Weekly Roundup, Friday 28 February 2020

Looks like crew quarters, but may actually become new “economy class sleeping pods” on Air NZ planes. See article, below.

Good morning

I had started out this week by adding updates to last week’s lengthy article about the Covid-19 virus.  But such a lot has happened in the last week, I ended up writing a separate update article, appended to the end of today’s roundup.  The quick summary – almost no good news at all, but an abundance of bad news.

Other things for the week?  Well, the growing flow of Covid-19 stories is sucking the lifeblood out of much of the rest of the travel universe, and I think many travel companies realize that now is the very worst time to launch new travel promotions, drying up the news-flow even more.

But, please keep reading, nonetheless, for the usual mix of the wonderful and terrible :

  • A Morsel of Good News for Boeing This Week
  • Please Sign this Airline Petition
  • Air New Zealand Scores a PR Coup
  • American Airlines and Qatar Airways Now Frenemies
  • (At least some) Planes are Cleaner than they’ve Ever Been
  • Amtrak’s Continued Airline Envy
  • Income Based Parking Fines in Boston?
  • Why is the TSA Short of Money?
  • The Least Surprising News of the Week
  • And Lastly This Week….

A Morsel of Good News for Boeing This Week

Boeing barely managed to break its losing streak and registered a new sale of airplanes in February – loyal Boeing customer ANA tossed Boeing a bone and announced an order for 15 787 planes.  ANA was Boeing’s launch customer for the 787.

This order at least has saved Boeing from the looming embarrassment of headlines on Monday announcing no orders for any planes at all in both January and February this year (as well as the negative net order count for 2019).  But it is far from an exciting announcement.  A loyal 787 customers buys more 787s is good, but not as good as a new customer buying any airplane and converting to Boeing, or any customer buying a 737.

In other “news” – the quotes indicate that there’s not been any formal statement that we’ve seen – we nonetheless have a sense that the timeline for recertifying the 737MAX may be in trouble.  April/May as was earlier expected?  Maybe not.  There still seem to be some unresolved issues, and we’re not even sure if Boeing has yet submitted every piece of paperwork asked of it by the FAA.

I’d mentioned last week a developing story about foreign object debris in 737MAX fuel tanks.  At the time, Boeing declined to detail the extent of the problem.  It now seems it has affected more than two-thirds of all the 737MAXes they’ve inspected.

How did this happen?  Not just the debris being left in fuel tanks, but the lack of any quality control prior to signing the planes out as complete and correct?  Especially last year, after the two crashes and a supposedly massively increased level of scrutiny on every aspect of the manufacturing process.  Doesn’t give you a lot of confidence, does it.

Please Sign this Airline Petition

Here’s a petition that deserves your support.  It isn’t a well written petition, because it is addressed only to AA, DL and UA, but it asks the airlines to allow for families with children 13 or younger to sit together on flights, without incurring special assigned-seating fees.

There was a time, not all that long ago, when all seating assignments were free.  Airlines hated doing that, because as often as not, there would be unhappinesses and disappointments due to requested seats not being available.

I found it particularly offensive when couples would “cheat” and ask for aisle seats on opposite sides of the aisle – for example, the C seat on the left of the aisle and the matching D seat on the right side of the aisle on most typical narrow body planes.  That struck me as being greedy.  Sure, I like an aisle seat, but I don’t mind nearly so much being scrunched up against another passenger when it is a passenger I am, ahem, on good and even intimate terms with!

The airlines allowed free assigned seating until, all of a sudden, they no longer did.  By amazing coincidence, all the airlines (well, not Southwest with its unassigned seating policy) quickly made the same decision and started charging for seat assignments.  There have even been stories of some airlines actually deliberately splitting up seats so as to penalize people for not paying for pre-assigned seats together.

It has got worse since then.  I remember the outrage I felt when BA tried to charge me $50 or whatever the cost was to pre-assign me my seat in business class.  You spend thousands of dollars on a business class ticket, and then are asked to pay another $50 or something to get your seat assigned, too?  That’s a policy that doesn’t seem to have been universally adopted by all airlines, leastways, not yet.  BA made a “special exception” for me when I pointed out I’d cancel my ticket entirely if they didn’t give me pre-assigned seats.

Whether right or wrong to charge for seat assignments (in coach class), it is clearly wrong to profit from the special case of families traveling together.  I’d go further than that and say that any group of people booked on the same PNR should be given seats together, with a fee only applying if the passengers in question wanted to choose where in the plane and which seats they had.  But, if they don’t mind whether they get aisle and middle or window and middle, or whatever else, they should still be given two (or whatever other number of) seats together if they booked together.

For now, please do consider signing the petition.  It of course has zero legal force at all, and airlines really don’t care what we think.  But it is something to show to the DoT the next time they try and bluster their way out of doing anything about this cruel and uncaring airline policy.  The DoT’s standard response is “We get very few complaints about —- and so there’s no need for regulation to address a concern that isn’t widespread” (fill in the gap with pretty much anything at all).

But if we can take this petition, already at 109,537 signatures, and grow it way further, the DoT won’t be able to say that any more, and politicians will also notice that this is an issue that actually is important to voters.

Air New Zealand Scores a PR Coup

Life would be so much harder for airlines if they didn’t have journalists who were sycophantically eager to publish, without any scrutiny or quality control, the airline press releases they are handed.  Perhaps they do this in the hope of being given some free travel, or perhaps they simply have no clue about air travel and are too lazy to write their own stories, preferring to recycle press releases.

This article talks about “economy class sleeping pods” coming to Air New Zealand.  That would be a wonderful thing, if it weren’t for the fact that it is totally not true, leastways, not in any certain timeframe that has been announced, other than possibly after 2021.

That’s not all.  How many of these economy class sleeping pods might appear on a typical Air NZ 787 or 777, with between 215 and 263 coach class seats?  Ummm – definitely not a matching 215 – 263.  More like, maybe, six.

Which points to the next obvious issue.  If there are only six of these sleeping pods, and about 250 coach class seats, what’s the chance of sleeping pods being sold at regular economy class fares?  Especially when there are also 21 – 54 Premium Economy seats that don’t have sleeping pod capabilities?  Are we to believe Air NZ intends to give sleeping pods to passengers who paid economy class fares while passing over passengers who paid Premium Economy fares?

The reality?  These sleeping pods may or may not ever appear.  If they do, they won’t be part of an economy class fare.  They’ll not even be part of a Premium Economy class fare.  They’ll be appreciably more expensive than either.

American Airlines and Qatar Airways Now Frenemies

It seems like only yesterday that American Airlines was vociferously lobbying the administration to impose fines or fees on Qatar Airways, or to restrict their flights to the US.  Qatar (and Emirates and Etihad) were, according to the major US carriers, unfairly subsidized by their governments, and their flights to the US were destroying US jobs.

Both the Obama and Trump administrations laughed at this ridiculous assertion, as did most of the rest of the industry, including even other US carriers.  The claims were also clearly rebutted by the three Gulf airlines and independent US business travel groups.

The enmity was particularly strong between AA and Qatar, especially after AA rebuffed a Qatar attempt to buy 10% of their shares.  The always “interesting” CEO of Qatar, Akbar Al Baker, went as far as to describe the US carriers as offering crap service and employing only grandmothers as flight attendants.  AA’s VP of Flight Service responded not by saying “Fair enough, that’s true, who cares” but instead deployed the politically correct card by decrying the comments as “both sexist and ageist at the same time”.

And now, we read that AA and Qatar have entered into a “strategic partnership deal and codeshare agreement”.

Question to AA :  So, if Qatar is being unfairly subsidized, are you now also enjoying the fruits of this unfair subsidy?

Question to Qatar :  Do you not mind now partnering with an airline that offers crap service and grandmother flight attendants?

Analysts have pointed out that both airlines can help the other by filling in gaps in their respective route networks.  But is this really a good thing (especially for us as fare and fee paying passengers)?  What happened to the “good old days” when airlines competed rather than partnered, when airlines would fill the gaps in their route networks by adding their own flights?

(At least some) Planes are Cleaner than they’ve Ever Been

One of the very minor “silver linings” of the Covid-19 outbreaks around the world is that some airlines are thoroughly cleaning their planes after flights they feel may have involved a higher element of infection risk.

It is interesting to read in this article about what they are doing.  You might want to think about getting some of the “super cleaner” they use for your own purposes, too.  Let me know if you succeed – neither Amazon nor eBay seem to stock any of the three products mentioned.

For now, and without any real scientific evidence to back my perception up, it seems that Virex II may be a good product to use for general surface disinfecting.  Note the instructions and also the difference between the concentrate (dilute half an ounce of product with a gallon of water) and the premixed/diluted solution.  Or Lysol disinfectant spray or Purell Healthcare Surface Disinfectant.  Regular bleach is also good, but it can be a nasty irritant and stinks, so needs care in its application.  In all cases, keep in mind you need to let the disinfectant sit on the surfaces it is applied to for some period of time before being wiped off.

Amtrak’s Continued Airline Envy

They say that if you only have a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.  Another version of that adage might be that if you’re a former airline executive, every business scenario looks like it needs airline pricing.

Amtrak’s current CEO is Richard Anderson, formerly CEO of Northwest Airlines (remember them) and Delta Air Lines.  He has been with Amtrak since late 2017, and we’ve noticed a steady advancement of airline type policies at the railroad.  There have been ticket sales, companion fare discounts, a move towards restrictions/penalties on ticket changes/cancellations, and an unmistakable trend towards including fewer services and charging for more formerly free extras.

The latest concept is described without any attempt to hide its origins as “airline style pricing on Amtrak’s lowest fares“.

But the thing is that Amtrak is not an airline.  Sure, some trains in some countries travel almost as fast as some planes do (Japan is considering a new mag-level type of “Bullet Train” that would travel at 311 mph), and most trains in most countries go faster than cars and buses.

But poor old Amtrak is slower than anything and everything (except for short stretches on the Northeast Corridor).  Not only is it the slowest form of transportation, but increasingly it seems, in most places, it is also the least reliable, most likely to be late, and least comfortable form of transportation.  Some of the new luxury bus services beat Amtrak on every service measure, offer faster travel times, more frequent departures, and lower fares.

Amtrak needs to stop focusing on playing games with its fares.  If we’re charitable, we’ll allow that maybe the railroad is trying to lure more business in with some lower fares, and increase the revenue it gets from its regular passengers too.  But people don’t choose Amtrak (other than perhaps the Northeastern corridor) based on the cost of the ticket, they do so because they persist in loving train travel, no matter how unpleasant Amtrak tries to make it.

Amtrak needs to focus on improving the train travel experience and accelerating its journey times.  Then it will at least become closer to being competitive with long distance bus services.  Cheapening the product and adding “gotcha” penalties to their tickets risks alienating their small remaining number of loyal riders.

Mr Anderson needs to forget, not apply, his airline experience.  Railroads are a different beast entirely, and nowhere more so than in the US with Amtrak.

Income Based Parking Fines in Boston?

Here’s an interesting issue.  Should parking fines be based on how much money you make?  Is it unfair that a person earning little more than poverty rate wages should pay the same as a billionaire?  Perhaps the answer to this depends, somewhat, on whether parking fines are based on compensating the community for the loss of access to parking and the impediments to traffic caused by wrongly-parked cars, or are they penalties for the offenders?  Or both?

Boston is considering basing its parking fines on the income of the offender.  This is similar to how in some European countries, speeding fines are based on the offender’s income.  But of course, we’re not a European country.

What do you think?  I can see both sides of the issue, and while the issue is being promoted by its supporters as preventing poor people from starving due to inability to pay both parking fines and buy food, let’s understand this for what it really is.  Fines would slightly reduce for people on low incomes, but they’ll massive increase for people on higher incomes, and the net result will not simply be a redistribution of the same total parking fine collection, but a huge increase in total fines collected.

This is nothing more than a thinly disguised attempt to push parking fines up way higher than ever before expected, based on “rich-shaming” – a popular sport at present, it seems.

There’s another consideration, too.  If this applies to parking, maybe it should apply to other things, too.  Could it be similarly argued that the impact of imprisonment on a person with a family or a person who has a job that might be lost if absent for an extended time is greater than for an unemployed single person?  That a person who is imprisoned and loses income in a high paying job is penalized more than a person with a low paying job?

Does this mean that more affluent people should pay greater fines, but endure shorter periods of imprisonment?

What about older and younger people?  Is imprisonment equally onerous in both cases?  How should this be adjusted?

It would seem to be a struggle to maintain equal justice for everyone if we start adjusting “equal” to reflect various modifiers in every case.  Animal Farm time – everyone is equal, but some are more equal than others.

Why is the TSA Short of Money?

The security screening provided at airports by the TSA is paid for by a $5.60 each way fee on the airline tickets we buy.  As we and others have often calculated, that $5.60 more than pays for the cost of the people at the airport and the equipment they use.

Because of this, the TSA income rises to match the associated need for more TSA staff.  There should never ever be a situation where the TSA can’t afford to staff all its airport checkpoints generously and get us all through screening in satisfyingly short times.

Indeed, the $5.60 is so much more than the true cost the government incurs in screening us that they divert a large slice of the fee to other unrelated projects and programs and generic “deficit reduction“.  The government is being just like a private company – profiting from the fees it charges.

Worse still, current budget proposals see President Trump suggesting this fee should be increased still further – but not for more security, just for more “slush fund” diversion into regular government expenditures.

At least private companies understand they need to provide a good product.  If they don’t do that, they’ll lose their customers, and their business will fail.  It is a different situation when you have a monopoly on a product (like airport security screening) though.

So it is very dismaying to read this article that details how the TSA has overtime restrictions due to budget restraints and that lead times to get through airport screening are lengthening.

It is a terrible thing when our government tells us that we need to pay $5.60 for security screening, and wants to increase it further, but pockets much of the fee rather than spending it, as claimed, to give us a quality experience.  The dishonesty and uncaring lack of respect for us as taxpayers, fee payers, citizens and voters is not appropriate in the United States.

The Least Surprising News of the Week

You know it is a slow week when CNBC headlines an article “Coronavirus is threatening to end the world air-travel boom“.  The only surprising or interesting part of that concept would be the part they didn’t cover, and that would be some hard statistics as to how much the airlines are hurting, and how far down their sales actually are.  Their falling stock prices are sort of interesting, perhaps, but more impactful is to know what is happening to their ticket sales.

This other article points to a survey of American business travelers, two-thirds of whom have already postponed “at least a few events”.  The conclusion of the Global Business Travel Assoc is that the airlines may lose as much as $560 billion of revenue this year as a result of canceled travel.  Much of that will be lost for ever.  While “postponed” travel might subsequently be taken, the reality for many business travelers is that if you postpone your March trip somewhere, you simply merge it in with your April or May trip to the same or nearby destinations.

A kind gesture from JetBlue was their announcement they are waiving ticket change or cancellation fees for the next couple of weeks.  We wait to see if other airlines will match this.

One small point of good news in a sea of bad news for the airlines.  Jet fuel prices are dropping.

One thing is for sure.  You should expect some really wonderful deals on air travel, and perhaps especially so in the premium cabins, although we would guess the airlines will hold off on their most aggressive promotion until they feel the specter of Covid-19 has been put to rest, ie, the time when people are most likely to respond to airfare deals.

If you’re considering travel at any future time this year, delay buying your ticket as long as possible.  Prices are more likely to drop than rise over the next few weeks or more.  We expect the same will be true of cruises and perhaps land tours, too.

Indeed, the most recent research seems to suggest the best time to buy a ticket is 74 days prior to departure.  Sure, if you happen across a truly amazing promotional sale, buy your ticket any time.  But if you’re just looking at normal prices, hold off until you approach that 74 day point.

And Lastly This Week….

The article I wrote only a couple of hours ago updating you on the Covid-19 situation is already out of date.  Alas, I now see that my home country of New Zealand has joined the Covid-19 “club”, detecting its first case, being a person who returned back to NZ from Iran a couple of days earlier.  If you’re reading this in NZ, and were on the EK450 flight into AKL on 26 Feb, please keep away from everyone else until you know if you struck it unlucky and picked up the disease from this traveler.

Further update.  Add yet another country to Friday’s list.  Belarus.  Almost half of all countries with infections have been added to the list in the last five days (and Friday is far from over).

TripAdvisor shows that not only is it not always very good at quality-controlling its reviewers and their reviews, but that it also lacks a sense of humor.

Here’s a fun story that TripAdvisor could have spun to its advantage, and even developed to make its dry-as-dust site more engaging and enjoyable to visit.  But instead it just banned the offending reviews outright.  (As a contrast, there are a number of products on Amazon with spoof reviews which Amazon permits – it is possible to strike a balance between factual and fun.)

Here’s an interesting article on how some other countries mangle English so spectacularly, and why they don’t even necessarily care.  And an unrelated article on how some corporate creatures do the same in a desperate attempt to disguise their utter incompetence.

I’m going to be traveling all of next week.  Happily, most of it will be in the relatively safe biosphere that is my car, and hopefully none will be in mass transportation.  But there’ll still be hotels and restaurants and other necessary interactions with the rest of the world.  Assuming I’m not overcome with Covid-19, and able to access the internet, look for next week’s newsletter, as normal, next Friday.

Could I also remind you – if you want more regular updates on Covid-19, and indeed, about everything generally related to travel, please consider connecting to my Twitter feed.

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels





2 thoughts on “Weekly Roundup, Friday 28 February 2020”

  1. As a UAL Million Miler, and my wife also graced with the status, we have always tried to fly on aisle seats as you describe. I never thought of it as selfish; rather, we plan ahead, utilize the fact that we are great customers of UAL, and book this way.

    Neither one of us wants to be crunched in on both sides; who should get the aisle? If people want the aisles, let them book earlier, pay the fee, remain loyal to one airline, or suffer the consequences. To reach Million Mile status, I have sat in many many aisle seats, crunched in by strangers.

    On a side note, my wife recently went cross country, both ways, ‘stuck’ in a window seat. And found she loved the privacy. Me, my elderly prostate would not tolerate such a thing without disrupting my fellow seatmates.

    1. Hi, Rick

      Maybe this is like the debate about reclining seats. To me it is just plain greedy – depending on the plane layout, as few as one in three seats are aisle seats, and it doesn’t strike me as fair that two people traveling together take two seats, meaning up to four other people miss out.

      But that’s why the airlines are now charging for seat selection, and sometimes even more for aisle seats. I’ve no problem if the airline allows people to pay extra for the right to choose any seat they like. But back when all seat assignments, for all seats, were free, I felt differently.

      I’m not sure which is more popular – aisle or window. If you think you can do a journey without needing to get up, then there’s a lot to be said for window seats. Maybe a view, something to lean against, and free space on one side that no-one is going to bang into you either. Perhaps this is a good topic for a future travel insider reader survey!

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