Weekly Roundup, Friday 20 July 2018

Roomy seats, plenty of overhead space, and even decent sized toilets too. The A220 promises to be a delightful plane.

Good morning

I hope your summer is progressing positively.  I’m spending much of mine inside, wrestling with computer problems.

A hardware failure was bad enough, but during the recovery process there was a brief period of unavoidable vulnerability while opening the server to the internet to download OS patches, and the server almost instantly became infected with viruses.  Several weeks later, I’m still struggling to rid the server of the viruses, most of which are designed to use my computer’s processing power to mine bitcoins for unknown people somewhere in the world.  I have four different anti-virus programs (Windows Defender, ClamWin, IObit Malware Fighter and Malwarebytes) and while one, two or three of the programs will give the computer a clean bill of health, the remaining one or two obstinately keep finding viruses.

What a strange problem – rogue bitcoin miners taking over computers to mine their bitcoins for them.  Definitely not the sort of problem we’d have ever expected, even only five years ago.  The sooner the entire cryptocurrency craze and associated blockchain processes dies its overdue death and disappears into the annals of history as another utterly senseless fad, the better it will be for us all.

It is also an interesting lesson that one should not rely on a single anti-virus program.

Well, Messrs Putin and Trump have held their summit, and while opinions differ as to how well our side was represented, at least WW3 didn’t break out and perhaps we’re even lurching slightly towards a rapprochement of sorts, something that is long overdue.  We shouldn’t let 70 years of communist rule blind us to the fact that we have more in common and more to benefit by allying with Russia against shared enemies ranged against us both than we would benefit by alienating Russia and adding them to our list of overt and covert enemies.

The main benefit to us Travel Insiders though is that with apparently stable relations, there is no reason to be concerned about US-Russia induced unrest in the countries we’ll be visiting on our Quad K tour this October.  I know some people were concerned about this, and now that the summit has been concluded with no escalations, I’ll hold the tour open for another week or so to allow another couple or two to join us.  Details here.

Now that the main Travel Insider website is up again, I can also mention again our lovely Christmas “Landcruise” through northern France and some of Belgium, and optionally Luxembourg, a bit of Germany, Switzerland and Lichtenstein too, this coming December.  Enjoy all the best elements of a river cruise, while suffering none of the attendant constraints, with a great value experience shared with a lovely group of fellow Travel Insiders.  Details here.

I stayed in an Airbnb apartment for a couple of nights last week.  I’ve used fore-runners to Airbnb like VRBO and similar sites to arrange longer stays at places, much preferring an apartment or entire house to a small hotel room for an extended stay, but this was the first time I’ve used the Airbnb service.

The experience was interesting, sufficiently so as to provide enough points to write about, and I’ll probably use Airbnb again in the future, but I’ve now come up with a list of ten things to check and understand before selecting an Airbnb property.  See the article at the end of the newsletter for more on this.

Actually, a better option might be to read it online, because there’s an excellent reader response already from John Stub, and links to a couple of other relevant good articles about staying at Airbnb properties.  The way the system here works is that those comments don’t get sent out with the original article.  Feel free to add your own thoughts too if you wish.

And what else?  Please keep reading for :

  • Boeing Dithers its Way through a Short-Term Opportunity
  • Airbus A220 Reverses Plane Shrinkage Trend
  • Another Thing to Blame President Trump For?
  • Sooner or Probably Later, Virgin’s Promise Will Finally Come True
  • Supersonic Plane Slow to Market
  • Planes Plunging
  • China Muscles in on Hyperloop Technology
  • And Lastly This Week….

Boeing Dithers its Way through a Short-Term Opportunity

In a way, the airlines these days are spoiled for choices.  It is only 50 years ago that airlines essentially had a choice of one only passenger jet – the 707, and primarily in only one version, initially the 707-120 and subsequently the 707-320.

But by the early 1980s, although the 707 and 720 planes were no longer in active production, they had been placed by the 727 and three different version of the 737, plus the 747 which was in its prime, and the 757 and 767 too.

The concept of having multiple versions of each model plane continued into the 777 and 787 series of planes, too.  Airlines became accustomed to being able to choose exactly the configuration of plane for whatever type of routes they wished to operate – long, medium or short range, large, medium or small passenger loads.

In time, Boeing retired the 727 and then the 757, 767 and most recently the 747, leaving ‘only’ various versions of the 737, 777 and 787.  More or less as the numbering coincidentally implies, this leaves a hole in their product range that was formerly filled by the 757 and in part by the 767 too, a hole that Airbus has been exploiting primarily with its A321 plane, and which Boeing has been struggling to fill with its largest size 737.

For many years now Boeing has been talking about creating a new plane which it currently refers to as the New Midmarket Aircraft, and which is widely expected to become the 797.  I’ve occasionally mentioned this in passing, and devoted entire articles to it twice in 2015 and more recently in March this year – “The Current Airbus vs Boeing Slow-Motion Battle“.

It had been generally expected that Boeing would start to talk more definitively about the new plane at the Farnborough Air Show which has been underway this week in England, but that was not to be.  If anything, rather than getting more clarity and certainly about its future planes, Boeing seems to have become more uncertain about what, if anything, it should be doing.

Meanwhile, the 757s and 767s which this new plane is ostensibly to replace are being slowly but surely taken out of service, as are old Airbus A300 and A310 planes.  As often as not, it is Airbus A321 planes that are being selected to replace them.  One of the effects of Boeing’s inability to decide what to do is that the total market size for this plane is shrinking, rather than growing.

Here’s a good article on the subject.

related interesting article notes that Boeing is walking back some of their earlier fanciful plans for an oval-shaped fuselage made out of composite materials.  The company now says it might make a regular circular fuselage and out of aluminium, because it is cheaper.  What’s the bet that it will end up the same diameter as the 737/757/727/720/707?  Surely nothing could be cheaper than to extend the life of what has become a sorely inadequate fuselage diameter for six abreast seating.

Airbus A220 Reverses Plane Shrinkage Trend

Talking about nasty narrow seating, the more modern Airbus planes, which were never cursed with on dimensions dating back to the 1950s, have always offered a little more seat width than the single aisle Boeing planes.

The new Airbus A220, notwithstanding its roots as the Canadian designed and developed Bombardier Cseries, takes the concept of wider seating and extends it delightfully further.  Some seats on other planes are now no more than 16″ wide (thank you, United) according to this article which has interesting tables showing the reduction in seat pitch and seat width over the years.

We all bemoan seat pitch – ie the legroom in front, but these days it is the seat width that is the more constraining factor for most of us, most of the time.  While seat pitch has also reduced, so too has seat thickness, making it harder to directly compare the experience of sitting in an old seat with say a 34″ pitch and in a new modern thin seat with say a 31″ pitch.  But there’s nothing that can be done to make a narrow seat seem any wider than it is, and we’re at a point now where seat width is narrower than the shoulder (or waist) width of many fliers.

Good news with the A220.  It offers a standard seat width of about 19″, and its middle seats can go as wide as 20″, making that wedged in feeling much less extreme.  Details here (and illustration above).

Both Delta and JetBlue have ordered A220s.  Definitely a plane to look out for in your flying future.

Another Thing to Blame President Trump For?

Some people have coined the term “Trump Derangement Syndrome” to describe the rush to blame anything and everything on President Trump, and to castigate everything he does.  Examples abound, should one care to observe them.  For example, it was amusing to note that first Trump was lambasted for agreeing to meet with Kim Jong-Un, then the same people lambasted him again when he briefly called the meeting off.

One of the more ridiculous accusations though came from ‘hired political gun’ Airbus.  Airbus recently distinguished itself by complaining to order in Britain, adding its voice to the long list of companies prophesying doom and gloom if/when Britain’s protracted and painful Brexit process is finally concluded.  Airbus’ claim that it would no longer be able to source airplane parts from Britain was never anything other than ridiculous because of course it already sources airplane parts from all around the world; but it served the needs of the ‘remainers’ in Britain who wish to derail Brexit and helped make the already hopeless seeming Brexit process all the more doomed.

But Airbus’ willingness to make these nonsense statements – which it subsequently admitted was made at the request of government officials trying to torpedo the Brexit process – did not earn Airbus the quid pro quo it so eagerly expected.  Instead, the government awarded a no-bid contract to Boeing, which outraged Airbus.  Some of us thought it nice to see Airbus get its come-uppance.

Airbus is at it again, however, and now is complaining that it is having to hide the identity of some of the new customer orders for airplanes it has been showily boasting about at the Farnborough Air Show this week.  It says the customers don’t want their identity disclosed for fear of President Trump finding out.  Not to be left out, Boeing quickly chimed in, saying that it had fearful customers, too, although that claim makes absolutely no sense whatsoever – why would President Trump object to any company, anywhere, buying American made planes from Boeing?

The reality is concealed within the linked article.  The ‘shy’ buyers are from China, and it is normal standard practice for Chinese buyers to hold off on revealing their identity until the Chinese government has approved the transaction.  Often, the government (and Airbus/Boeing too) like to defer such details until they can make a showy staged announcement at an opportune time, such as when there is a delegation of senior officials from one country visiting the other.

Sooner or Probably Later, Virgin’s Promise Will Finally Come True

I have a friend who, as long as I have known him, has been predicting a catastrophic stock market crash.  We first met in 1985, when the Dow Jones index was at about 1500.  Today it is at 25,000.  He continues to predict the coming crash, and is seemingly untroubled by the extraordinary appreciation in value that has happened over the last 30 years.

The thing is that sooner or later, there inevitably will be a crash, and indeed, every short-term blip to date has been greeted by his excited claims of “I told you so”, only to have him lapse into silence as the blip disappears and the upward march resumes.

My point is that sooner or later, he will be “proven right” and he’ll then expect his 30+ years of being utterly totally wrong will be forgiven.

It is a bit like that with Sir Richard Branson and his repeated predictions that “real soon now” his Virgin Galactic “space craft” will start flying paying passengers for brief tastes of space.  He is now saying flights will start by next May.  If that does indeed happen, it will be ‘only’ ten years behind schedule – when he first launched the company in 2004, he was predicting flights by 2009, and since about 2008, the time-frame for flights has pretty much always been some time in the next year or two, although in May 2013 he was confidently predicting them for Christmas that year, a mere seven months out.  That was over five years ago….

Here’s a piece on his latest promises and predictions.  You never know, this might be the time he finally gets it right.

Supersonic Plane Slow to Market

Another project that has Sir Richard Branson on its periphery (one of his companies is helping with manufacturing and testing, and Virgin Atlantic holds options for ten of the planes) is the Boom supersonic jet.  The jet, projected to fly slightly faster than Concorde, would carry just over half as many passengers (55), and it is claimed will be able to operate profitably while charging passengers fares probably comparable to today’s business class fares.

At the Farnborough Air Show, company executives advised that they are delaying the projected entry into service by two years, from 2023 to now 2025.  The reason for this?  They’ve found things to be harder than they expected.  While that surprises them, I’ve long expressed total disbelief as to the reality of a 2023 date, and am neutral about the achievability of a 2025 date.

One of the biggest issues has been the engines for the plane.  Designing an airframe is comparatively trivial compared to coming up with engines that will be fuel efficient at both sub-sonic and super-sonic speeds, and there’s been very little research done on that since way back when Concorde was being brought to life in the 1960s.

Boom now claims to have engines for their plane developed and actual engines on site and ready to be mounted on planes.  If that is indeed so, and also if they perform as hoped, then 2025 seems more achievable, even with Sir Richard’s “help”.

Details here.

Planes Plunging

A Ryanair flight from Dublin to Zadar (the oldest continuously inhabited city in Croatia, in case you too didn’t recognize the name) was diverted to Frankfurt after suffering a ‘decompression event’ in the cabin and being forced to do an emergency descent, dropping 30,000 ft in five minutes.

This article doesn’t say what the cause was for this.

Not quite so mysterious was another emergency descent, this time on an Air China flight.  It appears one of the pilots was “vaping” in the cockpit and turned off the wrong parts of the plane’s air conditioning and pressure systems, in the hopes of ensuring that no smells would be passed back into the passenger cabin.  But he turned the wrong things off, and the net result was a loss of pressurization causing the emergency descent, and it was only after the plane levelled off at a low altitude that the pilots realized what the problem was.

Air China forbids any type of smoking or vaping by its pilots.  Details here.

China Muscles in on Hyperloop Technology

Innovation isn’t yet dead in the US.  We still have great ideas, but somehow, we no longer seem to be able to move forward on the ideas and make them into realities.

One such example is hyperloop technology.  First given a high-profile public airing by the erratic Elon Musk back in 2012, it has seen several competing companies take the core concept and develop it in several different forms, but none have yet come up with a proven working commercial realization.

One of these companies has benefitted from the warm embrace of Sir Richard Branson, who bought into the hype(rloop) in late 2017, and promptly added some more hype of his own.  That company is now called – no surprises – Virgin Hyperloop One.

But while Sir Richard is busy predicting an extravagantly exciting future for his hyperloop company ‘real soon now’, another company, Hyperloop Transportation Technologies, has announced a collaboration with a Chinese company to build a short 6.3 mile test track, which may then possibly be extended to longer commercial lines.

Although there is no mention of when this test track will be constructed, would you care to bet it might be much sooner than the various developments Sir Richard is boasting about with Virgin Hyperloop One?

There’s something terribly tragic about how all the apparent hyperloop projects that are being mooted are in other countries, not in the US.  Hyperloop technology is being developed in and around the Silicon Valley area, an area filled with futurists and venture capitalists, and in a state that is committed to spending probably $100 billion to construct a high speed rail line.  Why can’t there be a marriage between the technologists, the venture capitalists, and the Californian government, and put all that enormous talent and funding towards replacing the essentially not yet started conventional train line with a new technology hyperloop, and reaffirm the US role at the forefront of transportation technology.

Venture capital and risk taking were the two elements that drove so much of the US high tech success over the last several decades.  But now it seems the Chinese government has become the go-to source for such forward thinking and investment.  Who would have anticipated that, a decade or two ago.

And Lastly This Week….

The iconic Taj Mahal is struggling to stay its trademark white, with pollution and insect droppings threatening to turn it variously yellow and green.

India’s Supreme Court has called efforts to protect it a hopeless case and suggested that perhaps, if the problems aren’t resolved, the best thing to do would be to tear it down.  Ah, the wisdom of judges.

Secret rooms in hotels?  Not only ‘secret’, but also special.  Here’s an interesting article about this concept.

It is common for new airplane designs to start off spacious and luxurious, before ending up like all other planes, jammed as full of seats as is (in)humanly possible.  But here’s a ‘plane’ design that is more likely to survive the transition to actual operations, due to the special nature of the aircraft.

We note there seems to be no security door to the cockpit.  Have you ever wondered just how secure those doors actually are?  Here’s an interesting video of a personable young man who sets out to answer that question, using a 737 cockpit door.





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