Weekly Roundup, Friday 20 December, 2019

A Very Merry Christmas to All.

Good morning

I’m writing this from Lolo, Montana today.  You’ll probably have to look on a map to see where that is (a bit south of Missoula).  You’d have to zoom in even more to see where I was yesterday (Wolf Creek, MT).  Happily the snow hasn’t been too difficult, but it seems my attempt to return home this afternoon/evening may be more difficult than optimum.

I checked in to a 40 room Days Inn in Lolo on Thursday afternoon.  I went to reception and the guy behind the counter asked “Are you checking in?”.  I said I was, and paused while he typed something on the computer.  But before I could give my name, he looked up from the computer and said “you must be David”.  I laughed, and said to the guy “I hope this means that all your other guests have already arrived by now and I’m the last on a long list of check-ins”.  He told me I was the only person checking in today.  Ouch!

I knew I was in Montana on Thursday when getting into a Montana realtor’s pickup.  He pushed a loaded AR15 rifle out of the way to make room for me on the seat, and grabbed a pistol lying on the dashboard and clipped it to his belt before getting out of the vehicle.  I felt inappropriately prepared for the occasion, having no rifles at all with me (besides which, it is illegal to drive with a loaded rifle in your vehicle in WA).  He did point out fresh cougar paw prints on the snow as we trudged through it, so perhaps it was just as well we were “dressed to kill”.  :)

The shopping day count until Christmas is getting lower and lower.

I’m about to venture into a regular retail store for the first time this season to do some Christmas shopping – prior to this point, everything has been bought on-line and I’m just now looking for “impulse” last-minute knick-knacks at the local World Market.  Try as they might, online stores still haven’t created the random serendipity of looking up and down aisles and suddenly seeing something that catches one’s eye.

I continue to tweak the 2019 Christmas Gift Giving Guide, and there’s one item in particular I urge you to take advantage of, if it remains available.  It is a special offer from Amazon, for people who don’t yet subscribe to their unlimited music streaming service.  You’ll get a month of their streaming service and a latest generation Alexa Echo Dot unit, all for $8.98.  The Echo Dot unit is normally $50, and currently is on pre-Christmas sale for $25.  So this is a stunning bargain.  Buy one, and either keep it for yourself or use it as a gift for someone else.

Ironically, I’d written last week about Google’s free gift of one of their Google Assistant devices that are similar to the Echo Dot, and wondered if Amazon would match that with something similar, and by coincidence, within hours, there was this offer.  It is flagged as “while stocks last” – it was still good on Thursday, but who knows how long that will be.

I assessed the most popular items from the Gift Guide last week, and looking at them again now, it seems that the desk light that was most popular a week ago remains the most popular item for this past week, too.  There are a few changes in other item popularity, and the second most popular item now is the instant reading meat thermometer.  A seemingly very ordinary item, but it truly has transformed my own cooking, and the chances are you will find it a great aid too.  No longer do I have the disappointment of serving food that is cold in the middle, or feeling the need to nuke something a bit longer “just in case”.  The very thin probe can be inserted into just about anything without harming the food item, and within a second or so you know if it is done or not.

And what else for the week?  As always, a mix of the usual and the unusual :

  • This Week’s Bad News for Boeing
  • Some Good News for Boeing – NASA Pays it 50% More than the Going Rate
  • Great New Flight Planning Aid
  • LH Makes A Passenger Unfriendly Decision
  • FAA Did Nothing for Ten Years.  Then a Plane Crashed.
  • Amazon Aces Online Shopping and Distribution
  • Language Problems?
  • And Lastly This Week….

This Week’s Bad News for Boeing

So when exactly might the 737 MAX start flying again?  Boeing is no longer saying, and neither is the FAA, and the US carriers are now delaying their scheduled return of service to April.  The general “word on the street” is that it is unlikely the FAA will approve the plane for resumed operations until February at the earliest.  It also seems that Boeing still hasn’t submitted everything needed for the FAA to review and approve.

Plus Boeing announced on Monday the stunning news that it will be suspending 737 production.  Officially this happens on 1 January, but because the last two weeks of December are vacation for their workers, it means the plane production is stopping now.  When will it resume?  Boeing isn’t saying.

So why, after continuing to produce the plane all this year after the March suspension, albeit at a slightly slower rate of 42 planes a month rather than the 52 as was formerly the case, has Boeing now decided to suspend production?  Surely we’re now “further out” rather than “further in” and the return to service approval is getting graspingly close to being a reality, so wouldn’t it have been less disruptive to soldier on for January and probably February?

The reason for the suspension is not because Boeing has nowhere to park the planes, as some have suggested.  Sure, their current parking lot/airports are filling up, but why couldn’t Boeing then park planes at one of the several enormous airplane graveyards in the Southwest?  Perhaps for no reason other than the “optics” of parking new 737s alongside decaying decrepit old planes of all kinds.

The reason also is not because Boeing is running out of money.  It still has enormous cash reserves, and because it is hoping to keep all its workers on the payroll during this stoppage, and indeed is still continuing to pay suppliers for new part production, even if Boeing doesn’t want the parts delivered yet, the actual cash savings are small rather than big.  Oh – and at least this far, there is no suggestion Boeing will be trimming its share dividends.

Another interesting question is to wonder how long the stoppage will be for, and the answer to that hints at the probable reason for the stoppage.  It seems Boeing has realized that once the 737 can start flying again, the company will need to prioritize first getting the already delivered planes updated with the required fixes, and the pilots for those planes qualified.  Then, step two will be getting their already completed but undelivered planes updated and delivered to the airlines eagerly waiting for them.  Only when those two steps are completed is it appropriate to start making more new planes.

The reality isn’t quite that simple.  Not everyone who works in assembling planes can be transferred to fixing already built planes or training pilots, or doing comprehensive checks on planes that have been sitting inoperative for a year or more (by the time they start to be returned to service).  So production will restart long before the last already produced plane has been delivered, but it seems Boeing wants to buy itself probably a 3 – 6 month pause on production, or so say the best independent guesses at present.  It is also thought that Boeing won’t have caught up with where it needs to be any time in 2020, and probably not in 2021 either – keeping in mind that not only has Boeing been making planes at a slower rate for nine months, but now it has stopped making them entirely, and it also will surely not be moving to its planned increase in manufacturing to 57 a month in 2020.

It is time to again cite a puzzling point.  In March and April, Boeing told us it would take two or three weeks to get a compliant fix to the FAA, and was expecting the planes back in the air very quickly.  How did we go from 2 – 3 weeks and now be the wrong side of 9 months, and still counting?  What is the reason for this delay?  What other problems have been uncovered?

Here’s an interesting article.  If you read beyond the opening headline coverage, you’ll see mention of there being 11 steps to be complete before the plane can be recertified.  Care to guess how many of those steps have been completed in the nine months of stoppage so far?  (Hint – more than one and less than three.)

Some Good News for Boeing – NASA Pays it 50% More than the Going Rate

Say you want to send someone to the International Space Station.  The only way to do that presently, since the Space Shuttle program ended in 2011, is to ring up the Russians and book a flight on one of their Soyuz craft.  By some strange coincidence, the $25 million or so the Russians had been charging per roundtrip ticket to the ISS has soared since the Space Shuttle closed, with the current price thought to be $82 million or more.  Here’s an interesting chart showing how the price has risen.

Both Boeing and SpaceX are in the final stages of fielding new rockets to take people to the ISS.  Boeing will charge NASA an agreed contracted rate of $90 million – slightly more than the Russians, but perhaps they offer more leg-room or better in-flight service or who knows what.

SpaceX are offering to do the same job, but for $55 million.  Why is NASA offering to buy seats from Boeing at $90 million instead?  And is this really the best deal they could do – 50% more than SpaceX and even more than the Russians?

Details here.

Great New Flight Planning Aid

At this time of year, there’s always a slight extra element of exciting uncertainty when heading for the airport.  Will any of the airports we are flying from, through, or to be suffering delays?

There are several ways to determine that, and here’s a new one we really like.  Simply add up to a dozen airport codes and get their current operational status instantly displayed in twelve really easy to understand charts.

LH Makes A Passenger Unfriendly Decision

Imagine you’re an executive at Lufthansa and you’re presented with a problem.  One of your large A340 planes, with several hundred passengers on board, is flying from Frankfurt to New York.  Several hours after take-off a monitoring system suggested a problem in the main landing gear hydraulics.  The fault was not impactful on the flight’s safety, but might cause a problem when the plane landed.

You clearly have three choices.  The first choice would be to suggest the pilot declare an emergency and land at the nearest airport.  This would probably be Dublin.

The second choice would be to have the plane continue its journey and land in New York as scheduled, and attend to any checking and fixing in New York.  Hopefully there’d be no problem, just a faulty sensor, and if there was a problem, it would cost more to fix using non-Lufthansa labor, and might take an extra half-day or so if a spare part needed to be flown to New York.

The third choice would be to fly the plane back to Germany.  Not actually back to Frankfurt, because the airport will be closed by the time the plane returns.  Instead, to Cologne, about 85 miles away.  You would then bus the passengers to Frankfurt, where they’d be accommodated overnight, and you’d try to fit them into scheduled services to New York tomorrow.  As for the passengers in New York hoping to fly back on the plane from New York, you’ll again see what you can do about squeezing them onto other flights?

So, your choice?

We’d suggest the most logical choice, by any measure/standard, is the second choice – fly on to New York.  But perhaps that’s why we don’t work for an airline.  The choice LH took?  The third choice.  Maximum disruption for the most passengers, and probably the highest cost for LH too.

FAA Did Nothing for Ten Years.  Then a Plane Crashed.

Do you remember the Atlas Air/Amazon Prime Air 767 crash as the plane was approaching Houston airport in February?  It suddenly seemed to plunge out of the skies.

The NTSB has now released over 2,000 pages of documents from its investigation.  While it hasn’t yet issued a full formal report, a couple of interesting things are clear.

After a crash in 2009 of a Colgan Air flight that seemed to show a dismaying level of incompetency on the part of the plane’s pilots, Congress did two things.  It required pilots to now have a minimum of 1500 hours before they could fly a passenger plane, and they required a central database of pilots’ employment and training records, so bad pilots couldn’t hop from airline to airline, leaving their past behind them.

I wrote about the utter nonsense of the 1500 hour training requirement at the time, here.  If you’ve not read that article before, you really should.  And of note is that the copilot in the Atlas Air crash – the guy who seems to have been creating the problem – had over 5,000 hours flying experience.  Like every other plane crash analysed in my article, all the pilots have always had more than 1500 hours of flying experience, making this new requirement totally meaningless when it comes to preventing crashes.

But the Congressional requirement that the FAA create a “clearinghouse” of pilot records, now nearly ten years old, has yet to be done.  It doesn’t exist.  Not at all.

As a result, the co-pilot’s repeated firings and failings went unnoticed and unknown as he transferred from airline to airline.  This was exactly the situation the pilot history database was supposed to prevent.  If it had been in place, the co-pilot might not have been hired, or – if hired – been subject to much more rigorous training and scrutiny.  And the plane would not have crashed and no-one would have died, in what currently seems to be a totally preventable unnecessary tragedy.

Care to guess how many people will lose their jobs due to not getting this done?  My guess – none.

Here’s a good article about the situation.

Amazon Aces Online Shopping and Distribution

Continuing the related theme of Amazon delivery services, a reader wrote in to express her frustration.  Her husband had ordered some new suitcases direct from Samsonite on 30 November.  It wasn’t until 3 November that shipment information was given to Fedex, and the luggage wasn’t delivered until 13 December, two weeks after the order was placed, and ten days after it was shipped.

I had a similar experience.  As I mentioned in last week’s newsletter and above this week, I “ordered” the free Google Assistant device last week, on Thursday 12 December.  Six days later, it shipped on 18 December, from Illinois, also via Fedex.  Guess when it is expected to be delivered?  Unbelievably, Google says to expect it on 31 December.  How can it take six days to fulfill the order, and then another 13 days to travel, via Fedex, from IL to WA?

Compare that to my experience ordering the discounted Amazon Alexa unit.  I ordered it on Saturday 14th, and it arrived early on Sunday 15th.

Who, these days, is willing to wait two weeks for items to be delivered?  Apparently Samsonite and Google both hope that everyone is happy with that level of (non)service.  But when Amazon delivers most things to most people, variously same day, next day or second day, it is hard to accept such slow service from competitors.

I’ve been observing and occasionally writing about Amazon developing its own delivery service.  First they started adding a network of warehouse and distribution centers, then they started adding “last mile” delivery services, and then they added their own long-haul service too, by buying or leasing a growing number of airplanes.

I’ve see this as an existential threat to the other delivery services – Fedex, UPS, and USPS.  Not only that, but a threat to all other online retailers.

The frustrating thing is that if you were to start an online store, it would be impossible for you to compete with Amazon and its fast free shipping.  Ask UPS or Fedex how much they charge for two day service, and you’ll be lucky to pay less than $15.  I just did a test quote with UPS for a small, under 1 lb package – they were charging $13 for standard service or $43 for next day service, to ship only a couple of states away.

And here’s the self-fulfilling prophecy that UPS and Fedex are creating.  By making it impossible for other companies to compete with Amazon, they are helping Amazon grow, and the more that happens, the faster Amazon will become a more general competitor of theirs.  UPS and Fedex should be doing all they can to encourage and help small companies develop and prosper, not be seeking to exploit them.

This article predicts – and I concur – that soon enough, Amazon will start offering general shipping service for everyone.  They are strengthening elements of their delivery service that can work equally well for drop-off service too – shops and lockers where you can collect shipments, and drop-off returned orders – see for example, this amazing new service (and, yes, I always keep a spare Amazon box or two on hand for returns, too!).

I’m willing to wager large sums that Amazon will charge less than $43 for next day delivery service.

Update :  After writing the above, by chance a reader forwarded this article, which is fascinating, particularly for two points.  First, Amazon already ships more packages a year than either UPS or Fedex.  Secondly, it has also started offering shipping services to outside companies.

Language Problems?

It might seem unsurprising that a gentleman with the name Abdul-Majeed Marouf Ahmed Alani needs an interpreter to plead guilty to a charge in court.  But it becomes a little more surprising when we learn that he is either a US citizen or a green-card holder and may have been in the country 30 years, and the surprising index climbs further when we learn that he is a “veteran” (as in long-term, not as in ex-military) employee of American Airlines, where he works as – oops – an aircraft mechanic.

How is it possible that an aircraft mechanic of some many years employment, living and working in the US, and working for a US airline, needs an interpreter?

Perhaps then the reason that he sabotaged a plane’s navigation system was not because of alleged ties to ISIS terrorist groups, but maybe he simply misunderstood an instruction from his supervisor.  Or does he have a full-time interpreter with him at work, helping him understand directions and read procedural manuals and paperwork?

Details here.

And Lastly This Week….

The “holiday season” means more people traveling, and the roads as well as airports can get clogged, both with more people and with weather related issues.  But hopefully you won’t be faced with a 391 mile traffic jam, as was the case this week in France.

Here’s an article that partially answers a question “Why are most airplane seats blue?”.  I’m not even sure that the premise – the preponderance of blue seats – is correct.

Here’s another good story about fake TripAdvisor reviews, which again demonstrates how easy it is for people to detect fake reviews and fake reviewers if they apply themselves to the task.  Which, yet again, begs the question – why doesn’t TripAdvisor (and all other customer review sites) do a better job of weeding out the fakes?

And truly lastly this week, I do hope you’ll have a wonderful Christmas filled with family, friends, feasting and joy.

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels





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