Weekly Roundup, Friday 7 August 2020

A huge runway?  Nope.  A small island – one of the world’s very smallest countries.  See item on Nauru, below.

Good morning

I’ve been busy on another virus related special article.  I realized both a problem and a solution earlier this week.  The problem arises because I’ve written 115 articles about the virus – so far – and probably within them, a quarter million words.  Within those articles there are some nuggets of what I believe to be very helpful information about what to do to minimize one’s risk of contracting the virus, and what to do if one does indeed become infected.  But where, among all the words and articles, is that information?  I wanted to have it at hand for my own benefit, and feel you might wish to have it, too.

So I’m creating a summary of the key issues and action items.  But a summary of a quarter million words is itself not exactly something that can be confined to one piece of paper, and so I’m still working on it, with a projected release on Sunday with Sunday’s regular diary entry.

For now, please find attached Thursday’s Covid-19 diary entry (Sunday’s is on the website), and some items immediately below :

  • Reader Survey Results – When Will We Be Back to Normal
  • Good News for Boeing
  • Air Travel Inches Up
  • The Wrong Time to Ease Off on Airplane Cleaning
  • Branson on a Burn
  • Hertz Locks Up its Customers
  • An Unfair Analysis of Electric Cars?
  • A Shout-Out to Nauru
  • And Lastly This Week….

Reader Survey Results – When Will We Be Back to Normal

I asked last week when you expect life will return back to normal, with the virus vanquished and no longer an ever-present factor in our lives.  I had previously asked the same question at the beginning of April and again at the beginning of May.

As before, there was a wide range of opinions, although the optimism in the past two surveys was not nearly so present.  In April, 27% of people expected the virus to be gone within three months.  In May, 10% of people expected the virus to be gone within three months (from May, not from April).  And now, only 1.3% of people expect the virus to be gone in the next three months through the end of October.

It is interesting to compare the results with the previous two surveys.  This time, the average expectation for things to be back to normal is early in the second half of 2021.  In May, the average expectation was in the first quarter of 2021, and in April, the average expectation was that things would be back to normal this month, August.

It seems clear that things can only return back to normal once a vaccine has been released and widely accepted.  Until then, we are locked into the virus’ logic.  False political promises and incompetent public health official bungling is irrelevant to the virus.  It has a very simple logic that we can not break free of – if we reduce the social distancing behaviors, the virus will become more active, and if we increase our social distancing behaviors, it will recede.

There is no such thing as “beating the virus” because as soon as we declare the virus to be vanquished and relax what remains of our social distancing, and throw our masks away, someone will bring the virus back into our communities from somewhere else, and then exactly the same as happened early this year, it will start to spread again.

When will we have an effective vaccine, and when will enough people have chosen to be vaccinated so that we can declare the virus truly defeated?  We’ve been promised later this year, and we’ve been promised early next year.  But there is not yet a validated vaccine that has proven to be both sufficiently effective and sufficiently safe to mass-produce and distribute.  There is no guarantee we’ll ever succeed at creating a suitable vaccine.

So I really don’t know, but if all goes well, I think you judged it close to correct and some time in the second half of next year might see good news for us all.  Here’s hoping!

Good News for Boeing

In very good news for Boeing, the FAA took a major step towards recertifying the 737 MAX earlier this week when it published a set of requirements for recertification, allowing for a 45 day comment period prior to then ruling on the matter and making it official.

This suggests that approval may be forthcoming at the beginning of October, just weeks before the 29 October anniversary of the first of the 737 MAX crashes, back in 2018.  No-one could ever have guessed it would take over 18 months from the grounding in mid March last year for the “minor software tweak” to be resolved and the planes returned to service.

Air Travel Inches Up

As you can see, the last week has revealed a slight inching upwards of passenger numbers again, although not at the same rate as in April, May and June.

Saturday saw the largest percentage of last year’s travel numbers since the July 4 weekend, and Sunday was a close second.  Numbers hadn’t been that high previously since they were plunging down in mid March.

The Wrong Time to Ease Off on Airplane Cleaning

Southwest Airlines is well known for its lightning fast airplane turnarounds, and claims that as one of the secrets of its cost management and success.

And so it has decided to cut back on the between-flight cleaning it has been doing recently on its planes, to allow it to speed up airplane turnaround time.  They will still clean tray tables, but won’t bother about armrests and seat belts.  That’s a curious choice – we all touch the armrest and seat belt, but some of us don’t touch the tray table at all, particularly on many of the shorter Southwest flights.

However, lest we be concerned, Southwest reassures us that it gives each plane a “deep electrostatic cleaning” once a month that, it is claimed, “kills bacteria on contact for 30 days”.

That’s a puzzling claim for several reasons, but most of all, I have to wonder if Southwest realizes that the Covid-19 virus is, ahem, a virus, not a bacteria.

A strange lapse by an airline that has generally done a great job of creating as safe as feasible an environment for passengers at present.  Details here.

Branson on a Burn

Sir Richard Branson is a bit like Elon Musk.  He flits from business concept to business concept; and loves to use hyperbole and optimism in describing his projects (I think that is a very kind and polite way of putting it, don’t you).

It is probably not his personal fault that the first of his assorted airlines declared a Chapter 15 bankruptcy in the US earlier this week.  I’m referring to Virgin Atlantic Airlines – and the bankruptcy declaration was surprising because the airline had barely finished boasting it had enough cash to survive another 18 months before then plunging itself into a Chapter 15 bankruptcy.

Another of the Virgin airlines went bankrupt in Australia in April, and of course, Virgin America was sold to Alaska Airlines in 2016 after failing to get the traction needed to become viable on its own.  In early March, another airline that Virgin partly owned (Flybe in the UK) closed down entirely.  Other airlines that have come and gone over the years include Virgin Nigeria, Virgin Express, and Virgin Sun Airlines.

Perhaps to take attention away from this embarrassment, Branson has been busy this week, talking up both his ridiculously named “Virgin Galactic” and his plans to develop a new supersonic plane.

In typical Branson fashion, the latest delays and disappointments associated with Virgin Galactic are being glowingly described as a wonderful achievement.  The company, which for over a decade has been promising “any time now” to start operating short joy-rides up into the outer reaches of the earth’s atmosphere, including a brief six minutes of weightlessness, announced its latest delay.  Flights are now expected sometime in the first quarter of 2021.  Any other company might actually apologize for another delay, but Virgin Galactic describes it as a success.

As the linked article rather mercilessly showcases, the first promise date for flights was 2007.  It has then stretched out, bit by bit, to 2009, then 2010.  Then 2011.  Then 2015.  Then 2019.  Then 2020.  Now 2021.

As for the new supersonic plane, it promises to be a massive nothing-burger of a creation, assuming it ever occurs.  The thing is it will only carry somewhere between 9 – 19 passengers (presumably depending on if the seats are generous first-class seats or not so spacious business class seats.  What impact will that have on global aviation?  Almost nothing.

This article is typical of the Branson effect – a suspension of reality and the laws of physics.  It claims the plane will fly between London and New York in 90 minutes.  Not in this universe.  It immediately makes a factual error – Mach 3 is not 2300 mph.  It is 1980 mph.

The timing for a flight between London and New York, which would be 106 minutes in duration if we ridiculously assume the timing started from when the plane was already at altitude and cruising speed over Heathrow, and ended, also at altitude and cruising speed, over JFK, will of course be longer than that, depending on what events start and stop the timer.  Most published flight schedules are sort of from gate to gate, with a bit of extra time for delays that inevitably occur, particularly going in and out of Heathrow.  Block hours are from engine start to engine stop, and then there is the timing from wheels up (take off) to wheels down (landing) which ignores the taxi-ing time.

In the real world, the first and last parts of any flight are very much slower than cruise speed, because of climbing at less than full speed, or traveling below 10,000 ft where the maximum speed is usually 250 mph.  Plus, flights almost never route directly on the shortest possible route between airports, but instead fly via a series of way points that add to the travel distance and time.

All of this also assumes that Virgin succeeds at developing a SST that travels at Mach 3 – much faster than other concepts currently being developed, most of which are actually appreciably slower than the Concorde was (Concorde cruised at just over Mach 2.0).  It gets successively harder to design planes and engines for higher speeds.

Dare we ask when to expect this new plane?  Their press release is notably silent on that point.

Hertz Locks Up its Customers

Have you ever needed to extend the rental on a car?  I have, and as best I remember, it is a simple matter of phoning the rental car company’s (800) number, identifying your rental agreement number, and advising a new date, time, and possibly location for when you’ll return the vehicle.

I’ve sometimes wondered, while driving with a rental agreement that of course still shows the original return date, what would happen if I was stopped by the police with an expired rental contract.  That’s a question that has now been answered, by a distressing number of people.  John Ayoub in particular repeatedly extended the rental of a pickup truck he rented from Hertz, but somehow Hertz messed up its paperwork, reported him to the police as having stolen the vehicle, and so the police arrested Ayoub.

Ayoub not only had records of his phone calls to Hertz, he had recordings of the conversations and a record of timely payments made for the rental extensions.  Little good it did him.  Hertz remained obstinate in its allegation of theft, and so Ayoub spent four months in jail before prosecutors agreed to drop charges.

Ayoub is now one of 20 former Hertz customers suing the (currently in bankruptcy) company for filing false police reports.  But whatever the outcome of his lawsuit, he will still be a loser.

He lost his business, his house, his tools, and of course, spent four months in jail while waiting to defend himself against a crime he was 100% innocent of.  How would you like to experience that?

It is of course a beyond-appalling indictment on our criminal justice system and the right to a speedy trial guaranteed us by the Constitution, but most of all, and noting how it was not just Ayoub, but at least 19 others, who have suffered this outcome, it is an indictment on Hertz.  Ayoub’s lawyer claims that hundreds of other Hertz customers have also been wrongly accused of theft.

Here’s an utterly terrifying detailed account of the sufferings experienced by a number of Hertz customers, over a period of years, after being wrongly reported for “stealing” their rental cars.

An Unfair Analysis of Electric Cars?

Talking about cars and unfairness, here’s an interesting article claiming that electric vehicles are neither as clean nor as green as their supporters claim them to be.  It was certainly interesting to see how difficult it would be to scale up EV production due to limitations in the supply of many different materials – indeed even common copper would become in short supply, even if only the UK were to switch to electric vehicles.  If the US did the same it would seem to create impossible raw material shortages.

In particular, I was surprised by the analysis that an EV that is driven 50,000 miles in its lifetime will be responsible for more CO2 emission than a similar sized gasoline-powered car.  What struck me is the assumption that the EV would be scrapped after only 50,000 miles.  Teslas (which make up most of the universe of electric cars, of course) are warranted for a minimum of 50,000 miles and their batteries for 150,000 miles.  Last year Musk said a Model 3 is designed to last one million miles and its battery to last between 300k – 500k miles.  Consumer Reports estimated, in 2019, that the average EV battery lasts about 200,000 miles.

A 50,000 mile life would correspond to four years of typical (12,000 miles/year) driving.  The average car on US roads today is 11.8 years, which suggests an average mileage of about 140,000 miles.  And remember this is the average not maximum age – half the cars on the roads are older.

So the article’s 50,000 mile total life estimate seems wrong by a factor of at least three and possibly much more.

The article has some other puzzling statements too, such as comparing the CO2 released if an electric car was powered completely by electricity from coal fired power stations to the CO2 released by gasoline powered cars.  That’s not a fair comparison.  Coal provides only 23.5% of all electricity in the US, a percentage diminishing over time.  So why make a point by comparing something that is not representative of actual reality?

I’ll be the first to agree that electric vehicles are not at all “zero emission” – neither in terms of a “whole of life” calculation nor a variable calculation of extra emissions required per extra mile of driving.  But I don’t think an electric car, when fairly compared with an internal combustion powered car, is worse.

I do that the writer has been closely associated with the oil, gas, and coal industry for many years.

A Shout-Out to Nauru

I found myself corresponding with Nauru Airlines this week.  They advised that their tiny country has now instituted a departure tax for people flying out of Nauru, and I updated the page on air taxes/fees accordingly.  There are now 252 different taxes and fees listed on that page (and many more not yet added – let me know if you find any missing mystery tax and fee codes on your tickets).

I’ll wager a tidy sum that you’ve probably never been to Nauru.  It is about 2500 miles north-east of Brisbane, and is estimated to have about 160 tourists a year, so is one of the world’s least visited countries.  It is the second smallest UN-recognized country (after Monaco) and second smallest in terms of population (after Tuvalu), per this BBC article.

But perhaps you should go.  It is also one of the very few remaining places with no reported cases of Covid-19.  It is a fascinating country, though – it was formed over the centuries/millennia almost entirely from bird droppings (politely referred to as phosphate deposits).  This was mined in the 20th century to the point that the entire island was at risk of disappearing, although the other side of that coin is for a while in the 1980s the Nauruans were one of the top two or three wealthiest nations in the world, per head of population.  Mining has now greatly diminished, but almost 80% of the country’s surface area is now uninhabitable as a result of the mining.  But the narrow coastal belt is very beautiful and lush.  There’s also great fishing off the island, and some fascinating WW2 remains on the island.

Unfortunately, at present Nauru Airlines is only operating one roundtrip flight every two weeks between Nauru and Brisbane.  I’m not sure you’d want to spend two weeks there – maybe wait until their schedules return back to normal so you can enjoy a shorter stay on this really unusual island.

Sounds ideal for a Travel Insider tour, perhaps?  Ah, for the good old days when Travel Insider tours were possible…..

And Lastly This Week….

Not only travel to Nauru.  There’s so much we all want to see and do when life returns to normal, and travel becomes friendly and safe once more.  Something that seems fascinating to me is visiting one or more of Britain’s semi-secret Cold War survival bunkers.  This is an interesting article about them.

We were delighted to see the successful return back to earth of the two astronauts who flew the SpaceX rocket to and back from the International Space Station.  But we found this description of their return trip to be somewhat amazing, particularly when one considers it was almost certainly sanitized and reworded in the most positive ways possible.  “Like getting hit in the back of the chair with a baseball bat”, “it sounds like an animal” and “being inside the belly of a beast as it careened into the atmosphere”.

Until next week, please stay healthy and safe





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