Weekly Roundup, Friday 6 November 2020

A flying car that actually flies, and seems appealing and almost practical. Details below.

 

Good morning

A very happy Guy Fawkes Day yesterday to everyone in countries who observe that celebration of a failed attempt at rebellion.  There is some resonance to the concept as we go through yet another election outcome quagmire in the US – something we can’t blame on Covid, even with the postal voting issue.

Why does this great and seemingly advanced and honest nation have one of the worst and most contentious election counting systems in the world, followed by an unbelievably slow 2 1/2 month interregnum while the voted out politicians still have power?  In other countries, the former ruling party is out in less than 2 1/2 days and a new government formed – usually all within the immediate 24 hours following the election.

Like many others, after watching the ebb and flow of fortunes on Tuesday night until very late and the point at which things were stabilizing, I went to bed dreaming of the very red map that was being shown, and anticipating “Four More Years”.  But I woke to see that somehow, overnight, the red had become blue, and now we’re at risk of recreating an agony similar to that in 2000, although so far this time, the memes seem to be postmarks and sharpie markers rather than hanging chads.

It doesn’t matter who you wanted to win, is there anyone, anywhere, pleased with the present state of uncertainty?

And predictably, we’re already seeing a re-run of articles/hopes such as this one.

Do you remember, over a month ago, I shared part of an interaction with Google Fi’s online support?  The matter is still ongoing, now with problems in their billing department, trying to get a credit for the eventually delivered and immediately returned phone.  I received my latest monthly statement from them, and tried calling the billing department number on the statement to try and resolve the matter.  The 800 number took me to a recording telling me that due to the virus, Google Fi is not offering phone support.

Really, Google – you do know, don’t you, that the virus doesn’t travel down the phone lines?  Or maybe there is something, after all, to the strange fears some months ago about 5G wireless signals spreading the virus!

I then tried calling Google’s local number in California, also on the statement, but that got me a “this number can not be reached” recording from the phone company.

How can a company so full of such clever people be so stupid and insensitive to service issues?  I love the Fi product, and it remains by far the cheapest of all the phone service options I can find, but the service?????

Talking about strange things with large companies, I’ve noticed a new development with Amazon and their review policies.  I can no longer “like” or comment on reviews made by people outside the US.  That’s really strange.  If someone in England reviews the exact same product that I have or want, why can I not correct them or comment on their review, and not even like the review at all?

Attached is yesterday’s Covid diary entry, and Sunday’s is online here.

What else this week?  The election limbo has sucked a lot of the lifeblood out of many of us (see the air passenger numbers below).  But a nice selection of items for you, nonetheless.

  • Passenger Numbers Dip
  • Another Flight to Nowhere Concept
  • A Oneway Airport
  • You Know Things are Really Bad at Boeing When….
  • A Real Looking Flying Car (and Homebuilt Plane)
  • Amazon Cuts $1 Billion, so far, from its Travel Budget
  • And Lastly This Week….

Passenger Numbers Dip

The steady growth of air travel in the US reached (on a seven day smoothed average) a new height, 37.8% of last year’s numbers on Friday.  But since then it has been falling for the five days subsequently, and with the most recent (Wednesday) data added, is now back at 35.2% of last year’s numbers.

Was this due to a Halloween anomaly?  Or something to do with the election?  The election in particular might have been a factor, but it is surprising the reversal from daily increases to daily drops has been steady for so far five days (Saturday – Wednesday).

Is it people finally starting to respond to the runaway growth of new virus cases in the US?  That’s another possibility, although we guess that to be unlikely.

There have been other dips, as you can see from the chart, but usually the previous dips have been corrections after sudden spurts of growth, and as a result of holiday weekend type one-off blips.  There’s no such obvious explanation this time.

Also, while it is true we’re going from high season to low season, that is built in to the percentages, because they are comparing air travel numbers on this day, this year, with numbers on the same day last year.  So we’re seeing not just the seasonal normal decline, but an extra decline as well.

It will be very interesting to see what happens during the next week.  If it is interesting, I’ll add daily updates on Twitter.

I’m not saying that a falling off of passenger numbers is bad for you or me or the nation as a whole, and epidemiologists might even be pleased; but for sure, it is not good for the airlines and, probably, other sectors of the travel industry too.

Another Flight to Nowhere Concept

Our most recent reader survey overwhelmingly showed no interest in generic “flights to nowhere” at present, but airlines in other parts of the world continue to experiment with the concept – understandable when the alternative is essentially no flying at all.

Airlines seem to be understanding that a successful flight to nowhere is more than just the flight – it needs a theme, or some special ingredient, to make it appealing.  Thai Airways came up with a clever and apparently successful idea – a three hour flight around Thailand, designed to pass over 99 sacred sites, and with chanting of Buddhist mantras on board, coordinated by a celebrity fortune teller.

Prices for the flight start at $193 for coach class and $321 for premium class.

A Oneway Airport

I guess it is a bit like a flight to nowhere.  A one-way airport.  I’ve sometimes noticed airline schedules that show an imbalance between flights in and out of an airport, and never figured out how that works (probably some sort of code-sharing magic).  But how about an airport where planes can only land and not take off again?  That’s not a viable concept for extended operations, or so you’d think.

It can be an issue, though.  In general, planes can land in a shorter distance than they need to take off.  So just because a runway is long enough for an airplane to land does not guarantee it also being long enough for the plane to depart from again.  There are several reasons this is so – planes can almost always brake more strongly than they can accelerate being the main one, and then other issues such as planes usually being heavier when taking off than landing (the assumption being planes take off with lots of fuel and land with little), take-off and landing speeds, flap settings, and so on.

There sometimes have been cases where planes have had difficulty taking off again – the classic cases being a plane forced to make an emergency landing at an otherwise undesirable/problematic airport.  To take off again, sometimes it is necessary for the plane to depart with no passengers and minimum fuel, and perhaps to wait for a favorable wind as well.  We’ve heard of planes having to be stripped of their seats and other removable gear, too.

Favorable winds are actually head winds, not tail winds, because that means you already have some “air speed” even before you start moving.  I’ve been able to “fly” a glider while stationary on the ground (and gliders can travel so slowly that it is possible sometimes to see a glider apparently flying backwards due to a very strong but invisible head wind some hundreds of feet above ground level).

My point, and I’m finally getting to it, is that Lufthansa flew six 747-400 planes to an airport in the Netherlands, possibly to be scrapped at the airport, then sold five of them to a recycling company in the US.  Unfortunately, the airport’s runway was only certified for landings, not takeoffs.  Who knew that could be a thing?

It turns out it was the sort of nonsense that only bureaucrats can enjoy, create, and eventually solve.  When the planes were flown there the airport did allow take-offs as well as landings, but somehow that changed while the planes were stored there, and then, with the ultimate invocation, it was claimed that due to the lack of appropriate paperwork, there would be “security risks” if the planes were allowed to fly away again.  Really?

It is hard to know if it was all a passive aggressive way at trying to win more business for the local plane wrecker, but with a court case pending, Lufthansa finally got the right to fly its planes away again.  Details here.

You Know Things are Really Bad at Boeing When….

There are some parts of Boeing’s business that are unnecessarily challenging.  One in particular is the prohibition on doing business normally when trying to sell its planes around the world.

In much of the world, “normal” business involves bribes, back-handers, lavish gifts, and all that type of carry-on that we in the moral US look down our noses at.  Boeing is in a bind in such cases – if an aviation minister of a country has the ability to make a one billion dollar deal one way or the other, and if another supplier (not necessarily Airbus, although it doesn’t have a perfect record – maybe a leasing company or a second hand airplane broker, or any of the many other infrastructure and support entities that have vested interests in how the sale is concluded) is offering him a personal tiny “fee” or “expediting gratuity” – even 1% is $10 million which is definitely life changing for most people in most countries – and Boeing is refusing to match that offer, it can be extremely difficult to choose Boeing with so much personally at stake.

But if Boeing goes by the “When in Rome, do as the Romans do” philosophy, it will find unsmiling regulators in the US eager to throw their executives in prison.

I have no idea about all the ways Boeing manages to do business in such an environment, and I acknowledge it is some years since it last faced a bribery allegation.  But one thing Boeing can do is treat buyers to generous hospitality while they are visiting Boeing, and one of the ways it has done this is by way of having their own 151 ft luxury yacht in the Seattle area, used for hosting buyers and “business meetings” and suchlike.  It was described as being “a small floating hotel, providing a way for Boeing sales teams and airline customers to get away for fishing trips and conversations in a private setting”.  “Fishing trips” – that’s a nice phrase, isn’t it….

News this week suggests Boeing has now sold the vessel.

A Real Looking Flying Car (and Homebuilt Plane)

Flying cars have been promised, and even experimentally developed, since the 1920s.  Henry Ford, after he got auto production under his belt, was a great believer in flying cars, and the concept has captured many other people’s imagination over the the decades, too.  Here’s one from 1960.  There are several companies that have been promising flying cars “in a couple of years time” for years if not decades, but the designs have never impressed and the reality of commercial production runs of flying cars has never materialized.

One of the recurring things I see, along with SST promises and the perennial “this time we mean it, we’re about to start flying any day now” from Virgin Galactic (they’re now claiming 23 Nov or subsequently), are stories about flying cars just about to become a reality.

Here’s one such company and claim, but this time, it rings almost true.  Have a look at the short video on their home page – the plane/car looks almost viable and sensible in both modes, and it transitions from one to the other by simply pushing a button rather than needing to get several helpers to assist you manually taking wings out of a trailer that the car has to tow behind it on the road (what happens to the wings at the other end of a flight with no trailer waiting for them, I wonder?).

Most impressively, this flying car has gone from concept to working model in a very short time.  I’m impressed.

Something else that is both similar and tremendously different that also impressed me this week is an astonishingly well produced video of a guy in his garage and the plane he designed and built himself.  The wings are made of styrofoam, believe it or not, and to keep things simple, it has no ailerons, but the plane, powered by an electric motor, flies well.

The way the guy approached the design, construction, and testing of his plane really felt like what the Wright Brothers would do if they were alive today.  It is great to see such applied creativity and a bizarre mix of scientific method and “seat of the pants”.  The result is an appealing plane and appealing video, and makes me wonder just exactly what could I do if I cleared out my garage, too!

Amazon Cuts $1 Billion, so far, from its Travel Budget

An unstated fear of the business travel industry is that the virus is creating a new “learned behavior” and destroying the previous behavior when it comes to business travel.  Companies are getting a taste of what life is like with greatly reduced travel, and some of them are discovering that they like it – individuals are enjoying a freedom from the hassles and stresses of travel, and CFOs are enjoying the cost savings associated.

Amazon disclosed, in its third quarter earnings call, that since reducing travel subsequent to the virus, it has saved almost $1 billion in travel expenses.  That’s over about six months, and is a stunning number, almost impossible to comprehend in terms of its enormity.

It is hard to reduce it to a meaningful number, because while Amazon employs right on a million people worldwide, the vast majority of those are low paid staff in their warehouses and fulfillment operations.  Could we say maybe 10,000 of their people might sometimes travel and now travel less?  If that number is correct, that is a savings of $100,000 per employee, in just six months.  If we say it has 50,000 people to spread this over, it is still a massive $20,000 per traveler saving.  Double that for a full year.

For sure, once any company gets a taste of that type of saving, they’re not going to want to go back to “the good old days” when virus fears finally fade.  The virus is a travel-paradigm changing event.

Details here.

And Lastly This Week….

I find articles such as this one – “Nine Things I Learned When I Became a Honeymoon Planner for Billionaires” fascinating, and in my idle moments, I dream about how I’d honeymoon, or just generally live, if I too were a billionaire.  People who say money doesn’t buy happiness simply lack the vision (or the money) to truly comprehend how it can indeed positively change one’s life!

I’m probably just jealous at their success (and their looks!) but I’ve always disliked the new breed of “social media influencers” who lead 100% fake lifestyles and lie about products to gullible teenage girls (and older people who perhaps should know better) to get them to spend way too much money on over-priced junk.

So I felt a twinge of schadenfreude at reading that the virus has restricted the actions of many of these influencers (particularly the bikini-clad travel influencers).  And I had to add a layer of amusement at the ultimate level of artifice that this entire industry of deceit has become – the most successful influencers these days are computer generated – they’re not even “real” people.

I guess if you’re a totally vapid empty headed fool, you’re as easily persuaded to waste your money based on what a CGI image tells you as what a “real” person tells you.  Details here.

A couple of stories about air traffic controllers to end the newsletter.  This is a heart-warming one, and this one appeals on several different levels.

Until next week and that interesting concept, please stay healthy and safe

 

David.

 

 

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David.