Weekly Roundup, Friday 28 June 2019

Yes, this is a real plane, and it actually did fly. See last item, below.

Good morning

With 4 July staring us in the face, I can’t help noticing a change in things.  Somehow, we’ve gone from signs joyously advertising fireworks for sale in the run up to 4 July to now being surrounded by signs advising of firework bans and draconian fines for anyone not observing them.  Have fireworks become more dangerous than they were several decades ago?  Or have we just become more obsessively risk-averse, eagerly throwing away anything with a hint of risk in search of an ever safer life.

Talking about risks, I took a minor risk and ordered one of Amazon’s new Echo Show 5 units when they were announced a few weeks back.  It arrived on Wednesday, so now, with the ink still fresh and wet, I’ve posted a review of the product, which follows today’s weekly roundup.

Should you buy one?  The answer to that is a qualified “maybe”.  I point out a better/less expensive alternative in the article, and there’s another thing to consider too.  In just over two weeks, Amazon will be holding its “Prime Day” sale – this year extended to two days rather than one.  Usually Amazon discounts all its hardware products for such events.  So, maybe you buy the other device now, or maybe you wait for Prime Day and hope for a good deal on the Echo Show 5 then.  But do have a look at the review, so you know if it is something you might want to get or not.

At the same time as writing the review, I also rewrote and added to my Alexa commands “cheat sheet”.  One of the problems with Alexa is there is no single good source of useful Alexa commands.  I won’t say mine is the best, but I will say it covers most of the common commands that people might find helpful, and if you notice any useful commands I’ve omitted, please let me know so I can include them in the next update.

The same as I did last time, I’ve released this in two versions.  A detailed 14 page version for the kind Travel Insider Supporters, and a shorter 6 page version, free for everyone.  If you find the six page version helpful, I hope that will help encourage you to become a Travel Insider Supporter and to get the full 14 page version, as well as much other supplemental material, too.

Maybe you’ll notice some more formatting changes.  I’m not yet sure, myself, how many of them will transfer through to the newsletter..  Most of the formatting changes this week have been on the website itself, but there have been some updates to the email formatting too, and I’m (again!) assured that all the different newsletter versions are now working.  I guess we’ll find out on Friday if that is so.  🙂  As before, if you’ve suggestions or notice problems, please let me know.  It is a long and slow process, but if each week we add another tweak and improvement, then it is encouraging for us all.

What else this week?  It’s a long newsletter this week – where did all the 5116 words go?  Please continue on for :

  • A Happy Tweak to the Scotland Tour and Other Touring News
  • Another Week; Another Round of Bad News for Boeing
  • Not (yet) a Boeing Slogan – “Fly With Us and Put Your Life on the Line”
  • This Week’s Greediest Law Suit
  • Time for Another Chorus of “We Are Poor” From the Airlines
  • Amtrak Needs Elon
  • Are Passports Going the Way of Airline Tickets?
  • Pushback Against Hotel Resort Fees From a Surprising Source
  • Woman Removed From Flight for Sending a Text Message
  • And Lastly This Week….

A Happy Tweak to the Scotland Tour and Other Touring News

We sold our the final remaining room on the Scotland tour last weekend.  We’ve 14 rooms all now allocated, and 20 of us in total heading off in mid September.  Yay.

But then, during the week, a refiguring of the room allocations showed there was actually one room still unsold.  I need to give the room back that I’d mistakenly double-counted, but I’ll wait until after the weekend to do so.  If you can quickly decide to join us, then it can be yours.  Please let me know.

If you need it, there’s a new reason to visit Scotland.  It has recently been awarded the title of being the world’s most beautiful country.  Canada is second and New Zealand third.  Certainly, our tour through the vast unspoiled expanses of the Scottish Highlands gives you a chance to see the most beautiful parts of Scotland.

Meanwhile, the French tour remains open.  It is immediately after the Scottish tour, and yes, if you’d like to do both, I will offer you a small “sweetener” to encourage you to enjoy back-to-back Travel Insider tours.  Otherwise, if you’d like to focus on France, this is a great chance to maybe do a bit of Paris, then head off to our two destinations – Brittany and the Loire Valley, with great day touring and lovely places to visit, enjoy, relax in, and eat/drink/be merry at.

We’re now starting to get a trickle of people registering for the Christmas tour also.  Four so far, and some more “in the pipeline”.  Please do let me know if you’d enjoy a chance of this great one week based in Munich, with lovely touring around the wider Bavarian region, and – impossible to omit – an option on to lovely Prague at the end, featuring our favorite Prague hotel in its perfect location.

Another Week; Another Round of Bad News for Boeing

This week’s bad news for Boeing was particularly bad.  The FAA have found an entirely new and not-previously-known bug in the B737 MAX software – or possibly in the computer hardware that processes it.

It is great the FAA found this bug, and it does appear to be an obscure bug that is not likely to happen in normal flight.  But if anything, we’d actually prefer bugs that do appear in normal flight, not bugs that appear when an airplane is already in dire straits, right on the ‘edge of the envelope’ and the pilots struggling to keep it flying.

Most of all though, how is it that it was the FAA and not Boeing who found this bug?  That’s a huge heaping of shame on Boeing for not having better quality control, especially with every aspect of the program now under the microscope.

The most worrying thing of all about this bug, at least to a cynic like me who has spent dangerously close to half a century working to debug software, is that computer bugs are like rats.  If you find one, you expect there’s another dozen nearby that you’ve yet to find.

I have to say that while I know computers are good things, there are times when I yearn for “the good old days” when planes were flown by pilots who operated controls in the cockpit and then transferred their actions, via cables, to the actual control surfaces on the plane’s wings, etc.

But wait, there’s more.  Apparently other earlier versions of the 737 have software bugs too.

Not (yet) a Boeing Slogan – “Fly With Us and Put Your Life on the Line”

We know there are few people hungrier in the world for headlines than Sir Richard Branson.  But we wonder if he really thought things all the way through when cooperating with an article that describes him as  “putting his life on the line” by choosing to fly on the possibly next test flight of his Virgin Galactic sort-of spacecraft.

We’re not sure that is a concept calculated to draw in more people eager to spend $250,000 for a chance to similarly risk their lives on brief flights to the edge of space (depending on which definition of space you use).

It is however an interesting article and well written with some very nice subtle comments included.  Worth a read.

This Week’s Greediest Law Suit

One thing about Boeing’s 737 MAX situation, it is bringing out the worst in people (and the attorneys who represent them).

To be fair, we can understand the thinking that causes the estates of passengers who died on the two crashes to now seek to maximize their award settlement.  They see a mega-billion dollar company with very deep pockets, they’re suffering the appalling senseless loss of a loved one, and so of course, seeking to “punish” Boeing and not wishing to undervalue the loss of their family member can cause them to ask for high damage awards.

But, this week, we have to tell you of a US 737 pilot who is suing Boeing for “severe emotional and mental stress” at having been “forced” to fly the 737 MAX prior to its grounding, even though of course, at the time, the poor pilot had no inkling of any awareness that there was any type of safety problem with the plane at all.

But don’t let the facts get in the way of a rollicking good law suit.  As is common with such actions, no specific amount of damages was requested in the filing, but it did say the amount awarded should be sufficient to “deter Boeing and other airplane manufacturers from placing corporate profits ahead of the lives of the pilots, crews, and general public they service.”.  All very high minded and public spirited, but the clear translation is that if a company can make $7.9 billion in annual profit (Boeing’s 2018 profit), clearly an award for damages sufficient to deter that company from future misbehavior will need to be some billions of dollars.

We hope that – when the pilot’s lawsuit is eventually thrown out – he and his attorneys will be required to pay Boeing’s legal fees.  This is legal opportunism of the most unproductive kind.

Time for Another Chorus of “We Are Poor” From the Airlines

I know what you are thinking – the airlines have never had higher passenger loads on their flights.  Their planes are more fuel efficient than ever before, and after various bankruptcies, re-organizations, and efficiency drives, their costs are way down, their revenues way up, and so they’re making great profits currently.

How could anyone not make money in the airline industry at present with such a perfect “storm” of positive factors.

Well, apparently, we’re all wrong.  The head of BA’s parent company, IAG, is claiming that “stubbornly high fuel prices” and competitive pressures will make this a tough year and probably see some airlines fail.  Other airline executives nod their heads sagely and thoughtfully agree – Ryanair’s CCO said he expects to see some sizeable European carriers fail in the next six months.

Now we know that when airlines are talking about losing money, it is never their fault, and invariably it is blamed on fuel costs, even though these days less and less fuel is burned per passenger mile.  According to this interesting data from the airlines’ own lobbying group, while fuel is still the second highest cost, it is now “only” 20% of operating costs.  I remember, a few decades back, when it was more commonly higher than 30%.

So let’s have a look at the “stubbornly high fuel prices” shall we.  Perhaps we should first point out that anything that is “stubborn” in its price is usually a good thing, because it is predictable and poses few surprises.  However, stubborn or not, let’s see what the price airlines pay for a gallon of jet fuel has been over the past decade so we can all feel sympathy for these poor airlines (IAG’s last year showed a €3.2 billion before tax profit, and Ryanair is predicting an after tax profit in excess of €1 billion for its last fiscal year).

 

 

As you can see, the current cost is less than it has been for much of the last year, and less than it has been for much of the last decade.  It would be even less still if inflation adjusted.  And far from being stubborn, it has been volatile.

On the other hand, at the same time, Lufthansa was announcing the closure of its low-cost subsidiary, Eurowings.  Was the failure of this venture due to stubbornly high jet fuel?  Well, according to this scathing article from a usually gentle source, no.  It was primarily due to management incompetence.

And that’s the reason airlines are loathe to mention.

Amtrak Needs Elon

In among the thousand and one seeming other things that wunderkind Elon Musk likes to dabble in is his “Boring Company”, best known so far for selling $150 “flamethrowers” and $20 baseball caps.  But notwithstanding the excessive cost of these items, the company’s main claim to fame is it can dig (bore) a tunnel faster and for less money than anyone else.

After a proof of concept tunnel that Musk dug close to his office, little was heard until a month ago when he was awarded a contract for a double tunnel around the convention center in Las Vegas.  It will run not quite a mile in distance, and apparently the contract price for digging it is $48,675,000.  Musk has said the tunnel will be done by the end of this year, and the contract calls for tests to commence by 1 November 2020.  The tunnel will be capable of carrying 4,400 passengers an hour on as-yet-undetermined vehicles “at high speeds”.

Last year the company also almost secured a $1 billion contract with the Chicago City Government for an 18 mile tunnel from downtown to O’Hare Airport, but apparently the new mayor is not so enthusiastic about it and the work is unlikely to proceed.

So, what do we know?  $48 million buys a mile of double tunnel.  $1 billion buys 18 miles, probably also of double tunnel and suitable for commuter trains – that’s a reassuringly consistent number, pointing to a similar sort of $50 million per mile of double tunnel.  It is slightly higher in Chicago, but as we all know, the “cost of doing business” (this is a polite euphemism), particularly in the construction field, is higher in Chicago that in many other parts of the country.

With that all as background, here’s an article, very similar to other articles that appear in print several times every year, from the CEO of Amtrak calling for more money to invest in more infrastructure to allow trains to travel faster, safer, and more comfortably/reliably.

Don’t get us wrong – we totally support this issue.  Amtrak’s perennial state of being penniless and unable to do the work needed to enable it to appeal to more travelers and to have a chance of becoming profitable is a terrible vicious circle of impossibility – Congress complains that Amtrak is impossibly and perpetually loss-making, while simultaneously refusing to give it the capital it needs to improve its operations, and at the same time demanding Amtrak continue to maintain loss-making long-distance services that no amount of capital investment (short of transforming them into high speed rail routes) could ever fix.

Amtrak needs new carriages, new locos, new track, new signaling, new stations, new bridges and new tunnels.  There’s not a single thing it has in sufficient quantity or quality to operate well.

Now the chances are you’re nodding along with me on all these points, but hidden in this laundry list of needs is a budget item of such heart-stopping extravagance that causes one to feel faint.  A new tunnel under the Hudson between New Jersey and Manhattan, to replace the current “North Tunnel” which comprises two tubes, each of single track size for one train at a time.  The tunnel length is about 2.5 miles.

So, we know that Elon can dig double train tunnels at $50 million a mile, give or take a few dollars.  So this Hudson tunnel project sounds about like a $125 million total deal.

The current stated cost of the tunnel, per the article, is not $125 million.  It isn’t even ten times greater ($1.25 billion).  It is almost exactly 100 times greater – $12.7 billion.

How can this be?  One hundred times greater?

Meantime, Amtrak’s CEO and other rail supporters have the temerity to accuse the Administration for standing in the way of this and related projects.  We would love to see Amtrak given the resources it needs to become successful, and we are certain that properly equipped, Amtrak could be a hugely successful operation.  But that’s not a reason to pay 100 times more than is necessary, and nothing can exceed if its costs blow out 100-fold.

Give Amtrak the money it needs, but not 100 times more than what it truly sensibly needs.  Yes, we’ll agree that Musk’s costs are likely unrealistically low, but we fear that Amtrak’s current $12.7 billion figure is similarly low-balled.  Even if Musk’s cost needs to be doubled, tripled, quadrupled – any multiplier you like – there’s no way you end up with a 2.5 mile tunnel costing $12.7 billion.

The problem and the reason for this ridiculous cost is, of course, corruption – corruption on a scale that makes the worst Asian and African countries look like pillars of probity.  Corruption that is passively condoned by all levels of government and private enterprise as being the inevitable cost of doing business in New York.

Something to think about the next time you hear someone superciliously sneering about corruption in “third world countries”.  The pot should stop calling the kettle black.

Why don’t some of NY’s eager-beaver DAs shift focus for a minute from their fascination with Russia (and don’t get me started on how egregiously the US influences foreign elections) and look a bit closer to home.

Are Passports Going the Way of Airline Tickets?

Do you remember the “good old days” where you needed to show a ticket to be allowed to check in for and then to board a flight?  And, if you were unfortunate, you’d for sure remember a face-off at a check-in counter where you pleaded with an agent to let you on a flight even though you’d lost your paper ticket.  They stare at their computer screen and see your confirmed booking, they see the ticket has been paid for and issued, and perhaps even the number of the ticket that was issued.  Then they look up and over at you and say “I’m really sorry, but without your ticket, there’s nothing I can do.  You’ll have to buy a new last-minute ticket at full fare.”

If you argue, they’ll for sure start to talk about “federal regulations require you to have a ticket” or some other fanciful piece of fiction, but the one thing they would never say is “Oh, okay, no worries.  I see here that you did buy a ticket, I even see the date it was issued, how it was paid for, and the ticket number; just give me ten seconds and I’ll print out a duplicate copy”.

And now, happily, none of us ever get to see a paper ticket, and no longer have to endure that heart-stopping “I know it is here somewhere” moment as we desperately look for it.

My guess is we’re getting closer to no longer needing passports, either.  We’re more than half-way there already.  Passports were useful back in the days before computer databases, when they presented as a written history and record of who we are and where we’d been, including comments from other countries when we visited them or applied for visas – I used to be authorized to issue visas for a foreign country and learned some of the secret codes that could be placed into a passport that seemed innocent to the passport holder but which sent messages to border control staff.  Maybe you used to have a driving license “book”, as I did in New Zealand (I still remember its number, B25351), that provided a similar written record of one’s driving history and major violations, etc.

But these days there is way more information in the computer than in our passports or on our driving license cards.

We’ve seen many countries either eliminate the need for a visa prior to travel entirely, or substitute the old fashioned hard-copy visa that was affixed into your passport with an electronic travel authority – a paperless confirmation code and nothing more.

The US has a facial recognition database for pretty much every adult in the country, created from driver’s license and passport photos, and augmented from assorted other sources.  Those of us with Global Entry privileges, for example, know that it uses biometric identifiers, our fingerprints, and our facial recognition as part of the entry process, and when we go to one of the kiosks, it already knows the details of the flight we came in on.  It knows who we are and all about us long before we approach the Immigration officer at his counter.

Here’s an article about using facial recognition as a substitute for boarding passes.  It’s only one small step from that to using it for international border crossing.

Almost every foreigner visitor to the US these days has either gone through the getting-a-visa process or has filled out an “ESTA” form (Electronic System for Travel Authorization).  We (US citizens) will soon have to do the same thing when traveling to Europe.

So what is the point of a passport these days?  They no longer identify us as efficiently as the computer data, they don’t hold as much information, they are vulnerable to being damaged, altered, or lost, and they keep needing to be renewed every ten years.  They’re a hassle for everyone involved – travelers and border control staff.

Here’s an interesting article about a pilot program for passportless travel between Toronto, Montreal and Amsterdam.  We expect this to be very quickly picked up and implemented more broadly.

Pushback Against Hotel Resort Fees From a Surprising Source

We know that hotels love “resort fees” because it makes it harder for us to compare hotel rates, and because it gives them a version of “bait and switch” where we get excited by a low advertised nightly rate, and then passively accept the resort fee along with the mix of other fees and taxes that invariably get added on to every hotel booking.

But there’s another valid reason why hotels love these deceptive and dishonest “resort fees”, which no more relate to any actual “resort expenses” than do airline fuel surcharges relate to airline fuel costs.

The resort fees are typically non-commissionable.  Now if you’ve got a hotel that is charging $250 a night, and has a $20/night resort fee, probably few travel companies are going to make an issue over getting commission on only $250 of the total $270 sum.  But what if you’re the Circus Circus hotel in Vegas, selling your rooms at $26 a night, and charging a $36 resort fee on top?

Not only is it insultingly ridiculous to suggest that the resort fee would be almost one and a half times more than the room fee, but this massively changes the commission earned by a travel booking company.

The OTAs – the online travel agents – seem to generally charge a minimum of 15% commission, and will quickly push that up to 20% or 25%, sometimes more for hotels that sign up for all the “extra” features – priority listings, special highlights, and so on.  For Circus Circus that means (with say a 20% commission) the difference between paying $5.20 and $12.40 a night in commission, and when you’ve hundreds of rooms, that can quickly add up to half a million dollars in commission saved or spent each year.

Particularly when faced with rapacious examples like Circus Circus, the OTA’s have come to realize they actually have a dog in this fight, the same as we do.  Booking.com unilaterally said it would start deducting commission from resort fees, whether the hotels liked it or not.  Expedia dithered and said they’ll not do that, but they’ll downgrade hotels with resort fees so they appear lower in their listings.  That might sound like a reasonably fair censure, but in general, if one hotel at a destination charges a resort fee, all the others rush to copy, so how do you reduce a hotel’s listing prominence when all the other hotels are being equally reduced in prominence, too?

It is always amusing to me to observe the way OTAs have secured such a stranglehold on the market.  When the internet first started evolving, hotels rushed to such companies, and turned their backs on typical travel agencies.  The polite fiction the hotels told themselves was that selling through the internet would be cheaper, and they’d no longer have travel agents giving them a hard time and getting 10% commissions for “doing nothing”.

So, what happened?  Instead of paying travel agents 10%, and being able to dictate terms to travel agents any way they wished, hotels are now paying twice as much to OTAs, and it is the three or so major OTAs (each with multiple brand names) who are dictating to the hotels.

The greed of the hotels and their eagerness to abandon traditional methods of distribution did not work to their advantage.  As for us as travelers, we now have only an illusion of competition – all the OTAs tend to price at exactly the same level, with perhaps a dollar or so per night of difference which is usually nothing more than a rounding error or different exchange rate being used.  Sometimes there is a real saving when for example one OTA sells out of its share of a hotel’s inventory and has to pay more for regular rooms at the hotel, while a different OTA still has available rooms at its best contract rate; but other than that, we have no real choice at all.  The hotels have lost, travel agents have had to redefine their business models (which increasingly now extend to charging us fees, whereas before their income came from commissions) and we haven’t won.

Details here.

Woman Removed From Flight for Sending a Text Message

Here’s a story that is impossible to believe, but completely true.  Or maybe not, because it comes with an interesting twist.

We were told, by a lady who had hoped to fly on an Alaska Airlines flight, that another passenger saw her using her phone prior to takeoff and thought she was sending a text message (the lady says she was reading her Facebook page, not that it seems a relevant difference).  The other passenger complained to a flight attendant, and the flight attendant and pilot decided they weren’t comfortable allowing the lady to stay on the flight, and so she was removed and not allowed to fly.  The offloaded lady had to rent a car and drive from Everett, north of Seattle, down to Portland, instead.

When Alaska Airlines were confronted with this, they accepted the story as true and apologized profusely.  They said they are “deeply sorry for Ms. Nair’s experience while traveling with us. She should not have been removed from her flight.  We pride ourselves on treating all of our guests with care and respect– and regret that we fell short in this case. We will learn from this and aim to make the situation right.”.

It is nice to see an airline admitting their crew made an egregious error, and noting the lady has already lawyered up, we suspect their “aim” at making the situation right will be guided to the right number of zeroes on the check they’ll now write.

Normally, that would be the end of the story.  See, for example, here.

But apparently someone at Alaska Airlines had second thoughts.  After admitting responsibility and apologizing and offering “to make the situation right” the airline is now saying that was not what happened at all.  Instead, the new version of the truth is that the woman’s booking had been mistakenly cancelled and she had been allowed to board the flight in error, and then had to leave the flight because her booking had been erroneously cancelled.

I’m not sure if it is reassuring or not to see how clumsy a lie the airline can rush out when panicked.  We’re being asked to believe that some strange mistake caused her flight segment to be cancelled, but her boarding pass still to be accepted at the gate, and then detected shortly before the flight was due to depart, and the error they were then rushing to correct required her to be taken off the plane and not allowed back on again.  Oh, they also manage to make reference to that lovely scapegoat for everything, “FAA Regulations”.  Revised details here.

If this hard to believe story is true, where did the bit about being taken off the flight because the flight attendants and pilot weren’t comfortable with her on board come from?  How is it first AS accepted and apologized for that version of the truth, before then totally changing their story?

And Lastly This Week….

Another wildly impractical and improbable plan for a SST.  But the artist’s impression drawings look cool.

Talking about cool airplanes, here’s a great article about strange airplanes.  There are a couple there I’d not seen before, one being featured at the top of today’s newsletter.

Still more airplane pictures – here’s a fascinating picture of a type seldom seen.  It is very interesting to see the relative size of a regular motor car and a 737.  The plane is much bigger than one expects, when measured alongside cars.  And, remember, the 737 is the smallest of Boeing’s planes.

Eurostar has placed limits on the amount of alcohol you can take with you on their trains.  But, note – this limit is not to do with the amount you can drink.  This is the amount you can take with you, even though it is in your bag and not touched by you at any point during the journey.  No clear reason for this has been offered, but for those of us who like to buy a bottle of Duty Free whisky, the blanket ban on any spirits at all, no matter how small the bottle, is bad news.  Details here.

Truly lastly this week, the old adage that the camera never lies is these days no longer remotely true.  Nonetheless, there’s still a bit of wry amusement to be derived from seeing the comparisons between the travel brochure pictures and the actual true pictures in this article.

We hope you’ll have a lovely 4 July next Thursday.  We’ll be there on Friday morning for you, wherever in the world you might be.  My daughter is heading to Disneyland for a long weekend – probably one of the worst weekends in the entire year to do so, but try telling that to an almost 15 year old!  Happily, I’m not required to go along with her, and will probably enjoy more “quality time” with her while she waits in endless lines for short rides, and texts to me and everyone else, than I would if she were here.

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels

 

David.

 

 

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