Weekly Roundup, Friday 5 December

What happens when your plane is struck by lightning?  Perhaps that depends on what type of plane it is (see below).
What happens when your plane is struck by lightning? Perhaps that depends on what type of plane it is (see below).

Good morning

Wow!  There’s been a lot of interest and response to our May 2015 Poseidon Arctic Expedition.  We now have six passengers signed up for this wonderful voyage from Europe and Scotland, up through the Faroes, north of the Arctic Circle and around Iceland.

Three of our group have already been on eight previous Travel Insider tours in total, and the other three are first time participants, so whether you’re a regular or a newbie, please do consider yourself warmly invited to come join us, too.

Perhaps something that encouraged this rush of new people to join was securing an even better deal from Poseidon.  You can now have up to three extra days of private cruising (the rest of the cruise passengers are not being offered this), entirely for free.  That’s explained in an article attached after this newsletter.

There is still availability in all suite styles on the ship, but the Main Deck and Classic suites are filling, and please remember we have an allocation for only 20 people in total.  So please do think about this and choose to come while you have a full choice of all suite types and the best possible discounts.

If the cruise isn’t for you, or in any event, don’t forget also about our Scotland’s Islands and Highlands tour immediately after the cruise.  Although we spend time on a number of ships on the land tour, too, the ships are ferries and only take us for short one – two hour type jaunts rather than a two week expedition.

Also attached is an article explaining how to minimize your (potentially very expensive) data use on your phone when traveling internationally.  It is dismayingly possible, if you’re not careful, to end up with a phone (data) bill exceeding your airfare when traveling with your phone out of the country these days.  Be sure to read through my suggestions before next heading out of the country – whether it be on our cruise or Scotland tour, or to anywhere else!

Also, please read on for :

  • 787 Update – Batteries and Lightning
  • A Kinder Gentler RyanAir?
  • Spirit Airlines Displays its Inner Scrooge
  • If it’s Christmas Season, it’s Terrorist Season
  • A Reason Why We’re Unlikely to Succeed Developing High Speed Rail
  • Why Batteries Aren’t Getting Better
  • And Lastly This Week….

787 Update – Batteries and Lightning

Two 787 mysteries came up for air again this week.  The NTSB released a lengthy report on the battery fires from early last year, and found fault every which way with the batteries, their manufacture, their testing, and the approval procedures that saw them installed on the new 787s.

As to what actually caused the battery fires, the smart money is suggesting it was an internal fault in the batteries, or possibly self-heating, a scenario that is surprisingly more extreme when the batteries are cold to start with.

What battery faults, exactly, were uncovered?  Ummm – none in particular, but many in vaguer more general terms.  However it is thought/hoped that Boeing’s new improved battery box fire containment systems will better protect planes if another battery fire occurs.

Here’s a good analysis of the report and its implications.

Another 787 concern has been what would happen if the plane was struck by lightning.  With a traditional aluminum plane, the effect can be a bit scary for passengers, but the plane itself is invariably undamaged, because the aluminum conducts the lightning around the plane’s exterior and allowing it to then continue its travels (usually down to the ground).

But the 787 with its non-conducting composite airframe is potentially a different story.  As a seeming afterthought workaround, Boeing added some conductive wire mesh, embedded into the composite material – the weight of this being one of the reasons the planes ended up being over their target design weight.

But some people wondered and worried if this would be a complete solution – what would happen in an actual lightning strike – something that is a surprisingly commonplace event in aviation.

There have almost certainly been dozens, probably a hundred lightning strikes on 787s in the two years they’ve been flying (on average most commercial planes are hit by lightning once or twice a year), including at least one during the plane’s test flights.  I’ve not noticed any headline stories about problems arising from these strikes.  Well, not until now, when I came across something that has been largely ignored by the media up here, because it happened to an Air New Zealand 787 flying between NZ and Australia, and had little obvious headline material.

Here’s a very brief story about the event, reported in a NZ paper.  It raises some very troubling questions, but doesn’t answer them, and Boeing declined a request by veteran Australian aerospace reporter Ben Sandilands to comment on the incident and answer his questions.  That’s probably the most alarming part of the entire incident – why is Boeing refusing to comment on a 787 being struck by lightning?

The surprising thing about this story is that the plane was grounded subsequent to the lightning strike, and after temporary repairs were done in Perth, was then been flown empty back to Auckland for still further repairs (which have now been completed and the plane is back in service).

That’s a far cry from 99.999%+ of all other lightning strikes on planes, where the worst that sometimes happens is a tiny burn hole on the plane’s skin and no need to take the plane out of service.

One wonders exactly what happened to the plane, and if it was sufficiently serious as to cause the plane’s grounding until temporary repairs were done, and still serious enough to fly the plane back to Auckland, empty, for additional repairs, was the safety of the plane ever at risk?

One also wonders – what are the ‘visible scorch marks’ mentioned in the article; how extensive are they, do they indicate any compromise to the strength of the composite panels, and what type of testing and repair was done to the plane subsequently?

I continue to prefer to avoid flying on 787s.

A Kinder Gentler RyanAir?

The airline that its passengers love to hate – that has been RyanAir’s proud boast, and, it claims, the secret of its success (the airline has been robustly profitable and growing all across Europe).  Its CEO, Michael O’Leary, is even better at ‘working’ the PR machine that Virgin’s Sir Richard Branson.

Any time the airline needs some extra publicity, O’Leary has reliably trotted out one of his favorite lines, such as accusing his customers of being idiots and fools, threatening to take out (or charge a fee for) the toilets, put standup ‘seating’ in the planes, and suggesting that they could dispense with the co-pilot and have a flight attendant helping out during taking off and landing.

But after some particularly egregious slanging last year, O’Leary seems to have turned over a new leaf, and is claiming to now wish to make his airline into a more customer-friendly airline.

One of the things the airline has been (in)famous for is charging for every possible thing – even charging a fee to pay for your ticket (other than by following some impossibly difficult way of doing so for free).

But the airline has already reduced some of its fees, and is now talking about introducing some free amenities, most recently even suggesting it might offer free Wi-Fi on its flights, and replacing its garish ghastly yellow interiors with more subdued blues.

Is this just another publicity stunt?  Or is it really truly happening?  We’re slightly cynical about yet another mention of their intentions to add flights across the Atlantic – that’s an empty statement they’ve been offering for many years already, but never with any firm date or commitment to actually doing so, and with plenty of excuses why they can’t do it just yet.

Spirit Airlines Displays its Inner Scrooge

While Ryanair is becoming possibly nicer, not all other airlines are copying.

Many of us fly to be with other family members at Christmas time, and when we do, we usually bring a suitcase full of gifts for the people we’ll be spending Christmas with.  Even people who proudly fly around the world with only a single carry-on have been known to break down and check a suitcase or two when traveling for Christmas festivities.

Spirit Airlines announced a Christmas season bag surcharge, adding an additional $2 onto the fees they charge for checked bags (which can be as ‘low’ as $21 or as high as $100).  Their stated reason for doing so was that they were ‘encouraging customers to pack a bit lighter’.

That’s only one stage away from encouraging their customers to stay at home entirely.  How about an airline that announces a free extra bag for all passengers over the holiday season.

If it’s Christmas Season, it’s Terrorist Season

Talking about Christmas, have you noticed that it has become a holiday tradition, these last some years, that every Christmas-time there’s a heightened level of concern about potential terrorist attacks on planes – and of course, some actual attacks too, a la the shoe bomber (22 Dec 2001), and the underwear bomber (25 Dec 2009).

Do you also remember the brief period of panic a few years ago that had passengers leaving Heathrow forbidden to take any carry-on items with them at all?  We probably got about as close as we’ve yet got to the much joked about requirement for passengers to fly totally naked on that occasion.

Fortunately that crazy policy quickly liberalized (to start with it was a struggle for passengers to even get permission to travel with their wallet and passport), and before too long, things were back to whatever passes for normal these days.

But here we are again, wondering what this year’s security alert will comprise, and there are rumblings that various security experts and institutions are considering the possibility of banning all carry-on items once more.  See the latter part of this article, and the very equivocal denial of such a development by the TSA mentioned in this article.

As one who has watched the workings of PR, these voluntary denials and unattributed rumors of possibly banning carry-on bags look very much like ‘trial balloons’ where new policies are deniably released to see what type of reaction occurs.  If the public reacts with outrage, everyone denies the policy was ever under consideration.  But if only muted protests follow, then before too long, the policy formally appears.

So, my fear is these rumors are more accurate and threatening than they appear to be.  And how terrible it would be if it came to pass.

I typically think of such things from the perspective of the mind-numbing boredom that would set in if one had to travel with no Kindle, no electronic music/video, and not even any old-fashioned books to read, but what about, also, the adage about ‘never check any essential medicines but always keep them with you’?  And with the airlines’ luggage policies restricting their liability for checked luggage, and unabated rampant looting from luggage as it goes through airport/airline luggage handling systems, what do you do with fragile electronics and valuables?  Plus, having to check everything will not only place an enormous additional strain on airport luggage handling systems, it will cost us all more to check additional luggage compared to carrying it on for free.

Restrictions on what we carry on is a terrible idea.  Let’s hope that it doesn’t come to pass.  What about the TSA’s much boasted about ‘multiple levels of security’ – aren’t they supposed to be protecting us every which way these days?

In that context, here’s an interesting article that argues, quite convincingly, that the airlines have got it backwards – they should let us check a piece of luggage for free, but charge us for a carry-on item.  There’s a lot more value, and even some essential need, in being able to carry an item onto the plane, and there’s a much more limited amount of carry-on space in the overheads than there are limits on passenger luggage in the baggage hold.

A Reason Why We’re Unlikely to Succeed Developing High Speed Rail

I wrote last week about Mexico’s plan to build a 130 mile high speed rail line between Mexico City and Queretaro, with a likely cost of $4 billion.

Depending on your perspective, that’s either a huge amount of money or a fairly good bargain.  California’s 800 mile high speed rail project is expected to cost between $70 and $100 billion, although it is anyone’s guess if it will ever be completed and what the ultimate cost would be.  The new HST2 project in Britain would cost twice as much, on a cost per mile basis, as the California project.

But while the California project is expensive, it is only twice the cost of typical high speed rail developments in Europe (in per mile cost terms) and while people commonly denigrate China’s extraordinary buildout of the high speed rail system there, they don’t realize that China’s costs, per mile, are only about three times lower than in California.  Mexico’s project seems to be coming in between the costs in China and Europe.

But, let’s look at the $4 billion cost of the Mexican project and compare it to an interesting US number.  Also costing about $4 billion – one single train station, at the World Trade Center site in New York.  Details here.

Yes, $4 billion would buy 130 miles of track, trains, and stations in Mexico.  It would buy 100 miles of track and train and perhaps stations too in Europe.  But in the US, it is barely enough to pay for a single ridiculous train station.

And that, folks, is as clear a reason as we’ll ever see as to why high speed rail is doomed in this country.  Maybe we can afford the rail and the trains, but we can’t afford the train stations!  Details here.

Why Batteries Aren’t Getting Better

For as long as I’ve had mobile phones (since the mid 1980s) the biggest bugaboo to do with using them has invariably been battery life.  I’ve lost count of the number of times and different places where I’ve found myself struggling with an urgent need to be using my phone, but with a dying battery.  As a workaround, these days I not only try to keep my phone battery always above 50% full, but I also travel with a portable battery recharger.

But haven’t you ever wondered why it is that batteries aren’t getting better?  Several times every year, there are exciting stories in the press about new breakthroughs in battery technology, but none of them seem to have ever appeared in our devices.  Why is it that we keep making faster CPUs, higher density memory, and in every other part of our electronics, pushing the envelope and excitingly improving things, but batteries seem stuck in some sort of time warp?

Here’s an article that attempts to answer that question.  Its conclusion :  Don’t expect any miraculous transformation in battery life any time soon, and any increases in device life will come from better power management rather than better batteries.

And Lastly This Week….

Don’t you dislike one of the frustrations of renting a car.  You pull in to buy gas, and you suddenly realize you have no idea which side the gas tank is filled from.

Some years ago I had a lovely Jaguar with twin fillers, and years before that, the Jaguars had not only twin fillers, but also twin tanks.  There have also been cars that compromised by having the filler in the middle of the car’s rear.  But these days, it seems all cars have a single filling point, and one has no way of knowing which side it will be.  Shouldn’t there be a standard side?  Here’s a fascinating article that attempts to answer the question, why aren’t fuel doors always on the same side.

Talking about cars and gas, it is great to see the price of gas coming down again, but I’d still dearly love a Tesla for Christmas (although I have about as much chance of getting one as, well, as winning the lottery – and I don’t buy lottery tickets).  Teslas with their 250+ mile range are lovely, powerful and practical, even if the price of gas is coming down (at least temporarily).

But how does one recharge any electric car, if one doesn’t have an at-home charger?  Here’s an interesting article that exposes the ultra-ugly reality of electric vehicles.  I’ll read it again on 25 Dec to feel better, after unwrapping the presents under the tree and finding no Tesla among them!

I mentioned, last week, the bad Thanksgiving weather and problems with travel, but the worst possible experience was surely that suffered on Sunday, when the TSA line at Chicago’s Midway Airport was measured as being 1.2 miles long.  This article, while reporting on the long line, politely avoids telling us how long it took to shuffle through 1.2 miles of waiting to be screened.  But I sure know I’ve waited in hour-long lines at Disney that were very much shorter than 1.2 miles.

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels






1 thought on “Weekly Roundup, Friday 5 December”

  1. There is always an arrow on the fuel gauge pointing to the side of the car on which the gas tank filler is located.

Leave a Reply

Scroll to Top
Scroll to Top

Free Weekly Emailed Newsletter

Usually weekly, since 2001, we publish a roundup of travel and travel related technology developments, and often a feature article too.

You’ll stay up to date with the latest and greatest (and cautioned about the worst) developments.  You’ll get information to help you choose and become a better informed traveler and consumer, how to best use new technologies, and at times, will learn of things that might entertain, amuse, annoy or even outrage you.

We’re very politically incorrect and love to point out the unrebutted hypocrisies and unfairnesses out there.

This is all entirely free (but you’re welcome to voluntarily contribute!), and should you wish to, easy to cancel.

We’re not about to spam you any which way and as you can see, we don’t ask for any information except your email address and how often you want to receive our newsletters.

Newsletter Signup - Welcome!

Thanks for choosing to receive our newsletters.  We hope you’ll enjoy them and become a long-term reader, and maybe on occasion, add comments and thoughts of your own to the newsletters and articles we publish.

We’ll send you a confirmation email some time in the next few days to confirm your email address, and when you reply to that, you’ll then be on the list.

All the very best for now, and welcome to the growing “Travel Insider family”.