Weekly Roundup, Friday 3 February, 2017

Now here’s a sight to gladden any nervous passenger. Eight engines. A new airplane design – unsurprisingly from an engine manufacturer – using ‘open rotor’ turbo-electric engines for better fuel efficiency. See article, below.

Good morning

For the second week in a row, our new President is impacting on my choice of feature articles.  But his impact last week was generally rated positively, and I hope you’ll like this week’s article too which, in truth, actually is very little about the President, himself.

It had been my intention to add further to the series I started last week, but Joe Brancatelli wished to do a roundup of articles about President Trump and his impacts on travel, so I changed plans for this week, and instead have a piece that looks at the nature of international air agreements between countries – generally these days in the form of so-called ‘open skies’ agreements.

The US has established over 100 such agreements, but they have become more controversial of late, with our ‘Big Three’ airlines deciding they no longer like them quite as much as they formerly did.  Is there a chance to make America great again by rewriting some of these agreements, and if so, how?  Should our crusading new President attack them with the same vigor that he has been displaying in other directions?  Please read the following article for answers to these questions.

At a more direct level, may I remind you of our latest New Zealand tour this coming October/November.  I’m biased – I’m a New Zealander myself, but if I ignore my perceptions and instead report on what Travel Insiders have said after coming on this same tour in previous years, pretty much everyone rates it as a marvelous experience, with a glorious mix of places we go, and things we see and do; including both the best known ‘must do’ elements of New Zealand as well as the undeservedly less well-known ‘should do’ things that most visitors never get to do.

If you’d like to see New Zealand with a group of your fellow Travel Insiders, and if you enjoy good food and great wine (or great food and good wine), please do consider joining us.  Full details here.

What else this week?

  • Even the Right Ticket Doesn’t Necessarily Get You to the Right Destination
  • A Mass Ejection of Passengers by Spirit
  • Some New Ideas for Airplanes
  • Better Forget Barcelona
  • Argentina Reduces Tourist Taxes
  • More Airlines Now Participate in TSA PreCheck
  • More Chinese Cars Coming to the US – New Ownership Forms
  • Yet Another Amazing New Battery
  • And Lastly This Week….

Even the Right Ticket Doesn’t Necessarily Get You to the Right Destination

Last week I mentioned another occurrence of someone traveling to a city which, while being the right city (Melbourne) wasn’t actually the correct city (the passenger wanted Melbourne, Australia, and ended up going to Melbourne in Florida).

There’s another category of mistake, one I came perilously close to making myself one time, and it was only because the ticket beeped when being scanned prior to boarding that I was saved from my own stupidity.  Indeed, when the ticket beeped, my first reaction was ‘Oh good, an upgrade’; it took quite a while for me – and the staff – to work out that I was actually at the wrong gate trying to board the wrong flight.  Ooops.  (In my defense, I should add that when I checked in at the gate, I gave them my ticket so they could put me on the wait list for upgrades, which they said they did, and no-one said ‘Oh, you’re at the wrong gate’, which makes me wonder how efficient their adding me to the waitlist actually was!)

I was saved by the system, as you’d expect to be the case always.  But, inexplicably, some people get all the way to ‘their’ seat on the plane, and only discover the mistake when someone else comes to take the same seat.  Even worse, some people board the wrong flight, and actually travel to the wrong destination.  How this can happen these days is a total mystery.

Reader Stan wrote in response to last week’s item to recount :

I was flying to Los Angeles out of Philadelphia two weeks after 9-11, and sitting in First Class with this lovely older lady.  We were both excited to be going to California for a few days to relax.  As we were talking she says to me well you have quite the drive from San Diego to Los Angeles.

She shows me her ticket and her flight was to San Diego – she was on the wrong plane.  I am not kidding – two weeks after the tragedy with searches at all the gates, and they allowed a person to board the wrong flight.  Fortunate, our conversation and this discovery was before the plane pushed back.  She was escorted down to her correct gate.  Still, if I or someone less chatty than me had been sitting there, this women in her 70’s would have landed in LA and been lost.

A Mass Ejection of Passengers by Spirit

A passenger was intoxicated, misbehaving, and so was asked to leave the plane before it departed.  That’s a normal enough start to a story that plays out on planes all too often.

It is also the story that Spirit shared with us to explain what happened.  The reasons for why a second and then third passenger were also made to leave the plane however becomes a bit more murky, sufficiently so as to cast doubt on the veracity of the official story about the first passenger’s ejection.

And what do the passengers say?  The first lady says she wasn’t drunk, and was told to leave because her top was too low-cut (she shows her top in this article).  That unfortunately is a claim that has more than a ring of truth to it, although usually it seems to be Southwest where the fashion police are most aggressive.

The second woman was booted off for the crime of being a friend of the first woman.

And the third woman, well, that’s where it gets really interesting.  She was nothing to do with the first two ladies, and was seated in the next row forward.  As she tells her story, the first round of abuse passed out by flight attendants to the woman with the low-cut top caused the woman to start crying, so she (the third woman) turned around and passed the upset lady (the first woman) a kleenex tissue.

This was enough to enrage a flight attendant and so she was booted off the plane, too.  This third lady, in her account of the story, also notes that the flight was full and an off-duty flight attendant was on standby hoping to make what was the last flight of the day took her seat; she wonders if that had anything to do with the crew’s rush to evict her too.

I think we are much too casual at allowing such acts by flight attendants to occur.  The consequences of missing a flight can be draconian to us – in the case of these ladies, it involved having to stay overnight at the airport before they could get a flight the next day.  That’s fairly mild compared to cases where you might miss a wedding or funeral or key interview/appointment.  Or maybe you miss the start of your cruise.  Or any of many other possible scenarios.

We all pay good money for our tickets.  Surely that gives us some right to actually fly as per the ticket, and while there are indeed obligations on us to behave appropriately, being subject to the spontaneous whims of a bad-tempered flight attendant, with no more review than a rubber stamping approval by the glorified bus driver in the fancy uniform up front who invariably refuses to actually meet the passenger, hear their side of the story, and make a reasoned decision – particularly when we are risking something worth potentially many thousands of dollars to us in the process – that’s just not acceptable.

Even worse is the certain knowledge that no matter how ridiculous an act by the flight attendants, they’re not going to suffer any negative consequences.

I remember one time I nearly got booted off a BA flight for complaining, when boarding, that the people at the boarding gate weren’t enforcing their own boarding rules about who boards first and who boards next.  As I left and walked down the jetway, I saw the person I’d spoken to get into a huddle with the other people, and by the time I’d got to board the flight, a ground staff/security type person at the door was speaking loudly on his walkie-talkie, oblivious to the fact that I had normal hearing and could hear every word he said.  “Yes, I see him now, he is just getting on the plane.”  Then, in surprise, “Oh, he is going into first class, do you still want me to get him?”

Fortunately, my first class ticket saved the day, but otherwise, it was clear to me that I was going to be denied boarding for having committed the heinous crime of complaining that BA wasn’t following its own rules about the boarding order of its passengers.  They would describe me as drunk, or aggressive, or threatening, or they’d just utter the vague statement that ‘they didn’t feel comfortable allowing me onto the long flight’ and who would be there to second-guess them.  They are the trained professionals, after all….

Any time we dare to complain or criticize, we risk the airline staff involved choosing to ‘teach us a lesson’ – in part as a pre-emptive move so as to neutralize the credibility of any subsequent follow-up complaints we might make to management after the flight.  And when you have the cabin crew, the pilots, the gate staff, and the security all ganging up together in a display of solidarity, what chance do we have, as mere passengers?

Some New Ideas for Airplanes

Whether it be the eight engines depicted in the image at the open of this newsletter, or any of the other dozen designs featured in this article, it is great to see some work being done on unconventional airplane designs – concepts beyond our traditional design which hasn’t changed much in decades – single cylinder fuselage, center wings, tail, and one engine hung off each wing.

Some of the new designs are sadly far from new – flying wings date back to the 1940s and are currently seen in the form of the B-2 bomber, so one wonders if any of them will ever make it to an airport near you, in any of our lifetimes.  Some of the concepts promise fuel savings of up to 50% compared to the current planes they’d replace, so they should be enormous priority when you consider that airplane manufacturers change their designs, at a cost of billions of dollars, just to squeeze another three or four percent out of an airframe.

The sooner we see these, the better.  Our airplane designs seem to have stalled in the 1950s – indeed, the latest 737s just now appearing use the same fuselage diameter as the 707 did in the mid 1950s.

Better Forget Barcelona

The Barcelonans quite justifiably rate their biggest problem as being their high levels of unemployment.  At about 19%, Spain has the second highest level of unemployment in the EU (only Greece is higher).

We who think travel and tourism would automatically say ‘Good news; you’ve a great city that tourists love, why not grow your tourism numbers, because tourism is a wonderful generator of local jobs’.  But the number two perceived problem in the city is that it has too many tourists, and so their populist mayor, who in his 2015 overwhelming win for the mayoralty, campaigned on an anti-tourist theme, has now announced measures to freeze the number of hotel rooms (and Airbnb type accommodation) to restrict how many tourists can come to Barcelona.

This is of course nonsense.  All it will do is encourage more people to make day trips to Barcelona and fewer to stay overnight.  Tourism currently accounts for 12% of the city’s total GDP and (we estimate) a sizably greater share of total employment.  Good luck with getting unemployment down to a more bearable number without the support of a potentially thriving tourist industry.

This is a good article detailing some of the issues and impacts on the city.  It is also interesting to see that so many people have been rushing to create Airbnb style tourist accommodation that the city is now suffering a shortage of housing for its regular residents.  Airbnb is adding an entire new dimension to how people stay at destinations.

Note that if you want to visit Barcelona – a lovely city, even if the locals seem no longer to be very welcoming – you should quickly do so.  Assuming they don’t get overturned, these new measures will gradually start to strangle tourism and accommodation availability – there are already new hotels being developed that can’t be stopped, but from about 2019, expect the city to become increasingly less affordable and harder to find rooms in.

Argentina Reduces Tourist Taxes

Although they share the same language with Spain, clearly some other things are very different in Argentina.

Many countries allow for refunds of the GST or VAT that is charged on items visitors buy and then take out of the country with them.  With these taxes (usually invisibly included in the sticker price of things you buy and so easily overlooked) often reaching or exceeding 20%, the refunds can become sizeable and worth the hassle of going through the paperwork.

Much less common though is to refund the tax amounts charged on services, and in particular, on hotel stays.  It would be wonderful if that happened, of course, and I vaguely remember, decades ago, Canada would do that, but for sure it no longer does.

Argentina has just announced that it will now waive its 21% VAT charge on hotel stays for foreign tourists.  You simply have to pay with a foreign credit card, show your passport and prove your overseas address and – hey presto – your stay in Argentina just became appreciably better value.

The move was announced in September, but it has taken until now to come into force.  It is also relevant to note that some other South American countries also exempt foreign tourists from hotel taxes, including Chile, Peru and Uruguay.

How wonderful it is to see a country choosing not to gouge tourists.  Barcelona – please take note.

More Airlines Now Participate in TSA PreCheck

Not everyone realizes that just like travelers have to enrol in the TSA PreCheck program, so too do airlines.

PreCheck is great – you speed through a shorter line with much less fuss and bother when going through the security screening process (to the point where I often suspect the metal detectors may be switched off entirely, other than to count the people going through and randomly beep to select people at random for compliance secondary screening).  It can then come as a rude shock to one day arrive at an airport and find that you’re not eligible for PreCheck due to the airline you’re flying on, and have to wait in the long slow line with everyone else.  Ugh.

TSA has just added 11 more airlines to the list of participating carriers.  You can see the total list of airlines here – most American carriers but not very many foreign carriers.

More Chinese Cars Coming to the US – New Ownership Forms

I expressed surprise, last week, that China has yet to make any noticeable inroads into the US auto market.  It is hard to think of any reason why they couldn’t/shouldn’t, and just as China is a market our manufacturers lust after, the US has to be a similarly tempting market for the China auto companies.

News this week of another Chinese car company that plans to establish a beach-head in the US – this time Geely; the company that bought Volvo from Ford in 2010.  They plan to start selling their strangely named “Lynk & CO” brand of cars in the US and Europe in early 2019.  Their first expected models may be either hybrids or fully electric, and will be mid-priced.

As a further sign of the changing times, they’ll offer both the chance for people to buy cars as one normally does, or to use cars on a subscription fee model.  As unthinkable as it seems to a nation that still warmly embraces car ownership as one of the cornerstones of the American dream, it seems absolutely the case that traditional car ownership is a concept that is going to disappear – and probably much more quickly than we anticipate, to become instead a rare luxury rather than an ordinary event.

Think of it like, well, carpet cleaning machines.  Some of us hire a carpet cleaning company when we need our carpets cleaned.  Some of us hire a carpet cleaning machine.  But how many of us actually buy our own, industrial grade, carpet cleaning machine?

Think of it like planes, too.  Many of us travel a great deal on planes, but very few of us buy our own plane, and most of those who could countenance such an extravagance instead choose to belong to some type of fractional ownership type scheme instead.

The same logic will increasingly attach to cars.  If you need short-range transportation, you’ll either have Lyft or Uber (or a self driving car, soon enough) take you where you want to go.  If you need a car for a road trip, you’ll hire one on some basis or another, but probably not from a traditional car rental company such as Hertz or Avis.  Only wealthy people and hobbyists will buy cars and own them completely, and if they do, they’ll probably rarely drive them, preferring the other options for most normal transportation needs.

These new ownership models will surely substantially decrease the total number of cars being sold each year (and may also cause cars to be kept on the roads for longer, when they switch from being personal status symbols to merely functional things we use for a specific purpose).  Seems like a huge threat to the current auto makers.

Yet Another Amazing New Battery

The two stories we see all the time are ‘New SST almost ready’ and ‘New Battery Promises Twice the Life of Current Batteries’.

But, here we are, invariably years later, and we’re still flying slow subsonic planes, and we’re still using Li-ion batteries.  But while there truly has been absolutely utterly no improvement in subsonic airplane speeds in more than 50 years, there actually is a steady series of small but repeated improvements in Li-ion battery technologies, giving us ever greater battery life and ever lower battery cost.  The offsetting problem is that our electronics use more and more power, so as quickly as we get more powerful batteries, we need them and the net result is that our electronic devices struggle to keep the same net battery life today that earlier models offered years ago.

Modern iPhones, for example, have similar battery life when measured in hours of usage as did those of five and more years back.  But an iPhone 3G had an 1150 mAh battery, the next model 3GS had 1219 mAh, the 5S had 1570 mAh, and the current model 7 and 7+ have 1960 and 2900 mAh batteries.

Note that these capacities reflect both the ‘energy density’ of the battery (ie how many mAh of charge can be stored per cubic inch of battery) and also the design decision for how big the battery will be, so are a bit misleading.  It seems, in general, reasonably accurate to say that energy density (either in terms of energy per cubic inch or energy per pound – two similar but different measures) are increasing by 5% – 8% every year.  That’s amazingly exciting.

Even better of course is the much faster drop in the cost of energy storage, as measured in the dollar cost per kWhr of storage.  As evidence, here’s an article from June 2016 that refers to a 70% drop in Li-ion costs over the previous 18 months.  It also refers to a study suggesting costs will drop to about $200 – $250 per kWhr by 2020.  But credible reports in the months that followed suggest that prices are already well below $200 per kWhr, and I mentioned last week that pricing was now in the realm of $140/kWhr and expected to drop as much as 40% this year, perhaps to see pricing below $100/kWhr by the end of 2017.  Amazing, and in the best possible way.

Now – all of the preceding was just introduction, to point out that while amazing new battery designs would be good, what is happening, in a steady pace at present, is already amazing.  But who wouldn’t delight in a sudden doubling of battery capacity.

So here’s the latest report on a new battery technology promising just that.  It starts off by ridiculously asserting that regular Li-ion batteries ‘have had their day’.  And it just gets worse from there.  Note – in common with just about every other similar report of other pending amazing battery breakthroughs, the article goes silent when it comes to essential issues like exactly what the batteries would cost, when they will enter production, what their energy density will be (both per unit of volume and weight), how fast they can take a charge, how many times they can be charged, how fast they can be discharged, and what their rate of self-discharge might be.

The writer of the article – David Pogue – usually puts out great stuff.  But this time around, he fell into the ‘amazing new battery’ trap that so many other articles also get ensnared by.

And Lastly This Week….

I’ve just finished writing a piece about one of the dreary types of stories that keep on appearing – mythical new batteries that promise to transform our lives.  But some other often seen article themes are more endearing, such as those that hearken back to the ‘good old days’ of travel.  Here’s one such article, showcasing flight attendant fashions.

Which decade do you like the most?  Whichever it is, you’ll probably shudder, as I did, at the suggested direction that future flight attendant fashions might take.

It used to be common to have signs showing the airport you were arriving at, visible from incoming planes.  With the propensity for pilots to sometimes land at the wrong airport, it is probably a good idea.  And it is reassuring to see a ‘Welcome to Cleveland’ sign as you come in to land.

Well, it is usually reassuring.  But not in this particular case.

Truly lastly this week, the passenger seated next to you might indeed have their own ticket, and their own passport.  But don’t expect them to talk with you, and when the meals are served, the chances are they’ll be given a special meal.  A very special meal.  (Or maybe not.  Perhaps a meal of chicken might suit them just fine.)  Guess what and why….

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels





2 thoughts on “Weekly Roundup, Friday 3 February, 2017”

  1. Unless laws have changed since I lived in Spain, part of the unemployment problem there is because, once hired, it is extremely difficult to fire an employee. Hence, most employers try to shift to contract or freelance employees as much as possible, or do without.

  2. Pingback: Weekly Roundup, Friday 17 February, 2017 - The Travel Insider

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