Weekly Roundup, Friday 31 March, 2017

Is it a man? Is it a bird? No – it is ‘Super Building’. See last item.

Good morning

After several weeks of pressing distractions, I’m back this week with the probably final (sixth) part of my series on the future of transportation.

This week, it is time to look at the nonsense and hype surrounding flying cars.  While the abstract concept of a dual purpose vehicle has enormous appeal, the reality is completely different.

However, to close on a positive note, I also look at a more viable approach to personal air transportation.  See the article after the roundup.

This is a very rare newsletter.  I don’t think I’ve ever written a newsletter before that contains praise and defense for both United and the TSA within a single issue.  But, today, here it is.

I was tempted to also try to shift the theme of my piece that refers to Sir Richard Branson into a more positive vein (the incestuous airline industry) but that proved to be a bridge way too far.  But please read on for a generally sunny newsletter this week :

  • Airlines Get Creative with Electronics Ban – But….
  • Don’t Blame United
  • The Incestuous Airline Industry
  • Brexit’s Potential Impact on Airlines
  • Naughty Indian MP Suffers the Consequences
  • TSA PreCheck – a Victim of its Success?
  • More Thoughts on Alexa
  • Free Money – Yes, for You
  • And Lastly This Week….

Airlines Get Creative with Electronics Ban – But….

Now that the dust has settled and the new electronic ban is in force, some airlines are scrambling to respond.  Kudos to Qatar Airways, who will now lend laptops to their business class passengers to use while flying, and double kudos to Etihad, who is lending iPads to all passengers on their affected flights.

Both are well-meant gestures, and Qatar suggests that passengers simply transfer the work they want to do to a USB thumb drive (I’d suggest a 128GB or larger drive that supports USB 3.0 transfer speeds – available for about $30 on Amazon; there are larger capacity drives also available, but they’re either way more expensive or else from no-name suppliers that I’d hesitate to trust) from their own laptop, load it onto the loaner laptop, then transfer it back again at the end of the flight.  That makes sense, but of course assumes the loaner has the same software installed you need, and configured the way you like it, and it exposes you to unknown risks.

Who knows who used the laptop before you?  Maybe they loaded a virus onto the laptop – either deliberately or without realizing they too were already infected, and now you’ve transferred it to your thumb drive, and soon you’ll be passing it on to your own laptop and allowing the virus to spread throughout your network when you get back to the office.  Short of doing a thorough low-level reformat and reinstall between loans, there’s not much Qatar could do to protect against this risk.

The same risk isn’t present with a loaner iPad, but, realistically, what are you going to do with a generic iPad loaded with generic apps?  Your personal apps and accounts won’t be present.  Your music, your videos, your books – none of that will be on the iPad.  Not even your favorite games.

So, two well-meaning gestures, but neither really resolves the problems we’ll be facing.

On the other side of the security fence, I’m not hearing any reassuring noises about this being a temporary measure, nor am I hearing any reassurances that it won’t spread to other departure cities too.

Don’t Blame United

Oh joy.  Fairness forces me to write a piece defending United Airlines.  But after the internet-fueled flash fire of faux ire that raged earlier this week about a couple of girls off-loaded from a United flight for wearing ‘yoga pants’, it is necessary to calmly point out that they were not regular passengers.  They were flying on free staff-travel tickets.

All people who fly on free staff travel tickets know that they come with rules associated, including a stodgy dress code that is admittedly firmly grounded in the fashion styles of a decade or two ago.  It has long been a joke that the only people in first and business class who are wearing suits are airline employees traveling on free passes; and while the airlines have liberalized their dress code somewhat, it is still much less casual than what many people, traveling on paid tickets, choose to adopt, and what the airline in turn accepts.

In addition, any airline employee with any degree of self-awareness has surely heard horror stories of gate agents occasionally switching from being super-friendly to becoming super-hostile, and everyone should know that you don’t try to break the rules with such things.  It is possible these people were not actual employees, but had been given passes by an employee, and so weren’t as aware of the dress code, but, just like when I said ‘oh, sorry officer, I didn’t realize the speed limit had reduced from 45 to 25, I must have missed seeing the sign’; the unsympathetic answer is ‘ignorance of the law is no excuse’.

Here’s a sensible article setting out the situation.

 The Incestuous Airline Industry

Sir Richard Branson was dismayed to learn that Alaska Airlines, the new owner of the airline he helped found – Virgin America – is going to be dropping the Virgin brand, and amalgamating the Virgin America name into its main Alaska Airlines brand.

“It’s baffling and sad” he said, adding that many tears are being shed.  But what might be even more baffling and sad, at least for Alaska Airlines, is Branson’s claim that they’ll have to continue paying licensing fees for the use of his ‘Virgin’ brand, all the way until 2040, whether they use the name or not.  If that is indeed so, one suspects that Sir Richard’s tears are of the crocodile variety.

One wonders how they’ll agree what the applicable gross revenue that attracts the royalty fee will be when the Virgin entity no longer exists.  That sounds like plenty of opportunity for unhappiness for the 21 years between when the Virgin name disappears in 2019 and the royalty agreement ends in 2040.

Before Branson gets too teary eyed about the loss of the airline he was involved in, he might do well to contemplate why it failed and wonder if some of the blame for its disappearance can be placed fairly and squarely at his own feet.  The hype about its loyal passengers and distinctive popular nature needs to be balanced by the ugly blunt reality that the airline failed to achieve sufficient size to be viable on its own.  A loyal passenger is great to have, but I’d rather have five ordinary passengers and bribe them in the time-honored ways to be ‘loyal’ – ie through upgrades and frequent flier benefits.

The incestuous nature of the ever-smaller airline industry was highlighted by Branson’s presence in Seattle this week, to celebrate the start of Virgin Atlantic service between Heathrow and Seattle.  The flights replace earlier flights operated by Delta.  Delta – an increasingly major competitor against Alaska Airlines, is a 49% owner of Virgin Atlantic.

So will Alaska Airlines be paying money which flows through, 49% to its Delta competitor, for not using the Virgin name on domestic flights within the US, all the way to 2040?

And until the Virgin America brand disappears in 2019, does that mean there will at times be Virgin branded planes, maybe even parked alongside each other in Seattle (as well as in San Francisco, Los Angeles, and other cities too), but with the beneficial owners being variously Delta and Alaska, two airlines that are increasingly acrimonious competitors?

Even more interesting would be to see a lineup of Virgin Australia, Virgin America, and Virgin Atlantic planes, which could happen in Los Angeles.  Virgin Australia – far from a positive performer, financially, is primarily owned by Etihad Airways, Singapore Airlines, a Chinese investment company linked to Hainan Airlines, Qingdao Airlines, and a less than 20% share held by Sir Richard’s Virgin group.

So, the list of Branson’s independent airline successes seems fairly short.  Virgin Atlantic sold 49% of itself to Delta, Virgin Australia is struggling with a complexity of owners, and Virgin America has been sold to Alaska Airlines.  As to other Virgin airlines, such as Virgin Nigeria, they seem to have vanished from the Virgin Group’s portfolio listing without a trace.

More details here and here.

Brexit’s Potential Impact on Airlines

Some nine months after Britain voted in a referendum to leave the EU, their Prime Minister has finally gotten around to taking the first step towards doing so – writing a letter to the EU saying ‘we intend to leave in two years time’.  One can only wonder why it took so long to start the two-year leaving process, but that’s a topic for other people to contemplate, and while this first step is a small step, it is at least a step towards the conclusion the country voted for.

Every industry and activity of course are now seeing changes in their future, with a lot of speculation about whether it will be a ‘soft’ or ‘hard’ Brexit.  A soft type departure from the EU would see almost nothing change except that Britain would have given up its seat at the table and its vote/veto on decision-making, while still being largely bound by most of what the EU decrees.  A hard departure could see everything terminated, and the relationship between Britain and the EU reduced to that between any two other friendly powers, and WTO rules governing the trade between them.

This is far from as doom-ridden as the anti-Brexit factions fear, and a key stabilizing part of the dynamic that many people overlook is that the EU needs the UK in probably at least as equal a measure as the UK needs the EU.  On the other hand, the EU can’t be seen to be ‘going easy’ on Britain for fear that this would encourage other current member nations to also leave the union.

There is one potential impact that has British based airlines concerned, and that is that Britain will no longer be part of the single European airline market.  While the EU is synonymous with over-regulation, for airlines, having the entire EU agglomeration of member states treated as one market made it blissfully simple to add ‘international’ routes between any EU members, any time and any way they wished.

If the UK can’t quickly agree upon some sort of ‘Open Skies’ arrangement with the EU, airlines such as Ryanair and Easyjet will find their route networks eviscerated.  Here’s just one example – Easyjet flights from Gatwick, which go just about everywhere imaginable in Europe.

Now add in other Easyjet flights from its other British airports, and do the same thing for much larger Ryanair, British Airways, and assorted other airlines, and you can imagine the potential can of worms this would open up.  It would not be a good thing for the airlines, nor for us, their passengers, and, like so many of the Brexit issues, promises to harm both the EU and UK.

Let’s hope neither side makes airlines into a sacrificial lamb as part of their negotiations and posturing.

Naughty Indian MP Suffers the Consequences

Apparently, even in India, where the long arm of privilege allows some people to get away with outrageous behaviors, there are limits to how extensive such people’s ‘Get Out of Jail Free’ cards may be.

An Indian Member of Parliament was outraged to discover that when he used an open business class ticket to fly between Pune and Delhi (a 2 hour flight), he was on a plane that only had coach class seating.  Sure, his ticket would get him a business class seat on a plane with business class seating, but if the plane was all coach class, his choice was necessarily to take a coach seat or wait for a later flight with business class seats.

Showing a degree of creative thought that thankfully not all politicians display, the MP chose a third option.  He indeed flew from Pune to Delhi, but then refused to get off the plane once it had landed in Delhi – I guess he grew to like his coach class seat so much he was reluctant to leave it.  After verbally berating an airport manager who came to try and persuade him to disembark(off the government-owned Air India plane), apparently in the mistaken belief that it is the airport duty manager who decides what types of planes fly the route, he then escalated to beating the unfortunate manager with his shoe.  Not just once or twice.  It seems he hit the man 25 times.  Details here.

When called upon to apologize, he refused to do so, demanding the manager should apologize first, although he was a bit unclear as to why the manager should apologize for being beaten.

As a result, all airlines in India, except for perhaps Air Asia (which only operates one flight a day between Pune and Delhi), have banned the MP off their flights.

His political party is loyally supporting their member, calling on airlines to rescind the ban.  So far, none have done so.

TSA PreCheck – a Victim of its Success?

The average wait in a TSA PreCheck line to go through security is under five minutes, which is about half the wait to go through a general security line, according to the TSA.

I have a small element of doubt about that, because, at least when I travel, the general line usually looks to be much more than ten minutes, and the TSA line generally proves to be less than five minutes.  But, if we accept the numbers at face value, that is great, right?

Certainly, the program is proving popular, and has doubled the number of people who have signed up for the $85 per five-year program in a single year – up from 2.3 million in March 2016 to 4.6 million now.

But a survey of 2500 travelers by OAG finds that 57% of business travelers feel the wait is still too long.

Put me in the 43% of travelers who are happy with under 5 minute waits.  That’s close to as good as it ever was in the mythical ‘good old days’ pre-9/11, and it is hard to see how it could be compressed much further, assuming the timing is from entering the line prior to showing ID and ends when exiting the screening station with one’s carry-ons.

More Thoughts on Alexa

I’m starting to wonder whether I love or hate my Alexa Echo device, having just struggled with it to set an alarm for 15 minutes.  The first time I said ‘Alexa, set an alarm for 15 minutes’ it did nothing.  The second time, it offered up a truncated response that I didn’t hear/understand.  So I then asked it to list all the alarms that were set, and it told me no alarms were set.  In my fourth command, I asked it, for the third time, to set the 15 minute alarm, and its response was ‘Alarm set for 3pm tomorrow’.  Aaagh!  Another command (#5) to clear that alarm, and a sixth command to finally and successfully set the alarm for 15 minutes.

I wish I could say this was a once-off event, but it is happening more often than it should, even though I’m taking great care to enunciate clearly, and the Echo Dot device is close to me on my desk.

The essential offering of Alexa is for an easy simple voice controlled device.  But on the one hand it suffers from a rigid syntax – you can’t just speak to it in any form you choose, like you can with Google.  If I say ‘Alexa, in 15 minutes I would like an alarm to go off, Alexa just ignores me entirely.  And so on and so on through all sorts of other commands not exactly as Alexa expects them and various frustrating responses back.

For further example, I said ‘Alexa, set an alarm for 15 minutes’ and eventually Alexa accepted, but what Alexa did was set a timer, not an alarm, so when I ask Alexa to then list my alarms, it tells me I have none.  Sure, I asked it to set an alarm, but Alexa considers that a timer, and won’t now tell me about it.

Sometimes when I’m addressing the Echo Dot unit in my daughter’s room, the Echo Dot unit in my office will helpfully respond instead, or as well.  This isn’t supposed to happen, but it surely does.

In other words, the basic premise of the unit – an easy simple device/control service that is easier and simpler than using apps on your phone or other ways of achieving the same outcome – is far from the reality that I often experience.

It also is very limited in what it ‘knows’ and what it can answer.  While you can engage Siri in an interesting conversation, Alexa is much more literal and limited.

Although it seems the Alexa service is being adopted by a growing number of third-party companies, wiring it into their devices, I have to say that it is so much more limited than the Google Assistant and Siri as to be like night and day in difference.

Most puzzling/peculiar is my sense that Alexa is getting stupider, not smarter.  I used to have close on 100% success when talking to it, now I suspect my success rate is about 66%, and it feels subjectively like much lower.  I’ve not moved its location or made any other changes, and in theory it is supposed to learn from its mistakes and get cleverer.

Free Money – Yes, for You

Have you ever visited Harbor Freight?  I love the store, and all their amazingly inexpensive tools and gadgets – things that I never knew I needed before I visited, and better still, affordably priced and often on special.

Except that, like so many stores, their ‘specials’ were often not all that special, it seems.  Their ‘normal price’ claims were seldom what the items would ever sell for, and conveyed a false sense of the specials being a better deal than they were.

A class action has now been ruled on, and anyone who bought anything from Harbor Freight between 8 April, 2011 and 15 December, 2016, is now eligible for refunds of up to 30% on the amounts they spent.

What’s that?  You don’t have receipts?  That’s okay, too.  Credit card records showing charges from Harbor Freight will work.  Or, if you don’t have that, either, just affirm that you bought something/anything, and you will simply get a $10 gift card.

Full details here.

And Lastly This Week….

The craziest idea ever?  One has to wonder what it would take to qualify for that soubriquet, but if casting around for fanciful ideas that involve bazillions of dollars and impracticalities/impossibilities galore, one would be hard pressed to do better than to cite a new idea – creating an enormous skyscraper of about 10,000 floors (105,000 ft high), and rather than building it somewhere on the planet, vectoring an asteroid to a specific orbit above the earth and hanging the building below it, at the end of a 31,000 mile cable.

So, where to start with a response to this idea?  The weight of the building would probably pull itself apart.  And even if it didn’t, the weight of the cable would be such that the cable couldn’t possibly support its own weight, let alone the building at the end of it.

What would happen when the building went through a hurricane – or even just the regular jet stream winds?  The torsional forces, with hurricane winds on part of the building, while other parts of the building were in still air, miles higher up, would again destroy the building.  If the building wasn’t destroyed, then imagine the lean it would get when one part was exposed to, say, 200+ mph winds, and other parts were in still air.

And not just a lean.  This is a giant pendulum.  It seems inevitable the building would start to swing from side to side.  It would have a lengthy period of swing, but it might cover a lot of distance from one side to the other, making for a perceptible effect to the building’s residents.

And not just a swing.  It seems probable that the building will also twist around, first one way, then the other way.  The good news – everyone will get to have a turn looking north and south and everywhere else.  The bad news – this is sounding more and more like a nausea-inducing roller coaster ride, and less and less like a stable structure.

And – oh yes, talking about air.  It isn’t clear how close to ground level the bottom of the building would be, but it would have to be high enough to avoid foreseeable obstructions – things like mountains, for example.  Let’s say the bottom of the building is at 10,000 ft.  You can breathe at that altitude, but we then have 105,000 ft of building above that.  After you’ve gone up the first 5,000 ft of building, you’re going to need oxygen.  So the entire building will need to be permanently pressured.

Let’s just think about that for a minute.  Guessing a bit about the size of each floor, but in round figures, the weight of the air in the building, alone, will be in the order of 50 – 100 million pounds.

But that’s nothing compared to the weight of the cable holding the building to the asteroid.  Well, more likely, the building would have three or four cables, for safety.  Let’s just say that each cable is made out of some super new structure that weighs one ounce per foot.  The weight of a 31,000 mile cable therefore comes to about 10 million pounds.  I’ve no idea what the building itself would weigh – perhaps 100 million tons?  But what cable can support 10 million pounds, let alone another 100 million tons?  And still be feather-light and tiny, itself.

How could one travel from floor 1 to floor 10,000?  The fastest high-speed lifts in regular buildings would take 20 minutes nonstop, but we again run into problems – there isn’t a lift rope available that could run 105,000 ft.  And with all the flexing and straining in the building, those elevator shafts are going to have some challenges.

Something else not fully considered is how one could travel to and from the building.  The designers say people would parachute down to earth, but how would they get back up again?  This is probably one of the easier problems to solve, with a helipad or aircraft carrier style runway stuck off to the side.

It isn’t just people who would want to go up and down.  Supplies, food, equipment – all those things too will need to be shipped up, and possibly manufactured goods from any industry in the building will in turn be shipped back down again.  As for waste, who only knows.

Talking about going down, the entire building has a problem.  While there’s no friction or measurable orbit decay for the asteroid at the far end of the line, there’s plenty of friction acting on the building as it shuffles around on its orbital path.  That will of course be transferred to the asteroid, which will slowly reduce speed and therefore slowly lose height.

Its orbital path will gradually shift, meaning the careful plan to have the building flying over the top of New York as part of its daily orbit will likely change, and unless there’s a way to ‘reel in’ some line at either the building or asteroid end, the building will sink lower and lower, and at an ever faster rate of decay.

An early April Fool’s Day joke?  It seems not.  But a serious concept?  Surely – hopefully – not.  Details here and here.

And, truly lastly this week, toilets.  The ever-inventive Chinese have come up with a clever solution to a problem that occurs in some of their public toilets – the theft of toilet paper.  So, in new public toilets at the Temple of Heaven Park in Beijing, facial recognition scanners will identify visitors and restrict them to an allowance of two feet of toilet paper per nine minutes.

Don’t worry, I won’t take the time to analyze whether two feet of tp is sufficient for most purposes or not.  But some reports are suggesting some people are finding it to be a bit short.  Details here.

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels, and enjoy your April Fool’s Day tomorrow.





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