Weekly Roundup, Friday 3 January 2020

Only on a Travel Insider tour do you see a deluxe motor-coach traveling on dirt tracks, taking us to special places well off the beaten path!

Good morning

I’m loving typing “2020”.  It seems such a “special” number, compared to 2019 and 2021, and most other years too.  I’ve decided to consider it as “a year of clarity”, because of its link to the concept of 20:20 vision.  Let’s hope that some of our political leaders and other public policy promoters may be blessed with an iota more clarity than they usually seem to experience.

As we start our new year – and new decade, too – I hope that one of your new year resolutions is to “Join David on a Travel Insider Tour”.  We’ve two ready to go right now, and I’ll be adding a Christmas tour and possibly a late summer tour as well.  Please do check out our two current tours, which run “back to back” so you could do both if you wished.

First is a French tour, with a week in one of my favorite cities/regions, Bordeaux, in late May.  This gives us time in this lovely World Heritage listed city, and of course, most days going out into the towns and villages in the region and enjoying some of their world-finest wines.  This is preceded by an optional extension along the glamorous and glitzy French Riviera, and followed by an optional extension in the Loire Valley with castles and chateaus galore.

Second is a Scottish tour, in June.  We travel quite literally the length and breadth of Scotland, although that doesn’t involve as much time in the coach as you might fear, and we enjoy a series of two or longer night stops, while allowing us to range to Scotland’s “four corners” – the most northerly, southerly, westerly and easterly places on Scotland’s mainland.  We have a pre-tour option that gives you a night in a 700+ year old castle and at a wonderful world heritage “industrial revolution” location, and a post-tour option that includes a focus on the Edinburgh region, including a visit to mysterious Rosslyn Chapel.

We’re growing lovely groups for both tours.  Please do come and join us for one or the other or for both.

There’s an article following today’s roundup that was prompted by a reader calling my attention to what he believes to be the best of all the Kindles Amazon has ever made and sold, and which they sadly recently discontinued.  There has been a steady flow of Kindle models and updates since the first Kindle came out in November 2007, and I’ve not been as focused on recent models as I should have been.

So, as part of my “2020 clarity” I’ve provided a piece that looks at the three models currently offered, and puts them in the context of other eBook reading solutions available.  If you already have a Kindle, it helps you understand if you should upgrade (probably not, in most cases – indeed, while researching for the article I resurrected my original Nov 2007 Kindle and was delighted to see it is still working well).  If you don’t have a Kindle, it helps you understand if you need a Kindle or can happily read on your phone and tablet.

What else this week?  It has been, unsurprisingly, a slow week or two, and not even a lot of news from Boeing; but plenty of year/decade retrospectives (for example and also here) and a few future looking pieces, too.

For me, when I think back over the last decade and what I expected to see by January 1, 2020, the thing I was most wrong about is clearly my anticipation that self-driving cars would be much more advanced than they are.  The frustrating thing about this is that the much slower pace of progress is all for the “wrong” reasons.  The industry, after racing ahead at a truly impressive rate, recoiled in horror after a fatal accident in which a test self-driving car hit and killed a pedestrian crossing the road at night, in March 2018.  Progress essentially stopped on that night, and apart from some not-very-impressive Tesla developments, has not really restarted since then.

But, there are two things to keep in mind.  The first thing is that the test car in the accident had its main set of sensors disabled as part of the test.  If it had all its sensors activated, it is likely it would have detected the pedestrian and avoided the fatality.

The second thing is that fatal accidents are commonplace with cars at present.  We should only require self-driving cars to be slightly better than human controlled cars.  With 2020 clarity, “the excellent is the enemy of the good”.  If self driving cars can be even 10% better/safer, that would save 3500 lives in the US alone each year (and countless more injuries and property/vehicle damage).  Why insist self-driving cards should be 100% perfect, when we, ourselves, are woefully inadequate?

But, because of this single negative event, the entire industry has done an about-face and is retreating from self-driving concepts as fast as they were earlier advancing them.  For me, I think not of the one lady killed, but of the tens of thousands more who are now being needlessly maimed and killed by human-controlled cars.

A semi-related disappointment is the lack of progress in electric-powered cars.  Last year saw over 80 million passenger vehicles sold.  But only a little more than 1 million were battery-electric vehicles, and a bit over 500,000 more were hybrids.  In total, about 2% of all new vehicles were either hybrid or full electric.

For the last many years, there has been a steady flow of news stories, either about new battery technologies, or about new battery-electric cars, but without exception, all such stories always weakly end with the statement that the battery or car will become available “in the next year or two” (for example).

Meanwhile, just like tomorrow never comes, neither do any of these vehicles – invariably designated as “Tesla-beating” cars.  The non-Tesla cars that do slowly get to market are, almost always, sadly underwhelming (and expensive).  General Motors came out with a stolid uninspiring Bolt, but most months, it struggles to even sell more than 1,000 units, while Tesla’s Model 3 can sell 10,000 or more in some months (although even the Model 3’s sales are latterly very underwhelming, and the half million plus order backlog after the car was first announced seemed to evaporate with little trace or comment).

Nissan, once a standard-bearer for electric cars with its ugly Leaf, now can’t even manage to sell 1000 vehicles a month, and has spent the last several years languishing with an under-featured too-low-range model that has seen the company lose market share steadily.

The Koreans have a pair of interesting cars – the Hyundai Kona Electric and the Kia Niro EV, but both models combined barely reach 300 cars sold a month.

Who wants to buy any type of car with so few sales?  The resale market and the ability of a dealership to service such a vanishingly rare model vehicle has to be a huge concern.

Where is Ford in all of this?  After boasting for years of multi-billion dollar commitments to electric vehicle technology, their total number of electric-powered vehicles at present is zero, with just the promise of a Mustang branded electric vehicle expected to start appearing at the end of this year.

One hopes – but with little confidence – that some of these “coming soon” exciting developments may actually appear and start to have an impact in the next several years.  But for now, it seems most of us will choose to stick with internal combustion engined vehicles.

Please keep reading for :

  • Boeing’s New Year Resolutions?
  • Never Mind the Water.  What About the (Airline) Food!
  • The Travel Insider is Out of Prison
  • What Can be Done About Obscured Rip-Off Travel Fees
  • The TSA is a Waste of Money and Costs Lives
  • More Than A Decade Later – What Happened to Our Promised High Speed Rail
  • Guess Which Country is Doing an Anti-Competition Probe on Booking.com?
  • And Lastly This Week….

Boeing’s New Year Resolutions?

Immediately before Christmas, and hot on the heels of the company’s announcement that it was completely shutting down its 737 production line for the next unknown number of months (probably 3 – 6, possibly longer), the company very quietly announced that Dennis Muilenburg, their CEO, who had already been stripped of his Board Chairman title in October, was now being let go entirely.

Yes, in a few weeks, the board had done a 180° reversal from “having complete confidence in” to firing their CEO.  This was not a shock to anyone, and perhaps the only real surprise was how long it took to realize the need to take this action.  Furthermore, some of the crueler commentators pointed out that while Muilenburg was indeed the public face of the Boeing and responsible for many of the shortcomings that had unraveled in slow motion during the nine months prior, he was far from the only such person intimately contributing to the unfolding disaster, and that the entire Boeing corporate culture had shown itself to have transformed from one of pride in engineering excellence to one driven by “shareholder value” rather than product value.

In that reality (and it is an observation I’ve made repeatedly) it isn’t just Muilenburg who should be replaced.  Most/all of the entire board of 13 members should be booted out too.  A look at the board shows few people with aerospace understanding, and way too many politicians, “hired-gun” executives, or revolving-door retired military.

The new CEO?  Sadly, more of the same, as likely as not.  The new CEO is the recently appointed new board chairman, David Calhoun.  So we will again have one person as president, CEO and chairman – textbook bad management right from the get-go.  The gentleman in question has been a board member for ten years, and is not known as being someone making waves and asking awkward/difficult questions and demanding answers.

But that sums up pretty much the entire board.  Is the solution to Boeing’s corporate culture crisis likely to come from a ten year resident of their board, a professional manager?  Or does Boeing need another “Engineering Excellence” focused technocrat who will help the company to regain its lost confidence with its customers, its suppliers, and the marketplace as a whole; and re-energize the company itself with a sense of purpose and mission; a person who will spearhead the development of new excellent airplanes and usher in a new era of market growth and success, based on great products rather than financial management, cost-efficiencies, squeezing suppliers, and share buybacks?

There is increasing talk now about the need for Boeing to come up with a replacement for the entire 737 product line.  For sure, this has been overdue and should have been done a decade or more ago, but it is becoming plain that, even without the crisis caused by the two crashes, the MAX market share has been falling behind Airbus and its A320neo range.  Boeing needs a new single-aisle plane.

At the same time, Boeing also needs something to “fill the gap” between its larger 737 planes and its smaller 787 planes.  This is the gap that the 757 and 767 formerly filled, and which has also been open for over 15 years (the 757 ceased production in 2004).

Boeing hates developing two new planes simultaneously (and it is still struggling to complete development of the latest generation of the 777X family, too), but whenever it has done so in the past, it has been a tremendous success (737/747 and 757/767).

Boeing needs dynamic leadership to direct the company into its next level of airplane excellence.  We’ll find out soon enough if David Calhoun can be that person, but on paper, at present, it seems unlikely.

For sure, 2019 is going to be a disaster of a year for Boeing, but in more ways than “just” the obvious one.  It is unsurprising that its deliveries for 2019 will be low, because it has not been able to deliver any 737s for over 10 months.  But more telling is the depressed level of new plane sales.  Through November, Airbus was reporting a net of 718 new airplane orders.  Boeing reported a net of 56 new orders, and that’s something that can’t be explained away by the 737 mess, because one would expect airlines to still be confidently ordering 777 and 787 planes, and to be ordering 737 MAX planes for far-into-the-future deliveries too.

Here’s a good article that sums up Boeing’s troubled year and desperate future needs.

Meantime, the current best guess for when the 737 will be approved for return to flight is February or March.  United says it no longer expects to see its 737s back in the air before June.

Never Mind the Water.  What About the (Airline) Food!

You hopefully already know never to drink water out of the drinking fountains or taps on a plane.  While the airlines now have their water under greater scrutiny than before, it remains at best of uncertain quality and cleanliness.

But what about the food?  We certainly know of people who have wondered if it was an airline meal that caused them to come down with a “tummy bug” on their travels, but we’ve never suspected any systemic weaknesses on the food preparation and serving side of things.

Leastways, not until now and this article, which exposes the astonishing fact that airline food and food preparation facilities are under-inspected and seldom subject to sanctions when food handling violations are detected.  Astonishingly, it seems that local/regional county and state health departments have little or no jurisdiction most of the time, and it is the FDA who is responsible for keeping airline food preparation facilities up to standard.

And just how rigorous are the FDA inspections?  Well, first of all, any type of inspection is a rare and unusual event, and there’s little sign of any effective penalties or negative outcomes when an inspection is held and violations detected.

This is a very dismaying revelation.

The Travel Insider is Out of Prison

I hate typing on my phone, and so generally dictate via voice recognition when I’m sending text messages, emails, etc.  Sometimes the speech recognition works well, and sometimes, not so well.

Like, for example, in this case when I said to my phone “…..I’m out at present.  I’ll be back and free in about 45 minutes…”

A simple enough set of statements and circumstances.

But Google decided to play a trick on me, as you can see from the screen shot.

What Can be Done About Obscured Rip-Off Travel Fees

The insidious thing about obscured rip-off travel fees is that as soon as one or two suppliers start charging one of these odious fees, all other suppliers feel pressure to do the same, or else they are “leaving money on the table”, because they see their competitors charging the fees and not suffering any marketplace consequence, push-back, PR-nightmare, or loss of business/marketshare.

Particularly with hotel “resort” fees, which many times give hotels the potential to double their net room profitability each night, and with the ability to say as a fair excuse “all the other hotels are already doing this, so we really need to play the same game ourselves”, it is very hard to stop such practices once they take hold.

While we seldom enjoy seeing legislative solutions to marketplace problems, in this case it seems necessary and if it is well drafted, legislation that bans separated mandatory fees and allows travel suppliers to only charge a single charge for all mandatory services, and well-publicised optional fees for optional additional services that are not essential would seem possible.

The evil of the current fees are that either they are extra money for essential services that pretty much every traveler wants and needs (for example, Wi-Fi in a hotel, or a fuel surcharge fee on an airline ticket), or they are mandatory fees that are simultaneously for things travelers don’t necessarily want or need (gym and pool access, for example, unlimited local calls on the in-room telephone) and/or are inflated charges out of all relation to the cost of providing the services.

Our best approach is to pressure our state and federal lawmakers and demand they do something to stock this trickery.

Here’s a good article exposing some more of the current ugliness of travel fees.

The TSA is a Waste of Money and Costs Lives

Nope, not our words this time, although we’ve probably said as much before.

This article has just been republished, and while some of its analysis is based on what is becoming old data, its underlying two points remain spookily valid, even today.

First, it says there is no evidence of the TSA having ever uncovered or prevented any terror attack on our air transport system.  Now, of course, the TSA would claim that this proves they’re doing a great job; but the article wonders if maybe the problem itself is massively overstated.

Second, it says there has been a clear shift from flying to driving, as a consequence of unpleasant TSA security procedures and the delays associated with such activities.  From that point, the article points to a matching growth in road traffic fatalities, and while you can debate as to how many of those are the result of people driving rather than flying, some number of them surely are.

So, subsequent to 9/11, the article points out that perhaps the TSA has saved no lives from potential terror attacks, but cost many thousands of lives due to greater driving rather than flying.  And also, yes, cost many tens of billions of dollars.

How much safer is flying than driving?  It is hard to accurately say, because flying is so stunningly safe.  These days, it is normal for an entire year to see no passenger fatalities within the US airline system, compared to 35,000 or so on the roads.  Depending on how you try and match these accident rates, some studies end up with claims that flying is 100 or even 1000 times safer than driving.

Should we abandon the TSA entirely?  No, believe it or not, we don’t advocate that.  Indeed, we feel that their growing tolerance and faster service is encouraging, and hope they continue to extend and develop their PRE system further.

More Than A Decade Later – What Happened to Our Promised High Speed Rail

In the heady early days of the Obama administration and “Yes We Can”, we were told there was no reason in the world why the US couldn’t have a world beating “best of breed” high speed rail system, at least as good as China’s, and that we would therefore develop one.

We agreed, at the time, with the premise that we could have good high speed rail, but didn’t for an instant believe the associated promise that high speed rail would be developed in the country.  It was plain as day to us that the $8 billion being allocated for high speed rail wasn’t even 1% of the money that a credible high speed rail project would require.  We called the government on their outright and outrageous lies back in 2010.

Please don’t think we are boasting about being cleverer than everyone else.  Not so.  Anyone who could operate a calculator could work out average costs per mile to develop high speed rail, could work out the miles of rail needed, and multiply the two numbers together to see what level of budget was required (think a trillion dollars and more to get a skeletal national network under way).  California’s farcical and failed approach to high speed rail showed, if nothing else, that a modest development and not very extensive route would require the thick end of $100 billion.  $8 billion wouldn’t even pay for one tenth of the California project, let alone for any amount of a world-standard national network.

So what has happened since then?  Well, this article struggles mightily to come up with some feel-good successes, but can’t credibly equate zero high speed rail with the promises that were made back then.

Meantime, in the last decade, China has added over 15,500 more miles of high speed rail to its network.  Its trains travel at speeds sometimes in excess of 200 mph, making it practical to offer fast train services even over very long distances.  Its Beijing-Shanghai line, 809 miles long (and which I traveled on a “fast” train taking over 10 hours about 12 years ago) has trains now operating, including two intermediary stops, in just under 4 1/2 hours, making it the fastest scheduled long-distance train service in the world.

Back to the situation here.  The biggest frustration of all?  None of the politicians who made these promises have suffered any negative consequence for having made them and then broken them.  We’ll go further and say that if they had even an iota of understanding of the issues, they knew at the time they were making their promises that they could/would never happen.

As for one of the promised projects being a train that would average 39 mph, one wonders in what alternative reality that could be described as high speed rail (which is generally defined as being faster than about 120 mph on existing track, and faster than 160 mph on new track).

Here’s the thing we most need to do something about (as well as high speed rail, too!).  Democracy only works in an honest environment when our elected representatives are accountable for making good on their promises.  There is no accountability and no consequences at present when our politicians promise us things that never happen.  That needs to be the first thing that changes, and that change has to come from us.

Guess Which Country is Doing an Anti-Competition Probe on Booking.com?

I’ve several times pointed out how the hotel booking industry these days is an anti-competitive mess.  Hotels forbid online travel agencies from selling their rooms for less than certain agreed upon prices, and online travel agencies in turn demand that hotels give them their very best rates, no matter what they sell the rooms for or what the reason other companies might credibly claim a reason for a better rate.

Truly, the internet has made hotel room selling a nightmare.  It is costing the hotels much more in commission than it ever did when selling the “old fashioned way” through travel agencies, and rather than seeing new waves of competition making for lower hotel room rates and less commission costs, quite the opposite has happened.

One country has just started a probe of Booking.com’s policy that forbids hotels from offering their rooms at better rates on other websites.  On the face of it, this is an obvious and ultra-objectionable anti-competitive measure, and so where is our DoJ and our publicity-seeking state Attorneys-General?  They should be all over this like something on a (hotel) blanket.

But no, the DoJ seems unworried.  Instead, it is a country that doesn’t have a great reputation internationally as being an advocate of fair business practices that is mounting this investigation.  Russia.  Details here.

In what twilight zone do we now find ourselves in which Russia’s regulators have become more sensitive to anti-competitive actions than our own?

And Lastly This Week….

Next week sees the annual extravaganza that is the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.  I’m again sitting it out, but might go next year, because it is promised that Elon Musk’s tunnel and passenger transport system will be operational around the Convention Center in time for CES in 2021.  I’ll believe it when I see it, and am profoundly dubious that it will be anything other than a disappointment, especially its claim of whisking people from Point A to Point B in under a minute.  The claim clearly only includes time on the transport device, not time going down stairs to a station, waiting for the next transport (or maybe waiting for several due to congestion and the system’s surely inadequate passenger carrying capacity) and then at the other end, making it back up to the exhibition hall.

Here are an interesting pair of articles – the five biggest space failures of 2019 and the seven most exciting space missions slated for 2020.  There’s one company that should appear on both lists, but which is strangely absent – strangely because its leader is never one to miss a promotional opportunity.  I’m referring of course to Virgin Galactic, and the passing of yet another year of broken promises about starting flying passengers on joyrides to “space”, and now its renewed promise to do so early this year.

No prizes for guessing what was 2019’s worst PR disaster.  But some of the other PR disasters on this list are interesting.

How many of these 14 junk items did you accumulate over the last decade?  We’ll admit to four.

Here’s a nice item on 50 surprising things that didn’t exist a decade ago, and an article on tech predictions for 2020 that failed to pan out.  We are saddest about the failure of hyperloop technology to catch on (see the item above on high speed rail above for related comments).  Hyperloops truly seem like a viable innovation where American know-how and technology could redefine long-distance mass/public transportation.

And lastly this week, a startling discovery.  A bigger snow-plow can clear an airport runway faster than a small one.  Who’d have guessed!

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels

 

David.

 

 

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