Weekly Roundup, Friday 13 November 2020

No, not a picture from New Zealand, although it could be if, they still had rural passenger rail services. See last item for details.


Good morning

Happy Black Friday – any Friday that is on the 13th of the month is termed Black Friday and deemed unlucky, particularly for travelers.  So perhaps keep close to home if at all possible.

I used to think that Black Fridays were rare and special.  After all, what are the chances of the 13th of a month falling on a Friday?  Pretty uncommon, right?

Actually, no.  There’s one chance in seven that the 13th will be a Friday, so on average, most years we have one or possibly two Black Fridays.  The last time it happened was March, and the next time will be August next year (in case you wondered).

Who knows, maybe we might be traveling again by August next year?  Maybe, but also maybe not.  If we only have the Pfizer vaccine, there’ll not be nearly enough doses distributed by then to make much impact on stopping the virus; but if, as seems probable, we have both the Pfizer and some other vaccines in distribution starting from some time earlyish next year, maybe we’ll be in a better situation.  Let’s all hope so.  I talk more about the Pfizer vaccine in yesterday’s Covid diary entry (see below), and also attach a note pondering the timing of their announcement – an announcement that had been several times promised by them prior to the election, but of course, which did not take place until after.  Sunday’s Covid diary entry is available online, here.

One more thought about driving safely, and not just on Black Fridays.  After a friend got hit with a $200 ticket for using his cell phone while driving, I realized it was time to revisit a topic I’ve not written about pretty much for 15 years – Bluetooth speakerphone units for cars.  Nowadays they are simple, easy to use, and amazingly inexpensive; just what you need if your car doesn’t have built-in Bluetooth speakerphone capabilities.  So please also find attached to this morning’s roundup a review of a couple of such units – one costing $11 and the other costing $25.  Are either of them any good?  Which one is best?

The answer to that second question leads into an important topic that I must bring up again. After going on hiatus for well over a month, I need to now turn back to the pressing and increasingly important issue of this year’s Travel Insider fundraising drive.  It goes without saying that this year has seen most of my other travel-related income sources shrivel up and disappear, leaving me almost entirely dependent on you and your support.

I’ve been working harder at The Travel Insider this year than ever before, and sending you more information than ever before.  Almost without a single pause, I’ve been sending out a minimum of three articles a week most weeks (two diary entries and a newsletter), and often a feature article or two as well, as well as maintaining a regular Twitter feed of several items every day, too.

Sadly though, hard work alone doesn’t directly translate to generating any semblance of a survival wage.  That’s where the slightly utopian concept of voluntary reader support comes into play.  I need your help, and I ask for your help, but I don’t demand or require it, at any level at all.  Few people would call me socialist, but the concept of “from each according to their means” is one I feel comfortable with, and as longer time readers know, I’ve tried to keep as much as possible of everything here fully free for everyone, while also providing a few bonus extra features to Supporters, too.  So, please, voluntarily help at a level that feels fair to you.

What do you normally do when someone provides you a good service for free?  If they’re a porter, a doorman, a waiter, or in many other cases, you happily tip them a few dollars.  So I’m asking you to fairly reciprocate and respond similarly to me, too.  This year will close with well over 100 Travel Insider articles having landed in your inbox – there’s no need to send in 100 tips in return, but once a year, I ask for your consideration and help.  Thank you for doing so, now.

Oh, and the reason that the question “which of the two Bluetooth speakerphones is better” is related to supporting The Travel Insider is because I’ve reserved the review of the second of the two units for the kind Travel Insider Supporters.  I have to buy these types of review products out of my own pocket, and it seems fair that the people who help me afford such expenditures get a preferred benefit in return.  Everyone can see my general comments about the units and what to look for when choosing a unit, and everyone can see my review of one of the two units.

Everyone can also see the second review and other comments too, if they simply choose to help out and become a Travel Insider Supporter.  It takes only a minute or two to do so, and you then get instant access to the extra content in the article, plus an increasing collection of other bonus content in other articles, too.

For example, just a couple of weeks ago there was a special extended version of a list of Alexa commands and how to best use your Alexa unit.  Earlier this week I released the entirety of my 419 page book “The Covid Survival Guide” to supporters – quite possibly the information in that could save your life or that of a loved one.  What is that worth to you?

So, please, help me to help you.  Please become a Supporter now, at any level you feel comfortable with.  Thank you.

And what else?  Please keep reading for :

  • Air Passenger Numbers Equivocate
  • A Slight Exaggeration
  • A Pricing Policy Like in an Eastern Bazaar
  • Something You Don’t Want to See on a Flight
  • Flying Taxis – Possibly a Tiny Step Closer to Reality
  • Branson Underwhelms Again
  • And Lastly This Week….

Air Passenger Numbers Equivocate

It was only a month or so ago that I marveled at how straight-line the recovery in air travel numbers has been since it bottomed out in mid-April.  Apart from a couple of short term blips over holiday weekends, as you can see above, the line has been remarkably steady and almost straight.

But then something mysteriously happened just prior to the election, and while there was a fitful attempt to restart growth early this week, it sort of fizzled out again and the most recent data (for Wednesday) shows a slightly lower seven day average than the same day last week (34.5% compared to 35.2%).

Are people hesitating to travel now due to the surging numbers in new virus cases.  It certainly is surprising how confident people have become since mid April, even though the virus numbers have grown and grown during that time, too.

I imagine that airline executives are staring very anxiously at their own versions of this chart, much of every day.  Of course, they also have some hints by looking at their forward booking data, but that is not nearly as enlightening as it used to be.  In the “good old days” pre-Covid, you could very accurately predict future travel levels based on the forward bookings already made.  But people are now booking much closer to departure, and the computer predictions are needing to be recalibrated, although no-one really knows what adjustments to make, because it is all new and somewhat changing from month to month.

This has another side effect too.  If the airlines don’t know how full their planes will be next week and next month, they don’t know if they should make more of their lowest priced fares available, or close them out and only have higher fare tickets offered.  Their yield management is a mess.

A Slight Exaggeration

It is no surprise that airlines are cancelling or deferring delivery dates on orders for new planes.  There’s been a lot of that happening in the last six months, and while we think some airlines are now starting to see themselves as getting closer to the end of the crisis, we’d not be surprised to see further cancellations if passenger growth doesn’t proceed at planned rates.

But when reading this opening line “Airbus SE’s A220 jetliner program suffered the biggest setback since the start of the coronavirus crisis” it is slightly surprising to continue the sentence and find that this “biggest setback” is a cancellation for a mere 12 planes by Air Canada – an understandable move and one that will likely be reversed as soon as things get back to normal.

To put the 12 plane cancellation into perspective, there are currently over 500 of the A220 series planes on the Airbus order books.  So a loss of just over 2% of total outstanding unfilled orders is hardly life-changing.

If that is the plane’s biggest setback, it is leading a very charmed life – as indeed has been expected, because it is proving more common for airlines to cancel their larger capacity planes and to shift their focus to smaller planes to match the smaller passenger numbers on routes.

A Pricing Policy Like in an Eastern Bazaar

Some people love bargaining, and delight in getting a “bargain” when traveling abroad.  Most of such people are so utterly un-self-aware as not to realize that their “bargains” are still way over the merchant’s true bottom line price – even if he did show invoices to prove he was selling the carpet or whatever at a loss.

If you like “getting a deal”, and have a need for a new airplane or two, why not have some fun bargaining with Airbus or Boeing.  They’ll show you their official price list, and then indicate that for an order today, they could maybe trim the price by 5% or so, but they’d have to get permission from their sales manager.  That is similar to what you’d expect when buying a car, so you’re about to agree.

But on a whim, you play hardball and hold out for a 10% discount.  You’re slightly unnerved by how quickly they agree, and you can see a gleam of triumph rather than defeat in the salesman’s eye.  So the next day, you explain that your board of directors failed to approve the purchase, and have sent you back to get a better price.  You say it must be a 15% discount, or no deal.  The company doesn’t even try to counter with 12.5% and quickly agrees, and offers to courier the legal documents to you to sign.

So, out of curiosity, you call up the other airplane manufacturer, and say “Hey, your competitor just offered me a 15% discount to buy more of their planes.  I’m a happy loyal customer of theirs, but if the price was right, maybe it is time to give you a turn.”

The other company offers you 20%.  Wow.  On a $130 million new single-aisle A320/737, that’s a $26 million discount.  Amazing.  But, intrigued, you now say “well, what if I ordered two instead of one?  I’d want a quantity discount.  What would you give me for two planes?”  No sooner have you said that, than you’ve got a 25% discount, for two planes, from the other company.

You ring up your original supplier and say “Look, I don’t know how they knew, but the other company has just offered us a 25% discount if we switch our order to them.  You’re only offering 15%.  I’m very sorry, but my board is now a bit upset that you didn’t reward our loyalty with at least as much a discount, and don’t want me to even talk to you any further….”  The next thing you know, your present supplier has offered you a 30% discount and a free upgrade – whitewall tires or something.  You then say “Well, maybe, for one plane.  But if I was to buy two, we’d want (and you cross your fingers while saying this) to go all the way to a full 1/3rd reduction – a 33% discount.”

To your astonishment, they agree.  You’ve hardly finished the call when the other supplier calls, wanting to meet you tomorrow and get the paperwork signed and to receive your deposit.  You tell them that your present supplier pulled out all the stops and offered you a 33% discount, and are in the process of thanking them and saying goodbye, when they interrupt and say “Look, we really want to bring you into our family of customers.  What say we give you an unprecedented one-off 40% discount?”

You feel now that you’ve got nothing to lose, so you say “look, I’ve pretty much given my word to the other company.  But if you have a ‘buy one, get one free’ deal, then we could look at that.”  Five minutes later, you find you’ve just agreed to buy two planes for the price of one – a 50% discount.

How much further do you think this story can go, in real life?  Well, according to this article, Boeing is giving discounts of up to 69%, and Airbus is offering 65% while potential customers are demanding 70%.

Sure, some of that is due to the unusual softness of the market due to Covid, but 60% and greater discounts are not uncommon, even in boom times.

It seems really strange that both companies have a price list that is a total work of fiction.  Why would they do that?  We can understand them doing a deal for bulk deals and massive sized customers , but in most cases, with other products, you’re looking at 5% – 25% discounts, not 65% – 70%.

The only value to having published list prices more than twice the true prices is that if a deal is being done in a less than transparent and honest environment through some middlemen, it makes it easy for everyone to point to the official price list as justifying whatever number is claimed the airplanes should cost, leaving plenty of margin in the middle, and no-one really knowing what anyone else in the deal is getting or paying.

Something You Don’t Want to See on a Flight

So your flight is proceeding along, seemingly without incident.  You vaguely hear the tone sound through the public address system that means “the captain wants to talk to the Senior Flight Attendant”.  Then you realize that there are flight attendants holding up their phones or iPads to the windows, filming the wing excitedly/anxiously, then rushing to the cockpit.  A short while later the captain tells you the flight – which had almost reached its destination – is diverting to an alternate airport which has a longer runway, “just in case”.

You know that’s not a good sign.  But in this actual case, all we know is that it was “a technical issue”.

Flying Taxis – Possibly a Tiny Step Closer to Reality

The headline sounds exciting – “Flying taxi takes off over Seoul in demonstration flight”.  That’s very impressive, particularly a demonstration flight over a dense city area like Seoul.

The reality?  Seven minutes of the craft, with no people on board, moving about in a small area by the Han River, 150 ft above the ground.

There is a suggestion that drone (driverless) aerial taxis could become a reality as soon as 2025.  Fares might be twice the cost of a regular taxi, but travel times would be much faster, and fares might drop in the future as technologies become more efficient.

That seems like quite a short lead time.  For now, we’ll place this in our bulging file of “flying taxi future promises”.  The file that is right next to the empty folder marked “actual flying taxis”.

Branson Underwhelms Again

Talking about hype and headlines exceeding reality, the Virgin Hyperloop company breathlessly gushed that they have now completed the world’s first passenger ride on a “high-speed levitating pod system”.

Well, that sounds good, doesn’t it.  But, as with so much to do with Virgin companies, the reality doesn’t quite match.  The “high-speed”, for example, involved a brief second or two at 107 mph.  Sure, that’s faster than an Amtrak train, but it is half the speed that other hyperloop tests have achieved, albeit without passengers in them.  There’s no need or value in having passengers in early prototyping and testing.

We also gather the ride was not as silky smooth as would be hoped/expected), which raises some questions about how easy it will be to scale the speeds up six-fold (which would of course make the jerkiness much more extreme).

The small pod held two people in it.  And the length of the journey?  Three tenths of a mile.  1640 feet.  Details here.

So, there is still quite a long way to go, in all senses of the phrase, before a commercial system starts sending 28 person pods, hundreds of miles, at 600+ mph.

Another uncommented on disappointment is that hyperloop systems are claimed to be very inexpensive to build – that being one of their main advantages over traditional high-speed rail systems.  But Virgin’s next objective is to build a six mile test facility (in WV of all places), which it says will cost $500 million – money it, ahem, doesn’t yet have.  Which makes its hope to have a commercial system deployed by 2030 somewhat optimistic.  But Sir Richard Branson has always had a penchant for “optimism” when it comes to dates.

$100 million/mile is getting close to the costs of high speed rail, which seem to be almost exactly the same.

And Lastly This Week….

Travel is good for the soul?  That’s what this article claims, and we certainly don’t disagree.  We’re getting increasingly keen to start scheduling some Travel Insider tours and to have dates on calendars and activities to look forward to again.  Doubtless you feel the same way.  My current thinking is possibly late summer, next year.  Scotland, Kazakhstan, New Zealand – where do you want to go?

One thing we’ve not heard a lot of this post-election period have been media “personalities” pondering a move to Canada due to the result.  But if you’re considering such an action, here’s some advice for you as to how best to sneak through the currently closed Canadian border – offered as a public service by the Bangor PD in Maine.

Oh yes – the sheep at the train station picture was taken in Scotland, at the station in Hartwood, a tiny village of fewer than 50 houses, not far east of Glasgow.  Like New Zealand, Scotland has more sheep than people (about 6.6 million sheep and 5.4 million people).

The picture is featured here, and I suggest you read the comments, which are most amusing.

Here’s hoping we can all soon enjoy a train ride in Scotland – maybe their lovely new overnight sleeper trains between London and several Scottish cities, or the beautiful “Harry Potter Steam Train” (aka The Jacobite), both of which usually feature in our Scotland tours.

Truly lastly this week, if you’ve not already done so, can I please ask you to consider becoming a Travel Insider Supporter.  It will only take a minute or two, and will help to keep your weekly content flowing in every Friday morning, the same as it has the last almost 20 years.  Thank you.

Until next week, please stay healthy and safe





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