Weekly Roundup, Friday 16 August 2019

GE’s test 747 with one of its new GE-9X engines alongside older CF6-80C2 engines. An amazing constrast.

Good morning

It is now barely a week until Labor Day and the traditional end of another summer.  The airlines are gleefully banking rich profits due to travel this year being up 4% on last year, and while the usual people are making the usual predictions of travel chaos due to a very busy travel weekend, in all likelihood it will be a smooth experience for most.

But if you are going to be driving somewhere, maybe you’ll be dreading the thought of being without Alexa’s presence while in the car.  Fear no more (clumsy segue) – Amazon are releasing a new Alexa unit, called the Amazon Alexa Echo Auto.  An Alexa unit for your car – is there no escaping the ravaging monster that Amazon has become, determined to fill every part of our lives?

I’ve long since surrendered to Amazon and enjoy their Alexa service, and so was eager to try out a new Echo Auto.  Is it a useful item or a useless gadget?  Well, I’ve the answer to that and many other things in this week’s article, appended to the weekly roundup as usual.

And talking about Amazon and Alexa (clumsy segue #2) they are having some “back to school specials“, variously on Alexa units and also on their great Kindle Fire tablets, too.

Three items in particular stand out.  While their discounted prices are generally no better than, for example, their Amazon Prime Day pricing; if you missed it then (or want more), here’s a new chance.  The three items are the Echo Dot ($30 instead of $50 – a great value Alexa unit), the Echo Show 5 ($65 instead of $90 and probably the best Alexa unit for most of us) and the lovely Fire HD 10 tablet ($100 instead of $150).

What else this week?  Please continue reading for :

  • Reader Survey :  Short or Weekend Breaks
  • This Week’s Bad News for Boeing
  • The China/Russia Airplane Saga
  • Qantas Scores Some Free PR
  • Why Do Airports Hate Uber and Lyft?
  • Are Cruises Safe?
  • And Lastly This Week….

Reader Survey :  Short or Weekend Breaks

Do you like to go away occasionally for a short or weekend break?  By that, I mean perhaps for two or three nights?

If you do, what do you seek and like/dislike?  How far would are you willing to travel?  Do you go alone or with others?

I’m doing some research into these types of issues, and would greatly appreciate your help by sharing your thoughts in a short survey I’ve created on this topic.  Would you please be as kind as to visit this link and work through the questions.

Naturally of course, I’ll collate and share the answers next week.

This Week’s Bad News for Boeing

Unfairly, probably the worst news this week for Boeing was to do with something entirely not its fault, but which it will totally suffer the consequences of.

General Electric has announced it is recalling the new engines intended to power the new generation of 777 planes – the most powerful passenger jet engines ever developed (134,300 lbs of thrust).  GE has discovered some reliability problems and feels the need to redesign and replace some components, and so is taking the current engines it has shipped to Boeing back.

No engines of course means no more test flights and live trials, but Boeing insists it will continue to meet its promise of commercial deliveries of the plane next year.  This is looking less likely, but we wish them well.  Details here.

In more positive Boeing news, the company has announced plans to hire hundreds of temporary staff to help it get the grounded (and undelivered) 737s into the air once the flying ban has been lifted.

We wonder where they’ll manage to pick up avionics technicians and other people with specialized skills, and employ them for a couple of months only.  Perhaps recent retirees?

Boeing says it will being hiring these people pretty much right away.  But it hasn’t started, just yet.  So it is hard to know what their timeframe truly/actually is – and of course, they don’t know themselves (or at least they shouldn’t!).  They can be reasonably certain of their own timings for when they submit a request for the ban to be lifted, but the time it will take the FAA to respond is anyone’s guess, and the likely response of the other national certification agencies, particularly in Europe and China, is even more unknown.

The China/Russia Airplane Saga

Russia used to build some fine planes.  The planes’ overall economy was poor – the planes were heavy and the engines both unreliable and inefficient – but the airframes were workhorses that kept soldiering on, and on, and on, sometimes in appallingly unmaintained conditions.

Their airplane industry was one of the early victims of their independence.  Many formerly state funded organizations collapsed when confronted by the requirements of the real world to produce products that were fairly priced, appropriately featured, and profitable to manufacture.  Since the dying days of the Soviet Union in the late 1980s, there have been a series of new passenger plane projects started, but almost none of which have progressed to mass production.

The industry has been bedeviled by an inefficient system with “design bureaus” that would design planes, and separate production companies that would build them.  Sometimes different production companies would take the same design, possibly change it a bit, and then sell them with the same or different model designators.  Eventually, the Russian government merged most of the separate elements of the historical aerospace companies into one umbrella company, United Aircraft Corporation, but there remain uncoordinated aspects of “the left hand doesn’t know what the right hand is doing”.

The closest thing to a successful plane is the Sukhoi Superjet 100 – a plane that is smaller than a 737.  172 units have been produced since 2007, and it has been in commercial service since April 2011.  It has not been a very lucky plane, and has struggled to sell planes to non-Russian and affiliated countries/companies.  It did sell 30 to the Mexican airline Interjet, but that is pretty much its only ongoing success story outside of Russia and its related states.

A plane more directly comparable to the 737 is the MC-21, typically holding 132 – 163 passengers in a two class configuration.  It has yet to enter service, even though initial design work started in 2006 and “detailed design work” commenced in 2011.  There are currently three planes in flight testing, with the first flight having been in May 2017.  It is thought the first commercial flight might occur in 2021.  The plane has received 175 orders, again almost exclusively to Russian airlines.

So it is understandable that the west has tended to sneer at the remains of the Russian aerospace industry.

A much more coordinated approach to airplane development has been happening in China, growing an entirely new industrial sector from nothing, rather than attempting to restructure an existing collection of moribund companies.  Their first plane of note was the ARJ21, being somewhat similar in concept to the Sukhoi Superjet 100, although not yet as prevalent.

China has also developed the C919 – this is comparable to the MC-21 and so therefore also comparable to a 737 or A320 – and is expected to enter into service in 2021.  It has been more commercially successful than the MC-21, with 305 firm orders thus far, although, similar to Russia, its sales have been almost exclusively to Chinese airlines, with the sole exception being 10 to the GE air leasing company.

Perhaps more interesting than either the C919 or the MC-21 however are the implications of the next plane to be developed, the CR929.  The concept of a wide-body successor to the C919 is nothing new, but the C929 as it was originally known has evolved in an interesting direction as is hinted by its new designation, the CR929.  This plane is to become a joint venture between China and Russia (hence the designator “CR”) – Russia producing the wings and China the airplane fuselage.

It is designed to compete with the A330/350 and 787 airplanes, and is currently expected to take to the air in 2025 for the first time, and maybe be in production and flying commercially by 2027.

There is plenty of development budget for the airplane, and plenty of western partners providing subassemblies and components.

We might finally be edging closer to the appearance of a third global airplane manufacturer.  Here’s an article with some recent updates on this new plane and joint-venture.

We feel the article sneers too much at the delays in the program’s progress and fails to consider that the issue is not “if” but “when” the airplane will become a competitor.  Besides which, with the latest rounds of delays to Boeing’s 777 and NMA programs, delays are far from exclusively something that only happen in Russia and China.

Qantas Scores Some Free PR

If there’s one thing Qantas is obsessed with, more than anything/everything else, it is operating non-stop flights between London and Sydney.

It did it once, in August 1989, in a 747-400, more or less as a “dare” and to prove a point.  They got a special fuel formulation from (I think) Shell, topped up the plane’s tanks at the end of the runway at Heathrow, and with only 23 people on board, flew to Sydney on a special route more direct than normal.

The plane barely made it to Sydney – around about Darwin there were thoughts about needing to land short and refuel, but they soldiered on.  20 hours and 9 minutes after taking off, they successfully landed in Sydney, earning a record as the longest nonstop flight by a passenger plane.  It was however totally impossible to operate the flight on a commercial basis with the 747-400, but to set a marker on the path to a future commercial concept, this was a huge achievement.

It is actually difficult to fly much further than between London and Sydney.  The direct distance is 10,561 miles, and with half the earth’s circumference being 12,450 miles, you’re getting very close to the point where you are flying so far it is quicker to fly in the opposite direction.

Qantas already operates scheduled service between London and Perth, which is 8,997 miles by shortest route.  Singapore Airlines are operating a Newark-Singapore flight that is 9,534 miles.  The SQ flights take 18 hrs 25 minutes one way and 18 hrs 45 minutes the other way.

Qantas says that nonstop flights between London and Sydney will take 19 hours, and so it is “researching” the effects on the human body of being on a plane that long by flying three trial/test flights.  This has generated a huge amount of breathless commentary in the press – CNN headline their article by wondering how the human body can cope.

I can answer that question for both CNN and Qantas.  It will cope almost identically to the 18 1/2 hour flights currently operated by SQ, and imperceptibly differently to the up to 17 hr 20 minute flights Qantas itself currently operates between Perth and London.

Call me cynical, but this entire set of three trial flights strikes me as a brilliant way to excite hundreds of thousands of dollars of eager publicity by journalists too complacent to research that there are already flights of almost exactly the same duration being operated every day.  But needed meaningful research?  No, not in the slightest.

Well done, Qantas.

Why Do Airports Hate Uber and Lyft?

Most of the time, we give very little thought to airports – they are places we wish to hurry through and not dwell in any more than necessary.  Perhaps we should be thinking about them some more – they are a surprisingly significant part of our country’s total economy.  The commercial airports alone (not including the hundreds of smaller “general aviation” airports) directly employ 1.2 million people and in total are responsible for 9.6 million jobs.  They account for over 7% of the country’s national GDP and support over 6% of the country’s employment.

But they are also anomalies.  Only one of them is privately owned (Branson).  All the rest are owned by the cities, counties and states they operate within, or by amorphous public bodies referred to with names such as “airport authorities” (or sometimes even more broadly, “port authorities”).  Depending on where you live, your airport may or may not offer much public accountability for how it operates, how it generates income and where it spends the income it receives.

Some airports and their management bodies have been plagued by stories of activities that lie somewhere on the incompetent-dishonest spectrum, and the only thing we can be sure of is they have a vociferous hunger for our money, with the latest attack on our pocket-books being an attempt to increase the “Passenger Facility Charge”.  This was introduced back in 1992 – for the almost 70 years prior to then, airports managed without it, but all of a sudden, discovered a new need for another fee.  The PFC as it is known currently stands at up to $4.50 per passenger takeoff/landing, and the airports are lobbying to have it increased all the way up to $8.50.

We’ve never understood why everything at or related to an airport is so ridiculously expensive, whether it be parking, bottles of water, hamburgers, or whatever else.  But we suspect the lack of public accountability is a very large part of this.

We’ve also never understood why it is that airports seem to hate the new ridesharing services such as Uber and Lyft.  Some airports have banned them entirely – you or I might wonder what business is it of an airport as to how we choose to arrive and depart from their terminal, but such a thought has never prevented airport management from setting whatever types of rules and restrictions they wish.

The airports that haven’t banned them seem to go out of their way to hide these services, and to make it as difficult to find them as possible, and as awkward as possible to use them.  I often have to wait the high side of 20 minutes – even very late at night – to get a rideshare at Seatac airport in the Seattle area.  This is not due to a shortage of cars.  It is because the airport requires the cars to wait and stage remotely rather than providing any sort of closer in facility.

Three things made me think of this, in addition to the attempt to almost double the PFC cost.  The first is this article, reporting how in Los Angeles, people are parking on surface streets close to the airport then calling an Uber/Lyft ride to take them on to the airport.  The reason for this is to avoid the $320/week charge for parking in at-airport parking lots.

Let’s just think about that.  A car parking space probably measures 10′ x 20′, and let’s allow another 10′ x 20′ for the access lane to the parking space.  So that is 400 sq ft, which is being rented for $320/week.  There are no services provided other than a bit of light at night, there’s not plush carpet on the floor and original Picassos on the walls, just concrete as far as the eye can see.

$320/wk is $1390/month.  For 400 sq ft of open concrete space.  Airport parking lots can basically go up and up, and even the value of the original ground they are on was extremely low when the airport was first built.  How is it that LAX needs to increase its $4.50 PFC charge when it is making out like a bandit on parking (and everything else) already?  Why is it charging so much to park in a parking space?  What is it doing with the profit?

The second article reports that Uber is discontinuing service at Ontario Airport in the Los Angeles area.  That is because the airport has raised the fee it charges ride-share services to now $4 to drop a passenger off and another $4 to pick a passenger up – $8 for a roundtrip to the airport, dropping one passenger and picking up another.

Let’s put that $8 fee in perspective.  Taxis and limo companies pay $3.

Why are ride share companies charged almost three times what taxis and limo companies pay?  Something is very wrong with that situation.

This article suggests that Uber and Lyft are to blame for the surge in traffic going to and from airports.  Why would that be?  It is possible people may have shifted from driving their own car and now take an Uber/Lyft, or from a taxi to an Uber, but in general, isn’t it more likely that the problem with congested airports is simply the steady growth in passenger numbers, and the problem with Uber/Lyft is the dysfunctional way airports treat them.

Plus, it is a ridiculous attitude to “blame” anyone for seeking out the best solution to getting to and from the airport.  Airports shouldn’t create obstacles and make such things more difficult, they should respond to marketplace shifts and provide answers.

Are Cruises Safe?

You’ve probably heard the expression “When you only have a hammer, every problem looks like a nail”.  Perhaps that also applies to the person writing this article – “When you’re a professor of epidemiology, everywhere looks like a major outbreak about to happen”.  In this lady’s case, she writes terrifyingly about the dangers and problems lurking on cruise ships.

There’s only one small problem.  While news of norovirus outbreaks on cruise ships make the news when they happen, the reason they make the news is because they are so extremely rare.  To put her concerns in context, there are just over 300 large cruise ships (and many hundreds more smaller ships, river/canal cruise boats, etc) and these 314 cruise ships between them can carry 537,000 passengers.  So, on any given day, most of those ships are in service, and probably there are almost half a million passengers on them.  Last year, 26 million people went on ocean cruises.

Maybe two or three times a year you read about norovirus outbreaks or something like that.  Let’s say six times a year.  And when one occurs, it impacts on maybe 1/4 or less of the cruise ship – let’s say 500 people.  So maybe, in total, 3,000 people a year come down with something on a cruise, but 25,997,000 people did not.  One person in ten thousand might get some sort of infection on a cruise ship.

Is that really a reason to stop cruising?  We think not!  There are lots of things to dislike about the mega cruise ships and their cruises, and indeed, sometimes their hygiene and cleanliness isn’t 100% perfect either.  But with 9,999 out of every 10,000 people walking off their cruise probably healthier and happier than when they boarded, those sound like good odds to me.

Oh yes – what are your chances of catching some sort of infection during an ordinary week ashore?  According to the CDC, about 20 million people catch Norovirus in the US each year – so you’ve a 1/17 chance of catching Norovirus ashore, or about 1/900 chance each week.  You are ten times more likely to catch Norovirus in your ordinary life ashore – cruise ships are ten times safe.

But that doesn’t make as good a headline.

And Lastly This Week….

To answer the question that, in truth, few people have thought to ask, “because it is too expensive”.  There is plenty of obfuscation and excuse, but that is the real answer.  The question?  “Why don’t hotels provide free toothpaste“.

A landing so hard that the plane’s fuselage buckled!  That’s what happened to this Delta 757 when landing at Ponta Delgada in the Azores.  The linked article has pictures of the buckled fuselage.

A couple returning from a vacation on Sardinia with a souvenir in their luggage are now facing up to six years in jail.  The souvenir?  Some sand from one of the island’s beaches.  Well, admittedly, it was quite a lot, but who knew that sand was so special.  Details here.

Plane spotting alert.  It looks like the USPS printed some promotional t-shirts with a picture of a Russian rather than American airplane on them.  The t-shirts also got the USPS name wrong too, but most of the focus of this article is the incorrect plane.

It is easy to understand how a commercial artist got it wrong – they were told to create a certain image, and they chose a piece of clipart that looked appropriate, and probably the clipart either itself misidentified the plane or just said something like “old plane”.  But it is not so easy to understand why the USPS isn’t prepared to admit that it was a mistake.  That’s unfortunate.

Truly lastly this week, we just can’t start to understand the behavior of this (now former!) TSA employee.

Until next week, please enjoy safe – and healthy – travels





2 thoughts on “Weekly Roundup, Friday 16 August 2019”

  1. <We’ve never understood why everything at or related to an airport is so ridiculously expensive>

    Go to Portland Airport (PDX), and prices match intown pricing. My admittedly uneducated understanding is, the leases are low, with the requirement being stores and restaurants cannot charge more than their other locations.

    All that, and the food is good!

    1. Hi, Rick

      It is a while since I last flew through PDX, so can’t comment other than to thank you for your observation.

      But I can add that many airports now have a requirement that prices should match normal retail prices, it seems there is zero policing and zero enforcement of that requirement. I’m glad the nice Oregonians are playing fair. 🙂

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