It is great to be back once more, although the time away on our Balkans Cruise from Bucharest to Budapest was absolutely wonderful. Perfect weather, a brilliant cruise, and – as is happily so commonly the case, a wonderful group of Travel Insiders, made for a really great shared experience.
The ‘star’ of the journey, for most of us, was probably Bucharest. The city has been cleaned up since I was last there something like eight years ago, and really looked wonderful, demonstrating why it was once called ‘The Paris of the East’. And not only did it look lovely, and offer us great food, but the prices were very reasonable. Our Travel Insider hotel was a good four star property, and included wonderful breakfasts, at a cost of about $135/night – less than half what you’d pay in the ‘real’ Paris. Dining at the best/most popular tourist restaurant in Bucharest was about $12.50 per person.
As for the many different places visited on the cruise itself, my favorite remains Novi Sad in Serbia. This is a gorgeous small town with an absolutely charming central city area, with almost every shop seeming to be a restaurant or coffee shop facing out onto a series of beautiful squares.
I flew Lufthansa both ways, business class on the way over and premium economy on the way back. I’ll write about this separately, subsequently, but for a quick executive summary today, business class was disappointing, while premium economy was wonderful. If your airline of choices offers a premium economy product that not only includes more legroom and more recline, but also wider seats and possibly better food and drink and other amenities, then it becomes extremely difficult to justify the added cost between premium economy and business class.
I’ve said for some time that today’s business class is better than first class of a couple of decades ago, and not much inferior to today’s first class. That remains true; but the new development is that today’s premium economy cabin is indistinguishable from business class of 20+ years ago – offering comparably wider seats, a similar more generous pitch, and improved food and drinks compared to regular coach class.
One of our group was returning on United with a tight connection in Frankfurt. She rushed through the airport and barely made the flight, only just, but some of her fellow passengers weren’t so fortunate. Sure, there’s nothing new about that – we’ve probably all had challenges with tight connections in the past. But was memorable that after having the door literally close immediately behind her, the plane then sat, unmoving, at the jetway for another 20 minutes, before pushing back; all the while presumably with other late arriving passengers being turned away.
We can probably all sympathize with the desire for flights to leave on time. If you’re not at the gate and on the jetway by a certain time, then you’re late and the plane will not wait. But surely, if the plane is delayed from departing, it is not only fair but sensible to leave the door open to allow late arriving connecting passengers to join the flight.
Just another dismaying proof that neither the airlines in their disembodied corporate entities, nor in the more corporeal embodiment of same, ie the gate agents and pilots, could care less about optimizing the travel experience for the passengers.
I had an opposite but similarly galling experience when leaving Seattle on the start of the journey. I was told in the Lufthansa lounge that a boarding announcement would be made when it was time to go to the gate (a mere five minutes from the lounge). A boarding announcement was made, and I slowly finished my drink, turned off and packed up my laptop, and five minutes or so after the announcement, leisurely left the lounge and strolled to the gate, in the expectation that by then the line of people queuing for priority boarding would have dissipated and I could walk straight on to the flight.
Instead, it was like a zoo. The flight was being operated by a 747-400, and after most of my recent longhaul flights being on A330 or similar planes, I’d forgotten just how many people a 747 can absorb (more thoughts on the 747 immediately below). All of them were crowding around the boarding area.
Notwithstanding the custom boarding announcement in the lounge, the flight had yet to start any boarding at all, and indeed didn’t start boarding for another ten minutes. Who was the person with the bright idea to summon the passengers from the lounge a good 15 minutes before boarding started?
Talking about wasting time, for reasons not clear to me, I was gifted with priority luggage tags for my return flight back to Seattle. But while the always brilliant Global Entry saw me one of the first through Immigration and to the luggage carousel, my ‘priority’ luggage tag had me waiting almost 40 minutes for my bag to appear on the carousel. There was no discernable evidence of priority being given to any bags at all – oh, with one notable exception. The crew luggage quickly arrived, but after that, a random assortment of priority and regular tagged bags dribbled out for the 40 minute wait until mine came. Why are airlines so useless at actually prioritizing the luggage they say they will?
As an old joke goes, the passengers in first class arrive at their destination the same time as the passengers in coach class. But the passengers with priority tags could potentially save half an hour or more after arriving if the tagging actually did reliably work – surely this is something airlines should focus on as a valuable benefit.
What else this week? I’ve not one, but three additional articles appended to this roundup. Of course, the release of the iPhone 7 on Wednesday was going to elicit an assessment by me, but this time, I found my introductory comments about where Apple had ended up in the market were sufficient as to require a second article on their own. Apple really is approaching a difficult point, with plunging sales of iPhones, and there’s no reason to expect the new iPhone 7 will restore it back to the steady growth its share valuation anticipates.
Although for sure this year’s announcement of the new iPhone attracted much less interest and excitement than in years past (because, unlike the one-time legendary secrecy and security in the Jobs era at Apple, this year just about everyone already knew all about just about all the new phone’s features well in advance) it still seemed to suck most of the oxygen out of the technology press for the week, meaning some other announcements have been largely overlooked, even though, in my opinion, they are probably of equal or even greater relevance to most of us. So I penned a third article about the new products announced by Amazon – two phones comparable to the new iPhones, but at one fifth the price, and an utterly lovely new tablet for about one quarter or less the price of an iPad Mini.
Executive summary – don’t buy an iPhone, but do buy a new Amazon Fire HD 8 tablet for only $89, and an Android based Moto phone if needed, too.
Please also now continue reading for :
- An Ode to the 747 and its ‘Father’
- Cockpit Quandary : Do We Go Left or Right?
- New AA Ads Say it is Our Responsibility, Not Theirs, to Make Flights Enjoyable
- Government Killjoys Criticize Entertaining Airline Safety Videos
- More Official Idiocy – Passport Expirations
- Still More Idiocy – The Vagaries of TSA PreCheck
- Belgium to Introduce Airline Style Security to its International Trains
- And Lastly This Week….
An Ode to the 747 and its ‘Father’
Talking about 747 (above) and their ever scarcer presence in our skies, I felt a wave of nostalgia while enjoying two 747-400 rides the last couple of weeks. I’ve traveled in every type of 747 except the new 747-8, even the rare 747SP (a truly exciting plane to fly in because of its high speed and high performance). The 747-400 is my favorite – probably because it reminds me of when I’d regularly travel between here and Australia and New Zealand, enjoying the sumptuous luxury of Qantas first class. One time I even got to fly on a special ‘delivery flight’ from Seattle to Australia on a brand new 747 – and yes, there really is a ‘new plane smell’, a bit like a new car. Ah, the ‘good old days’ indeed.
While the A380 is a beautiful plane, it is more functional and characterless and, dare I say, utilitarian verging on ugly. There’s something special about the 747, perhaps because of its pivotal role in the third aviation revolution.
The first revolution was the introduction of pressurized planes allowing for quieter more comfortable travel, the second was the 707 with its larger cabin, longer range and two classes of service, and the third was the 747, with its enormous cabin, even longer range, and not just two but three then four and now sometimes even five classes of service (some mix of economy, ‘more room’ economy, premium economy, business, first class, and suites).
It isn’t just its place in aviation history that makes the 747 so special. The distinctive buzzing sound of its four engines as it strains to leave the earth behind at the end of what sometimes seems a too-long take-off roll, the majestic smoothness of its cruise, and the feeling of utter confidence that you’re on what is surely the safest plane in the world (and with four engines) all make the 747 something quite unlike modern and increasingly ‘plastic’ twin-jets.
In that context, while I was in Eastern Europe, sad news came out of the death of Joe Sutter, the man widely regarded as the father of the 747. While it sounds glib to say so, he was one of the last of a vanishing breed – individualists brimming with character and personality who distinctively contributed to and helped shape the evolution of airplane design and manufacturing. His two most memorable achievements were the decision to move the engines on the 737 from a likely aft fuselage mount to under the wing, a concept now almost universally copied on all planes, and of course, the 747. It was first proposed as being essentially two 707s on top of each other, but he changed that to the then revolutionary concept of a wide double aisled plane.
Cockpit Quandary : Do We Go Left or Right?
Do you remember the bad old days, before that great invention that surely has added years to the longevity of many marriages – the GPS? Certainly in my car, all too many times, my companion/wife would be staring semi-randomly at the wrong part of an upside down map as an intersection approached, and I’d be ever more urgently asking ‘Do I go left or right?’.
Perhaps that is a question the pilots of an Air Asia flight should have asked themselves as they learned for themselves the truth of the computer adage ‘Garbage In, Garbage Out’. Prior to flying from Sydney and supposedly to Kuala Lumpur, the pilots transposed some digits while keying the coordinates of the destination into the autopilot, in effect telling the plane to go somewhere else, 7,000 miles away from KL.
They then pushed the autopilot ‘go’ button after taking off, and like too many pilots everywhere, had already zoned out, managing to miss or otherwise ignore the raucous chorus of warnings and alarms that were going off in the cockpit. The plane proceeded to veer off to the left instead of right at the end of the runway, placing itself into the path of oncoming planes, as the plane attempted to go where it had been told.
When the two pilots realized something was wrong, they were strangely unable to work out their problem or solve it, and in their attempts to ‘fix’ the issue, they ended up turning off much of the plane’s automated navigation and control facility, and strangely seemed unable to then turn it back on again.
Although the phrase ‘they panicked’ is notably missing from the official report into the incident, the pilots then essentially gave up, told Air Traffic Control they were unable to resolve the problem and that their plane had a severely disabled and mysteriously malfunctioning navigation system. Without navaids, they did not want to land back at Sydney Airport due to poor visibility there, so ATC vectored the plane to Melbourne, with the pilots flying it manually all the way.
No doubt thoroughly exhausted by the stress of actually – gasp – manually flying the plane for an hour or so, they botched what should have been an easy landing in good clear weather at Melbourne, but managed to get the plane on the ground the second time around. After landing, technicians were unable to replicate the ‘problems’ with the navigation system, and so the flight took off again, this time indeed going to KL.
This extraordinary sequence of events is all the more extraordinary when you consider the captain of the flight had a solid 22,580 hours of flying time (possibly over 20 years of experience) and the first officer a lower 2,200 hours (perhaps three years). Neither the ‘old dog’ nor the ‘young pup’ could work out the problem, and seemed to jointly make matters worse rather than better.
Now tell me again why we need to have pilots in cockpits? And why they’re deserving of such sky-high salaries and benefits?
New AA Ads Say it is Our Responsibility, Not Theirs, to Make Flights Enjoyable
Upset by the screaming baby in the seat right next to you? Annoyed when you’re squashed into a middle seat with plus sized people on either side? Then shame on you! Or so AA seems to be saying in a new series of advertisements which are described as emphasizing ‘a slightly elevated sense of awareness for others’.
I’ve no idea what that means, either. But AA is talking about ‘the world’s greatest fliers’ rather than ‘the world’s greatest airline’, presumably in the hope we’ll all aspire to greatness in the form of giving up what little remaining hope we have for a positive experience on their flights, and allowing instead a zen-like aura of calm acceptance to envelope us.
Government Killjoys Criticize Entertaining Airline Safety Videos
What is the most wasted few minutes of every flight? Surely it is the flight safety briefing, with its combination of stuff you’ll never remember in an emergency and things that you already know. I’ve noticed some cabin crew are getting quite aggressive at insisting you pay attention – showing themselves as the self-important little hitlers they truly are. ‘Turn off your electronic devices during the safety briefing’. Needless to say, the more boring the briefing (and the more time spent featuring the airline’s CEO), the more insistent the flight attendants are you should watch it.
A few airlines have decided to use a carrot approach rather than a stick approach, and probably the most notable of the ‘carrot’ airlines is Air New Zealand, which has gained viral fame for itself, even in parts of the world it will never ever fly to (thank you, Youtube!) with its series of elaborately staged flight safety briefings.
But now some governmental killjoys in New Zealand’s Civil Aviation Authority have expressed their concern that the flight safety videos are not sufficiently serious. I can only assume these officials are people who have never seen a seat belt and its release mechanism and lack sufficient intelligence to be able to work out how it works for themselves, and who would just sit in dazed and dumb stupor if oxygen masks dropped in front of them, while smoking in the toilets and wondering what the fasten seatbelt sign means.
If you’ve not treated yourself to any of the Air NZ videos, this page has links to several of them.
More Official Idiocy – Passport Expirations
Imagine if you were told, when renewing your driver’s license ‘here’s your new license, but it ceases to be valid six months before its expiry date’. How crazy would that be?
So why is it that something that is generally very much more expensive than a driver’s license – a passport – ceases to be valid some vague time prior to its expiration date? What magic thing happens perhaps three or six months before its expiration? For that matter, what magic thing happens the day after it has expired – do you cease to be you?
Now for the truly infuriating thing. Maybe, if you struggle hard enough, you can sort of understand an Immigration official in a foreign country saying ‘I’ll only let you enter my country if your passport remains valid for some time after your planned departure date, just in case your stay is extended’ – although in truth, where is the harm in that. People can get their passports renewed at consular offices pretty much anywhere in the world, or a temporary travel document issued, if necessary.
But why would the immigration people in your home country ask you to be sure to return back to your home country well before your passport expires? That makes less than zero sense.
In comments explaining how dual citizens with Canadian and another nationality can now only enter Canada using their Canadian passport, an official Canadian government website says ‘Make sure that the expiry date of the passport is well beyond your planned return date.’
Two questions. Why? And, ‘how many months is “well beyond”?’
Perhaps the most infuriating thing about this pervasive practice is that some governments will allow you to travel to their countries right up until the last day of your passport, but the airline flying you to that country might refuse, because it hasn’t drilled down far enough into the official regulations to understand what is happening and instead has an across the board rule that it requires passports to be valid 3 – 6 months after the end of the planned travel. Almost as infuriating are government that say ‘in theory, your passport is good until it expires, but some of our individual immigration officers might decide otherwise’.
On the other hand, I vividly remember the good old days when a friend was flying back to New Zealand with his family. Literally as he was about to leave for the airport, he gathered up all the family’s passports, to discover that his child’s passport was only valid for five years, not ten as he had assumed. His child’s New Zealand passport had expired.
As his travel agent, after confirming with the NZ Embassy that of course they would all be allowed back home into New Zealand, expired passports or not, I put a comment into his airline computer record saying ‘This is your authority to allow pax to travel on expired passport’ and astonishingly, at the airport, the checkin agent noticed the entry in the record and didn’t dig deeper to see where it came from; beamed, and thanked the guy for getting ‘official’ travel permission entered into his record. That sort of thing is probably harder to do these days.
Still More Idiocy – The Vagaries of TSA PreCheck
I love the PreCheck program. Usually the lines are much shorter (the TSA claims an average wait of only 5 minutes, and my experiences would confirm that), and you don’t need to go through quite such a rigmarole when being screened. No need to take off shoes (unless they have metal in them), no need to take off jackets and belts (again unless metallic), no need to remove laptops from bags, and a quick walk through the metal detector rather than a stop in the whole body scanner.
It is of course a mystery how the TSA can still ‘see’ through a computer and everything else in a carry-on bag in the Pre-Check line but not in the regular line, and there is more than a lingering suspicion that they can’t actually see anything much at all, but simply don’t care.
But did you know that the PreCheck program usually does not work if you’re flying on a foreign carrier? It works mainly with US carriers. Lufthansa has just this week become the first European airline to participate in the program. There are now a total of 18 airlines participating in the program – a few that you’d expect to see are missing (eg no Spirit) and some you’d not expect to see are present (Seabourne Airlines).
I had the misfortune to be downgraded to the priority/first class screening line when leaving the US a couple of weeks ago. There were four different lines, actually. The regular passenger ordinary line. The priority/first class line. The private Clear program line. And the PreCheck line. The priority/first class line, while shorter in length than the regular passenger line, took probably twice as long a wait, because only one TSA agent was manning that line compared to four or so for the regular passenger line.
Although I belong to the PreCheck program, the fact that I was traveling on a non-participating airline meant I couldn’t use the PreCheck line. But, contrary to repeated TSA claims to the contrary, the TSA continues to apparently randomly move people out of the regular line and into the PreCheck line. Why do people need to be formally interviewed and pay $85 for five years to get PreCheck, and then enjoy relaxed security, if TSA frontline staff wave people out of the regular line and over to PreCheck too?
The Clear line was the shortest, but I don’t recommend their service at all. It costs a ridiculous $180 a year to belong, and all it does is gets you to their short line with less wait to the document checking point. But it doesn’t also give you access to the easy PreCheck lane. If you want that, you need to sign up for PreCheck as well as Clear. Plus Clear is only in 16 airports (and I’ll guess only at a few of the security checkpoints in each of those airports). Noting that PreCheck is at 180 airports, and cuts down your time to 5 minutes or so, which includes the actual screening time, Clear probably only saves you another two or three minutes. How many times a year would you need to use it, at the few locations it exists, to get $180 worth of time saved?
Belgium to Introduce Airline Style Security to its International Trains
Very bad news for travelers who plan to include train travel to or from Belgium as part of their itinerary. The government has announced plans to introduce security screening for passengers on their international trains, to be introduced some time next year.
This would be extremely difficult to implement, and massively inconvenient for passengers. Whereas an airplane carries 100 – 400 passengers, a train can carry 500 or more passengers. And whereas airports have been designed with lots of ‘holding areas’ and facilities/seating/shopping/eating/etc for passengers on both sides of the security barriers, train stations have everything on the public side of the station, then maybe ticket turnstiles (and usually not even that) which lead to small platform space with little or no seating areas or other facilities. If you’re going to process everyone through security, you’ll need large holding areas to allow for all the time it will take for potentially 500 people to go through security. There just isn’t sufficient space at most train stations.
It isn’t just the space we see and think about, either. There will also need to be a screening system for our big ‘checked’ type suitcases as well as our carry-ons. The x-ray machines for screening checked luggage sized items are enormous in size, and the complexity of managing passengers, hand carry-on type items, and full size suitcase items – three different screening stations – becomes appalling. Or, in practical terms, expect to get separated from your bags and never see them again, and/or expect to add another 30 minutes or more to every train journey. Plus, all of this costs money – expect to see a sizeable increase in train fares. With a fast train in tiny Belgium, there’s every chance you’ll spend more time waiting to be screened than you would actually traveling within Belgium on your train!
Plus, what happens if passengers arrive from an unscreened local suburban train and then want to change to an international train? The international trains are going to need to now be separated off from the other trains.
And, there’s more. There will need to be security at every stop, both in Belgium and every other country the train travels through – both before and after the train’s time in Belgium. Maybe a train starts in Poland, goes through Germany, then Belgium, then France, then Switzerland, then Italy. Which means either the entire European rail system will have to now adopt airline style security, or failing that, Belgium’s trains will only be secure if they originate in Belgium, and only from where they start to the border, and still totally insecure everywhere else, and everywhere within Belgium for incoming trains from other countries.
Belgium is already hurting appreciably from diminished tourism. If it now makes train travel unpleasant, you can bet that its tourist numbers will fall even further.
And Lastly This Week….
Traffic ‘calming’ experts have tried all manner of ways to get drivers to slow down, ranging from speed bumps in the road to deliberately narrowing the road and adding curves to it, and speed warning signs that flash angrily at you. None of this works well.
Someone in Russia distilled the essence of these failed strategies – bumps, curves, and flashing, and came up with a logical alternate approach that seems to be working extremely well. One suspects that it will only be used in summer, not winter.
Until next week, please enjoy safe travels