Weekly Roundup, Friday 13 March 2020

Boeing’s stock price over the year since the 737 MAX grounding, in blue, and discussed below.

Good morning

Today is a Black Friday – the 13th of the month, and traditionally an unlucky day to travel.  Whether related to Black Friday or not, my thinking has been clarifying over the last week on the subject of travel in the current era of the Wuhan coronavirus outbreak.

When I first announced a decision to cancel my tours in May and June and put the two later tours (September and December)on hold, I felt that I was being more cautious and protective of a group than individuals needed to be when considering their own travel plans.  But the world has changed astonishingly between 20 February (when there were 30 countries with Covid-19 infections, and only modest increases in infected people each day) and today, barely three weeks later.  Now we have 130 countries where the virus can be found, the greatest number of active cases ever, and the largest numbers of new cases being added each day.

Not only that, but it is not just the US which is restricting incoming international travel.  Many other countries are doing the same, or even more; plus some countries are limiting travel within their own nation, and we expect to see the number of travel restrictions increase, everywhere in the world.

There’s one more shift of perception for us all.  Back in February, we naievely thought that the danger was one-sided.  If we were to travel to other countries, we might risk catching the disease.  Now – and particularly for people like myself, living in one of the largest regional  concentrations of Covid-19 cases of anywhere in the world – there’s also the danger that we might be bringing it with us and infecting other people.  We are now becoming as much of the problem as are other countries.

I was traveling last week, within the US, and started to feel a bit self-conscious when having to reveal I was from King County, Washington, and live/work within a very few miles of where all the virus cases are occurring.  I also had to laugh when a person who didn’t know where I was from was boasting “We feel we’re safely out of harm’s way here; no-one is likely to visit us with the virus”.  While I don’t believe I have the virus, I thought to myself that his attitude couldn’t be more wrong, because there I was, right in front of him, from close to where tens of people have died and hundreds of people have been infected.

Truly, nowhere and no-one is safe.  Just hours ago it was announced the wife of the Canadian PM has the virus, there have been a number of people tested with the virus who were with our President a short while before, and other government officials in other countries have not only contracted the virus but even died from it.

So, my attitude now has changed.  Don’t travel.  Don’t travel for your own safety, don’t travel for the safety of the people you visit, and don’t travel because with the likely continued sudden changes in travel policies, there’s every danger you might end up quarantined somewhere and unable to leave, possibly for many weeks.

In that context, it was a couple of weeks ago that we reported how the 14 day quarantine period being enforced in most places (the UK has now strangely said “if you feel ill, self-quarantine for 7 days”) is ill-matched with the incubation period of the virus, which can greatly exceed 14 days and might be as long as 39 days in some cases.  Who wants to endure a 39 day quarantine in some foreign country, and possibly risk a second similar quarantine upon returning back to the US again, too?

I’ll go further than saying “don’t travel” with the implication being “traveling long distances for vacation”.  Don’t travel at all.  Don’t travel for short distances.  Avoid leaving your home as much as possible.  When you must buy groceries and other supplies, don’t just buy one or two days of food.  Buy a couple of weeks worth of food at a time, so you don’t need to go shopping again for a longer period.  Practice extreme social distancing.

Until we get vaccines, extreme social distancing is the only thing we can do to keep ourselves safe and to slow the spread of the disease.  If allowed to flow unchecked through our communities, we’ll find ourselves in the terrible situation that Italy is now in – where there is insufficient medical equipment for all patients, and doctors are having to decide who to treat and who to let die.  These issues add new meaning to the phrase “survival of the fittest”.

By not getting sick, you’re not only protecting yourself, but you’re helping your surrounding community too.  So please cut back on as much non-essential travel as possible.

Because of this major change in perception, it seemed time to redo from basics my earlier major dissertation on the Wuhan coronavirus, and so I’ve come up with another lengthy piece that is, I think, quite different in emphasis and content from the piece I wrote just three weeks ago.  It is attached after this morning’s daily roundup.

There’s another significant thing attached to today’s date.  Exactly one year ago, the 737 MAX was grounded world-wide.  Groundings started on 11 March (by China) after the second crash the previous day.  The FAA originally said the plane was perfectly safe, but then on the 13th “after receipt of new information” it fell in line with the rest of the world.

At the time, with the understanding being that a simple software fix would allow the airplane computer to “read” the data from the angle of attack indicators on both sides of the plane and sound an alarm if they disagreed with each other, and with an additional fix to limit how aggressively the computer would automatically compensate for what it thought to be an unsafe airplane pitch-up angle, it seemed that returning the planes to service would take no more than two or three months, with most of that time being bureaucratic delay to create and review the paperwork documenting a simple quick software fix.

But since then, a growing realization has evolved that the 737 MAX was never really completely evaluated or certified to start with, but rather leveraged its certification on the basis of “it is just a slight change from the previous plane so there’s no need for a total check of everything”, and of course, the previous model “NG” series of 737s in turn had said the same about its derivation from the “Classic” series of models before, all the way back to the original 737 that first flew in 1967.  Not only was that the case, but much of the certification was a “self-certification” by Boeing and then simply accepted without checking or reviewing by the FAA, and other certification agencies around the world then accepted the FAA certification as being sufficient for them, too.

The slowness of the FAA to concede problems with the plane after the two fatal crashes caused fractures in the former automatic acceptance of their certifications by other national air safety bodies, and as the inadequacy of the self-certification and derivative certification process became increasingly apparent, these other bodies have become increasingly reluctant to automatically accept future FAA certifications without doing their own independent and thorough reviews.

With the spotlight of scrutiny shining brightly on the FAA and Boeing, assorted other issues came to light – some related to the the systems that were responsible for the two crashes, and some entirely unrelated, with the most recent problems having only recently been uncovered – an inadequate wiring bundle that actually dates back to the previous generation of 737 NG airplanes too.

There seems no chance that the FAA’s recertification of the 737 MAX will be automatically accepted by all the other air safety authorities around the world, with some of the more hostile ones (China and Europe) probably going out of their way to show their independence and perhaps even coming up with additional issues to further demonstrate their ability to “add value” to the process and to show the FAA in more of a bad light.

The FAA’s submissiveness and insufficiently questioning acceptance of Boeing’s self-certification and grandfathered approvals now threatens to make the global certification process for all airplanes much lengthier and complex.

What else this week?  It is getting harder to find “normal news” that hasn’t been superseded by Covid-19 matters, and for sure, it makes tremendous sense not to be promoting travel at present.  If companies have newsworthy travel related stories that aren’t anchored to a specific date/event, they are very well advised to wait until the traveling public is more receptive to such things and more likely to respond positively.  But I’ve a few items for your Friday :

  • Reader Survey Results
  • A Technical Update
  • Boeing’s Struggle
  • Useful Advice?
  • Cruising – Yes or No
  • And Lastly This Week….

Reader Survey Results

Last week I invited you to advise your seating preference, when flying coach class on a single aisle plane (ie a plane with window, middle and aisle seats on each side of a central aisle).  I can see plus and minus points for either a window or aisle seat, and was interested what the general preference was.

So as to ensure all options were offered, I even included an option for preferring the middle seat.  No-one chose it.  I also had an option for “totally don’t mind, any seat at all, anywhere at all”.  Two people chose that, to my astonishment.  They’re welcome to travel with me any time!  There was also a milder “Either aisle or window” which garnered almost 20 responses.

As for the rest of responses, I was amused but unsurprised to see how most people expressed a strong rather than mild preference (as do I, myself).  This underscores how seating has always been one of the most vexed elements of arranging a person’s travel experiences for travel agents, because invariably the agents feel they get blamed if they can’t get the seats their clients prefer (or, equally commonly, demand and insist upon).

As you can see, just over half of people strongly prefer an aisle, compared to just over a quarter strongly preferring a window seat, and in round figures, overall twice as many people prefer aisle as prefer window.

That’s good news for people preferring window seating, and good news for the airline because all those “strongly prefer” people are probably willing to pay a fee to get the type of seat they wish.

A Technical Update

I had some website problems over the last week or so.  Members may have had difficulty logging on to the system as part of that issue.  The underlying cause has been now identified and hopefully resolved – a bout of hacking from China from an IP that has a history of being where hackers originate from, trying to break into the system.

Hopefully matters are now sorted out, although I do find it daunting to be, quite literally, the “David” to the Goliath of Chinese hacking activities.  Maybe I should conform more closely to what China demands, but I feel the need to tell the truth of things that need to be told, like a recent discovery that China has prevented Taiwan from attending WHO meetings on the Wuhan coronavirus.  Referring to the virus as the Wuhan coronavirus – the name originally given to the virus prior to China’s objections causing the name to be changed – also outrages the Chinese, who are now embarked on a policy of disinformation, suggesting that it was the US who invented/weaponized/brought the virus to China.

There’s also a potential problem with my laptop that I use for all my online work.  I’m hoping a simple solution may be at hand, but last time the problem appeared, the motherboard needed to be replaced – not a problem when it was under warranty, but now the computer is long since out of warranty.  Ugh.  Hopefully normal service will continue – always assuming, of course, that the very internet itself doesn’t break under the increased load of greater telecommuting from home.

One more, hopefully positive, technical note.  I’ve made some formatting changes to how the newsletter appears in your inbox.  Can you please let me know if there are any problems or issues.

Boeing’s Struggle

It is no surprise that Boeing too has been caught up in the rush of coronavirus-inspired falling stock prices, particularly because of its role as a supplier to the massively harmed airline industry.  Its 52 week high share price has been $398.66, and it closed on Thursday at $154.84 before inching down a bit further in after hours trading.

The top of the newsletter shows the entire year.  Not shown on this one year chart is that two weeks before 13 March 2019, its share price was basking in the glow of a $440 all-time high.  The last year is however a valid timeline, because it tracks the entirety of the 737 MAX grounding, and as you can see, for most of the year, the market has been more or less happily accepting Boeing’s optimistic statements about the state of getting the plane back into the air.  There’s no clear major share price penalty.

The other two lines on the chart are a composite airline index (purple) and the Dow Jones (green).  This shows how Boeing has under-performed compared to both these measures.

It certainly is a terrible chart, but we suspect that when we finally resolve the twin terrors of Covid-19 and the 737 MAX grounding, there’s every reason to expect Boeing might recover.  This is not advice nor a recommendation to buy Boeing stock, however.

In other Boeing news, a Congressional panel found a “culture of concealment” at Boeing and the FAA is fining Boeing $19.7 million for installing unverified equipment on 737s (unrelated to the crashes).

The rumor mill seems to be expecting recertification of the 737 in mid June, but anything could happen between now and then, and as mentioned in the opening remarks above, there may be additional delays while other international safety bodies then do their own due diligence before independently recertifying the plane.  About the only good part of this is that, now with the virus slowing down travel demand, airlines are not so desperate to get their planes delivered and into the air.  Their present planes are proving to already be too many.

Useful Advice?

If you’re forced to fly at present, this article offers several suggestions for how to minimize your chances of catching the virus.  The suggestions are not likely to be taken up by many people – wait in the least crowded areas of the airport and stay six feet away from anyone else, for example, may be difficult, especially when crowding to board the plane.

But, oh yes, there’s a suggestion for that too.  Rather than rushing to be first to board as you usually do, you should now choose to board last.  That’s actually a sensible idea for several epidemiological reasons, but if you’re like me, you’ll happily risk Covid-19 in return for a chance to get your carry-on into the overhead bins.

Cruising – Yes or No

Should you consider going for a cruise at present?  The answer to that question depends on who you ask.

If you call in to Norwegian Cruise Line’s call center, a whistle-blower reports that you’ll be lied to and told that cruises are filling rapidly, the virus isn’t/won’t be a problem, and you should rush to book a cabin now before prices go up even higher.  That’s an appalling lie to tell people.  Details here.

It would seem to us that if nothing else, Norwegian Cruise Line is setting themselves up for a massive lawsuit if they tell potential cruisers there’s no reason to fear the coronavirus, and the people subsequently have a virus related problem on their cruise.  Other cruisers have already started a rush to the courts for all the usual reasons.

Other cruise lines are offering incentives to new bookers.  There was a time when that was an appropriate thing to do, and an appropriate deal to respond to, but we suggest that now the situation has gone past that and it is no longer wise to cruise at any low price or bargain.

Some cruise lines are finding themselves forced to change or cancel their cruises due to ports closing and not allowing their ships in.  Seattle – a port that loves being a base for Alaskan cruises and is always fighting to get cruise lines away from Vancouver as the other main port to service Alaska – decided it would delay the start of its cruising season, and has cancelled all cruises prior to 15 April.  The first cruise had been scheduled for 1 April.  But, note, there are only two cruises scheduled during this two week cancellation period.

A very few cruise lines have suspended all their cruises.  Viking has cancelled both its river cruises and ocean cruises, and Princess has done the same.  They both deserve the highest of praise for doing so – these are terribly costly actions on their parts, but they are customer-friendly responsible actions that should earn them appreciation and loyalty in the future.  We expect other cruise lines may reluctantly do the same, but as far as we can tell, these two are the first.

Quite a contrast between Norwegian Cruise Line, trying to trick you to come on a cruise, and Viking/Princess, who have suspended their entire cruising activities for now.

Consistent with our new advocacy to avoid all non-essential travel, we’d of course recommend you pass on any cruises for now.  Yes, there are some amazing bargains out there, but those bargains might end up being ultimately the most costly “savings” you’ve ever experienced.

What happens if a cruise gets quarantined?  You risk an extra two or more weeks, captive in your cruise cabin – whatever you do, don’t buy an inside cabin with no windows!  And then you risk a further two or more weeks of extra quarantine once you get home again.  Add to that the continuing schedule changes and flight cancellations and travel restrictions, and who only knows what form your cruise might take, how you’ll manage to get to it, where it will go, and how you’ll manage to return home again at its conclusion.

One further thought about cruising and all away-from-home travel at present.  Be sure to have an adequate supply of all medications with you, in case you get stuck somewhere for some unknown amount of time.  Keep extra cash with you, too, and also make sure there are no things back home that will need your attention during a possibly extended absence.

And Lastly This Week….

There may be many reasons why the virus is impacting so severely on Italy.  If you carefully study this picture of an Italian policeman wearing a mask, I wonder if you can see one such reason?

One tends to think of the Swiss as being very neat and orderly and attentive to detail.  It is less common to think of them as a playful nation and lovers of practical jokes.  But, like most stereotypes, it seems these perceptions need updating.

Here’s a delightful article sent in by reader Mark about how it has become an inside industry joke amongst the cartographers in Switzerland to hide images in their maps.

Sometimes, things seem so dismaying and depressing that the only thing you can do is laugh.  Such as, for example, when learning that a conference convened to discuss the coronavirus has now been cancelled, due to the coronavirus.

Here’s an interesting update on two of the more likely companies to actually deliver on their promises to develop a new SST airplane.  Both are running behind their original schedules, but both remain confident of eventually delivering the goods.  We hope so.

Hand sanitizer continues to be almost impossible to find, so New York State has come up with an interesting idea.  It will make its own – 100,000 gallons a week of it.  That could be as many as 12.8 million small travel sized one ounce bottles of sanitizer, every week.  That’s a great idea, but there’s a catch.  Its product will only be available to state employees.

Now we’re all for using plenty of sanitizer, but we seldom use more than an ounce a day.  Just exactly how many state employees are there, and how much sanitizer do they each need?  Details here.

Until next week, and only if you must do so, please enjoy safe travels





2 thoughts on “Weekly Roundup, Friday 13 March 2020”

  1. Michael Cleveland

    So you encourage hoarding? Not like you. That just develops issues for everyone. And I was surprised after your “the sky is falling outlook” you said “you’ll happily risk Covid-19 in return for a chance to get your carry-on into the overhead bins” Cannot you check bags, be last on, and put a small backpack or sack under the seat in front. Mike

    1. Hi, Mike

      You don’t know me very well when you say “not like you”. I’ve always encouraged self-sufficiency and disaster-preparedness.

      You also might choose to interpret the happily risking Covid-19 comment in the light-hearted manner it was intended, rather than literally. 🙂

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