Weekly Roundup, Friday 26 April 2019

The longest domestic flight in the US. Discussed in the last item, below.

Good morning

I’m doing things a little differently today.  I’m sending out the newsletter as usual, and then I’ll send out a separate article later on Friday morning to make it more noticeable for all.

In addition to this newsletter now, there’s a feature article on how to most accurately know if your flight will be on-time or not.  If you follow the steps in that article, and use the recommended apps or websites, you’ll probably know more than most of the airline and airport staff do.  I hope you find it useful.

I’ve been testing two of the emergency external car battery jump-start units that I reviewed a few weeks back, and let them sit for two weeks to see how much charge they’d lost.  Very little is the short answer, and I’ve updated the page on the recommended unit (the Imazing unit) and the page on the other two units (the myCharge unit) with updated suggestions for how long you can leave them between topping up their charge.

What else this week?  We had three more people join our Loire Valley Land Cruise.  There’s still room for another couple of couples, and the same for our Scotland’s Highland Highlights.  But you’ll have to let me know soon if you’re going to come.

Please also continue reading below for one of our occasional and always fascinating reader surveys, and also very much more (5100 words today) :

  • Reader Survey – Would You Fly a 737 MAX?
  • Another Passenger Required to Prove Her Innocence Beyond a Reasonable Shadow of a Doubt
  • Delta Reduces Seatback Reclines
  • United’s New Livery
  • Is Southwest Sending Boeing a Message
  • $1 Billion So Far, More to Come
  • What’s Wrong With This Picture
  • And Lastly This Week….

Reader Survey – Would You Fly a 737 MAX?

As you surely know, bad logic in the control software for Boeing’s latest generation of the venerable 737, the “MAX” series, caused two fatal crashes, one earlier this year, one late last year.  All MAX planes have been grounded, worldwide, while Boeing developed a software fix.

This fix is now expected to be approved by the various different national aviation authorities and deployed in about July, with the grounded planes returning to service in the weeks that follow.  Boeing assures us that the updates and enhancements mean the plane will become as wonderfully safe as previous model 737s have been in the past.

Some naysayers have expressed concerns that the 737 is a plane that has undergone many evolutions and changes, without ever having been given a fresh top to bottom safety review and audit, and fear there may be other surprises lurking as yet undiscovered.

A lot of speculation has also been expressed about how the traveling public will feel.  Will there be a reluctance to fly on the returned to service planes?  Other commentators have said that most people have no idea what plane they’re on to start with, and even if they do know it is a 737, they really don’t know or care if it is an NG series or a MAX series or even an original 50-year-old -100 series plane!  (Well, it would be obvious if you were on one of those!)

How do you feel?  Do you have complete confidence, or will you choose other airlines and other flights, at least for a while, so as to avoid the 737 MAX and let it prove itself for a while?

Please click the link that best describes your thoughts on this matter.  It will generate an empty email to me with your response coded into the email subject line.  As always, I’ll report on the results next week.

Less worried on a 737 MAX than on any other plane.

Totally unworried on any modern plane including the 737 MAX operated by a reputable airline.

Somewhat nervous, but no more than on any other plane.

More anxious than with other planes, but it wouldn’t cause me to avoid the 737 MAX.

More anxious, and if there was a non-737 MAX option with similar itinerary times and cost, I would probably choose the non-737.

More anxious, and I’d pay a small amount extra, and/or accept some scheduling inconvenience, to avoid the 737 MAX.

Sufficiently anxious to pay an appreciable amount extra, and/or accept considerable scheduling inconvenience, to avoid the 737 MAX.

I will refuse to fly the 737 MAX, at least for the next year or so.

Many thanks for your responses on what promises to be an interesting survey.  To make it even more interesting, I’ll also republish the results of a similar survey we did when the 787 was grounded, way back in 2013.

Another Passenger Required to Prove Her Innocence Beyond a Reasonable Shadow of a Doubt

The initial reports were of a woman who misbehaved and made a fuss and had to be hauled off a plane during its boarding process in Las Vegas.  Sadly, nothing particularly extraordinary about that.

But the reports then started to evolve and tell a very different story.  According to Frontier Airlines, the woman “became disruptive” so the flight attendants called the police to take the woman off the plane.

But the woman tells a very different story, and other passengers on the flight confirm her story.

The undisputed part of the story is that the woman – Rosetta Swinney – and her 14 yr old daughter, when boarding the plane, discovered, after sitting down, that the seat the daughter sat on was wet and smelled like vomit.  The plane’s boarding had been delayed so the plane could be cleaned; I’ll guess it had been one of those rough approaches into Vegas such as sometimes can happen, and clearly, while the piles of vomit might have been removed, the soaked liquid vomit had gone into the seat and that plus cleaning fluids quickly squeezed out of the seat when the girl sat down.

Rosetta brought this to the attention of a flight attendant.  Rosetta says the flight attendant refused to help, saying it wasn’t her (the flight attendant’s) job to clean vomit left on the plane from the inbound flight.  Frontier says the flight attendant apologized and suggested the pair move to the front or back of the plane and wait, prior to either having the seats properly cleaned or being given alternate seats at the end of the boarding process.  Rosetta said the flight attendant refused to do anything and just left them there, and other passengers have confirmed that is indeed what happened.

The next bit is not in dispute.  The flight attendant went away, and the couple stayed where they were, standing rather than sitting.  But why would they stay there if they’d been offered a fair solution?  Who wants to stand wedged up against wet vomit-stinking seats?

Rosetta called the flight attendant back and demanded a solution (why would she do this if a fair solution had already been offered)?

At this point, the flight attendant called the police.  You might thing that the police would simply take the woman and her daughter off the flight, but instead, they required all other passengers to get off the flight first (I guess they didn’t want anyone taking video of their encounter with the couple) and of course creating a major delay for everyone.  Only then did they handcuff the woman and take her to jail, and send her daughter to some type of Child Services facility.

After 12 hours in jail, the woman was released on bail, and has to return to answer a trespass charge in about a month’s time.

As the parent of a 14 yr old daughter, I’m not sure which would be worse.  Being handcuffed in front of her and hauled off to jail, or having her taken away in turn to a jail-like Child Services custody unit.  Note to Anna – if we get on a plane and your seat has vomit on it, sit down, shut up, and put up with it!

So, here we are where a flight attendant says one thing happened.  The now criminally charged passenger says a different thing happened, her daughter confirms that, as do other unrelated passengers on the flight.  Plus a simple analysis of who went where and what happened seems to support Rosetta’s story.

But the police close their eyes and do what the flight attendant asks.  Even if (when!) the woman is found not guilty, so far she has suffered 12 hours in jail, humiliation, distress for her daughter, the vomit in the first place, $1000 to buy new tickets home to RDU, the cost of the bail bond, the cost of an attorney, and the cost of at least one further trip to Vegas to answer the charges brought against her.

And the flight attendant?  Frontier Airlines says it supports the flight attendant and her version of the story.  So, no consequences there.

Why is it that, except in cases like this where other passengers volunteer their support and post comments and video on Facebook, no-one ever gets witness statements from the nearby passengers who surely would have heard most of what was happening and could resolve the conflict of stories.  Even if they didn’t hear every word, they can give testimony to the standard lies that are trotted out every time of “the passenger became disruptive/aggressive/belligerent” etc etc.

The only good news is that Rosetta is now looking at filing a civil claim against the airline (and hopefully the flight attendant and the police too).  We wish her enormous success and a generous jury.

No part of this is fair.  But Rosetta did make one big mistake, a mistake that – please – do not repeat, yourself.  If you ever sense you’re about to have a disagreement with a flight attendant (and usually you know in advance when this is going to happen), turn on your phone’s video camera.  If you are traveling with other people, have them turn theirs on, too.

Because the one thing that is clear is that you can end up with every other passenger on the plane supporting you, and the airline will still insist on siding with their flight attendant, and the police will do whatever the airline asks them to do.  You need an audio and video record of what went down so when you finally get to the two courts that count – the court of public opinion, via the news media, and the court of law, you have helpful evidence that will help to counter the appalling automatic presumption of “guilty until proven innocent beyond a reasonable shadow of a doubt” that seems to exist in airline vs passenger disputes.

Details here.

Delta Reduces Seatback Reclines

One of the insoluble differences between people these days is that about seat reclining.  Some passengers believe because their seat can recline, then they may indeed choose to do so.  These people understand that their space includes both the space under the seat in front (but not the space under their seat) and the space behind their seatback where it reclines, but not the space behind the seatback in front, in case that passenger reclines.

And then there are the people who don’t quite get this concept, and believe they control all the space in front of them and can determine how much the person in front reclines.  Strangely, these people often seem to believe they control the space behind them, too, and happily recline their seat without pondering the contradiction in their action.

This has caused increasing problems on flights, because, as we all know, the space between us and the seatback in front is getting smaller and smaller.  Flight attendants have no consistent guidance to offer, and usually come up with some mealy-mouthed exhortation to “compromise and be considerate” – a concept which invariably means the person wishing to recline their seat can not in fact do so.  When pressed on the “why can’t we recline the seat if it actually is designed to recline that far” they get surly and you risk suffering a fate similar to the poor lady and daughter in the previous article.

My attitude has been to simply accept that the airlines specify the seat recline they wish their seats to have, and that is clearly the seat recline they have decided to allow.  I understand the meal time ritual of moving your seat back up so the guy behind can access his meal (and also so your own food doesn’t spill down your shirt front!), and I understand the courtesy of reclining back slowly rather than suddenly, but the recline capability is one’s own to use as they wish.

So now Delta has decided to reduce the amount of recline in seats on its A320s, reducing the coach class recline from four inches down to two inches.  Surprisingly, they’re also reducing the recline in first class from “over five inches” to “roughly 3 1/2 inches”.

Its stated reason for doing this is for our convenience, of course.  Apparently, we’ve been complaining that it is impossible to work on our laptops in coach class if the person in front reclines, and so because we have told Delta we don’t want seat reclining (even in first class) they are leaping to do as we wish.  Details here.

It is true that it is absolutely impossible to work on a laptop when the guy in front reclines.  But will it miraculously transform to an ergonomic ecstasy by reducing the recline two inches?  I very much doubt it, particularly because two problems remain – my laptop is 15″ wide, and so spills over the width of the tray table, and trying to touch-type with a laptop on a bouncy tray table, while also wondering where to put one’s soda drink, is an impossible exercise in contortion at the best of times.

None of the flights I take have a significant number of people working on laptops in coach class, but they do have a greater number of passengers trying to lean back a bit and get comfortable and hopefully sleep.

One thing is certain in this uncertain world.  When an airline says “we’re doing this because our passengers want it”, they mean nothing of the sort.  They’re instead advancing that excuse as a defensive measure, hoping that by suggesting everyone else wants the latest unpleasantness, you and I won’t complain.

I seldom/never work on my laptop in coach class – the only exception being if I’ve a spare seat next to me, and we all know how rare that treat is these days.  But like many others, I do try to sleep in coach class, something that is difficult enough when the seat is fully reclined and impossible when it is upright.  I wait eagerly to see what it will be like with 2″ of recline.  Instead of just needing a neck support pillow, we’ll need body support pillows to stop our entire body falling forwards.

United’s New Livery

As mentioned last week, United has now revealed its new airplane livery.  It looks odd to me because one of the main changes is that the word “United” – which used to be only above the window line on the plane – has now been made bigger and spills down over the windows, with the windows creating gaps in the letters.

They’re not the only airline to adopt that style.  I’ve often thought it would be lovely if they then colored the window shades in the affected windows so if the shades were pulled down, the colors of the letters would flow on with less interruption.

There’s a nice video, or at least nice in parts at the beginning with some history of United and Continental, in this article.  But then the video descends into the usual exoteric new-age nonsense from designers about the spirits of the colors chosen, and corporate jingoism from assorted VPs in charge of such stuff.

I found myself wondering, while listening to their enthusiastic hyperbole – “Why is it, if United is even half as wonderful as you’re describing, so many people hate your airline more than any of the other airlines”.  But, really, that’s a question they should be asking themselves, not me.  And it will take a lot more than changing their shades of blue to address that problem.

Is Southwest Sending Boeing a Message

Southwest has been affected by the B737 MAX grounding, of course.  It has 34 of the planes on the ground, although with a total fleet of 754 planes, that’s only 4.5% of the total fleet (but they are the larger planes, so in terms of total passenger carrying capacity, it is 5.2% of its total capacity.

Southwest is a classic example of Boeing’s obsession with keeping the 737 series going as long as possible.  It has an all Boeing fleet, and attributes that as one of the “secrets of their success” due to lower costs of not having to train pilots on multiple different airplane types, and easier common maintenance requirements, etc.

On the other hand, it currently has three different 737 variants in its fleet (-700, -800 and MAX 8) and has a fourth on order (MAX 7) (but will be soon retiring the -700 planes).  So while a single airplane family, it comprises three/four different versions across two different generations.

Some people have speculated that the current MAX problem might cause Southwest to consider ordering some Airbus planes, too.  In my opinion, while I think the value of fleet commonality is perhaps slightly overstated, so too is the degree at which Southwest may be upset by the 737 MAX situation.

It is a sad reality in life that sometimes the most loyal customers don’t always get the best deals, and as I’ve often speculated in the past, many airlines seem to deliberate split their ordering between Airbus and Boeing so as to maintain two viable sources of airplanes and the competitive pressures acting on both Boeing and Airbus.  Southwest has been a very loyal Boeing customer, but it never wants to feel that its loyalty is being exploited.

When Southwest was first founded, they entered into an exclusivity agreement with Boeing which apparently was never written down, and sealed merely with a handshake.  The agreement committed Boeing to always giving Southwest its absolutely lowest price for a 737, and that “no airline on Earth would ever pay less”.

It is anyone’s guess as to how well that agreement has been honored over the years, because in general terms neither airlines nor airplane manufacturers disclose what the contract prices are on the planes they buy/sell, but some information does leak out through unavoidable corporate filings and asset registers and financial security documents.  Plus, occasionally, airline executives might boast at having got a steal of a deal, and in particular RyanAir (another Boeing exclusive airline) has boasted of some great deals on 737s in the past.

The unwritten agreement such as is believed to exist is so full of loopholes as to be meaningless.  Sure, Boeing might give Southwest its lowest purchase price (say, for example, $25 million), and it might sell a plane to Airline X for $26 million.  Agreement honored, right?

But for the $26 million to Airline X, Boeing might include some free extra options, some extra included free warranty coverage, some training, it might buy back/trade in other airplanes at above market cost as part of the deal, or Boeing might offer interest free or other subsidized payment terms.  So Boeing could look Southwest in the face and say “Airline X was charged more than you per plane” which would be literally true in the narrowest sense, but in the broader “bundle of benefits” sense, quite wrong.

NOTE to Boeing’s lawyers :  I am absolutely not saying this is what has ever been done.  I’m merely showing how it could be done, in a different universe/dimension/timeline, and by different companies.

So it is always good to keep the other guy honest.

News leaked this week of a secret trip by Southwest executives to go and “kick the tires” of an Airbus (ex-Bombardier) A220.  After a couple of days of embarrassment, Southwest admitted that yes, indeed, it did send some people to go and look at the plane that is being operated by “a European airline”, (probably airBaltic, possibly Swiss International Airlines) but then said that there was nothing significant to be read into the exercise, and it had been planned for a long time, prior to the 737 MAX grounding (which happened six weeks ago on 13 March, so one has to note how far forward Southwest apparently plans such things….).

The larger A220-300 is an interesting plane, more similar in size to the 737 MAX 8, whereas the A220-100 is smaller than the 737 MAX 7.  The A220-300 would fit well within the Southwest business model.

There have also been discussions of possibly a larger A220-500, but that has become a more complicated concept now that the airplane is under the Airbus umbrella.  Already Airbus has noted a weakening in A319 orders due to airlines choosing the A220-300 instead, and a larger A220-500 would more directly cannibalize its “bread and butter” A320 line.

The -100 definitely filled the bottom end gap in the Airbus product range, and there are good reasons for pressing on with the -300 model too (not the least of which being that it is by far the better selling of the two versions), but adding a -500 model would be a more difficult decision, unless it presaged the start of the end of the A320 series and anticipated a new model plane to replace the entire larger A320 models, while leaving the smaller models now in the A220 family (a far from unlikely possibility).

Here’s an example of the speculation Southwest’s visit has excited, and here’s a less speculative article that quotes Southwest’s CEO as saying his airline remains loyally supportive of Boeing.

We expect Southwest will stay with Boeing for now.  But, it probably occasionally feels the need to remind Boeing of their unwritten agreement and that it does indeed have other choices, should it wish to do so.  A strategic leak like this works very much to their advantage.

$1 Billion So Far, More to Come

In an earnings call this week, Boeing disclosed that so far, the 737 MAX grounding has cost the company about $1 billion.  Analysts expect this is just the start of costs, not the totality of them, with one saying that the cited $1 billion was “likely below the low-end of anyone’s thinking”.

Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg may have also been a bit overly defensive when he said about the plane’s problems “There was no surprise or gap or unknown here, or something that somehow slipped through a certification process”. He did generously however concede “We also know there are areas where we can improve”.

So he wasn’t surprised when two planes crashed?  An undocumented automatic override that the pilots knew nothing about was not an unknown?  And the airplane’s global grounding, likely for more than four months in total, isn’t indicative of something that somehow slipped through a certification process?  Details here.

Boeing currently expects to receive global approvals for the 737 to return to the air some time in July.  Southwest says it could take as much as a month from that point to when it gets its fleet airborne again, although we guess they mean a month until the last of their planes is back in service, not a month until the first of them returns to operations.

One other interesting bit of trivia.  In the first quarter, Boeing reported a net order count of -119 new orders.  They had significantly more cancellations than new orders (although unrelated to their 737 MAX problems).  As for Airbus, it too had a negative quarter, with a net -58 planes reported, making in total, -177 new airplane orders for the two companies combined.  That’s got to be some sort of record.

What’s Wrong With This Picture?

Maybe it is more a case of “what’s wrong with my sense of humor” but I find this picture enormously funny.  I’ve trimmed it from its full size, where it is more clearly shown as a sheet of paper pinned on a wall or door in an office.

It has been going around the internet for a while now, and no-one is sure if it is real or a joke.  But it is believable, isn’t it, and so funny on multiple different levels.

And Lastly This Week….

I’d posed the question, last week, about what the longest US nonstop domestic flight is.  Some people suggested flights between somewhere in Alaska and somewhere in the lower 48 states, and some people wondered about flights from the west coast to Hawaii.

But no-one identified the actual flight, which indeed does have Honolulu at one end of the journey.  The other end, however, is not on the West Coast.  It is in Boston, 5095 miles from HNL (as the crow flies) and as shown on the “great circle” path at the top of the newsletter (which is actually the shortest – it looks longer but the map has been flattened from the sphere the earth actually is, hence the distortion of the route).  This is a new flight operated by the good folks at Hawaiian Airlines.

You’ve probably read various articles about the best day of week and even best time of day to book an airline ticket, and suggestions you clear your browser cookies, all in attempts to try and persuade the airline computers to choose to give you their best offer, not their worst.  I know, for me, I’ve often noticed that the special discounted rate I get quoted for my Hertz Number One Club Gold membership is higher than the regular rate if I visit their site in a different browser, and not logged in.

But a new strategy (at least for me) was reported on Twitter this week by a person who noticed rates for two hotels in New York were showing differently, using the HotelTonight service, when she checked them on her desktop computer ($201 and $171) compared to through the HotelTonight app ($223 and $190).

HotelTonight replied asking her to call them to talk through the issue, but when she tried to call them at the number they gave her, she got a message saying “we’re busy, send an email”!  The message chain can be seen here.

I love the internet.  When I was a little boy, I could spend an entire day just randomly reading through my various encyclopedias and scientific dictionaries.  I’d start of reading one entry, then go to a cross-referenced entry, and so on and so on, never knowing where I’d end up or what I’d discover.  The internet is of course the modern version of that, one never knows where a few semi-random clicks will take you.

Case in point.  I was talking with a guy in New Zealand, he sent me a video he had created and stored on YouTube about a new type of holiday accommodation.  At the end of the video, I looked at other videos this guy had published on YouTube, and went to visit a travelogue of a journey he’d done along the Rhine river.  It was nice to see some of the towns along the way through someone else’s eyes, and while admiring the towns and scenery, I was also very much enjoying the background music, an orchestration of one of the most virtuosic (hmmm, spelling checker isn’t complaining, I’m surprised that is a word) of piano pieces, Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody Number 2.  I guess to a New Zealander, Hungarian music is thematically close enough to the Rhine (although of course it is the Danube that travels through Hungary).

After that, I decided I’d like to hear a complete version of the piece, and on piano, and ended up enjoying a stunning version that you might wish to watch.  I’ve linked to it from the five minute point, because there’s a pause then a build up of speed again; and, as you might see, over the next minute or two, things speed up and up and up, with the lady pianist’s fingers moving so much faster than the 30 frames per second video camera can keep up with.  Wow.  It would be churlish of me to observe a few notes wrong, because there were so many of them and it just seemed like the pianist was needing to throw her hands at the keyboard semi-randomly.  I’m not surprised a few were missed, I’m astonished at how many were hit.  One can truly appreciate how it is that women would faint when Liszt would perform this and other pieces on stage.

At the end of that piece, YouTube presented its suggestions for other pieces to watch, and so, after starting off with a video referred to me by a New Zealander about a new type of holiday home construction being built in Scotland, traveling along the Rhine, listing to a piece of Liszt piano music (and being tempted by a lovely steam train video) I serendipitously ended up watching a fascinating flightdeck video of the Concorde.  Amazing that it was taken in 2010 – the stiff upper lip almost-caricatures of pilots seem like they date back several generations prior.  What a wonderful plane, and what a terrible loss from our skies.  You might enjoy the video, too.

Talking about Concorde, and by implication, British Airways, I’m sometimes known to refer to BA and other similar carriers – often politely referred to as “legacy carriers” in the general press, by the term “dinosaur airlines”.  Their lovely new Terminal 5 at Heathrow could be considered the dinosaur airline’s temple, and so it is entirely appropriate that currently, in the middle of the checking in area, there should be a slightly older dinosaur on display.  Details here.

And talking about old things in Britain, we’ll all be old, wherever we are, by the time the much delayed Crossrail extensions to their Underground system are finally completed.  News has just come out of another two-year delay, pushing back the projected completion from December this year to December 2020.

Delays (and cost overruns) to public transportation projects seem to be a constant, everywhere in the world.  Details here.  The blog I took this information from has some other great pages on transportation issues in London and England in general, too; well worth a wander through.

Truly lastly this week, people sometimes choose to get married in unusual places – places that have special meaning to the two of them and their courtship, but which aren’t obvious wedding locales for the rest of us.  But surely an airport baggage claim area would have to be the least romantic and most unlikely choice of wedding venue?  Here’s why a couple chose to get married at Cleveland’s baggage claim area.

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels





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