Weekly Roundup, Friday 16 February, 2018

When Disneyland opened in 1955, an adult ticket was $1.00, and a child ticket was 50c.

Good morning

It was another interesting week, some of which is reported for you below.  In addition, I’m adding three stand-alone articles.

One observes how Disney amusement park ticket prices have been going up at a rate averaging three times that of inflation for the last five years, and almost always, going back as far as one can, at some rate above inflation.  But at the same time, the parks are getting more crowded, and the lines longer, making for a visit experience that frankly is getting worse and worse as well as more and more expensive (with last week’s latest price rise, you can now spend up to $200 for a one day pass).

Of course, Disney is under no obligation to reduce its rates, and as long as there’s a crush of people flocking to their parks every day, they’d be foolish to do so.  But I do have some suggestions for them as to how to better manage their income and their guest numbers, plus a few suggestions to you about how to control some elements of the runaway costs of a day at Disney.

The second is in response to a friend asking me why I seem to hate Tesla and Elon Musk so much.  I don’t hate either, I love the cars and admire the man.  But – and it is an important but…… read the article to see why I believe the mainstream media are failing in their job of holding public figures and public companies (ie Musk and Tesla) accountable.  As witness how, after last week’s disastrous financial disclosures, its shares quickly plunged 10%, before turning round and steadily regaining their lost ground, and now are within reach of their high a week ago.  There’s been no new good news to cause the shares to turn around and soar, and indeed, if you searched for it, there’s been more bad news after a precious few analysts drilled down into the numbers and disclosures to see the darker truths within.  But neither the market nor the media seems to care.  This is a total mystery that needs explanation.

The third article reports on Amtrak’s dangerous gamble.  Imagine if your child said to you “If you don’t let me go to bed early, I won’t do my homework”.  You’d probably agree to that, wouldn’t you!  In a not dissimilar manner, Amtrak is threatening to stop operating its long distance trains if the freight railroads don’t install PTC.  The freight railroads don’t want to install PTC and wish Amtrak would go away, and the federal government is keen for any excuse to cut back on Amtrak’s subsidies.  So exactly who is Amtrak pressuring?

What else this week?  Last call for the $500 discount due to a cancellation on the Grand Tour of Great Britain this JuneAnd a gentle request to please now send in your intentions to join us on the Triple K tour in May.

Plus, a few more items, on :

  • Mr Trump’s Strange Approach to Big Government
  • Is This Why Airlines are Starting to Push Back Against Comfort Animals?
  • Bad News, More Bad News, and Even More Bad News About Our Phones
  • If an Animal or Adult Did This, They’d Be Strapped to Their Seat and Gagged.  But……
  • Is Orlando Intl Airport Unfairly Blaming the TSA?
  • And Lastly This Week….

Mr Trump’s Strange Approach to Big Government

Cut government spending, reduce government regulation – these are two of the phrases that got Mr Trump into the Oval Office.  True, he has certainly had his flashes of brilliance subsequently, and his current budget proposals include a suggestion to privatize/sell off Washington National/Reagan Airport and Dulles, while making it easier for other airports to privatize as well.

He is also keen to see the FAA privatized, and believes that might see a lessening in the extraordinary delays in modernizing our air traffic control system.  While I agree that generally private industry can manage most assets and resources more efficiently than government bodies, and I note the success of private air traffic control services in other countries; to be fair to the FAA, it has been handicapped to date by government oversight and insufficient funding.  The problem is not so much with the people in the FAA itself, as it is with their political lords and masters.

But, after supporting those concepts (which are perhaps unlikely to come to pass any time soon) Mr Trump then turns around and advocates increasing the fees we pay to the government for airport security and for customs/immigration services when we fly back from out of the country.

This article reports that the $5.60 security fee per segment we fly would increase to $6.60, the customs fee from $5.64 to $7.75, and the immigration fee from $7 to $9.

I’ve regularly analyzed these fees and every time come to a similar conclusion, that the fees are extraordinarily high and way in excess of the costs incurred to provide the services.  My analysis has been conceded as being correct, with the government admitting that one third of the security fee gets siphoned off the top and used for things unrelated to security at all.  It is simply government ‘profit’, on top of government inefficiency.  So there’s no possible way to justify increasing the security fee at all, because we are already paying 50% over the actual cost of the security that is provided.

Similar analysis applies to the other fees, too.

The philosophical surprise here is that surely Mr Trump would be the first to demand that government provide better services more efficiently and at lower cost, rather than rubber stamping every travel related fee increase that crosses his desk and allowing the further growth of big/inefficient/unaccountable government.

Is This Why Airlines are Starting to Push Back Against Comfort Animals?

Reader Paul wrote in wondering if there was an ulterior motive behind the airlines’ mild reluctance to now allow most farmyard animals onto planes as comfort pets.  He says

Just wondering if anyone else has grumbled about this latest airline revenue grab?

If one does can not take a pet as a “comfort pet” you instead must pay $200 (Delta) and it then becomes your designated one free carryon item.  If one is paying special for an item shouldn’t we still get the basics?

This practice has been in place for at least a year and a half, when I had to pay for our trip last February.  I had thought nothing of it until one of my clients did the same and complained to me.  She had a small dog to take and they made her check what she wanted as her carryon.  So she paid $200 for the dog as her carryon, and $40 for her second piece of checked luggage.  They would not let her take the dog (in a bag, for an extra $200), plus her purse, and regular carryon.

My recollection is when I was arranging for flights last year United was charging the same.

It certainly does seem like double-dipping – ‘you can bring a pet on board, but only if you pay an extra $200 AND you lose your ability to bring a carry-on with you also’.

There are many flights where the each-way fare is less than $200, I wonder if one can simply buy a second ticket for the pet, save money, and then be able to bring carry-on items for both yourself and the pet?

Can pets have frequent flier accounts in their name, too?

Bad News, More Bad News, and Even More Bad News About Our Phones

When Verizon was allowed to bid on some extra radio frequencies, part of the deal with the FCC was that it would unlock the phones it sold, allowing the phones’ owners the not unfair ability to use them with other networks if they wished.

But now, using the most specious of excuses, Verizon says it will start locking its phones again, something which it says is still observing the spirit of the agreement that requires it to unlock all phones.  That’s a strained interpretation for sure, and Verizon is hiding behind the concept that by locking its phones to only work on its network, it will make them less desirable to thieves.

This is a nonsense concept.  The ugly truth is that the mobile telcos love it when our phones are stolen.  Why?  Because they get to sell us a new phone, and make more money from doing so, and possibly also extend a contractual obligation for us to stay on their network even longer.

There has always been an easy way to respond to stolen phones, by creating a central shared database of all phone serial numbers (ESN or IMEI numbers).  If a phone is stolen, its serial number is flagged in the central database and none of the US carriers would then allow it to work on their network.

This is exactly the way it is done in Britain and elsewhere.  But the US carriers refuse to do this.  And now, Verizon says it is locking our phones, ‘for our protection’.

If you believe that, I’ve some oceanfront property in Arizona to sell you….  Details (of Verizon’s perfidy, not my oceanfront AZ property) here.

In more bad phone news, some of the best and best value new Android phones in the market today come from Chinese companies such as Huawei and ZTE.

There’s only one problem with them – six different US intelligence agencies, in a rare display of consensus, are urging the US government to warn us not to buy such phones, due to concerns they might contain spyware enabling the Chinese government to directly access our phones and the information on them.

So, okay, you might think that you have nothing to hide.  Maybe you are nothing more than a Walmart greeter, never do anything illegal, and never travel out of your local county.  But your phone might still be helpful to an enemy – because it might be used to detect other phones around it, enabling the enemy to trace the movements of people of interest to it.  Maybe you are not of interest, but the guy next door to you is of interest, and so your phone can spy on your neighbor.  It might be able to use your phone’s camera to see other people walking past you.  It might create a ‘mesh network’ of your phone and thousands of others, allowing for a totally invisible phone network for its spies to communicate on.

The possibilities are endless.  And the concern is credible.  Details here.

But, one has to wonder – why only these two Chinese companies?  Is there a single enterprise in China that isn’t ultimately beholden to the Chinese government?  Not that I’m aware of.  And who exactly is it that makes your Apple phone?  A Chinese company, in China.

So how about that ultimate American icon, Motorola?  Nope, they’re owned by Lenovo these days.  Or that ultimate Finnish icon, Nokia?  Well, they were for a while owned by Microsoft, but now the Nokia brand is owned by another company, and they will get new Nokia phones made for them by…. the Chinese.

And (our third piece of bad news) why are we only concerned about China as a threat vector?  How about the Russians?  Or, perhaps, as this article suggests, the Iranians?

They say it is either a wise man or a fool who claims to know who his father is.  Well, it is a far wiser man, or a far more foolish one, who claims to be comfortable about the integrity, security and privacy of his cell phone.  Because, let’s not forget, along with the Chinese, Iranians, and who only knows what other major powers, our own NSA and CIA have both been at the forefront of developing phone ‘exploits’ too.

Question to Verizon :  Never mind locking our phones to reduce their value to thieves.  Could you lock them away from all these national actors, too, please.

If an Animal or Adult Did This, They’d Be Strapped to Their Seat and Gagged.  But……

How many times do we read of a passenger and crew member having a minor disagreement, whereupon the crew member announces they won’t fly with the passenger, who is then summarily offloaded.  Sometimes planes will divert and make emergency landings, and on other occasions, passengers will be forcibly restrained and tied to their seat, even apparently gagged on one recent occasion.

As for animals, the airlines are now starting to toughen up on what they will accept with animals.

But what about misbehaving children?  Why does everyone turn the other way and allow children to behave in a totally unacceptable fashion, ruining the travel experience for countless other passengers, all around them?  I was once subjected to a screaming infant in the seat a row ahead of me for most of a 15 hour flight between Los Angeles and Sydney, an event that was all the more significant for two reasons.  It was in first class.  And, oh yes, the mother was an airline staff member, flying free (something the airline subsequently told me was impossible, but which I clearly saw on a printout of the passenger manifest).

The reason for raising it this morning is due to this video and associated story – a child (not infant, but child of perhaps 8 or so) who screamed ‘demonically’ for most of an eight-hour flight between Germany and New York.  Why should a plane with 250+ passengers on board all be cowed into submission and forced to endure eight hours of an out-of-control child?

To put it bluntly, if the child has a behavioral problem, isn’t it reasonable to expect him to be sedated?  If the problem is a permissive parent with not the slightest idea of how to manage her child, why should it be us who suffer the consequences?

Is Orlando Intl Airport Unfairly Blaming the TSA?

Orlando Airport (MCO) is considering dumping the TSA and replacing them with private contractors.  The very much smaller Orlando Sanford Airport switched to using private contractors in 2015, and MCO has been publicly talking about doing the same for several years, with it now scheduling a board meeting to consider the subject next week.

It is true that sometimes there are very long lines to go through security at MCO.  But what is not clear is who is to blame for this.

The TSA is of course very concerned that if a major airport such as MCO (the nation’s 13th largest airport) were to switch to private contractors, and especially if the switch were to prove successful, then maybe a domino effect would sweep through the country and see most other major airports do the same.  And so it has been unusually strident in defending itself, saying that the problem is the airport won’t give them the space to set up 19 additional screening lanes, which they’ve asked for, and which they need to handle the ever larger volumes of people using the airport.

Could it be the TSA actually are in the right on this occasion?  Details here.

And Lastly This Week….

We sometimes read about mysterious blocks of ice falling from the sky, generally believed to be from planes flying overhead.  In London, where security cameras seem to nowadays film just about every inch of every street, and often from multiple locations, one such block of ice was caught on a security camera.  It is amusing to see the reaction of the workman nearby.  Video here.

Did you find yourself wondering, last week, when Elon Musk’s Mars-bound car was successfully launched by his Space-X rocket, why it was that he could achieve something in little time and little cost, while NASA seems unable to do anything comparable, even with ten times the budget and ten times as much time?

The answer isn’t as obvious as you might think, and this Quora entry makes for excellent reading.

I shared a lovely short video of a Land Rover ‘crossing the Atlantic’ a few weeks back.  So it seems fitting to now share this video of a hybrid Range Rover ascending the 45° 999 step staircase to Heaven’s Gate.

When I used to fly a lot on United Airlines, many decades ago, I loved the ability to listen in on their radio channel as one of the audio choices.  Maybe they still feature that, it is happily many years since I last had to fly UA.  It always impressed me the way the pilots and air traffic controllers interacted so crisply and clearly and professionally.

So imagine my disillusionment upon hearing this compilation of overheard exchanges between pilots and air traffic controllers.  I’m shocked, simply shocked, to discover that some pilots are actually prissy prima donnas, spoiling for a fight.

And lastly this week, if you’re traveling with a friend this coming 1 April, here’s a great idea for a practical joke.  Well, sort of.

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels





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