Weekly Roundup, Friday 8 June, 2018

Is Heathrow finally going to get a third runway? Maybe, but also, maybe not. This week’s announcement is merely another step in a lengthy process with no clear end in sight.

Good morning

As you may recall, I’m in the UK for the next several weeks on this year’s Grand Expedition of Great Britain tour.  But a few quick thoughts for your Friday.

I flew from Seattle to London on Norwegian, making a dual first for me.  My first ever flight on a 787, and first ever flight on Norwegian.

The 787 was pretty much the same as any other airplane.

Some people report feeling more refreshed upon arrival after a long 787 flight due to the slightly higher humidity and slightly greater pressurization; I really can’t say I felt much different, one way or the other.  Does the difference in pressure between 10.9 psi at an 8000 ft pressurization level and 11.8 psi at a 6000 ft pressurization level really make that much of a difference?  Does the difference between 5% humidity and 10% humidity really make that much of a difference?

Certainly, it is not a bad thing to have more humidity and air pressure, but is it actually a difference one can feel and benefit from?  Or are these meaningless numbers that unthinking industry commentators love to recycle when obediently repeating mindless praise of the 787 from press releases issued by Boeing?

On the other hand, I did like the windows with their electronic shades.  That was quite fun, and looking on the other side of the cabin, seeing all the windows with varying degrees of shade suggested that people liked experimenting with their window settings – what else do you have to do on a nine-hour flight, after all!

I think I’d also read that the 787 windows are larger than ‘normal’ (whatever “normal” actually is).  Maybe so, but if so, it was not apparent or impactful, and the woman seated next to the window in my row said the window felt ‘too high’ for her.  I agreed, and when you think about it, 99% of the time, we look out of an airplane window and want to either look straight out or down, not up.

One difference I did notice, unprompted.  The cabin seemed a bit quieter with the engine noise not so intrusive.  I have long had a theory that one of the causes of ‘flight exhaustion’ is the constant barrage of noise assailing one on a flight, so the quieter cabin (plus noise cancelling headphones) is definitely a plus.

When I bought my Norwegian ticket, it only cost a couple of hundred dollars more to upgrade to their Premium cabin for the flight to London, but it was going to cost $800 more for an upgrade on the return, so I upgraded to London but not back again.

Their premium cabin is sort of somewhere similar to a high-end Premium Economy or a very low-end Business class.  The seats are slightly wider, and recline further with leg rests, but they don’t go anywhere near horizontal/flat.  The food was good, but not brilliantly great, and still was served, coach class style, in boxes and with plastic trays and cutlery.  For a few hundred dollars more, and noting it also included lounge access prior to departure in Seattle, and two checked bags rather than one, and the food included ‘for free’ rather than sold as extra, it was easy enough to justify, especially on top of a wonderfully inexpensive base coach fare to start with.  But for $800+ extra on the return, that is more of a struggle for a value-conscious traveler.

Their inflight entertainment choices were not enormous, but the video monitor was wonderfully high quality, and I enjoyed watching the new remake of “Murder on the Orient Express” featuring Kenneth Branagh as producer, director and star.  While the story line is as ridiculous as ever – perhaps even more so in this version, seeing the great deal of thought and care that Branagh lavished on his creation of the Poirot character was a highlight, as were the brilliant sets.  Very different to what Agatha Christie/Hercule Poirot fans have come to love so much with David Suchet’s outstanding performances – neither better nor worse, but a thoughtful re-interpretation, although I have to admit the new version of the moustache was a bit overwhelming and distracting.

Perhaps the worst part of the flight were the pre-flight nuisances in Seattle, and the best part of the flight the arrival into Gatwick.

I had a new annoyance waiting me at TSA screening.  My carry-on bag was selected for manual screening, due to some of the unusual things in it (20+ magnets for the tour member namebadges), but I had to wait at least five and what seemed more like ten minutes for that screening to occur.

The reason for the delay?  Someone else had their bag inspected, and then was taking for ever to put everything back.  Clearly they had all the time in the world, and an exact way of carefully placing every item in their carry on bag, and they muddled along, oblivious to the world around them, and while I repeatedly asked, the TSA refused to hurry the person along, and clearly there was only one official designated spot in the entire many-lane inspection area that they would consider opening my bag at.

When it came to boarding the plane, the six young and clearly woefully inexperienced gate staff showed that their true talents lay in re-enacting a Keystone Kops comedy.  I’ve never seen such an uncoordinated dysfunctional approach to boarding a plane.  We left over half an hour late, mainly due to their inability to board the plane efficiently.

But, the good news was at Gatwick.  I was disappointed that one of the benefits of Premium class wasn’t an expedited pass to go through Immigration – at Heathrow, as you probably know, the line to go through Immigration, particularly in the peak morning hours and the summer season – can extend to an hour or longer.

But, the reason for no fastlane pass soon revealed itself.  I reached Immigration to find no line at all.  I went straight to a ready and waiting Immigration officer, and was through within seconds.  Little or no wait for my bags, and all in all, it was a very fast and wonderfully enjoyable transit through a much smaller and easier airport than Heathrow.

Getting from Gatwick to Salisbury involved two train journeys.  The first one involved the tail end of rush hour passenger loads for the first few stops, meaning I was standing uncomfortably in a vestibule rather than seated anywhere.  That train split in two at one point, which was a very fast process, the only challenge being making sure I understood which part to be in for the completion of that leg of the journey.  Then a change of train at Havant, and the rest of the way to Salisbury.

I had to observe, as I traveled on these two very ordinary ‘standard’ type commuter trains, how is it that even regular short distance commuter trains in Britain travel smoothly and comfortably at speeds of up to 83 mph (in this case – faster on some other short distance commuter services), when we can’t get Amtrak over 78 mph as a system wide max speed limit, except for a few short stretches on the northeast corridor.  We were running over really old rail routes (sure, with upgraded track and signaling), through towns and country, and comfortably gliding along at 80+ mph.

Sure, we all understand that in some mysterious way, “high speed rail” is magically expensive and impossible for the US, but this wasn’t high speed rail.  This was ordinary rail, but in a country where “ordinary” clearly has a very different meaning.

Also offered to you is a terrible story that demanded to be a feature article rather than a couple of paragraphs within this.  It tells the terrible irony of a couple who lawfully emigrated to the US from Albania 13 years ago.  They were planning to travel for a visit back to Albania, and fearful of corruption in Albania, took steps to protect them from that.  But they couldn’t even get to their plane in Cleveland before US government corruption gave them a bigger problem than anything they feared but befell themselves in Albania.  Please do read the article and feel the same outrage I do at this.

Just a few other things to keep you going.

  • Heathrow – Another Non-Progress Step
  • Most Ridiculous Airline Survey Ever?
  • Mr Musk’s Massive Mess
  • And Lastly This Week….

Heathrow – Another Non-Progress Step

News earlier this week emerged that the British Parliament’s Cabinet has approved plans for adding a new runway at Heathrow.  Apparently they’ve already done some wheeling and dealing with other political parties to ensure the resulting legislation would pass the whole parliament – this being necessary because their slim majority is likely to be insufficient to pass the legislation alone, due to some number of MPs refusing to support the measure, including the colorful Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, who has said he will lie down in front of the bulldozers to prevent the development proceeding.

But will the parliamentary support be sufficient to finally clear what has been a 20 year process of delays and backsteps and repetitive studies and findings and conclusions?  Almost certainly not, with opponents already preparing for another round of legal objections and delays.

Although the benefits of Heathrow would be thought to most strongly associate to people closest to Heathrow and have least impact for people a long way away, the strongest opponents are those closest – not just due to personal concerns of extra airplane noise, but just ‘because’.  And those most strongly supportive have ended up being, astonishingly, the Scottish, with the ruling Scottish National Party apparently having done a deal with the British Conservative Party to support the legislation, with part of the deal being more flights from Scotland to Heathrow and some concept of a transportation hub in Scotland, too.

This would seem a poor choice for the independence minded Scots.  Wouldn’t they be better advised to create a world-class international airport, perhaps in the middle between Glasgow and Edinburgh (the two cities are only an hour apart, so an airport in the middle would be close and convenient for both cities), and to suggest to England that instead of building more capacity at Heathrow, they divert capacity to the new Scottish super-airport?

Details here, and some information about the ready-and-waiting opposition here.

Most Ridiculous Airline Survey Ever?

I know it is hard for mainstream journalists to write positively about American airlines, but they do try their very hardest to do so, even when creating risible results.

For example, this story is headlined “Passengers say they love these 10 US Airlines the most”.

Right from the headline, we know this is going to be, to use the new term, ‘fake news’.  Who loves a US airline?  What defines airline love?

But the real problem is that after listing the five major airlines and five minor airlines that are most ‘loved’, what airlines are left?

Even after including Air Canada as one of the five major US airlines, one has to stop and puzzle out – what ‘major’ airlines are not on this list?  And then one realizes that not only is United the fifth “most loved” major airline in the US, but is probably also the top most hated airline in the US.  And that calls for a very different sort of story and headline.

The article starts off by claiming that we are all very happy as passengers.  But that just shows how short or nonexistent the memory of the doubtless young person making that statement is.  And as for the artless nonsense inherent in the comment

And when things do go wrong, airlines are empowering customers — especially those who download mobile apps — to make their own decisions about rebooking.

I guess the person telling us how wonderful this is has never tried to call an airline during a system-wide series of cancellations.

We turn to apps, with varying degrees of success, because when we try to phone an airline for help, we either get hung-up on by an overloaded system that tells us to call back later (while we’re desperately stranded at an airport), or placed on hold for literally hours.

We turn to apps because when we go to an airport ‘service’ desk, it is either unattended, or the people there tell us to phone the (800) number or use an app.

I know, from personal experience with the people who I help arrange travel for, that not everyone is comfortable using apps, and I also know, from personal experience of my own travels, that apps don’t always do everything I want them to.

If you want to see all that is wrong with mainstream media coverage of the airlines, go read the article.

Mr Musk’s Massive Mess

Good news and bad news for Tesla.  The good news – May production numbers for the Model 3 continue to climb.

And then, the bad news.  Where to start.  First, although May revealed a total of 6,250 Model 3 vehicles produced and sold in total, which is a new record number, it still seems impossibly distant from their promise to produce/sell 23,000 vehicles in June.  None of the Tesla fans in the mainstream media are mentioning this, instead there’s been much crowing about the growing number of vehicles sold, with little or no commentary about how far behind every previous production promise the actual number is.

It is also interesting to contrast the production of 6,250 vehicles for the entire month of May with Tesla’s claim that, back in April, they were making them at the rate of 2,270 vehicles a week.  That would surely suggest more than 10,000 in May (allowing for some gentle increase in production rate).  6,250 is less than three weeks of production at the April rate.

Talking about Tesla promises, none of those 6,250 Model 3 vehicles was a promised $35,000 vehicle.  Most were $50,000 plus, and indeed, Tesla is now releasing a new higher-end Model 3 that will cost $78,000.  That is lovely, for sure, but there’s no real magic in making $78,000 electric cars.

The unique promise and appeal of the Model 3 was supposed to be that it was a good all-round car for a realistic $35,000 price, and qualifying for a $7500 subsidy.  Tesla has yet to produce a single one of the cars that they promised, for $35,000, and by the time they do, it seems likely the US government $7500 subsidy either will have expired or be just about to expire.

Why no $35,000 models?  Again, that’s a question that few in the press have dared ask, but there is an answer just waiting to be shared.  Tesla have admitted that they can’t actually make and profitably sell a Model 3 for $35,000.

They are now promising that a $35,000 priced variant might start to appear “as soon as” September.  That’s not exactly a firm commitment, not that it would matter if it were, of course, because firm commitments seldom are honored, either.

But meanwhile Mr Musk has moved on, and is promising three new models in 2020 – the Model Y, the Roadster, and the Truck.  The Roadster, he is now saying, may include some sort of rocket technology.  As if.  Pigs will fly before his Roadster flies.

In other unrecorded bad news for Tesla, May figures suggest that the models S and X are struggling to maintain sales levels, with both models selling appreciably fewer than they did in May last year.

Oh, in one more piece of largely unreported bad news, it seems that now 23% of people who placed deposits on Model 3 cars have cancelled their deposits.

Looking to the future, here’s a fascinating article about battery electric vehicle sales in general.  The key point, clearly shown in the chart, is the enormous increases in sales volumes reported by every company on the chart, apart from two – BMW and Tesla.

See how other companies are massively catching up and overtaking Tesla, and note also the other companies that don’t even appear on that list and which are also growing their BEV products in leaps and bounds.

Meanwhile, Tesla’s shares continue to show astonishing firmness.  Investors were quick to seize on Musk’s latest round of promises, accepting them gladly and without thought as to the appalling link in the past between Musk’s promises and the ensuing reality.

And Lastly This Week….

Many industry watchers have been curious to see the fate of the second-hand A380s that were returned back to their lessor by Singapore Airlines, and offered for re-lease or sale.  As anyone who has ever bought a new car knows, one of the considerations in buying a car, along with its purchase price, is how well it might hold its value – that’s a factor built directly into lease rates, and which should be equally considered when we’re paying cash or financing the purchase regularly.

So, what is the second-hand value of a used but well-cared for A380?  Based on the fate of the first two used A380s, it seems their value is no more than scrap value.  The two planes, while offered to airlines to purchase or lease, have now been consigned to the scrap yard, to be parted out and sold as spare parts.

Another negative blow to this wonderful plane.  I had hoped that a low cost of ownership or a flexible lease would encourage more timid airlines to add some A380s to their fleets; I understand that the cost of a new one is a difficult financial challenge, as is the need to then fill the plane commensurately for it to pay its way, but if one could acquire an A380 for perhaps a quarter of the price of a new one, the up-front price, and the ongoing cost of ownership, would both be massively improved, meaning the plane could more quickly break even on each flight with fewer passengers, and more quickly return a profit with increased numbers of passengers.

But apparently no airlines share my view on this, and the niche nature of the A380 – making hundreds of millions of dollars for Emirates, giving strategic advantages to a handful of other airlines, and overlooked by every other carrier – remains unchanged.

A380 fans (and that includes me) continue to optimistically say that the plane is merely ahead of its time and that in years to come, it will prove more popular.  But that is a claim that has been made for over ten years now; one wonders just how much longer one will have to wait until (if) it becomes true.

The feature article this week is in part about the Customs and Border Patrol.  Here’s another recent article that sheds an additional light on what they do in airports, and in particular, a question that springs to mind is why exactly the specific table mentioned in the article has been given the name it has by the CBP.

Am I the only person to fear we’re starting to lose control of the increasing number of agencies that have increasing power over us?

Truly lastly this week, why not another of the occasional articles about the glory days of flying, many years ago, and the uniforms worn by airline hostesses, back before they became unisex flight attendants.

I can’t hold out much hope for a newsletter next week or the following week, but we’ll see what happens.

Until next time, please enjoy safe travels





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