Weekly Roundup, Friday 11 September 2015

A 'novelty alarm clock'.  Also something you shouldn't pack in your luggage when next flying.  See last item.
A ‘novelty alarm clock’. Also something you shouldn’t pack in your luggage when next flying. See last item.

Good morning

Expectations were high at the Apple product launch event in San Francisco on Wednesday morning.  Well, while many articles are opening with that lede, the truth is that expectations are almost always high whenever Apple holds a product launch.

The added frisson today was that Apple staged the event at a much larger venue than it has done in the recent past (the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium), with some observers suggesting a bigger venue meant more exciting products.  Plus, after the muted success (a polite way of saying ‘disappointment’) of the Apple Watch earlier this year, people are still seeking confirmation that Apple, after the death of Steve Jobs (Oct 11, 2011), has retained the moxie and mojo to justify its sky-high (but faltering) stock price and to continue its amazing streak of successful product innovations into the future.

Unlike in the past when Apple tended to keep a very effective lock down on any details of what it would be releasing, there was a fairly broad understanding of what was to be released – new iPhones, a larger iPad, new bands for the Watch, an updated streaming TV product, and of course, much hope and speculation about something transformational and truly exciting.

As it turned out, the rumors and speculation were close to 100% accurate, even correctly guessing the model numbers for the new iPhone and the name for the new iPad, but the hope for something truly great was essentially unfulfilled.  This was mirrored in a 1.9% fall in Apple’s stock price on Wednesday, a fall all the more significant because unlike most previous release events, there had been no anticipatory lift in the share price prior to the event.

The first product covered at the event was Apple’s disappointing Watch.  It was significant that while Apple boasted about the high customer satisfaction that Watch purchasers report, and the growing number of Watch apps, they remained obdurately silent on a key metric – the number of Watches sold.

In the hope that the proverb ‘a fool and his money are soon parted’ is factually based, Apple announced a new Hermes branded Watch and band, at a $1250 price point.  The main ‘claim to fame’ of the Hermes styled watch is that the band loops around your wrist twice, rather than once.  If that’s your thing, good luck to you (and even better luck to Apple at having found someone offering up $1250 for this silly affectation of a style).  Oh, and if you only wanted a ‘normal’ Hermes watch band, without the gratuitous extra loop, that is available too, and the price reduces to ‘only’ $1100.

Indeed, with each passing day, buying a Watch makes less and less sense, for two reasons.  The first reason is the growing number of appealing alternate watch devices coming to the market with similar or better features and much lower price points.  The second reason is that the first generation Watch is getting older and its remaining life cycle is getting shorter.  It seems reasonable to assume Apple will replace the current Watch series with a new range of better watches early next year (better as in longer battery life, video camera, and maybe some other features too), making all the current model range no longer ‘the latest greatest thing’, and for the dedicated follower of fashion, there’d be a need to junk their costly first generation watches and buy new second generation watches.

This points to a third reason to hold off buying a Watch at present.  When the second generation of Watches are released, look for a flood of first generation Watches appearing on Craigslist and eBay, and probably at fairly hefty discounts off their sky-high list prices.

Talking about buying things, the real ‘meat’ of the launch event was the new large-screened iPad Pro, giving you now a choice of three screen sizes in the iPad lineup.  Which one would be best for you?  Glad you asked that question – I’ve written an article to answer it, and it is copied after tonight’s roundup.

And, briefly, Apple also launched its latest iPhones, only slightly different to last year’s models.  If you have last year’s iPhone 6 or 6 Plus, there’s precious little reason to now upgrade to the new 6S or 6S Plus; but if you still have a 5 or earlier iPhone, you’ll love the larger screen on the new models.

Apple also announced an interesting ‘auto-upgrade’ plan for its phones.  Pay $32 or slightly more a month, and that gets you the ability to exchange your phone for the latest model each year when the new phones are released.  That sounds like quite a lot of money, but with most of the wireless companies either building a comparable amount into their two year contracts, or charging you an extra amount for phone purchase over and above their service fees each month, it actually proves to be moderately competitive, and the Apple sourced phone is unlocked, making it easy for you to switch wireless providers any time you choose to.

This might be an appealing option if you know you like to have the latest phone each year, ‘whether you need it or not’, rather than paying penalties or waiting two years between updating your phone.  Of course it also means you don’t get to build up a top drawer full of increasingly older and more obsolete ‘spare’ phones!

Also this week, please continue reading for :

  • Plane Evacuation :  The Person’s Life You Endanger May be Your Own
  • United’s Naughty CEO Fired
  • Lufthansa Strikes
  • European River Cruising Boom
  • New Solution to Prevent You Going Stir Crazy in Your Hotel Room
  • TSA Chief :  Screeners Who Molest Passengers Need Better Training
  • And Lastly This Week

Plane Evacuation :  The Person’s Life You Endanger May be Your Own

A BA 777 had one of its engines catch on fire while taxiing on the ground prior to taking-off from Las Vegas earlier this week.  Fortunately, all that was needed was for the plane to quickly come to a halt, open the emergency exits, and have the passengers evacuate down the slides, and even more fortunately, apart from the inevitable scrapes and scratches when people evacuate down the slides, and some smoke inhalation, no-one was serious injured.

Many pictures, often taken by the evacuating passengers themselves, showed the passengers making their way across the tarmac, from the plane, while clutching one or two pieces of sometimes sizeable carryon luggage.  This was in direct contravention of the evacuation instructions issued on the plane, asking passengers to leave everything behind and make their way directly to an emergency exit and evacuate the plane.  Perhaps because the plane was only 58% full, or perhaps because the accident occurred with no apparent sense of drama or danger associated with it, what seems to be at least half the passengers ignored that instruction and took time to grab their belongings before deplaning.

It is not yet clear how long it took to evacuate the plane, and while there are reports of near panic on board the plane, it seems that the evacuation of a barely-more-than-half-full plane, through apparently all its emergency exits, may have taken more than three minutes (some sources are saying five minutes) – twice as long as the time it is supposed to take a full plane to empty itself through only half its emergency exits.  In other words, the observed rate of emergency evacuation proceed eight times  slower than the official speed it is supposed to take.

Even more distressing are many of the comments quoted in this BBC article, offered up by ignorant self-centered know-it-alls, people who saw no harm in delaying their exit to collect their belongings, and asserting their intention to do so if they ever had to evacuate a plane themselves.

Now, here’s the thing.  The 777 keeps its fuel in wing tanks directly above the engines.  Look at page 5 of this article to see where the fuel is kept.  With a long flight to London ahead of it, the plane probably had close to full tanks – perhaps 40,000 gallons of jet fuel.  While jet fuel isn’t particularly inflammable, if it does start to burn, it gives off a lot of heat and energy, and, as witness the World Trade Center, the fuel burns hot enough not just to melt metal but to cause the metal itself to burn as well (aluminum burns ‘really well’ once it gets hot enough).

Sure, there are lots of safety measures to protect the fuel, but there are also lots of safety measures to prevent engines from catching fire too.  Clearly, if you’ve got an engine burning enthusiastically, something has gone wrong, and perhaps the first failure/problem might then lead to subsequent failures/problems, either obvious/predictable or not obvious and unpredictable.  A plane with a strong fire burning immediately below tens of thousands of gallons of jet fuel is randomly close to transitioning from an inconvenience to a tragedy.

The same is true, to varying extents, of any other sort of plane emergency.  You’ve no way of knowing what semi-random misfortunate might not follow from the first misfortune, and on from there.  A plane that has just done an emergency landing will have smoking hot brakes – add an oil or fuel leak, and there’s a problem.  And so on.  When something has gone wrong, other things might be about to also go wrong, in a cascading series of events that ends in a deadly disaster, no matter how safe and contained the situation appears to start.

Now, for the benefit of people who agree with the comments cited above about things like ‘I have my carryon underneath the seat in front of me, taking it with me won’t slow anyone down’ – that’s a total misperception.  The aisle space gets filled with ‘stuff’ rather than people, maybe you drop it and then there’s an obstacle in the way of everyone, maybe you bend down to pick it up and someone tramples over the top of you.  You can’t move as adroitly, you will be slower getting on to the slide, and perhaps more likely to injure yourself when you race down the slide.  Whatever you’re carrying might break open at the bottom of the slide, interfering with other people and their ability to quickly get off the slide.  And so on.

Even if you have a window seat and decide to wait until everyone else has got off the plane, then collect your belongings and sedately move to the exit, inconveniencing no-one else in the process, you’re wrong.  At least in theory, the cabin crew should be waiting for you to get off before they abandon the plane themselves.  And if you fail to get off safely, you’re then inconveniencing rescue workers, paramedics, morticians, and so on.

There’s also the ‘monkey see, monkey do’ principle.  If you set a bad example, you encourage other people to follow the same bad example – ‘Look, he is taking his backpack with him, and if he is doing this, I will too’.

There’s no downside to leaving stuff behind on the plane.  If there is no danger, then you’ll be able to retrieve the objects subsequently, and they’ll be unharmed.  If there is a danger, then the time you save by leaving them on the plane might mean the difference between you getting off safely or not.

Here’s an ugly secret which insiders know but no-one wants to talk about, and which I touched on above.  The testing that is done to ‘prove’ that a plane can be evacuated in less than the 90 seconds required by the FAA is unrealistic and substantially more favorable than the reality of what a real-world evacuation could be like, and indeed this specific evacuation seems to have proceeded eight times more slowly than the FAA certification requires.

Here’s a great video of the testing of the A380 evacuation, and you’ll notice that the people in the test all look alert and able bodied.  None are drunk, none have taken sleeping tablets, all are like tightly coiled springs expecting the evacuation command, and none have any carry-on things to take with them, or the accumulated mess of stuff all around them that happens on a long flight when they get to leave their seats.  For that matter, none of the seats have broken free.  None of the pretend evacuees were injured in whatever the emergency was, and while the cabin has been darkened, the emergency lights are all working, and there is no smoke or flames.

Bottom line.  If you’re on a plane and, for whatever reason at all, you are commanded to evacuate down the emergency slides, no matter how ordinary and safe everything appears to you, treat it as a ticking time bomb likely to literally explode at any second, and move with all possible haste (but not panic) to and out of the nearest emergency exit, and once you’re on the ground, move smartly as far away from the plane as you can.

Not only will the people behind you thank you for your alacrity; the life you save might be your own.

United’s Naughty CEO Fired

Talking about making a fast exit; now you see him, now you don’t.  Former United Airlines CEO Jeff Smisek made a sudden departure on Tuesday this week, with allegations of corruption involving United re-instating a loss-making route between Newark and Columbia, SC, apparently primarily for the personal benefit of the former Chairman of the Port Authority of NY & NJ who liked to commute down to Columbia for weekends at a vacation home, and for possible reciprocal favors secured.

As well as giving up his CEO position, Smisek also ceased to be a Director, the company’s President, and its Chairman.  Not exactly a role model for theories of ‘good governance’ (which recommend separate people for the President, CEO and Chairman positions).

A new CEO was immediately appointed (an astonishing event).  And as for Smisek, he’s probably not too distressed.  He gets a $4.88 million severance package, accelerated vesting of stock options worth $3.5 million, and is also getting a pro rated share of this year’s probable performance award (which could be another $2 million), plus various other things, comprising in total at least $28.6 million.  He also gets to keep his company car and enjoy free flights for the rest of his life, plus cash in addition to the free flights to ensure that any taxes on the value of those free flights are also reimbursed.

If that’s what you get for being naughty, who would ever want to be good?

Lufthansa Strikes

Talking about naughty people, Lufthansa has just had its 13th strike in 18 months, spanning Tuesday and Wednesday of this week, and impacting on its US services as well as its shorter haul routes within Europe.  The airline is at odds with its pilots for the usual sort of reasons – it is seeking to ‘cut its costs’ and wishes to come up with a cost structure more in line with airlines such as Ryanair.

It is a funny thing – when dinosaur airlines talk about the new low cost carriers, on the one hand they’ll claim to be massively better than the low cost carriers and complacently say they are able to charge extra to their passengers, who (they claim) will happily pay a premium for the ‘better service’ with the dinosaur airline, but when the dinosaur is talking to its staff, it will commonly insist that its cost base must be dropped down to match the lowest of the low.

The pilots might perhaps have a clear view of this hypocrisy, hence their obduracy.  On the other hand they have offered concessions to the airline, but Lufthansa wants more.

On Wednesday LH won a court ruling that seems to restrict the pilots from further strikes, but the pilots say they are studying the ruling and keeping their options open.  The bottom line for us as passengers is that any travel on Lufthansa or on airlines code-sharing with LH (hello, United) has an extra gratuitous element of uncertainty associated with it, at least until the airline and its pilots settle their differences.  What with Lufthansa’s recent action seeking to add an $18 booking fee to all flights booked other than directly with itself, there is no reason to fly LH at present and plenty of reasons to avoid it.

European River Cruising Boom

One of the phenomenons of the past 20 years has been our ‘discovery’ of river cruising in Europe.  What was once a tiny ‘special interest’ sector has grown and grown and, yes, grown some more, with this year expected to see more Americans on European river cruises than any other nationality (formerly the most common cruisers were German).

A lot of the growth in river cruising started after 1992, when the Main-Danube canal in central Bavaria connected the Danube river system stretching to the east all the way to the Black Sea, with the Main and Rhine rivers stretching to the West and South, all the way to the North Sea.  This allowed for more varied itineraries and gave the cruise operators more flexibility in terms of how and where they located their ships.  Another innovation was when the cruise operators ‘discovered’ they could successfully extend the river cruising season – formerly limited to the summer and some of the spring and fall – all the way into the winter, by selling Christmas Market cruises, making it easier for them to profit from a greater utilization from their fixed investment in ships.

The number of American and Canadian passengers in 2014 were up 33% from 2013, and this year is looking very good, particularly with the weak Euro/strong dollar.  It seems all the cruise lines are building still more ships, with cruise lines that ten years ago were just starting up (most notably Amawaterways) now boasting 16 ships around Europe, and all the cruise lines having increased the size and quality of their ships to a level of luxury that was unthinkable, even a mere decade before.

This is causing increasing congestion however in the peak summer season, with more and more ships arriving in ports and ‘rafting’ alongside each other to share the limited mooring space in the towns along the rivers.  Mind you, to put things in perspective, 20 river cruise ships in total might have no more passengers than one single large ocean going cruise ship (typically most river cruise ships have 150 – 175 passenger capacities).

River cruising remains my favorite way of seeing Europe, and the Christmas Market cruises my favorite of all the cruises I’ve been on.  Highly recommended.  We might offer another Travel Insider Christmas Markets cruise in 2016.

New Solution to Prevent You Going Stir Crazy in Your Hotel Room

If you’re on the road for an extended time, spending time alone in your hotel room can become almost claustrophobic and confining, but it isn’t always easy to get out and see/do something different.

Perhaps in recognition of this, Marriott are trialing a new concept in two of their hotels, in partnership with Samsung, allowing guests the use of a virtual reality headset so they can ‘experience’ far away and exotic locations, while never leaving their hotel room.

More details here.

TSA Chief :  Screeners Who Molest Passengers Need Better Training

With recent news of some particularly egregious molestations by TSA screeners of passengers passing through airports (for example this), the TSA head, retired Coast Guard Admiral Peter Neffenger, said

I have a great deal of faith in the workforce.  What we do in the long run is train across the organization — a consistent, foundational training — in the standards that we expect people to adhere to, our core values to treat the traveling public with the dignity and respect you’d expect to be treated with yourself.


So apparently these despicable acts were nothing more than innocent mistakes by well-intentioned TSA screeners who simply had never been sufficiently trained to understand that molesting passengers is bad.

In other news this week, a TSA screener stole a passenger’s $7,500 watch, then smashed it when she feared being caught.  No doubt this is merely an example of the good lady in question not having received sufficient training on the concept of what ‘ownership’ and ‘private property’ actually means.  Isn’t that so, Admiral Neffenger?

One wonders if, in the Coast Guard, when a sailor commits a particularly egregious act, the response is for the Coast Guard to also blame itself for not training the sailor sufficiently.

And in still more TSA news this week, a chance photo of the TSA’s set of master keys for their approved suitcase locks was all that was needed to enable an enterprising hacker to code up a routine for a 3D printer to ‘print’ a duplicate set of the master keys.  Isn’t modern science wonderful.

And Lastly This Week….

What should you not pack in your checked baggage?  Alarm clocks that look like imitation time bombs, perhaps (pictured at the top of the newsletter)?  This was apparently news to a Canadian teenager, who did exactly that.

Interestingly, although a foolish thing to pack, there is apparently no law against doing so.  This caused the police, convinced that if there wasn’t a law, there should be a law, charged the youth with the ‘catch-all’ offense of “interfering with the lawful use, enjoyment or operation of property”.  This is a misdemeanor level offense.

Shouldn’t the police have just blamed it on a lack of training?

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels






1 thought on “Weekly Roundup, Friday 11 September 2015”

  1. I was going to write to you this week because my friend and I have been talking about a Christmas river cruise for next year. I opened up the Weekly Roundup and you had it right there. Thank you.

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