Weekly Roundup, Friday 24 April 2020

A modern reconstruction of the world’s first powered airplane. No, its first flight was nowhere near Kitty Hawk, and nine months before December 1903. See the final item for more information.

Good morning

As readers of my daily Covid-19 diary entries know, I had a minor epiphany last week, with my fear and concern shifting from the virus itself, and now being more focused on the maladroit acts on the part of our public health officials when it comes to managing and minimizing the virus and its impacts on our lives.

I’m not going to say that the US is doing the worst of any country in the world.  It isn’t.  But I will point out that when measured by deaths/million, there are only nine countries of note doing worse.  Here’s an interesting table (data as of 23 April) :

CountryDeaths/Million
Belgium560
Spain474
Italy423
France335
UK276
Netherlands244
Sweden200
Switzerland179
Ireland161
USA151
World Average (approx)24.5

So, there are 200 countries and territories in the world doing better than the US, and only nine doing worse.

And those numbers are as of Thursday.  It gets worse with each additional passing day.  Presently over one third of all the deaths, in the entire world, each day, are here in the US.  Our situation is not improving nearly as fast as in other countries.  We’ve slowed, even stopped, the risking count of new Covid-19 cases each day, but we’ve not caused it to start dropping.  You can see that clearly in this chart

While we’re still struggling to hold things at a present unacceptable rate of 30,000+ new cases and 2,000+ new deaths every day, we have assorted states deciding it is now time to relax the weak restrictions that were in place and consider the virus has been vanquished.

But if we’re losing 2,000 people every day, and now loosen the social distancing and movement controls, isn’t it possible that the death counts will start to rise again?  Indeed, at present, as I report in Thursday’s diary entry, twice as many states are still experiencing daily increases in new virus cases each day.

I’m of course as inconvenienced as anyone with this terrible state of affairs, but I’m not demanding a lessening of restrictions.  If anything, I’d prefer to see a doubling of them, to truly knock the new case rate back down to an acceptable number.  Only when we’ve truly reduced the prevalence of the virus in the general population can we allow for increased rates of social contact and risk.  My fear now is that inept bungling by the authorities will drag out still further the time it takes us to clear our country of the virus and return to normal.

My point most of all, and the question too few people are asking, is simply – how is it possible that this great nation is in the bottom 5% of all countries when it comes to managing its death rate from this virus?  We should be in the top 5%, not the bottom 5%.  Our public health authorities, at every level, have totally and completely failed us.

Well, enough of virus things, as much as it is ever possible to say that.  Don’t forget my daily diary reports if you’d like a lot more – simply add yourself to the Express or Daily Full Text emails on this page.

I’m attaching Thursday’s entry to today’s newsletter compilation, and here are links to the earlier articles this week :

Thursday 23 April (included at the bottom of the newsletter)

Wednesday 22 April

Tuesday 21 April

Monday 20 April

Sunday 19 April

Saturday 18 April

Checking Your Temperature for Covid-19 is Meaningless and Even Dangerous

Friday 17 April

(earlier entries from this page)

You’ll note there is another “special feature” in the list above, about temperature checks.  You might choose to read that, because increasingly we’re seeing temperature checks as part of the risk reduction strategy companies are planning on using when they start to cautiously re-open.

There’s only one problem.  We calculate about 95% of all virus infections occur when the infected person is not showing a temperature.  That’s an even worse detection rate than the TSA finding guns in passenger luggage!

Also this week is a piece that perhaps needs a bit of explanation – an article about choosing a freezer.  What am I doing writing about buying freezers?  It follows on from a trend I’m noting with concern – reducing supplies of and increasing costs for beef and pork in particular, and pretty much all meat/poultry/fish in general.  Now might be a good time to get a(nother) freezer and to start stocking up, just in case of supply problems or appreciable price rises over the next some months.

What else this week?  It is so hard to write about much other than virus things currently.  Look at this chart to see what has happened to air travel, for example :

Pretty much for the entire month of April the TSA have been seeing passengers going through security at a rate only about 5% of last year; indeed last Thursday it dropped to a record low of 3.6% – 30 times below last year’s travel numbers.

The collapse in passengers has been more or less matched by a collapse in flights, although there are probably still some more flight reductions that could be made.  The reductions that have happened so far have created some interesting outcomes – for example, Billings Airport in MT now has more flights a day than does JFK.

It isn’t only flights that are down by these numbers.  Even if the planes were flying, where would we go?  As this article reports, 96% of the world’s tourist destinations are currently closed.

Missed It by That Much

Some of you probably continue to consider pilots the same way they view themselves – people with amazing uniforms, even more amazing salaries, and most-of-all amazing flying skills.

If that is you, please don’t read this article.  It tells of how neither of the two pilots flying an Emirates A380 realized what they were doing wrong, and while seeking to intersect with an automatic runway landing system at about 2,000 ft above ground, actually flew the plane down to below 500 ft without realizing they were in the wrong place, too far from the runway and where the radio landing system could be reached, and way way way too low.

It also seems they ignored automatic warnings in the cockpit about an incipient crash, and only after being told to urgently pull up by air traffic control at the airport, finally realized their error and halted the plane’s descent, getting below 400 ft before the plane started to rise again.

I’ve got to tell you.  There’s a huge difference between what the ground looks like at 500 ft and what it looks like at 2000 ft.  But both pilots were apparently so focused on their instruments and misunderstanding what the instruments were telling them that they never thought to use the good old fashioned “Mark 1 Human Eyeball” and look out the window.

We’d know more, but unfortunately, the black box voice recording of what was going on in the cockpit was erased because no-one thought to pull it and make a copy of the recording after the plane safely landed.  So on the flight back to Dubai from Moscow, the recording looped itself and wrote over the “interesting” bit.

The matter was not helped by the pilots not having correctly set the altimeter for the airport height in Moscow, so they thought – again by instruments, not eyesight – they were higher than they were.  And – oh yes.  After aborting that landing and doing a go-around, on their second attempt at landing they executed a textbook perfect example of – ooops – another go-around.  The incident report doesn’t explain the reason for a second failed landing attempt.  I could guess, but it would be an unkind guess.

Strangely, the linked article refers to the first approach being “in darkness” but the times on the map of what happened show it to be at about 5.50pm, and that is surely not darkness in September.  Maybe the times are GMT rather than MST?

As we’ve said before, the sooner we can fully automate airplane cockpits, the safer we’ll all be.

Middle Seat Madness

The always quotable Michael O’Leary, CEO of Ryanair, has been extraordinarily quiet for an extended time.  I can’t even think when he last suggested replacing the second pilot with a flight attendant (perhaps a good idea in light of the previous item), or the last time he pretended to be thinking of charging passengers to use the toilets on his planes.  Ryanair has been on an extended process of rebranding itself as a kinder, gentler, airline.

But now he’s back.  O’Leary described the idea of leaving middle seats empty on flights, to provide a social-distancing safety precaution, as an idiotic idea, and said his airline would refuse to do that unless the government pays him to keep the seats empty.

Inasmuch as simply leaving middle seats empty is much less than a “best practice” social distancing measure, he is almost correct, but we’d think that even some social distancing is much better than abjectly none as is the case in a full row of passengers currently.

American Airlines apparently agrees with Mr O’Leary.  You remember AA, don’t you – they were one of the airlines shamed for squashing a dozen passengers all in the last few rows of coach class on an otherwise empty flight a couple of weeks ago.

This time, they’re in the news for operating an almost full flight.  But whereas in Canada, all passengers on all flights must wear masks, there was no such requirement on the AA flight, and so passengers expecting/hoping for an almost empty flight suddenly found themselves in dreaded middle seats.

AA is unrepentant about operating such a full flight and says it has no plans (unlike other US carriers) to block out its middle seats.  Instead, it says it will block out half of the “standard” coach class middle seats.  We’re not sure what percent of their coach cabins are standard rather than premium seating, but if we say that half is standard and half is premium, that means on a typical say 165 seat plane, they will carry up to 152 passengers, a 92% load factor.  That’s, ahem, not really much of a sacrifice at all for AA, but for sure, an unpleasant and potentially unsafe experience for all passengers.

What we’d like to understand is why the DoT is asleep at the switch, yet again.  The DoT have been demanding airlines keep operating flights that neither airlines want to operate nor people wish to fly on, using the justification that if the airlines are accepting money from the government, they’ll have to do what the DoT tells them.

How about, dear DoT, you allow the airlines to cancel unnecessary flights, and instead require all airlines to block out all middle seats.  Wouldn’t it be much more beneficial to us – the public you’re supposed to be assisting – if we could safely fly on the flights we wish, rather than forcing airlines to fly empty planes and then to compensate by over-filling the flights we want to fly on?  Wouldn’t it be more sensible to allow airlines the freedom to schedule their flights where the most traffic/demand/need is, rather than where you think they should operate?

Okay, so expecting the DoT to come to their senses and actually do something assertively consumer-friendly is perhaps a tad unrealistic.  And, still talking about unrealistic and seating, here’s an absolutely nonsensical article touting a new approach to “safer” seating in this nasty virus world.

The concept, in theory, is perhaps good, but there’s one enormous problem and reason why AA and Ryanair would never sign up for these seats.  You can’t fix six of them across a standard single-aisle passenger jet.

Skillfully not revealed in the illustrations of the seats is how they’d fit on a plane, because they can’t.  Current seats are about 17″ wide, maybe half an inch wider.  As you may have sensed, most people have broader “shoulders” that that seat width – the reason for the quotes is because the official shoulder-width measurement is to a point more or less in the middle of our shoulder bone, not from the outside of the skin of our upper arm.  I just checked, and I measure 21″ from outside arm to outside arm, with both arms squashed together.

That is why, in a row of three seats, the person on each end “spills over” – either to the gap between the seat and the side of the plane, or out of the seat and slightly into the aisle, while at the same time, the person into the middle is squashed on both sides.

If we were to add shielding around the seats, we’d have to add four inches or more to each seat.  You’d need two feet of extra width per row of 2 x 3 seats, and even so, you’d be creating cramped narrow spaces for each passenger.

There’s just not enough space to do this.  Maybe you could get away with three seats on one side and two on the other, but you tell me the airline that would accept a reduction of 17% of their seats in the name of passenger safety?

For the last word on middle seat madness, here’s a great commentary that was written before O’Leary and AA’s middle seat comments, quickly confirming the accuracy of its cynicism.

The Shifting Perception of  Business Travel

A friend of mine is normally a frequent business traveler, but of course, not so much at present.  We’ve been swapping many emails over the last few weeks on virus related matters, and he made the comment that he has unexpected free time at present due to not traveling.

That got me to wondering – how many other business people are finding themselves unexpectedly with free time at present, and is this encouraging a realization that business travel is actually terribly unproductive?  Even though, for many of us, way too much of our traveling is done outside of office hours – horrid early morning starts, late night arrivals, and Saturday/Sunday travel too on occasion, there’s no denying that travel time consumes a measurable amount of any work week when there’s travel included.

Besides which, the days of travel being fun are long behind us.  No part of it is fun these days, with it ever harder to try and pretend that airlines, hotels, rental car companies, anyone and everyone, are actually pleased and happy to see us and to take our money from us.  Increasingly it seems to be an “us against them” competition to see who can come up with the nastiest and most unfair new charges to sneak onto our bills, rather than a competition to see who can best surprise and delight us with unexpected extra service.

There have been brief interruptions to travel occasionally in the past, and also “cutbacks” from time to time too.  But an almost complete suspension of travel, and for over a month so far and likely to continue into the future – that is giving us all time to pause, to think, and to reset our preconceived notions about the need for and the value from business travel.

Plus, in the meantime, people have been trying out and becoming comfortable with new means of communication – Zoom meetings, or any of the assorted other similar video conferencing products.  That client of yours who you thought would never master even the simplest computer functions is probably now proficient at and comfortable with video chatting.

We wonder what will happen when it becomes possible to travel again.  We can see leisure travel growing more quickly than business travel, and we would not be surprised if business travel never returns to the levels it was immediately prior to the virus (other than due to the gradual growth in population and businesses, over many years).

Branson and Musk Get Their Come-Uppances

Anyone for some schadenfreude?  Here’s a delightful article about the aging lothario, Richard Branson, commenting on his currently so-far-failed attempts to get his airlines bailed out by the Australian and British governments.

And here’s a rather savage article about Elon Musk.  It mercilessly plays back some of his March comments about the coronavirus, few of which have stood up well to the passing of time.

And Lastly This Week….

Here’s an interesting article about one part of facilitating travel – at least for freight – that most of us take for granted.

Remember that if a deal seems too good to be true, it probably is.  Especially with toilet paper.  And even more so when ordering online.

As a New Zealander, I love the third item in this list.  You’ll probably like it considerably less.  (The picture at the top of the newsletter refers).

Until next week, please enjoy your continued time at home

 

David.

 

 

 

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David.