Weekly Roundup, Friday 17 May 2019

The ancient town of St Malo on the Brittany coast, where we’ll now be spending the first half of our French “land cruise” this September.

Good morning

As you can see in the image immediately above, I’ve made some exciting changes to our French tour this September.  Several readers had suggested that instead of an entire week in one place, we consider splitting the tour into half a week in each of two places.  While I love the idea of long one-week stays, I’m not totally tone-deaf to what you tell me, either.

I can’t help but notice the strongly growing success of the Scotland tour the week before the French tour.  Our Scotland’s Highland Highlights Tour (featuring a series of two-night stays) now has 16 people coming along to enjoy this great experience (can probably still squeeze another couple into the group), and so it is yet again shown to me that people aren’t unwilling to change hotels on a reasonable basis if the itinerary justifies it.  Maybe the concept of “stay an entire week in one place” was an unasked for solution to a non-existent problem?

So now the French “land cruise” has become more like two back-to-back short Caribbean cruises, to continue the analogy.  We will spend four days in the lovely Loire valley, and prior to that, we spend three days in Saint Malo.

Chances are you might not know much about St Malo.  It was the strong suggestion of our wonderful French guide, Christine, that we do this.  St Malo is on the beautiful Brittany coast, which allows us a convenient tour one day to Mont Saint Michel, one of the ultimate French iconic sites (or should that be sights).

On another day, we have an optional day excursion to a very different type of country – it is actually a “Bailiwick”; a semi-independent country that is also a Crown Dependency of Great Britain.  I’m referring to Jersey, one of the Channel Islands.  Jersey is a mere 85 minute fast-ferry ride from St Malo, and is a fascinating tiny island with tons of history, lovely towns, beaches, and castles, as well as interesting WW2 remnants (the Germans occupied both Jersey and Guernsey, the other Bailiwick in the Channel Island group).

We also add a few more places too, including beautiful Honfleur, the third most popular place to visit in France and immortalized in paintings by Monet.

Because of these additions, I’m having to increase the tour price by $100 per person.  But, if you want to quickly take advantage of a bargain, I’ll leave the price as is this weekend only, and late on Monday the new prices will then take effect.  So please do have a look at the new improved version of our French tour, and consider coming along.

What else this week?  Please keep reading for :

  • Boeing – Where “Finished” is a Subjective Concept
  • Are Jokes Now Banned on Airplanes?
  • Not a Joke – Rapid Airplane Disembarkation
  • Hotel Housekeeper Says Guests Should Clean Their Own Hotel Rooms – and Tip Housekeepers $10/per person/per night
  • Fast Trains
  • And Lastly This Week….

Boeing – Where “Finished” is a Subjective Concept

Those of us who have had children, or who remember our own childhood, will remember experiences eerily similar to that with Boeing at present.  First, we have an argument with our child (or parents) as to if our/their bedroom actually needs tidying.  After eventually accepting that there is a need for tidying the bedroom, the child tosses a few things into drawers, sweeps some things under the bed, and announces he is finished.

Then the parents come back and point out the remaining messes still untouched, the trash unemptied, and notice some of the things hiding under the bed.

After several more iterations of this, eventually the parents give up and accept something that is better than before but far from perfect, and all sides feel they’ve achieved a victory of sorts.  The child didn’t have to totally tidy their room, and the parent sees a room that no longer looks like World War 3 has been fought within it.

Doesn’t that sound a bit like Boeing’s handling of the 737 MAX problems?  First it denies and disputes the existence of any problems.  Then it concedes that maybe something could be done, and quickly announces it has been working on it already and is almost finished.  Then we go through several iterations of being actually finished, with the latest one being a statement yesterday that Boeing has finished and was almost ready to submit everything to the FAA, next week, for their approval.

A cynic would point out that the concept of “finished” doesn’t belong alongside a statement of being “almost ready”.  And “pending approval” isn’t exactly the same as finished, either.  Details here.

So it is seeming like the best case scenario will see the planes start returning to the air in June, and most airlines aren’t yet planning on having them back in service until July or later.

The big news that isn’t so much talked about though is the question about whether the FAA’s eventual approval will be accepted by all other aviation certification bodies in other jurisdictions.  If nothing/nowhere else, it would seem far from surprising if China in particular choses to be slow in accepting the 737 back into its skies.

Are Jokes Now Banned on Airplanes?

Most of us understand that we can’t make any sort of joke when going through security, although occasionally, we hear heartwarming stories of people who have boldly made small jokes and had them reciprocated by TSA and other officials.

The new po-faced people seem to be flight attendants and pilots.  I wrote recently about how a good natured passenger joked to a pilot about the reason for a flight delay being so the pilots could finish their drinks or something like that, which caused the pilot to storm off the plane and demand to be breath-tested due to a “challenge to his sobriety” by a passenger, and justifying the hour or more of delay by pretending that airline rules required him to do so.  Utter nonsense, and if he’d had an iota of common-sense, totally unnecessary.

And now, this week, there’s news about a Southwest flight that had been delayed for several hours in Sacramento.  When the plane could finally board, and after it had pushed back and was taxiing to take-off, the flight attendants handed out water to passengers.  One passenger joked that after such a lengthy delay, they should be handing out vodka not water.

The dear delicate flight attendant chose to be offended by this light-hearted comment, and demanded the pilot return the plane to the gate.  You might think that such prissy behavior would see her getting off-loaded when the plane got back to the gate, but of course, that wasn’t the case.  The police came on board to “escort” the hapless passenger off the plane.

Unusually, in this case, other passengers started calling out, challenging the action, saying the man had done nothing wrong.  So, when faced with an outbreak of open revolt by multiple passengers on the one hand, and the unsupported word of a single flight attendant on the other hand, the police did – guess what.

Yes, they ignored everyone else and proceeded to “escort” the man off the flight.  Details here.  Southwest – an airline that pays lip-service to the concept of being customer-friendly – says it has reported the incident to its Customer Relations team, which of course means they’re doing nothing at all.

This is the most egregious case yet of a clear non-offense, a mass of contradictory evidence showing the flight attendant to be the one who was out of line, and a ridiculous response – first by the fools in the cockpit, and secondly by the other uniformed fools wearing police uniforms.

How can we create a requirement for sanity, decency, honesty and common-sense in the people who “serve us” on our flights?

Alas, this is far from two isolated incidents.  One of the world’s “best” airlines was in the news this week as well for having a passenger removed from a flight because the passenger refused to pay 100% attention to watching the pre-flight safety video.

The airline is Air New Zealand, an airline that is known for its engaging and amusing safety videos.  But the safety videos are also lengthy, and like much comedy, what is funny once becomes very tired and boring when you are seeing it for the third time in the same week (this being a domestic flight within NZ).  On the other hand, if there’s one thing worse than a tired series of jokes, it is insincere expressions of happiness at seeing us on the plane by an airline’s CEO – those safety videos start to wear very thin even more quickly.

The flight attendant felt sufficiently empowered to demand the lady passenger concentrate only on the long safety video, and when the woman objected, on came the police and off went the woman.  Details here.

What will be next?  Will we be given a multi-choice questionnaire after the safety video to prove we understood what was included in it?  What will happen if we fail – a repeat viewing and retesting, or the police take us off?

Not a Joke – Rapid Airplane Disembarkation

Talking about safety and jokes, in the good old days, I’ve been known to make an occasional joke on airplanes myself.

For example, my usual shtick (which I’m sure the flight attendants have had to endure hundreds of times from many passengers) is, when seated in an emergency exit row and being asked if I’m able to and willing to open the emergency exit door in an emergency is to say things like “Well, I see the instructions and they seem a bit complicated, can I practice on it now just to be sure I get it right” and also to say things like “How will I know when to open it – will you give me a special signal or secret sign?” and so on.

But, actually, there’s a serious undertone to this.  As was discovered on an Aer Lingus flight.  After taking off from Cork, and heading to London, “strong and persistent” fumes in the cabin caused the pilot to return back to Cork, calling Mayday.  The plane landed safely, and taxied not to a gate but to an off-gate parking stand.  The pilot then said over the intercom that passengers should make “rapid disembarkation”.

Whereupon, it seems like more than one of the plane’s emergency exits were opened by passengers, who were not only anxious about the fumes and emergency return to Cork, but also eager to leave the plane, and upon hearing a call for “rapid disembarkation” interpreted that as a call to use the emergency exits.

That was not what the pilot meant, but because he spoke in stupid pilot-language rather than ordinary English/Irish, passengers jumped down the slides rather than walked down the air stairs.

Details here.

Hotel Housekeeper Says Guests Should Clean Their Own Hotel Rooms – and Tip Housekeepers $10/per person/per night

Here’s a ridiculous article in which hotel staff recommend that guests should strip the sheets off their bed and remove pillow cases and leave them in a neat pile by the bathroom door to make their (ie the hotel staff, not the guests) lives easier.  Plus, move the trash cans to the door to make it easier to empty them, place used towels in a specific way, open the curtains, and be sure to put the tv remote in its official place.

Oh, and after having done all that, you should also tip your housekeeper $10 per person in the room, each night of your stay.

So, we’re being told from these “independent experts” that after spending $100 – 200 or more a night, we have to do much of the housekeeping ourselves, and in addition, pay massive tips.

Call me hard-hearted, but I object enormously to being told that the solution to underpaid housekeepers (especially in four and five star hotels) is for the guests to do half their work and pay them tips that transform them from being overworked and underpaid to now being underworked and overpaid.

Do the math – assume a housekeeper does four rooms an hour.  Actually, this is probably a very low estimate; we all know how quickly they do a room from the times when we’re in the room while they are cleaning it – something that never seems to take them more than five minutes.  If we do half their work for them, surely they could work even more quickly.  Let’s say the average room has 1.5 guests in it.  A $10/guest tip would mean that at a rate of four rooms/hour the housekeeper is making $60/hour in (probably tax-free) tips in addition to whatever the hotel is paying them.  If they’re doing six rooms an hour, this becomes $90 plus their regular wages.

I’m not going to make any snobby statements about whether housekeepers deserve $60-90/hr in tips or not.  But I do have to wonder about the concept of tipping when

(a) you’re also expected to do most of the work yourself,
(b) the housekeeper does nothing out of the ordinary, and
(c) at $60+/hour, there’s a better than even chance the housekeeper now earns more than the person tipping her.

It reminds me of the “posh” hotel I stayed at one time just out of Windsor in the UK.  Parked prominently out front was a brand new Beemer; parked around the side was a mid-size not-new Ford.  Guess which one belonged to the hotel head-doorman and which one belonged to the hotel manager.

The doorman was making money so fast he needed a wheelbarrow to take it all to the bank.  For example, if you asked for a taxi to take you in to Windsor, you felt obliged to press a pound or two into his hand for calling the taxi and opening the taxi door to let you in when it arrived.  And – here is the real kicker.  A taxi driver told me that the taxi drivers all had to tip the doorman too, or else they’d not get called to the hotel.  So the doorman was making over £5 for every taxi ride, and that was just the start of his income streams.

The doorman was not only making more money than the hotel manager, but he was also making more money than most of the people who were tipping him.

Fast Trains

While the Japanese bullet trains were some of the world’s first high speed trains when they came out in 1964, they’ve been dropping down and down the list of fast trains over the decades that followed.

Particularly with its not-always-very-friendly neighbor, China, now very much leading the high speed rail revolution, Japan has been eager to reclaim at least part of its former crown, and is now testing what it claims will become the world’s fastest bullet trains; with top speeds of 360 km/hr (225 mph).  Details here.

These new trains may well be, as the article headline boasts, the world’s fastest “bullet” trains, but – sorry Japan – they’re not the world’s fastest trains.  The fastest is the short maglev line from suburban Shanghai to Pudong Airport (431 km/hr or 267 mph) and the second fastest is the Chinese Fuxing Hao trains that run between Beijing and Shanghai and elsewhere in the country, with speeds of 249 mph.  The third fastest is another Chinese train, the Harmony train that runs on several long distance lines at speeds of up to 236 mph.

Only then do the new bullet trains appear.  Details here.

Meanwhile, in go-slow-land, aka the USA, the strange on-again/off-again Californian high speed rail project has taken another lurch towards the off status.  The federal government has cancelled a $929 million additional funding grant for the project, and continues to threaten action to try and take back $2.5 billion in funding already given.

This all happened as a result of California Governor Gavin Newsom saying in his “State of the State” speech in February that there was no way the rail project could proceed; a statement he hastily denied having said the very next day (see my analysis here).  The federal government not unreasonably feels that there is little sense in paying for a train line that the state’s own governor has said will not happen in the foreseeable future, and for which the massive enormity of the probably $100 billion funding required has not yet been obtained or identified.

Details here.

Oh, one more thing.  China is adding 4,200 miles of extra high speed rail track/service.  This year.  Not over the next decade or longer, but this year alone.  That is in addition to 2,500 new miles of high speed rail added last year, and almost 20,000 miles of high speed rail track in total.  Not bad when you think their first 70 mile high speed rail line opened a mere 11 years ago.  Details here.

And Lastly This Week….

The lovely seeming TWA Hotel has now opened at JFK Airport.  While naming a hotel after a failed airline that definitely did not enjoy a stellar reputation in its last years (it ceased operations in 2001) might seem like a curious business decision, nostalgia is definitely a factor, and perhaps greatest among people too young to remember what it is they are now missing (or people too old to remember the most gruesome details of how bad it actually was).  Details here.

Qantas had a great idea.  It is dedicating flights entirely for people redeeming their frequent flier miles, and offering enhanced services on such flights.  The first of these is an A380 flight between Melbourne and Tokyo.  Great idea.

Talking about being very special, here’s an interesting article about how DC’s elite get to dine at the elite local restaurants.  The closest I ever came to experiencing this was when I was with an associate who had an Amex Centurion card and liked to show it off.  He called an “impossible to get a table at” restaurant in Vegas and four of us were seated at a table within an hour.

I often express my disappointment about how the US seems no longer able to field any world-standard airlines or even airports.  But a much more fundamental indicator of the decline of American everything is surely revealed in this article revealing the shocking news that the top three favorite beers in the US are no longer American.  Instead, they are Dutch, Irish, and Mexican.

Talking about beer, here’s an amusing story about a restaurant in England that accidentally served the wrong bottle of wine to some diners.  The restaurant is being very cheery about the whole thing (and the publicity they’ve received makes it clearly a net win for them), but there’s one part of the story I find very hard to believe – the claim that the customers failed to notice they received the wrong bottle of wine – particularly when they hopefully tried to order a second bottle, too.  Details here and here.

Truly lastly this week, here’s an interesting perspective about a strangely controversial issue.  Who invented email?  It seems remarkable that there’s so much confusion and contention about something that one would think to be well documented.

Whoever the inventor was, let’s sincerely thank him.  Imagine life without email, and without your weekly Travel Insider newsletter!

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels





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