Weekly Roundup, Friday 22 August, 2014

Uh oh.  It is a safe bet that this 787 picture appearing here doesn't herald good news....
Uh oh. It is a safe bet that this 787 picture appearing here doesn’t herald good news….

Good morning

Many thanks to everyone who helped with last week’s survey about podcasts.

20% of Travel Insiders regularly listen to podcasts, and another 15% do so occasionally.  On the other side, 14% of readers don’t even know what a podcast is – it is a recorded presentation a bit like a ‘radio show’, usually audio only, and distributed over the internet.  It is presumably called ‘podcast’ because, originally, people listened to them primarily on iPods, and it is a type of ‘broadcast’ technology to distribute them, over the internet, to listeners.

55% of people who regularly listen to podcasts said they would like or love to be able to listen to Travel Insider podcasts, although 21% said they would have no interest in listening to Travel Insider podcasts.  Occasional podcast listeners were even less enthusiastic – 54% said they would have no interest in listening to Travel Insider podcasts.

The key number to me was the total number of people who chose to respond to the survey and label themselves as keen potential Travel Insider podcast listeners.  Only slightly more than 30 people (including one person who would love to hear Travel Insider podcasts but who also said they didn’t even know what a podcast is – I appreciate the vote of confidence!) were this actively keen on podcasting.

Of course, with barely 3% of readers responding to this survey, one has to wonder if these results should be multiplied 33-fold, suggesting over 1,000 readers who would love to also be able to listen to Travel Insider podcasts, but I doubt that to be so, because presumably the most podcast-keen readers would have rushed to respond positively.

On the other hand, podcasting might – and lots of emphasis on the word ‘might’ – open up new channels to reach new potential groups of readers.  So I’m not dismissing the concept entirely.  One comment I would make though – it is my sense that there was some anxiety that podcasting might detract from the present material being offered.  That would not be the case.  Adding the blog did not detract from the newsletter (I hope you agree!) and neither did adding our curated news site either.

Enough ‘navel gazing’.  Suffice it to say I’m experimenting with pod cast production techniques.  If I can create a reasonably high quality product without too much associated time cost, I’ll give it a try.

What else this week?  An enormous amount of new material has been added, growing the present collection of articles about high-end audio.  Good audio – whether music or even podcasting – truly is a traveler’s friend, helping to while away the hours on planes, and fill the cold lonely gaps in hotel rooms.  At the end of the newsletter are seven articles.  Six of them are on headphones, which present as pretty much the only way for travelers to listen to music.  There’s an introductory article and then five articles suggesting specific models of headphones to give you truly high quality and, yes, high value approaches to your audio listening (one of our headphone recommendations gives outstanding quality sound for only $85).

The seventh article tells you how you can compare different sets of headphones to accurately understand the differences between them.  You might wonder why I even need to explain this – don’t you just simply swap one set for another set on your head as quickly as possible and compare backwards and forwards?  Yes – and no – is the answer to that.  For a longer more detailed answer, please read the article, below.

The last piece of the puzzle will be the type of portable music player and type of music files to listen to.  That’s coming out in the week ahead, but if you can’t wait, you want music files in FLAC format, and while most modern Android devices support FLAC music files (alas, Apple and its closed/proprietary approach to everything insists on you using Apple’s own formats instead) we suggest you use a separate music player – probably the Fiio X3 or perhaps the Fiio X5.  I have an X3 myself, which is astonishing value at only $200, and wish I had the X5 ($350) with its two Micro SD card slots instead of one with the X3.

Lastly for the introductory comments, and continuing the musical theme, it is 50 years since The Beatles took the US by storm.  My goodness me.  Fifty years.

Their music remains fresh, extraordinarily varied and diverse in style, with at least one or two tunes that surely can appeal to anyone and everyone.  It is as captivating and approachable now as it was then.

I know there have been many other ‘super groups’ but surely none with such a broad range of styles and appeal.  There is something about The Beatles seems to put them way above anyone and everyone else.

And, below, here are pieces on :

  • 787 Engine Problem
  • A Morsel of Real Airline Competition?
  • Beating the Weather Excuse
  • Sleepy Pilots and Air Traffic Controllers Too
  • DoT Again Showing its Distaste for Traveler Friendly Airlines
  • Nonsense Predictions About the Future of Air Travel
  • Malaysia’s Missing Planes Update
  • Ebola Update
  • The US Dept of State Travel Warning Most Americans Ignore
  • An Unexpected Outcome of Uber’s Popularity
  • Travel Insider to TSA :  We Told You So
  • And Lastly This Week….

787 Engine Problem

Nothing to do with the batteries, this time, indeed, not really much to do with Boeing either.  But that was cold comfort to the passengers and crew of a Thomson Airways 787 that had an engine failure an hour and a half out over the Atlantic, and which flew on only one engine for another four hours before landing in the Azores.

After some prevarication, all 787s with the same GE GEnx-1B engines have been grounded pending engine checks.

It is just a couple of weeks since we were saying that maybe our earlier worries about the reliability of the 787 could now be lifted, and then this comes along and happens.

The good news is the Thomson 787 did continue to fly safely for four hours after the first engine failed.  But you can be sure that it was a very anxious four hour period, particularly because the engines were involved in an earlier reliability issue back in 2012.  Should this airplane and engine combination have been fast tracked to the extended 330 minute ETOPS rating that it was granted?

A Morsel of Real Airline Competition?

We wrote a couple of weeks ago about American Airlines eliminating meals in the first class cabins of many of their shorter flights.  We’d have been unsurprised to now be writing about how other airlines were eliminating first class meals on their short flights, too.

But instead, color us astonished, because we now can tell you that United is adding meals to short flights that previously did not offer food in the first class cabin at all.

Okay, so it is a very small thing, but it is simultaneously a very big thing.  It may be a sign that United is not going to always march lockstep together with the other two major ‘full service’ carriers (yes, there’s only three these days) and might try to earn some business by offering a better product.

Egads.  How innovative is that?  Could there be hope for United after all?  We hope so; we’re down to only three airlines now, and can ill afford to lose any of them.

Beating the Weather Excuse

I’ve consistently claimed that airlines should not be allowed to use so-called ‘bad weather’ as an excuse for schedule and service disruptions.  My point is that almost every weather related problem is something that could be solved, if the airlines, the airports, and the air traffic control system were all better resourced and more willing to, collectively, invest in creating weather-resilient systems.  The phrase ‘bad weather’ more commonly means ‘bad preparations for weather’.

There is an example of how a few dollars and some new technology can indeed solve weather related disruptions in the Wall St Journal.  If the link doesn’t take you there, you can search for ‘Technology Helps Pilots Land in Fog’ on Google, and the Google link to the WSJ article will open the story for you.

The bottom line – a new system creates an artificial image of the airport and runways ahead of a landing plane, removing the need for pilots to be able to actually see the real thing outside their windows.  Think of this capability, awaiting official approval and deployment, next time you’re unable to get into SFO due to fog….

Note also in the article, the delicate references to planes automatically landing themselves.  The need for pilots is increasingly being marginalized.

One wonders which will happen first – pilotless planes or driverless cars.

Sleepy Pilots and Air Traffic Controllers Too

A week ago there was a story about an Air India flight where the captain of the 777 was taking some ‘controlled rest’ – a fancy way of saying he was asleep at the wheel.  The copilot claims she was ‘busy on her tablet’ (not asleep too, oh not, definitely not asleep…..) and, ahem, ‘failed to notice’ the plane had dropped 5,000 ft (from 34,000 ft down to 29,000 ft).

This is a puzzling circumstance.  Why was the auto-pilot not engaged?  Fortunately, Ankara Air Traffic Control noticed the plane’s descent (the flight was going through Turkish air space at the time) and managed to get the co-pilot’s attention on the radio.

Still, at least the pilots were just quietly sleeping (or, ahem, distracted by their tablet).  It could have been worse – they could have been fighting with the cabin attendants, as was the case on this recent Saudi Arabian Airlines flight.

It was a good job the flight was over Turkish air space.  If the flight had been flying over Wuhan in China, who knows how low the plane might have got before the co-pilot stopped being so ‘pre-occupied with her tablet’.  Also in the last week was a situation when apparently the air traffic control staff at Wuhan’s airport were asleep, with an inbound flight unable to raise the control tower and arrange to land, for a while.

DoT Again Showing its Distaste for Traveler Friendly Airlines

If the Department of Transportation really cared about the flying public, you think they might turn around and refuse an application for two airlines to merge, or, if that’s a bit too much for them, maybe they could at the very least ensure that the promises of ‘better service’ and ‘no increases in air fares’ made by the airlines seeking merger approval were in fact subsequently honored.

Astonishing, the DoT has admitted it never monitors the promises and projections offered by airlines to support their requests for merger approval.

Or, here’s another idea.  Maybe the next time an airline asks for permission to operate a new type of low-cost service to/from the US, the DoT could approve the request with no more care or concern than the minimal amount it gives to merger requests.

But, instead, the DoT suddenly adopts a fully alert posture and makes such requests into a lengthy and drawn out process with an unclear outcome.  This is certainly the case with Norwegian’s attempt to operate flights between Europe and the US via Ireland.  As this article obliquely points out, it seems the DoT is casting around for any excuse to refuse the application.

Note also the reference to 160 Congressmen having written to express their concern about new low-cost airline service to the US.  These would presumably be some of the Congressmen who a couple of weeks ago passed legislation allowing the airlines to hide the cost of taxes and fees and advertise fares that did not represent the full ticket cost, ignoring the almost completely united and unanimous objections from every consumer and air traveler group in the nation, and not even allowing for normal hearings on the bill before passing it.

If your congressman/woman was one of this ‘gang of 160’, you might want to explain to them that you actually quite like the thought of lower airfares.  Apparently they don’t understand this (or much else).

Nonsense Predictions About the Future of Air Travel

We know how difficult it can be for columnists to write quality columns to a fixed regular schedule.  Sometimes there just isn’t anything to write about.  Unfortunately, in those cases, you still have to deliver something to your editor, and with this time of year being the traditional ‘slow season’ – also known as the ‘silly season’ due to the undue prominence given to poor quality articles being used to fill up gaps – we sometimes see examples of this type of writing.

One of the good old standby type articles is to survey a few ‘industry experts’ and do a piece on ‘future predictions’.  Here’s an article possibly illustrating the point.  I particularly stumbled over the claim about how a small private jet hire company can offer lower prices because it operates a small (rather than large) fleet; but found it impossible to disagree with their CEO’s statement – one that is so simplistic as to not really need printing

The only way to increase the market is to lower the costs

Unfortunately, this insight was contrasted with the CEO’s admission that he didn’t know how to do this.

Other unlikely predictions include a suggestion that affordable long-range supersonic travel will come to the skies (in theory this is possible, in practice, there’s no evidence of any credible push by any airplane manufacturer to develop a new SST), plus an underwhelming prediction that it might take until about 2039 before internet connectivity in the air will be easy and reliable.

As for a suggestion that you will be able to order your choice of first/business/coach class food at any seat on the plane, we doubt that very much.  Imagine the catering complexities.

Malaysia’s Missing Planes Update

Not much new this week on either of the two MH missing planes.  However, there has been a new book published about MH370’s disappearance, written by two New Zealanders (this is now perhaps the fourth book on the subject).  One of them previously established a startup airline that for a while tweaked the tail of Air New Zealand before being ignominiously squashed, so he’s an interesting person to read.

His theory is based on no new knowledge, but rather is a ‘on the balance of probabilities’ type thing.  He says the pilot was the culprit, and suggests the pilot depressurized the cabin, killing everyone on board, then simply flew the plane himself until reaching fuel exhaustion, at which point he did a ‘controlled landing’ into the ocean so the plane settled on the ocean surface then gradually sank, thereby avoiding a mess of floating debris on the surface of the ocean.

Maybe he is right, and maybe he is wrong.  His guess is as good as anyone else’s for now, and a lot better than some.

As for the more recent MH 17 crash over Ukraine, there have unfortunately been no new developments of any kind in the last week (other than some of the bodies finally making it all the way to Malaysia on Thursday).  Interestingly, Malaysia observed a national day of mourning to commemorate the arrival of the first bodies, but no such day of mourning has been held for the victims of MH 370.

Ebola Update

As of 21 August, there are now 1350 Ebola deaths, with the disease remaining confined to the four West African countries of Guinea, Liberia, Nigeria and Sierra Leone.  This is an increase of 281 over last week’s count, and shows a marked increase in the rate of deaths (108 people died the previous week).

But 281 deaths from Ebola, in these four countries with a total population of 198.5 million, is a tiny number and dwarfed by many other disease deaths.  On the other hand, this is the first outbreak to be present in four countries simultaneously, and no previous outbreak ever exceeded 300 deaths in total.

The US Dept of State Travel Warning Most Americans Ignore

One of the ‘tools’ in the US diplomatic bag is to threaten uncooperative countries with issuing a travel warning, in the belief that the warning will reduce the number of people choosing to travel to the target country.  So we see a strangely inconsistent approach to travel warnings, with some countries seldom/never appearing even though they have high levels of crime against tourists, but others more or less permanently on the list, even though their levels of crime – either against tourists or in general – are extremely low.

For example, you’re more likely to be a victim of a tourist crime in many of the major European cities, some of which are inundated with pickpockets and other scammers, but no European countries appear on the State Dept’s list.  On the other hand, perhaps the safest place we’ve ever visited – North Korea – has an undeserved place on the list, pretty much permanently.  Dubai doesn’t appear on the list (notwithstanding occasional horror stories that emerge about their treatment of tourists, always assuming they allow the tourists in to start with), but Iran and Iraq both do.

There is one semi-friendly country that has been on the warning list for some time, however, with the warning being updated just this week.  Mexico.  But while Americans are cowed by some of the warnings, who gives a second thought to a travel warning applying to ‘friendly’ Mexico before jetting off for a week on the coast somewhere?

An Unexpected Outcome of Uber’s Popularity

As you surely must already know, Uber and the similar other ride sharing services out there allow ‘ordinary people’ in their ordinary cars to provide taxi type services to anyone else, with a smart phone app connecting the drivers to the intending passengers.

Although the apps usually tell the passenger what make/model/color car to look out for, it seems some over-eager passengers are assuming the first car that sort of meets the description ahd stops in their general vicinity (perhaps just because all the traffic has stopped for a red light ahead) must therefore be the ride they are waiting for, and so are clambering into the back of cars, much to the surprise and alarm of the drivers (who are not Uber drivers).  Ooops.

The other side of that coin is that some freelance drivers are circling through busy city areas and if they see someone waiting expectantly by the side of the road, they’ll pull over and say ‘Uber?’.  If the person nods eagerly, they’ll take the person where they’re going, and directly charge for the ride, without any Uber affiliation.

Travel Insider to TSA :  We Told You So

Back when the potentially harmful X-ray whole body scanners were being deployed throughout the US by the TSA, we not only stridently pointed out the potential danger of the units, but also pointed out the fact that they simply did not work well, and a skilled terrorist could readily smuggle guns and explosives through one of these scanners and onto a plane.

It wasn’t just us that pointed this out.  Other sources, ranging from scholarly articles to even Youtube videos of people actually going through airport security with hidden metal objects, all demonstrated the weaknesses of these scanners.  The TSA eventually ‘sort of’ withdrew them – and offered up two face-saving excuses for removing them from service.  The first was that the scanners were proving too slow to use, requiring too many staff to operate and processing too few passengers an hour – which was another of the negative points we’d been quick to point out when they were first being deployed.  The second was that the manufacturer had been too slow to develop ‘privacy’ displays to replace the fairly graphic pictures of people’s naked bodies that were otherwise being displayed, much to the amusement and enjoyment of the TSA staff.

Now, albeit a bit late, but offered up just in case Rapiscan finally release software that replaces the graphic images of the people with cartoon type stick figures, is this amazing study.  A group of academic researchers bought a second-hand Rapiscan unit and experimented with it, working out how best to conceal guns, knives and explosives.

If academic researchers can do this, what’s the bet that terrorists wouldn’t also be able to do the same thing?  So much for the billion dollar program by the TSA to make us ‘saferer’.

And Lastly This Week….

I’ve seen some bad pictures of hotels in my time, and also some deceptively good ones too.  The right lens and perspective can make a small room seem large, and a distant beach on the other side of the road look like the waves come almost to the side of the hotel.

But clearly, not every promotional photo in every field is a winner, as this selection of photos from real estate listings vividly shows.

You may have heard of the planking craze, where people have pictures taken of themselves assuming a ‘plank’ type position on various unusual objects.  Harmless enough, although some people have harmed themselves in the process.

Planking is very much different to a new craze which seems to be evolving in resort swimming pools.  Logging.

Talking about photography, how great to see that London’s National (art) Gallery has now relaxed their previous ban on visitors taking pictures of their artwork.  While I can understand a ban on flash units, an across the board ban on all photography in museums and art galleries has always struck me as gratuitously narrow-minded and elitist in the extreme.

Let’s hope this is widely copied everywhere else.  What possible harm is there in taking pictures of things that are hundreds or thousands of years old.  Copyright has truly long since expired.

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels






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