Weekly Roundup, Friday 4 September 2020

A supersonic Air Force One? The Pentagon is investigating (and investing). See article below.


Good morning

My goodness me.  The traditional end of summer is already upon us.  Where did you travel, this summer?  Yes, I know.  Don’t ask.  To the supermarket, and not anywhere much else!  Got any plans for the fall?  Yes, I know.  Don’t ask, again.  Let’s all hope for good things in the new year, and that the increasingly strident promises to get a vaccine to us by the end of the year might come true.

Talking about which, there is yesterday’s Covid-19 diary entry also attached to this newsletter, and if you missed it, Sunday’s diary entry is online here.

I’m way behind on several fronts – getting my Covid book finished before the virus goes away (hmmm, should I really rush on that or not???) is taking a lot of focus, and I’ve also been reviewing some exciting new gear that extended a bit more when I added a second comparable item, much cheaper, to the first item, to give you not just a single review but a comparative review too – that will be out next week (your donation dollars at work to fund the second item purchase, thank you).  Due to time constraints and a desire/need to finish this before 3am, I’m pausing this year’s fundraising appeal until next week, although there’s surely nothing stopping you from going here to join in.  🙂

What else for today and the long weekend stretching ahead?  Please see :

  • Air Passenger Numbers Can’t Decide What to Do
  • Airlines “Permanently” Remove Some Change Fees
  • Delta’s Funny Math
  • Some Problems With a Few 787s
  • Would You Start an Airline Now?
  • A Supersonic Air Force One?
  • A 28,000 Year Battery Life?
  • Walmart’s Sub-Prime Offering
  • What To Do if You Find a Phone in an Airplane Toilet
  • And Lastly This Week….

Air Passenger Numbers Can’t Decide What to Do

As you can see, the last week has had some blips in the daily numbers (smoothed out over a rolling seven day period), possibly due to how the TSA matches each day with “the same day” last year.  Anomalous one-off events like Labor Day Weekend might throw their comparisons off a bit.

What is clear though is the recovery, such as there has been, seems to have – if not stalled – certainly slowed down.

Airlines “Permanently” Remove Some Change Fees

United stunned us all, early this week, by announcing it was permanently removing its $200 change fee from most fare types (but not its Basic Economy fare).  Most airlines have been waiving change fees to try and encourage people to tentatively book flights at present, but switching from a temporary waiver during these unique times to a permanent removal is a big thing.

Most other airlines quickly followed suit.

The stunning part of United’s announcement to me was not the elimination of change fees, but the use of the word “permanent”.  Nothing in this life is permanent, and for UA to commit itself to never re-introducing change fees seems like an incredibly unlikely promise to make and keep.

I thought about it for a while, and then, cynic that I am, realized there is a way that United (and the other airlines) can both honor its promise and also reintroduce change fees.  The key is how it still has change fees on its cheapest fares.  All it needs to do is add additional fare types, cheaper than the “no change fee” fare types, but with change fees.  United’s promise stays intact – the fare types which were promised to permanently be without change fees stay without change fees, and new lower fares (who can complain about new lower fares) are now being added, although the trade-off would be a modest, say, $50 change fee.

Then slowly increase the no-change fee fares, and also slowly increase the change fee on the new fares.  Add more types of new fares with change fees too.  Reduce the availability of the no-change fee fare types.

Then, one day, announce a “fare simplification” strategy and blame customers for what is now an elimination of no-change fee type fares.  Say “Our customers have told us they prefer lower fares with change fees, and because no-one has been buying our no-change fee fares, we’re simplifying the booking process and removing their confusing presence from our fare displays”.

What do you think?  Amiright?  Don’t the airlines always start off with “our customers have told us….” when announcing new and oppressive fees and rules/restrictions?

Delta’s Funny Math

Delta has said it will continue to block out and not sell middle seats on its planes through until 6 January.  It even is limiting capacity further, to 60% of capacity, through the end of September.  Bravo.

Then it will continue blocking middle seats but allow up to 75% of all coach class seats to be sold on each flight.

But – wait.  On standard narrow body planes, you’ve three seats on either side of the aisle.  Take out the middle seat, and the six seats reduces to four – a 33% reduction.  That means, if you sell all four remaining seats in every row, you are limited to a maximum capacity of 67%.

How is it possible to sell 75% of the seats when you’re also simultaneously promising to block out 33% of the seats and not sell them?

Some Problems With a Few 787s

Talking about airlines and planes, Boeing issued an emergency grounding notice for eight of its 787s this week.  It seems they weren’t put together properly and there’s a possibility that some bits might fall off if encountering extreme stress/turbulence.

These are important bits like the rear part of the fuselage.


Would You Start an Airline Now?

Most people would think now to be about the very worst time to start a new airline.  On the other hand, there’s a possibly contrarian element of logic (a bit like the adage to buy at the bottom, sell at the top) that might encourage such an action.

There are two reasons in particular for this – airplanes have never been cheaper than they are at present, although prices for used planes – both purchase and lease – have leveled out over the last month or so after plunging for much of the previous six months.  And there’s an abundance of airline staff all looking for work at present.

Another reason would be low jet fuel prices, making operating costs nice and low.

But if you were going to start an airline now, operating domestically, would you do so with a fleet of nice easily filled small planes like 737s?  Or would you “go big or go home” and buy up the growing fleet of “retired” 747s that are being moved to their desert graveyards at present?

A brave man, notable for his keen and as yet unfulfilled desire to start his own airline for over 28 years, is hoping to acquire a fleet of used 747s to fly on routes such as Los Angeles – Albuquerque and W Palm Beach – Dallas.  Most conventional wisdom suggests that 747s are better on longer routes, because their lengthy turnaround time, while not too substantial a percentage of total time when they’re operating 10-15 hour flights, becomes ridiculously long for two or three hour flights, and a large part of their operating costs come in the form of each “operating cycle” – ie, take-off and landing.  You don’t mind incurring those costs when you’re selling expensive tickets on a 10 hour flight inbetween the take-off and landing, but it is much harder to absorb those costs on a short flight with low-priced tickets.

Making it even harder to get fast turnarounds is the man’s plan to cram 581 seats, all coach class, into his 747-400 planes.  We can’t start to guess at how long it would take to load and unload that many people.

The airline says it will start with a fleet of four planes, grow to 12 by the end of the first year, more subsequently, and within 3 – 5 years, when it does an IPO, order 30 new 747-8 planes from Boeing.  I guess the new airline-to-be didn’t get the memo, a month or two back, that Boeing has now withdrawn the 747-8 from sale.

They promise fares as low as $19, and no fares over $99 when purchased 30 days or more in advance.

Don’t get us wrong.  We’d love to see this new airline – Avatar Airlines – actually start and succeed.  But we’re far from convinced it will happen.

A Supersonic Air Force One?

As you doubtless know, the Air Force is in the process of acquiring two new 747-8 planes to become replacement “Air Force One” planes (officially to be known as VC-25B planes), and allowing the already almost 30 year old 747-200 planes to retire.  This cost is stated to be about $5.3 billion, although the exact cost is a secret. – Probably about $700 million, maybe less, of the total is for buying the two planes, and the other $4.5+ billion is being spent on, ummmm, stuff.

What sort of stuff?  Well, we do know the owner’s manual is not included with the plane.  Boeing is charging extra for that.  To be fair, it is lengthy – perhaps 100,000 pages in length.  So how much extra for the manual?  $84 million.  $840 a page.  It used to be that $840 of Air Force procurement funding would get you a toilet seat or a coffee cup (not a pot, those are about $7500 according to one report), but now it doesn’t get you more than a single page of manual.

We also know that unlike the present two planes, the new planes won’t be capable of air to air refueling.  They’ll travel a mere 6,800 miles.  This is a very short range, the plane couldn’t even do LAX-SYD (7,500 miles) and between Los Angeles and some parts of western Europe will be a squeeze with winds in the wrong direction.  But flitting between DC and Florida should be easy (although with a probable entry into service some time in 2024, there is currently uncertainty whether the President in 2024 will travel as often to FL as the President today currently does).

The range is more limiting than it might seem, because there are surely some countries the President wouldn’t want to overfly, meaning the plane often might need to take more roundabout routes.  It also means that in a nightmarish emergency, the plane will only be able to stay in the air for, I guess, maybe 18 hours before needing to land.

No wonder everyone wants to keep the total project cost a secret.

While the cost of the planes themselves is the smallest part of the overall deal, some people did wonder why it was necessary to get enormous 747-8 planes.  Wouldn’t a 777 or even a 787 suffice?

There are three parts to the answer to that question.  The first part is the Secret Service demanded a plane with four engines rather than two.  Sure, twin-engined planes are deemed safe for everyone else to fly on, but the risk of engine failure was deemed unacceptably high for the President.  To be fair, a part of that risk assessment probably is the scenario of having the plane attacked and losing one or more engines in the process.

The second part is that it is never just the President alone who goes anywhere.  Sure, we don’t see a hundred other people eagerly follow him down the air stairs when he arrives somewhere (there are other and more subtle doors for the rest of the passengers), but the number of people who travel with the President is much larger than one would guess – and that’s before the traveling Press contingent is squeezed in as well.  (Actually, both the current and new much larger planes each have the same stated passenger capacity – 71 people.  Staff and crew are extra, so the total people on board is definitely over 100.)

The third part is to concede the obvious and point to the prestige element of being in the (almost) largest Head-of-State plane in the world (I think there are still one or two A380s in use for that purpose too).

So, okay then.  The President “needs” a supersized plane.

But if this is true, how to understand an article that appeared this week suggesting there’s a possibility that a proposed new supersonic passenger plane, capable of carrying only 50-70 passengers (so, even smaller than Concorde’s 100 passengers) and definitely not in a spacious layout, might become an additional Air Force One plane at some vague time in the future?

Here’s an article, a year ago, with more information about the possible plane being considered.  As I regularly observe on this topic, I’ll believe it when I see it.

A 28,000 Year Battery Life?

There’s another thing in the “I’ll believe it when I see it” category.  Fanciful new battery technology.  I’m not sure which is promised the most often – a new SST or a new battery with many times the capacity, recharge life, and lower cost of present batteries.  I’m not holding my breath for either eventuality.

But one thing that took my breath away was this article referring to a self-recharging battery with a 28,000 year life.  It is powered by a tiny amount of radioactive Carbon-14 material, which has a half-life of 5,730 years.  So, in 28,000 years, it will be providing 1/32nd of the amount of power it would on Day One.  Perhaps they’ll need to be replaced a bit prior to then, but good luck asking for a refund if they only last 20,000 years.

There’s a temptation to wonder if the 28,000 year figure also relates to how long we’ll truly have to wait until these amazing new batteries finally become available at your local Walmart.

Walmart’s Sub-Prime Offering

Talking about Walmart, they’ve now announced details of their equivalent to Amazon’s Prime membership program, what they’re terming Walmart Plus, and becoming available on 15 September.

The big differences are you don’t get nearly as many extra goodies with the Walmart product.  No video streaming in particular is a big gap in their product offering.  Plus Walmart only has about 1/20th as many products available for same day delivery – 160,000 compared to Amazon’s staggering 3 million.

On the other hand, Walmart offers a small discount on fuel (5c a gallon) if there is a Walmart/Sam’s Fuel station (or a Murphy USA/Express station) nearby.  I think I’ll stick to Costco for my fuel – its low price and the extra 4% discount with a Costco credit card makes their gas prices unbeatable.

Not so easily compared are actual prices on things you might buy.  But for now, I think the deal points for me are Amazon’s video streaming and greater range of products.  I’d love to support an alternate to Amazon’s growing market dominance, but when push comes to shove, Amazon is just simply and substantially better at present.

One more advantage to Amazon may soon be materializing.  Amazon has achieved another step to getting blanket approval to operate drone delivery services.  That I’d love to see – I wonder what it will do if my dog encounters it…..

What To Do if You Find a Phone in an Airplane Toilet

Something that happens quite a lot is discovering a phone in an airplane toilet.  People put the phone down prior to using the facilities, and then forget to reclaim it when exiting the toilet.  No big deal.  If you see one in the toilet, simply hand it to a flight attendant.

Well, not so fast.  Are you sure it is just a simple ordinary cell phone?  Could it actually be a bomb in disguise?  This uncertainty apparently plagued the flight crew on a Ryanair flight from Vienna to Stansted, and so they reported it as a suspicious device.

This caused the RAF to scramble a couple of fighter jets, ready to protect the plane, presumably by blowing it out of the sky in case it really was a bomb (better to be shot down by one’s own planes than by a terrorist bomb, I guess), and counter-terror police met the plane when it landed and detained two suspicious passengers after the plane safely landed.

Happily, after experts examined the phone, it turned out that it was indeed just that.  A phone.  And the suspicious passengers?  Just ordinary people.  We hope they got their phone back and an apology.

And Lastly This Week….

I’ve a question to ask of the Wall St Journal.  You might have wondered this as well.  I sometimes get this message popup on one of their web pages.  But, here’s the question.  If the WSJ knows I’m already a WSJ member, why do I have to log in?  They already know I’m a member.

I also increasingly regularly confront another of modern day life’s pinpricks of annoyance.  I’ve a gmail address (drowell) that I’d thought was a good choice when I first got it, shortly after their service started.  And for sure, there can’t be lots of other D Rowell people out there, can there?

Well, alas, it seems there are lots of D Rowells, and many of them don’t know their email address, and keep using mine instead of whatever theirs actually is.  So I get email for all manner of other people (none of whom are relations).  I know their power bills, medical records, phone service details, cars they own, food they order, job applications, and political preferences.

But what I don’t know is how to stop the growing deluge of email.  Standard mail good practice is that every email should have a one-click unsubscribe link on it.  Mind you, standard email practice is also that you must confirm your email address before a company starts sending you material, and that has never been done with these various unwanted email streams.

Some of the emails I get have no unsubscribe link at all.  Others require me to log into “my” account, but I don’t know the log in details, just the email address because it isn’t my account.  Others vaguely tell me to contact customer service, with no details as to how to do that, and, of course, the email if I reply to it always bounces back as being sent from an email address that doesn’t accept return emails.

Oh well.  Definitely a “first world problem”.

I guess there’s some logic in this concept :  At a time when you can’t travel, why not look at a web page full of places you can’t see – in the sense of, tourist attractions that were planned but never built.

Here’s an article which talks about places you can visit – the most popular attractions in Britain, as voted on by British people.  The list is a bit different to how visitors from the US might vote, and in particular, the most popular of all attractions is the former Royal Yacht Britannia, now permanently moored as an exhibition/tourist attraction in Leith Harbor, Edinburgh.

It is a nice enough ship, although surprisingly small and really very modest inside.  But the ship meant a great deal to the Queen and Royal Family, and by extension, to many Britons too.  If you’re in Edinburgh, you might find it interesting, but if you miss it, I’d not lose sleep over it.

Fountains Abbey came second.  I like Fountains Abbey, but slightly prefer the nearby Rievaulx Abbey.  There is less to see/do at Rievaulx, so I understand the greater popularity of Fountains, even though I find Rievaulx to have the more beautiful setting and ambience.  The best thing to do is to see both on a day tour perhaps using York as your overnight base.

Until next week, please have a great long weekend, and of course, stay healthy and safe





1 thought on “Weekly Roundup, Friday 4 September 2020”

  1. I can definitely relate to your situation with the “first world problem”: My combination of the first and last names is very popular in the 1965-1975 year of birth bracket 🙂 I seem to be receiving bank and car hire statements for two guys from other cities in Ukraine, who are too lazy to memorize their own e-mail addresses.

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