Weekly Roundup, Friday 16 January 2015

The new Airbus A350 has now entered commercial service, first with Qatar Airways.
The new Airbus A350 has now entered commercial service, first with Qatar Airways.

Good morning

Is it just me (and wishful thinking) or are the days starting to get perceptibly longer again?  I hope the latter!

We are at an exciting point with our Scotland Tour in June.  We now have 14 people signed up, which means that as soon as another person joins, the price for everyone on the tour will drop by $100 per person.  That’s because we have the tour price fairly reflect the tour cost, and the more people traveling, the less the cost per person for shared group costs such as the coach and driver.

Last week we dropped the tour pricing due to the strong dollar and weak pound, and now the tour is poised to drop in price still further.  And – oh yes, please don’t forget that the next person or couple who sign up get a $250 saving by way of passing over half the deposit of a tour member who cancelled.

Whether it is the whisky, the castles and history, the prehistory in the ancient remains and ruins, the islands and lifestyle, far from modern pressures and high intensity tourism, the remote unspoiled landscapes, Loch Ness and other mysteries, maybe the Harry Potter Steam train ride, or simply an opportunity to share a lovely vacation experience with a group of like minded Travel Insiders, please do think about joining us in June for this lovely tour.

Why not take advantage of the wonderfully strong dollar and plan a Scottish/British/European vacation this summer.

Talking about Europe, the dollar is setting new highs against the Euro as well as the pound, and is stronger against the Euro than it has been in nearly ten years.  At this point there seems little reason to anticipate a sudden/strong resurgence in the Euro in the near future, indeed, the Swiss franc uncoupled itself from its voluntary linkage to the Euro this week and skyrocketed in value as a result (peaking at around 30% up, then settling closer to 15%).  But while that makes Switzerland more expensive as a destination, the rest of Europe continues to decline in price.

With that as inducement, please also consider our Poseidon Arctic Expedition.  We have massive savings over Poseidon’s direct rates, and we’re also offering you space available upgrades, to be confirmed shortly prior to vessel sailing.  And, yes, there’s more – up to three days of free bonus cruising prior to the official start of the cruise, including an invitation to be present at the VIP Acceptance Ceremony when Poseidon accept the ship in Hamburg.

We expect we’ll never have such a deal to offer you again on this wonderful expedition cruise, from Hamburg/Amsterdam, over to Scotland, up to the Shetlands and Faeroes, then around the Iceland coast.  This is the start of Poseidon’s operations with this ship and itinerary, and by next year, word will be out and their cruises will likely all be full (as is usually the case currently for the other cruises they operate).  So if the dates work, why not take advantage of this special opportunity and huge savings on a boutique small ship expedition style cruise.

The week was a good one for Airbus.  Its A350 finally took to the skies for the first time in commercial service, with launch customer Qatar Airways.  The A350 has the highest percentage of composite materials of any Airbus plane to date; for that reason, and the reasonable proximity of development/release times, it is sometimes and wrongly equated as a direct competitor to the 787.  This is not really the case, although that doesn’t stop both companies from occasionally pretending the two planes are direct competitors and then ‘proving’ by a carefully selected set of measurements that their plane is better than the other.

Airbus also confirmed the growing rumors – it is developing an extended model A321neo, to be called the A321neoLR.  Sometimes it is hard to keep track of all the different configurations and versions of planes, and sometimes it is hard to see the importance and uniqueness of different airplane models within a family.  But the A321neoLR is an important plane, because it is designed to service a current gap in airplane configurations and capabilities that, until now, neither Boeing nor Airbus had a solution for, leastwise, not since the end of the 757 program over ten years ago.

And what is Boeing doing to respond to this now decade-long gap in its model line-up?  Ummm, errr, well……  For the sad answer to that question, please see the separate article appended to the end of this week’s newsletter.

Please now continue reading for :

  • Boeing vs Airbus Scoreboard, 2014
  • Interesting Airline Response to Passenger Nut Allergy
  • AirAsia 8501 Crash Update
  • Heathrow No Longer Tops
  • Another List of Best and Worst Airlines
  • Update on Hotel Wi-Fi Blocking
  • Amazing New Foreign Language Translation Apps
  • A Tesla Beater?  Or Just a Beater?
  • And Lastly This Week….

Boeing vs Airbus Scoreboard, 2014

Boeing and Airbus have been in the news a bit this week, with both companies releasing their 2014 sales and delivery statistics.  Both had excellent years, and Boeing had its best year ever for new plane orders – 1432.  Airbus however received 1456 new plane orders, and that was its second best year for orders, so by this simplistic measure, Airbus won.  Boeing would be quick to point out that the dollar value of its orders was higher than that of Airbus, due to its mix of planes ordered skewing more to the larger/more expensive planes.

As for deliveries, Boeing bested Airbus for the third year in a row, with 723 planes delivered to customers, compared to 629 from Airbus.  The delivery counts were the best ever for both companies.

So, which company won in 2014?  It really depends on what the competition is defined as being, and how success is then defined.  But with more planes delivered (surely the ultimate measure of most things) and a higher value of planes ordered, on balance perhaps Boeing had the better year.

I’ve been tracking this information, year by year, with a time series going back several decades, on this page.  And here’s an excellent detailed analysis of last year’s results.

Interesting Airline Response to Passenger Nut Allergy

I’ve always been a bit cynical about some aggressive campaigners who assert the ‘rights’ of people who have allergies to, eg, peanuts.  They suggest that their right to be safe from allergy threats transcends the rights of the enormous majority of other airline passengers to eat the foods they wish.  Imagine if smokers were to say the same thing – their right to smoke trumped nonsmokers’ right to be free of smoke.

Anyway, whether right or wrong, many airlines have gone out of their way to accommodate nut allergy sufferers, with some eliminating peanuts entirely from their in-flight snacks, and others creating ‘nut free’ zones when needed.

But an interesting case was reported earlier this week.  A British family were flying from Ft Myers to Dallas (and then on back home to Britain) on American Airlines, and prior to boarding, asked the airline gate agent to make an announcement asking passengers not to eat nuts on the flight.

The gate agent said ‘Americans have the right to eat nuts’ and banned them from the flight!

I’m not going to pronounce on the rights or wrongs of this, but it definitely was a surprising outcome – particularly for the family, who were stuck for two extra days in Ft Myers while trying to arrange alternate transportation back to the UK.

Details here.

AirAsia 8501 Crash Update

Both black boxes were recovered earlier this week, and divers from the Singapore navy now seem to have located the plane’s main fuselage.

Having found much of the plane and also black boxes will be immensely helpful in piecing together what happened, and developing responses to reduce similar events in the future.  But the other missing Asian plane – MH 370 – remains as much of a mystery today, with nothing yet found, and we basically know no more than when it first disappeared on 8 March 2014.

Increasingly advanced searching continues for the MH 370 plane, albeit with no results whatsoever.

Heathrow No Longer Tops

For as long as I can remember, Heathrow has always been proudly and prominently the world’s busiest airport for international travel.  The very name was synonymous with much of the glamor of international travel, and underscored London’s position as ‘the world’s travel hub’.  Its base for the BA Concorde fleet further underscored its role as the world’s leading airport in every sense of the term.

But, and again for nearly as long as I can remember, Heathrow has also been operating at capacity, and struggling to handle its passengers and its planes.  Delays, lost luggage, long lines, weather problems – you name it, the last decade has seen Heathrow become one of the prime airports people ‘love to hate’.

Well, it seems that Heathrow is no longer number one in the world, and any of the glamor and excitement that it used to hold has long since vanished, just like the model of the Concorde that used to be at its main entrance.  In 2014, it was bested by Dubai.

Dubai had about 71 million passengers pass through, Heathrow had 68 million.  And whereas Dubai continues to grow and seems to know no limits, Heathrow continues to stagnate while Britain’s politicians endlessly dither about how to respond to growing passenger numbers.  Currently, England has a total moratorium – a ban on any new runway construction, anywhere in the country.

To put Dubai’s passenger numbers in context, it was only in 2006 that it even entered the top ten international passenger airport list.  In less than ten years, it has shot up through the list and now is ahead of Heathrow and showing little sign of slowing down.  It now seems only a matter of a few years before #3 airport, Hong Kong, also passes Heathrow.

There are a number of different ways that airports can be measured.  There is the ‘international passenger’ count, the domestic or total passenger count, the number of flights that take off and land, and various other measures, too.

In terms of total passenger numbers, Heathrow comes third, after Atlanta and then Beijing.  Atlanta has been tops for some time, and in 2010 Beijing powered on past Heathrow to take the number two spot.

How the mighty are fallen.

Another List of Best and Worst Airlines

Talking about rankings, whereas airport rankings are reasonably factual, there’s a type of ranking that is invariably subjective and often nonsensical – airline rankings.  It is however a great thing for journalists to write about and for academics to ‘research’ – a guaranteed ‘interesting’ column for them every year (and sometimes more often) and they can surround their stories with plenty of pseudo-science to justify their rankings.

One such example (with apologies to the excellent writer, Scott McCartney) of airline rankings can be seen here (if the link opens up a WSJ paywall block, search for the headline ‘The Middle Seat’s annual scorecard ranks the eight biggest U.S. carriers’ on Google and you can access it through the Google link.

What’s wrong with these rankings?  Well, to start with, they’re opaque.  We’re not told how many points each airline scores under any of the headings, or how the points are awarded.  Are all the factors given equal rankings, or are some given more importance than others?

We’re not even told how much separation exists between the best and worst airlines.  For all we know, the differences are too small to even be significant.

Most of all, many of the factors ranked are ‘rare/unusual events’ rather than parts of our every-day flight experiences.  How about also ranking airlines for their seat comfort and space?  Their frequent flyer program policies?  Rank them by how much they charge for checked bags, and give an extra down-check if they also charge for carry-on bags too.  Maybe also scale them from most expensive to least expensive fares, and ‘best’ to ‘worst’ flight schedules and route systems.  Friendly staff.  Shortest hold time when calling their (800) number.  The quality of their food and the cost of their drinks.  Their inflight entertainment and Wi-Fi.  And so on.

Yes, some of these other factors are very subjective, and some are very/randomly variable.  But if you’re going to accept a self-imposed task to rank airlines, for goodness sake, please do it decently, thoroughly, and usefully.

Update on Hotel Wi-Fi Blocking

I wrote last week about the growing battle between hoteliers, who want to prevent us from using our own Wi-Fi services in their hotels – ostensibly for our own safety and protection, of course, and absolutely not because by blocking our own Wi-Fi they force us onto their own rapaciously overpriced networks (up to $1000 a day in their conference spaces, according to this article).

There’s been a lot of outcry about this, and the chief ‘villain’ in the piece, Marriott, has now made a very carefully worded statement suggesting that maybe they won’t continue to pursue such concepts.

On the other hand, at least as of now, they’ve yet to withdraw their application to the FCC for permission to do exactly what they now say they won’t do.  Actions speak louder than words.

Amazing New Foreign Language Translation Apps

Last week, I discovered an amazing new app for my iPhone – Word Lens.  It uses the phone’s camera to recognize text in half a dozen different languages and then translate it to English (or vice versa).  Ideal for when you’re in a restaurant in Germany or Italy (or France or Russia) and are struggling to work out exactly what the food items on the menu are, for example.  Indeed, particularly useful in Russia – Russian/English dictionaries rather fail if you don’t know how to look up the words in Cyrillic to start with!

And then this week, Google released an update to their Translate app, which does the same thing.  Perhaps that is not surprising, because Google purchased Word Lens last year.

The universal communicator is getting closer and closer to a reality, and when it is finally in a mature reliably functional form, it won’t be an expensive dedicated device.  It will be a free app loaded onto our smartphones.

But in an opposite piece of news, Google announced it is withdrawing its controversial ‘Google Glass’ product, although there’s the possibility it may be re-introduced in the future.  Most people might feel it is good to see the retreat of this controversial and privacy threatening device, but probably the genie is out of that bottle and a subsequent re-introduction, or an alternate product from another supplier, will be more discreet and covert, which is perhaps a worse rather than better thing.

A Tesla Beater?  Or Just a Beater?

The Detroit Auto Show has just finished, and there was the usual range of futuristic concept cars to admire, as well as more concrete announcements about cars that will definitely be released in the near future.

GM is doubling down in its commitment to electric powered vehicles.  Its very lackluster Chevy Volt – one of the few electric vehicles to actually experience a drop in sales last year, is being enhanced, and will soon offer a 50 mile (rather than presently 38 mile) electric range.  In 2014, GM sold 18,805 Volts (a 19% drop from 2013) whereas the Nissan Leaf sold 30,200 units (a 34% increase).

It also announced a new car, the Bolt.  This is an all electric vehicle (ie no auxiliary gas engine, such as the Volt has) and is expected to appear in 2017.  GM says it will have a 200 mile range, while being priced around the $30,000 mark.

As such, it seems to be a direct competitor to the upcoming Tesla 3, also expected in 2017, and probably with a similar range and perhaps a $35,000 price point.

Little is yet known about either the Bolt or the Tesla Model 3.  One has to wonder though, if offered a choice of a Tesla car and a GM car, with both having similar specifications and pricing, which would most people choose?  If one had to guess today as to which would be the more futuristic and better equipped, which would you favor?

And – wait!  It isn’t just a two horse race.  Rumors suggest that Nissan might come out with an updated Leaf with similar range and price in the same time frame.

Details here.

And Lastly This Week….

Most of us probably already know that our taste buds are dulled when flying.  The lower pressure at altitude deadens our sense of taste (and smell).  But did you know that the noise of a plane flying also impacts on our food perceptions?  Here’s an article that explains more about food and flying than I’ve seen before.

Talking about great food, few of us enjoy air travel these days.  But a few – a very lucky few – actually do enjoy it, and plainly very much.  Something for us all to aspire to.

And what better extreme opposite, in terms of flying experiences, to cite than this hilarious set of skits.

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels







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