Weekly Roundup, Friday 20 May 2016

Whether ashore in New Zealand, or 'aship' on one of our cruises, come enjoy fine food, fine fellowship, and fine travel experiences on our of our summer tours this year.
Whether ashore in New Zealand, or ‘aship’ on one of our cruises, come enjoy fine food, fine fellowship, and fine travel experiences on a Travel Insider summer tour this year.

Good morning

Was this the week when every passenger’s frustration boiled over, and we spontaneously all resolved not to accept two hour (and sometimes longer!) waits to go through security any more?  If it wasn’t, it sure should have been, and an eruption of news stories told tales of woe (and, worse, missed flights and forced overnights sleeping on airport floors) from around the country.

Would you like the bad news or the good news?  The bad news is that last week’s misery is likely to get worse before it gets better (summer air travel numbers are up 4% on last year while TSA staffing is down and they’re taking longer to screen each passenger in a passive aggressive response to the latest report showing their gross inability to detect weapons), and there’s absolutely no point in complaining to the TSA, the airlines, or your elected representatives.

But now for the good news.  There is someone you can write to, and someone who can make a very big difference, right at your local home airport.  Yay for that.  Who is this person, and what can they do?  Please read the article that follows this morning’s roundup for answers to those essential questions!

After talking about airport misery, is it the wrong time to mention our three lovely Travel Insider tours this summer/fall?  Yes, you might have to endure a bit of airport misery to get to their starting points, but doubly yes, it will be more than worth it.  The two cruises are about to lose their special discounts, I fear, so if you’d like to join either of those, please quickly respond.

Your three choices are :

A week cruising through the greatest wine country in France’s Bordeaux region, late July/early August; optional pre-tour in Paris and post tour in the Loire valley

A week cruising through the Balkans from Bucharest to Budapest, late Aug/early Sept; optional pre-tour in Bucharest/Transylvania, and post-tour to Vienna or another week cruising through Austria and Germany

Eleven days in New Zealand, combining both the ‘A list’ and also neglected other attractions best known to me as a New Zealander, late Oct/early Nov (their spring); optional pre-tour in NZ’s tourist paradise of Queenstown, optional post-tour in Australia’s tourist paradise of Queensland

Sign up for one, two, or be like me and come on all three!

What else this week?  Please continue reading for :

  • The EgyptAir Crash – What We Currently Know
  • The Other EgyptAir Story This Week
  • British Airways Becomes Even Less British
  • More Flights of Fantasy
  • Something Else that Probably Won’t Happen – But Which Should
  • Analysts Agree Again?
  • Getting Lucky in Las Vegas (No, Not That Way)
  • And Lastly This Week….

The EgyptAir Crash – What We Currently Know

Wednesday saw an EgyptAir A320 flying from France to Egypt disappear over over the Mediterranean, presumably crashed, and presumably no survivors.  No emergency signals were received from the plane, it just disappeared off the radar.

Disappearing off the radar isn’t as difficult to do as it may seem.  Most ‘radar traces’ are not so much what we’d understand as traditional radar like we see in war movies, but rather are the result of GPS type radio signals being sent from transmitters on the planes and received by ground stations, then displayed on ‘radar’ type screens.  Turn off the in-plane transmitter, and the plane disappears.

We’re still in the very preliminary stages of the investigation, and earlier indications of floating debris where the plane is thought to have crashed have been found not to be related to the flight, and similarly, an early indication of signals from an emergency locator beacon were not sustained, and the sonar ‘pingers’ in the presumably submerged ‘black boxes’ have not yet been detected.

There has been a rush to declare the plane’s disappearance as being terrorism related; indeed – at the risk of giving too much attention to the likely Republican presidential candidate this fall, he said today

A plane got blown out of the sky. And if anything, if anybody thinks it wasn’t blown out of the sky, you are 100 percent wrong, folks. OK? You’re 100 percent wrong.

His certainty is interesting – does that mean he is already receiving classified intelligence briefings?  The two candidates are not expected to start getting these until after their nominating conventions.

To the rest of us, it seems there is not yet any evidence to either prove or disprove claims of terrorism.  It is indeed a likely cause, but it is far from 100% certain as being the only cause.  Some sort of catastrophic failure of the plane itself might see it lose communications and fall out of the sky, or one of the pilots might again be suicidal; these sorts of imponderables are best resolved when there is debris to inspect and black boxes to review.

Ironically, there were not one or two but three air marshals on the flight (apparently belonging to Egypt’s air security service).  But these days, a ‘terror attack’ is more likely to be a bomb, either smuggled on board by passengers, or stored in a checked bag or piece of freight, or secreted somewhere on the plane by ground crew.  None of those eventualities can be readily resolved by having any number of air marshals on the flight, although a clumsy attempt by a passenger to detonate a device on board might be something (and in the past has been something) which passengers, crew, or air marshals could prevent.

It is interesting and surprising that after 24 hours, no wreckage has been found and no black box or emergency locator beacon signals received.  And the last known location – 10 miles inside Egyptian airspace – is entering a heavily surveilled part of the world (there are 14 different air forces all engaged in combat missions with each other just a short way away in Syria, for example) and it is surprising that the plane’s fate isn’t known with a high degree of certainty and its location similarly pinpointed.

In hopefully unrelated news, the authorities coordinating the search for the missing MH370 777 are now starting to accept that they’ll probably never find it.  That’s a great shame, because it would be very reassuring to understand exactly what happened to that mysterious flight.

The Other EgyptAir Story This Week

One has to struggle not to make the sort of comment that cries out for being made, apropos the loss of the Egyptair flight on Wednesday, when recounting this tale of woe.

A Nigerian medical student was flying back to the university he is attending in Kiev from his home in Nigeria on Egyptair, and inexplicably the EgyptAir ticket office issued him a ticket not to Kiev but to Chisinau in Moldova instead.  Even more surprisingly, the document checks as the student flew to ‘Kiev’ failed to note that his entry papers to Moldova were actually to Ukraine, not Moldova.

Okay, so there’s nothing unusual about passengers going to the wrong city or even sometimes the wrong country.  It is what happened next that became truly strange, and very regrettable.

British Airways Becomes Even Less British

To those of us cheering on the Brexiters in Britain and desperately hoping for Britain to turn back to its cruelly spurned Commonwealth partners, it was hard to fathom British Airways getting into bed with a Spanish airline (Iberia) and forming a new combined company, IAG.  Why, it is barely 200 years ago that Britain and Spain were at war, and now their airlines are uniting?

But that’s not all.  News this week reveals that Qatar Airways, which barely a month ago increased its stake in IAG from 10% to 12%, has now raised its shareholding still further to 15%.  Qatar indicated that it may consider increasing its stake still further.

So check this out :

  • American Airlines is beating up on the US government to penalize Qatar Airways for being too successful and beating the pants of AA’s failed attempts at competing against it (and AA’s similar failures against Emirates and Etihad).
  • American Airlines’ closest partner relationship is with British Airways.
  • And British Airways is now 15% owned by arch-enemy Qatar Airways.
  • And – oh yes, American and Qatar are also frenemies, both being members of the Oneworld alliance.

The convoluted and incestuous nature of airline non-competition is extraordinary, and getting stranger by the day.

Coming to the skies near you in 2018? Not likely!
Coming to the skies near you in 2018? Not likely!

More Flights of Fantasy

A couple of recent pieces of ridiculous ‘news’.  There are probably four regularly regurgitated stories about futuristic planes – the ‘blended wing/body’ plane that will hold 1000+ passengers, the successor to the Concorde flying at about twice the speed of sound, a hypersonic plane that can fly between eg New York and London in less time than it takes you to go through the security line at JFK, and the ‘flying car’ type plane that promises to be an ‘everyman’ plane appearing in all our garages.

We’ve had new releases on two of these concepts, both more aggressively unrealistic than ever before.    The first promises us two hour flights between Sydney and London (almost exactly half-way around the world) in two years, and the second promises us vertical take off and landing two seater planes, also in two years.

There’s an interesting problem with VTOL jets.  The heat from their jet exhaust, particularly as they slowly come down to land vertically, tends to destroy (usually by melting!) any normal surface beneath it.  But doubtless that is just one of the solutions that will appear in less than two years.

Both the hypersonic plane and the VTOL plane are unlikely to be very cost effective.  When we consider the airlines and Boeing shied away from even the promise of a trans-sonic ‘Sonic Cruiser’ plane that would have gone slightly faster than today’s jets, but not over the speed of sound, preferring instead the design that became the 787, one wonders at the market for either of these two planes.  And – oh yes, if the planes are going to be flying in 2018 – how many orders have either of them yet received?

Clearly 2018 is going to be a very busy year in aviation.  Or maybe not.

Something Else that Probably Won’t Happen – But Which Should

Here’s an article updating us all on the very rapid rate of progress with the so-called ‘hyperloop’ concept – passenger carrying capsules inside tubes that travel at extraordinary speed (faster than regular jets) to take us across the country quickly and inexpensively.

The article talks dismissively about the cost of building a hyperloop track between Los Angeles and San Francisco as being in excess of $6 billion.  Now that might sound like a terribly impossible cost, but to me, it sounds like a bargain.  Why?

First, because the hyperloop would get us from its presumably several stops in each downtown to the other downtown’s several stops in a mere 30 minutes – an hour less than the scheduled flight time, and less time than it takes to drive from downtown Los Angeles or San Francisco to the airport, and much less time than it then takes to go through airport security.  So it has enormous practical appeal.

Second, compare it to California’s protracted ‘high speed’ rail project.  This is currently estimated to whisk passengers between the two cities in a mere three hours.  Hmmm.  Not nearly as fast, right!  And, talking about speed, earlier this week, a four year delay to the project was announced.

A four year delay to a project that has barely started – but which has been planned and revised endlessly over the twenty years since the California High Speed Rail Authority was first created?  How can that happen?

But, I’m getting sidetracked.  While there’s an endless amount to object to with this extraordinarily mismanaged and fanciful rail project, my point is this – the six times slower train, that may or may not ever eventuate, is projected to cost – well, pick a number, any number.  If they can’t get the project duration anywhere near correct, what could possibly reassure us that the project cost won’t blow out to a disastrous degree too?  There have been many different numbers quoted, peaking at almost $100 billion (for a more extensive network going down to San Diego and over to Sacramento), then being ‘magically’ reduced to $65 billion.  My guess, if the project ever completes, is that the speed and frequency of trains will be less than promised, and the cost back up to and almost surely well over the $100 billion estimate.

So, consider the contrast.  A Hyperloop system – clean, quiet, efficient, don’t impact massively on their surroundings, many times faster than trains and even planes, and costing only $6 billion; or high speed rail, much slower, impactful on the environment, surprisingly energy inefficient, and costing ten – twenty times as much while also taking longer to build.  Which should California be pursuing?

Sad to say, the California High Speed Rail Authority is showing no apparent interest in switching to hyperloop technology, which is a tragic shame.  This would be a welcome opportunity for the US to move to the forefront of technology once more, and there’s a partly funded high speed rail project that would be ideal to convert to a hyperloop.

Oh – can you guess where the first ‘real’ hyperloop may possibly be constructed instead?  Nigeria.  Gack.  No disrespect to Nigeria, but how has the world changed so tremendously that we are now lagging behind Nigeria for innovation!

Analysts Agree Again?

I wrote a couple of weeks ago about how three analysts reacted to Boeing’s latest earnings reports, issuing a buy, a sell and a hold recommendation, with the only good part of that being that at least one of them is correct.

Earlier this week, Tesla announced it would be raising an additional $1.4 billion in capital.  Analysts ‘agreed’ that this amount was too little, just right, or too much, and the timing was either too soon or as expected.

Further evidence of the reality-distortion lens through which Tesla is viewed comes from Goldman Sachs, which simultaneously says it expects Tesla’s 2018 production to fall short of its targets by 66% (to translate that – Tesla will only produce one third as many cars as it says it will) and also upgraded its recommendation on the stock from ‘Neutral’ to ‘Buy’.

Details here.

In other news, Tesla’s claim to have received 400,000 deposits (each of $1000) for its future Model 3 have been refined to now record a current total of 373,000 deposits held.  Whether the rate of new deposits being received will match the rate of current cancellations coming in remains to be seen.

Getting Lucky in Las Vegas (No, Not That Way)

Do you know of the ‘credit card sandwich’; the ‘$20 trick’ (and, no, not that sort of trick, either)?

It is what the cognoscenti do when checking in to their budget rooms in Las Vegas.  Discreetly slip the check in clerk $20 or more when passing over your credit card and ID, and enquire if there are any courtesy upgrades available.  The unwritten rule is that if you get an upgrade, the clerk keeps the $20, and if that can’t be offered, they return it.

The actual value of the cash varies depending on if you’re staying one night or many, and if you’re in an upmarket or middle market hotel.

I’ve reported on this once or twice in the past, and tried it myself too with varying outcomes – sometimes success and sometimes not.  I now discover there’s even a website devoted to the subject, and it publishes ratings to show which hotels (and their check in clerks) are most likely to give you an upgraded room in return for a bit of incentive, and which are not.  They say that 79% of the time, the strategy pays off.

Apparently the concept has spread across the country, but with less widespread acceptance than in ‘Sin City’.

More details here.

And Lastly This Week….

We all enjoy doing different things on our travels – you know, the sort of thing we couldn’t conveniently do at home.  For some, it might involve eating different foods, seeing different cultures, and so on.  For others, it can involve other types of activities, such as – well, see for yourself.

Lastly this week, please do consider joining us on either our Bordeaux or Balkan cruises, or if you prefer, our New Zealand land tour.

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels






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