Weekly Roundup, Friday 30 March, 2018

Lille, our Christmas Tour base in northern France, is on the Eurostar and other high-speed train lines, so is very easy to get to. It is only 40 minutes from Brussels, 70 minutes from Paris and 90 minutes from London.

Good morning

Our Christmas Markets “cruise” had another four people choose to participate last week.  It is great to see Travel Insiders responding so positively to this new approach to enjoying a European pre-Christmas experience, and in a part of Europe that is all the much nicer for being slightly off the well-worn tourist trails.

From our base in Lille in Northern France we enjoy daily excursions around the region to some of France’s nicest towns and cathedral cities, to one of its major wine cities (Reims, of Champagne fame), to channel ports such as Dunkirk, and even north into Belgium too, visiting Ypres, Bruges and Ghent.

Not only is Lille brilliantly located as a base for a week of touring, it is also a wonderful city to get to and from.  In addition to its own airport, you can also fly into Paris or London (or Brussels, Amsterdam, even Frankfurt and many other cities) and then enjoy a lovely high-speed train to get you to Lille and our charming hotel, a restored former convent.

Please do look over this tour and consider joining our small group (we’re limiting it to a maximum of 24 Travel Insiders).

I’ve also got another very exciting tour opportunity to offer you for mid/late October.  I’ll tell you about that next week, but for now, please keep your schedule as clear as possible, ideally (for the full tour and optional extension) from about 13 – 29 October.

Many of us are celebrating a holiday weekend this weekend, whether it be Passover or Easter.  I’ve never known whether such events mean you have more or less time for Travel Insider things, so settled on a 4600 word newsletter this week.

So please enjoy :

  • Should Airlines Compensate Fliers for Semi-Weather Related Delays?
  • United Passenger Gets $10,000 For Being Bumped
  • The Writer’s Revenge
  • Strange New Idea from Qantas
  • Some Reader Comments
  • What Does a Self-Driving Car Do When Pulled Over by the Police?
  • A Robot Lawyer to Help You
  • Making it More Difficult for People to Visit the US – Why it Matters
  • Apple Renews its Push into Schools, sort of
  • Does Reading The Travel Insider Cause Cancer?
  • And Lastly This Week….

Should Airlines Compensate Fliers for Semi-Weather Related Delays?

We should be forever ashamed that we’ve allowed, with neither question nor quibble, a claim of inclement weather, somewhere in the world, to be used by airlines as a ‘Get Out of Jail Free’ card whenever they are cancelling or delaying flights, anywhere.

The classic statement is ‘due to thunderstorms in the midwest’ or something similar, but offered in relation to a flight between say Los Angeles and San Francisco.  When one gently points out the beautiful weather along the Pacific coast, the airline then says ‘Ah, yes, but due to the disruptions to our total system caused by the weather in the mid-west….’ and then looks at us triumphantly, having played its Get Out of Jail Free card.  We’re expected to then apologize to the airline, rather than vice versa, and happily accept whatever torments are about to occur to us and our travel plans, because it isn’t the airlines’ fault for having such a fragile system, it is the due to weather.

I’ve seldom if ever met a weather problem that couldn’t be solved by the application of sufficient money to create a more resilient system and infrastructure, but the airlines have allowed us to believe that the mere mention of the “w” word is enough to absolve them of any liability for anything.

Maybe it is time to re-examine that.  Here’s a good article by a journalist, who had his flight cancelled due to weather.  Except that it was due to bad weather a day or so earlier, not at the time he wanted to fly.  He reasons that what in effect happened was akin to being involuntarily bumped off the flight he’d been ticketed to fly on, and therefore, the bumping penalties should apply, and he notes that in his case, that would be $1350.

He concludes by saying he expects a check from Delta.  Good luck to him, but I doubt he’ll see it.

United Passenger Gets $10,000 For Being Bumped

Talking about compensation for being bumped off a flight, a curious incident occurred last week, when United paid a passenger $10,000 (in the form of a voucher for future flights, not in cash) to agree to be bumped off a flight between Dulles and Austin.  Apparently she took a flight later in the day, and United also gave her a couple of $10 meal vouchers for while she was waiting at the airport.

It seems United’s first offer was $1000, then $2000, then when the woman asked for cash rather than flight credits, it dropped to $650 cash, then suddenly became $10,000 in flight credits.  She didn’t hold out for any more!

Another strange thing is that first United tried to tell her she was being denied boarding because her seat was broken, but apparently that may have just been an excuse.

Details here.

The Writer’s Revenge

Obsessive frequent fliers might occasionally be persuaded to concede that there’s nothing more important in their lives than getting upgrades, and nothing more galling than seeing other people get upgrades but missing out, themselves.

The airlines have done a good job of making the upgrade process more apparently automated and therefore more apparently fair, but back a decade or two, when a lot of subjectivity seemed to apply to who got upgraded, it was a really big deal for many people (and, yes, I’ll include myself in that group too, back when such things mattered to me more than they do now).

However, if you think that behavior was/is obsessive, you’ve not seen anything until you see how travel writers and travel agents treat their occasional flying perks.  There’s nothing better/worse than being in a group of travel writers and either being part of the group who turns left when boarding the plane, or being part of the group who turns right.  This is even more extreme an experience when the majority of the group turns in one direction and you go the other.

With that as background, Qantas launched a new flight last week, a nonstop flight between Perth and London.  It seems to have filled up most of its business class cabin on the inaugural flight with travel writers, who all then loyally reciprocated by writing breathless pieces about this revolutionary amazing new long-distance flight that is clearly going to transform international travel everywhere.  Here’s an example of such a piece.

Never mind that the flight is far from the longest flight currently operating, and never mind that for most Australians (ie those who don’t live in Perth) flying first to Perth then to London is no better than flying first to Singapore or Dubai or somewhere else and then to London.  Qantas was generous with the free tickets, and the press were dutifully generous with their rapturous praise of the flight.

But what about journalists who were consigned to coach class?  They wrote articles such as this one.  (Note that although the person writing it claims to have been the only journalist in coach class, I know of at least one other.)

Strange New Idea from Qantas

When the 747 first came out, the airlines were full of plans for bars, lounges, and clubs to help them fill all the enormous space inside the planes.  But not long after the 747 started being delivered, such concepts were quietly abandoned.  Instead, the airlines switched from nine abreast to ten abreast seating in coach class, and squashed the seats every closer together, with no room for any such fanciful things remaining.

When the A380 first came out, there were even more unrealistic plans offered up for onboard shopping malls like on cruise ships, gyms, spas, as well as all the other things – bars, restaurants, lounges, etc – that had been promised and abandoned on the 747.  Never one to be upstaged by flights of fancy, Sir Richard Branson offered casinos and double beds, but ended up not even taking a single one of the A380s he’d signed up to buy.

For the airlines that have accepted their A380 orders (ie just about every other airline), we’ve seen a steady increase in the number of seats, and apart from some extraordinary comforts in first class on a few airlines, the experience for most passengers in coach, premium economy and even business class has remained the same old, same old.

So now a new idea comes from Qantas.  The airline is keen to establish nonstop Sydney-London flights, something that would take over 20 hours.  That might sound like a lot, but 15 hour flights are commonplace, and there are longer flights at 16, 17, and even 18 hours.  So 20 hours is not really a huge shift from the current 15+ hours, but their CEO, Alan Joyce, says that 20 hour flights would require a redesign of planes and a need to re-imagine the whole travel experience.

Joyce appears to be considering using part of the cargo hold for additional passenger amenities and comforts.  He says Qantas might fill up part of the cargo hold with sleeping pods, and use other parts of it as an exercise area/gym.

How likely is that?  And how desirable would it be?

There is only one reason why an airline might start converting cargo space into passenger space, and that is if the flight was weight restricted such that they were not able to fill up every cubic inch with revenue-earning passengers or cargo.  If a flight is weight/load restricted, it risks becoming only marginally commercial and is more a vanity flight than a sensible commercial flight.

It is possible that one way to achieve the extra range needed for nonstops between London and Sydney would be to more lightly load the planes, and in such a case, Qantas would want to compensate for carrying fewer passengers by charging them more, and if they were charging them more, maybe it makes sense to then turn a negative into a positive and use the empty space for passenger comfort and services.

But no airline wants to operate planes at restricted capacity, and my current sense is that airlines are seeking commercially viable ways of flying this route with every seat full, rather than expensive inefficient ways.

And also a thought for Mr Joyce.  If you end up with spare space, here’s a truly distinctive way for you to ‘re-imagine the whole travel experience’.  Never mind the gyms and sleeping pods.  Restore some comfort to coach class.  Give us some more shoulder space by taking out one seat per row.  Give us some more leg-room by pushing the rows further apart.

Some Reader Comments

Reader Alan writes in to add to my comments last week about credit cards being needlessly declined ‘for our protection’.

Here’s one in the same vein as your gas station problem:  I pulled my car up to a pump, got out, swiped my card and entered my zip code before realizing that I had not popped the gas cover open with the lever under the driver’s seat.  I set the pump nozzle down and went around the car to pup the gas cover, and when I returned the pump would not start.  Instead, it displayed a message, “time expired, transaction cancelled.”

Well, OK, I put the nozzle back to reset the pump and tried swiping my card again to start a new transaction.  This time, after asking for (and receiving the same) zip code, it claimed “invalid zip code”.

So I tried again, same result.

My supposition is that the computer code used is programmed to reject any zip code after it detects any irregularity.  Rather than just saying “you might be a crook”, it pretends another excuse to decline the transaction.

But it got worse.

Apparently the automatic system shut down the account for the entire chain of gas stations.  I went in to the station and attempted to manually enter the card, and got the same rejection.  I had to contact the card issuer to clear the account and get it back opened, all on account of a “time out” — absolutely no evidence of fraud or anything else — all for “my protection”, of course.

And reader Peter added his perspective on the dangers and requirement for protecting ourselves against self-driving cars.

Great comments on the self-driving car.  At the end of the 1800s when automobiles were first clattering and puffing along, the law in some states required a man to walk in front of the vehicle with a lantern to warn folk.

And there was a fear that if the human body were to travel in excess of 20mph, it would suck their breath out of their lungs.

What Does a Self-Driving Car Do When Pulled Over by the Police?

Talking about self driving cars, they’ve been in an unfortunate spotlight for the last week or two due to the fatal accident between an Uber self-driving car and a pedestrian in Tempe.  Perhaps because of this current sensitivity, a police officer in San Francisco pulled over a self-driving car and wrote it a ticket for driving too close to a pedestrian.

I’m trying to imagine how that happened, starting with how a police vehicle pulls over a self-driving car to start with.

But clearly the motorbike riding policeman succeeded in pulling the vehicle over.  But what happens next?

So there’s the officer, approaching the car cautiously, and tapping on the driver’s window.  “Would you roll down your window, please.”

Okay, if he gets past that point, his next statement might be “Do you know why I pulled you over?”  How does the car respond to that, one wonders.

And then, his request is “Driver’s License, insurance, and registration, please.”

Hopefully matters don’t escalate to “Driver, please step out of the car”.

And lastly, of course, “Please sign here”.

Noting also that most traffic offenses are driver offenses, not vehicle offenses, who gets cited in such cases?

There’s another side to this interaction too, which is hinted at in this report.  The police officer is citing the car for driving too close to a pedestrian.  But the car’s sensor data shows it to have been 10.8 ft away from the pedestrian.

It seems likely that, absent other calibrated measurements, the car’s sensor data might beat the policeman’s visual assessment in any court review.

A Robot Lawyer to Help You

We’re not at all sure how a traffic stop between a self-driving car and a policeman works, but apparently, automation is set to help our lives in another part of our travel experiences.

A new service, DoNotPay.com, says that its ‘robot lawyers’ will automatically monitor the prices you pay for flights and hotels and if the price drops between when you booked/paid and when you travel, the robot lawyers will “find a legal loophole to negotiate a cheaper price or rebook you”.

They say that the average traveler saves $415.  The service currently works only for flights within or departing from the US, not for flights in other countries/jurisdictions, and only with five hotel chains (Hilton, Intercontinental, Hyatt, Marriott and Best Western) but has plans to expand.

Sounds great in theory.  Whether it works in practice or not is happily not a huge concern, because the service is completely free.  Heads you win, tails you don’t lose.

Try it out, tell me how it works for you.

Making it More Difficult for People to Visit the US – Why it Matters

News came out on Thursday that the State Department is considering new rules to require most visitors and immigrants to disclose considerably more information on their visa applications.

They’d be asked for all their phone numbers, email addresses, and every other country they’ve visited during the last five years, plus be asked to divulge their recent social media histories, reveal any potential immigration problems they have had anywhere, and disclose any family connections to terrorism.

The requirements are to be published today (Friday) in a discussion paper, allowing for a period during which comments can be sent in prior to being finalized and put in place later this year.

It sure makes us feel grateful that we don’t have to do the same thing when we travel internationally, doesn’t it.  If nothing else, the hassle of trying to remember all the email addresses and phone numbers one has or reasonably recently had is troubling, and opens one up to problems if you forget one.

How does one even define phone number ownership these days.  Does one have to show one’s company phone number?  What if one has a direct inward number as well as a regular company number?  What about one’s home landline number – is that a number to be disclosed by everyone at the residence?  What about one’s spouse’s number – does that also have to be disclosed?

As for email addresses, some of us have so many, and change some of them often, to keep spam at bay, as to make it a total pain.

And so on.

The reason it matters to us is two-fold.  First, you can be certain this will discourage a measurable number of people from coming; people who just find it too much bother and hassle.  Fewer visitors to the US harms us all, because it weakens our economy and upsets still further our balance of payments.  Our share of international visitors has been dropping since about 9/11, and this would only accelerate the continued loss of valuable tourism earnings.

Second, there’s the concept of reciprocity.  We see it at present, without realizing it, when we occasionally need to get a visa ourselves to go visit some other country.  If you’ve ever wondered why a visa is so expensive, and blamed the foreign country for being exploitive and greedy, thinking “they should pay me to come and visit, not make me pay them for the privilege”, well, guess what.

The chances are the reason for the expensive visa fee, and also, the reason for the sometimes ridiculously detailed forms you have to fill out, is due to reciprocity.  The foreign country asks us all those questions, and charges us such a high fee, because that is what the US does to their citizens.  (We should be grateful that we’re also not required to fly across the US for an in-person interview at their Washington DC Embassy, and that the visa fee is the same amount, but massively less as a proportion of our annual income than it probably is for the people in the other country.)

So if we start asking other people to reveal all this additional information, how long before we have to start doing it ourselves, too?  And do you really want to find yourself having to justify chance comments you made in a Facebook thread, or a Twitter reply – comments that when read out of context and by someone with limited English fluency, makes it look like you are trashing their country/religion/race or anything else.

You might say ‘Well, that’s okay, I never go anywhere that I need to get a visa to go to’.  That is fine, but there are increasingly persuasive calls, for example, in the EU, to make Americans go through the same visa application process to get an ‘electronic travel authority’ that the US makes Europeans go through prior to traveling here.  Those electronic travel authorities are neither trivial nor free, and if we’re going to make them still more onerous, it increases the possibility we’ll find more and more countries in turn requiring us to do the same.

Remember also we’re no longer the most desirable group of people that all countries fall over themselves in a rush to plead with us to go visit, although the good side of this is that the stereotype of the omnipresent ‘loud American tourist’ is now being replaced by new stereotypes of other races.

Jessica Vaughan, the Policy Studies Director at the Center for Immigration Studies, is quoted in the linked articles as saying

This upgrade to visa vetting is long-overdue, and it’s appropriate to apply it to everyone seeking entry, because terrorism is a worldwide problem. The aim is to try to weed out people with radical or dangerous views.

But I say these new moves will be useless at weeding out real terrorists intending harm to the US, while giving new levels of subjective/discretionary authority to people who don’t have a good record of using such authority in the past.  The process will further discourage tourism to the US, and risks increasing the burden and hassle for us applying for visas in turn when we travel outside the US.

Lastly, with the extraordinary amount of information about all of us already stored in commercial databases and available to anyone who pays to buy it, as well as held by Google and Facebook, there’s no need to ask us for any of this data, because it can be electronically sucked up instantly by the authorities anyway.

What do you think?

Apple Renews its Push into Schools, sort of

As you may already know, I’ve always thought Apple products to be surrounded by a rich layer of ill-deserved hype, and have risked being accused of schadenfreude while noticing the steady erosion of all the claims people earlier advanced in favor of Macs.  Less buggy, better graphics, smaller/lighter, freedom from viruses, first with leading edge software releases; all of these claims have quietly faded over time.

But ‘better marketed’ has for long proven a very resilient claim, and one of Apple’s clever ploys was to push their products into the school system – first as computers, and more recently as tablets.  The company sensibly perceived that if they can make a student into an Apple user, they have a chance of keeping them as such for life.

But even with educational incentive programs, Apple has been steadily losing market share in the educational market, and also have been losing market share in the tablet market everywhere, not just in schools.  One of the main reasons for this has been cost – Chrome and Windows based laptops and tablets have been plunging in price, while Apple has maintained its aggressive price premiums, even though its products have been less and less able to credibly claim any degree of feature superiority.

So this week, Apple rallied itself and introduced a new iPad for schools.  The new iPad seems to be indistinguishable from older iPads, except for two things.  First, there is an educational discount on the new iPad.  A not very enormous 9% discount, which on a $329 list price means that the educational price drops a whole $30, down to $299.  Except that, this is not a new initiative, this is the same pricing policy as previously.  (A Dell Chromebook costs $189.)

Secondly, it can now support Apple’s ‘Pencil’ stylus.  But before you fall over in rapture at this new feature, be aware of the sting in the tail of this new ability.  Sure, the iPad will now work with a Pencil.  But the Pencil, notwithstanding its quotidian name, is not free.  Nor is it inexpensive.  It costs $99.  So in effect, Apple is now trying to encourage you to spend an extra $99, while expecting us to thank them for this encouragement.

One thing that has not changed though is Apple’s love of ridiculous hyperbole.  Apple’s Vice President of Product Marketing Greg Joswiak went so far as to claim that the new iPad is “the greatest device ever created for students in the classroom”.

The list of other products contending for that title is very long, starting with pencils, erasers, paper (instead of slates) and textbooks.  How about photocopiers and duplicators?  And so on.

Anointing an almost unchanged version of an unpopular tablet as the greatest device ever is also quite something to say about a device powered by a chip that first appeared in the iPhone 7, over two years ago.

Does Reading The Travel Insider Cause Cancer?

I often imagine you, reading this on Friday mornings, and perhaps with a cup of coffee in hand.  It is true that coffee is a slightly controversial beverage, with a mixed set of claimed benefits but possibly some negative consequences from drinking it in greater quantities, too.

But notwithstanding the Mayo Clinic’s finding that there is no link between coffee and any increased risk of cancer, and the World Health Organization moving coffee off its “possible carcinogen” list in 2016, a judge in California knows better and has deemed that it requires a health warning.

As a result of a lawsuit brought by the Council for Education and Research on Toxics, the court ruled that coffee sellers in California must provide a cancer warning on their products.  The organization gives every impression of being little more than a front for an attorney seeking lucrative lawsuit opportunities under California’s Proposition 65 requirement.  In 2017, lawsuits brought under that proposition generated $30.2 million in settlements, of which $21.6 million went to the attorneys bringing them.

So, to avoid a lawsuit myself, perhaps I need to now note that, at least according to the California Superior Court in Los Angeles County, please be warned that in addition to an assortment of generally accepted life-extending benefits, The Travel Insider may cause cancer if it encourages you to drink more coffee.

Maybe better to drink ‘raw water’ instead?  Or, apparently, maybe not.

And, for the attorney behind the “Council for Education and Research on Toxics”, now that you’ve won yet another case, you’re probably wondering who to go and sue next.  How about every restaurant in California?  Because, and happily for attorneys, it seems this madness knows no limits.

And Lastly This Week….

You probably already know my views on the reality-distortion field surrounding Tesla and Elon Musk.  So you might be expecting some gleeful commentary on its share price plunge this week (and soaring bond yield too).  But I’ll hold off on that until next week, so as to be able to put them in the context of their March Model 3 delivery numbers – another promise it seems they have spectacularly broken.

But if you can’t wait, here’s a fun piece.  I don’t agree that the company will be bankrupt within four months, but it is interesting to see this and other not-quite-so-extremely-negative predictions starting to flow over and into the mainstream financial media.

I came across an interesting old article earlier this week.  Dated September 2015 – now almost three years back – it was writing about plans by a group to bring a Concorde back into service by 2019.  At the time, I suspected it was nonsense, and so it was interesting to come across the article again now.  I corresponded with the group about a month ago, at which point their plans had progressed no further and the entire concept was now being gently de-emphasized.  A shame, but not a surprise.

May I close by wishing you all the best for Easter/Passover, and of course, also hope that the coffee drinking that reading this newsletter may encourage results in positive outcomes to your health and wellbeing.  Until next week, please enjoy safe travels.  Oh yes, and keep a watchful eye on the sky.  Just in case….





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