Spring is definitely in the air. Here in Seattle, with temperatures spilling into the 70s, huge headlines proclaimed Tuesday’s temperature to be the hottest since temperature records were first started (the clear subtext being that global warming is reaching out for us all). The reality was a little less startling when, in the fine print, it seems the record which was broken was only two years old. But who can complain about a nice spring.
We had another couple sign up this week for the Christmas “Land Cruise”. Have you had a look at this innovative way of enjoying a lovely pre-Christmas experience in northern France and Belgium (and optionally Germany, Luxembourg, even Switzerland and Lichtenstein, too)? It is proving popular with your fellow Travel Insiders, and gives us the best of both worlds – lots of local touring and varied sights, but with no need to ever pack/unpack/change hotels (other than for the optional pre and post extensions). Sort of like a river cruise, but much less expensive and much more flexible.
Oh, and please also don’t forget the Brancatelli and Rowell Special – the Quad K tour in October, of Kishinev, Kiev, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan (and some other places too that don’t begin with K and even a country that doesn’t exist). Join fellow travel writer Joe Brancatelli and me on this great opportunity to go places that few of us have ever visited, ranging from the beyond-ultra-modern (Astana) to more traditional and timeless (some of the national parks and other things of great natural beauty). Plus an overnight train ride in comfortable private compartments, and lots more too.
Those are the only two Travel Insider tours for the balance of the year, although there is also another Frontsight opportunity, offered as a result of popular demand, at the beginning of November. So, something for everyone, and hopefully, something for you!
Attached as a feature article is a piece about why I never want a plane I’m flying on to have a hero as a pilot – but happily, the chances of having a hero up front are close to nil. This arose out of last week’s news of the Southwest flight that suffered an ‘uncontained engine failure’, resulting in the death of one passenger who was half-sucked out of the plane, and then pulled back in again. But the ‘good news’, such as it may be, is that this was the first death in nine years of flying in the US – that is an extraordinarily long streak of safe flying, and the almost as good news is that the other passengers on the plane survived the experience. And why don’t I want a hero for a pilot (and why don’t I expect to ever find one)? Ah, well, the answer is below.
What else this week? Please continue for :
- BA to Buy Norwegian?
- Since When Did Airline Food Become $33 a Meal? And 50 lb Weight Limits Now 44 lbs?
- Airbus Ineptness Cost it Airline Orders
- The Best and Worst Airlines in the US
- Daddy’s Delinquent Daughters
- Two Interesting Things About Our Quad K Tour
- Answer to the Question You Weren’t Asking
- And Lastly This Week….
BA to Buy Norwegian?
There are credible reasons to be concerned about the current financial health of Norway’s excellent low-cost carrier, Norwegian. On the other hand, having parlous financials is hardly a new thing for any airline at all, and if Norwegian can ride out its present challenges, it looks to have a continued exciting future, and has already grown to be (from memory) the fifth largest airline across the Atlantic.
But BA is far from happy with Norwegian’s rapid growth, and has to be feeling some pain. In typical dinosaur fashion, what does an airline do when encountering an upstart new competitor? It either attempts to kill it off, or alternatively, buy it out. Either which way allows the dinosaur to persist in all that is bad, rather than forcing it to positively respond to new competitors doing a better job.
BA quietly accumulated an almost 5% holding in Norwegian, at which point it revealed its presence and announced it wished to enter into takeover talks, earlier this month.
This created a very negative reaction from Norwegian, but then, on Thursday, Norwegian softened its stance slightly, saying it was open to any and all offers (as of course is every company, everywhere, always) and also claiming to have been approached by other airlines who are also now interested in possibly taking the company over.
We don’t know who the other companies are, and they could indeed possibly be a figment of Norwegian’s imagination as part of a public bargaining process to encourage BA’s bid price up. The company’s shares soared 15% on Thursday at the news, and that’s a good thing because with a new issue of shares planned for later this quarter, if nothing else, BA’s offer is helping Norwegian to refinance itself and remain independent.
That is probably not BA’s objective, but it works for us. Details here.
Since When Did Airline Food Become $33 a Meal? And 50 lb Weight Limits Now 44 lbs?
Truly, the part I hate most of any travels, anywhere, are booking the flights to get there and back. It isn’t just the sometimes awful web interfaces the airlines offer, it is all the ‘gotcha!’ moments and individual pinpricks of pain gratuitously offered by the airlines.
I’ve finally gotten around to booking my flights for our Great Britain tour in early June, and was quite excited by the new ways to get from Seattle to London. Virgin Atlantic, Aer Lingus, and Norwegian Air – all new entrants over the last year or so.
It is easy to bemoan the lack of trans-Atlantic competition. Here in Seattle we used to have only one airline flying nonstop to London, occasionally with another airline also entering for a while. But now we have four – BA, as always, plus Virgin Atlantic (having taken over from Delta now that Delta is Virgin’s major shareholder), Aer Lingus (these days a BA subsidiary) and Norwegian (see preceding article about its BA tie-in). That’s a wondrous range of opportunities, and prices are indeed a bit lower this year.
I first looked at Virgin Atlantic, only to discover that for the dates I wanted, and plus or minus a week or so on either side, every itinerary was pricing at $4020 round trip. In coach class. Okay, that’s not really within my travel budget. (The Delta code share of the same flight was down around the $1100 price point, making the $4020 price all the more stunningly ridiculous and probably a mistake.)
My next attempt was Aer Lingus. Even though it is now owned by BA, I sense they are doing good things in developing their route network and have never flown them before, so wanted to give them a try. Their website is, ahem, not without challenges of a sort that you probably have to be Irish to enjoy – like for example trying to pick a travel date on a calendar that has a drop down box appear and obscure the very date on the calendar you want to click on.
Still, I managed to work through that, and got to the point of being offered add-ons to the basic fare. If I wanted to eat on the 10 hour flight, that would be extra. As in $32 extra, for a bit of airline chicken. $32!!! If I wanted a piece of ‘steak’ (I use quotes because I struggle to understand how something cooked hours before and then heated in an oven on a plane can ever be described as steak), that would be $33.
I managed to move on past that pinprick, and then came to the seat assignment page. Ooops. They wanted to charge me $12 each way for short flights between Dublin and London or Edinburgh. I really don’t care where I sit on a short flight, so decided to save the $12 – I’d probably need it to pay for a bag of peanuts on the flight anyway, and was happy with unassigned seats.
But for the long 10 hour flights, I definitely did not want to end up in a middle seat. Surprisingly, Aer Lingus won’t pre-assign longhaul seats – airport checkin only. There is no way I’m going to risk the possibility of 2 x 10 hour flights in a middle seat; that’s a deal breaker.
I wondered if this was because I was on a lower grade coach class ticket, or just for those two flights, so I rebooked, for different dates, and on a much higher level of coach fare. Same thing. Airport checkin only.
So Aer Lingus just lost themselves a customer on a brand new route that I suspect they’re keen to get people flying.
Turning now to Norwegian, the experience was very much better. But their luggage allowance is calculated not in terms of 50 lb suitcases, but in terms of 44 lb suitcases. I’ll be away for three weeks, and I’ve got all sorts of tour leader paraphernalia to travel with as well, and I always have a struggle to stay within 50 lbs. A 44 lb limit is probably going to be impossible, requiring me to pay for a second suitcase.
Do you remember when the coach class free luggage allowance was three suitcases, each weighing up to 70 lbs? That’s 210 lbs of luggage, per person. All for free. Now the limit is either zero or one suitcase, and it seems the airlines now wish to ‘metricate’ that down from 50lbs to 44 lbs (ie from 23 kg to 20 kg).
Another small pinprick of annoyance. However, at least I’ve got a great fare, and seat assignments, too.
But have I got a great airplane with great engines?
This is not just a rhetorical question. It will be the first time I’ve cautiously ventured onto a 787, but my concern for the flights in June is much more to do with the engines than with the airframe. It seems that many of Norwegian’s 787s have some of the 350 Rolls-Royce engines that have been subjected to an FAA directive reducing their ETOPS range from 330 minutes down to 140 minutes – this being the maximum distance they can fly from an emergency airport prior to having a couple of reliability problems solved. The engines may have two problems, and if the first problem causes one engine to be shut down, the heavier load on the second engine can then cause the second problem to quickly appear on the second engine.
As I said in the article following about ‘hero’ pilots, losing one engine on a twin-engined plane is no big deal. But losing both engines is, ahem, quite a big deal indeed, and it would take an enormous amount less than 140 minutes with no power for a 787 to surrender to gravity and return back to earth (or, as likely, sea). In case you’re wondering, I’ll guess a 787 at 20,000 ft could glide about 55 miles before reaching zero altitude (I’m using a lower altitude of 20,000 ft because if it first loses one engine, it will probably then descend to a lower altitude). If the plane is flying at, say, 240 mph (another guess) then it has a maximum of about 14 minutes before bad things happen.
I’m telling myself the FAA knows best and if there was a true potential danger, they’d not just change the ETOPS range from 330 to 140 minutes, but order all affected planes to stop flying. I hope I’m right.
Airbus Ineptness Cost it Airline Orders
Airbus have lost a couple of orders recently that, while perhaps not easily won, could have been won. In broader terms, while it continues to outperform compared to Boeing in the single aisle stakes, its showing for the larger wide-body planes has not been nearly so impressive.
Here’s an interesting article that lays the blame for its poor showing fairly and squarely at the company’s own feet. Mixed messages and a lack of focus and commitment on its own planes seems to have come back to haunt it.
The Best and Worst Airlines in the US
I usually consider such lists with a great deal of skepticism, but this one is promulgated by the respected Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University’s College of Aviation, and now has an eight year time series which makes things a little more interesting, watching the airlines as they move up and down the scale.
This year Alaska comes top for the second year in a row, and a glance at the chart suggests this is thanks to their acquisition of much-overrated Virgin American – an airline with a small band of loyal devotees, but unfortunately, emphasis needed to be placed on the word “small”.
Following Alaska is Delta, then JetBlue and Hawaiian. At the very bottom of the list, as the 12th of the 12 airlines tracked, is Spirit, with Frontier in 11th place, then ExpressJet, American and United.
Daddy’s Delinquent Daughters
You probably remember the (in)famous “nut rage” story when Heather Cho, the daughter of Korean Airlines’ CEO, and herself a VP of the airline, flew into a rage at being served macadamia nuts in a little bag rather than on a tray prior to the start of a flight from New York back to Seoul. She was seated in first class (obviously enough!) and ordered the flight back to the gate, ordering the head flight attendant off the flight and assaulting him (in some sort of ritual rebuke).
This resulted, astonishingly, and in an apparent over-reaction to her privileged position in Korean society and in the airline, with the woman being convicted of obstructing airline safety and being sentenced to a year in prison. After an appeal that got the charge reduced, she was released after serving three months in prison, and recently resumed working for the airline.
That was certainly tough justice and you’d think it would have a chilling effect on Ms Cho and her siblings. But, apparently not. Her younger sister, a senior VP with the airline, is now in hot water for apparently having thrown cold water at an advertising manager who gave what she felt to be inappropriate answers to her questions at a meeting.
As a result, it seems both sisters have now resigned from the airline.
They also have a brother, who is President of the airline. We await further family developments…..
Two Interesting Things About Our Quad K Tour
There are many interesting aspects to our Quad K Tour, and I stumbled across a couple of things this week that are relevant.
The first relates to Chernobyl – a name that probably everyone reading this instantly associates with the nuclear disaster in Ukraine, way back in 1986. One of the interesting things is that when the town of Pripyat was evacuated, the people were told to only take enough things for a day or two. No-one realized that the evacuation would be permanent. So, in the rush to leave, people simply gathered up a few things, and left everything else in their apartments, ready for their intended return, which never happened.
This makes it really strange to visit – it is like how one images the Marie Celeste may have appeared, but an entire town of then almost 50,000 people, frozen in time in 1986, with everything everywhere, except the people.
Now that radiation levels have reduced down to safe levels (for visits, not so much to live there permanently) some of the former residents are returning to at least create some closure in their minds. We’ll visit too, although if you’d prefer not to, there’s plenty to do in Kiev while the rest of us make a day tour to Pripyat and Chernobyl. Here’s a story of one such former resident’s recent visit.
I remember clearly when New Zealand changed from pounds, shillings and pence to dollars and cents. There were two halfpennies in a penny (and used to be four farthings also in a penny but no longer), three pennies in a threepence, six in a sixpence, and a dozen in a shilling. There were two shillings in a florin, 2 1/2 shillings in a half-crown, five in a crown (but we no longer had them), ten in a “ten bob note” and 20 shillings in a pound, but 21 shillings in a guinea (the classic line in a bargaining process, after one person has said “Oh, okay then, I’ll pay you fifty pounds for it”, the other will reply “Call it guineas and you can have it”). Do you see how much nicer cents and dollars were to a school student’s math classes, both then and now.
I also remember when we changed from inches/feet/yards/chains/furlongs/miles and ounces/pounds/stone and all the other stuff that we still have in the US to the metric system. But, unlike some countries such as Sweden which in 1967 changed from driving on the left to on the right, I’ve not had experience of that.
There is one other thing that I can’t start to imagine – a country that changes both its official language from the one that most people speak to one which fewer people speak, and then changes its alphabet too. The implications and ramifications of both elements of that are enormous. This is what is happening in Kazakhstan, where we spend much of our time on the Quad K tour. It seems Russian remains more widely spoken that the native Kazakh language, particularly among the more educated people, and both Russian and Kazakh have used the Cyrillic language. Until now. Not only is the Kazakh language being mandated as the country’s primary language, but the country has also decided to change its alphabet from Cyrillic to a Roman/western type alphabet.
This is going to take until 2025 for everything to be converted over (unlike changing the side of the road you drive on which has to be very much an ‘all or nothing’ simultaneous thing, of course!). Here’s an interesting story about how it will all happen – so, another reason to visit Kazakhstan – come there with us this October, before the language and alphabet all change!
Answer to the Question You Weren’t Asking
Whatever happened to the QE2?
We know what happened to the Queen Mary – now a glorious attraction and hotel in Long Beach; I’ve several times had lovely stays on board, even arranged a large conference one time there, and slept in a bed Winston Churchill once slept in (or, at least, the same room). Alas, the ship hasn’t enjoyed smooth sailing subsequent to becoming permanently moored in Long Beach, with a series of owners and managers, and an alarming report a year ago suggested it was almost totally rotten from rust and in danger of collapsing and sinking. $300 million was estimated as being needed to repair the ship; the City of Long Beach has allowed $23 million, so if you’ve not visited this lovely living museum of a ship, redolent in memories of the grandest of the grand era of trans-Atlantic liners, perhaps you should hurry to do so.
You may also recall the string of mishaps and disappointments that befell the first Queen Elizabeth before a mysterious fire on the ship in Hong Kong harbour in 1972 and her scrapping shortly thereafter.
The QE2, another lovely ship, was taken out of service in 2008, and taken to Dubai just in time for the global financial crisis to freeze the various ambitious plans to turn her into a hotel ship being deferred, changed, and cancelled.
But now exciting news is that her conversion to become a floating hotel have been significantly progressed to the point that last week saw the ship’s “soft opening”, still in Dubai. A $100+ million conversion is recreating the ambience of when she first set sail in 1969, and a planned grand opening is now scheduled for October. Details here.
And Lastly This Week….
Is this really news? Angelina Jolie can fly a plane? My point, often made, is that flying a plane doesn’t require super-skills, and seldom warrants a special item that someone can fly. What will they print next – one wonders as to the Kardashians and their aviation skills. <not>
Is the pen mightier than the sword? As a writer, I like to believe so (but I keep a “sword” handy, too). A clear example of the power of the pen happened this week when a Chinese gentleman, displaying the good taste to select a fountain pen rather than a nasty modern ball point creation, used his pen to commandeer an Air China flight, and forced it to make an emergency landing, where it was greeted by an apparently impressively large number of police lined up two and three deep, plus ambulances and fire trucks. After all, a man with a mighty fountain pen….
Truly lastly this week, when you’re feeling a bit down with airlines, remember that it could be worse. How much worse? Ummm, how about this much worse?
Until next week, please enjoy safe travels