Weekly Roundup, Friday 17 April 2020

The latest Chinese marvel. A mag-lev train to travel at 373 mph, due to enter service next year. See item, below.

Good morning

We’ve been enjoying glorious spring weather in this area.  Contrary to popular belief, it doesn’t always rain in Seattle, and we’ve been having a series of lovely sunny warm days.

I realized on Thursday that we’ve passed some sort of significant milestone in this entire virus thing.  I was at Costco and noticed two things, or maybe actually three.  First, they had toilet paper in stock.  Secondly, I only saw one person in the entire store who had any in their cart.  And, third, perhaps most surprising of all, I managed to walk past the pallet of paper myself without stopping to add yet another “just in case” pack into my own cart.

That is not to say we’re beyond the worst of things at all, although one of the better respected models suggests that the US passed its “peak death” day earlier this week.  Let’s hope that is so.  With the weather so invitingly nice, and the gas prices so stunningly low, the thought of a spring road trip somewhere/anywhere is increasingly alluring.

It has been another very busy week.  I’ve written seven more diary entries about developments to do with the coronavirus and one more special virus related article; if you’re not getting the immediate or daily versions of my blog posts, I add Thursday’s diary entry at the end of this morning’s newsletter and here are links to the rest of the week’s oeuvre.

Thursday 16 April (appended, below)

Wednesday 15 April

Tuesday 14 April

Monday 13 April

Sunday 12 April

Saturday 11 April

Friday 10 April

What Percentage of People Die from the Coronavirus – Useful to understand

(earlier entries from this page)

I’ve been trying, with varying degrees of success, to encourage my daughter to do something “useful” during her enforced suspension of schooling.  I’ve put her in touch with various learning sites online, masterclasses and other things, and am gently jollying her along into writing what I hope may become her second full-length book.

But I suspect she is, in truth, much the same as most of the rest of us, who, upon finding themselves marooned at home for extended periods of time, are simply getting comfortable on the couch and watching twice as much “stuff” as they usually would.  Indeed, internet streaming in particular is booming.

If you’re going to stream, then you should at least stream well, and with that in mind, I’ve written an article on what I believe to be the best streaming device out there at present.  At $50, it might appeal as an upgrade to whatever you’re using at present, and if you’re not streaming – especially if you have an Amazon Prime account that includes free streaming of a huge amount of content – maybe now is the time to start.  The article is added at the bottom of this morning’s round up.

One more thing.  I realized one of this morning’s items was sufficient and important enough to be given its own feature, and now you’ll also see an article advising you on how to cancel any current travel plans you might have, and the best way to negotiate a refund or other compensation from travel companies.

So, lots of attachments plus the newsletter.

Boeing’s Bad Quarter

I’ve been trying to find Boeing’s net new order position for the first quarter of the year.  While Boeing issued a press release boasting of its deliveries (a terribly low 50 planes for the quarter) they’ve been silent on their orders for the first quarter.

From what I’ve been able to piece together, it looks likely that they’ve actually had a net negative new order result for the entire quarter.  It seems they had a net 0 new orders in January, and a net 28 cancellations in February.

This article seems to suggest that Boeing had a net of 119 cancellations in March, but says it had a total net of 307 cancelled planes in the entire first quarter.  Maybe it is including military orders in that -307 net figure?

Whatever number will finally be revealed when Boeing reports its first quarter results in a couple of weeks, it seems likely it will be negative rather than positive.  That’s got to be some kind of a record.

Some people are starting to wonder just exactly what Boeing is good for these days.  In simplistic terms it could be thought of as revolving around three major product groups – civil passenger planes, military planes and weapons, and spaceflight.

The 737 MAX saga, still ongoing, is all we need to know about its civil airplane division.

Not so well known are the billions of dollars and many years Boeing is falling behind the eightball with its Air Force tanker project.  Being three years behind schedule is very surprising – it isn’t as though Boeing was developing an entirely new plane.  It blew the dust off its moribund 767 product line and bullied the Air Force into accepting a tanker based on what is now a 42 year old airplane design and a mature refueling concept.  How can it lose three years in producing those planes?

Amongst other problems, the new tankers leak.  You’d think someone might have noticed that before Boeing started delivering them….

Now what about its space division?  Once highly respected, this article reports how NASA, with disgust, has terminated Boeing’s submission for taking cargos to lunar orbit and has said it will refuse to consider Boeing for future award considerations.

Are Airlines Charging Too Little for Tickets?

Air passenger numbers this week have been running consistently at 3.7% of normal numbers.  The entire country is under some type of do-not-travel/stay-at-home restriction.  This would suggest that only people who absolutely need to fly are flying anywhere at present, and normally the airlines know exactly what to do with such hapless passengers – charge them outrageously high fares, because they know that such people will pay any amount, because they absolutely must fly somewhere for some imperative high-value reason.

But, as this article observes, the fares being asked by the airlines are currently lower than they’ve been for decades.  Airlines know what low fares are for – they are for encouraging people to take advantage of special deal fares and travel more than normal.  They are for boosting passenger numbers.

We can understand the airlines being a bit desperate to fill a few more seats on their largely empty planes, but they’re getting tens of billions of dollars from the government to help them through this problem.

Shouldn’t they not be trying to tempt people to unnecessarily travel?  Is this the one time, ever, where airlines should be charging higher fares, and simultaneously, the one time ever when airlines have offered lower fares than they could/should?  If it was anything else, the airlines would surely rush to add a “coronavirus surcharge”.

Airports Get Government Cash

We struggle to understand how it is that airlines get to the front of the line when the government starts handing out money.  Why do they get the money, but other travel companies – hotels, tour operators, attractions, coaching companies, car rentals, and so on – have to make do with whatever generic assistance is on offer?

There was an interesting part of the airlines’ ask to the government for bailout assistance.  They included airports in their request as well.  And because the airlines asked, the airports too are now getting sometimes $200 million or more per airport from the government to help them get through these difficult times, too.

Almost none of the major airports in this country are privately owned, which makes the whole government assistance thing a bit incestuous to start with.  But putting that convoluted issue to one side, we don’t understand the special treatment to airports.

Not only does the government force us to pay money to airports every time we travel through them (PFC charges on tickets), and not only are airports usually massive monopolistic organizations who charge anyone and everyone who comes into contact with them unholy amounts of money (the fees they charge us to park in their parking buildings, for example – plain ordinary structures on land that was usually worthless until the airport established itself there; or their “take” on every dollar we spend in airport shops and food outlets, in addition to the rents they charge), but they always seem to be needing more money.

It shouldn’t be all that expensive to lay a long slab of flat concrete somewhere with inexpensive land, build a terminal building, and – hey presto – instant airport.  Much of your construction costs can be passed on to the airlines.  Then you just watch all the money trees start flowering and giving rich fruit.  Landing fees.  Per passenger fees.  Gate rentals.  Facility usage fees.  Surcharges of all imaginative types.  Parking.  Entry/exit fees if you don’t park.  Fees to taxis for permission to drive into and out of the airport.  Store rentals.  Airport lounge rentals.  Commissions on all sales.  Plus substantial earnings from all the other companies now renting space within the airport boundary.  If nothing else, airports must be some of the most successful property developers ever.

We understand that airports are now missing out on many of their income streams, with air traffic now down more than 95% on the same time last year.  But so what.  Their costs have dropped.  And they’re largely public owned institutions; let them arrange their own local funding as needed through local government.  Or maybe just have them tighten their belt a notch or two and put up with some tough times, the same as the rest of us.

One last thing on this point.  The airports aren’t totally losing out at present.  Some are now renting out space to airlines to park their planes.  Now you might think that parking a plane on a piece of unused open uncovered ground would be, well, dirt cheap.  But we’re talking airport prices here.  The last article linked below quotes a price of $1,000 per plane per day – in India.

A Little Good News for Trains

I’ve been amazed at the speed with which our government has started spending money in multi-trillion dollar sums as if it is the easiest thing in the world, while it has been resolutely unwilling to spend money to make good on the promise famously offered by Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood in early 2010

And I assure you that one day, not too many years from now, ours will be the go-to network, the world’s model for high-speed rail.

Notwithstanding that administration’s offer of $8 billion, ten years ago, for “shovel-ready” high speed rail projects, there’s not a mile of new high-speed rail track anywhere in the country, today, on which new trains are providing fast services.

But let’s think about these trillions – a number which is deceptively familiar, as if it is somehow related to billions and millions.  It isn’t.  It is vastly different.  What could we do with the $6+ trillion we’ve spent so far (more spending bills are being prepared even as you read this)?

If we take a cost of just under $100 million a mile for creating new high speed rail (inclusive of deluxe station developments), which is in line with what California is spending for its tragically diminished rail project (and four times more than typical costs in Europe), we could have created over 60,000 miles of high speed rail in the US.

How much is 60,000 miles?  As a contrast, there are currently 46,876 miles of interstate highway.  So we could have developed a state-of-the-art system as omnipresent as our interstates, and had money left over to repair a few bridges and potholes on the interstates, too.  China has slightly more than 18,000 miles of high speed rail – we could have built three times as much.

We could bring back overnight sleeper trains, running between major East and West Coast cities.  New York/Los Angeles.  San Francisco-DC.  And so on.  We could build a 47,000 mile network, and with the $1.5+ trillion left over, create an endowment returning $75 billion a year, maybe more – enough to give everyone some number of free rail journeys a year for life.

Anyway, enough of the dreaming.  My point is simply to point out that these casual references to trillions of dollars are referring to mind-boggling sums of money that truly are beyond our comprehension, especially when measured in terms of what else could be done with the money.

Now, what of the “good news”?  California has authorized $600 million in tax-exempt bonds for the Brightline (and now Virgin Trains too) XpressWest train that would travel between Las Vegas and Victorville, California.

This is a curious project, with its western terminus in the middle of nowhere.  Victorville is east of the Los Angeles metroplex, meaning people in the Los Angeles area still have to brave the traffic to drive around 100 miles to get to the train.  When I’ve driven between Los Angeles and Las Vegas, it often takes me as much time and more hassle to do the stretch between Los Angeles and Victorville than it does to do the 185 extra easy open miles from there to Las Vegas.

We understand the Las Vegas end of the line is projected to be a bit south of McCarran Airport and close to I-15.  The “Strip” is slightly north of the airport and this is acceptably convenient at the Vegas end of the line.

The train would run at up to 180 mph, so it could do the journey in little more than an hour between Victorville and Vegas.  We’ve always thought this to be a promising line for high speed rail, but wanted it to actually get all the way into the Los Angeles metro area, possibly even connecting with LAX.  The 100 mile gap is a problem.

Meanwhile, China.  Now the world’s most dominant force in high speed rail operation and development, the country has announced a new train that is expected to enter into service in 2021.  It is to be a maglev train, and is designed to travel at 373 mph (600 km/hr).  There is already a short maglev train that travels between Shanghai and its airport, at 270 mph, so while 373 mph is a staggering number, it is not impossible.  Indeed, a modified French TGV currently holds the world record for train speeds – 357 mph, so 373 mph seems achievable.

Even if it never reaches those speeds – let’s take 15% off and call it 320 mph – think what that means.  In half a day (four hours of comfortable travel) you could be 1300 miles from where you started.  In my case, that could mean Seattle to Vegas in under four hours, the same to Los Angeles, maybe five minutes over four hours to get to Denver.  On the east coast, travel from Boston to Orlando in four hours, or New York to Miami.  Detroit to Houston.  And so on.

This is the astonishing new world that China is striding forward into, conquering its similar sized country with fast trains, while we do nothing.

The Funniest Part of This Story?

It can cost $2,500 – $15,000 or more to go for a ride in a fighter jet, complete with wild and crazy aerobatics and even breaking through the sound barrier.  A beyond-exhilarating experience, at least for some of us.

The appreciative employees of a French company bought a co-worker a flight in a fighter jet as a special thank you gesture.  But, in their eagerness to give him something really distinctive and special, no-one thought to delicately enquire if it was something he wanted or not.

The 64 yr old man had never expressed any desire to fly in a military jet, and it was subsequently discovered (per his smartwatch) that prior to take-off, once inside the get, he was hyper-ventilating and his heart was pounding at rates of up to 142 beats/minute.  He was literally scared senseless, as we shall see.

So, the plane took off, and the pilot went full throttle, then pulled the stick back for a steep climb, treating his backseat passenger to a 3.7g stress during the maneuver.  The plane soared to 2,500 ft in very little time, whereupon the pilot pushed the stick forward, creating a negative-g effect and, sort of weightless, the passenger discovered that, ooops, no-one had strapped him tightly into his seat.  He started to float up from the seat.

Even more panicked now – too terrified to even vomit – he scrabbled down with his hands for something to hang onto, for fear, I guess, that he’d bang into the cockpit canopy and maybe break through it.

He found a couple of grab handles conveniently located under the seat and firmly held on to them.

Apparently, not only had the ground crew not strapped him in properly, they’d also neglected to tell the man that you do not touch those two handles, ever.  They were the handles to activate the emergency ejection sequence.

At which point, lots of things started happening in an exciting manner.  As the seat is designed to do, it clamped onto the man, then the explosive charges blew the canopy away, followed less than a second later by the enormous thump of the explosive charge to blow the seat out of the plane – that’s why the seat clamps you down.  If you’re not hard on the seat at this point, you risk breaking your back when the seat fires.

At approximately this point, as the man was starting his wild ride up out of the plane, he discovered one more challenge.  His crash helmet was not fastened correctly, and went sailing away in the breeze.

Astonishingly, nothing else – for the passenger – failed, and his seat did what it was supposed to do and brought him safely back to earth, with only a minimum of injury.

But, talking of failure, there was one more point of note, which I feel may indeed be the funniest part of the story.  Although most reports of the event, such as this, overlooked the point, you might be interested to know that when one person in the jet triggers the ejection sequence, both people’s seats are activated and eject.  Happily, on this occasion, the pilot’s seat malfunctioned, leaving him in the plane, and allowing him to fly it back to the base.

And Lastly This Week….

Talking about military jets, here’s an incredibly clever bit of sky-writing, in Russia.

Nearly empty roads.  Astonishingly low gas prices.  Gorgeous spring weather.  That surely spells “road trip”, doesn’t it.  But of course, for most of us, we then realize the ill-advised nature of such a treat, and return to watching still more streamed video.

But not everyone is so passive or accepting.  Three people – identities withheld to protect the guilty – decided this was the chance of a lifetime to beat the only recently broken record, now at an almost impossibly short time, for the Cannonball Run between Manhattan and Redondo Beach.  And so, after 27 hours and 25 minutes, and an average speed well over 100 mph, they emerged as the new record holders in Redondo Beach.  Wow.

Some hotels offer women-only floors.  There have been occasional calls for women-only sections on planes.  But did you know there used to be men-only flights?  United Airlines offered a popular service between 1953 and 1970 – Men-only executive flights between New York and Chicago.

Here’s a fascinating bit of aviation trivia about this and some other strange air travel experiences.

For more fascinating aviation trivia, have a look at the stunning photos on this page, showing some of the locations where the world’s airlines are storing their planes at present.  It is an interesting revelation – our air travel network is a bit like a juggler with five balls and two hands.  As long as he can keep the balls in the air, there’s not a problem.  It is the same with planes – if all planes have to land at the same time, space becomes scarce.

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels streaming at home





3 thoughts on “Weekly Roundup, Friday 17 April 2020”

  1. Hi, David. Long time subscriber, Scott Mgebroff, aka Russkie, here. I enjoy your thoughts on the pandemic, but I have a different take on it.

    I think they are making a nonsensical circular argument. They say that things can’t get back to anywhere normal until a lot more people get immunity. People get immunity from being exposed to the virus and getting sick to varying degrees. But, they won’t stop all the mitigation until fewer people get sick. So there’s just going to be a continuation of spikes, and nothing will go back to normal for years.

    Personally, I think the Swedes are doing it right. In fact, a few days ago I calculated the deaths per million inhabitants for Sweden and the US. Sweden was 88 and the US was 67, not much difference considering NY state was almost 700 and Texas was 9.

    1. Hi, Scott, nice to hear from you. Seems an awful long time since we met in Austin.

      Your circular argument is correct, and so too, alas, is your prediction about things not going back to normal for some extended time. I’m not sure our thoughts are all that dissimilar at all!

      At present, the deaths per million counts are :

      US 107
      Sweden 139
      Norway 30

      I think the most relevant comparison is not so much Sweden/US but Sweden/Norway, where currently Sweden is experiencing about 4.5 times more deaths per million, with the difference in social distancing probably being a large part of the reason for that difference.

      Whether or not a difference of that absolute or relative magnitude (109 per million/4.5 times) is an acceptable trade-off is a value judgment I’ll pass on, but I do think we all need to start to realize that if we don’t accept some measure of human loss from the disease, we’ll be inflicting similar or even larger measures of human loss from the economic collapse we’re creating.

      But those are societal issues. I’ll happily comment on the numbers and the logic and the science, but hesitate on this issue!

  2. It seems to me that if we knew, with certainty, that there would be a vaccine within a fixed period of time, Norway would be right to minimize exposure as much as possible. But we don’t. We don’t know IF there’ll be a vaccine, despite the best efforts of about 60 different labs. And despite the oft repeated (and, by the way, quite unprecedented)18 months from development to availability, we certainly don’t know when a vaccine might be in a drug store near you. But that still doesn’t make trying to achieve herd immunity naturally the right option. The UK government contemplated that and then, when modelling showed them how many people might have to die before the required 60%-70% immunity was achieved, they denied having thought about it at all.

    Then there’s another problem. What if Sweden actually achieves community immunity, thoroughly unlikely as that seems? Will it then shut its borders to all who arrive from the rest of the non-immune world?

    I’m not really sure the Swedes are actually pursuing the natural herd immunity strategy anyway. I think they’re trying to get their population to adhere to social distancing guidelines without wrecking their economy. But with 1,400 deaths, as of now, it’s a tough call, as David says. One has to wonder what the political repercussions will be as that number continues to rise.

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