Weekly Roundup, Friday 9 February, 2018

Why this photo? Read the article below about my bad advice.

Good morning

It has been another ‘interesting’ week; more of that below, of course.  And after writing a very lengthy piece about a nice program to improve headphone sound last week, I’m now offering you a lengthy piece about a subject that seemed even harder to grow into a 3,000+ word article – USB connecting cables.  It turned out to be a surprisingly interesting topic (I hope you might agree!) and it was fun to resurrect some of my years-ago learning about electrical circuitry.

The impact caused by our cables on charging our portable devices is much greater than I’d expected.  The article follows today’s roundup.

We still have a $500 discount up for grabs if you wish to join this year’s Grand Expedition of Great Britain.  Several people have expressed interest, but no-one has taken it yet.  Available due to a cancellation, it can be used either by a single person or a couple, but will only remain open for another week before I have to start giving back hotel rooms, etc.

I’ll not repeat the full screed about our current impressive line-up of tours – you can see the current status of them on our master tour page here.  Suffice it simply to note we’ve a varied range of experiences, in March, May, October and December of this year, plus more being developed for 2019.

And also, a reminder – I’m a featured speaker at the Frequent Traveler University event in Seattle on Saturday afternoon, 24 February.    If you’d like to come along to hear my speech, from 4pm – 5pm, let me know.  The event organizers have agreed to welcome Travel Insiders, free of charge, to that part of the two-day event.

And so, here now is :

  • Is it 1 April Already?  Ridiculous Hype for Unannounced Boeing Plane
  • A Very Drunk Pilot
  • Do Airlines Deliberately Seat Families Apart?
  • Guess Where the World’s Worst Traffic Congestion Is
  • A Good Week – and a Bad Week – For Mr Musk
  • The Travel Insider Gave Bad Advice
  • And Lastly This Week….

Is it 1 April Already?  Ridiculous Hype for Unannounced Boeing Plane

One of the many self-appointed ‘airline rating companies’ published an article headed “Finally, an aircraft – the 797 – that all passengers will love“, and gives a ‘hero shot’ showing a cabin mockup of what was probably a possible business class cabin of a proposed Boeing ‘7J7’ plane in 1990 (a plane that eventually became the 787).  As you can see, it shows a 1-2-1 seating layout with lots of space, although the article then reports on Boeing’s plans to release a new 797 at the Farnborough Air Show with 2-3-2 coach class seating and ‘huge overhead luggage bins’.  I don’t know why they chose the misleading photo they did to headline their article.

But wait, keep reading.  The best is yet to come.  We are told “The economy seat squeeze will finally be over!”.  No explanation or facts are given for this astonishing claim, though.

So let’s pour a bucket of cold water over this starry-eyed nonsense.  First, there’s no magic in 2-3-2 seating.  The 767 has offered that configuration for 36 years, and while it is a nice enough plane, the seats are the same size and pitch as other coach class seats on other planes.

The problem is not the size of the plane, but the propensity of airlines to fill all the available space with as many seats as possible, and no new plane is going to neutralize the airlines’ universal desire to get the most seats possible into coach class.

Indeed, if the article writer had thought about it enough, he’d have realized he was giving an example of exactly that.  He also shows a picture of a proposed 2-2-2 coach class layout on a McDonnell Douglas plane that became the MD-11.  The final seating layout on the MD-11?  A very much tighter 2-5-2.

We’ve seen airlines operating the 747 and 777 and even the A-380 all discover how they can squeeze extra seats into every coach class row.  If there’s spare space that could be made into seats, it will surely be so made.

You’d think that by now, aviation writers would know better than to again offer up nonsense like this.  We saw it with the 747 and its various bars and lounges, and how long that lasted.  We saw it more recently with fanciful concepts such as shopping malls and exercise gyms on A-380s, none of which ever made it off the drawing board.

And while I’m saying it is the airlines who cram the seats in, most of all it is us who pressure them to do so.  These days many airlines offer Premium Economy which is more akin to the type of seating that people can actually be comfortable in, but a typical long-haul plane has maybe only 10% – 20% of its coach class configured as Premium Economy.  Most people prefer to save money than to pay any extra for comfort, and as long as that remains, seating will continue to shrink.

The article tells us the new 797 should be in the air with passengers by early 2025.  It is true that many observers expect Boeing to announce a new plane this year, currently referred to as a “New Midmarket Aircraft” or NMA, and almost inevitably to be eventually named the 797, and loosely modeled on the 767.  Here’s some recent commentary on the NMA from a source we respect, and a Reuters article from the Singapore Airshow this week.

Neither of these sources anticipates any revolutionary transformation in passenger comfort.  But I guess we can all hope.

A Very Drunk Pilot

We know that occasionally pilots fall off the wagon, and end up being pulled off a flight deck due to being drunk.  Indeed, I’ve not even bothered to feature the last few stories of such happenstances, because they are simultaneously regular (in terms of the number of times a month such things happen) and also rare (in terms of the millions of flights with perfectly sober pilots).

But then there’s this story of a pilot who was randomly breath-tested after flying a 737 from San Diego to Portland and then back to John Wayne.  Although who only knows how many hours it was since he had last had a drink, his blood alcohol level was shown to be between 0.134% and 0.142%.  The limit is 0.04% for pilots.

The notable thing about this is that the pilot confessed that he had been drunk for “at least a substantial portion” of flights over the 20 years he had worked as a pilot.  He has now retired, and is expected to spend a year in federal prison.

Do Airlines Deliberately Seat Families Apart?

These days it is normal to pay extra to get pre-assigned seats on a flight.  Even getting a middle seat at the back costs extra.  Some people decide just to go with the flow, particularly on shorter flights.  Who cares where you sit on a one-hour flight?

Well, people traveling together often care, and in particular, families with younger children want to be seated with their children.  All sorts of strange people are on flights these days.

But many airlines now tell families that if they want to sit together, they’ll either have to take their chances on the day, or pay extra to get pre-assigned seats.

Okay, so far so good.  But there is an emerging suspicion that some airlines might actually go as far as to deliberately split up some family groups, so as to send a message, encouraging them to pay for pre-assigned seats in the future.  Nothing has yet been proven, but Britain’s Civil Aviation Authority (a bit like our FAA) has launched a formal investigation.  Interestingly, so far they have ascertained that 35% of Ryanair families are separated but only 18% of Virgin Atlantic.

While I’ve no idea what is a normal incidence of ‘random’ splitting up, it is surprising to see such a huge spread between the two airlines, and while there might be explanations (load factors, family group sizes), it does give one pause for thought.  More details here.

Guess Where the World’s Worst Traffic Congestion Is?

Five of the worst ten cities in the world for traffic are in the US (out of a total of 1,360 cities surveyed by traffic management company, INRIX).

That is slightly surprising, because it seems the combination of a totally anarchical approach to driving (and in particular, blocking intersections) and rapidly exploding car populations in cities that are quickly becoming prosperous, particularly in China, India, and E Europe, would feature prominently.

But, as it turns out, the other five cities were Moscow (2nd equal with New York City), Sao Paulo, Bogota, London and Paris.  The five worst countries, overall, were Thailand (worst of all), then Indonesia, Colombia, Venezuela, Russia, and only then US in fifth position (equal with Russia).  Brazil, South Africa, Turkey and the UK rounded out the top ten list.

As for the ten worst cities in the US, the tenth worst was Dallas, followed by Seattle in ninth place.  Then, becoming successively worse, Chicago, Boston, Washington DC, Miami, Atlanta, San Francisco, and New York City as second worst.

The worst city in the US, and in the entire world?  Los Angeles.

More details here.

A Good Week – and a Bad Week – For Mr Musk

Talking about traffic, that makes one think of Tesla and its CEO, Elon Musk.

His good news this week was the ‘successful’ launch of one of his new Falcon Heavy rockets (as part of his SpaceX venture).  The first stage is essentially three Falcon 9 first stage rockets strapped together.  They generate 5 million pounds of thrust, which is sufficient to take 141,000 lbs of payload to a low earth orbit (LEO).  This is very powerful indeed, but pales in comparison to the mighty Saturn 5 that sent our lunar missions on their way.  The Saturn 5, back in the mid/late 1960s, developed 7.6 million pounds of thrust, sufficient to send 260,000 lbs into LEO.

The Falcon Heavy was fairly praised every which way as a stunning success, so it would be churlish of me to note that one of its key elements – the reusable Falcon 9 first stages, weren’t quite so successful.  Only two of the three successfully made controlled landings, the third failed.  Perhaps the greatest success of all is the rapidity and low-cost associated with developing the Falcon rocket series, and the similarly low-cost per launch.

The most curious thing about this launch is its payload.  The launch is a precursor to Musk’s plans to send a manned mission to Mars, and is sending a payload module to Mars.  The cost of the basic launch itself is $90 million, and the cost of getting the payload the rest of the way to Mars is of course substantially more.  So, with this enormous level of investment, and the great difficulty in sending any sorts of payloads to Mars, what do you think Musk sent Mars-wards?  Perhaps an orbiting satellite for future communications on Mars and between Mars and Earth?  A new batch of test and research sensors?  Maybe some tools and equipment for the manned mission that may eventually follow? Or even just some food, water, and oxygen?

No.  It seems that the mission payload is an old Tesla Roadster, with a crash dummy behind the wheel.  Mr Musk earlier explained that he was trying to think of the silliest thing imaginable.

So if sending an old car to Mars, with 2/3 of the rocket being successful, represented the high point for Mr Musk’s week, what about the low point?

That would be the earnings call on Wednesday afternoon when Tesla’s fourth quarter 2017 results were revealed.  The results were so extraordinarily bad that even the bravest Tesla investors blanched a bit, and the stock lost 8.6% of its value during Thursday’s trading.

Tesla’s fourth quarter recorded the company’s greatest loss ever – $675 million.  To put that into context, the fourth quarter of 2016 saw a loss of only $121 million.

This loss, by itself, is alarming.  But when one looks at how the loss was made up, it becomes even worse.  For example, the company spent $223 million less on capital investments, a cut-back which will surely reflect negatively in the company’s ongoing operational capabilities.  For example, not only did it report terrible gross margins on the very few Model 3 cars sold, but there was also a decline in margin for the Models X and S.  And, despite slashing margins, and a surging overall market for electric cars, total US Model S and X sales were barely 2% up for the quarter, compared to the same quarter a year earlier.

The company went from having $600 million of working capital available at the end of its third quarter, to having a deficit of $1.1 billion of working capital at the end of the fourth quarter.  It will surely need yet another round of financing, particularly if its cash-burn continues.

Ah, yes, the future.  And, of course, Tesla wouldn’t be Tesla without adding some more back-pedaling to their Model 3 production targets.  Look at how these three paragraphs transition from bold statements of confident targets being met, through equivocation, to the vagueness of ‘should result in our production rate significantly increasing’.


We continue to target weekly Model 3 production rates of 2,500 by the end of Q1 and 5,000 by the end of Q2.

It is important to note that while these are the levels we are focused on hitting and we have plans in place to achieve them, our prior experience on the Model 3 ramp has demonstrated the difficulty of accurately forecasting specific production rates at specific points in time.

What we can say with confidence is that we are taking many actions to systematically address bottlenecks and add capacity in places like the battery module line where we have experienced constraints, and these actions should result in our production rate significantly increasing during the rest of Q1 and through Q2.

But, and again, Tesla being Tesla, the company remains confident, saying in its investor letter that at some point in 2018, it expects to begin generating positive quarterly operating income on a sustained basis.  Musk specified in the accompanying earnings call that he expected the company to be profitable by the more stringent Generally Accepted Accounting Principles this year.  That line may sound familiar: Tesla claimed similar projections in early 2016, but has yet to achieve that earlier promise.

Details here.

I am however again reminded how I so clearly am missing something when it comes to understanding Tesla.  Ark Investment Management’s CEO, Catherine Wood, predicted on Wednesday that Tesla’s stock would continue to rise up to about $4,000 (it was at about $340 when she made that prediction), and said that her worst case scenario still saw it almost doubling to $600.  When I watch the interview of her here, I find myself unable to comprehend any of the arguments she makes to support these claims.  I guess that means I am clearly missing something.

The Travel Insider Gave Bad Advice

Last week, when remarking on a lady attempting (and deservedly failing) to bring a peacock onto a UA flight as a comfort animal, I wondered why people needing comfort animals didn’t get small easily transported pets such as a pet mouse or hamster.  It seemed they would be less impactful on other passengers and easier for an airline to welcome onto a plane.

Well, apparently even a tiny little 2 ounce 4 inch dwarf hamster is not an easy thing to transport.  Maybe there is a minimum size of comfort animal?

News emerged this week about how a 21 yr old college student had tried to take her officially-doctor-certified comfort hamster with her on a Spirit flight from Baltimore to Miami, only to have a Spirit employee refuse to allow the hamster on board, and allegedly offering the ‘helpful advice’ that the girl should either let the hamster free, or flush it down the toilet.

It appears that the girl couldn’t bear the thought of just letting the tiny hamster run free, because it might freeze to death outside or get run over by a car, and so, after ten tearful minutes of indecision in a bathroom stall, decided it was kinder to indeed give it as a sacrificial offering to the great white porcelain god.

She says she called Spirit twice before going to the airport, and both employees told her she could travel with the hamster, and maintains she had all the necessary paperwork attesting to the animal’s status.  Spirit concedes that yes, she was indeed told she could fly with the hamster, but also says that advice was wrong.

This is a terrible story, and one has to feel for the girl (and even more for the hamster).  Apparently, while pet pigs can travel, tiny hamsters can not.  Yes, there is now an attorney involved.  Details here.

And Lastly This Week….

These days, the science fiction concept of automatic speech translators – you talk into it in one language, and it converts the language and speaks it in a different language – have become a reality.  But I’ve always wondered how they can possibly be reliable.

Alexa, or Siri, or the Google Assistant, or Dragon Naturally Speaking, all make errors when I speak to them in English and they transcribe my words onto a screen, also in English.  At least, in that type of situation, it is possible to see mistakes, and to correct them.  But if I couldn’t see the mistakes, and the mistakes were then passed on to a foreign person in their language, what sort of chaos could then ensue?  The mind boggles.

One possible hint, and with less automation and happily no great consequence, is reported here, when the Norwegian Olympic team found themselves with 15,000 rather than 1,500 eggs in Korea.  I guess someone ended up with egg on their face over that mistake.

Talking about food, it is Valentine’s Day next week, and what better way to celebrate the occasion than to take your special someone out for a meal.  Recognizing this, a well-known restaurant in Britain is promoting a special three course Valentine’s Day meal.  Let’s hope patrons will find their meal to be a happy meal.

I mentioned last week how an airline delighted its passengers by putting on ‘special in-flight entertainment’, courtesy of the scantily clad flight attendants.  The airline has now been fined by the state regulator for daring to make the flight more enjoyable, albeit a somewhat moderate $1761, and the airline’s chief stewardess has also been fined, $175.

Details, and yes, photos too, here.

And now, truly lastly this week, I mentioned the 67% splendid success of the Falcon Heavy rocket launch this week.  You might enjoy this short video compilation of some of the earlier Falcon flights prior to reaching the 67% success rate.

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels





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