This is a smaller than usual newsletter this week, and the next several weeks will probably be similar. Some unexpected pressing matters have taken my attention this week (albeit in a positive good way, I hope) and next week I’m traveling with a group of Travel Insiders to New Zealand.
I’ve been variously writing, reading and talking nonstop all week and it is hard, particularly with desperate time pressures acting on me, to now ‘relax’ and prepare the usual rather sprawling and lengthy dissertation on the week that was. So just a few comments and links for you.
Happy birthday to La Guardia Airport, which is turning 75. Oftentimes, it seems to qualify as another of the airports we love to hate, and so it is perhaps interesting to read this historical perspective (and to enjoy the lovely old pictures) and to realize that no matter what it may be today, it was designed and developed with the best of intentions, and succeeded spectacularly, becoming the busiest airport in the world within a year of opening.
It has been a semi-eventful week for new product releases, although perhaps also semi-disappointing.
Google and Apple Release New Products
On Wednesday, Google released a new Nexus 6 cell phone. The iPhone 6+ and its 5.5″ screen is no longer ‘state of the art’ – well, in truth, it wasn’t that even when it was released a month ago, because the Nexus 6 has a – yes, you guessed it, a 6″ screen.
Of course, size isn’t everything (we hope!), although Google does put a mouth-wateringly lovely display on its phone, with an extremely high-resolution 1440 x 2560 pixel screen. This leaves the 1080 x 1920 pixel display of the iPhone 6+ (and the mere 750 x 1334 pixel display on the standard iPhone 6) well behind, but we’re now getting to the point where the need for more pixels is diminishing.
It is not yet even available for pre-order, let alone for delivery, so one wonders exactly what the word ‘release’ means at Google.
Also released was a new large size tablet, the Nexus 9 with an 8.9″ display (smaller than an iPad’s 9.7″ but larger than an iPad Mini’s 7.9″ display. Does this mean its screen size is the ideal compromise between ‘too big’ and ‘too small’? These days there is no clear consensus about screen sizes at all, and rather than a clustering of devices around several more or less standard dimensions, there is more a smooth continuum from the blurry points where phones become ‘phablets’ (ie probably over 6″) and to where phablets become mini-screened tablets (probably over 7″) and then a very unclear point where mini-screened tablets become full-sized tablets (about 10″) and maybe also a nascent new category of over-sized screens (perhaps greater than 12″).
One has to remember, but with derision, Steve Jobs’ insistence that there was only one correct ideal size for a tablet – 9.7″. No other sizes would be appropriate, he claimed. The ever reduced market share of devices with that general size of screen is silent but effective contradiction of his claim.
Whereas in the past, Nexus devices have been offered at astonishingly good values, this is no longer the case of either unit, with pricing much closer to ‘market’ pricing (whatever that is, these days). We don’t see either the phone or the tablet as being transformational new factors in their respective markets.
Talking about non-transformational products, the same can be said of Apple’s launch of new iPads on Thursday. A new iPad Mini and a new iPad Air, but both essentially very similar to the products they replaced. A little slimmer for the iPad Air (but not for the iPad Mini), and otherwise, nothing much else has changed. If you already have an iPad Air 2 or an iPad Air, there’s no reason to replace your present unit, and if you don’t yet have either, you might want to consider the now previous generation, which dropped in price $100 as part of the new models coming out. I don’t see where the newer models offer appreciable improvements for most typical users.
There had been rumors of a new larger screened iPad also being released, but nothing transpired. This is perhaps the most lack-luster tablet release in Apple’s history to date and will do nothing to halt Apple’s loss of tablet market share.
Airlines Increase Stopover Fees Five-Fold
Airline ‘competition’ is an amazing thing, but the DoT continues to believe all is working perfectly, even when we see things such as this – an unannounced and almost simultaneous change in policies by all major airlines last week as to how much they charge for a stopover on an itinerary from the US to Europe.
It used to be that you would pay $100 if you stopped for much more than the minimum connecting time between flights at an intermediate point on the way to your destination – a fee which was ‘about right’ in terms of reflecting the added value to us we get from visiting two places rather than one.
But now, expect to pay $500 to break your journey en route.
Why the sudden five-fold increase in fee? And how is it that by incredible coincidence, all airlines copied each other in double-quick time? Well, the airlines aren’t answering that question, and as for the DoT, hello? Anyone home?
What else has changed five-fold in your life recently, without warning? Absolutely nothing. And the airlines can’t go blaming fuel costs for this – oil prices continue to steadily drop and the easing of pricing we’re seeing at the pump is being enjoyed by the airlines, too.
I guess we still need a couple more mergers to give us ‘better’ competition, right? Details here.
A Bad Time to Own Airline Stocks
When the SARS crisis occurred, such as it ever was, airlines suffered substantial losses, not so much directly from SARS as they did indirectly from the reduced levels of general travel by fearful passengers seeking to avoid the risk of infection.
It seems very fair to say that there is currently much greater global concern about Ebola, and of course, we have now had three cases in the US, including the extremely alarming transfer of Ebola from the first patient to two of the nurses caring for him. That was surely not supposed to happen.
So what about the airlines? Can they look forward to massive curtailments in travel? Is now a very good time to be shorting airline stocks? Actually, a week or two ago would have been an even better time to do that.
After a long and reasonably steady upward curve in value over the last five years, 2 September saw the airline index (^XAL) hit a twelve-year high at 88.57. Since then it has dropped down to 72.59 on 13 October before rallying a bit to close at 76.45 on Thursday.
Will it now continue its recovery or plunge back down? A lot depends on what happens with the Ebola situation over the next short while. Let’s just say there’s probably more downside risk than upside action at present.
This Week’s Ebola Update
Talking of Ebola, a quick look at the stats shows an increase in deaths from the 3854 as of 8 October, to 4493 as of 15 October, an increase of 639 in the last week, compared to 554 the previous week, a nasty continuation of the trend of increasing deaths each week.
My sense is that some people are starting to act in irrational ways. Sure, we now have had three cases in the US, but that’s no reason to severely cut back on your traveling. Not yet, anyway.
But if it turns out that the nurse who flew domestically on a Frontier flight from Cleveland to Dallas on 13 October, while experiencing the early onset of Ebola symptoms did pass the infection on, then we anticipate a measurable curtailment in travel – already it seems that everyone we talk to (well, almost everyone) is nervously joking about our risk of Ebola when flying to NZ next week, with their ostensible concern about us clearly a proxy for their more immediate concern about their own future travels.
Here is a level-headed article about Ebola and air travel.
The World’s Most Expensive Train Journey Drops its Price
Can you guess the world’s most expensive train journey? Well, if measured in dollars paid per mile traveled, it is generally believed to be riding the Heathrow Express between London and Heathrow, a 15 or so minute journey covering not quite as many miles, and costing £21 for a one way journey (or £34 for a roundtrip). So, on the one way ticket, you’re paying just over $2/mile. If you take their first class option, you pay even more than these standard class fares.
The alternatives have been a terribly slow bus-ride, an uncomfortable and almost as slow tube journey, or a more expensive taxi ride, also probably slower than the Heathrow Express.
But apparently the penny has dropped, because the fares have dropped. If you buy your ticket a week in advance, you now get a one way ticket for ‘only’ £15 and a roundtrip for £29. That’s a massive – and massively welcome – drop.
Flight Attendants Want to Force Us to Watch their Inane Safety Briefings (but fail)
If I strain, I can maybe faintly remember back, oh so many decades, to when watching and listening to the flight attendants give their safety briefing prior to departure was interesting and informative. That was when I was young, unaccustomed to air travel, and also when seat belts in cars were uncommon too. As I said, a long time ago.
But, slow as I am, I get it. I now know how to unbuckle my seat belt, and I fear with a sad certainty that if there should be a crash and we all have to don our lifejackets, way more than half the passengers on board will colossally fail to do so correctly, and half the ones who succeed will ignore instructions and fully inflate it while still inside the plane. As has been vividly demonstrated with recent crashes and evacuations, many passengers will also pause on the way out of the plane to collect their belongs from the overheads and take their bulky rollaboard suitcases with them down the slides.
There’s nothing more pointless than these safety briefings, except perhaps, the flight attendants trying to force us to watch them. The main US flight attendants union filed a lawsuit, trying to compel the FAA to rescind their decision to end their prohibition on the use of in-flight electronics while planes were on the ground and in the early and final stages of flight.
The suit claimed the FAA failed to follow proper procedure and allow public comment prior to its ruling.
There were two main problems with the flight attendants’ claim (other than its basic idiocy to start with). The first was that the FAA did allow for public comment and in fact received over 1000 responses (including, ahem, from the flight attendants!). The second is that all the FAA did was allow the airlines the freedom to set their own policies. The FAA is not forcing the airlines to allow the use of personal electronics at all.
The flight attendants lost their case. Phew.
What will they try next? Refusing to give us our packet of nuts or our free soda if we fail to answer questions about the content of the briefing?
Well, that’s it for this week. Next week I’ll be in Queenstown, New Zealand, am not sure how much newsletter, if any, will emerge.
Until next time, please enjoy safe travels