Weekly Roundup, Friday 13 November 2015

A wonderful new book full of 'behind the scenes' stories of one of the world's oldest airlines.
A wonderful new book full of ‘behind the scenes’ stories of one of the world’s oldest airlines.

Good morning

Aaagh – a Black Friday today – supposedly an unlucky day for travel!  Be careful out there.

Not so unlucky was the last week of our official 2015 Fundraising drive, which saw us break through the 300 count of total supporters, including 17 more super supporters – Steve M, Jim J, Jim W, Bill W, Frank J, Maureen F, Max L, Robert T, George R, Eric K, Dick K, Beverly B, Gil K, RA M, Bill M, Tom M and Bob R.  Thank you, everyone.

I’m no longer going to be ‘in your face’ and asking for help, but if you’re ‘late to the party’ (or if you just won the lottery!) it should go without saying that anyone is always most welcome to support The Travel Insider at any time!

I’d suggested in the last newsletter that it was probably last call for the Christmas Markets cruise, now only a month and a day away from departure (we join the ship in Basel on 14 December, ending in Amsterdam on 21 December).  Within a couple of days of saying that, we had another lady sign up.

So if anyone else wishes to test ‘the art of the possible’, why not still join!  The great news about planning for this cruise is that there’s nothing you need to plan, other than an airline ticket to Basel (or Zurich for the pre-cruise optional extension) and back from Amsterdam (and I can help you with that if necessary too).  Everything else – accommodation, sightseeing/touring, meals and entertainment; all is taken care of by the cruise (and by me) and most of it is included in the high value special discounted prices offered.  River cruising really is the absolutely best way to see those parts of Europe that are reasonably adjacent to its rivers.

A few weeks ago we did a reader survey to find out how many mobile devices you travel with.  But that survey, showing you typically have just under three devices, was not the whole picture.  I asked how many Wi-Fi accessing devices you have.  This ignored, for most of us, our Bluetooth headsets, our cameras, maybe our eReader or iPod, perhaps even a new smart watch, and various other portable electronic devices.  Add all those to the wireless capable devices, and I’ll guess most of us have more like 4 or 5 or even 6 devices.

A year ago I reviewed a six port USB charger.  At the time it seemed that six was the maximum number of ports you’d expect to find on a charger.  It was – and still is – a nice unit, and has traveled with me regularly since then.  But six charging ports (particularly if traveling with my daughter!) is no longer as sufficient as before, and so now I’ve found a new device with seven ports.

I’m not sure I’d say you need to abandon your six port charger if you already bought one of those, but if you’re starting to realize that something other than a handful of power ‘bricks’ is needed to better manage your device charging and cut down on your clutter, you’d be better advised to choose the seven rather than six port charger.  A review is at the bottom of this email.

All of you who indicated you wanted more reviews of noise cancelling headphones – I’ve got a treat for you, but next week!  Stay tuned….

Also, please continue reading for :

  • Japan’s First Commercial Passenger Jet Takes to the Air
  • 615 Seat A-380 Coming to Emirates
  • Airline Alliances – The Friend of My Friend is My Enemy?
  • Lufthansa Endures Its Longest Strike, Ever
  • American Airlines to Start Flights to New Zealand
  • The Most Efficient US Airports
  • A Must Read Book about Qantas
  • Marriott Says – No, We Didn’t Make a Mistake, But if We Did, it is Your Fault, Not Ours
  • US Border Patrol to Canadians – Go Home?
  • And Lastly This Week….

Japan’s First Commercial Passenger Jet Takes to the Air

There was a time when Japan seemed an unstoppable industrial giant, effortlessly conquering every new field it entered, and vanquishing established US companies in the process.  These days, that role increasingly seems to belong to other Asian nations.

In particular, Japan has been surprisingly slow to enter the aircraft manufacturing business, with its first passenger jet being a modestly sized competitor to Embraer and Bombardier planes, rather than to Airbus and Boeing.  The Mitsubishi MRJ90 will hold up to 90 passengers and is intended for shorter range operations.

There is a problem with the plane that might limit its use in the US.  Per typical US airline/union agreements, the plane’s weight puts it into a larger category of plane, increasing the labor costs to operate it.  The plane weighs up to a maximum of 87,300 lbs, the ‘Scope Clause‘ limits planes to 86.000 lbs.   It is also five years behind schedule, with the first commercial flight expected in just under two years from now rather than three years ago.

About 200 planes have been sold so far (this is not many).  A smaller MRJ70 is also anticipated.

On the other hand, the Japanese are known for their ability to learn from their mistakes and to improve, improve and improve.  Who knows what any future MRJ91 or 92 or subsequent models might not offer.

Details here.

Mitsubishi is not without former airplane building experience.  It built the very successful Zero fighter in WW2, and in the early stages of the war was winning dogfights with a 12:1 kill ratio.

615 Seat A-380 Coming to Emirates

The original A-380s generally had between about 450 and 500 seats in them, with the first Emirates’ planes having 489 seats.

While it is true that Emirates has been keenly lobbying Airbus for a new improved A-380 (probably larger as well as with lower operating costs), the 615 seat version of the A-380 that was showed at the Dubai Air Show earlier this month is not a new version of the plane.

The A-380 as it currently is manufactured has been certified to hold up to 853 passengers and 20 crew, based on an evacuation test prior to its commercial release.  So in theory, plenty more seats could be squeezed into current planes (with the obvious strategy being to add another seat in each row).

But in this case, Emirates is adding to the seats on the plane not so much by squeezing more in as it is by simply removing some of the premium seats.  We all know that a single first class seat could be replaced by perhaps ten or more coach class seats in some of the more lavish first class layouts offered by international airlines, and that’s exactly the tactic adopted by Emirates.  It is removing the 14 first class seats and 18 of its business class seats, and replacing them with 216 additional coach class seats.  Apparently it is finding it has ‘too many’ premium seats and too few coach seats.

It makes it a bit easier to understand why a first class fare costs ten times a coach class fare when you consider the airline has a choice between ten (or thereabouts) coach class seats or a single first class seat.  Does that mean first class is a bargain?  Ummm – no!

With three jetways for getting on and off the plane (and two aisles inside), that translates to a reasonable 205 passengers per jetway.  Probably no worse than a single aisle 200 seater 737/A321 and much better than all the larger planes which most of the world’s airports inexplicably require to funnel everyone through one single doorway on and off.

Airline Alliances – The Friend of My Friend is My Enemy?

One of the problems with airlines and their alliances is that these days there are so few airlines and even fewer alliances, and all airlines tend to have multiple agreements, some with other airlines within their major alliance (Star, Oneworld, Skyteam) as well as with other airlines, possibly in competing airlines.

So on the face of it, the announced this week closer working relationship between Singapore Airlines and Lufthansa was nothing out of the ordinary – two Star alliance partners getting closer together, and perhaps responding to the Air Berlin/Etihad partnership (two airlines that don’t belong to any alliance) and the Qantas/Emirates alliance (Qantas is a Oneworld airline, Emirates is unaligned).

But one has to wonder at the dynamics when Singapore Airlines and Etihad both sit at the table for a meeting of major investors in Virgin Australia.  While the two airlines ostensibly directly compete, they also both partner with Virgin Australia – as does another ‘competitor’, Air New Zealand (Star) and Delta (Skyteam).  Oh yes, and Hawaiian Airlines (unaligned) too.

And Qantas is doing a very delicate job of juggling its Oneworld partnership with BA and its outside-the-alliance partnership with BA’s competitor, Emirates.

If these were human relationships, there’d be a harsh term to describe all of this, and some of it would be illegal.  But, it is airlines, not people.  No doubt government regulators get giddy with delight at such apparent competition.

We’re not so sure.

Singapore – once a sensible location for a hub and offering an excellent airport – is increasingly under threat from other hubs in that general part of the world, also with excellent airlines and airport facilities.  It is feeling further pressure from longer range point to point flights that bypass a hub entirely.  So it makes sense that SQ should cast around for alliances wherever it can create them to try and re-affirm the importance of Changi as a hub.

Lufthansa Endures Its Longest Strike, Ever

Talking about Lufthansa, and exactly as we predicted earlier in the year, its labor problems have continued, with this week seeing the airline experience a one week strike called by its flight attendants, its longest ever.

The strike has resulted in the cancellation of 4,700 flights, impacting on over a half million passengers – including the airline’s own CEO, who had to fly on rival Air Berlin between Berlin and Munich earlier in the week.  Lufthansa’s court applications for injunctions to prevent or curtail the strike action failed.

This is the first strike in the present industrial problems by the flight attendants.  But the pilots have gone on strike more than 12 times, and both the airline and its flight attendants seem far from resolving their differences.

Lufthansa says all long-haul and most shorter flights will be back to normal on Saturday.  That may well be so, but we continue to view LH as a risky choice for travel until such time as their labor problems are fully finalized.  We’ve no idea when or if that will be.

As is increasingly the case, you also need to keep in mind that all cancelled LH flights flow over to their code share partners who had been selling seats under their airline codes on those cancelled flights.  In particular, that means United flights.

More details here.

American Airlines to Start Flights to New Zealand

If you’ve been thinking of traveling to New Zealand – perhaps for our tour in Oct/Nov 2016 (details to be announced shortly, and including an Australian optional segment too), there’s good news this week.

American Airlines announced it will start daily nonstop service between LAX and Auckland in June 2016.  As a close partner of Qantas, the AA flights will be supplemented by Qantas and Jetstar (a Qantas subsidiary) flights within New Zealand across the Pacific into Australia, too.  AA will also start nonstop flights from LAX to Sydney next month.

AA’s flights to Auckland will unfortunately be on 787 aircraft.  Its flights to Sydney will be on 777 planes.

Since Qantas discontinued its flights in 2013, Air New Zealand has had a lock on nonstops between the US and NZ.  For people wishing to fly another airline, they’ve either had to fly all the way to Australia and then backtrack, or include a stop in Honolulu or Fiji (I happily fly Hawaiian Airlines through Honolulu and will continue to do so even after the AA flights start).

The effect of the AA announcement has already been felt.  Air NZ instantly discounted some fares by 33%.  With Air NZ having been enjoying high airplane loads and even higher profits, the route has been crying out for a new entrant, and the inevitable lowering of fares is now starting to occur.

Note to government regulators :  This is called competition.  It is a good thing.

The Most Efficient US Airports

As you probably know, I tend to be dismissive of most lists of ‘the top ten’ this or that, because the methodology behind choosing the lists seldom seems to be any more scientific than a random blindfolded game of ‘Pin the Tail on the Donkey’.

But here’s an interesting and reasonably robustly compiled list of the most ‘efficient’ airports in the US.  What exactly is an efficient airport, you might wonder?  Click to find out.

One thing missing from the ratings methodology though is luggage efficiency.  My sense is that some airports are plagued with slow luggage handling systems whereas others are faster.  But how could that ever be validly tracked and compared – I guess the non-accountability is part of the reason airlines tend to overlook our impatience at the end of a flight while waiting, seemingly endlessly, for our bag to appear on the carousel.

A Must Read Book about Qantas

One of the very oldest airlines still flying is Qantas.  Made famous in Rainman for being the airline that had never had any fatal crashes, it has a long and proud history, and full of fascinating stories of triumph and occasionally near disaster.

A new book – The Flying Kangaroo – has just been published by one of their former PR managers – someone who knows not only the outwards facing spin on the airline, but some of the inner more gritty reality as well, including the secret deals done to get that ‘golden’ line in Rainman.

Here’s an excellent review of the book by Australian aviation writer Ben Sandilands.  Chances are you’ll be keen to get the book, and you can get a Kindle copy on Amazon.  (Or a ‘real’ copy too, of course.)  Recommended.

Marriott Says – No, We Didn’t Make a Mistake, But if We Did, it is Your Fault, Not Ours

A reader was surprised to discover, upon checking in for a recent Marriott stay in Bethesda, that there was no work desk, chair, lamp, or power block in the room.  He asked to move to a room that wasn’t missing these essential items, only to be told that the entire hotel had been renovated, removing these items as no longer desirable in the process.

No longer desirable!?  Really!?  He wrote to Marriott’s corporate office, which brought about this vomit inducing example of corporate ‘doublespeak’ in reply.  Read it and weep.  We are told it was never their plan to remove ‘workspaces’ from their rooms, but the desks somehow disappeared, even so!

Marriott’s plan was never to take workspaces from the rooms, but rather to be more responsive to changing customer needs.

Having conducted a ton of customer research, including working with IDEO and other industry-specific design firms, they actually had a total of 7000 consumer touch points on the new room. They polled customers across the generations, primarily concentrating on frequent, full-service business travelers, looking at their current customers and “the guests of the future”.

They talked with loyalists of Hilton and Westin, in addition to Marriott.  What they discovered was that guests travel with an average of three electronic devices and obviously, with WiFi are now untethered. Once the formal work of the day is done, they like to work in a more relaxed way, perhaps sitting on the bed with their iPads or cellphones.

Another factor is guests were looking for a less cluttered feeling. To accomplish this lighter feeling, the Marriott folks looked at reducing the size of the furniture in the room, while still giving guests the flexibility they were looking for. Driven by technology and the fact that work was no longer just being done at the desk, but rather migrating around the room, they had landed on a moveable work surface solution.

Now, after the new designs have been tested, they’re learning their basic insight was correct. However, they are looking to tweak the designs to make them more supportive of guests working in multiple ways and places in the rooms.

The end result is guests want both: they want the flexibility to migrate around the room, while they work in a relaxed way, but they also want a focused work area with an adequate work surface, comfortable chair, and appropriate lighting.

One can only guess at what the 7000 ‘consumer touch points’ are, and wonder if the housemaids clean all 7000 of them every day in every room.  And as for what the ‘moveable work surface solution’ was, that’s equally unclear, and clearly it is not Marriott’s fault, but our fault for failing to be sufficiently clear during their surveying ‘across generations’, that we actually did and do want desks and power blocks and chairs in our rooms.

What is wrong with the world today when companies can no longer say ‘We massively messed up and misunderstood, but are now scrabbling to fix our mistake’.  Instead, the Marriott statement tells us that they are looking to ‘tweak the designs’.  Let’s hope that means ‘bring back the desks’.

US Border Patrol to Canadians – Go Home?

Reader Iain writes

Lately I am hearing increasing numbers of stories of Canadian Snowbirds being harassed by the homeland agents at land crossings at Ft Erie/Buffalo NY, and Windsor/Detroit NI.

Agents are demanding things like proof you live in Canada such as title to your house.  The agents want Proof you are going to leave US after the winter – but how do you do that?  One couple were denied entry as they rent a condo in Canada but own a RV which is left permanently in Fla.  The agent said they were trying to sneak in, even though they have done this “migration” back and forth for over ten years.

One agent said “Congress does not want you Canadians in our country”.  Even with a Nexus card I have been hassled as I “should be using that card every day” (twice a month is my average).

With something in the order of 300,000 Canadian visits to Fla per season and the widely known, accepted, and encouraged Snowbird pattern, this behavior is bewildering. What is going on, any idea?

I’ve no idea at all, and again find the extraordinary contradiction between the treatment given to legal visitors officially entering the country and illegal aliens breaking through our borders impossible to understand.

Why are we discouraging Canadians who come to spend their money in our country, to boost our economy and create new jobs; when at the same time we’re encouraging instant welfare beneficiaries to enter and drain our economy and/or take jobs?

And Lastly This Week….

A passenger on a Celebrity Cruise Lines cruise asked for a refund at the end of her cruise.  The reason for her unhappiness and request for a full refund?  She’d not sighted any celebrities on the cruise!

For a list of other amusing cruise related complaints, please see here.  But don’t let it put you off joining our Christmas Markets river cruise!

And now, truly lastly this week, one of the important reasons why you should consider supporting The Travel Insider is because we are one of a diminishing number of truly independent sources of news, views, analysis and opinion.

Here’s a fascinating Reuters article that points to how the Chinese government is covertly taking over radio stations in the US and then influencing the news they cover and don’t cover.  Whereas the US publicly broadcasts to the world through its Voice of America program, China’s radio stations – now numbering 33 that Reuters is aware of, in 14 different countries, do so covertly and without revealing their vested interest.

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels






3 thoughts on “Weekly Roundup, Friday 13 November 2015”

  1. I just realized I’ve been missing The Travel Insider for quite awhile! Sorry it took so long to soak in,
    but I’m wondering what happened?

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