Weekly Roundup, Friday 1 August, 2014

Toyota's new hydrogen fuel cell powered vehicle, the Mirai.
Toyota’s new hydrogen fuel cell powered vehicle, the Mirai.

Good morning

Hopefully the summer, redolent with setting new records for coldest days ever recorded, is proceeding positively for you.

It has been a disappointing week for travelers, with the passing of seven days seeing us no closer to any conclusive understanding about what caused the crash of the MH 17 flight over Ukraine; indeed, is it only me, or are the earlier semi-strident condemnations and accusations from the west to Russia now becoming more muted and tentative?

On the ground, investigators still haven’t managed to (literally) fight their way to the site, and one has to wonder exactly what help the contingent of unarmed Australian policeman are while the Ukrainian forces are in heated battle with the rebels.  Of course, another week has given the ‘other side’ all the opportunity they need to modify whatever they choose in the way of evidence, and if nothing else, their clear desire to keep possibly impartial third-party investigators away from the crash scene would seem to be prima facie evidence of guilt on their part.

Let’s not also forget MH 370, either.  The weeks continue to roll there, too, and we’re no closer to knowing anything much at all about that mysterious disappearance, which occurred back on 8 March – almost five months ago.

On a happier airline note, please find after tonight’s roundup a review/write-up of an airline with a perfect unbroken safety record – the Taiwanese based EVA Air – now a Star Alliance partner, and having just upped their flight schedule to 55 weekly departures (previously 45) from the six airports it services in US and Canada.  Read why I recommend this as an airline to consider the next time you’re flying to pretty much anywhere in Asia.

There’s another article for you too, this week.  Titled ‘You Can’t Trust Your Ears – or Anyone Else’s’ it is an introduction to my series about high-end audio and the nonsense foisted on us by audio snake oil salesmen.  It has some interesting audio tests and tricks in it that should clearly show you that not only is seeing not believing, but hearing should not be believing, either.  Don’t worry – after tearing down your preconceived notions about audio excellence and your ability to hear it, I will be providing you with the tools to dispassionately test and prove to yourself what is appropriate for you to invest in and what is not.

One last introductory comment.  I wrote about a new Scottevest vest last week – it has 26 pockets including an RFID blocking pocket, and I liked it.  It is far from uncommon when I write about something that I get a note from the item’s manufacturer, and on those rare occasions when I say nice things, they usually say nice things to me in return.  But this is the first time ever that I received a video thank you note from Scottevest’s CEO.  I thought it a classy touch, and a suitable indicator of the classy approach they have to designing and making their jackets.

What else this week?  Please read on for :

  • New Startup Airlines in the US
  • JetBlue to Start Charging for Our First Checked Bag?
  • The Story Behind the Headline
  • Strangest Excuse for a Flight Delay
  • Was This an Outrageous Ripoff?
  • The Automobile Revolution Continues Apace
  • Ebola Travel Warning
  • And Lastly This Week….

New Startup Airlines in the US

The established airlines are enjoying their most profitable trading ever, and as a result, some brave entrepreneurs are seeking to join in at the trough.

And about time.  Not only do we have a unique concentration of market share in only four super-carriers (AA DL UA WN), but it has been a long time since the last startup – Virgin America, which after way too many years in the making, finally took off in 2007 (and which is believed to have lost more than $600 million since that time as it struggles to become profitable and viable).

Talking about Virgin America, this week the airline filed its intention to switch from a private corporate to a public company, via an IPO which it is thought might raise $300 million in fresh capital, valuing the airline at around $1 billion.  That’s a very high value for a company that has lost so much money, leavened only by a tiny $10 million profit last year, and which then lost twice that much in this year’s first quarter.  Joe Brancatelli tells us why he thinks it to be a bad investment here.

A sobering statistic reveals that of the 400 airlines authorized to start service since deregulation in 1978, 264 have gone out of business, 62 never actually started operations, and only 68 remain flying.  Sounds about as risky to start an airline as to start a restaurant.

But we now have a new People Express in business, we are thought to shortly see a new Eastern Air Lines, and nearly saw what would have been the sixth attempt at restarting an airline flying with the Pan Am name.  A number of other airline startups are moving through the process, and this story has more details about what to expect.

JetBlue to Start Charging for Our First Checked Bag?

Talking about airline startups, JetBlue is one of the newest airlines (founded in 1998) and they’ve tried to do things differently from the major airlines.  This they’ve done with a good measure of success – they are now the fifth largest US carrier (albeit more than four times smaller than the fourth largest carrier and more than six times smaller than the very largest carrier).

One of their points of differentiation has been to allow your first checked bag to travel for free, unlike all the major carriers, except for Southwest.  Did you even know that?

Probably you didn’t, and whether you did or didn’t, it probably has never influenced you to the point where you’ve preferentially chosen to fly on Jetblue rather than one of their competitors.  So it is unsurprising to read that the airline is considering adding a charge for the first bag.

This is sadly sensible.  If turning their back on tens of millions of dollars of net profit brings them no advantage, why should they continue to do so?

Rumor also continues to hint that Southwest occasionally thinks about charging for bags, too.

The Story Behind the Headline

On the face of it, this seemed like a wonderful act of airline kindness, decency, and possibly even generosity.  Air NZ voluntarily gave NZ$1000 (US$850) each to the several hundred passengers stranded in Honolulu due to problems with their 767 that was supposed to fly them to Auckland, NZ.  The airline had also put up all the passengers in hotels during the multi-day delay.

Even often surly Foxnews headlined this as the ‘best delay ever’.

We’re not sure that it is possible to describe any delay as a good delay, and one which sees you stuck for two additional days is definitely never good.  Furthermore, the time waiting for the plane to be repaired was not in the form of a bonus couple of days lying on the beach at Waikiki – instead, passengers were being shuttled to and fro their hotels and the airport, rechecking in, and almost getting ready to reboard before being told that, sorry, no, the plane wasn’t fixed, and so on.  Definitely not the best delay ever.

But why did Air NZ become so spontaneously generous with the $1000 compensation checks?

Not only did they have high-profile NZ business celebrities on the flight (including the founder of NZ’s version of eBay), but they also had the Editor-in-chief of the country’s largest newspaper on board, and he was filing realtime reports about the comedic series of messups and mistakes he and his fellow passengers were suffering, and making sure that his newspaper gave more prominence to the story than perhaps it otherwise deserved.

So, do we really think that Air NZ has a corporate policy to always give away $1000 per passenger when things go really wrong?  Or is it an act influenced by the high-profile negative press coverage that was flooding down on them?  And the fact that it has a keen competitor on the Auckland-Honolulu route (excellent Hawaiian Airlines), just waiting to scoop up disaffected travelers?

Strangest Excuse for a Flight Delay

Air New Zealand’s two-day delay was for a very unoriginal reason – an engine appeared to be overheating at takeoff.

A much better excuse for a 4  3/4 hour delay was offered by Russian airline S7.  One of its 737s got stuck on a taxiway at Moscow’s Domodedovo airport.  Stuck – as in literally stuck.

Hot weather (95 degrees) caused the asphalt to melt and some of the plane’s wheels sunk 4″ – 6″ into the tarmac.

Details here.

Was This an Outrageous Ripoff?

The headline reads ‘Hotel charges man $127 for three bottles of water’.  Charging $127 for three 500 ml (quart) bottles of San Pellegrino water seems to set a new record for base greed, and quite a few media outlets delighted in decrying the greed of the Wellesley hotel in London for doing this.

The reason for the high price (in British terms, £75) was because the three people were at the bar during its busy time of day, when the hotel imposes a £25 per person minimum spend requirement.  Most people have no difficulty spending £25 each on a few drinks, and those who don’t feel comfortable with that policy are allegedly warned by a note on the menus.

The businessman claims not to have seen the warning (or menus at all) and only to have discovered the policy when receiving a bill.  Furthermore, it seems the practice of minimum spends is rare rather than commonplace, even in expensive London hotels (for example, the almost immediately adjoining and slightly further upmarket Lanesborough has no such thing).

So – an outrageous ripoff?  Probably, yes.  Shame on the Wellesley.

The Automobile Revolution Continues Apace

I mentioned at the end of an article about Amtrak last week that we are probably the last generation of drivers who will use gasoline powered cars and do the driving ourselves.

This is something to really consider, especially if you’re looking at investing heavily in new cars in the next few years.  Just this week saw some more ‘straws in the wind’ pointing to what I predict will be an astonishingly rapid evolution in consumer transport technologies.

Something that has been promised for many years has been hydrogen fuel cell powered vehicles, and now it seems that Toyota will be releasing a ‘real’ hydrogen fuel cell powered vehicle next year, the Mirai.  I’m far from confident that this technology will prove to be a winner, because there are major costs and hassles involved in creating hydrogen fuel and transporting it to ‘gas’ stations – I guess they will literally become gas stations in such a case!  But it is good to see this semi-experimental technology getting closer to a reality, and kudos for Toyota for doing so – indeed, the car manufacturer is reportedly more keen on this technology than on the hybrid technology so successfully demonstrated in its Prius.

The car may cost about $70,000, making it comparable to an entry-level Tesla (which almost never sells, every Tesla I’ve ever seen on the road has been the upgraded big battery 85 kWh version).  The Mirai is thought to have about a 430 mile range, and refilling it with hydrogen takes about as long as refilling a regular car with petrol.

Talking about Tesla, their critical ingredient is batteries, and news this week came of the next step toward the opening of their ‘Gigafactory’ – a large facility that will manufacture batteries (and breaking news just in suggests it will be located in Reno).  It is thought that creating a ‘soup to nuts’ complete battery factory, doing it in-house, and doing it on an enormous scale will all combine to create a massive reduction in the cost of battery packs.

Add in a mix of some of the new battery technologies currently under development, and battery-powered cars promise to drop massively in price (as is already being offered with the upcoming Tesla model III) while increasing greatly in range, and becoming capable of being charged in shorter and shorter times. (I also like the concept of battery swaps, where you simply drive your vehicle into a swap station and a robotic arm quickly pulls out your battery pack and plugs in a new one, allowing you to drive off again in under five minutes with a fully charged battery.)

With battery-powered cars getting about 3 miles per kilowatt-hour, that translates to a cost of perhaps 3 cents a mile for ‘fuel’, together with much lower costs for general vehicle maintenance.  That’s a compelling value proposition (if you’re paying $4/gallon for petrol and getting 20 mpg, you’re currently paying 20c a mile – seven times as much).

The other part of the massive rewrite of the auto industry and personal transportation is self-driving cars, and my prediction here is that the switch to self-driving cars will also happen much faster than any of us currently expect.  As this 2013 article comments, before long, the cost of adding self-driving capabilities to any car will be less than $200.  A cruise control option sells for more than that currently.

Britain announced this week that it would be starting a test of self-driving cars next January in three cities.  The testing will run 18 – 36 months, and who knows what will happen at the end of that period, but you can be sure that the self-drive technologies at the end of the test program will put the current ‘state of the art’ systems to shame.

So, by 2020, will we see widespread adoption of self-driving cars powered by lithium-ion battery packs?  As futuristic as it seems, my sense is yes, we will.

Ebola Travel Warning

I had a concerned physician friend call me on Thursday, drawing my attention to a new CDC Level 3 Travel Warning, advising against all non-essential travel to Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone, due to the worsening Ebola outbreak in the region.

He also pointed out that the Peace Corps has withdrawn all its 340 volunteers from these countries.

Chances are you weren’t planning on going to those countries anyway.  The good news about this terrible virus is that it can only be acquired from direct contact with an afflicted person’s bodily fluids (or to an object – a ‘fomite’ – on which bodily fluids exist).  The bad news is that there is no cure for it other than palliative care, and survival rates are low.  So far, the present outbreak (which also has one probable case in Nigeria) has comprised 1323 suspected and confirmed cases of Ebola and 729 deaths (and the current survivors implied by the lower death than infection number are people who may still die).

The broader implications for those of us not going to west Africa are not yet at scare levels.  But, as is always the case these days, and noting a three-week period between a person becoming infected and displaying signs of the infection, it is important to realize that west Africa is only a couple of plane rides away from us – and talking about plane rides, there is now worldwide concern tracing passengers on two flights alongside an infected person.

And Lastly This Week….

One of the most peculiar trends in some ‘artsy’ hotels is to have clear glass between the bathroom and bedroom in their rooms.  Some even have little or nothing dividing the bathroom area from the bedroom area at all.

I’ve no wish to share in such activities with anyone else who is traveling with me – either to share my experiences or theirs.  And I don’t know anyone else who feels positively about this new ‘feature’ either.

But now a hotel in Berlin has come up with an even worse design feature.  Bathrooms with floor to ceiling glass windows that outlook onto the busy streets outside.  This story includes a graphic illustration of what passers-by can see.

Clearly the hotel’s bathroom designers had not read this list of the top ten dislikes guests have about hotels.

Truly lastly this week, the relationship between the French and British has not always been an easy or settled one.  That fact – and perhaps a familiarity with the movie ‘Monty Python and the Holy Grail’ perhaps might go a little way to helping one understand this.

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels







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