nexus 10 enigmatically is sporadically available then unavailable in Google’s store; and each time it goes unavailable, people start to hope it signals the incipient arrival of a new Nexus 10, only for the device to reappear briefly before going unavailable again.

Now, I understand how a company has to carefully balance the conflicting needs of protecting its present product sales and also safeguarding its future, but there comes a point where non-communication starts to send a more powerfully negative message than any type of actual announcement would convey, and Google is surely well past that point.  Its mishandling of its Nexus 10 product line is another example of Google’s selective brilliance – it is great at search engines, but everything else starts to go downhill from that single point of outstanding achievement.  Indeed, I can’t help wondering, these days, if I were to switch to Bing, just how much difference there would be in search results.

Eventually, I reached a tipping point of sorts, and so I’m now the reluctant owner of an iPad Air, and as soon as the larger screened iPhone 6 appears, the Nexus 5 will be consigned to oblivion.

Apple’s anally retentive approach to controlling its users is already frustrating me – I entered my password wrong twice, a mistake which almost triggered World War 3 or so it seemed, and required creating a new password which conformed to their latest and ever stricter password requirements, and entering that not just once or twice but four times before the system calmed down again.

Surely I could be allowed three attempts or more before the system erupted in a conniption fit, and surely I should be allowed to make my password as weak or secure as I wish, rather than being forced to conform to Apple’s demands.

On the plus side, no-one can argue with my favorite four letter word that begins with an ‘f’ – yes, that’s right – ‘free’.  I’m referring to T-Mobile’s two offers – the first allowing you to buy an iPad with little or nothing down and then zero-interest payments spread over two years, and the second offer being 200 MB of data a month for free on any mobile device.

On the other hand, you get what you pay for.  The T-Mobile store employee who extremely unwillingly allowed me to buy the free-service SIM (he pressured me every which way to buy an upgraded plan that would cost $40 every month) then refused to help me register the SIM and set up the account, and doing so myself involved much frustration and three calls to T-Mobile.

As for the 200 free MB a month?  I’d used up 82MB of it prior to completing the registration process!  Ooops.  Maybe I should have agreed to the 2.5GB plan.

Spontaneous Combustion on an Etihad Flight?

No, we’re not talking of another 787 incident, this time.

An Etihad 777, flying from Melbourne to Abu Dhabi, experienced two toilet fires (deliberately lit) and so made a ‘precautionary diversion’ to Jakarta.  Upon landing, passengers and their carry-on luggage were searched, and all matches and lighters confiscated.  The flight then took off again, but on the rest of its journey experienced apparently three more toilet fires.  With ‘all’ firestarting devices confiscated, one wonders how this would be possible.

Upon arriving in Abu Dhabi, twelve passengers were ‘interviewed’ but no passengers were arrested.  The investigation is ‘ongoing’ but no-one at the Abu Dhabi police could be reached for comment.

Incomplete details are available in several places – this is one of the better accounts.

Never Mind the Passengers, What About the Pilots?

If anyone is keeping count, it would be interesting to contrast the number of serious ‘incidents’ on planes caused by pilots going berserk, as compared to those caused by rampant terrorists.  Here’s an interesting list, although because of their nature, the exact number of deliberate crashes by pilots (as opposed to the crashes caused by incompetent pilots) will probably always be a mystery.

Add another such incident to the list this week, when an Ethiopian Airlines co-pilot hijacked his own flight, threatened to crash it, and then flew the plane to Switzerland where he asked for asylum.  As in, hopefully, the lunatic asylum.  Details here.

It sure is a shame there isn’t a way the TSA can’t screen for insane pilots as well as they can for toy guns.  Just compare the statistics – the number of planes and flights harmed by tiny toy guns = zero.  The number of planes and flights harmed by crazy pilots = some number substantially greater than zero.

Seriously, which is the greater threat here?  Toy guns or crazy (and drunk) pilots?  But which threat do the TSA obsess over, and which threat do they totally not consider at all?

Memories of Travel Times Now Past

I may be unsophisticated, but a staple component of every trip to the Orlando region used to be a visit to Silver Springs, an hour or so north of the city.  The attraction claims to have been Florida’s oldest tourist attraction, and while its glass bottom boats were a simple pleasure, perhaps that was all the much more reason to enjoy a relaxing time strolling around.

Alas, it closed last year, and now is featured in this list of once popular tourist attractions.  Chances are you’ll have visited at least one or two of the places on the short list.

And Lastly This Week….

Flight disruptions have been the order du jour for the last month or so, but as bad as we’ve suffered in the US, we should be thankful for the DoT’s ‘Three Hour Rule’ – requiring airlines to deplane passengers within three hours if the plane is sitting on the tarmac doing nothing.

Not so the case on a recent Ryanair flight, as this video painfully explains (the delay was not weather related).

If you’re looking for something truly different in the way of places to stay, and have a very deep pocket, then here’s a very distinctive opportunity – a submarine, yours for ‘only’ £175,000 a night (about $290,000).

Alas, its ‘nudge, nudge, wink wink’ invitation to join the ‘mile low’ club is not altogether real – the submarine goes down to a very respectable 650 ft depth, but last time I checked, a mile is 5280 ft.

Note – if you were considering staying for more than a couple of nights, it might be more cost-effective to simply buy your own submarine.  Apparently second-hand Russian submarines sell for about half a million dollars.  But the bedrooms may be, ahem, slightly more spartan.

Truly lastly this week, there’s something very contemplative about this video, and in particular, its unexpected ending.

Until next week, please enjoy safe and as-scheduled travels







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