Weekly Roundup, Friday 26 February 2016

We tour the celebrated Pomerol and St Emilion districts in Bordeaux, including a wine tasting in a traditional cave/cellar, as part of our French river cruise.
We tour the celebrated Pomerol and St Emilion districts in Bordeaux, including a wine tasting in a traditional cave/cellar, as part of our French river cruise this July.

Good morning

The special deal we have on our French river cruise through the Bordeaux region in July expires this Monday, 29 February.  It may be extended into March, but I’ve not yet heard from Amawaterways about this.  If you’ve been thinking you might come join us and enjoy what promises to be one of the best Travel Insider cruises ever, please do get back to me asap today or over the weekend so we can get you registered prior to the end of the special promotion.

As you may recall, we are offering a $750 per person discount, about another $120 saving by paying your onboard gratuities for you, an additional $100 per person shipboard credit, and some other Travel Insider extras, too.

That’s a lot of saving on a wonderful cruise, in a beautiful part of France redolent with amazing wine and food, and hopefully richly endowed with warm summer weather too, so please do circle back to have a look at our French river cruise and consider joining us.

Our Oct/Nov NZ tour has been very quickly filling, and there are only a couple of rooms in our Napier hotel remaining.  Would you like to come with a lovely small group of fellow Travel Insiders on our 2016 ‘Epicurean Extravaganza’?  If so, please let me know as soon as you can, so I can be sure to squeeze you in.

After the roundup this week, you’ll find an article on a fairly mundane but also useful item that perhaps you’ve not thought about in the last some years.  Between now and then, they’ve become better and finally are both affordable and practical – outside solar powered night lights.  Great for a bit of extra security when you’re traveling away from home, and convenient when you’re at home, too.

And please keep reading for :

  • Editorial – Robots :  Rejoice or Revile?
  • Another Airline Bankruptcy Announced
  • Norwegian Air’s Continued Struggles
  • Tipping Flight Attendants – Now a Reality
  • Another Outrageous ‘Optional’ Charge
  • More Outrageous CheapoAir Charging
  • Air Fares Increasing (Fuel Prices Still Dropping)
  • Airplane Seats by the Inch (Width not Pitch)?
  • Atlanta Airport Threatens to Replace TSA with Private Screeners
  • Mumbai Imposes ‘No-Selfie’ Zones
  • And Lastly This Week….

Editorial – Robots :  Rejoice or Revile?

One of the divisions of Alphabet – the newly named holding company that now sits atop Google and Google’s other ventures, is Boston Dynamics.  They make robots, and this week a new model was demonstrated, and has been considered by many to be yet another breakthrough in terms of what robots can do and how nimble they can be.

Some commentators have gone as far as to predict that this robot, and its successor models, will spell the end of manual labor, within the next 10 – 15 years.  I agree with them, and expect that the speed of this change will be greater than most people imagine.

Few people have thought about the implications of this, which is perhaps just as well for our social sanity, because I fear this is an unstoppable technological development that we can’t fight against.  What happens when manual labor as we know it currently is eliminated?  More to the point, what happens to the people who lose their jobs?  Some people have a utopian vision and suggest either that the manual workers will be retrained as rocket scientists and business leaders, or else will retire and live a life of luxurious leisure.

But, neither outcome is going to happen.  At the risk of uttering an ugly truth, not all manual laborers are potential rocket scientists in the making, besides which, rocket scientists need to consider their jobs as being increasingly at risk as well, and even if not at risk, with NASA’s much reduced form, there’s not much need for many rocket scientists.

As for being able to retire and lead a lovely life of leisure, on who’s dime will this be?  Think about every previous wave of automation and efficiencies that have occurred – how many of the laid off staff have been given generous pensions equivalent to, or greater than, the incomes they were earning up until being replaced by machines, computers, or off-shore labor?  The answer of course is none, but because these past trends have been part of a generally growing economy, new jobs in other fields have arisen for the displaced workers and, until recently, there’s been only small amounts of social harm resulting, and the sum of greater good has encouraged us all to carefully look away from this issue.

But this new round of job eliminations will be vastly greater than in the past, and we’re already in an era where jobs are scarcer, and competition from all around the world for the jobs that remain, is much greater.

We need to understand how astonishingly pervasive the replacement of people by intelligent robots will be.  Most agricultural/farm employment will vanish.  Most factory labor will also go.  Warehouse and retail stockers?  Amazon is leading the way in that direction already.  With self-driving vehicles also a reality in the same time frame, there goes the Teamster’s Union.  And, yes, you just know that planes will become self-flying, and the flight attendants will be out the door as well.

The server in McDonalds?  The gas station attendant?  The clerk in the Post Office?  The nurse in the hospital (or even the doctor)?  Keep thinking of jobs, and see which ones have any chance of lasting out against robots.  I like to hope that creative jobs such as mine might last a bit longer, but computers are already writing more articles in your local newspaper or on your favorite website than you realize, and that is a trend that will won’t stop until reaching its logical conclusion.

So here’s the thing that troubles me.  Won’t there come a tipping point – a time when so many people have become unemployed and unemployable, that rather than the economy being boosted by the ‘greater efficiency’ of production (as has largely been the case to date), it will be destroyed by the lack of consumption?  And what will happen to our lives and the rituals of going to work, working, coming home again, the social structures centered around our work lives, and everything else?  Not just our economy, but our society – will be upended.

Until now, there have generally always been replacement jobs for displaced workers.  But this new robot revolution changes that.  This is the huge difference between the new robot revolution and former revolutions – the industrial revolution, the information age, and so on.

Many respected commentators are expressing fears about how artificial intelligence and ‘killer’ type robots may destroy humanity in a scenario similar to that in the Terminator movies.  I don’t disagree with those concerns at all.  But perhaps, as we consider and usually discount such concerns, that is causing us to also overlook a graver concern – that the real killer robots won’t be the fighter/killer robots, but the worker/job killer robots.

Another Airline Bankruptcy Announced

Regional carrier, Republic Airways, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy on Thursday.

You might be surprised by this.  Airline profits are at record highs.  But this bankruptcy highlights the difference between being the visible brand name carrier – the American, Delta or United – and the invisible contractor airline that actually operates the flight you’re on.

The three (or four if you include Southwest) major dinosaurs ‘own’ the airline market these days, and the small regional carriers that actually fly the routes the dinosaurs can’t be bothered doing themselves (or are unable to profitably do due to union constraints) have little or no bargaining power.  If they don’t like a ‘take it or leave it’ contract offer, there’s another regional airline that will bravely step in and take over.

So not only are the airline profits not being equally shared, but the result of being squeezed and then squeezed some more means that the regionals are having to be extremely cost sensitive, and pay their staff much less than the dinosaurs do.

Republic says the major contributing factor was a pilot shortage that meant it was unable to operate as many flights as it coulda, shoulda, woulda flown.  That in turn meant that the fixed costs of owning/leasing their planes, and all their other overheads, got spread over fewer flights and became a greater proportion of the remaining income they were still receiving, and that meant that their contracts, instead of giving them tiny profits, instead started causing them significant losses.

But – please don’t worry.  Republic’s Chairman, Bryan Bedford, cheerfully tells us that their restructuring will ‘restore our airline and take it to new heights’.  And, oh yes, Republic will continue to operate all flights normally during the bankruptcy process – although of course, the very nature of a Chapter 11 bankruptcy and the restructuring it countenances/allows/requires rather negates the certainty of that claim surviving too long.

Republic currently operates flights for all three major carriers – American, Delta and United, with about 1,000 flights (on a good day with plenty of pilots).

Details here.

Norwegian Air’s Continued Struggles

According to this NY Times article, the US Department of Transportation typically averages 53 days to grant new route operating authorities to European airlines when they apply.  The Open Skies agreements between us and the EU make this 53 day period more a case of ‘going through the motions’ than actually involving any serious review or measurable risk of any appropriately prepared application being refused.

So why has it taken over 750 days, with no end in sight and no discernable progress, for the DoT to do nothing at all with the Norwegian Air application to add extra flights between the EU and US?  The answer is in the previous paragraph – because the DoT almost certainly would have no grounds to refuse the application, were it to actually issue a ruling.

So instead, it is doing nothing.  Day after day after week after month after year.  A constructive refusal, such as it is unable to officially make.

It is hard to see this as anything other than blatant corruption at the heart of the DoT, which refuses to even offer the thinnest of thin excuses for their inexcusable delays.  We’d expect such behavior in a Banana Republic, but in the United States?

What has gone so terribly wrong with the DoT?  What happens when our lawmakers refuse to observe their own laws?  How can we fix it?

Tipping Flight Attendants – Now a Reality

Two things I’ve often liked to joke about are the oft cited story of airlines (Ryanair in particular) deciding to start to charge to access the toilet on board, and secondly, the concept of tipping flight attendants.

Back in 2013, we even had an instant survey asking if you’d be likely to tip flight attendants.


As you can see, it wasn’t a popular concept.  But if there’s one thing that’s certain in the airline game, it is that unpopular concepts are regularly embraced by the airlines.

And so this week I got a note from reader Aron, who writes

Yesterday, my wife and I flew Frontier from Fort Lauderdale to Trenton NJ.

Having already paid extra for seat upgrades, carry-on bags, and checked bags; and in the process of paying for a $1.99 can of juice, I was (not pleasantly) surprised to find a recommendation for a gratuity.  I had the opportunity to check boxes for a tip of 15%, 20%, or 25% before signing on the tablet device.

Perhaps on my next Frontier flight there will be a tip jar outside the flight deck door – 20% recommended for a safe landing, 25% if he doesn’t bounce it all over the runway.

Another Outrageous ‘Optional’ Charge

Something that is increasingly unpleasant and uncertain is entering the UK through Heathrow.  The line to go through Immigration can sometimes take over an hour, although there’s seldom much of a line at all for UK and EU citizens.

This is particularly annoying to me, because back in the good old days, the priority line was for UK and Commonwealth, not EU, citizens.  But as part of Britain abandoning its past and turning instead to Europe, it severed the profound ties that we felt still connected us with our home country – the country we’d fought for in various wars, the country we’d sacrificed for outside of wartime too (New Zealand – a land of abundant food of all types, had food rationing into the 1950s, because it was making it a higher priority to send food to Britain, which was unable to grow enough food for itself, either during WW2 (1939-1945) or subsequently.  We voluntarily went hungry so that Britain didn’t.

Anyway, that’s another story entirely, and for now, my main point is the delay to go through Immigration to enter Britain.  And when I say ‘can sometimes take over an hour’, on rare occasion it can go to three or four hours, while all that time, one can’t help noticing that three quarters or more of the Immigration desks are unmanned.  Welcome to Britain, indeed.

It isn’t as though Britain can’t afford more Immigration officials.  The British government charges passengers £71 ($100 or a bit more) as ‘Air Passenger Duty’ (and twice as much if you’re flying in first, business, or premium economy class) and sometimes other fees too.  That should buy us all our own personal Immigration official escort through the airport, not a several hour wait while staring at the insult of unstaffed desks.

Britain has been roundly criticized for such poor treatment of its visitors, and has now responded.  Just like we can join Global Entry or one of several other similar services to get expedited entry into the US (and sometimes other countries too) Britain is now creating a program for its visitors, called ‘Registered Traveler’.  The cost to join is £70 (just over $100), and that includes the first year of membership, and then it is an extra £50 (almost $75) for each subsequent year, and if you replace your passport due to the old one expiring, that’s another £20 ($30).

So, for five years of membership, you’ll pay $100 + 4 x $75 plus $15 (every ten years a new passport) – a total of $415.  Plus of course all that ‘Air Passenger Duty’ too.

My five year Nexus card costs $50.  Yes, the UK program is over eight times as expensive as the US one.

Welcome to Britain, indeed.  Details here.

More Outrageous CheapoAir Charging

In the last newsletter, I wrote about CheapoAir in the UK charging a couple $4400 in change fees to make two changes to airtickets for traveling between Australia and New Zealand.  To put that in perspective, the tickets themselves originally cost $600.

Reader Victoria, in the US, writes in to say

Despite my telling our Administrative Assistants to not use discount travel websites, one of them booked a ticket through CheapoAir a few years ago.  The flight originated out of Buffalo which sustained several successive blizzards during one week.

I couldn’t get through to JetBlue so had to make the changes through CheapoAir.  They charged us about $1000.  When I did reach JetBlue after the flights and complained, they said they would not have charged me a change fee due to the blizzards.

I returned to CheapoAir and they said basically, “too bad”.  I challenged the two charges with Citicard and they refunded the money to me.

I will never book flights or hotels through discount websites. Never. I use them to research unusual routings and then book directly with the airline or with my travel agency if multiple airlines are required.

I don’t entirely agree with Victoria’s blanket ban on discount websites, and I’d also point out that the few times I’ve researched CheapoAir, their fares have been the same as directly purchasing the tickets through the airline.

I’m not quite sure which part of CheapoAir is the cheap part – I’ve not seen any special value in their fares, and as for their change fees, they are so extreme as to be verging on the criminal.

Air Fares Increasing (Fuel Prices Still Dropping)

Ugh – four stories in a row about over-charging.  Nasty.  But you should know about all four, whether they be pleasant or unpleasant.

Just three weeks ago I was reporting the long sad faces on AA President Scott Kirby’s face when he made the rather specious comment about doubting there’d be any increases in airfare this year.

And now, would you believe it, it seems that Scott is wrong.  There have been five fare increase attempts so far this year, most recently last Friday, with Southwest initiating a $5 increase in fares.  Overall, so far this year (two months in) it seems most domestic tickets have gone up about $22.

Meanwhile, gas prices – for our cars, and for their planes – are lower than they’ve been in 15 years.  Oh, yes, and another thing.  Fuel surcharges, or the sometimes renamed ‘Carrier charges’ are also largely still in place with most airlines.  The worst offender continues to be British Airways, that chooses to impose a fee of between $150 to over $1000 on what used to be free award travel tickets.  As far as I can tell, those fees have remained unchanged, even though the ability of BA or any other airline to continue to justify any sort of surcharge has long since totally disappeared.

The airlines should be giving us ‘fuel saving discounts’ rather than applying fuel surcharges.

Airplane Seats by the Inch (Width not Pitch)?

These days the biggest objection most of us have, most of the time, to the airline seat we’re forced to try and squeeze into, is not so much the lack of legroom as it is the lack of width.  In some cases, seats truly have become narrower (airlines are putting more seats per row into their wide body planes at the same time their passengers are getting wider rather than narrower), in other cases, it is just because we are indeed becoming larger and the ‘average’ passenger today needs more room than was the case 60 years ago when the classic 737/757 type cabin cross-section was first designed.

Is Airbus coming up with a clever solution?  Almost certainly not.  But they did file a patent for a bench type seat that could be variably configured to fit two ‘passengers of size’ or hopefully three thinner passengers, or even two adults and two children.

As inadequate and undersized as current airline seats are, going to a slab bench seat with no lateral support and even less demarcation between ‘my’ space and ‘your’ space doesn’t sound like a good idea.  Plus, who is in charge of the seat recline?  The patent drawings show that there’s (necessarily) a single seat back.  Would everyone take a vote on when to recline the seat, and how far back it should go?

So – seats by the inch – a great idea, or another airplane disaster in the making?

Details here.

Atlanta Airport Threatens to Replace TSA with Private Screeners

One of the big deceptions forced upon us by the government was the lie that the 9/11 attacks were the fault of private screeners at airports.  That is totally wrong.  If we wish to impose blame, the blame lies at the feet of the people who told pilots, flight attendants and passengers that the best thing to do when hijackers take over a plane is to cooperate, and the blame should be shared by the people who ruled that box cutters were allowable on planes.

But in a desperate attempt to avoid the blame landing in their laps, these very same people said ‘trust us, we’re from the government, and we’ll make sure those nasty private screeners never get a chance to let terrorists slip onto planes again’.  And we all eagerly agreed with that mistaken underlying assumption, and welcomed the formation of the TSA and its mother organization, the giant DHS.

Since that time there has been scandal after scandal, and indignity after indignity foist upon passengers, delay after delay in security lines, all sorts of weird but never wonderful screening machines purchased at great cost, some of which never even got out of the holding warehouses before being scrapped as impractical, and no matter what, the underlying problem – the TSA itself – has largely continued unaltered.

But now Hartsfield-Jackson Airport is saying ‘enough already’, and has written to the TSA to say that if it doesn’t improve the service it is giving to passengers at ATL, the airport authority will invoke its right to ‘go private’ and replace the TSA with private contractors.

The TSA says, in reply, that it is ‘evaluating’ the airport’s letter.  It also said that, due to staffing caps, the current delays at ATL might get worse not better, but it thinks passengers don’t mind waiting up to an hour in line for screening, because of the quality of the screening and the safety they get in return.

Yeah, sure, right.

A survey as part of this website article shows 85% of respondents would welcome the TSA being replaced by private screeners.

Mumbai Imposes ‘No-Selfie’ Zones

One of the changes in our lives subsequent to the ubiquitous appearance of camera equipped phones has been the rise of the ‘selfie’ picture.  If you look at many Facebook pages or dating website profiles, you’ll notice that the vast preponderance of pictures of the person who ‘owns’ the page or profile these days are selfie ones (and so many seem to be inexplicably taken in bathrooms – what causes people to think of wanting to take a picture while in a bathroom with the toilet in the background?).

But the good thing about bathroom selfies is that they are usually reasonably safe.  Not so much, it appears, when you attempt to do this in the great wonderful outdoors.  People have walked into things, fallen off things, or been attacked by things, all while oblivious to everything but the camera/phone being held at arm’s length.

Apparently 49 people are known to have been killed while taking selfies in the last three years, and the true total is probably much greater.  India has suffered 19 official deaths during these three years, although you might think that six deaths a year from selfie-taking, in a country of 1.25 billion people, is such a small number as to be unspeakably trivial, but not so the city fathers in Mumbai.  While it is not known how many of the six deaths a year occur in Mumbai, the Mumbai police have identified particularly dangerous zones where they will now be restraining people and preventing them from taking selfies.

There’s an interesting English translation of a Russian brochure warning of the dangers of selfies as part of this article.

And Lastly This Week….

Here’s a good question – and answer – for your next game of Trivial Pursuit.  Why are Boeing’s planes all numbered in the 700s?  What about the 600s, etc?  Answer here.

London’s iconic Underground – that’s a phrase that is often found, indeed Google returns 1.1 million pages using that phrase or something similar to it.  Let’s focus on the middle part of the phrase – iconic.  It is the signage and the map that makes up the ‘icon’ more than the trains or stations, isn’t it.

And with something as appreciated and renowned as such icons are, there will always be a few people who can’t resist having a bit of fun with them.

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels






4 thoughts on “Weekly Roundup, Friday 26 February 2016”

  1. RE: Atlanta Airport Threatens to Replace TSA with Private Screeners
    Do people have such short memories ? TSA was created because the private contractors no only did not do the job properly, but managed to insult passengers through sexual abuse and indignities. No one remembers the outrage leading to the creation of the TSA ? Anyone over the age of 30 – 35 should be able to talk about it. It’s been almost 15 years since the disasters of 2001.

    1. Hi, Hank

      I’ve over 30-35, I can talk about it, but I don’t agree with you at all.

      In what way did private contractors not do the job properly? In what way did they heap sexual abuse and indignities on passengers? Are you sure you’re not confused and actually swapping the sides of this story around?

      1. Ultimately we have to look at Congress who has decided to reduce available funds for proper TSA staffing. It ranks right up there with taking funds for agents away from the IRS then yelling at that agency for decreased customer response and fewer audits.

        See below:

        Below I list some reports from 10-15 years ago when people were adamant that the government needed to intervene in airport security to insure our safety.

        Nearly 15 years after the most tragic event in US history, it is as if people don’t remember, choose not to remember, or are ignorant of what was before 2001. I am not a professional travel writer but someone who has followed many travel issues for some decades. This idea that privatizing airport screeners would improve matters or save money is very naive. In September 2001, airport screening was done by a patchwork of private agencies contracted by airports and airlines. There were no standards in hiring, training or performance. No standards for how the tasks were to be performed or even what tasks. The TSA, though like any human creation is not without flaws but it created nationwide standards for airport security. Informed people who understand business and capitalism realize that so-called efficiency in the private sector is really about minimizing costs while maximizing revenue. Profit is the motivation. Just how low a contract for screening an airport would you be comfortable with ? Would you be alright with workers recruited from the fast food industry and paid at that level ? Are you OK with private screening companies hiring felons as mentioned in one report cited below ? Are some things too precious to be measured by profit ? Good management is good management whether done done by the private or public sector.

        Here are some citations and excerpts from the press related to airport screening in the early part of the last decade. These are meant to be representative and not meant to be exhaustive. These reports primarily reflect the transition between private companies doing airport screening to the full implementation of the TSA in the G.W. Bush administration.

        *A NATION CHALLENGED: AIRPORT SECURITY; As U. S. Assumes Screening, Little Will Appear Changed. By MATTHEW L. WALD
        Published: February 15, 2002

        “…Argenbright Security, one of the largest contractors, will quickly be eliminated from the passenger screening checkpoints, they added.

        “Under the aviation security law passed by Congress in November, the new Transportation Security Administration will relieve the airlines of the job of screening passengers and bags at 429 airports. For the next few months, the agency will use some of the contractors who do the work now, but an exception will be Argenbright, which has an extended history of problems, including employing felons.”

        *Business Travel; Despite a longstanding policy of same-sex screenings, charges of airport groping continue. By Joe Sharkey. New York Times, March 20, 2002

        “Ms. Deeks [spokeswoman for for the Association of Flight Attendants} said that the union had received ”literally hundreds” of formal complaints from flight attendants about being fondled at security. However, complaints have dropped sharply since the federal government assumed control of security checkpoints last month, she said. The union has stressed that only better training will prevent future abuses. ”

        *Airports are in no hurry to hire private screeners
        By Leslie Miller
        Associated Press, Published: Sunday, May 8 2005 12:00 a.m. MDT

        “Congressional investigators, in a recent report, found problems in both passenger and luggage screening at many airports, regardless of whether the government or private companies handled security.

        “Mike Marnach, director of the Sioux Falls Regional Airport, said the airport’s board of directors voted to switch to private screeners because they think passengers will benefit. “They’ll be more responsible to the customer,” he said.

        “Tara Hamilton, spokeswoman for the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, said Dulles International and Reagan National airports might be interested if it was shown private screeners improved security and customer service.

        “But we haven’t determined that that’s the case,” she said.”

  2. Pingback: Weekly Roundup, Friday 27 May 2016 - The Travel Insider

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