Weekly Roundup, Friday 7 June 2019

Abandoned homes and farms – the aftermath of the Highland “Clearances” – can be seen as we travel through Scotland on this year’s Highland Highlights Tour.  We’ll discuss the tragedy of the clearances and their social impacts as we sightsee around.

Good morning

If you are receiving this in the form of the once weekly newsletter, you can hopefully see that our redesigning continues apace (the daily and instant versions have yet to be updated).  This is a draft version of a new newsletter format, which hopefully will solve the problem of “type too small” and/or of lines of type spilling over the margins on each line.  Please let me know if the format remains less than good.

In case you’re interested, you can also compare what the newsletter and supporting article should look like by visiting them on the website, too.  The website versions are better formatted, and due to the limitations of the RSS and email formats, the newsletter will remain the less flashy of the two presentations.  But who knows what tomorrow might bring – the internet continues to change.

It is a related topic of change that is the focus of this week’s feature article.  I wrote a couple of articles about smart watches in early 2015 when Apple released their first ever Watch, and I’ve added to that with an updating article today, looking at what has happened during the five models Apple has released over that period, and the many models also released by Android based manufacturers.

Has the smart watch industry finally found the “killer app” – a purpose or use for smart watches which justifies the cost of buying one?  My answer to that is “maybe”, and if it has found one, it is a surprising use that was probably not the way smart watches were originally envisaged.  For more – almost 4000 words more – see the article after this week’s roundup.

This article is a prelude to another article next week, which will be a review of the latest and greatest Apple Watch Series 4.  Writing that article is taking a great deal of time and focus, because, to be blunt, learning how to best use the Apple watch also requires a great deal of time and focus.  But, the more I use it, the more I find myself liking it, and I’ve now managed to administer an ECG to myself which Apple interprets, in among a veritable flurry of disclaimers, as being normal.  Phew!

One more prefatory comment.  We feel it incumbent on us to mention the 30th anniversary of an event in Beijing that China is successfully expunging from its history books and seeking to discourage comment about internationally, too.

Our fear is that too many people not only underestimate the economic growth and power of China, and its ability to drive its own innovation, but also underestimate the ugliness of what remains at heart a brutal dictatorship (this story will give you chills) with interests that are alarmingly at odds with our own.

What else this week?  Please keep reading for :

  • Good Things Come in Threes (Travel Insider Tours)
  • So Too Do Bad Things (Boeing)
  • More About Mitsubishi
  • Another Airline Joint Venture About to be Blessed by DoT
  • This Week’s Least Surprising Airline News
  • TSA Waives ID Requirement for a Special Category of Airline Passenger
  • How is Your Lateral Thinking
  • And Lastly This Week….

Good Things Come in Threes (Travel Insider Tours)

1.  Did you see our official release of this year’s Christmas Markets Tour last week?  This is a new treatment on a concept that Travel Insider readers have been enthusiastically participating in for 15 years; and indeed it is sufficiently changed that everyone who has been on our earlier Christmas Markets tours – whether on the Danube, Rhine, or based in Lille – should come along.  Of course, there’s no way we could squeeze all many hundreds of you on this tour, so please, if you’re interested, join the tour while plenty of space remains.

We add a pre-tour option in/around Vienna and a post-tour option to/in Prague to a one week core experience based in Munich, capital of Bavaria.  We include visits to my favorite European city (in Austria) and my favorite European market (in Germany), plus we go to many other wonderful places too.  Here’s your chance to escape the tension and terrors of pre-Christmas shopping, and instead enjoy a relaxed celebration of the festive season with a great group of fellow “escapees”.  Details here.

2.  France has been in the news this week with the 75th anniversary of D-Day being remembered on the Normandy Beaches.  Our September tour to France gets very close to those beaches (add a visit to the beaches if you wish immediately before the tour and join us as we drive through Normandy on the first day) and we plan to stop in Bayeux to see the tapestry – Bayeux being the first town liberated by the Allies after D-Day.

Much of this wonderful tour is in the Loire Valley – the region where most of France’s castles and chateaus are to be found, to say nothing of plenty of wineries and charming villages.  We also spend time in Brittany and include a visit to the Bailiwick of Jersey in the Channel Islands.  We’ve a pre-tour option in Chantilly (or the Normandy Beaches if you prefer) and a post-tour option in Bordeaux.  Details here.

Oh, one thing about the commemoration ceremonies this week.  Was I the only one to think it odd that the German Chancellor was invited to attend, especially when no-one from Italy, Japan or Russia was present?

3.  Immediately before the France tour, and timed so you could do both in a row, is our Scotland’s Highland Highlights Tour.  With 17 people already coming on this tour, it is almost full, but we could probably squeeze one more couple in if you would like to join us.

This is a lovely tour, mainly in the Highlands, but also going to a few of the Islands too, mainly in the Hebrides – Mull, Iona and Staffa, plus a new island we’ve never been to before – Bute, seat of the Duke of Rothesay, or, as he is better known, Prince Charles.  We’ll also travel along “The Long and Winding Road” that Paul McCartney wrote about (he lives nearby), and include some of the perennial favorites such as a ride on the Harry Potter steam train and, ever hopeful, a chance to look for the Loch Ness Monster.  Details here.

So Too Do Bad Things (Boeing)

A triply bad week for Boeing.  The FAA revealed that many of the 737 MAX and some of the previous generation 737 NG planes have parts, primarily in the wings, that may “be susceptible to premature failure”.  The FAA is issuing a directive giving airlines 10 days to replace the bad parts.  And still no word on when the 737 MAX grounding may be lifted.

Strike two was when the FAA revealed problems with the brakes on some 787 planes, requiring 87 of them to be taken out of service for $5 million in repairs.

Strike three was a report that problems with the new engines for the new 777X airplane program have displayed some “anomalies” (lovely term that) which will delay the testing of the airplane (complete with engines).  The airplane is already behind schedule, and it has not yet been determined how much time this latest problem will add to the program.

Amazing, Boeing’s share price steadily rose during the week and closed higher on Thursday than any day since Tuesday 28 May.  Apparently investors don’t care, or have already factored all these issues into the equation.  Boeing’s share price reached an all-time high on March 1 this year of $440.62 – this being after the Lion Air Crash but before the Ethiopian Airlines crash.  It closed, on Thursday, at $350.64.

More About Mitsubishi

We wrote last week about how Mitsubishi is renaming its long delayed regional jet.  Formerly having the bland name of “Mitsubishi Regional Jet” (MRJ) the company now wishes to have it referred to as the “Spacejet”.  Ugh.

This week more news indicates that, as frivolous and ridiculous as this renaming is, Mitsubishi actually is very serious about getting actively involved in the aircraft manufacturing field.  Poor old Bombardier – quite literally poor – first had to sell off its new C-series of jets to Airbus (now known as the Airbus A220), then sold off its Q-series of regional turbo-prop planes, and now has chosen to sell its remaining and loss-making CRJ regional jet division too.

It seems that Mitsubishi is to be the buyer, giving it instant access to Bombardier’s user base which world-wide operates 1385 of the CRJ planes.  All of a sudden Mitsubishi would change from being an aspiring new manufacturer to an existing major presence with 1300 operators worldwide on their client list.

The CRJ is an aging design and many of the current users could be interested in the new MRJ, and as the incumbent supplier/service source, Mitsubishi goes from being on the outside looking in, to now having the inside running for that business as it comes along.  Plus it would give Mitsubishi an instant mature support resource around the world, so for new customers considering new MRJ planes, the very important question of support would have a credible answer.

This would be an excellent deal for Mitsubishi.  Bombardier has confirmed it is now in a final stage of exclusive negotiations with Mitsubishi, with an announced agreement possibly to be timed for the Paris Air Show, which opens on 17 June.

Details here.

Another Airline Joint Venture About to be Blessed by DoT

When will the fools at the DoT learn to “just say no” to airline requests to join forces with each other?

At what point will even the most junior clerk raise his hand and timidly say “Uh, isn’t this the same line of BS that you sold us the last time you asked for a joint venture approval, and why is it that none of your claims the last time around have come to pass?”.  But, that won’t happen, for the most astonishing of reasons.

When the airlines make their submissions to the DoT, they invariably cut and paste the same language as in the previous (successful!) submission, talking about benefits to travelers, more flights, more convenience, huge savings passed on to the travelers, and so on.  If one were as naieve as to accept such claims at face value, of course you’d be enthusiastically approving every such request.

But – and here’s the extraordinary truth that was confessed to me by a DoT staffer.  No-one ever checks, some years later, to see if the airlines made good on their promises! The approvals are granted, unconditionally, and there is no recourse or review when the promises spectacularly fail to be delivered.

This time, it is Qantas and American Airlines – already close cooperating partners in the Oneworld alliance with code-shares, now seeking to more closely work together.  In their application, they claim up to $310 million in annual consumer benefits if they get what they want.

Let’s consider that claim for a minute.  781,000 Americans travel to Australia each year and about 330,000 go to New Zealand.  (Actually, many of the people going to one country go to the other country too, so the actual number of trans-Pacific flights is less than this sum.)  It seems slightly more Australians might travel to the US, and we don’t know about NZ, but let’s over-estimate and say in total 2.5 million people from either the US or Australia or NZ fly across the Pacific.

There are a number of different airlines that offer service – obviously Qantas and American Airlines, plus United/Air New Zealand and Delta/Virgin Australia.  Smaller carriers like Hawaiian Airlines and Fiji Airways also offer service, and a some people travel on roundabout routes using airlines such as Cathay, Singapore Airlines, and others.

But let’s say that AA/QF between them have 40% of this market, ie, about 800,000 passengers a year.  So that $310 million in savings would represent a totally unbelievable saving of $387.50 for every passenger.

If you believe this will happen, could I interest you in a bridge I have for sale?

The thing is that airlines don’t set their prices on a “cost plus” basis.  They set their price based on the maximum amount they can charge to get the best load possible.  What that means – are you listening, DoT – is that if their costs go down, there is no motivation or reason at all to drop their prices.  The planes are already almost full.  What rational profit-driven entity would drop their price at a time when they are selling almost every seat on every plane?

Airlines are for-profit companies.  Their responsibility is to maximize the profits they can offer to their shareholders.  The directors and officers of an airline would be negligent in their duties if they weren’t charging the most they possibly could for every ticket, every where, every day.  Airlines are not our friends.  That’s why air travel is so dreadful at present – airlines are all about profits, not about customer comforts.

The application and associated public posturing also has the traditional sticks and carrots.  As sticks, and same as always, there are threats that the two airlines might have to cancel some of their existing flights.  As carrots, and again as always, there are vague promises of possibly adding new flights to new cities such as Chicago and Seattle.

The question that isn’t clearly answered is why the airlines are so keen to create a joint venture.  Where does the mythical $310 million in customer benefits come from, and how much additional benefit flows on to the airlines.  The two airlines already code-share, what is the missing ingredient that is not present in a code-share arrangement but which would be present in a joint venture?

The reason these questions remain vaguely overlooked is because of course the answers are the opposite to the narrative the airlines are selling and the DoT is pretending to believe.  A joint venture can better set and align prices between the two airlines, so they no longer have to compete against each other.

Oh – one more question.  If this joint venture is so consumer-friendly, why are the two airlines now specifically requesting anti-trust immunity?

Details here.

This Week’s Least Surprising Airline News

US airlines are wrongfully rejecting more than 25% of compensation claims by passengers, according to a company that helps with claims, AirHelp.  They found this to be the case in 2016, again in 2017, and yet again in 2018.

The worst offender was Delta, followed by United, and then American.

It seems the main category of missed entitlement relates to international flights to or from the EU, and not following the regulations the EU has promulgated for compensation when flights are either delayed or cancelled – what is known as Regulation 261/2004.

We discuss your coverage and entitlements under this regulation here.  Noting that 92% of passengers are unaware of these rights, and the airlines are not rushing to explain them to you and assist you in filing claims, this is definitely “news you can use”.

Details here.

TSA Waives ID Requirement for a Special Category of Airline Passenger

On Monday there was news about the TSA setting stricter guidelines for the type of ID it would accept when passing through security at US airports.  We have no real opinion about this one way or the other, but merely note this latest restatement of the tightening in acceptable forms of ID.

But what does surprise us is to learn on Thursday that there is one special privileged group of travelers who don’t need to show photo ID at all.  The reason given is that there are so many of these people that if they were turned away from flights, they’d overstress alternate forms of transportation such as Greyhound buses.  We did note there was no word from Greyhound confirming they were keen to avoid the inconvenience of more passengers.

So who are these privileged people?  Illegal aliens.  Sorry, mustn’t use that term.  Undocumented immigrants who have been released from detention due to a court ruling that gives families a get-out-of-jail free card after a 20 day stay.

Details here.

How is Your Lateral Thinking

A proposal for the world’s first 360° infinity pool.
There’s just one small problem…..

Here are two illustrations of what may become the world’s first ever 360° infinity pool, to be installed on the top of a new 55-storey building in London.

It is an amazing concept, for sure, and made slightly more outré by not only having transparent sides but also having a clear bottom so that the people below (it will be a hotel) can look up and see their fellow guests splashing about in the water.  At night, the developers say the pool will “sparkle like a jewel-topped torch” with the building fitted with a collection of lights.

Lovely, indeed, and a fitting summit for the proposed five star hotel that will occupy the upper levels of the building.

There is, however, one puzzling thought.  Maybe you’ve thought of it already.  If not, please do see if you can come up with the problem/puzzle this pool offers.

You’ll have to wait until next week, both for the puzzle to be revealed, and also its proposed solution.  Oh yes, the construction project has yet to be approved and started.

And Lastly This Week….

Talking about puzzling thoughts, here’s an interesting story of the unfortunate outcome of a helicopter rescue.  The rotating helicopter blades set up a swirling vortex of wind that caused the stretcher being winched up to spin crazily round and round.

I’ve sometimes wondered before why this doesn’t happen more often.  But, noting that it apparently doesn’t, I guess the focus now should be on why it happened this time.  Details, and a video clip, here.

Las Vegas continues to amaze in so many different ways.  There are so many things to see and do that it’s a wonder people have any time to gamble, eat and drink.  But here’s a new one that I’d not heard of before – operating an excavator and digging stuff up.

Here’s an article which is a bit more optimistic than we are about a possible new airplane design which it says KLM is funding.  As you can see, it is a type of flying wing, with passenger seating in the two wings.  This is indeed a great idea in theory, but in the real world, the problem is that the further from the center-line of the plane passengers sit, the greater the effects of turbulence and even regular wing rising and falling during turns becomes, making for a much more vomit-inducing flight experience.

There’s also a lot of seats that are a long way away from windows that may cause some passengers to feel claustrophobic.  You might think that unusual/unlikely, but I still remember the time a passenger opposite me on a Qantas flight asked to be moved from his seat – 1C in a 747 – to any other seat on the plane.  As you may know, row 1, downstairs, on a 747, just has empty space and then a bulkhead in front of it.  Sure, this was roomy spacious first class, and there were several windows a bit to the passenger’s right, he was on the aisle, and there were more windows on the left side of the plane too.  But he found this too claustrophobic and ended up taking a seat in business class instead.

We’d be curious to experience this type of flying wing plane, but to date, conventional wisdom has deemed it impractical.

And talking about vomiting in planes…..  Here’s an unfortunate story and rather ghastly picture of a business class seat on a BA plane.

Meanwhile, on the happier subject of being more optimistic than we are, it is not long ago that we were being cautiously cynical about claims that the long-anticipated and much talked about very long range flights between London and Sydney would feature amazing passenger comforts and amenities.

We could vaguely comprehend that if the plane could only be lightly loaded, then there would be more space for fewer passengers than normal, but we never thought that any extra space would be generously distributed to coach class passengers as well as to premium passengers.

Guess what.  Turns out we were right.  How many times will credible journalists unthinkingly repeat press releases about new amazing passenger comforts, only to have them subsequently contradicted by the ugly reality of what actually happens?

Lastly this week, we do feel sorry for unfortunate people who find themselves as Uber drivers.  It is hard work, with very little pay, and with often very critical passengers.

So it is nice, we think, to read this very positive review of an Uber driver.  But somehow, we rather hope we never ride in his car, ourselves.

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels.





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