Weekly Roundup, Friday 16 September 2016

Are dogs an effective form of airport security?  The answer (below) might surprise you.
Are dogs an effective form of airport security? The answer (below) might surprise you.

Good morning

We’ve a great opportunity for one lucky single gentleman.  We have a single gent on our New Zealand tour looking for someone to share with.  This person has traveled with me twice before, so I can attest to his general decency and ‘inoffensiveness’ as a rooming mate.

So if you’d love to do our NZ tour, but had been put off by the hefty single surcharge, please quickly let me know and I’ll get you in contact and you can then decide if it would work for you or not.  I’ll also throw in, at no extra charge, a night in the middle (in Gisborne) in your own separate rooms, so you have a breather from sharing a room nonstop all the way through.

The person currently traveling is also doing the Queenstown pre-tour and Australian post-tour extensions, so you could benefit from a partner on either or both of the optional extensions too,

It is now 15 years since 9/11.  Quite apart from all the other reasons for remembering this day – another date which will live in infamy – there is a very personal one for me which flows through to you, too.

Like many of us, I woke to my clock radio and its news accounts of what was first thought to be one light plane colliding with the WTC; the realization of our country under attack slowly evolved, and as it did, I realized something else.  My draft book about ‘how to book and buy travel’ would not have a ready audience any time soon, and so I decided to ‘wait it out’ until people started traveling again, by starting a new internet site.  I thought I’d put some teaser articles from my book-to-be onto the website to help build an audience for the book when the time was right to return to publishing it.

A friend and colleague was similarly afflicted and pushed forward plans to develop his own website and newsletter – Joe Brancatelli of JoeSentMe.com, and he kindly allowed me instant access to his readers and followers, who formed the early core group of Travel Insider readers.  Thank you again for the ‘leg up’, Joe.

Well, the website ended up eclipsing plans for a book, and the ‘teaser articles’ formed the early core of many of the articles that now make up the millions of words of content on the website and blog and in the newsletters.

And what better way to commemorate the 15th anniversary of the founding of The Travel Insider than to observe an annual tradition that we started some years after founding the website – our annual PBS style fundraising appeal.  Yes, as all who have been reading for more than a year know, while everything on the site is free without limit, once each year we ask you to reciprocate with your support in turn.

Each year we give you a selection of weekly newsletters and feature articles, reviews, and advice.  For example, last week we suggested you don’t buy a new iPhone, and pointed out equivalent new phones costing one quarter the price.  We also pointed out an amazing value new tablet from Amazon.  This week we shine a light on a little known piece of airline perfidy, where they are slowing down their planes so as to save on fuel costs while adding extra traveling time burden to us, their passengers.  Although some commentators naively thought this would be okay because the airlines would be sure to pass their savings on to us in the form of lower fares, the airlines’ highest ever profit results suggest this is – of course – not happening.

Next week I’ll be reviewing a new ‘messenger’ style travel bag.  If a backpack isn’t your style and a briefcase too formal, maybe this will be helpful to you on your next business trip.

And so on, most weeks of every year since 2001.

If you get pleasure from the content you receive each week, and particularly if you occasionally get valuable advice and suggestions and referrals, please consider now showing your appreciation in return.  The support of readers like you is becoming an increasingly essential part of keeping The Travel Insider alive and active.

Supporting us is really simple.  You can click to send in a credit card donation via Paypal, or directly to me via Square, on this page.  Or you can send in a check or even old fashioned cash by mail, too.  All details on the page.

It just takes a minute or two to support The Travel Insider, and in return, we offer you a year with dozens of hours of material to read, enjoy, learn from and benefit from.

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Thank you.

I’ve already briefly mentioned this week’s feature article, which follows the weekly roundup.  The idea for this evolved from my last several international flights.  I always enjoy watching the ‘moving map’ display – it is a semi-hypnotic thing that helps while away the miles.  I noticed, on my Delta flights, that we never showed anything much over about 550 mph, and sometimes struggled to get up as fast as 500 mph.  Many years ago, I used to see speeds over 650 mph, but not in recent memory.  On the Lufthansa flights, their very sophisticated moving map display showed all sorts of visualizations, but didn’t show speed at all!  All the other usual data items were displayed, but not the speed.

So – are planes actually flying slower now?  Alas, yes they are, so as to boost airline profitability even further by way of reduced fuel burns and better ‘miles per gallon’.

The fastest ever (non-supersonic) passenger plane set a speed record between London and New York 37 years ago (5 hours 1 minute) which has remained unchallenged ever since.  Our planes are not only being designed for slower speeds, but they are being flown at less than anticipated ‘optimum’ cruising speeds.

Ever since the demise of the Concorde and the failure of the ‘Sonic Cruiser’ program, it seems neither airlines nor airplane manufacturers have any interest at all in faster planes.  But NASA has been working with a company (but, ahem, the company is neither Boeing nor Airbus) on a plane design that would be faster than current sub-sonic passenger jets, and also much more fuel economical too.

Let’s hope it comes to pass in our respective lifetimes.  Here’s a link to an article about the NASA project.

Please also continue reading for :

  • 2015 Was a Great Year for Airlines and Airports
  • It Took How Long to Evacuate the Crashed Delta Jet!?
  • MH370 Slowly Revealing Itself
  • Battery Problems on Planes
  • Apple :  We’re Only Going to Share the Good News
  • The Tesla Model 3 Will Be a Year Late to the Party
  • Why We Should Dread Self-Driving Vehicles
  • Airport Security – Going to the Dogs?
  • Don’t Forget to Duck
  • And Lastly This Week….

2015 Was a Great Year for Airlines and Airports

A wonderful (for them) combination of high fares, low fuel prices, and an enormous 6.4% increase in global passenger numbers all helped many airlines to have their most profitable year, ever, last year.

The 6.4% increase in passenger numbers is the largest annual growth since 2010, and meant that in total 7.2 billion people flew last year.  Well, to be more literal, there were 7.2 billion passengers transported, but of course some people flew many times, so fewer total actual unique individuals.

Overall, Atlanta remains the world’s busiest airport, as measured by passengers passing through, with 101.5 million passengers, a 5.5% increase on 2014.  Beijing kept its number two place, with 89.9 million, although with a more modest 4.4% growth.  We’ll guess this lower growth is due to the increasing number of direct flights from other airports in China; there is less need for passengers to hub/transit through Beijing.  Dubai International came third, with 78 million passengers and a 10.7% increase.  If the three airports maintain their respective growth rates, Dubai will become the second largest airport in 2018 and the largest airport in 2021.

Dubai already scores top if measuring only international passengers, having displaced Heathrow from its historical #1 position in 2014.  Heathrow now comes as an increasingly distant second, and then Hong Kong in the third position.

It Took How Long to Evacuate the Crashed Delta Jet!?

The FAA require that a passenger plane can be evacuated by its passengers in under 90 seconds.  They further require that only half the plane’s exits are used for this 90 second evacuation time, with the others assumed to be out of action due to the crash.

Airplane manufacturers have to conduct live testing to prove that their plane can indeed be evacuated within that time period.  There’s a widely distributed video of the process by which the A380 test was conducted that makes for interesting viewing.  With this test, Airbus succeeded in getting 873 people off the plane in a mere 78 seconds.

Critics have always said the testing is unrealistic.  You have a group of carefully selected people, all of whom are ready and waiting for the order to evacuate, none of whom are drunk or asleep after taking sleeping pills, none of whom were injured in the crash, and none of whom want to stop to collect their overhead belongings.  They are being paid to get off the plane as quickly as they can, and have been selected to be able to do so – as is clearly apparent from the eager athletic types in the A380 test.

But what about in real life?  We know that things are a bit slower, and the tendency of passengers to collect their belongings before ambling off the plane in a leisurely manner has been criticized, here and elsewhere.

This week saw the release of a report into a very regrettable pilot-error accident at LaGuardia in March last year, when a Delta MD-88 skidded off a snowy runway and crashed through a perimeter fence after the pilot made several mistakes and three times ignored the advice of his copilot as to what to correctly do.

Damage during the landing/skid/collision resulted in jet fuel leaking from the plane, and with lots of hot surfaces – brakes and engines – there was a danger of the leaking fuel catching fire, with possibly tragic results.  There were 127 passengers on board (the plane holds 149).

So – how long do you think it took to evacuate the passengers?  Keep in mind that some MD-88s – in all coach seating configurations – can hold well over 170 passengers, so this plane had about two thirds as many people on it as the plane has been certified for evacuating in under 90 seconds.

Do you think everyone was off within 60 seconds?  If you do, you’re utterly wrong.

What about merely getting close to the official 90 second specification?  Nope, you’re way too optimistic.

Okay then, let’s double it.  How about three minutes?  I’ll give you a clue – at the three minute point, not a single passenger had yet evacuated the airplane!

Indeed, the same was true at six minutes and nine minutes, too.  It was only at the 12 minute point that the first passenger exited the plane and slid down an emergency slide.

But wait, there’s more.  So if we don’t start timing until the time the first passenger exited the plane, how long from then until the last passenger exited?  Surely that could be done in well under 90 seconds?

Nope.  Add a further five minutes until all passengers had completed their leisurely deplaning.  It took 17 minutes to evacuate a plane that in theory should have been able to be emptied in a minute.  Details here.

As I’ve said before, if you have the misfortune to experience something on a plane that requires the plane to be evacuated, do not dawdle and do not tolerate anyone who does.  In this case, the pilots, the flight attendants and the passengers all failed to realize fuel was leaking out of the plane, and didn’t appreciate the potential dangerous situation.  If something has gone wrong that requires an emergency evacuation, focus on the first word in that phrase – emergency.

Rush to the exist.  If others are slow, use a ‘command voice’, short phrases, and, ‘physical guidance’ to insist they hurry up.  If they don’t or won’t, you can then choose as between politely waiting your turn and risking death in the process, or pushing them out of the way, or climbing over the top of seats, and generally doing whatever it takes to get to the exit and out as urgently quickly as you can.

You’re not being a coward.  You’re recognizing your obligations and commitments to family, friends, your employer, and all the other people who are relying on your continued good health.  You’re being responsible and sensible.  You’re even saving the airline the risk of having to pay out millions in compensation to your estate if you perish in an onboard conflagration after the plane crash!  It is the others who are being foolish and risking not only their lives but also the lives of everyone else on the plane too.

MH370 Slowly Revealing Itself

Talking about crashes, the mystery of MH370 continues.  Although the chances of finding the main remains of the MH370 777 plane that mysteriously disappeared way back in March 2014 have dwindled down to almost zero, an increasing number of pieces are being found, washed up on beaches around the western Pacific rim.

About all these fragments have attested to so far is the probability that the plane did indeed crash somewhere in the Southern Ocean, and that it seems the jet landed on the water violently rather than in a semi-controlled glide.

But now a new fragment has been uncovered with a potentially significant indicator – it is showing burn marks as if it were in a fire.  Assuming it is proven to be what it seems to be – an internal component from the plane’s electronics bay – this begs the question of ‘did the fire happen after crashing into the sea, or was it something that happened earlier in the flight, either deliberately or as a result of something going wrong, and was this fire the cause of the tragedy?’

It is extremely unlikely this single piece will answer all these questions, but it opens up the concept of fire damage causing the plane’s mysterious flight path and disappearance as a more likely than earlier thought possible cause.  Who only knows what other ‘secrets’ might wash up onto beaches in the next year.

Battery Problems on Planes

And talking about fires on planes, here are a couple of interesting points of growing concern.

No, we’re not talking about problems with the plane’s batteries, a la the 787 problem a few years ago.  We’re talking about the propensity for the batteries in personal electronic items brought onto a plane by its passengers to also burst into flames, generating a sometimes long lasting fire, intense heat, and noxious smoke and gases.

The problems with the Samsung Galaxy 7 to catch fire is only one small part of the broader issue.  According to this article, a plane with even only 100 passengers on it might have, through the mix and profusion of devices the passengers brought with them, as many as 500 lithium ion type batteries.

There’s a new form of risk as well.  It almost happened to me on a recent flight.  My iPod type music player slid off the side of the seat and fell somewhere down into the middle of the (lie-flat type) seat.  I tried to reach for it or even just to find it, and no matter whether the seat was upright or extended flat, it was nowhere to be found.  It wasn’t just me.  A couple of flight attendants armed with flashlights and good intentions spent easily 15 minutes trying to locate a similar device for another passenger a couple of rows over.

What I vaguely wondered about at the time is apparently increasingly an issue.  If you drop a device down into the ‘innards’ of a modern powered seat, airlines are now asking you not to move anything and to wait until the plane has landed to try and find it/retrieve it.  There is a danger that adjusting the seat might squish the device, and in the process, damage its battery and cause it to burst into flames – as can be seen in this scary picture of what happened in exactly that scenario on a Qantas flight recently.

Apple :  We’re Only Going to Share the Good News

It is an easy leap from batteries to phones, yes?  The new iPhone 7 models go on sale today.  I’ve not seen any news reports this time of long lines of people camped outside Apple stores around the country – I’m sure there are a few diehard Apple fans who are doing this, but there’s not nearly such a feeling of buzz and excitement this year.

Perhaps confirming that, Apple has said that, unlike every other iPhone model release, this year it will not be advising of the sales numbers achieved over the first launch weekend, because such numbers are ‘no longer representative of the demand for the phone’.

What glib-tongued nonsense that is.  Anyone with half a brain can guess that the reason Apple no longer wants to issue a series of breathless press releases, each reporting on even more phones sold than the release a short while earlier, and setting new sales records, and so on – surely the reason Apple now will go silent is because it is anticipating disappointing rather than wonderful results.

The company did say on Thursday that it has already sold out of some of the model/color combinations – but that is pretty much part of the tradition each year too, so much so that one wonders if it isn’t a deliberate Apple ploy to create the perception of insatiable demand that is impossible to satisfy and vastly in excess of their initial projections.  Apple did not say, however, how many orders it has taken or how many phones it has already manufactured to fill early orders.

There are some more things Apple didn’t say as well, related to the release of its new iOS 10 earlier this week.

  • Apple didn’t say ‘downloading this update may ‘brick’ your phone.  Unfortunately, some phones were indeed ‘bricked’ and made inoperable when attempting to upgrade.  This has apparently now been resolved.
  • Apple didn’t say ‘the new version of iOS will use up your battery life much more quickly than the previous version’.  While this claim hasn’t been completely proven, I’m hearing stories from readers about their iPhones now going through their battery much faster than before, and my vague sense is that my iPhone 6+ is now racing through its battery life more quickly, too.  When one considers all the extra (and, at least for me, utterly unwanted) functionality that is going on with the phone now while in standby mode, it is easy to suspect that there is some battery life penalty as a result.
  • Apple didn’t say ‘the new version of iOS may cause some connectivity issues with your phone’ – Apple didn’t say that, but I received a text message from T-Mobile saying that I may experience some connectivity problems until a fix is released.  And, yes, I am indeed having problems connecting to data service in semi-random seeming places at present.

So – the new phone and the new operating system?  Color me unexcited about either.

The Tesla Model 3 Will Be a Year Late to the Party

General Motors confirmed more details of its new Chevrolet Bolt electric vehicle, due to be released later this year.  The car will be comparably priced to the Tesla Model 3, and we’ll guess the Bolt options will be a lot less expensive than the Tesla options.

The Bolt will have a 238 mile range compared to the current expectation of 215 miles for the Tesla 3.

And whereas there is a high degree of certainty that their launch timing will be met by Chevy/GM, does anyone really believe that the Tesla Model 3 will appear at any time next year in any measurable quantities at all, or that the ramp up in production Tesla is promising and predicting will happen anything like Tesla says?

So, is Tesla is changing from being an innovative market leader, releasing revolutionary new game changing cars (the Model S) to now being a market laggard, and at least a year behind General Motors?  Since when did GM become more innovative than Tesla!?

Even Tesla’s much vaunted national network of charging stations turns out to be less impressive than it might seem.  Its network is only the third largest charger network in the country.

Is some of the hype surrounding Tesla starting to dissipate, leaving us with a very different view of the underlying reality?  Will Tesla grow and prosper, or become another footnote in the annals of auto history, like the Tucker and the Delorean?

Perhaps this shouldn’t be surprising.  Other news this week suggests that Apple might be stepping back from its rumored plans to develop an intelligent car, and Google too is floundering a bit.

Why We Should Dread Self-Driving Vehicles

Autonomous self-driving cars – what’s not to like about this wondrous new technology.  We’ll be able to drink and (not) drive.  We’ll be able to safely snooze on long journeys, and talk on our phones on short journeys.  The daily commute will now become a peaceful ‘quiet time’ for us, and the roads will become ten times safer than they are at present.  Who isn’t impatient for ‘real’ self-driving cars to start appearing in car dealerships!

But there’s a dark side to self-driving vehicles.  The real focus of this technology is not to make it easier for us in our family cars.  It is to replace drivers in taxis and buses and trucks.  Here’s a study predicting the loss of 4.1 million jobs when autonomous vehicles become commonplace, and as the article delicately points out, the people who lose their driving jobs are not likely to retrain as rocket scientists.

Also of note is that this figure of 4.1 million driving type jobs at risk does not factor in the ‘multiplier effect’.  If you have 4.1 million fewer people working, then they will have less money to spend on purchases, and so other companies will start to retrench and lay-off their people, too, causing a nasty cycle of layoffs that will probably see the 4.1 million direct job losses result in perhaps twice as many direct and indirect job losses.

With automation and robotics increasingly displacing lower skilled employees, we are risking creating a growing proportion of our population who will be permanently unemployed because they lack the skills and ability to do any of the remaining more skilled jobs.  Does that mean the government will create ‘make work’ programs – or perhaps mandate that vehicles must have a human overseer/standby driver, whether they are needed or not?

Progress is and continues to be a strange thing.

Airport Security – Going to the Dogs?

One of the more fun parts of airport security – at least for me as a dog lover – is having sniffer dogs come around, searching either for explosives or for food items.  And whenever the subject of improving airline/airport security comes up, people invariably rush to say ‘we need more dogs’.

The general perception is that dogs are much better than machines at detecting explosives, and also much cheaper.  Unfortunately, both perceptions are wrong.  Dogs are fickle, require intensive training before being deployed, then need constant ongoing training, and tire very quickly, so can only be worked for short shifts.

Here’s a hard-hitting article that points out some of the challenges and limitations and – alas – failings of using dogs for airport security.

Don’t Forget to Duck

It is very difficult designing ships to travel the rivers in Europe.  The designers want to make the ships as big as possible, while still fitting within the locks.  Plus they want the ships to have as little draft as possible for when the river levels go low, and as little ‘air draft’ (height above the water line) as possible for when river levels rise up, reducing the clearance between the water and the underneath of a few specific low bridge spans.

In an attempt to get every possible inch of space, designers have done very clever things with pumpable ballast tanks to adjust the vessel’s water draft, and with the top open deck on ships.  When approaching bridges where there’s very little clearance, the deck chairs are laid flat, the side railings and umbrella/shades are all placed down, the radar masts incline down, and the entire wheelhouse structure lowers.  Normally, the floor of the wheelhouse is two or three feet above the top deck, but when lowered all the way down, the roof of the wheelhouse is level with the top deck, and the wheelhouse sides have concertina’d down, giving the wheelhouse no effective remaining internal height.  A hatch on the wheelhouse roof is opened, and the captain sits half in the wheelhouse and half sticking out, ready to duck down when approaching the bridge.

I’ve been on past cruises where the guests were allowed to lie flat on the top deck, and as we went under the bridge, we could reach up and touch the underneath of the bridge, barely a foot or two above us.  In most cases, passengers must leave the top deck entirely.

So, every bridge height is well known and shown on the river charts, and the water level is also continually monitored and reported to the ships that ply the rivers.  So, potential trouble spots are known well in advance; besides which, it is surely impossible to miss seeing a low bridge approaching, or so you’d think.  Most of all, it is important to appreciate that these very low bridges are rare rather than common – they are well known obstacles that the ship captains plan for hours/days in advance.

Well, yes, but what about at night?  You no longer have the ultimate ‘fail safe’ warning of actually seeing the bridge approaching, and if you’re semi-distracted, maybe you could forget?  I’m searching for excuses here, because last weekend, the Viking Freya river ship suffered a tragedy when the two crew in its wheelhouse forgot to lower the wheelhouse (although, making a puzzling situation even more puzzling, photos show that the top deck had been cleared and everything else laid flat and lowered).  When the ship went under a low bridge, the bridge sliced off the wheelhouse, killing the two crew in it instantly at the same time.  This was at night, at about 1.30am.

There was no danger to any passengers, and damage to the rest of the ship was very minor.  But without a wheelhouse, the ship wasn’t going anywhere any time soon, and of course, the investigating authorities needed to spend time determining what happened (and hopefully why).

Pictures here.

And Lastly This Week….

I mentioned last week how Air New Zealand’s light hearted flight safety videos have drawn a rebuke from the humorless aviation safety regulator in New Zealand.  One can only wonder what they would make of this.

And truly lastly, please do choose to help The Travel Insider in our annual fundraising drive.  Your assistance would be much appreciated.

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels






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