Weekly Roundup, Friday 9 November, 2018

A new US high-end airline startup has been announced. See final item, below.

Good morning

Is it time to start the count down of shopping days until Christmas?  Well, before then we’ve the excitement of Black Friday and Cyber Monday to tempt us, of course, and this weekend, the more relaxing and retrospective Veteran’s Day weekend.

With the thought of buying things in mind, this week we feature a lengthy analysis of the new range of Apple iPads, announced a week ago and already now on sale.  Some models have sold out and have a week or two of leadtime for delivery, others are available on-site at Apple stores around the country, or for immediate shipment.

In total, there are now five different models (as expressed in screen size) and with an extraordinary range of 28 different combinations of features – a far cry from the first iPad which had a single model in six combinations of storage and GPS/data features.

We talk you through what’s new and what’s important in the article that follows below, and include as part of it another of our special Supporter sections, where we take a deep 2,750 word dive into which of these 28 different choices should you buy.  Or perhaps your best choice is one of the brilliantly priced Amazon Fire tablets, instead.

If you’re a supporter, thank you again for your kindness and essential help, and we hope you’ll find the extra material offered in return this week of help, whether you’re buying your first or a subsequent tablet.  Remember, to view it, you need to go to the blog site blog.thetravelinsider.info, log in, and read the article there.

And if you’re not yet a supporter, please consider becoming one.  Whether it be to get access to this week’s extra material, to get access to last week’s extra material about belts, any of the other archived special reports, or just because you support our ongoing content, your help is needed and much appreciated.  Just a few quick clicks and you’re get instant access to the supporter-bonus material.

Talking about last week’s article on belts, it proved to be a very popular subject.  A reader also wrote in to introduce me to another type of belt, and I’ve ordered five more belts of various types from Amazon, so look for more on the topic of belts – perhaps next week.

What else this week?  Please keep reading for :

  • UK 2019 “Land Cruises” – Last Call?
  • Lion Air Crash Update
  • Pilot Pay
  • Icelandair Buys Up Wow
  • Southwest Hates Violins
  • Apple is Embarrassed by its iPhone Failure
  • The Little Railroad That Could?
  • And Lastly This Week….

UK 2019 “Land Cruises” – Last Call?

So far, although there have been some enquiries and responses, no-one has signed up for the 2019 Land Cruises in Britain.  I don’t expect to fill them, instantly, but getting a few people joining usually happens by now.

So I’ll ask again this week – if you’re interested, please let me know, otherwise I’ll cancel them and come up with some other concept for next summer (please let me know if you have any ideas or suggestions).

Lion Air Crash Update

Statistically, it seems that a likely factor in any airplane crash is pilot error, and that’s a suggestion that is starting to be delicately hinted at with the Lion Air 737 crash.

Following on from our careful analysis last week, it seems some black box data has now been reviewed, and while no-one is saying anything specific, it is hard to ignore the significance this week when first Boeing issued a bulletin and then the FAA issued an emergency airworthiness directive (a rare event) to operators of the 737 MAX family of planes, asking them to instruct pilots on what to do if they experience a faulty reading on one of the gauges.

The gauge in question tells pilots if the plane is pitched up too high, considering the speed, altitude, and other factors.  This is called the plane’s angle of attack.  More seriously, the 737 has an automated system that will normally activate, if it believes the plane is pitched too high, and will cause the plane’s nose to drop down.  That is a good thing if the plane is pitched too high, but a very bad thing if the plane is pitched normally and the sensor is simply making a faulty reading.

The significant point in both official bulletins is that they were not advising new responses to an unheard of situation.  They were simply reminding pilots of something they should already know.  If there’s a problem with the sensor, these bulletins tell the pilots to turn off the auto-pilot and the auto-pitch trim and simply fly the plane manually, themselves.

Here’s a technical explanation.  But, in non-technical terms, it is a bit like telling a car driver “if your cruise control malfunctions, turn it off and use the accelerator and brake pedals yourself”.

As we said last week, it seems unthinkable that the pilots couldn’t have detected and corrected the error, particularly as some time seems to have lapsed from when they first radioed to say they wanted to return back to the airport and when the critical event occurred.

Certainly, the initiating cause of this crash does seem to be a failure in one of the instrumentation systems, but that failure should not have resulted in a fatal crash.  The actual reason the plane crashed into the sea is increasingly appearing like it may have been due to the two pilots not taking appropriate (and quite basic) corrective action.

It is true that the pilots would have to have quickly reacted to the problem when it arose in its full final and fatal form.  But they would have already been alert to the developing problem, and – speaking as an occasional pilot myself – any pilot, let alone the two professional Lion Air pilots with 6000 and 5000 hours of flying time, respectively, is always sensitive to three very fundamental things.  Altitude, airspeed, and angle, even when the plane is behaving perfectly normally.

Particularly at low altitudes, and in your initial climb where you also have low airspeed and a heavy airplane, you don’t have the luxury of a “safety buffer” of tens of thousands of feet of air between you and the ground, or a lot of speed you can trade-off to gain emergency altitude, and you also don’t have a light responsive plane you can work with.  So you should be always feeling anxious to start with, and you should instinctively sense even the slightest shifts in pitch, and as soon as the plane starts misbehaving, you should turn off any and all suspect automatic systems and fly the plane manually.

My guess is these days pilots trust the automatic systems more than they trust themselves, and so rather than being the first thing they do – to take over – it is the last thing they do, and in this case, may have been too late.

Here’s a good article that adds more detail to this analysis.

Pilot Pay

Yes, now is an appropriate time to remind ourselves that pilots get paid top dollar and we have every right to expect at least some measure of competence in return.

To be fair to the pilots though, the problem is not just the pilots.  It is as much a failure of the system that certifies unskilled people as pilots, and fails to detect the deterioration in skill over time.

This article came out this week, primarily showcasing some dubious analytical skills to prove we’re-not-quite-sure-what about how disadvantaged women are in the airline industry, but we find the chart halfway down showing average salaries to be interesting.

The chart would have any statistician rolling with laughter, because an “average” salary is a single number, not a range.  But in this case, what the chart seems to be showing us is a range between the lowest paid pilots and moderately (but not ultimately) highly paid pilots.  As mentioned below the chart, for experienced pilots, pay can indeed reach way more than £140,000 ($190k and up – and remember pilots only work about 20 hours a week).

This UK chart is surprising for two things.  First is to note that train drivers earn more than helicopter pilots and bus drivers.  These days a train driver is an optional extra in many/most trains, and basically has two buttons in the cab – one “keep going” and the other “emergency stop” (yes, this is an oversimplification, but not by much).  Why are British train drivers paid so well?  Because they have a very strong union would seem to be the only answer.

Secondly, and as I’ve mused in the past, in terms of physical skills, micro-motor finessing, and urgent decision-making many times a minute, driving a bus is vastly more demanding than flying a plane.  Pilots these days can fly from the runway at one airport to the runway at another airport, from before take-off until after landing, without needing to touch the actual flight controls in the plane at all.  They just need to key occasional changes into the enhanced auto-pilot system, communicate with air traffic control, do paperwork, and catch up on their sleep.

Why don’t bus drivers earn as much as pilots?  Or, swap the question around, why do pilots earn more than bus drivers?  The real reason?  Same as for train drivers.  Because of their strong unions, aided by weak airline management (which, in the past, tended to come from the pilot ranks) and, during regulation, a happy understanding that any costs such as higher pilot salaries could simply be passed on to customers in the next round of airfare negotiations.

We’re told there’s a world-wide shortage of pilots these days.  That may well be true.  But there are a number of reasons for that.  The first is (and please look at the chart again) that junior pilots are paid extremely lowly.  None of the other salary bars on the chart have such a wide range from the low to the high end.

Making that even worse is the huge cost of training to become a pilot.  And that’s a cost that Congress made very much worse when they raised the number of hours flying time needed to become a commercial pilot from 250 to 1500.  That was after a spate of egregious pilot-error caused fatal crashes, but ignored the fact that none of the pilots who caused the crashes had between 250 – 1500 hours of experience.  They were all way above 1500 hours, making the new requirement one of the most obviously stupid bits of legislation ever passed.  In the Lion Air case, we’re looking at 6,000 and 5,000 hours for the two pilots.

The problem was not and is not hours of training and experience.  It is quality of training and experience, and the demonstrated abilities developed.

A fairer system would see a return to a more realistic number of flying hours to qualify, a more rigorous series of competency tests, both to qualify and then annually every year, plus doubling the starting salaries and halving the top salaries.  That would make it quicker and easier for new pilots to become qualified and to then earn back their training costs.  The pilot shortage would disappear.

Icelandair Buys Up Wow

This should surprise no-one.  Iceland, a tiny country with a mere 338,000 people, can not support two international airlines – indeed, many people would suggest it can’t even support one.

But the secret ingredient for Icelandic airlines is not their local population, it is their geographic position, nicely situated close to most of the routes airlines take when flying between North America and Europe.  This makes it ideally suited to be a hub.

While one of the key ingredients for a successful hub is often overlooked – the need to boost the connecting passengers with a strong local market of arriving/departing passengers, too – it seemed in the case of Iceland, they might be able to bypass that obvious weakness and build up strong airlines and route networks without relying on their local market at all.  Indeed, both carriers have tried to turn their hub into a positive rather than negative point, offering free stopovers in Iceland as a benefit of transiting through there.  And, as anyone who has flown through Reykjavik knows, it is a nice simple small little airport, easy to get around in, and allowing for reliable and short connections between flights.

The competition between Icelandair and its recent new competitor, Wow (formed in 2012) has been fairly intense and somewhat punishing to the bottom lines of both carriers, particularly subsequent to Wow starting service to North America in 2015.  And Icelandair, while a nice small airline, has struggled to make it to the big-time because it serves few cities, and many of the cities it serves, it does so on a less than daily basis.  Whenever I try to use them, I always find it difficult to match where and when they fly with the dates and places I wish to go to.

Icelandair currently services 46 airports and Wow services 36.  Combining the two make for a new total of 63 destinations, and hopefully better frequencies to the 19 destinations that are currently served by both airlines.  This will make Icelandair much stronger, and its shares shot up almost 50% after the announcement.

More details here.

As passengers, we can expect slightly higher fares – Wow had some crazy low fares that clearly it never made any money from – but we can also expect Icelandair to become a more major carrier and to provide us a better and more credible alternative to the major legacy airlines at present.  Currently it doesn’t belong to any of the three major airline alliances – this is a good thing in terms of seeing it as a true alternative to the legacy carriers.

We wish it well in its new strengthened form, and by chance, I’m flying them to Europe and back this December.

Here also is an unrelated article predicting that consolidation of airlines in Europe is both necessary and inevitable.

Southwest Hates Violins

A violin case isn’t very big, but is a bit longer than carry-on luggage limits (but neither wider nor deeper).  Violinists travel the world, from concert to concert, and airlines almost invariably always allow them to take their violins into the cabin with them.  Even an inexpensive violin can quickly exceed $1,000, and high-end ones can run to millions of dollars.

An international violinist of some note recently had a problem with Southwest.  The airline refused to allow him take his violin onto the plane with him, and booted him off the flight.  He of course didn’t want to check the instrument, as they suggested, because it is an $80,000 instrument (and also because violinists form a type of special bond with their instrument, you don’t just walk into a music shop and buy a replacement if your instrument is lost or destroyed by the airline).

So he was deplaned, and then deplaned a second time when the same thing happened on the next Southwest departure.  Happily, third time was lucky, but instead of a day in presentations and master-classes, he spent 7 1/2 extra hours at Manchester Airport, NH.

While technically, Southwest can refuse oversize cabin baggage, how often have you seen an airline do that?  We all know, even on a “full” flight (and there’s some dispute about this – the violinist says there were empty seats he could have placed his violin on or under) the flight attendants can always find a bit of space if they choose to.  And musical instruments really can’t be expected to be consigned to the hold.  The temperature (and possibly pressure)changes in the hold are not good for a musical instrument, and the risk of damage or loss is too great.

Details here.

Apple is Embarrassed by its iPhone Failure

In 2009, Steve Jobs poked fun at Amazon for not disclosing the unit sales of its Kindle devices.  He said, not unfairly, that this suggested the Kindle wasn’t selling very well.

Apple has always reported information on the number of iPhone sales it was making, with a post-release ritual each year to quickly start reporting on new record numbers of sales, all inventory sold out, and forward orders stretching a month or so into the future.  Just as the phone’s launch event would laud it as being “the best and most powerful iPhone ever” its post-release publicity would laud it as being “the most popular iPhone ever”.

Except that, this is getting a harder claim to sustain.  Apple has now decided not to release information on its volume of iPhone sales without even offering the thin gruel of a transparent excuse for the change.  Instead, Apple finance chief Luca Maestri said Apple would continue to provide “qualitative commentary,” such as noting that unit sales of flagship iPhones are strong and attracting customers with new features.

Oh my.

But there are some other peripheral indicators that industry watchers can still look to.  For example, this story reports how Foxconn, Apple’s main manufacturer of iPhones, is only running 45 production lines for the new iPhone XR instead of 60 as planned.  Apple’s “qualitative commentary” might be ‘Suppliers are well placed to meet anticipated extra demand for our strongly selling iPhones’.

To be fair, the skyrocketing growth in selling smartphones is now a thing of the past.  Just about everyone who is likely to buy one has now bought one, and with fewer and fewer new features on each new year’s models, the reasons to replace them are weakening and people are keeping their phones longer.

But in news Apple is sure not to be bashful about telling us, it seems that iPhone users are more happy and more in love with their partner than Android users.  Plus they earn considerably more money.  They use their phones more, too – they take almost twice as many selfies each day (12 instead of 7) and send 58 texts each day (instead of 26 for Android users). Make of this what you will.

The Little Railroad That Could?

There are some interesting rail related things quietly developing in Florida.  A private company, operating as Brightline, is moving forward with its plan to operate passenger trains between Miami and Orlando.  Some of the route would be on existing rail lines, and about 170 miles would be on new higher speed track that it would add.

Between West Palm Beach and Cocoa trains could operate at 110 mph and from there to Orlando, at 125 mph.  The section down from W Palm Beach to Miami would be at Amtrak standard speeds, maxing out at 79 mph.

Currently it has only started operations between West Palm Beach and Miami, but it hopes to get trains to Orlando in approximately three years (we’re a bit anxious about them meeting that date, but we hope they do).  It is the only privately owned and operated intercity passenger railroad in the country.

In September it announced it had purchased XpressWest, a company that had long-standing plans to establish passenger train service between Las Vegas and Victorville, California (sort of close-ish to Los Angeles).  They are projecting this may become operational in 2022.  We believe that will be almost completely on existing track, so that might be achievable, although we surely got exasperated with the never-ending delays when XpressWest was trying to do something.

And now, this week, Brightline has announced it is seeking permission to extend service on from Orlando to Tampa, with a rail line to basically run alongside I-4 for most of the distance.  Details here.

It would be nice to connect the three different tourism hubs together.  Earlier plans to build a standalone line between Tampa and Orlando never seemed viable, but a complete Tampa-Orlando-Miami line might work more positively.

We wish them well.

And Lastly This Week….

Is that a first class seat you have?  Well, for sure, “first class” is largely whatever airlines claim it to be, with a huge range from luxury suites on some international airlines and their A380s down to only slightly better than coach class on some domestic carriers.

But it seems that Delta may be exploiting that ambiguity to its advantage.  On the basis of “first class is anything better than coach” I suppose it is justifiable.  I suppose….

Much more obviously a premium travel experience is this new startup, Fly Aura, offering, as per the headline, “ridiculously cheap first class flights”.  Hard to see how it will work, but it certainly seems like a very appealing concept to fliers seeking a better type of travel experience.  (See photo at the top of the newsletter.)

Want to get pre-boarding on an American flight?  Go to the check-in podium and ask for it, based on claiming a nut allergy, and your need to “clean your space” once you board.  American has announced it will give pre-boarding to nut allergy sufferers; my prediction is the number of people with nut allergies is about to sky-rocket.  No doctor’s note needed….

“We’re sorry to announce that your flight will be delayed” – how many times have you heard that announcement before.  But a 72 hour delay?  Ouch.  And this isn’t with a rundown charter operator that only operates one flight, once a week.  This is with BA (although it is true the difference between BA and a rundown charter operator gets smaller with each new passenger-unfriendly policy change BA announces).

Details here.

Talking about flight delays, and if the airports start to seem a bit busier than normal this coming week, that’s because this year, the experts are predicting the busiest ever Thanksgiving travel, with traffic starting to rise as early as the middle of next week.

Truly lastly this week, some companies have realized the tremendous free publicity and marketing value associated with winning entries in the Guinness Book of World Records.  This is a concept Nissan seems to have taken closely to heart, but one has to wonder at just how incredibly trivial some of these ‘feats’ actually are.  Like, for example, this one.

Until next week, have a great Veteran’s Day weekend and please enjoy safe travels





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