Weekly Roundup, Friday 9 December 2016

The last of the 'magnificent seven'. RIP, John Glenn. See last item.
The last of the ‘magnificent seven’. RIP, John Glenn. See last item.

Good morning

Wow.  What a week it has been.

I wrote, last Friday, that we had ten people who had chosen to join our Scotland’s Islands and Highlands tour next June – already a high level of participation, this early.  I don’t know what created the spark, but we’ve had another ten people join this week, bringing us now to a wonderful twenty people on the tour.  The increase in numbers has seen the tour price (which is based on the number participating) drop three times, and we’re now very close to being full.

I’ve also rejigged the itinerary a bit, swapping two single night stays for one two night stay (the fewer the hotel changes, the better!), and now enabling us to include a new stop at Glencoe; a place with an overwhelming aura (or at least, so I sense) due to what happened there 324 years ago.  Definitely a great new inclusion in the itinerary.

So if you’ve been thinking ‘maybe I’ll come’ please do quickly confirm your interest in joining what is becoming a wonderful group of fellow Travel Insiders.

But wait – there’s more.  As you may know, we have operated two extremely successful tours to the annual Food and Wine festival in Hawke’s Bay, NZ – one just now finished, and one a couple of years before.  The locals were first curious and bemused that people would travel all the way from the US to attend their festival, and now appreciative and eager to see more – our group was even featured on the front page of the local newspaper this time.

After discussions with the Hawke’s Bay Tourism people, they have appointed The Travel Insider as their international marketing partner for this festival.  So our people will have even more of a VIP special status next time, and – oh yes.  We’ll offer the tour again next year, with a slight itinerary tweak too as a result of suggestions this year (two nights in Martinborough).

So, here’s another pre-Christmas tempting treat for you – not just our Scotland tour in June, but our New Zealand tour in Oct/Nov.  Whether one appeals or the other (or both!), why not check them out and consider joining us.  They are what I consider ‘mature’ tours – I’ve done them repeatedly before, and we’ve pretty much got them as fully optimized as is possible, with the result being a wonderful shared experience for all who come.

And now, to someone who is, sadly, very controversial.  A politician dared to question the outrageous costs of the new Air Force One program earlier this week.  In doing so, he said nothing new that I’ve not already earlier said here – this is an astonishingly over-priced program to replace planes that don’t need replacing.

A rare example of a politician actually complaining about government waste.  But rather than win praise from all quarters, he was lambasted and ridiculed.  Not because of what he said, but who he is – our President-Elect, Mr Trump.  Whether it is persuading Ford and Carrier to staunch the flow of workers offshore, or encouraging Softbank to invest $50 billion and create 50,000 new jobs, whether it is the soaring stock markets, or the statement by US Steel that it might restore 10,000 jobs, it seems that nothing Mr Trump gets involved in is appreciated.

But let’s ignore the politician and simply look at what he said about the Air Force One program.  Which is what I do in a lengthy attached article.  It had been going to simply be a short piece in the roundup, but the more carefully I looked at the issues, the longer it became, until it is now a 4200 word free-standing piece.

What else this week?  Please continue reading for

  • Norwegian Finally Granted Approval
  • Does Europe Really Need Another Low Cost Airline?
  • Alaska/Virgin America Merger Approved
  • Australia and NZ Disagree on Tourist Fees
  • NZ Passports – Usually Good, But Sometimes Unexpectedly Bad
  • Is There a Monorail in Your Future?
  • And Lastly This Week….

Norwegian Finally Granted Approval

At last.  After three disgraceful years of delay, Norwegian’s application to add extra flights between the US and Ireland – an application that should have taken three days or, at the most, three weeks to approve, has finally been given the okay by the DoT.

The DoT didn’t have a legal leg to stand on to deny the application, but seemed to allow itself to be browbeaten and bullied by the US airlines and their unions, and the considerable political pressure these influential groups could muster.  So in a shameful example of ‘justice delayed is justice denied’ they simply did nothing at all.  They didn’t approve the application and they didn’t deny it, they just did nothing.  For three years.

But now, finally, and after sorrowfully conceding there was no way they could refuse the application, it has now been granted.  I wrote in support of the airline during the call for public submissions in the last round of DoT vacillating.

It will take a while for Norwegian to start growing a new generation of low cost air services between multiple US cities and Ireland, and of course, with connecting service on to other European cities (pity poor Aer Lingus).  But, give them time, and as fast as they can get new planes, expect new low cost flights appearing.  Amazingly, many of the routes will be operated by 737 planes.  I remember when a 737 was viewed as nothing more than a short haul regional jet, and international flights always implied a ‘special’ and invariably much bigger plane.  But now the common humble 737 has become even a trans-Atlantic capable airplane.  Progress?

Does Europe Really Need Another Low Cost Airline?

If this question asked about the need here in the US for another low cost airline, the answer would be emphatically yes.  But, astonishing, Europe – you know, the overly protective, rule-bound, bureaucratic nightmare of an agglomeration of countries and national carriers and regulations, is also an unlikely home to a thriving collection of low cost airlines, offering extraordinarily bargain priced fares to fliers while managing to make money for the airlines and their shareholders.

Ryanair is merely the best known of these, and more recently, Norwegian is becoming a factor, along with plenty of others.

News this week comes of a new airline, with its unlikely parents being Etihad and the TUI travel group.  They will be recycling elements of, and planes from, TUI, Air Berlin, and Fly Niki.

It is hard to see what the new airline will offer that isn’t already abundantly provided by other low cost carriers.  Maybe they could think of setting up in the US, instead.  Well – bad joke.  Our restrictions on the foreign ownership of airlines make that impossible, absent a majority US shareholding and control of the company.  Which brings us to the next point.

Alaska/Virgin America Merger Approved

Sadly, the last time off-shore airline investors tried to start a new US airline, it didn’t work so well for them or us.  The airline in question was Virgin America, which struggled to get off the ground, due to the restrictions on how the airline could be funded and how it could be managed.

The net result was a smugly self-conscious airline that prided itself on having purple lighting on its planes, loud ugly pop music playing, and, well – nothing much else.  The airline struggled due to never being generously capitalized, so that it was always lacking the capital to grow, and it failed to create a substantial marketplace presence or awareness, made worse by a conspicuous lack of partnerships with other airlines.  There ended up as being too few reasons to choose to fly them, and the airline struggled for years while never making good on the promise, potential, and hope many of us had.

After Virgin America put itself up for sale, Alaska Airlines ended up agreeing to pay quite a generous sum for the carrier back in April, and now, eight months later, has finally been granted approval to merge by the Department of Justice.

As a salutary fop to the concepts of anti-trust and competition, the DoJ issed a trivial requirement that Alaska Airlines curtail some code share services with AA.

Alaska Airlines previously was the sixth largest US airline, and Virgin America the eighth.  Combined, they become the fifth largest.

So, it could be argued that they have created a gap for a new discount carrier – although in reality, Virgin America was never a discount carrier.  It was really a nothing.  It wasn’t a strong regional carrier, it definitely wasn’t a national carrier, it wasn’t a discount carrier.  And now it is no more, other than an Alaska Airlines brand that probably will be quietly de-emphasized and retired.

As for a new discount carrier, who would choose to launch one?

Australia and NZ Disagree on Tourist Fees

Australia and NZ disagree?  Not really news, that one!

But the topic of the disagreement is of interest to us.  I was writing, delightedly, a couple of weeks ago about how the Australian tourist industry used an infographic to explain and persuade their politicians about the ill-advisedness of increasing the levy it charges all international visitors.

This week, the NZ government is considering raising its levy on international visitors, and is being encouraged to do so by the NZ tourism operators.

Why the totally opposite perspective on things?  My take :  The Australian tourism operators (who I’ve always viewed as excellent businessmen and a pleasure to deal with) see the issue as potentially reducing the number of visitors who enter Australia.  The NZ tourism operators (who, sadly, I’ve had my share of disagreements with in the past) instead see it as the government raising money to promote their businesses for them, saving them money in the process.

The NZ fee is also designed to hit foreigners more than local NZers, which is always a safe strategy, politically speaking.  But will the increased costs such a fee presents end up reducing the number of visitors and therefore creating a fall-off in tourist numbers and a net reduction in net tourist revenues generated?  My guess is that it will indeed end up harming the industry as a whole, the same as Australia feared it would in their country, and the same as it does in most other countries.

A bad tax and hopefully one that doesn’t get imposed.  Details here.

NZ Passports – Usually Good, But Sometimes Unexpectedly Bad

Here’s a fairly formulistic self-congratulatory note in a NZ newspaper about how great it is to have a NZ passport.  Visas are often not needed when traveling, or, if they are, countries charge less for a visa to a NZ passport holder than they do to citizens of other countries.  Big deal.

But here’s an interesting second article, which points out a possible problem with a NZ passport.  Perhaps, in some countries, the border/immigration people don’t know where NZ is, and their wall map fails to show the country at all.  That caused problems for this hapless NZer, who doubtless now wishes he had traveled on any other sort of passport at all.


Is There a Monorail in Your Future?

For many of us, it is easy to like monorails, because they evoke memories of Disneyland, and of course, for us all at a young age, the smooth silent monorails gliding futuristically around the park grounds are amazing to behold (and to ride in).

But somehow they never really made it to ‘prime time’ in most urban public/mass transport settings.  Apart from a few special operations, like the ‘back of the buildings’ monorail in Las Vegas that is carefully hidden from obvious public view, and which has consistently underachieved and disappointed, there are no high profile successes in the ‘real world’.  Some critics saw them as ugly (especially people with office views now blocked by monorail construction!) and there are some operational challenges with monorail systems in more complex transportation networks.

So it is surprising, but encouraging, to read about how – at least in China – monorails would cost only one-sixth the cost of underground subway lines, and could be built three times faster.

Does that mean there’s a monorail coming soon to your neighborhood?  Certainly not in Seattle where a monorail project was voted down after a series of cost overruns and controversial decisions.  But if they really are six times cheaper to construct, and three times faster to get built, why aren’t we focusing on them more?  Sadly, none of the cities mentioned in the article linked above are in the US.

And Lastly This Week….

John Glenn, the nation’s oldest astronaut, died this week, aged 95.  The first man to orbit the earth, on Feb 20, 1962, his skyrocketing to fame as the nation’s darling hero made him too valuable to risk going into space a second time.  He subsequently entered politics, served four terms as a Democrat senator from OH, and in 1984 unsuccessfully tried to win the Democrat nomination for President.

In 1998, aged 77, he returned to space on the space shuttle Discovery, in what was gently criticized as a PR gimmick.  Here’s a nice obituary.

Is the doomed hotel in Pyongyang finally to open?  That’s what this article teases, but we’ll be very surprised if/when it does.  Note also that the video claiming to be of the Ryugyong Hotel is actually of the Yanggakdo Hotel, as members of our Travel Insider Tour to North Korea will assuredly recognize and remember.

And truly lastly this week, what about a toilet story – a photo pictorial of some of the most distinctive toilets around the world.

We can’t promise amazing toilets on either our Scotland or NZ Tours next year, but we can promise sufficient toilets, and of an acceptably high standard.  And we provide lots of other reasons to come on either (or both!) tours, too.

Until next week, please stay warm and enjoy safe travels






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