Weekly Roundup, Friday 11 May 2018

The TSA apologized for the cultural insensitivity of asking a Sikh to remove his turban at airport screening. Now try walking through with a baseball cap on and see what happens. Article below.

Good morning

Spring is in full fling, and I hope your summer, due to officially start in just a few weeks on Memorial Day, is shaping up to be a great one.  But, please, cast your mind a wee bit further ahead, for the early and late fall, too.  What are you doing then?

How about a trip to Moldova, to Odessa, to Kishinev, Kiev, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan – yes, our expanded/improved “Quad K” tour, scheduled for mid/late October?

And/or, how about northern France, Belgium, and a bit of Luxembourg, Germany, Switzerland and even Lichtenstein too on our early December “Land Cruise”.

Both of these are truly distinctive and different tours, which will give you new ways of seeing and experiencing new places, with a lovely group of fellow Travel Insiders.  Why not join us for either of these tours, or indeed, for both of them (ask for a quantity discount!).

Closer to home, Amazon has seized upon the pending Mother’s Day event this weekend as a reason to offer us all generous discounts on some of their electronic devices.  Tablets for as little as $40 (don’t buy a 7″ tablet for $40, hold out for the 8″, which is currently only $20 more, at $60, or the lovely 10″, which is $120).  Kindles for as little as $60 (again, spend a bit more and get a Paperwhite for $100), and Echo devices for as low as $40 (in this case, the cheapest is also probably the best).  But hurry, their deals are only good through Mother’s Day.

These deals seemed like a good chance to revisit my Echo Dot articles, and to now add another article to the series.  This time, I’m writing on how to get more/better use from them, and offering a ‘cheat sheet’ with helpful ways the Echo devices can be used, and the commands that apply.

Plus, I was listening to the local classical radio station doing one of its fundraisers last Friday and noted their comment about how they appreciate their supporters year-round, and realized it was a while since I’d done something special for the special people who support The Travel Insider.  So if you’re a Travel Insider supporter, go to your special page of deals and download an Echo cheat sheet that is twice as long, with many more ways to get value from your Echo devices.  And, thank you.  You are appreciated by me, year-round!

The article follows this week’s newsletter.

What else this week?  Please keep reading for :

  • The Entitled French Employees
  • 787 Engine Problems – Getting Worse Before Getting Better
  • How Safe is Space Travel?
  • The Turned-Off Travelers
  • More Perspective on the Puzzling Lack of Electric Car Sales
  • Super-capacitors and Electric Vehicles
  • TSA Apologizes for Asking Passenger to Remove Turban
  • Talking About Potentially Dangerous Canadians
  • The Pen of My Aunt is On the Table
  • And Lastly This Week….

The Entitled French Employees

It looks like another summer of travel disruptions in France, with airline and rail unions demanding more money and less work.  Here’s an article that reports on Air France losing its second CEO in less than two years, apparently due to an inability to reach a work agreement with his employees.

The article has an interesting table that shows how the average AF employee earns perhaps 30% more than the average British Airways/IAG employee, and about 15% more than the average Lufthansa employee.  But still they want more.

An article several days earlier noted how KLM is the stronger part of the two airline group, and dared to opine that without KLM’s profits, Air France alone might be another Alitalia, tottering on the brink of extinction.

Air France has struggled through 13 days of intermittent strike action since 22 February, and with the situation unresolved and the employee groups (pilots, cabin crew and ground staff) sensing blood in the water after having effected the loss of another CEO, you can be sure they’re not feeling at all conciliatory.  I’d consider booking away from AF over the summer months, particularly for travel within Europe.

Usually, when any of the European carriers have industrial action, they attempt to continue operating their long-haul flights while sacrificing shorter flights within Europe.

787 Engine Problems – Getting Worse Before Getting Better

Napoleon used to say that the attribute he most valued in his generals was luck.  It is a bit the same with airplanes – some planes have an aura of good luck surrounding them, others not so much.

One of the less lucky planes was the DC-10.  Fundamentally it was an excellent airplane, but it had some unfortunate problems in its early days, including problems that weren’t its fault at all (Air New Zealand flying one into the side of Mt Erebus in particular).  But it developed a reputation of being a troubled plane, passengers booked away from it whenever the chance was offered, and airlines shunned it.

The 787 has to be seen as another unlucky plane.  Its entire development process and cost overruns and problems and delays were very unfortunate, and then its exploding batteries added further to its burden of bad luck.

Now it is again suffering bad luck, due to some of the Rolls-Royce engines fitted to some of the planes, and their propensity to fail, with two particular vulnerabilities.  This is particularly significant because every element of the 787 program and its engines too was notable for being “rigorously tested” – but by computer rather than in real life; something I never felt good about, but which the FAA was so thrilled by that it fast-tracked the plane to a super-generous allowance to fly up to 5 1/2 hours away from the nearest emergency landing location.  The FAA agreed with Boeing that it was so impossibly unlikely that a 787 would ever have any problem, and even if it did, it was unthinkable that it would then have a second problem such as to harm the plane’s ability to continue safely flying for another 5 1/2 hours.

That assumption has now been demonstrably rebutted by the Rolls Royce engines.  If one of the two engines on a 787 suffers from the first of the two engine problems causing it to fail, then the extra load on the second engine might stress it to the point where the second of the two engine problems happens on the second engine (or the first of the two problems, for that matter, too), which means, as I calculated a couple of weeks ago, it then has something like 15 minutes to find somewhere to land.

The FAA responded to this risk by reducing the 5 1/2 hours down to 2 hours 20 minutes, and at the time I wondered “why allow 140 minutes when the plane might have only 15 minutes”.  Is safety now based on hoping for best case scenarios rather than anticipating worst case scenarios?

Apparently the FAA has pondered my question carefully, and now is reducing the ETOPS time (time away from the nearest place to land) for 787s with risky engines down to 60 minutes.  That’s much closer to the 15 minutes of flying time a crippled 787 might have remaining, but having now ‘only’ 45 minutes at risk instead of 125 minutes is of no comfort if the plane crashes during that time.

This latest move has further limited the range and routes such 787s can fly.  Unfortunately, it seems that some airlines aren’t carefully planning ahead and are hoping for the problems to somehow solve themselves, so if you’re scheduled to fly on a 787 (especially if operated by United, Virgin Atlantic, Thai, Air New Zealand, or Norwegian) in the next month or two, you might want to keep an eye on the airline’s scheduling and how “your flight” is being operated each day between now and when you fly.  If nothing else, the flight might follow a more circuitous path, taking longer to reach the destination, and possibly needing to add a refueling stop along the way.

More details here.

How Safe is Space Travel?

Talking about air safety, a question we seldom need to ask ourselves is how safe is space travel.  But now that Elon Musk is boldly going into that arena, it may become a bit more relevant, particularly with his earlier predictions that he’ll make rocket travel between, eg, New York and London, as cheap as regular airplane travel while taking less than an hour (I may be slightly misremembering the details but this is the gist).

That was of course a ridiculous promise, even by Muskian standards.  But this week he went further, and predicted a future where rocket launches will be as routine and as safe as airline flights.

This is an interesting prediction, because just a few days earlier, a well researched article was published expressing grave concern that Musk’s approach to rocketry may be dangerously cutting some safety corners and creating levels of risk unheard of since the bad old days of the Space Shuttle programs where for a while there was a 1 in 12 chance of disaster hovering over every shuttle launch.

Apparently there is an official safety target for rocket launches.  The target is to have a chance of death no greater than one in every 270 flights.  Mr Musk of course disputes that his approach to rocketry is dangerous (a brave contention to make when one of his few rocket launches to date exploded during its fueling process prior to launch, the very issue that has NASA concerned), but whether it conforms to NASA’s surprisingly modest objective of fewer than one fatality every 270 flights or not, how does that stack up compared to regular airline flights?

Well, remember that we’ve just ended a multi-year series with no commercial airline fatalities at all (ended with the woman being sucked out of the Southwest 737).  Every day there are 42,000 flights, in the US alone.  If there were one problem per 270 flights, that would be 155 (I’m not sure if the measure is flight crashes or passenger deaths) – every day.  That is 57,000 every year – the same as all US troop casualties in the entire Vietnam war, every year.  Air travel is unthinkably safer than rocket travel, even in the best case scenario.

But Mr Musk claims his more-dangerous-than-normal processes will be as routine and safe as airline flights.  Let’s hope there’s more substance to this promise than to the delivery schedule promises for his latest Model 3 cars.

The Turned-Off Travelers

I’m about to head across country to visit a truly haunted hotel.  Google tells me it is 711 miles east of here, and while – on the face of it – that is clearly way too far to drive, I’ve decided to do exactly that.  Drive.  It is a nice time of year, an easy drive most of the way on I-90, and much too nice to suffer inside airports and airplanes.

By most measures, that is not sensible.  The rule of thumb is that somewhere around the four-hour point, it gets ‘better’ to fly rather than drive.  My 1400 miles of driving will cost as much as flying, and it is probably twelve hours each way (after allowing for stops and meals).  That makes for a considerable time cost, and I’ll probably have to stay an extra night away, too.  But I’d rather do all of that than fly.

I say this as introduction to this article, which reassures me I’m not alone in this growing aversion.  It uncovers a broader trend showing that while the numbers of people driving, riding trains, and even taking long distance bus services are all steadily increasing, the number of people flying is barely growing.

Most astonishing of all was a Business Travel Coalition survey that found 83% of their members are making fewer business trips – and not just one or two fewer, but a reduction from an average of 19 trips a year in 2012, and now down to 12 last year.  That’s over a one-third reduction.  In total, the US Travel Association estimates that an aversion to the hassles of air travel saw 32 million fewer air journeys last year.

The same is not true of other methods of transportation.  For example, comparing 2001 and 2017 travel for the four big holidays of Memorial Day, 4 July, Labor Day and Thanksgiving, there was a growth of 33 million people driving.  As for air travel, the airlines grew by a mere 410,000 passengers.

Whether for business or pleasure, people are avoiding flying.

But, this behavior is sadly invisible to the myopic accountants that run airlines these days.  They congratulate each other for removing an olive from salads, and for increasing fees and penalties.  Their idea of innovation is to print inflight magazines on lighter-weight paper, and to remove inflight entertainment screens to save weight and reduce costs – passengers can use their own screens/devices instead, they say.

These people will calculate out exactly the saving in costs or boost in profit that each such measure represented, and have a very clear vision of the ‘trees’.  But they’ve no perception whatsoever for the ‘forest’ that their trees lie within.  How do you cost out the millions of people who have decided not to travel at all, particularly when your overall passenger numbers are inching ever upwards and thereby obscuring the reality of passenger losses?  And even more particularly when you’re blinded by numbers alone, but have little perception of the real world from whence they came.

More Perspective on the Puzzling Lack of Electric Car Sales

wrote last week, expressing puzzlement at the shortfall as between the professed level of interest and commitment to electric vehicles that assails us every day from major car manufacturers, and the apparent eagerness of people to buy them, but the reality of barely stable numbers of electric cars being sold.

This week results of a recent survey were released, telling us that last year, 15% of Americans said their next vehicle would be electric.  Last year, 17.2 million vehicles were sold in the US.  A 15% share of that would be almost exactly 3 million vehicles.

The actual total of all types of electric vehicles sold last year, ranging from pure BEV vehicles to barely electric at all hybrids?  Not quite 200,000.  Just a shade over 1% of all vehicles sold.  Fifteen times less than the survey anticipated.

Oh, the survey also told us that this year, the percentage of Americans expecting their next car to be electric has increased further, from 15% up to now 20%.  Electric vehicle sales through the end of April show no signs of this being any more a reality than the 15% fantasy from last year.

Meantime, auto manufacturer hype continues at a much greater speed than their electric vehicle sales.  Audi erupted in print this week, claiming it would sell 800,000 battery and hybrid electric vehicles in 2025 (a date sufficiently far in the future that none of the people making that claim today need to fear any measure of future accountability).  That’s a particularly impressive claim when matched alongside their current lineup of pure electric vehicles in their product range :  zero.  One is expected to be released in August.

My point is simply to observe the enormous shortfall between what auto manufacturers say they are doing, what car buyers say they want, and what is actually happening.

Super-capacitors and Electric Vehicles

On the other hand, there was also an encouraging piece this week about further developments in the field of super-capacitors – indeed, these new capacitors are being termed ultra-capacitors.

I’ve always loved capacitors, way back from when I was a little boy.  There is something magical at how they can almost instantly soak up a large charge, and equally quickly, pass it on to whatever load is calling for it.  Batteries will do the same thing, of course, but thousands of times more slowly, and after perhaps 500 cycles, batteries start to lose their capacity, while capacitors are still at full capacity after a million or more cycles.  They also are more efficient at accepting and then giving back charge, with between 85% and 98% of the current returned back when the capacitor discharges, compared to 70% – 85% in a battery.

So why aren’t all electric vehicles using capacitors instead of batteries?  Currently there are some major weaknesses in super-capacitors.

They store less energy per pound and less energy per cubic foot, than lithium-ion batteries.  About ten times less.  That is a big issue – literally as well as figuratively.

They cost very much more – about ten times more, maybe even twenty times.

There are two more subtle challenges, too.  The first is that whereas a battery maintains a steady voltage during most of its discharging, a super-capacitor’s voltage almost instantly starts declining, requiring additional electronics ‘in the middle’ to manage the supply voltage being used to power the vehicle.

They also ‘self-discharge’ more quickly and lose their charge over time.  They’ll lose half their charge in about 30 days, compared to a lithium-ion battery that only loses about 5% in the same time period.

But super-capacitor technology is improving, and while we’re some way away from seeing vehicles powered exclusively by super-capacitors, the concept of electric/electric hybrids, with a combination of both super-capacitors and regular lithium-ion batteries, seems like a great approach.  The Li-ion batteries can be present as reserve and extended power, while the super-capacitors are present for surge/sudden power and to quickly recapture as much power as possible when braking, and also, when connected to a charger, to quickly top themselves up before allowing the Li-ion batteries to charge at a more sedate rate.

Super-capacitors have other potential uses, too.  Imagine a cell phone that could be recharged in ten seconds.  You’d not mind so much if the battery life were shorter, because you could recharge it in a flash any time you wished.

Ultra-capacitors seem to promise even more than super-capacitors.  More details about this exciting technology here.

TSA Apologizes for Asking Passenger to Remove Turban

Political correctness will quite likely end up being the death of us all.  Before I explain that statement (should it need explaining) let’s just first imagine what would happen if, when you go through airport security screening, you refuse to remove your shoes and jacket.

Does the TSA become ultra-understanding and polite, and apologize for upsetting you, and whisk you through without further ado?  Or do they tell you that the choice of removing your shoes and jacket is entirely up to you, but the choice of whether you get through security and onto your plane is entirely up to them, and unless you do your bit, they’ll not do their bit?

And now, imagine instead that you’re a member of a religious order that has special dress requirements.  It turns out that a woefully culturally insensitive TSA member asked a Canadian gentleman with a turban wrapped around his head to remove it.  He has since been disciplined for daring to make such an outrageous request, and the TSA publicly apologised, saying

We recognize that passengers may be unable or unwilling to remove items for religious, medical, or other reasons, and should expect to undergo additional screening protocols.

In this particular case, the passenger was also a minister in the Canadian government, and a Sikh, so probably not a threat at all, but it seems from the TSA carefully worded statement that across the board, any passenger may refuse to remove any item for “other reasons” and the only consequence will be undergoing “additional screening protocols”.  A suggestion – if the additional screening protocols include rubber gloves and a tube of KY jelly, be sure to include your trousers and underwear as items you don’t wish to remove.

Good luck with that if you’re a white middle class male.  Details here.

Talking About Potentially Dangerous Canadians

Yes, I know.  “Potentially dangerous Canadians” is a seldom seen phrase.  But whereas the TSA was quick to realize the error of their ways, a cherubic faced 27-year-old lady who had just graduated from a Masters program in geology was arrested in Georgia and shown no such leniency.  It was off to jail for her, and apparently it was only because she live-streamed her arrest from the back of a police car that she managed to get people to intercede on her behalf, because the police were denying her bail and allegedly telling her she could be in jail for a month before her case came before the judge.

What was her crime that warranted such a response from Georgia’s finest?  She was – get ready for this – guilty of speeding, driving a car on I-75 while in possession of a valid Canadian driver’s license.  (In case you’re wondering, this is Georgia, the state in the United States, not Georgia, the country to the east of the Black Sea.)

Apparently, in our Georgia (but probably not in the other Georgia), driving while Canadian, even though lawfully in the country, is a more serious offense than driving while intoxicated, and gets you straight to jail for a potentially indefinite time and with few rights.  The aggravating nature of the lady’s offense was that she did not also have her passport with her to back up the sophisticated license and photo-ID already on it to prove she was the person depicted on the license.  So deputies from Cook County did the obvious and only sensible thing, concerned that the lady might be using a fake license, and locked her up.  Oh yes, and just in case she was going to transmit coded messages to her accomplices, they also refused to let her call any Canadian consular officers or her parents.

Although, eventually, and at considerable expense to the lady, the charges were dropped, the Georgian officials refuse to admit that what they did was extraordinarily stupid.  So, if you’re Canadian and thinking of driving in Georgia, consider yourself warned.

One can only imagine what the Georgian authorities do to illegal immigrants from Mexico (yes, probably release them immediately).  Details here.

The Pen of My Aunt is On the Table

Some of us will instantly recognize that nonsense phrase as part of the joys of learning a foreign language.  In my case, I can still instantly translate it to “La plume de ma tante est sur la table” – 50 years since learning this phrase and I’m still hoping for a chance to slip it out into casual conversation in France.

Language learning has improved since then, and I absolutely love the Pimsleur approach to learning languages (it was invaluable when I learned some Russian 20 years ago), now widely adopted and mimicked by most other language programs too.  A key part of this process is listening to and repeating natural conversational phrases and sentences, without too much focus on grammar or the ‘rules’ of the language.  In other words, natural learning, the same as we learned our native language.

But the key part of this is the ‘doing’ part – you’ve got to actually say out loud, not just think, the phrases, so as to create a sort of ‘muscle memory’ for what to say and how to say it.

The relevance of this?  Easyjet and Emirates (an unusual pairing of airlines) have announced they’ll be offering language classes on their flights as part of their seatback entertainment.  Emirates will offer 15 languages, and Easyjet will offer 136 different languages.

A wonderful new service?  Or a new level of hell?  We in the US have refused to allow people to speak on their mobile phones while flying, but now we are to encourage people all around us to start droning out “La plume de ma tante est sur la table” in an unsynchronized cacophony of different languages.  I think I’d almost prefer to eavesdrop on the person next to me saying “You’ll never guess where I’m calling you from” on their phone.

Details here.

And Lastly This Week….

Inbetween his rockets and his cars, Mr Musk is also interested in drilling tunnels, and established a new company to do that, his “Boring Company”.  His claim was he could dig tunnels more quickly and less expensively than could anyone else.

How is this possible, you might ask?  The answer turns out to be quite simple.  He’ll make the tunnels smaller.  Apparently he was awake in one of his geometry classes and remembered that the area of a circle is proportional to the square of its radius, so if you reduce the radius of a tunnel by half, the total reduction in area is four-fold rather than two-fold, which sort of means you can drill four times more quickly and therefore four times less expensively.

But – is it really possible to shrink transit tunnels that much?  Oh yes, definitely, Mr Musk assures us.  We won’t need wide lanes for cars, because each car will be placed on a sled that will travel autonomously through a tunnel, not needing so much safety room around it.  That sounds almost believable, doesn’t it, but there is one minor detail that perhaps needs to be looked at again.  The Boring Company tunnels will be so small that even a regular Tesla Model S or X car would be too wide to fit in them, whether on a sled or not.  Details here.

This is from the guy who tells us to trust him, that his rockets will be safer than any other rockets ever made.

wrote last week about the Hopper app and its ‘secret fare’ offerings.  But apparently, even naming some of the airlines participating in the program was too much of a breach of secrecy, and Westjet urgently cancelled its participation in the new service after having been named as one of the airlines.  Air Canada admitted it was participating, but said its fares, while semi-secret, were not at all special, and were available through other sources as well.  Details here.

That is of course another part of the problem the airlines face.  Anything they try to do with any particular marketing channel immediately causes an uproar from their ‘partners’ in other marketing channels, who rush to demand the same fares, even if they are selling in different ways to different people, and would use the lower fare prices for nothing other than boosting their own margins.

I also wrote a separate tongue-in-cheek article last week about New Zealand’s problem, being omitted from some world maps.  Their response was for one of the country’s comedians, and the country’s Prime Minister, to team together to make a comedy video making fun of the situation.

China believes it has a similar problem, but has come up with a different solution.  Some countries and even some airlines refer to places such as Hong Kong, Macau, Taiwan, and Tibet in terms other than as inseparable and included parts of China.  China has now served official notice on airlines that dare to refer to such places in other than the approved terms, telling them they may find themselves subjected to additional scrutiny or suffer ‘demerits’.  United and Qantas are among the known recipients of such letters.

Here’s a brave article from the South China Morning Post website – a newspaper and online service that is struggling to maintain what remains of its own editorial freedom.

I think I prefer the Kiwi approach.

Lastly this week, more on the mysteriously missing MH 370 flight.  Here’s an article that claims to have a complete list of conspiracy theories about the flight’s disappearance.  Their list is woefully incomplete – some might say that is further ‘proof’ of a conspiracy!

And now, truly lastly, are you a “first class thief”?  Apparently, lots of people are – I know this for sure, because I’ve been to large themed conventions where the “stolen goods” are offered for sale.  Note – I was not there as a seller!

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels





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