Weekly Roundup, Friday 12 October, 2018

An Air Niugini Boeing 737 missed the runway but safely landed in the water – see story, below.

Good morning

First computer problems then medical problems (an ankle) forced an unplanned silence upon me, but here I am, happily back once more and sharing another selection of the great and the grim.

Simultaneously on the great and grim side of things, we had a cancellation off our Christmas “Landcruise” of Northern France and Belgium.  As I do in such cases, I’m happy to give half the deposit as an incentive to get someone else on the tour, and half the deposit back to the people who canceled.

So, if you’d like to come, there’s a $250 per person incentive for one lucky couple, or two lucky individuals.  With the price having dropped already due to the weaker Euro, and a lovely small group of fellow Travel Insiders (every person can have their own double seat on our coach), and a great itinerary taking you places you’ve surely never been to before, or back to places that if you’ve been to before, the chances are that you weren’t there during December in the height of the magic of the pre-Christmas season in Europe.  You’ll enjoy gorgeous markets and festivities in beautiful settings, lovely historic towns (and more modern history too at the WW1 battlefields in Belgium and WW2 Dunkirk in France) while leaving the depths of the pre-Christmas rush far behind you, back home.

As is the case in such situations, the first people able to commit and pay will get this special deal.

Our annual fundraising drive rather lost impetus during the recent break in communications.  I’d like to restart it now, because we’re barely a quarter of the way to our desperately needed target.

Please remember – I freely give you the newsletter and related articles, and in return, you are asked, once a year, to consider helping out with whatever level of support you feel reasonable and fair.  Whether you value your weekly newsletter as you would a cup of coffee, or consider it the same as buying a newspaper, or whatever else, hopefully you do agree that there are items of interest, and items of value.  Hopefully also you realize that our 17+ years of advocacy for travelers has some purpose and maybe even, on rare occasion, some beneficial outcomes, even though we and other small voices like ourselves struggle to be heard against the airlines and their mega-million dollar lobbying budgets.

The evolving nature of the internet has “dumbed down” a lot of internet content providers, and the diminishing ability to earn money from painless advertising has forced some providers to become much more focused on getting advertising support, even if it requires compromising their editorial standards (this article makes compelling but terribly depressing reading).  Please help us to remain fearlessly honest and out of the pockets of the travel suppliers who would dearly love to buy our support.

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Thank you!

What else this week?  To my horror, my home country of New Zealand joined the growing list of countries who are becoming increasingly interested in being able to access the information on our electronic devices when we enter (and potentially also when we leave) their countries.  The thing that appalls me the most is that this is not a sensible security measure at all; people with something to hide will have such things totally hidden prior to crossing a border.  You can read about it in the article that follows the roundup.

And, now, a lengthy (4000 word) miscellany of items to compensate for my silence and to get your Friday off to a hopefully great start :

  • FAA :  We’re From the Government, and We’re Here to Help You
  • The Biggest Non-News of the Year?
  • US Airport Winners and Losers
  • What the Eye Doesn’t See, the Airlines Don’t Grieve Over…..
  • More on the MH370 Mystery
  • Sully, Redux
  • Uber and Lyft’s Simple Solution to Unpopular Fees
  • Disneyland’s Simple Solution to Overcrowding
  • Making Us Saferer
  • And Lastly This Week….

FAA :  We’re From the Government, and We’re Here to Help You

We wrote a few weeks back how the airlines very cleverly came up with a response to the government threat to bring new legislation and regulations to limit their currently unthinkably high fees for no-cost services such as allowing changes on tickets.  They said “If you limit the fees we can charge to change a ticket, we’ll simply make all tickets totally non-changeable”!

The government quickly backed away from that threat (the other approach of course would have been to raise the table stakes in the game of bluffing and threatened to extend the legislation to make all tickets changeable), but the airlines have decided they rather like the idea of tickets that don’t allow any changes at all, as a reader wrote in to tell me about a United ticket he had just purchased.

Not everything was a total consumer loss.  The government did fearlessly stick to the guns on a few minor matters, and has now mandated the DoT/FAA should set guidelines for seat sizing and spacing on planes.  This is unlikely to see any sudden transformation in the space available to us, however, because all the seats and layouts currently in effect have been de facto approved by the FAA to date, so the FAA is hardly likely to turn around and say “We just realized, we made a mistake, those seats are too close together”.

There is one tangible consumer benefit in the law.  Airlines now have to refund fees they charge us for services they don’t provide.  They’ve been dismayingly reluctant to do so prior to now, and the happy unintended consequence is that with the airlines’ eager shift to making much of the total fare fee based, if we cancel a ticket, or even if we just don’t fly half the ticket, they’ll now have to give us back money, even on a non-refundable ticket, that they otherwise could have kept if they’d simply had a higher fare and lower fees.

Here’s a good list of the other minor changes included in the bill.

The Biggest Non-News of the Year?

Something that seems so logical that it invites endless speculation is the concept of struggling Etihad Airways being taken over by its nearby neighbor, Emirates Airline.  Emirates is, by some measures, now the largest airline in the world, and robustly profitable.  Etihad, a much more recently formed airline (2003 compared to 1985 for Emirates) and much smaller in size, has suffered some missteps in the last several years and is in far from great financial shape.  Emirates is the flag carrier of Dubai, Etihad the flag carrier of adjacent Abu Dhabi, and the two airports are barely an hour apart (potentially much less if occasionally mooted plans to connect the two emirates by high speed rail or hyperloop ever come to fruition).

Both airlines are high quality, and operate similar routes, and there would seem to be enormous opportunities for rationalization if they could switch from competing against each other and unite as a single carrier with a single route plan.

The low level of speculation, which has been present for easily five years, came to a head a couple of weeks ago when Bloomberg published a piece suggesting that Emirates was seeking to take over Etihad.

There are some obvious obstacles, not the least of which is the national and personal pride involved in maintaining each airline, or the investment of billions of dollars into Abu Dhabi’s airport and aviation infrastructure.

But, never say never.  And in particular, if the two airports could be effectively connected, one of the biggest obstacles could be surmounted.  As the crow flies, they are a mere 41 miles apart, and there’s almost nothing but desert between the two airports, making it easy and inexpensive to build some type of rail/hyperloop track, reducing travel time to perhaps 15 minutes or even less – which is comparable to how long it takes to shuttle between terminals larger single-location airports such as Heathrow or Sydney or Manila.

Both airlines rushed to deny Bloomberg’s claim, but it is something we’re not so fast to turn away from.  If Etihad doesn’t return to solid profits soon, Abu Dhabi might decide that it is better to share a profitable airline than to own a chronically loss-making airline all on their own.

US Airport Winners and Losers

Talking about airports and mergers, here’s a fascinating list of the ten most rapidly growing and ten most rapidly shrinking major airports in the US, as measured over the last ten years.

Dallas/Love Field, Austin, New Orleans, San Francisco and Houston/Hobby were numbers 1 to 5 in the growth list, with Dallas almost doubling in traffic over the decade.

The growth of Love Field is no surprise after the lifting of flight restrictions that had been imposed to shift traffic to DFW and to ensure the new DFW airport was a success.

The lifting of restrictions and growth of traffic at Love Field has surely not harmed DFW.  It is now the fourth busiest airport in the world by a count of airplane movements.  It has been dithering about building another terminal (F) and while it is a huge airport, to put that into context, it is fascinating to look at this image which shows an early plan for how the airport might appear in 2001 – 13 terminals.  Currently it has five.

At the other end of the scale, the most shrinking airport was Memphis, followed by Cincinnati, Ontario, Albuquerque and Cleveland, with Memphis suffering a 62% decline in traffic.  Memphis was a former hub for Northwest Airlines, but after being bought by Delta in 2008, its status as a hub steadily declined until being discontinued entirely in 2013.

Cincinnati was a Delta hub which suffered as Delta’s fortunes also suffered in the 2000s, and while at its peak it was having over 670 flights a day in 2005, we guesstimate there to be only perhaps 150 flights a day now, although other airlines are adding service and so softening the blow.

What the Eye Doesn’t See, the Airlines Don’t Grieve Over…..

Ever since the video of Dr Dao being dragged, kicking and screaming, off a United/Republic flight echoed around the internet, airlines have been more circumspect at doing things like that.  They’ve finally understood that such acts appear on Youtube and Facebook in close to real-time, and damage their ability to appear ultra-friendly to legislators.  Indeed, as a result, the new FAA reauthorization bill included a provision to protect passengers from being removed from a flight subsequent to boarding.

So what do they now do?

A hint about that can be seen in this news story.  Ostensibly about a passenger who tried to bring a squirrel aboard a flight, claiming it to be an emotional support animal, the really interesting part (to me) is mentioned in passing toward the end

…police were called and requested everyone be deplaned so they could deal with the passenger.  Police eventually escorted her off the plane …

This raises the unasked and unanswered question – why did every other passenger on the plane have to get off before the police could “deal” with the passenger?  What did the police and airline not want to be done in public?

More on the MH370 Mystery

Talking about unseen mysteries, most of what we think we know about the flight path of the disappeared Malaysia Airlines 777 being operated as MH 370, back in March 2014, comes not from radar traces, nor from officially accepted sightings of the plane flying overhead.  Instead it comes from a very clever and innovative process of calculating the plane’s possible location, based on the doppler effect shift of frequencies and timings between a radio transponder on the plane and overhead satellites.

There are however two awkward assumptions, and one inconvenient rebuttal of this process.

The awkward assumptions are first that no-one interfered with the radio transponder on the plane to cause it to misbehave and give false readings, and, slightly more technically, these calculations just tell us the distance from the plane to the satellite, not the direction.  However, some other calculations and assumptions created a likely flight path (likely only in the self-referential sense of it conformed to the theory) and so as a result, a general region was established where it was thought the plane probably crashed into the sea.

The inconvenient rebuttal is that the seabed in this area has been reasonably well searched, and there’s been no trace of any wreckage whatsoever.  Which forces us to one of three conclusions.  Maybe the search was flawed and needs to be repeated.  Maybe the calculated region where the plane crashed is slightly wrong and needs to be widened some more.

Or, and here’s the big one, maybe the total set of assumptions and dependent calculations are wrong.

It has never made any sense to me that one of the two pilots would take over the plane, fly an irregular flight path over Malaysia and around Indonesia, then fly endlessly south-east with no more kinks or turns before running out of fuel and crashing into the sea.

If you’re on a suicide mission, surely you just want to crash the plane quickly before anything can go wrong to prevent your mission succeeding.  Simply pushing the control column forward at the minute the plan was activated would have the plane crashing into the sea  in the middle of the South China Sea within five minutes.

What we do know, in terms of radar traces, is that the plane seems to have been deliberately piloted to avoid as much radar as possible while heading towards the Bay of Bengal.  Is it not as likely that the plane would continue in the direction it was being steered – a direction that leads to a number of “interesting countries”, rather than that after ‘taking the long way round’ it would then head to the South Ocean and crash somewhere off the west coast of Australia?

It turns out that causing the radio transponder to send misleading signals to the satellites is easier than might be thought, and particularly if the entire event was being staged by a sophisticated group, they’d know how to do it and would also then be able to help arrange that unsuspecting third parties would then be encouraged to use that data to miscalculate the plane’s flight path.

Sure, this is unlikely, but there’s no part of the MH 370 story – nothing that we know, and nothing that anyone is guessing about – that is likely.  It is all unlikely, but it definitely did happen.

Here’s an article suggesting that maybe the satellite data was indeed faked.  But if you prefer the generally accepted theory, here’s an excellent article with some interesting new details.

Sully, Redux

Talking about planes crashing into the ocean, who can forget the famous incident in January 2009 when a US Airways (remember them) A320 lost power in both engines immediately after taking off from LaGuardia due to ingesting birds.  Powerless, and at low altitude, the pilot, Chesley Sullenberger, and his seldom mentioned copilot Jeffrey Skiles did a splendid job of urgently landing the plane in the Hudson River 90 seconds later.  The plane settled in the water and slowly sank, giving passengers and crew time to get off and be rescued, with no loss of life at all.

The telegenic pilot and his endearing nickname “Sully” became an instant national hero, and his piloting feat was much marveled at.  It also provided a reassuring data point and answer to the question “what happens if a plane crashes into the ocean”; although in truth, it was indeed a very well flown landing and a lesser pilot could well have caused the plane to flip or cartwheel, and the outcome could have been tragic.

Another example happened a week ago, when an Air Niugini 737 missed the runway in Chuuk Lagoon.  Some reports say it undershot, others that it overshot the runway.  Either which way, the plane managed a graceful landing on the lagoon, although it is important to note that this was a somewhat powered landing, which is probably a bit easy than Sully’s “dead stick” landing.  Although initial reports suggested that all 35 passengers and 12 crew survived, it subsequently turned out one man didn’t make it.

The big surprise to me is that the plane, with a mere 35 passengers, had 12 crew on board.  Two pilots, and ten flight attendants?

Uber and Lyft’s Simple Solution to Unpopular Fees

In the good old days, Uber and Lyft were truly transformational.  They were very much less expensive than taxis, the cars and drivers were a million times nicer, there was no tipping, and we, the customers, felt in-control of the experience in a way we’d never ever felt with a taxi.  We were flooded with data at every step of the transaction.

These days, the cars and drivers are much the same as regular taxi cabs and drivers.  This is perhaps unsurprising, because now that the market is settling and reaching close to an equilibrium between supply and demand, driver income is plunging, as reported here.  At the same time, at least in my limited experience, the rates we pay have been going up (and in some areas, taxi companies are becoming more competitive as well as more reliable), tipping is now a thing, and we’re starting to see some of the flaws and gaps in the Uber/Lyft service models being provided.

We also have been objecting to some of the fees being charged – service fees, local surcharges, insurance/safety fee, and so on.  Uber first responded by going very opaque on when its surge pricing was in effect and how much it was, but some of the other myriad of minor fees were also upsetting passengers, who were used to basically seeing a single number on a taxi meter.

So, the response of both companies (and these days, it is getting increasingly difficult to discern any difference in fares, fees, or experiences between the two companies) was simple.  Their statements of charge no longer break out the fees.  Problem solved!

Disneyland’s Simple Solution to Overcrowding

You know what EPCOT stands for, don’t you?  Some people believe it stands for “Experimental Prototype Community Of Tomorrow” but those who have visited know that it really stands for “Every Person Comes Out Tired”.

As we surely all know, no matter what Disney attraction we visit, the days are long, the lines are longer, and the distances between attractions longer still.  The chance to occasionally just sit down on one of the benches strewn all around the parks is somewhere between welcome and essential; the alternative being to go to an overpriced restaurant and sit/eat/drink/pay.

As we also surely all know, Disney is increasingly a victim of its own success, with more and more of its parks getting filled to their maximum capacities, making for experiences that are nonstop dreadful all day – at least for us, if not for our children and grandchildren.  Everything is busy/crowded, lines for everything are even longer, and something as simple as just walking down the pathways gets difficult due to the crush of people everywhere, including people stopping to take selfies every few feet.

Disney has recognized that their parks are bursting at the seams.  Some days, at Disneyland they even halt admissions due to having too many people already in the park.  And now they are trying to improve the ability to handle more people more efficiently.  So they’ve come up with a solution – remove the benches that are “getting in the way”.  They are, however, adding some more seats in some of their restaurants.

So one of the few things you could do that didn’t involve either paying more money or waiting in line is now being removed.  Because, as a Disney spokeswoman said, the company is “always looking at ways to enhance elements such as guest flow, seating, and landscaping, which play an important part of a guest’s visit to the parks.”

A strange way to enhance the seating and landscaping, though.  Details here.

Making Us Saferer

Did you know that it is lawful to carry spent cartridges (shells) on airplanes?  But not stones in the shape of live cartridges?  This article tries to understand how small stones, intended as a way to cool down drinks, are dangerous if fashioned in the shape of pistol cartridges, but not if just irregular stones.

A pilot program for a new method of using facial recognition to screen passengers either passed or failed tests, depending on if your glass is half full or half empty.  85% of the time, it correctly matched passengers to their digital images.  But 15% – ie one in six – it didn’t, either failing to find any match or identifying the person as someone else.

Is that good or bad?  Well, let’s just say that if the misidentification labels you as a terrorist, it is truly very bad.  But, one in six odds?  And remember, how many flights a year do you take.  If you think those are good odds, would you care for a similar number of rounds of Russian Roulette?  Details here.

The airlines are apparently not very keen on the concept, because rather than speeding things up, it can slow them down.

And, talking of facial recognition, here’s another type of high-tech/photo recognition and an unintended consequence.  Google has already felt the need to blur out people’s faces, but apparently that’s not quite enough.

Probably few people reading this have ever applied for a US visa.  But if you have, you’ll know you have to answer a series of searching questions, such as “Are you an international terrorist” and “Have you ever been a member of the Communist Party” and “Do you endorse bigamy”.  It isn’t just the US – some other countries ask similar questions on their application forms, too.

Most of us when confronted with such questions find it hard to suppress a giggle or two as we quickly check off all the correct answers.  But, alas, a nice Scottish lady did too much laughing and not enough careful reading, and sent in her visa application having inadvertently confessed to being a terrorist.  Apparently, you can’t subsequently say “Ooops, I’m sorry, I made a mistake”.  Details here.

And Lastly This Week….

Here’s a story that we’re not sure whether we should be applauding or decrying.  Elements of both, probably – which do you think?

There’s a lot less ambiguity about this story, though, although we’re for sure curious as to what is being coyly referred to as “a mystery liquid” actually was.

Similar to ambiguity is controversy.  As readers know, we generally dislike “top ten” lists, but here’s one with an interesting twist – the world’s most controversial airlines.

We’re getting close to Halloween, so inevitably, there are stories like this one doing the rounds.

You can please all of the people some of the time, some of the people all of the time, and, alas, then there are the people who can never be pleased.  Like the person who complained about the tallest mountain in the UK being too high (and although the highest, it is only a very modest 4,411 ft), and the person who complained about the beach that won an award as 2017 Beach of the Year having a rock on it, and another person who complained that a beach was too sandy.  More complaints here.

And on that note, and until next week, may I wish you safe travels.  I’m out of the country/traveling next Thursday/Friday, but will get something to you at some time on Friday, Wi-Fi and airlines willing.





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