Weekly Roundup, Friday 15 November, 2019

Can you spot the error in this photo? Hint : Your life might depend on it. The answer is in the article about flight safety briefings, below.

Good morning

Happy birthdays this week to two of our favorite airlines.  Hawaiian Airlines turned 90, and Qantas turned 99.

The relentless buildup of anticipation prior to Black Friday has been continuing apace this week, including most of the major online and bricks and mortar retailers already pre-releasing details of what they’ll be discounting.

I’ve been watching with increasing interest as 4K television monitors have been steadily dropping in price and rising in features and quality.  With some amazing deals being offered, not only for Black Friday but even for “pre-sales” right now, I’ve been feeling a growing desire to treat myself.  So I started looking more seriously at some of the “too good to be true” deals, and realized that they were indeed exactly that – too good to be true.

The interesting truth of 4K television is that in many cases, people don’t even notice the improved picture quality brought about by the four times increase in pixels compared to a regular 1080P monitor (because they’re sitting too far away from their set).  But there is one optional extra feature of 4K monitors that is obvious and easy to see and appreciate at any distance, and most of the lowest priced 4K televisions don’t include it.  That is a crazy omission; it makes no sense to buy a 4K television without this feature.

And so I quickly wrote an article to share with you this potential buyers’ trap, and added several more issues to be on the lookout and to be aware of as well.  I encourage you to by all means get a lovely new 4K monitor, but if you’re going to do so, please be certain it truly is lovely.  The article follows the newsletter.

Also following the newsletter are two more segments in my encyclopedic dash-cam series.  I’d hoped to complete the series this week, but the unexpected extra article on buying a 4K tv monitor displaced the final parts of the dash-cam series.  So that will come next week.

A special thank you to the additional people who helped fund the purchase of another two dash cams this last week, meaning we now have five in total for testing and review ranging from high end to bargain basement.  I think at least one of these is a really good unit at a really good price, and when I’ve completed the testing can share that information with you.

I’ve added some extra bonus content (in purple) in all three of the articles this week, exclusively for the kind and generous Travel Insider Supporters.  The articles are great and stand on their own without the extra content, so everyone gets value, and I hope that the Supporters will appreciate the added depth of coverage and suggestions in their exclusive material too.  Please remember – you can only access this by logging in to the blog website.  You don’t see the extra material in the newsletter.  And, of course, if you’re not yet a member of this special group of people, it is very easy to join.

What else this week?  Oh, the usual – Boeing cops another load of bad news, and an update on our two lovely tours for next year.  It is great to see people now signing up for them, indeed, this far, everyone who has signed up has been with me before, including three people who traveled on this year’s tours.  So whether you’re a first time tour member, or a long time participant, please do consider the two lovely tours for next May and June.  And so :

  • Our France Tour Is Easy to Join
  • A Scotland Challenge to You
  • This Week’s Bad News for Boeing
  • Maybe You Should Listen to and Watch the Next Flight Attendant Safety Briefing
  • Qantas Publicity Stunt Part 2
  • An Irony on Twitter
  • Was it a Good Year for Amtrak?
  • A Little Bit of Good News at the Border
  • Amazon Alexa’s Increasing Chattiness at 7am
  • And Lastly This Week….

Our France Tour is Easy to Join

It is true that Bordeaux, where this tour is based, is in the southwest of France, and almost on the Atlantic Coast of the Bay of Biscay. But did you know it is only 3 1/2 hours by train from Charles de Gaulle Airport direct to the train station in the center of Bordeaux.  Best of all, there is no need to change trains on the way.  Get on the train at one end, and enjoy a smooth almost silent and very fast train journey that is a lovely contrast to the flight you either just stepped off or are about to connect to.

If you’ve decided to enjoy our pre-tour option along the French Riviera and based in Marseille, that is only half an hour longer by train, on a different and also lovely fast line direct from CDG Airport.

Of course, both Marseille and Bordeaux have airports and good flight connections too.  But we know many of you sometimes choose to add your own touring elsewhere in Europe before or after a Travel Insider tour, and so it is great to know that there are excellent high speed train connections to both Marseille and Bordeaux before the tour (and from Bordeaux and optionally Tours after the tour, too).

Full details of our lovely Bordeaux and Beyond Tour, next May, are here.

A Scotland Challenge to You

I’m so confident that our Scotland Tour is wonderfully unique (and uniquely wonderful) that I offer a challenge.  If any reader has been to Scotland’s Four Corners (the mainland northern, southern, western and eastern points) before on any earlier tour, I’ll give you a free 2020 tour – either Scotland or France – as an expression of my amazement and a penalty for my hubris.  I’ll limit this to two “winners”, just in case I’m totally wrong about the uniqueness of our Four Corners tour, and of course require reasonable proof of your prior touring.  I’ll hold the offer open through the end of the Thanksgiving Weekend.

Oh – and yes, our Scottish tour is very easy to join as well.  Fly to Glasgow and it is a ten minute bus ride from the airport to the center of downtown, or fly to Edinburgh and it is less than a one hour train ride to Glasgow, or fly to London and either enjoy the day train ( 4 1/2 hours, no need to change trains en route) or the lovely night sleeper train.

I’ve carefully timed both the 2020 tours so you can do them both (as one couple did this year) if you wish as part of a single European journey, and sequenced them so you have the best weather in each place (ie France first in May, Scotland second in June).  And while you’ll be enjoying long and warm days, you’ll be avoiding the crush of the summer crowds, which typically don’t start until just after we’re leaving Scotland.

Full details of our Scotland’s Four Corners Tour are here.

This Week’s Bad News for Boeing

I mentioned last week the strange duality of how, for some things, whether they vary one way or the other, it is always bad.  The Boeing example was how some analysts worry that continued delays in restarting 737 MAX deliveries is harming Boeing financially (as it indeed is), but other analysts are now worrying that a sudden rush of 737 MAX deliveries when Boeing finally gets to play catch-up with its manufactured but undelivered 737 backlog will also be a bad thing.

Another example appeared this week.  Southwest’s pilots are clearly an opinionated lot, as, sadly, are most pilots, who confuse their fancy uniform, an even fancier pay-check, and ridiculous discretionary powers over the fate over the passengers on the planes they fly, with implying they’re actually experts at something.

I’ve mentioned before about how Southwest’s pilots are suing Boeing for over $100 million, because they’ve not been able to work as many hours currently due to not being able to fly the 737 MAX planes Southwest already has (grounded) and the additional ones expected to have been delivered by now but not.  One can understand their disappointment, but whether that forms grounds for a lawsuit or not is something I guess the courts will get to decide.

At the time that lawsuit was announced, barely a month ago, the head of the Southwest pilots union, Jon Weaks, said he believes Boeing will make the plane safe and pilots will resume flying it.

When the plane comes back, it will be one of the most examined airplanes ever.  The problems they had with MCAS are being engineered out of it.

But now this week, and after further delays in restarting the 737 MAX operations have been reluctantly admitted by Boeing, the Southwest pilots are now expressing their grave concerns that Boeing is “rushing” through the process of getting the 737 MAX back into the air again.  Sure, it is the longest airplane grounding in modern memory, but the Southwest pilots seem to think it should be longer.  They don’t tell us why, or what in particular they feel is being inadequately addressed and resolved.

Weaks now says Boeing may be raising the threat of shutting down the Max assembly line to pressure regulators to let the plane fly again soon and force airlines to resume making payments on their Max jets and absorb some costs of getting the planes back in the air.  That’s not all he says.  It seems he’s no longer besties with Boeing :

Boeing will never, and should not ever, be given the benefit of the doubt again.  The combination of arrogance, ignorance, and greed should and will haunt Boeing for eternity.

What a difference a month makes.  We’re left uncertain as to if Weaks and his fellow pilots think the 737 will be good or bad, and if they want the plane back in service sooner or later.  Could their change of tune imply that not all is going well with their $100 million lawsuit?

It was the 777’s turn for a bit of embarrassment this week when Boeing confessed that its plans to automate part of the 777 fuselage assembly with robots has failed.  After spending an unknown number of millions of dollars, and trying to get robots to fix panels together in a project that started in 2013, the company has now given up and decided that people are better than machines at doing this.

We’re actually astonished that people are better than machines at what is a highly repetitive and very rigidly defined task such as fixing panels together.  Boeing has successfully automated other parts of its airplane assembly processes.  It is hard to understand how six years of trials and attempts have ended in failure.  Details here.

It is telling when this article about the wing mount structural cracking on 737 NG planes being more extensive than first believed is a minor piece of news for Boeing.

Another sacrificial lamb seems to have been offered up by Boeing, with the sudden departure of the Vice President of Communications for the Boeing Commercial Airplane Group.  One of the oft-cited criticisms of the 737 MAX debacle has been how maladroitly Boeing shaped and shared its messages with the various stakeholder groups involved with the issue/problem, and so it seems likely that this change is a result of that general unhappiness.

In good news for Boeing, however, they finally made a new statement about when they expect the 737 might re-enter service.  In a rather qualified and conditional way, they spoke about getting permission to resume deliveries by the end of December, and having a new pilot training methodology approved in January – this being necessary before the planes could actually start commercially flying again.  They said

it is possible that the resumption of MAX deliveries to airline customers could begin in December  [my emphasis]

So the timings represented delays to Boeing’s some-months-old earlier predictions about earlier this quarter for the planes returning to commercial service.  Why was this good news for Boeing?  Because the share market responded by pushing its stock up almost 5%, with analysts choosing to believe Boeing’s statement and accept it at face value.

Not indicated in the statement was which jurisdictions would approve the plane’s return to service in December.  Our sense is that there’ll be a delay, even if just as a public show of independence, between the FAA’s approval and that of most other certifying bodies in other jurisdictions, and as for when China will re-approve the 737, that’s almost certainly a political rather than engineering/safety issue.  Details here.

Maybe You Should Listen to and Watch the Next Flight Attendant Safety Briefing

I really dislike the increasing militancy of flight attendants who don’t just politely request but demand we pay attention to their flight safety briefings.  If you’re like me, you could probably give one yourself, going through all the motions, putting the lifejacket on and off, pretending to blow in the whistle or to manually inflate the life jacket, putting on the oxygen mask, and so on.

Or could you?  I’ve long suspected that putting on the life jacket and looping that strap around and under or through or something might not be quite as easy as it seems, particular in the dark, with water pouring into the plane, and so on.  But I’ve always been confident I’d get the oxygen mask thing right – particularly the bit about “put your own mask on first”.  You betcha!

So here’s an interesting article that is associated with the picture at the top of this newsletter.  Do you know what is wrong with every mask we can see?

No-one has the mask over their nose and mouth, just over their mouth.  And at least one person has it so loose as to be useless.

“Place the mask over your nose and mouth, and tighten the straps so it is firm” is I think the phrase used in most safety briefings.

Just saying…..

Qantas Publicity Stunt Part 2

I rolled my eyes repeatedly when Qantas did such a magnificent job of winning umpteen bazillion dollars worth of gushingly positive publicity by virtue of it operating a single “test/trial flight” between New York and Sydney, a month ago.  It was – gasp – about an hour longer than the longest regularly scheduled flight, but this relatively minor increase in total flying time caused an eruption of amazement from journalists who were clearly angling for free tickets on any Qantas flight, anywhere, to say nothing of the “quid pro quo” puffballs of praise from the journalists who agreed to be “guinea pigs” on the test flight.

Well, would you be surprised to learn that after that amazing flood of publicity, Qantas is doing it again (and apparently, has a third flight planned too).  This time the flight was between London and Sydney which is not all that amazing.  Qantas did that same flight almost exactly 30 years ago, in a 747-400 – probably before many of this generation of “reporters” and “influencers” were even born.  Indeed, the articles that have been flowing are pretending the earlier Qantas flight never happened, because this flight is being hailed as a “record breaking flight”.

The most ridiculous quote from the NYC-SYD flight was the concern about the impact on the human body after traveling through 16 times zones – my point being that you can never go more than 12 time zones away before you start coming back again.

This time, the most ridiculous quote is from the flight’s captain, who worried

The biggest challenge will be flying through unfamiliar airspace, with the language difficulties that will involve.

If this was worrying her, perhaps she wasn’t a good choice of pilot.  A pilot with a modicum of international experience would understand that the international universal language of aviation, everywhere, is English (albeit not always in perfect form).  And most pilots would realize that while they might be flying somewhere new for them personally, and maybe even for their airline, there is every good chance that other planes have safely flown similar routes before, and successfully communicated and coordinated with the various air traffic control centers on route.  Best of all, the GPS constellation and its navigation aids work everywhere.

We look forward with interest to their next publicity stunt.  Doubtless it too will make the headlines.

An Irony on Twitter

I’ve been slow to warm to Twitter, but since more actively applying myself to the medium since the beginning of this year, I’ve become quite adept at avoiding the worst of the time-wasting nonsense that is never far from the surface, while finding some of the gems and useful/interesting items.  Many of these of course appear in The Travel Insider’s Twitter feed – if you’re not already following it, you really should.  If you like the weekly newsletters, you’ll probably find the ongoing stream of tweets enjoyable, too.  Just about everything that appears in the weekly newsletters is drawn from my tweeting during the preceding week, and for every item included, there are many items omitted but in the Twitter feed that you might also find interesting.

On Thursday I noticed a mundane seeming Twitter exchange.  A tweet mentioned Expedia’s new policy of penalizing hotels with resort fees, causing them to appear further down its list of hotel results when a person searches for a hotel.

Another Twitter user replied to the tweet, noting that Expedia’s response was too little, too late.  Certainly I agree that Expedia is being very gentle in terms of how it is trying to discourage hotels from adding resort fees, and a cynic would say that Expedia’s action is self-serving.  Hotels can pay to appear higher up Expedia’s search results, and perhaps hotels will work the equation and decide it is best to keep the resort fee and to in turn pay a small extra cost to Expedia to return their listing prominence to what it was before.

But the obscured irony is worthy of note.  Who is this worthy Twitter user who dislikes fees being added to a core price for a travel service?  Oh, he is a board member of Alaska Airlines.

So does that mean he’ll see to it that Alaska Airlines starts stripping out some of its gratuitously insulting fees?  One can hope so, but one would be very foolish to expect that to happen.

Pot calling the kettle black?

Was it a Good Year for Amtrak?

There have been several articles over the last week or so dutifully recycling Amtrak’s press release about its financial results for 2019 (their accounting year ends 30 September).  Phrases such as “record ridership” and “best operating performance in its history” were being bandied about.

But was it really as good as Amtrak says and these articles echo?

Well, “record ridership” turns out to be a 2.5% increase in passenger numbers.  That is good, but in 2018, domestic air passenger numbers grew by 4.9% – twice the rate Amtrak experienced (albeit not for the exact same time periods).  In other words, Amtrak lost market share.  So that’s not quite as rosy a picture as Amtrak would wish us to envisage.

As for the “best operating performance” – well, that’s a fairly low bar for chronically unprofitable Amtrak.  Sure, operating earnings are said to have improved by $141 million, resulting in a loss of $30 million.  But, please understand what operating earnings are.  They ignore several substantial costs like interest, and, well, we’re not quite sure what else Amtrak has done to create this almost breaking even number.  It seems they’ve not yet released a 2019 annual report, and when we look at their 2018 annual report, we don’t see a line on it saying “operating earnings  $171 million loss”, just lines with various labels and with losses in the region of $800+ million.  There’s no analogous number in last year’s audited accounts that we can match to their “operating earnings of -$30 million” boast for this year.

So, was it a good year for Amtrak?  Their press release and articles such as this say so.  We’re unable to tell.  But we kinda doubt it.

A Little Bit of Good News at the Border

One of the most ridiculous, pointless, and also impactful inconveniences that people are threatened with when crossing the border and entering the US (either returning citizens or arriving visitors) is having their personal electronic devices seized and searched.

Just think – what would you do if the Customs Officer confiscated your phone, laptop, tablet, and any other electronics you have, and gave you a receipt, promising to return them to you sometime in the next month or two (it sometimes takes longer)?  You might be stuck before you even leave the airport if you’d been planning on calling a Lyft or Uber ride, and if you hop into a taxi, better hope you weren’t planning on using Apple Pay or one of the other phone based payment systems to pay for that ride, too.

Maybe you quite literally don’t even know where you’re going because your itinerary and booking notes/confirmations are on your phone/laptop.  And you can’t call anyone because these days who remembers phone numbers – they are all stored in our phone and other devices.

Plus, that presentation you had spent the last week working on to give to your key new prospective client?  The PowerPoint and supporting PDFs have all been taken with your laptop.

So, clearly, for many/most/all of us, losing our devices would be catastrophic.

Now, for the offsetting public good that might justify such actions.  I understand that the Customs people are there to stop the importing of illegal and undutied items.  If they find an undeclared bottle of whisky in my suitcase, then that is their job.  If they find an illegally imported sandwich that should have been declared to the Agricultural people, again, that is their job.  And so on.

But all these things are physical tangible objects.  What is possibly illegal on a phone?  Nothing physical, for sure.

How can intangible non-objects also be illegal?  The absolute truth of today’s situation is that Customs are using laws and procedures designed to detect and find physical objects, but applying them now in a search for intangible objects.  But they are starkly different processes and consequences.  Which would you prefer?  The occasional rummaging through your clothes and other stuff in your suitcase that takes all of three or four minutes to complete before you’re on your way; or surrendering what for many of us is our entire “life”, both professionally and personally, for an unknown amount of time.  It is bad enough to have one’s taste in underwear exposed to the world for a minute or two while you look on anxiously, but what happens if an unknown number of people can access all your electronic data, potentially keep copies, joke about it on Facebook groups, and so on?

Okay, you’re probably going to talk about the need to search for either salacious materials and that sort of thing in picture or video form, or maybe you’re going to say there might be evidence of conspiracies being plotted and terrorist attacks being planned that could be found in text messages and emails.

That is also true, although we’re unclear when it becomes a border policing/control issue rather than a regular policing issue.  But the thing is that any terrorist worth his salt knows about these risk factors, and so wipes all his electronics clean of any/all compromising information before going anywhere near a border and risking a search.  Indeed, it isn’t only terrorists.  Increasingly, many companies are requiring their executives to ensure that no company-confidential and commercially-sensitive material is transported across borders – not because they’d be embarrassed, but because they simply don’t trust the confidentiality and protection that their information would be given if seized by US Customs, let alone by Customs in other countries.

It is possible to avoid this risk factor, whether you’re a law abiding corporate employee or a law-breaking individual.  If you want to transport any of these electronic forbidden items, stick them into your 15 GB of Google Drive storage that comes, free, with every Gmail address.  Store them from one country and then retrieve them from another.

These Customs searches only embarrass and inconvenience “ordinary” travelers – the ones least likely to have anything illegal.  Maybe you have nothing to hide, but do you really want your entire life shared?  And if they decide to keep your devices, tell me again how you’re going to complete your journey from the airport to whichever hotel it is you have a booking at.

So, with this as background, there was the tiniest of pieces of good news this week which some civil liberties groups are unfortunately celebrating with too much joy.  A Federal District judge ruled that Customs Officers need “reasonable suspicion” before they can search our electronic devices when we cross the border.  But the judge said that agents did not need to have “probable cause”, nor did they need a search warrant prior to searching a device.

Now if you think that the requirement for “reasonable” suspicion will protect you, let me quickly disabuse you of that notion.  If subsequently challenged and asked to justify his search and explain the reasonable suspicion that was its basis, any Customs Officer can say “In my (number of) years of experience and my regular training, I formed a reasonable suspicion that (you) had something to hide.  This was based on the anxious expression on their face, the tense way they answered my questions, and their unwillingness to look at me directly in the eyes.  They also seemed unrelaxed and nervous, and so, based on these articulable factors, my training and experience told me that I should refer that passenger for additional screening measures and to review their electronic devices.”

That’s game, set and match to the Customs Officer, every time.

It will be interesting to see if the number of such searches increases, stays the same, or decreases after this ruling.  Oh – and note also that a ruling by a District Judge is only weakly persuasive in the Judge’s own district, and much less so in other districts.

Details here.

Amazon Alexa’s Increasing Chattiness at 7am

I mentioned last week that Amazon must be trialing a new delivery service – early morning deliveries between 4.30am and 8am.  I’ve had several more deliveries since then, but they’ve all been on the regular “by 9pm” type of schedule.

But that doesn’t mean that Amazon doesn’t now wish to excitedly tell me at 7am that it will be delivering something to me later in the day.  I tend to work late (it is 1.15am currently) and so get up a bit later in the morning than many, and 7am is not a time I’m normally happy to take calls.

But I have no choice.  Because they don’t telephone me, nor do they send text messages or emails (all of which I can and do turn off overnight).  They appear on my Alexa units.  They play a bright multi-tone attention/alert signal, and then flash a pulsating light in my eyes, which in a dark room (and at 7am it is still dark outside) makes it impossible to ignore and keep sleeping.

That requires me to then call out to the unit “Alexa, notification” and listen to the bright and cheery computer voice tell me that some shipment is on its way to me and will be delivered today.

Earlier this week I had five items all arriving on the same day.  You guessed it.  Five early morning notifications.

But wait.  It gets worse.  So, the items were all dropped on my doorstep late morning, and I then got a bevy of Alexa notifications telling me about the items being delivered.  Fine, not a problem.

And then, at 7.03am the next morning, Alexa woke me again, to tell me about one of the five shipments from yesterday having been delivered, 20 hours earlier.  Why?  No, I don’t want to be told at 7am about a shipment that had been delivered, opened, etc, 20 hours previously.

Any idea how I can explain that to Alexa?  Or to Jeff Bezos?

And Lastly This Week….

I wrote last week about how Seattle is getting serious about adding a needed additional airport to the Puget Sound region.  So serious, in fact, that they hope to have a new airport in operation by 2040 – a date so ridiculously far into the future that no doubt many of us will be wondering if we’ll live to see.

This week the region is wishing for high speed rail – this is an oft expressed desire, with a “corridor” to run between Portland, OR, up the west coast, and all the way to Vancouver BC.

Nothing serious has ever come of the previously expressed wishes, and it is hard to anticipate anything coming of this latest round of hoping.  The project is currently being costed at $50 billion, and excuse me for noticing that’s a suspiciously round figure, and almost surely bears no resemblance to whatever the actual cost might be.  The project anticipates a complete new right-of-way and track for the high speed trains, with probably 300 miles between the three cities in total, much/most of it needing to be double-tracked.  A car takes 5 – 6 – 7 hours, depending on the level of congestion, and the delays at the border.  It is said that a train could do it in two hours.

Don’t get me wrong, I’d love to see high speed rail come to the region.  But somehow I suspect there’ll be a new airport long before there’ll be high speed rail.  Maybe Elon Musk could come along with one of his Hyperloops or one of his tunnels?  Whatever happened to those two technologies, by the way?  He’s gone silent on both of them.

Maybe he is quiet because he is concentrating on the launch/reveal of his latest electric vehicle, which will be a pickup truck to be revealed on Thursday next week.  So, currently, he has the Model Y due out next year, the Roadster also due out next year, and a semi tractor/truck also due out next year, plus the new pickup to be announced next week, possibly to start deliveries in 2021.  He’s definitely a busy guy.

Here’s a wonderful experience that looks like it has a fighting chance of possibly making it to reality, starting in 2023, or if not then, at least some time prior to Seattle’s new airport opening.  Airship expeditions to the North Pole.  Looks like a beautiful cabin interior, and while £50,000 is surely a huge sum to pay, it isn’t out of line with what the Russians charge on their icebreaker expeditions.  Details here.

Truly lastly this week, if you’re going to cheat an airline, don’t then boast about it on social media.  There will be consequences.

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels

 

David.

 

 

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