Weekly Roundup, Friday 18 July, 2014

A Bee-line to a disaster.  The last part of the flight of MH17 yesterday.
A Bee-line to a disaster. The last part of the flight of MH17 yesterday.

Good morning

As I write this late on Thursday, the news is full of the Malaysia Airlines crashed 777 – not the mysterious MH370 of almost five months ago, but instead, MH17, a flight from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur, which crashed over eastern Ukraine, with all 298 passengers and crew believed dead.  Here’s an interesting photo gallery of the wreckage.  Professional air accident investigators will be horrified at how people seem able to roam freely through the debris, possibly compromising vital evidence that could help explain what happened, how and why.

At this early point, it seems probable that it was shot down by a missile, but it is not yet clear who launched the missile.  Certainly the Ukrainian forces, battling against Russian backed separatists in that region, have missiles capable of shooting down planes at 33,000 ft, which is the altitude the plane was on.

The separatists say they only have ‘MANPADS’ – small portable surface to air missiles that can’t reach much more than half that height, but it is credibly believed they too have longer range surface to air missiles that could reach up that far – either ones they’ve taken control of when over-running Ukrainian military bases or possibly ones gifted to them by Russian supporters.

It also seems the separatists have been shooting at other planes for the last few days, whereas the Ukrainian forces have not.  This is unsurprising, because the separatists probably have no air assets, whereas the Ukrainian national forces do.  Furthermore, the Ukrainian national forces are connected to all their command and control resources, enabling them to identify ordinary non-threat civilian airplane movements that are traveling on filed and controlled flight plans, whereas the separatists probably do not have this capability.

While anything could have happened at any actual missile launcher location, on balance of probabilities we slightly lean, currently, to assigning the responsibility for this incident more to the separatist forces.

Update – there is a very damning ‘smoking gun’ that points more clearly to the separatists being responsible.  This article points to an internet post by the separatist leader Igor Strelkov, boasting of having just shot down a Ukrainian military transport plane.  It was accompanied by video of the crash scene – what is thought to be the same crash scene as the MH crash.  Then, when news of the MH 777 being shot down started to promulgate, Strelkov’s boast was deleted off the website.

Muddying the waters a bit is a counter-claim that perhaps someone was trying to shoot down President Putin’s plane, which was close by at the time and looks very similar.  In such a case, it would be unthinkable that it would be the Russian/Putin backed rebels who launched the missile.  The proximity of the two planes was subsequently denied by Russia.

We continue to believe it more likely this was a separatist launched attack, probably on what it believed to be a Ukrainian military transport plane.

Both Russia and Ukraine have shot down passenger planes in the past.  Russia shot down a 747 – KE 007 in 1983, and prior to that, in 1978, another Korean Airlines flight, KE 902, a 707 that managed to crash-land with only two fatalities.  Ukraine shot down a Siberian Airlines flight that was operating a Tu-154 charter from Tel Aviv to Novosibirsk in 2001.

In the interests of completeness, the US of course also shot down a passenger plane – Iran Air flight 655, in 1988.  This might be the most egregious of all uncalled for civilian airplane shootdowns.  It happened while the plane was flying in Iran’s own national air space.  The flight was a normal scheduled flight and on its normal flight path, and sending out a proper IFF ‘squawk’ identifying itself as the civilian lawful flight it was.  The US has never admitted responsibility nor apologized.  Details here.

flightradar24bPerhaps the most regrettable aspect is what the plane was doing flying through airspace where two other planes have been shot down just this week.  The FAA has forbidden US flights to travel through the broader conflict for some time (but not because of concerns of them being shot down, but due to ambiguities about which aviation authority was controlling the airspace).  Other airlines, not operated under FAA oversight, have been free to make their own decisions.  Some chose to spend extra fuel and travel time to detour, others did not.

The point here is also to appreciate it was not just MH that decided to save some fuel and take direct routes, even if over the contested territory.  Other airlines were doing so, too, although they (in particular, Air France and Lufthansa) are now hastily announcing rerouting plans to avoid that area in the future, and sites such as Flightradar24 now show a very conspicuous ‘hole’ around eastern Ukraine with airlines now giving the region a wide detour.  The only airlines now seen in Ukrainian airspace appear to be those flying to/from or within Ukraine.

There had been various warnings promulgated in April that advised airlines to avoid that area and told airlines they faced ‘serious risks’.  But it seems that many airlines believed that by flying at high altitude – above the level at which portable IR controlled heat seeking SAMs could reach – they were avoiding the risks/dangers.  Only ‘heavy duty’ semi-fixed (either on trucks or ground installations) missile systems and their associated radar control systems could reach up 30,000+ feet, and those had been thought to be more responsibly controlled.

The last short while has seen the separatist forces seize military bases where such high-altitude missile systems were located, and other unconfirmed reports suggest sighting similar missile systems elsewhere under separatist control, so perhaps the risk factor escalated further without the airlines realizing.

The European version of the FAA has now declared Ukrainian airspace closed to all flights to and from the EU.

One last point.  Currently it is not yet a certainty that the plane did crash as a result of a missile attack.  Okay, so it is 99% probable that a missile caused the plane to fall out of the sky, but there is still a small amount of possible ambiguity.  Unfortunately, all the layerings of various special interest groups, and a very diffuse debris field in the middle of a war zone, may make it difficult to get an accurate and complete understanding of what happened.

Here’s a lot more commentary and breaking news in a rather unfiltered format.

I’m moving forward with my article series/exposé on high-end audio, and have three parts of the series written.  But I want to wait until I’ve completed it before releasing it, so you can see the complete story laid out bare.  So that will hopefully appear next week.

Meanwhile, please keep reading below for :

  • NZ Tour Mistake Now Corrected
  • Farnborough Air Show Outcomes
  • Boeing Announces New ‘Super Squash’ Seating Option for 737 Max 8
  • Airbus Patents Bicycle Seat Airplane Seating
  • The World’s Biggest Spending Tourists – Not Welcome in the US
  • Security Fee Increases, but TSA Doesn’t Benefit
  • Most Outrageous Air Travel Fee Ever?
  • Concordia Successfully Dislodged
  • And Lastly This Week….

NZ Tour Mistake Now Corrected

The concept of a 'traffic jam' has a different meaning in New Zealand.
The concept of a ‘traffic jam’ has a different meaning in New Zealand.

Ooops.  My bad.  If you’d been wanting to join our lovely October Epicurean Extravaganza to New Zealand, but got an error message after completing the signup form, then massive apologies to you.

The programming glitch has been corrected, and so I’m holding open registration for one more week in case you got caught out.

So please do choose to share New Zealand with me and your fellow Travel Insiders, and choose to enjoy this lovely tour in October.  We’ve a great itinerary that gives you a blend of arranged experiences and free time to customize exactly as you wish.

And – oh yes, you can now fill out the form with confidence!

Farnborough Air Show Outcomes

The biennial Farnborough Air Show (it alternates years, with the Paris Air Show being held in the off-years) was this week.

It started off unexpectedly when the UK government decided to score an ‘own-goal’ and banned many Russians from visiting, in retaliation for Russian support of the Ukrainian separatists.

Okay, you might be wondering what the link is between banning Russian businessmen from visiting an international trade show and the civil war in Ukraine, but that’s a question we can’t answer.  But we do note it isn’t only the UK that is imposing constraints on Russia and Russians – the US is happily doing so too, including such farcical things as banning friends of President Putin from visiting the US, not because they are suspected of any wrongdoing, but merely because they are friends of Russia’s President.

(We’re not actually saying the Russians should not face consequences for their actions.  We’re saying that the limited nature and extent of the consequences being imposed on Russia are laughably trivial and of little consequence.)

The Russians could probably care less – if they wanted to buy some aerospace technology, they could do so simply by picking up the phone and arranging for a rep to come visit them.  But the British companies trying to compete against other companies, elsewhere in the world, and to sell their equipment to Russian customers – well, they are surely now at a disadvantage.

It is also relevant to understand that this action threatens the prominence of the Farnborough Air Show entirely.  If the exhibitors, who come from all over the world, and many of whom have links to Russian businesses and customers, now perceive the Farnborough show as one where they’ll no longer be able to efficiently reach buyers from all around the globe, they might decide to stop attending and to switch their attendance to one of the several other air shows each year – perhaps the Dubai air show, or even MAKS – Russia’s air show in Moscow.

At the show, Airbus announced a new version of its popular A330 widebody plane, and also said it would not upgrade its A380, even though Emirates allowed itself to be quoted ‘thinking out loud’ that if Airbus were to do so, it would probably order another 40 – 60 of the enormous super-jumbos.

The new A330neo plane will compete with Boeing’s 787 family, but is a traditional aluminum framed plane (and almost certainly with no lithium-ion batteries either!).

There had been some weak speculation that Boeing might have announced or hinted at a successor to its 757 airplane model, which ceased production ten years ago, but nothing was announced, with Boeing apparently relying on its new longer range and higher passenger capacity 737 airplanes to address that segment of its product mix.

Both Airbus and Boeing like to save up some new order announcements for shows such as this.  This year saw Airbus win this semi-rigged competition, by announcing 496 new plane orders, while Boeing announced 201.  However, Boeing points out that in terms of total year-to-date orders, it is still ahead with 783 orders compared to Airbus’ 648.

Bombardier picked up another 50 orders and promises of future orders for its new C series jet, bringing total sales now above 500.  While a modest number by Airbus and Boeing standards, having secured 500+ sales prior to the first plane’s delivery has to be considered a successful achievement for Bombardier’s airplane building business.  Well done to our friends north of the border in Canada.

Boeing Announces New ‘Super Squash’ Seating Option for 737 Max 8

Although Boeing did not announce any new planes at Farnborough, it did announce it will be adding an optional extra emergency exit to its new 737 Max 8 airplane, which would allow airlines to add extra seats and still remain compliant with the requirement to be able to evacuate the plane quickly.

This would increase the plane’s rated capacity from 189 to 200 seats – a rather terrifying thought because the airplane body is not being stretched at all.  So how will airlines squash in 11 more seats?

Boeing washed its hands of the issue, saying it was up to the airlines, and helpfully suggested that changing the dimensions or positioning of toilets or galleys might create more space.  Oh yes, another possibility would be reducing the seat pitch by an enormous two inches.  With toilets and galleys already as small as imaginable, guess what airlines are likely to do?

You might think ‘two inches isn’t much when we have 30″ of space already’ but you’d be wrong if you thought that.  The issue isn’t a simple proportional reduction, but rather, those two inches come out of whatever remaining free space there is between your knees and the seat in front of you.

Have a look, next time you’re on a 737, and decide how happy you would be to see the seat in front get two inches closer to your knees.

Oh yes – not wanting to be outdone, Airbus is coming up with a way to shoehorn nine more seats into its A320neo, increasing its capacity from 180 to 189.

Many airlines are currently trading at their most profitable levels ever in their entire corporate histories.  Might it not now be reasonable to hope they’d stop obsessing over how to exchange passenger comfort for corporate profit?

Airbus Patents Bicycle Seat Airplane Seating

airbuspatentbAirbus has now filed a patent for a bicycle style seat to allow for even higher passenger densities.  You’d have a bit of an armrest as well as the seat, but nowhere to stow anything like personal electronics or reading material, because there are no seat backs or anything else.

Airbus says, in its patent application, that this type of seating would be tolerable for flights that last ‘only one or a few hours’.  That’s a curious concept.  Anyone can understand what ‘one or two’ means, but what does ‘one or a few’ mean?

Let’s be optimistic and assume that ‘few’ means three.  How would you like to sit upright on a bicycle seat, with no backrest, and possibly in turbulent skies, for three hours (plus time on the ground during boarding and taxiing, etc – maybe four hours in total)?

The World’s Biggest Spending Tourists – Not Welcome in the US

Can you guess as to who the world’s biggest spending tourists are?  Indeed, can you guess as to the world’s three biggest spending nationalities for people when they go on vacation?

The people who spend the most on vacation are the Chinese, followed by the Russians, and with the third most prolific spenders being the Indonesians.

Americans come in at number four, and then Japanese, Thai, Malaysian, Saudi Arabian, UAE and Hong Kong citizens to complete the full top ten list.

It is also interesting to see where the big spenders like to spend most of their money.  France gets the most expenditure, followed by UK, Italy, Germany, Singapore, Finland, Austria, Spain and South Korea.

Here are details of the list and how it was created.

Now, please guess how many of these top ten spending nations are on the US visa waiver list, and how many are countries where their citizens need to go through a lengthy, expensive, and demeaning visa application process, including personal interview at the US embassy/consulate?

Good news for the Japanese (#5).  They are welcome to visit.  But none of the other big spenders are allowed to travel to the US without first going through this appalling visa process.

It is no wonder that the US therefore does not appear in the list of the top destinations where these people go to spend their money.

Would it be too politically incorrect of me to notice the strange contradiction between our apparent new de facto ‘open border’ policy on our southern border, and the billions of dollars that this is costing us; but our refusal to make it as easy as possible for wealthy visitors to come spend their money in our country and create new jobs and wealth for us.

Why is an illegal alien greeted more warmly and with less bureaucracy than a wealthy Chinese or Russian who simply wishes to come and spend thousands of dollars in our hotels, restaurants, amusement parks, stores, and so on, before returning back to their homeland?

Security Fee Increases, but TSA Doesn’t Benefit

Currently there is a $2.50 per domestic segment security fee added to our tickets, to cover the cost of TSA security services.  That fee is now changing, and instead of $2.50 per segment, it is becoming $5.60 per oneway trip (possibly comprising two or more connecting segments).

It is a bit hard to compare apples with apples to explain exactly how much extra we’ll all now be paying, but clearly, if your itinerary has you flying a single nonstop flight each way for your roundtrip, your former $5 fee will now be $11.20, and if your itinerary had you flying through a hub, two flights each way, your former $10 fee will now be $11.20.  So it isn’t a question of if the cost to us will increase, but rather a question of how much it will rise.

But before you look even more hatefully at the TSA officers next time you go through airport screening, there’s one thing you should know.  That money isn’t going to the TSA.  Our new increased security fee is now going into the general government budget, for vague ‘deficit reduction’ (or ‘overspending enablement’) purposes rather than directly to the TSA.

It is expected that the US Treasury will net about $1.2 billion extra each year for the next ten years from this fee increase.  More details here.

Most Outrageous Air Travel Fee Ever?

No, we’re not still talking about the increased ‘security’ fee.

People like to joke that the only two things that remain free when flying somewhere is the air in the cabin and the toilet.

Caracas Airport officials have obviously taken that joke as a challenge, because they are now adding a ‘Breathing Tax’ levied on all people flying out of the airport.  This purportedly covers the cost of a new ozone air filtration system.

The Breathing Tax is not insubstantial.  It is US$20 per person.  If you don’t pay it, you can’t fly (but presumably can still continue breathing until ejected out of the airport.

More details here.

Costa Concordia Successfully Dislodged

Remember the Costs Concordia ‘sinking’ off the Italian coast on 13 January 2012 (the quotes around ‘sinking’ are because the ship settled in shallow water with much of its superstructure remaining above the waterline)?  32 of the 4252 people on board lost their lives – but definitely not the captain because he was, ahem, one of the first to abandon the ship.

The cost of salvaging the ship was originally estimated, in May 2012, to be about $300 million, making it the most expensive ship salvage operation ever.

By the time the ship had been righted, in September 2013, the cost had increased to $800 million.

This week saw the ship refloated and it is now being prepared to be towed away and then broken up for scrap in Genoa.  The revised final cost for the operation is now standing proudly at $2 billion.

The ship originally cost $570 million when it was constructed in 2005/6.

And Lastly This Week….

What is the dirtiest thing you’re likely to come in contact with on your next air journey?  And does it really matter if it is clean or dirty?

We’ll allow you to find out the answer to the first question by clicking this link, but for the second question, with the growing abundance of ‘super-bug’ infections that are appearing not just in hospitals but elsewhere, yes it definitely does matter.

Talking about infections and other medical issues, what to make of a sign exhorting you to ‘burn the hand carefully’?  Why is it that some of the most hilarious bad English signs come from Asia?  Well, that’s an imponderable, but here is a series of ten delightfully weird English translations.

And, talking about ‘dirty’ things, here’s a fascinating article drawing your attention to yet another thing to worry about when traveling.  Hotel door peepholes.  Whatever will be next?

Truly lastly this week, perhaps you should ask for ID before following the TSA man into a secondary screening room….

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels







2 thoughts on “Weekly Roundup, Friday 18 July, 2014”

    1. Hi, Bob

      Things may have changed, but if they haven’t, I must disagree.

      Neither Russia nor China requires an in-person interview at their Embassy/Consulate. Neither country has up to a three month waiting period between applying for a visa and being granted an interview date.

      And, although I know hundreds of people who have applied for Russian and Chinese visas, I don’t know a single person who has been refused one. On the other hand, I probably know as many Russian/Chinese who are refused visas as are granted them.

      So, equally onerous? I think not…..

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