Weekly Roundup, Friday 17 November, 2017

Astana, described with some justification as ‘the world’s weirdest capital city’ is the starting point for our May 2018 tour of Kazakhstan (with optional extension to Bishkek in Kyrgyzstan).

Good morning

It has been an interesting week, with a major development in terms of the future of the A380, but not the development generally anticipated last week.

I’ve been quietly busy this week, and have three feature articles to offer, in addition to the roundup.  One of these arose out of last week’s article on travel blankets, and amusingly/embarrassingly I realized that an article I thought I’d written almost a decade ago somehow never actually made it to the website.  Ooops.  So, a mere nine years late, I’ve now written a review of what is generally my favorite travel pillow, a good combination of comfort, compactness, and convenience, and at a sensible cost.

The second item is another glimpse into the future of motor vehicle transport, this time pointing out that no matter how keen Toyota might be with their Mirai fuel-cell powered car, there’s no way that fuel cells will ever become anything other than a bizarre footnote to the mainstream of vehicle power systems.

The third article started off as one of the roundup stories, but grew to a point where it deserved its own article.  There’s more than meets the eye to the refusal by Emirates this week to order additional A380s.  I don’t know what is not being revealed, but I do know that the official reason for their not proceeding with a new order makes little sense.

As a side comment, at the same time Emirates is waffling about maybe ordering more A380s, it is spending a huge amount of money upgrading their present fleet.  Who better to explain this than Jeremy Clarkson (am I the only person eagerly awaiting season two of The Grand Tour?).

And what else?  Please read on for :

  • Kazakhstan Tour Dates Now Confirmed
  • How Airlines Compete
  • Biggest Airplane Order Ever at Dubai Airshow
  • Supersonic Planes Again
  • Russia Says ‘Don’t Forget About Our Plane Plans Too’
  • A Slow Hyperloop?
  • iPhone X Problems
  • Tesla Continues its Unique Approach to Business
  • How Small Can a Weapon of Mass Destruction Be?
  • And Lastly This Week….

Kazakhstan Tour Dates Now Confirmed

We ended up with a very even split of people preferring May or September for our tour of Kazakhstan, so decided to choose May.  We have a possible Ireland tour being created for late August/early September, and probably New Zealand for late October/early November, and hopefully another Christmas cruise in early December, so May seemed a better time.

I’ve added dates to the page about the tour, and will add all the ‘fine print’ and other details in time for next week.

An astute observer will note how the Kazakhstan tour ends shortly before the Grand Expedition of Great Britain starts.  That is not a coincidence, although I’m still trying to decide if I’ll briefly fly back to the US, or just stay in Europe/Asia for the short time between the one and the other.  I might add another day or two of optional post-touring to the Kazakhstan tour if I stay on.

How Airlines Compete

The new mantra among airlines is to right-size their fleets and routes.  Airlines have discovered the hidden joys of operating full planes, and nowadays would rather fly one plane full and leave people behind, than fly two planes, each 3/4 full.

They are no longer in the business of providing efficient convenient air transportation (cynics might say they never have been in that business).  Instead they are in the business of squeezing as many people as possible into as few planes as possible, all the more so because this artificial supply/demand imbalance allows them to justify charging higher fares.

So, what would an airline do if it noticed a route that was over-served with flights already?  Well, if it was a US dinosaur airline, and the other airlines were fellow ‘competitors’, it would probably ease back on its own flights.  That’s how ‘competition’ works in the US these days.

But if it is an international route being operated by an independent airline, rather than stepping respectfully back, you do exactly the opposite, and start flying the route yourself, no matter whether there is any reason to do so or not.

Iceland is a small country of only 334,000 people.  It is well served by Icelandair, and more recently, by WOW Air, which is moving positively to offer services to the US.

But – here’s the thing.  Both Icelandair and now WOW Air too primarily fly people between the US and Europe, merely going via Iceland.  It is actually a very sensible place to hub – if you look at a globe and draw a ‘great circle route’ you’ll see the shortest route between much of Europe and much of the US actually runs very close to directly overhead Reykjavik.

So you’d think, if you were a US carrier, you’d see these two tiny airlines offering service to Europe, and either ignore them, because they only fly to a limited number of US (and European) cities, or else, offer competitive fares between the same city pairs, but instead of flying from US city to EU city via Iceland, of course fly from US city to EU city via their own pre-existing hub, wherever it makes operational sense to do so.

But, no.  Instead, in an amusing example of knee-jerk responses, first Delta back in 2011 started limited seasonal service to Iceland, then United earlier this year, and now American Airlines too.

But – here’s the thing.  Their flights are only to Iceland, not going on further into Europe.

The AA flight is particularly curious.  First WOW announced plans in September to start flying to DFW.  Then a week later, arch-competitor Icelandair said it would start flying to DFW as well.  All of a sudden, DFW went from zero to two airlines flying to Reykjavik (and of course, on to the rest of Europe too).

So AA has now said it will start flying to Reykjavik too.  But whereas most of the people on the other two airlines might never actually leave Reykjavik/Keflavik airport and just change planes on their way on to/from Europe, AA will need to find sufficient people who only want to go to Iceland and no further to support its new service.  AA will operate a 176 seat 757 on a daily service between 7 June and 27 October next year.

We wish them luck filling the approximately 22,000 seats they’ll be adding to the route.  Details here.

Biggest Airplane Order Ever at Dubai Airshow

After the first day at the Dubai airshow, with the double bad news for Airbus (Emirates not ordering more A380s, and Emirates ordering 787s), it was looking like this was going to be a bad year for the Airbus order book.

And then, two days later, things dramatically changed, with the announcement of an order for 430 A320neo planes.  That’s the largest airplane order, ever.  The planes were ordered by Indigo Partners, probably a name you’ve not heard of before.

So who are Indigo Partners that they can place such a huge order?  They are the company that owns Frontier Airlines in the US, and parts of JetSMART in Chile, Volaris in Mexico, and Wizz Air in Hungary.  Wizz gets 148 of the planes, Frontier 134, and the other two airlines the balance.

Coming in very strongly was Boeing, with an order announced the same day for 225 737MAX planes from  flyDubai (an affiliate of Emirates Airline).  So one way and another Emirates is tilting strongly into the Boeing camp.

The show was also positive for Bombardier.  Egyptair announced its plans to buy 12 CS300s, with options on another 12.  Egyptair has been waffling on the ‘will we/won’t we order some CS300s’ all year, and it seems the new 50.01% ownership by Airbus of the CS series program has given them the confidence to go forward.

Similarly an unannounced European buyer has also confirmed an order for up to 61 CS100 planes.  So the CS series is looking much stronger now than it was a month or two ago.  With neither buyer being based in the US, the Boeing argument with Bombardier and threat of punitive Customs duties of course has no bearing, other than in the sense that Boeing’s bullying of Bombardier forced Bombardier into Airbus’ arms, and now airlines the world over all feel much more positive about ordering CS series planes.

Boeing’s own goal continues to score.

Supersonic Planes Again

If their airplane design and building abilities are anywhere near as good as their pr abilities, then maybe Boom will finally prove to be the one company that actually makes good on their promises and successfully develops a successor to the Concorde.

They were present at the Dubai Show, and generated another round of unquestioning praise.  This second article is interesting because it first quotes the claim that seats on the Boom SST would cost ‘the same as normal flights’ but then modifies that further down to ‘about the same as flying business class today’.

There’s a huge difference between ‘the same as normal flights’ and ‘about the same as business class’.  I can’t see either claim as being likely, because the plane will be small – perhaps with 50 seats, perhaps 55 in a ‘higher density configuration’ (which doesn’t sound very appealing), and costing a firm $200 million (only a little less than a 500 – 550 seat A380, in other words).  Currently their website is down, but that is almost certainly a very temporary glitch.

The second article is also interesting because further down it has a ‘slide show’ that shows a number of other different SST proposals that are in the works.  So many.

Russia Says ‘Don’t Forget About Our Plane Plans Too’

Also at the Dubai Airshow were the Russian airplane manufacturers.  It is easy to forget that Russia still makes planes, and would like to claw back the market share it lost with the fall of the Soviet Union and all its (almost literally) captive markets.

Russia’s MC-21 series of planes currently have two models, one that is about the same size as a small Boeing/Airbus or a Bombardier CS300, with a capacity of about 132 passengers in a two class configuration (the MC-21-200) and the other a 163 passenger in two classes configuration, the MC-21-300 that is moving more directly in to 737/A320 territory.

Interestingly, they are now talking about joining up with the Chinese aircraft manufacturer, Comac, and coming out with an even larger MC-21-400, with a 250 passenger capacity, slightly larger than a 737/A320.  A three plane lineup becomes an interesting family of planes, and with Russia and China (and their allied markets) behind the venture, it could become a major player.  Comac have also been slowly developing a plane similar to the MC-21-300 and this may enter commercial service perhaps in 2020.

If the tenacity and cash of the Chinese is matched with the design skills and experience of the Russians, the result could be impressive.  Watch out, Airbus and Boeing.

A Slow Hyperloop?

One of the many ideas that Elon Musk temporarily appropriated and called his own is that of the hyperloop.  In its pure form it comprises a sealed tube system with most of the air pumped out, allowing pods to shuttle through the tubes at very high speed with very little friction.  It is possible this system might be surprisingly affordable to build, much lower impact than regular high speed trains (because the noise and ‘slipstream’ of a regular train is contained within the tube), and capable of astonishingly high speeds, 600+ mph (faster than passenger jets).

Several different companies are pursuing hyperloop concepts independent of each other, and claim to be in substantive discussions with potential operators in various parts of the world.

One of the newer hyperloop companies is Arrivo.  It was formed after a messy dispute at the company Hyperloop One saw one of its founders leave with salacious lawsuits flying around, and create Arrivo instead.

Arrivo claims to be close to getting an agreement with the Colorado Dept of Transportation and other bodies to establish some routes in and out of Denver – to the airport and to Boulder in particular.

Unfortunately, and as the relatively short distances hint, the Arrivo product is not a 600 mph superfast product.  Its pods would move at a relatively sedate 200 mph.  But as anyone who has been stuck on the Denver-Boulder Turnpike in the morning or evenings can attest to, 200 mph is probably akin to ten times faster than current traffic speeds.

The nicest part of the Arrivo concept is that you could drive your car onto (or should that be ‘into’) a pod, then have the pod whisk you to your destination, then drive your car out again at the other end.  That solves the ‘last mile’ problems at each end, and also means you can keep all your ‘stuff’ in your car as you normally do.

All going well, the system could be up and running in 2021.  That seems an astonishingly short timeframe for something that has not yet even progressed to any sort of proof of concept stage, but let’s all wish them well.  Details here.

iPhone X Problems

I wrote last week, but apparently prematurely, that unlike most new iPhones, it seemed the iPhone X (am I the only one who mentally reads this as the letter ‘x’, not as ’10’) had been released without incurring any of the problems that seemed to arise with many of the previous iPhone releases.

This week, news of not one but two problems with the iPhone X.  A green line on the right of the display, and the screen ‘freezing’ – appropriately enough in cold weather.

Meanwhile, here’s an interesting article that suggests maybe the iPhone 8+ is better than the iPhone X.

And proving the unthinking way that so many people automatically rush to buy any new Apple product, here’s a hilarious situation where Jimmy Kimmel showed people a new iPhone X and asked for their comments.  People gushed over how wonderful it was, as you’d expect.  But what you wouldn’t expect was that the ‘iPhone X’ was actually an old iPhone 4!

Oh – talking about iPhones, there’s much less talk about Apple’s watch product, or indeed, about smart watches in general.  I was idly looking on Google’s Play store this week to see what the current range of Android Wear OS based watches was, and to my astonishment, I see that Google no longer shows any watches at all.  I also realized that the earlier flood of new smart watch releases has pretty much dried up to the barest of trickles now.

While there are still Android Wear watches available, one has to wonder if Google’s quiet de-emphasis of the product sector presages its dropping the Android Wear OS and its future development.

Tesla Continues its Unique Approach to Business

What do you do if you’re running an electric car company, and you’ve two established car models that you are struggling to keep sales numbers up for, and a new third car model that you’re struggling to start producing in appreciable numbers, while all the time losing extraordinary amounts of money to the point that some commentators are expressing concern about the company’s future viability?

Do you focus on your core two products, that you can produce?  Do you focus on resolving the problems with your new third product?

Or do you go off on an unrelated tangent, and announce plans to start making 18 wheeler semi trucks as well – trucks that won’t go on sale until 2019 at the earliest, and which will, prior to then, do nothing except bleed off more cash and distract from your three already problematic automobiles?

Well, you can guess what Elon Musk did on Thursday night.  Yes, it seems that Tesla is now going to crossover from passenger cars into commercial trucks.  A truck that can take a 400 mile charge into its (unspecified capacity) battery in just 30 minutes, and apparently from Tesla’s existing supercharger network.

That’s something I’m going to have to see to believe (I’m guessing it may require power at a rate of 800 kW – like turning on 600 home heaters, all at once).  Currently Tesla’s superchargers operate at a maximum of 120kW, and each two outlet charger has a total of 145kw to share between two cars.  Getting from 120-145kW up to 800 kW out of a single charger and into a single vehicle would be quite some challenge – both for the supercharger station and for the electrical grid supplying it.

And then what happens when two trucks pull up at the same time.  Plus a car or two as well.

Oh yes.  He also announced a new sports car.  Even faster than any of the other Tesla cars.  The new sports car is slated to go into production in 2020.

No doubt Tesla’s investors will react with uncritical delight when the markets open today (Friday).  Details here.

How Small Can a Weapon of Mass Destruction Be?

Help me out on this, if you can.  How small or how big does something have to be to become a ‘weapon of mass destruction’?  I’ve always felt WMDs were especially draconian – you know, the sort of thing we’d go to war over (and indeed did in Iraq).

Okay, so we can probably all agree that a nuke from North Korea would qualify as a WMD.  It seems that chemical weapons have also been generally categorized as WMDs.

But what about a single bomb, dropped from a plane?  A Tomahawk missile?  Are those WMDs?  Or are they, well, single bombs?

Most people would probably say that while a bomb might be capable of destroying an entire building and of killing the people inside it, it is still an ‘ordinary’ bomb and not a WMD.  If, on the other hand, cruise missiles and drone dropped bombs are WMDs, we have a bit of national soul-searching to do.

The reason for my question is this news article.  It tells how a person had a home-made pipe bomb.  There is some suggestion that at some point it might have been going to be used in some way against a neighbor.  We don’t know the size of the pipe bomb, but we do know it was small enough to be in an employee’s ordinary ‘going to work’ carry bag.  We don’t know the type of explosive, but the term ‘home-made’ seems to suggest it was fairly ordinary – maybe gunpowder.  In all probability, gunpowder – especially if home made – in a ‘pipe bomb’ might struggle to create sufficient a blast as to pop the caps off the pipe bomb.

The person, coincidentally an air traffic controller, when discovered with the pipe bomb, was arrested and charged with possession of a weapon of mass destruction, acquiring a weapon of mass destruction, and transporting a weapon of mass destruction.

Never mind the wonderful way that a single situation involves three different but almost identical charges.  Can someone please explain to me in which alternate universe home-made pipe bombs have become weapons of mass destruction?

And Lastly This Week….

I was just wondering, above, how trivial something can be and still be considered a weapon of mass destruction.  Perhaps a clue to this can be seen in how a short circuiting, smouldering camera battery at Orlando Airport shut down the entire airport for an unclear amount of time, but resulting in 24 cancelled flights, and thousands of travelers suffering hours of delays.

Orlando has two terminals and four different sets of gates at the end of shuttle trams, and each about half a mile from the other.

Details here.  Although described as an ‘explosion’ it is fair to note that the battery was doing nothing more than some sparking and sputtering.  But I did like the official reference to passengers ‘self evacuating’.   That used to be called ‘running away’.

Talking about things that are smaller than you think, here’s an interesting list of travel attractions that are smaller than you might think.

My article about the USPS and its unfair shipping rate schedule continues to get some excellent comments, thank you.  I noticed something I’d not realized before with Amazon this last weekend – maybe it is new.  I had a shipment coming from their ‘Fresh’ service and, as a Prime member, I was given free shipping.  But Amazon had another line on its summary of charges ‘tip to driver’ or words to that effect, with $5.00 pre-filled in.

So we are to get free shipping, but are now being suggested/encouraged to give a $5 tip to the delivery driver????  I’m probably the worst person to comment on this, because I come from a culture where we never tip anyone for anything, but since when did we start tipping parcel delivery people?  Should I be giving the UPS driver $5 every time he brings something to the door?  And how is the relativity established?  If an Amazon driver is worth $5, how much is the DHL driver with an expensive international shipment (and a $100+ freight charge) worth?  How about the USPS postie – will the next time I get something from China that costs me $2.50 for the item and the delivery fees then cause me to have to pay twice the cost of the item and shipping as a tip?

Free shipping is no longer free if we’re expected to pay a $5 tip.  I decided not to.  By coincidence, my package was delivered to the wrong address, something that has never happened before.

The apparent non/lost delivery caused Amazon to offer me a $20 credit and refund the entire order.  After I ordered the items a second time, the neighbor called to say she had my package.  I called Amazon to say ‘cancel the duplicate order’ and they said ‘it is too late to cancel it now, so just keep both orders’.  Net result, I received $120 worth of goods and paid $40 for them.  That’s the best outcome I’ve ever experienced from not paying a tip!

As people who travel with me know, I place some importance on punctuality.  But what would I do if I ever were to inadvertently leave 20 seconds early?  Would I respond the same way that a Japanese rail company did after one of its trains was deemed to have left 20 seconds too soon (the next train left a mere four minutes later)?

Truly lastly this week, the next time you’ll hear from me will be when you’re recovering from too much turkey the day before.  If you’re planning on driving somewhere for this Thanksgiving, here’s some unfortunate news.

But, if you do drive somewhere, I hope the pleasant time at your destination will more than compensate you for the inconvenience in driving there.  And if you’re flying, here’s something to ponder while the miles rush by underneath.

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels





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