It is a while since I’ve seen a major electronic product release that has really truly excited me, and which caused me to urgently order one as soon as they became available to order. The latest iPhones and iPads – nice, but nothing that I felt I needed to have or which would justify replacing my one generation ago iPhone or two generations ago iPad.
In particular, Amazon have come out with a number of hardware disappointments, most notably their totally failed Phone product, which has now vanished without a trace and with no apparent plans for a successor. They’ve also been releasing a stream of ‘me too’ tablet devices, and although I excitedly bought one of their first ever Kindle Fire tablets when it was released almost exactly four years ago, its then breakthrough price/value of $199 was quickly eclipsed a mere six months later by the very much superior Google Nexus 7, also offered at the $199 price point.
Amazon’s Fire tablets have struggled to make a name for themselves, or to sell well outside Amazon’s own site. Not only has the value proposition become less persuasive, they have all been handicapped by using a crippled/limited version of Android, and with reduced access to only some of the vast universe of Android apps that are available for most other ‘normal’ Android based tablets.
Which brings us to Thursday morning. With very little prior notice, Amazon announced what I’m deeming to be an extraordinary breakthrough of a tablet; one so compelling that I instantly ordered one, even though I already have six tablets (three iPads, two Nexus 7s and the original Kindle Fire). The tablet, called, simply, the ‘Fire’, is a high quality well featured device, the limitations on Amazon’s version of Android are not nearly as restrictive as before, and at a $50 price point, why are you even still reading about the tablet rather than buying one!?
If the price/features value equation isn’t enough reason to get you buying one, there’s a new feature unique to Amazon that they are in the process of releasing. This feature will allow you to save streamed movies and tv shows (the free ones you get via a Prime membership) to the device and watch at a later time. As a traveler, this is a huge deal – it seems you can fill your Fire device with video entertainment while at home with fast Wi-Fi, then you can watch video on flights and in hotel rooms without having to worry about slow or no internet connections.
The fine print about this feature is a bit confusing, but I’ll know more when my new Fire tablet arrives on 30 September.
Well, perhaps, one more thing before you rush off to Amazon’s site and possibly even choose to take advantage of their ‘buy six and pay only for five’ offer (how unthinkable it seems that tablets are now being offered in six-packs!) you might want to read my more detailed review and analysis of the Fire tablet, which follows on after tonight’s newsletter.
Oh – and as for Google and its wonderfully priced Nexus 7 product?. Sadly, it is no more. Google now has a Nexus 9 (ie 9″ screen) device which is priced much higher at $399 – no compelling bargain there at all.
Also this week, please keep reading for :
- Airbus comes to America; Boeing goes to China?
- Bad News if Your Flight is ‘Interrupted’
- Naughty AA
- A Surprising Possible Reason Why Passengers Take Baggage with them in an Emergency Airplane Evacuation
- Was the BA 777 Fire Due to a Known Problem?
- The Pilot Did It
- And Lastly This Week
Airbus comes to America; Boeing goes to China?
Two interesting trends this week, with more in common than might be first apparent. In Mobile, AL, Airbus celebrated the opening of its A320 Final Assembly Line, a concept first floated in slightly different form ten years ago, when Airbus was bidding on the Air Force contract for replacement tankers. Airbus offered to assemble the tankers in the US to help make it more palatable for the contract to be awarded to a largely non-US company, but after eventually failing in the final round of bidding for the contract, Airbus decided to persevere with its plan to open a plant in Mobile, albeit now to construct single aisle A320 series passenger planes.
The first plane to be completed in Mobile is expected to take to the air in the first quarter of next year. About 1000 people will be employed in the plant.
Also this week, final details have been announced of a visit by Chinese President Xi Jingping to Boeing’s assembly plant in Washington state next week, and there is some speculation that this might be either the precursor to, or the venue for an announcement about, Boeing’s plans to set up a ‘completion and delivery’ center somewhere in China. This is something Boeing has been angling for over the last couple of years, and which is thought to offer Boeing several advantages – a better/closer relationship with the enormous Chinese market, freeing up some capacity in the US to allow it to assemble more planes, more quickly, in total, and probably some cost advantages by employing Chinese workers in China rather than US union workers in the Seattle area.
Airbus already has a final assembly line in Tianjin.
Bad News if Your Flight is ‘Interrupted’
Longer-in-the-tooth fliers (which means most of us) will remember the good old days of flying when we had two comforting safety mechanisms in the event of anything interfering with the flights we were booked to travel on, causing us to not be able to get to our destination in more or less the time frame we were anticipating, on the airline we had booked with.
The first of these was a hangover from the days of airline regulation – the so called ‘Rule 240’, which obliged airlines to transfer passengers to other airlines if the other airline could get the passengers to their destination more quickly than alternate arrangements on the original airline would do. In its simplest form, the airline with the problem would simply handwrite ‘Rule 240’ on your ticket (remember the old paper tickets with red carbon copies?) with a Sharpie marker, and tell you which airline had the best alternate flights to take. The other airline would accept your ticket without comment or complaint.
The second of these is another blast from the past, another memory of the ‘good old days’. A decade or two back, most flights operated at little more than 50% loads, so if a flight was cancelled, there was enough excess capacity to quickly soak up the passengers from the cancelled flight and get them on to their destination.
But since deregulation, the airlines have slowly been removing their now self-imposed obligations to offer a Rule 240 type replacement and it is almost non-existent now. You’ll still find stupid lists of ‘travel tips’ telling you that merely uttering the words ‘Rule 240’ will cause miraculous events to occur at any airline podium, anywhere in the world, but the chances are that these days your invocation of Rule 240 will either bring a puzzled look from a recent hire who has no idea what you’re talking about, or a smirk from a longer serving employee who marvels at your cluelessness.
You certainly should know what your airline is willing to do, as per its conditions of carriage, and you certainly should try and sweet-talk your way into getting not just the bare minimum but some of the additional discretionary extras that gate agents can dish out if they choose to, but if you smugly say ‘Rule 240 says you must ….’ then you’ll be very disappointed.
The other big change is that most airlines are now flying with 80% and higher loads. So instead of the passengers off a cancelled flight being able to all fit on the next flight out, it could take four or five subsequent flights and increasingly ‘imaginative’ routings to get you from where you are to where you want to be, just because, no matter what the rules might say, there simply aren’t any spare seats available.
The airlines have however continued to extend reciprocal agreements on the basis of ‘what goes round, comes round’; so that if an airline has a problem with a flight, they can pass their people over to another airline, often with no money changing hands at all, or otherwise, a pre-determined and discounted payment being made from one airline to the other. This helps all the airlines, because they end up with fewer operational problems and easier solutions by being able to access spare seats not just on their flights but on their competitors flights, too. Imagine if you’re flying from a city on Airline A and it only operates two flights a day – if they don’t/won’t/can’t put you on Airline B or C, you might end up spending two or three days waiting until Airline A next has an available seat for you.
But if an airline feels it is being taken advantage of by one of its ‘competitors’, the situation becomes more precarious. Because, remember, it isn’t anything to do with the airlines fraternally joining together to help ensure the best possible flight experience for the maximum possible number of travelers, in the belief that good travel experiences in general encourages all passengers to fly more, on all airlines. Oh, no. Instead, the airlines would much rather ‘punish’ passengers for flying on an alternate airline, and if that means that, in turn, some of their own passengers will also be punished by the loss of reciprocity with another airline, so be it – perhaps that is acceptable collateral damage.
An example of that played out this week, when American and Delta stopped playing nice, and both have stormed off to their respective corners, after cancelling the reciprocity agreement between them.
That’s not to say that you might not still be able to get one of the two airlines to endorse your ticket over to the other, but it does mean that it will be a bigger favor to ask, and the lower your ticket originally cost, and the less status you have with the airline, the less likely you are to get your ticket switched over. So, for many of us, there’ll be nothing we can do about it except get comfortable at the airport, and pick out a three or four seat row of seats to sleep overnight on if necessary.
Talking about AA not playing nice, the Department of Transportation this week found American Airlines guilty of ‘unfair and deceptive practices’ to do with how it calculated denied boarding compensation, and further found that since 2008, American Airlines had implemented a ‘problematic’ internal policy that misclassified cases of involuntary denied boarding as being voluntary cases where passengers were said to have volunteered to give up their seats.
This arose from an investigation into what the DoT described as an ‘egregious violation’ where AA refused to give any compensation at all to 11 people who were offloaded, with no reason given, from their flight between Orlando and Heathrow. After being approached by the DoT, AA subsequently offered $168 per person, then increased it to $496, and then to $848.
Strong words from the DoT. But perhaps not quite such a strong response. As a result, the DoT decided to fine AA $20,000, which based on its current quarterly net profits in the order of $1 billion, represents not quite three minutes of corporate profit. Details and full text of their decision here.
I recently wrote about your rights if you’re denied boarding. Perhaps you should make sure you’re familiar with this, because it seems there’s some risk that the airline might ‘accidentally’ fail to inform you accurately of your rights.
A Surprising Possible Reason Why Passengers Take Baggage with them in an Emergency Airplane Evacuation
I joined the chorus of commentators last week by lambasting passengers who delayed exiting the BA 777 on fire at Las Vegas due to taking time to collect their belongings, including large sized rollaboard bags and some people pictured leaving the plane with both arms full of belongings. This was an absolutely for-real emergency and it took perhaps eight times longer than expected for the plane to be evacuated.
Some commentators are even calling for an automatic locking system that prevents passengers from opening the overheads in an emergency. That is probably not a sensible idea – fighting the locks will slow some passengers even more, and there are plenty of things ‘under the seat in front of you’ that will slow other people down, whether they can access the overheads or not.
But a new theory, being developed by the excellent Christine Negroni and reported at the end of this article, suggests that perhaps some passengers are in such a mindless state of panic and funk that ‘muscle memory’ unthinkingly takes over, and almost without realizing it, they go through the routine of get up, stand in the aisle, collect their ‘mustn’t forget’ stuff from the overhead, and shuffle down the aisle.
This might sound impossible, but from the limited experience I have of seeing people in ultimate stress situations, it rings totally true. A maximum overdose of adrenalin does shut down a lot of your higher reasoning ability, and ‘muscle memory’ does take over.
That’s not to excuse every passenger in every situation, but it does add another perspective on what happens.
Was the BA 777 Fire Due to a Known Problem?
Talking about the BA near disaster at LAS last week, here’s an interesting article suggesting that the FAA may have advised of an engine vulnerability some four years earlier. There is some confusion about which engines were the subject of the FAA warning, and it isn’t yet clear if the problem that occurred was the result of this specific vulnerability.
But it would certainly give one pause for thought if that was the case, wouldn’t it.
The Pilot Did It
Oh so predictably, almost before the last passenger had deplaned from the distressed 777 last week, sycophantic groups of know-nothings were praising the pilot’s ‘heroism’. In this case, the pilot’s heroism seems to have comprised either himself or one of the other two pilots in the cockpit noticing an engine problem, deciding to abort the take-off, and pressing the buttons that initiate the aborted takeoff, then radioing to the tower to ask for fire engines (it seems the tower had already observed the flames and heavy black smoke) and advising the flight attendants to evacuate the plane.
Ummm, where’s the heroism in any of that? Where is the gratuitous unnecessary acceptance of extra personal risk so as to improve the odds of someone else’s survival? Don’t get me wrong, the engine failure was not the pilot’s fault, but nothing that any of the three pilots did subsequent to the fire being detected was anything other than ordinary, routine, and ‘by the book’. We should appreciate their competence, but the ‘h’ word has no part in the narrative.
If there were any heroes in the scenario, they would be the flight attendants. They are voluntarily staying on the plane, risking their lives, while passengers take their time collecting their carry-ons and ambling down the aisles. They also know enough to appreciate the terrifying danger that is random seconds away from turning the plane into a conflagration, and they staying at the doors, urging the passengers out while desperately wanting to jump down the slides and run far and fast away, themselves.
Talking about ‘not the pilot’s fault’ here’s an interesting article that shows how often airplane accidents – ooops – actually are the pilot’s fault. In total, over a 60 year period, 53% of all fatal passenger plane crashes were attributed to pilot error, another 6% to ‘other human error’, and the balance to other causes ranging from equipment failure to sabotage.
Perhaps the most disappointing part of the statistics (which are probably somewhat/slightly subjective) is that there’s no discernable trend to suggest that pilot error rates are reducing. While overall, air travel is getting safer and fatalities are dropping, the percentage caused by pilot error remains very much the same.
Time for self-flying planes.
And Lastly This Week….
It ‘snowed’ a little early at Toronto’s Pearson Airport earlier this week. Except that it wasn’t snow. It was fire suppressant foam, released by a malfunctioning system in one of the hangars. The foam spilled out and accumulated around the hangar, and was in places more than 20 ft deep (or should that be tall?). As pictured above, this gave the local police a fun diversion from their duties.
Until next week, please enjoy safe travels