Weekly Roundup, Friday 12 May, 2017

This can be what happens if a lithium battery catches fire on an airplane. See opening comments.

Good morning

An interesting week this week, and a rather portentous one.  While, for once, there were no leaks prior to Mr Comey’s firing, we’re being subjected to what seems to be a deliberately orchestrated series of leaks to prepare us for what increasingly seems like will become an unavoidable new reality – electronic bans on flights from all European cities, and probably continuing to extend before too long to cover all flights from everywhere.

I realized this is as likely to occur while we are in the middle of a journey somewhere as it is likely to happen while we’re conveniently at home and planning our future travels.  So you should prudently start preparing for this impactful new security measure now.

The most astonishing part of this process, which has already attracted a great deal of criticism (including from yours truly) is that it seems the authorities are delaying introducing the new restrictions due to the airlines worrying about causing inconvenience to their passengers – see, for example, this story.  Since when did airlines ever care about inconvenience?  This worry is of course a code phrase that when decoded means ‘we’re worried that this will discourage people from flying as much’.

Equally surprising though is noting that the TSA are considering our convenience as well as our safety.  When did that start happening – is this the new standard for security – security only as long as it is convenient?

The more likely reasons for delay are not so prominently cited, but they are almost surely to do with concerns over the likely escalation in luggage pilfering, and the measurable danger that if you put 100 laptops into the cargo hold, if one of them suffers a battery explosion, then the fire from the first explosion might cause a second battery to explode in another suitcase, and so on until eventually you’ve got a fire you can’t contain (and can’t even access while in flight) and the plane crashing.  This is not just conjecture, as this and this UPS airplane crash indicate (both thought to be caused by battery fires/explosions in the cargo the planes were carrying – see picture above for one of them).

Lithium ion batteries burn with an extreme heat – as hot as 1000°F, a temperature that could in turn initiate the airplane aluminum starting to burn, too.

Might this be a case of the cure being worse than the problem?  My guess, as I mention in the article below, is that the airlines are scrambling to come up with some sort of special container to hold all the ‘at risk’ electronics in that would withstand the effects of a fire breaking out.  This might be easier said than done, though.  Because now, instead of needing the first battery failure to ‘reach out’ to another battery in another device in another suitcase somewhere else, you’ve concentrated all the devices and their batteries in one single confined space, making a runaway chain reaction much more possible.

At the end of the week’s roundup is an article on the several easy things you should be doing.

I also had an interesting dialog with a reader about cruises.  My rule of thumb is that if one person writes about a topic, 100 (or maybe even 1000) are thinking something similar.  So I’ll write about that immediately, below.

And what else?  A barrage of stories of airline outrages and injustices – they seem to be tumbling out of the woodwork wherever one turns, at present.  So many that I’m not even going to attempt to catalog them all – fights on planes, fights in terminals, perverted customs officers, perverted passengers, passengers refused boarding for the most capricious of reasons; you name it, it is happening somewhere at present.  But there is one story in particular that struck a chord with me, so that is also included below, along with :

  • Possible Misperceptions of Travel Insider Tours and Cruises
  • Class Action Lawsuit on Airline Baggage Fees Moves Forward
  • Airbus vs Boeing – Is it Better to be First or Second?
  • The Appalling Tyranny of Uncaring Pilots
  • How Much Would You Pay for a Five Day Tour of London?
  • Amazon Releases Yet Another Echo Device
  • Overnight?  Maybe.  But Two Weeks????
  • This Week’s Amtrak Contrast
  • And Lastly This Week….

Possible Misperceptions of Travel Insider Tours and Cruises

I received an interesting email in reply to the note I sent earlier this week about our two current cruises (repeated below if you missed it) from a reader.  He said

We are not cruise people, ever. It’s just not who we are, anywhere anytime.

I understand the comment, and I’ve seen it before.  I’ve also seen a similar comment, many times, ‘we are not tour people, ever’ from people who say they abhor tour groups and prefer to do their own thing, their own way.  Both descriptions formerly applied to me, in full force.  Until I variously tried the cruises and also created my own better versions of tours for you to share, too.

If you’ve never tried a river cruise before, you really should.  They aren’t the typical mega-thousand person ‘floating city’ type deals with ersatz glitz and rip-off pricing every which way you turn.  For example, Wi-Fi is free.  There are no ‘art auctions’, there are no port talks where you’re almost forced to go to specific shops that pay generous kickbacks to the cruise lines.  You’re not lost in a sea of fellow cruisers, with neither the crew nor the other cruisers knowing who you are in an environment that is borderline institutional.

River cruises, with usually all or nearly all shore touring included, with no over-priced ‘feature’ restaurants on board, and even with free drinks at lunch and dinner (and no restrictions if you wish to bring your own bottles on board), typically have under 150 passengers per cruise.  That means you’re an individual, the crew get to know who you are and what you like, and you get to meet and talk with the other people sharing the cruise with you.  When you’re part of a Travel Insider group, your sense of belonging and camaraderie is increased still further, because you’re part of an elite ‘inner circle’ of cruisers.

Talking about Travel Insider groups, they are as different as regular tour groups as chalk and cheese too.  For example, I’ve just finished cajoling the finest restaurant on one of the islands our Scottish tour is visiting to allow us to order off the menu rather than be forced into a fixed table d’hote menu.  The same with another of my pet hates – forced group dining times for breakfasts in hotels.  The individuals in our groups can turn up for breakfast whenever they wish.  With a small group – invariably under 30, sometimes even under 20 – we can mix and match our days to suit what the people in the group wish to do.  We’ve sometimes detoured to see things not on the day’s itinerary, and sometimes we’ve scrubbed things off because people decided they’d rather do something else.  Apart from the days when the tour coach is also providing transportation between overnight stops, nothing is mandatory.  People can (and do) join and leave our tours on any days.

That’s why we call our groups ‘groupless groups’ – they are collections of individuals, not groups of sheeple.  Indeed, your fellow tour members are invariably one of the highlights of a Travel Insider experience – usually they are similarly well-traveled, well-educated, successful and sensible.

And that’s why, when people agree to try a Travel Insider tour, they almost always find their expectations exceeded, and end up as repeat travelers.  Very few of the people in our groups consider themselves timid travelers who ‘need’ the protective cover of a tour; instead, they enjoy the added experiences offered in our tours, the empowerments rather than the constraints, and the high quality company and interactions they enjoy along the way.

Try it for yourself!  I’ll hold both our current cruise/tours open for a few more days – Paris/Normandy in August, and the Danube Christmas Markets in December.  Details at the bottom.

Class Action Lawsuit on Airline Baggage Fees Moves Forward

A woman is seeking to have her $15 checked bag fee refunded because the airline lost her bag.  She seems to think that if they didn’t actually fly her bag to meet her at her destination, the very least they can do is give back her $15.

The airline (then known as US Airways, now American Airlines), quite naturally disagrees.  A district court judge sided with the airline, saying that all it had to do was make a ‘best effort’ to deliver the bag, and having done so but failed (a classic airline definition of ‘best effort’!) it should be allowed to keep the $15.

The woman (or, more to the point, her attorneys) appealed to the San Francisco Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, who sided with the woman and said that her class-action suit could move forward, sending the case back to the lower court for further review and potential certification as a class action.

Yes, this is about a great deal more than $15.  We wish her well.  Details here.

Talking about bag fees, guess how much US carriers collected in bag fees last year?  $4.2 billion.

Airbus vs Boeing – Is it Better to be First or Second?

It is an interesting thing.  The US is down to three mainstream international airlines, and the result is generally seen to be a massive reduction in competition between them.  But the entire world is more or less down to only two mainstream airplane manufacturers, and the situation is intense rivalry between them.  However, is ‘rivalry’ the same as ‘competition’?

The rivalry is a bit akin to that between the US and USSR at the height of the cold war – the MAD doctrine keeping both great powers relatively calm and cautious in their dealings with each other.  Battles were fought via proxy states rather than directly.

And so it is with Airbus and Boeing, too.  There is a very clear understanding by both companies that, no matter how much they want to take some market share from the other, there are some actions that can be win-win for them both, and other actions that are more likely to create a lose-lose scenario.

Sadly for us, one of the clearly understood lose-lose scenarios that both companies scrupulously seek to avoid is that associated with releasing too many new model planes, too quickly.  Both sides are fixated on what the other side’s response would be.  ‘If we make too much of a change to our 737 family, that will cause Airbus to completely develop a new generation of single aisle planes, then we’ll be saddled with having just spent money on a new 737-derivative and having to spend money a second time on an all-new plane’ – logic like that.  On the other hand, ‘If we don’t update our 737, Airbus will beat us to the punch by updating their A320 first’.  (And of course, the same considerations, with the names reversed, for Airbus.)

This was what saw the glacial pace of progress towards the A380 and the 747-8, including a period where the two competitors toyed with the idea of jointly developing a large plane.  This is what has seen the extraordinary longevity of the 737 series, a plane that has now been flying for 52 years.  Sure, totally better planes could be developed, but at the cost of tens of billions of dollars, and who knows what response would then come from the other company, and how many more billions of dollars would then need to be spent responding to the response, and so on.

Timing is also essential.  We saw the importance of timing with the 737 MAX and A320neo latest incarnations of the two narrow-body jet families.  After much dithering and what seemed to be a reverse race to be last to announce an update to their respective families of narrow-body planes, Airbus eventually announced plans for some minor tweaks to their A320 family, but then Boeing did nothing for many long months while struggling to decide if they could wring some more life out of the 737 or if they finally had to step up to the plate and design a successor.  By the time they eventually took the easy way out and decided to create another generation of 737s, Airbus had stolen hundreds – no, over a thousand – orders from airlines, and Boeing lost its historic leadership in the narrowbody jet category.

The next example is playing out in front of us in slow motion at present.  Boeing has a product gap between its largest 737 and the next biggest plane after that, which these days is the 787-8.  Airbus is exploiting that with its new model A321 (which is outselling Boeing’s current similar planes by four to one), so Boeing really needs to do something to stop the loss of market share in this ‘middle of the market’ airplane sector.  But will it merely create yet another derivative of the 737 (dubbed the 737-10), or will it create a new plane, very similar to the former 767 series, and already suggested as being likely to be numbered as the 797?

But if Boeing announces an all new plane, with a longer development time (seven, eight, probably nine years) than merely another variation on the 737, there is the danger that Airbus will respond with what it has already hinted it could release, an upgraded version of its more modern A321, and have that being delivered to airlines two years before the Boeing plane rolls out of the factory.

And if Boeing does announce a new plane, Airbus will then know how to design a competing plane that is ‘slightly better’.  But if Airbus announces its next plane first, that would allow Boeing to tweak its proposed new plane design to respond to the strengths and weaknesses of the Airbus product.  But while Boeing dithers and delays, Airbus is outselling it, 4:1.

What a crazy situation.  The rivalry (I hesitate to say ‘competition’) between the two airplane manufacturers actually inhibits rather than encourages the speed of developing new model planes!  Here’s a good analysis.

The Appalling Tyranny of Uncaring Pilots

You don’t have to be a very long-time reader to already know that I have difficulty with the unthinking authority wielded by pilots.  They are the absolute unchallenged dictators of their planes – except for, of course, when they’re not.  I’m reminded of the pilots’ union famously trying to ensure that the pilot of the (not)United flight on which the doctor was dragged off, a month ago, didn’t get blamed for any part of what was happening, even to the point of suggesting the pilot didn’t even know what was going on.  Because, as they would like to think, the pilots are responsible  for everything on their plane only when they wish to be.

One of the pilots’ god-like powers is the ability to imprison us, for any reason, and usually for no reason.  How much of how many flights have you been commanded to stay in your seat because the fasten seatbelt sign is illuminated, while the plane drones on endlessly through totally calm skies?  If you’re on any foreign operated airline, you’ll know that the fasten seatbelt sign is very rarely switched on, but any American flight treats us like spastic babies, unable to walk during the slightest of turbulence or incline, and sure to do serious harm to ourselves were we to foolishly attempt to do so.  So, ‘for our own comfort and safety’ we’re kept imprisoned in our seats, unable to do anything except admire the heroic bravery of the flight attendants who show such amazing ability to walk normally up and down the stable aisles without hurting themselves.

Urban legend suggests that pilots regularly collude with flight attendants and will turn the fasten seatbelt sign on merely to get people out of the aisles and to make the flight attendants’ jobs easier.  And for sure, it seems that pilots consistently forget to turn the seatbelt sign off again after turning it on.

Sometimes, on some flights, everyone learns to ignore the steady glow of the fasten seatbelt sign and move around as it suits them.  But on other times, on other flights, the mindless idiocy of the pilot is doubled down on by the tyranny of flight attendants who demand that the needless seatbelt sign restriction be religiously observed.

These thoughts are evoked by the story of a passenger – a lady nurse – with a bladder disorder who needed to make an urgent visit to the toilet while the fasten seat belt sign was on.  The flight attendants, on her ‘UA’ flight (operated by Mesa Airlines this time), although freely roaming the cabin, refused to allow her out of her seat, and instead gave her a cup to pee in, at her seat, surrounded by other passengers.  Truly.

With no choice at all, she did so, whereupon the flight attendants then told her she’d have to speak to the pilot after landing and they would need to call a hazmat team to clean the entire row of seats she was seated within.

Is this really how we want to be treated?  Prisoners could sue for cruel and unusual punishment, and infringements of their basic rights.  But as airline passengers, cruel and unusual punishment is the norm, and we have no rights.

Details here.

How Much Would You Pay for a Five Day Tour of London?

So, excluding the airfare to get to and from London, how much would you pay for a five night group tour of London, including hotel, breakfasts, one lunch and two dinners, with some touring – mainly walking around – and a couple of presentations by out of touch self-appointed ‘experts’ on current political affairs and issues about which they ended up being on the wrong side of?

It is easy to see that as coming to maybe $2500, and at a bit of a push, to $3000 (our Scotland tour is for ten nights with extensive touring and was priced just below $3000).  Well, if you’d like to go on the New York Times sponsored tour that claims to explain to you all about Brexit by showing you around London, be prepared to pay twice the cost of our Scotland tour for half as long in Britain – $5995 per person.  Details here if you’d like to join.

The tour has attracted a fair amount of derision, (astonishingly, that critical article is by ‘fellow traveler’ newspaper, the Guardian, and here’s a much more ascerbic commentary by the Daily Mail) and now there is a competing tour being offered, offering a more comprehensive exposition of Brexit related issues, albeit at a slightly higher price.

Amazon Releases Yet Another Echo Device

In my initial review of the Echo voice controlled Amazon device, I observed that it really needed a screen to better show complicated results to requests.  Even something as seemingly simple as ‘tell me the weather forecast’ is better answered with a couple of charts and a paragraph of description, instead of several minutes of narrative.

As I anticipated back in December, Amazon has now released a new Echo device, the Echo Show.  Basically it is a regular Echo with one of their 7″ screened tablets stuck to the front of it, so the device can now display information as well as speak it.  Definitely an enormous improvement in capabilities, but it is rather aggressively priced at $230.  They optimistically offer a $100 savings if you buy two at once.

Let’s see – they sell their basic Echo Dot units for $50 or less, and their 7″ tablets for $50 or less.  But stick them together, and the price becomes $230.  Interesting math.

This is a wonderful idea, but a dreadful price.  Leave well alone and wait for the price to plunge.  However, maybe it is time to have another think about the basic Echo Dot.  Amazon is making lots of new developments and adding new functionalities to this – clearly one of their most important/strategic products for the next year or two.  Just over a couple of weeks ago they released the Echo Look (takes pictures of you and comments on your clothing choices), this week they added messaging capabilities to all Echo devices, and now they’ve announced the Echo Show.  A $50 or less basic Echo Dot might be something worth getting to see if you can get use from it.

I did notice one good thing on Amazon this week, though.  An external second screen that can connect to your laptop through a USB port. It is 15.6″ in size and offers standard 1920×1080 resolution – I have one of these already and it is great, because both my laptop screen and the external screen are the same size and resolution, making it easy for windows to spill over from one screen to the other without changing their shape or size.

But my Acer screen has a very clumsy mounting/stand system that takes up too much space in hotel rooms with tiny amounts of desk space.  This new AOC product has a much better stand, and is also a bit less expensive.  $150.  If you don’t already have two screens – whether at work, at home, or on the road, you really should add a second one.  Be prepared for astonishing increases in convenience and productivity.  It truly is the best thing I’ve ever done to my computers – adding extra screens.

Overnight?  Maybe.  But Two Weeks????

Last week I explained how it was that an Australian was arrested and locked up for overstaying his US visa by 90 minutes.  Usually these stories flare into life, then disappear, leaving us wondering whatever happened to resolve the situation.

Happily, a New Zealand newspaper has now disclosed the outcome.  The hapless Australian ended up spending two weeks locked up by the Immigration people, refused bail, while the legal procedures enacted themselves in their usual pitiful slow-motion.  Really – imagine if you ended up being locked up over a victimless technicality that millions of other people are getting away with blatantly, every day.  And imagine further, if you can, that you are denied bail and forced to spend two weeks in jail.  How would you feel about that?

Surely that sort of treatment is unthinkable in a first world country with an honest competent and fair justice system?

I had little sympathy for the guy last week, because he was clearly trying to game the system and deserved a measure of comeuppance.  But to discover now that he ended up incarcerated for two weeks before finally getting to stand before a judge – a judge who promptly released him on his own recognizance and on the strength of a promise to leave the country within 120 – not minutes, not hours, but days – that beggars belief and is beyond comeuppance of any type.

How is it that our country has millions of illegal aliens, everywhere we turn, and indeed even supports them, and has a ‘catch and release’ attitude when law enforcement encounters them.  But one middle class Australian youth overstays his visa by 90 minutes and spends two weeks in jail.

Details here.

This Week’s Amtrak Contrast

I really dislike getting emails, usually at least once a day, from Quora – the website where people answer other people’s questions.

I dislike it because many of the questions are fascinating, and the answers are compellingly readable, and anytime I click on a linked article, I end up spending 30 or maybe many more minutes reading through the answers and going off on hyperlinked tangents.

So, click the following link with caution.  It contains answers to the question ‘How advanced are Chinese high-speed trains’.  The short answer – amazingly so.  The longer answers – here.

And Lastly This Week….

I mentioned at the beginning the bad week the airlines have had, with all manner of disgraceful acts.  So is it any wonder, perhaps, that this happened to Qantas’ CEO.

And in a sad reminder of how far we’ve progressed regressed, here’s a nice set of pictures in a very strangely written article (I suspect it was written in probably Russian and then auto-translated).  But the pictures still make sense, even if the text is a bit ‘out there’.  One also wonders how many flights, back then, were delayed due to scorpions on the loose (alas, United yet again).

Truly lastly this week, with the way things are getting in the air, it is easy to understand the appeal and probable success of this new airport service.

Until next week, please (try to) enjoy safe travels




1 thought on “Weekly Roundup, Friday 12 May, 2017”

  1. Michael Cleveland

    I agree 100% that airline passengers are kept in their seats unnecessarily long to accommodate the flight attendants. I usually fly SWA and often the seat belt sign stays on for 30 minutes or longer after takeoff, despite no turbulence. I know this is to let the attendants make drink and snack service easier – but they are no carts and people usually can move around them or wait until the path is clear. Then again the seat belt often goes on during mid flight for no apparent reason expect the “for your safety” announcement. With 2 restrooms for 150+ passengers, it results in long lines and “squirming”.

    I recall the “old days” were the no smoking and seat belts signs would be turned off 10 minutes after take off. Was there less turbulence then ?

    These are the reasons more people get upset during flights.

    I have suggested the pre-flight announcement (usually made 10 minutes before boarding begins) include a reminder that “now would be a good time to use the restrooms” to help alleviate the restroom crowds.

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