Weekly Roundup, Friday 14 April, 2017

Prague – always one of the highlights of any Christmas Markets tour. Our lovely historic hotel is five minutes walk from this central Christmas Market.

Good morning

Yes!  I’ve now published the full details for this year’s Christmas Markets cruise along the Danube.  It promises to be the best cruise yet – both the cruise itself, and the pre and post touring, too.  Unlike airlines, Amawaterways keeps improving their ships and service, and I do my best to build on each year’s experiences to tweak each future year’s itinerary.

Although this year is at least the tenth year I’ve been offering Christmas cruises, there are still some new things to excite you with, including places we’ve never been to before, and totally changed pre and post cruise options.

Oh – and did I mention the $1000 per person discount?  Plus if you’re one of the many Travel Insiders who travel alone, this year we’ve a special deal for you, too.  And, no matter if you’re traveling alone or with a dozen other people, there are a range of other special Travel Insider exclusive benefits, including a concert in one of Vienna’s palaces the evening we’re in Vienna, and plenty more, too.

Full details are here, as is the joining form.  Currently there are cabins available in all cabin types, but some categories are close to sold out, so please hurry to make your choice and to advise your desire to join us in December (leave the US on/before 10 Dec, arrive back home on/after 18 Dec) for this lovely pre-Christmas treat.

What else this week?  I guess I must join in the clamor arising from the United incident on Sunday, but yet again, I sort of almost find myself defending United – an act even more difficult this time because they switched their story a couple of days ago from saying ‘it wasn’t our fault’ to now saying ‘it is all our fault, we’re very sorry’.  So which statement am I defending?  Keep reading, please :

  • United Makes a Bad Situation Worse
  • Business Travel is Bad For Your (Mental) Health
  • How to Win at the Being Bumped Game
  • What is the Maximum Length a Flight Could Ever Be?
  • Battling Agencies
  • Another Tunnel Story for Elon Musk
  • Watch Out, Sir Richard.  Here Comes Jeff.
  • And Lastly This Week….

United Makes a Bad Situation Worse

You probably are familiar with some of the details.  United called airport police, who forcibly removed a passenger from a flight who refused to leave when he was advised that he was being involuntarily denied boarding – being bumped off the flight, in other words.

The passenger screamed loudly and resisted.  Plenty of people on the flight whipped out their cameras, filmed the incident, and uploaded it to the internet.

Additional details made the situation murkier.  It turned out that United’s “overbooking” situation wasn’t as we’d normally understand overbooking to be.  It was, instead, a case where four United staff members had presumably been vacationing in Chicago that weekend, and now needed to fly back home to Louisville on Sunday night so as to report to work on Monday morning.  They were on staff tickets, which only allowed for standby rather than confirmed space travel.

My guess is the United gate staff at ORD decided to do their coworkers a favor and offload regular fare paying passengers so their friends could fly back home on their space available tickets.  This was very wrong, and is a part of the ‘what went wrong’ issue that few people have touched upon.

However, we now come to the circumstances on the plane itself.  After offering to bribe passengers to volunteer off the flight, and with some people accepting up to apparently $800 as an inducement to stay overnight and take an early morning flight, no-one else would volunteer, even though maybe the gate staff raised the bribe to $1000 per person.  (One has to wonder how United’s management feels about its staff spending hundreds/thousands of airline dollars so that other staff with standby tickets can displace paying passengers in a manner totally at odds with the simple concept of standby travel.)

So the gate agents went through some process, be it ‘scientific’ or random, to select two more people who would be offloaded – bumped – off the flight.  The two people selected were the man in question and his wife.  This is a lawful and proper process, and something airlines can do and indeed regularly do do.

But, unlike all other people with similar experiences being bumped, this passenger refused to leave, speciously claiming that because he was a doctor and allegedly had patients expecting to see him the next morning, normal bumping rules should not apply to him.

Just to make one thing clear.  A ‘confirmed’ seat and a ‘confirmed’ reservation are not ‘confirmed’ in the way that normal people would ordinarily understand the word ‘confirmed’ to mean.  Sure, your ticket shows a date, a time, a flight number, a destination, and maybe even a seat, plus perhaps the magic word ‘confirmed’ or some synonym.  But airlines do not promise to fly you where you want to go, or when you wish to go there.

They will grudgingly say that maybe they might try to do so, but they reserve the right to cancel the flight, or cancel your reservation, or change your seat assignment, or in any and every other way, change or eliminate your flight arrangements, and they can do so with very little negative consequent to themselves.  We agree to all of that every time we buy a ticket, which requires us to accept the associated ‘conditions of carriage’ – none of which we ever read, and little of which is readily available, and all of which is non-negotiable.

Back to the Sunday situation.  After some unsuccessful cajoling, the gate staff called the airport police, and three police officers came on board and also tried to persuade the man to leave.  He refused.  The police threatened him with arrest, and he still refused.  So one of the police officers pulled him out of his seat, and dragged him off the plane.

We are told that this action injured the man so severely that he was still in a Chicago area hospital on Thursday, recovering from his injuries.  As you may have the misfortune to know, major surgeries can see a patient discharged within one or two days, so one can only guess at the enormity of this guy’s injuries if he was still in hospital four days later.  And one can only wonder how such extremely severe injuries are possible.

Now for the crux of the matter.  What should have happened once the chips were down, the police came on the scene, and demanded the man either leave the plane voluntarily or be arrested and forcibly removed?  Who was in the right at that point?

It is important to realize that we’re not now considering the rights or wrongs and morality of United’s decision to offload the passenger.  That is now irrelevant.  The passenger has been given a lawful order to get off the plane, first by uniformed United staff members, and secondly by law enforcement officers.  By refusing to comply with that order, the passenger committed a federal offense (and probably several such offenses).

Anyone with any sense knows that when things get tense, you comply with whatever a police officer is ordering you to do, and argue the facts and fairness of the matter subsequently, in a court, or with other officials.  If you don’t, you’re up for a world of hurt – literally and legally.  Resisting arrest, obstructing a police officer, being disorderly, and plenty more charges start appearing out of nowhere, and they’re all charges where you have no chance of prevailing.  To say nothing of possibly being Tasered, and maybe even shot.

The passenger in question should know this better than most.  You see, he is a convicted criminal who lost his medical license for over a decade, someone with documented anger management issues, drug abuse, and problems with the truth.  Ooops.  This makes interesting reading.

I’m a bit skeptical that the passenger really does need four days of hospitalization, but even if he truly does, who is to blame for this?  The police officer didn’t suddenly attack the passenger without warning.  The passenger had massive amounts of opportunity to cooperate at any point prior to being pulled from his seat, but voluntarily chose to aggravate the situation and the likely consequences at every point, all the way through to struggling against the police officer and possibly therefore directly causing his own injury as an outcome of his illegal/unlawful acts.

The passenger must accept responsibility for the clearly foreseeable consequences of his bad choices.

At first, United’s CEO, Oscar Munoz, defended the actions of his staff and the airport police.  But now he has changed his mind, and caved in to ill-informed and short-sighted public opinion, saying that United staff (or, presumably, police acting on the request of UA staff) will never force a passenger to leave a flight again.

But that’s like the police saying ‘We’ll never arrest a person who doesn’t agree to come with us voluntarily’.  How is order maintained if passengers, whether right or wrong, get to decide what they’ll do without any overarching constraint or framework or consequence?

Here’s a simple example.  A person comes on board and sits in your assigned seat.  You explain you have that seat.  He concedes that it was assigned to you, but says that his seat is a nasty middle seat, he is bigger than you, and he much prefers your exit row aisle seat.  He refuses to go to his seat, and suggests you go there instead – he got to your seat first, you can better fit in the middle seat, and first in, first served.

According to Mr Munoz, we’ll all have to just let such misbehavior proceed apace.

Or what about a passenger who refuses to stop talking on his cell phone after the flight has finished loading and is getting ready to push-back?  What will happen to that person now?

And so on, through all sorts of other situations such as sometimes arise.  Mr Munoz seems to be advocating a new form of anarchy on his planes.  Yes, United makes a bad situation worse.

Business Travel is Bad For Your (Mental) Health

In an obvious segue, perhaps the doctor in the United story has been flying too much on business?

A recent study has shown that while some frequent business travelers are of the ‘flourishing hypermobile’ type, others are deemed to be of a ‘floundering hypermobile’ type, with the burden of their travel making them less happy and endangering their health.

The study suggests that businesses might need to create new policies to protect their employees from the consequences of too much travel.

More information here, including an interesting twist in their last sentence.

How to Win at the Being Bumped Game

Well, the biggest winner in the United Sunday situation are probably going to be attorneys.  The doctor has already lawyered up with two different firms of lawyers, and we wouldn’t be surprised if United quickly settled for millions of dollars, rather than choosing a long ongoing series of negative headlines as a case goes through pre-trial motions, discovery, and so on.  Of course, we’re sure this was not part of the doctor’s motivation for refusing to get off the plane, and causing himself to suffer injuries in the process, although some reports of the incident suggest that he may have been already threatening law suits before he was dragged off.

A more modest way of winning is to actually do what United asked the doctor to do.  To volunteer, to talk up the compensation you’ll receive, and to do so with good grace.  Here’s a story about how a family made $11,000 in compensation by being repeatedly bumped by Delta last weekend.

I’ve occasionally been double bumped as well, and I’ve also been bumped when flying on free/award type tickets, meaning I not only had a free trip slightly interrupted, but ended up with tickets for a seconde free trip and some spending money, too.

The key thing is to make sure that when you volunteer, you are getting as generous a compensation as possible, and to agree that if the airline starts offering more to get more volunteers, your compensation will also be increased to the new level.

What is the Maximum Length a Flight Could Ever Be?

We now have planes claiming a commercial range of up to 11,100 miles (the new A350-900ULR).  At what point does a plane’s range become unnecessarily long?

Well, one consideration is the circumference of the earth.  With a 24,900 mile circumference, that means that in theory, nowhere on the planet is more than 12,450 miles from anywhere else.  But even though in theory a plane can fly a direct line from anywhere to anywhere else, in reality, it seldom does, due to overflight permissions, air traffic control routings, weather diversions, and assorted sundry other issues.  In the past, ETOPS considerations also restricted the routings planes could fly, but that is almost never a consideration any more.   In addition, if you’re flying at 550 mph and find yourself flying into 200 mph headwinds in the jetstream, you’re going to be flying a lot slower and burning a lot more fuel per mile covered.  So, the maximum actual effective flying distance could in theory exceed 12,450 miles.

But on the other hand, there are very few important routes where the two cities being served are exactly opposite each other.  As best I can quickly ascertain, the longest ‘almost important’ route might be Auckland-London (about 11,400 miles), with a much more important route being the slightly shorter Sydney-London route (10,600 miles – both Melbourne and Brisbane are closer to London than Sydney).

The commercial reality is there’s little sense for either Airbus or Boeing to design a plane that can fly between London and Auckland, because a plane that could fly that distance would not be as economical on shorter distances.  But the so-called ‘Kangaroo Route’ between London and Sydney is an interesting one, which Qantas and some but not all other airlines would love to be able to do nonstop.

It would have huge implications on the Gulf carriers that currently are very much the beneficiaries of a need for flights to refuel, and being in a position that is more or less on the path, and more or less halfway.  (Hong Kong is in a much better location, but the Gulf carriers have done an excellent job in compensating for this by providing better service, etc.)

If flights could now operate nonstop between Australia and UK/Europe, there would be reduced need for a half-way hub such as offered by Emirates in partnership with Qantas.

The other part of the problem though is the vicious spiral that the further you fly, the more fuel you are burning just to carry more fuel.  A stop half way can actually save the airline money, by reducing the need for a heavier plane with bigger fuel tanks and more fuel (and less cargo carrying).  So some commentators see ultra-long range planes as being a concept that is only viable when jet fuel prices are low.  On the other hand, it is also thought that some passengers will pay a premium for a shorter nonstop flight, and we all know that any time there is a stop on the itinerary, the chances of something going wrong appreciably increase.

Twenty plus hours in first class?  Sure, sounds great.  But 20+ hours in a coach class middle seat?  Umm, not so much, thanks.

Here’s an interesting article about the prospects for nonstop ultra-long range flights.

Battling Agencies

The TSA says it is dangerous to have larger sized battery-powered electronics on flights from certain countries, and requires such items to now be placed in the checked luggage hold of the plane.

But the FAA responded to that pronouncement with one of its own.  It says it is dangerous to have a concentration of Li-ion batteries in the checked luggage hold where battery fires can’t be manually controlled.

But you’ve probably not heard this, because the FAA official safety bulletin was issued in secret.

So – which would you prefer?  To have your plane crash due to a bomb going off in the passenger cabin, or due to batteries catching fire in the cargo compartment?

Details here.

Another Tunnel Story for Elon Musk

I’ve commented, last week and before, about Elon Musk’s new-found fascination for digging tunnels as a way to beat the traffic.  But why limit yourself to tunnels for ‘only’ cars and other road vehicles, Elon?

How about a tunnel for ships?  We’re familiar with canals, of course, which work well when the land to be covered is reasonably flat.  But what about through mountainous regions?

Well, Norway has addressed that issue, as a way of addressing one of the things that the brochures encouraging you to do an idyllic Norwegian fiord cruise seldom touch upon.  The weather out in the open sea, off the Norwegian coast, can be dramatically dreadful.  So it is building the world’s first sea tunnel, which will run one mile between two fiords, saving ships from needing to go out to the rough open sea.

Details here.

Watch Out, Sir Richard.  Here Comes Jeff.

I’ve actually no idea what the current timetable for Virgin Galactic’s commencement of near-space flights is at present, and don’t really care.  Even without its tragic accident/failure, Sir Richard Branson’s past promises of when they will start operating flights have been consistently more aspirational than factual (the first date promised was 2009).

Meanwhile, however, the Virgin Galactic concept is no longer the only game in town.  Jeff Bezos is developing a somewhat similar concept, under the name of ‘Blue Origin’ and says that his ‘New Shepard’ space craft might start taking tourists into space as soon as next year.  But, unlike Sir Richard, he isn’t making any promises, and neither is he collecting any hefty deposits.  He also says he doesn’t know how much the flights will cost and he’ll let the market sort that out when he has a feeling for what the demand will be.  Virgin Galactic are currently charging $250,000, and require the full amount to be paid upfront.

The Amazon inspired flight experiences will be very much shorter – instead of possibly 2+ hours with Virgin Galactic, they will be eleven minutes.  And whereas one of the causes of the Virgin Galactic disaster was pilot error, the New Shepard space craft will not have any such risks.  The six passengers will travel without a pilot – the craft will be fully-automatic/remote-controlled from the ground.

A feature of the flight will be approximately four minutes of weightlessness.  Many people become ‘seasick’ and vomit when experiencing weightlessness, but Bezos says this won’t be a problem.  He claims it takes up to 30 minutes before a person actually starts vomiting, so with only four minutes of weightlessness and an 11 minute flight, people will be back on earth before they have time to vomit.

Call me skeptical on that point.  I’ve seen people get seasick or airsick very quickly indeed, and anyone who has worked an amusement park ride knows that a one or two minute roller coaster will sometimes have people being sick on it.

Details here.

And Lastly This Week….

Happy 50th birthday to the Boeing 737.  Its first flight occurred on 9 April, 1967.  As of last month, Boeing has delivered 9,448 of the 737 model family, with another 4,506 units still on order, and with new versions of the 737 still being developed.  The original 737 is now part of the Seattle Museum of Flight’s excellent collection of planes.

Looking forward to the future, this article rather gloomily predicts that only one-quarter of all miles driven in 2030 will be in driverless vehicles.  My guess – it will be more than this.  Let’s hope we’re all around in 2030 to see who was correct!

Until next week, and no matter who is driving, please enjoy safe travels





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