Weekly Roundup, Friday 30 August 2019

The new Airbus A321XLR – the longest-ranged narrow-body plane ever. Boeing’s response? Still waiting for one. See article below.

Good morning

Happy 100th anniversary this week for the first scheduled international passenger flight – between London and Paris, on 25 August 1919.  It took 2 1/2 hours and was a full flight – one passenger was on board.  Alas, he was airsick en route – and with this prior to the invention of “barf bags” he did what any English gentleman would do in such a situation.  He used his hat.  Details here.

It has been another busy week here, including 1100 miles of driving, including forestry roads and very remote locations.  This gave me a good chance to evaluate a new product I’ve been testing for the last several weeks.  The result is not one but two feature items for you today, at the end of this roundup – a nice thick 6,000 words of material to give you some long weekend reading as summer comes slowly and sadly to its traditional close.

These two articles explain the generic concept of cell phone boosters, and then review the specific unit I was testing.  Surprisingly, our cell phone service is often worse than we think it is (all manufacturers deliberately distort the number of bars they display on their phone screens to make it seem like the signal is better than it is), and while that doesn’t often impact on voice calls, it can play havoc with our internet speeds, as I show with the testing results in the review article.

That’s not to say you should rush out and buy a cell phone booster if you’re happy with your signal and data speeds, but if they are a problem, be aware that solutions are at hand.

Thank you to the people who have kindly participated in our survey about weekend and short breaks.  I’ll write about this, tangentially, below, and if you’ve not already responded, can I please ask you to do so now.  Your thoughts and perspectives are very helpful to me in a research project I’m working on.  Thank you.

What else this week.  A very important item, ahem.  And also :

  • Travel Insider Annual Fundraising Drive
  • Reader Survey – Short and Weekend Breaks
  • This Week’s Bad News for Boeing
  • While Boeing Sleeps, Airbus is Working
  • Apple’s Cell Phone Problems – And Solution?
  • The Only Sort of Green That Really Matters to Hotels
  • How Can This Happen in the US?
  • More Government Dysfunction
  • And Lastly This Week….

Travel Insider Annual Fundraising Drive

Labor Day Weekend fittingly marks the start of this year’s annual Travel Insider fundraising drive.

The last year’s laborings have been, I believe, one of the best of our 19 years so far.

A new design for the newsletter and website has made everything much more mobile friendly and easier for you to read on most devices with most programs.  The computers that run everything have been stable and reliable (although a glitch did see last week’s newsletter go out later than normal, just as a small reminder that our fates are never entirely our own to control!).  Some of them are getting alarmingly long in the tooth, and need prudent replacing as soon as funds allow.

Our earlier daily news summary service has been super-charged and now appears in the form of regular tweeting of items on Twitter, and readership of that has soared from the numbers who had been getting the daily news emails.  We now have almost 2400 Twitter followers since starting the new service at the end of last year.  You too can follow us on Twitter (https://twitter.com/thetvlinsider) or you can sign up for the daily digests that are sent out via the free Ketchup service.

In terms of fresh new content, it has been a very productive year.  Some weeks have seen almost 10,000 words of new material added, variously as feature articles and the weekly roundups.  This week it is over 11,000 words.

In total, there’s been perhaps another one-third of a million words of content added – about the same as five full sized books.

We had two great Travel Insider tours last year, and are about to embark on two more lovely tours this year too, giving people like you a chance to meet some of your fellow Travel Insiders (and to meet me too of course).

Doing this is not a part-time past-time.  It is my life and needs to also be my living.  Which is bringing us to the point of this item.  Although some people urge me to follow the growing trend of so many publications and end the open and free policy of The Travel Insider, I’m keen to keep it as accessible for everyone as possible.  So far, this policy has worked – I trust you to fairly help, and you in turn have consistently done so.  Thank you.

So, much like the PBS model of fundraising, it is now time – not for a seasonal fundraiser that seems to come around all the time, but for the one and only fundraiser of every year that we operate.  And I’ll keep it as short as possible – if I can simply ask for 400 readers to each send in some support, then I’ll end the fundraising immediately at that point.

The great news is that we’re already well on the way to that goal.  The new membership program I am using is or will be automatically reminding people who contributed a year ago that the next fundraising is upon us, and 34 of last year’s supporters have already sent in their support for another year.  Thank you!

Kindest of all, and with the least fuss – are the 52 people who have decided to automatically renew their continuing support until they specifically cancel, meaning they don’t need to do anything at all to continue their support.  Thank you again!

So we already have 86 of our target 400 supporters prior to the start of the campaign.  Will you now become our 87th?  Or our 187th, or any other number – even our 401st!  :)

If you’ve not recently contributed, or indeed, if you’re a new reader and have never contributed, choosing to become a supporter is reasonably easy and simple.  Please simply go to this page and then follow through the process, choosing the level and frequency of support that is most comfortable for you, securely enter in your choice of payment method, and that’s it.

In return, you get instant access to a few extra items on the site – some additional content on some of the articles, and some special for supporter reports too.  But mainly you simply get the pleasure of knowing that you’re doing your fair share, and doing your part of keeping The Travel Insider continuing in its mission to fight unfair travel/tech companies and their policies, and to share truthful, searching, helpful and accurate information with you.

We don’t just recycle press releases.  Indeed, we never do.  But if you’d like to see what you’d be doomed to experience if we weren’t here, have a look for example at this “news” item that appeared yesterday.  It trumpets a series of route expansions that Alaska Airlines is adding.

That is good news, of course, but is it balanced news?  No.  Because nowhere in the article does the writer mention that, offsetting a handful of new flights being added, a double handful of flights and routes are quietly being eliminated!  Only when you move down to reader comments do you see a few readers calling the journalist (and Alaska Airlines) to account.

How much is fair for you to contribute?  In the past, we’ve had some heart-rending contributions from people who invariably do two things – they send in a generous sum and then apologize for it not being more!  We appreciate any and all support, from as little as $10 and up as far from that as you wish.  But, please, never send in any more than is convenient and comfortable for you – that’s the other thing we sometimes experience, with people in awkward situations making sacrifices to keep us going.

There’s also another sad thing that happens every year at this time.  Some people quietly unsubscribe from the newsletter, presumably feeling embarrassed at not contributing.  If you can’t or don’t want to contribute, please still stay as a reader, with our blessing and best wishes.

So, how much?  Some people equate their weekly newsletter reading experience to the cup of a cup of coffee, or the price of a regular newspaper (USA Today is $2 a copy), or what they pay someone in a hotel or elsewhere as a tip, and then support us on a quarterly, annual, or one-off basis accordingly.  Our glass is way more full than empty, no matter what level of support you choose.

Thank you.  The supporter joining section is here.

Reader Survey – Short and Weekend Breaks

I mentioned last week some research I’m doing into the subject of short and weekend breaks.  Where people like to go, what they like to do, how far they’d travel, and so on.

I’ve received some fascinating and helpful information as a result.  Some of it confirmed my thinking, other information challenged it.  If you’ve not already done so, could I ask you too to share your thinking about these types of breaks.  I’ve prepared a special survey here, and as you’ll see, you’re nowhere asked for your name or contact details, so your answers are totally 100% confidential.

I’ll share information next week after getting more of your responses, but I thought you’d be interested in seeing some of the basic demographic information received so far about your fellow Travel Insider readers.

Travel Insiders are not typical internet users.  Well, you already knew that, of course!  You’re almost certainly older than average (one in every eight readers are 81 or older, and half of all readers are 69 and up) and way better educated than average (46% with a post-grad qualification, another 36% with a completed undergrad degree, and only 5% who did not attend a tertiary institution).

Plus you’re probably married/living together (77%), and own your own home (92%).  Although 87% of all respondents are 61 or older, 31% of readers are still working fulltime, and another 11% are working part-time.  Only 51% describe themselves as retired.

Most of you are in the US – 85%.  But we’ve other readers dotted around the world, and I think I can guess who our one Hungarian survey respondent so far is (hi, Laszlo).

So, whether this profile describes you or not, please can I ask you to share your thoughts on short/weekend breaks.

This Week’s Bad News for Boeing

It has been a very quiet week for Boeing type news, and for Boeing, that’s definitely a case of “no news is good news”.

There was this lazy article that described a possible October re-certification flight of the plane as being an early date.  There are at least two things wrong with that characterisation.

The first is it is surely impossible to describe anything that relates to what is the longest ever grounding of a passenger plane as being “early”.  And the second thing is that the October date is old news.  I’ve been writing for weeks about Boeing’s public statements that it will file for re-certification in September and expects to get approval from the FAA in October.

And therein lies the buried real story.  An October certification flight would not be early.  It would actually be late.  This certification flight is one element of the package of items that are submitted to the FAA for their consideration as part of their approval process.  If Boeing said it would submit the application in September, and if a proving flight, now expected in October, is to be part of that submission, then it seems that Boeing’s September submission is no longer going to happen.

We’ve always been a bit unconfident about Boeing’s public expectation of getting FAA certification in October.  It seems that this item is a classic case of dressing up bad news as good.

While Boeing Sleeps, Airbus is Working

Here’s an interesting article about the new Airbus A321XLR.

This new plane is the latest in a series of “not A380” type planes that have acted to kill off the A380’s market by reducing the need for concentrated flights of people between major hubs.  The A380’s business model revolved around three types of travel :

(a)  People traveling from one major hub/city to another major hub/city

(b)  People traveling from a secondary city, via a major hub, to another major hub (or vice versa)

(c)  People traveling from a secondary city, via a major hub to another major hub, and then on a further flight to another secondary city

The A380 was intended to be the solution for the between-major-hubs part of all three of those types of travel.  But the case for fewer flights, each with more passengers, has weakened, with airlines preferring to operate more frequent flights of smaller planes.

The second of the three scenarios has been replaced by flights between secondary cities and major hubs, skipping the intermediary major hub.  These are flights typically operated by the A330 and A350, and by the 777 and increasingly the 787.  Airlines themselves much prefer nonstop flights whenever there is sufficient passenger numbers and a suitable plane – one flight is cheaper and operationally simpler than two flights.

And now the third of these three travel models is also under attack, by a new generation of even smaller and long range planes.  In the case of Airbus, it is the A321, with its newest and longest range version being the A321XLR.  It is a narrowbody (single aisle) plane, carrying perhaps 206 passengers in two classes or 240 in one class, and with a range of up to 5,400 miles.

This is essentially a longer ranged replacement for the 757, which was capable of ranges up to about 4,500 miles, and which would carry up to as many as 240 in a two class configuration or 289 in an all-coach layout.

Airlines have been lining up to order the plane, including AA with an order for 50.  It was announced at the Paris Air Show in June and is expected to be in commercial service in 2023.

Some airlines though do not have plans to buy the plane, and so are trying to “diss” it.  Lufthansa’s CEO, for example, has said he doesn’t think passengers should ever had to sit for more than four hours on a coach class seat in a narrow body plane (which would equate to flight distances of no more than 2000 miles).

While we totally agree with his oblique acknowledgement that his airline’s narrow-body seats are distressingly uncomfortable, perhaps he could explain to us the “magic” that is present in his widebody plane coach seats that is missing from his narrow body seats.

For example, his newest 747-8I planes (and his older 747-400s too) cram coach class passengers into seats that are 17.1″ wide and with a 31″ pitch.  The A321 would offer a tangibly wider 18″ seat, and a pitch length of whatever the airline wished to make it.

Rather than being worse than a widebody plane, the seat on an A321 is better than most Boeing seats of any type at all, and similar to those on all other Airbus planes.

In other words, Lufthansa’s CEO is talking total nonsense.  Mind you, personally, he is probably very out of touch with everything to do with coach class travel.

There is also plenty of the suddenly fashionable concern about “the effects on the human body” with such long flights.

But do we have to give reporters and commentators a quick lesson on distances and times?  The 5,400 mile max range of this plane is less than the range on all models of the 747, less than all models of the 767, half that of the longest range 777, less than all models of the 787, and so on.

While it is a long range for a narrowbody plane; in terms of the distances and times-in-the-air that planes have been flying everywhere, everyday, for pretty much 50 years, it is normal and ordinary and unremarkable.

For us as passengers, the most exciting thing the plane offers is a way for airlines to fly us nonstop to more destinations and, if the airlines wish, at lower costs than ever before – Airbus claims the A321XLR uses 30% less fuel than 757 planes.

As I said above, this plane is essentially a replacement for the 757 – the plane that ceased production over 15 years ago.

But while Airbus has been gradually filling in the gap created by the 757 being phased out, Boeing has been doing – ummm, errr, nothing.  It has been “studying the market” and “reviewing proposals” and “consulting with its airline partners”.  It has plans for an unnamed/unnumbered plane currently referred to as the NMA (New Mid-Market Airplane) and expected to become the 797, but the latest set of dates for the plane becoming something airlines could actually order has been further delayed due to Boeing’s inability/unwillingness to consider anything else while attempting to solve its 737 problem.

Meanwhile, every extra A321XLR order Airbus picks up is one less NMA order waiting for Boeing.

Apple’s Cell Phone Problems – And Solution?

We all have a breaking point, don’t we.  We’ll mimic a frog in boiling water for a certain time, accepting something while feeling increasingly uncomfortable/unhappy, but then there comes a turning/breaking point where we take action to resolve an issue.

In the case of Apple, the growing discomfort we all felt was the annual steady series of new iPhones, marked with higher costs each year (while all around us, our other electronic items continue to become more and more bargain priced), but fewer and fewer tangible new features worth paying for in return.

Our first response was to slow down our phone replacement cycles.  Instead of joining the lines outside Apple stores in the annual ritual of urgently “needing” each new phone when it was released, we’d make our current phone last an extra year.  Or two.  Or three.

Apple’s redesign with its poorly named Model X (to be pronounced as “ten” but mispronounced by so many people as “eks”) and with pricing breaking through $1000 caused many of us to feel that it marked a point to have another look at Android phones.  I surely did, and as a result, am loving my Motorola G6, which is functionally as good or better than an iPhone and cost me $200.  It also comes with a headphone jack, industry standard connector, and swappable Micro-SD card, three things Apple refuses to provide.

Whether it is people switching to Android, or just keeping their present iPhone longer, Apple’s iPhone sales have been falling, with a report issued yesterday suggesting a 13.5% drop in iPhone sales in the most recent quarter.  This compares to an overall drop in smartphone sales of 1.7% – and so if you filter out the Apple component, it would seem that all other (ie Android) phones slightly increased their sales numbers.

This article points out that overall, all high end phone sales suffered somewhat, while mid and lower priced phone models sold well.

The only good bit of news for Apple was that its second quarter drop in sales was less than its first quarter drop!

However, help may be on the horizon.  It is now understood that Apple’s latest release of new iPhones will be held on 10 September.  It is guessed that Apple will release three models – two high end and one mid-range.

Will it breathe new life into Apple’s main product category?  Color me cynical on that point.

It reminds me of an amusing exchange I had with a PR executive this week.  He wanted me to write about a new model PC laptop.  I asked why – what was special or newsworthy about yet another generic PC laptop by yet another “second level” manufacturer.

After several nonsensical claims, he then delivered his “Hail Mary” attempt to excite me to in turn excite you with his client’s new laptop.  “It is $1000 less than a MacBook Pro, and has better specifications”.

My response to him :  Every comparable PC is at least $1000 less than a MacBook Pro.

Beating Apple’s price – whether on computers, phones, or tablets – is no great feat.

The Only Sort of Green That Really Matters to Hotels

Ever since the first small semi-apologetic placards appeared, and increasingly as the signs have become larger and more strident, I’ve always marveled at the creative hypocrisy of hotels by eagerly jumping on the “save the planet” bandwagon and trying to shame us into reusing our towels and sheets, so that the planet won’t run out of water, won’t burn more fuel for power, and won’t be awash in detergents.

Have you also noted that when these little signs first appeared, the housekeeping staff ignored them and replaced our towels every day, no matter what or how we placed them?  But now, not only are the instructions increasingly complicated for how we should signal we don’t want to reuse our towels, but also the housekeeping staff are much more reluctant to change towels, even if you follow the complicated process to signal you want fresh towels.

There are solutions to all the problems the hotels pretend exist with laundering towels, or they’re not problems to start with.  For example, how can saving water in an area that is overflowing with water help regions that are desperately short?

If energy consumption is a problem, launder the towels in off-peak hours – indeed, with the growing amount of uncontrollable wind and solar power being generated, there are now times of day in many countries where electricity generators are almost literally “throwing away” electricity because they are generating more than is being consumed and have no way to store it for future use.

If detergents are a problem, isn’t the solution to use more eco-friendly detergents, although they do – oooops – cost a little more to the hotel than the cheapest ones filled with the most objectionable chemicals.

And nowhere on the “save the planet” placards is there any mention made that if we don’t ask for fresh towels, the hotel gets to save enormously on laundry and labor costs.

The latest bit of ecological hypocrisy is Marriott’s decision to replace the individual portion soaps and shampoos with bulk dispensers of product.  That way, there will be less wastage, which will again, through some mysterious process, save the planet.

There’s actually not a lot of wastage anyway with individual portion soaps.  The remains of the soap bars, at some hotels, are sent off for recycling/reuse, to be given to third world countries or something like that.  As for individual shampoos, those are single use sized portions.

I hate liquid soap containers in showers.  The liquid is always cold (I hate being in a hot shower and then putting cold liquid soap on my face), and doesn’t lather up well on a wash cloth.  Every time I suffer the negative experience of the liquid soap, I am confronted again by a hotel which is putting “saving the planet” before “serving the guest”.

You’ll not be shocked to learn that buying a gallon jug of generic liquid soap and pouring it into in-room dispensers is massively cheaper than featuring elaborately boastful “triple milled French soap” or some such other marketing hyperbole.

Because, in truth, that’s the only type of green that hotels care about.  Separating us from as many of our greenbacks as possible, and holding on to as many of them as they can, rather than passing them on for guest supplies and experience enhancements.

If I’m overly cynical, here’s my challenge to the self-proclaimed eco-virtuous hotels.  If you’re so concerned at saving the planet, why don’t you close down?  Why don’t you grill anyone requesting to stay at your hotel, and require them to prove that their journey is essential, and for no longer than the shortest stay possible?  Why don’t you replace luxurious hotel suites with dormitories featuring rows of closely stacked bunks?  Why don’t you lobby the government to restrict non-essential travel?

The thing is that hotels, by their very nature, are eco-unfriendly, as is every other part of discretionary/personal/leisure travel.

So, Mr Marriott et al, either divest yourself of your travel holdings, or man-up and give us the quality experiences you continue to charge us for and which we pay for.  We expect in exchange for our money, we’ll be welcomed and treated well, not guilt-shamed into boosting your profit still further via the sham of “saving the planet”.

Or, at the very least, just like we still have a choice of requesting fresh towels or not, give us a choice of both bar soap and liquid soap.

How Can This Happen in the US?

A lawful US permanent resident was returning back home to Baltimore after having visited his family in Jamaica.  In his luggage, he had some containers of honey that he’d bought in Jamaica.

When going through Customs, he was detained and his honey was tested.  A field test – a quick guess type of procedure – suggested that the honey might contain methamphetamine.

So, the first regrettable event was the gentleman, Mr Leon Haughton, being detained in custody pending an official evidentiary test of his honey.  No releasing on bail; but on the strength of a test no more accurate than what you could do with a home science kit, he was locked up for 20 days pending the results of an official laboratory test.

Can you imagine what it would be like being in jail for 20 days, with the threat of a felony drug charge hanging over your innocent head?  And let’s understand that the testing protocol requires probably five minutes of lab time.  How is it that it took 20 days for this test to be done, and the results – showing no sign of any meth in the honey at all – to be sent back to the prosecuting authorities.

But, wait, there is more – much more – to this story.

Upon receiving the test results, was Mr Haughton quickly released from jail?  No.  He stayed in jail for another two months, while being neither guilty nor charged with anything at all.

You see, remember that Mr Haughton is a legal immigrant.  When he was first wrongly charged with importing meth, that triggered an alert in the INS computers, signaling that his lawful status was in jeopardy and requesting he be held pending an INS/ICE review and possible deportation.

Do you see the irony in this?  Illegal aliens don’t get automatically triggered because there is no computer entry to match to their custody, plus many local jurisdictions refuse to comply with Immigration detention requests when such requests concern illegal aliens.  But Mr Haughton, having properly followed every procedure, and not having committed any crime, and now no longer even being charged with a crime, had to wait in custody, for two more months.

The story is still not over.  When he was finally released, after almost exactly three months in jail, it wasn’t as a free man.  He was finally allowed out on bail.  His ultimate status with the Immigration people appears not to have been resolved yet.  Details here.

Anyone who doesn’t comprehend the absolute utter horror of this, and all the people who inflicted it on Mr Haughton, should themselves experience three months in jail, realizing every day that our legal system is beyond broke and fearing what next negative consequence would come to pass.

How is this possible in the United States?  How many elements of our fine constitution have been trampled over in this situation, and in the countless others that we don’t hear about, every day?  We should have the finest – not the worst – justice system in the world.  Why don’t we?

More Government Dysfunction

Here’s a challenge for you.  Call the US Postal Service – that’s the easy part.  Their number is only moderately obscured on their website – (800)ASK-USPS.

Now try to work your way through the menu tree and find an option to speak to a real person.  See how long it takes you to achieve that goal.

Let me know if you manage it in any amount of time at all.  I tried and ended up, many swear-words later, giving up.

The USPS lost a package being sent to me – quite a feat because the package’s tracking number shows it was scanned as delivered into my locked delivery box.  But I know those scans are often “optimistic” – it is not the first time I’ve been advised of things scanned as delivered hours before they arrived, and other things that were scanned as delivered which never arrived at all.

My attempt to enter into a dialog with the Postal Service about the missing package – I even think I know what they did and how they did it – have to date been reduced to sending them an email and getting an acknowledgement back, but nothing further.  Why is it that Fedex and UPS have real people who can answer the phone and sometimes even help with missing package problems, but the USPS can not do the same?

Again, I find myself marveling that we’re supposed to be (one of the) most advanced and service-centered countries in the world.

One more minor pinprick of pain.  I found myself, while struggling to stay awake on my many miles of driving this week, noting again how large external car mirrors are, and wondering when it is that the US will fall into line with other countries and allow car manufacturers to replace bulky outside mirrors that cut down on fuel efficiency and replace them with small external cameras that show onto in-car screens, allowing for less wind-resistance/better fuel efficiency, and a better driving experience too.

By chance, I then came across an article on the subject.  Several car manufacturers asked the NHTSA for permission to do this, back in March 2014.  That’s over five years ago.

Last year, the NHTSA said it was still “studying the issue”.  One can only marvel at what complexities there are that have required to date over five years of study.  It then released a report in November last year that was cautiously positive.

And now the NHTSA has said it plans to test how drivers would use screens rather than mirrors.  The article has no mention of any timings for this latest lurch forward.

Might we enquire about the times involved in this latest study, and when the NHTSA might end up ultimately joining with Europe and Japan in allowing cameras rather than mirrors?  Or would that be expecting too much of another government department set up to help us?

Five years with no progress.  What’s wrong with this picture?

But on a happier note, it is the 60th anniversary of the introduction of three point seat belts.  Occasionally the NHTSA does do something good.  But please would they stop resting on their laurels and do some more good things for us.

And Lastly This Week….

I’ve just finished complaining about government departments that do nothing.  And then there are the ones that do too much – indeed, on balance, I think we’re generally better served by the somnolent rather than hyper-active government departments!  Here’s an example of a government department with too much time on its hands, who suddenly realized, after 15 years, that they’d mistakenly allowed an “objectionable” vanity license plate.  Fortunately, no less a person than the governor of NH himself got involved and allowed the lady to keep her delightful vanity plate.

I’ve seen videos like this before, but it is fun to see another one recording the truly impressive “suck” of a modern airplane toilet.

Talking about toilets and aviation, it seems that LaGuardia has done one thing well – lovely remodeled bathrooms.  And, to make a hat trick of bathroom items, here’s a list of “17 weird things you didn’t know about bathrooms in foreign countries“.  Actually, you probably do know about most of these, and the ones you don’t know, you might well find are not items you need to know!

Lastly this week, may I remind you about our fundraising drive.  A couple of minutes of your time is all it takes to visit this page, and choose an appropriate level of support to help us in our full-time “labor of love” and continue sending you your weekly newsletters.  Thank you.

And truly lastly this week, please enjoy your long Labor Day weekend.  Iif you’re traveling anywhere, may your delays be few and your experience upon arrival at your destination well worth it.  And if your delays are on a plane, on a tarmac, this article might help.

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels





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