Weekly Roundup, Friday 26 July 2019

A lovely square with plenty of places to eat and drink in the heart of the old district in Tours, where we’ll be staying during our French tour this September.

Good morning

My article last week about Boeing’s Bad Decision when it decided to update its 737 one more time in 2011 drew a lot of comment, and is now the most viewed page on the website (based on the last several weeks of page views, even thought it has only been published for a week).

So, responding to that interest, I’ve added considerably to the article, almost doubling it in length.  If you missed it last week, or if you’d like to see it again, I’m including it at the end of this week’s newsletter for your convenience.

Also this week, but not appended to the newsletter this morning, I’ve created a new reference page.  Following on from a comment from a friend about all the taxes and fees on his airline ticket, I’ve created a list of 171 different tax and fee codes that might appear on your airline ticket, along with the brief explanation of what each one is and which country gets the money.

Are you surprised to learn there are 171 different codes?  Well, be surprised a bit more, then!  The actual total count is more like 1500.  There is an official list, but to download a copy of it (not a hard copy printed in a book, just a computer download) would cost you $4599!  So I guess this list of 171 represents a $525 value, at least by the crazy prices that IATA charges for the entire listing.  It is of course fully free to you.  🙂  You can see the list of airline ticket taxes and fees here, and it can be sorted by code or country (or description).

More than that, I’ll research any mystery codes that aren’t on my list.  There’s a form on the page – if you’ve a code on your ticket you don’t understand, fill in the form and I’ll endeavor to find out and add it to the list.  I’ve already had one request – easy to fulfill because the code was already on the page!

There are two codes in particular that you should be on the lookout for.  These are the YQ and YR codes.  Most tickets, especially international, have at least one and sometimes both of them, and invariably those taxes/fees are the highest of all the different sums levied.

What are they?  They are actually not a tax or fee in the normal sense as you’d understand it.  They are, instead, nothing more than deceptive ways for the airlines to simply charge you more money, for no real reason, and to make it look sort of like it might be an official fee.

The airlines used to charge a FS coded fee, for “Fuel Surcharge”, but after some lawsuits pointing out that fuel surcharges stayed the same or went up, but never down, no matter what the underlying cost of jet fuel was, the airlines simply stopped pretending the sum had any underlying basis of being an unusual special emergency extra cost recovery, and now just simply call it an extra fee.

What else this week?  Please keep reading for, of course, the weekly ritual of the latest bad news for Boeing, and assorted other items too.

  • France Tour Almost Now Closing
  • This Week’s Bad News for Boeing
  • Ever-smaller Airline Seats are Our Fault?
  • The Airlines Giveth.  The Airlines Taketh Away
  • DoT Gets Tough on Mergers?  Or Maybe Not
  • Interesting Google Fi Fee Loophole
  • Venice Really Dislikes Tourists
  • Nonsense Advice From the “Experts”
  • Nonsense Commentary From the “Experts”
  • And Lastly This Week….

France Tour Almost Now Closing

It is now only two months until our lovely tour of France, with castles, wineries, and other sights and sites galore.  If you’re going to come, now is pretty much your last chance to do so, as I’m starting to have to release extra space at the hotels.

So please, do check out the tour, and if you’re going to come, let me know asap.

This Week’s Bad News for Boeing

I commented in the feature article last week about how one of Boeing’s unofficial public advocates had been starting to make comments that Boeing is “too big to fail”.  I anticipated this was the start of a campaign that would see Boeing somehow come up with a plea for public money to pay for the consequences of what can only be described as an extraordinarily stupid design mistake on its part.

This week I noticed another comment that seemed to be the other shoe falling as a precursor to such a request, and I’d not be surprised to learn there are behind-the-scenes moves already underfoot by Boeing to achieve this.  It was a statement by their CEO that they might have to stop the 737 production line entirely until such time as the freeze on 737 flights is lifted by the FAA.  He included a thinly veiled hint that it would be cheaper for Boeing to furlough 10,000+ workers than to keep them working while the planes are being produced at a slower than maximum rate at present.

Of course, such a line closure wouldn’t just impact on the Seattle region where Boeing assembles the planes.  It would ripple through pretty much every state and hundreds of congressional districts, due to the myriad of component suppliers who provide parts and sub-assemblies for the 737.  For some of these small suppliers, Boeing is close to their only customer, and to have their only customer suddenly put a freeze on their orders would be utterly and totally disastrous.

What is Boeing hoping for here?  Either – or both – of two favorable outcomes, perhaps.  The first would be to see the FAA rush to remove its 737 grounding order.  Sure, it is astonishing that now 4 1/2 months after the plane was grounded, it still remains grounded (and with no clear/certain timetable for when it will return to the skies).  But, to put those months into perspective, Boeing has yet to formally pass a completed fix to the FAA for its review and approval.  It would seem hard to blame the FAA for the delays to this point, and unfair to pressure them into a fast approval now.

Furthermore, with the other major certification bodies in the world now on high-alert to the potential weaknesses and omissions in the FAA review process, there is no way the FAA will do anything other than the proper complete rigorous review that it should have done initially.

The other outcome is surely to try and get some government subsidy or support to help Boeing with the costs it is incurring due to the 737 grounding.  We estimate Boeing is already looking at the high side of $10 billion in costs as a result of the grounding, but again, Boeing only has itself to blame for the grounding and for the last 4 1/2 months with no results yet achieved.

Meanwhile, Southwest announced on Thursday it was cancelling all 737 MAX flights through 5 January.  It had earlier said it hoped to return the plane to service on 2 November.  This makes Boeing’s projection of an October return to service approval from the FAA seem somewhat less likely.

In other peculiar Boeing news, its defense division was very excited about a huge new $60-100 billion contract for replacement strategic nuclear missiles on Wednesday, describing it as a huge opportunity for Boeing.  On Thursday, apparently they’d changed their mind and said they would not even bother bidding on the contract.  Apparently they are concerned that it might become a price-based competition (what a terrible thought that must be!), and feel they’re at a disadvantage because the only other bidder is also apparently the only company that makes suitable rocket motors.

So Boeing went from seeing it as an exciting opportunity to a no-win opportunity, all in less than 24 hours.  Left hand, meet right hand?

And the Pentagon now finds itself in an extraordinary situation where a project currently being as described in the $60-100 billion range and likely to escalate further in cost of course now has only one single company capable and wishing to bid.  The hollowing out of American industry – perhaps they should get the Chinese to bid on it…..

On the other hand, this is probably a hard-ball negotiating tactic by Boeing, who knows full-well the government is keen to keep multiple manufacturing capabilities for most of its military needs.

Ever-smaller Airline Seats are Our Fault?

Sometimes we wish the airlines could experience a brief attack of honesty and instead of coming up with ridiculous excuses, tell the truth.  “We charge these fees because we are greedy and we can get away with it – you have no choice but to pay them or stay at home.”

Instead, we get no end of justification, or, at the very least, the equally risible claim “no-one has complained”, even in the context where it costs more to fly our suitcase than ourselves (see the next item for an example of that), or at the thought of a change fee that costs more than buying a completely new second ticket.

These thoughts were invoked when I read this article about airline seats getting more and more squashed.  That’s hardly new and scarcely worth writing about these days, but the interesting thing within it was a comment

Some international flights cost less than half of what they did a decade ago, according to Australia’s Qantas Airways Ltd. Competition from low-cost carriers has forced airlines everywhere to lower fares and charge for things that were once free. Among the new extras one can buy: space.

So does that mean it is our fault that our seat space has shrunk?  The airlines had no choice and were forced to do this?

And does competition force suppliers to provide less services/features rather than encourage them to provide more?  Only in the airline industry.

Of course, the quoted comment is full of loopholes.  To say that some international flights cost less than a decade ago is not the same as saying that all flights are half what they formerly cost  We’re also not told about the methodology behind making that calculation (there are a dozen different ways to establish this, and most of them are misleading), and then there’s the fact that a decade ago, while some fares might have been higher, pretty much all fees were lower.  The two trends may be balancing each other out.

Who only knows what has happened to the total cost for a person and their bags to fly somewhere, to reserve a seat, and to eat and drink on the long flight too.  Plus the frequent flier miles received are now worth much less.  And maybe lower airfares are reflected in lower operating costs – newer more fuel efficient planes, more productive work agreements, greater automation, less commission paid to travel agencies, lower jet fuel costs, and so on.

But moving on from the dubious statement about airfare trends to the next one.  Because fares have gone down, do airlines now have to shrink seat space to compensate?  Well, if airfares truly have gone down (and, more to the point, airline profitability), why not inch the fares up a tad and at the same time, add another inch or two to the seat pitch?

That’s an option that is largely lacking of course, and the various forms of premium economy charge a great deal more for their slight increase in seat space than would be justified on a cost basis alone.  Doubtless that too is our fault.

And for the last word on the ever smaller seats, there’s this article.  The last word, as used by the flight attendants union, is “torture”.

The Airlines Giveth.  The Airlines Taketh Away

Many in the mainstream media were excited to share the good news that our friends at Delta Airlines had just announced a really great new money saving policy – they would no longer charge a surcharge for sports gear.  This USA Today article was typical of the gushing praise and headlined “Delta Air Lines just made it cheaper to travel with bikes, surfboards”.

Well, a big round of applause for Delta, yes?  Actually, no.  Read the fine print.

Travelers will now pay standard Delta baggage fees for sporting equipment as long as it meets weight and size requirements.

Note that harmless mild little comment in there?  “…as long as it meets weight and size requirements”.  Weight is probably not a problem, but size?  A regular suitcase can not exceed 62″ inches as a combination of its length, width and depth.  All surfboards will easily exceed those limits, and other than foldable travel bikes, they will probably have a problem too.

The fee for an oversized bag?  In addition to the regular bag fee you also have to pay, get ready to pay an extra $200, each way, for it being oversized.  Probably more than you paid for your seat for yourself.

One more thing.  If the three dimensions add up to over 80″, Delta will refuse to take the item entirely.  Many/most/all surfboards have a total dimension greater than 80″.  So about the only way DL’s new policy will save you money is in the sense that you can now no longer travel with a surfboard at all.

Still feeling thankful about Delta’s generosity?

DoT Gets Tough on Mergers?  Or Maybe Not

I know I have readers at the DoT, and perhaps some of my occasional criticism has been partially responded to.  I have often pointed out there is no “feedback loop” in DoT approvals.  They will approve airline mergers based on fanciful and ridiculous airline promises, and then never follow up to check that the promises actually came true.  That’s why the airlines delight to make promises such as “we won’t be closing any hubs”, “there will be more competition”, “prices will drop” “no jobs will be lost” and so on through their usual lists of demonstrably unlikely claims.

As I’d feared, the DoT has just granted Qantas and American Airlines permission to enter into a joint venture relationship that, depending on who you believe, will either massively increase or decrease competition on flights between the US and Australia.  86% of the flights between the US and Australia are now controlled by the three airline alliances.

But this time, and it is the first time I’ve seen this, the DoT is serving a curve ball.  It is requiring QF/AA

to perform a self-assessment of the venture’s impact on competition seven years after it takes effect and report their findings to the government.

Oh my.  Be still, my beating heart.  A self-assessment.  In seven years time.  And merely to report the findings – no threat of the permission being conditional on the promises fancifully made in the application being proven true.

I’m sure the self-assessment will be thorough, rigorous, and honest to a fault.  Aren’t you similarly sure?

Isn’t this the most laughably ridiculous and utterly naive requirement in all three terms – a self-assessment, a seven year wait, and no threat of consequences – that you’ve ever seen attached to an agreement?  Shame on the DoT.

Interesting Google Fi Fee Loophole

One of the things I really love about Google Fi is their policy that you can add data-only devices to your account without incurring any additional monthly fixed charge.  You simply pay for the extra data they use.

If you’re like me, you probably have a tablet or two that you rarely need to use cellular data with, because most of the time, you’re using it on Wi-Fi somewhere.  And so you have to decide, is it really worth the $10 or $20 or whatever a month to have it connected to the cellular network for those occasional times when you do want/need cellular data?

With Google Fi, that’s never a problem.  There’s no extra cost, unless you’re using it.  That is unlike adding extra regular phones to your account, which cost $15/month for the voice and texting, plus data usage fees as well.

Some clever people realized you can put a data-only SIM into a regular phone and use the regular phone with a VOIP type phone number, and/or WhatsApp, Viber, Facebook Messenger, Skype, and any/all of the other phone type services that work over the data service rather than the voice service.  So they were adding more phones for free, but only paying for the extra data used.

Google has finally decided to restrict that.  It isn’t forbidding such practices, but it now limits you to four data-only SIMs per voice account.  Not too severe a restriction at all, really, and if that is a problem, start a second voice account and then add four more.  Details here.

And if you’ve not already done so, here’s my review of Google Fi, explaining what it is, how it works, and why it is probably better than your present AT&T/Verizon/T-Mobile/Sprint service.  I can’t speak highly enough of Fi.

Venice Really Dislikes Tourists

A pair of backpackers were fined €950 ($1050) in Venice for having committed the heinous crime of brewing a cup of coffee on the steps of the Rialto Bridge and immediately expelled from the city.  This contravened the ban on “public picnics” that applies in much of the city, including St Mark’s Square.

Have the Italian/Venetian authorities lost all sense of proportion?  We’re not saying the steps of the Rialto Bridge is a sensible place to cook up a cup of coffee, and it isn’t as though there is a shortage of places to buy a cup of coffee.  But a €950 fine?  Even a €95 fine would seem a bit steep, but to go ten times higher is ridiculous.  Plus instant expulsion?  What a thought – we don’t even do that to the illegal aliens streaming over our border.

The big problem of course is that Venice hates tourists but loves their money.  Fining tourists seems to be the new way to profit from tourism.  Although without tourists, the city would be a deserted ghost town – the permanent population has dropped from 175,000 after WW2 to a mere 50,000 now.  That compares with 30 million annual tourist visitors, although a lot of those are day tourists only – especially those on cruise ships.  That’s a ratio of 600 tourists (and the profit/benefit from them) per city dweller – we guess that allows them to enjoy low city taxes and a great standard of living.

Other tourist fines in Venice include sitting in St Mark’s Square (and not having a picnic) which incurs a €200 fine (possibly about to be raised to €500), feeding the pigeons (about €50-200), swimming, diving or immersing oneself in a canal (€450), riding or even pushing a bike (€100) and placing a padlock on a bridge or other monument (now at a bargain fine level of only €100, down from its €3000 level in 2016).

Details here.

Nonsense Advice From the “Experts”

A long-standing bit of nonsense advice that I’ve never understood is the need to arrive at an airport earlier for an international flight than for a domestic flight.  Why?  What takes longer for an international flight?  You still do everything exactly the same, with the only possible slight change being an extra 30 seconds or so to have your passport glanced at when checking in.

Here’s an article from Conde Nast Traveler – a publication that surely considers itself as brimming with expertise about travel – that says you should arrive 90 minutes prior to departure for domestic flights with no bags, 2 hours prior if you have bags to check, and 3 hours prior for international flights.

In reality, it seems that airport lines have more or less stabilized, and particularly if you have TSA Pre – which you should if you fly more than once or twice a year – the security part of the entire process is now unlikely to exceed five minutes.  The check-in process is probably something less than 20 minutes, allow 15 minutes to get around the airport, and say be at the gate 20 minutes prior to departure for boarding.  Add that all up, and for most of us, with bags to check, we’re looking at 75 minutes maximum with checked bags and well under 60 without, whether the flight be domestic or international.  If you’re risk averse, you’ll add some extra time, and if it is an airport you’re familiar with, you have a more accurate understanding of these times and might be able to trim them slightly.

I challenge anyone to explain the need for three hours for an international flight.  It just doesn’t make any sense.

The sad thing about this is that these are probably the same experts who tell us we should be tipping hotel maids $20/day, and 20% – 25% on restaurant bills, even in countries where tipping is not customary or where it is already automatically included.

Nonsense Commentary From the “Experts”

Here’s an article that appeared in CNBC all about “Offbeat hotel perks that make resort fees a little more tolerable”.  You know it is going to be ridiculous right from the headline, because the term “perk” doesn’t apply to something that have must pay an over-inflated price for, whether you want it or not.

The article could have been written from the perspective of nonsense items that are being used to fatuously justify exorbitant and mandatory resort fees, but instead decides to take the cheery view that hoteliers are being creative and imaginative at packing the resort fees we must pay for with wonderful extra items such as cuddle time with chickens, discounts at boutiques, and various things being incorrectly described as complimentary.  Note to the writer – it isn’t complimentary if you have to pay for it.

If these things were free, as they used to be, they’d be nice.  But to be charged for things that you don’t want and won’t use?  Nothing makes that acceptable.

And about those discounts at boutiques, let me explain to the writer – and you – about those.  Typically these boutiques sell rubbish at sky high prices with enormous margins in them.  So, they sometimes go to hotels and tour operators and say “We’ll give you, for free, discount vouchers for you to give your guests.  Your guests will get a 10% discount if they use the voucher, and we’ll print a special code on the voucher so we know they have come through you.  We’ll then give you a 10% referral fee on their purchases too.

So that discount voucher now being used as justification for the resort fee?  It cost the hotel nothing, and indeed, it desperately hopes you’ll use it, because the hotel will get a lovely kickback.

And the 10% discount and 10% kickback?  Sometimes the kickback can be very much higher.  From memory, my travel company used to get 20% on some of the vouchers we’d stuff into our travelers’ document wallets, and I vividly remember the time that a nickel-and-diming couple who wanted only the absolute cheapest of everything ended up using the voucher and bought over $20,000 worth of goods.  We made a few hundred dollars from their tour package, and $4000 from their shopping!

And Lastly This Week….

Definitely a “first world problem” – a petition to change the date of Halloween to the Saturday closest to 31 Oct.  Take your pick of reasons to change it – to make it safer for young children, or to give adults more time to party.  Reminds me of a lesson I was taught in an early sales training class – a good salesman always gives his prospect two reasons to buy the product they are selling.  One is a reason the purchaser can use to justify their purchase to others, and the other is a selfish/personal reason for themselves.  So all you partiers with young (grand)children – feel free to advocate for this date change, for the safety of the children, of course.

The worst planes and helicopters ever designed?  Here’s one of those annoying “click-bait” articles that cause you to click through dozens of pages, listing what it claims to be the worst planes ever designed.  Some are definitely bad, but some of the entries on the list seem most unfair and undeserved.

Back in 2013 Elon Musk put his name to an exciting “white paper” that described the concept of hyperloop transportation – pods that would shuttle through near-vacuums in tubes at incredibly high speeds (700+ mph), and with the cost of developing such systems less than 1/10th that of traditional high speed rail.

Not a lot has happened in the six years subsequently, and just now announced are the results of an annual development competition that is pitiful in its underwhelming nature.  This year saw a miniature version of a pod travel a short 3/4 of a mile and partially disintegrate, but still declared the winner by setting a new speed record of a mere 288 mph.

Frankly, we’d hoped for more than that, sooner than this.  And in most competitions, the disintegration thing would be considered a disqualifier.  Details here.

This is an interesting article with photos, showing uniformed US soldiers going through airport security.  Liquids – no.  Full auto rifles and ammo – yes.  We guess it makes sense in some alternate universe, but struggle to understand how it works in this universe.

Doubtless pilots will rush to excuse the situation vividly captured in this cockpit video by suggesting that if the pilots didn’t have to work so much, or were paid more, it would never happen.  I’m not so sure, and am dumbfounded at how two pilots can ignore the unfolding slow-motion and totally preventable disaster amid a growing clamor of alarms.

The excited coverage of the 50th anniversary of the Apollo moon landing has died away about as quickly as did the original interest in the space program, 50 years ago.  Perhaps a fitting end to the brief revival of interest is this article.

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels.

 

David.

 

 

2 thoughts on “Weekly Roundup, Friday 26 July 2019”

  1. Regarding your challenge of 3 hours for international flights.

    I was flying from Vancouver, BC (YVR) to Los Angeles (LAX) last month. I had 1 bag that needed to be checked and no Pre-check. I arrived at the airport exactly 3 hours before my flight’s departure time.

    I checked in at a self service kiosk (10 minutes) so that I could check in my bag only to be told that I had to go to another line to place my bag on the conveyor belt system myself (60 minutes). After dropping off by bag, I was then directed to the security line (70 minutes). Note these 2 lines extended pretty much the length of the terminal meaning I walked from the middle to one end to check my bag then to the other end to go through security. Clearing customs took another 10 minutes. The walk to my gate was another 10 minutes as well with no stops at a restroom, water refill, snack nor duty free shop visit.

    I proceeded directly onto the plane as boarding had already begun. I was dumbfounded with the entire experience.

    1. Hi

      I should have qualified my challenge by saying it applied to US airports due to the brilliance of the TSA Pre program. 95% of all Pre travelers get through security in less than five minutes. Additionally, in the US, there’s no clearing Customs/pre-clearance when departing. That’s the huge game changer in your timings.

      The 60 minute delay to drop off a bag is astonishing, though. For businesses that should have as their “unique selling point” the concept of a fast travel experience, airlines are totally uncaring about speeding us through any part of the process.

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