Weekly Roundup, Friday 30 September 2016

Look carefully, and you'll note this very detailed map of San Francisco is in Russian.  See last item....
Look carefully, and you’ll note this very detailed map of San Francisco is in Russian. See last item….

Good morning

It must have been the green ink.  After our annual fundraising drive got off to a slow start two weeks ago, with 42 readers participating, I highlighted the event last week, which drew in a wonderful level of responses, including some people contributing for the first time ever.

It is hard to overstate my appreciation for people who ‘keep on keeping on’ and stalwartly help out every year, but the new people who participate for the first time are the essential new supporters we need to compensate for people who move on and otherwise go silent each year.

Many thanks indeed to the 80 additional readers who chose to very kindly add their support during the last week, including 17 ‘super supporters’ (those sending in three figure sums) – Laszlo K, Cosmo B, Jay K, Joe B, John M, Joe L, Karen P, Len G, Bob C, Clayton H, Jane F, Roger L, Kenny N, Allen H, John C, Kelly N and Steve N.  So, thanks to you all, whether first or repeat supporters, and of course, you are all really super and very special to me!

So, here we are in green again, hoping for a repeat again this week.  🙂  It would be really nice to achieve the same level of participation this year as last year.  We had 297 readers help last year.  So a special shout out to last year’s kind contributors – can we ask you back again this year?  And noting that last year saw barely 2% of all readers participate, are there another few readers who might also agree to take part in our annual ‘PBS style’ fundraiser?

Many readers tell me that their Friday morning routine involves a nice cup of coffee, and a good read of The Travel Insider.  How much does a nice cup of coffee cost these days?  Multiply that by 52, and what have you spent?  Does that provide a yardstick to now consider the other part of the activity – reading the Travel Insider while sipping your coffee?  Even if you’re grinding your own beans, you’re probably spending 25c – 50c; and if you have Mr Starbucks doing it all for you, you’re spending ten times as much!

We all travel a great deal.  Did you tip the rude taxi driver who drove you in the dingy taxi with a slightly strange smell in from the airport?  Did you tip the doorman, the bellboy, the housemaid, the waitress, at the hotel you stayed at?  Those are all voluntary acts on your part, and to people who much in some cases provide you nothing you really need at all, and certainly nothing of value commensurate with the tip they received.  A dollar or two to open a taxi door and tell the driver where you want to go?  Another dollar or two to carry your wheeled bag to your room for you?  And so on.

How about a tip now for the 50 or so newsletters you get each year, and the 50 or so feature articles.  This week, you’re getting an enormous feature article and a reasonable sized newsletter.  Gosh, if you bought a newspaper off a stand, how much would you pay for it these days?  A couple of dollars for USA Today, last time I checked.

Anyway, you should do your own calculation and equivalency, of course.  Whether you send in $5, $50, or even $500, the simple fact of contributing at all really does help, and the glass here is always way more than half full, whatever your level of support.  Please do help, and please do participate – if for no other reason than to speed us to our goal so I can stop bombarding you with green ink at the start of the newsletters!  A quick click is all it takes, and you can then contribute by credit card or check, any way, and in any amount you wish.

And now, back to our normal (black) programming……

I decided for this week I’d offer up a table analyzing different airlines and their premium economy offerings.  Premium Economy is, to my mind, the ‘sweet spot’ in air travel value at present, and with little standardization, a table of what you get and don’t get from the different airlines would be helpful.

But, as I started it, I increasingly felt compelled to precede it with what, at least for me, is a fascinating history of the evolution of airline classes and cabins.  That promised to first be an introductory paragraph or two, but by the time I’d finished a fairly brief summary of what has gone before, I ended up with an enormous 5600 word piece.

Adding further to the article, I decided to make it an illustrated article/photo-essay, with photos appearing all the way through it.  Finding photos, cropping them to size, and so on is another very time consuming process.  I hope that, if you find the story of the evolution of airlines and their services interesting, you’ll enjoy the article that eventually was published, just a few hours ago.

As for the table of premium economy offerings, well, guess what to expect next week!

Please continue reading for :

  • Pots Calling Kettles Black (Airbus and Boeing)
  • Official Report on MH17 Shoot Down
  • A New Distance Record for International Flights
  • Justice Department Wakes Up, Too Late
  • A New Way to Get Airline Upgrades?
  • Something to Get the Person In Your Life Who Already Has Everything
  • The End of a (Cell Phone) Era
  • World’s Most Popular Destinations and Best Countries to Live
  • And Lastly This Week….

Pots Calling Kettles Black (Airbus and Boeing)

While it is easy to decry industries where there are only two competitors, as lacking in competition, sometimes the opposite is true and the ‘us or them’ stark nature of outcomes encourages stronger competition.  Airbus and Boeing are perhaps an example of that, and the two companies delight in scoring points against each other, even if sometimes of dubious validity, and the annual counts of which company sold and delivered more planes than the other are always eagerly awaited (I’ve a detailed set of results going back many years – see tables 3 and 4 on this page).

One of the more lumbering and slow moving controversies between the companies have been the accusations by each against the other that they are being unfairly subsidized by their respective governments.  They both file complaints with the WTO, and the WTO then does – well, precious little.

Here’s a great article that not only points out the essential uselessness of the WTO, but also points out the elephant in the corner of the room.  While Boeing and Airbus howl in mock outrage about each other (and probably both with some fair justification), neither of them dare complain about the even more egregious companies and their sponsor governments – Russia and China – for fear of upsetting their ability to sell planes to those nations’ airlines.

So, their complaints about each other seem to result in nothing happening, and the really major offenders are ignored entirely.  What a farce.

Official Report on MH17 Shoot Down

I was frustrated by earlier communications from the Joint Investigation Team into the crash of the MH 17 plane in Ukraine in July 2014.  They went out of their way to avoid ascribing any blame.

But my earlier frustrations are now assuaged by the release this week of their first findings.  They don’t mince their words at all, and stridently accuse Russia and the Russian backed rebel forces in Ukraine of having launched the BUK missile that caused the 777 to crash.

It seems that they may have had some ‘help from their friends’ – as the article artfully points out, they had access to more than 150,000 ‘secretly taped phone calls captured in the region in the days before and after the disaster’.  Seems to me there’s only one (or possibly two) likely places that might have ‘secretly taped’ that number of phone calls.  One is located in Cheltenham and the other in Ft Meade.

It will be interesting to see what consequences – if any – attach to the apparent determination of who it was who destroyed a civilian plane that was lawfully flying over Ukrainian airspace, killing all 298 passengers and crew on board, and destroying a plane worth perhaps $150 million.

A New Distance Record for International Flights

New modern jet planes have impressive ranges.  I was reading this week about plans being mooted to start nonstop service between London and Sydney – that’s right around a 22 hour flight; it was done once in a 747-400 by Qantas as a publicity stunt.  The 747 taxied to the end of the runway at Heathrow, then had its fuel tanks literally filled to overflowing with a special high energy fuel, and flew nonstop to Sydney with only a dozen or so technical crew on board.

The limit to how far planes can fly these days is now essentially an economic one.  The increasing problem with long distance flights is that the plane has to carry a lot of fuel for the journey, then it has to carry more fuel to cover the extra fuel burned because of the weight of the extra fuel it is carrying, and then more extra fuel to cover the weight of the extra fuel loaded to cover the weight of the fuel loaded, and so on, in a nasty escalating spiral.  Plus, the more fuel it carries, the heavier the wing tanks need to become, the stronger (= heavier) the undercarriage, the more powerful the engines, and so on.  And – you guessed it, the heavier the plane, the more fuel it needs, and there we are, going through another inflationary loop of everything.

So while there are no engineering reasons why planes couldn’t be given even longer range, the economics start to go really bad, and no-one is really pressing for it.  Plus – while most people have learned to prefer nonstop flights over flights with stops en route, what is good for a 10 – 15 hour flight is maybe not so good if you’re to be on a plane for 20+ hours.  Ugh.

But, why are we talking about this?  The new distance record I’m talking about is thought to be a new record for the world’s shortest international flight.  It will be from Friedrichshafen in Germany to St Gallen in Switzerland.  This is a mere 13 miles as the crow (and airplane) flies, but Lake Constance is in the middle, making it a longer journey by land/car.

The flight is expected to take eight minutes, and will displace a ten minute flight between Vienna and Bratislava, the former shortest international flight.

As for the shortest domestic flight, that is between two small islands in the Orkney Islands north of Scotland.  The flying time is scheduled for two minutes, but often takes only one minute.  And, just to complete the list, the world’s longest flight is currently operated by Emirates between Dubai and Auckland (New Zealand), and next February will grow to a slightly longer flight between Doha and Auckland, operated by Qatar Airways.  The flight path will be 14,536 km.

Justice Department Wakes Up, Too Late

The Departments of Justice and Transportation have allowed the US airline industry to consolidate and then consolidate some more and some more again.  We now have four carriers that have, between them, 80% of the entire aviation market.

Apart from a few risible concessions occasionally requested and happily given, neither department has made any substantive objections to any of the recent mega-mergers – Continental and United, Northwest and Delta, or US Air and American, allowing six major airlines to become three (the fourth mega airline is Southwest).

Now we have two tiny carriers – struggling Virgin America and successful Alaska Airlines – planning to merge.  The merger details were announced in early April, and presumably the necessary approval paperwork was promptly filed.  The airlines planned to complete their merger today – 30 September, almost six months after the merger was announced.

But last Friday, Alaska Airlines indicated it had received a request from the DoJ to delay the merger, and on Monday the airline said it would wait until 17 October, so as to allow the DoJ more time to review and respond to the merger request.  Details here.

The new merged airline would become the fifth largest carrier, pushing current #5 carrier JetBlue down to sixth place.

I’ve cried out for reviews and even refusals of some of the earlier mega-mergers, but this merger is so small that really, who cares less about it?  Other than the Department of Justice, that is.  Or is it the fact that it is such a small merger, and therefore less politically supported, that is causing the DoJ to suddenly make a show of being concerned?

This may well be a rare case of a ‘good’ merger, where a good small airline gets a sudden speed boost to grow to a larger size, and helping it in a market where its competitors are all massively bigger than it is.  Alaska Airlines continues to be under considerable pressure in its Seattle home hub from Delta, and getting some added heft in the market seems to not be a bad thing for Alaska Airlines and its ability to compete more broadly with Delta and the other three mega-carriers.

Why has the DoJ allowed massively larger mega-mergers to proceed largely unimpeded, but now needs more time to review this mini-merger request?  And, you know, why does it take so long to do this?  Just exactly how many other airline merger requests are also on their desk right now?  None!

It is a shame to see such third world service from a government department in a first world country.

A New Way to Get Airline Upgrades?

As I mention in passing in this week’s feature article, the pervasive growth of airline frequent flier programs and computerization in general has allowed the airlines to become ultra-scientific about who they give upgrades to.

All the old rules like ‘wear good clothing’ and ‘be polite’ and ‘check in late’ (or sometimes ‘check in early’), who to approach and the specific phrases to use that used to feature in so many ‘how to get upgraded’ articles no longer really apply at all.  Nine times out of ten, it is no longer the gate agent who makes the decision.  The computer has already decided for them. (Note to people who worry about computers taking over the world – you’re too late.  They already have!)

But here’s an interesting article that suggests there’s still one remaining thing that might boost your chances, whether it is at airline gate counters or hotel checkin counters, or indeed, might ‘boost your chances’ once you’re seated or in the hotel bar, in a different sense.

Alas, much as I’d like to, I’m unable to test this to see if it works.

Something to Get the Person In Your Life Who Already Has Everything

Talking about expensive things, many of you are successful and if there is something you want, you simply get it.  This of course makes gift giving difficult for those around you.

So if you are struggling to buy something for such a person, the chances are that they don’t yet own a piece of a Concorde.  There is an auction of Concorde parts being held by French auction house Marc Labarbe in Toulouse on 3, 4 & 5 November, selling all manner of parts, ranging from seats to, well, to toilet seats, to say nothing of jet engine parts, wheel brakes, tires, pilot manuals, and all manner of other goodies.

Here’s an article about the auction, and here’s a link directly to the auctioneer’s website.

The End of a (Cell Phone) Era

This week saw the announcement we’ve all been anticipating for years.  Blackberry announced it will no longer make phones, preferring to concentrate instead on software sales.

That’s not to say that Blackberry branded devices will disappear entirely.  The company is licensing its name and allowing an Indonesian company to continue to make ‘Blackberry’ phones, and says it sees big opportunities for continued handset sales in countries such as South Africa, Indonesia and Nigeria.  Not the markets one usually thinks of, but with 500 million people between the three countries, who knows.

Certainly, Nigeria seems to be a very wealthy place – I regularly get emails from Nigerian princes and the widows of government officials, all seeking my help to invest considerable sums of money that they are burdened with and keen to get rid of.

We all owe Blackberry a vote of thanks.  They were the first to change our paradigm towards email in particular and the internet in general.  They showed us how we didn’t need a bulky big desktop computer and an internet cable in order to read and send emails, and later went on to show us that accessing websites didn’t need to be as despicably slow and awful as had been the case on phones prior to then.  Now we are never out of touch, with email and the internet at our side, almost everywhere in the world.  Hmmm – wait :  is that really something to be thankful about!?

But, the market changed, and Blackberry were overconfident, slow to accept and slower still to respond to that change.  Apple brought out a massively more friendly interface and a touch screen on their iPhone in 2007, and Blackberry refused to take seriously a device with no keyboard.  Blackberry’s biggest strength until that time – their physical keyboard – became their biggest weakness, because the physical keyboard caused them to overlook the benefits of touch screen interfaces.

So – no more Nokia, leastways not per the original Finnish company, and not from their brief owner, Microsoft.  And now, no more Blackberries, at least not from Waterloo, Canada.  Details here.

Here’s one of very many pieces that tries to analyze the rise and fall of Blackberry.

World’s Most Popular Destinations and Best Countries to Live

Well done New Zealand (I say as a proud New Zealander, albeit one who has chosen for the last 31 years not to live there).  According to this study, New Zealand is the best country in the world to live in.  Spain comes second, Canada third, followed by Singapore and Australia.  The US came 34th on the list of 45 countries, sandwiched between Ireland and Indonesia.  Egypt came last and China second last.

But if you don’t want to move permanently, perhaps this list of the world’s most popular destinations is more helpful.  This year saw Bangkok rise to the most visited city in the world (21.5 million visitors) and London fall to the number two spot (19.9 million).  Next came Paris, Dubai and New York, then Singapore.

Not to be unkind, but it would seem that Bangkok’s win is more a function of the growing economic strength of countries in that region, and similarly, Dubai’s popularity must surely be due to one thing only – the surging continued growth of Emirates Airline.  The key takeaway from this list – some of the most visited cities are not necessarily the cities you’d most want to visit, yourself.

And Lastly This Week….

The world’s worst restoration?  Quite possibly so!  You decide….

I mentioned, last week, the lovely iconic map/diagram of the London Underground.  So I’m already a confessed map nerd.  Which means I found this article about how the USSR drew maps of the entire world, including of the US – and often in better detail than we drew ourselves – absolutely fascinating, and particularly the bit about how they deliberately distorted civilian maps of the USSR to make them useless for military purposes (there’s an example shown in the article).  Well worth a read.

That deliberate distortion might also explain a problem I encountered in Moscow one time.  I was going to make a presentation at a semi-sensitive ‘military/industrial complex’ and its address, in a Moscow suburb, was, let’s say, 15 Something Street.  The other person with me and I took a taxi to Something Street, and it dropped us at number 13.  Each street number corresponded to a large building with lots of grounds around it.

When we left the taxi, a bit annoyed that it didn’t take us to number 15, we had to decide – do we go left or right to reach number 15?  We went left, but the next building when we got there after several minutes walk was number 11.  Okay, wrong direction.

So we walked from number 11 to number 13 and on to the next building.  It was number 17.  Damn!  Where was number 15?  We walked slowly and very carefully back, and the very next building and street number we came to was number 13 again.  There was no number 15.

Eventually, we discovered that, presumably for security reasons, the street numbering went 9 – 11 – 13 – 17 – 15 – 19 and so on.

Truly lastly this week, and on an aspirational note, the feature article is about different classes of airline service.  But what class of service would one place this airline in?

Unavoidable reminder – if you’ve not yet done so, please take a minute or two – for that is all it takes – to become a Travel Insider supporter and keep us up and operational for the year ahead.  Your support really does help, and really is needed.  Thank you.

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels






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