Weekly Roundup, Friday 23 October 2015

Boeing has developed a new metal that is 99.99% air.  Ideal for airplane construction?
Boeing has developed a new metal that is 99.99% air. Ideal for airplane construction?

Good morning

Our annual fund raising continues apace, and we now have 199 kind people who have chosen to help, including several who have sent in two contributions.  Many thanks to one and all, and in particular, to the latest Travel Insider Super Supporters – we had another 14 people send in three figure sums this last week – John C, Jane F, Bob G, Kenny N, Peter K, Hilda W, Jim S, Brian P, Bob D, Pete R, Tim S, Nathan F, R & CA W, and Scott M.

It is tremendously appreciated to have almost 200 of you now helping out, and my glass is definitely half full.  But it is also still almost half empty.  To put the 200 supporters in perspective, back in 2009 – in the midst of the global financial crisis – we had 910 readers volunteer and help out.  I’ll not wish another recession on any of us, but it would be lovely if a few more of you repeat the kindness you’ve shown in past years, and if some of you, new to the Travel Insider, also choose to join in.

Continuing our analogies, we’re entering the political season and the requests for financial support are already coming strongly and steadily.  How much do you give every two or four years to help your preferred parties and candidates – and, dare I ask, what tangible outcomes do you get in return!?  Why not offer a similar amount now to your favorite travel newsletter!

A couple of readers pointed out that Paypal has subtly ‘changed the rules’ and the new instant payment link no longer allows non-Paypal members to send in a credit card contribution.  Ooops.  I’ve changed that, so now if you don’t want to join Paypal but would be willing to contribute through their service without joining, you can do so.  Please simply go to this page and choose any of the four ways of helping out, and then you can support us, conveniently, in whatever amount you feel appropriate.

The Travel Insider is distinctive for ‘telling it like it is’ – whether we’re talking product reviews or industry commentary.  This week there’s an example of industry commentary, where I speak the unspeakable, mention the unmentionable, and point out the insulting way that airlines dismiss our valid concerns.  The actual example I offer to you is an email exchange between an American Airlines spokeswoman and myself on the subject of an egregious act of misconduct on the part of one of their staff.  The article follows this week’s roundup.

I don’t know why the main stream media lets the airlines get away with this type of unaccountable misbehavior.  But as long as you keep supporting me, you can be sure that I’ll be, if necessary, a lone voice in the wilderness, trying to restore even the tiniest element of fairness and balance to the travel equation.

Please also continue reading for :

  • Why I’m Looking Forward to This Year’s Rhine River Christmas Markets Cruise
  • Reader Survey – Product Review Preference
  • The Future of Journalism?
  • The Future of United?
  • Note to US Airlines – Be Careful What You Wish For!
  • Will the 787 Ever be Profitable?
  • More on the Replacement Air Force Ones
  • Boeing’s New Metal – 99.99% Air
  • The Disappointment in my New Kindle Fire
  • Tesla’s ‘Autopilot’ Revisited
  • Passport Woes
  • And Lastly This Week….

Why I’m Looking Forward to This Year’s Rhine River Christmas Markets Cruise

We still have a couple of cabins available if you’d like to join us this December for our lovely Christmas cruise along the Rhine, from Basel, through Switzerland, France and Germany, ending in the Netherlands and Amsterdam.

We’re on one of Amawaterways latest design super-ships, the Amacerto.  It is luxurious and spacious, and all cabins have both an in-room computer and also free Wi-Fi.  With a maximum of 164 passengers, that means you’re never a faceless nameless entity – the crew quickly get to know you personally and remember your preferences, in the bar and two restaurants.  It is the same with the other passengers – in our group and in general – people get to know each other, rather than fade away into crowded anonymity.

Talking about bar and restaurant issues, the food is good and plentiful, and beer/wine/soft drinks are free every lunch and dinner, and specialty coffees are free all day long.

Ashore we’ve got a tremendous variety of free touring every day, visiting a mix of larger cities and smaller towns.  Some touring is by coach, much is in walking tours direct from where the ship is moored in the heart of the town, and with different groups for fast, normal, and slower walkers.  Plus, back at the ship, there is free evening entertainment most evenings, too.

The Christmas Markets add an entire new dimension of experience.  They’re different in every town, featuring different local handicrafts and cuisine, and – to my delight – the gluhwein is plentiful (and sometimes even provided, free, on the ship too as a ‘welcome back’ surprise at the end of a tour ashore).

Best of all is the time shared with new friends, on board and ashore.  Why not come along and see for yourself – we’ve got a tremendous value bargain – $1000 or $1500 per person off the regular cabin prices, plus $100 each shipboard credit, and a couple of special Travel Insider extras too.

Reader Survey – Product Review Preference

My special newsletter on Monday drew comments from some of you, generally appreciative of the product reviews you receive, and with requests for the type of things to be reviewed in the future.

I thought I’d hold a special reader survey so everyone can help shape the content I give you each week.  In addition to the weekly roundup, and occasional travel industry analysis, what types of product reviews would you like to see featured?

Please click on the link that best describes your preferences.  It will create an empty email with your reply coded into the subject line.  If you’re wanting to add a ‘write-in’ product to the list, please describe the product in the body of the email.  If there are several categories of review you like, by all means send in multiple ‘votes’.

And if you’d like to add weight to your preference, I am indeed more sensitive to the requests of supporters!  Please consider ‘putting your money where your mouth is’ and reinforcing your request with a contribution towards the cost of ongoing reviews.

I’ll let you know the results next week.

The Future of Journalism?

One of the reasons The Travel Insider exists is because the main stream media is often very disappointing in their ability to do much more than write gushingly about free travel and technology products they’ve received, and/or unwilling to spend any more time and effort than it takes to unquestioningly print ultra-biased press releases, almost word perfect as they are received from the PR companies.

It has always been my promise to you to tell it like it is, and to push beyond the press release to try and get the real facts and issues accurately stated.

But now it seems that even this semi-mindless ‘journalism’ might be about to get appreciably worse.  Already, some news media are using computers to automatically write their articles for them, in a form of ‘mad lib journalism’ where a computer simply fills in the gaps of an article template.  To date, this has mainly been used in articles reporting on financial and sports results.

But according to this article, there are moves to extend this to more elements of media too.  This will not be a good thing – imagine if no-one ever questioned a politician and merely printed his press statements.  Imagine if no-one ever questioned or sought out ‘the other side of the story’ in contentious matters, and it became a case of ‘the person with the best/fastest press release wins’.

Please do your bit to help keep this away, and help support The Travel Insider!

The Future of United?

As you may have heard, United’s new CEO had barely been in the job for a month before being rushed to hospital, suffering a heart attack last week.  And as you may remember, the previous CEO departed hastily and under a cloud, due to allegations of impropriety between United and the Chairman of the Port Authority of NY & NJ.

Well, you might be aware of the embarrassing and very fast exit of the previous CEO, but reader Jerry writes how on a recent roundtrip between Chicago and DC, the United flights were still featuring the former CEO, Jeff Smisek, in the boarding and safety videos.

Would someone please tell United they’ve had a change of CEO – indeed, they’re now on a second temporary CEO.

The new CEO, Oscar Munoz, went through the ritualistic motions of being a new broom sweeping clean – although, he was already a board member and therefore limited in how new a broom he could claim to be sweeping with.  He received a fair measure of sycophantic coverage in the main stream media for writing an ‘open letter’ to United’s customers, and – well, I’ll let reader Don tell the story.


So much for United’s new CEO, Oscar Munoz’s very friendly open letter to United Airlines customers.  In his open letter, he eagerly invites all readers to write to him…AND…he eagerly promises to reply !!!!

Great.  But, how does one e-mail to Mr. Oscar Munoz? There are no trails to follow in his letter.

OK, so I started calling UAL, itself a major job when you wonder which “press one now” do I press?  However, I finally heard a live human voice pick up the phone. I explained that I wanted to send an e-mail to Mr. Munoz in response to his invitation to write to him.

“Mr. Who”?

“Mr. Oscar Munoz, your new CEO”.

“Just a minute”.

Just a minute turned out to be a half hour, during which time several people came to the phone to ask “How can I help you?”

Summary, no one at UAL knows how a customer can e-mail to their CEO.  However, one person did tell me the postal address in Houston…who uses snail mail anymore?  Finally, someone suggested I try Google and, finally, Lo and Behold, there was a general correspondence link whereby anyone can e-mail into the deep underground cavern at United.

Well, it’s been a month since I e-mailed to Mr. Munoz by this vague route. Need I say that I’ve not received one single word from Mr. Munoz nor anyone at United.  But…I still have this warm fuzzy feeling because I know I am flying the Friendly Skies of United.  Makes me feel so good.


Note to US Airlines – Be Careful What You Wish For!

As you probably realize, the ‘Big Three’ US carriers are asking the US government to review the Open Skies agreement with the Gulf states and their airlines, because the Gulf carriers are eating the Big Three’s lunch and taking over their market share.

But now, the flipside of this Open Skies agreement is becoming apparent.  While the US airlines first eagerly supported the concept, when the Gulf airlines became stronger and more active, they came to realize that not only does Open Skies allow the US airlines to compete with the foreign carriers, but – shock, horror – it allows the foreign carriers to compete with them!

Nonetheless, the US carriers still like Open Skies agreements where the ‘other side’ has weak airlines that don’t pose a competitive threat.

But the blatant hypocrisy of the US carriers is provoking attention around the world, with other airlines now muttering about revising their own Open Sky agreements and seeking a return to the former protectionist agreements that used to exist.  If such things should happen, that would end up harming the Big Three US carriers much more than their present claimed harm.

What’s good for the goose isn’t always good for the gander, it seems.  Details here.

The saddest part of this?  Most harm will flow not to any airlines, but to us as their passengers.

Will the 787 Ever be Profitable?

To hear Boeing proudly tell the story, the 787 is yet another brilliant success, and blessed with hundreds of sales and dozens of delighted airline operators.

Yes, it is true Boeing has sold around 1100 787 planes so far, and will probably continue to sell more (although the new A330neo and A350 planes from Airbus that are coming out are bringing competitive pressure onto the 787 and new 787 orders are slowing), and any plane that sells 1100+ units has to be a success, right?

Think, for example, of the remarkable 707 – the plane that turned Boeing around and made it into the passenger plane manufacturing giant that it is today.  In total, ‘only’ 1010 units were produced, including close on 100 for the Air Force.  The 747, now in production for 47 years, has sold just over 1500 units.

But did you know that every 787 Boeing delivers at present (and it has delivered 330 so far) is being sold at a loss?  And did you further know some analysts are suggesting that even after the model has been retired, the program in total will still be showing perhaps as much as a $25 billion loss?

Details in this fascinating article.

More on the Replacement Air Force Ones

Talking about expensive new planes, here is a remarkably poorly written article that breathlessly talks about all sorts of new features the new Air Force Ones (two 747-8 planes) will have, while omitting to mention that many of the capabilities already exist (heat seeking missile defenses) and others are nonsense and never will exist (ability to withstand a nuclear blast).

If we also politely ignore that some heads of state now have much larger A380s, there is still a lot to like about the plans for the 747-8 planes.  As well there should be – the article talks about an initial estimate budget for the two planes being about $3.1 billion (and you just know that the phrase ‘initial estimate’ is code for ‘the final cost is going to be way more than this’).  That would be perhaps $600 million for the two planes, and then another $2.5 billion for – ummm, what?  Gold plated toilet seat covers and $750 screwdrivers, perhaps?

There has to come a time when we choose to take back our government and rein in their spending.  The British Prime Minister doesn’t even have his own plane; now I’m not saying that it isn’t nice that whoever our President is should have a plane and mobile communication center, etc, but $3 billion to start, and who knows how much to finish the project is just way too much, particularly when we have two perfectly good and not all that much smaller 747-200s already working perfectly well.  For that matter, why two planes?  Couldn’t we get by with one?

Just think how many more illegal immigrants we could support with that $3+ billion!

Boeing’s New Metal – 99.99% Air

After having got its fingers thoroughly burned with its experimenting with carbon fiber as a plane material, Boeing is continuing to explore other materials, and has now announced a new material that is the lightest ‘metal’ ever.

Termed a ‘microlattice’, it is 99.99% air (picture at the top of the newsletter).  Might make for a drafty airplane!

Metal that is 99.99% air?  What could possibly go wrong with that?  Details here.

The Disappointment in my New Kindle Fire

One of the best features offered by Amazon, in their new Fire tablets, is the ability to download free movies (from one’s Prime membership) and store them on the Fire tablet, or a microSD card, and then watch them subsequently, offline.

This has enormous benefits if you’re flying somewhere, or if you’re in a hotel or elsewhere with poor internet connections or metered internet usage.

So, in anticipation of my next traveling, I got a 128 GB micro-SD card and started fill it with movies and television shows galore.  Until yesterday.

The movie I was trying to download kept giving me an error – unable to connect.  It suggested there was something wrong with my internet connection.

So I spent considerable time testing every possible aspect of the Fire and my internet connection in general, and all looked perfect.  I then called Amazon’s help people, and ending up speaking to four different people over multiple calls – all sounding like they were in the Philippines and the first three of whom demonstrated truly impressive degrees of ignorance.  I remember the good old days when a call to Amazon support would consistently get a really switched on American who would always display great competence and quickly solve any problem.

Well, finally, the fourth person managed to solve the problem.  Ignore the error message saying there was a connection problem.  There was no problem.  Instead, Amazon imposes a limit of 25 movies and/or tv show episodes that can be downloaded at any one time.

That’s still a reasonable number of items, but on the other hand, if you’re downloading 22 minute television show episodes, that’s only 9 1/4 hours of content, and that’s not enough for a single over the water flight.  Plus if you’re then going to be in-country somewhere and unable to download a new bunch of movies, the 25 items you can take with you will have to be enough to last you your entire time away.

It would have been appreciated if Amazon was more up front about that limitation, and if their ‘error’ message more accurately described the problem.  It would also be helpful if they didn’t let you queue up more than 25 movies for downloading, instead warning you as soon as you had more than 25 total downloaded and queued up movies.

There might be a solution, though.  At $50 each for Fire tablets, why not simply buy two or three of the tablets!  I’ll check and let you know – I’m not sure if the 25 download limit is a ‘per device’ limit or a ‘per account’ limit.

Tesla’s ‘Autopilot’ Revisited

I wrote scathingly last week about Tesla’s so-called autopilot feature – a feature which Tesla claimed to be just like an autopilot in a plane, except for, oh yes – you had to keep your hands on the wheel at all times.

Turns out, there’s a reason why Tesla asks you to keep your hand on the wheel at all times.  Their autopilot feature sometimes loses ‘focus’ on which car it is following, and might suddenly decide to start ‘following’ the car in the oncoming lane of traffic instead, and if you’re not alert and ready to wrestle the car back onto your side of the center line, well, bad things would happen.  Examples here.

Last week it was like an airplane autopilot.  This week it is ‘still in test mode’ and hands-off driving is ‘not recommended’, and unlike Volvo and other manufacturers who have made a commitment to accept full liability for any errors in their auto driving software, Tesla is refusing to do so.  One can fully understand why.

Another bit of the Tesla hype bubble burst this week as well.  Just a couple of months ago Consumer Reports was boasting to the world that the Tesla was so great that it scored 103/100 on its testing (a result that suggests there are some fundamental flaws with how CR rates its cars!).  But now CR says it is no longer able to recommend the car at all, due to unacceptably low scores in terms of user satisfaction.

So, the same car, but within a couple of months, it goes from the best car ever to no longer recommended at all.  Shame on Tesla?  Or perhaps shame on Consumer Reports (too)?

Passport Woes

A pinprick of annoyance that surfaces every 9.5 years or so is having to replace one’s ten year passport prior to its last six months of validity.  Many – maybe even most – countries won’t allow you to visit, even for only a couple of days, if your passport is due to expire within the next six months or so.

Even worse, maybe the country you are visiting has a more sensible policy and allows you to travel in the last month or two of passport validity.  But the chances are the airline you’re flying on will refuse to transport you!

Why is our driving license valid until the day it expires, but not our passport?  What is the point of a ten year passport if it only works for 9.5 years?  Here’s an idea – why not start issuing 10.5 year passports?

As for the airline refusing to transport you with a perfectly valid passport, there are a number of reasons why that might occur.  For example, a friend of mine was turned away at the airport because her passport was ‘too worn’ (I subsequently saw it and while it was worn, it was also still obviously and clearly an ordinary normal passport).  What comeback did she have?  None, of course.

This article also suggests that if you don’t have enough blank pages in your passport, you might be refused travel or admission to some countries, and says you should always have at least four remaining blank pages.  That’s another nonsense requirement, but if it is being printed, you know that somewhere, someone has had problems for that reason too.

And Lastly This Week….

The happiest kingdom of them all?  Not so much for this gentleman, who has been banned from Disneyland for life after daring to complain about slow service.  And just to make the event even more memorable for him, Disney falsely and maliciously reported him to the police as having a meth lab in his hotel room (he had nothing even remotely resembling a meth lab).

I wrote about a glass walkway cracking in China a couple of weeks ago.  If you’re still keen on such things, there’s an impressive new one in Taiwan.

And now, truly lastly this week, please forgive me, as a New Zealander, for deriving special delight from this story.

A 23 yr old Australian gentleman ended up penniless after spending all his money during a month-long stay in Bangkok’s red-light district.  Showing a surprising lack of fore-thought, he did not have a return ticket to fly back home to Australia.  But he displayed remarkable ingenuity by donning a Guy Fawkes mask, equipping himself with a toy gun, and bursting into a local bank and calling out ‘money’ (I guess he doesn’t speak much Thai).

This was sufficient as to get him about US$5000, and so he then departed the bank forthwith, making his getaway by running away on foot, straight down a dead ended alley.  And, ooops, being hotly pursued by a police officer who had been in the bank at the same time.

The gentleman’s plans to return to Australia have now been placed on hold.  If found guilty (and how could he not be) he might get to enjoy another ten years in Thailand, complete with ‘three hots and a cot’ every day.  Lucky guy!

I’m not making this up.  Here’s the story.

And now, please ask yourself – how much would you happily pay to continue to read extraordinary stories such as this one?  Please do consider becoming a Travel Insider Supporter.

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels






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