Apologies for the short newsletter this morning. I’m very focused on finishing my book on the virus; as you might have noticed, I’ve released another two updates since last week’s newsletter, with a total of 61 more pages now in the pre-release draft added in the last week.
I’m appending Thursday’s Covid diary entry to this newsletter. As many of you know, I’m more for Trump than against him, but that doesn’t blind me to his failings, and in Thursday’s diary entry I look dispassionately at what can only be described, politely, as his “surprising” Covid experience over the last week. Sunday’s diary entry can be seen online, here.
Amazon’s two day Prime Day promotion kicks off just after midnight on what is very early on Tuesday morning next week (Pacific time). I’ll get an article up and pushed to you within a few hours if there are any notable savings. My guess at this stage is the things to look out for will be Amazon’s own devices, perhaps television sets, and multi-cookers.
A few other things this week.
- Air Passenger Growth Slows
- An SST Project That is Actually Progressing Credibly
- Boeing’s Woes
- Pilotless Planes Progress
- Venice Tames the Waves
- And Lastly This Week….
Air Passenger Growth Slows
After three weeks of remarkably linear and steady growth, there has been a slowing down in growth over the last week, and the last five days have remained almost exactly steady at (also almost exactly) one third of last year’s traffic for the same days. This is eight times more than at the lowest part, in mid April.
The surprising thing? Although air passenger numbers plunged in March and April, their steady recovery since then has been notwithstanding a steady growth in virus numbers. We currently have close on twice the number of daily new virus cases as we did in April, but whereas the lower virus number in April almost stopped everyone, everywhere, from traveling, there has been an eight-fold growth in passenger numbers since then.
An SST Project That is Actually Progressing Credibly
When the Boom company first announced its plans for developing a new SST passenger plane in 2014, I was very skeptical, both of the concept, and of the timeline.
Now, six years later, while I was right to be doubtful of its early optimistic timeline (which would have seen planes flying well before now), I’ll concede that the company seems to be the best placed one to actually get a SST into the air, with a viable plane concept (not too small, and not too slow) and a claimed economic model that would simultaneously appeal to passengers and also allow it to make money, by selling its seats at business class fares.
The big news this week has been Boom rolling out a demonstrator plane, a small single seater 71′ long model plane, to be called the XB-1. It won’t actually be flying any time soon, but at least it is now out of the hangar. Details here and here.
I do find myself wondering though, as lovely as it is to see such a tangible step forward towards a return to civilian SST flight, what is the point of the demonstrator? It isn’t a scale model of the actual plane, it is physically quite different. Even if it was a perfect scale model, not all things scale exactly, and in general, wind tunnel testing and computer studies can resolve most issues and questions much more quickly and inexpensively. One of the biggest variables are the engines, and the demonstrator plane is of course not using the engines the actual plane will use.
Add it all up, and I can’t answer this fundamental question. What is the point of the demonstrator plane?
I’m forced to conclude the model plane’s primary purpose is PR and fundraising. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course – without cash, the company will not be able to complete its ambitious project. But it does seem like a very costly detour on the path to the actual “real” plane (to be called the “Overture”), which it is thought might start production in 2025, prior to whatever period of testing that would necessarily precede its ultimate certification and then the production of actual planes for commercial flight.
Boeing regularly updates its forecast for what planes will sell in the next decade, and shares that information publicly. Not shared are its private estimates of what percent of those plane purchases it will get, itself.
Its 2020 version has just been released, and it forecasts a slight drop in total business activity compared to the 2019 forecast. This is surprising, because in effect Boeing is saying the sales the industry has lost over the last six months due to virus related slowdowns will never be caught up on in the future.
It probably also means, for Boeing, that it’s nightmarish last 18 months of often negative monthly orders (more cancellations rather than sales) has little or no promise of being compensated for with a flood of new orders once its 737 MAX returns to the skies.
There’s been some more developments on getting the 737 MAX back into the air. As has been widely expected, Boeing has had to give up on its hope (and earlier promise to customers) that airlines would be able to move pilots from existing 737s to the MAX series without requiring any retraining time (ie cost). The FAA has now released detailed training and simulator requirements for pilots converting to the MAX series.
There’s also a hint as to the schedule towards recertification. Nothing more will happen until the expiry of a comment period on the FAA’s training requirements, which is 2 November. Depending on the comments received, it may require very little time to then make their requirements official.
After specifying the training, there is not much else remaining, although it is anyone’s guess how long the various other national certification bodies might require – we believe the FAA is keen to try and coordinate its recertification announcement with at least some of the other agencies too.
Might this happen in time for Thanksgiving? Certainly it seems likely prior to Christmas; maybe it might even be in time for Thanksgiving too.
Not so much bad news is this article that explains, on Boeing’s behalf, some of the reasons why Boeing appears to be steadily de-emphasizing its Seattle area manufacturing.
Boeing is sick and tired of being taken for granted or taken advantage of, seems to be the short answer, and Boeing finds it is easier and better to do business in other states. In a way it is a microcosm of the “offshoring” that has hollowed out so much of the country’s manufacturing. If a business can find a cheaper better location to conduct operations, why would it ever not choose to move there? Washington’s state leadership needs to stop complaining about Boeing and start to affirmatively do things to win Boeing’s confidence back again.
On the other hand, we feel this is a bit like a failing marriage. Statistics show that once marriages reach a certain point of breakdown, no amount of counseling will bring the parties back together again, and perhaps it is the same with Boeing and WA state. A terrible shame.
Pilotless Planes Progress
We’re eagerly awaiting the reality of pilotless planes. So too, we expect, are airlines, although few airlines are willing to risk antagonizing their current pilots by saying so. Pilotless planes will save the airlines an enormous amount of money – not just in pilot wages, but in pilot weight as well (plus all the associated weight of a spacious cockpit), and hopefully some of it will be passed on to us as passengers. It will also materially boost aviation safety – most accidents these days are pilot related.
Did you know there is actually still a passenger airplane manufacturer in Britain? Britten-Norman makes a very boxy plane, the Islander, that has been in production since 1965. Britten-Norman says it hopes to have planes that will require only one rather than two pilots within five years, and to be fully pilot-free within a decade.
Interesting question – when we no longer have pilots, will airlines sell premium seats with views directly out the front of the plane? That would be worth paying for, don’t you think?
Venice Tames the Waves
Venice’s gradual sinking has been written about for very many years, as has a solution – basically putting locks/gates on the entrance/exits of the lagoon the city is based around, controlling the tidal surges from the Adriatic Sea.
The project has been underway since 1984, and finally this week worked to keep out a high tide in inclement weather.
I’ve vivid memories of what are now becoming “the olden days” when Venice would put out trestles in the main streets and around St Mark’s Square, and everyone would have to walk on the trestles, above the water flooding the streets. I remember coming into Venice one evening seeing what I thought must have been empty tables set out for an open air market the next day. But the next day, the tide had come in and I realized the empty tables were actually pedestrian walkways to avoid the water!
Well done, Venice. Now all you need are some tourists to start visiting again.
And Lastly This Week….
Here’s an article that traces the history of phonetic alphabets (alfa, bravo, etc) on the basis of we need a new updated one.
Except, at the end, it concludes we don’t!
I also disagree with the claim that telephone sound quality is worse now than it was some years before. We now have more bandwidth and less interference than was the case with old phones – my guess is the writer is too young to have used really old phones and just needed an “angle” to justify the entire story. As I age, I’m increasingly surprised at how much young writers get wrong about what life was like some decades earlier.
I stumbled across a fascinating article this week about colorizing, restoring, and “improving” (to a state better than they originally were) old movie footage. What really caught my eye though was the sample of some restored footage, which showed a “flying train” in Wuppertal, Germany.
The video, taken in 1902, was fascinating, and I wanted to find out more about this overhead train/suspension railway. This was an amazing video, showing the original footage from 1902 alongside contemporary footage of the same scenes – how little had changed in much of it, and this is a great explainer about the railway.
Maybe, one day, once the virus has been conquered, I might go see it. Maybe you might choose to come along with me!
On that happy thought, and until next week, please stay healthy and safe