Weekly Roundup, Friday 22 February 2019

Enjoy the good life in the beautiful towns and villages of France’s Loire Valley this September. See details below.

Good morning

There’s more craziness this week than I can remember for a long while, and much of it gleefully commented on in the last couple of items below.

I prepared a review of a fun little gadget that I’d got prior to Christmas, and was going to present it to you this morning.  But I checked and could no longer find the gadget on Amazon, or on the official supplier website either.  It seems that at some point in the last couple of months it was discontinued.  Sic transit gloria mundi, I guess (which does not mean “Gloria threw up on the bus on Monday”!).

So may I instead suggest you enjoy your Friday morning by looking at the three tours we’re currently offering.

In mid-September, our Scotland’s Highland Highlights tour, with an optional journey on the brand new overnight sleeper train from London all the way to Fort William, is a lovely tour around the “real” Scotland that most visitors never get to see.  We spend two nights at each of three different locations, and get to see islands off the coast as well as the Highlands on the mainland.  There’ll be “a wee dram” of whisky to be explained and enjoyed, too!  You’ve time to enjoy Edinburgh and/or Glasgow (or anywhere else) before or after the tour, of course, allowing you to create your own mix of the familiar and unfamiliar for a lovely complete Scottish experience.

In late-September, conveniently connecting after the end of the Scottish tour, is our lovely Loire Valley Land Cruise.  We spend a full week settled in the town of Tours, enjoying day touring to France’s grandest chateaus and castles, and of course to charming towns and villages, to wineries, and even to an underground mushroom farm.  With an option before in the delightful town of Chantilly, conveniently close to CDG airport, and an option after to continue on to France’s ultimate wine destination of Bordeaux, this is a great chance to have a relaxing and most pleasant time enjoying rural France.  Add time in Paris or elsewhere in Europe before/after as you wish, of course.

Over the last weekend in March (ie just a month from now) a very different type of (travel) experience.  A four/five day practical class mastering defensive handgun safety and techniques.  Yes, we know guns aren’t for everyone, but if you’re open-minded or simply curious and wish to form an opinion from a position of personal knowledge, or if you’ve chosen to own a handgun and want to be certain you can avoid the need to ever use it, and equally certain that if confronted by an unavoidable need, you know what to do and how to do it in the most lawfully-compliant and safe manner possible – in any/all of these cases, this is something you really should choose to participate in.  We’ve had people of all ages, attitudes and skill-levels come along on the many previous times we’ve run this class, and everyone has learned lots and felt enormously more comfortable with a degree of skill-at-arms they didn’t expect to have acquired.

So, please, whether you choose one, two, or all three, please do consider joining small groups of your fellow Travel Insiders for a most pleasant experience to add to your life’s collection of memories and activities.

What else this week?  Well, let’s see, a massive 4600 words about :

  • Reader Survey Results
  • Message to Boeing :  He Who Hesitates, Loses
  • A380 Dead Cat Bounce
  • Amex Centurion Lounges Now Set Time Limits
  •  – Amex Silver Card – a reminiscence
  • Samsung’s New Folding Phone
  • High Speed Rail Saga – US vs California
  • Exposing the Airline Lie About Matching Names
  • And Lastly This Week….

Reader Survey Results

Last week we asked you how you refer to the plane that Boeing gave a name as well as a number to.

Responses were collated via Twitter’s vote/survey feature, and that seemed to discourage a lot of people from participating, but as it was, the outcome was very clear, as shown graphically below.  Clearly Boeing’s attempts to get people to use its name (or both number and name) have totally failed.

Not only that, but during the 787 troubles – the delays in getting the planes into production and then the terrible problems with battery fires, it was an impossible-to-resist temptation to rename it not the Dreamliner but the Nightmareliner.

Corporate hubris seldom ends well.

Message to Boeing :  He Who Hesitates, Loses

Talking about total failures and Boeing, I’ve written recently about Boeing’s dilemma as to if and when it might introduce a new airplane to replace the now discontinued 757 and 767 airplanes.  This new plane, generally referred to as the NMA (New Midmarket Airplane) was expected to be announced at the Paris Airshow in June, but Boeing has now said that any announcements will be pushed out still another year to 2020.

The NMA, notwithstanding the first word in this acronym being “new”, is not a new concept for Boeing at all.  It is almost 15 years since the successful 757 stopped being produced, and Boeing has publicly admitted to being in the process of considering new airplanes to replace it for at least five years.

Boeing’s problem is that while it dithers, Airbus is sweeping up most of any current orders for that type of plane, primarily with its A321neo.  For example, here’s an article also published today that concludes the Airbus A321 is the best choice for Icelandair’s 757 replacements.  This situation is much like what happened when Airbus announced upgrades to its A320 family and Boeing did nothing for some eight months before finally announcing its matching 737 upgrades.  During the extended period of Boeing’s silence, Airbus was outselling Boeing by enormous margins, and the 737 lost its market dominance.

Not only does Airbus already have a solution in the market, it is now believed to be considering another new plane that will span the remaining gap between its current A321 models and the A330 which is the next larger plane in its fleet.

The curious thing is that the gap in Boeing’s current model lineup (between the 737 and 787) would have been originally much better filled by an entirely new model plane, rather than further extensions to the 737 series as it has tried to do to date, and if it were to custom-design a plane specifically for the current gap, this would have given Boeing a clear advantage and perhaps stopped Airbus in turn pushing its A321 as far as is possible/practical to inexpensively respond to the market gap/opportunity.

Not only is Boeing the loser from its latest extended round of prevarications, so too are we.  It seems likely the Boeing plane will be a twin-aisle plane, a much better experience for passengers than a long single aisle plane like the 757 and now A321.

Airbus is reaching the limits of its A320 series capabilities with its largest A321 planes.  But an A321, currently in production, wins out every time over a possible Boeing NMA (likely to be called the 797 eventually) that is still on the drawing board, not in locked down specification, and with no guaranteed timeline for when it will be available for delivery.  A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.

So, not because it has the better plane, but because it has the only plane, Airbus is winning while Boeing dithers.  Yet again.  Some more details, here.  And for an interesting more technical analysis in more detail that suggests that perhaps Boeing has left it to late to respond at all, this is a great article.

A380 Dead Cat Bounce

Two completely opposite events can stimulate demand for a product.  The first is that if something proves popular, other people rush to buy it too, just because it is popular.

The second thing is that if a product is announced as going off the market soon, that forces the hand of people who had been delaying a purchase decision, and in some cases, transforms a product from an unsuccessful commonplace item to a soon-to-be collectors’ item.

In the case of the A380, it never got to enjoy the self-fulfilling benefits of popularity.  But it seems that since the announcement of the program cancellation, the plane is enjoying a (probably brief) resurgence in interest.

British Airways, which had been rumored to be considering an order for more new A380s prior to the program ending has now said it is interested in picking up used A380s.  One of the big problems with the A380 program was the lack of resale value/interest in the planes, and now BA looks like it may be changing that.

Additionally, the charter airline that already owns one A380 (Hi Fly), and which has sometimes considered getting a second, is now apparently expressing interest in buying multiple additional used A380s (we’ve no idea how many, probably they don’t, either – the linked article is a bit vague on specifics).

There is clearly a very different set of costs involved with a used A380 than a new one.  Let’s guess a new A380 costs $250 million, and a used one costs $85 million after ten years of life, or $25 million after twenty years of life.  So the owner of the new plane has $165 million to write-off over ten years.  If the plane flies for 18 hours a day, 330 days a year, that is an amortization cost of $2800 per hour.  Assume the plane has 400 passengers, and an average flight duration of ten hours (these numbers are all wild guesses, and reality might see less utilization and so higher costs).  That means that $70 of the each way ticket price ($140 roundtrip) per passenger goes in airplane amortization.

But for the second operator of the plane, with only $60 million to amortize over the next ten years, the same cost per passenger for a ten-hour flight is only $25.50.  Or, to put it another way, the same ten-hour flight costs $16,000 less to operate.

That can make a big difference in profitability and in justifying the A380.

We’re not saying Airbus was wrong to end the program, but we are saying that perhaps most of the 251 planes that have been or will be built might remain flying for longer than earlier envisioned.  We hope so.

Amex Centurion Lounges Now Set Time Limits

So many airline lounges these days are almost as (over)crowded as the public gate lounges.  What use is a comfy seat if they are all taken?  Indeed, while we expect seating to be in short supply in gate areas, we expect that our $300+ annual lounge memberships will get us a comfy seat and some quiet space.

In truth, I seldom go to airline lounges, because, comfortable or crowded, it is wasted time that is better spent at home, office, or enjoying the destination one is at.  If you end up with only 30 – 40 minutes of spare time prior to your flight boarding, with the lounge at one end of the airport and your gate at the other end, there’s not really much benefit in making your way to the lounge, spending a mere 10 – 20 minutes there, then going to the gate, especially if, like me, taking out your computer, plugging it in, starting it up, struggling to connect to Wi-Fi, and then at the end of the time, reversing the process, takes up half that time!

The times when I most appreciate airline lounges is when I’ve a long connection, or am leaving at a terrible time of day/night that is best handled by getting to the airport long before the flight.

If you too find lounges most helpful with long waits for flights, and if you use the American Express Platinum or Centurion card privileges at their Centurion Clubs, then potential bad news.  Amex has decided, as a cure for their own lounge overcrowding, to tighten up on their admission requirements.  Two policies in particular stand out.

The first is that you won’t be allowed in unless you have a confirmed flight and boarding pass to show upon arrival.  That means if you’re flying standby, you’ll not be allowed in.

The second is a decision to limit how long you can stay in the lounge to a maximum of three hours.  While it isn’t clear how they’ll enforce that, it sure isn’t a welcome new policy.  Of course, Amex utters the usual homilies about how this will only affect a very few travelers, but that is clearly nonsense.  If they didn’t expect it to materially help reduce lounge congestion, why would they impose this new limitation?  Here’s a very lightweight piece that uncritically passes this information on.

Mind you, it is all hypothetical to me.  Although one of their first ever Gold and Platinum members, decades back, I downgraded to a Green Amex card some years ago, and happily destroyed that once Costco dropped them.

 – Amex Silver Card – a reminiscence

Talking about Amex, I was, once, a very loyal member.  I still remember when I first got my Platinum card.  At the time, it was their top-level card and very exclusive, with most people having Green or Gold cards, and no other credit card programs having anything other than Green and possibly Gold.

So I very proudly presented my Platinum card at a reasonably upmarket hotel in Britain, expecting the staff to variously faint at the sight of it, and/or to fall to their knees, and proffer autograph books for me to sign, while simultaneously upgrading me to the Presidential Suite.  I handed it over, and the girl at reception looked at it curiously, then at me, then back at the card.  I tried to act nonchalantly, while noting that the card was clearly registering with her as something special.  I said “I guess you don’t see many of those?”.

She nodded, and said thoughtfully “Yes, I’ve never seen a Silver American Express card before”.  Ouch!  Instead of revering its “way above Gold” status, she dropped it down to something less-than-Gold!

Shortly after that, Amex started prominently printing the word “Platinum” on their Platinum cards.  I guess I wasn’t the only one to have my card mistaken as Silver rather than Platinum.

Samsung’s New Folding Phone

There was an over-hyped folding phone demonstrated at CES in early January.  We were less impressed, describing it at the time as a product that would be much-loved at CES but probably never make it to the market, and recommended waiting for the Samsung folding phone to be released.

The Samsung phone was revealed on Wednesday, and exactly as we expected, it was massively more polished.  The “Flex Pai” phone at CES had a very thick hinge and form factor, and the screen was placed so that, when the phone was folded “closed” the screen was on both sides of the outside of the phone, leaving it, we felt, awkwardly unprotected.

Samsung have a much tighter hinged screen and when their phone is folded closed, the screen is protected “inside” the fold.  Brilliantly, Samsung added a second screen to one of the outside halves so that with the phone closed, you still have a regular normal seeming phone with a regular sized normal screen.

There’s a lot to like about this innovative new phone design.  But there are some issues as well, the most obvious of which is the aggressive $1980 starting price Samsung has placed on the device.  That’s an easy $1000 more than a phone with just the one smaller screen would cost, and while we get that a foldable screen is probably more expensive than a similar non-foldable screen, it surely isn’t $1000 more expensive.

There are also some uncertainties about the exact life of the folding screen, and, most notable of all, a lack of software that will take advantage of the larger screen.  Google promises a new version of Android later this year to make it easier for developers to use the larger screen real estate, but for now, a grand total of two apps are being cited as capable of using the large screen area well – Google Maps and Netflix.

It is also unavoidably much thicker than a normal phone – almost twice as thick, and while that is still thin compared to a decade or two ago, it is nowhere near as thin and elegant as regular phones are today.

Samsung says the phone will go on sale on 26 April.  We’d view that date as aspirational rather than guaranteed, because it was notable to observe that the sample they demonstrated at their launch event on Wednesday was not passed around for any hands-on testing afterwards, which suggests it is still in a very prototypical state (possible held together, inconspicuously, with duct tape and rubber bands!).

Yes, we’d love one.  But, no, we’re not about to rush out and buy one, not at all.  We’ll instead hope that this time next year will see the budget brands coming out with similar phones, but at a quarter the price, and at a time when the OS and apps have evolved to supporting the feature.

Here’s a very fair article on the new Samsung phone.

High Speed Rail Saga – US vs California

To be fair, a reasonable person would read into Gov Newsom’s “State of the State Speech”, when he spoke about the “change” to the state’s plans to build a high speed rail line, a fairly clear message that the main reasons for continuing to build the least useful part of the project, that in the middle of the state between Bakersfield and Merced, were both because they were already appreciably towards completing that part of the project, and secondly, as he stated, they wanted to spend all the federal government’s money and “not give any money back to Trump” (cue raucous cheers of approval from his audience at this point).  We wrote about California’s changing approach to its rail project here.  And here’s an excellent article that points out how political rather than operational considerations had pretty much doomed the high speed rail line right from before the project’s start.

Except that, of course, the money doesn’t/wouldn’t go directly to our President.  And, more than that, of the $3.5 billion offered to California, the last almost billion dollars has not yet been handed over to the state.

So, as expected, President Trump responded to the poke from Newsom by saying the balance of about $930 million would not now be sent to California.  Not unreasonably, he said this was because California was abandoning or at least delaying indefinitely the project the money was supposed to help fund – a high speed rail line between Los Angeles and San Francisco, not a short line between Merced and Bakersfield.

And now the Federal Railroad Administration has surprised no-one by asking for the $2.5 billion already extended to be refunded.  This has of course enraged Trump-haters, blaming President Trump for this move, but the truth, while obscured, is quite different.  Indeed, even this LA Times article, while starting off boldly with claims that a request for money to be returned is unprecedented, finally gets around to quietly conceding that the matter is not new – the project has been out of compliance with the requirements of the funding for a long time, even well before Trump even took office.

We also love the way that the LA Times obediently parrots the revised narrative that was quickly promulgated the day after Newsom’s speech.  The speech clearly indicated the rail project, except for the small bit in the middle, was being cancelled.  The next day, after much outrage, Newsom backtracked and denied he ever said that.  It wasn’t being canceled, he was merely delaying it.  The LA Times phrases this by saying Newsom’s speech was implying that the rest of the rail project would be “kicked down the road”.  If only they were so forgiving of our President as they are of their Governor.

As for the lack of precedent in making states accountable for wasting federal money, while we acknowledge there’s been very little oversight or accountability in the past, we’re delighted to see some now, and would love to see lots more.

Exposing the Airline Lie About Matching Names

I remember the good old days when I’d book tickets under names such as “Mr A Nother” and he would be traveling with Mr B Nother and Mr C Nother” and so on.  We’d then change the names when we had passenger details confirmed.

I also remember the good old days when people would sell tickets they couldn’t use, and anyone would travel under any name on any ticket.  The company I worked for had a certain executive who shall be unnamed who allowed other people in the company to travel under his name, creating a win-win for all.  He got extra frequent flier miles and status, and they got upgrades because of his existing status.

That of course has all changed now, under the nonsense claim of security.  The airlines prefer to pretend that federal law requires names on tickets to 100% exactly match the passenger names, and perhaps these days there are some federal regulations, although surely more forgiving than the airline interpretations.  The airline crack-down on names was for one reason only, to stop passengers from selling unusable tickets to others and/or traveling as someone else such as outlined above.

Even if federal law does require that passenger ticket names match the names of the people using the tickets, they don’t prevent names being changed prior to travel as many times as the airlines and passengers may wish.

The airlines now have varying policies for how much of a name change they’ll allow.  Some will allow one or two letters to be changed in case of a subsequently-detected spelling error, others won’t even allow that, for no reason except corporate greed.

I’ve stood behind people at airport check-in counters who have been told that their ID name “Mr Albert B Johnson” didn’t match their ticket which said “Mr A Bruce Johnson” even though the passenger had other documentation to show that while his full name was Albert Bruce Johnson, he went by the name of Bruce not Albert.  That guy’s only choice was to buy an entirely new ticket, at full last-minute price.

An interesting situation was shared with me this week.  A reader bought a ticket traveling partially on United and partially on Lufthansa.  He gave his name to United as John P Smith and United sent the name on to Lufthansa as Johnp Smith (because, I believe, most airlines still only have two name fields for first and last name, while simultaneously demanding first, middle and last name from their passengers – another contradiction that points to the artificial nature of their invented need for name matching.

I reassured him that Johnp Smith would be understood as meaning John P Smith, but had a worry of my own.  Was his middle name truly only “P” (like Harry S Truman)?  No, it was Paul (or whatever).  So he had to urgently tell United that the name on his passport and therefore, the name that should be on his ticket, was John Paul Smith.

The good news?  United seems to have accepted it was partially their fault that they’d only taken his middle initial, not his full middle name, and agreed to change it free of charge.

The bad news?  To make the change, they insisted that he make a sworn declaration and get it notarized and sent to them attesting to his name being truly John Paul Smith.

My unanswerable question – why wouldn’t they just accept a photocopy of his passport to establish that?  Surely that is the ultimate document, authority and check, not a notarized declaration.

But wait, while that’s the end of that story, there’s more.  This all happened a day after a story did the rounds about a man who lost his passport in Prague.

What happened was a friend he was traveling with left Prague to fly back home to Newcastle in England, via Amsterdam.  But when he went to the airport, he took the other guy’s passport.  Nevertheless, the friend managed to get through checkin and security in Prague, again in Amsterdam when changing flights and going through EU departure checks, and again in Newcastle when going through Immigration there, with no-one noticing that the name (and picture) on the passport was different to the name on the ticket.

Details here.

And there’s even more.  As a bonus, some airlines are so eager to broadcast their political correctness that they’ve decided to allow passengers to choose whether they are male, female, or an indeterminate third gender.  Passports in most countries allow for ‘only’ male or female.  So apparently the airlines are now telling us that our names must match our passports, but our genders don’t need to also match.  Details here.

It is hard to imagine a more nonsensical set of contradictory circumstances and claims.

You’ve heard of the Love Boat. And now, the Love Bus (except that it hopefully flies).  See immediately below for details.

And Lastly This Week….

Philippine Airlines announced this week that it had taken delivery of its fifth A350, which it has dubbed “The Love Bus”, complete with a kiss mark on the side of the plane.  This seems a strange choice of appellation, particularly in these days of hypersensitive political correctness, although the airline had used it before, at the start of the 1980s on earlier A300 planes.

Feel free to insert your favorite “mile high” joke at this point.

But, talking about such things, be careful where, and on which planes, you might choose to act out such things.  In a week which also saw Google admitting that yes, some of its devices included an undisclosed microphone, but it was just an innocent mistake that they forgot to tell anyone about it; careful observers have recently noticed that the seatback video monitors on some Singapore Airlines and American Airlines planes had cameras built-in to them (I’d seen them myself but thought they must have been brightness sensors, not cameras).  The airlines said that they don’t use the cameras, which apparently just came as standard with the monitors, so there’s no need to worry.  But even so, perhaps choose the privacy of a toilet if passions overcome you on a “Love Bus”, rather than risk ending up on YouTube, courtesy of the camera staring at you all flight long.

Except that, good luck with the toilets these days.  Here’s an article which points out, among other things, that toilet sizes on planes are shrinking.  The space that used to be 35″ wide has now reduced down to a mere 24″ wide on new 737s.  That’s barely enough room for one.

How else to complete this series of stories except to note reports on how, after BA canceled a flight, it arranged for some of its passengers to stay in hotels overnight and others to spend the night in a local brothel.  We’re not sure if it was the hotel-assigned or brothel-assigned passengers who complained.  Details here.

Could things be any stranger this week?  Well, maybe yes.  How about the burlesque/spoof/comedy video that two AA flight attendants (and two other apparently non-FAs) made and published briefly on an airline industry website, in which the four characters seemed to suggest that male passengers preferred attractive flight attendants to ugly ones.  Well, oh my goodness.  This concept, apparently a total shocking surprise to many, was greeted by howls of outrage by all the prominent virtue signallers out there (even though most men wisely kept quiet).  Details here.

Why is it that the same people who are delighted to see airlines catering to people wishing to be considered as neither men nor women get so terribly upset at a suggestion that some (maybe even most) men actually are attracted to women who display features typically considered as pleasing.

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels





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