Weekly Roundup, Friday 18 October, 2019

Looking across the Garonne River to some of the stately buildings lining its banks in Bordeaux. See our new 2020 tour, details below.

Good morning

If you had the Monday off this week, I hope you had a lovely long weekend.  It is very different in this country to most others, because there is seldom a national consensus as to which businesses will be open and closed on most “official” holidays.

I know when I had a travel company, if we closed on such holidays, we’d find our voicemail full to overflowing the next day, but if we stayed open, the phones would be lifeless and few calls would come in.  So we compromised, the way most small businesses probably do.  The staff got the day off, but I worked in the office myself.

This week, I have to confess to having been very foolish on my recent flight home from Paris on Icelandair.  I neglected to follow some of the most basic rules that even the most infrequent of travelers surely know.  So maybe I should thank Icelandair for their “tough love” and reminder of these rules.  See the article that follows.

Last week I released our March 2020 New Zealand “Aurora Australis Adventure” tour.  We now have one person deposited and three couples in various stages of confirming their participation.  So that is an encouraging start, and I’d love to have you come and join us, too.

While I can’t promise we’ll see the Southern Lights – the Aurora Australis – I can promise that it will be a lovely tour of some of the best parts of New Zealand, in their early fall.  Here’s the main page about the tour.  It would be lovely to meet you in New Zealand next March and share this with you, too.

And now this week, another tour.  This time, it is our May 2020 French “Bordeaux and Beyond” landcruise.  I use the term “landcruise” for tours when we stay a week in one single place; meaning no nasty series of checking in and out of hotels, and a great chance to become familiar with a specific town or city, and the region around it.

Bordeaux is a gorgeous stately city, and in the heart of France’s prime winemaking region.  It is a great place to be based in, because there’s lots close by.  We supplement the week in Bordeaux with an optional pre-tour in Marseille and the French Riviera, and a post-tour to the lovely Loire Valley.

There’s a $100 per person “early bird discount” if you choose to come by the end of Monday next week (21 October).  So please visit the main tour page and hopefully then choose to come on our Bordeaux and Beyond landcruise in May.

What else this week?  Please keep reading for :

  • This Week’s Bad News for Boeing
  • We’ve Been Saying it For Years.  Delta Now Confirms
  • Emirates States the Obvious (but Trivial)
  • More Nonsense Press Support for Qantas
  • Norwegian Expanding Again?
  • Thoughts From a Roadtrip
  • More on Flight Shaming
  • And Lastly This Week….

This Week’s Bad News for Boeing

You know any time that anyone releases news late on a Friday afternoon, the news is bad rather than good, and they’re hoping to “bury it”.  This is doubly true when it is the Friday afternoon before a three day weekend.

So clearly the special group of industry experts convened to report on matters relating to what went wrong with the FAA’s oversight of the Boeing 737 MAX chose to “do a solid” for both the FAA and Boeing by releasing its report last Friday afternoon.

The report is long and detailed, and magisterial in tone.  It goes to great lengths to couch its findings in the most positive way possible, but nonetheless, the stark reality of the failings it exposes are dismaying, or, in the words of the NY Times, “damning”.

Whether anything will perceptibly change as a result of the report remains to be seen.  If there are changes made, hopefully they’ll be more meaningful than the “change” that happened at Boeing – also announced late on Friday.

Boeing’s chairman is resigning and a replacement has already been announced.  That might seem like big news, but wait until you read the fine print beneath the headline.

The chairman is also the CEO, Dennis Muilenburg.  While giving up his Chairman title, he remains CEO.  Net impact on him – zero.  Net impact on Boeing?  Very little.

And the new non-executive chairman?  One of the present directors.  Net impact on Boeing?  Again, very little.

Let’s hope the changes Boeing makes to its 737 are more major than the changes to its Board.

And talking about the changes to its 737, we’re now in the second half of October, and as far as I’m aware, Boeing still hasn’t submitted the final approval package to the FAA for them to sign-off on.  You know – the approval package that Boeing had said it would be submitting in September.

Seriously, what is up with the extending delay?  Is there yet another new issue that has been discovered and now needs remedying?

As a little reminder to Boeing, this article states the obvious, but it is a truth that deserves regular airing.  The article makes the rather unnecessary statement that the extending delays in returning the 737 to the skies is causing increased costs to Boeing and its airline partners.

A few days ago, many commentators who know insufficient rushed to give Boeing another possible excuse for the 737 crashes.  But their efforts were based on ignorance rather than knowledge.

Articles such as this one pointed to the possibility of fake evidence associated with the Lion Air 737 crash, and obscured problems with the airline’s maintenance.  Some writers hinted darkly at what this might mean for the cause of the crash, but in truth, it has no meaning at all.

The cause of the crash is not whether or not a pitot tube was faulty or fixed or not or whatever.  The cause of the crash is the automatic control system software that had too much “command authority” and which the pilots were not told about, and this control system being dependent on a single and occasionally known-to-be-flawed source of data.

That is all 100% in Boeing’s court.

We’ve Been Saying it For Years.  Delta Now Confirms.

When airlines apply to the DoT for permission to merge or to create a “joint venture” they paint a fanciful picture full of benefits to passengers and the traveling public.  More convenience, more choices, lower fares, and so on.  At the same time, they also hasten to point out there’ll be no job losses or flight cuts.  And somehow, in this mysterious process, there’s be billions of dollars of savings and synergies.

The DoT reads through this, keeps a straight face, and approves it with its well-worn rubber stamp.

And now for the important bit.  The DoT does not hold the airlines to account for their promises.  It doesn’t say, for example, “Okay, we approve this, subject to you proving that these things have all come true” and neither does it say “Our approval will be revoked if you lay off staff or cut flights or raise fares”.

I’ve bemoaned this lack of accountability for years.  The DoT actually took a teeny-tiny step towards responding in a recent ruling, but the airlines still feel largely invulnerable.  So much so that Ed Bastian, the CEO of Delta, boasted about the situation twice recently and suggested that the alliances Delta has formed have not been of value to passengers.

The only surprise in that statement is that it has been made in public.  DoT, are you listening?  What are you going to do about it?

Emirates States the Obvious (but Trivial)

It seems this week is full of no-news headlines.  Extended delays for Boeing adding to the costs of the 737 grounding is a great example, and here’s another one.  For some reason, Tim Clark, the President of Emirates saw fit to contribute his insight on the vexed issue of the WTO disputes against both Boeing and Airbus, and now the penalties being levied by the EU and US on each other’s goods.

Tim points out that never mind what happens to the duty and price of a bottle of Scotch whisky, but it would be a Very Bad Thing if airplanes got hit with extra duty.  You see, he has figured out that if planes became more expensive to buy, then airline tickets would rise as well.

That’s probably true, because the only alternative to raising airfares would be to reduce the profitability of the very profitable Emirates airline.  But how much would airline tickets go up by if, say, airplane costs went up in price by 10%?

Let’s look at a 777-300ER – the type of plane that Emirates has 134 of in its fleet.  The plane lists for $375 million, but probably Emirates is paying more like half that – let’s say $190 million.

Let’s say that Emirates keeps those planes for 12 years, and when it resells them, it can resell them for about $100 million.  (These numbers are total guesses, but are close enough for this calculation.)

So the plane has a depreciation expense each year of $7.5 million.  And if the airplane goes up in price by 10%, it would now cost $209 million and have a depreciated value of perhaps $105 million, making an annual depreciation of $8.67 million.

Now, let’s assume that plane flies 14 hours a day, 330 days a year.  That is a cost for depreciation, per flight hour, of $1623 or $1877.

The plane can hold 355 people, and let’s say it is 80% full.  So that is 284 people.  Do the sums and the answer is – these people would each have to pay an extra 89c per hour of flight time if the plane cost an extra 10% to buy.  On say a 12 hour flight, that would be an extra $10.73.  (About the same as the extra duty threatened on a bottle of whisky – sorry to keep coming back to that as a yardstick!)

If Emirates is worried about this extra $10, how to explain its lack of worry when introducing a $40 seat pre-assignment fee a few years ago?

Is there some hypocrisy surrounding this, one wonders?

More Nonsense Press Support for Qantas

Don’t get me wrong – I love Qantas, and am happy to rush to share fair good news about this excellent airline.

I suppose I should be impressed too at how adept they are at handling and outsmarting the press.  They’re again getting invaluable coverage from gushing journalists writing in glowing terms of Qantas’ desire to operate very long non-stop flights, culminating in their ultimate objective – London-Sydney.

This article talks in superlatives about a new NYC-SYD service as if it were akin to a flight to Mars due to its extreme length/duration.  The 19 1/2 hours – while admittedly long – is not actually all that astonishing.  Currently the longest flight is Newark-Singapore, which is 18 hrs 45 minutes with Singapore Airlines.

Are we to believe that adding another 45 minutes flying time (as between the NYC-SIN and NYC-SYD flight times) is revolutionary and has medical experts concerned?  No, of course not.

But it sure is great free publicity for Qantas.

As for the reality of long flights, I still remember the trepidation with which I first faced a 14+ hour nonstop flight between the US and Australia (my first such flight being a unique SEA-CNS flight – a “delivery flight” of a new 747 from Boeing to Qantas).  But really, once you’re already in to a flight for 10 or more hours, what are a few more?

Some people like to break long journeys with an overnight or two on the way, and if that’s your preference, by all means do so.  But for me, I’d rather get it all over and done with at once, instead of prolonging the agony with a stop en route.  Better, for me, to spend an extra day at the destination getting over the flight, than to have a double dose of going in and out of airports, transfers to hotels, checking in and out at inconvenient times, and so on.

Norwegian Expanding Again?

I felt quite guilty not flying on Norwegian when traveling to Europe last month.  I was concerned if they would keep their schedule largely unchanged through the end of summer and into fall, and so decided not to risk a forward booking with them, just in case something happened.

As it was, they did keep all the flights that would have mattered to me, exactly as expected.  And while they’ve been trimming a bit here and there, they are now announcing more flights to/from the US for next year.

This is excellent news.  They’re a nice airline and are trying really hard to break through their current financial problems.  Perhaps surprisingly, the article suggests that in some respects, their loss of 737 MAX availability may have been a blessing in disguise, because some of the planned 737 MAX routes were/would have been inherently and chronically unprofitable.

That’s an interesting concept.  Could Boeing say to airlines “Look, we actually saved you from yourselves, and prevented you from making some costly route mistakes, due to not getting planes from us – so you owe us money rather than we owing you money”.

Thoughts From a Roadtrip

I went away for a few days this week, but not over the long weekend – from Tuesday through Thursday, driving 450 miles each way to and from Montana.  During the 6 1/2 hour drives, I had plenty of time to think “why am I driving, not flying”.

The traditional rule of thumb is that at about 250 miles, it becomes better to fly than drive.  But what does “better” mean?

If I were to fly, I’d have a choice of three flights each way, only one of which is at a relatively convenient time, and would pay $381 roundtrip.  I’d also have little or no flexibility with my return schedule, with any sort of change costing hundreds of dollars extra in change fees.

The flight itself is 1 hr 35 minutes.

But, add to that the time to get to the airport, to check in, etc, and then the time at the other end to get off the plane, to get one’s bag, to collect a rental car, and then to drive to the ultimate destination, and the 1 hr 35 becomes just over six hours, assuming no flight delays or problems.  And the $381 needs to then have added the cost of airport transfers or parking in Seattle and a rental car in MT, and that brings it up to almost $600.

Compare that to driving 900 miles on the roundtrip.  With my car having almost 160,000 miles on it already, there’s no mileage based depreciation, just gas and other maintenance.  So the cost is perhaps $250 – $300 – half the price of the flying option, and I’ve the convenience of my own car all the way, which I can fill with assorted “just in case” stuff, unlike with the flight.  And timewise, while the flight is superficially faster, the schedule convenience and true time involved from door to door makes the two a toss-up and probably gives the edge to driving.

It really is ridiculous when a 6 1/2 hour drive ends up being no longer than a 1 1/2 hour flight, and half the cost.  If I’d been traveling with anyone else, the economics would have been even more compelling in favor of driving.

What are the airlines doing about this?  That’s a huge amount of potential and profitable business they’re walking away from.  While they reign unchallenged and supreme at true long distance travel, for these sorts of middle distances, where airlines should be able to compete, the awful inefficiencies of passenger management in and out of airports robs them of a profitable and large part of their market.  Hint :  Think smaller planes and smaller airports.

But of course, promoting flights to Podunk Iowa, or Small Town Montana isn’t nearly as glamorous as flights to New York, London, and so on.  So the airlines spend money promoting their services in markets where they have no competition, while ignoring the markets where they do have competition.

More on Flight Shaming

The crazies – or as this article terms them, “climate change researchers” – really have air travel in their sights.  Their latest proposal is to ban frequent flier awards so as to save the planet.

These same people have uncovered a startling statistic – not everyone in the world suffers exactly the same amount of air travel each year.  So, on the basis of some supposed fairness doctrine, people who fly more should be penalized and punished.

You can laugh at the craziness of this concept today.  But wait and see.  The crazies have the wind at their backs, and craven politicians rushing to ride the wave of insanity rather than trying to educate against it, besides which, have you ever met a politician who isn’t always on the look out for popular excuses to levy new taxes and fees on unsympathetic groups of people.

But, here’s the thing the researchers remain silent on.  If we’re demanding equality of impact, not everyone in the world breeds at the same profligate rate, either.  Why are there no sanctions being suggested against people who have more than (pick a number, any number) of children?  Doesn’t every bit of “save the planet” ultimately boil down to the underlying root cause – too many people?  Why not attack the root cause, directly?  Instead of trading in carbon credits, why not trade in baby credits?

If you get into a discussion with a “climate change researcher”, don’t get suckered into arguing the pros and cons of air travel.  Ask them, instead, “If, as you say, there is indeed man-made climate change that is impacting/harming our planet, surely the best solution is population control?  Why are you not advocating that, and seeking penalties on people with ‘too large’ families?”

And Lastly This Week….

United says it can fit more seats into its planes, and with less recline, without impacting on passenger comfort.

Sure, we understand the “thinner seat back” concept, but that’s only one part of passenger comfort.  How about the issue of more passengers trying to use the same amount of overhead space.  More passengers lined up to use the same (or sometimes fewer!) toilets.  More passengers taking more time to get on and off the plane.  And so on.

“Ladies and gentlemen….” – well that used to be how many announcements would start.  But that phrase is becoming a thing of the past on Air Canada.  It seems the delicate Canadians are terrified of offending people who consider themselves neither a lady nor a gentleman.  This is not an April Fools Day joke – see this article.

One of the tales that goes on and on is the mystery (and the several proposed solutions) about what happened to Amelia Earhart when she went missing on her final flight in 1937.  Most recently, Robert Ballard (the guy who found the Titanic and a bunch of other ships too) spent two weeks in August and who knows how many millions of dollars searching for the wreck of her plane on the ocean floor.  He failed to find anything at all.

So, a sad disappointment?  A failure?  Actually, no.  Ballard considers it to be a success rather than a failure, because now they know where the plane isn’t.  Gotta love an optimist like that, don’t you!

And truly lastly this week, a scene perhaps only possible in Russia.  A drunk would-be passenger goes on a rampage in an airline terminal, frustrated at missing his flight.  The people seated around him do nothing at all.  See the video and stills here.

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels





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