Weekly Roundup, Friday 14 August 2020

Air passenger numbers have resumed their inexorable increases once again.

Good morning

You’ll find, below, a couple of feature articles to go with this morning’s weekly roundup.  The one I’d most call your attention to is the first release of what I intend to become a definitive piece on everything you need to know about the coronavirus and how to survive it.

Most of the content that I’m now compressing and distilling into a single concentrated PDF full of important information can be found, spread across the 118 articles, over 1,000 tweets, and probably more than quarter of a million words and thousands of links to other articles that I’ve published this year.  But the PDF gives you the latest findings and most up to date advice and guidance – did you know that we’re still discovering new symptoms of the disease (skin rash) and finding out new things about it – for example, just the last few days have seen what was increasingly looking like an “old wive’s tale” about one means of getting the disease come back into the limelight.

It is important to be current with what is understood about the virus and the best practices about how to minimize one’s risks; my PDF tells you what you need to know.

I’m offering the first 21 pages to everyone, and of course, all the articles and everything else is all online, too.  For my kind and generous Silver/Gold/Diamond/Platinum Travel Insider Supporters, I’m repaying their generosity by giving them the entire PDF.  I hope it may even make a small but positive impact in your lives, as a reciprocation for the large and positive impacts you have all had in my life and that of The Travel Insider.

If you’d like the full document, and a bucket-load of other additional content too, you are of course encouraged to become a Travel Insider Supporter yourself.  It is quick and easy to do, and validation/access is instantly granted to all the extra exclusive content.

I’m also attaching Thursday’s Covid-19 diary entry.  Sunday’s can be found on the website.

What else?  Please keep reading for :

  • Air Travel Continues to Climb
  • Thank You, Southwest, for your Mask Policy
  • Airbus Presses Its Advantage
  • In Defense of SRB
  • New Rocketship – But Where’s the Pilot?
  • Disney Needs to Adjust its Park Admission Charges
  • The Overlooked Cruise Problem
  • When Does Amazon Qualify as a Monopoly?
  • And Lastly This Week….

Air Travel Continues to Climb

After a hiccup in its otherwise steady upwards trend in early/mid July, air travel has clearly returned to an upwards tend.

As you can see from the chart at the top, we set a new record for passenger numbers (the blue line) on Sunday (832,000 – almost one third the number of people the same day last year); the highest since the plunge in travel numbers in March.

The return to growth seems to be at a slower pace than in May/June.  It will still be a very long time until we return to 2019 levels of travel.

Thank You, Southwest, for your Mask Policy

One of the pinpricks of angst that fills even the simplest adventure out of my home these days is observing all the people who are either not wearing masks, or not wearing them properly (can someone please explain how a mask wrapped around one’s chin does any good), or who have a “fashionable face covering” that is of little value as a germ-catching mask.  (A recent study concluded that poor mask choices actually do more harm than good.)

I cringe every time I see “washable” masks advertised for sale (the masks become massively more porous with each wash and wearing), and cringe again when I see masks advertised as “easy to breathe through” (and also easy for the virus to travel through) or boasting of having a vent on them (to bypass the mask protection entirely).

We have standards for child car seats, for seat belts, and for many other safety devices, and even rating systems and approvals for industrial masks.  But not for the masks that all Americans are now being urged to wear, and any charlatan can promote any sort of product as a mask, no matter how well or poorly it actually impedes the free travel of aerosolized virus particles.

This is not a trivial issue.  A respected projection is saying that if we all wear proper masks, we can reduce the US death toll between now and 1 December by 70,000.  That’s a huge number.  The country ties itself up in knots over police killings, whether they are justified or not, and school shootings, but we’re ignoring an issue that can impact on deaths by 70,000 in the next 3 1/2 months (assuming the model numbers are correct, of course).  Why the lack of care/concern?

Southwest has now come out with some quality rules about what types of masks it will accept.  The list isn’t perfect, but it is a great step forward.  Thank you, Southwest.

Compare that to this nonsense from Etihad, boasting of an anti-microbial “snood style” face mask that is easy to breathe through.  Did they not get the memo that the coronavirus is, ahem, a virus – and is about ten times smaller in size than a typical microbe?

Airbus Presses Its Advantage

As the passenger air transport market evolves, new opportunities for new types of planes appear, and old opportunities disappear.  That’s why we see the disappearance of 747 and A380 planes, and the appearance of new twin-engined planes of all sizes – small like the A220, medium like the A320neo, and large like the A350.

But there are some types of planes that are sort of “in the middle” of what airlines want – neither too big nor too small, and fly distances neither too long nor too short.  That market for these planes is relatively unchanging compared to the expanding or shrinking outer edges of the totality of plane types.

This makes it all the more astonishing that when Boeing decided to cancel its “mid sized plane” in 2003 – the very successful 757 – it did not quickly replace it with a similar plane.  It is true that most airlines were then wanting something a bit smaller than a 757, but it is also true that the biggest 737 was quite a lot smaller than the smallest 757, and when the 757 program ended, the gap between the largest 737 and the smallest 767 (a by-then tired design), and subsequently, the smallest 787 when it entered service eight years after the 757 cancellation, became even larger.

It was a gap that Airbus was quick to exploit with its largest A321 narrow-body plane.  And it is a gap that Airbus has moved more strongly into with its new A321LR and now, under development, the A321XLR (with 15% more range than the LR model, opening up nonstop flights for more city pairs in Europe and the US).  The planes are selling very well and are a great commercial success.

Boeing’s response?  Nothing.  It is now almost 20 years since “the writing was on the wall” and the thought of cancelling the 757 started to take shape.  But it has still not come up with a replacement to plug that gap – a gap which has seen Airbus sell 450 planes into just in the last year alone.

How is this possible?  This is nothing to do with the coronavirus, it is nothing to do with the mess surrounding the 737MAX, it is nothing to do with the mess surrounding the various other problems associated with the company’s other planes either.  It is not a surprise, either – the gap has been obvious and is resulting in lost sales.

Boeing has repeatedly dithered about various concepts and ideas for a replacement plane, and has come up with various acronyms and names for it, but it has never actually pressed forward with any of their concepts or ideas.

Why not?  The level of incompetence at the highest levels of the company is truly stunning.  And one of the first things the latest CEO did was to cancel the present fledgling plans for a new plane, delaying things even further.  Boeing is currently in a loop of doing market research, then dithering, then redoing the market research because the market has changed, then more dithering, then, you guessed it – time for more market research again.  Rinse and repeat.

In Defense of SRB

Yes, I thought it would never happen, but to my astonishment, I find myself compelled to offer a few words of support and defense for Sir Richard Branson, head of the various Virgin companies.

This article accurately but unfairly describes his “empire” as crumbling.  Yes, it is indeed crumbling.  But I challenge the article writers to cite a single travel company at present that is booming.  (Actually, there are a very few, but let’s not get distracted!)  The Covid-19 impact is the problem, not Branson’s management per se.

Sure, I find his style and hype grating, but it is true that he is an industry “personality” for better or worse, and in an industry that these days finds itself with too few personalities and too many grey suited accounting types; too few risk takers and developers, and too many conservative consolidators.

On the other hand, I’d be feeling very anxious if my future were based on the success of Virgin Galactic and his Hyperloop investment.  Both concepts have potential, but they have been dogged by disappointments, disasters, and delays.  And this article doesn’t think his recent fanciful plans for an SST are likely to ever become viable (I agree and said so last week).

Recognizing the diminishing value of the Virgin brand, this article reports on how the new private train operator in Florida (and perhaps soon to be NV/CA too) has pulled out of its licensing deal to call its trains Virgin trains.  We always thought that was nothing other than a total waste of money.  Glad to see that common sense won out.

New Rocketship – But Where’s the Pilot?

One of the potential problems of the Virgin Galactic business is that by the time it finally starts taking passengers for brief joy-rides into the high upper limits of the atmosphere, using a concept that dates back the best part of 20 years (yes, with various updates and changes over the years), it may find its airplane has been superseded by newer models of spacecraft that can go higher, further, and for less money.

The current explosion of new designs in rockets and their spaceship cargos (and even space ports) is astonishing to behold.  The latest one to get a positive mention is the Dream Chaser, currently scheduled to start cargo-only operations late next year.  The craft, a bit like an updated Space Shuttle, flies back to earth, and was originally designed to carry people as well as or instead of cargo, and could be quickly converted back again.  It is also completely automated, without the need for any pilots.

One of the weaknesses of the Virgin Galactic model is that it can carry eight people, but two of them are crew/pilots, leaving just six seats for joy-riding passengers.  If VG could replace those two people with one flight attendant for customer service duties, that would mean a much lower wage bill, and the ability to sell seven rather than six seats per trip.

We don’t know what the cost of a Dream Chaser flight will be, but it would offer a real space experience rather than VG’s more limited product.  There are also Boeing and SpaceX passenger-carrying space craft either in final stages of development or now operational.

VG will find itself in an increasingly crowded market, with competitors capable of offering much more appealing experiences.

If you’re the sort of person who would spend $250k on a pretend 2 1/2 hour flight into “space” with only six minutes of weightlessness, I can’t help thinking you’d pay an extra $100k (or more) for a real space flight that goes all the way around the earth, maybe even twice (once you’ve got the craft into orbit, the cost of keeping it there for a bit longer is negligible).  The experience and bragging rights would be much greater than the VG product allows.

Disney Needs to Adjust its Park Admission Charges

Talking about struggling travel companies, the previously unstoppable growth in people choosing to visit Disney’s various amusement parks has of course taken a huge hit because of the virus.

Now that Disney is carefully opening some of its parks again (and, yes, its policies are well thought out and thorough) it is finding that few people are choosing to resume visits.

So, Disney has a choice of how to respond.  It could come up with lower priced park admission tickets to encourage people back to their parks, or it could reduce its park offerings to match the reduced demand.

It has chosen to reduce its opening hours.

Now it is certainly true that only a stalwart few spend an entire day at Disney from the minute they open until the minute they close, but even for those of us who tire out and go back to the hotel well before closing time, the fact that the opening hours start earlier than we’d arrive, and finish later than we’d leave, benefit us in two ways.  It gives us more flexibility for when we choose to arrive and leave, and it means we stay until we’re done and ready to go, rather than having to leave due to a pending closure.

It also means that with more hours of opening, the totality of the people visiting can spread their visits more broadly over more hours, so while we are there, the lines for attractions might be a bit lower, because some people have already come and done the ride, and others will come later.  There’s not such a concentrated focus on certain hours for everyone.

Disney can of course choose whatever hours it wishes to be open, and its opening hours vary during the year anyway, albeit to a predictable and understood schedule.

But if Disney is now trimming two hours off a day’s schedule, could we ask they trim the cost of their tickets, too.  Dropping from 12 to 10 hours would justify a matching drop of $18 off their standard $109 daily ticket price.  A $91 ticket – under that $100 psychological barrier point – sounds a great deal more attractive than $109, even if it only buys ten hours of park opening.

Talking about Disney, here’s a fascinating bit of trivia about a ride that never was at California Adventure in Anaheim.

The Overlooked Cruise Problem

As I’ve brutally stated before, people have to be a special kind of stupid to consider going on a cruise at present, and it is great to see the cruise lines reluctantly cancelling cruises further out towards the end of this year, although a few operators persist in trying to sneak a few “safe” cruises in.

There’s an entire extra dimension of problems with a cruise.  We understand the cruise lines are trying, albeit with likely little success, to quality-control who gets on a cruise, and to provide at least some semblance of social distancing on board.  But what happens when the ship arrives into a port?

As you might know, when a cruise ship (or two or three or even more) ships pull into a small port, and disgorge some thousands of passengers, everything, everywhere, is chaotically crowded.  You’re in lines for everything, on a crowded tender, in a full coach, wandering around towns in groups with a guide, cramming into shops and restaurants, and so on.

There are a hundred failures of social distancing in any port call, a hundred opportunities to pick up and/or to pass on the virus.  Maybe more than a hundred.

If you’re on a one week cruise, maybe you pick up the virus on a port stop on day two or three of the cruise, and on day four or five, you are now infectious and spreading it to the other people on the ship – either on the ship, or when you all crowd in to more port calls during the rest of the cruise.

I just don’t see how the traditional cruising experience can be safely offered at present, either on board the ship or ashore during port calls.  This article talks about “chaperoning” passengers during port calls, but that sounds more like a marketing fiction than a practical reality, not much fun if fully implemented, and truly something that wouldn’t scale well.

When Does Amazon Qualify as a Monopoly?

I’m sensing a steady but sure degradation in many elements of what used to be an excellent service ethic at Amazon.  I used to delight in occasional service calls for help with their devices or queries about delayed deliveries, etc.  The calls would be quickly answered by very sharp, keen and clever, pleasant and friendly people with American accents and ethos.

Then it became that “first level” support would be handled by off-shore customer service agents who knew nothing other than how to read through a script and in mechanical stilted English insist I do irrelevant troubleshooting steps that I’d already done before calling.  At least I could always ask to be referred to a US rep or to be escalated to level two (also American) or to speak to a supervisor (usually American too).

Now, increasingly, I find I can’t break out of the off-shore staffers and their know-nothing approach to not helping.  This happened most recently earlier this week when for some strange reason, the Amazon website refused to allow me to log in and told me I had to key in a code they’d sent to my cell phone, which I’d left some distance away in my car.

I called to see if they’d override the requirement or reset my password or something/anything to save a trip out to my car.  I was told they couldn’t do this “for my protection”, and when I asked for a supervisor or an American, I was told that for security purposes, they could not refer calls to anyone else!

My daughter is still banned from reviewing products she buys, and no-one at Amazon will respond to her emails asking what the problem is and how to resolve it.

My Amazon Prime video membership, and the Amazon Fire TV Stick, have become a frustrating series of “bait and switch” experiences.  Every time I come across a movie they are featuring that I like the sound of, it turns out that rather than being a free movie in Amazon Prime, it is a for rent or purchase movie in some other program.  Imagine if every other Netflix selection was also a pay-extra video rather than an included-for-free video!  I can’t figure out how to stop Amazon trying to sell me videos from third party providers.

But, by gosh, they’re surely making a lot of money, as this article points out.  While I said in the article about Virgin and Richard Branson that no travel companies have prospered, and in general, most businesses are suffering to a greater or lesser extent, Amazon has been a major winner as a result of the virus.

So, with service slipping and profits increasing, I ask again.  When do we reach the trigger point of Amazon being declared a monopoly?

And Lastly This Week….

Feel free to give in to your worst secret snob tendencies, and tell the truth – when you pay good money to stay at premium four and five star hotels, do you really want to be sharing the hotel with homeless people shacked up there on a city housing program?  Or, if you’re more altruistic, consider whether a city gets best value for money by booking rooms at premium inner city hotels for their homeless people, or by booking more spartan Motel 6 type units.

Either which way, this article will probably, well, let’s just say, “puzzle” you.

This article is similar to other click-bait articles on abandoned airports that I’ve seen before, but features some different airports and if you’re like me, the chances are you’ve probably flown through at least one and possibly two or three of them when they were open.

Talking about abandoning things, here’s an article about a terrible airplane emergency evacuation at London’s Stansted Airport.  The pilots didn’t know the flight crew were abandoning the plane, one of the engines was still running – its exhaust blowing evacuating passengers over, and of course, passengers insisted on taking all their baggage with them.  Amazing.

Talking about old and abandoned, here’s a fascinating article about the 747.  Did you know the 747-400 still gets its software updates on floppy disks?

Until next week, please stay healthy and safe

 

David.

 

 

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David.