Weekly Roundup, Friday 8 November, 2019

My dog Sophie, watching for Amazon delivery drivers. See story, below.

Good morning

It has been a busy week this week, with some of the fruits of my labors appearing in the form of not one or two but three articles appended to this morning’s newsletter.  These are the first three articles in what currently is projected to become a nine part series on dash cams.

There has been more interest in this topic than I’d guessed, and perhaps that interest is well placed.  As I mention in the first part of the series, we’ve sort of become immune to fully considering the risks and potential liability we expose ourselves to every time we get behind the wheel of our car; and many of those risks and liabilities might be in areas where insurance won’t help, and where we could find ourselves vulnerable to the dishonest acts of others – possibly all the way to being accused of vehicular manslaughter/murder.

Don’t laugh – it almost happened to me.  I narrowly avoided felony “hit and run” charges a few years ago (I neither hit nor ran, but tell that to an over-zealous prosecutor and a lying other motorist trying to cover up his own misdeeds).  It helped, on that occasion, that I had a federal judge in the car with me, but that’s not something I can always guarantee, and if a $50 dash cam could stand in for when the judge is absent, it is probably money well spent.

Last week, I asked you to consider a contribution to fund the purchase of some dash cams so I could not only write about the theory of choosing/using a dash cam, but also add real-world reviews of dash cams to give immediate context and practical value to the article series.  Several readers very kindly and generously responded, and I’ve acquired another three dash cams to add to the review series.  There are one or two other dash cam possibilities that would also be interesting to complete the review series, so if you too would like to help make this series even more extensive than it promises to be, please do consider helping out too.  If you’re already a Travel Insider Supporter, you can quickly send in an extra bit of support from this link.

If you’re not already a Travel Insider Supporter, please consider becoming one.  You’ll not only be helping me and all the other readers with making this a more comprehensive review series, but you’ll be getting some extra content yourself.  I’m adding extra parts to the articles in the dash cam series that are only available to Travel Insider Supporters – I feel that to be a fair compromise.  Everyone gets something, and those who reciprocate get something more.  There’s also a growing list of other articles and special reports available only to supporters.

What else this week?  Lots!  Please keep reading for :

  • This Week’s Bad News for Boeing
  • AirBnB Makes Some Bold Promises – Can it Keep Them?
  • A New Airport?  What’s the Rush!
  • Self-Screening at Airports?
  • Amazon’s Early Morning Deliveries
  • Since When Did Science Become a Popularity Contest?
  • Naughty Wireless Companies
  • And Lastly This Week….

This Week’s Bad News for Boeing

The first few days of the week were fairly quiet without much bad news, but the week ended with two very big stories and possibly a third about to break as well.

Of course, the 737 MAX was featured in one of the two stories, with news that both the FAA and other international aviation safety regulators all rejected Boeing’s submitted application for the plane to be allowed to resume flying.  Depending on which version of the story you believe, it may be that all that is needed is some reformatting of the material Boeing submitted, or possibly the submission was deemed incomplete and missing important sections of information.

Either which way, it is of course adding further delays to whenever the plane’s grounding will cease.  Before or after Christmas?  That’s anyone’s guess now.  Details here.

Sadly, there’s nothing really new about that particular story.  Inadequate documentation has been one of the continued leitmotifs of the entire 737 MAX tragedy.  The other big story for the week is maybe new, or also maybe old.

Whenever I see the words 787 and “South Carolina facility” mentioned in the same sentence (other than in a Boeing press release) I cringe, because as often as not, the sentence is not telling something positive about Boeing, its plane, and its low-cost SC assembly line.  The plant in North Charleston has been beset with problems ever since it opened, as have the planes coming off its production line, with many stories (not all confirmed and sometimes disputed by Boeing) about the quality control issues they have with the SC manufactured planes.  “Quality control problems” is not a reassuring phrase to use when talking about making airplanes.

This week the BBC broke a terrifying story about allegations of problems with the emergency oxygen systems on the SC manufactured 787s (and quite possibly the Everett, WA planes too for all we know).  Their story was based on whistle-blower allegations about what he came across when working on 787 quality control.  Boeing’s response seems heavy on the corporate obfuscation, and light on reassuring facts.

Details here.  It is only a year or so ago that I finally decided to trust the 787 – might I have to now reconsider that decision?

I’ve always been bemused by certain things such as the price of oil, or our exchange rate.  It seems that if the price of oil (or exchange rate) goes up, that’s a very bad thing for the economy.  But, if the price of oil (or exchange rate) goes down, there’s inevitably just as many articles opining how that (too) is a very bad thing.

Something like that seems to now be applying to the 737 as well.  Here’s a really strange article that worries about next year seeing “too many” 737 MAX planes being delivered (assuming approval for the plane to resume flying is ever secured, of course!).  Never mind that airlines are gagging to get some/any/all of their delayed planes, somehow, some analysts feel and fear that if/when the airlines finally get these overdue planes, it will be a bad thing.

Boeing has now taken the step of suspending its CEO’s bonus until such time as the 737 returns to service.  But at the same time, the newly appointed Chairman asserts that their CEO has “done everything right” and further said that he “didn’t create the problem”.  If those two statements are correct, why is the CEO being penalized on what would seem to be an unfair basis?

And now, after a seemingly unstoppable fire-hose of bad news about Boeing, for months and months, some comic relief.  The flight attendants at AA are demanding a say in determining if and when the 737 MAX can be deemed safe and allowed back into the skies.  Because, ummmm, aerospace engineering is a well known skill possessed by flight attendants, I guess?  Or maybe because when they say “we’re here for your safety, not for your service” they’re not kidding?

Whatever the explanation, I’m sure we’ll all feel safer if the final 737 MAX modifications are also made subject to the review of AA’s flight attendants.  Details here.

Oh – breaking news on Thursday reports still more 737 MAX safety problems that have come to light (unrelated to the current known issues), and which it seems the FAA inexplicably allowed, plus additional 787 problems too.  We await comments from the flight attendants as to what this all means.

AirBnB Makes Some Bold Promises – Can it Keep Them?

There’s a lot to dislike and bemoan about what seems to be, if not a collapse, definitely a contraction in good journalism, and there’s much to blame the “new media” for regarding the demise of the traditional print media.  But sometimes the new media gets it spectacularly right, in a way that (almost) excuses the ever-more-prevalent click bait articles.

A shining example of a new media article that brought about good results was a rather dense article published by Vice this week about some systemic cheating and exploitation of Airbnb by host/scammers, and Airbnb’s complacent lack of any meaningful response or enforcement action.  Also mentioned was the crazy system whereby if you write a bad review of a property, the property gets to see it before they write a review of you, and more often than not, if you ding them down one or two stars, the property owners will counter by downchecking you by two or three or more stars.  This means, of course, that unhappy guests either don’t write a review or write an insincere positive review.

Within a couple of days of the Vice article, Airbnb had responded by publishing new guest rights and problem resolution promises, and further said that it will verify all 7 million of its listings between now and 15 December 2020.  Every listing will be verified for the accuracy of its photos, address and other details, and also for quality standards including safety, cleanliness and basic amenities.

That sounds great, doesn’t it.  But we have to wonder exactly how it will verify every listing.  The only conceivable way is to have a trusted company representative visit every property, and ideally more than once during 2020.  But let’s forgive them the need to be thorough in how they do their verification, and work out the implications of just one visit to each property.

Let’s say a property visit takes on average about 20 minutes, and it takes another 20 minutes to travel between properties.  So, 40 minutes in total per property.  And let’s assume the actual verification report takes very little time to write/record, and so we’ll say that an employee can do everything to do with each listing in 45 minutes.

That means, for 7 million properties, we are talking about 5.25 million man hours.  Let’s say that an average employee, working 40 hour weeks, with a couple of weeks leave, a week of sick pay, a week of federal holidays, and a couple of weeks of corporate meetings and other “overhead” commitments, can work 46 weeks a year doing property inspections, ie 1840 hours.

So, to check every property in the next 13 months – and lets make that 12 months, allowing Airbnb to recruit the staff and create the routines and procedures for the checking, would require an army of 2,853 people, all of which will need to be hired and trained and equipped with whatever they need by 15 December this year.

Oh, let’s also say that these employees are being paid $20/hour, with other costs of employment being another $5/hour, and transport/related costs of $5 per property.  That makes the total cost of this measure $166 million.

Airbnb has been strangely quiet about its 2018 profit, other than to claim to have made one, while it boasted of its $93 million profit in 2017.  It seems likely that maybe the 2018 profit wasn’t quite as positive as the 2017 profit (to explain the silence), so perhaps this $166 million cost represents its entire two profitable years net earnings?

So you can understand why we’re a bit unconfident about exactly how rigorous (ie costly) their verification process will be.

It is also worth noting that Airbnb has been in business 11 years, and it has taken this long to shame it into exercising a modicum of quality control.  Sure, most Airbnb properties and hosts are excellent and as described, but the downside if you get stuck with a bad one is truly terrible.

Could the company’s new sensitivity to its reputation be related to its plans for an IPO next year, one wonders?

Earlier in the week Airbnb suffered additional negative press when it came to light that some people choose to rent an Airbnb house when they plan on holding an “out of control” party.  Better to wreck someone else’s home than one’s own, apparently.

It seems this is not entirely uncommon at all, although the denouement of this particular party was not so common – five people killed in a shootout.

A New Airport?  What’s the Rush!

The steady growth of passenger traffic everywhere is stressing all airports.  Seattle in particular has been experiencing strong growth in passenger numbers due to some happy competitive sparring between Alaska Airlines and Delta, and its airport has long been acknowledged as reaching its growth limits – or exceeding them.  In the early 2000s, the airport as it was then configured had an estimated 45 million passengers/year capacity, and last year it processed over 50 million.  It is currently the eighth largest airport in the country – larger than Las Vegas and smaller than San Francisco.

There have been two previous attempts, starting in the mid-1990s, to get a second airport constructed in the Puget Sound region.  Most notable was a fanciful scheme for a large and empty airport at Moses Lake in Eastern Washington (former Air Force base, now used primarily as a test base for Boeing and other companies) to be pressed into service, possibly with a high speed train to connect the airport with Seattle – a distance of  183 miles by road, or, optimistically/unrealistically, 145 miles as the crow flies.  The journey involves crossing a mountain range, so constructing a rail line would be non-trivial.

The matter is being aired again, and this time a timeline has been put in place between now and when a new second airport should be in service.  While we acknowledge that most timelines in such cases tend to be overly optimistic, we truly hope it not to be the case with this project, because the timeline anticipates the commissioning of a new airport, somewhere, not happening until 2040.  That’s 21 years from now.

That is of course so many election cycles into the future that our elected officials can safely make any promises they like and never worry about any degree of accountability.

To contrast that, Beijing’s new Daxing airport, which opened in September, took slightly less time to construct, and it includes the largest single-structure terminal in the world.  It is expected to grow to become the largest airport in the world, eventually maxing out (after further construction) with a capacity perhaps reaching as high as 200 million people a year.

The concept of a new Beijing airport was first raised in 2008, and plans started to be made in 2011, with construction being approved in 2014, and the airport opened just under five years later.  So we’re not quite sure which date to use to establish the start of the Beijing/Daxing airport project, and for that matter, with discussions for a new Seattle airport already having been ongoing for almost 25 years, we’re not sure what date would be equivalent for the Seattle project.  But we’ll wager the Seattle project, on any timeline, will be decades longer than the Chinese project proved to be.

The frustration is there’s a brilliant under-utilized airport “up for grabs” at present in Everett on the north side of the Seattle metroplex – Paine Field, the airport where Boeing’s main manufacturing facility is based.  But local residents have managed to constrain commercial flights to no more than 24 a day.

The 24/day limit needs to be seen in the context of existing non-commercial flights that go in and out of Paine Field – currently averaging about 316 a day.  But the local residents, while accepting the 316 other flights, have managed to persuade the FAA that adding more than 24 additional flights to that number would transform the quality of life for improbable areas all around the airport from perfectly good to tragically bad.

One other flight count number.  1201.  That’s the number of flight movements through the current Seattle airport each day.

Details here.

In other airport news, New Orleans has opened its new passenger terminal.

Self-Screening at Airports?

Here’s an interesting article about the TSA.  They issued a Request for Information document this week inviting companies to propose methodologies to allow for passengers to self-screen, both themselves and their carry-on items, in a single unsupervised process while going through airport security lines.

The TSA itself, while interested in the concept and comparing it to self-checkout at a supermarket, has no clear vision of how the process would work or what technology would allow for it to happen, so it is inviting companies to respond with ideas and suggestions.

We’re not sure if this is genuine interest on their part or merely posturing so they can claim to be open to new techniques and technologies.  We’re certainly unaware of any non-controversial and effective methods of simultaneously screening passengers and their carry-ons, and await further information with interest.  Submissions are due by 4 December, but don’t go expecting anything to appear any time soon at an airport near you.

The other interesting mention in the article was how the TSA Pre-check program is failing to meet its projected numbers.  The TSA loves Pre-check almost as much as we, Pre-check members, do, because it allows them to process many more people per security lane and – most important of all – per employee man-hour.  But enrollment numbers seem stalled at about one third the level the TSA had hoped for – 8.5 million instead of 25 million members.

Pre-check is a tremendous program, and if you fly more than once or twice a year, it is probably worth it.  Shorter waits and much easier screening experiences.  It costs $85 for a five year membership.  Another $15 elevates you to Global Entry, which also speeds you through Immigration and Customs when returning to the US from overseas.

The best deal of all though is the Nexus program.  It gives you both Pre-check and Global Entry privileges, plus fast track lanes both ways going between the US and Canada.  And while this is the most privileged of all the programs, it is also the least expensive – $50/year.  But it requires enrolling not at a convenient airport close to you, but at one of a limited number of border crossings, which is the subtle way they restrict the number of people who can get a $100+ package of benefits for only $50.

Details on the programs here.  You should consider joining if you don’t already belong.

Amazon’s Early Morning Deliveries

I was surprised, when I ordered the extra dash cams from Amazon earlier this week, to see they were promising to deliver them the next morning.  But the next day delivery was not, in itself, the surprising part.  The astonishing part was that the delivery would be made by 8am.

After the order was confirmed, this “by 8am” promise became even more extraordinary.  The units would be delivered some time between 4.30am and 8am.  My ambivalence at having the door-bell rung potentially at 4.30am was magnified when Amazon further advised something it had never warned of before – that the delivery person might phone or text me in case of delivery problems.

And then, in the middle of the night, the Alexa unit in my bedroom unhelpfully woke me up to cheerfully tell me that the delivery was on its way to me.

But when I got up the next morning, there was nothing outside the front door, and by the time 9am had come and gone, I was thinking I’d have to subject myself to the tiresome process of calling Amazon and going through the usual series of obfuscations and excuses to find out what went wrong.  I was just starting to initiate that process when my dog, who was outside at the time, erupted into furious barking and I saw her chasing a delivery guy down the driveway, with the delivery guy dropping a larger than expected package in his eagerness to get away.

Another interesting thing then happened.  He was staying down the far end of the driveway, while Sophie (my German Shepherd) was at the end of her flying line at the house end of the driveway, with the package dangerously within her radius of action.  So I went out, and told the guy I’d just take the package the short remaining distance to the front door for him, but he said he had to scan the package code to record its delivery.  I carried the package down to where he was sheltering from Sophie, but his scanner failed to read the bar code (he was a bit shaken up).  It kept making an error beep, and he truly had dropped and damaged the package, so he then proceeded to attempt to type the letters and numbers of the tracking ID into his scanner manually.  Even trying to do that repeatedly failed, at which point I became a bit impatient, and realized a fascinating thing.  The surprisingly big and heavy package actually wasn’t addressed to me at all.

It seems that Amazon must have a very clever GPS-aware delivery receipt routine that refuses to allow a driver to show a package as delivered if it isn’t scanned somewhere acceptably close to where the GPS system believes it should be.  That was very impressive.

The non-delivery of my package (it did come shortly thereafter) was not quite so impressive, and I’m not entirely sure I’d want to anticipate another middle-of-the-night interaction with Amazon in the interests of getting future packages before 8am.

But it was interesting to see this new enhancement of Amazon’s delivery services.  How long before their deliveries are being operated 24/7 – and how much longer after that before other online companies and delivery services feel compelled to match?

Since When Did Science Become a Popularity Contest?

Most of the press was gleefully full of headlines this week about how a group of 11,000 “scientists” have proclaimed that we’re suffering a “climate emergency”.  This is the latest term of art – we’ve gone from global cooling and the threat of a new ice age to global warming and threats of the oceans rising to engulf some of Manhattan.  But when it turned out that stubbornly, there were actually no certain facts to confirm either global warming or cooling, the term of art quietly became “climate change”, because for sure, that’s what climates do, every day – a claim that is impossible to refute.

But “climate change” – while happily never wrong – didn’t imply any sense of urgency, and so the new term these doomsday merchants now prefer is “climate emergency”.  They remain vague on exactly what the emergency may be, and never explain why the emergency requires us to go without plastic straws and cut back on our flights, but the Chinese are welcome to continue building coal-fired power plants with no constraints imposed on them at all (this article reports on past use and this one on China’s future plans – Greenpeace say China is considering adding two new large coal-fired power stations, every month, for the next 12 years).

The underlying message of the articles this week was the smug belief that 11,000 “scientists” couldn’t be wrong.  Let’s politely ignore all the things that similar numbers of scientists eagerly embraced but have been wrong about in the past, particularly such headline claims as collected on this page.

Let’s even overlook the actual contentious nature of this “emergency” and see if we can find some proof that 11,000 scientists are always right.  Or, perhaps, find an example of a universally accepted and acclaimed scientific theory that has recently been proven wrong, and by a non-scientist at that.

Here’s a fascinating story that chronicles how a single person – not a psychologist at all – took on the collected wisdom of psychologists.  I mean to say, you’d have to be crazy to do that, right (weak attempt at humor!).  He seems to have won, too, although the vested interests of the “conventional wisdom proponents” have only grudgingly conceded.  It is a great story, both for what it directly addresses, and also by implication.

Naughty Wireless Companies

AT&T were fined $60 million for misleading millions of customers with promises of “unlimited” data plans, but which were actually subject to data throttling once certain obscured data limits were reached.  The fine relates to practices dating all the way back to 2011, and we’re not sure how many years it covers, but whatever the numbers, to put that $60 million fine into perspective, our sense is for the last few years, AT&T has been making about $10 billion a year in profit from its wireless operations.  Let’s say the fine imposed relates to a three year period, during which AT&T earned $30 billion.  So the fine is one fifth of one percent of its profits during that period.

That’s not even a “slap on the wrist”.  That’s a loving caress.  Details here.

T-Mobile has also been called out for being naughty.  Its offense is different (although it too is no stranger to the concept of limited unlimited data plans, but perhaps it is more open about disclosing that).  T-Mobile is guilty of creating false ring tones.

You may have sometimes noticed this without realizing what you’re hearing.  You call a number, and you hear a ring tone, and then a few seconds later you hear a second ring tone, and then some time later, someone answers the phone, or you get voice mail.

The other side of that experience is maybe you have sometimes had a voicemail message appear without any apparent missed call preceding it.  That has sometimes happened to me, and it has been a puzzle – I know I’ve not missed any calls, I know the phone hasn’t rung, but somehow, a person ends up in voicemail.

It seems what is happening is that T-Mobile wants its customers to feel good about its service, so it creates a false ring tone before it knows if it can actually complete the call or not.  If you are a caller, that is the ring tone you first hear, before it then changes.  The caller thinks T-Mobile has done its job, but sometimes T-Mobile has not completed the call, and instead of giving a ring tone should be giving a “number unobtainable” tone or a recorded “all circuits are busy” type message.

The FCC offered to levy a $40 million fine last year.  But a couple of local phone companies are objecting, saying they are the ones who were harmed (an uncertain claim) and so they should be compensated.  They filed an action in an IL court this week for $750 million.  Now that is starting to become an appreciable wrist slap.  Good on them.  Details here.

And Lastly This Week….

Not a career enhancing move.  That was the outcome after a Chinese pilot allowed an attractive lady passenger to pose in the cockpit of his flight, with a picture making its way to social media.  The pilot and other culpable crew members have all been “suspended for life”.  Details here.

With airlines these days even charging for water on their flights, we can understand why some passengers might want to just take some water from a sometimes-present drinking fountain on their flight, or ask a flight attendant in the galley to just fill a glass with tap water.  But according to this article, that might be a big mistake, especially if you’re flying on Spirit or JetBlue.

Talking about drinks on planes, this week’s most puzzling article would be this one, which touts the benefit of ginger in airborne drinks, and recommends the best drink when flying is Canada Dry Ginger Ale.  But then it goes on to point out that, ooops, there is no ginger in Canada Dry Ginger Ale.

Here’s a slightly interesting list of the world’s 50 most reliable airlines.  As always, we are unsure about the methodology, but we love the way all the information is clearly presented on a single page.  No American airlines are in the top 10, but the two worst airlines on the list are Frontier and AA.

It is a strange list of airlines – Spirit and Frontier make the list of 50 airlines, but Alaska and Hawaiian do not.  Qantas does, but not Air New Zealand.  And so on.

As a dismaying contrast, this single page of useful information is destroyed by the clickbaiters, who manage to take up something more than 51 pages (when you count the advertising only pages) to present the same information.  We note with dismay that this particular clickbait attack is on a Microsoft/MSN site rather than on some shady unknown site.

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels

 

David.

 

 

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