Weekly Roundup, Friday 6 March 2015

Yes, this does look like a something-stain on this roll, doesn't it.  But it is simply another tasty morsel of airline food - see last item, below.
Yes, this does look like a something-stain on this roll, doesn’t it. But it is simply another tasty morsel of airline food – see last item, below.

Good morning

For some of us, there’s a definite feeling of spring in the air already.  For others of us, there’s an equally strong feeling of continued winter, following another week of daily delays and flight cancellations, ostensibly due to bad weather.

I pointed out last week that most of these ‘weather’ delays should more fairly be described as failures on the part of airlines and airports to invest in sufficient infrastructure to manage adverse weather, and while I said we all would excuse the problems related to rare extremes of weather, that’s not the type of weather we’re suffering currently.

To give weight to that claim is this article, which lists the country’s ten worst airports for weather related problems, with Dallas in number one position and Philadelphia in number two.  Believe it or not, I’ll actually give Dallas a bit of a pass on this, because some of its weather delays are thunderstorm related, and that’s something that is hard to counter.  But how about PHL – a major airport which had 2% of all flights cancelled and 4% delayed due to weather?

A couple of anniversaries this week.  Happy 50th birthday to The Sound of Music, released on 2 March 1965.  Like many of you, it is one of my all-time favorite movies, and when the inevitable 50th anniversary edition of the movie comes out on Blu-ray, I’ll almost certainly buy it, to add to all the other ‘special anniversary editions’ I already have of this timeless movie.  Actually, update – I went and checked.  The new 50th anniversary edition isn’t just a joke of mine.  It is a reality, will be released on Tuesday, and can be preordered on Amazon now – the Blu-ray is an enormous five disc set with a vast array of special features and extras, and offered at the amazingly bargain price of only $29.96.

Here’s a nice BBC item on the movie and the real family behind it.

Also like many others, I’d perhaps never have heard of or visited Salzburg if it weren’t for the movie (other than Vienna, where else have you been to in Austria?).  But did you know that the local people in Salzburg don’t like the movie at all?  And don’t seem too appreciative of the bazillions of tourists that come to their city every year, as a result of the ongoing free publicity they get from this movie.  Details here.

After the sunny optimism and happiness of The Sound of Music, our other anniversary this week is a less happy one.  On Sunday it will be a year since the mysterious disappearance of MH 370, and not only has nothing yet been found of the plane, but the nations participating in the search are starting to hint at giving up the search.  Australia – a country with ‘no skin’ in the mystery, other than being as unfortunate as to be closest to where some people think the plane may have crashed, has spent US$70 million so far on its share of the costs of the search, and says it must scale back the extent of its activities.

Although much to do with the crash is bizarre and unusual, not finding the plane’s wreckage isn’t as unusual as it might seem.  It took two years for the Air France AF447 A330 to be found in the Atlantic, but that search was boosted by the discovery of floating wreckage shortly after the plane crashed, giving the searchers confidence that they were more or less in the right area.  With MH 370, there has been no floating wreckage at all, and the plane’s general location is based on somewhat controversial calculations that not everyone accepts.

Maybe the ocean floor search might be called off, but that’s not the only way to help find out what happened.  There are basically two possible categories of circumstance for what occurred.  One is that some unexpected technical malfunction occurred on the plane.  If that happened, we’re only likely to find answers by locating the plane wreckage and its black boxes (or when a second plane exhibits similar behavior).

But the other scenario is that someone deliberately engineered the plane’s disappearance, and in that scenario, the clues for what happened are likely to be found in Kuala Lumpur and elsewhere, on land, where conspirators were and maybe still are.

So what type of investigative process are any authorities doing to explore the possibility of a man-made event being responsible for the plane’s disappearance?  Sure, to start with, there was a new theory every other day, seemingly alternating between ‘the pilot did it’ and ‘the co-pilot did it’, with occasional hints also being offered ‘maybe someone else did it’.

There are other mysteries too – the secret cargo, for example, and some mysterious passengers.  What was – and still is – so secret about part of the plane’s cargo that it can’t be revealed, even now?  And was the extraordinary incompetence and conflicting stories that came from the Malaysian authorities really nothing more than the incompetence it seems to have been, or are there darker motivations for their actions?

Here’s a good article by a credible researcher.

Next Monday may or may not be an exciting day for some of us.  At 10am Pacific time, Apple formally details its new smart watch product.  This was first revealed back on 9 September last year, and after some additional sharing of information, we understand full details will be given on Monday.  The watch is expected to go on sale in April, a bit later than originally promised.

We know it comes in three different families of design, and two different sizes, and we know it will be priced from about $350 and up.  Indeed, Apple already has part of their website dedicated to the product.

But what we don’t clearly know at all is why we should get one, or, for that matter, why we should get any other smart watch either.  As an introduction to the smart watch category of products, I’ve written an article that tries to understand where they might be useful and what they can do for us, as well as touching lightly on some of their limitations.

That article follows at the end of this newsletter, but for now, the quick summary is that there’s no clear and valuable use for any of the exploding number of different smart watch products out there (there are over 40 manufacturers of smart watches), other than as a piece of jewelry (or perhaps for fitness and exercise tracking).  In other words, consider it as a decoration, not a functional addition to your road-warrior kit.

Also, please continue reading for :

  • Airlines Eliminate Fuel Surcharges?  Yes, and No.
  • Google Flights
  • 40% of Eurostar Sold for $900 million
  • Update – Electric and Self Driving Cars
  • Stupid Travelers, Parts 1, 2 and 3
  • And Lastly This Week….

Airlines Eliminate Fuel Surcharges?  Yes, and No.

The adversarial cynicism of the airlines and the way they shamelessly flip us the birdie while laughing among themselves at our passive acceptance of same surely is without equal in the annuals of commerce.

Has anyone ever stopped to consider how much more we might fly if the experience was nice rather than verging on intolerable?  If we were well and fairly treated?  Has anyone also ever stopped to consider how the world’s most successful airlines tend to be those with the most positive and friendly attitudes to their passengers?

But, back to the grim reality of our daily battles with ‘the enemy’ – our US carriers.  The Wall St Journal reports that the airlines have stopped adding fuel surcharges to their fares.  That’s wonderful news, right?  Well, yes, but – ooops!  What’s this?  There’s now a new surcharge appearing on tickets, a ‘carrier imposed charge’ that, by cosmic coincidence, is exactly the same as the former fuel surcharge.

What is a carrier imposed charge, you might wonder?  The individual airlines declined to comment or explain; and referred people to their lobbying group.  The airline lobbyists said ‘surcharges enable airlines to cover their costs, just as any other business seeks to do’ – a comment which is self evidently nonsense.  Perhaps they’d like to talk about the surcharge imposed by supermarkets.  By Amazon.  And so on – the vast majority of businesses have a single simple price, free of surcharges.  Even those masters of surcharges – rental car companies – at least have the decency to sort of correlate the reality of their surcharges to the actual costs they incur and to explain them to us.  They don’t just add several hundred dollars of unexplained extra charge onto our bills.

You might wonder why it is the airlines don’t just simply charge a single fare, rather than play games with these additional charges.  The answer was provided to me vividly, earlier today, when a reader wrote to me, saying :

Interesting to look at ticket prices and saw one broken down today where flight one way was $500+ and taxes were $700+.  Definitely pays to have fewer stops as they tax you every time you land and take off.

Her perception of taxes totaling $700 was wrong.  As you probably know, the ‘carrier imposed charge’ appears in the taxes section of the ticket – indeed, for a while, the airlines deliberately lied and called these extra sums ‘taxes’ and pretended they weren’t simply keeping the money themselves.  But by still obscuring these amounts, many people see the $500 fare and think ‘the poor airline, it is charging a reasonable low fare, but it is all the extra taxes that is pushing the price so sky high’.

While there are indeed too many taxes on air fares, the highest part of the $700 is money going directly to the airline.  Don’t be tricked.

Google Flights

When Google bought ITA Software (a provider of ‘back end’ booking information for a number of airlines and websites) in 2010, it was restricted in what it could do with the company by the Department of Justice for five years.

Well, the five years is coming up to expiry later this year, and Google is starting to flex its muscles in what some analysts consider to be one of the most potentially lucrative parts of internet commerce – travel booking services.

The results of Google’s muscle flexing can be seen with their new service, Google Flights.  Yes, this does have other industry players very alarmed, and indeed it is rumored that the perceived growing threat posed by Google was part of the reason that Orbitz sold itself to Expedia.

Currently the new web site/service shows nothing particularly remarkable at all, and I’ll stick to Kayak.  But let’s not think for an instant that what we see currently is as good as it will get.  It already shows hints of ‘big data’ when it pulls up a map and shows prices for flights to various random seeming destinations right from the get-go, and has some nice interface tweaks.  When ‘the gloves come off’ in October, who knows what else will follow.

Should we as travelers welcome Google’s move into this market, or fear it?  With all the other consolidation going on, currently it would seem to be a good thing, but on the other hand, the grim reality is there’s precious little that online travel agencies can do.  They have little ability to negotiate any special deals with the airlines – their abilities are limited to eking out small commission on the tickets they sell and little more than that.

Unless Google starts its own airline as well as its website (now there’s an idea – if Apple can apparently set aside many billions to start work on developing automobiles, why not have Google start an airline….) their presence as a booking service will probably have little impact on us or the fares (and fees!) we pay to the airlines.

40% of Eurostar Sold for $900 million

The British government has just announced the sale of its 40% share of the Eurostar train service that operates through the Channel Tunnel.  A Canadian/UK consortium paid £585.1 million ($900 million) for the stake, more than anticipated, and after lively bidding by a number of potential purchasers.

Eurostar has now been in service for just over 20 years, and in 2013, for the first time carried over 10 million passengers – an impressive achievement, although one which was originally promised to happen within five years of the train starting operation.

With travel time of as little as 2 hrs 20 mins from central London to central Paris, taking the train is faster than flying, while also being immeasurably more comfortable, pleasant, and, for those who wish it, productive as well.  Most people I know in either London or Paris would never dream of flying to the other city any more.

Roundtrip fares are as low as $100 (but usually cost appreciably more).  The train, which got off to a rocky financial start, has reported modest net profits for the last several years.

More details here.

Update – Electric and Self Driving Cars

An interesting study by McKinsey & Co was released this week that suggests self-driving cars would reduce auto accidents by 90% and – in the US alone – save $190 billion in costs each year that otherwise arise from such accidents.

Interestingly, our first steps towards self-driving cars are already benefitting us.  The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety estimates that there is a 14% reduction in accident claims when vehicles are fitted with current auto-braking systems.

A reduction in accidents and related costs of 90% and $190 billion would be transformative for our economy and our life styles.  The chances are you know at least one person who died or was seriously injured in a car accident – imagine if that no longer was as prevalent as it is today.  Imagine our insurance rates dropping to 10% of what they are now.  And imagine also, according to the McKinsey report, freeing up 50 minutes every day due to self-driving cars.

This needs to be made a national priority.  We’ve made seat belts and air bags (and many other things) mandatory, we even now legislate on mandatory fuel economy issues and all manner of other things to do with cars.  Why not add these extra features to the mandatory list of safety features too.  And urgently quickly.

Even if the government doesn’t help fund the R&D to accelerate the development of these technologies, it should surely be rewriting the laws as will be needed to allow for and encourage self-driving cars.  Details here.

One of the things that continues to surprise me about the Tesla is that it has no apparent competition.  There’s nothing particularly clever about a Tesla – it is very similar to many other electric vehicles, other than having an appealing stylish design, more batteries, more powerful motors, and a much higher price tag.  Take a Nissan Leaf, add extra batteries to it, and you have the same range; make its motor(s) more powerful, and you have comparable acceleration.  The batteries are generic batteries, and electric motor technology is mature and little changed in decades.  In surprising reality, there’s no ‘secret sauce’ in a Tesla at all.

Anyone else could create a similar vehicle, and one would think that the large auto companies with mass production and economies of scale could do so and sell them at a much lower price.  So, why doesn’t the Tesla Model S – first shipped almost three years ago, in June 2012, have any competitors with similar range and power (and ideally a much lower price)?

I’ve no answer to that, but perhaps Tesla is about to finally get a relevant competitor – indeed, from a vehicle with slightly greater range, and almost certainly, much lower cost.

Details of this new vehicle here.

Stupid Travelers, Parts 1, 2 and 3

Two tourists from Illinois were vacationing in Wales and wanted to go visit an island half a mile off the coast.  They had a rental car, and as some of us seek to prove, rental cars are capable of many amazing things.

This couple clearly believed that claim, and after programming the island’s location into their GPS, proceeded to follow the route indicated, and apparently failed to realize that the line across the water to the island indicated the seasonal ferry route.

So, yes, they drove the vehicle into the sea.  And, no, the vehicle did not float.

Details here.

Much more cautious was a New York couple, who booked and paid for an $80,000 honeymoon – a deluxe African safari in Mozambique and South Africa.

But upon learning of the Ebola scare, over 3,000 miles away in western Africa, they cancelled their safari, only to discover that they were up for cancellation fees.  Their response is to sue their travel agent for $30,000, plus another $50,000 in punitive damages.  ‘If only he’d told us about the $4000 travel insurance policy, we’d of course have bought it’ is their claim.

Details here.

Our third stupid couple come from Germany.  They decided it would be smart to spray some graffiti on a train in Singapore.

The good news is that they’re not going to suffer capital punishment.  But Singapore tracked them to Malaysia, deported them, and they have now been sentenced to three lashes of the cane and nine months in prison.

And, yes, my money’s on Singapore for this one.  There’s a reason that Singapore is so clean and tidy, and now these two young louts will find – perhaps for the first time in their lives – that in some places, inappropriate actions do have consequences.

Details here.

And Lastly This Week….

The ridiculous hype and unreasoning fear of what were formerly known as children’s toys and now referred to as drones continues unabated.  This week saw a Committee Chairwoman in Britain’s House of Lords call for a database to register all drones and their owners in the UK.  In support of this, she said

It would just take one disastrous accident to destroy public confidence and set the whole industry back

While we appreciate her desire to assist the drone industry, one has to wonder two things.  First, how can a database prevent accidents?  And, secondly, just exactly how disastrous an accident can one have with a child’s toy?  Details here.

Talking about crazy reactions to modern technology, there’s another distressing outcome in Europe reported this week.  In Europe, books are subject to a lower rate of VAT than most other goods as part of encouraging the development of a well read and well educated populace.  France and Luxembourg decided to apply this same reduced tax rate to e-Books as well, for fairly obvious reasons, one would think.  But the European Commission disagreed, and the European Court of Justice has now ruled that the lower tax rate for hard-copy books does not apply also to e-Books and is requiring France and Belgium to increase their tax collections accordingly.

The court ‘reasoned’ that e-Books are not goods, but are actually services, and therefore must be taxed at the higher rate.

I’m not sure what is the more surprising here.  The court’s contra-public policy ruling, or the fact that sovereign nations can be forced to increase their tax rates by an external body – or, perhaps most surprising of all, that this was a court case to force governments to increase rather than decrease the taxes they collect!  Details here.

And now truly lastly this week, the unfortunate photo that opened today’s newsletter is of course a photo of a tasty sun-dried tomato sandwich, served by Delta.  Why – what on earth did you think it might have been, instead?

Here’s an article highlighting some of the best/worst pictures from airlinemeals.net, including the Delta picture.

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels, and eat before you go – otherwise, you might need to go after you eat!






3 thoughts on “Weekly Roundup, Friday 6 March 2015”

  1. Hi David,
    I wanted to read the article and see the pictures about airline “meals” but for some unknown reason the Thai government has blocked the link to the site. Why? Who knows. I don’t read Thai and even if I did, it still would most likely remain a mystery. If you have a chance can you email me the url info? Now I’m really curious. (Was there a meal on Thai Airlines included?)

    1. Hi, Fran

      Nice to hear from you. How strange that the url is blocked. I’ll email it to you, but I’m not sure that will circumvent the blocking.

      Hope all is well


  2. I wrote this back in March, 2014; nobody paid attention. Anybody besides me tired of endless MH270 speculation?
    “Every country that has satellites, can read the writing on a dime sitting on the surface of the earth. Any one of them had time to position their satellite in order to watch 5 or 6 hours of MH370. Those countries include USA, Russia, China, India, Israel, UK, France & who knows who else. At least one of those countries was watching the flight. If it crashed, somebody watched and knows. If it landed, somebody watched and knows. Common sense is NOT rocket science.”

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