Weekly Roundup, Friday 28 August 2020

Has the growth in air travel numbers stalled? See article, below.


Good morning

I had a small epiphany on Thursday, when I saw Cologne in Germany announcing it will not have any Christmas markets this year.  I’d been hoping against hope that perhaps there might have been a chance to offer you a Christmas Markets experience this year, the same as most previous years.  But, no.  It is now unavoidably clear this will not be possible, and I’m increasingly realizing that when you said, a few weeks ago, you didn’t expect life to return to normal until the second half of next year, you are correct.

This has been a terrible year for all of us.  But may I claim to having an even worse year than most.

I live through three income sources – advertising on my website, Travel Insider tours, and voluntary reader support.  It goes without saying that travel-related advertising has plunged down to almost zero.  And, as you know, all four Travel Insider tours this year have had to be cancelled, and who only knows when next year they will be able to safely restart.

Which means, this year, for the first time ever, I am totally reliant on your good will and generous support.  I say this as introduction to my annual fundraising drive, where this time every year I hold my hand out to you and ask for your help.

As you of course know, I offer almost everything I write to you, completely for free.  In return, once a year I ask for your voluntary support, to help me keep The Travel Insider alive and well, the same as you and I have been doing in this informal partnership for almost 20 years now.  If it is not convenient to help out, you’re still most welcome as a reader.  And if it is possible, then I ask you most ardently to please consider now reaching for your credit card and, in a very quick, simple and secure online process, sending some support my way.

You can choose any amount you feel fair, and can send in either a one-time single contribution, or choose annual or even quarterly contributions.

Note – if you are already a member, you can simply select “Change” on your membership page to renew and extend, and/or adjust your membership.

The last 12 months has seen more content provided to you than any other 12 month period.  Alas, a very large amount of that has been content that I never wished to write and you surely never wished to receive or read – the articles on the coronavirus.  But with travel not being a central part of our lives, currently, you’ve at least had a chance to closely understand what the virus is all about, and what to anticipate in the future as we fitfully respond to its challenges.

Of course, there’ve been plenty of normal articles, too – assuming the word “normal” can ever comfortably apply when you consider the breadth of topics that you get coverage on here.  One thing is for sure, most weeks there’s something unusual or quirky – if nothing else, you’ve always got a great conversational gambit or two to open with at a party!

As well as conversational openers, hopefully you’ve enjoyed the information shared, and at times been able to use things for your advantage, making better travel or travel-related technology decisions, and doing so more confidently.

Now, please, can I ask you to help ensure the continuation of this internet experience.  Whether it is $5, $50, or $500, please help out at whatever level you feel to be convenient and fair.

Thank you.

What else this week?  I’ve continued adding to what I’m now terming a book about Covid-19 – it now deserves that description, because it has already exceeded the average length of a novel, and at the end of Thursday is up to 71,500 words.

I’m keeping much of this work as a sincere thank you, available to everyone who chooses to become a Silver or higher level Travel Insider supporter, but I’m also fully sharing parts of it.  Please find attached an entire section of the work, free for all – almost 5000 words about how to minimize your virus risk when staying in a hotel.

Also attached is Thursday’s Covid-19 diary entry, and Sunday’s can be read here.

What else this week?  Please keep reading for :

  • Air Passenger Numbers Stall
  • An Old Fare Saving Idea With a New Name
  • Delta Does the Decent Thing, Yet Again
  • 737 MAX Getting Tested “the Hard Way”
  • Boeing Goes Penny-wise, Pound-foolish, Again
  • Virgin Galactic – A Great Investment Opportunity?
  • What People Want in Hotels at Present
  • And Lastly This Week….

Air Passenger Numbers Stall

I’ve reformatted the daily US air passenger numbers data and have created a more useful chart as a result.  It shows a running seven day average, and so smoothes out the peaks and troughs of each week.  This makes for a much clearer pattern of what is happening

As you can see from the chart at the top of the newsletter, the last week or so has seen a flat line rather than the usually steady upwards curve previously.  Sure, we are moving soon to the end of the summer peak travel period, but the chart is tracking passenger numbers compared to the same time last year, so the seasonal variations are already accounted for.

We expect the airlines are anxiously watching to see if passenger numbers start increasing again.  Stay tuned for another update this time next week.

An Old Fare Saving Idea With a New Name

We first shared the concept of what was then termed “hidden city ticketing” with you back on 9 August, 2002.

The concept is now being reported in this article, with the modern day term for this long-standing practice having strangely been updated to now be “skiplagging” along with the “news” that American is cracking down on such practices.  What the article doesn’t say, however, is that such crackdowns, which were already happening back in 2002, seem to be more bluff than reality.  The airlines have teams of lawyers on staff, and also of course can unilaterally cancel your frequent flier mileage balance and status if they choose, thereby forcing you to sue them rather than them needing to sue you.

If you do try and sue them, and for most of us, the cost of an attorney exceeds the sums in dispute, the airline will then attempt to up the ante further and have the case moved to federal court – a move that sometimes but not always is granted.  If it does succeed, your legal costs have increased still further.

Back in 2002, it seemed that if people persevered, the airlines would generally cave at the last minute – almost literally on the courtroom steps on the day of a trial – and settle.  Many times such settlements had secrecy conditions, so as to allow the airlines to continue to bluff in the future, but, as you can see in my follow up article in 2002, some details have leaked out.

As you can see from the recent article, the airlines are offering up similarly specious and ridiculous justifications for why they should charge you penalties if you don’t fly all the segments on a ticket.  One has to admire their ability to say that it costs more to them if you don’t fly than if you do, and the ridiculous nature of such claims is probably why they seem to usually founder in court.

No, I’m not saying you should go and enjoy skiplagging/hidden city fares without a care in the world.  Indeed, for most of us, the opportunities for benefitting from such fares are limited only to cases where you’re traveling without checked luggage and don’t want to use the rest of the ticket coupons (eg for a return journey).

But if the occasional beneficial opportunity comes your way, don’t expect terrible things to happen to you immediately thereafter.  If you book such tickets with varying addresses, phone numbers, and credit cards, and no frequent flier number, and if you spread such “special” travel around several different airlines, it is hard to see you appearing as a high priority target for some airline bluff, bluster, and bullying.

Delta Does the Decent Thing, Yet Again

It has been interesting to see, for the first time in decades, some apparent genuine competition between the dinosaur carriers.

While some airlines have chosen to quietly do as little as possible in response to the virus problems, one airline in particular has been a shining example of all that is excellent.  Delta.

In the latest Delta news, it has promised to keep middle seats empty through the rest of this year and until 6 January 2021.  In addition, and probably in response to Southwest’s surprising statement last week that it was cutting back on cabin cleaning between flights, Delta has said it is almost doubling the cleaning staff it assigns to cabin cleaning between flights.

Details here.

They’ve also been putting their money where their mouth is and enforcing their requirement for mask wearing.  This article tells how they’ve now banned almost 250 people from future flying due to their refusal to wear a mask.

One thing’s for sure.  If in an unfortunate situation I must fly any time soon, Delta will definitely be my first choice of airline.

737 MAX Getting Tested “the Hard Way”

One of the distinctive things about Boeing’s efforts to get its 737 MAX recertified is that other countries’ equivalents of the FAA are insisting on doing their own evaluation prior to issuing their own certifications.  In the past, they’ve generally accepted and rubber-stamped the FAA approval.

This more active role is largely a charade and a public display of their “independence”, and, behind the scenes, signaling their annoyance at the apparent Boeing/FAA collusion that caused the plane to be certified in the first place when it probably should not have been.

Unfortunately, the US is not allowing Canadian or European regulators to enter the country in order to inspect and test the 737 MAX, due to concerns over the coronavirus.  This is a beyond-ridiculous situation at present, with the US having many times a greater rate of virus cases than either Canada or Europe, but since when has common sense had a major role in government policy-making.  To be fair, many other countries, on a reciprocal basis, and with more underlying cause, are not allowing Americans into their countries.

So how to get regulators and a 737 MAX together?

Boeing has managed to get agreement for one of its planes to hop across the border into Canada, where foreign officials can then board it.  The plane will then fly a certification flight, mainly in US airspace, before landing the officials back in Canada and then quickly flying back to the US itself.  Details here and subsequently, here.

Oh – if you can puzzle out how Canada simultaneously lets people from Europe into the country, and also has a much lower virus case rate than the US, perhaps you could share that with our public health officials.

Boeing Goes Penny-wise, Pound-foolish, Again

Talking about the 737 MAX, the “real” underlying problems with that plane program are two-fold.

First, it did nothing for too long, while Airbus was planning and developing a successor to their A320 series planes.  Boeing’s equivalent generation of 737 NG planes were getting increasingly long in the tooth – everyone knew that, but Boeing was applying the “cash cow” concept to the plane, getting as much profit out of the model series while not putting sufficient back in the form of R&D for the increasingly needed successor.

Second, Boeing continued to dither after Airbus announced its new A320neo series of planes, and then eventually, chose the cheapest quickest option, with the unfortunate outcome being the rushed to market 737 MAX, a plane that even if perfectly designed never seemed to sell as well as the A320neo series.

Boeing’s problem?  It somehow, sometime, switched from being a technology driven company to becoming a profit-driven company.  In the “good old days” the company invested what was necessary to make excellent leading edge products, which in turn, almost as a happy coincidence, then generated great profits.  Nowadays, Boeing’s first mission seems to be to maximize profits, and only to spend money where directly necessary.

Let’s not forget that arch-rival, and now by many measures, the larger manufacturer of passenger jets – Airbus – came from behind.  It evolved as a bastardized child of compromise between various European governments, and a most unlikely source of competition with a mess of different development and manufacturing centers established more for political reasons than for any efficiencies or commercial reasons, and with a high cost labor force.  But since its first plane, the A300 that started service in 1974, Airbus has slowly but steadily grown, and grown, and grown, eating Boeing’s lunch at every step of the way, and evolving from trailing behind Boeing to now, at least some of the time, leading the way.

This has been a very slow race, over 50 years, and at any point along that time-line Boeing could have recognized the competitive pressures and threat posed by Airbus and done something about it – something like a new narrow-body plane to replace its aged venerable 737 design, or a new replacement for the 757 design, which has been talked about but never eventuated for two decades.  Indeed, Boeing could even have fearlessly surged forward with its answer to the Concorde – the B2707 – or its various other concept planes that never went anywhere.

Instead, it has been steadily “saving money” and “boosting profits” by spending less on R&D than Airbus.  Short-term, that might make sense when you’re struggling to meet a current quarter’s promised financial figures.  But longer term, it leaves you with a product gap where you used to have the 757 (a plane that sold over 1,000 units), and no plan for a 737 successor which is now even more aged than it was when the 737 MAX was introduced, nine years ago, as an interim stopgap measure to buy Boeing time to do something bigger and better.

Here’s a “teaser” excerpt of an article that tells the key part of that story.  It really makes one wonder what Boeing’s plan is for its future.  How does Boeing expect to keep up with Airbus if it’s not spending the needed money on R&D?

Virgin Galactic – A Great Investment Opportunity?

I need to preface this by stating I’m not an investment advisor or expert, and that most of my picks and investments do the opposite of what I’d been hoping they’d do.

But I certainly was correct when I expressed astonishment at the surge in Virgin Galactic’s share price after listing on 28 October last year.  The price almost doubled to $34, but since then has fallen to $17.28 yesterday.  Apparently investors had accepted the company’s promises for commercial space flights this year at face value, and were then (don’t laugh) surprised when that failed to happen, with a new date now offered for some time in 2021.

But this article is suggesting you should “buy the dip”, believing the company to be well placed to grow into the future, suggesting that its glorified airplanes could make five flights a months into the indefinite future, and suggesting it should grow to a fleet of perhaps 12 planes.  That would be 60 flights a month, and with six passengers per flight, 360 passengers a month.  There are presently somewhere between 600 and 700 people who have deposited or even paid in full for a flight, so that would clear the accumulation of 15 years of hype and publicity in two months.

Where will the 360 passengers every month keep coming from?  The article says “everyone wants to go to space… demand will never be a problem”.  Hmmm…..  Let’s not forget the ticket price is somewhere between $200,000 and $250,000 for an experience that struggles to truly describe itself as a space flight.  Everyone wants to go to space – maybe; but not everyone would drop a cool quarter million for something more like a pretend flight than a real flight.

Meanwhile, let’s also not forget who Virgin’s competitors are.  One is headed by Elon Musk, another potentially by Jeff Bezos.  Those are tough competitors when matched up alongside Sir Richard Branson, and with amazingly deep pockets.  In addition to which, Musk is already operating commercial real rocket flights to real-space, which makes the concept of Virgin Galactic having a “first mover” advantage rather a stretch.

Virgin Galactic is, if anything, handicapped by having an earlier generation of technology – a concept that had a huge “wow” factor in the very early 2000s, but which is no longer nearly as “cool” or exciting as the new rocket technologies coming out of the Musk and Bezos companies.  The article makes no mention of the existence of these competitors at all.

The article then becomes even more fanciful, talking about other great opportunities – the very far-fetched plans for a supersonic plane, something that is absolutely not one of Virgin Galactic’s core competencies, and hyperloop systems, for which, so far, the only correct thing has been the letters “hype” in the product name.

So, buy the dip?……

In other Virgin news, the Virgin Atlantic airline has managed to come to an arrangement with its creditors that will keep it flying for what is said to be “at least 18 months”.  We hope so – for all its pretentiousness, it is not a bad airline, even if it is essentially a Delta partner/almost subsidiary these days rather than the true independent maverick it liked to style itself as.

What People Want in Hotels at Present

Slightly overlapping the main feature article this week are these survey results showing what people what in hotels currently, as responses to the threat of the virus.

I mention it mainly so you know you’re not alone in wanting these things, and shouldn’t feel at all uncomfortable about asking for and even demanding them.

And Lastly This Week….

An enterprising ferry boat skipper in the south of England has come up with a new tour – taking people to see the moored cruise liners just off the coast around Southampton.  I still remember the amazement and awe I’d feel whenever I encountered the QE2 in various places around the world, especially in New Zealand’s Milford Sound, or off the coast of the Great Barrier Reef, where its immense size dwarfed what had formerly seen like huge wavepiercing catamarans with hundreds of people on each, alongside.

The classic shapes of the true ocean liners remain a thing of wonder and beauty, even now.  It is nice that people get to see them in this new form.  Meanwhile, most US cruise lines are now cancelling cruises into 2021.

A marine attraction of a different sort and anything but classically graceful has been rescued from death – the bizarre MD-160 ekranoplan – a “ground effect vessel” that is essentially a plane that flies only a few feet above the sea.  Instead of relying on traditional lift to fly at altitude, it relies on “ground effects” – a sort of cushion of air created between the sloped wings and the sea beneath them.

This enabled the device (what do you call it?) to travel at airplane speeds, but to keep close to the surface of the sea like a ship.  It was never a successful concept (why not just build regular airplanes?), and the one device that was built and survives certainly looks very strange.  It is slated to become a museum.  Here’s a great set of pictures.

Truly lastly this week, please do consider supporting The Travel Insider.  It takes only a few quick and easy minutes to do so, and by choosing to actively help, you really do make a huge difference and help ensure your weekly newsletter continues to arrive, every Friday morning, as it has for almost twenty years so far.  Thank you.

Until next week, please stay healthy and safe





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