Weekly Roundup, Friday 2 December 2016

RIP, Jim Delligatti.  Who he?  See final item.
RIP, Jim Delligatti. Who he? See final item.

Good morning

It seems that some of you managed to tear yourselves away from the stress and struggle of Black Friday and Cyber Monday to do some shopping of a very different kind – for travel.  We now have ten people who have chosen to join our Scotland’s Islands and Highlands Tour next June, including an ex-pat Scotsman and his English wife (I love having ‘locals’ join us on our tours, they add enormously to the rich experience for all); two people from Singapore, a couple who did the Scotland tour before, and others who have traveled elsewhere with me, before.

This is a great start for our Scotland tour group.  We can easily add another ten people to the tour, especially if you let me know as soon as possible, so we can get our first (or second!) choices on hotels for us all.  That is the hardest part of putting this very experiential tour together – finding enough hotel rooms.

Truly, there’s no finer way to see the ‘real’ Scotland.  We even go to places where more people speak Gaelic than English; and visiting remote parts of Scotland that overflow with history and aura, including all the way over to the Outer Hebrides.  Sure you might have visited Edinburgh or Glasgow, but that’s no more representative of Scotland than London is of rural England or Paris is of the French countryside.  Please do consider this tour and perhaps make it an early Christmas present for yourself and your travel companion.

The feature article this week is another blockbuster of an epic.  It was so long I ended up rewriting it and leaving much of it out, but it still comes to almost 5,000 words.

I took advantage of a sale price over the Thanksgiving weekend to buy one of Amazon’s new Echo Dot devices.  I’ve been growing increasingly curious about this new concept, while also remaining seriously skeptical.  The low price and the ‘Thanksgiving spirit’ pushed me over the edge; in the article I attempt to answer its opening question – is the device as good as it could/should be?  And, of course, is it something you should now buy, too?  Alas, 5,000 words later and I struggle to move beyond a ‘maybe’ answer to this simple short question, but perhaps somewhere in the commentary and description you’ll find something that tells you that, for you, it either is a ‘must have’ or a ‘don’t need’ type device.

My guess is that this is one of these things that grow on one, and noting just a few minutes ago an announcement by Expedia that it was adding a compatible ‘app’ to the Echo products, there certainly is a rush of new features that make them more appealing every day.

Also, please continue reading for :

  • Another Plane Crash – Another Hero Pilot?
  • United Wants to Change its Mind.  Maybe.
  • Should Travel Suppliers be Able to Geo-Block Their Prices
  • TSA’s PreCheck Struggles to Build Membership
  • Netflix Gives Travelers an Early Christmas Present
  • Toyota’s Continuing Subtle Rush Into Battery Electric Cars
  • And Lastly This Week….

Another Plane Crash – Another Hero Pilot?

The early breaking news of the LaMia chartered BAE 146 airplane crash had the ‘usual suspect’ sources breathlessly telling us of the ‘hero pilot’ who bravely circled the plane, dumping fuel for safety reasons before landing crashing, even though the plane was suffering a flight emergency due to some type of an electrical fault.

This was a curious scenario that didn’t feel right.  Any plane can land with totally full tanks in a full on emergency – okay, so it might destroy the landing gear in the process, but rather broken landing gear than a totally broken plane (and passengers).  Besides which, the plane was at the far end of a long flight, surely there was no need to dump fuel at all?

I always caution you to be careful when reading early reports of any complex event like a plane crash, and this is a classic case in point.  It now turns out that there was a fuel problem, and indeed an electrical problem too.  But not quite the problem originally described.  Instead, it now seems close to certain that the plane ran out of fuel, and when the engines stopped, so too did the alternators that created power for the plane.  I guess the plane didn’t have a “RAT” (a Ram Air Turbine – a device that drops down with a little windmill sort of thing on it that uses the airspeed to spin a wind generator turbine and generate emergency power) and instead the pilot was using short lived battery power.

Unfortunately, there’s only so much you can do when you’ve four dead jet engines (or, better to now describe them as four activated air brakes), and the pilot was being way too diffident at directly explaining the nature of his emergency to the local airport’s air traffic control.  It was only when he was out of fuel, airspeed and altitude that the message finally got through, but by the time the pilot was given permission to land, he had already ‘landed’.  As in crashed.

This appears to be close to 100% a preventable pilot error situation.  I’ll not list all the apparent appalling and possibly deliberate errors this pilot made for now, in the hope that an official report will be accurate, but suffice it to say that hero, he was not.

United Wants to Change its Mind.  Maybe.

United has pending plane orders with both Airbus and Boeing.  Earlier in November it announced it was deferring the delivery of 61 737-700 planes, with the rest of the industry merely wondering why it took United so long to realize that it had an obsolete plane model still on its order books, even though the -700 model had been essentially superseded by the newer MAX models some three years ago.  The 737-700 is also now lined up alongside the new Bombardier CS-300 jet which, delays notwithstanding, increasingly appears to be a really great plane in terms of both passenger and operator experience.

And now, perhaps to be evenhanded, United is starting to worry in public about its order for some Airbus planes too.  But this time, instead of wanting to do something about an order for an obsoleted model plane, United is worried about the new Airbus A350-1000 – a plane so new that it had its maiden flight just a few weeks ago.

United has 35 of these planes on order – ostensibly to replace its remaining 747s and to allow for fleet growth or to replace perhaps some of its oldest 777s as well.  The A350-1000 is an enormous plane and in probable seat configurations would hold almost as many passengers as the 747s it replaces.  United is worrying that this appealing new plane might be too big.  Or too-something-else.  Or maybe not-enough-something.  It is hard to tell.

United ordered its A350s back in 2003 (after having converted an earlier order to A350 planes) and now is talking about changing its mind again.

There’s more.  The airline is also fascinated by the Boeing 737-MAX10X and might wish to convert some of its orders to this plane instead.  You mightn’t have heard much about this plane, because it is a plane Boeing hasn’t yet decided to build!

The reason for United’s focus on planes is apparently a desire to improve their profitability.  That’s a commendable desire, and we also understand the benefits in swapping older less economic airplanes for newer better ones.  But, in reality, United’s lower-than-industry-average profitability is not primarily due to its fleet mix, and changing its future orders is similarly unlikely to be the ‘magic bullet’ that cures all the airline’s ills.  You know the saying ‘a poor workman blames his tools’…..

Maybe if United’s management stopped prevaricating on the planes it will, maybe, at some possible future point, ultimately end up receiving, and instead turned their attention to getting the best use of their present planes and improving some of their many other operational areas that could be improved, that might be a good thing.  Don’t you agree?

Should Travel Suppliers be Able to Geo-Block Their Prices

In the ‘good old days’ pre-internet, it was common practice for travel companies to charge different prices to different customers, based on where they came from.  This practice never worked to the advantage of American customers – we were always perceived as a market willing to pay top dollar.  I was never keen to be so categorized, and my sense was that companies from some other nations were so consistently good at bargaining (and we were so consistently bad) that entire industry groups had just given up and as soon as they saw an Asian buyer approaching them at an industrial trade show, they’d pull out their special Asian pricing sheet.

Of course, the suppliers had no end of reasons to justify their different prices to different countries strategy – wanting to grow into new markets, split up their mix of business sources so as not to be overly dependent on any one region, and so on.  But it was always fun to needle such suppliers – ‘Oh, but David, you’ve already got our very best rate’ – my reply would be ‘I’m sure I do have your best US rate, but could I please have, instead, your worst Chinese rate’.

But, as objectionable as it may be, surely suppliers are free to set their pricing any which way they choose.  And, in truth, many suppliers did give me their best US rates, and a few kindly gave me their worst Chinese rates, too!

When the internet came along, travel suppliers excitedly and greedily rushed to use the internet, seeing it as a way to cut out middle men (like me and my company!).  But their efforts to do so encountered a technological hurdle – the internet was open to everyone, everywhere in the world.  How to show one price to Americans and another price to Canadians, and a different price again to Japan?  Not possible!

Except that it didn’t take too long for someone to figure out that the internet addresses our computers all use were allocated more or less regionally.  So it was possible to guess where a computer was located by their internet address.  This became even more sophisticated to the point now where it is possible to know very accurately where your ISP gateway is located, and sometimes even to know exactly where you are located – especially if you are using a phone or tablet with built in GPS address logging. So suppliers went back to their multi-pricing, and didn’t have to worry about people in one country seeing the rates in another country (there are ways this can be done using VPNs, of course, but very few people strategically use such services for these purposes).

It isn’t just travel products/services that have multiple prices, of course.  An eBook on Amazon might have substantially different prices in different countries, and/or totally be unavailable in some countries but not others.  Even regular books – when you look at them in a bookstore, you will see preprinted pricing on their back covers that shows greatly different prices in different countries, even after adjusting for exchange rates.

But the bureaucrats in the EU have now become aware of this, and whereas you and I might feel that governments have no place in the middle of private commercial transactions, the EU bureaucrats invariably feel that the EU needs to interpose itself in any and every commercial transaction.  A draft law banning some types of regional pricing has now been passed that will be submitted to the full European Parliament next year.

My only comment on this is to wryly note that if the EU can indeed dictate the prices that private companies sell products for, then no matter what happens, it is almost certain not to result in an improvement in pricing for you and me.

In other EU news, there’s some brilliancy on proud display in Sweden.  The Swedish Taxi Commission has proposed to ban any ride-sharing services that make a profit.  Ones that break even or, better still, make losses, would still be welcome in Sweden.  But if they make a profit, they should be illegal.

TSA’s PreCheck Struggles to Build Membership

I actually enjoy going through airport security in the US these days and find it to be the most pleasant country in the world for this process.  No longer do I get treated like a guilty criminal, but rather like a privileged VIP, because I belong to the TSA PreCheck program.

The PreCheck lines are usually remarkably short, and the security experience hassle-free.  The TSA screeners are friendly and their only point of frequent annoyance is with passengers who reflexively start to take off shoes and belts and jackets, etc.  ‘No, you can leave them on’ they chant several times every minute.

Why do they have to keep reminding PreCheck members of this?  The answer is simple – because, no matter how much the TSA pretends otherwise, they continue to divert regular passengers to the PreCheck line in significant numbers.  I’m not just guessing – people waiting in line with me tell me they are not PreCheck members but proudly claim to regularly end up in the PreCheck line.  The TSA can process more than twice as many people through a PreCheck line as a normal line, and it seems the TSA has decided that if people won’t voluntarily sign up for PreCheck, then the TSA will just ‘upgrade’ people to make up the numbers and keep all lines satisfactorily short.

I’ve no real problem with that, and of course, the TSA will intone about their multiple redundant layers of security still guaranteeing that everything is safe, even if the main security experience – the airport checkpoint – is massively compromised (it remains my suspicion that in many cases the metal detectors on pre-check lines are desensitized to a point where you could carry quite a lot of metal and not have it alarm, and that the x-ray machine operators tend to optimistically ‘resolve’ mysterious blobs on the basis of ‘it is probably okay’ rather than pessimistically worry ‘I don’t know what this is so we should check’.

Here’s an interesting article that points to the self-imposed bottlenecks and barriers the TSA has imposed on its own PreCheck application program.  If they could come up with a more efficient process, they would get the numbers of people joining that they want/need.

As an aside, I am increasingly of the opinion that a large part of the standard security screening hassle in the US is our own fault.  Have you noticed, as I consistently do, that in other countries, people from other nations seem able to get their stuff onto the conveyor belt more quickly and with less fuss and bother than our fellow passengers do here?  I always start stuffing my metal objects into my carry-on well before reaching the conveyors, so as to make it a quick and easy process, but so many people arrive at the top of the line and seem surprised to discover a need to then remove their metallic objects, place them in bins and on the conveyor belt, etc.

Netflix Gives Travelers an Early Christmas Present

One of the things I really like about Amazon’s Prime Video streaming service is that you can download up to 25 different video programs, and watch them offline subsequently.  This is wonderful for people who are traveling – you can bring your own choice of movies and television shows with you onto a plane, and when you get to your destination, you’re not dependent on fast internet to get videos.

Even more, if you’re out of the country, you’ll find you mightn’t be able to stream your content at all, or perhaps you’re in a country which charges per GB of data and the cost of filling in an empty evening by watching a movie becomes a measurable consideration.

So I tend to download a full set of 25 Amazon videos prior to traveling.  Maybe I don’t watch them all, but it is reassuring to know that I’ve got them available if I wish.

Netflix has taken note – Amazon’s service is increasingly a competitive threat to Netflix – and this week announced a similar service, allowing you to store content the same as Amazon, and watch offline subsequently.  Two additional points to keep in mind.

First, not all Netflix’s content can be downloaded for offline viewing.  They are having to negotiate this as an extra ‘right’ with each content provider, and some are willing to allow it, but others are either refusing or choosing to be too greedy in the extra fees they are asking.

Second, although Amazon limits you to a total of 25 items, Netflix tell me they have no limit at all – the only limit is how much available storage capacity you have on your portable device (it only works with iOS and Android devices, it does not work with laptops, and – surprise surprise – although Amazon Fire tablets allow regular Netflix, they don’t yet allow Netflix offline content).

You might think ‘who wants more than 25 programs’ but keep in mind that if you are downloading 25 minute episodes of a tv series, you can use up your quota of 25 programs very quickly with less than 12 hours of total content.  So the Netflix approach is potentially much more generous and flexible.

This is also a reason to seek out tablets that allow for Micro-SD cards, and to go buy yourself a nice big 128GB or 200GB capacity SD card.  I see that 200GB cards are now down to $70 in price.  There are also new 256GB cards starting to appear, but it is hard to justify paying $200 for one of those – $130 more than a 200GB card for only 56GB more storage.

Details here and Netflix’s support pages here.

Toyota’s Continuing Subtle Rush Into Battery Electric Cars

I pointed out, recently, Toyota’s subtle signaling that it was making a shuddering, tire-squealing, 180° U-turn, and was changing from refusing to have anything to do with Battery-Electric Vehicles (BEVs) – preferring hydrogen fuel cell technology – and instead was about to leap into electric vehicle technology with gusto.

Of course, that wasn’t how Toyota described its move at all.  Being Japanese, it was subtle and they merely hinted at changes.  But, oh yes, those changes are coming, and at a great rate.

Toyota formerly said that it would not do anything with BEVs because major technological breakthroughs were needed for them to become competitive and viable.  Then it indicated it was considering BEV technology and would make some research into developing some such cars in the future.

Then, in an oh-so-unrelated piece of news, it ‘independently’ announced that its researchers had made a major breakthrough in battery technology.

And now, this week, it has announced the identities of the people heading up what is now being described as its new Electric Car Division.  It will be headed up by none other than Toyota’s President himself, Akio Toyoda, and he has assembled an all-star cast of senior managers as his direct reports in this new extension of Toyota’s business.

As this article points out, people with little understanding of Toyota sneered at an announcement that mentioned the names of only four people being appointed to the new division.  But when those four people are four of the very top executives in the company, you know that Toyota has become extremely serious and motivated.

As an aside, here’s an interesting article that claims GM will lose $9,000 on every Bolt BEV it sells.  And GM is happy to be losing money, due to the emission credits it earns from selling the Bolts.

And Lastly This Week….

Love it or hate it, the Big Mac has been the iconic example of McDonald’s and their entire hamburger range.  For that matter, the Egg McMuffin also saw in their extension to breakfast products, too.  Both products have become so omnipresent that it is hard to think of life before they existed, and few people ever wonder who invented them, or when.  Answer :  Jim Delligatti, in 1968 and 1970 respectively, in Uniontown, Pennsylvania.  Delligati passed away this week, aged 98.  One of his secrets of living long and well?  He had at least one Big Mac every week.  Details here.

The undead zombie that will not die?  No, just the revival of Nokia ‘feature phones’.  Three extraordinarily optimistic Finns bought that part of the Nokia business from Microsoft, and now plan to start selling cheap down-market ‘feature phones’ to countries where price is more important than features (because, of course, a ‘feature’ phone actually means ‘a phone with no features’).

Their business plan is to get the Chinese companies that are currently flooding those markets with very low priced feature phones to make a few more and stick a Nokia label on them, and they expect that the value of the Nokia brand will allow them to then successfully compete against the very companies that make the phones for them.

Oh – the market for feature phones is shrinking by 15% a year.  But good luck to them, and a note to Microsoft – I hope you got paid cash up front for the sale.  Details here.

Something else that refuses to go away is anything to do with the Titanic.  The latest Titanic project is a Chinese plan to build a full replica of the ship, allowing tourists to visit it, and experience what it was like on the ship, including the sinking (hmmm, wonder how that bit will work).

Details here.

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels






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