Weekly Roundup, Friday 26 September, 2014

An impression of a possible new supersonic jet.  We can hope....
An impression of a possible new supersonic jet. We can hope….

Good morning

There’s no fool like an old fool, or so the saying goes.  I was reminded of this last Friday afternoon; I spent the entire afternoon (and much of the evening) on the phone with T-Mobile, struggling to straighten out billing issues to do with the new iPhones I received that day.  I also worry I’ve lost at least 10 IQ points from being subjected to so much offensively ugly awful ‘in your face’ music on hold.

Of course, it was probably the worst day of the year to seek any type of help from any wireless co, due to the iPhone 6 phones hitting the marketplace on that day.  Nonetheless, it was a curious circumstance to see that it took less time to get an AT&T phone number transferred from AT&T and onto my new iPhone than it did to also switch one of my existing T-Mobile numbers over to the other new iPhone.

Apple triumphantly reported 10 million phones sold over the first three days, up from 9 million for the first three days of last year’s launch of the iPhone 5S and 5C, and CEO Tim Cook claimed this their best product launch ever.

But is this really a triumph?  We suggest not.  First, there has been considerable pent-up demand for the new larger screened iPhones – many people (including me) sat out the woefully inadequate 5S/5C generation of phones, waiting for a larger screened phone, and the 5S/5C phones have been selling only moderately well.  There should have been a massively much larger surge as people (again like me) then went to get the phone they’ve been impatiently waiting for.

Furthermore, the smartphone marketplace as a whole has increased very much more than 11% over the last year.  The second quarter this year saw total shipments up 25.3% compared to the second quarter last year.  So, to merely maintain market share, if Apple sold 9 million phones on last year’s release weekend, it should have sold 11.3 million phones this year, rather than the ‘only’ 10 million it did sell.

I say this not to criticize the new phones – I think they truly are a positive step forward and now are more or less as good as competing Android phones, unlike last year’s two phones which were essentially the same as the iPhone 5 released two years ago.  Instead, I say this to express surprise and because it needs to be said.  Most other market commentators have mindlessly limited their comments to saying ‘iPhone sales up’ when really they should be saying ‘iPhone market share down’.

My first impression of the new iPhones is one of shock and awe, and I don’t mean that in a very positive sense.  The standard sized iPhone 6, with a 4.7″ screen, is almost the exact same size as my Nexus 5 with a 5.0″ screen.  That indicates a very inefficient use of bezel/surround space in addition to the screen itself on the iPhone – a surprising situation for a company that once prided itself on sleek elegant efficient design.  And as for the 5.5″ screened iPhone 6 Plus, it is enormous – the Nexus 5 is 5.4″ in length, the iPhone 6 Plus is 6.2″ in size – almost another entire inch in length, and the phone really does start to dangerously hang out of pockets (I’ve dropped mine twice already in less than a week – thank goodness I rushed out on Saturday morning and bought a protective case to place around the phone).

Sure, it is massively better than the iPhones it preceded.  But it is so gratuitously big, unlike the several Android type phones with large 5.5″ screens which are smaller.  This is an important difference, because all these phones are truly starting to reach the limit of acceptable size for standard pocket phones, and each extra 0.1″ starts to make a big impact on overall usability.  Buyer’s remorse?  Possibly!

I also find I’m seldom using the ‘fingerprint’ gimmick to unlock the phone.  But it will become more useful next month, I guess, when Apple expects to release its e-Payments service.

Something I don’t have buyer’s remorse over is a tiny $18 USB Wi-Fi modem, indeed, it is the best $18 I’ve spent on a computing gadget in a long time.  Read the article at the end of the newsletter to find out why you too should get one of these, even if you already have a Wi-Fi modem built-in to your laptop.

Also this week, please keep reading for :

  • Reader Survey Results :  Airfares vs Amenities
  • A Supersonic Jet – From Airbus, Sort Of
  • Some Good Coach Classes
  • Mythbusters Explores Airplane Boarding Policies
  • A New Way to Go Into Space
  • Trump to Make JFK TWA Terminal into a Hotel?
  • How Much Should You Tip the Robot?
  • Free Android Apps from Amazon
  • This Week’s Ebola Update
  • Careful What You Doodle on a Flight
  • Careful What You Have on Your Suitcases
  • And Lastly This Week….

Reader Survey Results :  Airfares vs Amenities

We asked you last week to share your preferences as to which you’d prefer – a $10 or $20 saving in airfare, or a particular amenity included in the (higher) fare.  There were two ‘logic bugs’ in the survey, one which shut the survey off after the first 100 people had responded, and the other which limited some of your responses.  I fixed them quickly, and apologies to those of you inconvenienced.  Fortunately, we still ended up with lots of valid responses.

The most valued amenities, on a 2.5 hour flight, were legroom, bathroom privileges and carry-on bags.  More than 95% of you valued these as being worth more than a $20 saving in fare.

The least valued amenities, also on a 2.5 hour flight, were in-flight entertainment and pillows/blankets.  54% wouldn’t even pay $10 for IFE, and  77% wouldn’t pay $20.  For the pillows/blankets, 70% wouldn’t pay $10 (but 30% would.  Note to those people – you can buy travel pillows from $10 and up, and blankets for about $9) and 87% wouldn’t pay $20.

Snacks and beverages were the third least essential item, followed by early boarding.

It is interesting to compare what you think with the results of an Expedia poll in Europe.  I’ve averaged the $10/20 answers to compare with the non-value specified ‘save money’ aspect of the Expedia poll, and show, below, the percentage of you compared to the percentage of Expedia’s poll who would be willing to sacrifice each amenity in order to save money.

ItemExpedia  Travel Insider
In-Flight Entertainment65%65%
Pillows and blankets63%79%
Snacks and beverages51%40%
Advance seat selection45%11%
Free checked luggage17%13%
Bathroom privileges14%3%
Carry-on bag12%3%
Frequent flier milesnot asked20%


Many thanks to everyone who participated, and for the interesting results now shared.

A Supersonic Jet – From Airbus, Sort Of

Every few months, there is a story from somewhere about someone promising a Concorde replacement, ‘real soon’.

This time the story seems almost to have a shred of credibility attached to it, because it tells of Airbus joining forces with a US development company, Aerion, and to jointly complete Aerion’s already longstanding development of a small supersonic business jet, the AS2.

The jet would be supersonic, but slower than Concorde, and also very much smaller.  Concorde flew at just over Mach 2.05, the AS2 would fly at ‘up to’ Mach 1.6 (in reality, its most efficient cruising speed will be Mach 1.4), and whereas Concorde held 100 passengers, this jet would hold 8 – 12 passengers.  The jet would have a range of about 5750 miles (Concorde was about 4,500 miles depending on load).  It would cost about $100 million, and Aerion claims to have letters of intent for 50 aircraft sales.

Excitingly, the company is projecting the plane’s first flight in 2019 – although this is its first test flight, not its first commercial flight, which hopefully might follow perhaps two years later.

One wonders what the cost of operating the AS2 would be.  While supersonic travel isn’t necessarily as cost-prohibitive as urban legend claims it to be, the big challenge seems to be the tiny payload – only 8-12 passengers.  That’s not a lot of people to share the ownership and operating costs of each flight, and then matched against that is the issue of what type of surcharge passengers would pay for something that is both a luxury experience and also a faster journey time than normal subsonic travel.

The traditional airlines have claimed, for decades, that the public won’t pay a premium for a shorter journey time.  It is an interesting duality – the airlines willingly encourage people to pay as much as a thousand dollars per hour more to fly in first class rather than coach class, but assert that these same people wouldn’t pay any sort of premium to shorten their total journey time.

As nice as first class occasionally is, the only time I’ve ever wished the journey would have lasted longer was when I stepped off a Concorde.  On all regular planes, it is always a relief to get off the plane.

So I suggest their assumption is wrong.  People will pay a premium for a shorter journey time.  Whether the premium will be sufficient to pay for the extra cost of operating an AS2, however, remains to be seen.  But Aerion claim there is a market for 600 of these planes, sold over a 20 year period.

Faster travel time also opens up new opportunities – as Concorde famously demonstrated with businessmen leaving home in the morning, jetting across the Atlantic, spending a day at the other end, and then flying home in time for dinner.  Well, almost in time for dinner, but the concept of a day trip to New York was practical, albeit expensive.

The plane would be confronted with the existing prohibition on supersonic travel over the US mainland, although the prohibition apparently doesn’t apply everywhere else in the world.  However, there are tiny benefits even over the US – the plane’s subsonic ideal cruise speed is about Mach 0.95, compared to about Mach 0.85 for traditional jets, so there’s a slight speed/time improvement there too.

More details here.

Some Good Coach Classes

Switching from the sublime of supersonic travel in a spacious luxury business jet, to regular cattle class on a regular plane, we know that while there is no such thing as nice coach class, some airlines have less-bad implementations of coach class than do others.

Here’s an interesting article with recommendations for some of the better coach class cabins available to us.

But, like most commentaries these days, it omits a vital consideration in its measurements of seat pitch.  It fails to consider that these days there can be an inch or two difference in the thickness of seat back padding, and so while you might be looking at statistics where one airline offers 32″ pitch seats and the other offers 31″ seats, and you therefore assume that the 32″ pitch seats are better, maybe you sacrifice two inches of space with those seats compared to the 31″ seats, so possibly 31″ is actually a roomer pitch.

Mythbusters Explores Airplane Boarding Policies

You might already know that the traditional way we board planes – by row numbers – is the least efficient way of filling a plane as quickly as possible.  It is also one of the least popular methods, which probably explains why the airlines persist in using it.

Mythbusters did some experimentation and surveying to see how long different boarding systems took.  The Southwest ‘open seating’ was fastest – taking 14 minutes compared to 24 minutes for the typical approach, while the most popular methods were almost as fast, taking about 15 minutes.  Details here.

So why do airlines persist in a method that no-one likes and which costs them ten extra minutes on every plane movement?

A New Way to Go Into Space

We wrote last week about how the US hopes to restore limited space flight capabilities in about three years, with private spacecraft capable of flying up to the ISS, 255 miles above the planet.  We also pointed out the perpetually-delayed promises of ‘spaceflights’ by Virgin Galactic, with brief flights up to about 110 miles high.

Noisy expensive rockets aren’t the only way to get into space, however.  A concept first proposed back in 1895 is both very simple and very complex – a space elevator.  Basically, think of spinning around and holding out a length of rope – your spinning throws the rope out away from you.  A similar concept applies to a space elevator, with the earth’s rotation providing the spinning, and a very long line with a weight on the other end sufficient to counterbalance the gravitational pull of the earth, making up the elevator track.

The problem to date has simply been that the long wire/rope/rod would not be strong enough.  The length of the structure would probably need to be 50,000 miles or more in length, and that makes for terrific stresses and tension on the material, such as to make it impossible using any known material.

Until recently.  New materials using carbon nanotechnology will be 100 times stronger than steel cable, making this feasible.  Currently the longest length of this material is just over one inch, and the target length of the space elevator would be 60,000 miles, so there’s a way to go yet before taking the longest elevator ride in your life.  But it is expected that by 2030 the material challenges will be resolved, and by 2050 a working space elevator will be in place.

The goal?  To replace rocket technology, which costs about $10,000/lb to stressfully lift materials into orbit, with the space elevator, which would cost about $90/lb.  In other words, $20,000 to go into deep space, instead of $250,000 to graze the start of space?  Branson better hurry with his space flights, because possibly they only have a few decades before they are obsoleted.

Details here.

Trump to Make JFK TWA Terminal into a Hotel?

The former TWA terminal at JFK has been empty and unused since 2001 – an extraordinary almost 13 year waste of resource and opportunity by the Port Authority.

Tenders are now coming due in October for companies interested in ‘re-purposing’ the terminal, and rumors are circulating that Donald Trump, fresh from closing his hotel and casino in Atlantic City just a couple of weeks ago, is again interested in the terminal.  Other hoteliers are also said to be interested, although with the terminal listed as a historic place, and with airport related height restrictions in place too, it is unclear how easy or practical it would be to transform the terminal into a functional and profitable hotel.  More details here.

It would be lovely to see this iconic terminal re-opened in a sympathetic treatment that shows it to best advantage.

How Much Should You Tip the Robot?

We were writing last week about hotels trying to shift more of their wage bill onto their guests by now providing tip envelopes in rooms to encourage guests to tip housemaids.

We now read about a hotel trialing a robot for providing room service to guests (which fits nicely into our recent interest in robots, too).  We’ve nothing against the concept, but can someone give us guidance as to how much we should tip the robot?

Meanwhile, in other robot news, here’s an interesting story of a robot designed to fly a plane.  We can’t help thinking it would be easier to bypass the mechanical moving parts and just enhance the intelligence of the auto-pilot, but as another ‘proof of concept’ evidence of the advancing presence of robots into more parts of our lives, it is interesting.

Free Android Apps from Amazon

Did you know, if you have an Android smartphone or tablet, you can buy new apps not only through Google’s Play Store, but through other types of app stores as well?

Amazon offers an alternative marketplace to buy apps through, albeit often the same apps as are sold through the Google store.  Obviously this was initially intended for its own Kindle products, but it is also now available to anyone with any type of Android device, and Amazon of course would love you to buy your apps from it rather than from Google (typically there is a 30% margin in app sales for the store selling them).

The Amazon Appstore is not pre-installed on Android phones, but can be installed in a reasonably simple way by following these instructions.

So as to promote its alternative source of apps and encourage you to load their alternative store, Amazon gives good apps away for free, and at present there is over $135 worth of apps being given away, including a great dictionary, an Office suite of apps, and an alternative keyboard (Swype), all of which are well worth installing.

This Week’s Ebola Update

The past week has seen the Ebola death count increase from 2630 (on 18 Sept per CDC) to 2917 on 25 Sept, an increase of 287.  This is slightly up on an apparent 244 deaths the previous week, but greatly down on the week before (with 483 deaths).

It is now six months since the latest outbreak started.  Claims about its apocalyptical nature remain happily still unrelated to the reality of what is happening, but now we’re told to expect an explosion in cases, from 5,923 in September to 21,000 in October.  Have a look at this chart, and ponder the mystery of how such an explosion might occur – and note also the suggestion that in January, we’ll be looking at 1.4 million cases.

The good news, such as it is, is that the World Bank President assures us that Ebola won’t strike the US.  You might be wondering how it is that the World Bank’s President is also an expert on epidemiology, but apparently, he actually is indeed that.  Details here.

Many people are concerned about catching Ebola during their travels – just because you’re not going anywhere near Africa doesn’t mean the person next to you at the airport or on the plane isn’t on their way back from Africa.  Perhaps people who are truly worried about this might find a new jacket of help – the Germinator.

Careful What You Doodle on a Flight

A passenger on a flight within Australia was taken off the plane before it departed Melbourne, after he was observed doodling in a notebook, including writing the word ‘Terrorism’ on a page.

Not only was he taken off the plane and interviewed by Australian Federal Police (who released him – as they should, because he had committed no offense) he has apparently now been blacklisted by the airline and can not fly on them in the future.

The airline – Tiger Air – said the aircrew were responding to a ‘disruptive passenger’.  Clearly, at least on Tiger Air flights in Australia, the pen is mightier than the sword.

More details here.

Careful What You Have on Your Suitcases

A different flight, airline, and country, but almost identically stupid scenario.  This time it was at JFK, and the problem was due to a travel agency giving out free bags to a group.  The passenger bags had the agency logo printed on it, a logo which some bright spark at TSA decided looked alarmingly similar to the word ISIS.

And because, apparently, ISIS terrorists are renowned for traveling the world with logoed luggage proudly labeling their affiliation, this caused a 90 minute delay while all luggage was offloaded and checked for bombs, etc etc.

Details here.

And Lastly This Week….

Here’s a fascinating bit of trivia – have you ever stopped to ponder the origins of the omnipresent traffic light?  It is one of those things that is nearly universal everywhere in the world, but it is not that long ago that they were new novelties, and appearing in many different shapes and sizes and colors.  Two light devices, four light devices, Go on the top or bottom, different rules for amber, even semaphore signals.

Here’s a fascinating article and 1937 video clip.

And truly lastly this week, the US has a reputation for having the sourest flight attendants of any country in the world.  So you can probably guess that these two flight attendants do not work for a US carrier.  Alas.

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels







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