Jan 222015
 
The 8th century Kildalton cross - the finest surviving Celtic cross in Scotland, is in a remote ruined churchyard, almost never visited by tourists or anyone else, and full of ancient atmosphere.  But we go there, and it is just one of the special experiences you'll enjoy on our Scotland's Islands and Highlands tour this June.

The 8th century Kildalton cross – the finest surviving Celtic cross in Scotland, is in a remote ruined churchyard, almost never visited by tourists or anyone else, and full of ancient atmosphere.  We go there, and this is just one of the special experiences you’ll enjoy on our Scotland’s Islands and Highlands tour this June.

Good morning

A quick heads up on our two tours in May and June.  If you’ve been thinking about either, there’s not much time remaining to think – it is now time to decide to come and join in.

Our deal is about to expire with Poseidon for the Arctic Expedition in May, and that’s a deal you don’t want to miss.  You save up to $4000 per person, you get up to three days of free bonus cruising, and a space available cabin upgrade, too.

Oh yes – it’s also a wonderful experience, a lovely ship with spacious all-suite accommodations, and a great itinerary!  Full details here.

Our Scotland’s Islands and Highlands tour in June is now at 15  – stop press, just increased to 17 people while writing this – and the remaining supply of hotel rooms has just about completely vanished in several of the small towns we’re staying in.  We’re already splitting our group among two different small hotels/inns in several of the towns and fear we’ll soon have to close this tour due to no more rooms being available, something that would be disappointing for us all.

The price of this tour has already dropped from $3295 to $3145 and when we get one more person, and/or the exchange rate continues to fall, it will go lower still.  This is a wonderful value and very extensive tour, including ten nights accommodation, touring and attractions every day, one and sometimes two meals a day, ten ferry journeys, two launch cruises, and a steam train ride too!  Full details here.

Both tours work well for couples or groups, of course, and they also work well for single travelers.  We have singles, male and female, on both tours, and not only do they enjoy having other singles on the tour, but the people traveling as couples are very welcoming and inclusive, rather than aloof and distant.  So, come one and come all, and enjoy these two wonderful tours in May and June.

Oh yes, if you can’t decide which tour to choose?  Be like several of us, and do both!

What else this week?  I’ve the first gadget review of the year, appended at the end of the newsletter – a wonderful fast six port USB charger.  Who would possibly need to charge six devices at once?  You’d be surprised!  And, continuing immediately below, articles on :

  • Details Starting to Emerge on AirAsia 8501 Crash
  • It’s Looking to be a Great Year for the Airlines
  • The New Alitalia
  • Beware of Greeks Bearing Gifts – Or, in this case, Microsoft
  • Hotel Wi-Fi Ratings
  • Marriott Up to Its Tricks Again?
  • Supreme Court Sides with Fired Federal Air Marshal
  • And Lastly This Week….

Details Starting to Emerge on AirAsia 8501 Crash

Both black boxes were recovered last week, and the data on them has now been successfully retrieved and analysis is under way.  Unfortunately, and for impenetrable reasons, the Indonesian authorities have decided that their preliminary accident findings report will not be made fully public next week.  That does nothing to encourage the perception of an honest and open investigation, or to give confidence in Indonesia and its aviation regime/regulation.

Word has however leaked out that a ‘preliminary analysis’ of the cockpit voice recording has failed to pick up any sounds that would suggest an explosion occurring on the plane, or any other sounds suggesting that anyone other than the pilots were in the cockpit and acting normally, so this suggests no act of terrorism.  There has been some mild reference to strange noises being heard prior to the last few minutes of flight, which some people speculate may suggest equipment malfunction of an unknown form, but this is all rumor rather than certainty.

The leaks have also included reference to the cockpit being filled with the screaming of various alarms in the last portion of the plane’s flight, and some of the more literally minded have taken exception at the use of the word ‘screaming’, fairly pointing out that while some alarms are indeed voiced, none of them scream!  The leaks go on to say that they can’t hear the last few minutes of conversation between the pilots, due to their conversation being drowned out by the background noises of the alarms.

It seems likely that when things went wrong, the plane first climbed at a very steep rate – perhaps 6,000 ft/minute, before stalling and perhaps literally then ‘falling out of the sky’.

This great rate of ascent has also been unfortunately characterized as ‘faster than a fighter jet’ – an unfortunate and inaccurate characterization, with an F-15 able to climb at 30,000+ ft/minute.  And one writer – a good friend, so no names, went even further and described it as ‘upwards, as fast as a rocket’.  While it is true that a rocket starts off slowly, the fastest rockets end up traveling 400 times faster than this, so that too is a phrase perhaps best not used.

There is nothing unsafe or threatening about a brief period of climbing at 6,000 ft/min, but if it was the result of the plane’s nose being raised, then the plane’s forward speed would rapidly drop off, and fall below the minimum airspeed needed for the wings to provide sufficient lift to keep the plane stable and flying.  It is possible however that the plane’s rapid rate of ascent was caused by the enormously powerful updrafts (and downdrafts) associated with thunderstorms such as the one which the pilots seemed to inexplicably decide to fly into.

If the plane ‘stalled’, what typically happens is that the plane’s nose drops, causing the plane to start to descend, and as part of ‘going downhill’, the plane’s speed naturally increases once more, and soon reaches a point where it is flying normally again.  In its simple benign form, a ‘stall’ is the easiest type of in-flight problem to correct, and stall recovery is one of the very first skills taught to trainee pilots.

But, as has been vividly demonstrated in a couple of fatal crashes in the fairly recent past (a regional commuter flight by Colgan Air/Continental in 2009, and the Air France A330 AF447 flight into the Atlantic also that year), for reasons not fully agreed upon, some pilots these days seem to have forgotten or in some other way now are unable to recover from stalls, doing exactly and totally the wrong thing, making the stalls worse and causing what should be minor and completely recoverable situations to become disastrous tragedies instead.

This failure is all the more appalling when you consider that these problems don’t occur in an instant and allow the pilots only a few split seconds of time to urgently correct the situation.  It isn’t like instantly braking in your car to avoid a pedestrian who stepped out in front of you.  Instead, for a plane at cruising altitude, the pilots have at least five minutes and sometimes closer to ten minutes of time to work out the problem and solve it.

Assuming the violent weather system the AirAsia flight entered didn’t literally rip the wings off the plane (I’m only aware of three times this has happened in the last five decades or so) and assuming nothing else failed, this latest disaster is starting to seem like another inexplicable failure of the pilots to recover their plane from the most basic and simplest of problems.

It’s Looking to be a Great Year for the Airlines

I hear that some parts of the US are now seeing gas prices below $2/gallon, little more than half what they were only a short while ago.  Alas, WA is one of the more expensive states, and our governor is thinking now would be a good time to slap another $1/gallon tax onto fuel.  Uggh.

Also seeing fuel prices half what they were less than a year ago are the airlines, who are now admitting that their fuel costs are indeed dropping, while doing nothing much to reflect that in their air fares.  Most risably, Virgin Australia, while taking fuel surcharges off some of its domestic fares within Australia, is simply shifting the surcharges into the main fare component of its fares between Australia and the US.  That’s not the form of fuel surcharge ‘abolition’ we are all hoping for.

Southwest has said it expects to save $1.7 billion in fuel costs this year, and Delta says it expects to pick up $2 billion from its lower fuel costs.

Normally, if part of a supplier’s costs halve, the supplier will delightedly lower his selling price.  And surely, when the supplier charges a very visible separate surcharge for the cost of one major component, that almost mandates the surcharge should truly vary in line with the cost.  But if you’re an airline, apparently normal rules do not apply.

And they wonder why we hate them…….

The New Alitalia

Alitalia has undergone several renewals over the last decade, each preceded by a truly impressive run of losses, and marked by proud declamations that the airline had now changed and would become much better than before in every respect.

So there’s more than a hint of deja vu to read the latest stories of the latest ‘new’ Alitalia.  Would you believe that the new Alitalia promises to be much better than the old Alitalia?  Much more customer focused, even?  etc etc etc.

But if you read through this report, you’ll not only see the airline is already offering up an excuse for any future failure (‘in a market still beset by the continuing Eurozone crisis’) but is also totally silent about the lovely tail-wind blowing strongly in its sails (the wonderfully low fuel prices).

So what will actually change?  Strip off the marketing hype and nonsense, and what solid underlying improvements are being promised?  How about changes to its inefficient staffing and laying off some of its 14,000 employees?  Or a rationalization of its three hubs (two in Milan, one in Rome)?  Nothing is mentioned at all on these current serious challenges.

But, back in September, when the new Alitalia was being formed (ie by Etihad buying into the airline) they quickly made one not-very-radical change – they announced a new slogan :  “Alitalians do it better”.

Excuse me for being under-whelmed as to the transformative nature of that change!  And now, we are promised – more similarly (un)substantial things – ‘a new brand and visual identity’.  Yes, change the color of its planes and all will be solved, apparently.

Alitalia’s new alliance with Etihad is far from guaranteed to ensure the airline’s future success.  Rival carrier Qatar Airways has just announced increases in its flights to Rome, Milan and Venice – the same cities Alitalia flies to Etihad’s adjacent Middle East hub from.

One more point.  The ‘new’ Alitalia isn’t exactly replacing a very old Alitalia.  Depending on the measurement used, the previous Alitalia was only five years old.

Anyone care to bet how long it will be before the new Alitalia needs to be desperately superseded by an even newer Alitalia?

Beware of Greeks Bearing Gifts – Or, in this case, Microsoft

Microsoft held a press release on Wednesday this week to announce more details of its new Windows 10 operating system (it is skipping Windows 9 and going straight from Windows 8 to Windows 10).

There was the expected range of new features announced, and some new hardware too.  Increasingly my sense is that after having lost its way during the Ballmer years, Microsoft is getting some sensible direction under new CEO Satya Nadella.  The company and its products seem more tightly focused than before.

But there was also an astonishing announcement that has me puzzled – and slightly anxious.  Microsoft said it will upgrade everyone who bought their earlier Windows 7 and Windows 8 operating systems, giving them a copy of Windows 10.  This upgrade is being offered, apparently for free.

My question, which I’ve not seen asked elsewhere, and definitely not answered, is ‘Why would Microsoft do that?’.  Upgrades are one of the nicest parts of their business, selling often unnecessary new versions of software to its captive user base of current users.  At a guess, there are probably close on 500 million copies of Windows 7 and 8 in use, and if even only 25% of users bought upgrades to Windows 10, at say a cost of $75 for an upgrade, that is still $9+ billion of revenue and almost directly profit, too, that Microsoft seems willing to walk away from.

What company can afford to turn its back on that?  It isn’t as though Microsoft is under any unusually pressing competitive attack from other operating system; it isn’t about to lose those current users.

The original expression about Greeks and their gifts is an allusion to the Trojan Horse.  What surprises might be lurking within Windows 10?

Hotel Wi-Fi Ratings

A new report came out this week from a web service that rates hotel Wi-Fi service, letting you know how fast a connection (and whether free or not) you can expect at your next hotel stay.  With the huge range of speeds experienced, that is a very helpful variable to be aware of before committing to a hotel.

Their report found the country in the world with the best Wi-Fi in hotels was South Korea, followed by Japan, Ukraine, Switzerland and Romania.  Surely some surprises in its top five list.

The worst country, out of the 50 countries rated, was Cambodia, followed by Greece, Indonesia, Philippines and Portugal.

And as for the US, you’ll have already noticed its absence from the top five.  It comes in at number 40, not quite as good as Colombia and the Czech Republic, and only slightly better than Malaysia and Turkey.  Well done – not!

Marriott Up to Its Tricks Again?

Talking about hotel Wi-Fi, and as an interesting adjunct to the previous article, Marriott – the same company mired in controversy over their blocking Wi-Fi, has announced plans to introduce Netflix streaming into its hotels.  It says it might offer it as part of a premium package for guests.

Two points in response.  First, why would you want to pay Marriott to stream Netflix if you already had a Netflix account and internet access in a Marriott hotel?  Isn’t this paying for something you already have?

Second, has Marriott considered the bandwidth it would need if all its guests started running 5 Mb and faster video streams (that’s what Netflix estimates is required for their high quality video streaming) simultaneously, while also driving ‘second screens’ for assorted other internet services?  And what say some guests wanted to stream 4K video, requiring 25 Mb bandwidth?

As anyone who has struggled to stream a video over a hotel internet connection in the past knows, some hotels have very bad service and your video is constantly being interrupted with rebuffering or dropping the stream entirely.

Supreme Court Sides with Fired Federal Air Marshal

It took almost seven years, but the Supreme Court this week ruled on the 2006 firing of Federal Air Marshal Robert MacLean.

He was fired after revealing the TSA’s plans to stop deploying FAMs on overnight flights, so as to save the agency money.  His disclosure forced the agency to back-pedal and reinstate some marshals on some flights, at least for a short while.  MacLean said he was entitled to whistle-blower protection, and the Supreme Court has now agreed, 7-2.

Alas, the matter still remains at issue; the case having been referred back to an administrative review board.  There could still be another seven years of legal battles ahead.

And Lastly This Week….

The three high profile plane crashes over the last twelve months, all with no survivors, might have caused some people to lose sight of the fact that most plane crashes have very few fatalities, even when the plane itself is largely destroyed.  A recent example of that would be the Asiana 777 crash at San Francisco in 2013, with only 3 of the 307 people on board being killed (and one of the three being killed after safely deplaning, but then being run over by a fire truck on the tarmac).

For a fascinating look at some other no-fatality crashes, here’s a great web article.

Years ago there was a semi-joke doing the rounds that it was cheaper for a retiree to live on a cruise ship than in an old folks home.  It was only a semi-joke, because it was as much true as untrue, and the same is as applicable today as it was then.

Here’s an interesting story of a woman who has been living at sea for seven years, on the Crystal Serenity.  That’s absolutely not the cheapest ship, but she seems to view it as sensible, and certainly as highly enjoyable.  We should all be so lucky.

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels

Davidsigblue285

 

 

David.

 

 

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