Weekly Roundup, Friday 16 August 2019

One wonders how much of Norwegian Air’s current problems are due to the 3 year delay in security DoT approval to fly to the US.

Good morning

I’ve had a very busy week this week, and thought I’d – excuse me – quickly rush off a short piece as a feature article for this week.  But the “quick short piece” ended up taking a long time to research and write, and rather than short, came in at 4059 words.  Ooops.

I was writing to share the surprising outcome of a battle I had with Frontier Communications to upgrade my internet speed.  In the middle of the battle was a terrible mess of problems, including the time they cut off my service completely without telling me, literally minutes after sending me an email welcoming me to my “new” service with them (I’ve been with them since the day they bought the Verizon business in this area).  It took 3 1/2 hours – no exaggeration – on the phone with them to get them to move beyond an undertaking to restore my service – but not for almost a week; until they finally agreed to turn it back on the same day.  This was aggravating because the process to restart service would take all of two seconds to type a command into a computer, but finding a person who was willing to do so took 3 1/2 hours.

And then, after getting a series of messages every day from then until the date of the promised installation of the faster internet, the actual day came and went with no installer visit.  I was told that too had been automatically cancelled, but they had no explanation for why I was getting text messages all the way through until the morning it was scheduled to occur reminding me I needed to be present to allow the installer access to the equipment box.

The next drama was they refused to honor their earlier promise to provide faster internet service because “they were selling their Washington business and no longer were interested” (I kid you not).

It took the help of the Washington Attorney General to finally get them to change their mind, and even then the process wasn’t smooth and saw another day of a promised visit but no installer turning up.  In the end, the reward for my perseverance was an amazingly fast 500 Mbps internet service.  Well, it was promised to be 500 Mbps – I insisted on testing it before the installer left, at which point he conceded that it was “testing a bit slow” but he promised to speak to someone about it.  “A bit slow” means slightly less than half the promised speed.

However, and now we get to the actual story I’m sharing – the reality was that even the actual 250 Mbps service that is being provided really doesn’t seem at all faster than my earlier slow 35/15 Mbps connection.

And that is something – the only thing – that I can’t blame Frontier for.  If you’re interested in the “behind the scenes” arcane issues of how and why it is that 250 Mbps internet isn’t really any faster for the user than 35 Mbps internet, you’ll enjoy the article.  If not, well, I’ll come up with something different next week.  :)

What else for this week?  Please continue reading for :

  • This Week’s Bad News for Boeing
  • Will More Rules Keep Drunk Pilots Out of Cockpits?
  • No, It Isn’t the Same as Sully in the Hudson
  • The $322 Unaccompanied Minor Fee You Pay to AA Doesn’t Buy You Much
  • The US Department of Justice is an Embarrassing Disgrace
  • We’re Still Waiting, Sir Richard
  • The Puzzling Slow-Down in Autonomous Vehicle Development
  • And Lastly This Week….

This Week’s Bad News for Boeing

As bad weeks go, this wasn’t as bad as many.  But news did come out that July is now the fourth month in a row with no 737 MAX orders received by Boeing, which is slightly surprising for three reasons.

The first reason is that Boeing’s triumphant “order” from BA/IAG for 200 737 MAX planes at the Paris Air Show two months ago has still not actually become a real recorded order.  Although Boeing got all the headlines for its amazing “turnaround” and “success” at scoring this large order from a leading international airline, signaling to the world that at least one airline still had total confidence in the plane, the quiet reality, noted at the time by me and a few others, and becoming more obvious for all to see with every passing week subsequently, is that this “order” – while still possibly a real thing at some future point – was nothing more than a PR stunt that fooled the gullible journalists who rushed to create glowing headlines.

The second reason is more puzzling.  During the same period Airbus has received orders for 134 A320 family planes (and 15 A220 planes), so it isn’t as though airlines have frozen their single aisle airplane orders entirely.  And, of course, when the 737 MAX does return to service, all new orders received now will have the new modifications included.  The basic airplane is expected to be almost identical to what it was before the grounding, with the only differences being in how the computers control the plane.

So why the delays?  Why are airplanes holding off ordering the 737?

The third reason is also an interesting one.  While the headlines in the linked article and elsewhere are talking about no orders for four months, the reality is a little grimmer than that.  As of today, it is almost exactly nine months since the last 737 order (12 planes on 21 November 2018 to Caribbean Airlines).  See this page for details.

To put the nine month no-order gap into context, it is the longest gap ever for the 737 MAX.  The second longest gap was between August 17th, 2017 and March 13, 2017, about seven months.  The third was for 4 1/2 months, between Feb 22 and July 3 in 2012.  More common has been an order every month, sometimes multiple orders in a single month.

The new FAA head, Stephen Dickson, has now been sworn in.  While I don’t know the gentleman, looking at his background – ex-military, and a former pilot rising to become Senior VP of Operations at Delta – suggests that he is unlikely to cut any special favors for Boeing.

He would not be the only Delta senior executive who feels that Boeing acted shamefully when it used its political influence to win an ill-deserved delay to Delta’s ability to buy what was then the Bombardier Cseries planes (and which is now the Airbus A220).

Dickson said at his swearing-in ceremony that the 737 MAX won’t fly again until it is “completely safe to do so“.

While at one level, that’s a nothing statement – when does the FAA ever admit to certifying a plane that isn’t completely safe – at another level, it is encouraging to see that he’s not already drinking the Boeing supplied Koolaid and starting to utter platitudes about the inherent excellence of the plane and its importance to the total US economy.

Let’s hope he continues in this attitude.

Here’s an interesting timeline of some of the key events relating to the grounding.

Meanwhile, Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg continues to predict his company will submit a completed application for recertification to the FAA in September, and that the plane will be back in the air in October.  He certainly knows more about this than we do, but we remain skeptical.

Will More Rules Keep Drunk Pilots Out of Cockpits?

In apparent response to United needing to cancel a flight because both the pilot and copilot reported for duty, drunk; United has come up with a new requirement.

Now, before telling you what it is, let me set the scene for you.  Currently the FAA mandates that pilots must not drink any alcohol for eight hours prior to flying a plane, and also requires that pilots have a blood/alcohol level below a very low 0.04%, a level set back in 1985.  (Most states have a level of 0.10% for drivers, and those of us longer in the tooth will remember when that number was considerably higher.)

A reasonable person might wonder why there are two laws – isn’t it enough just to say – “must be sober with a blood/alcohol level below 0.04%”?  Who cares what/when they had something to drink as long as they’re sober when they report for duty.

The last few months have not only seen a steady series of drunk pilot episodes, with pilots reporting for duty drunk, or with a bottle in their pilot bag, or even asking for drinks to be served to them in-flight (in that case, the flight attendant who refused to serve the pilot a drink lost his job, the pilot did not!).

The consequences of being drunk in charge of a passenger plane are dire.  There’s a high chance of being fired, and of facing federal felony charges that could put the pilot behind bars.  And for someone as “clever” as a pilot, it isn’t rocket-science to understand when they are running the danger of breaking the law and being too drunk when turning up for their next flight.

United has decided however that more action is required, and has now created an internal requirement that pilots must not drink in the 12 hours immediately prior to a flight.  Details here.

This is a bad requirement for multiple reasons.  First, as I said before, who really cares when or what the pilot’s last drink was, as long as he is sober upon arriving for duty.

Second, this is an unenforceable rule.  What say a pilot or three have an all-night party in their hotel rooms (stranger things have been known to happen in the past…), and drink their mini-bars dry.  Who will know?  How can it be proven they had a drink within 12 hours of duty if there were no witnesses?

Third, if pilots already break the two rules – at least eight hours without a drink, and blood/alcohol below 0.04%, what is the chance that this new rule will work where the other two rules are failing?

Adding unnecessary rules/regulations/laws seldom deters lawbreakers from breaking laws.  The most vivid example of this is gun control legislation.  It is already illegal to murder someone.  How does limiting the number of bullets in a gun prevent a tragedy when the threat of the death penalty, already present, does not?  How does extending the “thou shalt not drink” law another four hours work when the two laws and dire consequences already present do not?

All this does is make it more unpleasant to be a pilot.  I often like, at the end of a day, to have a relaxing break, and a glass of beer before bed.  But I wake up sober eight hours later, and so too would a pilot, even after several drinks (in rough terms, the body eliminates about one ounce of alcohol – an amount equivalent to 0.015% blood/alcohol per hour, so a pilot could be at 0.16% eight hours prior to flying, and be legal at 0.04 when reporting for duty.

The problem isn’t the laws are too lax.  The problem is the attitude (or addiction) some pilots have that seem them knowingly break the rules, no matter what they are.

No, It Isn’t the Same as Sully in the Hudson

An Airbus A321 lost both engines due to bird ingestion, seconds after taking off from one of Moscow’s airports yesterday.

It seems the pilots simply pushed the stick slightly forward and landed in a field of corn more or less straight ahead.  That was probably about their only choice.  They decided not to lower the undercarriage, and I understand the reason for that.

The plane quickly slowed and only skewed a little to one side at the end of the landing “roll”.  All passengers and crew emerged unharmed.

Some of the people who rush to anoint the most ordinary of people committing the most ordinary of actions as brave and fearless heroes rushed to bestow those accolades on the two relatively junior pilots who were flying the plane, but there was nothing heroic or brave in deciding to fly the plane down and land as best possible.  And, although some people are describing it as a “miracle landing”, it wasn’t particularly difficult either, and required massively less skill than landing a plane on the water where plane attitude and sink rate optimization is critical.

We’re glad the plane and its passengers landed safely (although we’d be surprised to see the plane back in the air again), and landing in what was essentially a nice soft cushioned shock absorbing field of corn growing 6′ high (a bit like a gravel emergency turnout on a downhill road) is about the best possible circumstance a pilot could ever hope for.

Details – and of course, some in-plane video – here.

The $322 Unaccompanied Minor Fee You Pay to AA Doesn’t Buy You Much

Here’s a terrible story of a group of special-needs children flying on American Airlines.  There were, as there sometimes are, problems with a connecting flight, and the usual string of mini-delays and disasters followed, climaxing in the traditional “We’re sorry, the pilots and flight attendants are now out of hours and we have no replacements” and an overnight at Charlotte Airport.

This would all be acceptable if the nine children (that’s $2898 in UM fees) had been looked after by an American Airlines employee, and if the parents had been kept in the loop.  But, as the article explains, none of that really happened at all.

After the story was picked up by this and other articles, American eventually responded by offering an apology to the affected children and their families.

Never mind the insincere apology, AA.  How about some cash?  How about forcing some humanity, caring and basic decency into your staff so that such things never happen again?

One more point.  If you’re arranging for nine children to fly somewhere, don’t give the airlines nine $322 fees – almost $3000.  Have an adult or two travel with them.  The cost of their fares and accommodation will be much less than the $3000 you’d pay to an airline, and the chances are that the adults would be about a million times more caring and helpful and responsive than American’s personnel in the case of any problems arising.

We’ve not been able to easily find how many children one adult can have traveling with them.  There are limits on the number of infants (under 2), but for 2 – 14 yr olds, it may be there are no limits – particularly these days where there are seldom discounted child fares.

The US Department of Justice is an Embarrassing Disgrace

Many of us in the US used to proudly believe we were the finest country in the world, with the finest economy and quality of life, the best political system, and the finest governmental services.  That belief was a large part of what encouraged me to move here in 1985.

Very few of us can maintain those beliefs these days.  The latest example of the disgraceful and unaccountable failure to deliver the services it is charged to provide is the case of the DoJ not resolving a request – ongoing for nine months – by the travel technology company Sabre, seeking permission to buy a related company, Farelogix.

Businesses can’t sit in limbo for nine months, and doubly can’t when there’s no clear timetable for when a resolution or response will be received.

The reality of any such situation is that while there may be a very lengthy filing, perhaps comprising hundreds of pages of material, much of that filing is boilerplate, and generally it quickly becomes apparent to the reviewer if the response will obviously be yes, or obviously be no, or be a qualified “maybe, subject to these conditions”.

Why can’t someone simply sit at their desk, unplug their phone and computer, shut their door, and work through the filing for however many hours (or even days) it takes to identify any issues of concern and create a draft of a response to the application?

Why can’t someone else then review and either approve or revise the application?

Why can’t all this be done within a week?

Please don’t misunderstand.  We’re not advocating either for a fast approval or a fast rejection of Sabre’s application.  Indeed, we acknowledge that the issue is nuanced and complex.  But that’s what the people at the DoJ are paid to do.  To review and rule on nuanced and complex issues.  That is their job.

By putting an application in the “Too Hard” file and doing nothing, they are failing at their job and they are failing American businesses (who in turn risk failing entirely).  Say yes, say no, hold public hearings, call for submissions, negotiate for some conditions and qualifiers on the buyout – do something/anything.  Don’t do nothing.

Sabre has now taken an unusual step.  It has told the DoJ that if it doesn’t get a response within a week (ie by 21 August) it will simply proceed with the buyout, and if the DoJ subsequently disagree, they are welcome to sue them.  I’ll wager that a substantial part of Sabre’s defense to any such action would be the lack of timely response from the DoJ.  Details here.

This non-response to a difficult contentious issue is uncomfortably reminiscent of DoT’s refusal to rule on Norwegian Air’s application for authority to fly to the US for almost three years (Dec 2013 through to Dec 2016).  But in the case of the DoT refusal to rule, there were no complicated legal issues to deal with, just political pressure.  The application was clearly and completely in order, as the DoT eventually reluctantly conceded, saying that it was forced to approve the application – something that was obvious to all dispassionate observers for three long years.  The DoT just didn’t want to rile the US carriers protesting against the application.

That was three years that we were without a high quality low fare competitor, and those three years of delays were undoubtedly harmful to Norwegian, and almost surely have contributed to the disruption in its projected plans for orderly growth and expansion, leading to its current desperate struggle to survive.

Of course, not all government departments deliberately go slow when encountering an application they have an opinion on but can’t find an appropriate way to express it.  Sometimes they’ll rush things through, ignoring the clouds of controversy and issues that deserve more careful review.  Such as, for example, the FCC’s approval of the T-Mobile/Sprint merger and the remaining objections it is choosing to ignore.

What has happened to our country when the people we trust to administer our laws refuse to do so, and in the process, give unfair favor and balance to one side in a dispute?

We’re Still Waiting, Sir Richard

Talking about disgraceful delays, have you ever seen one of those terrible “B” movies where something supposedly exciting is happening – the hero perhaps is running away from, or to, something/someone.  He gets most of the way to his objective, then the camera angle changes and he is back to near the beginning.  He gets near his objective again, the camera angle changes again, and – wouldn’t you know it – he’s way back at the beginning again and still running desperately.

There’s something of that feeling present when one reads about the latest “success” and “any day now” commencement of “space” flights by Sir Richard Branson’s grandly named company, Virgin Galactic.

In a gushy article that reads like it was lifted straight from a press release, the article touts the wonders of the newly opened “spaceport” in New Mexico where the operation will be based.  But read it twice, if you can force yourself to, and you’ll see no mention of the trail of broken promises and deadlines not met, other than a gentle reference to construction delays, a development cycle that took far longer than expected, and a major setback.

But what about Sir Richard’s grandiose plan (well, they’re all grandiose) to be in orbit, himself, to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Apollo moon landings, a month ago?  Now all we’re told is a vague reference to “a small number of test flights are still needed”.  How many?  How long?

The big story could be the taxpayer funded spaceport – will it ever earn any of the taxpayer funding back for the good people in New Mexico, one wonders.  Or the big story could also be the never-ending and still continuing delays, and the people who bought tickets at various times and with various promises for when they would fly, over the last 15 years.

Instead, gushy articles such as the first one linked above and this one that headlines itself “Virgin Galactic shows off the world’s first space tourist lounge” – illustrated by a picture of what looks like a very ordinary lounge such as you’d see in many different airport lounges all around the world – continue to unquestioningly and eagerly recycle Branson’s PR with no call for any accountability at all.

The Puzzling Slow-Down in Autonomous Vehicle Development

Five years ago, I was convinced that self-driving cars would be in production and on our streets by the end of this decade.  Many others, including the companies involved in the development of such cars, agreed with me.  Now it is clear I was wrong.

I eagerly looked forward to it – while there are widely varying studies as to the impact of self-driving cars, the only difference between them is as to the extent of safety improvements that would occur.

Our roads are currently slaughter-houses of carnage that we’ve somehow trained ourselves to overlook.  Over 100 people die on our roads every day.  In 18 months, more people die on our roads than died in the entire Vietnam war.  More than one in every 10,000 people in the country die every year on the roads.

Add to that all the injuries of various degrees of seriousness, and costs of repairing damaged vehicles.  These events permeate every level of our society.  The chances are you can think of people you know who have been killed in road accidents – I certainly can.  And the chances are also good you know people who have been injured in an accident – perhaps a back or neck injury that is lingering.  Again, I certainly know such people.

We respond in anguish and agony and outrage when a crazy person kills ten or twenty people at a shopping mall or somewhere, and many people call for yet another layer of laws and controls and restrictions on firearms.  But way more people die, every day, not just sometimes, in road deaths that are, the vast majority of the time, totally unnecessary because they are due to driver error.  Where are the calls to make it harder to get and keep a driver’s license?

Perhaps ignore the link to firearms.  This argument stands on its own two feet.  Why do we passively allow this slaughter on our roads, when a rational response would be to call for much more advanced training of drivers, and much more severe consequences of bad driving?

Leaving that question hanging, let’s now think about the role of self-driving cars.  It seems likely they will become five or ten times safer than cars we drive ourselves.  So why isn’t there a rush to deploy self-driving cars today or yesterday?

The answer to that question is because there is an amorphous demand that self-driving cars not just be twice as safe (and save 18,000 lives a year).  Not three times safer (and save 24,000 lives).  Not five times safer, apparently not even ten times safer (and save 33,000 lives).  People are demanding that self-driving cars should be 100% safe, and never have accidents.  It is apparently acceptable that 10 people be killed as a result of another person’s bad driving.  But it is strangely unacceptable that nine of those people should live, with only one person dying as a result of a problem with a self-driving car.  Why is that?

There is an expression that should guide us all :  The excellent is the enemy of the good.

At present, the developers of self-driving cars have literally been scared away, or have slowed down and are delaying the introduction of cars that are twice as safe (remember, that would save 50 lives every single day), while pursuing cars that will be close to perfectly safe.

Sure, who wouldn’t want a car to be perfectly safe.  But who also wouldn’t love, today, a car that is twice as safe as the car that you are currently in, and twice as safe as the car coming towards you?

That is the key point that the misguided people opposing deployment of self-driving cars don’t seem to appreciate.  It seems simple to me, and hopefully to you.

Here’s an article that doesn’t make this point, but does note the slow-down in development and anticipates no cars appearing for the next ten years.  How many hundreds of thousands of extra people will be killed in that decade that could have been spared if we’d welcomed imperfect but better-than-human controlled cars onto the roads now?  How many of them will be people you know?

It isn’t just industry that is going slow on this subject.  The government is withdrawing its support, too.

Talking about safer driving, here’s an interesting article advocating a ban on talking on phones while driving, even if using a hands-free device rather than holding the phone.

The article argues (and I’ve read this elsewhere) that the simple act of talking to another person is a distraction to the driver.  But if that is true, as it may well be, why do we allow drivers to talk to the other people in their car?  Isn’t that functionally the same as talking to someone on the phone?

And Lastly This Week….

Norwegian is continuing to rationalize its US routes, cancelling some of the routes it waited three years to get approval for.  We’re sad to see it go, but the twin benefits to Norwegian are discontinuing loss-making routes and freeing up their planes to be redeployed to profitable routes elsewhere.  We hope this helps them win their battle for survival.

Do you have a MacBook Pro?  If so, be aware it might be subject to a battery recall and as such, has been banned off flights.  Don’t ask me how the TSA will be able to identify recalled MacBooks, or MacBooks that were recalled and have now had the batteries replaced, but that’s probably a lesser concern for now.  I’m sure they’ve thought this all through very carefully…

After reporting its worst financial quarter ever, Uber is now making draconian cuts on unnecessary expenditures.  Oh yes – it will no longer be giving away helium balloons to staffers in its San Francisco office to celebrate employment anniversaries.  This will save them $200,000 a year.

We’re undecided which is the more surprising element of this revelation – that they have been spending $4,000 every week on helium balloons, or that they are now stopping it.

Surveillance cameras were in the news a bit.  There was a test of a facial recognition system identified one in every five Californian lawmakers as criminals.  According to this article, the identifications were in error…..

And here is this interesting pattern on clothing that foils automatic number plate readers into thinking that you are, yourself, a collection of cars all moving in unison.

Thanks to reader Mark for this – perhaps the funniest YouTube video I’ve seen in a long time.  Who says the Germans have no sense of humor?  Indeed, it is so amazing one finds oneself wondering if it was all staged, but I did some research and it seems to have been a bona fide experience, exactly as portrayed in the video clip.

Here’s the link to the video.

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels





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