Weekly Roundup, Friday 4 August, 2017

The world’s biggest doodle? A 787 flight path covering 18 states. See article, below.

Good morning

We’re having a ‘heat wave’ here in the Seattle area, with temperatures in the mid-90s.  That’s a problem for two-thirds of the population – the two-thirds who don’t have a/c.  Making things much worse is an astonishing amount of smoke everywhere, massively reducing visibility, and threatening the practicality of a Blue Angels display this weekend.  The smoke is from the huge forest fires in Western Canada – and I’m sure there’s some way I should be able to work a ‘build a wall’ statement into those facts, but it is a bit too hot to do so!

Following the newsletter is what I hope you’ll find an interesting travel story.  The concept of road trips might seem to be a uniquely American one, and certainly the magic of Route 66 has been acknowledged for some time.  But 150 years ago, and probably considerably longer, there was – and still is – a very special road trip of even greater national importance in Britain – the ‘End to End’ journey.  And whereas there is little debate as to how to experience a road trip here (ie in a car), the Brits – always eager to encourage eccentricity – have a much broader view of how to enjoy the notional 874 miles of their national road trip.  Walking, running, riding an animal or bicycle, skateboarding, and many more methods of travel of increasing levels of ‘innovativeness’ (my polite word for today) have all been featured, and continue to be enjoyed.

And it is enjoyment that occasioned the article.  This road trip is an integral part of next year’s Grand Expedition tour of Great Britain.  Perhaps after reading the article you’ll have a broader understanding of the special aspirational nature of this journey, and hopefully you’ll choose to join us and participate in our version of the road trip (in a comfortable luxury coach, you’ll be relieved to learn!).

Talking about our amazing British tour next June, we still have a few cabins available for this year’s Christmas cruise.  We continue getting great deals on air with Amawaterways – yesterday a couple saved $140 each on their airfares, in addition to the $750 each cabin saving, and the other various Travel Insider special inclusions and benefits.  Maybe you can, too.

As I’d hoped, last week’s article about the pending restrictions on travel to North Korea drew several excellent comments.  Thank you.  If you missed it last week, here it is, and please feel welcome of course to add your thoughts, too.

The official ban was announced a couple of days ago.  In a rather backwards way, articles such as this chose to lede the story with the four categories of exemptions that the State Department will allow, rather than the otherwise totality of the ban as it will apply to almost all of us.  The four exempt categories are journalists, Red Cross employees on official business, other aid workers with ‘compelling humanitarian considerations’ and others with a trip that is ‘otherwise in the national interest’.  Alas, that definitely excludes me and probably you, too.

If you naughtily do go to North Korea, you’ll be charged with a felony.  Not a tiny little misdemeanor, not a ‘let off with a warning’, but a real massive go-to-jail felony.

I expect not everyone agrees with my belief that the State Dept shouldn’t be restricting our travel rights in the first place, but does anyone feel that going to spend a few days in North Korea as a tourist is a crime worthy of felony charges?  No wonder that we have the highest percentage of our citizens incarcerated of any country in the world (693 per 100,000), eclipsed only by a statistically insignificant count in Seychelles.  North Korea is estimated by the US Committee for Human Rights in North Korea to have an incarceration rate very similar to our own, around 600 – 800.  Is this a case of ‘the pot calling the kettle black’?

In addition, please keep reading for the following items to enjoy with your hot or possibly iced coffee this morning :

  • Reader Survey Results – The Right to Film on Planes
  • Hero Pilot?  Or Weak Link?
  • Flying a Plane is Child’s Play.  But if You Show Proof of This, You’ll be Fired
  • What’s Wrong With This Picture?
  • Boeing Draws a Picture.  A Big One.
  • New Air Force One Planes Were Originally Ordered by Russian Carrier
  • Elon Musk Thinks His Customers Are Stupid
  • A New Airplane Terror Threat
  • And Lastly This Week….

Reader Survey Results – The Right to Film on Planes

I asked last week if you thought we should be allowed to film while onboard airplanes.  You had three choices – you could say you thought passengers should have an unrestricted right to film on planes, or a limited right only while being granted permission by the flight attendants, or if there should be a total ban on filming.

The results were about as starkly one-sided as one ever sees about anything.

95% of respondents advocated for unrestricted filming.

I’m curious why the handful of people who advocated a total ban feel that way – please feel free to explain (but of course, you’re under no obligation to do so).  It is just that while I can usually see both sides of issues, even when having a clear preference one way or the other, I struggle to see any countervailing good to us as passengers if we’re never allowed to film on flights.

May I also politely but cynically comment to the people who believe that flight attendants should have the authority to regulate when we may or may not film – what do you think will happen as soon as there’s an altercation or incident on board?  Will flight attendants call out ‘Quick everyone, please film this’?  Or will they try to block off the event, and announce that filming is banned for the duration?  My money is on the latter outcome, and I’ll wager every penny I have and a few I don’t have that in cases where the flight attendants themselves are the ‘bad actors’ in any drama, there is no way they’d allow any filming that might risk showing up their misbehavior and subsequent lies.

Hero Pilot?  Or Weak Link?

Here’s a gushy article anointing another ordinary pilot as a hero.  The pilot in question simply landed his plane without crashing or killing anyone on board.  Color me underwhelmed.

To explain the situation, an A320 flew through a hail storm, and the hail stones caused its windshield to be shattered and become difficult/impossible to see through.  So, landing a plane with no visibility – easy or hard?  Is the pilot truly a hero and deserving of the medal awarded him by the Ukrainian Government?

Well, the article sort of gives the show away at the bottom of the story, by reporting that all that happened was the pilot changed from making a visual approach and landing to instead conducting an instrument approach and landing.  What the article doesn’t say is that the pilot could have (and may well have) simply programmed the approach and landing into his autopilot, then sat back, enjoyed a nice cup of tea, and read a book while the plane did the rest, all by itself, the same as pilots do all day every day, with or without perfect visibility out the cockpit front windows.

Additionally, the needless concern about the pilots not being able to see?  If we didn’t have pilots, just sensors, we’d no longer have to worry about pilot visibility at all.  Yes, I know sensors can be disabled, but clearly they weren’t in this case, and bizarrely, the pilot who proved he didn’t need to be able to look out the front of the plane in order to land it got a medal for showing that the plane could land itself.

Flying a Plane is Child’s Play.  But if You Show Proof of This, You’ll be Fired

Continuing what is indeed one of my favorite topics – the over-valued nature of pilots – two pilots of an Air Algerie plane allowed a 10 yr old boy to sit in the pilot’s seat and to ‘fly’ the plane for part of a regular passenger flight.  The pilots subsequently posted a video of the boy’s experience onto social media, and when the video made its way back to the airline’s executives, they instantly suspended the pilots pending an investigation into the matter.

Goodness only knows what there is to investigate.

But the pilots don’t deserve the suspension.  There is almost zero danger of anything going wrong to a passenger plane during the cruise portion of its flight at altitude.  If anyone in the cockpit ‘pushes the wrong button’, you’ve so much time to resolve the issue before things become fraught – even the incompetent pilots of AF447 had 3 1/2 minutes to correct their mistakes before the plane finally finished its descent and crashed into the ocean, killing all on board.

Plus, in this case, the boy was an orphan who dreamed of becoming a pilot and his flight was being sponsored by a local charity.  There was no danger, no risk, the boy was closely supervised, and it was a public relations treat that earned the appreciation of the local community.

Details here.

Purportedly a new 737 flying over Greenland.

What’s Wrong With This Picture?

According to this article, this is a picture of a new Norwegian Air 737 MAX flying over Greenland.  Here’s a link to a larger size image.

The article is interesting, although it does seem that in return for a free flight, the reporter wrote a very gushingly positive article.  On the other hand, as one who has also flown on delivery flights, I can understand the reporter’s excitement and enjoyment of the experience.  Yes, there indeed truly is a new plane smell when you first step on board!

It could also be fairly said that Norwegian is an airline worthy of praise, and if you have a chance to fly it yourself, you definitely should do so.

Surprisingly, Norwegian missed a trick by flying the plane empty – they should do what Qantas used to do on delivery flights – sell all the seats to paying passengers.

If you look closely at the picture, you might see some clues that suggest the photo isn’t exactly what its caption suggests it to be.  Answer at the bottom.

Boeing Draws a Picture.  A Big One.

Talking about Boeing and pictures, Boeing is currently testing the use of 3D printed parts on its airplanes.  You may have heard sailors complain about how the cost of any part doubles (or quadruples) when it changes from being a ‘regular’ part to a ‘marine’ part, even if the part itself appears to be indistinguishable from its landlubber twin.

Well, when a part transitions further to becoming an aviation certified part, you can expect another doubling or quadrupling in cost, due as much to the compliance costs of tracking and tracing every last washer and screw.  All parts on a plane have their own unique serial numbers, and have a service history stored.  This is great if something goes wrong with a part – it isn’t like the recall notices you might see at the local supermarket, saying ‘If you bought some Bush Baked Beans in the last some while, please check to see if they are this batch number XYZ123456, because if they are, there might be a problem with them’.  If something goes wrong with an aviation part, it is possible to almost instantly know everything about that part, its service life, where and when it was made, and which other planes also have parts from the same batch/supplier.  And that’s how a washer costing under a penny at Home Depot becomes a dollar part (more or less).

Boeing is hoping to be able to lessen the complexity of its spare parts systems and to reduce its inventories, by instead being able to 3D print parts on demand, as and where needed.  Instead of a huge warehouse full of spare parts at service centers all around the world, there’ll be a 3D printer sitting on a bench, quietly humming to itself as it makes parts as needed.

This benefit wouldn’t just apply to spares.  As this article reports, printing parts to order could reduce the cost of building new planes by $3 million or more per plane.  Maybe that doesn’t sound much on a $200 million plane, but Boeing delivers about 700 planes a year, so that is potentially $2 billion in extra profit, every year.

3D parts are already being used in jet engines.  The current ‘big deal’ is that now 3D parts are being tested for use as structural components as well as smaller bits and pieces.

So why am I telling you this?  For the last week or so, Boeing has been test flying a 787-8 with some of the these 3D parts, primarily on 3 – 4 hour flights around Curacao.  It then flew the plane ‘back home’ to Seattle, and on Wednesday afternoon, took it on an extended flight that ended up taking exactly, to the minute 18 hours prior to landing back at Boeing Field in Seattle.

So where do you fly your plane if you’re on an 18 hour flight to nowhere?  Because it is a test plane, you probably don’t want to be an enormous distance from an airport, just in case those 3D printed parts give problems.  But imagine how boring it would be, just flying a racetrack pattern in an empty bit of sky in Washington State.

So, the pilots instead programmed a kinda neat flight path into their flight management computer system, then probably made themselves comfortable, choose a movie or two (or three or four or five or six or even more) and waited for the 18 hours to tick over.  The kinda neat flight path can be seen in the image at the top of the newsletter.

A nice touch, even to the extent of having the plane pointing directly at Seattle.  And would that be its tail, pointing directly at Boeing’s other 787 assembly plant, in SC – a union-free venue loathed by Boeing’s Seattle union members.

It is interesting, but only mildly so, to note the flight covered 9,896 miles.  The official range of a 787-8 is in the order of 8,450 miles, but that assumes that an appreciable amount of the plane’s weight involves carrying passengers and baggage.  When empty, it can of course fly further.   You can see more statistics to do with the flight here.

New Air Force One Planes Were Originally Ordered by Russian Carrier

There’s something slightly amusing about this.  News emerged this week that the Air Force has negotiated a discount price on two 747-8 planes originally ordered by former Russian airline, Transaero, but which were cancelled as part of Transaero’s collapse and merger into Aeroflot in 2015.

Boeing finally got around to cancelling the order (which was for three planes) just last month; it had optimistically been on its order books for the last two years although no-one considered it to be anything other than an example of monumental optimism on Boeing’s part, and the planes have been sitting unloved and unwanted in storage in California.

We are told that the two planes – never delivered to Russia – were secured at a substantial discount off list price, and that their acquisition will likely allow their modification and delivery to proceed ahead of the original schedule, which would have seen them entering service in 2023.

So it seems more probable that President Trump will get to fly on them before he finishes his second term (ducking for cover after making that statement!).

Elon Musk Thinks His Customers Are Stupid

Last Friday evening saw the bizarre ‘delivery ceremony’ when Tesla triumphantly delivered the first 30 of their new Model 3 cars, to their first 30 ‘customers’.

I put quotes around the word ‘customers’ because it turns out that the 30 lucky people were actually Tesla employees.  Far from being on schedule and now delivering real cars to real customers, you still can’t yet order a Tesla on their website, or even see a price list or configurator.  Sure, apparently close on 500,000 people have plunked down $1,000 refundable deposits to reserve a place in line for a car, but how can you truly order and buy a car when there are no published details of the car, its price, its options and prices, or even the color choices you have.  In Tesla’s alternate reality, it seems that deliveries are preceding orders!

We have been told snippets of information about the new car, and given disjointed bits of data; for example, there is a $5,000 premium options package that includes an all-glass roof, open-pore wood decor, premium sound, heated seats, and premium seat materials.   But what exactly is the premium sound or premium seat materials and what are the standard versions?  Don’t know.

We are told that to choose any color other than black will add $1,000 to the price, but what are the color choices?  We are told that only a $49,000 model car will be available until some time in early 2018, but what exactly do you get for the $49,000 (a steep increase over the $35,000 anticipated standard model price)?  What color will it be?  And so on.

While you might think there’s a bit of desperate hope in all of this, by Musk and his company, that their devoted fans won’t notice the strange lack of specifics about a car that in theory is now being sold and also delivered to customers, that isn’t why Musk is of the opinion his customers are stupid.  Well, it might be one of the reasons, but there’s a bigger one.

Maybe it is Musk himself who is stupid, but he has decided that Tesla will no longer disclose the battery capacity in their cars, because his customers might find that confusing.

Until now, Tesla (and other manufacturers) have disclosed how much charge can be stored in their cars’ batteries. That is the same as a regular car manufacturer telling us the capacity of the gas tank.

Tesla (and all other companies) have also converted the charge capacity into an estimated range figure – so many miles of driving.  From those two numbers, we can reach a third very important number – the fuel efficiency of the car.  In the case of regular cars, we are usually told the fuel efficiency (ie miles per gallon) up front, and then work out from that the range.  With electric cars, we are more likely to do the sum differently – we know the capacity and range, and from that can work out the fuel efficiency.

But whether gas or electricity powered, the fuel efficiency is an essential data point when evaluating cars – and perhaps therein lies part of Tesla’s decision.  Until now, they’ve had few/no competitors, so who cares what their fuel efficiency is – it is way better than petrol in terms of the cost to drive each mile, and that was enough for everyone.  But now that competitors are springing up everywhere, an increasingly sophisticated (or, as Musk views it, ‘stupid’) customer will want to understand both an electric vehicle’s range and also its efficiency, and perhaps Musk now wishes to deliberately hide that, so as to make it harder for a Tesla to be compared to any of the other electric vehicles slated to appear over the next short while.

Who reading this doesn’t care what it costs per mile to ‘fill the tank’, whether you be filling the tank with petrol, diesel, or electricity?  Isn’t that, and the cost per mile in fuel, an essential part of working out total costs of ownership?

It is actually maybe even more important to know this for an electric car, because unlike regular cars, where you never need to replace the fuel tank, sooner or later with an electric car, you’ll need to replace its battery pack, and a higher capacity pack will of course cost more to replace than a lower capacity pack.

However, for the Model 3, and in the future, even for the Models S and X, the battery pack capacity will not be disclosed.  We know there will be two battery pack options with the Model 3, and that in some combination of temperature, speed, and everything else, they will give about 220 and 310 miles respectively.  But are these 50 kWhr packs?  100 kWhr packs?  Or something bigger or smaller?  Tesla won’t tell us, because, they say, we would find this confusing.  Because, they imply, we are stupid.

So, there you have it, from Mr Musk himself.  He is designing his cars for stupid people.  I guess he also hopes we won’t notice that with all the artificial excitement about his artificial deliveries, no-one will notice that his promise to have a $35,000 car being delivered this year is not being honored.  But what is another $14,000 to a stupid person?

Meanwhile, the Chevrolet Bolt – a car that was delivered on time, and at the promised price point, outsold both the Tesla Model S and the Tesla  Model X last month, with steadily increasing monthly sales as it is rolled out to more and more states (also ahead of schedule).

A New Airplane Terror Threat

There was a curious item in the news last weekend, about how Australian authorities had thwarted a planned terrorist attack in a plane, perhaps to be mounted at Sydney airport.  I was interested to learn more about it, because until now, Australia (and New Zealand) have seemed to be safely removed from the main terror zones in the world, and also because I always view such claims with cynicism.  Just how real are these plots?  Is it a couple of teenage boys fantasizing over the internet in their respective parents’ basements?  Or, also quite common, is it some dreamers who are actually egged on and encouraged to do something by intelligence service agents running something perilously close to entrapment?  Or is it a well equipped, well-funded, and well-trained group of dedicated experts, seconds away from staging a genuine and likely to be successful event?

We have now been told a little more about it.  It seems the plan may have involved smuggling a canister of gas onto the plane, with a view to gas everyone on the plane (possibly to make them simply unconscious, maybe to kill them).  Then, the (presumably gas-masked) terrorists could simply stroll up to the cockpit, kick the door open, dislodge the sleeping/dead pilots from their controls, and take over the plane.  During the gas release, the plane would almost certainly be on auto-pilot, as any typical flight invariably is for 99% of any journey these days, so there would be no risk or danger, as we see in the movies, of the pilot slumping over the control column, pushing it forward, and the plane plunging down in a dive to the ground.  Although probably that would be the terrorists’ plan, sooner or later, somewhere, in any event.  Flight safety isn’t exactly high on a terrorist’s priority list.

The clever thing about a gas attack is that the gas could be taken on the plane in a very hard to detect form (not so sure about gas masks, though!).  An X-ray machine would just see what it thinks to be an empty container.  This article describes some more about the Australian incident, but it also has some strange claims – for example, the suggestion that it would be complicated to make a device to ’emit the gas’.  Seems to me that a screw top would be not too impossibly complex!

On the other hand, effectively ‘gassing’ everyone on a plane would not be simple, because the air in an airplane is being constantly replaced, at a higher rate than in a typical building, even at a higher rate than hospitals.  Depending on the plane and its cabin management settings, the air is being changed every two to six minutes.  So unless you had a very substantial quantity of gas and a high volume delivery system, and unless the gas quickly took effect in small quantities, and had a long period of effectiveness, a gas attack would be useless.

The gas would have to be odorless and fast acting, too.  If the pilots in the cockpit detected the gas, they’d switch to oxygen masks and be protected from any cabin zone contamination.  Indeed, the air flows in a plane are such that little air from the cabin goes back into the cockpit (some does via recirculated air that is mixed with fresh air on each cycle), primarily the air flows from the cockpit and into the cabin, rather than vice versa.

So perhaps not the most serious of threats.  Unless of course, the gas is poisonous, and you’re sitting right next to the canister when it is opened.

And Lastly This Week….

If you’re a tall big man – over 6’2″ and 225 lbs, and with a 40″ or larger waistline, lets hope you don’t enjoy roller coasters.  Similarly, if you’re a 200lb+ lady wearing a size 18 or larger, bad news for you too.

A new amusement park in Alabama are setting these – what appear to be quite distinctively low – size/weight restrictions on some of their new rides.  I guess it is cheaper to build less-strong rides than to build more robustly engineered ones, and my advice would be not to argue the toss if you’re told you’re too tall/heavy/rotund for the ride.  The life you save might be your own!

A new approach to joint tourism promotion that promises to be all about Dull, Boring, and Bland has been excitedly announced this week.  What is the excitement?  Well, how else would you feel, other than excited, if you lived and worked in the tourism industries of Dull in Scotland, Boring in OR, and Bland in Australia?

Oh – the problem with the picture?  Here’s a key to the anomalies.

From left to right, it first seems that, astonishingly for a plane allegedly at 35,000 ft and flying at 550 mph over Greenland, there are a couple of safety cones flying in formation with it.

Now, notice the little orange light.  Admittedly, the two pilots are too happily chatting with the third person to give it a second thought, but it is an important light.  The ‘Master Caution’ light – there’s a second one on the far right as well.

Perhaps the reason for the Master Caution would be that the pilots seem to have forgotten to raise the landing gear.  In the oval, you’ll see the lever is in the lowered rather than raised position, and the three indicator lights are happily green, indicating the gear is down and locked, and that’s certainly not something you’d normally do while cruising.

But maybe there’s another reason for the Master Caution indicator.  It is hard to see in this sized picture, but the indicators in the rectangle, easier to see in the full-sized picture in the article, suggests the engines aren’t running.

So – a picture in midair over Greenland?  Or a picture on the ground at Paine Field in Everett, WA?

Truly lastly this week, there’s a big variation in the hotels that air crew get to stay in when they’re overnighting away from home.  Some crew, in some cities, get treated to amazingly luxurious hotels.  Other crew, and in other cities, get to stay in very basic hotels.

Some Air India crew are very unhappy with the hotel they are assigned in Chicago, and are even asking not to be placed on that route because of the hotel.  The problem with the hotel?  It is haunted.  Sadly, the article doesn’t disclose the hotel’s name.  But does feature an image purporting to be of a ghost.

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels





2 thoughts on “Weekly Roundup, Friday 4 August, 2017”

  1. Douglas Antonelli

    RE: gassing the passengers on a commercial flight. There was a novel that I read about a year ago with exactly this plot at the start of the book. It was well detailed and the author even went so far as to work out how the terrorists could exit the plane after landing. Speaking of landing, the plot worked out how the autopilot feature was used to fly and land the plane. So kudos to you David for a double with this issue!

  2. Regarding flight attendants dictating whether passengers may film or not on flights, I question this situation. Are flight attendants actually empowered by the airline to disallow filming? It seems they are to serve the passengers in terms of comfort and safety. Would not a captain be more likely to have total control here, much like a ship’s captain? I’ve never heard any discussion about audio recording. eg. flight attendant demands we stop filming; I lower my camera, but keep rolling, still recording audio. I suppose it comes down to whether an audio recording is admissible in court.

    Personally, I try to avoid confrontation if caught in a compromising situation. My recent experience with Amtrak, had me keeping my cool which served me well when the following event occurred:

    Traveling in a sleeper on the Coast Starlight from L. A. to Seattle, I was told on boarding that due to track problems near Redding, our train could only take us to Sacramento, arriving at midnight. After that we were on our own. No buses, nothing was offered. Unsympathetic train staff on board were useless in offering any assistance.

    Still, I kept calm, but trying to appear very concerned. Finally the conductor came around who had called head office, who authorized at least a free night’s hotel in Sacramento. The next day, I explored options to get home (at my expense). Last minute flights were cubic dollars. Greyhound was my solution and a call to reserve a seat meant no buses had space until a day later. The Greyhound experience was dreadful with no driver being available for my bus, bus breakdown, etc. etc.

    My total delay in getting home was 2 days later. Did I mention I spent one night at the Portland bus station? Reason – all drivers normally available had passed their daily driving limit.No benches to lie down on – people curled up on the concrete floor. Many were back packer types who managed to get somewhat comfortable. I sat up on a chair all night trying not to remember that it was my Birthday. My previous Birthday disaster happened some 40 years ago, while caught in winter blizzard driving across Canada. I swore I’d never travel with Amtrak again, and certainly not Greyhound! But time tends to help fade negative experiences, and I may travel Amtrak again after all.

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