Weekly Roundup, Friday 9 May 2014

Happy birthday, Nessie.  Assuming you're (still) out there, of course.
Happy birthday, Nessie. Assuming you’re (still) out there, of course.

Good morning

Happy birthday to Loch Ness monster.

Although there are tales of monsters in Loch Ness dating back to the sixth century, the ‘modern’ monster was first ‘discovered’ in early May, 1933.  Some people think that, if there was indeed a monster, it may now be dead, because the sightings have dwindled over the last decade or so, although with the great increase in tourists at the lake in general, and the prevalence of camera/phones in particular, you’d think that if there were a monster, it would be appearing more regularly than ever before.  (On the other hand, it has been suggested that a Google Earth satellite image shows the monster.)

One might argue that its more recent disappearance is sort of backward proof that it did formerly exist.  Perhaps we’ll never know, although if, once they finally find MH370, maybe they could then bring one of those fancy deep-sea exploring things to the loch, and see if there are any monster bones quietly rotting away on the bottom of the loch.

But – maybe I spoke too soon.  Just last week, a new possible ‘sighting’ (on sonar) was reported.  This article talks about the sonar sighting and has some great backstory about Nessie (as the monster is affectionately called).  While I was unsurprised to learn that last year’s alleged sighting turned out to be a fake, I also know the skipper of the boat who had the sonar sighting, and I’d consider him a much more credible source.

Talking about MH370, there’s not a lot of new news this week, but a concept I first raised three weeks ago got an excellent airing in The Atlantic on Thursday.  I write about it in an article, attached, below.

Of equal interest, but not given its own separate article, is this stunning denunciation of the entire ‘black box ping’ search.  If the points its author raises are correct – and on the face of it, they seem incontrovertible, it is incomprehensible how the authorities ever allowed themselves to believe the sounds they heard came from the black boxes in the first place.

The pings were at the wrong frequency, and were too far away (well out of the range that official black box pings can be detected – which of course raises again the question of why black box pingers aren’t easier to detect), and they seemed to be on moving things rather than on a submerged still black box.  As the author reports, a senior scientist at Woods Hole who was also co-director of the successful search for the underwater wreckage of AF447 wrote

I don’t know any underwater acoustic people that think the pings have anything to do with the plane

But for several weeks, the entire search focus was on tracking down the black boxes based on these farcically interpreted pings.  Please do read the linked article, and wonder at what it implies, and wonder also at the passive reporting of only ‘official’ news by the major news media.

With each passing week of the authorities consistently getting it wrong, one has to wonder when the current assumption of simple incompetence needs to be revised and replaced with a suspicion of darker motives afoot.

Also attached is an article offered to assist and encourage new airlines to get started here in the US.  China expects 15 new airline startups in the next 12 months – can’t we have at least one?  All we’ve had for the last several years has been quite the opposite – airline mergers rather than airline startups, and the result is that these days the airlines have concentrated on the major destinations, with many smaller airports now seeing as much as a 24% reduction in flights and an 18% reduction in seats available on the remaining flights (translation – the remaining flights are on larger planes than before) between 2007 and now.

This was reported in a GAO investigation, which also showed that even major airports are less well served – a 9% reduction in flights and a 7% reduction in seats applies, on average, to the larger airports.  The flipside – flights that on many routes are now averaging 88% full loads – a number that was, a couple of decades ago, nothing more than an impossible dream that the airlines didn’t even dare think about.

We desperately need another airline (or two).

Also this week, please see, below :

  • Conflicting Views on First Class From the Gulf ‘Super Carriers’
  • Some People Are Already Benefitting from AS/DL Competition
  • An Astonishing Reason for United’s Bad Financial (and Operational) Performance
  • Pre-Check Line Congestion
  • A New Seat/Armrest Design Proposal
  • Is the US Catching Up to the Rest of the World (Chips on Credit Cards)?
  • Don’t Hold Your Breath for This High Speed Train Line
  • And Lastly This Week….

Conflicting Views on First Class From the Gulf ‘Super Carriers’

Earlier this week, news broke of a very ambitious new first class product to be launched by Etihad.  It is a 150 sq ft private suite (we estimate a typical first class seat arrangement has about 20 sq ft of space), with separate bedroom and private bathroom, plus a butler on call.

Emirates quickly responded and said that it was considering a similar concept too.  No surprise there.

But the big surprise was an announcement from fellow regional rival airline, Qatar.  While silent on its plans for its A380s, the airline said it will eliminate first class from all other planes.

Some People Are Already Benefitting from AS/DL Competition

I wrote last week, hoping that we’d start to see some crazy airfare specials out of Seattle due to the increasing competition between former allies, Alaska and Delta.

Scott McMurren from Alaska Travelgram wrote to tell me that the crazy low fares have already started – or, perhaps a better way of putting it would be that the crazy high fares are going away.  Delta has announced new service between Seattle and Juneau, and between Seattle and Fairbanks, and Scott says the prices have already dropped by half for Juneau/Seattle travel and by more than half for travel between Fairbanks and Seattle.

Ah – competition.  You’ve got to love it, right.  If only there were more of it….

An Astonishing Reason for United’s Bad Financial (and Operational) Performance

Talking about competition, you already know two things that lead up to the next story.  You know that every time two airlines in the US seek approval to merge, they claim that it is essential that they merge because they need to be bigger in order to compete better and enjoy economies of scale.  You also know that United has been under-performing the rest of the airline industry, and in the first quarter this year, was the only major carrier to lose money (which it did very convincingly, booking a $609 million loss).

Although United has its own reasons and excuses for its poor performance, industry analysts are starting to offer their thoughts, too.  Here’s an article which puts forward four theories about factors that are hurting United.

Analyst Hunter Keay of Wolfe Research is quoted as saying ‘UAL is just too big’.  He said the airline has too many routes – 58% more than DL and 65% more than AA.

But – hang on a moment.  Wasn’t that the very reason United put forward and which the DoT and DoJ both accepted when approving the UA/CO merger back in 2010?  The airline needed to be bigger in order to compete, or so we were told.

So – which is it?  Does/did UA need to be bigger, and/or is it now too big?  No wonder they pay their CEO so much ($8.1 million in 2013 compensation plus a $4.5 million performance related bonus).  With such complicated issues to puzzle out, clearly he is worth every penny.  Right?

Oh – and as for the synergies that are also invariably claimed as a reason why two airlines must merge?  Pre-merger, in 2010, UA enjoyed a 4.2% operating profit margin.  In 2013, post-merger, and in a year where most airlines were enjoying great profits, UA’s operating profit margin had dropped to 3.3%.  It is hard to see much synergy in that.

Pre-Check Line Congestion

The TSA operates 2200 screening lanes at 118 airports where its Pre-Check less rigorous passenger screening program operates.  Of those 2200 lanes, 300 are dedicated to Pre-Check, and another 300 can be designated as either Pre-Check or regular, depending on waiting line lengths.

Sounds good, right?  14% of the lanes are dedicated to the elite people who have qualified for Pre-Check, and if line lengths are getting too long, that can double to 28%.

But, you may have noticed, as many people have, that on occasion, the Pre-Check line seems longer than the regular line (and more slowly moving, too).  Why is that?

Well, there’s actually a very simple answer.  The TSA says that 40% of travelers are now on the Pre-Check program.  So 40% of passengers get between 14% and 28% of the screening lanes.  All of a sudden, Pre-Check doesn’t sound quite so wonderful, does it?

Disclosure :  I have Pre-Check status, and yes, I am indeed trying to discourage you from getting it.  The lines are long enough already without you moving over, too!  🙂

A New Seat/Armrest Design Proposal

It seems these days that some of the most inventive design minds on the planet are focused on achieving the impossible – how to fit more people into planes.

There is also a slowly gathering appreciation that these days the constraints on seat design, and the most severe impacts on passenger comfort, are no longer limited to only leg room.  Seat width is increasingly an issue, and unfortunately, whereas airlines can reasonably freely add or subtract rows of seats, adjusting the amount of legroom we get in fairly small increments as they feel appropriate; the seat width dimension is harder to fine-tune.  Instead of having 20+ rows, so that a change of one row can give a 5% adjustment to pitch (eg from 30″ to 31.5″), in a narrow-body plane, you have six seats across, and while five would be nicer, that would see a 17% reduction in seats and potentially in revenue too for the airlines, which is way too much for them to accept.

So, designers are trying to do the nearly impossible.  To make seats seem and feel wider, while actually not getting any wider at all (and quite likely, becoming narrower – wide body planes are consistently now being redesigned to squeeze in another seat per row).

Here’s an interesting design – a two level arm-rest so each person gets an armrest, rather than the current ‘fight’ that silently is waged between us and the strangers next to us, all flight long.

The funniest part of the article is the stated concern that, for the concept to work, passengers may need to ‘sit quite close to each other’.  If we sat any closer than we already do, we’d be in each other’s laps.  Hey – there’s an idea….

Is the US Catching Up to the Rest of the World (Chips on Credit Cards)?

As international travelers know, the US is probably the only remaining country in the world that issues unintelligent credit cards with no security features other than a signature panel and the hope that a realtime credit check will advise if the card has been stolen.

The vulnerability of US cards is even greater than this.  International gangs can clone US credit cards, needing nothing more than credit card blanks (and sometimes they’ll simply redo existing credit cards and change their numbers) and so your (duplicated) card can be used, even while it is still in your wallet.

The rest of the world, many years ago, converted to what are called ‘Chip and PIN’ cards.  These cards have an electronic chip that stores the credit card data, and similar to an ATM card, instead of signing a credit card authorization, you instead enter a secret PIN to validate/approve each card charge.  Even if thieves could duplicate your card, they won’t know your PIN, and the encryption formulas used to protect the data in the chips seem to have remained unbroken to date.

Although in theory, all merchants who accept any type of credit card, anywhere in the world, are required to also accept old-fashioned US cards too, some merchants don’t know how to process non chip/PIN cards and will refuse to do so out of laziness.  In addition, some machines (particularly at gas stations and ticket dispensing machines at train stations) will only work with chip/PIN cards.  If you’re unlucky, as I was recently, you’ll find yourself and your car, with its empty tank, at an automated gas station with no attendant, no way to pay cash, and your credit cards not being accepted (in that case, I ended up paying cash to another motorist who filled my car up with his credit card).  Or perhaps you’ll have a similar misfortune at an unattended train station.

So it is wonderful to read in this article of plans for all banks to start issuing modern chip type cards within the next 18 months.

Or is it?  Note the ambiguity at the end of the article.  Will the new cards be chip and PIN or chip and signature?  There’s a huge difference.

A chip and signature card is basically the same as your normal credit card, but it has a chip in it which can be read by a chip reading credit card processing machine.  But to approve the transaction and confirm your identity, you sign a charge form, the same as always.  There’s no PIN protection.  And the chip/signature type card will not work in automatic machines that require both the chip and a PIN to work.

I’m told that a chip and PIN type card only allows the US card issuer to charge a small flat fee to merchants, because it is, by some US banking law, treated as if it were a debit card charge, and so for this reason, the credit card companies are resisting any attempt to move forward to chip and PIN type cards.

So don’t hold your breath.  We may continue to be the backward cousin to the rest of the world in yet another area of high-tech endeavour.

Don’t Hold Your Breath for This High Speed Train Line

Talking about holding your breath, here’s a high-speed train that you shouldn’t hold your breath while waiting for it to arrive.

China – already operating more high-speed rail service than any other country – announced this week that it is considering a new line, that would run from China, up through Siberia, then through a 125 mile tunnel under the Bering Strait to Alaska, down through Alaska and Canada, and ending somewhere in the US (please let it be Seattle!).

The press release introducing the concept politely notes that ‘the details of this project are yet to be finalized’.  That’s probably an understatement, even after allowing for China’s prodigious ability to construct high-speed train lines.

The journey would span some 8100 miles and although the trains would move at a very fast average speed of 220 mph, that still ends up being a day and a half from go to whoa.  Actually, it would be much longer than that.  The rail line would have one end somewhere in the Pacific Northwest and seriously, Seattle would be a geographically sensible choice, and at the China end, all we know is that it would start somewhere in north-east China.  So you’d have to add additional traveling time to get to, eg, Seattle at one end and perhaps Harbin or somewhere in China.  This also would make for the slightly ridiculous concept of flying from somewhere in the US to Seattle, changing to a train, then in China, getting off the train and possibly flying on to your final destination.

If the first and possibly last parts of your journey are by plane, would you really spend 36 – 40 hours changing to take a train instead of another 10 hour flight?

We love high-speed rail, and trains in general, and at this point, getting China to build a high-speed rail system for us seems our best shot at ever seeing any.  But there are so many things wrong with this proposal that, well, perhaps the kindest thing to say is that maybe some of the other ultra-long distance projects China is also reportedly considering might be better projects to focus on (see the bottom of the linked article).

More details here.

And Lastly This Week….

I’ve commented above (and more in the next article) about the continuing mysteries surrounding MH370.  So perhaps it should come as no wonder to learn that 9% of Americans believe the plane was abducted by aliens.  The really strange thing?  At this rate, it increasingly seems like they may be correct!

I’m a fan of my Queen and her Royal Family, and unlike some, don’t believe for an instant they are unduly extravagant or a drain on the public purse.  But I was astonished to see just exactly how frugal the second in line to the throne is when he flies for ‘personal’ travel rather than on official state visits.

Truly lastly this week, the Chinese might be great at building fast trains, but they still have a little to learn when it comes to guest relations in their hotels.  But at least this note didn’t also exhort the guests to ‘save the planet’ by re-using towels.

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels







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