Weekly Roundup, Friday 21 August 2015

Amazing picture this week of a DL plane at ATL being struck by lightning on the ground.
Amazing picture this week of a DL plane at ATL being struck by lightning on the ground.

Good morning

An unusual feature article this week, and in two parts.  Friends visited Tanzania in January, and have been eagerly and excitedly badgering me ever since – to write about it, to go there myself, and perhaps even to take a Travel Insider tour there.

As you may have sensed, Africa has formerly been somewhat outside my comfort zone, but after doing some research, I was surprised to see that Tanzania can be approachable and comfortably enjoyable, and for sure, it seems to have some amazing sights and experiences.  The two part article follows after this week’s roundup.

Talking about far away places, I had to send some paperwork to Moscow this week.  Fedex and other courier companies offered to do it in two or three days for $100 – $150; whereas the Postal Service said it could do so almost as quickly for only $49.95.  A day or two of extra time for a $100 saving – that sounded sensible to me, and so I made a trip to the Post Office for the first time in a long time, waited in a line that stretched out the door, and eventually got to wait a second time for the inefficient process of having the counter lady accept my envelope and then laboriously transcribe the hand-written ‘nothing to declare’ Customs form I’d written (twice on two different forms, it being unclear which applied) into her computer, accept payment, stick labels on the envelope, etc.

To me, $50 is a lot of money for sending a thin sheaf of papers to Russia (it was going to be an almost equally ridiculous $35 merely to have them go north of the border into Canada), and so I was hoping for great things and signed up for the real time tracking notifications as the envelope made its way to its destination.

Alas, not so great outcomes.  It took two whole days (47 hours) for the package to travel from Seattle to San Francisco (arriving Wednesday midday), and as of late Thursday night, nothing has been heard since.  In the same time that other services could get my package all the way to Moscow (including collecting it from me in the first place) the Postal Service has only been able to move it from a Post Office in Bellevue WA to one in San Francisco, CA.  One wonders just how much faster this is than sticking a regular stamp on the envelope and sending it via normal first class mail.

Maybe this is why the USPS is losing money (a staggering airline-sized $5.5 billion in 2014, and almost $50 billion in total over the last decade) – an abject inability to provide a fair service at a fair price.

Anyway, please continue reading for :

  • 787 – Safe or Not?
  • MH370 Wreckage – or Not?
  •  How Travel Companies ‘Hate Sell’ to Their Customers
  • Norwegian Adding More Service to the US
  • Making the TSA More Accountable?  As If…..
  • Why the Duty Free Shop Asks for your Boarding Pass
  • Hello, Cuba
  • What Genius Thought This Up?
  • And Lastly This Week….

787 – Safe or Not?

It is a while – close to two years – since I was last writing headlines like that, and in the two years that have passed since the grounding of the planes and their ‘run of bad luck’ (ie propensity to catch fire), the planes have proven to become acceptably reliable (dispatch rates – ie, last minute troubles interfering with flights being operated – slightly lower than hoped for, but close), there have been no more problems with the batteries, and nothing else outstandingly concerning either.

Plus, we’ve seen the fleet grow from just over 50 to now a total of 304 planes, and instead of a bare few years of total flying time back when the problems were occurring,  we’re probably now at between 500 – 700 years of operational history/experience.  So the lack of problems is significant, in a good/positive way.

This week saw the release of the report into the Ethiopian Airlines 787 that caught fire while sitting and ‘switched off’ on the tarmac at Heathrow in July 2013.  The report was not at all revelatory, with its primary finding – poorly routed wiring – having already been largely understood and responded to.  Yawns all around.

Well, yawns all around, except for various unnamed experts who were quick to call for still more reviews of the battery safety issues with 787s.  Two years ago, I was enthusiastically supporting the calls that were circulating for such reviews then, and indeed, reviews took place and changes were made.

But now – after two safe years of fleet operation all around the world?  Not so much.  While I’m still not rushing to take a 787 flight, I’d no longer strenuously avoid it either.

I’ve been as fast as anyone to express concerns with the 787, but this latest set of unnamed experts calling for yet another safety review after an incident two years ago, and plenty of safety reviews in the interim, and no problems in the growing fleet of planes ever since, seems like overkill.

MH370 Wreckage – or Not?

Another airline mystery is of course the mysterious disappearance of MH 370, and the discovery, three weeks ago, of what may be a ‘flaperon’ that possibly came from the vanished plane and washed up on Reunion.

So is it a 777 flaperon, and is it from MH 370?  We still don’t officially know.  Apparently the French authorities have now ‘completed their investigation’ but they’ve yet to reveal their conclusions.

This isn’t rocket science.  It is a dead simple thing that should have been able to be done, pretty much on the beach, on Reunion, and within 24 hours of finding the part.  But instead, three weeks later, we are now hearing rumors that the French have finally made up their minds, but they’re not yet deigning to share their decision with anyone else.

What is the reason for the delay?

How Travel Companies ‘Hate Sell’ to Their Customers

Here’s an interesting article that coins a memorable phrase to describe how travel companies try to up-sell their customers :  hate selling.

Rather than focusing on the positive enhancements that a higher fare ticket or a better hotel room would bring you, these companies choose to focus on the negative bad experiences associated with their entry level products.  As the article says, they metaphorically say ‘upgrade or else’.

What other industry tries to upgrade by saying ‘this is a terrible product which you’ll hate and have problems with, so you should spend more money to get a less bad version’?  Most industries at least pretend that their entry level product is good, while lavishing praise on their upgraded options – but, of course, most other industries have competitors who would swoop in if a company described its entry level product as awful.

This is just another sign of how messed up the travel industry, and airlines in particular, has become.  But the answer is not a return to government regulation, the answer is to remove the remaining abundant aspects of pre-existing regulation.  Make it easier for airlines to start business and compete.

Sure, this will bring about a chorus of concern about how we can’t trust the airlines to follow industry standard safety practices if they weren’t regulated every which way and if safety weren’t policed and mandated, but the reality is there’s precious little policing in the modern day approach to self-regulated safety and self-reporting of violations and even less willful violation.  The marketplace downsides to an airline – even without competition – are just too enormous.

And while we’d all prefer to have our loved ones safely fly than to be enrichened by the proceeds of a wrongful death/negligence lawsuit if disaster befell them, why not remove the restrictions on suing airlines for accidents so as to give them a very direct added motivation to continue adhering to what are, in happy reality, sky-high safety standards that see, many years, no major passenger jet accidents/fatalities anywhere in the US.

Norwegian Adding More Service to the US

A classic example of how still regulated our ‘deregulated’ airlines truly are, and how the governmental regulatory authorities are preventing rather than boosting competition, is Norwegian Air Shuttle and its attempts to bring low cost flights across the Atlantic to the US.

If you don’t think we would benefit from low cost travel across the Atlantic and another airline offering service, by all means skip to the next article.  But for the rest of you, please keep reading.

The dinosaur airlines have successfully enmired Norwegian in layers of needless bureaucracy, making complaints about every aspect of the airline’s compliance with paperwork and regulations.  Nothing to do with safety, mind you, but rather to do with which EU country the airline might be headquartered in and operating from.  Folks – who cares?  If the airline can operate safely, let’s welcome them into the US with open arms!

Norwegian’s plans for US expansion remain frustrated and largely on hold, and trans-Atlantic airfares remain high.  But the airline is able to add service between Boston and Gatwick, Copenhagen and Oslo under its less contentious and more costly business model, to start in May next year.

Introductory fares will be available for as little as $215 to Oslo, $229 to Copenhagen and $244 to Gatwick.  Bad news – fares are one-way not roundtrip.  But good news – fares include taxes and other charges!  You can see their wonderful prices on their website.

Oh – guess what.  British Airways and Virgin Atlantic almost instantly announced they were lowering the cost of their Boston fares to match.

Competition – it’s a wonderful thing, when it can actually make its way past the government roadblocks preventing it.

Making the TSA More Accountable?  As If…..

Social media types were very excited this week (as they seem to be, all the time, and about all things) at the news that the TSA had now ‘claimed’ its Yelp account.

Yelp, if you don’t already know, was originally a restaurant locating and reviewing phone app that has grown and extended the range of products it will accept reviews about, even to schools and other public services.  Sort of like a TripAdvisor on steroids.

People have been posting reviews of their TSA experiences on Yelp for some time, and now the TSA has said – well, it’s not exactly clear what it has said, but it is now officially (rather than unofficially) acknowledging the existence of Yelp and reviews of TSA experiences.  Conceivably in the future it might even start posting rejoinders to some of the reviews posted, probably akin to the glib one-liners that make you wish you had a right-of-reply that sometimes get appended to TripAdvisor reviews.

But will this make the TSA any more accountable?  It seems the TSA ‘stays the course’ and ignores public perceptions and unhappiness, while offering platitudes about how we couldn’t possibly understand just how good they really are, or the need for what they do, and, of course, they could explain further, but due to security reasons, they can’t, so we should just trust them.  Oh yes, we should also ignore those pesky reports about how they miss 95% of all the guns and knives that are successfully smuggled past them, and concentrate instead on their self-congratulatory notes about the 5% of guns they do find.  And never mind the $160 million they’ve spent on whole body imaging scanners that seem to actually not work very well at all.

Where in Yelp can one comment on those issues?  Who cares if the line is long or short, the screener surly or smiling, if the actual screening process is 95% useless?

Why the Duty Free Shop Asks for Your Boarding Pass

It happens everywhere in the world – you buy something in an airport duty free shop, and they ask to see your boarding pass.  I’ve never even questioned it – presumably they need to ‘prove’ you’re on an international flight, although it is either a very weak proof (borrow someone else’s boarding pass) or unnecessary (in an exclusively international departure terminal and/or the goods are delivered to the jet way).

These days, many ‘duty free’ shops at airports offer little or no benefit over buying from a store back home, particularly for American travelers, who are generally blessed with the lowest retail prices for most goods.  It always amuses me to be able to buy things more cheaply, and with valid warranties, from stores in the US than from markets in China, close to where the items were made.  Now that few countries impose much duty on imported goods at all, there’s little room for saving, and such saving as may exist is more than outweighed by the greedy fees charged by airports to their retail stores, and of course, the desire on the part of the retail stores to maximize their profit too.

So I look and laugh at the price of alcohol and electronics in duty free stores, marveling at how much cheaper it all is through Costco or Amazon back home.  But sometimes I’ll buy some confectionary, or a book, or something, and am puzzled why I have to show my boarding card, even for those items, usually at full normal retail price.  If I’m feeling bored, I’ll even ask, and get a blank look and shrug back.  Clearly the cashiers are just following orders.

The answer for why stores ask for boarding passes was disclosed this week.  It is for their benefit, not ours (now that’s a surprise – not!).  If they sell goods to an internationally departing passenger, in many jurisdictions that means they can claim back any VAT that was included in the retail price.  With European VAT rates sometimes in excess of 20%, that’s a lot of reclaimable money.

Apparently you are not required to show your boarding pass at all.  And because the shops refuse to give back any of the VAT that sighting your boarding pass allows them to claim back, there’s now some pushback from enlightened passengers who are refusing to do so.

Hello, Cuba

President Obama seeks to do another end-run around Congress, this time to accelerate the liberalization of travel policies to Cuba, making it easier for Americans to visit.  The next steps are to allow regular scheduled air service, to allow people to visit Cuba other than as part of officially approved groups limited to officially approved ‘social’ purposes, and to allow for banking ties so that we can use credit cards rather than exclusively cash.

It is thought that scheduled air service could be in place by the end of the year.  And meantime, travel from the US is up 40% this year already, and AA announced new charter flights from Los Angeles to Havana.

The prospect of open travel to Cuba has some of the other Caribbean nations in a panic, however, including the Bahamas which is thought to be one of the most affected.  These islands fear they will lose out, because people may now prefer to go to Cuba than their nations.

But, curiously, some nations may benefit – it is thought that a significant number of Canadians and other nationals, people who currently go to Cuba, will choose not to go to Cuba any more due to the influx of Americans who would ‘spoil’ the experience for them.

What Genius Thought This Up?

MSC Cruises has changed its policy on giving/selling/restricting water to its guests.

In a liberalization of its former rules, it will now allow a more generous policy, but only to North American passengers on its European cruises.  It will give free unlimited bottled water to Americans and Canadians, during lunches and dinners in the dining room, but passengers from other countries will have to pay for their water.  We understand that no-one will be allowed free tap water.

So there you are, at a table for eight, with a mix of nationalities.  Some of you will be charged for water while others of you get it for free.  That really helps the group dynamic, doesn’t it.  And makes the non-North American guests feel really welcome!

In related cruise/drinking news, Disney is joining the other exploitive cruise lines that refuse to allow their guests to bring their own spirits on board the ship with them.  At least Disney does allow passengers to bring limited quantities of wine and beer on board.

There’s something more than mildly distasteful at the thought of a cruise line searching through your baggage and confiscating one’s choice of drinks, isn’t there.  Clearly, the Prohibition mindset is still perilously close.  Two words for those who still want to bring their own liquor with them – Beerbelly and Winerack.

And Lastly This Week….

‘It is the airline’s fault’, said the passenger in question.  ‘The toilet is too small’.  This was the excuse after, ahem, defecating in the aisle.

On the other hand, according to this article, the excuse may increasingly become valid with the introduction of a new generation of even tinier airplane toilets, albeit more so for larger adults than smaller children.

So what is a person to do?  Drive, instead, is the answer many people choose.  But have you noticed that although the price of crude oil has continued to fall, and $35/barrel oil now looks possible again, the price of gas at the pump bottomed out and has risen appreciably once more (almost 50% in WA)?  Here’s one possible reason why that is so.

To end on a possibly positive note, here are some amusing pictures of cruising and cruisers, taken ‘way back’ in the 1990s.  My goodness me – when did the 1990s become ‘way back’?

Oh – and the picture of the DL plane being struck by lightning?  Here’s the video of the event.

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels





2 thoughts on “Weekly Roundup, Friday 21 August 2015”

  1. In regards to your complaints about Postal Service service… You had a choice and chose the less expensive and slower option. The line out the door is a function of each person in line has a non-standard request. It is not just drop, pay and go as with a private delivery service. With international mail, USPS delivers it to the foreign country’s postal service for delivery to the address and has to revenue share with this country. These are external factors that private delivery firms do not have to deal with. They have their own network and can charge whatever they deem the market will bear. USPS has to deal with a pricing board, customers who feel market price is too high, and international treaties (in this specific case) when setting prices for it services.
    As for the time since the last scan of your package, just how what are you expecting? The travel time from San Francisco to Moscow is 16 hours non-stop and I would be willing to bet big money that your package did not go non-stop to Moscow.

    Oh and a good portion of that deficit that is retirement benefits Congress stuck USPS with. There are high number of double dippers and Congress decided that USPS had to fund all of their retirement and health benefits, not just the benefits earned through USPS.

    1. David Rowell – Seattle, WA, USA – New Zealander now living in the United States.

      I chose an option that promised a 3 – 5 day delivery time. It ultimately took nine days. Lousy service to hand the package in, and even worse service and a totally broken promise to deliver the package.

      I should have put a regular first class stamp on the envelope and dropped it in my mailbox at home – it would have ended up taking about the same time as the $50 fee for the ‘fast’ service.

      What was I expecting? I was expecting what I was promised. 3 – 5 days of service, and a reasonable rather than unreasonable wait at the Post Office.

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