Weekly Roundup, Friday 27 May 2016

The new Airbus business jet can fly nonstop to anywhere in the world.
The new Airbus business jet can fly nonstop to anywhere in the world.

Good morning

If you’re lucky, you’ll be going somewhere nice for Memorial Day Weekend.  If you’re very lucky, you’ll be staying home.  Travel – on the roads and in the air – is projected to be either at an all time high, or perhaps the second highest level ever.  I’m in the very lucky category this year.

It has been a week of mixed messages about the fate of Egyptair’s flight 804 that crashed in the Mediterranean on Wednesday last week.  We’re not really significantly closer to knowing much about what caused the crash, although an interesting development has been a few tantalizing snippets of data that the plane automatically sent back to its base about anomalous events detected in and around the cockpit immediately prior to the ‘loss of data event’.  But what caused those reports?  That’s still anyone’s guess.

On the other hand, controlled leaks from the US intelligence community have suggested that no sudden explosions were detected in the skies, and as I mentioned last week, there’s nary a sparrow fart that goes on in that part of the world that doesn’t have several different Great Powers appraised of exactly which the guilty bird was and what it had for breakfast that morning.  The rush to describe the event as terrorist induced may still yet prove to be correct, but currently there’s very little conclusive proof to support the theory other than applying Occam’s Razor.  If the event is terror related, the specifics of what form of terrorist attack is nothing more than conjecture.

Some good news – after remaining obstinately undetected for eight days, on Thursday evening a reliable report suggested that sonar pings from one or two of the plane’s black boxes may have now been detected.

The sonar pinging typically lasts for 30 days before the built in batteries are exhausted.  A technical problem is that the plane is thought to lie in about 10,000 ft of water, which makes recovery more challenging.  But the Air France flight that crashed in the South Atlantic in 2009 was at 13,000 ft, and a South African Airways plane crashed and ended up 16,000 ft below the surface in 1988, and in both cases black boxes were recovered, so the 10,000 ft depth doesn’t make things impossible, merely difficult.

Finding the black boxes would provide an almost certainly revelatory series of insights into what happened on board.  It might take a while to complete locating them and then to salvage them, but it is starting to look hopeful that this is a mystery that will be resolved.

I read an interesting statistic in an article earlier this week suggesting that 90% of us panic when our phone is running low on battery.  I think ‘panic’ is a strong term to use (or maybe I’m in the more stoic 10%) but I truly do feel uncomfortable any time my phone charge is getting low (which for me is anything under 50%).

I’ve occasionally had problems where I’ve needed to use my phone for an extended period and with no recharger at hand.  That’s not a problem if your phone has a good charge already, but if it is getting very low, you just don’t have the reserve for any unexpected sudden and urgent/desperate additional requirement.

So I not only keep a regular eye on my charge level (oh, not, not obsessively so….) but I also now get comfort from always carrying a tiny little emergency charger.  Okay, it doesn’t have a lot of extra charge, but which would you prefer – an extra several hours of charge always at hand, or tens of hours of charge in a bulky unit that you left behind because it was too much bother?

So, please find after this roundup, a review of two tiny chargers – one for $10 and one for $50, and both offering a partial recharge for your phone or a couple of extra hours on your tablet.  Plus also, for your long weekend contemplation :

  • Sleepy Pilots
  • The Ultimate Business Jet
  • More on Tipping Flight Attendants
  • The Largely Overlooked Consolidation in the Car Rental Business
  • More on the Hyperloop
  • A Flight Gets SWATed
  • TSA Re-arranges Its Deck Chairs
  • An Unexpected Place to Find Automation
  • And Lastly This Week….

Sleepy Pilots

If the pilots and their union ever get around to admitting that they were indeed asleep in the cockpit for almost an hour, they’ll doubtless cite this latest incident as merely further proof that pilots are overworked and underpaid.

For me, it seems to instead be another reason why pilots aren’t needed at all – they are so bored on most flights that it is a struggle (and one they often lose) to stay awake, and the flight proceeds perfectly normally while the pilots sleep.

The incident involved a Delta 767 flying between Germany and Kuwait.  Both pilots apparently fell asleep over Greece (that’s fairly busy airspace and not an ideal place to catch up on one’s Z’s) and didn’t reply to calls over the radio from Greek Air Traffic Control, causing the Greek Air Force to scramble a couple of F-16s to buzz the plane.  The F-16s couldn’t rouse the pilots, but managed to signal to passengers and flight attendants on the plane, and they in turn apparently banged loudly enough on the cockpit door to stir the pilots inside.

Delta’s official statement limited itself to noting that the plane at no time deviated from its planned flight path (of course it didn’t, the auto-pilot was on) and acknowledging that for a certain period the flight was unable to establish radio contact with the ground.

So, nothing to see here folks, move along please!

The Ultimate Business Jet

What constitutes the ‘ultimate’ in business jets?  Is it unparalleled opulent luxury?  Hundreds of gratuitous square feet of unneeded space?  Something that is faster than anything else?  Pilots that stay awake?

All these attributes are definitely relevant, of course, but there is one attribute that might sometimes be overlooked while observers concentrate on admiring the gilded bathroom fittings.  And that is range – how far can the business jet travel before it needs to stop and refuel?  Refueling stops, for the highest level of business leaders and heads of state, are fraught with risk and security issues, and slow down a schedule, adding more ‘wild cards’ and opportunities for Murphy’s Law to strike.

Airbus have now released the business jet incarnation of their new A350 airplane, which offers extreme comfort to up to 25 VIPs, complete with a 12,500 mile range.  The earth has a circumference of 24,901 miles, which means that, for all intents and purposes, this plane can fly, nonstop, from absolutely anywhere on the planet to anywhere else on the planet.

Well, it is true that head winds and reroutings around unfriendly countries might seem to be impactful when you’re looking at flying halfway around the world, but actually, the longer the route, the less impactful they become.  Why is that?  Think back to your geometry days, or get out a globe and try it for yourself, with a piece of string stretched between two very far away places.  You can move the string up or down or around and the distance stays almost exactly the same – it makes no difference if you head north, south, east or west – you’ll get to the destination in the same number of miles.  So if the winds are prevailing in a southwesterly direction, fly northeast rather than southwest.

Here’s an article that looks at this new plane primarily from an Australian perspective, and in case you’re not familiar, here’s a definition of defenestration (needed to fully appreciate the writer’s assessment).

More on Tipping Flight Attendants

Do you remember, back in March, we discussed the new move by Frontier Airlines to encourage passengers to tip flight attendants?  When Frontier replied to my questions, they said this move was because encouraging passengers to tip flight attendants was merely conforming with social norms in the customer/hospitality relationship.  In other words, they introduced it because we wanted to be able to tip their flight attendants.

Or so they said.

I stumbled across an interesting question and answers on the often fascinating website, Quora, earlier this week, which raised that very question.  Would you be astonished to learn that the overwhelming majority of answers, including from flight attendants, was that no-one tips flight attendants and no-one wants to, besides which, at most major airlines, the flight attendants are not allowed to accept tips.

So tell me again, Frontier, about your perceived need to ‘conform to social norms’?  It seems all they’ve done is add a new pressure (and cost) on passengers to pretend that the flight attendants, rather than being suspicious, adversarial, and semi-hostile at the best of times, are really our friends, and there’s something special about them pushing a trolley through the cabin dishing out cups of soda and overpriced cocktails that requires us to ‘voluntarily’ express our gratitude for them not offloading us as suspected terrorists.

Do we get faster service if we tip?  Larger pours?  Anything extra at all?  Isn’t there supposed to at least be the illusion of some sort of reciprocity when we tip service staff?

The Largely Overlooked Consolidation in the Car Rental Business

We’re all very aware of the mergers in the airline industry.  There was a time when industry statistics comprised ‘the ten largest US airlines’ and then a second list of ‘other domestic carriers’.  Now it seems there is only a need for one list of ‘all US airlines’, large and small alike, and a struggle to grow that number to ten, with the latest airline about to vanish being the only recently founded Virgin America.

But at the end of our flight, we’re still happily offered a wide variety of different colored name boards for different rental car companies, right?  Well, yes and no.  The rental car companies merge in a different way to the airlines – when two airlines merge, one airline brand inevitably vanishes.

But when two rental car companies merge, the combined company generally prefers to keep the two brands both alive and seemingly separate.  So, can you for example group the following rental car companies into which group owns which company, and even which is the master brand and which are now the subsidiary brands?

Alamo  Avis  Budget  Dollar  Enterprise  Firefly  Hertz  National  Payless  Thrifty

These ten brands collapse down to just three different corporations.  What does that mean for us, the car renter?  More efficient back office routines and more efficient fleet allocation, making for lower operating costs, better fleet availability, and lower rental rates for us?  Ummm, almost certainly not – and all the more less likely because the rental car companies have been hiring airline executives to ‘help’ them approach the market as if they were airlines.

Oh, such joy.  For more details, here’s an interesting article that does little to excite or inspire (and which explains who owns each of the rental car brands listed above).

More on the Hyperloop

The speed with which development of several different hyperloop type technologies is progressing is truly amazing, and also truly exciting.  We can’t make progress fast enough on what promises to be a transformational new form of terrestrial travel (going above/on/below the water will be a challenge).

I wrote some about this last week, pointing out how remarkably affordable hyperloop travel would be to develop and build compared to old-fashioned traditional high speed rail.  I also observed uncomfortably how the first proposed hyperloop route is likely to be located not in the US, but rather in that other country renowned for its high level of forward thinking and transportation/technology innovation – Nigeria.

But I might have spoken too soon.  One of the other hyperloop projects is also planning its first deployment.  Ah ha, you say.  A route in the US!  Ummm, wrong again.  This alternate project has its first target the linking of the three cities Vienna-Bratislava-Budapest (they are more or less in a straight line).  The US misses out again, even though the developers are American and the project has the backing of the US government.

A Flight Gets SWATed

Have you heard of the social prank of ‘SWATing‘ someone?  It is a terribly sad commentary on the society we have allowed ourselves to degenerate into.  It involves making an anonymous phone call to your local police, and making extravagant claims about the person or the location they are at – you saw a dozen terrorists get out of a van and go into the house, carrying with them some abductees, a prominently labeled nuclear device, an entire meth lab, and so on.

Now for the sad part.  Based on nothing more than an anonymous phone call, your city’s finest, in their hyperactive eagerness to protect and serve, are known to ignore any relevant details (such as the address being in an upmarket neighborhood and belonging to a well respected upstanding community leader) and send their SWAT team charging in through the doors and windows and quite possibly chimneys too, fully kitted out in their paramilitary gear, and with fully automatic weapons just begging to be accidentally (or deliberately) discharged at the slightest sign of anything other than instant abject compliance by all inside.

How can the police be so aggressively stupid and paranoid, you might wonder?  I share your puzzlement, and see no part of the ‘guilty until proven innocent’ in any of their response, or in the supposed need to get a sworn search warrant approved by a judge prior to doing no more than politely knocking on your door.  But the response of our elected leaders has been to seek to make the act of SWATing more illegal than it already massively is, while apparently condoning the police responses.

This last week, SWATing took on a new dimension when a flight was SWATed.

While this apparently innocuous headline says “Jet searched as precaution at LAX over ‘non credible’ threat”, please read the actual article to see how the LAX police choose to respond to a non-credible threat.  Did they just laugh it off and go back to playing cards and snoozing in their break room?  Or did seven of them kit up, take their dog with them, and burst onto the plane on the runway, holding all passengers prisoner at gunpoint with a requirement for them to keep silent and still and their hands visible on the headrest of the seat in front of them for 20 long minutes?  Then did they follow that up by apologizing, or by taking all the innocent passengers off the plane and detaining them on the ground for a further period?

The biggest question of all – has the US become a police state answerable to no-one, and are we now subjugated to the whims and fancies of a militarized police class, with civil liberties now a revocable privilege rather than an inalienable right?

TSA Re-arranges Its Deck Chairs

The TSA unexpectedly fired its Director of Security this week.

Commentators have been fast to label this as an assertive act by the TSA to punish those responsible for the out-of-control delays to go through security that are cropping up at many airports, but it is not clear that was the reason or indeed that the person fired is the one ultimately most accountable for the delays at airports.  The words ‘unfortunate’ and ‘scapegoat’ spring to mind.  More to the point for us as passengers, and based on the TSA’s own recent statements, there is nothing to indicate that the change in personnel will promise us any improvement in getting through the TSA lines.

Meantime, a new measure of the problems caused by TSA slowness was disclosed this week.  AA alone has had 70,000 passengers (and 40,000 bags) miss flights due to security delays, so far this year.  That’s about 500 people every day.  Now multiply that by the other airlines too, and it seems reasonable to infer that several thousand people are missing flights, every day.

Also revealed has been the shameful fact that my calculations last week are correct – the fees we pay for security screening should be extravagantly buying us deluxe personal screening; and the reason it isn’t is because Congress is stealing from us.

How else to describe levying a security screening fee on us when we fly, telling us that it is for airport security screening, but then taking the money and applying it to other expenditures that have nothing to do with the TSA/DHS, or air transportation in any form?  Yes, we’ve had billions of dollars stolen from us, and there’s not a thing we can do, and not a person we can prosecute, for this act.

It seems $13 billion has been taken out of this fund and applied to generic ‘deficit reduction’.  Hey, Congress – how about some TSA line reduction?

My conclusion in an article I wrote last week is that the best solution is to take the government and TSA out of the equation entirely and return airport security to the private companies that had formerly provided high quality responsive service and which could do so again.

Oh, and talking about unexpected firings, Atlanta announced the sudden and surprise departure of its ATL airport manager.  Apparently the traveling public have no right to know why the manager of the country’s (and by some measures, the world’s) largest airport is summarily deposed.  I guess ATL stands for Accountability?  Transparency?  Laughing!

An Unexpected Place to Find Automation

We all understand that it makes sense to automate higher cost labor tasks, but when your labor costs are very low to start with, there’s a much lower return on investing in automation.  The flipside of that – there’s a greater rush to automate jobs/positions/tasks with higher labor costs – is one blissfully ignored by the proponents of $15/hr minimum wages, but that’s another story entirely.

I’ve been pointing out for a while that all our jobs are increasingly at risk by automation, with this week revealing threats at both extremes – artificial intelligences will now read x-rays (a job once done at your local hospital, then increasingly by people in India, and now to be done by a computer, eliminating even the Indian radiologist) and McDonalds and other fast food outlets becoming increasingly excited by the potential to automate most or all of their restaurants.

But the most surprising item of all was that one of the sometimes described as ‘sweat shop’ type companies in China that make iPhones for Apple, with claims of workers being paid very little and worked very hard (Foxconn), is now replacing 60,000 of its workers with robots.

If even low cost Chinese labor is vulnerable to automation, what remaining chance do we have?

But what happens next?  We have robots making phones, robots serving food, and soon enough robots driving cars.  But robots don’t buy phones, and don’t eat food; and the people made unemployed can no longer afford to do so either.  While no-one can deny the micro-economic benefits of automation on a case by case basis, the macro-economic issues for entire national economies seem to be incredibly concerning.

And Lastly This Week….

One of our most popular Travel Insider tours was to North Korea.  It was a very ‘interesting’ tour, and I think we all were delighted to have gone there and obtained some first hand experience of the country and its people, but I also think few of us are rushing to return for a second visit.  So while there’s unlikely to be another Travel Insider tour there, if you wanted to go yourself, maybe going to what promises to be North Korea’s first international air show in September might be an interesting diversion.  It seems there’ll be plenty of old planes there, but not many new ones, and strangely, a new UN embargo on sales of jet fuel to North Korea doesn’t seem to be affecting the country’s ability to burn up jet fuel gratuitously at an air show.

If that’s insufficient inducement, there’s a beer festival scheduled to run concurrently, featuring five different DPRK micro-breweries.  I remember the beer as being one of the highlights of the visit.  That and the amusement park that they kept open just for us, no-one else, for several hours one evening.

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels





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