Weekly Roundup, Friday 2 June, 2017

A suggestion for BA for their next meltdown.

Good morning

Well, the concept of travel chaos over a Memorial Day Weekend is nothing new, but it was unusual to see it coming from outside the US this year, courtesy of BA and some sort of computer glitch they suffered that saw their entire network almost completely close down for the weekend, and then several more days of recovery subsequently.

BA blamed things on a power surge, but the utility companies denied any such thing, and as anyone who has any familiarity with data centers knows, any half-way decent data center has sophisticated power quality management to completely protect against any power supply irregularities.

On the other hand, some people (mainly people with axes to grind) were quick to blame the problem – or, perhaps more to the point, the delays in recovering – to BA’s outsourcing much of their technical resource to India in the last year or so.  But that is unlikely to be the root cause either of the problems or the delays in resolving them.

There were two very sad aspects to the debacle.

The first was the triumph of appearance over substance.  We were first leaked pictures of BA’s ‘crisis room’ – utterly empty and apparently taken as things were in the process of melting down.  Crisis?  What crisis!

Perhaps in response to that, BA’s CEO Alex Cruz sent out a video message about the problem, uttering all the usual generic platitudes.  The very sad part of that?  Someone suggested (and he agreed) that he should put on a hi-viz vest when filming the short clip, presumably to convey an image of dynamic ‘hands-on’ and ‘take-charge’ management of the situation.  But this was quickly ridiculed, because there is no earthly reason why anyone would ever need to wear a hi-viz jacket while working inside a nice clean office inside a computer center, and all the people in the background were seen to be wearing normal regular clothing.

What an insult to our intelligence.  How stupid does he think we are, that we’ll be impressed by his donning a brand new and probably never before worn hi-viz vest?

The second very sad aspect was a newspaper story with the headline that BA would pay compensation to stranded passengers.  Now you might say that surely this is something to celebrate, not to feel sad about!

No.  You see, all that BA agreed to do was to honor its obligations that were already clearly laid out under UK and EU law and affirmed by several landmark court cases.

Since when has it become headline news that any corporation, anywhere, simply agrees to do what is mandatory?  And, sadder still, within the story is some wiggle room – there is ambiguity about BA’s obligation to compensate if passengers booked alternate flights with alternate carriers.  After initially flatly refusing to compensate such people (people who often had no choice with ‘must travel’ obligations and no way to reach BA because their phones and website were all down or overloaded, and, even if they did reach BA, there was no help forthcoming) BA has said it will now consider such requests on a ‘case by case basis’.  Not exactly a very binding commitment to do much at all.

Another aspect of the problems BA had (or, more to the point, the problems its passengers had) were stories that BA was demanding passengers pay upgrade fares if they wished to fly on alternate flights.  That can sometimes be fair and sensible – if there are too many people and not enough seats, why shouldn’t the people who most need the seats and who are most willing to pay a premium for them be given them.  But if there are otherwise empty seats, shouldn’t anyone be allowed to take those seats, particular in view of all the hassles and delays that were being experienced, and the value to BA as well as to the passengers in clearing up as many passengers as possible, as quickly as possible.?  Details here.

An eventful week ahead.  This time next week the British will have held their general election, with current projections suggesting that rather than bouncing back with an enormously increased majority, the reigning Tories (who decided to call the snap election, ostensibly to get a mandate for their Brexit negotiations, but probably heavily influenced by their very strong public support prior to calling the election) will be lucky to even keep their present very thin majority – they’ve gone from being 20% ahead in the polls to barely ahead at all (the latest poll suggesting barely 3% between the two main parties).

And I’ll be in Scotland with a group of Travel Insiders, so don’t expect a newsletter for the next several weeks.

Meantime, please keep reading for :

  • Computers Have Gotten Smaller, but Airplanes to Carry Them…..
  • Not Really All That Big a Plane
  • A Threat to Naughty Children :  18 Hours on a United Plane
  • Thank you, John Travolta
  • Uber Has a Good Quarter
  • Laptops – Will They Need to be Checked or Not?
  • Which Are More Dangerous – Batteries or Explosives
  • More on Security Questions
  • And Lastly This Week….

Computers Have Gotten Smaller, but Airplanes to Carry Them…..

Our various defense forces fly a lot more planes than just the headline grabbing fighters and bombers.  For example, currently there is an Air Force contract for 17 JSTARS planes – these are planes that are used for ground surveillance and targeting.

The current planes are almost 50 years old, and are based on Boeing’s 707 plane, which 50 years ago, was the ‘go to’ plane, and which is only slightly larger than modern 737 planes.  The planes are crammed full of computer gear, and have lots of sensors mounted in a 20 ft long external pod, too.

Fifty years ago, a computer would take up 1,000 sq ft of air-conditioned room, nowadays a more powerful computer resides inside your phone.  There is less need for a large plane to act as a JSTARS platform.

So, for the replacement JSTARS plane, two of the three proposals are based around modest sized business/executive jets, much smaller than the former 707s.  They are planes built to carry less than 20 people, and which, it is said, would be plenty large enough for the personnel and equipment now needed.  The third proposal is from Boeing, and they’re offering a 737 that can carry 135 people.  Boeing says that because the US military is so big, it deserves a big plane.  A cynic would say that Boeing is offering the 737 because it is the smallest plane they have.

The other two planes can fly 10,000 ft higher (so they can see more on the ground) and have more range than the 737 that Boeing is offering.  They are also lighter and more fuel-efficient, and need less runway to takeoff and land on.  So they should win the contract, but Boeing is, well, Boeing….  And, to be fair to Boeing, the 737 has a broader support base all around the world if maintenance is required, and has already been adapted for in-air refueling, so there are fewer unknowns.

More details here.

Paul Allen’s Stratolaunch. The rocket payload will go between the two bodies.

Not Really All That Big a Plane

Talking about big planes, there have been headlines this week about two new aircraft, both hailed as the biggest in the world.

The first, headlined ‘Revealed: Sergey Brin’s secret plans to build the world’s biggest aircraft‘ sounded exciting, even if the words ‘revealed’ and ‘secret’ were somewhat contradictory when so close to each other in the same sentence.

But what was revealed is that Brin (of Google fame) isn’t actually planning to build a plane at all.  He is planning to build an airship.  And while the airship would be big, at ‘almost 200 meters long’ it is shorter than both the USS Macon (240 meters) and the Hindenburg (245 meters).

The other article, headlined ‘Paul Allen’s Colossal Stratolaunch Plane Emerges From Its Lair‘ is about a strange shaped plane that weighs less than an A380, both empty and fully loaded.  In theory it will be part of a system for launching satellites, a bit similar to the new DARPA/Boeing XS-1 I wrote about last week.

Some commentators are observing that a lot has changed since the Stratolaunch went into development six years ago, and wonder if the underlying business model still stands up against the marketplace changes.  Companies no longer want to launch big satellites into high geo-synchronous orbits as much as before; they are preferring to launch multiple smaller satellites into lower orbits, and new deployment systems such as Space-X have appeared, offering lower costs than six years ago.

While Paul Allen has invested into existing companies with some success in the past, his track record for developing new technology has been disappointing, and sadly, there’s currently little to suggest that Stratolaunch will change that.  A bit like the Ford Edsel, if there’s too much delay between market research and product launch, the market may have changed in-between times.

A Threat to Naughty Boys :  18 Hours on a United Plane

Here’s something to threaten as a consequence to naughty children, except for the potential danger of being investigated by your state’s version of ‘Child Protective Services’.  Threaten them with the new United flight between Los Angeles and Singapore, due to start in fall, and which will become the longest flight to and from the US.  Never mind thinking about the legroom crunch for that long journey – did we mention that United squeezes nine seats across in its coach class cabin, although some airlines still offer a more reasonable eight across.  Shoulder room is becoming the new pain point on many planes.

The 8700 mile flight is projected to take 17 hrs 55 minutes, which is longer than the 17 hrs 40 minutes on the 9,032 miles between Auckland and Doha which holds the distance record for flights currently.

The LAX-SIN flight is right at the limits of the range of the 787-9 United will be flying, and indeed United admits that it won’t be able to fly fully loaded.  Whether that means fewer passengers or less freight isn’t yet known.

Details here.

Let’s hope the 787-9 planes have been correctly maintained.  Earlier this week the FAA proposed fining United $435,000 for operating 23 flights of a 787 in 2014 that was in an ‘unairworthy condition’.  To be fair, the unairworthiness was exceedingly minor, but even so…..

The funniest part of this is that the United spokesperson commenting on the proposed fine was unable to deviate from their standard script, and started off by saying ‘The safety of our customers and employees is our top priority….’ – a bit of a non sequitur comment in the context of flying an allegedly unsafe plane 23 times, one would think!  Details here.

John Travolta’s beautiful 707, now generously donated to an Australian airplane museum.

Thank you, John Travolta

John Travolta has a second career as a certified Qantas pilot.  He is an aviation enthusiast, and owns a number of his own planes, including an early Qantas 707 dating back to 1964, which he has done up in the time-appropriate Qantas livery.  Sometimes he does a promotion with Qantas and flies a modern Qantas jet, too.

He announced this past weekend that he is donating his 707 to an airplane museum a bit south of Sydney.  This museum is amassing a lovely collection of planes – it already has one of the most beautiful planes ever built – a Lockheed Super Constellation (also in Qantas livery), and a couple of years ago was given Qantas’ first 747-400 too (would it be unkind and unfair to say that the 747 has become so irrelevant that airlines are giving their old 747s away these days!).  It also has a DC-3 and a DC-4 (much less common).  The 707 will make for a great addition.

Here’s a nice article with some interesting history about John Travolta’s plane and the museum.

Uber Has a Good Quarter

Reminding us all that the word ‘good’ is more relative than absolute, Uber improved (another relative word) its result for Q1 2017 compared to Q4 2016.  It only (relativity again) lost $708 million for the first three months of this year, compared to $991 million for the previous three months of last year.  Revenue increased by almost $520 million to $3.4 billion.  And with some $7 billion in cash still unspent, it is far from being in crisis/meltdown mode.

Maybe there’s no financial crisis, but organizationally, it seems far from calm.  In perhaps unrelated news, their current ‘head of finance’ is leaving.  If you notice that slightly clumsy term, their previous CFO left in 2015 and has yet to be replaced, with the ‘head of finance’ becoming the most senior person but not being made CFO.  Uber says it continues to look for a suitable CFO.  In the last few months, the company has also lost its President, a couple of VPs, and the heads of several departments, while searching for a new COO appointment – someone to ‘keep wunderkind/bad boy CEO Travis Kalanick in line’.

Meanwhile, Uber is thought to remain the world’s most valuable private company.

Talking about most valuable companies and wunderkinds, the US’ most valuable car company is now Tesla, with a $56.9 billion market capitalization (even though it seems that sales of the Model X are disappointing and not growing). GM is now appreciably behind Tesla, at $52.6 billion.  Tesla’s own wunderkind CEO, Elon Musk, announced on Thursday that he was taking his toys home and sulking in the corner.  Apparently he misunderstood what the word ‘advise’ means.

Miffed that President Trump refused to be bullied by Musk’s threats to quit the advisory council he was on, and doubly miffed that President Trump didn’t submit to his demands to accept the Paris treat on global warming, Musk announced he was resigning, something that he strangely said he had no choice but to do.

Laptops – Will They Need to be Checked or Not?

More confusion and ambiguity this week about what might be in store for us and our laptops when flying in the future.

The Europeans are saying that the Americans have agreed not to impose any bans.  But the Americans are denying that, and are talking about maybe banning laptops not just on flight from Europe to the US, but on all flights, to and from, all international destinations.  This article exposes the contradictory stories that are circulating.

If that were to happen, then it becomes almost certain and indeed necessary that a similar ban apply on domestic flights, too.  If a person can smuggle a bomb onto an international flight inside a laptop, one has to believe they could do the same on a domestic flight, too.

There was also a timely incident this last week that showed the complexity of the issue.  A JetBlue flight from JFK to SFO had to make an emergency landing in Grand Rapids after a laptop battery is said to have ‘exploded’ and burst into flames.

The laptop was with the passenger, in the passenger compartment of the plane, and flight attendants were able to safely extinguish the fire.  But what would have happened if the explosion/fire had happened with the laptop inside the passenger’s suitcase, in the luggage compartment?

Until there is some way to safely contain laptops and their batteries in the cargo holds of planes, we risk changing from one sort of bomb (a terrorist device) to another sort of bomb (an exploding battery).  Are we really any the better off in such a case?  Not really, because we still might have the terrorist type bombs in the cargo hold, plus now the battery type bombs too.

Which Are More Dangerous – Batteries or Explosives

We all know that explosives are dangerous.  We’ve seen the movies, with amazing explosions.  On the other hand, generally we all perceive batteries as safe, and ‘the worst that can happen’ is a bit of a fire.

But that ‘bit of a fire’ should not be under estimated.  Modern laptop batteries these days contain an astonishing amount of energy, which is why, if they ‘misbehave’, their fires are very hard to extinguish.  Their ‘fire’ is actually a slow-motion explosion – lots of heat, but not any appreciable shock wave.

A half stick of dynamite (1.25″ in diameter and 4″ long) has about 500,000 Joules of energy within it.  A 100 Watt hour laptop battery has about 360,000 Joules of energy within it.  Batteries already contain almost as much energy as explosives, and as battery technologies improve, will continue to hold more and more energy.

None of us could walk on a plane with a half stick of dynamite.  But my Dell laptop has a 97 Watt hour battery – and that’s about as powerful as 3/8 of a stick of dynamite.  Maybe terrorists don’t need to smuggle explosives into laptops – they just need to know how to trigger ‘runaway thermal events’ in the batteries already in the laptops.

More on Security Questions

I wrote last week about how I was unable to answer any of a set of mandatory security questions in case I needed to recover my Apple password.  Several people wrote in to suggest that the thing to do is to just come up with a ‘standard’ answer, no matter what the question.  Maybe your answer is always ‘Nosemi34!’ to all such security questions, whether they be asking you about friends, family, cars, schools, or anything else.

That is sensible advice, but I came across a situation this week where, when doing exactly that to the three ‘password recover security questions’ that were being presented to me, the system then proved itself to be, alas, ‘too clever’, and told me I couldn’t use the same answer to more than one question.  Aaagh!

This is just the lightest taste of what life will be like when we’re surrounded by artificial (un)intelligence.  Everything will be very helpful, but nothing will be convenient.

And Lastly This Week….

New plane models are taking to the skies in China and Russia, both posing potential (rather than actual) threats to the 737 and A320 families of planes.  This article details the recent first flight of the Russian MS-21.

The tourists vs locals battle has just ratcheted up another notch in Florence, Italy.  The local mayor, annoyed at tourists sitting on the steps up to the entrance of the Basilica of Santa Croce church, burial-place of Michelangelo and Machiavelli, has said that he will have the steps cleaned each lunchtime.  As in, hosed down.  And if there are tourists on the steps at that time, they’ll get wet.  Details here.

Caution – NSFW.  You may have come across videos of strong men pulling a plane by hand, or possibly even, by their teeth.  But pulling a large-sized helicopter by their, ahem, ‘manhood’?  Perhaps a new way of enlarging the afore-mentioned appendage?  Details – and, yes, pictures, here.

For the next few weeks (during which there will be no newsletters while I’m in Scotland), please enjoy safe travels





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