Weekly Roundup, Friday 7 December, 2018

An Emirates 777 covered in diamonds? See item on airplane updates, below.

Good morning

Today sees me traveling to France for this year’s Christmas Markets tour, this time what we are calling a “land cruise”, based in Lille in Northern France and traveling around the region each day, rather than cruising along a river.  I don’t expect a newsletter next week, but expect one the following week.

I’m also just last week back from time in Asia, primarily so I could experience four business class flights on three different airplanes (767 777 and 787) with Japan Airlines.  A generally pleasant experience, but rather spoiled by catching a bacterial sore throat and a viral cough and cold, which overlaid with jetlag saw me on my back for more time than I’d hoped for.

My travels to Europe will have me on an AA business class flight to Paris, and then business class back to the US on IcelandAir, so there’ll be quite an update to the various previous business class reports by the end of all of that.

I had one particularly awkward experience in Asia.  I was flying from Manila to Narita, and the airport in Manila restricts access to the terminal to only ticketed passengers.  You can’t get through the front door if you’re not booked on a flight.

The problem was that I had no visible proof of being booked on a flight.  With e-tickets these days, I just walk up to a checkin machine or counter, and identify myself and my flight with passport or credit card or whatever.  But the guard on the door insisted on seeing some tangible proof that I was booked on a flight, and I had none.  Apparently I was the only person he’d ever encountered who truly took the concept of e-tickets to heart and did not carry a printed out booking confirmation as well.  Sure, many of us have already printed out boarding passes in advance, but that is not always possible and wasn’t in my case.

Our discussion continued for a while, and then I realized I had copied some flight details into a lovely app I use on all my devices, Simple Note.  So I showed him that, and it allowed for “peace with honor” on both sides.  He could see some type in a phone app, and recognized the flight number, so nodded sagely, and waved me through.  A ridiculous conclusion to a ridiculous situation that almost became rather awkward.

I do remember the “bad old days” when e-ticketing first started, and airlines pretended that if they didn’t see a printed out confirmation, they’d not accept one’s valid reservation, even though everything was in front of them on their computer screen, but I’d thought those days universally long since past in all respects.  Apparently not.

And, talking about security issues and the heavy overlay of nonsense surrounding it, and quite apart from marveling at the omnipresent smartly uniformed security guards everywhere in Manila, but most of whom had empty holsters on their belts, albeit sometimes even with spare ammo also on their belt, just not a pistol to use it with (what is the point of that, I wonder), the last of my six flights saw me suffering the indignity of the SSSS curse on my boarding pass.

I wrote an article pointing out the ridiculousness of that (I have Precheck/Global Entry/Nexus status), and also lamenting that while the TSA spent an entire man hour of time checking to be sure I wasn’t a terrorist, that was one less man hour of time to speed other passengers through their lanes and/or to focus on real potential terrorists.  Truly a lose-lose decision of the type the TSA is so clever at making.  See the article after today’s roundup.

I’m currently experimenting with a new set of noise cancelling headphones, these ones being wireless as well as wired.  The concept of using Bluetooth to connect headphones, even to high-end music sources, has never made sense to me, and the added complexity of BT rather than a simple cord, the extra battery drain, and the lower sound fidelity, all seem like negatives rather than positives, but who am I to second-guess the way the market seems to be inexorably moving – or perhaps better to say, the way the market is being pushed, due to first Apple and now other companies too gratuitously eliminating the classic headphone jack on their phones.

And, oh yes.  I’m taking a series of baby steps to possibly wean myself off both an iPhone and its related T-Mobile service.  T-Mobile was, for a while, very aggressive with its features and pricing, and had a brilliant international plan, but their market advantage on all fronts has slowly eroded, and meantime, an interesting new competitor has recently taken a huge step forward in the market.

With some sense of dread, I’m considering inviting Google into still more of my life and replacing T-Mobile with Google’s Fi phone service.  First experiences have been only so-so, and Google still fails to comprehend the need to backstop a wireless service with related customer service (something that has always been their Achilles Heel whenever they’ve dabbled in the cell phone marketplace).

But Fi’s pricing model and service approach is innovative and appealing, and the opportunity to replace an iPhone with an Android phone that is functionally every way as good, but financially one-quarter the price, is surely appealing, too.  Stay tuned for more on this.

I received the phone (an Amazon phone) on Thursday morning.  After 20 minutes of frustrating inability to configure it to log into Amazon (remember, this is an Amazon phone) I called their support department.  After speaking to four different people, over the course of a phone call lasting 2 hours and 20 minutes (this is not an exaggeration) I was given a list of final things to try, after which I was told to give up and send the phone back to Amazon and exchange for a different one because “it must be a hardware problem” (it clearly wasn’t).

So, after almost three hours of struggle to activate a new phone preloaded with Amazon’s apps, I ended up having to fix the problem myself.  Not my favorite way to spend the day before heading to Europe for two weeks!

As we build up to Christmas, and as increasingly our shopping shifts from the mall to the mail (or, to be accurate, to online), the terrible Christmas traffic on the streets and rushes in the stores is being replaced by lengthening delivery times and failures on the part of mail order merchants and the delivery services they rely upon.  I write this with some bitterness – an essential package for the Christmas tour – personalized souvenir name badges – which Fedex was supposed to deliver on Tuesday resulted instead in a string of failures, and what can be politely expressed as broken promises on the part of Fedex to get the package to me.  So it is with interest that one reads of Amazon continuing to build up its own in-house airfreight and delivery capabilities.

What I’d most like to see, though, is for “Amazon Air” to not only transport packages but to transport people, too.  If there’s a single company anywhere in the US that has the potential to take on the established dinosaur carriers and to come up with a new service and pricing model, surely it has to be Amazon, and, especially if they can create some cash-flow by flying freight (but even if they don’t/can’t), they have the financial heft to weather the typical dinosaur response to new carriers (discounting fares to bankrupt the new startup out of the industry).

Talking about the build up to Christmas and the stresses on the delivery services, there’s one other issue that becomes more of a consideration too.  People who go around stealing packages off people’s door steps.  Here’s an amusing article on that topic, with some even more amusing suggested solutions to this scourge.

What else this week?  A bit of a rush, so not very much, but here are some quick articles including a bunch of separate items in the airplane updates section.

Also, I’m asking for your thoughts and opinion on our daily free news curating service, something which a small group of you absolutely love, but which is otherwise largely overlooked.

  • Your Opinion, Please :  The Travel Insider Free Daily News Updates
  • Lion Air Crash Update
  • Some Airplane Updates
  • And Lastly This Week….

Your Opinion, Please :  The Travel Insider Free Daily News Updates

Something I thought had a huge amount of potential was our news curation service.  Every day, a small team of Travel Insider volunteers scan the news feeds and pull out a few interesting, amusing, unusual, and relevant travel themed news stories.  These are shown on a “Drudge Report” style website and also sent once a day to people who sign up for the daily newsletter.

It hasn’t been as popular as I’d hoped it would be; neither the news website nor the daily newsletter.  I’m wondering if the modern paradigm for links to news stories, complete with short pithy comments, has moved on and is now better expressed by a Twitter feed, rather than a web page and daily newsletter.

A Twitter feed also encourages more interactivity – you can pass on the stories to friends, and comment on them as you wish.

What do you think?  Can you please click on the link that best expresses your opinion; this will generate an empty email to me with your reply coded into the subject line.

I already receive your daily news updates and :

(a)  Don’t want to change

(b)  Am happy either way

(c)  Would prefer a Twitter feed

I don’t receive your daily news updates and :

(d)  Have no interest in this, either which way

(e)  Would be interested in knowing more about this as daily emails

(f)  Would be interested in knowing more about this as Twitter tweets

This will help me (and the volunteers, especially Brian and Jerry) to know what best to do into the future.  Thank you.  I’ll let you know what the consensus opinion is and what we decide.

Lion Air Crash Update

A preliminary report on the Lion Air 737 crash has now been released, based primarily on an analysis of the flight data “black box”.

It starkly shows a terrible situation where the pilot was fighting, unawares, against the plane’s auto-control systems.  He would trim the nose of the plane up, and then the auto-system would trim it back down again.  So he’d trim it up again, and the plane would trim it down again.

This is definitely a Boeing issue, but the problem started when the plane started getting faulty data from its sensors, and the issue became fatal when the pilot failed to do what pilots had done on several preceding flights and simply turn off the auto-control system.

It is surprisingly common to find that most terrible accidents are never a result of a single thing.  Instead, like the children’s rhyme “for want of a nail, a shoe was lost” that follows a chain of events from the trivial to the tragic, the same thing happened here.  Faulty sensors, then inadequate maintenance that failed to fix the sensors, no communication of what the previous pilots had done to solve the problem when they encountered it, then an unknown “helpful” change to the plane’s automation that Boeing didn’t tell anyone about, and finally the pilots somehow losing the plot entirely and the plane plunging out of the sky.

That is a chain of five different things that all had to go wrong in sequence.  Of course, marvel at the chain and the unlikelihood of this all happening as much as we may, the stark reality is that it did all go wrong.  You can pick and choose which was the most culpable link in that chain, or spread the blame equally five different ways if you prefer.  The bottom line though is that it was a tragic series of events, every one of which (apart from perhaps the initial sensor failure) could have and should have been prevented.  Here’s some information here and here and (most detailed/technical) here.

Lion Air is of course seeking to direct blame away from itself, and is feeling unfairly blamed by Boeing, and so it is now talking about cancelling some/all of its outstanding Boeing orders (it has 190 737s currently on order).  This is a bit difficult to unilaterally do, due to the airline having signed presumably usual contracts with Boeing that have some types of cancel penalties associated with them.  On the other hand, often manufacturers will waive the penalties if they can resell the production “slots” assigned (and sometimes for more money) and stay on the good side of the airline for future orders.

It is also interesting to note that some commentators have observed Lion Air may have somewhat over-ordered planes and might be keen to reduce its orders, quite independent of its spat with Boeing!  Here’s an interesting article.

Some Airplane Updates

Air France has announced it will retire half its A380 fleet, ie, give the planes back to the leasing company when their leases expire – two in 2019, three in, I think, 2020.

Here’s an unkind article on Air France’s decision – unkind in the sense of not positive about the plane, rather than being not positive about Air France.

When one thinks about A380s, one of course immediately thinks of Emirates, which single-handedly operates almost half of all A380s ordered and delivered.  Now, yes, Emirates is a somewhat high-end carrier, particularly in its premium cabins, and yes, it is sometimes given to showy displays, but we feel it would be a long time before it beats the stunt shown in the picture above – a diamond covered 777.  Alas, there’s a catch.

Talking about fancy planes, the Chinese Comac C919 is anything but fancy, but it may end up being very successful and “eating Boeing’s lunch” (and Airbus’ too).  Here’s an article/update on this plane – it has some interesting details, but overall, we feel it is being overly kind to a plane that still is a way from starting commercial operations and which essentially has not sold to any airline out of China.  Yet.  And, these quibbles to one side, it does have over 300 orders already, and inescapably, those are 300 fewer 737/A320 planes that would have otherwise been ordered.

Talking about new competing planes, the C919 article mentions Embraer as one of its competitors.  Here’s a very kind article on the Embraer E190.

As you might be aware, Boeing had planned to buy Embraer or form a joint venture with the Brazilian company in some face-saving form that allowed it to still seem Brazilian, while in truth becoming tightly integrated into Boeing.  This move, long anticipated, was made more pressing after Airbus aligned with Bombardier and its CS100/300 program.

News came out yesterday that this match between Boeing and Embraer is now being thrown into doubt, due to a Brazilian court granting an injunction blocking the tie-up.

While this is far from a final ruling (and we suspect that eventually the deal, possibly slightly modified, will be approved), it is a blow to both Embraer and Boeing.  They each need the other, and it leaves Boeing exposed at the bottom end of its 737 model line and below, while forcing Embraer to try to continue competing against “the big guys” all by its lonesome.

Here’s some quick analysis.

Apart from the Chinese and Russian attempts to break into the market, it is astonishing to see how the once broad range of airplane manufacturers is contracting down to only two.  Airbus and Boeing.  The airlines are, however, currently doing an extremely good job of playing each company against the other, and ensuring that neither company becomes too strong or dominant.

I used to joke with people when they expressed surprise and concern at learning that I like to fly sailplanes.  “But, isn’t that dangerous?”, they would ask, concerned at the lack of an engine.

My reply was that it was actually the safest type of plane, because there is no engine to fail.

Perhaps echoing that thought is this article about an airplane with no moving parts.  In actuality, we suspect the plane does have moving parts (the control surfaces on the wings, maybe the undercarriage too), but it makes a nice headline, and an interesting topic.

Alas, it is also a concept that would need to get somewhere in the order of 1,000 times more powerful to work.  Maybe even 10,000 times.  And while there are no moving parts, we’re not sure how efficiently the plane’s “motor” converts energy to thrust.

But, hey, no moving parts.  We wish it well.

And Lastly This Week….

Both Uber and Lyft introduced a ride sharing program some time back, whereby, like traditional car pooling, or like shuttle buses to the airport, you share a car with other people going in generally the same direction.  I’ve never tried it, because the savings are small, and the added inconvenience appreciable, plus on rides to/from the airport, the idea of adding more people and their luggage to a typically small car quickly becomes impractical.

Turns out that avoiding these ride share programs may be a great idea, as this article points out.

Another installment in our occasional series of “The camera never lies”; or, in this case, “Don’t look where the camera isn’t pointed”.  Alas, it features the “pristine wilderness” and “empty spaces” of my home country of New Zealand.  Here’s an embarrassing article.

Talking about cameras and embarrassment, here’s an article about a United pilot that I don’t really know how to introduce.  He’s either the unluckiest guy in the world (in which case, I’d definitely not want to be flying with him), or, alternatively, ahem, well, let’s not go there.  But do read the article.

How’s your sense of humor?  Here’s a nice series of photos that you may find amusing.

And now, truly lastly, another photo theme that we sometimes find ourselves returning to.  Distinctive international toilets.

Look for our next newsletter on 20 December.  Until then, please enjoy safe travels and good luck with your holiday shopping.





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