Weekly Roundup, Friday 25 October, 2019

The glorious emptiness of much of the Scottish highlands is starkly apparent in this picture. See news, below, of our new 2020 Scotland tour.

Good morning

It is nearly time to start counting down to Christmas, and certainly time to think about Thanksgiving.  I’m already seeing articles about anticipated Black Friday specials, to say nothing of Cyber Monday too, and am being approached by various companies wondering if I’ll feature their items in any gift giving guides.  How quickly 2019 is passing!

Still on the topic of thinking ahead, I’ve now released the third of my tours for 2020.  This time it is another of our very popular Scotland tours, and with a slight difference to the tours we’ve offered before.  Yes, that does mean that even if you’ve been on a Scotland tour with me before (and many of you have) you should consider coming on this one too, because we offer a mix of the familiar and unfamiliar.

I’m calling it the Scotland’s Four Corners tour, and it will be in June 2020.  Why the “Four Corners”?  For the answer, please see the quick introductory article about the tour that follows this morning’s roundup, or, if you can’t wait, here’s a link to the main tour page.

The tour follows on immediately after the lovely French Bordeaux and Beyond Landcruise that was released last week.  That is attracting some great interest, and the first person to sign up was with me in Bordeaux that we featured at the end of this year’s French landcruise, so she obviously thinks Bordeaux is a great place.  Come and see why she and I are both eager to quickly return – full details here.

The third of the “tremendous trio of tours” is the New Zealand Aurora Australis Adventure, in mid/late March.  While I can’t guarantee a full glorious Aurora Australis display in the sky, I can confidently predict wonderful days of great activities in lovely New Zealand, such that the aurora would be “icing on the cake”.  Please do consider this tour too.

Also this week, there’s been discussion online about a new Delta product that basically sells you a year of earlier boarding privileges than you’d otherwise be entitled to on a regular coach ticket and without high level frequent flier status, for $59.  But we all know that “early boarding privileges” isn’t really selling the delight of a chance to spend more time on a plane, don’t we.  We’re actually paying for something entirely different – a solution to a problem that the airlines cynically first create and then charge us for a limited solution to.

I write about this in the article that also follows on from the roundup.

What else this week?  Please keep reading for :

  • This Week’s Bad News for Boeing
  • More Nonsense About the Qantas Slightly Longer Flight
  • JetBlue’s New Check Your Carry-On Concept
  • Hotel Rooms Continue to Shrink
  • More Crazy Lists
  • Electric Car Trends
  • Just How Dangerous is a Cell Phone?
  • A Better Mousetrap Pizza Box
  • And Lastly This Week….

This Week’s Bad News for Boeing

I go through phases of alternately thinking “can this possibly keep happening” and then thinking “will this ever stop”.  The bad news banquet that surrounds almost everything to do with Boeing has continued at full speed this week, and indeed, there’s been a bit of focus on the question of “will this ever stop”.

Boeing had predicted a final submission to the FAA in September followed by a return to service for the 737 MAX early in the last quarter of this year.  That has been widely interpreted as meaning October – November would be the middle of the quarter and December would be late in the quarter.

As of today, Boeing still hasn’t finalized its application for re-certification with the FAA.  It is now saying that it is continuing to predict approval early in the fourth quarter – note the omission of the word “early” without any comment or admission that the schedule has actually slipped probably two months and maybe more.

In any event, the smart money seems to be betting on approval coming out in January at the earliest, so even Boeing’s quietly amended version of the fourth quarter promise might be wrong.  The airlines themselves are definitely becoming more frustrated – when asked about the timeline for the plane’s return to service, UA’s CEO said bluntly “No-one knows”.  And Southwest has now extended through 8 February the period for which it is not scheduling the planes.  Some commentators don’t expect to see the planes back in revenue service until March, but at this stage, it is anyone’s guess.

The EASA – Europe’s equivalent of the FAA – is now clearly indicating that it will not be certifying the plane at the same time the FAA does, but rather, its approval will follow some time subsequently.  Other national bodies are also thought to be doing things their own way, on their own timetable, rather than lockstep in unison with the FAA as has always been the case in the past.

The question that absolutely needs to be asked is this :  Why is it taking so long?  We’re talking about primarily a tweak to a bit of software and a change to the pilots’ several manuals and documentation.  With the 787 grounding, Boeing was able to design, test, and get approved a new battery box, all in a four month period.  We’re at almost twice that time with the 737, and with no new physical items being needed.  What’s up?  Why?

Last week I’d lampooned the meaningless and minor changing of titles but not personnel at the very top of Boeing (CEO and Chairman titles).  This week, Boeing may have actually fired someone.

There’s considerable ambiguity surrounding the circumstances of the departure of the head of the Boeing Commercial Airplanes division, Kevin McAllister.  The head of the division responsible for the 737 MAX would seem an obvious choice of sacrificial lamb, but as this article cogently reasons, perhaps the better animal analogy would be scapegoat.  The 737 MAX was all completed prior to McAllister moving to the role.  Sure, it seems he was very lack-luster in his BCA role and not good at rushing out to “press the flesh” with affected airlines subsequent to the grounding, but there are plenty of people with greater direct culpability at Boeing than him.

A really awkward bit of information surfaced last Friday.  It seems a 737 MAX test pilot had reported problems with the MCAS system (the system that caused the two fatal crashes) back in 2016.  But somehow the information failed to make it to a decision-maker and (or) was ignored.  See this article.  The response to this belated disclosure was uniformly negative.

It seems when the 737 does get re-certified, Boeing will be able to ship both its usual monthly deliveries (currently running at 42 planes a month) plus 25 of the planes produced and sitting on the ground currently.  So that looks like it will take Boeing pretty much all of 2020 – assuming certification is obtained real soon now – to get caught up.

It is now seeming increasingly likely that Boeing’s inability to walk and chew gum at the same time (translation – to fix the 737 and also to work on new plane development programs) might see a cancellation of its plans for a 757 replacement.  There have been discussions about re-engining the 767-400 to give it new life, but that’s a crazy idea in every respect, and particularly because the 767-400 is “too big” to serve as a 757 replacement (it holds 300, the same as a 787-9, instead of the 200 passengers in a 757-200 with two classes).

If the NMA (New Midmarket Airplane – 757 replacement) isn’t cancelled outright, it is at least being delayed still further, with no expectation of it getting a go-ahead in 2020.  The plane had earlier been thought likely to get board approval early this year.

This situation points to the curious position that Boeing, Airbus, and the airlines are all in at present.  To be blunt, if there was a credible third airplane supplier, many airlines would have cancelled their 737 orders (and possibly all their other Boeing airplane orders too) and shifted them to Brand X or Brand Y.  But with only two suppliers – Boeing and Airbus – neither the airlines nor Airbus can afford to let Boeing fail.  As a result, Airbus is being muted in its criticisms of Boeing and the 737, and airlines are not only holding steady on their 737 and other orders, but British Airways went as far as to gratuitously say it would buy 200 new 737 MAX planes earlier this year in a headline grabbing show of confidence and support.  (Not making the headlines – more than four months later, BA has yet to firm up its order.)

The airlines need two suppliers to play each off against the other, and Airbus understands that if it loses Boeing, it will become a creature of intense regulatory scrutiny like any other monopoly, while causing new and unpredictable competitors to speed up plans to create new competing planes that might upset its current cosy duopoly with Boeing.

So that commercial reality makes a mockery of articles such as this one, which vaguely calls for airlines to “get tough” with Boeing.

Boeing released its third quarter earnings this week.  They were disappointing of course, due to its inability to deliver any 737s, but notwithstanding the depressed result, its share price rose 3.5% on the news.

We were surprised that Boeing has not increased its allowance set aside to settle claims related to the 737 MAX crashes and delays.  The return to service is clearly longer than it was predicting at the end of the second quarter.  If the financial provisions made in the second quarter are still adequate, was the company, back then, secretly expecting more delays than it publicly admitted to?  Or should Boeing have taken another charge in the third quarter to reflect an increasing cost of not shipping the planes?  Either answer seems to suggest that their official third quarter results might benefit from further thought.

More Nonsense About the Qantas Slightly Longer Flight

As we said last week, Qantas has shown it is as good at public relations as it is at operating airplanes.  Its publicity stunt flight between New York and Sydney, which saw a plane being loaded up with eager journalists, is now reaping rich rewards in terms of publicity from the naieve journalists who are dutifully marveling in print about the long flight (a mere 45 minutes longer than the currently operating EWR-SIN flights).

Here’s a great example of the nonsense.  Two things in the article stand out in particular, quite apart from the writer’s dizzying excitement at seeing the “secret” crew rest compartments (not at all secret and which have been written about and filmed plenty of times before).  First is the specious concern about how passengers will manage all the jetlag after crossing 15 time zones.  Except that, it isn’t a 15 hour time zone change.  It is 9.  Because the maximum you can ever do is 12 – 13 hours becomes 11, and so on.  Think about it – crossing 23 time zones, for example, means that you end up just one time zone out from your home zone.  Just like how after you’ve flown half-way around the world, each extra mile brings you closer back home again, not further away.

The second thing, which is more puzzling, is the pilot’s claim that for take-off and landing, and some time after/before each, not only are the two duty pilots on duty, but so are the two relief pilots, too.  I didn’t even realize you could fit four pilots into a 787 cockpit, but assuming you can, aren’t we in a case of “too many cooks spoil the broth”?  The 787 flight procedures are specifically designed for two pilots.  What do the other two pilots do?  Which controls do they operate?  What additional systems do they monitor?

On the other hand, if four pilots are actually beneficial, why doesn’t every airline always have four pilots?

Totally unexplained, at the end of the article (and every other article about the flight) is exactly what Qantas will end up doing for ordinary passengers in coach class to make the almost 20 hour flight different to their current not-much-shorter flights in “normal” planes with normal cramped and crowded seats.

Could it be, when all the hype and free publicity dies down, the answer will be “nothing at all”?

JetBlue’s New Check Your Carry-On Concept

Following on also from the theme of my article about early boarding, below, JetBlue announced an interesting new policy.  You can check your carry-on bag, at the check-in counter, for only $5.  Details here.

The concept is that it saves you the hassle of taking your carry-on through security (and worrying about liquids, etc), and with only a $5 charge, is a very fair price.  For that price, you can only check carry-on sized bags, and with a maximum of 25lbs, but that’s a limit that’s not a problem much of the time.  Because, here’s what you do.  If you’ve too much for a regular carry-on, instead of checking a regular size suitcase at full price, bring a second carry-on with you.  Check one for $5, and take the other on board.

JetBlue hopes this concept will reduce the number of carry-ons that get taken onto planes.  But if you’ve thought the issue through, what it might do instead is simply reduce the number of full-size full-price checked bags it charges for, while leaving the carry-on count unchanged.

Talking about JetBlue, here’s an interesting story of a JetBlue employee who, over the course of 15 months, swapped 505 cheap flight tickets for much more expensive flights, using an ability to override the usual system of requiring the extra fare differential to be paid on when swapping low cost tickets for more expensive tickets.

JetBlue says it was scammed out of $785,000 as a result of this, and the employee is now facing a $250,000 fine and up to 20 years in prison.

Of course, the JetBlue claim is nonsense.  It wasn’t scammed out of anything like that.  Not $785,000.  Not $78,500.  Not even $7,850.  Maybe $785.  JetBlue is claiming that it lost out on the full price of the upgraded new tickets issued, but the thing is, the people who were in on the scam were not going to buy full priced tickets in the first place.  They only traveled because they knew their friend could help them get expensive long-distance travel for no more than the cheapest short-distance ticket cost them.

That’s no excuse for the dishonesty, of course, and there should be an appropriate consequence.  But let’s not pretend that JetBlue lost $785,000.

We also wonder how it took 15 months and 505 fraudulent mis-conversions of tickets before JetBlue responded.

Hotel Rooms Continue to Shrink

It is interesting to see the differences and the similarities between hotels and airlines.  Both have similar framing issues – high fixed costs, low variable costs, and a perishable product.  But while hotels are as keen as airlines to cut costs and save money, they’ve not been quite as vicious at doing so.

They’ve certainly copied some things from airlines, although the greater amount of competition continues to act as a brake on their worst tendencies.

But a lot has changed.  Remember the “good old days” when hotel room rates were fixed and never varied?  When you could book a room on a 6pm hold and cancel without penalty (or just simply not turn up)?  Hotel rates are now similar to airline rates in terms of penalties and multiple simultaneous rates, and hotels continue to experiment with every possible way to charge for extras and increase their average revenue per room per night.  They’ve also copied the airlines in messing up their simple loyalty programs and earning/award charts.

There’s another way they’re copying airlines.  They’re making their rooms smaller, and removing some of the formerly standard features/fittings that used to be in the rooms.  They tell us, of course, that they do this because it is what their guests want, but that’s a claim that seldom survives even the lightest of brushes with reality.

This article asks a question – why are dressers vanishing from hotel rooms?  Not also asked, but relevant, is why desks are similarly either shrinking or disappearing.  The official answer is “people don’t want or use them”, and the supplementary answer is “we’ve replaced them with drawers underneath the bed” (which no-one in their right mind would think of as similarly convenient).

That reminds me of a hotel in France a couple of weeks ago.  The good news – they provided in-room safes.  The bad news?  The safes were on the floor.  You had to crouch down on the floor to access and open the safe, etc.  Not convenient at all.

Back to the shrinking/disappearing furniture.  The real reason is two-fold.  First, to force you out of your room and into a hotel’s public areas, where you’re more likely to then buy hotel food and drinks.  Second, to allow the rooms to shrink in size and still have enough floor to be able to walk around the bed some.  A bonus third reason – to reduce the furniture cost per room.

Hotels and hoteliers are no more our friends than are airlines and airline employees.

More Crazy Lists

When Mark Twain first uttered the aphorism “there are three kinds of lies :  lies, damned lies, and statistics” he was talking about a British politician deliberately misusing statistics to distort an issue.

But these days, our sense is that in addition to the professional liars (aka politicians) there’s an entire new species of beings misusing statistics, but more out of laziness and ignorance than out of a desire to deliberately lie.  This species of beings are writers of internet articles, especially those in search of extra page views and revenue.  The click-baiters, in other words, with their endless “Top 10” lists that take 20 or 30 web pages to share.

Here’s an example of an almost certainly distorted/mistaken interpretation – Airbnb’s list of 2020’s Hottest Tourist Destinations.  The list is based on cities showing the greatest growth in booking numbers for 2020 compared to 2019.  However, two considerations need to be kept in mind.  First, if a city has had a surge in Airbnb participating properties, how does Airbnb adjust for that?  Is it considering only booking levels at properties that have been in their program for a couple of years (like “same store sales” statistics for retail chains)?  Second, if a city has a special convention or event occurring in 2020, does Airbnb filter out the sudden rush of bookings during that special event?

The second point in particular is important, because Airbnb reports that the hottest tourist destination for 2020 is – wait for it, drum roll please – Milwaukee, WI.  The fact that Milwaukee will be hosting the national Democratic Party Convention next year is surely nothing to do with its 729% boost in bookings compared to this year…..  (Coming second is Bilbao, coincidentally hosting the Euro 2020 tournament.)

Statistics of a different sort have also generated a TripAdvisor list of “The World’s Best Fine Dining Restaurants“.   The names of the winners are generally somewhat unfamiliar (including, in most cases, also unfamiliar to the Michelin Guide!), and in some cases, somewhat surprising.

But noting that recently, TripAdvisor’s best restaurant in all of London was a non-existent restaurant created as a joke, perhaps we shouldn’t expect too much from TripAdvisor.

Electric Car Trends

Some interesting news this week.  Tesla reported on its third quarter.  It surprised with a profit, and its shares, which have been doing poorly for most of this year, eagerly soared upwards.  But some analysts noted slowing (and negative) growth, such as I commented on recently.

Meanwhile, Ford announced plans to create the nation’s largest electric vehicle charging network, considerably more extensive than Tesla’s network.

That’s a great step forward to reducing still further the “range anxiety” that people have when going on long road trips in an electric vehicle.  It is also very forward looking of Ford.  You see, they don’t actually make any electric vehicles at all.

But that is going to change, late next year, we are promised.  Ford plans to release a crossover style battery powered SUV that will be high performance and with perhaps a 300 mile range, and with a design “inspired by the Mustang”.  More details to be announced on 17 November.

One more interesting item.  Toyota, sidetracked by its hydrogen/fuel cell nonsense and very late to embracing battery-electric technology, has announced it will release a battery powered Lexus next year.  About time.

In other driving news, Hyundai has announced plans for a massive $35 billion investment in vehicle self-driving technology.  It hopes to start releasing limited self-driving capabilities in 2021 and close to full self-driving in 2024.

Just How Dangerous is a Cell Phone?

Okay, we know about cell phone batteries sometimes “exploding”, catching fire, etc.  But other than that, just how much damage can a phone do, all by itself?  Like, for example, if sitting unattended on a plane?

One thing’s for certain.  We all know someone who has forgotten a phone and left it on a plane (or in a taxi, at a bar, etc) at some time.  Cleaners find phones on planes all the time.  I’ve never left one on a plane, but I’ve left other electronics – Kindles and MP3 players – in seat pockets.

So, with that thought in mind, imagine you’re on an Air France flight from Paris to Chicago.  You find a phone down your seat, or on the floor, or in the seat pocket, or somewhere.  What do you do, and what do you expect the god-like all-knowing pilot to do?

Well, if you’re honest, you hand the phone to a flight attendant.  And they then announce “has anyone lost their phone”.  If no-one responds, they presumably put it to one side, to eventually get sent off to the airline’s lost property office (assuming airlines still bother with such services).

But in this case, the crew and pilots were so alarmed at discovering an unclaimed phone on their A330 that they declared an emergency and diverted the plane, making an emergency landing at Shannon in Ireland, where they were greeted by fire-crew and police.

The phone was examined, x-rayed, deemed to “not be a threat” (duh!) and the plane then refueled and continued on to Chicago.

We’re unconvinced this was either necessary or sensible.  To put it mildly.

A Better Mousetrap Pizza Box

I’ve never bought in to the new craze for ordering food from restaurants, to be delivered to home.  I do not like eating food that has cooled way too much since being prepared, and knowing the travel times involved, there’s no way that delivered food is ever going to be fresh off the stove where I live in Seattle suburbia.

I do sometimes give-in though and have a pizza delivered (although I’m more likely to drive up and drive the pizza back home myself, so that I know it is as close to fresh as possible).  One of the problems of course is the monstrous sized pizza box that you end up having to force into the trash/recycling.

So it was with great interest that I saw this article about a new design of pizza box.  Not only is it made out of something lighter than heavy cardboard (and compostable), but it is circular rather than square.  It will also hold heat better and not get soggy.  Brilliant!

And Lastly This Week….

Here’s an interesting page copied from a September 1978 issue of Flight International.  It shows a model of a proposed new Boeing 777.  But unlike the lovely twin-jet that took to the skies in 1993, this proposed model, 15 years earlier, had three engines.  Who knew…..

And talking about old airplanes, here’s a lovely cockpit video of a DC-3 flying across the Atlantic earlier this year.

The camera never lies (well, not until Photoshop came along), but for sure, some pictures tell more truth than others.  Here’s an amusing set of pictures contrasting cruise-line promotional pictures with the reality as actually photographed on real cruises.

And talking of cameras, are you spending too much time on your phone these days?  Google has just released a mildly funny set of six apps that can help you be more aware of, and maybe even control, your obsessive phone use.  My favorite is the “first person to look at the phone pays for the meal” app.

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels





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