Weekly Roundup, Friday 1 November, 2019

Beautiful Bordeaux is a magnificent World Heritage city and a great place for our 2020 French tour to be based in.

Good morning

I hope your Halloween was happy.  As is usually the case, my long dark driveway proved too difficult for the local children, and so yet again, the major beneficiary of the candy purchased will be my daughter – and perhaps me too.

Or maybe this year there just weren’t as many people out due to the much more difficult decision about what costume to wear.  The killjoys have been working overtime this year, trying to condemn many traditional Halloween costumes as being “inappropriate“.  Even a Disney “Moana” Princess costume has been deemed culturally insensitive.

I’m in the throes of writing a buyer’s guide to car dash cams.  Like many of my project articles, this has grown substantially in size and scope already, and will continue to grow further, I expect, between now and when I publish it (hopefully next week).

Dash cams can now be had for under $50, although high end ones still stretch in price to almost $500.  As part of the article, I bought a $50 dash cam unit to review and experiment with, and to try and understand if a low priced unit would be all that someone needed.  That has been an interesting experience so far, uncovering a number of disappointments and issues.  Should I buy some other units as well, including some of the more expensive ones, to do a thorough evaluation of multiple units?

So, here’s the thing.  If you would be interested in a detailed comparison review of dashcams, please encourage me to do so in the most practical way possible.  Simply send in some support to help fund the purchase of additional review units by becoming a Travel Insider Supporter.  You can quickly do so here.  If you are already a Supporter, or if you just want to simply send in a single one-off contribution, you can send in a contribution for this “earmarked” purpose here.

There’s little point in buying and relying on a dash cam if, when it is actually needed, the images it captures are blurred and useless.  There is a definite need to do side by side tests of these cameras to see how good (or bad!) they are in low-light and high-contrast conditions.  You can see some video I took with this dash cam here; I don’t yet know if other cameras would be the same, better, or possibly even worse, and this video is only daytime, not nighttime.

None of the reviews and lists of recommended cameras I’ve seen anywhere do this at present (so you can guess just how in-depth the reviews truly are).  Help The Travel Insider again set the standard for quality reviews you can truly trust and rely on – if this would be of value to you, please send in some support to help us review additional units.

What else this week?  The usual assorted range of items :

  • Travel Insider Touring for 2020
  • This Week’s Bad News for Boeing
  • Flight Shaming?  Or Not?
  • Good News for Norwegian
  • Engine Problems Galore
  • A (not) New Approach to Faster Airplane Boarding
  • Proof that Airline Managers are Blitheringly Incompetent, or …..
  • Tesla – You Read About it Here, First
  • TSA Employees Privately Tell the Truth About Life in Airport Security Lanes
  • And Lastly This Week….

Travel Insider Touring for 2020

We now have three tours for you to consider for next year.  They are very different in style and content, but in their different ways, all three offer great experiences.

In March we have our Aurora Australis Adventure in New Zealand.  Maybe we’ll see the Southern Lights, every bit as marvelous as the Northern Lights, but not nearly so well known.  And unlike expeditions in search of the Northern Lights, which tend to take you to far away remote and generally uninteresting barren places, you get to enjoy the beauty of the southern part of NZ’s South Island, with lots of great things to do during the days.  Full details here.

In May we have our Bordeaux and Beyond Landcruise in France.  This is a full week based in Bordeaux, and exploring the beautiful region (and magnificent wines) in that part of France.  We’ve a pre-tour option on the French Riviera, and a post-tour option in the lovely Loire Valley, making for a glorious combination of French experiences.  Full details here.

Directly after the French touring, we then have our Scotland’s Four Corners Tour in June.  This is an interesting tour because it goes to Scotland’s northernmost point, and the same for the south, east and west corners of mainland Scotland too.  After we’ve been to all four, you’ll have done something that few Scottish people have ever done – indeed, most of them wouldn’t even know where these four places are!  Of course, we don’t just travel to these four points – we include some of the “lovely bits in the middle” too.  Full details here.

This Week’s Bad News for Boeing

It is nothing at all to do with the latest MAX version of the 737, but it is still bad news for the company and the airplane that the earlier cracks on 737 NG series planes’ wing mounts have multiplied and Thursday had news of cracks now being found on 50 more planes that had earlier been thought to be free of the cracking.  The 50 planes have been grounded, pending repairs (which are fairly easily done).

Boeing has had to eat humble pie in DC this week, with senior Boeing executives being harangued first by showboating senators and then a second time by congressmen too, keen to score points and come up with quotable soundbites, and all lambasting Boeing for its cavalier disregard of what increasingly seems to have been quite a substantial degree of concern expressed from several different sources about the 737 MAX MCAS automatic pitch control system and the reason for the two fatal crashes.

Even more alarmingly, a couple of politicians have introduced legislation to mandate that airplanes must be safe.  Well, yes, you and I both thought that airplanes were required to be safe already, but a bit like gun control legislation, when the first piece of legislation fails, it seems the answer isn’t to better enforce the existing legislation, but to write more legislation.  Because (in the case of airplane design standards and safety) there’s no doubt (in the minds of our elected officials) that adding more layers of bureaucracy and legislation will succeed.  There’s also a strong sense of “locking the stable door” about the legislation these well-meaning folk are introducing.

While it is not my job to defend either Boeing or the FAA for the shameful situation that has existed for too long between them, it is also at least partially due to the FAA lacking sufficient funding to operate a more robust approval and evaluation system that caused it to overly rely on self-certification by Boeing rather than carefully test and check every aspect of the new airplane.  A simpler approach might simply be to give the FAA more funding and require them to spend it, the way they feel best, to better oversee new airplane design and development.

It seems increasingly plain that Boeing was so fixated on a desire to have no conversion/retraining requirements for pilots moving from the earlier NG series of 737s to the MAX series that somewhere, somehow, someone, made some bad and ultimately fatal choices.  But there is no clear answer as to exactly who did exactly what and when, just a fuzzy understanding that bad decisions were somehow made, and information not adequately communicated or shared with the FAA, the airlines, and the pilots who were to fly the planes.

People might well lose their jobs – last week it seems likely that the former head of Boeing Commercial Airplane Services was fired, even though he wasn’t hired until after the 737 MAX design work had been done.  But will the people who really truly were at the center of these bad decisions ever be named and shamed, and suffer any consequence for their actions?  Almost surely not.  How about some legislation for this?

Here’s a good article that brings the 737 MAX saga more or less up to date to the present time.

Meanwhile, with it now being 1 November, it is worth noting that Boeing’s claim that it would have the final packet of data to the FAA in September for approval is now another month late and in serious need of being updated.  And their related claim that the FAA would give that approval “early in the fourth quarter” can no longer be viewed seriously either, with the early part of the quarter now having transitioned to the middle part of the quarter.  At least Boeing is now quietly omitting the words “early in” when talking about FAA approval for the 737 to resume flights.

Industry commentators, while split as to if FAA approval will come prior to the end of the year or not, are close to unanimous that approvals from other national certification bodies such as those of Europe, Japan and – most of all – China – will be unlikely until some time next year.

The Chinese authorities in particular have been very quiet about their plans to re-approve the plane, and it seems a likely guess that these plans will speed up or slow down depending on the state of the overall trade negotiations between China and the US.

A regular bit of industry speculation came out again this last week with more force – the notion that Southwest Airlines might be rethinking its policy of only buying 737 planes, not any other models at all.

Southwest’s strategy made sense when it had a simpler route network, with very similar flight lengths and airplane loadings, and only a few dozen airplanes in total.  But these days, with 751 airplanes, and flights as short as between the islands in Hawaii, or as long as, well, flights between Hawaii and the west coast, or between the west and east coasts on the mainland, it no longer makes sense to pursue a “one size fits all” approach to the planes it operates.

The speculation of course is based on Southwest’s problems with the 737 MAX grounding – it has 34 planes grounded, and an unknown number of additional MAX planes that were due to be delivered and which have of course not been delivered over the last eight months.  That has been an inconvenience, for sure, and a reason for Southwest to be concerned about putting all its eggs in only one or two or three closely related baskets.  But we think the real reason Southwest might start to consider a second (and possibly third or more) airplane type is not to do with concerns about having more problems like this very unusual one with the MAX, but rather because it no longer makes sense to use one plane for such very different routes.

Flight Shaming?  Or Not?

United tries to appease the enviro-crazies with news that it is spending $40 million to “further decarbonize air travel”.  This $40 million spend is so small as to be almost a rounding error on United’s annual expenditures.

In 2018, United spent $38 billion.  $40 million is one one-thousandth of its 2018 expenditures, and it is being spent over several years, not all at once.  Indeed, the hoped for publicity value of the $40 million being spent is probably a large claw-back of the money for the airline.  But will it appease the enviro-crazies?  Not at all, of course, rather it will encourage them.

Taking the other approach is Finnair.  Rather than submitting to the enviro-crazies and paying lip-service to them, even to the point of some airlines like KLM that remarkably claims to be encouraging its passengers to fly less, Finnair has announced that it sees no impact whatsoever on its business from flight-shaming.

This is probably the truth across the entire industry, but few airlines are willing to boldly challenge the global warmers.  Meantime, in the US, we are experiencing the coldest ever recorded October temperature and a 96 year old snowfall record in Chicago.

A bit of that global warming wouldn’t be a bad thing right now.

Good News for Norwegian

We were delighted to read that Norwegian announced a better than expected set of third quarter results, and also some further moves to improve its cash position.

While we often find ourselves feeling a bit awkward when we read about the Chinese appearing in more and more western business ventures, in this case, Norwegian’s plan to place some of their planes into a Chinese leasing company doesn’t actually cede corporate control to the Chinese, and helps the airline with its cash flow.

The airline says it now has enough cash for the next 12 or more months, which is a great improvement on the much shorter period of available cash it had been struggling with over the last little while.  Best of all, it expects to be in a cash flow positive, profitable trading situation by the end of next year.  It is continuing to cut unprofitable routes, a necessary and prudent thing to do.

Details here.

Slightly more uncertain are reports that Norwegian might be doing a deal with Russia where it agrees to lease or even buy up to 40 Sukhoi Superjet 100 planes.  That’s a decision that is very dubious – as well as potentially very costly.  But in exchange, Norwegian would be granted overflight rights to fly shorter and more direct routes to Asia, over Russia rather than needing to detour around Russia without the overflight rights.

We hope Norwegian has carefully done the numbers to confirm the good sense of this quid pro quo exchange.  But maybe it has.  This report suggests Norwegian could save $40,000 each way on flights between London and China, Japan and South Korea.

With the SSJ100 having notched up only one sale so far this year, we imagine Norwegian could drive a fairly hard bargain, over and above the benefit of the overflight rights.

Engine Problems Galore

One of the problems with the SSJ100 program at present has been its engines, which are made by a French/Russian joint venture.  The French company is Safran, involved in other joint ventures like with GE for the LEAP engine that powers some A320neo, 737MAX and C919 planes, and which has also given problems.

A similar engine is the Pratt & Whitney PW1000G that can be found on A320neos also, as well as the A220 and other planes.  This engine too has had problems, most recently reported this week on the A220, with the Canadian regulator Transport Canada issuing a directive limiting the maximum power that can safely be used with them.

Add to this problems with just about every other modern state-of-the-art airplane engine (don’t even get me started on the problems with Rolls-Royce), including ones that haven’t even entered service yet (the new GE9X – the largest engine ever built, and designed for the 777X) and one has to wonder what exactly is the common thread running through all the jet engine companies and problems with their latest/greatest engines.  What has happened to the bullet-proof reliability of the previous generation of jet engines?

Something to ponder the next time you’re on a long over-water flight on a twin-engined plane….

A (not) New Approach to Faster Airplane Boarding

From time to time, airlines or research groups do studies on the fastest way to board a plane.  Two points usually emerge from these studies, which can at times be quite in-depth, testing a large number of different ways to board a plane.

The first point is that one of the consistently fastest ways of boarding a plane is the “free for all” approach where everyone can board at the same time.

The second point is that the consistently slowest way of boarding a plane is the method used by almost all airlines at present, with the different priorities and then the different zones from back to front of the plane.

This week has seen excited news from Gatwick Airport in London, where the airport has been testing a new boarding procedure with discount carrier, Easyjet.  They first start boarding people in window seats, then middle seats, then aisle seats last, and going from the back to the front of the plane.  Tests have shown they are consistently reducing the time it takes to board a plane between 10% and 20%.  This is not a new methodology, it has been trialed before.

So why don’t all airlines do this, all the time?  Well, the thing is, Easyjet is a discount airline that doesn’t have a complex hierarchy of different levels of elite frequent fliers, but other airlines generally do, and the airlines have created the situation that all these people expect to be boarded before “ordinary” people.  We wrote about that in our article last week – “The Real Benefit of Early Airplane Boarding“.  The airlines also sell, seat by seat on the plane, privileges such as it being a seat near the front  or an aisle seat, and to come up with a situation where the people getting earliest boarding were the people in the back, and that people in the hated middle seats were boarded before people with privileged aisle seats, would upset their carefully structured series of ways to charge more and “reward” selected passengers.

So while the airlines bemoan the inefficiency of present boarding methods, they deliberately choose to perpetuate them.  Sure, the extra minutes at the gate cost them appreciable money, but they more than compensate for it with the fees they charge for early boarding.

Proof that Airline Managers are Blitheringly Incompetent, or …..

Talking about faster boarding, there’s another part of the total travel experience that has become increasingly time-costly.  And that is getting into your Uber/Lyft car to be taken from the airport you arrived at to your ultimate destination.

You’ve probably noticed, the same as me, how airports go out of their way to hide the location of the Lyft/Uber pickup points, and regularly we read about airports that add extra levies/fees to Uber/Lyft drivers but not to regular taxi drivers.

Most recently, LAX decided to ban Uber/Lyft cars from picking up at the airport terminals, while still allowing regular taxis to do so.  Instead, people wishing an Uber or Lyft ride would first have to take a shuttle to an off-airport lot, which of course adds considerably to the time and general hassle factor.

This ban came into force this week.  The result?  One to two hour delays while people waited for their rides to collect them from the inadequate over-congested pickup area.  Details here.

Newsflash to LAX management :  Your obligation is not to the taxi industry.  It is to the passengers who choose to fly through your airport.  You are obliged to give them the best possible transit experience, and that includes being able to connect with their driver service of their choice to leave the airport.

Why do airport managements hate Uber/Lyft so much?  Could it be because many airports sell the “rights” to pickup passengers to only one designated taxi group, and see Uber/Lyft as cutting into that revenue stream?  Indeed, airports don’t just sell the rights for a big fat fee, but they’ll go further and impose restrictions on such ridiculous things as the mpg statistics of the taxis.  What business is it of an airport as to the type of taxi and its associated fuel economy when it comes to collect people?

Tesla – You Read About it Here, First

I’ve been occasionally pointing out that Tesla’s sales are nowhere near as strong as people perceive them to be.  The weakness of their Model S and X sales was for a time obscured by the soaring numbers of Model 3 cars sold, but now that we’ve seen three months in a row of lower Model 3 sales compared to the same month last year, it can no longer be ignored that all three cars and total US sales are dropping.

This ugly truth was finally discovered by the market this week when it was disclosed that third quarter revenue for Tesla in the US was down 39% compared to the same quarter last year.

The lack of sales growth in the model S has been a reality for over three years, the model X peaked in February this year and has been slowly dropping since then, and now the model 3 has shown there are limits on its market demand, too.  After peaking with monthly sales of 25,250 in December last year, it has only once since then sold over 20,000 cars in a month (21,225 in June) and it has averaged under 15,000 cars a month during the last three months.

It is astonishing to see this.  There is no longer any pretense of manufacturing constraints on Tesla’s ability to sell/supply cars in the US.  There just does not seem to be the demand for them.

But we’re told not to worry.  Tesla’s future lies in China.  We’d be very cautious before relying on China as a source of profit for any western company, but Tesla seems to feel that its future there is secure.  As too do its ever-optimistic investors.

TSA Employees Privately Tell the Truth About Life in Airport Security Lanes

First carefully reported by NBC and without too much “horrifying” detail, but subsequently gleefully amplified by the Daily Mail in the UK, are stories of a private Facebook group that many TSA employees have belonged to and in which they have shared unpolitically correct insider jokes and stories of their work and the traveling public they interact with.

Would you be shocked to learn that TSA employees sometimes like us no more than we like them?  And, it might be added, with just as much valid reason for feeling that way as we do about them.

Details here.

And Lastly This Week….

Along with “flight shaming” and “over-touristing”, there’s a new weapon in the travel killjoy arsenal.  The “tourist pledge”.  An empty meaningless promise by tourists to be nice and respectful, blah blah blah.

Some countries just use it in their tourist promotions – simultaneously saying “we want you come and visit” and “but only if you’ll be nice”.  Others provide forms or electronic web pages for people to sign, attesting to their promise to be nice.  Apparently there are screens at Reykjavik Airport for visitors to sign their pledges, although I’ve never seen them.

And, as a more extreme form, that well-known international tourism hotspot of Palau requires visitors to sign a pledge in their passport, with the threat of fines of up to $1 million if visitors then break the pledge.  Just what Palau needs to boost its tourism.

Details here.

We love books and bookshops, and always feel a smidgen of guilt these days when leaving without having bought anything.  Here’s a great idea that we’d be happy to embrace, and we note with dismay how some bookstore owners disagree.  They’ll almost surely be the next bookstores to close.

We often underestimate the time it takes to travel somewhere, especially using public transport in a foreign city.  We use a rule of thumb that tube stations in London are on average two minutes apart, so we count the stations and multiply by two to get the travel time.  But it is necessary to add to that the time it takes to get to the tube station, go through the ticket turnstile, walk through the tunnels, take the escalator down to the platform, wait for a train, get on the train, and then reverse all that at the other end.  Even a journey going just one stop ends up taking not two but ten minutes when you factor everything in.

Which makes this article only semi-surprising.  Yes, sometimes it is quicker (and cheaper!) to walk between stations in London.

We understand that some people don’t like airports.  But is it really necessary to generate thousands of fake noise complaints to show your dislike of an airport?  Apparently some people in Everett, just north of Seattle, feel that is helping their cause.

To end on a positive “note”, here’s a lovely piece about pianos in train stations.

And truly lastly, here’s a fascinating video of an airport opening and airshow that was held to celebrate it, 60 years ago this week.  The most interesting part is how it that nearly ended in disaster – not once, but three times.

It is particularly interesting to me, because it is about Wellington Airport in New Zealand, an airport I’ve “enjoyed” flying in and out of many times, and I hope you might find it interesting too.  I loved the comment “those were the days – when airplanes all looked different”.  Isn’t it so true that only a really dedicated airplane spotter can tell the difference between airplanes these days.

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels

 

David.

 

 

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