Weekly Roundup, Friday 11 September 2020

Good morning

I hope this email finds you rested and a nice long weekend and somewhere well away from the smoke and fires on the west coast.  Even here in the safe Seattle area, we are suffering bad air quality – easterly winds have blown the smoke from the fires in E WA over the Cascade Mountain range and to us.  Early this week, the smoke was so bad that, in the middle of the day, the State Patrol chose to close our main I-90 freeway due to the lack of visibility.  Ugh.

Here’s an interesting article on the fires (and miniature nuclear reactors, although the link between the two is tenuous rather than obvious).

This is now the second week of my annual fundraising drive.  The first “week” (actually two) saw 78 very kind responses, with some extraordinary generosity being shared.  Thank you to all 78 supporters – four people participating for the first time, and 74 people who have been supporting The Travel Insider, in some cases as long as every year for 15 years.

I’m encouraged by the first 78 kind supporters who responded, and hope this week may see another 78 people similarly respond.  Or, to put it another way, 77 other people – plus you.

This year more than ever before, I rely on your support to be able to continue to keep the steady flow of newsletters and feature articles flowing to you.  My normal travel income sources have all but zeroed out due to the virus this year, but paradoxically I’ve been busier than ever before, adding virus coverage to try and keep us all fairly appraised of what is happening, what it means, and what the future might be and when.

Whether or not we get a vaccine by November, or early next year, or whenever, let’s hope 2021 will see life slowly return to normal for us all.  But, until then, for me, I’ve got to somehow manage to make it that far, and so am asking for you to “do your thing” to help.  My “PBS” approach to offering you quality content for free and hoping you’ll positively respond in turn with voluntary support at whatever level you feel fair and convenient has worked well for almost 20 years – can I ask you now to please help me to continue this for still one more year.

Becoming a Supporting Member is easy and quick, and you’re able to choose any level of support you feel appropriate.  You can make a single one-time support payment, or you can schedule quarterly, or yearly support (and yes, it is as easy as a single click to cancel your ongoing support at any time).

While most of the content on the site is totally open and free for all, I do occasionally add a little bit extra to supporters as a special “thank you” in turn.  So there are a few extra goodies in return for your kindness, and of course at present, the big new supporter feature is a pre-release PDF copy of my soon to be released book about the virus.

Can I ask you to perhaps equate your Friday newsletter experience with a cup of coffee – indeed, many weeks, it probably takes you two or more cups of coffee to get through all the material provided!  You can decide if the newsletter equates to a small cup of drip coffee with non-dairy whitener at the local 7-11, or a gourmet something-with-a-fancy-name at a Starbucks with frothed milk and all sorts of other things!  Whatever the sum, if you equate that to some sort of annual benefit, your support, at any level, will really help make the difference that is needed.

I should also mention the passing on Thursday of one of my school-boy crushes.  When I was an early teen, Emma Peel in The Avengers was jaw-droppingly everything any school-boy could ever fantasize.  The show itself was brilliant in a manner it took me several more decades to fully appreciate – finest British whimsy and eccentricity.  The scripts were guaranteed to be great when, as usually was the case, the inimitable Brian Clemens wrote them; Patrick MacNee was ultra suave as Mr Steed, and then there was Emma Peel.  She was a strong woman before it was fashionable and a thing to be a strong woman, sultry and sexy in the extreme, lithe and slightly elven,  and sharply incisive with a wit and bearing that would cut through armor plate.

This seems to have been a good description of the lady playing the role – Diana (subsequently Dame Diana) Rigg, who passed away on Thursday.  She was also the only Bond girl to ever marry James Bond in a movie (she denies the rumor that she hated George Lazenby, the single-movie Bond actor so much that she’d eat garlic before every passionate scene!), and has had many roles over the years until recently, and has a talented daughter (they starred together as mother and daughter on one occasion) Rachael Stirling.

If you’re unfamiliar with The Avengers – not the new movie franchise, but the 1960s British television series (totally unrelated to the movie series) you should give it a look.  You need to watch several shows to get into the style of the series.  I’m not recommending you go out and buy a set of DVDs, but if you come across it somewhere, do check it out.

If you’d like to see her daughter, she had a major supporting role in a tv series last year that is now available on Prime Video/BritBox – Wild Bill.  An interesting series that has an American move to the UK to head up a police constabulary – a bit of a “fish out of water” type series, and it wasn’t renewed after its first season last year – I guess because the Brits didn’t understand the American lead actor, and the Americans didn’t get the essential Britishness of the series.

I particularly liked the episode when a crazy killer was holding a policewoman hostage.  The American policeman commanded a police marksman to shoot the crazy killer, and the marksman refused.  “We don’t shoot people here, even if we have to” he said and put his gun down.  Subsequently, another police officer, for bad reasons, grabbed the weapon to shoot the crazy killer, but when he pulled the trigger, it just clicked.  To be safe, the marksman had deliberately not loaded the weapon before responding to the call!

Well, that’s moving a long way from Diana Rigg, and The Travel Insider.  Apologies, if necessary.

What else this week?  I’ve added another 28 pages to the pre-release copy of my virus book (and also redid the free sample section too).  As has become the new tradition, there’s a Sunday Covid-19 diary entry here and Thursday’s entry is attached to the newsletter below.

And some pieces, immediate following on :

  • Air Travel Trends Spike Upwards
  • Pilot to Co-Pilot – “Care for a cup of – ooops – coffee?”
  • Southwest is Not a Low Cost Airline
  • More Airline Cabin Design Nonsense
  • Is Virgin Galactic Fudging its Dates Again?
  • Flying Wing Technology Inches Forward
  • And Lastly This Week….

Air Travel Trends Spike Upwards

After some mixed messages the last several weeks, the seven day smoothed comparison of this year’s air passenger numbers compared to last year’s numbers (shown at the top) is sending a clear signal, with quite a leap in numbers compared to its ambivalent wanderings over the last month or two.

It will be interesting to see how numbers hold up now that we’ve gone the other side of the traditional end of the summer season.

Pilot to Co-Pilot – “Care for a cup of – ooops – coffee?”

I still remember the exasperation I felt when my younger sister spilled a cup of coffee onto the laptop I’d given her, many years ago.  “Andrea!” I said (from thousands of miles away, making it impossible to simply go around and try to salvage or replace the computer).  “Don’t you know to keep coffee away from the laptop’s keyboard???”

To be fair, she learned her lesson, and never let a cup of coffee get within spill range of the replacement laptop I subsequently sent her.

I now realize I shouldn’t have been so harsh on her.  You see, she’s not the only one to screw up electronics with a dose of coffee.  In particular, mention must be made of Airbus A350 pilots who were chagrined to observe that the cup holders in the A350 cockpit were too small for their preferred size coffee cups.  So they simply put their coffee cups – full – on the center console, never considering either that they might then reach over to the controls and bump it, or that some turbulence might knock it over.

When a cup of coffee soaks into the electronics, it seems to usually end up resulting in the engine control computer interpreting that as a command to shut off the engine, which it dutifully does.  There is apparently no way to then plead with the computer “Look, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean you to do that, would you please restart the engine again – we only have two and would like to have them both”.

So, how to resolve the problem?  Make the cup holders larger?  Ban large cups from the cockpit?  Give the pilots a training course in what to do with coffee cups and, more to the point, where not to put them?  Or build a shield over the console protecting it from cups and spillages?

Airbus chose the last of those options.  Better safe than sorry.  But it is somewhat regrettable that the extremely well paid A350 pilots can’t be taught to keep their coffee cups off the console, isn’t it.  Details here.

Southwest is Not a Low Cost Airline

Any marketer will tell you that it is extremely hard to change the public’s perceptions on any matter, whether they be right or wrong, current or outdated.  Sometimes this works to a company’s advance, and sometimes to their disadvantage.

Alaska Airlines struggled for many years with the perception that their fares were higher than competing airlines.  Why?  Because, in part, their within-Alaska fares can be high, and also because they are a very high quality airline, giving a notably better experience than other airlines.  So therefore, obviously, the perception went, they were more expensive.

The truth is they were no more expensive than any of their competitors, and sometimes less expensive.  Eventually the airline found a solution – cheapen their product, and that encouraged people to see it as more fairly priced.

Southwest has had a “free ride” for a long time on the perception that its fares are always the lowest.  Once upon a time, it was most definitely true, and of course, it was a very low-frills airline (still is in some respects) and so people expected its fares to be low to match the fewer “frills” it offered.

But in truth, its cents/mile revenue average has been right in the middle of what other airlines charge for many years, and it has even been more expensive than some of the majors in some years.  That’s a very rough measure that needs to be adjusted by various factors, but the reality is that much of the time, a fare on Southwest is the same or possibly even more than a fare on other airlines.

I’ve not flown Southwest in very many years, because I can always get a better fare or a better routing (and often both) on other carriers.

Here’s an interesting article on that point, arising from how other airlines have matched Southwest’s no-change-fee policy.  Now if the other airlines would also match Southwest’s no baggage fee policy too……

More Airline Cabin Design Nonsense

One of the recurring nonsense themes that keep reappearing are fanciful and foolish designs for new coach class cabin layouts.  They invariably promise more space and comfort for passengers, without actually reducing the number of seats crammed into the plane.  And they invariably fail, sometimes quite comically, at making good on their promises.

The Covid-19 situation has given impetus for the latest round of crazy ideas.  Screens between each seat in a row, for example, and headrest canopies (the mind boggles as to what those might be).

In theory, there might be some sense in these concepts, but has anyone thought how claustrophobic it would become?

I remember one time watching a guy in seat 1C on a Qantas 747, about to travel from Los Angeles to Sydney.  The front row of seats in the 747 (in first class) are the most desirable.  They are ultra private, because in front of you, there is just a bulkhead.  No toilets, no galley, no cockpit.  So no-one ever walks past you.  The bulkhead is of course a considerable distance in front.

But this man decided it felt too claustrophobic for him, and downgraded voluntarily to a business class seat for the 15 hour flight.

That might be an extreme reaction, but I don’t think any of us would particularly enjoy “headrest canopies”, or even much like fabric curtains between the seats.  It would also make it very difficult to communicate with the flight attendants as they go through offering food and drink (assuming any of that is still done at present, of course).

Some details of these concepts, here.

Is Virgin Galactic Fudging its Dates Again?

Virgin Galactic has a 15+ year record of, ahem, “inaccurately forecasting” when it will start taking passengers on its high-altitude joy rides.

I noticed this news item, talking triumphantly, as is always the case, of their plans to next do a test flight in late October, and to fly Richard Branson in the first quarter of next year.  That will, they say, mark the start of their commercial flights.

But what the article very carefully does not say is whether any actual fare-paying passengers will be on the flight with Branson.  It would hardly be a real commercial flight (as has earlier been promised) if the only person on the plane, other than the two pilots, was the company’s founder/major shareholder, would it.

Is the company now defining “first commercial flight” as “a flight with only Richard Branson on board”?  That doesn’t really pass the laugh test, does it.  But neither have some of their other pronouncements had a close correlation to reality, either.

I guess we’ll have to wait and see, until Q1 (or possibly, ahem, Q2….) next year.

Flying Wing Technology Inches Forward

Talking about puzzling progress news, here’s an item that is also somewhat puzzling.  It tells of a flying wing type prototype successfully carrying out a test flight.  A 1/20 scale model was constructed and flown by remote control on a short test flight in Germany.

That’s good news, for sure.  But was it really necessary?  Or is it, in truth, a bunch of hobbyists having fun with a strange new shape of plane?

The reason I ask is because if this seriously is part of a committed program to actually bring that type of plane to commercial reality, it seems like an unnecessary step that slows down rather than speeds up the development process, while providing very little value and information.

With computer modeling and wind-tunnel tests, surely everything that could be learned from this scale model could have been determined much more quickly and with less cost using those tools?

Details here.

Mind you, I’m in no great rush to see these designs start carrying passengers.  The largest concern with these types of plane designs is that because you are moving passengers out into the wings, a long way from the “pivot point” in the center of the plane, the turbulence would be massively increased, causing air sickness to be a big issue.

This is the same as in a ship – the place with the most motion is right up front.  Stay in the middle of the ship, and in the center rather than on the side, if you want to minimize your sensations of the ship moving.

And Lastly This Week….

I noticed this ad on a website earlier in the week.  The thing is, I couldn’t quite recognize where on the Mississippi that picture was taken…..  But it does look very familiar……  Do you recognize it?  (I’ll give the answer next week.)

A lady arriving into Australia learned how very strict their Customs and Agricultural inspectors are.  They seized and destroyed her US$19,000 French handbag.  It was made from alligator skin, and while you might reasonably assume that expensive French handbags are made from “Fair Trade” alligators or however they are described, the woman couldn’t prove it.

Ooops.  Details here.

I do feel for her.  It reminds me of the time, when coming back into the US five or six years ago, a US Customs officer wanted to seize my battered old Dell laptop, accusing me of having bought it overseas and illegally importing it.

Of course I didn’t have a receipt for the laptop’s original purchase, some years prior to the incident, with me, so all I could do was ask him why on earth I’d want to buy a used old Dell laptop in Britain (where I’d been), particularly because laptop prices are higher in Britain than in the US, and ask him to consider the possibility that maybe I left the country with it and brought it back again with me.

Apparently he had never come across someone that traveled with a laptop before, or so it seemed from the way he was behaving.  I repeat, this was not 30+ years ago.  This was five or six years ago.  He let me off with a warning, and advised me to be sure to always travel with proof of US purchase for any valuables I take with me.  I insincerely assured him I would.

May I close with a reminder/request.  If you decided, when reading my fundraising notice at the top, that you’d respond just as soon as you’d finished reading the newsletter first, would you please kindly now do so.  :)  Your help truly is needed this year.

Until next week, please stay healthy and safe





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