Weekly Roundup, Friday 12 February 2016

The Fairey Rotodyne was an experimental hybrid helicopter/plane, carrying 40 passengers up to 450 miles at 185 mph. It never went into commercial production. See article below.
The Fairey Rotodyne was an experimental hybrid helicopter/plane, carrying 40 passengers up to 450 miles at 185 mph. It never went into commercial production. See article below.

Good morning

Happy birthdays this week to two different but both revolutionary things – the helicopter, now turning 80, and the 747, which first flew 47 years ago.

Some doubt exists as to whether we’ll see the 747 still being sold in time for its 50th anniversary, and the helicopter is a device that while sure to still be on sale for decades to come, hasn’t completely lived up to its early promise – see item, below.

Talking about not living up to promises, 4500 people were rudely reminded this week that modern day cruise ships are little more than fancy flat bottom barges, and intended for calm weather rather than deep sea storms.  But few of them chose to ask the captain ‘why did you sail us into this storm in the first place?’ – that’s a question that needs to be both asked and answered.  Read more, below.

Happily, our river cruise in July is guaranteed to be tranquil and calm.  We never leave the rivers of the Bordeaux region, and the tranquil progress as we glide along the rivers, enjoying the beautiful countryside from the luxury of a river cruiser, is absolutely and utterly the best way to sightsee in this beautiful region.  There’s no better time of year than July to treat yourself to a cruise based tour through the “old world’s” finest wine growing region.

And then, flip hemispheres, and in late October, there’s no finer time to visit one of the “new world’s” greatest wine growing countries, and indeed, just plain unqualified one of the world’s greatest countries – New Zealand.  There’s no river to cruise along in New Zealand, so we hire an oversized luxury coach, allowing probably all of us to have our own double seat to spread out, and we’ll spend four nights in a row in one location and two nights elsewhere and various lengths of stays in other locations so as to maximize the quality time at our destinations and minimize the travel time between them.

Which sounds better?  Spring in NZ or summer in France?    You’re welcome to join us for either the French Bordeaux cruise or the NZ Epicurean Extravaganza, and of course, there’s no law that says you can’t do both.

What else this week?  Please keep reading for :

  • “It is Someone Else’s Fault – I Deserve a Refund”
  • Air Tickets – $600.  Change Fees – $4400.
  • Frontier Airlines Passenger Given Note About ‘Other Armed Passengers’
  • The Helicopter’s Failure as a Means of Passenger Transportation
  • Cruise Ship Sails Into Super Storm – Passengers Thank Captain
  • The Titanic II – Or Maybe Not
  • And Lastly This Week….

“It is Someone Else’s Fault – I Deserve a Refund”

Large parts of our society have an awesome ability to refuse to accept responsibility for any decisions they voluntarily make.

Like, for example, buying air tickets and a cruise, with well advertised change and cancelation fees, deciding not to pay extra for insurance to cover the cost of any such change/cancel fees, and then claiming to be entitled to a refund ‘just because’ when something unexpected occurs, interfering with your travel plans.

Here’s the story of a woman who is demanding – not asking, but demanding – a full refund of all her cancellation fees because she has decided not to go on a Caribbean cruise due to fears of the Zika virus (she is pregnant).  She has refused the cruise line’s offer to waive fees if she reschedules or picks a different destination, and is insisting on full refunds from the cruise line and the airline.

The Zika virus outbreak was unexpected?  Yes, but so what!  That’s the whole thing about insurance – protection not from the foreseeable and expected, but protection from the unexpected.  Bottom line – she gambled that she wouldn’t need the insurance, and saved on the cost of the premium.  She lost the gamble.  That is 100% her fault.

The really sad thing is that this unreasonable woman’s demands are considered newsworthy to start with.

Air Tickets – $600.  Change Fees – $4400.

An elderly English couple traveled down to Australia for a vacation, with a side trip to New Zealand.  The ticket from Sydney to Auckland and back cost them NZ$312 each.

Then they had to make a change to their return travel date from Auckland back to Sydney.  They called their travel agency – Cheapoair in the UK (but be aware Cheapoair are based in the US so US readers may encounter them too) and the agency charged them $2286 to make the change.

While in NZ, they needed to make a further change, for which Cheapoair charged them another $2071.  In total, they paid $4358 for changes to the two tickets which cost $624 to start with.

The airline says its normal change fee is $175 per person, $350 for both of them.  Apparently the other $4000 was kept by Cheapoair.

When asked about this, Cheapoair said it would send the matter to their billing department ‘for clarity’ and then stopped answering further emails.  It took intercession by a major UK newspaper to embarrass them into first making a partial refund, and then a second further refund a bit later.  The agency described the over-billing (and presumably the subsequent refusal to refund or even answer emails about the overbilling) as a mistake.

I’m not entirely sure of the moral of this story, but I did want to name and shame Cheapoair.  Details here.

Frontier Airlines Passenger Given Note About ‘Other Armed Passengers’

A flight attendant came up to a passenger shortly before take-off and surreptitiously handed him a note written on a paper napkin, saying ‘Other Armed Passengers 10F 13F”.

What would you do if you received such a note?  Chances are you’d be somewhere between alarmed and puzzled, and wonder which particular movie scene you’d just fallen into.

The passenger got up and went to where the flight attendant had gone and told her that he didn’t think he was the intended recipient of the note, whereupon she said ‘Oh God!’.

It turns out that she had meant to give the note to an on-board Air Marshal as a courtesy.  This is something the flight attendants always do, so there aren’t cases of ‘friendly fire’ arising from misidentification.

No big deal – mistakes happen.  But the thing that really is regrettable is that when asked about the incident, the airline apparently lied through their teeth.  Rather than saying ‘The flight attendant handed the note to the guy in 2B instead of the guy in 2C’ (or whatever the case was), a Frontier spokesman lied and as a reflex action tried to blame the passenger, saying

The note was handed to another customer instead of the person it was intended for after the customer changed seats on the plane

Why do we believe it to be a lie?  When asked about this, the passenger said in reply

Those are the seats we were assigned; those are the seats we sat in. I can’t imagine it’s very easy just to change seats, let alone with someone who is assigned a specific seat for safety purposes.

Who can imagine an Air Marshal, after formally advising of his presence and being seated in his allocated seat, then casually swapping seats with another passenger and not telling the flight attendants.  It would seem that the Frontier spokesman isn’t just lying, but is lying stupidly.  Details here.

The Helicopter’s Failure as a Means of Passenger Transportation

I enjoy flying in any plane, but I love flying in a helicopter.  It is so much more ‘three dimensional’ and exciting/exhilarating than a regular plane.

But, as we all know, helicopters have never made it to ‘prime time’ as a practical means of ordinary passenger transportation.  They are way too expensive.

What we don’t necessarily know though is whether that expense issue is one that couldn’t be addressed if a few tens of billions of dollars of R&D weren’t thrown at the problem.  While the phrase ‘tens of billions of dollars’ sounds like a huge amount, it isn’t, not by aerospace standards.  It is a drop in the bucket compared to the ongoing every year costs that go into R&D for passenger planes (and their engines).  A single new airplane – a mere derivative of an existing plane such as the A320neo or 737MAX can cost more than $10 billion to design and develop – although I’ve not the slightest comprehension of how it is possible to spend so much money just to develop a slightly changed derivative of an existing plane.

Much like the poor old Concorde, the ‘impossibility’ of affordable helicopter or supersonic flight is a chicken and egg situation – it will remain impossible until such time as someone is willing to spend the money up front to bring the technology up to current matching state of the art with fixed wing subsonic planes.

Even one of the big apparent weaknesses of the helicopter – its noise – is surely also amenable to improvement, just as the noise levels from regular planes have plummeted down and down from what they were like, decades before.

Even if helicopters – by their very nature – are likely to always be considerably more expensive than fully optimized large long-distance passenger jets, are there some niche ‘sweet spots’ where helicopters could balance their higher cost with greater convenience to their passengers?  Like, for example, providing moderately short haul flights between central city locations.  Imagine helicopter service between downtown New York and downtown DC or Boston, for example.  And if the helicopters were landing on the top of 30+ story buildings, the noise at ground level (which, let’s face it, is far from quiet to start with on a busy NYC street!) becomes relatively trivial.

The saving in the cost of a cab fare to any one of New York’s airports alone would justify a hefty increase in the cost of the ticket!  For business people, being able to save an hour or two at each end of a short commuter flight is ‘money in the bank’ and on certain routes one would think such a service could pay its way.  Certainly the North-eastern corridor.  Other city pairs or clusters such as Dallas/Houston/San Antonio/Austin, Toronto/Ottawa/Montreal, San Diego/Los Angeles, Pittsburgh/Cleveland/Detroit/Chicago/Milwaukee/etc, and so on.  Many cities in Europe.

Here’s a fascinating story of a failed combi helicopter/plane project in the 1950s and 1960s that promised much but delivered little (the Fairey Rotodyne, pictured above), although its supporters claim that funding was cut off too soon and many of the project’s problems were being addressed at the point support ceased.

Perhaps Elon Musk could take this under his wing as another visionary project of the sort that seems to appeal to him?

Cruise Ship Sails Into Super Storm – Passengers Thank Captain

A number of reports were published this week about the Royal Caribbean ship ‘Anthem of the Seas’ sailing into a storm with 30+ ft waves and 150+ mph winds.  It was very rough, and for a while passengers were on lock-down, confined to their cabins.

After the ship emerged, sycophantic publicity seeking passengers did such things as write to the Associated Press to praise the captain and crew, saying ‘They did everything they could to make us feel comfortable’.

That’s a statement that doesn’t survive much scrutiny.  Let’s think what ‘everything’ actually comprises.  Does it include putting passengers in a virtual lockdown, ordering them into their cabins and out of the public spaces?

More to the point, does it include deliberately sailing into the storm in the first place?

Well, the passengers could be excused for not appreciating that point – the captain went on the ship’s internal video broadcast system and told the passengers the storm was unexpected.  He blamed the weather forecasters for not accurately forecasting the conditions, which he said were much worse than predicted.

That’s understandable and forgivable.  Not the captain’s fault at all, right?  But there’s one slight technical detail worthy of mention to put the captain’s explanation into context.

It was a lie.

As you can read in this article, the weather was exactly as forecasted.

One of the most sickening things I see on any cruise is the way passengers fawn so obsequiously over the captain.  Just because he has the fanciest dress at the ‘costume party’ doesn’t mean he is the most important person on the ship.  Quite the opposite.  He is nothing more than a bus driver in fancy dress.

Most passengers never see the ongoing arguments and tensions as between the captain, the Hotel Manager, and the Cruise Director.  Most captains just want to sail their ship on the ship’s schedule, and regard everything to do with passengers as a nuisance and an interference.  It is the Hotel Manager and the Cruise Director who handle everything to do with your experience on the ship – the captain does nothing at all (except deliberately sail into bad weather).  The Hotel Manager and Cruise Director will sometimes have to argue with and plead with the captain to please adjust the sailing schedule to allow for something, or to please go a little faster to get into port on time, or whatever else, and some captains will obdurately refuse, while others will grudgingly agree.

Everyone plays a game of ‘Let’s Pretend the Captain is the Hero’ because that’s what the passengers expect and like.  The truth is often completely at odds with this facade, as was infamously shown when the Costa Concordia ran aground and the captain – and many of his other deck officers –  rushed off the ship rather than being the last person off.

The last ones off and those most conspicuously helping the passengers – the real heroes – were low-paid cabin attendants rather than the liveried ship’s officers .

I remember one time the captain of a ship told me to stop complaining about the food – it was perfectly good, in his opinion and I was being ‘impolite’ to complain.  I remember another time taking a picture of a different captain smoking with a friend of his, underneath a no smoking sign.  I remember yet another captain who refused to talk to passengers at all, not even in the formal captain’s welcome reception, because ‘he didn’t speak English’ – except for when he was meeting with a Harbormaster and accepting a gift on behalf of the ship’s owner, at which point he seemed to speak English surprisingly well.

Do passengers really think the captain oversees the food that is prepared in the galleys?  The price of cocktails in the bar?  The speed of the Wi-fi, and the programming of the video channels?  The cabin service?  The off-ship touring?  The entertainment?  Nope.  None of the things that make the difference between a great cruise and a terrible cruise are anything to do with the captain at all.  So why all the ill-deserved adoration?

The Titanic II – Or Maybe Not

We’ve mentioned a couple of times the quixotic plan by an Australian billionaire to build a replica of the Titanic.  By today’s standards, the Titanic would be both small and uncomfortable – so the ‘replica’ will be somewhat modified to reflect the higher standards enjoyed by today’s leisure cruisers.

Some people would think that this rather invalidates the claim to be making a replica of the ship in the first place.  But it appears there is a bigger problem in the background than just the dubious historical accuracy of the replica ship.  It may not actually be under construction at all, notwithstanding the claims of it progressing in the shipyard.  Details here.

Golly, you can’t trust the captains and you can’t trust the cruise line owners either, it appears.  What is the world coming to?

And Lastly This Week….

After our New Zealand tour, in early November, we’re offering an optional extension up to the Cairns area of Australia.  Which makes this story rather apropos.

On a recent flight from Cairns to Sydney a passenger asked as he boarded if the flight attendant could please put two big mud crabs in the galley fridge for the three hour flight.  She agreed.

As the flight was nearing Sydney the FA remembered the seafood, but couldn’t remember the passenger.  She picked up the intercom and announced, “Would the passenger who gave me the crabs in Cairns please press the Flight Attendant Call Button”.

Truly lastly this week, we often focus on flight attendants and the sometimes problematic interactions between them and us.  But what about other airport workers?  Here’s an interesting collection of anonymous ‘true confessions’ of airport employees.

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels





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