Weekly Roundup, Friday 2 November, 2018

An artist’s impression of the possible new airport for Mexico City. See item, below.

Good morning

I hope your Halloween was enjoyable.  My long dark driveway (and, ahem, German Shepherd) tend to keep the number of trick and treaters down to a very small number each year, but Anna always manages to score an impressive amount of candy as she does her rounds (as well as sweeping up all the non-taken candy from here too).

We’re into the eleventh month of the year already; with Thanksgiving and then The-Occasion-That-Dare-Not-Speak-Its-Name on the 25th of December – you know, “the holiday season” as it seems to now be called.  With that in mind I’ll be trying to come up with another of the occasionally annual Christmas Gift lists over the next few weeks.

One item that might be good for either the men or women in your life is something I’m writing about this week in the article that follows – a ratchet type trouser belt, as opposed to the typical five hole standard belt we usually use.

I like it because it allows me to avoid making ugly big “one inch at a time” decisions about what hole in the belt I use.  The ratchet belts allow for small quarter-inch decisions, and don’t leave the evidence of previously used holes visible in the belt for others to see!

There are other things to like about ratchet belts, too.  The article discusses them all.

The article also has a new feature that I’ve not deployed before.  There’s an extra section in it, but only visible to Travel Insider supporters (to see it you need to be logged into the site, it isn’t visible in the emailed version of the newsletter).

It is another small and occasional way of my reciprocating the kindness of those who voluntarily support The Travel Insider.  Everyone gets everything for free, but supporters get a little more than everything!

This year’s fundraising drive has been not very successful, perhaps because I’ve not been very focused on promoting it.  So may I delicately remind you about it this morning.  We operate on a “PBS” type model – our “broadcasting” is free, and in return, we rely on your volunteered generosity, at such level as you feel fair and appropriate.

This shouldn’t be an unfamiliar concept.  How much of a tip did you add to your last restaurant or bar bill?  How much do you tip taxi drivers and hotel bellboys?  And what do they actually do for you, in return?

So, may I ask you to ask yourself, how much should you send to The Travel Insider?  You get all the free content – typically about a quarter million words of original material each year, plus, currently, up to seven special reports and now an extra section in tonight’s article.

I’ll be repeating this concept of an extra section again in a few days when I release an article about Apple’s new iPads, announced earlier this week.  There are now 28 different iPad variations you can choose from – wouldn’t you like to know which – if any – is the best one for you?  That article could help you buy with confidence, and possible save hundreds of dollars in the process.

There will be more bonuses interspersed during the year, and other sundry benefits too.  But, most of all, contributing is simply about you giving what you feel fair, and your decision to help keep us online and publishing.

Your help really is essential, and truly is appreciated.  Details here.

What else this week?  Please keep reading for :

  • British Land Cruises in 2019
  • Will Mexico City Get Its New Airport?
  • Lion Air 737 Crash
  • United Airport Contractor Fires an Employee
  • What Happens When You Ignore Your Employees
  • UK Airlines Unnecessarily Charge Passengers £175 million a Year
  • Immigration and Customs Screening by Computer
  • And Lastly This Week….

British Land Cruises in 2019

An iconic view of Chatsworth House in the Peak District National Park.

Did you see our item last week that we now have our June 2019 touring in Britain online, available for you to read through and join?

In our restless quest for ever-better ways of creating travel experiences for you, in 2019 we’re offering two of our new “land cruise” type tours; these are one week stays, with daily touring around the place we stay at, so as to avoid the need to check in and out of hotels every day or two, as on a typical tour.

No need to pack/unpack suitcases, familiarize yourself with a new hotel/hotel room/location, no hassles at reception checking in and out, and so on.  Just a lovely week in a lovely location, giving you an in-depth quality opportunity to settle into a region such as you’d not ever normally find on a typical tour.

I’ve timed this pair (one in the Cotswolds, one in Yorkshire) so they are almost back-to-back, making it easy for you to do either or both.  Plus there’s optional pre and post touring.  And, amazingly, for the ultimate in convenience, you can join on any day and leave on any day; there’s no need to be limited to only the exact tour dates.

While these tours are still far out into the future, it is very helpful to start getting a sense of what our numbers will be, so please do let me know if these are experiences you may wish to join us on.

Will Mexico City Get Its New Airport?

Imagine that your airport is currently struggling, operating at 50% over its designed maximum capacity.  Which would you prefer – to continue to accept this situation, in the full knowledge that an over-capacity airport means delays, problems, unpredictability, inconvenience, and higher fares, or welcome a new airport to solve the problem, in the full knowledge that a new airport will not only create new jobs and improve your travel experience, but boost tourism and business travel, bringing billions of dollars to the region each year.

Well, yes, you’re right.  That isn’t a hard question to answer.  Unless, of course, you live in London, for example, where the answer would be NIMBY!  (Not In My Back Yard)

And if you’re in Mexico City, an area that is no stranger to struggling with over-capacity resources of all types already, and which already has a new airport partially completed, the answer also seems to be a resounding “Thanks, but no thanks”.

A referendum was held last weekend in Mexico, in which 70% of people voting said they wanted to stop the construction of the new airport.  However, the validity of the referendum is already being called into question, because the turnout was apparently less than 1%.

The new airport is projected to cost $13 billion.  But stopping construction would still see $10 billion being spent, due to work already done and contractual commitments in place.

So perhaps the question should have been “Do you want to spend an extra $3 billion to get an airport worth $13 billion?”.

To put those numbers in context, one study suggested that by 2035, a new airport would bring a boost of $20 billion to GDP, but without it, the country would be missing out on 20 million passengers (not sure if these are per year or for the 15 years between about when the airport might open in 2020 and 2035, but it seems way more likely to be per year).

As you can see from the illustration at the top, the airport was to have been a stunning creation, in no small part due to the participation of noted architect Norman Foster in its design (he was also involved in the new Beijing Capital Intl Airport and Hong Kong Intl Airport).

We expect that, a bit like London, we’ve not heard the last of this.  Details here.

Lion Air 737 Crash

On the other hand, talking about things we’ve heard the last of, you doubtless heard of the Lion Air flight JT610 crash, 13 minutes after takeoff from Jakarta, on Sunday 28 October.  All 189 people on board were killed when the plane fell into the sea.

The captain had over 6,000 flying hours and the co-pilot over 5,000 flying hours.  Apparently the pilot had requested to return back to the airport shortly after takeoff, but no further contact was made.  This is possibly because both pilots were too busy trying to fly a misbehaving plane.

So far, little is known (but much has been speculated).  Telemetry from the flight suggests inconsistent airspeed and altitude values, and early attention focused on the pitot tubes (there is more than one – I think three) that measure airspeed (and indirectly imply altitude as well).  But, as well as the actual pitot tubes, it could also be any of the analog to digital circuitry in the system as well, and/or it could be something entirely different.

It is also very surprising that if it were merely a problem with the pitot tube speed measuring devices, the pilots couldn’t have simply ignored them and flown the plane using their standby tables of engine thrusts/attitudes back to the airport.  It was daylight and apparently reasonably good weather conditions such that, if something went wrong with the plane’s automated systems, you could simply look out the front window, see the horizon, orient yourself and the plane, get it stabilized in a straight and level situation, then in a careful and leisurely manner resolve the problem with no time pressure acting against you.

Instead, and most significantly, the end of the flight seems to have involved an extraordinarily steep descent (“plunging out of the sky” is a better term) – the last reported rate of descent which may or may not be accurate was 31,000 feet per minute, and with a plane that had been at barely 5,000 ft, that gives you mere seconds to try and correct before you’re out of altitude.

We’d like to say this would be unthinkable with almost any pilot and an airplane that still had functional wings and control surfaces, and so while the pitot tubes may have been the original problem, perhaps the initial corrections and over-corrections may have broken something which then made the plane unstable and unflyable, no matter what the pilots did.

While it is true that Indonesian airlines in general don’t have a very good safety record, the fact that this was a nearly new 737-8 MAX airplane (delivered just two months ago) makes it more surprising, and more relevant, because this is a current model plane (the model has been in commercial service since 2016), so if there’s any sort of systemic issue, it needs to be identified and urgently corrected.

Later in the week, word broke that the same plane, on its immediately preceding flight from Bali to Jakarta had seen that flight’s pilot first calling out a “PAN” call (one level below “Mayday”) and requesting permission to return to Bali before then cancelling the alert and flying on to Jakarta.  Apparently there were technical problems including unreliable airspeed values, on that flight.  If so, it is unfortunate that they weren’t completely resolved prior to the plane’s next flight.

One of the “black boxes” has now been retrieved (on Thursday) and apparently the data inside it is likely in good condition.  It seems all but certain that a new plane would have a new digital black box that records an extraordinary amount of data, making it much more helpful when it comes to trying to work out what went wrong.

We are being told it is the flight data recorder rather than the cockpit voice recorder, which is slightly surprising and may be incorrect, because these days most data recorders store both data and voice recordings.

The investigating authorities probably already have some data from the black box; we hope they’ll quickly issue some preliminary findings, so as to quieten the concerns and speculation that currently is out there.

Meantime, the blame game has already started, although a fair-minded person might think it is a bit early to be firing people prior to knowing what happened.

United Airport Contractor Fires an Employee

In some cases, it seems that airlines are extremely reluctant to fire their employees.  Employees can frivolously accuse passengers of being terrorists, can lie outright to police and cause passengers to be forcibly deplaned, arrested, and detained.  Employees can decide to return or divert flights to an airport rather than continue on to a destination for the most laughable of reasons.

But if you’re working for an airline contractor instead, your job is apparently much more at risk, as one of their employees discovered just over four years ago.  After nine trouble-free years working for a security contractor at Shannon Airport, an employee took a used copy of Time Magazine out of a trash bag that was on a UA airplane stairwell to read.  He was fired for “stealing” the thrown away magazine out of the trash bag.

However, justice did triumph, sort of.  After four years an Employment Appeal Tribunal has now finally ruled in his favor, but awarding him a trifling $33,000 in damages.

Details here.

What Happens When You Ignore Your Employees

Continuing an industrial relations theme for a minute, another airport contractor was aggrieved when he told his company that the baggage screening machine he was stationed at kept breaking down.  The issue, from his perspective, was that when it happened, he had to carry the suitcases over to another belt and machine, and that quickly became heavy tiring work.

So he decided to vent his frustrations.  By randomly swapping luggage tags on bags.

He is known to have caused at least 286 bags to be sent to the wrong airports, and because he was working at Changi Airport in Singapore (there are, of course, no local flights within Singapore) those redirects were quite likely very inconvenient.

He gave up doing this in February, because even doing that didn’t bring any attention to his problem with the unreliable baggage scanner.

He has now been arrested.  This article doesn’t report whether or not he has lost his job, however.

UK Airlines Unnecessarily Charge Passengers £175 million a Year

One of the more gratuitously greedy fees airlines charge is to enable two people traveling together to actually sit together.  You’d think there’d be a way that two people traveling together would have the option to simply say “put us anywhere, we don’t care, as long as we are together” and not be charged for that.

But the airlines recognize a captive audience when they see one, and so play a game of bluff with couples.  “Oh no, we won’t can’t do that”, they say.  “You can request to be seated together and they’ll see what they can do at the airport, but there’s no guarantee.  If you really want to be together, you’ll both have to pay to get preassigned seats next to each other”.

And so, most couples end up paying the fee for two preassigned seats.

But a new study has shown that almost half the people who do so would have been seated together anyway, without needing to pay any fee.  The study calculates that the amount of money unnecessarily paid by people wanting to sit together who would have been seated together anyway, for free, is in the order of £175 million every year.  We expect similar sums (or even greater) are spent unnecessarily in the US, too.

Details here.  And airlines wonder why we hate them so much…..

Immigration and Customs Screening by Computer

A six month pilot program at borders in Hungary, Latvia and Greece will see people questioned, not by the usual border security staff, but by computers.

The system will use “biomarkers of deceit” to detect when people are lying.  This comprises analyzing fleeting “micro gestures” that people are alleged to unconsciously display when they are lying.  The science behind it is about as rigorous and convincing as that which proves the earth to be flat, but it has earned a devoted following by people who believe that machines can always do things better than people.

Preliminary testing has shown the system to be about 76% accurate.  When you think that random chance would be 50% accurate, this is not very encouraging, and when you realize that one in every four people who are lying will slip through, while one in every four people who are telling the truth will be flagged as a liar, all of a sudden that starts to hit home.  One chance in four you’ll be flagged a liar, and goodness only knows what happens to you at that point (and every time subsequently).

This is a bit like the TSA’s failed Behavior Detection Officer program that was predicated on similar pseudo-science of being able to read body language telltales that would silently indicate to skilled observers which passengers were potential terrorists.  An uncertain amount in excess of $1.5 billion was spent on deploying 3,000 BDO staff to airports around the US for close on a decade.  Total number of terrorists detected?  Zero.  Total number of ordinary citizens hassled, before the program was thankfully terminated by President Trump?  That’s a secret.

Details here.

In related news, have you ever felt a bit impatient while being endlessly on hold waiting to speak to someone in a call center?  And, when finally connected, you discover you’ve ended up in the Indian rather than US call center?

Did you know this might not mean the company is busy – it might mean they don’t like you and don’t value you as a customer.  According to this article, some companies now use up to as many as 5,000 “data signals” to decide which customers are most important to them – those customers get routed straight through to senior US operators in local call centers, and which customers are of least value (the people who wait a long time before speaking to someone unintelligible and far away).

How long before these same 5,000 data signals are shared with the robot deciding whether or not you can be allowed into the country or not, one wonders, fearfully.

The point, in both cases, is that more data is not necessarily the same as better data.

And Lastly This Week….

Many people forget that an unavoidable element of being on a cruise ship is that, well, you’re on a ship, and at sea.  And no matter how big your ship is, the sea can always be bigger.

But it isn’t just the prospect of rough weather that can sometimes be a downer.  Sometimes the ship itself misbehaves, with possibly “interesting” results.  Here’s such a story, and be sure to click the link for the pictures, too.

Talking about interesting results, one of the most memorable dining experiences I have ever enjoyed was with my brother at a rather downmarket Greek restaurant in Chicago.  Their saganaki (flaming cheese) dish involved a great deal of flamboyant flame and flourish, and many delighted “Oopah” calls from staff and diners alike.

After an ample sufficiency of retsina and ouzo, we were finding this tremendous fun to watch, and so ordered a portion of saganaki for ourselves.  It duly came out from the kitchen, and with a grand gesture, the waiter poured a generous measure of brandy over it and flicked his lighter to burst it into flames.

At exactly that moment, a series of ceiling panels collapsed and a flood of water inundated the diners underneath.  Apparently a water tank on the roof had leaked, but the timing, and everything else, made the dining experience most memorable indeed.

I always wondered, how could you possibly ever better that?  But, now I know.  The one thing better than water flooding out of a restaurant ceiling?  Why, yes, of course, it would have to be a half-naked woman.  Details – but no photos – here.

Still on a watery theme, if you’ve been most places in the world and done most things, here’s something that is probably new for you.  An underwater villa, located in the Maldives.  At $50,000 a night, it probably isn’t something for all readers to countenance, but if you do go, please send back a picture.

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels





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