Weekly Roundup, Friday 26 June 2020

The arrow points to the gear lever in the A320 cockpit. Up to raise the gear, down to lower it. (Just out of frame above the lever are the three indicator lights to show if the gear is up, transitioning, or down.) Easy, intuitive, and impossible to mistake – or so you’d think.

Good morning

It has been a very virusy sort of week.  All the prophets of doom and gloom have been thoroughly vindicated – it now seems abundantly clear that we opened up too much and too soon, and the last couple of days have both seen new records set for new case numbers reported.

Dismayingly/tragically, the nation as a whole is massively worse off now than it was on 13 March, the day that President Trump first declared the virus to be a national emergency.  Three months of inconvenience, income loss, sickness and death, and all we have to show for it are new case numbers, every day, 100 times higher than on 13 March and still rising, and daily death numbers similarly increased too.

This is of course discussed and analyzed in yesterday’s Covid-19 diary entry, which is appended below.  The Sunday entry is not attached, but you can get it online if you wish (assuming you don’t receive the daily or immediate versions of the newsletter).  Sunday’s article was slightly significant in being the 100th article I’ve now published on the virus.

Also there’s a stand-alone virus article, contrasting the approach taken (and outcome) in New Zealand with a similar seeming approach (but very different outcome) in Hawaii.  Plenty of people, while graciously acknowledging NZ’s extraordinary success, have simultaneously sought to marginalize it by saying “well, of course, NZ is a very tiny island nation a long way from anywhere else”.

That is true, but so too is Hawaii.  So why can’t Hawaii also eradicate the virus from its shores?

Reader Ken sent in an entry for “the oldest working powered gadget”.  While he too has an HP calculator – a 15C dating to 1984 – he also has a novelty moneybank he bought in a Disneyland magic shop on Main Street in 1970.

You can click here for a short video clip that he recorded earlier this week, and as you will see, it is still working perfectly.  There’s something so delightfully bizarre and ridiculous about this that I had to watch it several times.

Non-calculator submissions (is there any reader who doesn’t have and love a 30+ yr old HP calculator, I wonder!) remain most welcome.  Meantime, I look forward to pressing a thank you drink into Ken’s hand the next time we’re on a Travel Insider Tour somewhere, together; although at present, goodness only knows where and when that might be.

Kazakhstan is opening, but I fear they’re repeating the US error of opening too quickly and too soon.  The EU is also opening, but selectively, and they don’t want Americans to visit, due to concerns about our high level of ongoing virus infections.  New Zealand and Australia both are almost virus free, but NZ seems likely to be closed until sometime next year, and Qantas has said it doesn’t expect to operate any international flights until July at the earliest.  Ummm – that is July of 2021, not next month!  So they’re both out for some considerable time, too.

What else this week?  Please keep reading for :

  • Survey Results – What We Miss the Most
  • Pakistan A320 Crash Preliminary Findings
  • Some Pilots Can Fly Planes.  Very Few Can Understand Airline Management
  • Yet Another 737 MAX Problem
  • Britain’s “Air Force One” Gets a New Paint Job
  • France to Ban Short Domestic Flights
  • The Least Likely SST Project
  • Least Likely Company to Take Astronauts to the ISS
  • Amazon’s Uneven Approach to Reviewers
  • Bizarre eBay Dirty Tricks Department?
  • And Lastly This Week….

Survey Results – What We Miss the Most

Last week I asked you to send in your choice of the amenity/service/feature that you expect to miss the most, now that the virus is causing it to be no longer offered.  Thank you for all the responses sent in.  I noted several people did send in two entries, and I also noted the person who sent in three entries – perhaps that might have been acceptable, but two of the three entries were for the same thing!  I guess they really miss their favorite item.

Interestingly, two of the choices had no-one missing them (the most) – fancy hotel bedding and room mini-bars.  I definitely wouldn’t miss a mini-bar per se, but I’d miss not having a small fridge in the room in which to place a bottle of water, or possibly even beer.

As you can see from the pie chart above, the item most likely to be missed is free food.  Perhaps that’s not altogether a surprise.

Pakistan A320 Crash Preliminary Findings

A preliminary report into the Pakistan Intl Airlines flight 8303 crash has now been released.  Clearly additional information has also been leaked, because some commentaries are referencing things not mentioned in the report.

The report does however contain an astonishing revelation.  The problem with the plane’s initial landing was that after lowering the landing gear correctly, one of the two “pilots” (more on that in a minute) subsequently raised the landing gear again.  So the plane landed, without its gear down, and the pilots went into a normal reverse thrust/braking maneuver without realizing their mistake.  Only after they’d started that did they realize no gear, and so did a TOGA to take off and go around for another landing.  As part of that maneuver a pilot then lowered the landing gear before raising it again – we suspect one of the two pilots had no understanding at all about which way the lever should be set for landing gear up or down.  It is blindingly simple – a vertical lever with a “wheel” at the end of it is raised for landing gear up and lowered for landing gear down (see illustration at the top of the page).  If the three lights above the lever are green, the gear is down and locked in place.  If they are out, the gear is stowed.  And if the lights are orange/red, the gear is transitioning from one state to the other.

It seems the two pilots were busy talking about Covid-19 most of the way down to the landing, ignoring the “sterile cockpit” rule which requires talking only about essential elements of the flight during the final parts of the approach and landing (ie below 10,000 ft).

I don’t fully appreciate the timing of what went wrong on the attempted circuit around the airport and second landing, but it was surprising the pilots didn’t start the APU when – or even in anticipation of –  both engines failed.  Using the APU instead of the emergency air turbine generator would have reduced the drag on the plane and allowed the plane to still be optimally guided by its fly-by-wire electronics.  It seems that the wing flaps and slats weren’t properly configured either, possibly as a result of lack of power to control systems..  APU, proper flap/slat setting, and generally better flying skills would have almost certainly enabled the plane to make it all the way back to the airport.  Instead, it crashed, a little less than one mile short.

Now for the “pilot” issue.  It has been revealed that 150 of PIA’s 434 pilots do not have valid pilot licenses.  They had someone else sit their pilot exams for them.  It is not stated in the report whether these two pilots had valid licenses or not, and the matter is slightly moot because both pilots had lots of experience flying, but it adds another layer to what is clearly gross pilot error all the way through.

Some Pilots Can Fly Planes.  Very Few Can Understand Airline Management

Talking about grossly incompetent pilots, we always observe with mirth and surprise how pilots seem to think that just because they get paid ridiculous amounts of money for doing very little in the cockpit, that makes them experts not just on how to do not very much but also more broadly on the airline that pays them.

Actually, if we had to choose an unlikely but probably well qualified airline employee to become CEO, we’d surely pick a flight attendant, not a pilot.  Flight attendants understand about customer experiences.  Pilots claim to understand flying planes, but they don’t have a clue about the passengers on their planes, or as they like to refer to them sneeringly, “self loading freight”.  Running an airline is nothing to do with flying planes and all to do with getting customers into the planes and making them want to pay more and come back again.

But pilots are nothing if not unafraid to assert their expertise on all matters, and American Airlines’ pilots union has now announced that the US Government should pay airlines to fly planes with empty middle seats.  They say this would cost between $1.9 billion and $3.8 billion a month, depending on how many flights are being operated.

And therein lies the problem.  On what basis should the government pay the airlines?  Unfortunately, the pilots don’t seem to have read my recent article on how much it costs to keep middle seats empty, because they are suggesting the government pay an average “cents per mile” basis for those seats.  We’re not sure if this is an average cost or an average selling price per seat – the article suggests cost.

The airlines would love it if this were to be done.  But how would the “average cost” be calculated.  Would it include fixed costs or just variable costs?  How about semi-fixed costs such as the pilot’s salary, which is the same whether there is one person or 100 people on the plane?  And so on.  Agreeing on a number would be an accounting challenge that we fear the airlines would resoundingly win and the government (and therefore ourselves) would massively lose on.  Airlines could be generously compensated for keeping middle seats empty while being paid much less than the average cost per mile for those seats.

The pilots also don’t seem to consider how many empty seats on each plane the government should pay for – as I point out in the article, not all the middle seats would be sold anyway.

If you wonder why the pilots have a dog in this fight, it should be obvious.  The more seats their airline employers can sell, either to passengers or to the government, the more planes they’ll fly, and so the more jobs there will be for pilots.  The more money airlines can get “for free” from the government, the more money the airlines will have to keep paying pilots their astronomically high wages.

Yet Another 737 MAX Problem

Admittedly it is only a very small problem (but with big potential consequences), and for sure it is unrelated to the huge problem that caused the plane to crash twice, almost two years ago, but it is still yet another problem.

The FAA has identified an issue with engine coverings on some of the 737 MAX planes that will have to be corrected prior to the planes being allowed back into the air, whenever that might eventually be.

Details here.

Britain’s “Air Force One” Gets a New Paint Job

Britain repurposed one of its Royal Air Force A330 planes in 2015 to become a VIP transport plane, variously for the Prime Minister or members of the Royal Family.  Initially it remained in its “Battleship Grey” drab color, but as parts of a major scheduled maintenance program (a “D check”) just now, it has been repainted and now looks lovely and something the nation could be proud of.

This article includes some great photos, plus a photo of what it formerly looked like.

France to Ban Short Domestic Flights

France has said that it will ban both Air France and also any other airlines from operating any domestic routes within France if there are trains that operate between the same cities and with a train journey time less than 2 1/2 hours.

Depending on your perspective on such things, that may or may not be an excellent move on the part of the French government.  From Paris you can take a train all the way north to Lille in one hour, southwest to Bordeaux in 2 hours, southeast to Marseille in 3 hours and east to Strasbourg in 2 hrs 20 minutes.  Most of the country is within 2 1/2 hours of Paris (as is even London – the Eurostar train takes 2 1/4 hours).  Of course, if you want to go further distances, then the travel times can start to add up, but a very substantial majority of all travel in France can be done by train in under 2 1/2 hours.

The thing is, however, that probably no-one would want to fly instead of take a train, anyway.  Sure, 2 1/2 hours of high speed train can be covered in about 30 minutes flying time by a regular passenger jet, but you then need to add all the time getting to airports, checking in, going through security, boarding the plane, and the opposite process at the other end, time for the plane to taxi to the runway, and everything else.  Even a 3 hour train ride will take less total time, and be much more pleasant, than an equivalent 30 – 40 minute flight, after allowing for all the extra time before and after the actual bit in the air.

So we suspect this is empty virtue signaling rather than a “strong” act on the part of the French government.

The Least Likely SST Project

One of the perennial “slow news day” stories that regularly appears is of a company somewhere announcing plans for a new supersonic passenger plane.  Invariably the company is full of positive enthusiasm, and expects to come up with a great plane that will offer passengers a wonderful super-fast experience for about the price of business class travel currently.  The only uncertain thing in the stories is always when the plane will actually make it to market.

So it is with a great deal of skepticism that we read of yet another planned SST development – this time by a Russian group.

Once upon a time Russia (in Soviet days) had a lively airplane design and building industry.  The planes were heavy and the engines noisy and needed plenty of maintenance, and Aeroflot, with an all-Soviet fleet, was one of the largest airlines in the world at the time, although mainly flying within the Soviet bloc countries.

Sadly, Russia’s airplane design and construction companies (two different sets of companies, not combined as in the west) have struggled since Russian independence in 1991.  They’ve been starved of funds to develop new planes and to build new planes, and their former client airlines all rushed to buy western planes.  We still see a hint of their design skills in their military planes, particularly fighters, which are by all accounts high quality and good performers.

So do we think their announcement of yet another SST project by Russia (they’ve had earlier successor projects to the Tu-144 announced variously since 1981) is likely to lead to an actual plane?  The current very tentative designs are promising, in the sense of having engines above rather than below the wings (helps control sonic booms and noise) but we do not see, for an instant, there being the necessary funding available to allow the project to proceed in a timely manner to production.

Details here.

As an aside, I’m currently reading a fascinating book about the development of the Soviet SST.  It is well written, detailed but readable, and provides not only a technological explanation of the development of the plane but gives a lot of social context for how and why the Soviets decided to build what was subsequently referred to as the “Concordski”, a plane in part brilliant and in part beastly, a plane which only operated a paltry few dozen passenger flights (with the passengers needing ear protection due to the terrible noise level in the cabin) before being relegated to flying freight and mail and then being discontinued entirely.

Sneer at it, maybe.  But at least the Soviets built one; which is more than can be said for the Boeing 2707 SST concept.

Least Likely Company to Take Astronauts to the ISS

Sir Richard Branson’s grandly named “Virgin Galactic” company continues to fail to meet its promised deadlines for when it will start taking passengers for brief joyrides to what is rather fancifully termed “space”.  It first said flights would commence in 2009.  We’ve no idea what the current promise date is, but we’re fairly certain they’ll fail to achieve it, the same as all the other broken promises over the last 11 years.

Imagine our amazement then to read that Virgin Galactic has signed a deal with NASA to take people up to the International Space Station – just weeks after Space-X successfully did so.

The obvious problem with the Virgin Galactic contract would seem to be a lack of space ships to use to take passengers to the ISS.  We are aware of its “Unity” test craft reaching an altitude of 51 miles, but the ISS is five times higher; 254 miles (and even that is still considered a very low earth orbit  – geosynchronous satellites are almost 100 times further up, at 22,236 miles).

Doesn’t NASA at least require contractors to pass some sort of reasonableness test of their capabilities before signing a contract with them?

We wonder when – or if – Virgin Galactic will be able to make good on whatever this contract allows or obliges them to do.

Amazon’s Uneven Approach to Reviewers

I’ve written before about Amazon censoring my reviews when they were negative, due to vague suggestions they didn’t meet their community standards, whatever that means (the reviews were polite and accurate and fair).

I’ve also written about how Amazon seems to have great difficulty in identifying and deleting spam positive reviews – most recently I was looking at reviews for an extraordinarily inexpensive USB thumb drive.  There were a dozen short reviews, all giving it five stars, and half a dozen reviews all giving it one star.  The five star reviews all made vague generic concepts about how wonderful the drive was, the one star reviews were specific in castigating the units for not being reliable and not having the claimed capacity.

One of the one-star reviewers added that he had checked, and none of the dozen five star reviewers had published more than a couple of other reviews, also being meaningless generic five star reviews, and suggested they were all fake reviews.  I’m sure he was correct.

With that as background, my daughter tried to publish an Amazon review recently.  She has had an Amazon account since 2015, and buys something from them most months.  So you’d think she’d appear to be a genuine person, and she wished to review a young adult fiction book she’d bought from Amazon, so was a verified buyer of the product she was reviewing.  And it was a four or five star positive review, well written by her with only the lightest of edits by me.  🙂

Amazon first refused because she didn’t have a verified credit card on file with over $50 of charges against it (I give her gift cards rather than trust her with a credit card).  So I bit the bullet and gave her one of my credit card numbers, and had her buy the nice $60 noise-cancelling headphones that I reviewed last week.

So, a week later, now with a verified credit card on file and $66 of charges, she tried to get her book review published again.  Still declined, this time without a reason at all.  She’s written to them asking what the remaining problem is; one can only guess.

Why is it that Amazon makes it so difficult for honest reviews and reviewers, but allows dishonest reviews/reviewers into their system with no apparent restrictions?

In other Amazon news, they’ve bought the naming rights to a sports arena in Seattle and are now calling it the “Climate Pledge” arena.  That sort of sums up so much of the dysfunctionality of greenies.  If they really care about “saving the environment”, why don’t they spend the money on actually doing something, rather than virtue-signaling with a multi-million dollar spend on renaming a sports arena.

It is a bit like people who think that repeating a hashtag slogan on their social media account will actually tangibly support whatever cause it is they’re endorsing.  It doesn’t.  Or the people who claim to “support our troops” and rush to insincerely thank veterans for their service, but who then call their politicians to complain about military spending and object to military recruiters on high school and college campuses.

Bizarre eBay Dirty Tricks Department?

EBay is another company that could have and should have taken on Amazon when it comes to ecommerce.  Indeed, they still valiantly try to do so, but despite having all the advantages they could hope for, they are slipping further and further behind.  EBay, for some years, was worth more than Amazon, and even had their own integrated payment system (Paypal, subsequently separated out as its own company but still closely integrated into eBay).

Clearly eBay’s fall from stardom has irked some of its employees, which brings us to this extraordinary story of how a couple who dared to criticize some aspects of eBay ended up with a series of “dirty tricks” played against them, coordinated apparently at high levels of eBay’s executive offices.

And Lastly This Week….

Have you ever ridden a Segway?  We still vividly remember the hype when they were first released, and eventually got to enjoy riding one.  It was surprisingly easy to control, and great fun.  Segways have become popular as a way of enjoying a “walking tour” of a city center in many places.

Sad news this week – the Chinese company that now owns Segway has decided to stop producing them.  So if you’ve not already ridden a Segway, you should do so while you still can.

Something we hear too little about these days is Nessie, aka The Loch Ness Monster.  Whether it is because of the monster, or just because it is a stunningly beautiful loch (lake) with a beautiful village at the south end (Fort Augustus) and a lovely castle half way up (Urquhart Castle), a visit to and drive along Loch Ness is always one of the highlights of any of our Scottish tours.

So we were delighted to come across this article and a great picture of what we are certainly surely must be the monster.

Until next week, please stay happy and healthy





2 thoughts on “Weekly Roundup, Friday 26 June 2020”

  1. Regarding the French flight ban if under 2 1/2 hours— how does that effect connections to/from these cities and internal destinations?
    Sure, for internal travel their trains are superior, but what if you were flying to one of those cities from somewhere far away? Pretty much everything goes through Paris.

    1. I wondered that myself. My guess is as follows :

      1. If there is almost no domestic traffic, there’ll be insufficient passenger numbers to support much in the way of domestic flights to support connecting passengers traveling from/to further away places.

      2. CDG in Paris has good train service, so in many cases, it is possible to take a flight to/from CDG and the train for the balance of the journey.

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