Weekly Roundup, Friday 23 September 2016

Bet you don't recognize what this is or where.  Answer in the last item, below.
Bet you don’t recognize what this is or where. Answer in the last item, below.

Good morning

In the excitement of everything else last week, I did a poor job of calling your attention to a matter of importance to me, and perhaps to you too.

Our annual Travel Insider Fundraising Appeal.  Yes, we did have 42 readers respond generously, including ‘super supporters’ (ie contributing $100 +) Peter N, Jamie M, Gil K, Dave H, Bob G, Bryan G, Paul F, Lynne H and Ken K.  Many thanks to each and every one of you.

But in past years, our first week has generally been more strongly supported (eg 72 last year and in some years, well over 100).  So could I call your attention to this in more prominent green this week!

As you’ll know if you’ve been a reader for more than a year (and a wonderful number of you have been readers pretty much for all 15 years we’ve been publishing) everything we publish is free and available to everyone.  But, alas, when I visit Safeway I have to pay for my groceries, the gas station insists on me paying for my petrol, and so on through the rest of the heartless world.  So, once every year, I toss out a challenge to you, my dear reader :  Please help me continue this bold, brave, and noble publishing effort.  Please help me to continue to shine a merciless spotlight on the most egregious of the many perfidies we may encounter when traveling, please help me to continue to offer you suggestions, savings, recommendations and reviews on travel items and travel related technology.  Please help me to continue to send many thousands of words of content into your email inbox every Friday morning, giving you a read that hopefully is sometimes entertaining, sometimes amusing, sometimes appalling, and sometimes educational.

To keep The Travel Insider alive and active doesn’t require much effort.  On the other hand, the reality is that not every person reading this today will respond with their financial support, so we rely on the appropriate generosity of those who will and can help out.  If it is financially convenient for you, please choose to do your bit to keep us online, and send in whatever support you feel to be fair.

We have some people who send in as little as $5, and others who send in as much as $500.  Most people seem to choose to send in $20 – $50, plus or minus a bit, depending on their circumstances and what feels right.  Anything and everything is appreciated and important, and the simple act of giving immediately elevates you from the ordinary to the extraordinary.

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This week, in addition to the newsletter/roundup below, I review an outstanding value messenger bag that might be of interest to you or as a gift item to give to others.  Last week I shone a spotlight on one of the airline industry’s ugly secrets – they are deliberately flying their planes slower to save money.  The week before I introduced you not only to the new iPhone 7 but also to comparable phones costing five times less being sold by Amazon, and to a wonderful bargain priced new Amazon tablet too.  As for next week – well, that has yet to happen, but with your continued support, let’s hope for something good next week too.

So, please, would you be as kind as to click on over and quickly send your support in, then you can settle in and enjoy the rest of this week’s newsletter with the added glow of participating in its production and future.  Thank you.

And so, hopefully now as a supporter, what additional delights await you this week?  Please continue on for :

  • Hawaiian Airlines Talks Sense and Nonsense
  • Delta to Launch Nonstop Flights between LAX and Melbourne?
  • The ‘Southwest Effect’ is Alive and Well
  • The Little Airline that Could
  • Lawyer Sues Emirates Over Seat Squashing
  • Even This Won’t Solve the Problems of Hydrogen Powered Cars
  • And Lastly This Week….

Hawaiian Airlines Talks Sense and Nonsense

Hawaiian Airlines is one of my favorite US carriers, and I’m looking forward to enjoying their excellent service when I travel to NZ and Australia next month.  I like them not only for their fine service but also for their generally high quality management and positive growth.

But I had to swallow twice when reading this article.

I was delighted and impressed with them floating the idea of becoming the first US carrier to consider the lovely A380.  How ridiculous to have up to six smaller flights between LAX and HNL a day (that is what the article claims but I can only find three mentioned in their current schedule) when two of their A330 or 767 planes could be replaced by a single A380.  Sure, it is nice to have flights at several different times of day, but surely the two flights at 7.45am and 10am, for example (HA 1 and HA 3) could be replaced with a single flight, perhaps at 9am, without any inconvenience to passengers (does anyone really want to board a flight at 7.45am?).

I was also excited to read that Hawaiian is considering extending its routes all the way to London.  But what to make of the reported comments of CEO Mark Dunkerley – his airline has ordered six A330neo planes, but doesn’t know if they will have the range to be able to fly to London!

Six of these planes represent a $1+ billion investment, depending on the sort of deal they negotiated with Airbus.  What person, in anything approaching their right mind, makes a $1 billion commitment prior to confirming that the item invested in can actually be used for the purpose intended?

It seems there are some concerns and uncertainties about if the planes will be able to be effectively/profitably operated on the route, and while Dunkerley says it depends on things like cabin layout, surely the proper process is to decide the cabin layout first, and understand to the nearest pound or so what the weight and range implications of this will be, then to get a commitment from Airbus as to how the plane will perform with that configuration, and decide based on adequate rather than apparently non-existent data.

To be fair, there are probably other routes the planes could be deployed on if Europe proves unfeasible, but the point remains – if you want to fly to Europe, make sure you are ordering the correct planes to support the route.  Don’t just buy the planes with your fingers crossed and a ‘wait and see’ attitude.

Lastly, it is interesting to see the airline signaling, in public, that it would like to be bought out.  Does that mean it feels the excellent 83% growth in its share price this year is unsustainable?  With everything looking reasonably positive for the airline (apart from a possible $1 billion mistake in ordering the wrong new planes!), why is it shouting from the rooftops that it would ‘seriously consider any takeover approach that might come’?

Delta to Launch Nonstop Flights between LAX and Melbourne?

If the headline in this article is to be believed, Delta is going to start flying from Los Angeles to Melbourne.  It is certainly true that Delta flies its own planes to Australia already, sharing routes and flights with Virgin Australia – sometimes a Delta flight is operated by Virgin Australia, and sometimes vice versa.

But Delta will not be sending any of its own ‘metal’ to Melbourne.  Even though it might like to pretend that it is broadening its own network, it isn’t.  It is simply codesharing on Virgin Australia flights, but that doesn’t make for such a catchy headline, does it.  ‘Delta chooses not to operate its own planes and instead accepts an allocation of seats on Virgin Australia flights’.

One has to wonder why/how it makes sense for the much larger carrier, and at the larger end of the route (Delta, the US) to feel unable to profitably operate its own flights, while the much smaller carrier and with the smaller end of the route (Virgin Australia and Australia) feels it can profitably do this.  Is this another example of our US carriers being outperformed by relatively new carriers from other countries?

The ‘Southwest Effect’ is Alive and Well

The ‘Southwest Effect’ is the name given to what happened whenever Southwest Airlines entered a new city.  They would introduce new service, and typically at very low introductory fares.  This would often cause the existing carriers operating to/from that city to drop their fares to match, and to add extra flights to schedule ‘parallel’ flights alongside the Southwest flights, trying to squeeze Southwest out, starving it of passengers.

But, more often than not, the result of such competition was that instead of the airlines fighting over the same number of passengers, now needing to be split among more airlines and more flights, they would end up enjoying more passengers traveling, rising to match the added flights and in response to the lower fares.  The lower fares and extra flights caused the market to grow, ending up in a more or less uneasy truce between the carriers and Southwest.

This shouldn’t be surprising.  It is a near-universal economic constant – the elasticity of price – that whenever you drop the price of a product, the demand for it increases.

The last decade or more has seen the US carriers ignoring this, and talking instead about ‘over-capacity’ being a problem (rather than the opportunity most other businesses would see it as).  They have cut back flights, so as to remove what they claimed to be their over-capacity problem.

But the definition of ‘over-capacity’ has been very much a moving target.  Back in the good old days of regulation, a 50% full flight was the reference point, and 60% full was considered a bonus.  Twenty years ago, 65% full was a reference point and 75% full was a bonus.  Now, 80% is considered a reference point and 90% considered a bonus (see the next article on Norwegian, for example).

So, ‘overcapacity’ has shrunk across the board, as have the number of different airlines, and we seldom see any chance for the Southwest Effect to occur, because with only four major players (one of which is now Southwest), there are fewer wildcards and less active competition among the remaining airlines and few opportunities for any more applications of the Southwest Effect.

But, give it half a chance, and it is still out there.  For example – the airport that has grown the most for the last two years in a row is the one that serves Seattle.  And the reason for the growth (13% in the last twelve month)?  Competition between major player Alaska Airlines (ignore the implication of the name, the airline is actually headquartered in Seattle) and carpetbagger Delta, now trying to displace Alaska as dominant carrier.

Fares haven’t exactly plunged, but there are now more flights to more places, and some decent fares.  So, over the last two years, traffic has increased about 25% and the airport is scrambling to keep up.  Details here.

What a shame that the airlines look upon a 25% increase in passengers with horror.

The Little Airline that Could

It is now almost three years since Norwegian Air Shuttle asked the DoT for permission for flights operated by its Irish subsidiary to fly between the US and Europe.  Under the Open Skies Agreement that applies to such flights, the result should have been automatic approval, but the US carriers erupted in a cacophony of complaint, demanding on the most spurious of grounds the application be rejected.

The DoT did what it does best.  It did nothing for almost two and a half years.  Yes, for two and a half years, it refused to approve the application, and also refused to deny it (which would have allowed Norwegian to appeal and move the process forward).  It just did nothing.  This is shameful in the extreme.

Earlier this year the DoT finally announced a tentative proposal to approve the airline’s application (what else could it do – to most observers, the approval was more or less mandated as a result of the Open Skies treaty with the EU and the appropriate form of Norwegian’s application), which caused more eruptions from the US carriers and other pressure groups such as pilots, furious that their sugar-daddy US airlines might lose market share and so lay them off.  More delays occurred and final approval is still pending.

Meantime, the airline’s UK subsidiary also filed for permission to operate flights last December.  Acting with astonishing speed, the DoT has now denied that, on the thinnest of grounds.  What part of ‘open skies’ and ‘free competition’ is so puzzling to the DoT?  Apparently, skies should only be open to US carriers, not to foreign competitors, for fear that the foreign competitors might reduce the cost of air travel across the Atlantic, which would be a great shame for the US public because – well, actually, what would be wrong with that at all, DoT?

Meantime, the parent company, Norwegian Air Shuttle, is continuing to slowly add service too, and – guess what?  Exactly as the US carriers have feared, the public love Norwegian.  Every Travel Insider who has tried their service reports back very positively about the experience.  Nice planes, friendly crew, good service and great value.  No wonder the DoT is so loathe to see a widening of Norwegian Air flights into the US!

Here’s a good article on the growth and success of the airline, including the astonishing statistic that in August, its flights across the Atlantic were 96% full.  The airline is growing as quickly as it can, with 31 Boeing 787s on order (and 11 already in service, up from two just a few years back) plus an astonishing 108 long range 737 MAX 8 planes due to start being delivered in the next few years, too.

While US carriers are obsessed with avoiding surplus capacity ‘problems’, Norwegian Air is growing as fast as it can get new planes (and filling them all, too).

You too should try Norwegian if they fly where you want to go.  With the ever diminished relevance of frequent flier miles to all but the most frequent of travelers, we need to abandon our ‘loyalty’ to airlines due to their frequent flier programs, and tactically simply book the cheapest fares each time we travel somewhere.

Lawyer Sues Emirates Over Seat Squashing

Don’t get me wrong.  I like Emirates.  They are a deservedly very successful airline, and through excellent management have turned a negative (their ‘out of the way’ hub) into an enormous plus.  They operate nearly new planes, with pleasant positive staff, and do most things right.

But – and you knew there was a but coming, didn’t you!  While their premium cabins – business and first class (surprisingly and puzzlingly, they have resisted calls for a premium economy type cabin) are excellent in every respect, their economy cabin is not really any better than any other airline, and worse than some.  They were one of the first airlines to  squeeze ten seats across in their 777s (the previous standard was nine) and according to Seatguru, some of their planes have as little as a 31″ seat pitch (although some stretch out to 34″).

One of the big ambiguities of flying – and one the airlines are desperate to keep ambiguous – is how much space you are entitled to.  Some things are clear – there is no entitlement to any space in the overheads, it is a case of first in, first served.  But you do have the space under the seat in front of you reserved for your use.

Some things should be obvious, but aren’t.  Are you entitled to recline your seat back as far as it can go?  Yes, of course you are – the airlines decided exactly how close to put the seats and how much recline each seat should have – just like you have space under the seat in front, you also have the recline space behind your seat back, too.  The person behind you shouldn’t complain to you, but instead in turn recline his seat too.

But the really big issue, which the airlines send mixed messages about, is the increasingly scarce horizontal space – at what point does our space end and the next person’s space start?  We’ve probably all experienced passive-aggressive battles for armrests from time to time, and while in a perfect world, there’d be an invisible force field (or perhaps an electric fence) running exactly halfway down each armrest, to clearly establish where our territory ends and the other guy’s territory starts, we’ve pretty much come to terms with sometimes conceding that inch or two of contested space.

Now, what happens when the person next to us is ‘a person of size’ and broader shouldered/chested/waisted than the width of their seat.  Can they spill over into your seat?

Any reasonable person, no matter whether they themselves are large or small in size, would probably acknowledge that each passenger has an entitlement to as much of their own seat space as they reasonably require and request.  The airlines themselves sometimes mutter about larger passengers being required to buy two seats rather than one, but seldom enforce what they vaguely state.

What happens when you sit down for a nine hour flight and find that the person who comes to sit next to you requires some inches of your space just to physically squeeze into the space.  Who should suffer?  You or him?

It isn’t the big guy’s fault.  He isn’t ‘man spreading’.  He is simply big.  If there is fault to be found, it is surely in the airline for making seats that are too small, and hoping they can ‘get away with’ inadequate seating by way of having adjacent passengers who don’t complain when the combined width of the row of two or three seats is less than the combined width of the two or three people squeezed into the seats.

This was the predicament a slightly built Italian attorney found himself in when on a nine hour Emirates flight from Melbourne to Dubai.  As the article shows, the gentleman next to him was large rather than small, and encroached into the attorney’s space.  Requests to the cabin crew to find alternate seating were refused on the basis of it being a full flight, and so for nine hours, the guy either had to wander around the plane, sit on crew rest seats, or contort himself into ‘his’ seat.

He is now suing Emirates for the remarkably modest sum of €2759.51 (just over $3000) – being his ticket price plus another €2000 as compensation on top.  Emirates is refusing to comment on the case.

The interesting thing, as hinted at in the article, is that there have of course been other earlier cases brought against airlines, in various jurisdictions around the world, but there have been no clear public verdicts.  What this suggests is that the airlines invariably settle – probably at the very last minute, just before the trial starts – but require the details of their settlement to be kept secret.

As I’ve said many times before, we need a passenger bill of rights, with one such right being the right to the horizontal space between the midpoints of our seat and the seats on either side of us, and perhaps an additional right that this space be sufficient for us to squeeze into.  The airlines can try and convince us that new thinner seats mean that tighter seat pitch measurements (the space between one row of seats and the row in front) still have the same effective knee room type space, and there’s a measure of truth in that.

But some airlines have tried to persuade us that narrower armrests mean more horizontal space for us – even though the seat width remains the same or less than before.  And that is totally wrong.  Narrower armrests don’t give us more shoulder room.

All races around the world are getting larger – taller, heavier, and wider.  But the airlines are adding extra seats across in cabins that were never intended to have extra seats squeezed in, and that is not right at all.

So if you find yourself awkwardly squashed in your seat because of the person next to you being larger than the size countenanced by ever smaller seats, don’t blame that person.  Befriend them – they can be the star witness in your case against the airline!  After all, larger people have even more vested interest in adequate width seats than you do.

Get their statement, take a ‘selfie’ like the attorney did, and write to the airline asking for a ticket refund.  When they refuse, file a small claim court case locally (ask only for perhaps half the fare as a refund to acknowledge that while some value was received, full value wasn’t received), include the selfie and a statement from your new large friend, and wait to see what happens.  If you are greedy, you’ll lose.  But if you’re conspicuously fair, chances are you’ll win – besides which, as often as not, the airline won’t even send anyone to represent themselves at the hearing.

Oh yes, and write to your senators and congressman.  Why is the DoT silent in all of this?  If they can help us by now forbidding airlines to imprison us on their planes for extended time during tarmac delays, why can’t they require airlines to make reasonable accommodation for all passengers?

Even This Won’t Solve the Problems of Hydrogen Powered Cars

One of the worst ideas that refuses to die is the concept of hydrogen/fuel cell powered cars.  People who willfully avoid fully understanding the issue gleefully seize on the concept of ‘it silently converts natural hydrogen to pure water vapor, leaving no pollution of any kind’ and on that narrow view alone, eagerly embrace the concept of hydrogen powered cars.

Some people look a bit further and love the fact that whereas electric/battery powered vehicles take appreciable time to recharge (a fast-charging Tesla takes 30 minutes to get about 170 miles of range added to its batteries) a hydrogen powered vehicle can be refilled in a manner analogous to a regular gas pump, or, better analogy, like refilling your propane bottle for the barbeque.  Less than ten minutes for perhaps another 250 miles of range.

And apologists will say that the lack of a network of hydrogen refilling stations is a chicken and egg thing – when cars start appearing, so too will refilling stations, the same as has happened with electric vehicles.

Most recently, this week, is an article sure to appeal to the inner ‘greenie’ in us all.  Get hydrogen from sewage.  What a great way of getting something useful from something useless, right?  One has to suspect that the underlying cost of ‘buying in’ raw sewage to convert into hydrogen is close to zero.

Except that, if you suspected that, you’d be both looking at only part of the picture and also wrong.  There are considerable costs to ‘access’ the raw sewage, and considerably more costs to process it through the multi-stage process described in the article to end up with hydrogen.

As the article hints at, the methane produced from sewage – ‘biogas’ – has value as a fuel source by itself.  So it isn’t free.  It has an opportunity cost right from the get go.  Adding considerable extra cost to process it and break it down into hydrogen makes it more expensive and less efficient/effective as an energy source than it would be as methane, burned right at the source for heat/energy/electricity.

The article is totally silent about this – the actual net cost per gallon-equivalent of gasoline – of the hydrogen sourced from sewage.  My guess – it is high, and higher than current petrol prices, and much higher than electricity.

Even once the hydrogen has been manufactured, it then needs to be compressed, shipped, stored, and dispensed – and with the challenges associated with storing compressed/liquid hydrogen, these are non-trivial considerations.  And the belief that hydrogen refilling stations will start popping up like spring daisies is also unrealistic.  It is easy and inexpensive to add an electric charging station.  They are appearing everywhere – in malls, at hotels and resorts, restaurants, parking lots, and of course, at people’s private restaurants.  But a hydrogen refilling station requires a major capital commitment and is unlikely to appear anywhere other than at formal refilling stations.  You’ll never see them in all the other places that battery charging stations are appearing.

Then there are a couple of other considerations.  First, people who focus on how long it takes to charge an electric vehicle are invariably people who don’t own one.  Most owners love the fact that they never need to detour to gas stations to fill up, like with a gasoline or diesel powered vehicle.  Maybe you’re the one in a million who enjoys filling his car with gas, but for most of us, it is a nuisance and a detour, and often happens when we least have spare time to go fill the tank.  Battery/electric vehicle owners simply plug their car into a wall charger at home each night, and drive away each morning with a full ‘tank’ of electricity.  Most electric vehicle owners never charge their vehicles at public charging stations in a case where they have to wait impatiently as the electricity trickles into the car.  As long as it charges overnight, they don’t care about the details.

The second consideration is that hydrogen fuel cells are ill-suited for most vehicular applications because the fuel-cells don’t work efficiently over a wide range of power outputs.  They have a very narrow range of power outputs, which is a problem for a vehicle that ranges from stuck in traffic (under 5 hp at idle) to going along at 20 mph (maybe 20 hp), to freeway speeds (50 hp), to accelerating to overtake while simultaneously going up a hill (200+ hp).  The ‘solution’ to this is to pair the fuel cell with a battery reserve, so when the fuel cell is producing more power than needed, it can charge the battery, and when it is producing less power than necessary, the battery can boost the energy available.  At which point, we’ve ended up with an electric powered vehicle, but one which has its own electricity generator built in to the car, rather than one which is self-contained and able to drive 200+ miles before needing to be recharged.

The fuel cell is merely an inefficient way of providing the electricity for what in truth is an electric powered, not hydrogen powered, vehicle.

The best choice for anyone who wants to free themselves of reliance on internal combustion engines, at present, is to go buy a Chevy Bolt when it comes out later this year.

And Lastly This Week….

Like many New Zealanders, and more than a few people elsewhere in the world too, it is sometimes difficult to come to terms with France and the French, even though I enjoy traveling there.  So it is, well, ‘interesting’ to read the views of one Frenchman on his country and fellow countrymen.

On a more serious note, if you are like me, you enjoy maps, and possibly have a passing interest in public transportation systems.  Cross the two, and you of course come across the archetypal and iconic diagram of the London Underground, originally released by Harry Beck in 1931.

Note that I said diagram.  It provides a clear and useful representation of where the different tube lines travel, but it is far from geographically accurate.  These days, with more lines, the London map is no longer as simple as it originally was, but it is still something that many people instantly recognize as a representation of the London Underground.

But have you ever wondered what the underground layout really looks like (hint – see the snippet in the featured picture at the top)?  Here’s a fascinating article that shows the real geographically correct map of the underground, complete with wonderful details such as cross-over tracks and sidings, and also adds a copy of the ‘official’ Beck-based map as well for comparison.

And if you need some more browsing pleasure to further delay your focus on work this morning, here’s a nice collection of some of the most significant airplanes developed.

And truly lastly, before applying yourself to the rest of your day and week ahead until the next Travel Insider newsletter, have you joined in our 2016 Fundraising Appeal yet?  If not, surely you can spare the one minute it takes to click over to this page and quickly send in your support.  Thank you very much!

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels






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