Weekly Roundup, Friday 15 July 2016

The lovely new Bombardier CS100, due to start service with Swiss any day now.  (see item below)
The lovely new Bombardier CS100, due to start service with Swiss any day now. (see item below)

Good morning

I hope you were able to take advantage of some of Amazon’s Prime deals earlier this week.  Their ‘Prime Day’ ended up as their busiest sales day ever, and had some system glitches due to overloading their servers.  Amazon says that in the US alone they sold over 215,000 seven-in-one pressure cooker pots – I’d been tempted to buy one of those myself!  It would be interesting to know how many of their Kindle Fire tablets they sold – at a stunning price of $33 each (less than half the price of the pressure cookers, if I remember correctly), you wonder how it is possible to sell the devices at that price.

The answer is almost certainly that it is not possible to profit at that price, but it implies Amazon has discovered that people with their Fire tablets then use them to buy content – to buy music, movies, and books.  That is certainly true of me.

While scanning through their site for bargains to pass on to you, I noticed they were offering a higher capacity Micro SD card than I’ve seen before.  It is a year or two since I last checked out Micro SD cards, and clearly the truth has changed (in the best possible way) during that time.  And so here now, after today’s roundup, is an article about the latest and greatest in Micro SD cards, and why they are relevant to us as travelers.

Still on the subject of great deals, I realized it was time to buy my ticket to Europe for our upcoming Balkan cruise.  To my astonishment (and delight) a travel site I was unfamiliar with – Vayama – was offering fares on Lufthansa for $350 less than anyone else (including Lufthansa directly), and the flights also offered the best overall travel times from Seattle to Bucharest and back from Budapest at the end of the cruise.flights

But look at the breakdown between ‘airfare’ and other costs.  $387 for the airfare, and $704.87 in other costs.  When will the airlines abandon the charade of meaningless low ‘airfare’ matched with ridiculously high surcharges?


It is still not too late – almost, but not quite – to join us on our Travel Insider exclusive pre-touring around Romania and into its Transylvania region, and then the lovely Danube cruise through parts of the Balkans otherwise hard to travel to.

Or, if that is too much of a rush, don’t forget our NZ tour late in October, featuring their excellent Food and Wine Festival in Hawke’s Bay plus much more in both islands.

Talking about travel, next Wednesday Anna and I are off to France for our Bordeaux cruise.  Is it too late to join us on that?  Well, anything is possible, but that might really be cutting it fine!  This does mean no newsletter next week – I’m committed to taking Anna up the Eiffel Tower instead, and I’m not sure about the week after either.

Please now continue reading for :

  • Bigger Planes?  Sometimes Yes; Sometimes No.
  • BA Does an Epic U-Turn
  • Another Meaningless Set of Airline Ratings
  • The Limitations of the Oxygen Masks in Planes
  • Rush of Airlines to Offer Flights to Cuba
  • Bombardier CSeries – Comfort Where it Counts
  • And Lastly This Week….

Bigger Planes?  Sometimes Yes; Sometimes No.

This last week has seen the biennial Farnborough Air Show (it alternates with a similar biennial Paris show).  Although the numbers mean very little, it seems that Airbus announced more orders at the show than did Boeing, and in both cases, the announcements are very artificial, including orders that have already been announced before, and almost never including any orders actually negotiated and closed at the show itself.  Neither company sold as many planes as at last year’s Paris show, continuing a year that has so far been a bit lackluster for orders in general.

Airbus also took some action about its problematic A380 program, announcing a reduction in manufacturing rates, going down from a rate of 2.1 planes a month to 1.0 planes a month, to take effect from 2018.  That’s barely enough to keep the production line open, but is still considerably more than the rate at which Boeing builds its 747-8 plane (which is dropping to 0.5 a month).

The A380 is in a nasty ‘perfect storm’ of negative factors.  The plane itself is now more than ten years old, and by most measures, could benefit from some tweaking and upgrading.  Major customer Emirates in particular has been lobbying for a revised model, with more fuel efficient engines, a better wing, and stretched in size to allow more seats.

But the plane’s sales have been underwhelming rather than as projected – it is perhaps fair to suggest they’ve sold no more than half the number Airbus might have hoped for.  There were plenty of early excuses why the plane was slow to be accepted, but now such excuses no longer seem valid.

So Airbus feels unwilling to invest in any enhancements to the plane without the clear promise of additional sales coming from such investments.  At the same time, airlines are feeling anxious about Airbus’ future commitment to the program (at one point Airbus was simultaneously professing commitment to the plane and also saying they might discontinue it) and are unwilling to make commitments of their own, and with each passing year, the aging A380 loses more and more of its edge (such as it ever was) over other planes such as the ever larger 777 and A350 planes, and the ever more efficient costs of operating the newest twin-engined planes.

The main justification for the A380 is on congested routes where either or both of the airports the plane flies between are congested and restrict airlines from adding new flights.  Heathrow is probably the clearest example of a slot limited airport that the A380 would seem ideally suited for.  Airlines that fly full flights between Heathrow and some major US cities multiple times a day in particular would seem to stand to benefit from the ability to move more passengers and freight and therefore to make more money per each flight.

In addition, every study done has convincingly shown that passengers love the A380 and will preferentially choose flights featuring that plane over other flights on other aircraft.

But, no US airline has ordered a single A380.  British Airways, the airline most dependent on Heathrow,  has a mere 12, and no additional units on order.  Twelve might sound like a lot, but to put that in context, BA also has 51 747s and 58 777 planes.  Virgin Atlantic, with 6 planes ordered, continues to delay and defer the timing of when it might take delivery of them to the point where most observers expect that sooner or later, they’ll abandon their A380 plans entirely (and Virgin’s recent order of some A350 planes is rumored to contain within it an agreement that Airbus won’t press the airline to take delivery of the unwanted A380s).

In total, only 13 customers have accepted delivery of 193 A380s thus far (and there are 126 more on order).

Airbus hopes that the continued growth in air travel – a growth conspicuously not being matched by similar growth in airport and runway facilities, especially at Heathrow – will eventually see the market rise to the point where its big plane becomes popular.  Was the plane just too early to market?

Part of the explanation is the airlines’ preference to fly nonstop services between secondary airports, with passenger numbers that supposedly would not support A380s.  Rather than fly someone for example from Portland to Heathrow and then on from Heathrow to Prague, an airline says ‘we can avoid Heathrow entirely and operate a smaller plane directly between Portland and Prague’.

That seems to be sensible, on the face of it, and who wouldn’t prefer a single nonstop instead of multiple flights through one (or, worse, two) hubs and all the hassles involved in changing planes.  It saves the airlines money too – fewer landing fees, less time on the ground, and more efficient flying.

But contradicting that is Emirates, and let’s not forget they are one of the world’s consistently most profitable airlines.  They operate 80 A380s already, with another 63 on order, and are steadily upgrading their routes to A380 operations.  They will typically start operating a 777, and maybe not even with daily service, but in surprisingly short order, they go to daily service and then increase the plane to an A380.

What is Emirates’ secret, and why are none of the traditional airlines able to emulate/copy?

However, one aspect of Airbus’ fervent wish that air congestion will see airlines upgrade to bigger planes is indeed proving true.  AirAsia has announced it will be ordering 50 Airbus planes to give it an effective increase of 30% in seating capacity per plane.

There’s only one slight disappointment in that news.  It is upgrading from the 180 seat A320 to the 230 seat A321; not from anything to the A380.

BA Does an Epic U-Turn

Remember, about ten or so years ago, the BA 747 that lost an engine shortly after taking off from, I think, San Francisco?  The pilot continued flying, going past a dozen or more excellent potential diversion airports during his doggedly determined flight back to London – alas, the flight didn’t quite make it to London – due to needing to burn more fuel at a lower altitude, it had to land in Manchester or somewhere, just a little short of London.

At the time, many commentators (me included) were appalled that the flight continued on to London rather than turning back, but BA insisted this was totally acceptable, and overlooked the inconvenient fact that the flight ran out of fuel before getting there (or is that perfectly acceptable, too?).

Maybe, the truth is that BA would prefer to risk much, including passenger convenienceand arguably passenger safety, so as to bring its planes back to its major maintenance base rather than have to pay higher rates to have third parties work on its planes at other locations.

Which brings me to this week.  Imagine you’re on a BA 777 and it is just over half way into its 12 hour flight from London to Tokyo.  Something happens – subsequently described as ‘a minor technical fault’.  After some careful thinking, and then a scientific toss of a coin, you (imagine you’re the pilot) decide that you can’t safely continue on to Tokyo.  What do you do?  You’re somewhere over barren desolate Siberia at the time, and no matter where you go, the nearest ‘sensible’ airport is probably an hour or two flying time away.

So, there are many answers to that question, depending on the severity of the ‘minor technical fault’.  But where on the list would you place the choice ‘turn around and fly all the way back to London, even though it takes more time to go to London than on to Tokyo, and even though, if the flight is required to be diverted, you are flying over the top of many excellent airports on your way back to London’?

If you answered ‘that would be my first choice’ then you are correct.

Astonishingly, the BA pilot chose to inconvenience his plane load of passengers, and go all the way back to London, even though it was apparently not safe to continue on to Tokyo.  This is now incurring mandatory EU based compensation of about £300,000 that BA will have to pay the passengers (and also the passengers waiting for the plane that never came in Tokyo too), plus BA still has to get both sets of passengers to their destinations.

Can you conceive of a problem that was too dangerous for the flight to fly a shorter distance on to Tokyo, but not too dangerous to allow the plane to fly a longer distance back to London?

Some details – but not of the mysterious ‘technical fault’ here.

Another Meaningless Set of Airline Ratings

As you might already know, I look at most of the airline rating lists with great dismay.  How can a person who only ever flies on two or three airlines meaningfully contribute to a rating series for twenty or thirty different airlines?  Surely, in order to be able to rank the airlines from best to worst, it is necessary for people to fly many/most of the airlines, repeatedly, so as to get meaningful comparative data.  Plus you need to filter out brand preferences and unique circumstances, and how do you adjust for regional standards – both of airlines and in terms of the varying expectations of passengers from different countries and socio-economic groupings.

The poster-child for this nonsense are the rating series that proudly name Air Koryo (the North Korean airline) as the world’s worst airline.  In reality, it is an average airline; not as bad as some and not as good as others, but it is low hanging fruit and people are always happy to endorse its status as world’s worst just because it conforms to their worldview.

So, having said that, here is the list of the world’s ten best airlines from one of the ranking groups that does a particularly effective amount of publicity about their rankings (but which refuses to answer my email asking them to explain their Air Koryo ranking).

From the best to the 11th best, the airlines are Emirates, Qatar, Singapore Airlines, Cathay Pacific, ANA, All Nippon Airways, Etihad, Turkish Airlines, EVA Air, Qantas and Lufthansa.

Astonishingly, the first airline that is anything like a western airline (Qantas) doesn’t appear until #10 on the list.  Who would have believed, 20 – 30 years ago, that Turkish Airlines would beat all western airlines, and airlines that didn’t even exist back then, in countries no-one could find on a map, would be numbers 1 and 2, while an airline that Lloyds of London is thought may have quietly recommended its ‘names’ to avoid flying due to safety concerns would also prominently feature in the top 10.

Do we need to go and ask Turkey for lessons on how to run airlines and provide customer service?  Apparently, yes, if this ranking series is to be believed.

The Limitations of the Oxygen Masks in Planes

Part of the ritualistic safety chant we are treated to before every flight is instructions on what to do if the oxygen masks should suddenly rain down on us like manna from heaven.  Whatever we do, we shouldn’t panic, of course; no more than if we’re told to anticipate using our seat cushions flotation devices, even though the last seat ‘cushion’ I sat on was so thin and hard I can’t help thinking it would be more a sinking device than a floating device.

Not everyone realizes that if the plane activates its emergency oxygen supply, the onboard oxygen only lasts about 15 minutes.  But that’s not a problem, because it would take appreciably less than 15 minutes for the plane to descent to a level where the outside air pressure was sufficient to sustain life.  So, nothing to worry about, right?

Well, actually and unfortunately, wrong.  The oxygen masks are activated by a loss of cabin air pressure.  But that isn’t the only time when you might wish to have an alternate breathing system, as was discovered by a dozen passengers of a Delta flight this week.  Something caused elevated levels of carbon monoxide to build up in the plane; and that is quite a problem because it seems that, at least in that specific case, the plane doesn’t have one of those $30 CO monitors that you can buy in hardware stores (or online at Amazon of course) and which beep to tell you when the CO level is higher than it should be.  Carbon monoxide is colorless, odorless, and very poisonous.

Fortunately the pilot was alarmed at seeing passengers become unwell and decided to urgently land the plane.  But what if he didn’t – what if he were, ahem, a BA pilot rather than a Delta pilot?  And, back to the oxygen masks, oxygen masks don’t deploy in response to elevated CO levels, and even if they did, a solution to that problem is not necessarily merely reducing the plane’s altitude.  It might require urgent landing and throwing the doors open to get the CO out and regular air in.

One also wonders what would happen on a long over-the-water type flight where no landing options were readily available.  And even if it was ‘only’ a simple pressurization problem, if the plane has to reduce down to something under 15,000 ft, it is going to start burning massively more fuel per mile – will it still have enough to make it to the nearest diversionary airport?

To put this in context, these are hypothetical scenarios that have not occurred in reality.  But don’t be too comforted by those oxygen masks.

Rush of Airlines to Offer Flights to Cuba

Although Congress is mulling new travel restrictions to make it harder to go to Cuba (seriously!), the Obama administration is proposing to allow eight airlines to start service from the US to Havana.

Eight airlines?  I didn’t even realize we had eight airlines remaining.  Well, apparently we do, because the eight approved airlines were culled from a longer list of 12 airlines that applied for rights.

The successful eight are Alaska, American, Delta, Frontier, JetBlue, Southwest, Spirit and United.  Nonstop flights are proposed from Atlanta, Charlotte, Fort Lauderdale, Houston, Los Angeles, Miami, Newark, New York, Orlando and Tampa.

But wait, there’s more.  Six of the airlines will also be offering flights to other airports in Cuba.  There will be 20 daily flights to Havana (and back, presumably) and 10 to other Cuban cities.

Bombardier CSeries – Comfort Where it Counts

Bombardier’s new CS100 plane is getting very positive reviews.

The seats and aisles are wider, the windows are bigger, the overheads are roomy, and – perhaps best of all – there’s plenty of room in the toilets if you need to, ahem, sit down in order to attend to matters, as is explained in typically blunt Australian manner in this article.

It seems this is a great plane in every respect, I hope it starts to sell in larger quantities.

And Lastly This Week….

Progress is a funny thing, isn’t it.  Indeed, sometimes it is illusory, as this item points out – the latest NASA Jupiter probe may not be quite as impressive an achievement as we are being encouraged to believe, with Wikipedia even being edited to eliminate the historical record of past probes to Jupiter.

And when progress isn’t illusory, it isn’t invariably good, either.  As this stunning set of images might serve to remind us.

Until a week or two, when next I can write, please enjoy safe travels






2 thoughts on “Weekly Roundup, Friday 15 July 2016”

  1. Why is Emirates most profitable? Is it lower expenses – if so what – lower pay, cheaper fuel, government subsidies, or higher revenue (more expensive tickets), or what? Maybe government regulations such as crew rules?

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