Weekly Roundup, Friday 27 February 2015

Should we really blame the weather for the flight disruptions this week (and the week before, and the week before, etc)?
Should we really blame the weather for the flight disruptions this week (and the week before, and the week before, etc)?

Good morning

It has been another disgraceful week for the US air transport network, with weather related excuses erupting all over, yet again.

How do you know the difference between a weather related excuse and a valid weather related reason (for flight delays and cancellations)?  It is difficult, but it is also fair to say that if an airport is operating any flights at all, then it is not the weather itself that is causing problems, rather it is the unwillingness of the airport and/or airlines to spend sufficient money to ‘harden’ the airport and make it more resilient that is causing the problem.

The difficult part is that sometimes an airport may be completely closed, but that still means nothing other than a shameful inability on the part of the airport to cope with only moderately bad weather – I’m thinking Heathrow a few winters back when a mere inch or so of snow on the ground say the entire airport totally closed for, if I remember correctly, more than a day (in 2013, 2010, 2009, and plenty of times before then too).

But as long as it continues to be easier and cheaper for airports and airlines to simply cancel flights than to gear-up to operate them in all weather, and as long as the DoT and we, their customers, happily accept the ‘bad weather’ excuse without complaint, we can continue to expect to suffer the problems of an unreliable air transport service and never really being completely sure if our winter travel will operate as we plan and hope for or not.

Sure, there’ll always be a ‘100 year storm’ just like there are 100 year floods, and I think we’ll all concede that those extremes can’t reasonably be planned and prepared for.

But we’ve been having an awful lot of weather disruptions, more in the order of 100 day storms.  And that’s something we should be able to handle better than we do.

I am now declaring the Scotland Tour as officially full.  In one tiny town, we’ve filled three hotels and a B&B, and there are literally no more rooms to be had, anywhere in the town.  So, congratulations to the 22 Travel Insiders who are joining my daughter and me on this tour, and for those of you who are not, there is still a chance to squeeze onto the Poseidon Arctic Adventure.

Our Poseidon cruise takes you places that few people (and few ships) go, where you get to see raw and unspoiled scenes of great natural beauty and splendor.  To encourage you further to join us, there are massive discounts, potential cabin upgrades, and up to three additional days of cruising for free.  The ship – originally one of the revolutionary class of luxury all-suite Renaissance vessels – allows us to enjoy our ‘expedition’ in splendid comfort complete with great cuisine and a very well stocked bar, and of course, with the added benefit of the friendship of some of your fellow Travel Insiders sharing the cruise with you.  Please do check your schedule for the second half of May, and join us if you can.

A reader asked me last week if it would be possible to read the weekly newsletter on her Kindle.  After a bit of research, the answer proved to be yes, and I wrote a note about it which is appended to this newsletter.  You can also manually send any newsletter articles from the blog website (but not from the emails) over to your Kindle program and devices by clicking on the ‘Send to Kindle’ buttons which now appear on every item.

While I’m talking about The Travel Insider, very few of you seem to be aware of our excellent free daily news roundup service.  A group of volunteers – I call them docents – comb the internet every day for the best of travel related news, and post links to the items together with short one liner comments.  You can get a free daily email each morning with their findings (click the link at the top of the News site for the ‘Free Daily Email Update’ – think of it as a sort of Drudge Report for travelers.

Also, if you’d like to join the team of volunteer docents, please do let me know and I’ll send you an information packet on how it works.  It is quite fun, and our present docents seem to go through cycles of being active and then resting – there’s never any obligation or schedule, you just share what you find, when you find it.

Also this week, please continue reading for :

  • Air France A380 Diverted so Tired Pilot Could Rest
  • DoT Rules in United’s Favor Over Web Fare Mistake
  • Air New Zealand Shows How to Respond to Lower Fuel Costs
  • What Goes Around Comes Around – Unless You’re an Airline
  • An Example of Airline Competition Working
  • MH370 Theories
  • More British Advertising ‘Freedom’ <Not!>
  • Smartphone Market Shares – The Missing Microsoft
  • Name the City
  • The TSA Secretly Warns of a Potentially Catastrophic Threat to Planes
  • And Lastly This Week….

Air France A380 Diverted so Tired Pilot Could Rest

Seasoned travelers dread departure delays not only for all the obvious implications – missed connections, late arrivals, and so on, but also because of the ticking time bomb in the background – the crew’s duty hours expiring.

This happened in really strange circumstances this week, and was incredibly maladroitly handled by Air France.

They had a nearly full A380 that was delayed four hours by weather when departing JFK, and by the time the flight actually departed, a five year old could have added together the projected flight time to Paris onto the time spent waiting at the airport, and calculated that the flight crew would be over their allowable duty time (11 hours per EU regulations) well before reaching Paris.

Usually when that happens, and the airlines’ consulting five year old tells them of the problem, the flight does not depart.  It either waits until the crew have had a rest period, or until a replacement crew can be rounded up.

But in this case, Air France had their pilots fly the plane from New York, and waited until the pilots were two hours over their duty schedule, then had them divert the flight and land it 30 minutes short of Paris, in Manchester.

Yes, the pilots could apparently safely fly the plane all the way to Manchester, going two hours over their duty time, but that last 30 minutes would have seen presumably fatal consequences, or the pilots turning into pumpkins, or something equally bizarre.

You might wonder ‘What possessed them to fly out of New York in the first place when they had no chance of getting to Paris?’ and you might also also wonder ‘Why Manchester, already two hours into the penalty zone – why not Reykjavik, or why not go for broke and press on to Paris?’.  But thinking such thoughts just shows your lack of French perception as to how to run an airline.

Clearly Air France must have known for some considerable time that the plane was going to land in Manchester rather than Paris.  So you’d sort of think they’d send a flight crew over so as to take the plane the rest of the way to Paris with a minimum of delay on the ground.  There are a number of non-stop flights from Paris to Manchester every day, more to nearby Liverpool, and plenty more to other airports within an hour or two of Manchester.

But if you thought the plane and its 460 passengers would experience only a minimum of disruption to an already four hour delayed flight, well, there you are, betraying your lack of Frenchness again.

To be fair though, it transpired that when a replacement crew did arrive, the plane developed a fault, and so Air France had to fly three smaller planes to Manchester to pick up all the A380’s passengers and take them the short distance on to Paris.  The poor passengers spent 6.5 hours trapped on the plane at Manchester before being allowed to disembark and wait in a gate holding area.

And as for food?  Well, the airline generously provided hamburgers.  But there were a couple of French twists to that, as well.  The first was that the 460 passengers were provided with 50 hamburgers – no, not each, but in total.  So each passenger got a ninth of a hamburger.  And the second point?  It wasn’t until almost seven hours had passed that the tiny slices of hamburger were provided.

Kept on a parked plane for 6.5 hours (after an earlier 4 hour delay and a trans-Atlantic flight) then given a 1/9th ration of a hamburger (which was doubtless cold by the time it was served).  Prisoners on death row get better treatment than that.

As frustrating as this experience was for all passengers, imagine in particular the passengers for whom the UK was their ultimate destination.  They’d originally planned to fly to Paris then connect with a flight back to the UK, and at first it seemed like a bonus – landing in the UK.  But Air France refused to allow the people off the plane, then insisted they fly on to Paris.  It was only after these passengers refused to board the substitute plane that AF accepted the inevitable and allowed them out of the secure holding area and to go home.  Their baggage is currently in no-man’s land.

Details here.

The worst thing about this is that it was neither a unique circumstance nor a sudden one.  You’d think the airline woulda/shoulda/coulda been better prepared and provided a better response.

DoT Rules in United’s Favor Over Web Fare Mistake

Actually, we agree with both the DoT and United on this one.

Word spread across the internet like wildfire that there was a mistake on United’s website, but only if you pretended to be in Denmark (the mistake was in the conversion rate between dollars and Danish krone).  If you pretended you were in Denmark, you could get airfares for pennies on the dollar, and there was a mad rush by people to take advantage of the error.

United eventually found its mistake, corrected it, and said it wasn’t going to honor the tickets mistakenly issued at the bargain basement prices (business and first class fares between Europe and the US for $100 or less).

Interestingly, the DoT not only has a ruling requiring airlines to ‘tell the truth’ with their fuel surcharges (and we know how useful that ruling is, don’t we) but it also has a ruling requiring airlines to honor mistaken fare quotes.

But in this case, and in response to the barrage of literally thousands of ‘bush lawyer’ complaints to DoT, the agency ruled that first of all, by people saying they were in Denmark, the US DoT clearly had no jurisdiction, and secondly, it found that the element of bad faith was more on the part of people who lied and cheated the system than on the part of United.

The DoT concluded by saying that it wasn’t even going to bother responding to all the people who had complained to it!

Here’s the full text of their brief ruling.

And that’s about as much a slam-dunk as you’ll ever get from a government agency, isn’t it!

Air New Zealand Shows How to Respond to Lower Fuel Costs

I’m usually fast to criticize my home country airline, but this time, I have only praise.  In response to growing profits and dropping (fuel related) costs, the airline says it is expanding its capacity over the next six months by 12%, and that it will ‘flood the market’ with low priced fares made possible by this perfect storm of favorable factors.

Tell me the last time, if you can, that a US airline grew by 12%, let alone acknowledged positive market conditions, and most of all, when did a US airline last flood any market with low fares!

Details here.

What Goes Around Comes Around – Unless You’re an Airline

Talking about cheap jet fuel, Delta, United, American, US Airways (back before it became American) and JetBlue filed a complaint with the Energy Regulatory Commission, complaining that a fuel supplier in New York was overcharging them for jet fuel.

The supplier has now settled with the airlines, and apparently is paying out $40 million as part of that settlement.

Hmmm – being overcharged for jet fuel…..  Doesn’t that sound familiar?  The irony of the airlines complaining about paying too much, while gouging us and boasting about it, seems to have escaped them.

We also wonder – will this overcharging reimbursement now flow through to the airlines’ passengers?  Well, of course, we don’t wonder at all.  But it would seem only fair.

Details here.

An Example of Airline Competition Working

Tiny little Alaska Airlines is little more than one tenth the size of Delta, but in the Seattle market where Delta is trying to elbow its way in (and, more to the point, elbow Alaska out), Alaska is the main carrier and so Delta is finding itself with some real competition on its hands.

Is it therefore a coincidence that Delta has announced a new ‘Bags On Time’ guarantee, promising that if your checked bag isn’t on the carousel within 20 minutes of your flight arrival, they’ll give you 2500 frequent flier miles as an apology?

To those of us who regularly fly Alaska Airlines, that’s a very familiar concept.  Alaska has been offering either $25 or 2500 miles if its bags are 20 minutes late for many years.

And another small benefit of competition here in Seattle – Alaska is offering double miles on flights to Salt Lake City.  I’m sure it is just a coincidence that SLC is a DL hub.

MH370 Theories

Was the mysteriously missing MH370 flight hijacked by on-board Russian commandos and flown to an out-of-the-way airfield close to the Baikonur Spaceport in Kazakhstan?  That sounds like utter nonsense, but with each passing week of searching where the plane is thought to have crashed, and nothing yet found – indeed, the searchers are running out of ‘likely’ places to search, we are getting close to the point of having to re-examine the underlying assumptions about what happened to the plane and where it went, why and how.

Here’s a slightly sensational summary of a fascinating theory put forward by a credible investigator.  If that whets your appetite for more, here’s an excellent and much more detailed article that fleshes out the headline grabbing parts of this theory.

The theory ends inconclusively – but no more inconclusively than the current search.

More British Advertising ‘Freedom’ <Not!>

There’s a good chance you might have watched some of the Super Bowl a few weeks back, and as Americans know, one of the fun parts of the entertainment is seeing the big budget advertising extravaganzas that are featured in the breaks.  This year there was a particularly notable one from Carl’s Jr, and several other ones with similar theming, as listed and linked to on this page.

Now some of these are in bad taste, and probably offend some people, too.  But we’re blessed to live in the US, where we enjoy still generally free media, including the advertising featured in them.  If an ad is offensive, then the advertiser presumably suffers from having alienated its prospective customers.

But in the UK, the ‘Advertising Standards Authority’ doesn’t trust in the financial calculus of how the population responds to advertisements.  It knows better, and it wants to protect the British public from themselves.  Last week we wrote about how this strange body banned a travel advertisement, and now this week it is banning an advertisement for cell phones.

What could it possibly object to in a cell phone ad?  This link will tell you, and – yes, it does include the banned ad.

Smartphone Market Shares – The Missing Microsoft

A new survey has just analyzed smartphone sales in 2014.  In total, there were 1.3 billion smartphones sold (pretty impressive when you consider the total world population is 6.9 billion – over the past two years, one in every three people, everywhere in the world, has bought a smartphone).

The 1.3 billion sold in 2014 was a 28% increase over 2013, which helped both Android and iOS based phones soar to record sales volumes.

Now, it is true that Microsoft based smartphones did very slightly increase their total number sold, but their market share dropped yet again and now is at a mere 2.7% of the market.  About the best that could be said about that ‘achievement’ is that it is six times greater than the almost non-existent 0.4% market share retained by Blackberry, but it does seem that the smartphone market has now ended up as a two horse race – Android with an 81.5% market share (up from 2013) and iOS with a 14.8% market share (slightly down from 2013).

More details here.

In related news, tablet sales in 2014 didn’t mirror the continued explosion in smartphone sales, indeed, they were very slightly down on 2013 numbers at 216.1 million compared to 216.3 million in 2013.  Astonishingly, Apple’s iPad sales plunged a terrifying 15% year on year.

We don’t think tablets are a passing fad; quite the opposite.  What we do think, however, is that people hold on to tablets for longer than they do their phones.  Our sense is that while smartphone owners tend to trade models every two years or less, tablet owners are more likely to keep them for three or more years – more than twice as long.  Indeed, my first iPad – one of the earliest original iPads – lasted me four years and now that I’m one year into an iPad Air replacement, I’m not yet feeling any type of pressure to upgrade at all.

It is also true that the new large-screened smartphone ‘phablets’ are eating in to the part of the tablet market with small screens.  I find I almost never use my 7″ tablet – it is either my 5.5″ iPhone 6+ or 9.7″ iPad Air.

Details here.

Name the City

Can you guess the city?  This city announced a new high tech wrist strap device that does double duty as a transit card and health monitor.  The devices connect via Bluetooth to the user’s mobile phone, and wirelessly also transmit their ticket/charge data as commuters go through the turnstiles.  At the same time, the wrist strap is also a health monitor and provides health related recommendations to the wearer.

So – is this a new Apple product, being released on BART in the San Francisco area?  Or is it something else, appearing somewhere else?  See if you can guess the city that is leading the world with this new service for its clearly high-tech aware commuters.  Answer in the ‘lastly this week’ section, below.

The TSA Secretly Warns of a Potentially Catastrophic Threat to Planes

Yes, in the strange world inhabited by the TSA and other three letter agencies, there’s nothing stupid about secretly warning of a security threat.

A secret warning by the TSA in December has now leaked out – a new type of potential plane destroying ‘bomb’ which is hard for conventional screening methods to detect.  Except that it isn’t really new at all – it is thermite, a material that was patented in 1895 and is little more than a very low tech mixture of powdered aluminum and rusty old iron, optionally with a bit of additional oxidizer added to make the process easier to initiate.

Strangely, the TSA seems to think it is hard to detect containers full of metal powders in their X-ray machines and, ahem, metal detectors.

You can see their ‘secret’ memo linked to on this page.

And Lastly This Week….

Talking about new airborne terrors, have you noticed the hysteria that is sweeping the world, and particularly France, when it comes to drones.  Not Drones as in Predator type Hellfire missile toting drones, but drones as in things you used to buy your children for Christmas, costing $50 to $100 or so.

Paris has been gripped by concerns about drone sightings around the city at night.  But can someone please explain to me what possible danger a drone that weighs in total something between 8 oz and 1 lb, a drone that can fly at perhaps 10 mph max, and with a potential payload of maybe 4 – 8 ounces, can pose?

Details here.

There’s been a lot of talk about a possible move into car manufacturing by Apple.  Here’s a very insightful article that takes the idea one step further, and considers a total disruption of our current car owning/operating paradigm.  Let’s hope the future it anticipates – already hinted at by Uber, Zipcar, and a number of other budding new approaches to mobility – comes to pass.

And talking about mobility issues, the answer to the question.  The city with the new wearable strap devices is – Beijing.  Most of us continue to underestimate China and to confuse the backward country that we ‘discovered’ in the Nixon era with the high tech advanced global powerhouse it is today.

I experienced a different type of Chinese superiority this week, too.  I attended a symphony orchestra concert in Seattle, put on by the Shenzhen Symphony Orchestra.  My goodness me – I’d thought of Shenzhen as nothing more than high density housing and even higher density electronic factories, so I was stunned by the extraordinary quality of the orchestra and the opulent nature of its presentation – a large orchestra, five soloists for various feature works, four presenters, almost give-away ticket prices because clearly money is not a problem, and arranging for the Mayor of Seattle to come along and officially welcome the orchestra at the start of the concert.

The London Symphony Orchestra is coming next month, and my guess is there’ll be no welcoming committee and there’s only one soloist, with ticket prices five times higher.

Is there nothing the Chinese can’t now do as well – and sadly often better – than us?

And truly lastly this week, a pilot friend sent me this video clip, with the attached boast ‘this is how pilots pick up chicks’.

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels






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