Weekly Roundup, Friday 2 August 2019

The ancient town of St Malo on the Brittany coast, and where we’ll be spending the first half of our French tour this September.

Good morning

Usually, if at all, in this area we get a power cut or two as a result of a “wind storm” in fall.  Sometimes that can result in a loss of power for some days for people in unlucky areas, and decades ago I bought a generator to guard against such eventualities, while marveling that one of the most advanced and affluent parts of the most advanced and affluent country in the world seemed unable to guarantee reliable power to its citizens.

A power cut a couple of weeks ago saw me hauling the generator out of service, but not being able to start it.  Fortunately, it was the middle of a week-day, and promised to be a short outage, so I went and worked at the local library, while giving a low priority to servicing the generator motor.  Alas, another power cut on Sunday afternoon caused me to regret that decision, and in the almost eight hours until power was restored just before 2am, the idea for a new Travel Insider series slowly evolved – how to prepare and plan for a power cut.

The first part of this new series is now available, and attached to the end of today’s weekly newsletter.  More parts will follow.

Our very kind supporters will note there is an extra section, and links to two special downloads, within this article just for you.  You can only access this when logged in to your account on the website.  It doesn’t appear in the email.  And if you’re not yet a supporter, it is easy and quick to become one and to get instant access to this and a dozen or so other extra features like it.

Last week’s article about air travel taxes has grown quite a bit.  When it was published last week, I had 171 different tax codes listed.  Now there are 216.

In addition to helpful contributions about new codes from several readers, there have also been a steady stream of requests from people for tax codes that are already in the list.  I’m left somewhat puzzled as to how a person can not find a code in an alphabetical list of codes, or finds it easier to send in a request for a code to be added rather than look through the list and find it already there!

The saddest thing about this, and many other pinpricks of disappointment, is that such people get to vote, the same as the rest of us.  No wonder political platforms have been reduced, on both sides of the aisle, to short soundbites that sound good but seldom withstand careful analysis.

What else this week?  We had another person “sneak in” to the Scotland tour – a single lady; I can only presume that it was my promise to appear in a kilt that encouraged her to make a last minute decision to come!  The first of several kilts I’ve ordered has now arrived – it cost the princely sum of $20, and was made in the place in the world that seems to be the major source of Scottish tartan kilts these days – Pakistan.

Talking about Scotland, I now have itineraries for two Scotland tours next year and one English tour.  I hope to have them illustrated and costed in time to be released in next week’s newsletter.  Meantime, please keep June/early July 2020 free….

Please also note the request for you to help out with the latest Travel Insider Reader Survey.  It just takes a minute of your time to quickly click a link in the item immediately below, and help us all understand what the collective wisdom of us Travel Insiders think.

Please keep reading for :

  • Reader Survey – Meals in First Class
  • France Last Call
  • This Week’s Bad News for Boeing
  • Boeing’s Other Growing Problem
  • The FAA Should Just Keep Quiet
  • Ed Bastian and Delta (and AA/UA) Get Roasted
  • The Largely Non-Existent Controversy Over Air Travel
  • Amtrak Can’t Win for Losing
  • And Lastly This Week….

Reader Survey – Meals in First Class

An article appeared this week advising that United Airlines is now allowing people who fly First Class to pre-order their meal selection one to five days prior to the flight.  This was described by United, and echoed uncritically by the journalist, as being a new benefit for first class passengers, and means that their choice of meal will be guaranteed to be available.

Inconveniently for United, I remember not all that long ago when airlines would load complete sets of all meal choices for first class passengers, so as to guarantee that every passenger could be assured of getting their meal choice.  If there were 15 people in first class, then there’d be 15 of each meal option.

Of course, over time, the accountants looked at this and decided that fewer of each meal option would mean that nearly all the time,  all passengers would still get the meal they wished.  And then they looked again and decided that even fewer of each option would mean most of the time, everyone would be happy, and at least the few unhappy people would still be able to get their second choice.

But now, say with three meal options and 15 passengers, it is more likely they’ll load only six or seven of each meal choice, with maybe only 60% of people happy, and some people not being able to get either their first or second meal choice.

It is the benefit to United of having people pre-order their meal choices.  They don’t have to load a single unneeded meal.

But do you actually like ordering next Wednesday’s lunch or next Tuesday’s dinner, today?  I generally prefer to wait until I’m on the plane, when I know how hungry I am, when I can balance what I had the previous day and immediately prior to boarding with what is on offer, what wine pairings might suggest themselves, even what the flight attendant might recommend or caution against.

I can understand though that perhaps some people want a minimum of bother and interruption on the flight and just want their meal to appear in front of them without any discussion or interaction prior.

I also know, as a tour leader who sometimes has to arrange for pre-ordered meals, that invariably, on such occasions, some people forget what they ordered, some people dispute what they ordered, and some people ask to change!  So I suspect United’s pre-ordering, while solving one problem for them, might create some new ones.

The journalist says a recent survey shows people prefer to pre-order than to do so on the plane.  I can understand that if it is the only way of being sure you’ll get the meal you want, rather than being forced to settle for the “tastes like chicken” mystery meal that everyone else before you had already rejected.  But – assuming you are guaranteed your choice of meal – which would you prefer when traveling in first class?

Please click the link that describes your preference.  That will create an email to me with your response coded into the subject line.  I’ll report on the results next week.

I prefer to order on the plane

I prefer to order in advance

I don’t care either way

Thank you.  It will be interesting to compare our survey of “real” travelers with this other unattributed survey.  Stay tuned for the results next Friday.

France Last Call

Okay, as a final inducement to people wavering about do they/don’t they come on our lovely tour of France’s Loire Valley and Brittany Coast, I’ll offer to wear a kilt in France.  Well, not every day, but at least for a few minutes on one of the days.  And, actually, with Brittany being considered a “Celtic Nation” (depending on how you count/define, there are between 6 and 8), there’s a small chance you might see other kilt wearers there, too.

Other highlights of the tour include Mont St-Michel, an optional day trip to Jersey, one of the world’s best oyster producers, amazing wine, and a visit to a castle that one of our tour-members is a part-owner of.  Full details here.

Please hurry to register if you’d like to come, I’m at the point of needing to close out this tour.

This Week’s Bad News for Boeing

Not really news, and not really surprising, but Southwest Airlines has now formally and in public asked Boeing to make good its revenue losses from its grounded 737s.

This article specifically says Southwest is asking for Boeing to compensate it for the loss of revenue.  That’s a very different number than to be compensated for its loss of profit.  We wonder if the article is being careless with the facts, or if Southwest is really going for the jugular with its compensation request.  Asking for loss of revenue is the very highest of many different possible compensation claim methodologies.

As a point of interest to the accounting wonks, the actual measure of cost/loss occasioned by any airline and its 737 grounding is very hard to accurately establish.  For example, if a person had been going to pay $200 to fly a roundtrip flight between say Chicago and New York on a now grounded 737 MAX, how much should the airline claim?  The gross $200?  The $10 of actual net profit the flight might have contributed?  The gross $50 of profit before overheads?  And what say the person instead switched to another flight on the same carrier, on a plane that cost $5 more to operate?  What would the claim be now – $5?

And there is still the issue of the flight that never happened, even if the passengers were absorbed – how to account for that?

Before your head explodes, there are plenty more puzzles.  What say the person on the Chicago-New York flight was actually starting their travel in Los Angeles, and paid $500 roundtrip.  How to handle that scenario if they still travel?  How to even tell if they ended up not booking and flying on a different airline?  And so on and so on.

I’ve always said that in addition to these above-the-line costs to Boeing, there will be intangible costs and loss of industry goodwill, too.  Here’s an example of that – United is getting sulky about Boeing being slow to announce its “NMA” successor to the 757/767 planes, an announcement now expected to be delayed a year or more due to Boeing’s distraction with its 737 program.

You’ll be astonished to learn that the Boeing behemoth can apparently not walk and chew gum at the same time, or, in its terms, is unable to consider a new airplane program while scrambling to fix unrelated issues with its 737 program.

In other United/Boeing news, the airline announced that it has purchased 19 second-hand 737-700 airplanes, to be delivered in December.  It did this because it can’t wait indefinitely for its 737 MAX planes to be returned to service.  We were very surprised by this, and particularly to read that United purchased rather than leased the planes.  We could understand negotiating a three to six month lease, on pretty much any terms at all (in the expectation that Boeing would largely reimburse the lease costs), but to buy them outright is surprising.  That’s a bit like if you took your car into the dealership for servicing, and were told there’d be a delay while factory ordering a replacement part, so instead of renting a loaner car (or making do with the multiple other cars you own), you turn around and buy, outright, one of last year’s models of the same car.

That’s a desperate decision on United’s part, and also seems to strongly broadcast a signal that United isn’t expecting to see its 737 MAX planes back in the air this year.

More mildly, American Airlines is simply delaying the retirement of its older planes until such time as it gets the new planes that are intended to replace them.

Michael O’Leary, CEO of Ryanair, and until a couple of years ago, a man often found in the headlines, offered his take on the 737 MAX problem this week.  Ryanair, like Southwest, is an all Boeing airline, and so is suffering the twin pains of grounded planes and delays on future deliveries, and O’Leary worried about the consequences if “Boeing don’t get their shit together”.

But his concern is the least of Boeing’s worries.  We view Ryanair as an unavoidably captive Boeing customer, and frankly this was a very mild expression of concern by the sometimes quite spectacularly foul-mouthed Mr O’Leary.

Meanwhile, there’s another company that perhaps could have a claim on Boeing resulting from the 737 grounding and production delays, but probably will choose not to.  General Electric.  They supply the engines to the planes, and this article suggests there is a $1 billion or greater impact on GE due to the production delays.

Boeing’s Other Growing Problem

The 737 has – perhaps mercifully – crowded out coverage on other Boeing challenges, such as the 757/767 replacement that it continues to delay, and the new 777 that is also being delayed during its development and testing.

There is one growing problem though that needs to be mentioned.  As vividly shown in this excellent article summary, Boeing is running out of 787 orders.  In approximately two years, it will have filled all the 787 orders on its books, while having a production line in two locations eager and geared up to keep producing 168 planes a year.

Two questions.  First, why have all the 787 orders dried up, and secondly, where will future orders come from?

Maybe a third question.  What does Boeing plan to do about this?  And a fourth – did Boeing really need to open the second 787 production line in Charleston, SC?

The FAA Should Just Keep Quiet

Sometimes it is better to just shut up than to make thin excuses that don’t stand up to scrutiny.

Last week, the New York Times published an excellent analysis of the breakdown and failures at the FAA and the woeful lack of the oversight and review process that the FAA should have provided as part of the 737 MAX certification project.

This week, the FAA somewhat obliquely chose to gratuitously defend itself, not so much about its certification process, but about its slowness at responding to the 737 crashes and being almost the very last administration in the world to order the plane grounded.

An FAA official even conceded that the agency perceived there was a high risk of a second crash, subsequent to the first crash, but chose not to ground the plane.

No part of this article makes good reading.

Ed Bastian and Delta (and AA/UA) Get Roasted

President Trump met with leaders of the three two major US carriers (DL, AA, UA), as well as with other US airline CEOs and the CEO of Qatar Airways.

The US airlines wanted to yet again press their baseless allegations that the Gulf carriers are being unfairly subsidized by their governments and are unfairly competing against their US carriers.  They most recently erupted into print, pressing these claims, in a USA Today Op-Ed piece that was brilliantly dissected and shown to be the nonsense and lies that it is/was by Gary Leff (see our article “Lies, Damn Lies, and Airline Statements”, in our newsletter two weeks ago).

They have been making these claims for three years or so now.  The Obama administration were unconvinced, and so the airlines tried to ape some of President Trump’s “hot button” points and retargeted their complaint to him, even running advocacy ads on Fox News to catch his attention.

But Trump was not so persuaded.  He was first of all offended that one of the big three CEOs chose not to attend, while not even offering up any pretense of an excuse for why he could/would not.  Surely anyone except an airline CEO realizes that when you want to ask for a favor from someone in a more powerful position, you don’t refuse the opportunity to meet in person and make your request directly.

After hearing the other two CEOs out, and noting the lack of support from other US carriers and the counter-assertions by Qatar, Trump refused to take direct action and told the airlines that if they felt there was a valid problem, they should file a complaint in the correct manner with the DoT.

But, of course, there is no way the airlines can do that, because they don’t have a valid leg to stand on, and their not doing so for three years so far, while instead lobbying politicians, is silent testimony to a mute admission that in truth, there’s nothing to their baseless claim which would surely fail if formally scrutinized.

Here’s a great take on the meeting.

The Largely Non-Existent Controversy Over Air Travel

Global cooling/warming/climate change enthusiasts are coming out of the woodwork every which way at present, with some Presidential hopefuls telling us this is our last ever chance to stop the cooling/warming/changing of the planet, and only if we choose them will we then save the entire planet – a claim made slightly less credible by virtue of it having been overplayed repeatedly over the decades preceding it.

One of the targets of their ire has recently been air travel.  Sure, a modern airplane gets about 80 passenger miles per gallon, which many of us might think impressively fuel-efficient.  But the killjoys hate the thought of people enjoying themselves, or doing business well, and so are increasingly keen to try and marginalize air travel as a sinful planet-destroying experience.  Some greedy governments (most recently France) have hopped onto that band wagon by adding extra “save the planet” taxes onto the cost of an airline ticket.

This week saw Google host a conference about Climate Change, in Italy of all places.  Rather than ecologically walking or riding bicycles to get there, or even all crowding into an electric bus together, the movie stars and other attendees – all clearly experts on the topic – took 114 private jets to fly there.  An additional unspecified number of luxury motor yachts (well, more like small cruise ships in size) brought other attendees to the event.  These people presume to tell us we shouldn’t squeeze into our coach class seat for our once a year flight to Europe, while enjoying a “carbon footprint” many tens of thousands of times greater than ours.  Stunning hypocrisy.

As it turns out, and as this article reluctantly admits (while being quick to gratuitously refer to controversy over flying in its opening sentence), it seems few people are listening to such people.  Air travel numbers increased by 6.9% in 2018, to a total of 4.4 billion people flying.  It is a great time to be an airline.

Amtrak Can’t Win for Losing

One of the big advantages of rail over air is that you get much more seat space, right?  Even a regular seat on Amtrak typically has a 39″ pitch, which is about the same as domestic first class on an airplane.

So you’d expect Amtrak to be protective of its seat experience.  But, then again, maybe not.

It turns out that when you buy a “reserved seat” on Amtrak you’re actually not getting any seat reservation at all.  Not just in the sense of not getting the specific seat you requested, but maybe getting no seat at all.

Amtrak says :

every effort is made to provide sufficient seats, but seating is not guaranteed

Sadly, it seems that “every effort” actually means “no effort”.

I guess if you don’t push your way rudely onto the train first, you might end up standing for who knows how long.  Makes that tiny crush of a pre-assigned airplane seat seem good, doesn’t it!  Details here.

And Lastly This Week….

Hyperloop?  Or HYPE-rloop?  Increasingly it seems the latter.  Here’s another article full of future hope and promise and potential.  But what about the present?

Six years after Elon Musk first publicized the technology, what has happened?  What has been achieved?  Why are all these articles always set in the near future?  Alas, the answers seem to be very disappointing, although few are wishing to ask the question.

Here’s an article we urge you to read – the benefits of having two computer monitors.  We value this so highly that we always travel with a second screen for our laptop.  We feel terribly “claustrophobic” when trying to use only one monitor these days.  If you only have one monitor, treat yourself to a second – at home, at work, and on the road.  You’ll be astonished at how much more productive you become.

We review an external monitor for laptops (or any other computers) here.  You simply plug it into a USB port.  It is the monitor that we’ve been traveling with for almost five years and love.  Perhaps the best $190 for a productivity enhancement we’ve ever spent.

In among unpleasant incidents and attacks by the “fashion police”, it is nice to see that some small elements of the earlier, fun, easy-going Southwest Airlines remains, as was doubly shown first by this incident, and then by Southwest’s relaxed official response.  Bravo.

Come back, the A380.  All is forgiven.  Well, perhaps yes, but probably no, as airlines rush to send their A380 fleets to “early retirement” – a move that shows many airlines bought the planes in the first place in a “me too” way of not wanting to miss out, rather than as a result of any considered analysis.

However, this article is interesting because it reports on one airline that is now casting around for some sort of large plane solution to its own going needs.  The good news is that the second hand market for A380s looks to become very competitive over the next several years.

If you’re choosing to come on our French tour in September (please do!) how about spending a day or two in Paris beforehand.  In particular, if like me, you love a good historical mystery overlaid with lots of conspiracy and myth, here’s an interesting article on some aspects of the one time presence of the Knights Templar in Paris.

Did the Knights Templar indeed truly get eradicated?  Some say yes, and others (particularly, ahem, in Scotland) nod wisely and change the subject…..

And now truly lastly this week, do you order take-out food to be delivered to you?  If so, perhaps you should read this.

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels





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