Weekly Roundup, Friday 16 October 2020

Airbus is suggesting possibly this futuristic design for a hydrogen powered plane. See article, below.

Good morning

I hope you found some deals that appealed in the Amazon Prime Day sale.  Looking at stats for sales from my Tuesday morning article, it seems the three most popular items were

  • Fire HD10 tablet
  • Echo Dot
  • Bose QC35 Noise Cancelling Headphones

Three excellent choices, and at truly great prices.  Fortunately, for anyone who missed out, it is little more than a month to Black Friday, and maybe we’ll see a similar set of bargains then.

Noting that a lot of people chose to get Echo units – the Echo Show units were also popular (I think I’m slowly coming to appreciate the Echo Show’s screen coupling more than I originally did), and because I’d recently uncovered a new very helpful use for my Echo units, I updated my “cheat sheet” document with what I find the most useful and helpful Echo commands and function/features.  Last time I updated it, in 2019, it was 14 pages, now it is 20 pages.  The article surrounding that attachment is added at the end of this morning’s newsletter.

Note that the entire 20 page document is a “thank you” reciprocation from me to the kind supporters of The Travel Insider (you need to be logged in to the website to access the document, it doesn’t appear in the email), but because everyone is appreciated, I also provide a shorter nine page document for everyone else.

Also attached is yesterday’s Covid-19 diary entry.  Sunday’s is online, here.

Plus, immediately below :

  • Passenger Numbers Continue Their Climb….
  • ….As do Airline Losses
  • Bad News for Boeing (but Worse for Airbus)
  • More About Hydrogen Powered Planes
  • The Devil Makes Work for Idle Hands – and Airlines?
  • A Great Use for Airport-Adjacent Land
  • An Interesting Idea, But Not at Present
  • Apple’s New Phones and 5G in General
  • And Lastly This Week….

Passenger Numbers Continue Their Climb….

The straight-line steady-growth of improving air passenger numbers continues.  I predict that any day now we’ll see our first “more than one million passengers” day since 16 March, which was the last time that happened.  We reached 984,000 last Sunday – Sundays are the busiest day of the week at present.  Another 2% of growth is all that is needed to get from there to one million.

It is important to appreciate that these numbers are biased strongly in favor of domestic travel.  International travel has been affected much more substantially than domestic travel.  After all, you can head to the airport right now and fly to most places in the US, but not to many places outside the US due to closures and quarantines and who only knows what other restrictions and requirements.

I was reminded of that when reading, earlier this week, that for the first week of September, BA (a largely international carrier) flew 18.5% of the number of passengers that it flew last year for the same week.  That compared with US passenger numbers in the first week of September, which were almost exactly twice that level (boosted by our Labor Day weekend, but Britain had a matching “bank holiday weekend”).  Imagine how our airlines would be if they had only recovered to half the level they have.

Which leads to….

….As do Airline Losses

United lost $1.8 billion and Delta lost $5.4 billion, in round numbers, for the last quarter.  It is hard to guess what their numbers would have been if passenger numbers were half what they were.

Delta has now lost more than $11 billion for the second and third quarters combined.

American and Southwest are reporting their third quarter numbers next week.

Bad News for Boeing (but Worse for Airbus)

Boeing reported a net of 3 cancelled orders in September, and for its entire third quarter, it managed to amass a total of 8 orders.  Well, to make that statement clearer, its total was orders for 8 planes, over a three month period.

Not a very wonderful result, although better than some of its other recent quarters with negative numbers of orders.  It is also adjusting the orders already on its books, recognizing that even though some haven’t been formally cancelled by the airlines, it is almost certain that the orders will be cancelled and the planes never delivered.  This has caused it to take out 983 of the orders it currently has outstanding, almost one fifth of the total.

But Boeing’s 8 orders in the third quarter, while unimpressive to say the least, looks good alongside Airbus, which is reporting 5 net new orders.  Details here and here.

More About Hydrogen Powered Planes

Hydrogen powered planes by 2035?  Is that possible?  Is it practical, prudent, profitable?  This is an interesting article that is cautiously positive.

Hydrogen has a bad reputation as an aviation fuel.  It is impossible to mention it without the image of the Hindenburg looming large in one’s mind (and we should keep in mind that the Hindenburg only saw 15 of the 97 passengers and crew lose their lives).

The bad image of hydrogen is very unfortunate.  Imagine, if after the first airplane crash, everyone stopped development of airplanes because they were inherently unavoidably dangerous – prone to fall out of the sky if their engines failed or wings fell off.  While airplanes are inherently dangerous, they have been made outstandingly safe through decades of obsession over safety in every part of airplane design.

Hydrogen is a brilliant fuel and also a brilliant lifting gas – it is much lighter than helium, much cheaper, and abundantly available rather than in desperately short supply.  If the Hindenburg had not been so closely associated with the rising power of Nazi Germany, it is possible that the west, rather than seizing on that one-off accident (after hundreds/thousands of earlier safe zeppelin flights) as a reason to condemn airships entirely, would have simply shrugged and improved the anti-static properties of the next airship design, and these days it would be as safe to use as any other fuel and technology.

In the context of airplane rather than airship design, hydrogen has both a benefit and a drawback.  The benefit – you can get three times as much energy out of every pound of hydrogen as you can out of a pound of jet fuel.  A 787 has an empty weight of about 265,000 lbs.  A full load of fuel weighs 224,000 lbs – almost as much as the empty plane.  Replacing the jet fuel with hydrogen could, in theory, either reduce the fuel weight by 150,000 lbs or triple the range of the plane – the latter being unnecessary because then it would be flying more than halfway around the world on a single load of fuel.

An extra 150,000 lbs of payload, or a saving of 150,000 lbs of fuel weight in and of itself, could massively improve the economics of the plane.

But there’s a downside.  The hydrogen requires three times the storage space of jet fuel per pound of fuel.  However, those two factors cancel each other out – the same number of cubic feet of fuel can fly an airline the same distance, whether it is hydrogen or jet fuel, and if it is hydrogen, it weighs only one third the amount.

So you still end up coming out ahead with hydrogen.  The major action items are to allow regular jet engines to burn hydrogen instead of jet fuel, and to come up with an appropriate and safe way to store the hydrogen on a plane.

We’re keen on hydrogen – maybe as a fuel cell power source, maybe as a regular jet engine power source.

The Devil Makes Work for Idle Hands – and Airlines?

There’s an enormous temptation in many airlines to diversify into other related fields.  Remember when United bought Westin, Hilton International, and Hertz and called itself Allegis in the 1980s.  On the face of it, this was an understandable move – many people who fly to a destination then want a rental car and a hotel as well.  Why not provide a “one stop shop” and create “economies of scale” and leverage expanded “brand loyalty”, or so I guess the reasoning was.

The problem is these buzz-phrases are seldom as universally sensible as they appear to be.  Even so, I was surprised at the lack of success of Allegis, and the unsightly speed with which it was dismantled again.  Of course, one could also argue that airlines struggle to manage themselves, and it would be ill-advised to trust them with managing other businesses too!

At least there was a clear common thread running through the Allegis structure.  But what about the evolving plans being boasted about by Air Asia’s CEO to become a “digital lifestyle company”.  Ugh.  I understand rental cars, hotels, and planes.  But what is a “digital lifestyle” other than a vague term used to imply something hip and modern and desirable, but actually signaling that the promoters of the concept lack any clear vision or specifics.

We can certainly understand how airlines at present are desperate for revenue, any revenue, and probably are also keen to spread their risk out of travel and into other possibly less-virus-affected areas.  And we can understand how airlines amass a great deal of data about their customers, and there maybe sensible ways to use that data and those customers to generate revenue in other fields.

But it isn’t leveraging the strength of its airline brand and core competency at all.  It is starting an entirely new business.

Will it succeed?  Maybe, but if it does, it will be in spite of, rather than because of, its airline origins.

A Great Use for Airport-Adjacent Land

Is land close to an airport valuable or valueless?  It really depends.  There’s always an infrastructure of service companies that are keen to be on-airport or close by, but other than those directly related types of businesses, most other commercial and residential uses wish to be well away from the noisy flight paths in and out of any airport.

It was therefore interesting to see this concept – filling 45 acres of unwanted land around an airport with solar cells.  If the article is to be believed, the power generated from the cells is enough to power the entire airport.

I also note the power per solar cell is on the low side of what is common these days – now you could probably get as much power from 35 instead of 45 acres of land.

Solar cells are great.  They have a many-decade life, are low maintenance, and easy to set up and use.

An Interesting Idea, But Not at Present

There’s nothing new about the idea of living, permanently, on a cruise ship.  There’s a half-funny joke about how life on a cruise ship is less expensive than life in an old folk’s home, and much more pleasant.  There are a number of people who do live close to or completely year-round on cruise ships.

Then there is, at the high end, the “The World”, a luxury ship that has 165 private apartments on it.  The apartments sell for between $3 – 15 million, and there are monthly costs on top of that as well.  It had to offload its residents in March due to the virus, and it is unclear when it will allow its people to return.

We wonder if they couldn’t have handled that differently – while a cruise ship, at one extreme, is a very dense and uncontrolled environment ideal for the virus to spread within, at “The World” end of the scale, it is a totally controlled environment, with sparse population, and the ability to almost completely secure itself from outside infection.

But our point is to look at another type of live-aboard cruise ship, a 30 year old ship that was formerly Regal Princess then Pacific Dawn, and now has been renamed as Satoshi (the name of the founder of Bitcoin).

It is designed for younger people, high-tech workers, social media influencers, etc.  And instead of $3-15 million per apartment, the 777 cabins on the ship will be auctioned off for prices anticipated to be in the range of $25,000 – $50,000.  But, as with The World, it might well be the monthly costs that make or break the affordability of this.  Details here.

And whereas The World promised its residents an endless life of ocean cruising and exotic port calls, Satoshi anticipates mooring, for most of the time, 30 minutes out from Panama City.

The point which fascinates me is internet connectivity.  If you have 500 – 1500 high tech people on board, all needing and expecting fast internet, how much bandwidth will that require?  A worst case scenario would be maybe 500 or more people all wanting to stream a Netflix video at the same time, which requires at least 5Mb/sec for HD or 25Mb for UHD/4K.  So, conceivably, the ship would need 2.5Gb/sec as a minimum, and possibly more than 15 Gb/sec.  (Who else remembers when a T-1 line – 1.5 Mb/sec – seemed to be unimaginably fast!)

Maybe the plan is to have multiple microwave links between the ship and the mainland?  That would be preferable to satellite links – even new services like those being developed by Elon Musk and Amazon have added latency and of course, bandwidth limits.

It is certainly a sign of the times as to how everything these days is now being defined and constrained by internet access, and not just any internet access, but ultra-high speed.

We’re not dismissing this at all.  It is an interesting idea, and a great way of repurposing unwanted cruise ships.  $25,000 wouldn’t even buy you a fraction of a garage in Silicon Valley – the entry fee is extremely appealing.  But the monthly costs?  And the levies as and when the ship needs capital repairs?

Apple’s New Phones and 5G in General

Talking about internet access and bandwidth, Apple had its somewhat delayed launch of new phones this week.  The iPhone 12 represents Apple’s finally getting its growing profusion of different phone models into some semblance of cohesive order that can be readily understood, and all released at the same time together as one family.

To my somewhat jaded/jaundiced eye, most of it was “more of the same” with the one notable new feature being they now support some of the new 5G frequencies.

5G is currently an evolving minefield of complexity and disappointments.  It is a solution to a problem few of us suffer – “too slow internet” on our phones, and, in cases where our internet is truly too slow, that could easily be solved by better building out and supporting the current 4G network capabilities.  Instead, we have this new 5G concept which promises crazy-fast speeds but actually in reality delivers speeds sometimes no faster than 4G, along with patchy coverage, and a terrible tangle of different frequencies in use by the different wireless companies.  I don’t know anyone who has been impressed with their 5G experience so far.

The frequency allocations and usages are still evolving.  There’s every chance that any 5G phone you buy today will start becoming obsolete (due to new frequencies being used by the wireless companies and not supported by the phone) in only a few short months.

If you’re curious about 5G, and if you know for sure that either your current wireless carrier or a suitable alternate you’d be willing to switch to has 5G coverage in your area, then I’d recommend getting a lower cost 5G phone for now, because for sure, within a year or two you’ll be wanting to upgrade as the 5G standard stabilizes.

After looking at the various options, my recommended 5G phone is the Samsung A71 5G.  Currently it is $500 on Amazon, I got one for $430 during the Prime Days sale, and I expect it may be back down at that price or even lower come Black Friday.  I’ll be reviewing the phone in the next week or so.

Here’s an interesting article about the arguments and claims/counter-claims of 5G performance between the various wireless carriers at present.

And Lastly This Week….

There continues to be controversy over how safe or dangerous it is to be on an airplane at present, in terms of virus risk.  You can decide for yourself what the risk level is, but probably, however you measure it, you’ll agree that the risk is elevated compared to being at home, or in your own private car.

It is also tragically but abundantly clear that one of the most dangerous activities at present is to dine at an indoor restaurant.  Much as we all enjoy a good meal in a good restaurant, it is a risky thing and best avoided.

So, put them both together, and what do you get?  You get Singapore Airlines selling meals on an airplane that remains parked on the ground.  That gives you both risk vectors – airplane and indoor restaurant – and the uncertain pleasure of “enjoying” an airline meal at an inflated price.

But, what do I know.  Tickets for the several such events sold out in less than half an hour.  The price?  US$470 for a first class meal and seat, or as little as US$39 for coach class.  If you say it quickly, you can almost persuade yourself that $39 isn’t outrageous for a tray with the usual assortment of coach class food, but $470 for first class?  That’s an extraordinary cost, way above what you’d pay in a highest rated Michelin restaurant.

New Zealand, now happily virus-free once more, has extraordinarily strict restrictions on banning visitors from other countries, only allowing ex-pat Kiwis to return home, and then with a fiercely-enforced-by-the-Army 14 day total quarantine.

So we can imagine the alarm they must have felt when they identified a visitor who had flown nonstop all the way from Alaska and landed in the Auckland area after a 7,500 mile flight that took 11 days to complete.  As best we can tell, he (his name is 4BBRW) is not a New Zealander, he is not currently observing any quarantine restrictions at all and has been sighted traveling around the region with friends, and he wants to stay until March next year, when he’ll fly back home to Alaska, via Asia.  And possibly repeat the journey again next October.

The amazing details are here.

Until next week, please stay healthy and safe





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