Did you see the eclipse? If you did, I hope you weren’t as underwhelmed as I was – we had a 94% occlusion here in the Seattle area, and my daughter and I went to watch it in a local park. A 94% occlusion actually meant almost no detectable change in levels of daylight whatsoever. Fortunately, the park was only five minutes away, so we’d not invested nearly as much into the experience as many people did.
I’ve been working this week on an article that has been growing every day. Originally it was going to be a quick overview of the topic, but then it became a bit more detailed, then it became a two page article, then three, and on Thursday it grew some more to four. Regular readers will know this is far from the first time this has happened!
But the result is that while now of almost encyclopedic length and nature, it is still incomplete, so I’ll hold it over until next week. I’d also started work on two other articles of miscellaneous interest, but they got pushed to one side as the main story grew, so I’m instead sending out just a newsletter and nothing else.
So here’s the newsletter, longer than usual at 5090 words, and here also are implied promises for more goodies, next week. Some things to load you up with reading for the long weekend, perhaps!
- WOW – Another Low Cost Carrier
- Qantas Offers Up Some Fake News
- Aeroflot Sued by Flight Attendant
- Flight Attendants Wield Frontier Justice on Frontier Flights
- Check-In Agents Wield Frontier Justice on Frontier Flights
- Reader Hints for Luggage Labels
- Stunning German Hypocrisy
- Did the US Navy Hire the Pilots’ Union PR Firm?
- Class Action Cruise Sales Settlement Might Bring You $300 or More
- Amazon Discounts Fire Tablets and Echo Units
- China Regains Title for ‘World’s Fastest Train’
- And Lastly This Week….
WOW – Another Low Cost Carrier
Wow, as in Wow Air, that is. Wow is an Icelandic based carrier that is aggressively exploiting the benefit of its home base (Reykjavik) as being ideally suited as a hub, feeding in/out flights variously from Europe and the US. If you plot ‘great circle’ paths between Europe and the US, much of the time these shortest distance ‘great circles’ go very close to Iceland, making it not much of a detour at all, and so a sensible place to change planes.
I’ve always felt it a bit backwards – quite literally – to fly all the way east to Frankfurt or Amsterdam or Paris, only to then turn around and fly west back to an airport in Britain. Such routing inefficiencies are less prevalent with Wow.
By operating smaller Airbus A321 planes, and hubbing, they are bringing service to ‘second level’ cities in the US (and in Europe too) – cities that might not offer nonstop flights and sometimes, at present, might require three flights (ie US city to US hub, US hub to European hub, European hub to European small city) instead of Wow’s two. This is a very sensible strategy, competing in a part of the market where the dinosaurs can’t so effectively operate.
This week they announced plans to add four more cities to the eight they already serve in the US, with the flights starting next April and May.
They offer flights for as little as $100 each way – and that includes taxes, which might be as much as $45 of the $100 each way.
But beware of Wow’s low fares. You don’t even get a free glass of water for their lowest fares – something which surely sets a new low-water mark for airline disservice. And you don’t get to check any bags, or even take a regular sized carry-on onto the flight. If you want to bring a carry-on and a checked bag with you, you’ve just added another $90 each way. Plus of course, a fee to assign a seat ($9). And of course, the food and drink on the flight ($3 for a non-alcoholic drink). So the $100 just became $200. Each way.
Nonetheless, we are delighted to see the growth in Wow’s services. Details here.
I’ve not flown Wow, but I’ve enjoyed Icelandair flights and the very easy connections in the nice small airport at Reykjavik. It is indeed a good way to travel to Europe, and I wish Wow flew from Seattle and both airlines offered more flights to more destinations in Europe. Icelandair seems to have reasonably good fares and more inclusions than Wow, including seat assignments, drinks, carry-ons and even one checked bag too.
Qantas Offers Up Some Fake News
From time to time, I poke fun of Ryanair’s CEO, Michael O’Leary. He likes to promise that he will start operating flights across the Atlantic in about ten years time, just as soon as Boeing sell him a plane that would make the flights economic. Other airlines of course have been profitably flying Boeing planes for decades, and Ryanair makes huge amounts of money flying Boeings around Europe, but O’Leary is demanding some sort of mythical plane from Boeing, and using its non-existence as a reason to continue delaying his promise to fly to the US.
Qantas got some undeserved news this week when it announced it planned to start operating the world’s longest flight – between Sydney and London, a distance of about 10,600 miles, and a flight time of 20 hours. Their CEO Alan Joyce, coincidentally an Irishman, just like Mr O’Leary, said they would do this as soon as either Airbus or Boeing could deliver a plane able to make the journey with a full passenger load. Apparently being an expert at
blarney aircraft engineering, he said he believes that advances in technology will make such flights a possibility in the next few years, and they plan to operate the flights by 2022.
This would be great for Qantas, and might enable the airline to reduce its strange dependence on Emirates that it gratuitously created a few years ago (while breaking away from its former close partner and Oneworld stablemate, British Airways). But there’s a small problem with this plan for nonstop flights in five years time, one which I’m sure Alan Joyce is in the middle of helping Boeing and Airbus with at present.
Neither airplane manufacturer has planes that can fly this length of journey at present, and neither do either of them have any plans to develop such planes in the future. This lack of interest on the part of both Airbus and Boeing is particularly due to there being almost no commercial demand for such long-range capabilities, because you’re well into the vicious spiral where you need to load more fuel and burn more fuel to carry the extra fuel to carry the fuel to fly the journey – keep reciting that a few more times to get a measure for just how much fuel is needed on ultra-long flights, and how much of the fuel is simply being used to fly the rest of the fuel, rather than to actually fly the plane and its commercial payload.
So, Qantas got some happy headlines about its aggressive futuristic plans for lovely nonstop service between Sydney and London, and when it never comes to pass, Qantas gets to blame Airbus and Boeing.
Aeroflot Sued by Flight Attendant
Let’s briefly depart the politically correct zone that is being increasingly imposed on us all (this week’s most extreme example surely being ESPN laying off reporter Robert Lee – a Chinese gentleman – for fear his name would offend the new waves of people implacably opposed to anything that reminds them of our Civil War). Free thinkers that we are, can we quietly agree, just between ourselves, that one of the reasons we like certain foreign airlines so much, and one of the things we miss on US carriers, are the attractive and personable young ladies employed as flight attendants. Airlines as varied as Singapore Airlines and – back in the day – Southwest, Braniff and National – have and had policies to selectively recruit and retain only the most appealing of staff.
Aeroflot has been aggressively continuing to improve its services and its image, both literally and figuratively, and when faced between the two stereotypes of Russian womenkind – the battle-axe/babushka or the arm-candy doll – decided they’d prefer to fill their planes with the latter category.
However, showing that even Russia is now becoming more politically correct, a flight attendant who felt this policy was disadvantaging her is now suing the airline.
Details (and a discreetly small photo) here.
Flight Attendants Wield Frontier Justice on Frontier Flights
It is a funny old world, isn’t it, when Aeroflot – for decades, the butt of ‘superior’ western jokes about their legendary bad service and unsafe planes (‘legendary’ primarily in the sense of it actually being an airline with a good safety record) is now trying to raise its game (and very successfully, based on the various times I’ve enjoyed flying with them), but US airlines are now sinking to service levels such as Aeroflot probably never threatened its passengers with, even in the worst of Stalinist times.
If you pause for a moment, when did it become acceptable to tell fare paying passengers ‘Stop complaining or else we’ll call the police’? But that is the new norm for US carriers, isn’t it. ‘The customer is always wrong’ is the new motto of US airlines.
But there is more. How about the story of the Frontier flight attendants who threw two passengers off a flight, because the passengers were allegedly talking to each other and venting their mutual displeasure about the eight hours of delay the flight was suffering. Apparently these days our only response should be “Yes Sir”, “Thank You Sir” and “Please May I Have Another Delay, Sir”.
Check-In Agents Wield Frontier Justice on Frontier Flights
Frontier has been in the news quite a lot in the last few weeks, and it is hard to know which is the worst story. But surely this is right up there at the top – Frontier bumped a 12-year-old boy off his flight because, they claimed, there was an unpaid ‘Unaccompanied Minor’ fee related to his travel.
This is a strange situation. How could the ticket be issued without the UM fee being included in the ticket price? And, even stranger, how is it Frontier transported the kid on his outbound journey without complaint, and only decided to refuse to accept him on his return journey (and after giving him a boarding pass)?
But, to look at the accounting inconsistencies is to overlook the real story. Frontier turned away the 12-year-old boy at the gate, after his grandmother had dropped him at the airport and checked him in and then left him in the airline’s care. The boy was alone at the airport for two hours before his grandmother returned to collect him.
How much longer will we passively accept these types of attitude and behavior from the airlines?
Reader Hints for Luggage Labels
Reader Irv sent in some interesting comments this week. He was motivated to write in response to my article about using white noise to mask out hotel room sounds, but in doing so, identified an interesting multi-purpose item which airlines give us for free, and which we often unthinkingly rush to throw away.
We all know to remove old airline destination tags off our luggage before checking in for the next flight. But leave them on until repacking, because they can be pulled apart to yield about a foot of very sticky tape. Might be useful for toning down a fluttering A/C vent. Or to tape a piece of paper over a portion of the vent to deflect the wind otherwise blowing annoyingly on the bad. Or to tape together curtains that won’t quite close.
There are two types of labels in general use, ones that have a release tape on their entire back (often blue) and others where you just peel a bit off to expose an adhesive on one side of the label that can be used to fix it to the other side. Both can be used for Irv’s suggestions, and potentially assorted other uses, too. Best of all, sometimes you can cut the used tag off your bag while still preserving a reasonable amount of sticky tape that can be stored in your suitcase without having had its adhesive activated, and pressed into service when/if needed in the future.
So who says we never get anything free from the airlines these days? Certainly not Irv!
Stunning German Hypocrisy
I’ve been mentioning, the last couple of weeks, how in Germany you can get arrested and sent to jail, or beaten up on the streets, for giving a Nazi style salute. I thought that ridiculous, but if that’s the way they want to be, it is their country, so good luck to them.
But shouldn’t they at least be consistent about this? Apparently, while these things are dangerous and illegal, it is perfectly okay for a leading German magazine, ‘Stern’, to fake a picture of our President, draped in our flag, giving one of their Nazi salutes on the cover of their magazine. The wording on the cover includes the headline ‘Sein Kampf’ – a play on the title of Hitler’s book, ‘Mein Kampf’, and then promises “His fight. Neo-Nazis, Ku-Klux-Klan, Racism: How Donald Trump fuels the Hate in America.”
What would happen to the magazine if they accused their own dear leader, Ms Merkel, of such things, and doctored a picture of her and placed it on the cover? Or perhaps if they chose to put a picture of Mohammed on their cover – in any guise at all!
Meantime, one of the two candidates for Germany’s Chancellorship is decrying Mr Trump for daring to suggest that Germany should make good on its promised share of NATO’s costs and assuring Germany that if he is elected, he’ll make sure that Germany never honors its commitment.
Let’s not wait for their election outcome. Let’s simply withdraw every American soldier from Germany, today. Even though WW2 ended over 70 years ago, and the cold war over 25 years ago, there are still 34,805 US troops in Germany at present. We’re probably gratuitously pouring $5 – $10 billion into the German economy, as well as saving them the need to spend on building up an adequate military of their own. In response, they mock us.
Let’s stop making our enemies wealthy, and spend that money at home.
Perhaps the money could be spent on our Navy, instead. It seems they’re running up quite a body shop repair bill at present. Which leads to….
Did the US Navy Hire the Pilots’ Union PR Firm?
Many different people have been attributed as first saying ‘Never let a good crisis go to waste’, including Rahm Emmanuel, Winston Churchill and Niccolo Machiavelli (how often do you see these three names sharing equal billing for anything!). Perhaps the reason it is so widely attributed is because it is also widely adopted, and we’re seeing the results of US Navy’s attempts to use their unfortunate inability to avoid self-harm at the hands of other ships being directed this way.
So what is the reason for the US Navy no longer being able to safely steer its ships? Who is to blame? Well, how much time do you have? Let’s see, cited as reasons include the ultra predictable ‘budget cuts’, ‘not enough ships’ and ‘our men are being worked too hard’. Just like the pilots will pivot any pilot-induced disaster into seeming evidence that pilots need to be paid more and work less, the Navy PR people are working overtime at blaming everyone but themselves for their lack of basic seamanship skills (aka ‘don’t hit or be hit by other ships’).
They are even offering up ‘conspiracy theory’ type excuses – possible electronic jamming of their navigation systems; something that has the benefit of being hard to disprove, but which totally fails to explain how the good old-fashioned Mark 1 Human Eyeball, in the form of fore, aft, port and starboard lookouts also all failed to observe huge big slow-moving ships on collision courses. Plus, if there are indeed successful jamming actions, that should be cause for total alarm and massive response.
And for those who see it as a crisis of leadership, the Navy has taken decisive action. Even before the Search and Rescue operations had given up searching for the missing seamen this week, they’d fired the Admiral heading up the Seventh Fleet. Never mind that he was due to retire in three weeks and perhaps agreed good-naturedly to ‘take one for the team’. But is a rush to judgment appropriate, prior to the facts being identified and understood? Imagine if a large airline with a fleet of 350 planes finds itself having four of its planes in minor accidents in the course of a relatively short period of time. Does the Board of Directors, before even seeing the damage report on the fourth plane accident or reading the pilots’ statements and the NTSB report, fire their Chief Pilot?
There’s another parallel with pilots, too. I’ve expressed astonishment at how some of the recent fatal crashes have been due to pilots not remembering how to do the most basic of flying actions – recovering from stalls. And now, speaking as one who has served in the merchant marine and even briefly had a boat of my own, I must express identical astonishment at how state-of-the-art ships with more radars and other sensors on them than we can count or guess at, with the ability to track birds in the air 100 miles away; to track and engage 100 targets simultaneously; ships which can accelerate (and turn and come to a stop) at truly stunning rates (90 seconds to go from stopped to flank speed of about 40 mph, 600 yards of travel from full ahead to stopped according to this article), and which have hundreds of people on board, somehow manage to get into collisions with tankers and container ships that are probably lumbering along at much slower speeds (and let’s not forget the ship that ran aground, in effect a collision with an unmoving island!) – how can these ships and their crews get into collisions with other ships? Not colliding with other ships is the most basic element of seamanship.
The rate of closure between the two ships would probably have been in the order of 20 – 40 feet per second. You can pick a number, any number, for how far away the other ship would have appeared on radar, and with the track-extrapolating AIS information being broadcast by merchant ships showing their course, plus of course the track-extrapolating capabilities of the warship radars, there shouldn’t have been any surprises, and any surprises which did happen would have allowed for a timely response. Even if ‘panic stations’ were only called when the oncoming vessel was a mere quarter-mile away, that would still have allowed for 30 seconds of maneuvering, and all it would have required was a small shift in heading and/or a small change in speed to avoid a collision. In congested waters such as off the Singapore coast, and particularly after earlier recent collisions, you’d think the ship’s crew would be ultra-alert rather that apparently the opposite.
There are ‘rules of the road’ at sea, just like in the air and on real roads. These – the ‘Colregs’ – are a bit more complicated, but they work to determine which ship has right-of-way and which ship has to yield and maneuver away in any possible scenario where two ships are getting close to each other. As best it seems to date, in both the recent collisions it was the US Navy ship that had the duty to yield, and clearly failed to do so.
Some people dispute that saying that ‘obviously’ the civilian ships were at fault because they collided into the US ships, not vice versa, but there’s an easy analogy to explain that. You’re driving your car through an intersection. The intersecting road has a stop sign, and you have right of way. As you enter the intersection, a car from the side road fails to stop and cuts in front of you, while you with your ongoing forward momentum end up going into the side of him. Who is at fault? The guy who failed to stop and give way, even though the way the two cars collided makes it seem that you hit him.
As a very unskilled pilot, the first thing I learned was how to recover from stalls and then how to recover from spins. As a very unskilled sailor, the first thing I learned was to never trust your instruments, navigation gear and radar, and always to back up the electronics of all types with independent confirmation, and most of all, always to be looking around the boat and to be aware of other objects in the water.
Here is an interesting article that is utterly wrong when it suggests one of the reasons for these accidents might be that the Japan-based ships aren’t getting enough training. Why is that wrong? Because the best form of training is when you’re at sea ‘for real’. Crews don’t stop learning when they’re on a real deployment, quite the opposite. Every minute of every watch is still full of learning opportunities and teaching moments, as well as still including plenty of training exercises, even while deployed on a mission. In peacetime most missions are of the ‘hurry up and wait’ variety and involve huge amounts of training.
Plus the ‘on the job training’ is all the more valuable because it isn’t in the form of artificial exercises that you are expecting and half-discounting, and which are graded/evaluated by theoretical rather than real-world standards. If the article said ‘the ships and their crews aren’t getting enough sea time’ that would be a concern, but to say that two-thirds of the time, the ships are undertaking line operations – that is brilliant training, and those crews should be more capable and skilled than a ship/crew that worked 100% training exercises.
Here is another article which offers up a pot pourri of excuses. Its publisher is necessarily a fairly military-friendly outlet, and so makes a reasonably big thing of the need for more ships and too much duty time on present ships. While I agree the US Navy is stretched very thin, the reality is that in non-wartime conditions, the crews aren’t worked nearly as hard as they are when engaged in active ‘kinetic’ operations, and while for sure there are personal/quality-of-life sacrifices on extended deployments and spending time away from friends and family, operationally a ship should be as effective and possibly even more effective towards the end of an extended tour as at the beginning.
What is most interesting in this article though are the reader comments offered up by ex-navy sailors; I’ll not go through the dozens/hundreds of them and either amplify or rebut them individually, but suffice it to say some are nonsense, some are exaggerations, but within many of them are some important kernels of truth.
There’s also a story suggesting that the latest casualty suffered a mysterious loss of steering capability shortly before the collision, and regained steering again shortly after. Excuse me for opining that this sounds spookily like pilots saying ‘No, we weren’t asleep in the cockpit while you were trying to call us on the radio, we had a radio problem’. Besides which, if your ship has a steering problem, don’t you make yourself obvious to surrounding ships, sound sirens, turn on your lights, radio distress calls, shoot off flares, and do everything you possibly can in a congested waterway to make your presence known? As I understand it, warships like the John S McCain have as many as seven different steering systems offering multiple redundant ways to remain under control and under way.
This is a good article that explains some of the operational complexities, but then chickens out with a surprising conclusion at the end.
There is one more comment that few people are making (which is why you read me, too!). Do the four recent collision events actually prove there is any sort of problem at all? Maybe not.
Again, there’s an airplane analogy. Sometimes, things just go inexplicably wrong, in the air, on the ground, and at sea. You can have multiple layers of systems and procedures and backups, and still Mr Murphy manages to gate-crash the party and cause problems. That’s why we have accidents, after all. It is possible that what we’ve seen is merely random chance; a bit like if you shuffle a deck of cards, cut it, and the card you randomly select is the Ace of Spaces. Then you shuffle, cut, and select the same Ace of Spades a second time. Then you go through the process a third time. And a fourth time. That is extremely unlikely, and if it happened in a casino, you know the casino would be looking for cheating every which way. But sometimes, random chance actually does randomly create what seem to be significant patterns, but which are indeed nothing but chance.
Class Action Cruise Sales Settlement Might Bring You $300 or More
Don’t you hate telemarketers. Not only are they intrusive, but invariably they seem to be selling worthless junk. Particularly galling are the ones that fake a caller ID that tricks you into answering the call, and particularly if you’ve placed your various phone numbers on the Do Not Call list, there’s a huge sense of annoyance engendered by their unwelcome invasion into your peace and quiet.
Great news. If you received a ‘robocall’ about a free cruise trip between 23 July 2009 and 8 March 2014, you might be able to claim $300 per such call as part of a class action settlement, up to a maximum of $900 per phone line.
Even better, you don’t need any receipts or records or anything. Just go to the settlement website and enter your phone number(s) and see if your number is on the list of numbers they called. If it is, you’ve scored a minor victory and a $300 settlement.
Amazon Discounts Fire Tablets and Echo Units
I see Amazon currently has a $20 discount on its 8″ Fire tablets, reducing the price from $79.99 to $59.99. It has also discounted the less capable 7″ Fire tablet from $49.99 to $39.99.
Ever since they released their latest 8″ tablet at a massively reduced $80 regular price (the previous model was $150), I’ve turned away from the $50 7″ tablet. The 7″ tablet is good, but the extra $30 is definitely worth it for the much better performing and larger screened 8″ tablet, and with the $20 bringing it down to a penny less than $60, it is a great value proposition.
I notice they’ve silently discontinued their 10″ screen device. I’m hoping they’ll be releasing a new updated version of that, with a new updated price, too, but the rumor mill is totally silent on that point. Maybe in time for this year’s Black Friday/Christmas season.
They also have a deep discount on their full size Echo voice control units, with the price dropped from $179.99 to $99.99. That seems compelling, but the reality is I’ve never felt $180 to be at all a sensible or fair price, and even at $100, it is hard to see a lot of value. Happily, they have also dropped the price on their smaller but high value Echo Dot unit, down from $49.99 to $44.99 – not exactly the most exciting deal out there, but if you’re getting to the point where you’d like to have a play with an Echo Dot, maybe connect it to some intelligent lights or thermostat or something, then here’s a small incentive to do so now.
I’ve written about the Echo Dot several times before, here’s the most recent major article, with a link within it to the previous major article. I continue to feel ambivalent about the units and frustrated by some of their limitations, but on balance I’m happier with them than without them, and indeed was just this week considering getting a couple more – one of their recent new features is a convenient intercom or remote monitoring capability and it might be a convenient way to communicate from room to room at home. Mind you, Anna and I will sometimes text each other messages from one side of the room to the other, so I’m not sure we need too many more alternates to simply talking the ‘old fashioned way’.
China Regains Title for ‘World’s Fastest Train’
China not only has more high-speed rail track in operation than the rest of the world put together, and not only has more that twice as much additional HSR track under construction as the rest of the world, but is also about to again operate the world’s fastest trains, too.
New trains will start service in September, operating at speeds of up to 400 km/hr (248 mph). That is as fast as many commuter turbo-prop airplanes. Our sense is that much of the time, the trains will be limited to 350 km/hr (217 mph) but will be capable of and may sometimes operate at the faster speed. Details here.
Oh, of the 22 countries in the world with high-speed rail, either in service or being constructed, guess which country has the least amount of track? Yes, the US, with a mere 28 miles of true high-speed track. Even Uzbekistan (370 miles) beats us by a convincing margin.
And Lastly This Week….
Something I hate are so-called voice recognition systems when calling customer support numbers. ‘In a few words, tell us why you are calling’; but whatever words I use are never recognized or appropriately responded to. Having an accent of sorts probably makes matters worse.
So it is with a great measure of sympathy that I can relate to the plight of these two poor Scottish gentlemen, stuck in an elevator.
On the other hand, it is with a great measure of mirth – and admiration for the language skills of the two torturers – that I enjoy this video. I am embarrassed to confess I ended up watching the entire clip. Twice.
Until next week, please enjoy safe travels and don’t get stuck in fancy elevators