Weekly Roundup, Friday 29 August, 2014

There's a mysterious 52 minutes unexplained in MH 370's flight path.  What was it doing, where, and why?
There’s a mysterious 52 minutes unexplained in MH 370’s flight path. What was it doing, where, and why?

Good morning

I realized that this was close to exactly the 25th anniversary of an event that was auspicious for me, although probably less so to you.  May I abuse my ‘bully pulpit’ by observing it is 25 years since I first placed an advertisement in the local Seattle Times for ‘Empire Travel Services’ and arranged my first bit of travel, as a travel agent, for a true third-party ‘stranger’.

At the time, ‘Empire Travel Services’ was just me, working out of a regular travel agency, and specializing in travel to Britain.  By the end of that year (1989) I’d set up my own travel agency, and for the next almost twelve years, enjoyed a great time selling travel to individuals and travel agencies across the US, with a focus primarily on New Zealand and Australia.

I never thought, when first eagerly driving in to the ‘host agency’ to meet my first ever client, and then spending many awkward and expensive hours phoning over to B&Bs in England to make pesky non-commissionable bookings for the couple who first responded to the ad, that the next decade would see me found and grow what became one of the country’s largest South Pacific focused travel wholesalers, with offices at times in Russia, Sydney and Auckland as well as Seattle.  Even more so, back then the internet effectively didn’t even exist so the thought I’d be writing this today was an impossible event not ever considered.

Life is full of unexpected twists and turns, isn’t it.  It seems the secret to ‘happiness’ is to put a positive face on how our lives unfold, and to see our glass as half-full.

As a weak segue from that, one of the four (!) items appended to this week’s newsletter is a review of a new eBook by an author who followed a not completely dissimilar arc through the travel industry.  His book gives some insider insights into the airlines, and some suggestions for how to best book and buy travel.  It is short, easily read, and inexpensive – perhaps something to read over the long weekend about to start.

And now, the next segue has to be from the thought of things to read, and moving to two more of the articles, below – another couple of articles in our high-end audio series.

As you may be sensing, I’m simultaneously a lover and hater of ‘high end’ audio.  I love enjoying the best quality listening experience with the music I’m passionate about, but I hate to see the industry so full of snake oil sellers and enthusiastic hapless snake oil imbibers.  It is hard to know which is worse – the venal people pushing ‘high end’ products, where the only ‘high’ part of the product is the price, or their enablers – the magazines, their reviewers, and the people who eagerly buy the products and pretend they hear the difference.

So to strike another blow for honesty this week, I show you how you can do your own accurate ‘double-blind’ testing to make up your own mind, free of these venal influences, as to whether there is any discernible difference between CD quality audio and so-called ‘HD’ audio.  This double blind testing is easy, and doesn’t require you to spend a single penny on extra hardware or software.  Everything you need can be downloaded for free.

If you’ve been curious about ‘HD’ audio, I urge you to test it through the simple and free process I explain.  This truly is the only way to know for sure if there is any truth or benefit in better-than-CD-quality music.

On the other hand, and although I urge you to take everything all industry commentators say with a huge grain of salt, if you’re willing to just believe me, then I can promise you that you’ll not hear the slightest scrap of difference between CD and ‘HD’ quality music.  And I’ve an open challenge to anyone who claims the contrary to prove it through this double-blind testing.

Now for an important distinction.  While I say there’s no improvement as between CD quality music and any other format, there can be small and subtle differences in the quality of the music you get to hear, as a result of your choices of playing equipment and in particular, speakers or headphones.  Last week I published some articles about high quality and high value headphones, this week I complete the process by introducing you to high quality music players (regrettably not iPods, iPads, or iPhones).

One more comment about this, if I may.  Part of last week’s article series was providing a way of accurately comparing different headphones.  This probably required you to buy a $25 item – a small electronic box that allowed up to four sets of headphones to be plugged into it, each with their own volume control.  The article explains why this is essential.

I was using the box to listen to some audio tracks with my daughter, this week.  We could each set the volume level on our respective pairs of headphones to exactly the level we liked.  Whether you listen with a son/daughter, a parent, or a partner, this box is a great solution to the problem of the impossibility of getting a compromise volume level that suits everyone and their respective headphones.  Somehow it seems that volume levels are a bigger deal with headphones than they are with regular loudspeakers.

But wait.  There’s still more, below.  The fourth piece is a review of a nifty little gadget.  After writing positively about a two port USB car charger a year ago, the market has moved forward, and there’s now a four port charger, at the same price, and with better charge rate abilities on all four ports.  Best of all, the device is still only $20, and it came on the market just in time to satisfy my ever greater ‘need’ for multiple chargers in my car.  Details below.

One more personal note.  Continued thanks to people who write wishing me well as I recover from the multiple fractures in my ankle that happened now over three months ago.

I’m happy to advise that I’ve now progressed to the point of being able to hobble, unaided, and more commonly, with a cane.  I walk slowly, painfully, and not for long distances, but that is a huge improvement and I’m hoping that things will continue to improve in the future.  As I said above, the secret to happiness is to see one’s glass as half-full.

Also this week :

  • Stop Press :  Iceland Volcano Misbehaving?
  • Bookend Airlines – Air NZ and Qantas
  • Ryanair Goes Upmarket, Sort Of
  • MH 17/370 Update
  • Ebola Update
  • Supersonic Travel – But By Submarine?
  • Hotel Fees Becoming More Prevalent
  • Running Out of Power on Your Mobile Devices When Traveling
  • And Lastly This Week….

Stop Press :  Iceland Volcano Misbehaving?

The last week (actually, almost two from when the first reports started filtering into the world news) has been full of predictions about a possible/probable/imminent eruption by one of Iceland’s misbehaving volcanoes – this one with the slightly easier to pronounce and spell name of Bárðarbunga, as compared to the Eyjafjallajökull volcano that disrupted flights for a couple of weeks in 2010 (with words like this, I’m glad I don’t yet have the podcast feature working!).

Just coming in on Thursday evening were reports that the volcano has now started to spew out ash.  If the worst case projections are proved correct, this could be an enormous eruption, with potential for flight disruptions between the US and Europe, so if you’re planning on traveling that route any time in the next week or two, you should keep a careful eye on what is happening and be prepared for possible delays to flights in both directions.

Bookend Airlines – Air NZ and Qantas

In the past, there have been several years during which we have pointed out the curious inconsistency in financial results between Qantas (Australia’s flag carrier) and Air New Zealand (you can guess which country it flies the flag for).  The two airlines have reasonably similar route networks and issues/challenges, and alternate between at times being competitors and at times working together.

Interestingly, they seldom track each other with their financial performance, and in past years, we’ve observed Qantas posting record profits as one of the world’s most profitable airlines, while Air NZ went to the very brink of bankruptcy and had to be bailed out by the NZ government.

Last week saw both airlines releasing financial data.  Air New Zealand is continuing a series of excellent profits, and announced a 45% lift in its profit to NZ$262 million (US$220 million), although on the basis of ‘no deed goes unpunished’ the airline is now facing calls by the NZ government to reduce its fares (particularly so with a general election just a few weeks away!).  Air NZ – the launch customer for Boeing’s 787-10, says it expects its present year to be another good year, too.

And then there’s Qantas.  They’ve managed to transition disastrously from record profits to now record losses, and decided to ‘go big’ this year.  With an underlying before tax loss of A$646 million (US$605 million) for their last year, they decided to go big on writing off anything/everything else they possibly could, and ended up with a truly astonishing A$2.843 billion (US$2.67 billion) loss.

Even US airlines (which pretty much all enjoyed a great year last year) struggle to lose that sort of money.

One wonders how Qantas managed to keep a straight face when it wrote that its loss included an A$440 million benefit from its ‘transformational program’.  And one just wonders, in general, about why its stock price rose after this worse-than-predicted loss was announced.

Most of all, though, one wonders how an airline I’ve formerly lauded for being excellently managed and excellently operated now shows little signs of any of its previous excellence.  What went wrong?

In another contrast, whereas Air NZ is the 787-10 launch customer, Qantas announced further deferments of its 787 orders, meaning that its aircraft fleet – once one of the newest in the skies, now comprises a core of increasingly aged and less economic to operate 747s, together with – even more costly – some 767s, although they have some lovely nearly new A380s in their international fleet as well.

The one thing that the two airlines do continue to have in common though, is an apparent inability to share the same marketplace problems.  Whenever one airline is losing money, the reasons it advances for its losses (this time, Qantas is blaming weak demand growth, fuel costs and excess market capacity) never seem to be a problem for the airline making record profits.

As we point out whenever this occurs, maybe the excuses are just that, excuses.  Maybe the real reason for such disparities in results is the reason none dare whisper – simple management incompetence.

Ryanair Goes Upmarket, Sort Of

At least until recently, Ryanair has delighted in being the poster-child of the airline industry for all that is bad about ridiculous and excessive fees.  They’d regularly and happily give air tickets away for free, because they could very profitably operate their flights on the basis of the fee income alone.

Currently, it is thought that as many as 25% of the people who subject themselves to a Ryanair flight and fee experience are actually traveling for business purposes, and it is thought many more would do so too if they didn’t have to risk the consequences of Ryanair’s no change/no refund policies.  Ryanair, for its part, is also keen to get higher yielding fares, and so has created a new ‘Business Plus’ product.  The main differences are a higher fare (of course), liberal change policy, some free baggage, plus ‘premium seating’ – the seats are the typical Ryanair uncomfortable seats, but they are the very front and very back rows (the planes typically load and unload through front and back doors simultaneously) allowing these passengers to be first off the plane.

Details here.

No word yet whether the, ahem, innovative product offerings that CEO O’Leary had earlier indicated would be included with his trans-Atlantic business class service (still not launched, six years after this press conference) will also be featured.

MH 17/370 Update

A near empty MH flight, last week.
A near empty MH flight, last week.

There’s been some new speculation published about MH 370 (the one that disappeared) this week, as well as another small piece of factual data (a satellite phone apparently responded to a call during the early stage of the plane’s disappearance, and an analysis of the ‘handshake’ data between the phone and its satellite is suggesting maybe the plane turned south sooner than expected).

To date, there’s been a lot of focus on the last part of the plane’s flight – ie, trying to find it somewhere in the ocean.  But other than noting the strange events that occurred at the start of the flight, there’s been little attention given to a curious anomaly in the time/position data.  There is a mysterious 73 minute period where the plane apparently only traveled about 195 miles.  At its estimated flight speed of 550 mph it takes only 21 minutes to cover that distance, which begs the question – what happened for the other 52 minutes.

Yes, possibly, the plane just flew in circles for 52 minutes, but equally possibly, it did something else.  The speculative question is ‘what else might it have done?  This seems an enormously important question.

This article discusses and links to two possible scenarios – one being an explanation of the 52 minute puzzle, the other being yet another explanation of how easy it would be for the captain to have done it.

As for MH 17 (the Ukrainian crash) there’s sadly again nothing more to report, other than the semi-related news that Russian regular forces have now invaded Ukraine.

Ukraine is mounting a robust defense – on Twitter.  Let’s hope that the pen proves mightier than the sword.

The effect of the two crashes on Malaysian passenger numbers is hinted at in the picture immediately above, which shows a flight last week from Australia to Kuala Lumpur.  On the other hand, although it is a great scapegoat to blame the airline’s misfortunes on the two plane crashes, the truth is that it is now declaring its sixth consecutive quarterly loss.  The airline’s problems predate its crashes.

Ebola Update

The good news is that Ebola remains confined to the four African countries (Guinea, Liberia, Nigeria and Sierra Leone) that have been affected thus far.

The bad  – but unsurprising – news is that the total count of deaths continues to increase, with 202 additional casualties in the week through 28 August, bringing the outbreak total now to 1552.

But the good news is that this week’s count of 202 is less than the 281 deaths reported the previous week.

Does this mean that the latest Ebola outbreak is on the wane?  Have we safely dodged the bullet that much of the media, and the CDC and WHO too, virtually assured us was heading our way (or, in the less restrained reports, had already arrived), in the form of an uncontained outbreak spreading to Europe and North America?  It is way too soon to say, and any day could see a sudden significant shift with new cases in a new region appearing.

But it is great to see a decline in the rate of deaths over the last week.

Supersonic Travel – But By Submarine?

We regularly come across articles about attempts to revive supersonic air travel.  While they often misunderstand the demise of the Concorde (BA’s Concordes were strongly profitable, and there’s no unbreakable law of physics that says supersonic flight has to be unaffordably expensive) they also point only to insubstantial ideas that have yet to progress any further towards a return to supersonic travel.

Even if they should ever pan out, we’re probably looking at planes traveling around the 1200 – 1800 mph speed range.  Okay, that’s three times more than today’s subsonic planes that tend to cruise around 550 mph, but it is still a long way short of an instantaneous travel process when you’re on a long international flight.

Here’s an article which speculates on the possibility of a high-speed submarine.  This might sound an astonishingly unlikely concept, because we all know that ships and submarines travel at speeds less than one tenth that of planes – the most efficient speed of a normal displacement hulled ship in knots is about 1.4 times the square root of its length in feet.  But this new super-speedy submarine is built on the concept of a supercavitating process that has the submarine enveloped in a type of air-bubble, and in that form, able to travel through water at extraordinarily high speeds, up to about 3,600 mph.

We don’t expect to see these types of craft any time soon, however.  They are almost impossible to steer, and also have no forward visibility while running at speed.  As people who have spent a reasonable amount of time on the water know, the oceans are far from empty.  What happens if one of these craft were to collide with a whale, another submarine, or even ‘just’ a large shark or perhaps a school of ordinary fish?  At 3,600 mph (to put this in context, a pistol bullet travels at about 750 mph) even the slightest of impacts with the smallest of obstacles could be spectacularly destructive.

This page explains some of the current problems with the technology.  But we’d love to see these issues resolved.  While it won’t get us from Seattle to New York any faster, it sure would take us around the Pacific Rim in a flash.

Hotel Fees Becoming More Prevalent

I just bought a dozen cans of Coke at Walmart.  $3 for all twelve – 25c a can.

But if I were to buy just one can of Coke from an in-room mini-bar at the Liberty Hotel in Boston, I’d be paying $5 for a single can of Coke.  And wait – that’s not the point of the story.  The point is that the hotel not only sells the can of Coke for more than 20 times what it paid for it, but it also adds an 18% ‘ convenience fee’ (another 90c, probably another four multiples of the underlying cost of the can of drink) on top of the already way over-priced $5 charge.

If you decide to save yourself these outrageous costs and put any of your own bottles/cans of drink in a fridge at the Aria in Las Vegas, they’ll charge you a $25/day ‘personal use’ fee.

Here’s an amusing thought.  If you’ll be in Vegas for more than three days, simply order a mini fridge on Amazon and have it shipped to you at the hotel.  It will cost you no more, and probably less, than the personal use fees (or a $35/day charge to rent your own fridge from the hotel).  Well, this assumes you’re not also charged an outrageous ‘receiving fee’ by the hotel.  Simply leave the fridge behind when you check-out.

Here’s an article that highlights some of the more outrageous hotel ripoffs being foisted on us these days.

What should you do when confronting such fees?  Complain, loud and long.  You might get them taken off your bill, and you might help the hotels to perceive sufficient unhappiness from their customers as to ease off this new trend.  Post negative reviews on Trip Advisor.

At least the hotel industry remains considerably more competitive than the airline industry, meaning they are slightly more responsive to what we feel about their services and policies, and we have more choices when traveling somewhere.

Running Out of Power on Your Mobile Devices When Traveling

Here’s an interesting article from Bloomberg about the availability – or, more commonly, the lack of availability – of power plugs and charging stations for mobile devices in airports and on planes.

On average, the 40 busiest airports in the US offer a mere 5.5 twin-socket power outlets per gate, even though there could be sometimes the better part of 200 people waiting in a gate area for their upcoming flight.  The good news is that airports are adding more power outlets and charging stations, the bad news is they are not being added fast enough.

Things are not really any better once you get on a plane.  Only 25% of the country’s short-haul jet fleet have coach-cabin power outlets.

An interesting statistic – in 2000, only half the adults in the country owned a mobile phone.  Today, it is more like 90%, and many passengers have multiple devices – phones, tablets, laptops, and maybe other devices too, which is why airport power plugs have become so essential.

You probably either know or sense much of this already.  But do you know the solution?

Instead of desperately conserving power and foregoing much of the convenience of having mobile electronics with you, why not simply carry an external battery power pack to recharge your electronics as and when needed.  Our recent article about recharging electronics suggests several low-cost and high-capacity solutions.

And Lastly This Week….

The ‘device from hell’ is the little gadget that travelers can use to wedge the seat in front of them upright, making it unable to recline back the meager distance it otherwise might.

I marvel at the stunning selfishness of these ‘seat nazis’ – people who invariably recline their own seat, while believing they have the right to unilaterally force the passenger in front to sacrifice a modicum of comfort – an even more precious morsel when the passenger in front of the hapless passenger with the seat-nazi behind reclines their seat.

Perhaps nothing better illustrates the incredibly self-centered nature of such people than this story, particularly the detail that the seat-nazi was already in Economy Plus with four inches more legroom/seatroom than normal for coach class to start with.

The seat-nazi refused to remove the seat-jamming device, even when ordered to do so by a flight attendant.  I hope they now ‘throw the book’ at him – he already has had a glass of water tossed in his direction.

Apropos nothing, I thought this a fascinating article in The Economist, on Technohyperbole.

If you’re going somewhere for the long weekend, may you enjoy light traffic and a lovely time at your destination.

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels







4 thoughts on “Weekly Roundup, Friday 29 August, 2014”

  1. David the audio stuff is interesting. It reminds me of the low distortion claims. They are typically so low a human ear can’t tell the difference. I don’t know how many people I knew bought these ultra low distortion at higher prices audio products because they could “tell the difference” I could show them in black and white that the human ear can’t tell the difference between the low price products and the high products, yet they insisted they could.

  2. Congrats on 25 years in travel. As one who is approaching 40yrs as a travel consultant I commend anyone who can stick with what is a poorly paid and overly stressful job.

    I think its stretching the bow a bit far to compare NZ and QF as NZ has the vast majority of its market to itself, but yes, the QF result is appalling. In my opinion it is caused by a combination of buying the wrong aircraft, timing their flights poorly and dumping overcapacity into the market in order to maintain market share. that and passing along many of jetstars expenses to QF in order to make Jetstar look better performing than it really is. In other words, they have very poor management at the moment.

    They need to dump the alliance with EK, which benefits EK a lot and QF very little. They need to bite the bullet, admit they should have bought the 777 years ago, and sign up for new 777s to replace the 747s. And they need to support travel agents instead of trying constantly to find web-based options to bypass us. Agents want to support QF but often they give us very little opportunity.

    1. Hi

      Thanks for the congratulations. 🙂

      But does Air NZ have the majority of its market to itself? The trans-Tasman market is one of the most competitive in the world. The last three times I flew from North America to NZ I traveled on Qantas, Fiji, and Hawaiian Airlines. Going in the other direction, to Asia/Europe, Air NZ has massive competition – from Qantas and Emirates, from Singapore Airlines, and many other major carriers too.

      Domestically within NZ it has Qantas (ie Jetstar) picking the eye-teeth out of its profitable routes while leaving Air NZ committed/obliged to service smaller towns with probably unprofitable services.

      I don’t think Air NZ has an easy market at all.

      But I do agree that the QF/EK deal was very lopsided, giving enormous benefits to Emirates and puzzlingly few to Qantas.

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