Weekly Roundup, Black Friday 13 April, 2018

Just when you thought Astana couldn’t get any stranger – voila!  Part of its 2017 Expo building complex.  See Astana in all its weird glory as part of our October “Quad K Tour”.  Details below.

Good morning

Have you done your taxes yet?  Or at least filed for an extension.  If the former, I hope you’ve a nice big refund coming your way, and indeed, if you are so fortunate, why not, ummm, “invest” it in forming some rich memories you’ll treasure for years to come.

This week I can now tell you about our latest tour.  Drum roll, please!  But, can I first shout over the sound of the excited drummer to update you on our Christmas Market “Landcruise” through Northern France and Belgium (and potentially elsewhere, too) this December.  We’ve had another person join, and this is shaping up to be a lovely group of people enjoying a lovely and definitely different approach to touring and experiencing part of Europe comfortably, conveniently, and memorably.

Please do choose to become part of our small group and share this pre-Yuletide experience with a select group of your fellow Travel Insiders.  Details here.

And now, our next tour.  I’ve rejigged and totally reworked what had been earlier called the “Triple K” tour of Kiev, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan.  I’ve made it a bit shorter, have included more things, and now it has become, yes, the “Quad K” tour.  We not only visit another “K” – this time, Kishinev, or as it is more commonly known, Chisinau (in Moldova) and also go to one of the treasures of the former Russian Empire, Odessa; but we also do something that I’ll wager you’ve not done before.

We visit a country that doesn’t exist.

Yes, that’s right.  A country that isn’t there.  Best of all, it isn’t in some terrible war-torn part of the world.  It has peaceful relations and uncontested borders with its neighbors, and the country it broke away from simply pretends it doesn’t exist, referring to it as an “autonomous territorial unit with special legal status”.  Perhaps that could be a helpful model for the people wishing to break away from California?

What is this country?  Does it even have a name?  And what is so wonderful about our glorious Quad-K tour, to be held in October?  Ah, well, glad you asked those questions; the answers to which you’ll see on this and subsequent pages (and also below tonight’s roundup).

There’s one other exciting change to the tour, too.  I’m going to be sharing the limelight with a long-time friend and fellow travel writer, a guy who encouraged me to put pen to paper way back in 2001 and start The Travel Insider.  This is none other than the illustrious Joe Brancatelli of JoeSentMe.com, coming on this tour, too.  As you know, I delight in tweaking the airlines’ tails and pointing out some of their inanities, but Joe does it so much better than I can (he has a lovely piece on the TSA this week).

We’ve traveled together a couple of times before, and while he – like me – tends to be a bit gruff and declamatory in his articles, he (and perhaps like me too?) is charming and approachable in person.  A great guy to tour the four K’s with.  I’m limiting this to a small group; please come and be part of it.

Also this week there’s a piece about an increasingly annoying and utterly unnecessary ‘trick’ on the part of the airlines.  A couple of decades ago, one of the artificial excuses they’d cheerfully use whenever they could to take more money from you was if you’d lost your paper ticket – even though every detail of the paper ticket was staring at them on their computer screen.  They were very slow to shift to e-ticketing, because it meant giving up on all their lost ticket fees.

Now, their latest gratuitous trick, also largely unnecessary and self-imposed, is insisting that your ticket name exactly match, letter for letter, the name on your ID.  Think about it – there you are with your driving license, but your ticket says Rob Smith and your driving license says Robert Smith (or vice versa).  Your driving license has your photo, your age, your height, weight, eye color, and address, and all those data points match with your appearance at the airline checkin counter.  What are the chances of you having an identical twin with an almost identical name, living at the same address?  And, even if you do indeed have such a twin, why should the airlines even care?  But, care they eagerly do, and they care so much that it will cost you dearly to change your name on your ticket.

What else this week?  Please continue on for :

  • Naughty Qantas?  Or Stupid US Regulation?
  • More about Cargo-Deck Beds on Planes
  • The TSA Frantically Scurries in Orlando
  • Hyperloop?  Or Just Hype?
  • Is Homeland Security Now Reading The Travel Insider
  • The (One?) Thing Elon and I Agree Upon
  • And Lastly This Week….

Naughty Qantas?  Or Stupid US Regulation?

Codesharing continues to be a strange thing – a concept promised by airlines to give their passengers seamless service, no matter who the actual airline is that pretends to be the airline promised by the ticket’s two-letter airline code, but there is plenty of ‘fine print’ and messy detail contained within these ‘seamless services’ that have given us all challenges from time to time.  “Sorry, we can’t do that because this isn’t our flight/our ticket”.  “Yes, you could do it if you were actually flying on XYZ airlines, but our computers can’t access theirs so we can’t do this for you”.  And so on, and when you tell them “but you’re in a joint operating agree with XYZ airlines, and you belong to the same airline group, and you’re code-sharing” the staff member just looks at you blankly.

The latest example of a code-share trap threatens to cost Qantas $125,000, in the unlikely event the DoT follows through with its threat of a fine.

The fine relates to a Qantas flight that travels between New York and Los Angeles.  It is the extension of a flight between Los Angeles and Australia, and is actually a clever idea on Qantas’ part.  Normally, the plane would arrive into Los Angeles in the morning, then sit at the airport all day before flying back to Australia in the evening.  Meantime, passengers who wanted to go not just to/from Los Angeles, but to/from New York, would then be flying on other airlines for that part of their total journey.

So Qantas decided, rather than park the plane on the ground for twelve hours or so, why not have it fly on to New York and back to Los Angeles.  This is a very clever way to get better utilization of their plane, and how nice it is to see a Qantas plane at JFK.  Great brand exposure for Qantas.

In 2015, Qantas started flying people to/from New York, and connecting in Los Angeles onto other “Qantas” flights that were actually code-share flights with Air Tahiti Nui (to Tahiti) or American Airlines (to New Zealand).  Sure, the passengers had Qantas tickets, and the flights had pretend Qantas flight numbers as well as assorted other flight numbers too, but the Department of Transportation decided that this was cheating.

The thing is Qantas is only allowed to fly its own passengers between JFK and LAX.  It can’t fly other airline passengers, because that would be “unfairly competing” with American carriers – you know, airlines like, ummm, American Airlines; the very airline that Qantas was bringing passengers from New York to Los Angeles to then fly on with AA to NZ.  (Don’t get me started on why it makes sense for AA to fly to New Zealand but not for Qantas to do so…..).

And so the DoT, while loving code-share concepts when they can be used as thin excuses for airline mergers and competition-killing joint operating agreements, all of a sudden saw the insidious evil of codesharing and the great harm to the American public airlines that Qantas was causing, and with its usual responsiveness, rushed to protect the American public airlines from such perfidy.  We’re sure AA in particular appreciates the DoT’s “help”.

The real lesson in this true story is that it is well past time that we dismantle all these archaic restrictions on what airlines can and can’t do.  The only winners in the present system are the US airlines, while the clear losers are the American flying public.

Why should we be allowed our choice of car, foreign or domestic, and our choice of electronics (now of course almost all exclusively foreign) but not be allowed our choice of airline next time we fly from anywhere in the US to anywhere else in the US?  “Protecting the US airline industry” has seen it collapse down to three major carriers (AA DL UA) plus Southwest, so clearly the present regulatory regime is an abject failure.

More about Cargo-Deck Beds on Planes

I wrote a couple of weeks ago about airlines and airplane manufacturers talking up the concept of placing bunk beds in the under-floor cargo holds on passenger planes.  I expressed doubt this would ever come to pass, suspecting that when the time came to actually outfit planes with bed in the cargo holds, airlines would instead choose to add seating or just continue to carry commercial freight.

But the story is continuing to reverberate, and this week Airbus claims to have partnered with one of the major seat manufacturers to develop bunks for its A330 cargo holds.  It says they’ll be available in a couple of years, and the way the story is written, it seems that passengers will still get regular seats on the passenger deck, but you’ll also be able to reserve a bunk if you want that, too.

Unlike apparently many people, I’ve never liked sleeper seats on planes.  They are invariably too short and too narrow, and I don’t understand why people my size or larger pretend otherwise.  Getting on and off them is awkward, plus they are usually pitched either slightly forward or slightly back – enough to make it feel slightly wrong.  I prefer the older style of first class recliner chairs – tons of space, and a generous amount of recline, like a Lazyboy at home, and who can’t sleep well in one of those!

But possibly custom designed bunks, rather than multi-purpose devices trying to work as both airline seats and miniature airline beds – might work well.  Here’s an article that tells more, but it gives way to utter fantasy when the video at the top of the article starts to show not just cramped crowded high density bunks, but also meeting areas, conference rooms, large open family play rooms, and all sorts of things that will never ever appear.

The reality remains that the best way to make the most money is to stack us into planes like sardines into a can.  As long as that holds true – and why would it ever change – then every square inch of space will always be at a premium and utilized to the max.

The TSA Frantically Scurries in Orlando

I’d written, a month or two back, about how Orlando Airport had decided to take the next step towards replacing the TSA with private contractors.  Prior to then, the TSA had said that any problems at the airport were not its fault, but the airport’s fault.  The TSA said they had insufficient space to process passengers through screening, and their comments sounded fair.

But, guess what.  Now that Orlando Airport has called their bluff, the TSA has now announced that it can and will do better.  They’ve found a way to add three more screening lanes, and they’ve agreed to hire 75 more officers.  They’re also bringing in new better screening equipment, and adding extra dog teams too.

You probably expect that this will happen slowly, if at all.  But the TSA is undertaking to do this within little more than a month.

While this is a good thing, it also reveals an unfortunate truth – the TSA could have done any and all of these things at any earlier time, but only chose to do so when it risked losing Orlando’s “business”.  So, really, it is shameful that the TSA can indeed do all these things, and so quickly, now, when earlier it said it couldn’t and wouldn’t.

One also wonders which airports are now going to be shortchanged with the TSA taking staff and equipment away from other airports and relocating them in Orlando.

Let’s hope other airports are watching – both for delays in any promised enhancements, and also to learn the lesson that if you want to get something from the TSA, you have to threaten to end their contract.

Hyperloop?  Or Just Hype?

When you get Elon Musk and Richard Branson both promoting a product, you need to turn your BS meter onto its highest setting, and sadly that’s the case with hyperloops.  This article, inbetween reporting of board shakeups and directors being arrested, sums up the situation at Virgin Hyperloop One brilliantly when it says

One dose Branson, another dose Musk, and another a hyped transportation concept with dreams of federal funding. Really, this seems like par for the course.

Of course, I shouldn’t really criticize Sir Richard.  It seems the guy can no longer even afford to buy a suit (or maybe his airline lost his bags) – indeed, what a curious photo in this article, showing poor Sir Richard, reduced to jeans and an open necked shirt, and a bunch of Arabs, all in really ill-fitting suits and looking quite uncomfortable.

The event was Sir Richard and others touting hyperloop technology to Saudi Arabia.  The company said that the visit and talks “kick off the next phase that will make [Virgin Hyperloop One] a reality in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia”.  In other words, nothing at all was decided or agreed upon.

Maybe Sir Richard might make more progress if he shows enough respect to the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia as to actually don a suit and tie next time he meets him.  But – give the guy his due.  He did at least respect the abhorrence that Muslims place on seeing attractively dressed women in public and so was present without any of his usual coterie of lovelies.

In other Hyperloop news, Mr Musk has announced that one of the many different companies developing the technology is planning on a new test which will push a hyperloop pod up to half the speed of sound.  That’s pretty impressive, isn’t it.

Well, sort of.  The concept of “the speed of sound” is a fairly malleable concept, unfortunately, in Muskland.  While generally understood to be 741 mph, Mr Musk defines half the speed of sound as being 311 mph, not 370.5 mph.

But let’s not get bogged down in minutiae.  Let’s talk about this exciting test.  For how long, and how far, will the pod will be travelling at that speed?  Oh, probably a tenth of a second, maybe two tenths.  The entire testing track is only 3/4 of a mile long, which at 311 mph would take about 8.5 seconds to travel.  But, and here’s the thing – the pod doesn’t magically suddenly start at that speed, and neither does it instantly stop at the other end.  Ideally, not only does it start at 0 mph but it ends up back at 0 mph before running out of track at the far end.

So by the time it has accelerated up to 311 mph, and leaving distance to slow down again rather than spectacularly crash at the far end, the actual distance traveled at 311 mph will have to be extremely short.  If we assume the hyperloop can accelerate at about the same rate as one of his fast cars – let’s say 1G, ie 22 mph/sec, this means it will take 15 1/2 seconds to get up to 311 mph, and that will require a distance of 3844 ft, which is, ooops, almost the entire length of the track – and it still has to slow down again on the very little track remaining.  (Perhaps this is part of the reason Musk prefers 311 mph to 371 mph – building up speed to 371 mph would require another 700 ft of track, and another 40% energy transfer to get the pod to that greater speed.)

We don’t know what the actual accelerating force will be, but clearly it is going to be a lot, and equally clearly, when traveling at 311 mph and consuming almost 1/10th of a mile of track every second, the pod will urgently have to slam on the brakes and slow down/stop almost as soon as it has reached that speed.

So the actual value of the test?  Publicity-wise, it is great – they’re still boasting about the last test that got a pod to 240 mph.  But scientifically speaking, it is a diversion.

No-one is interested in if a pod can rush up to 311 mph and equally quickly stop again, all within an impossibly short 3/4 of a mile.  People are interested if a pod can sustain 700+ mph for hundreds of miles, and if the tube tolerances can be maintained such that the pod isn’t violently being swung from side to side such as to quickly pulverize anything and everything within it.  They should be extending their test track so they can do more meaningful testing.

Is Homeland Security Now Reading The Travel Insider

I always feel a bit awkward when I’m asked by an airport security or immigration/customs official “What is the nature of your business”?  I usually describe myself as a travel agent, a nice harmless appellation that doesn’t lead to difficult questions such as “What is the name of your newsletter”.

But perhaps they’ll stop asking me that question in the future, because maybe they’ll already know the answer.  This article reports how the Homeland Security Department plans to create a database of “journalists, editors, correspondents, social media influencers, bloggers etc” who report/cover/comment on Homeland Security related events and matters.

Is it too much to hope they’ll choose to join in this year’s annual fundraiser in a few months time?

The (One?) Thing Elon and I Agree Upon

As you know, I look askance at much that Elon Musk asserts, but there’s one thing I wholeheartedly agree on.  The dead-end technology that is hydrogen fuel-cell type vehicles.  They exist only because of government subsidies – California has recently spent $100 million on building fueling stations (it would almost be cheaper to just give every owner of a fuel-cell vehicle a free Tesla – as of 1 April this year, there are only 4428 fuel cell cars sold or leased in the entire state), and whereas battery technology continues to steadily improve, fuel-cell technology has apparently impossible-to-circumvent chemical and physical limits that will always restrict their efficiency and effectiveness.

Greenies love the concept of fuel cells because they stopped thinking after hearing the soundbite “silently uses natural hydrogen and emits only pure water and harmless CO2”.  They never considered “where does the hydrogen come from” or “what does it cost”.

The hydrogen usually comes from oil or natural gas, so it is just an overly complicated way of running a regular fossil-fuel based car, and the energy used to make the hydrogen and transport it could be better used powering battery-electric vehicles, for greater distances, and with less complicated infrastructure.

Plus battery-electric cars have a unique capability that has yet to be properly harnessed.  They can be charged – at home, at work, in car parks – at times when the electrical grid is enjoying light loads, which makes for more efficient use of generating capacity and the electrical grid.  And, wait, there’s more – at times of grid stress, connected electric cars can ‘give back’ some of their stored power, saving utility companies from either having to buy in spot/peak-priced power, and/or needing to build more power stations.

This load-shifting and power-banking ability of electric cars makes it really practical to combine them with wind and solar power generation – power sources that are unpredictable and hard to manage/match with normal power demands and loads.

Already, today, battery-electric cars are a better choice than hydrogen/fuel-cell cars, and with each passing month and the steady flow of battery improvements, that advantage grows bigger and better.

Here’s an article that starts off well, but ends up capitulating to the fuel-cell cheerleaders.

What a stunning movie 2001 was, and it still appears fresh today, although it got Pan Am’s longevity very wrong.  Happy 50th birthday.

And Lastly This Week

So, it was rough at sea, which meant that one of the passengers on the Pacific Dawn cruise ship, apparently with a balcony cabin, leant over the railing to be sick.  But, as I said – it was rough at sea.  So rough that the woman was washed overboard by a freak wave, and lost at sea.  Ooops.  Details here.

If I were to say “Atlanta, Beijing, Dubai, Tokyo and Los Angeles”, what would I be listing?  Yes, the world’s five largest airports, in terms of passenger numbers in 2017.  The list continues on with Chicago, Heathrow, Hong Kong, Shanghai and Charles de Gaulle in places 6 – 10.  DFW and DEN are the only other US airports, appearing in 12th and 20th positions.

Now for the follow-up question.  What US airports aren’t in that list, but which you’d sort have expected to see there?  JFK no longer appears in the top 20 (it was #16 in the list the previous year), and although this article fairly points out that JFK is just one of the New York area’s airports, that is also true of Beijing, Tokyo, Los Angeles, Heathrow, Shanghai, and, oh heck, many of the other cities/airports too that did make it to the top 20 list.

Only one of the top 20 airports had a decline in passengers last year.  Atlanta.  And the most rapidly growing airport in the list was not in China, but in India, with New Delhi’s Indira Gandhi Airport in 16th place this year, and likely to climb another couple of places during 2018.

Talking about air traffic, there’s been some controversy about the US apparently suffering a decline in international visitor arrivals, something some people have rushed to blame on Mr Trump.  It turns out that maybe the reason is more mundane – a miscoding of the source data.  Details here.

Two items looking back into the future.  It is the 50th anniversary of that genre-shattering movie, 2001: A Space Odyssey this month.  I remember the barely contained excitement I felt eagerly awaiting the book’s publication in New Zealand – I think it was the first time I ever purchased an adult hardback book.  Sadly, the movie took quite a lot longer to appear in New Zealand, but when it finally appeared it was well worth the wait.  Here’s a nice tribute.

And, did you know, there have been earlier self-driving vehicles on our streets, many years ago.  They were much more reliable than the current types of automated technology.  What were these, and why don’t we still have them?  Guess first, then answer here.

Truly lastly this week, I think being banned for life was a bit severe for the poor gentleman who got involved in this fracas.  I’m glad that, 17 years later, the hotel relented and has allowed him back again.  I mean to say, it could have happened to anyone.  Couldn’t it?

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels.  And if staying at the lovely Empress Hotel in Victoria, be careful with your pepperoni.





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