Weekly Roundup, Friday 24 January 2020

Magnificent Dunrobin Castle also features a wonderful falconry demonstration in its lovely gardens. Come on this year’s Scotland Tour and enjoy this with us.

Good morning

It has been a terrible week on two fronts.  Boeing announced a massive delay in when they are guessing the 737 MAX might be recertified to fly again, with the earlier February hope now being shifted to “mid-year” with nothing more than a fingers-crossed belief that this means June or July.  That’s another four or five months of delays, the longest announced delay yet, and with the grounding having started in March last year, pushes us way beyond a one year total stop on 737 MAX flights or new plane deliveries.

The extent of the other bad news is still largely anyone’s guess.  This was the week the coronavirus that apparently originated in Wuhan, China, shifted from minor stories on the inner pages to becoming increasingly large headline stories on the front page.  It might be thought I’m feeling this concern particularly strongly because the first confirmed US case is close to me, in Everett, WA.  That’s of almost no relevance at all, because already (late Thursday) there are suspected cases springing up in other parts of the US (TX and CA) and with now 16 other people being watched after possibly being infected by the one person in Everett, it seems the spread of this virus, both geographically and in terms of total numbers affected, can be enormous, and very fast.

A virologist in China described the situation as having “passed through the ‘golden period’ for prevention and control” while bemoaning corrupt officials doing insufficient to contain the problem.  The timing couldn’t have been worse, with it just now going into the Chinese New Year period, a time of extreme travel as families travel to reunite for the celebration (a bit like our Thanksgiving, but only more so).

We don’t yet have enough information on its lethality, and it seems possible that the Chinese have not been fully frank with the world in terms of the spread of it to date in Wuhan and elsewhere.  In particular, an article on Thursday purportedly showing people dropping in the streets in Wuhan seems like something from a bad horror movie, but if this is what is actually happening, we’re all going to have to recalibrate our sense of magnitude.

Thursday also saw the CDC give its highest Level 3 warning notice for this outbreak.  WHO is dragging its feet, while musing about possibly declaring a global emergency.  We’re not quite sure what such a designation would mean or could do, but at the rate of disease spread, and the accelerating death toll, we expect such a designation just as soon as WHO has touched the necessary political bases and been given approval to do so.

We’re also hearing that hospitals in the US are already being strained due to people who would normally not give a second thought to a regular winter-time cough/cold rushing anxiously to hospitals for fear they’ve contracted the virus.

So, enough of the bad news.  What else this week?  I managed to persuade my daughter (15 yrs old) to write an article for this week, in which she compares and contrasts the Amazon Alexa and Google Home smart speaker systems.  Well, there is a light overlay of editing from me of course, but she penned the original article then revised it twice before I did a final polish.

I hope you’ll find it helpful, and – talking about helpful – both she and I are ardent converts to filling our lives with Alexa devices.  I’m writing this from a hotel room in Lolo, MT at present, and desperately missing such small things as being able to say “Alexa, temperature” to know how cold it is getting outside, let alone being able to turn on and off lights, listen to music in bed, and everything else that Alexa does for me these days.

May I ask you a question.  I have a feeling I might be getting too verbose each week.  My original target, now close on 20 years ago, was for 750 words of newsletter each week, and a 750 word feature article.  Nowadays, feature articles always tend to be more than twice as long, and often much more (Anna’s article this week is 3631 words), and the weekly newsletters can be even longer (last week was an unusually lengthy 5586 words, this one looks to be 2950 words).

Please click the answer below that best expresses your thinking about the newsletter length.  That should generate an email to me with your answer coded into the subject line. :

Not long enough

Perfect as it is

Too long – recommend fewer items each week, similar detail per item

Too long – recommend same items each week, less detail per item

Too long – any shortening is fine

I’ll let you know the outcome next week.  No promises about any drastic changes, but it would be helpful to know your thoughts.

And now, please keep reading for :

  • This Week’s Bad News for Boeing
  • Bringing Order to the Menagerie of Service Animals on Planes
  • Shameful?  Or Shameless?  You Decide
  • Amtrak Gives in to Disabled Rights Group
  • New Train Services?
  • Apple Blinks.  Cheaper iPhones Expected Soon.
  • And Lastly This Week….

This Week’s Bad News for Boeing

As mentioned above, the worst news for Boeing this week is that the company now says it doesn’t expect the FAA to recertify the 737MAX until the middle of the year.

While it was becoming obvious that January was not going to happen, and there was little confidence in February, particularly after a new computer problem came to light last week, few if any commentators had thought it would take until June/July.

This makes me wonder if Boeing knew this for some time prior to sharing the information.  If Boeing knew in December that the recertification wasn’t going to happen in the first six months of 2020, it would have made much more sense when they announced the decision to stop all 737 assembly for some vague period of time.  Based on the timelines that were applying in December, it seemed a really strange decision, and based on a really strange reason – running out of space for the finished planes.  The pause seemed likely to only be for perhaps a couple of months, and as for running out of space, almost immediately after Boeing announced its plans to pause its production line, it then announced it had secured FAA permission to park more 737s in one of the vast desert parking lots/graveyards for airplanes.

The 737 production finally halted on Tuesday this week.

We were surprised that Boeing continued paying dividends after the 737 grounding.  Word came out this week that Boeing is now finding itself needing to raise more cash, with the company apparently having already received commitments for a $6 billion line of credit, and possibly seeking to increase this to $10 billion.

Borrowing money to pay a dividend is not usually a good idea.  Normal ordinary dividends are supposed to be the company sharing “what is left over, after everything has been paid or provided for” with its shareholders.  The whole idea of equity is generally that it is a cheap source of capital and one that doesn’t need servicing every quarter if the company chooses not to do so.  In return, shareholders are rewarded not just with dividends but with the growth in the value of their shares as well.

Next week sees Boeing’s quarterly earnings call (29 Jan) and we expect – we hope – that the analysts on the call will be a bit more aggressive in their questioning than in the recent past.  We anticipate Boeing greatly increasing its set-asides for the cost of the 737 grounding.

But what we don’t expect is to hear Boeing announcing any aggressive new plans to develop new better planes.  This is more and more unfortunate with every passing day.  I’ve been writing for years about Boeing slipping further and further behind Airbus, and the product gap left unfilled since the 757 ceased production 16 years ago.  This news item, this week, highlights the strategic problem Boeing is suffering.  Sure, it is “only” a tiny charter airline replacing a pair of 20 yr old 757s with two new Airbus A321LRs, but it is indicative of the problem and response that is growing across all Boeing’s 757 operators.

We shouldn’t forget that Boeing makes other planes, and some of its other customers are not happy either.  Most notably, an operator massively bigger than the tiny British charter operator.  At least at this point, there’s never been a single good moment with the US Air Force tanker project and Boeing’s role.

We had hoped to also offer a small piece of good news – the first flight of the new 777X plane on Thursday of this week.  Alas, it didn’t happen, but is now scheduled for today.

So, in a struggle to close with something other than unalloyed bad news, we’ll point out that this bit of bad news for earlier 777 planes is totally not Boeing’s fault.

Bringing Order to the Menagerie of Service Animals on Planes

We’ve seen, from time to time, the most extraordinary animals being carried on planes by militant owners asserting their “right” to take any creature they choose with them as a “service animal”.  Whether peacocks or pigs, horses or hamsters, and let’s not also forget such horrors as snakes and spiders, all have been seen on flights over the last year or two, with owners often displaying no credible proof either of their need for a “service animal” or of the ability of the animal in question to provide the required service.

The Department of Transportation is proposing a new rule that would allow airlines to refuse to accept anything other than dogs as service animals, and to limit owners to no more than two service animals per flight per person.  (That’s a new one for us – we’d not heard of multiple animals being taken on all together before.)

Yay for that.

Shameful?  Or Shameless?  You Decide

The rise of an entire new category of people – “social influencers” – is not one we’ve been thrilled to watch.  Such people are usually narcissistic to a quite impressive degree, and unable to function other than at tropical five star beach resorts, while either in a bikini or surrounded by others in bikinis.

When it comes to flying, they’re unable to fly in coach class.  But also, often, unable to afford business or first class.  So what do they do?

They lie, cheat, or steal, any which way, so as to get upgraded.  But, being essentially empty-headed, after they’ve done so, what do they do next?  They boast about it on the social media channels that sadly represent their entire tiny self-obsessed lives.

Here’s a sad example of this – the guy who faked a disability so as to get a free upgrade to business class on a Cathay Pacific flight, and who says he’ll do it again.

Amtrak Gives In to Disabled Rights Group

That’s not the only form of disabled abuse.

We should start off by pointing out that we had a most unpleasant taste of being disabled a few years ago when for several months, we couldn’t apply any pressure at all on one of our ankles.  Not nice at all, and our sympathy and empathy for disabled people of all kinds grew greatly as a result.

But, never once during that experience did we feel that the rest of the world owed us anything.  We did appreciate kindnesses such as disabled parking spots in convenient places, but if the spots were taken, we never dreamed of marching in to the nearby businesses and demanding they stripe more of their car park as off-limits to normal people.

So we find it hard to be too sympathetic towards the advocacy group that forced Amtrak to reconfigure a carriage on their short-route service between Chicago and Bloomington IL so that five members of its group could ride on the same train.

The problem was that Amtrak only had three spots for disabled travelers on the train.  Okay, you might say, there are ten trains a day on that route.  No problem.  Put three on one train and the other two on the next train that leaves not long after.  But that’s not the way such groups work.  They create improbable “problems” then demand solutions as of right.  They demanded Amtrak accommodation all five people on the same train.

Amtrak agreed to do that, but said the cost of converting a carriage to comply with all ADA type regulations, and then converting it back to a regular layout again afterwards, would be $25,000.  That sounds high, but union labor in Chicago…….

At this point, you’d expect normal people to say “Oh well, I guess we have to take the next train a short while later”.  But no, the pressure group demanded Amtrak do this, all for free.

Amtrak folded and gave in.  Details here.

New Train Services?

Amtrak is considering starting a new service, to operate between Nashville and Atlanta.  That’s a distance of about 250 miles by road.

They’d like to operate two trains a day in each direction, but planning for the route is in its early stages.

Google suggests it takes under four hours to drive between the two cities.  But the train?  Amtrak says it will take 6 1/2 hours, an average speed of little more than 35 mph.

We love trains.  But we don’t like very slow trains.  When you add the extra time and hassle to get to the Amtrak station, check in for the train, and matching hassle at the other end, and having to fit your schedule around the two trains a day, this is a terribly inconvenient and slow service compared to just driving, and it is hard to comprehend why anyone owning a car would choose to take the train instead.  We don’t see this as being a very successful train service – details here.

About the only good thing about the train is that it would indeed not cost Amtrak much, apart from needing to buy some more carriages.  The reason for this is that it would be operating over existing train tracks, owned and in present use by CSX.

It is a totally different story for Britain’s plans to build a new high speed train service from London northwards – what it terms its HS2 train service.  This would be a new route and require new tracks.  It also would require a stunning amount of money to buy all the necessary land, lay the track, build the stations, and so on.

Plans for the line have gradually evolved since it was first opened for public consultation in 2010.  By 2012, costs of £30-36 billion were being spoken of. In 2015 and again in 2017, it was said the HS2 line would cost £56 billion to construct.

That number has continued to increase; last year it was around £80 billion, and this last week, the new price has been set at £106 billion, with some groups suggesting this still remains a low figure.

How is this possible?  Tripling in price in eight years?  It seems everywhere in the world, public works are always under-costed.  Is this a deliberate plan to lie and trick the public into supporting projects that otherwise would be laughably impractical and expensive?

Apple Blinks.  Cheaper iPhones Expected Soon.

Great news if, like me, you struggle to feel good at paying $1000 or more for a fancy new iPhone 11, when you can get almost as good a phone with Android for $200.  Apple’s iPhone has been bleeding market share at an impressive rate due to it being seen as too expensive (and insufficiently better than last year’s model, or the year before’s), and so Apple is understood to be bringing out a new iPhone that will probably be priced around $400, and using the familiar traditional type of screen and command button below the screen.

I’d be a starter for one of those myself, but with a remaining regret being it seems Apple might only release it in a “small” screen size (4.7″ diagonal) rather than also in the larger screen sizes (6″ and larger) that most companies also have available on their lower cost models.

It is amusing to remember back to the first iPhone, released in June 2007.  At the time, its screen was larger than most other phones, and measured 3.5″ on diagonal.  But what was then considered big is now miniscule, with the current largest iPhone screens now extending to 6.5″.

Details here.

And Lastly This Week….

Here’s a new amusement park attraction that may or may not be a great idea.  A 30 minute simulator ride where you get to experience an airplane crash.  About the best that can be said about the concept is that it is about as close to a real airplane crash as any of us are ever likely to get.

We were writing about service animals above.  A similar category of creature, “emotional support” animals also exists of course, and their value is even more nebulous and harder to quantify.  But, in their favor, some of them can be quite cute and cuddly.

An “unruly drunk” forced an AA flight to make an “emergency stop”.  We understand an emergency stop in a car/bus, even on a train or boat.  It involves slamming on the brakes, some tire smoke (at least in the “good old days” before ABS), being thrown forward, and coming to a precipitate halt.  But that doesn’t happen in the sky, does it!  Perhaps there’s a better phrase that could be used in articles such as this….

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels and no emergency stops

 

David.

 

 

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