Weekly Roundup, Friday 20 November 2020

Might Amtrak be about to become slightly less bad? See article, below.

Good morning

Many thanks to everyone who responded to the restart of our 2020 Annual Fundraising Drive last week.  It is great to see the concept of voluntary support being accepted so positively, including one gentleman who sent in $200.  Well, okay, he is far from the only person to be so extremely generous, but there is one distinctive aspect of his generosity.  He also sent in the same amount a month or two back, when I briefly started this year’s campaign before pausing it, and also a third time between then and now too.  So, Mr S, please keep your hand in your pocket this week.

But, turning now to the many thousands of people who have not yet responded even once, I’m still woefully short of my objective.  In past years we’ve sometimes gone as high as 7% or more of all readers responding, and so far this year we’re well below half that number.

If you’re just tuning in to the fundraising this week, my “business model” (an overly pretentious term!) is simple.  I provide an open public free service to anyone and everyone who chooses to access the website and/or sign up for the free immediate, daily, or weekly newsletters.  In return, once every year, I ask you to reciprocate and to voluntarily contribute whatever amount feels fair to you.  I call this the PBS approach to blogging.

If you enjoy the newsletters and articles, and if you’ve gleaned information of value, can I ask you now to show your appreciation by choosing to become a Travel Insider Supporter.  It’s as easy and simple as I can make it to become a Supporter, and you should have it all done within a minute or two, leaving you then a lasting glow for the next twelve months, knowing you have materially helped and become a part of the Travel Insider concept and family.

I’ve recently observed the start of the 20th year of The Travel Insider.

What a lot has changed over the last 20 years, hasn’t it.  Airlines such as TWA, Continental, Northwest, Aloha, America West, Independence Air, Hooters, Maxjet, ATA, EOS, Midwest Airlines, Comair, AirTran, Ozark, US Airways, Ted, Virgin America, OpenSkies, bmi/British Midland, Thomas Cook Airlines, and many others have all disappeared over those two decades.

Back then, there were no smart phones, not even Blackberry phones.  No-one texted.  But, all during that time, anticipating, explaining, and observing all these changes, I’ve been there beside you, every Friday morning.  It is a testimony to the stalwart support of people like you over the last two decades that has kept this experiment alive and active.  Please now help me continue to help you, for another year, and hopefully for many more.

Thank you.

Talking about changes and phones (segue alert!), it is four years since my last detailed look at cell phones, what features you need, and what you should be paying for a new phone.  That means it is definitely time to repeat that exercise, and this time, you get a new supersized article with much more content and considering new features that weren’t so much a consideration in 2016.

Plus, you also get a listing of 60 different phones and their features to help you quickly understand all the differences between the various makes and models available at present.  I’ve also made this list in two different ways.  Everyone gets to see all 60 phones, and 11 key attributes.  As a further thank you to my invaluable and essential supporters, you get a larger special table with not 11, not 21, but an exhaustive (and exhausting!) list of 31 different attributes per phone.  That’s over 1800 data points in total!  (Don’t worry, I also give you some exclusive tools to work the table to make it more user friendly.)  The article appears below, and supporters, please remember you need to be logged in to the website to see your special extra material.

Last week, supporters were given extra material – two reviews of car bluetooth speakerphone units instead of one.  This week, you get almost three times as much data about cell phones, and an exclusive section with my specific shortlist of the three best phones to consider buying.

What will supporters get next week?  I can’t promise extra and exclusive content for supporters every week, and I always have to balance the twin desires of keeping as much information free as possible, and also of rewarding supporters with more material.  But there will be more supporter-only material next week, too.

Also attached is Thursday’s Covid diary entry (quite a good one, even if I do say so myself); and Sunday’s is on the website.

I noted with surprise that yesterday’s Covid diary entry is the 150th virus article I’ve written.  Who would have thought at the beginning of this year that I’d be filling up the website with 150 articles about a virus almost no-one had yet even heard of!?

What else this week?  Please keep reading for :

  • Air Travel Recovery Returns
  • Bad News for Norwegian Air
  • The FAA Still Gives Boeing Special Treatment
  • Amtrak to Improve?
  • Virgin Galactic Up to Its Old Tricks Again
  • Meanwhile at SpaceX….
  • Is it Unethical to Promote Travel at Present?
  • Countries That Get Too Full of Themselves
  • What Is The World Coming To?  Vacuum Cleaner Spies!
  • And Lastly This Week….

Air Travel Recovery Returns

The virus is more prevalent and active than ever before.  Countries are closing down again.  In the US, states are becoming more restrictive, and some are even asking/advising residents to stop traveling.

But after a few weeks of indecision, passenger numbers are back on an upward rise again.  This makes no logical sense, but who said that any part of our response to the virus has been fully logical and/or sensible.

It will be fascinating to see what happens next week during the Thanksgiving period.  I’m currently sending out tweets with updates, every morning, about the daily changes in passenger numbers.

Bad News for Norwegian Air

Air travel numbers might be slowly increasing, domestically, but international numbers remain more depressed.  That is stressing many international carriers of course, and it is sadly unsurprising to report that the relatively new and definitely excellent low-cost carrier that brought low-cost high-quality trans-Atlantic air fares to many of us has now reluctantly gone into their equivalent of a Chapter 11 reorganization.

They have 100 days to come up with a solution to their woes, and meantime are continuing to operate their already reduced schedule.  In the third quarter they carried just under 10% of the passengers they did for the same quarter last year.  They received some Norwegian government assistance in May (enough to fund about three months of operations), but have been told they’ll not be getting any more, and with current unavoidable operational losses, their future looks bleak.

If someone was brave enough to buy an airline at a bargain price now, Norwegian would be a great choice.  They’ve plenty of route permissions, a good marketing footprint and brand image/awareness, and as soon as travel starts to recover (perhaps second quarter next year) they’d be well placed to improve and benefit.

But if such a person isn’t found, we fear for what the outcome will be in just under 100 days.  Details here.

In other distressed airline news, Korean Air is taking over troubled Asiana.

The FAA Still Gives Boeing Special Treatment

After an extraordinary 20 month grounding, the FAA has finally authorized the 737 MAX to return to regular flying.  You might think that a 20 month grounding shows an enormous degree of concern and extensive demands for every possible flaw to be fixed, but it is hard to know how much of the 20 month delay is due to the FAA being difficult to work with and how much has been due to an extremely sluggish response on Boeing’s part.

Looking back on the issues, it is difficult to see what would take 20 months to resolve.

However, why am I saying that Boeing is still being given special treatment by the FAA?  Because there are some issues that other certifying authorities do not agree have been adequately addressed, even though the FAA has approved Boeing’s responses.  That’s not to say that the Canadians or Europeans are more authoritative or correct than the FAA, but it is surprising there isn’t a unanimity of opinion surrounding the FAA certification, particularly because one of the related issues was an international perception that the FAA had not done an adequate job of certifying the 737 MAX in the first place.

The big problem with the plane was that its computer controls relied on data from one single “angle of attack” sensor.  The plane had two, but the computer only used data from one, and if the sensor was faulty, the computer had no way of knowing that, and over-rode the pilot (and didn’t easily allow the pilot to in turn override it) and caused the plane to unstoppably crash into the ground.

The Airbus approach is a “best practice” approach.  It has three sensors, and the computer monitors all three and will take “the best two of three” meaning that any one sensor could fail without causing the computer to panic and do the wrong thing.

Boeing’s approach is to stick with two sensors, but now have the computer monitor both of them, and if they disagree, the computer “gives up” and does nothing, leaving it to the pilots to work out what the problem might be and how to respond to it.  In theory, you’d think that is a reasonable approach – when in doubt, leave it to the pilot to decide.  But our recent history of air crashes is filled with cases where pilots were presented with a sudden mess of conflicting instrumentation and computer responses, and failed to understand and respond to the problem in time, even when they had over five minutes between the alerts starting and the eventual tragic crash.

Boeing lists a 737 MAX at $120 million or more (although sells them for less than half that price, as discussed last Friday).  Are you telling me that on a $120 million plane, Boeing couldn’t afford to fit a third $100 sensor unit and reprogram the computer to do a “best of three” calculation?  It seems Boeing is still seeking “cheapest” rather than “safest”.

(There are suggestions that one of the problems is that the plane’s computer system is so obsolete that it struggles to keep up with two sets of simultaneous sensor data and a third sensor might overload it.  If that is correct, that’s another shameful situation – the solution isn’t to “go easy” on an inadequate computer, it is to spend a few more dollars to get a more powerful computer.)

It need not even be another sensor.  It has been suggested the computer (if powerful enough….) could simply compare the two sensors with other data from other sensors such as air speed, rise/sink rate, and power setting, and that would enable it to empirically determine what the probable angle of attack was and therefore which sensor to trust.  That would be free, other than for the one-off cost of the programming time.

This is one of the prime issues that is delaying other certification bodies from approving the 737’s return to flight.  Which leads to another question.  How much will still more days/weeks/months of delay in getting certification from other countries cost Boeing?  It is estimated Boeing is out more than $20 billion from the 20 months of delay so far.  It seems likely the added costs of further delay will be more than fitting planes with a third sensor.

There’s also the matter of Boeing’s reputation.  Sure, it talks up a storm about having learned its lessons.  But then it cuts a safety corner and sticks with two sensors.  Most passengers won’t be aware of this, but you can bet most airlines are, and the next time Boeing and Airbus go head to head on a deal for planes, we can’t help wondering if one of the deal points might be “how many AOA sensors does your plane have?”.

We’re surprised and disappointed that rather than joining with other national certifying bodies and insisting on three sensors, the FAA cut Boeing some slack and allowed it to proceed with only two.  That might be tactically helpful for Boeing, but strategically, it strikes us as a huge blunder.

This divergence of view is all the more ammunition for other national bodies to use in the future when demanding an independent voice in other Boeing airplane certifications, too.  This will cost Boeing more time and more money on all future airplane models it launches.

And for what?  Remember, it is maybe a $100 sensor and a bit more computer code.  Even if it is a $10,000 sensor, it is still a rounding error on a $120 million plane.  Details here and (the definitive version of everything) here.

Meanwhile, both Boeing and its customers are all trying to quietly rename the 737 MAX.  Of course, everyone denies this is what is happening, but equally of course, it is exactly what is underway.  But a new name won’t compensate for a third sensor….

Amtrak to Improve?

It is hard to think of a worse set of business constraints than those imposed on Amtrak.  In particular, the government owned national passenger rail company owns almost none of its own track, and has to plead with the freight companies that own the track to be allowed to operate their trains.  (There are other constraints, such as an impossibility to be profitable with the infrastructure they have, but matched with an impossibility to get funding to move out of the constraints, and a never-ending insufficiency of funds to maintain their carriages and locomotives, and an inability to terminate loss-making routes.)

Back to the problem of track access rights.  This poses several problems, including a big problem – the freight railroads have no desire to maintain their track to a better quality than that needed for freight trains moving at usually 60 mph or less.  Amtrak would love to operate all its trains at the current maximum speed of 79 mph, or even faster, but they are trapped by signaling limitations and track quality, which often makes even a slow 79mph an impossible aspiration rather than a reality.

The other problem is that, by law, the freight companies are required to allow Amtrak to use their tracks (and of course, charge Amtrak hefty fees in the process), and they are further obliged to give priority to Amtrak passenger trains over their own freight trains.

With so little double track in the US, most of the rail network is akin to a “one way street” with occasional passing cutouts.  Add to that the greater disruption that a train moving at a different speed has to the other trains sharing the same track, and the significant continued growth in freight trains to the point that many lines are at close to capacity already, and it becomes difficult and impactful for the freight railroads to take best care of the occasional Amtrak train, and sometimes they don’t.  In theory, that’s illegal, but in practice, well, what can anyone do about it.

With that as background, the Federal Railroad Administration has set out a new rule for how Amtrak reports its on-time performance and delays and reasons for delays.  It is hoped the new reporting requirement will more clearly shine a light on problems inappropriately caused by uncooperative freight railroads.

Will that transform Amtrak’s operations?  Nope, not at all.  But it might at least stop them from getting any worse, at least, from a scheduling point of view.

Virgin Galactic Up to Its Old Tricks Again

This weeks absolutely least surprising headline is that, mere days before its latest scheduled tippy-toeing up into the upper reaches of the earth’s atmosphere, Virgin Galactic has indefinitely delayed the flight.

The reason for the last minute delay?  Get ready to roll your eyes.  Apparently, the company has suddenly discovered there’s a thing out there, a virusy sort of thing, and while that wasn’t a problem a week or a month ago, it has suddenly prevented them from honoring their promise to launch their latest “proving” flight.  Details here.

The slightly unsettling thing about this latest delay and matching excuse is that it isn’t rounded out by a new revised date when they next confidently expect to take to the skies.

But the stock market shrugged this latest delay off with barely a second thought.  Perhaps I’m the only one wondering if this company will ever make good on over a decade of broken promises.

Meanwhile at SpaceX….

The contrast between Virgin Galactic and SpaceX couldn’t be plainer.

Although both companies were founded in the early 2000s (SpaceX in 2002, Virgin Galactic in 2004), SpaceX is way ahead in commercial terms.  It has pioneered reusable rocket stages and has a lengthy list of firsts so far, starting from 2009 when it had the first privately funded liquid-fueled rocket to reach orbit, and starting commercial operations that same year.

Earlier this year SpaceX had its first manned space flight – not just to “pretend space” like Virgin Galactic, but to real space – the International Space Station, and this week it repeated the feat, this time with a larger crew of four astronauts.  This confirms that the US no longer is in the astonishing and embarrassing position of having to buy seats on old Russian rockets to send its people to and from the ISS; there is finally an American spacecraft capable of providing that service again, for the first time since the Space Shuttle ended service in 2011.

While Virgin Galactic talks the talk, only SpaceX is walking the walk.

Is it Unethical to Promote Travel at Present?

Chris Elliott raises an interesting point in a recent article in USA Today where he ponders the ethics of recommending and selling travel at present.

I understand his point. I’ve received a steady stream of press releases from various travel operators, not only promoting travel far in the future, but also hoping to encourage people to travel right now, and have consistently refused to mention all such things.  What about travel agents, though – after all, if they don’t sell travel, they don’t make money.

There are two different issues.  One is should a travel agent sell travel to a client who asks them to help arrange some travel?  I think that in such a case, the agent most definitely should.  Maybe they need to offer up front some sort of disclaimer about “you do know that travel is risky at present, and wherever you go, many places may be closed or not operating normal hours, reducing the pleasure you might get” (in the case of leisure travel).

The other case is whether travel agents should be sending out promotional material to encourage people to travel at present.  “Airline X is offering a two-for-one special, hurry to book your tickets now”; “Hotel Y is giving double room upgrades and free breakfasts to all guests this month”, and so on.  That’s a more nuanced question.

Chris provides a reasonably balanced discussion on the topic.  But ASTA (the American Society of Travel Agents) unsurprisingly disagrees.

What do you think?

Countries That Get Too Full of Themselves

There’s a terrible amount of snobbery in the tourism industry.  Everyone dreams of having a travel product/service that deals only with the ultra-rich, due to a mistaken belief that such people are “nicer” and “easier” customers than ordinary middle class travelers on a budget.

A similar attitude is seen in countries and regions that are grappling with “too many tourists” deciding the best thing to do is to charge every tourist a massive fee to come to their location.  “We’d rather get the same amount of money from half as many visitors” is the statement that justifies this, and there’s some sense in that – it is an inelegant example of the price/demand curve.

Some countries have a curious dichotomy and a love-hate relationship with “backpacker” tourists.  Backpackers spend very little per day while in a country, because they eat frugally and stay in hostels overnight, and don’t buy many overpriced souvenirs in the gift shops.  In terms of per day expenditures, they are the lowest of the low.  But backpackers will stay in countries for much longer than normal tourists, and will visit parts of the country that “normal tourists” don’t have the time or interest to visit.  While the per-day expenditure of a single backpacker is low, the “per total visit” amount is sometimes more than the short-visit up-market tourists, and the backpacker’s money is spread more fairly across an entire country.

Unfortunately, my home country of New Zealand is getting a bit carried away with itself, with its new government, just recently voted into office, still in a self-congratulatory mode and not yet ready to settle down to the gritty business of governing.  Accordingly, their new Minister of Tourism, fresh into the job, has announced he wants to make it mandatory for all campervans to have a toilet within them.  This includes vehicles little bigger than the old hippy VW Combi van type classic vehicle.  The campervans have had great appeal to the backpacker type people – get four or more people into one of those, and they can travel very cheaply during the day and stay very cheaply at night.  But without a toilet, they’ll improvise as may be necessary.

The tourism minister sees the toilet mandate not only as improving the environment (always a great phrase to get NZers to agree to anything) but also part of his broader plan to position New Zealand for super-wealthy travelers.  Details here.

That’s a concept that will crash and burn very quickly.  But inexperienced government ministers in an inexperienced new government are a bit like wayward teenagers – determined to make their own mistakes rather than learn from other people and their mistakes.

What Is The World Coming To?  Vacuum Cleaner Spies!

We sort of know that many of our electronic appliances can be hacked and used to spy on us.  If a thing has a microphone and/or camera inside it, and if it is connected to the internet, there’s a risk a three letter governmental agency (or a clever teenager) can use it to listen in on and watch us in our homes and everywhere else.

But, a cordless robot vacuum cleaner has neither a microphone nor a camera.  Where’s the danger in that?  For that matter, who even knew they were connected to the internet?

It transpires that their radar/Lidar based room sensing capabilities can be adjusted to detect sounds, and some models store their room mapping on the internet.  So put those capabilities together, and even one’s vacuum cleaner might be spying on you.  Details here.

Amazing, isn’t it.  Who would have believed that, a decade ago.

And Lastly This Week….

It isn’t just our vacuum cleaners that want to spy on us.  One of the greatest freedoms and privacies is our financial freedom/privacy.  That’s a right that has been greatly abridged of course, and always with the best of intentions – to stop tax cheats, to catch drug smugglers, and so on.

But at what point does government monitoring of our financial lives become too onerous, and no longer capable of being justified by these lofty goals?  How about the point where every international transaction of $250 or more becomes subject to reporting to the government?  That’s the latest proposal being put forward by the Federal Reserve and Treasury.

Will this mean your every international hotel stay, international flight, maybe even extravagant meal, and so on, become subject to government scrutiny.  Sure, the innocent have nothing to hide, but even so, it feels like a major step forward in government monitoring.

Here’s an event and spectacle I wish that circumstances would have allowed me to see and participate in – Sydney celebrating Qantas’ 100th birthday.

Closer to home, last week I showed a picture of sheep at a train station in Scotland.  This week, a story of an Alaska Airlines 737 sharing a runway in Alaska with a pair of bears.  Alas, the plane hit/killed one of them.

If you decide to ignore the CDC’s plea not to travel for Thanksgiving, maybe this will help remind you what you can and can’t bring with you on your flight.

Wherever you spend next Thursday, and no matter who you share it with and how you share it, I do hope you have a great Thanksgiving.  Even in the depths of this virus scourge, we all still have lots to be thankful for, and it seems increasingly probable that well before next Thanksgiving, the virus will have been beaten back and our lives will be returning (returned) to normal.

Truly lastly this week, could I ask you to consider being thankful, not just for “everything” this coming Thursday, but also for The Travel Insider, today.  Please join in our annual fundraising drive and become a Travel Insider Supporter.  Thank you.

Until next week, please stay healthy and safe

 

David.

 

 

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David.