Weekly Roundup, Black Friday 13 July, 2018

Part of the futuristic city that is Astana, Kazakhstan’s new capital city, created out of what was formerly desolate desert. See it as part of our Quad K tour, this October.

Good morning

Before anything else, may I mention our Quad K Tour.  We’re now three months out from this exciting travel experience, when we go to Kiev, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan (and optionally to Moldova, Transnistria, and more of Ukraine, too).  We get a huge variety of unusual and even, dare I say, unique travel experiences in countries that, while close together, couldn’t be more different.

We go from the extravagant wealth of Kazakhstan to the poverty of Kyrgyzstan, from the optimism of Kiev in the ancient foundation of what became the Slavic nations and Russia, to the birth of a new not-yet-formally recognized nation, from hang-overs from the Soviet era in Moldova to optionally reminders of the grim legacies of Soviet safety standards at Chernobyl, contrasted with some regions of outstanding natural beauty.

We’ll travel by train, plane, and automobile (well, actually, touring coach) on a very varied journey, as part of a small group of Travel Insiders, joined by Joe Brancatelli and some of his JoeSentMe.com readers too.  It promises to be a memorable (in the most positive sense!) experience, and if you’d like to come, please let me know now.

Here’s the main page with links to the detailed itinerary pages and of course an application form to join.

And now, a few articles for your Friday enjoyment :

  • Boeing’s New Moves
  • The Magic Number 8
  • More from Jet Blue
  • Our National Transportation Infrastructure Disaster
  • China Opens the World’s Longest Sea Bridge
  • Suitcases Again
  • Government Seeks Immunity for TSA Malpractice – Can’t Afford the Lawsuits
  • And Lastly This Week….

Boeing’s New Moves

In a move that was almost inevitable, Boeing has now consummated a marriage/merger of sorts with Brazilian aircraft maker, Embraer.  Details here.

Although Boeing says the deal has been two years in the making, everyone knows that it was the surprise of Airbus joining forces with Bombardier in Canada that caused the Boeing/Embraer deal to receive the necessary approvals by both companies and the Brazilian government.  Completing the formalities are expected to flow over the next year or so, but the marketplace now understands that Embraer has the backing of Boeing.

Embraer and Bombardier are both manufacturers of smaller (regional) jets, and to a more or less convenient and suitable degree allow for Boeing and Airbus to extend their range of planes further down in size.

It is interesting, perhaps, to see how both companies are now more focused on smaller rather than larger planes.  Boeing has essentially ended its 747-8 program, Airbus’ A380 struggles on life-support (in the form of Emirates’ orders), and there are even suggestions that the largest 777 planes might be ‘too big’ these days, too (the 777-300 holds about 400 passengers in a two-class configuration, only about 10% fewer than a 747).

On the other hand, while the airlines and airplane manufacturers seem to be focused on smaller sized planes, they’re not focused on the smallest planes.  This article records the end of the propeller powered passenger plane, albeit a passing that relies on a fairly narrow definition of what comprises ‘the end’ to qualify.

While Boeing might no longer be interested in big planes, it is at least genuflecting at the altar of fast planes.  This article reports on Boeing’s aspiration claims to be developing a hypersonic passenger plane.

As the article gently points out, even Boeing’s most optimistic thinking suggests that an actual plane might be 20 – 30 years out from now.  But what the article doesn’t question is why Boeing is even talking about a plane that clearly it has no plans to do anything other than talk about for at least another decade.

The reality is that a hypersonic plane could be developed and in the air in about a decade if a manufacturer was serious about pushing the project forward at a positive rate of progress (it only took seven years to place a man on the moon).  Alternatively, there is no sense whatsoever in starting R&D now for a plane not slated to start flying for another 30 years, because (hopefully!) during those 30 years, there’ll be advances in materials, metallurgy, fuels, engines, and changes in passenger/airline patterns and demands such as to surely make any assumptions today irrelevant and unhelpful within that extended time frame.

It would seem that Boeing’s announcement is merely a ‘me too’ statement and an attempt to be relevant in a field that is crowded with overly ambitious and utterly unlikely announcements from other companies.

The Magic Number 8

Airbus, which has a nine month lead on Boeing/Embraer in terms of integrating its acquisition (Bombardier) into its product range this week announced that the Bombardier planes, formerly known as the C series CS100 and CS300 will now be known as the A220-100 and A220-300.

I’d like to congratulate Airbus on its brave numbering decision.  No, I’m not being sarcastic.  I mean it.  Too often in the last decade we’ve seen Boeing and Airbus alike adding the number “8” to their plane designations, because it is considered a lucky number by the Chinese.

For example, the 747, which had gone through models -100, -200, -300 and -400, in its last iteration suddenly became the 747-8.  Not that the number 8 did it much good – the Chinese bought a mere 8 of the 150 planes sold.  Similarly, Airbus, which had been releasing model series in the sequence A300, 310, 320, 330, 340, suddenly made their next plane the 380 before resuming its sequence with the A350 next.

Not only did Airbus number their super-jumbo out-of-sequence as an A380, but the first (and only) model within the series was numbered the A380-800.  Only five A380s (out of 331 total) have been sold to China.

Similarly, the first model 787 was the 787-8, of which 26 of the 353 delivered have gone to China.

On the other hand, a cynic might wonder if, in leaving the ‘magic’ number 8 off the A220 series, Airbus isn’t quietly acknowledging the reality that China’s own airplane programs may effectively close the smaller end of the market to its new A220 plane.  Interestingly, neither the Comac ARJ21 in its two model variants, the -700 and -900, nor the much larger C919, have the number 8 in their model designations.

Or perhaps Airbus is simply acknowledging the abject failure of the number 8 to boost its sales in China.

Isn’t it a sad reflection on western companies when they think that adding a digit “8” to an airplane costing tens or hundreds of millions of dollars will help sell the planes to the Chinese, whereas the Chinese themselves show no interest in numbering the planes they are now manufacturing themselves with this special number.

So is it “cultural sensitivity” to add an 8 to plane model numbers?  Or is it insensitive and condescending – “We think you’re so primitive and superstitious you’ll choose our plane based on the number we give it rather than its price/performance/value”?  And, ummm, just how well is that working for you, Airbus and Boeing?

On a luckier note though, Airbus must have been surprised and delighted to get an order for its newly numbered A220 earlier this week when JetBlue announced an order for 60 of the A220-300.  JetBlue was known to be evaluating its future small jet needs, but a decision wasn’t expected until late in the year.

Boeing/Embraer must have been horrified, because the new planes will replace the Embraer planes JetBlue is currently operating, plus the choice would seem to mark a fairly aggressive rejection of the Boeing/Embraer unification.  JetBlue still has 20 Embraer planes on order, and is expected to cancel those.

A great start to the new A220, and an inauspicious beginning to the Boeing/Embraer partnership.

More from JetBlue

Here’s an article written before the JetBlue announcement about its A220 order.  The article talks about a long speculated topic, JetBlue’s possible aspirations to start flying to Europe.  The article’s main point is that an improved A321 would be a good plane for JetBlue to operate.

A minor point in JetBlue’s announcement this week of its A220 order is that it swapped some of its current A320 orders for A321s.  It is not clear if these will be regular, long range or newer longer range variants of the A321, but it is an interesting hint as to what JetBlue might be thinking.  For that matter, the A220-300 can fly from Boston to London, too.

Another related point is that Lufthansa bought 19% of JetBlue back in 2007, but sold its shareholding in 2015, freeing JetBlue from any previous concerns or constraints that might have existed about competing with its major shareholder.  Meanwhile Lufthansa is believed to be bidding to buy Norwegian Air, possibly getting into a bidding war with IAG (BA’s holding company) in the process.

We’d much prefer to see Norwegian remain independent, but there is no denying the airline probably grew too quickly and now is struggling with its cash flow.  In encouraging news, Norwegian announced an unexpected quarterly profit earlier this week, and that might buy it some more time before it has to place itself on the auction block.  But, sadly, it is worth noting that its profit was a result of exchange rate shifts – without that one-off boost, it would have suffered another loss, and so its ongoing future remains troubled.  Details here.

Our National Transportation Infrastructure Disaster

I’ve been traveling a bit over the last week or so, and enjoying time in Eastern Washington where I discovered that my reflexive fear of freeways does not apply in Spokane.  After 30+ years of always worse-seeming congestion whenever I unavoidably brave one of the Seattle area’s freeways, what a wonderful change it was to be in a location where the freeway is a ‘force for good’ and a welcome opportunity to speed up one’s journey between points A and B, rather than an angst-filled experience with unknown amounts of congestion and unpleasantness.

I again find myself wondering why we were able to build our interstate highway system starting in 1956 – a magnificent and transformative total of over 48,000 miles of multi-lane freeway, mainly created from scratch; but now that we have it, we not only struggle to maintain it, but we can’t continue a very slow pace of ongoing improvement and expansion in areas where population and traffic numbers are growing.  Seriously, isn’t part of making America great again giving us back that which was once a huge part of our world competitiveness – an efficient transportation infrastructure.

Indeed, think about it.  Our freeways are increasingly inadequate.  We’re unable to build any high speed rail at all, and our freight railroads complain about being congested and maxed out.  And – talking about freight – did you know that there’s even a desperate nation-wide shortage of truck drivers, harming our ability to move goods by road in a speedy and efficient manner, too.

Let’s see – what’s left?  Oh yes, our aviation system, where we still have not yet enabled a new type of navigation and air traffic control system that has been ‘under development’ and needed for decades – this article, headlined “FAA bungles $36 billion NextGen Aviation Project” reports on some but not all of the associated frustrations of this unbelievably mismanaged and delayed mess-up.

We should also include an honorable mention to our Postal Service, which has created the ridiculous situation where it is cheaper for a Chinese company to mail something all the way to an address in the US than it is for us to mail the same item across town, and where a first class letter takes longer to be delivered today than it did a couple of decades ago.

None of this is showy, and little of it is vote-winning, but isn’t it time that our political leaders don’t just blame other countries as for why our balance of trade is so poor and we are seemingly unable to maintain our own manufacturing base; and also look at some of the positive solutions that would help us climb up the world competitiveness ladder once more.  America’s golden years in the 1950s and 1960s were based on the strength of its manufacturing and its competitiveness on the world stage, benefitting from its efficient transportation infrastructure.  Which would you prefer – a trade barrier that artificially raises the cost of many imported items, or greater investments in our national infrastructure, allowing American-made goods drop in price and compete not only in our domestic market but internationally, too?

Could we please focus back on the basics of pouring concrete to build and repair our freeways and bridges, laying high speed rail track, and allowing well-proven technology that is already 30 years old to be used to ‘modernize’ the air traffic control system, which currently is relying on technology that is 60 and more years old.

Talking about modern technologies, we’re not even leading the world with internet services any more.  We’ve dropped to tenth place for regular/wired internet speed, and we’re as low as in the mid 40s when our wireless internet speeds are ranked.

And when we talk about rankings, why is it that we take it for granted now, and even joke about, how our airlines and airports are no longer among the world’s best.  There is no reason, other than what passes for blithering incompetence, why we couldn’t and shouldn’t be world beaters in those stakes, too.

Why can small new foreign airlines outsmart major US carriers, even though they operate the same planes on the same routes between the same airports?  Shouldn’t decades of experience and enormous international route networks and every imaginable economy of scale, to say nothing of anti-competitive international alliances, actually help US airlines to do better?  Instead, according to the latest survey reported here, out of a list of 72 airlines, the best ranked US carrier came in at the 23rd position (American), followed by United in the bottom half, at 37 and Delta at 47.  The best three airlines were Qatar, Lufthansa and Etihad.

The article reports on a list of 141 airports, too.  About the best that can be said for US airports is that while they didn’t make the top ten (the best three being Doha, Athens and Haneda) neither did they make the worst ten (the lowest three being Lyon, Stansted and Kuwait).  Slightly strange choices at both ends of that list, but whatever the methodology, why is it that US airports can’t compete?  Instead, we suffer experiences such as I did a couple of weeks ago with an experience for arriving international passengers at Seattle that is worse than many third world airports provide.

But rather than focus on improving their service, US carriers are currently fixated on trying to obscure their sneaky and exorbitant fees and other charges.  This article reports on the latest round of attempts by US airlines to repeal the regulations requiring them to disclose the full cost of their fares and to allow them to further obscure their semi-mandatory ‘optional’ fees (such as the cost of food, water and luggage on lengthy flights).

China Opens the World’s Longest Sea Bridge

In a ghastly segue, after complaining about our crumbling infrastructure in the US, it is sad but appropriate to observe that China has just opened what is claimed to be the world’s longest sea bridge.

It is 34 miles long and cost $18 billion to construct, linking Hong Kong and Macau to Zhuhai on the Chinese mainland, and in doing so, cuts what was formerly a 3 – 4 hour journey down to 30 minutes.  Details here.

We’re not entirely sure of the validity of the article’s claim that it is the world’s longest sea bridge.  Maybe it is the longest road bridge across water, but we note China has other very long bridges, too, including the world’s officially longest bridge, a high speed rail bridge that is 102 miles long (in the US we can’t build a 102 mile high speed rail line on regular land, let alone on a bridge).

China has all of the world’s ten longest bridges apart from one in Taiwan, one in Thailand, and two in the US – the 24 mile bridge across Lake Pontchartrain and the less well-known 23 mile Manchac Swamp Bridge, also in Louisiana.

Suitcases Again

One comment that I sometimes return back to, and which I feel is always worth restating, and which I can now add further to.  One of the ladies on our Grand Expedition of Great Britain in June had her wheeled suitcase break a wheel right at the beginning of the tour.  She mentioned that her previous suitcase had also failed on a journey (that time it was the handle breaking) and if memory serves me right, it might have been when she was on a previous Travel Insider tour, too.

Two comments about this.  First, don’t ‘save money’ on your suitcase choices.  There’s nothing worse than a failed suitcase while traveling.  Whether it be wheels, handles, zippers, hinges, or sides cracking/breaking open, I too have, in the past, suffered all of these types of failures.  But since I started using Briggs & Riley bags, I’ve never again had any problem at all.

The robustness of their suitcases is matched by the robustness of their guarantee – they warrant their bags for life, no matter what the reason for damage may be, including even airline damage.

The other comment is to suggest that if you don’t have a Briggs & Riley bag, there is at least one small step you might be able to take.  In the ‘bad old days’ when I mainly traveled with a Delsey suitcase, I always carried a spare/replacement wheel with me, so that if/when a wheel failed, I could replace it on the spot (something I had to do on occasion).  See if you can put together a repair kit with things like zipper pulls, wheels, and handles, and perhaps also keep a strap in your suitcase as well in case you need to use it to keep it shut.

Amazingly, B&R give repair kits away for their bags.  So not only do you have an ultra-reliable bag to start with, but you can go even further down that path by asking for a repair kit and traveling with that, too.

Government Seeks Immunity for TSA Malpractice – Can’t Afford the Lawsuits

Okay, so I’m slightly paraphrasing, but as this article reports, a divided Federal Court of Appeal has decreed that TSA screeners (and therefore the TSA itself) are/is immune from suits arising from their treatment of airport passengers.

In explaining the case for immunity, the US DA defending said that the decision reflected Congress’ “duty to protect taxpayer dollars” from the cost of lawsuits.

Ummm – wouldn’t a better and more general protection for taxpayers be to mandate the TSA improve their game and make offending agents and their managers accountable?  Fire them when they act wrongly and malevolently?  Instead, the government argued – and the court agreed – that such actions, pretty much without limit, are protected and we, the traveling taxpayers, have no recourse.

Isn’t that a bit like a manufacturer cancelling their guarantee and warranty because they can’t afford the cost of the claims?  No manufacturer could do that and hope to remain in business.

Details here.

And Lastly This Week….

A time traveler?  Possibly, but also, possibly not.  This article reports on a person who claims to be a time traveler, and who offers up some video footage to prove his claim.

One can’t help but wonder why his alleged video ‘proof’ of being from the future was apparently filmed on a current era cell phone.

In case you haven’t heard (and how could you not), we’re about to be treated to Amazon’s “Prime Day” deal day on Monday and Tuesday.  But, before rushing off to buy things from Amazon that you hadn’t really planned to buy, perhaps you should carefully view this article and consider the warnings within it.

On a slightly more serious note, the concept of “Fake News” has become a core part of our lexicon of late, and some apparently venerable and respectable organizations have started offering checking services to validate (or not) contentious claims.

But are the checkers any more credible than the claims they have appointed themselves as arbiters of?  This article reports on something that strikes at the heart of our free and open democracy, and reveals a terrifying infiltration of political polemic that infects not just the fake news but the fake news checkers, too.  Chilling reading.

Finally please do think about our Quad K tour in October.  Indeed, don’t just think – decide to come along!

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels





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