Weekly Roundup, Friday 23 October 2020

The world’s longest immersed tunnel is about to be built. Details below.

Good morning

Fall is already starting to give way to winter, with some parts of the country reporting substantial snow.  I expect to be traveling east out of state on Sunday, and am anxiously looking at the weather in the five mountain passes I’ll be driving through, and even more anxiously at the tread on my tires – plenty for dry roads in the summer, hopefully enough for snowy roads in the winter!

A couple of articles for you together with this morning’s roundup.  As has been normal for six months or more, there’s a copy of Thursday’s Covid diary attached, and the Sunday issue can be seen here.

I had planned to write a review of the new Samsung phone I eventually got to replace my failed Motorola G6, but the phone has been exhibiting “anomalous behavior” and I want to have that resolved before I write about the phone.

I can tell you though that Samsung’s support isn’t very impressive, and in particular, their approach to fixing a phone that failed in less than a week is to require me to mail it back to their office, at which point they’ll either fix it or replace it, and send it back to me.  Yes, that means I could be without a phone for 1 1/2 – 2 weeks, something they saw no problem with.  Other companies will sell and ship a replacement phone overnight, then credit you for that phone if they receive the original phone back within a week or two of the new phone being received, so as to minimize the down time for the customer.

Oh, to be fair, Samsung also suggested taking it to a “UBreakIFix” store – the stores do contract warranty work for Samsung.  But when I described the problem to the local store, they said it wasn’t something they could fix – they are more the type of people who fix broken screens, replace failed batteries, and do system resets and updates for crashed phones.

I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about phones over the last several weeks.  One of the issues I’ve had to confront is whether I should get a 5G phone or stick with a regular 4G phone.  We are told that 5G is unbelievably fast – hundreds of times faster than 4G.  Actually, stop at the word unbelievably, because that seems to be the key part of the statement.

So, instead of a phone review, please find, below, an article about whether you need a 5G phone yourself, and, if you get one, just exactly how fast it might prove to be, compared to your 4G phone.  Hint – the answer might surprise you.

What else this week?  Please keep reading for :

  • Reader Survey Request
  • Air Pax Numbers Break Through the Million Point
  • AA Sets a 737 MAX Flight Date
  • Wide Variations in Air Fare Drops
  • Boeing’s On-Again Off-Again On-Again Plans for a 757 Replacement
  • Is China’s Aerospace Industry Impacting on Boeing & Airbus
  • Denmark Moves Closer to Germany
  • And Lastly This Week….

Reader Survey Request

I’ve written several times about airlines offering “flights to nowhere” as a way of at least flying some people and bringing in some revenue.  This is not so much the case in the US, where airlines will fly you anywhere domestically and many places internationally, but more so in countries that have almost completely closed their borders.

Last week I discussed a 45 minute flight from Hong Kong Airport, around the area, and back to the airport again.  Qantas has come up with some much better flights – from Sydney, all the way up to the Great Barrier Reef, over the rainforest and all the way in to the Red Center of the country, then back to Sydney – a seven hour flight that is not just a flight but also a visual experience.

Both the short HK flight and the longer Australian experience sold out quickly.  That got me to wondering – are our US airlines missing an opportunity here?

So, the question to you is – if a local airline offered you a one hour flight to nowhere – just a take-off, a fly around the area, and back to the airport again, all in no more than an hour, would you be interested?  Let’s add that the airline will keep middle seats empty, and won’t serve any food or drinks on board, and will charge $250 for aisle seats and $300 for window seats in coach class.  No first class will be available.  You’ll still have to do the usual going-through-security stuff of course.  And there’ll be no special sightseeing or low-down flying involved.

What do you think?  Would you rush to buy a ticket or two on that flight?

Please click the link on the answer that best describes your thought.  If multiple answers apply, feel free to send in multiple replies.

I’ll collate your responses and share the answers next week.  As always, your thoughts are much appreciated, both by me and by your fellow Travel Insiders.

Air Pax Numbers Break Through the Million Point

I’d predicted, last week, that we’d probably see the first day with over 1,000,000 people flying (subsequent to the drop in passenger numbers in March) happen on Sunday, and sure enough, we ended up with 1.031 million people going through TSA security (and presumably then flying somewhere) on Sunday.

As you can see, the steady growth of air passenger numbers continues its remarkably steady advance, although, if I were an airline, I’d lament that the advance, while steady, is also slow.  Currently passenger numbers seem to be growing by about 1.2% (of last year’s number) every week.  If that rate continued without change, we’d be back to the same level of air travel as in 2019 around 1 November, 2021 – just over a year from now.

The airlines are simultaneously hoping for a faster recovery (hello, vaccine!) while also cautiously acknowledging that the harm done to business travel in particular may take longer to heal, assuming it ever does.

AA Sets a 737 MAX Flight Date

Remember, in the first year or so after the grounding of the 737 MAX, how the airlines would keep making announcements about the date they planned to restart flights again.  They proved to be worse at predicting that than President Trump has been at predicting the end of the virus, and after a series of extensions of their return-to-service date, I think they eventually gave up.

But now American Airlines has said it plans to start flying 737 MAXs on Tuesday 29 December.  That’s a strange choice of date, but they doubtless have their reasons.  While their timing is in line with my own guesses, I wouldn’t actually take it as a gospel certainty, at least, not just yet.  We’re still waiting for FAA approval, of course, and earlier this week I saw a mention that the FAA is still waiting on all paperwork in support of Boeing’s request for recertification to be submitted.

And also, to be clear, it is unlikely that AA’s entire 737 MAX fleet will all take to the air that day, and in general, all airlines will be slowing returning several planes a week back to service, rather than all at once.  It will also probably take Boeing a year to deliver all the 737 MAXes they made and then stored.

Wide Variations in Air Fare Drops

There’s a fascinating table in this article showing the average drop in one-way fares for different US carriers, compared to the rates of a year earlier.

We always view such statistics with extreme suspicion, because there are so many factors that may or may not be included in how the average one-way fares are calculated.  But, even after allowing for imprecisions, there’s an astonishing range of fare drops.   Hawaiian Airlines reported a 47% drop, American and Southwest were both around 25%, Delta at 14%, United at 10%, and JetBlue at only a 5% reduction.

We can understand how HA needed to drop their fares, although maybe dropping their fares was the wrong thing to do.  Their problem wasn’t one that money would solve – if Hawaii bans visitors, then no-one is going to fly there, even if the fare is free?

But why did AA drop its fares 26%, when UA only dropped 10%?  And similar questions for other similar seeming airlines with great changes in fare levels.  Perhaps it reflects how well each airline adjusted its capacities and routes to reflect reduced demand.

Boeing’s On-Again Off-Again On-Again Plans for a 757 Replacement

Boeing stopped selling the 757 in 2003, and the last plane – the 1050th produced over a 21 year period – rolled off the production line almost exactly 16 years ago, on a most auspicious date in 2004, my birthday (28 October).  The ending of the 757 program was not really a surprise because sales had been lackluster for some time prior to 2003.

Boeing replaced the 757 with the – umm, err, nothing.  Astonishingly, the ending of the 757 program wasn’t matched with the start of a new program.  Instead, Boeing has endlessly looked at various different new plane designs for a plane that is bigger than a 737 and smaller than a 787.  In 2006, it was looking at the low end of that market size with a project called the Boeing Yellowstone Project.  In 2011 Boeing was looking at what it called a “New Light Twin” – a twin aisle plane slightly smaller than the 767.

Boeing then said the largest 737 would be good enough, while overlooking that Airbus was outselling it 4:1 in that part of the market.  Boeing next said in 2015 they had looked at bringing back the 757 but with new engines, before deciding against it.

Boeing then started looking at what it called a “New Midsize Airplane”, also a twin aisle plane.  For a while this was also referred to as a Middle of the Market plane.  By 2018 the industry was expecting a decision to commit to developing the plane sometime that year, but it never happened.  In 2019, the expectation was for a decision to proceed that year, but the 737 MAX problems caused Boeing to lose focus on other plane projects.  Then a new Boeing CEO in January 2020 said he wanted to start over fresh, and then the Covid crisis occurred, with the NMA apparently on indefinite hold.

Boeing’s delays are doubly surprising.  First, it is losing lots of sales to Airbus who is offering their A321 as a 757 replacement.  The A321, outselling the largest 737 MAX planes by a 4:1 margin, is certainly “eating Boeing’s lunch” and should be motivating Boeing to come up with a plane of its own.

But the second reason is also relevant.  The A321 may indeed be very much better than the largest 737 MAX planes, but it seems quite likely that a fresh design of a new plane that is created from scratch to exactly be optimized for the gap between the largest 737/A320 series planes and the smallest 787/A330 planes would be much more successful than the far-end extreme of the A320 family.  Boeing could not only protect its market share but also come up with a plane to win back market share from Airbus.

There is about an eight year lead time for a new plane between when approval to build is given and when the first plane starts commercial service, so at present, in the unlikely event Boeing will mark the 16th anniversary of the last 757 produced with an announcement of a new plane, the soonest it would arrive would probably be 2029.

I’m not suggesting for an instant that Boeing will make such an announcement any time soon at all, but the “jungle drums” are starting to softly beat, suggesting that Boeing is at least starting to re-evaluate the project.  Maybe a formal announcement at a major airshow in the middle of 2021?

One of Boeing’s problems is that it is so slow that it has to keep returning back to the beginning.  As the aviation industry and technology evolves, the “sweet spot” of new plane design and configuration (passenger and freight capacities and range and engines) shift, and with each passing year, airlines buy some planes and retire others, so have different needs in the foreseeable future.  Just when Boeing gets close to identifying an appropriate plane design and a sufficient sized market to buy the plane, it then steps back from the plate, and when it comes back to look at things again, it needs to revalidate all its earlier research, with possibly different results.

A big point of uncertainty at present is whether a new plane would be a single or twin aisle plane.  We hope twin, and for many years, that seemed certain, but now we fear it may become a new single aisle plane instead.

For now, we can all marvel at Boeing’s inactivity.  Well prior to 2000, it was obvious that the 757 was on its last legs and would soon be withdrawn.  So for over 20 years, Boeing has had a strategic gap in its product range and just passively watched while Airbus fills that gap with A321s.

Is China’s Aerospace Industry Impacting on Boeing & Airbus

This brief article says that China’s commercial airplane building industry is of no present relevance to Airbus/Boeing, because the Comac C919 (a 737/A320 equivalent) is aimed primarily at China’s domestic market, and it will be some/many years before it might start to take sales from Boeing/Airbus in other parts of the world.

I’m astonished at the simplistic nature of that article, and totally disagree with its complacent finding that there’s nothing to worry about for the next some time.

The C919 has already received orders for 305 planes and options for 703 more from Chinese customers.  Don’t those orders count?  Aren’t they orders that would otherwise have been placed for 737s or A320s?  In round figures, isn’t that $50+ billion in lost orders?  Doesn’t that count?

We see every reason why Airbus and Boeing should greatly fear the Chinese airplane manufacturers.  With their government’s support, the Chinese companies have an almost guaranteed local market which is every bit as real as are airplanes sold to any other country.  China is one of the most rapidly growing and key markets for Airbus and Boeing, and the C919 has massively eaten in to their sales there.  How long before Comac or some other company announces a larger twin-aisle plane, too?

There’s an answer to that question.  A twin-aisle plane, the C929, is already in development (in partnership with Russia), and a first flight may occur in 2025.  It could seat 250 – 440 passengers, in three models, and depending on the spread between first, business and coach class seating, have a range of 6,000 – 8500 miles.

So we have a totally different take on things.  Sure, the major impact on Airbus/Boeing might be in the future, but aerospace is all about planning years, even decades ahead.  The two western companies need to be planning and developing competitive responses now.  Otherwise, it will be a repeat of Boeing’s inactivity with the 757, except this time it will be China, not Europe, that eats Boeing’s lunch, and rather than Airbus being the winner, it risks being an equal loser.

Denmark Moves Closer to Germany

If you’re traveling between Copenhagen and Germany, the shortest route involves a ferry crossing 11 miles across the Baltic Sea.  It isn’t a long crossing – you spend more time lined up waiting to get on a ferry, and then waiting to get off it again at the other end, than you do on the actual 45 minute ferry crossing.  The large ferry takes cars and trucks, and also trains – it is quite fun to be on a train that goes into the ship.

Plans have been confirmed this week to create a tunnel between Denmark and Germany, in what will be the world’s largest immersed tunnel – a tunnel that is created by placing pre-constructed segments of tunnel onto the sea bed, sealing them together, then pumping out the water (see image at the top of the newsletter)

It is suggested that when it opens in 2029, this will reduce the travel time between the two countries by a massive two hours.

More details here.

And Lastly This Week….

I was talking about 4G and 5G cell phone networks above and in the attached article that follows, so this story of NASA’s plans to create a cell phone network on the moon is timely.  I was surprised they are only setting up a 4G rather than 5G network.

One of my roadwarrior tricks is to use a white noise app on my phone to drown out other noise when trying to sleep in a hotel room that has a lot of street or other noise filling the room.  But this article suggests it is not a good idea – white noise might stop you being woken up by other noises, but causes the brain to be busy all night “processing” the white noise it hears.

It might make sense to change the white noise for a sound the brain recognizes and so can simply categorize and then “relax” – all the apps can be set to play rain sounds, or sea sounds as well as just pure white noise.  And maybe all noises are bad, but I’d rather have some subtle degradation of a night’s sleep from white noise in the background, than much more in-your-face degradation when you just can’t get to sleep at all, or keep being woken, by street sounds.

My BS meter rang loud and long when I read Apple’s claim that, so as to “save the environment”, they’d no longer include a charger with their new generation of overpriced phones.

Sure, it is true we all have many USB chargers already, but the new types of phones need new types of chargers to charge more quickly, so there actually is a need for the fast charger that Apple is now selling separately.  Just like hotels that ask you to save the environment by reusing towels, this is of course primarily designed to make more profit for Apple, not to save the planet at all.

More broadly, it seems that much of their holier-than-thou approach to reusing/recycling their old phones is somewhat contradicted by what actually happens to them.  This article explains.

Has Tesla finally encountered a competitor it is concerned about?  On the face of it, the new cars to be released by Lucid in the second quarter of next year look lovely, but not necessarily are something that would bring Tesla and their venerable Model S to its knees.  However, the Lucid press release a week ago has seen Tesla drop the price of their Model S not just once, but twice this week, such that it is now positioned slightly below the similar Lucid model price.

Talking about cars, what sort of car do you drive?  If it is an Acura, Audi, or BMW, then, ahem.

Talking about driving cars, we’ve all briefly enjoyed the drop in car traffic everywhere.  For a while, I’d marvel every time I drove anywhere, sometimes not seeing any cars for many blocks on roads that were normally congested.  I could travel distances more pleasantly, and more quickly.

I’d not realized that the lack of congestion, nationwide, created an opportunity to shave a few more minutes off a record that is already stunningly brief – the Cannonball Run – driving between New York and Los Angeles in as short a time as possible.

This is a fascinating article about the challenge, and I particularly liked the story of the man who set a new record for the approximately 2,800 mile journey – while driving a rental car!

Until next week, please stay healthy and safe





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