Weekly Roundup, Friday 29 November, 2019

After suffering this catastrophic failure during stress testing its new 777X plane, Boeing says there’s no need to retest it after fixing the problem. See below.

Good morning

I hope you had a very pleasant Thursday.  As sometimes happens, various winter storms and “bomb cyclones” seem to have upset more than a few travel plans, and I spent an anxious day earlier in the week successfully seeking to avoid snow on mountain passes while driving back to Seattle.

The Black Friday deals are of course underway at present, and have been for the last some days, and are likely to continue for a few more days yet.  There have been a few “limited quantity” deals that came and went very quickly – the same online as used to be in stores.  But there are some good deals that are more likely to last a bit longer, and I’ve put together a list of items that might be of interest to you.  That follows on from this morning’s newsletter.  If you’re thinking of buying an “Instant Pot”, however, you might want to read this article first.

The review of dash cams will come next week.  I’m having some difficulties getting the right weather to test them (clear sky and bright late afternoon sunlight so as to get great high-contrast challenges for the cameras).

What else for Friday?  A bit less than usual; I’m treating myself to an early night on Thursday for the obvious reason!  Please keep reading for :

  • 2020 Travel with The Travel Insider
  • This Week’s Bad News for Boeing
  • How Much Should an Airline CEO be Paid?
  • Change Your Maps (Again)
  • How Much is “Twenty nine fifty” in Dollars and Cents?
  • And Lastly This Week….

2020 Travel with The Travel Insider

There’s something special seeming about the number 2020, don’t you think?  Not only does it seem futuristic, it also seems to hold some sort of meaning, maybe to do with “20:20 (hindsight) vision”.

To honor the special number, I’ve certainly created two very special tours for you in 2020.

The first tour is in France, in May.  Based in the World Heritage city of Bordeaux, we travel around this beautiful region, enjoying the rolling countryside, the small towns and villages, and of course, the wineries too.  You get to spend a full relaxing week in Bordeaux, with plenty to do each day (or, if you prefer, sleeping in, taking it easy, and with no hassle of constantly changing hotels and long days on the coach).  We start off with a pre-tour option on the ritzy glitzy French Riviera, and we end with a post-tour option to Tours in the Loire Valley, where we get to see some of France’s incredibly grand castles and chateaus.

In total, it is a wonderful extensive tour of the south of France that’s sure to delight everyone, and at a lovely tour that beats the summer crowds, but still gets the first light touches of the summer weather (before it gets too hot to be pleasant).  Full details here.

Almost immediately after – so, yes, you can do both tours conveniently together if you wish – is our Scotland’s Four Corners Tour.

This tour of Scotland, in June (also perhaps the best month to tour Scotland, for similar reasons as May in France) is another “tour de force” where you get to see so much of Scotland’s Highlands, and some of its islands too, far from the regular tourist routes, and even further from the “tourist traps”.  We visit the “four corners” of mainland Scotland (the northern, southern, western and eastern extremities) as well as seeing plenty of the parts in the middle too.  Add an optional pre-tour around Glasgow, including a night in a 700+ year old castle, and an optional post-tour around Edinburgh, including a chance to visit mysterious Roslyn Chapel, and you’ll end up having seen more of Scotland than many Scottish people!  Full details here.

I hope you’ll choose to come join the lovely groups of Travel Insiders already joining both these tours.  Most people feel, at the end, that while the tour itself was great, the best part of all is the wonderful group of fellow travelers they get to share their experiences with.

This Week’s Bad News for Boeing

The bad news for Boeing this week really truly was – and still is – a shocker.  They were conducting a stress test on their new 777X plane, both by adding extreme loads on the wings and greater than normal pressure inside the plane.

Remember that at altitude, the inside of the plane is at a higher pressure than the outside – if flying at 35,000 ft and with the cabin pressurized to a 7,000 ft level, that means there is a pressure of  3.5 pounds per square inch pressing on the plane from the outside, and a pressure of  11.3 psi pressing on the plane from the inside, for a net pressure difference of 7.8 psi.  That might not sound like a lot, but think of a single square foot of airplane fuselage – it has over half a ton of pressure pushing outwards on it.  There are about 75,000 sq ft of fuselage in total, which means 43,000 tons of pressure pushing out on the fuselage.

At 99% of the federal test’s required maximum, the plane burst!  If it was flying at the time, it would almost surely have been a total “hull loss” disaster, and as it was, on the ground, the entire plane has been written off as unsalvageable.

Well, okay, that’s the whole purpose of testing, and while it is a shame to see that Boeing guessed wrong with how strong it needed to build the plane, now it knows and can go back to the drawing board and create a more robust fuselage, and then retest, right?

Actually, no part of that previous sentence is correct.  First, of course it wasn’t a guess as to how strong the plane’s fuselage needed to be.  It was calculated to a great degree of precision, based on detailed knowledge of the characteristics of the materials used in the construction and reinforcement of the fuselage.  But, there’s a constant trade-off here.  Boeing of course wants to make the fuselage as light as possible (and light means thin/weak) so as to keep the plane’s weight down, which means the plane can carry more payload and fly more fuel-efficiently.  In this case, clearly they messed up massively and went too far down the “let’s make it lighter but weaker” path, and didn’t build enough strength margin into the plane.

Now it is true that the test parameters are greater than the pressures likely encountered in normal flight, but it is also true that the test parameters are what the plane has to be designed to meet or exceed, and the plane clearly failed.

Would you be surprised to learn that Boeing tried to keep this catastrophic failure a secret?  Well, that’s maybe understandable.  But there might be another reason, as well as corporate embarrassment, for the secrecy.  The really distressing thing is that Boeing says it won’t need to do anything other than strengthen around the failed areas, and then, after having done that, it won’t need to retest the plane again.  And wait – the FAA agrees!!!

Have neither the FAA nor Boeing learned anything from their past “shortcut” failures and assumptions (787 batteries, and 737 MAX crashes)?  While still up to their eyeballs in as-yet unresolved 737 MAX problems, all of the claims by both Boeing and the FAA about redoubling their focus on safety and careful processes and procedures seem to be rather invalidated if this report is correct (and it almost certainly is, the reporter in question is one of the best in the country at tracking Boeing issues).

Maybe if the test protocol went all the way up to 100% (or even 101%) of test pressure, and stayed at that level for an hour or two (or ten or twenty) and only then did the plane explode, it could be deemed satisfactory and only needing a tweak in the one area that failed.  But surely, with the test failing at 99%, we don’t know what other parts of the plane might have been about to fail too at 99.1% or any other pressure number up to the full 100%.

We’re not technical experts, but it does seem to us that not conducting a subsequent full test all the way to test limits is totally the wrong decision.

Another Boeing news item – in the “interesting” rather than “bad” category – is that Boeing might be accelerating its plans to finally replace the 737 with an entirely new plane.

Boeing’s earlier apparent product timeline had the new new plane to be developed being a widebody to replace the 757 and 767 planes, but that has been delayed due to the company’s focus on the 737 fixes.  And now, with the growing sense of unhappiness about the 737 (not all fair or justified, but strongly felt by many, nonetheless) and the much greater public realization that this is a very old plane – a design that is older than most of the people who fly on it – the entire 737 brand has suffered, and perhaps Boeing has realized that it needs to protect its “bread and butter” – the single aisle plane that represents more than half of its entire airplane orders most years – and the only way to do so effectively is to come up with an all-new design.

The company hasn’t publicly made any announcements, but is understood to be quietly sounding out airlines and airplane lessors to see what they’d think about a new replacement for the 737 series.  We can’t think of any reason why any potential purchaser would object (other than price, of course!).  We guess Boeing wants to keep as quiet as possible about this so as to get as much of a headstart as possible over Airbus, and hopefully have a period of time where Boeing has a clearly better plane than Airbus.

For sure, Airbus will race to respond with its own A320 series replacement, and we guess now that the “cat is out of the bag” they’re already starting to develop an all-new clean-sheet design of their own, while not yet committing to a full-on project.  Both airlines are in a game of “chicken”, each waiting as long as possible to commit to a new plane development process – the longer they can wait, the more advanced a design they can come up with, and ideally, each company wants to be the last to commit to a new design but also the first to start delivering planes.

How Much Should an Airline CEO be Paid?

In the eight years from 2000 to 2008, the then CEO for Qantas saw the company earn $4.8 billion in profits, even though the airline had to contend with the 9/11 crisis and collapse in air travel, then the SARS crisis, and finally the 2008 global financial crisis.  For this, he was paid $46 million.

In the 11 years since then, the current Qantas CEO has seen the company earn $1.7 billion – little more than a third what his predecessor generated in 8 years, even though the last 11 years have generally been very kind to airlines.  And for this disappointing outcome, he has been paid $92 million.

Does that strike you as fair?  This article doesn’t think so, and while it was written by one of Qantas’ trade union leaders, it does seem to raise some uncomfortable points about the transfer of wealth (and wages!) from front line staff to senior level executives.

The nonsense that it is necessary to pay super-sized salaries to get the best performing executives is just that – a nonsense uttered and accepted only by the people who stand to benefit from it.  There is no shortage of people who could do as good or indeed very much better a job for one tenth what the current Qantas CEO is paid.  The runaway gap between lower level staff wages and higher level executive salaries has been steadily worsening over the last decade or two, with no clear benefit resulting to companies, their customers, or their shareholders.

In the last 40 years, CEO salaries have increased over 1000% while worker earnings increased not quite 12% (we guess these numbers are adjusted for inflation).  And its not as though CEOs were underpaid 40 years ago, either.

We can understand the concept of profit shares, but surely a profit share needs to distribute only the “extra” profit over and above the “normal” profit the business would earn anyway.  In the case of Qantas, it seems there has been no “extra” profit for 11 years, and precious little of the “normal” profit, as compared to the eight years prior.  Why is the current CEO being so generously rewarded?

We’d be tempted to offer our services at a much lower rate!  And we came across another interesting job this week that had a certain appeal as well – it would be a tremendous pleasure to take Prince Harry and his wife away from a private chartered jet and place them into middle seats at the back of coach class for the next time they want to fly somewhere to preach about flying less to save the planet.

Change Your Maps (Again)

There used to be a somewhat formal process to determining the boundaries between countries, involving UN groups, dispute resolution teams, and many layers of bureaucracy all around the world; and while all that was going on, for the longest time, borders might remain unresolved.  Just because Country A successfully invaded part of Country B and kept that part for themselves didn’t mean the world community would automatically recognize Country A’s claim to the territory it was occupying.

It is true of course that the UN is seldom useful or effective in much, and now it seems their role in decreeing map borders is being marginalized as well.

We’ve already seen how airlines that failed to acknowledge China’s ownership of Tibet and Taiwan find themselves coincidentally unable to fly to China, and so most airline “moving maps” on their planes, and their route maps online and in their magazines, all now show China as China would like to be shown.

Russia just took a major step towards formalizing its take-over of parts of Ukraine.  It did so not by pressuring airlines and Russia’s disdain for the UN is already well known.  Instead, it pressured Apple to redraw the boundary on its maps and to call the occupied Ukraine as “Russia”.

And, where Apple goes, the rest of the world tends to follow.

We find ourselves wondering if Steve Jobs would have been quite so malleable.

How Much is “Twenty nine fifty” in Dollars and Cents?

A woman on a cruise ship decided to treat herself to a “facial” in their beauty salon.  She asked how much it would cost, and was told “twenty nine fifty”, which she assumed to mean $29.50.

Imagine her surprise at discovering that the actual cost of the treatment was $2950.  The cruise line (Royal Caribbean Cruises) insists she was fully informed; the woman says she’s not that rich, and says the paperwork was altered to add two more zeroes after she signed it.  She also points out that the most expensive treatment on the salon’s pricelist is “only” $300.

While womens’ “beauty treatments” are something I’m firmly resolved to remain utterly ignorant of, it does seem that something slightly less than honest and fair is going on.  (Almost as bad as the occasional horror stories of buying obscenely overpriced artwork on cruise ships….) Details here.

And Lastly This Week….

Perhaps the Black Friday deal to beat all Black Friday deals is the Italian town of Bivona in Sicily, selling off empty “fixer upper” houses for €1.  Sounds like a deal to me!  Details here.

Here’s a moderately interesting read if you’re having a relaxing day today, all about airport “secrets”.  You might be surprised how many of the nine cited secrets you already know!

Tesla’s new and “distinctive” cybertruck seems to be proving a success in the market.  On Tuesday, Elon Musk tweeted that they had already received 250,000 orders and deposits (albeit only $100 per deposit) for the new vehicle, due to start production perhaps late in 2021.

But we view that number with a grain of salt, having noted how the Model 3 ended up claiming something in excess of half a million deposits, only to have the order backlog mysteriously disappear by the time something like perhaps 150,000 or fewer had been delivered.

I do hope you are enjoying your Thanksgiving, and hope this statistic does not apply to you.  And are you the one in four who is apparently tired of traditional Thanksgiving food?  As a relative newcomer to the US, I’ve never felt quite the tie to turkey that my adopted fellow-countrymen do, and it is nice to see I’m not in quite as tiny a minority as it sometimes seems!

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels





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