Weekly Roundup, Friday 10 November, 2017

The airline formerly known as TEAL has just been named the world’s best airline for the fifth year in a row. Can you guess the airline’s current name? (Image taken from this lovely article series on the airline’s 75th anniversary.)

Good morning

Another airline retires its 747s, with United’s last 747 repeating and recreating the ambience of the flight of their first 747, to Honolulu, earlier this week.  While it is easy to understand how a series of planes which first flew in February 1969 is now due for retirement, it is still a sad passing of an era.  For many of us, the distinctive shape and size of a 747 was a frequent symbol of empowerment, taking us affordably and comfortably to far away places, a bookend experience at the start and stop of many memorable travels.

The big puzzlement of course is that the successor to the 747, for all intents and purposes, is not the even larger A380, but rather a series of smaller planes – the 777 and 787, and the A330 and A350.  But that’s a story for another time, and with no clear consensus as to what or why.

Still thinking of flying related matters, and the changes between now and decades before, one of the many small courtesies that used to be standard on all flights, but which now either doesn’t exist, rarely appears, and/or is charged for, is the provision of blankets.  I’m also increasingly perceiving in-cabin temperatures to be a bit lower than they formerly were – maybe that is just me and my own changing temperature preferences, but often these days I find myself putting my jacket on to stay warm.

A concept that once seemed unnecessary is increasingly something to consider – buying your own travel blanket and bringing it with you.  So I did exactly that; although with typical overkill, I bought not one, not two, but four, and have been testing them out.  My favorite was not the cheapest, but neither was it the most expensive or the second most expensive, so if you’re thinking of travel blankets too, read the article that follows the newsletter before making your choice.

What else this week?  Please keep reading for :

  • Kazakhstan Tour Next May
  • The World’s Best Airline (Five Years in a Row)
  • New Life for the A380
  • Why Shrinking Airline Seats Don’t Matter?
  • TripAdvisor – All of the Good Reviews and None of the Bad?
  • Still More on the National Parks Pass
  • Interesting Approach to Renting Cars
  • iPhone X a Success
  • The TSA Might Be Four Times Better Than Before.  Maybe.
  • And Lastly This Week….

Kazakhstan Tour Next May

It seems our Kazakhstan tour – a definitely different type of travel experience – will proceed in mid/late May next year, traveling between Astana and Almaty by coach, train, and air.

More details perhaps next week, but for now, please keep your mid/late May free if this could be of interest.

The World’s Best Airline (Five Years in a Row)

Well, it doesn’t fly you to Kazakhstan (item above) and neither does it have any A380s, but can you guess the airline that has just been named, for the fifth year in a row, as the world’s best airline by the readers of Conde Nast Traveler magazine?

Perhaps it would help to eliminate some possible answers by telling you the 2nd through 10th best airlines, which are Qantas, Singapore Airlines, Virgin Australia, Virgin Atlantic, Etihad Airways, All Nippon Airways, Korean Air, Cathay Pacific and Japan Airlines.

That’s an interesting list with some surprising inclusions and omissions, and some unsurprising inclusions and omissions as well.

But which excellent airline wasn’t named, and what airline could possibly be winning this award for five straight years?  A clue in the picture above, and the answer in the final item, below.

New Life for the A380

The poor A380, once the seeming sure successor to the 747, has been struggling for orders.  Apart from Emirates single-handedly ordering 142 of the plane’s total orders of 317, no-one else has ordered more than 24 (Singapore Airlines) or 20 (Qantas).  In 2015 there were only two planes ordered, in 2016 there were none, and this year so far the result is a net of two planes cancelled.

More ominously, the pool of outstanding orders is shrinking.  Currently there are only 98 orders in reserve, and some of those seem a bit ambiguous – like, for example, the oft delayed deliveries of the six planes Virgin Atlantic made a big show of buying and which were expected to be delivered two years ago.  Airbus is currently making the planes at a rate of one a month, and has been looking at slowing that down in 2019, possibly to one every month and a half.

While it might seem that at these rates, there is the better part of a decade’s orders, it isn’t quite that simple.  Airlines have delivery schedules – they might say ‘we don’t want any planes until 2020, then we want three a year for three years’ or whatever applies, and the manufacturer has to try and smooth over the peaks and troughs of when airlines want planes with a cumbersome production line that takes a considerable time to speed up or slow down.  The worst thing is to have completed airplanes unsold, the second worst thing is to have such a long wait that airlines are forced to take other planes because they can’t wait as long as it would take.  Production scheduling is a very delicate art.

Emirates has been going through a bit of a rough period recently, and its requests for a new improved version of the A380 have been rebuffed by Airbus.  But word is starting to leak out that there’s a growing chance that Airbus and Emirates might announce an order for somewhere between 20 – 50 more A380s at the Dubai Air Show, being held next week.  It is expected that if this happens, it will be due to Airbus having agreed to make some tweaks and enhancements to the A380.

Clearly, another 20 – 50 planes added to the A380 order book would buy the plane another 2 – 5 years or so of being in production, and Airbus continues to desperately hope that the world’s aviation marketplace will finally catch up with the Airbus prediction that there will be a growing need, once more, for jumbo sized planes, so as to relieve congestion at primary hubs (Heathrow in particular being the poster child for that concept).

What Airbus didn’t fully anticipate was that the airlines would relieve hub pressure a different way.  They are flying smaller planes between secondary centers, and bypassing the hubs entirely.

We had generally echoed Airbus’ predictions for future airplane types, and we too continue to think the market will eventually catch up with the A380’s capacities and capabilities.  But when?

And to put the A380’s 317 orders into perspective, the 747 sold 1553 units (the last 14 are still being built).  Emirates never ordered any 747s, but SQ ordered 93 and QF ordered 57 (in both cases spread over several different generations and many decades).

Why Shrinking Airline Seats Don’t Matter?

Here’s a curious NY Times article that manages to advocate for both sides of an issue – the ever smaller amount of space per passenger on a plane.  I guess that’s their idea of balanced reporting – telling us something is simultaneously good and bad?

The most telling part, for me, was the statistic that airline seats originally were designed for men who averaged 5′ 10″ and 170lbs.  Currently the average man is 200lbs.  Okay, so neither the person giving the statistic nor the NYT bothered to specify when ‘originally’ was – are we talking Wright Brothers, post WW2, or subsequent to the 737 and 747?  Neither did they care to update us on the average height of a man, which Google suggests is still about the same – here’s an interesting article on this slightly off-topic point.

My focus, however, is on the weight issue, because that touches on seat width, and seat width is increasingly the more pressing constraint.  I do concede that narrower seats have ameliorated the worst of the more cramped seat pitch, but heavier men (and, yes, ladies, heavier women too) have spread out sideways making the seat width a greater issue.

TripAdvisor – All of the Good Reviews and None of the Bad?

TripAdvisor is a company that often finds itself enmired in controversy over the accuracy of its reviews.  Maybe it is an establishment bribing people to post fake positive reviews.  Maybe it is an establishment posting fake negative reviews of a competitor.  Maybe it is a reviewer trying to blackmail an establishment with the threat of a bad review so as to get preferential treatment.  Or maybe it is a group of establishments that have banded together to ban anyone who gives any of their members a bad review (whether fair or not).

Somehow though, the value of its underlying premise – fair reviews by real customers – has survived all the different attacks on its integrity and is a broadly relied upon resource when people are making travel planning decisions.

The latest twist has been slowly emerging.  It turns out that TripAdvisor has been censoring some negative hotel reviews due to being either ‘family unfriendly’ or hearsay.  That’s an interesting and unbalanced policy – you can say anything good about an establishment and no-one ever considers it as hearsay.  But say something bad, and it may be rejected.

What exactly was the family unfriendly subject that TripAdvisor chose to censor?  Allegations of drink spiking and rape at some Mexican hotels, by the hotel employees.  True, not exactly a family friendly topic to discuss, but not exactly a family friendly activity to turn a blind eye to, either, wouldn’t you think?

And about that hearsay?  Were these people saying ‘I heard in a bar two people talking about their experience at this hotel…’.  That would indeed be hearsay.  Nope.  It was people saying “I was raped when staying at this hotel by their hotel staff”.  That’s nowhere near hearsay; you can’t get a more direct statement than that.

This article named and shamed TripAdvisor and exposed the subject.

So first TripAdvisor undeletes the now years-old reviews, but because they are now years old, they are safely buried so far down the reviews as to no longer be visible.

After continued controversy (including the delightful fact that the chief hotel starring in this story won TripAdvisor’s 2017 highest honor, its “Traveler’s Choice” award, the company agreed to flag such properties with a warning notice.

But, what a warning notice.  It says

Message from TripAdvisor: TripAdvisor has been made aware of recent media reports or events concerning this property which may not be reflected in reviews found on this listing. Accordingly, you may wish to perform additional research for information about this property when making your travel plans.

For all that notice says or implies, maybe the recent media reports are positive and good!  Details here.

Still More on the National Parks Pass

I’ve been writing about the cost of visiting national parks over the last couple of weeks, first pointing out the likely skyrocketing in admission costs and then, last week, pointing out the great value offered by the Senior Lifetime Pass.

Reader David writes in to point out :

Good point about the senior pass.  However, they are not a panacea.

One major chink in their armor is that they are valid at parks operated by the National Park Service, but not at parks operated by CONTRACTORS — like Yosemite.  So check this out first — before you travel — or your free admission for a carload of folks could morph into a several-hundred-dollars venture.

Interesting Approach to Renting Cars

It is commonly known that, just as birds migrate, so too do tourists and the infrastructure to support them, or at least the moveable parts thereof.  We see cruise ships swap between the Mediterranean and the Caribbean, for example, and offering low-priced trans-Atlantic crossings as part of their positioning voyages.

Another trend is for rental vehicles to need to be shifted, both for seasonal reasons and also because some journeys are more popular in one direction than the other, as often as not for no valid reason, but just ‘because’.

Rental car (and rental van) companies will sometimes fill up vehicle transporters with their cars to shuttle them back again, and they’ll also offer directional specials, hoping to encourage people to rent ‘against the flow’ and bring the vehicles back for them.

There’s a new website – Imoova – that has details of some of these one-way rentals, where you can find yourself paying as little as $1/day for a vehicle.  Most of their listings are in New Zealand and Australia, but they have a few in the US and plan to grow further.

If you have flexibility in your travel plans, this might save you considerably.

iPhone X a Success

We’d cautioned that it was premature to point to the failure of the iPhone 8, because it had to be seen in the context of the pending iPhone X release, which we felt was overshadowing the iPhone 8.  It now seems the iPhone X is making up for the lack of iPhone 8 sales.

Whereas there seemed to be no people doing the traditional lining up the day before outside Apple stores to buy iPhone 8 phones, the crowds were back for the iPhone X, but I was interested to note that there were references to some stores not selling out of phones last Friday morning, but still having stock as late as Sunday.  Usually all the phones are snatched off the shelves in remarkably quick time.

Generally most people are loving the phone’s beautiful high-quality screen, and there have not yet been any embarrassing problems such as have cropped up on some previous model iPhones in the first week or two after their release.  About the most critical comment has been to note that it is more fragile than any previous iPhone.

I don’t disagree with the suggestion the phone should immediately be wrapped inside a protective case, and that’s a recommendation good for most higher value phones these days.  But it makes nonsense of all the design elements elaborately planned for the back of a phone if it is destined to be immediately obscured within a case.

Here’s a fascinating article showing market shares for all the different iPhone models at present.  It leads with the observation that more iPhone X’s were sold/put into service over their first weekend than iPhone 8 phones, which is much as I’d expected.

As a counterpoint to the generally positive reviews everywhere on the iPhone, here’s Phil Baker’s “8 Reasons Not to Buy a New [i]Phone“.

The TSA Might Be Four Times Better Than Before.  Maybe.

Wow.  Can you imagine the celebrations in any normal workplace if their company had improved its operations four-fold.  Indeed, most companies wouldn’t be able to do that, because they’re already operating efficiently.

But with the TSA, getting four times better still represents a failing grade.  A couple of years ago, news leaked that the TSA was failing, 95% of the time, to detect weapons and explosives that were being smuggled through airport security.  Yes, 19 out of every 20 bombs and guns were passing by the TSA without being noticed.

Now, it is being suggested that possibly the TSA failure rate might have improved four-fold, so instead of detecting one out of every twenty bombs/guns, it is now detecting four.

As I said, simultaneously a magnificent improvement and an abject failure.

The TSA has an annual budget of about $8 billion, its parent organization, the DHS, has a total budget of about $67 billion.  It would be interesting to consider a cost/benefit analysis, but I’ve truly no idea how to factor in the value-judgments and variables.  If the TSA is spending $8 billion a year, and missing somewhere between 16 and 19 out of every 20 threats, yet still, there are no terror attacks on our planes, should we be pleased or not?  Should we ease back on the expenditure, or increase it?

Details here.

And Lastly This Week….

The world’s best airline, for the fifth year in a row, at least according to the readers of Conde Nast Traveler?  Air New Zealand (formerly known as Tasman Empire Airways Ltd or TEAL).

Look, Tesla – this is how it’s done.  Nissan announced their new model Leaf battery-powered car in September.  Deliveries started in October, and for the first month, they sold a massive 14,000 vehicles.

Compare that to Tesla’s announcement, which leaked in stages as far back as 2014, and was formally released in March 2016.  Now, 18+ months later, the company is struggling to produce a few hundred cars each month.

The Leaf is expected to arrive in the US early next year.

In other interesting Tesla news, their bold promises and plans for their Gigafactory to generate its own power from solar cells on its roof seem to have been quietly cancelled.

How much would you pay for a seafood lunch for three in Venice?  Does $775 sound about right?  The restaurant in question says the price is correct and fair.  The customer disagrees.

Who wants to bet that this restaurant owner is not one of the many Venetians protesting the city’s popularity as a tourist trap destination.  Details here.

Here’s a fascinating article about land use in Britain.  Guess how much of England (with the densest population of all Europe) is given over to high-intensity urban land use?  Hint – almost certainly, less than you think.

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels and have a great Memorial Day





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