Weekly Roundup, Friday 8 January 2016

We visit the magnificent Chenonceau chateau in the Loire valley after our Bordeaux cruise this July.
We visit the magnificent Chenonceau chateau in the Loire valley after our Bordeaux cruise this July.

Good morning

I hope that 2016 is off to a great start for you, and that, one week in, your new year resolutions remain intact.

I know some of you have resolved to travel somewhere special this year, and we have three different temptations for you.

In July, we have our French river cruise in Bordeaux, with castles and chateaus in abundance, gorgeous countryside, quaint towns, and – oh yes, wine galore, and even a guest on-board wine specialist (he owns a Californian winery) to help us enjoy and appreciate French Bordeaux and Sauternes wines (as if we need help in appreciating those!).

Four people have already joined this cruise, and another two are pending.  With a cabin also for me and my daughter Anna, that is four of our ten cabin allocation already taken.  On the positive side, that leaves six still available, and we’ve got a good selection of cabin styles and prices, so please do check out the wonderful itinerary and abundant inclusions, and note also the $750 per person saving and the inclusion of pre-paid gratuities, as well as some Travel Insider special bonuses too.  Many of us will be spending time in Paris to start, and/or in the Loire valley after the cruise – so there’s plenty for everyone to enjoy.

In October/November we have our 2016 New Zealand tour, with an optional extension over to my favorite part of Australia afterwards (tropical north Queensland – home of the world heritage rainforest and the Great Barrier Reef)..

And then in December we have, of course, our Christmas Markets Cruise.  We’ll go back to the Danube this year, but for a change, we’ll travel along it from Nuremberg to Budapest, and as a dual bonus, we’ll have options to spend time in Munich (and visit Mad King Ludwig’s Neuschwanstein Castle) before the cruise and the ‘must do’ visit to Bratislava and Prague after the cruise.

The last time we did this itinerary was way back in 2007.  I’ve no idea why it has been so long since we did things that way, and I’m really looking forward to time in Munich and Bavaria again, plus the slightly altered experience of going along the Danube from west to east.  And, do I need to even tell you this – we’ve got it at a great rate, too?  As always, we include a free bonus side trip to Salzburg that is one of the cruise’s highlights.

The NZ tour and Christmas cruise will be available to join next week; for now, please do think about our July Bordeaux cruise.  Click the link to go to the main tour pages, or view the extra information that follows the newsletter for more of a ‘taste’ of what the tour will include and you can then go on to the main website pages from there.

What else this week?  Some thoughts about this year’s annual Consumer Electronics Show extravaganza are also appended to this roundup, and some more of the usual – it might be a new year, but little seems to be changing in our world of travel.

So please keep reading for :

  • Microsoft Takes Lessons From the Airlines – Discounted Copy of Office 2016 Now Offered!
  • A Nonsense Listing of the World’s Allegedly Safest Airlines
  • Did Malaysia Airlines Truly ‘Turn Their Idiots Loose’?
  • Oil Prices at 11 Year Low.  Air Fares Increase.
  • The Truth About Turbulence
  • Speaking the Unspeakable – A Prime Terrorist Target
  • Life Styles of the Rich and Famous (at LAX)
  • And Lastly This Week….

Microsoft Takes Lessons From the Airlines – Discounted Copy of Office 2016 Now Offered!

We’ve all complained, from time to time, about how crazy it is that the airlines insist you travel every segment on a ticket you purchased, and threaten all sorts of consequences if you don’t.  And we’ve pointed out that there’s no other scenario where you buy something and the seller insists you use it all – imagine if a restaurant insisted you eat all the food on your plate, etc etc.

Microsoft has now shown itself to be comparable to the airlines.

Earlier in the year, I had the pleasant experience of doing a ‘usability study’ for Microsoft, in return for which they gave me a voucher which ostensibly appeared to be good for my choice of any one item from a list of 40 or 50 different things they sell – ranging from keyboards and mice to all sorts of business and leisure software.  Also present was a warning – if I ended up getting more than $600 worth of free stuff, that would become taxable and reported to the IRS.

So my objective was to get something high value, but less than $600.  I found something that seemed ideal, and went to their outlet store to collect it.

So far, so good.

But, when I attempted to get the one thing I wanted, it turned out that my ‘get something free’ voucher was actually good for two things, not one, even though it said it was for only a single item.  Never mind, I told the guy serving me that I didn’t want the other item, I just wanted the one thing I’d selected.

He pulled a long face, and said that was not possible.  I had to either accept two items or leave the store completely empty-handed!

Unfortunately, accepting any second thing at all would then put me over the $600 disclosure point, so I ended up accepting two lesser things rather than the one thing I truly wanted.  Yes, that is kind of crazy.

But it means I now have an unused unopened and unwanted brand new copy of Office Home & Business 2016 (for a PC not Mac).  It lists for $230.  The first person who chooses to contribute $115 to The Travel Insider can have it.  I’ll even ship it to you (in the US) for free.  First person to reply and send me the money via Paypal gets it (please don’t send me the money until I’ve replied to your email and confirmed you to be the first).

Oh – and talking about airlines trying to force you to fly all the sectors on a ticket, here’s a heartwarming story of their failing to do so.

A Nonsense Listing of the World’s Allegedly Safest Airlines

How do you establish which airlines are safer than which other airlines?  That is a happily difficult thing to do, because most airlines go years, even decades, between serious accidents.  Most airlines are extremely safe, but that’s not a concept that sells many articles, so tired writers desperate for a new story come up with elaborate ways of rating airlines and creating largely artificial differences between them.

One of the interesting side effects of airlines being so extraordinarily safe is that because of such a low incidence of problems, a single incident can transition an airline (or airplane) from the ‘safest’ to the ‘most dangerous’ depending on the time frames used and other factors.  This was seen in extreme form with the Concorde – a plane which was lauded as being the world’s safest plane until its one crash, whereupon it instantly became the world’s most dangerous plane.  Both statements were correct, but neither was valid or accurate.

Establishing how safe an airline is requires a lot more than adding up plane crashes and counting dead bodies.

Sometimes an airline has an accident – a real true ‘act of God’ type accident that is utterly and absolutely not its fault.  Think for example of the 787 battery problems – should the airlines who were operating the early 787s be down-rated because of that?  What about an airline that loses a plane due to a freak accident entirely not of its fault?  Or an accident clearly due to someone else’s fault – terrorist action, air traffic control mistake, or something similar?  How does one rate the airline for such things?

And then there are problems with how many ‘points’ you take off an airline for small accidents rather than big ones.  For that matter, should an airline that loses an A380 with 500 people on board be downrated as much as an airline that loses an empty regional jet being ferried between two points?  Or swap it?  Which implies worse safety – an empty A380 crashing, or a full 22 seater commuter plane?

And so on, and so on.

There are dozens more factors to consider as well.  If an airline is downgraded, how long should it stay downgraded for?  When can an airline be forgiven a past problem?

Most people perceive that Qantas is the world’s safest airline, but when pressed for why they believe that, the answer is either ‘I don’t know’, or ‘Because everyone says so’ or ‘I saw it in Rainman’.  Now I like Qantas more than most people, but I also must acknowledge that while they’ve not had a fatal crash for a blessedly long time, they have had some very close escapes in the last decade or two, and one incident in particular is widely thought should have been marked down as a total airplane write-off but the plane was salvaged and repaired purely to preserve the image of Qantas’ “perfect” safety record.

With these comments as background, now prepare yourself to enter eye-rolling territory when you read the fanciful listing of the world’s safest airlines, brought to you by the ‘experts’ at airlineratings.com.  If we are to believe them, I am totally wrong in my comments above.  It is actually very simple to rate airlines on their safety standards.  They have a seven point test :

  • Has the airline completed the IATA safety audit? If so, award two stars.
  • Is the airline on the EU blacklist? If no, award a star. If yes, no star is awarded.
  • Has the airline maintained a fatality-free safety record for the past 10 years? If yes, award a star. If no, no star is given.
  • Is the airline endorsed by the US Federal Aviation Authority? If yes, award a star.
  • Does the country of origin meet all International Civil Aviation Organisation safety parameters? If yes, award two stars.
  • Has the airline’s fleet been grounded over safety concerns?  If yes, remove a star.
  • Does the airline operate only Russian-made planes? If yes, remove a star.

Proving that these ‘experts’ have also watched Rainman, they have singled out Qantas as being the world’s safest airline, even though their rating system (ranging from -2 up to +7 stars) doesn’t permit such fine granularity, and many other airlines also got the same maximum seven stars as Qantas.  But, hey, it helps to bring people to their website, so who really cares beyond that, right?

More details here.

Did Malaysia Airlines Truly ‘Turn Their Idiots Loose’?

In the blunt terms that underscores his Australian directness, aviation writer Ben Sandilands wonders about the possibility that idiots were turned loose in Malaysia Airlines’ management over the last week.

The reason for his understandable speculation was a surprise announcement that the airline was banning passengers from checking any bags on their flights between Malaysia and Europe.  Vague reasons were given as to the reason, including some reference to strong head winds en route, but any credibility such reasons might have had were rather destroyed by the fact that other airlines operating closely identical routes were imposing no restrictions whatsoever on their flights.

Furthermore, it is actually not uncommon for airlines to have flights operating right at the edge of their range/load envelope, and universally, except for Malaysia Airlines, in such cases, the airlines simply limit the total number of passengers on the flight.  Fly from the west coast of the US to Australia on a 747 and you’ll notice that you’re never on a full plane – that’s because the flight is load limited westbound, flying into the jet stream on its way down to Oz.

Normal airlines realize that passengers want to fly with their bags, and understand it is better to have 250 happy passengers and their bags on a plane, than to have 300 unhappy passengers and none of their bags on the plane.

The ludicrous nature of this baggage ban was further underscored by its sudden lifting, as strangely as it had been imposed.

Was this really about a secret security threat?  Or is Ben’s suggestion valid – and did the lunatics temporarily take over the asylum?

You can read his article here.

Oil Prices at 11 Year Low.  Air Fares Increase.

We know the deal.  The price of gas (and jet fuel) goes up and so too do our airfares and fuel surcharges.  ‘The fuel costs made us do it’ say the airlines, while crying more crocodile tears than our President.

But what happens when oil and jet fuel prices go down and down and down?  What happens when flights are the fullest they’ve ever been, and airlines the most profitable they’ve ever been?  Ummm – airfares increase.  Again.  No tears.  No excuses.  Just increases.  Domestic airfares went up this week.

As this article politely puts it, ‘it was not immediately clear what prompted the price increases’.

Actually, it is crystal clear what prompted the price increases.  The big three carriers (American, Delta, United), joined by their partner-in-crime, Southwest, have an unprecedented domination over our skies that allows them to dictate the fares we pay, and giving us no choice in the matter.  For most of us, and most places we fly, we have no choice – if we don’t fly one of these four airlines, we don’t fly at all.

This is probably also why domestic airfares went up while international airfares remained unchanged.  There’s still a shred of competition (albeit precious little) on some international routes.

As the article also bravely points out, this type of system-wide hike of all airfares is uncommon.  But there’s nothing common about the airline industry and the total dominance these four carriers now have.  And while the Justice Department is purportedly investigating if the airlines have been colluding, the Justice Dept, together with the Department of Transportation, have been the enablers of all of this, allowing the airlines to merge and coalesce, while actively delaying and deferring approvals on any airlines that threaten the ‘gang of four’ and their rule of financial terror.

If you want a case in point, how about the application from Norwegian Air International to start new flights to the US?  Two years and counting, and still no approval, and also neither a denial from the Department of Transportation.  Just, simply, nothing at all.

Think about that.  A bona fide reputable airline wants to bring low priced European travel to the US, and instead of rolling out the red carpet and welcoming them, the DoT acquiesces to US airline pressures and stonewalls the application.  For two years.  (And does anyone remember how long the US carriers managed to delay Virgin America’s approval?)

The sooner Amazon starts flying passenger flights, the happier we’ll all be.  Does anyone have Jeff Bezos’ number?

The Truth About Turbulence

There have been a couple of fairly major incidences of turbulence affecting flights and hospitalizing passengers and crew as a result recently – for example, this Air Canada flight that had to be diverted and with 21 hospitalized.

Such things predictably result in a crop of articles about turbulence, which sometimes make me feel more like upchucking than the worst of air turbulence ever does – the nausea inducing rush being due to depicting the airplane pilots as stalwart heroes single-mindedly battling their plane and the elements to keep the plane flying safely, preoccupied at all times with nothing but the purest of thoughts for their passengers, their comfort and their safety.

I’m sorry, but I call BS on that in a big way.

More often than not, turbulence can be avoided by flying above it, below it, or around it.  Usually, when you fly into turbulence, it is because the pilot deliberately decided to do so.  Have you ever wondered, when the pilot tells you in his friendly little chat from the cockpit before departure ‘Ah, umm, about four hours into our flight we’re expecting to hit some turbulence for a while, so we’ll keep the seat belt sign on for the entire eight hour flight, I hope you all went to the bathroom before boarding the flight’, well, if the pilot knows there’s turbulence a couple of thousand miles away, why doesn’t he slightly alter course to avoid it?

The answer of course is money.  Airlines encourage their pilots – indeed, often they’ll reward their pilots (‘reward’ sounds so much nicer than ‘bribe’, doesn’t it) to minimize the flight’s fuel consumption, and if that means flying through some gut-wrenching turbulence on the way, so be it.

Here’s one such article – with the quote from it

What’s Going Through Pilots’ Minds?  Two things: Keep passengers comfortable, and more importantly, keep them safe.

Yeah, sure, right.

Speaking the Unspeakable – A Prime Terrorist Target

So let’s say you’re a Muslim terrorist, and wanting to commit a high-profile atrocity against a large number of wealthy upper class Americans.  Where would you go, and what would you do?

Sure, you could bomb a plane.  If you get lucky, there might be 300 – 400 people on board.  Half of them might be American, but some will be Muslims, and some of the Americans might be members of the naieve but numerous class of Americans who unwittingly support you without even realizing they do so.

Wouldn’t you rather do something to emperil not 300 or 400, but 3000 or 4000?  And to have a higher percentage of wealthy Americans and fewer Muslims?  But where/how to do this?

There’s one blindingly obvious answer – so obvious that you have to believe that terrorists are well aware of this vulnerability already.  Cruise ships.  An action replay of the Titanic, with a bomb replacing the iceberg, would be an ideal outcome for Muslim fanatics.  For that matter, there’s no need for a bomb; there are way too many other ways to bring about a disastrous event on a cruise ship.

So what are the cruise lines doing about this?  Other than closing their eyes, crossing their fingers, and hoping for the best?

About the most substantive answer to that is a knowing smirk of supercilious superiority and the assurance that the cruise lines are all over these problems and have it covered and controlled, but they can’t tell us specific details because of security.  Yeah, sure, right.

Here’s an article that the cruise industry doubtless wishes it could suppress.

As always, the most distinctive thing about terrorism in the world these days is not its presence, but its relative absence.  The US government has a secret number, but probably some millions in total, of people on their watch lists and do-not-fly lists, and there are uncounted more ‘enemies of the west’ in all the usual countries, so to me the surprising thing is not the terrorist attacks when they occur, but the lack of them when they don’t occur.

So, probably, your cruise next month is safe.  Probably.

Actually, maybe there’s another target of opportunity as well.  O’Hare (and Midway) Airport.

The 300 airport police who serve in those two airports carry no firearms and their instructions in the case of attack are firstly to run away, secondly – if there’s nowhere to run, to hide, and thirdly, not to give assistance or try to defend against the attackers.  Details here.

Life Styles of the Rich and Famous (at LAX)

When was the last time you were standing in line to board a plane and recognized a movie star or prominent politician in line immediately ahead (or behind!) you?  Or waiting at the carousel for their bags – you know they don’t travel with only a carry-on, don’t you.

Occasionally you might catch a glimpse of one on board (look for them usually in the very front row) or when deplaning before they then immediate vanish again.

Have you ever wondered how they magically vanish and appear?  Here’s an aspirational article that gives you some clues about some of the artifice involved, including reference to a new off-terminal $3 million lounge being built at LAX by AA for their ultra-VIPs.

We should all be so lucky.  And if we ever should be, hopefully we’ll be better behaved than some of our fellow travelers who let a little bit of privilege go to their heads, according to this article.

And Lastly This Week….

Blame it on the tourists?  That’s what the Parisians do when needing to clean out one of their canals at a cost of $11 million for three miles of canal.  It is only 15 years since it was last cleaned.

But the photos of the junk being hauled out of the canal don’t seem like the sorts of things your typical tourist would toss over the railing.

Truly lastly this week, did you hear about the high speed train – you know, one of those ‘double header’ trains with an engine at both ends?  It was zooming along at 200+ mph when one of the two engines failed.  This caused its speed to drop to about 125 mph, and it continued, although now falling behind schedule.

Perhaps it was due to the extra stress on the second engine, but after a short while, it too failed, with a distinct smell of burnt wiring permeating through the carriages.  The train slowly drifted to a stop, in the middle of the countryside.

The train’s conductor got on the public address system.  “I have good news and bad news. The bad news is that both engines have failed and we will be stuck here. The good news is that you decided to take the train instead of an airplane.”

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels






1 thought on “Weekly Roundup, Friday 8 January 2016”

  1. Hi David…. Long time reader, a contributor, and retired AAL captain. “The Truth about Turbulence” in the recent weekly roundup really left a lot to be desired in accuracy as far as my 35 years of flying experience goes. American provided us with increasingly good information about the forecast turbulence on a given route. We received not only “big picture” graphics, but an indication on our flight plans of the forecast turbulence on any given segment of the flight plan. But it is all a forecast and it was certainly not always correct. So we did just like the Gizmodo article mentioned. We kept each other informed via radio, which was a great help, but still the reports may not cover our specific route or altitude.

    Basically, we did our very best to avoid turbulence. We really don’t like it any more than the passengers do, and we certainly did not want anyone to be injured. As far as having an incentive to reduce fuel consumption, I never heard of or witnessed any incentive that would have encouraged me, or any pilot I knew to willingly fly through avoidable turbulence.

    I always enjoy your writing, but did feel you went a little beyond the facts on this topic. Thanks.

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