Weekly Roundup, Friday 25 September 2015

Unquestionably, the most beautiful airplane, ever. A new group has plans to return Concorde to the skies. We're not so sure.
Unquestionably, the most beautiful airplane, ever.  A new group has plans to return Concorde to the skies.  We’re not so sure.

Good morning

Today sees Apple’s latest iPhone 6s models hitting the stores, and, predictably, some people started lining up outside the stores a couple of days ago.  One has to wonder – is Apple quietly paying some of these people to do such a thing?  Or are they just so bereft of a real life as to think it time well spent to camp outside a shop for two days, when they could have simply ordered the new phone online and had it delivered direct to their home or office, also on Friday?

Much more exciting for me and a large number of fellow Travel Insiders is next Wednesday, and the arrival of our new $50 Amazon Fire tablets.  Several readers wrote after my glowing preview last week to tell me that they have finally ‘given in’ and ordered their first ever tablet, and for sure, at a mere $50, it is hard to come up with reasons not to buy one, while easy to come up with plenty of reasons to do so.  Stay tuned for more details after I’ve put my unit through its paces next week.

Talking about the Amazon Fire tablet, its full value is only realized if you also have an Amazon Prime account.  This gets you free two day shipping, free movie streaming, free eBook rentals, over a million free songs, free unlimited photo storage, and I’m not quite sure what else.  It costs $99 a year, and, a bit like a Costco membership perhaps, is massively worth the annual cost.  Today only (ie Friday 25 September) Amazon is offering Prime membership for only $67 (for the first year).  You’ll know if this might make sense for you or not, although the chances are you are probably already a member.  If not, today might be a great day to join.

A change of focus for this week’s feature article.  We’ve switched from gadgets to garments, and I’m abandoning a lifetime of semi-indifference to the issue and now considering how to keep wrinkles out of my shirts – when traveling and in general.  Read my review of a spray that claims to magically spray away the wrinkles, and then look at the ‘before’ and ‘after’ pictures to see if the claim is correct.  The article follows this week’s roundup.

Also, please continue reading for :

  • Reader Survey – Wi-Fi Devices You Travel With
  • 2016 Travel Insider Touring
  • Boeing Gets Its Bonus – Sort Of
  • A Tiny Morsel More Trans-Atlantic Competition?
  • EU Airlines Liable for Unforeseen Technical Delays
  • Stunning Indictment of Air Force Tanker Tender
  • LAS-LAX High Speed Rail Moves Slowly Forward
  • And Lastly This Week….

Reader Survey – Wi-Fi Devices You Travel With

I came across an interesting statistic this week – in an otherwise anodyne article, it was suggested that the average American traveler checks in to a hotel with 2.9 devices that can access the internet through Wi-Fi.  Some countries have even higher averages.

That might sound like a lot, but if you stop and think about it, it is easy to quickly reach.  A phone.  A computer.  A tablet.  Perhaps a camera, or a Kindle, maybe a second something, and there you are.  I thought it would be interesting to see how many devices we all typically travel with.

So please click the link that describes how many devices you typically travel with.  Assume you’re traveling alone, and on the type of travel you most commonly undertake.  Clicking the link will create an empty email with your response coded into the subject line, simply send the empty email back to me.

As always, I’ll share the answers next week.  Thank you for participating.

2016 Travel Insider Touring

My thanks to the growing chorus of people asking about Travel Insider tours next year.  There is probably one tour I will definitely offer, one I hope to offer, and a third one that I might put out there if sufficient of you find it interesting.  Please let me know your thoughts.

The ‘probably definite’ tour will be to New Zealand in late October/early November – a repeat of our very successful last year NZ Wine and Food tour, with a lovely balance of places visited – some of the country’s best known attractions, and some of the lesser known attractions that are more quintessentially ‘Kiwi’, plus a long weekend enjoying their wonderful Food And Wine Classic in beautiful and Art Deco intensive Hawkes Bay.  About a week and a half, and probably just under $3000 per person.

The ‘hopefully definite’ tour is the perennial favorite which some of you have already been on two or three times before (and please come yet again!) – a Christmas Market cruise in early December between Budapest and Nuremberg, with an optional extension in Prague.  Depending on cabin choice, probably $3000 or a bit more per person.

I’ll have more details on the NZ tour in a few weeks, and the Christmas Market cruise later this year.

Now for the third of the three tours I’d like to offer.  This would be to England, somewhere many/most of you may have been to many times before.  So I’ll make it a bit different.

My thinking is to make it an antiques themed tour, including a visit to the largest antique fair in all of Europe.  As you might know, whereas ‘antiques’ in the US tend to as often as not be another way of saying ‘old junk’ and ‘antique shops’ are sadly sometimes hard to distinguish from Goodwill/Opportunity type stores; in the UK, their slightly greater history and heritage has sometimes even the most humble of antique stores overflowing with extraordinary items.

The proximity to Europe and the open borders also cross-pollinate the English antique stores with plenty of European items.  Plus the slightly eccentric English are more likely to collect just about anything imaginable, so whether your passion is horse brasses or old keys, silverware or porcelain, old pens or corkscrews, or most other things, you can be sure to find plenty of what you’re looking for.

We’d not spend time in London as part of the tour, but would have optional time there before/after the main tour, including a chance to visit the wonderful Portobello Rd markets (over 1000 dealers – the world’s largest market), then head around some of the small country towns, places that are slightly ‘off the beaten track’ and all the much better for it.  I’m thinking Salisbury, the Cotswolds, then up to possibly Lincoln (big show), and Newark (enormous show).  We’ll visit antique shops in some of these towns, and attend the enormous fair, with up to 2500 dealers participating, and spread over an 84 acre site.  This is probably going to be in early June, and about a week and a half before optional extensions, and in the order of $2750 – $3000 per person.

Would you be interested in the Antique England tour?  I hope so, it is one I’d very much enjoy putting together and sharing with you.  Please let me know if this is of interest, and whether you’d like it to be only antiques or a mix of antiques and other things, and what in particular you’d most like to see (and not see).

Boeing Gets Its Bonus – Sort Of

As predicted last week, this week saw the visit of Chinese leader Xi Jinping to one of Boeing’s Seattle production facilities, and the choreographed announcements that Boeing will set up a ‘completion facility’ in China and that China will buy some more planes from Boeing.

The completion facility (basically it fits out the cabin, paints the plane, and does final delivery testing) will be operated in partnership with the Chinese aircraft manufacturer, Comac.  Boeing is taking a leaf out of its airline customers’ books by partnering with a company that on the face of it should be a competitor, not a partner.  About the only good thing that can be said about this is there is very little valuable technical knowhow being shared when it comes to simply installing seats and overheads and painting a plane.

As for the quid pro quo, an announcement was made reporting China’s order for 300 planes.

Now, you’re probably thinking – ‘David, that’s one of the fuzziest sentences you’ve ever written!  Which airlines in China are buying the planes?  What sort of planes are they?  When will they be delivered?’

Those are all good questions, as are slightly more subtle questions – ‘How many of these planes are already on Boeing’s order books, and how many are truly new?’ and ‘how many of these orders are firm contractual commitments, how many are options, and how many are pre-order ‘commitments’ and ‘memorandums of understanding’?’.

More good questions.  Sorry, I don’t know, neither does anyone else.  Neither Boeing nor China is saying much about this at all, other than in total there will be 240 planes going to Chinese airlines (190 737s and 50 other types) and 60 737s going to two Chinese leasing companies.  As for the other questions, no further information is currently forthcoming.

Interestingly, rather than responding with enthusiasm and delight, the stock market reacted negatively to what would otherwise be seen as an extraordinarily huge order (Boeing typically has 1000 – 1500 sales a year).  Boeing’s share price dropped 2.5% by mid-afternoon Thursday.

A Tiny Morsel More Trans-Atlantic Competition?

When I went to Europe earlier this year, I enjoyed wonderful flights on Icelandair – a great airline, with Reykjavik a convenient airport to hub through, and right on the route between Seattle and Europe.  I’ll be pleased to fly them again.

There is also a second Icelandic airline (amazing, here’s a country of 323,000 people and the same land area as Kentucky. with actually three airlines – Air Iceland is the third) called Wow Air.  It is a discount carrier, and offers service currently from Boston and Baltimore to various European destinations, also hubbing through Reykjavik.  Wow is trebling its fleet of long-haul A321 planes to enable it to add more service to the US from next spring – that sounds great, but remember that not only is the A321 a modestly sized single-aisle plane, but the trebling of the fleet means growing from one to three!  The airline also operates four A320 planes for shorter haul flights from Iceland on to Europe.

So it will be a while before Wow starts to become an impactful player across the Atlantic – indeed, in general, it is estimated that only 1% of flights between the US and Europe are on low-cost carriers, the rest being primarily members of one of the three major airline alliances.

EU Airlines Liable for Unforeseen Technical Delays

A great victory for passengers this week, in Europe.

One of the classic ‘get out of jail free’ cards, abundantly played by the airlines, has been their ‘We’re sorry, but the flight is delayed due to unforeseen technical problems’ followed by ‘Your safety is our first concern’ and ‘blah blah blah’.  To dare to complain about this is held as being tantamount to encouraging the airlines to operate unsafe planes, and that suggestion quells most questions.

But this excuse is often as specious as the weather excuse.  Specifically, if the ‘unforeseen’ technical problem is indeed foreseeable, why should an airline’s unwillingness to anticipate and respond to problems that statistically are actually quite foreseeable give them an automatic excuse?

Think of it this way.  Can you name a single unforeseeable problem that would prevent your car from taking you to work tomorrow?  Flat battery – hardly unforeseeable.  Failed starter motor – been there, done that.  Electrical problem – happens all the time.  Fuel pump failure – totally normal.  Puncture – now you’re really struggling!  My point is this – just like there is nothing that can go wrong with a car that isn’t foreseeable and which hasn’t happened to other cars, elsewhere, the same is true of planes.

Things might be uncommon, but never unforeseeable.  Recognizing this, some airlines keep spare planes ‘at the ready’ at major hubs so that when a plane develops a problem, they can quickly swap it over for another plane.

The EU allows an exemption from the compensation requirements it imposes on airlines that delay their passengers in the case of extraordinary circumstances, but after a technical discussion of the nature of the failure of the parts on a plane that resulted in its passengers being delayed by 29 hours, the court decided that sabotage or terrorism would be an extraordinary circumstance, but not issues that arise during maintenance or the failure to carry out such maintenance – such failures are normal rather than extraordinary.

The court said

In the course of the activities of an air carrier, that unexpected event is inherent in the normal exercise of an air carrier’s activity, as air carriers are confronted as a matter of course with unexpected technical problems. No component of an aircraft lasts forever.

This massively reduces the validity of a former favorite airline excuse, and if you’re on any flight operated by any airline, departing from any EU airport, or on a flight from a foreign origin in to an EU airport and operated by an EU airline, this ruling would apply to you and your flight/problems.

More details here.

Stunning Indictment of Air Force Tanker Tender

Remember the ongoing saga of the Air Force’s tanker tender process – a $40 billion contract, which took a ridiculous number of years, and which saw the earlier ‘final decision’ (to award the contract to Airbus) then rescinded, and a new tender proceed which saw Boeing win the tender instead?

It all got very complicated, and the general sort of high-level summary explanation was along the lines of ‘yes, the Airbus tanker would have been good, but it was ‘too much tanker’ for what we needed’.  That maybe sounds credible, and helps to explain why the Air Force awarded the contract to a plane that – at least on paper – seemed to be massively inferior.

Here’s an interesting and fairly simple commentary about how the two competing tenders were evaluated.  The author’s point is quite simple, even if his English-as-a-second-language writing slightly obscures it.  The Air Force was simply awarding passes or fails for many of the evaluation categories.  It wasn’t giving points on a sliding scale.  Which meant that a plane that was actually massively better than the other scored as many points as the inferior plane, or that a plane which was only the smallest margin below the pass/fail point was failed, even though the plane that was only an equally tiny margin above the (totally arbitrary) pass/fail mark then completely won on that point.

There are some other equally stupid but slightly more complex issues, too, meaning that in some cases, the better tanker would be scored lower than the inferior one – the key example being ‘must be able to take off fully loaded on a certain length of runway’.  But if one tanker takes off fully loaded with 200,000 lbs of fuel and is given a pass, why does the tanker which takes off with 220,000 lbs of fuel score a fail on this point, just because, on a longer runway, it could load even more fuel?  Isn’t the 220,000 lb load better than the 200,000 lb load?

These are beyond ridiculous and stunningly simplistic ways of evaluating complex issues.  Most of us put more thought into evaluating competing bids to replace the carpet in our living room than was evidenced in this process.  Shame on our Air Force for such extraordinary incompetence.

LAS-LAX High Speed Rail Moves Slowly Forward

I should start with a disclaimer – when I say ‘LAS-LAX’ I do not mean from McCarran Airport in Las Vegas to Los Angeles International Airport in Los Angeles.  Indeed, that is one of the big problems of this high speed rail project – while the Vegas end of the line takes trains close to downtown, on the Los Angeles end, the trains give up at Victorville, an 85 mile drive from downtown Los Angeles (and 100 miles from LAX), much of which is often congested.  There is occasional reference to a line extension on to Palmdale, but that’s little or no better for most people in the greater Los Angeles-San Diego metroplex.

So you’re still going to need to drive, and on the most congested/difficult part of the journey, even if you think you are choosing to take a train between the two cities.  That’s not quite a seamless/convenient service, and threatens the project’s overall success.

But, while some might think it fatally flawed, the Chinese seem enthusiastic, with an announcement last week that a China Railway Group is putting at least $100 million into the project, allowing construction to start in about a year’s time.  We hope they checked where Victorville is on a map before signing up.

It is unclear what the project’s total cost might be, where the balance of funding will come from, or when it will be completed.  A bit like the unrelated California High Speed Rail project between Los Angeles and San Francisco.

This is a project we instinctively wish well, but fear may end in tears rather than rejoicing.

And Lastly This Week….

The Apple watch is proving to be either successful or a failure, depending on what you read, and is either fairly priced or ridiculously overpriced.  For me, the clear very best electronic watch device at present, one that connects to both Android and Apple phones, is the gorgeous new Huawei watch, priced from $400 and now shipping.

But if neither the Apple nor the Huawei watch is quite special enough, and if you like lots of gimmicks and gadgets on your watches (the official term to describe all features other than basic time keeping is ‘complications’ – true!) then here’s the watch for you.

Talking about gadgets, which is more dangerous?  Have more people been killed this year by sharks, or by taking selfie pictures?

One of the reasons you read The Travel Insider is for my fearless reviews.  If something isn’t good, I don’t hesitate to tell you.  But, as caustic as I may sometimes be, I believe I’ll never describe things the way this reviewer writes about a book, as ‘an unpolished turd of a book, the stale excrement of Morrissey’s imagination’.  Ouch!

Truly lastly this week, here’s a very pleasant way of curing a fear of flying.

Until next week, please fearlessly enjoy safe travels (and good books)






1 thought on “Weekly Roundup, Friday 25 September 2015”

  1. May well be interested in NZ tour. We have been many times, but always more to see. When we go that far, we usually try to spend at least 3 weeks, so need to see if we will attach Australia, China, or elsewhere. No interest in Christmas cruise (we did with you 4 yrs ago) or England. I will watch your newsletters. Mike

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