Weekly Roundup, Friday 11 December 2020

Answers to the survey question about what will cause you to view travel as safe again.  See below for more explanation and data.


Good morning

I should regrettably start off on a sad note and bid farewell to Maj Gen Charles Elwood (Chuck) Yeager, one of the most iconic of the “right stuff” generation, and apparently a truly decent and honorable gentleman as well as a brave and loyal soldier.  He died this week, after a very full life, at the age of 97.  A nice obituary is here.

And now, on a very positive note, many thanks to the 27 new members who responded to my heartfelt plea on Tuesday morning to please join our annual Fundraising Drive.  That brings us to 325 members at present, and while a person could say it is not our target of 400, most people would say “well, it is 325” and see their glass as much more than half full.  I’m definitely in that very thankful and appreciative category.

I’ve been getting some helpful feedback from members about some things, and am keen to make the overall experience as smooth and positive as possible.  I’ve also added another member benefit that, who knows, might be the final clincher that encourages you too to become a member.

As background, when Google first introduced its website advertising program, Adsense, it was limited to small text only ads, and they only allowed a maximum of three or four of them per web page.  It also paid very generously, and most months in the mid 2000s I was getting several thousand dollars from the program.

In the 15 or more years since then, I guess what has happened is there has been a greater growth in web pages published and participating in the Google advertising than there has been a growth in advertisers and their budgets, and so three things have happened.  First, Google now wants to “take over” every web page and make its own independent decisions about what ads appear, and where on the page.  Second, and this sort of snuck up on me, the earlier concept of “no more than three or four small ads” has been replaced with “lots and lots of huge ads”.  Third, even though there are many more, and much larger, ads, the monthly revenue I get is now typically $100, and sometimes even less.

So I feel we’re at a tipping point where the advertising is starting to detract from the content presentation, and where the money returned from the ads is insufficient to justify the negative impact it is starting to have.  Accordingly, I have spent money to get some new programming that enables me to turn off the advertising for Supporters (crazy logic – spend money so I’ll then earn less money, but…..) and I believe all Supporters are now spared ads (note – you have to be logged in so the system knows you’re a Supporter and doesn’t still fill the pages with ads).

I hope I’ve also made it easier to log in, having now hidden the potentially annoying reCaptcha check box to prove you’re not a hacker/robot.  My site is under nonstop attack by hackers – there are thousands of attempts at logging in to the site from fake accounts every day.  But I’ve upgraded to a new “hidden” type of reCaptcha that only appears if in some mysterious way, the Google reCaptcha program thinks you’re a fake.

The other increasingly valuable Supporter benefit that I’m aware of every Thursday and Sunday, when I write my Covid Diary entries, is the growing amount of extra virus coverage in these articles, and of course, the pre-print copy of my book.  I’ve had several readers provide feedback and suggestions that has greatly helped the book improve and extend, and while it sounds like a crass exaggeration to suggest the book might save your life, it certainly does give you a wealth of advice about the virus and how to minimize your risk at home, at work, and when traveling, and what to do if you think you might be infected.

So, if any of these enhancements appeal, it is not and never is too late to become a Supporter.

What else this week?  I’ve added yet another item to the Christmas Gift Guide I released a week ago – a reader who noted my comment in the travel coffee maker entry about the difficulty of boiling water in a hotel/motel room recommended a lovely rubberized collapsible travel kettle, which I added to the list.

And here are a few other assorted items, as always :

  • Reader Survey Results – Returning to Travel
  • Air Travel Numbers Dropping Again
  • United’s New Airport Customer Service
  • Apparently China Never Got the Memo (About Airplanes Being Safe)
  • International Ticket Change Fees Scrapped (for now)
  • Which Would You Prefer – a Meal or an Amenity Kit?
  • Virgin Galactic About to Make Good on its Promises?
  • A Rocket Crash by Any Other Name……
  • FBI Bullying Ruled Illegal
  • And Lastly This Week….

Reader Survey Results – Returning to Travel

Thank you for sharing your thoughts on when you might start traveling again, and where you might go.

The answers weren’t altogether unexpected, but were interesting, and it is nice to know I was anticipating more or less correctly.  Here are a few of the key responses ”

When might it be safe to start traveling again

Which of these events will convince you to start traveling again

The answers are cut off in this graphic, they are :

Repeated testing with instant results before travel
Repeated testing with instant results during travel
Reduced rate of new cases in your country
Reduced rate of new cases in the destination you’ll visit
Drop in death rate due to better treatments/cures
A vaccine becoming readily available

When it becomes safe to travel again, where do you want to travel?

I’m considering a tour to somewhere in South America.  Can you tell me your thoughts about these countries please.

The answers are cut off in this graphic too, they are :

Never been, don’t want to go
Never been, maybe interested
Never been, definitely interested
Been before, don’t want to return
Been before, maybe interested
Been before, definitely interested


I also asked some questions about your interest in future Travel Insider tours, and the clear favorites are (most popular first) New Zealand, Australia, Christmas Markets, a fall European river cruise, and of course, Scotland.

Interestingly, people were voting 3:1 in favor of my “land cruise” concept for a Christmas Markets experience rather than a cruise.  Having now done two land cruise Christmas tours as well as countless river cruise Christmas tours, I can see positive aspects of both, with the most appealing part of the land cruise being it allows us to go “off the beaten track” and away from the standard river cruise constrained itineraries.

I generally agree with the survey results suggesting travel will become safe in the third quarter, although my concern, as discussed in yesterday’s Covid diary entry, is not so much the availability of vaccines as it is whether I’d be willing to take one myself by early third quarter.

Assuming New Zealand is open, I think it realistic to plan for NZ and Australia in October/November (more or less between mid October and mid November, not sure which country we’d do first), and I’m almost certain the Christmas markets will be open for visiting in early December, so those three are looking good.

Maybe a September river cruise – I got a very wide variety of requests for where to cruise; and am thinking of maybe Basel to Nuremberg (allows for great pre and post cruise options) with the cruise starting on 21 September.

Could we add Scotland before that in earlier September?  The weather is cooling, but not cold, in Scotland then, so maybe.  Or perhaps earlier in September is just too soon to plan for traveling again.  I’m not yet sure on that, but if we can get everything without needing deposits for some more months, maybe it can be pencilled in.

I’ve not lost sight of the ‘stans, and I’m thinking maybe South America on the far side of their summer in early 2022 (sounds a very long way away, doesn’t it, but in reality it is only just over a year out).

More on all these tours in the weeks that follow.  Many thanks to everyone for their input, and if you’ve further comments, please let me know.

Air Travel Numbers Dropping Again

Last week saw the preceding upwards run in growing passenger numbers reverse itself and start falling again.  Now that we’re starting to move out of any distortions caused by Thanksgiving, it has been interesting to see the numbers continue their fairly steep fall all this week.  We’re now down to travel levels comparable to late September, something that surely disappoints the airlines.

Wednesday’s drop was the mildest, so maybe we’re now stabilizing around the current level?  As always, the next week promises to be interesting, and soon enough, we’ll have the somewhat distorting factor of Christmas and the New Year to consider, too.

Does it really seem like “almost Christmas” to you?  It surely doesn’t, to me!

United’s New Airport Customer Service

If it weren’t for the fact that we almost never see any change (or, as they are always described, “improvement”) in how airlines provide customer service truly being an improvement, United’s announcement this week might seem good.

They’re saying that instead of having customer service counters in their terminals, they’ll now have agents that you can phone, text, or video chat with, via your phone.  The sensible part of this is that instead of having to staff multiple locations, with some invariably being overloaded after a flight has cancelled at an adjacent gate, while others are idle with staff having nothing to do, the airline can have a central pool of staff able to handle calls from anywhere around the airport.

But – call me a cynic if you will – there’s always been a bit of public accountability when you walk past an airline’s customer service area and either see no line, a very short line, or a huge long line of angry travelers.  Now, all people will see is people on their phones, and that’s hardly an astonishing sight in an airport or anywhere else.

My fear is that United will inevitably end up cutting back on the airport agent staffing level, and will allow the hold times until you get through to grow more and more.  Have you tried just calling a regular (800) booking number for an airline in the last year or two?  That’s a grim and sometimes impossible experience – it is beyond frustrating when you need a real person to help you and are willing to wait on hold for however long it takes, to hear “all agents are busy, call back later or check our website, <click>”.

We also wonder about international travel – if you’re in a foreign country and your phone doesn’t work, or if calling and data costs ridiculously high amounts per minute/MB, how happy will you feel having to spend $20 (or more) to sort out a missed connection due to the airline’s incoming flight being delayed.

Add to that the various Murphy’s Law factors such as ending up with a phone with dead battery after a long flight, and no way then to contact an airline service representative to fix the airline’s problem, it seems like it may create more problems than it solves.

Apparently China Never Got the Memo (About Airplanes Being Safe)

The airlines would have us believe we’ve more chance of being struck by lightning than catching the virus on a plane.  Few of us believe them, of course.

Amongst those not believing such optimistic claims is China.  Although China is almost completely virus-free these days, they’re not letting their guard down.  The government is now advising that when Chinese airlines are operating flights to/from “high risk” countries (pretty much everywhere else in the world!) the crew should wear medical masks, double-layer gloves, goggles, disposable hats, disposable protective clothing and disposable shoe covers.  And – oh yes.  Disposable diapers too, so as to be able to avoid using the bathrooms.

Details here.

International Ticket Change Fees Scrapped (for now)

As depressed as domestic travel is, international travel is almost exactly twice as bad.  So, to try and encourage people to boldly book travel, the airlines have copied their earlier decision to scrap change fees on domestic fares and are now doing the same on international fares.

Delta’s CEO said “they’re gone for good” but the airlines have notoriously short memories about such promises.  However, at least for now, change fees will not be charged, except on the lowest fares where they’ll still apply.

Note that these are change fee waivers, not cancel fee waivers.  Many times we book travel to align with some special event somewhere, and if we can’t make the special event, we don’t want to change our dates, we want to cancel our ticket entirely – especially for international destinations.  We also wonder how far into the future you could reschedule for, and how many times you could reschedule.

Domestic change fees had been rescinded some months ago, ostensibly permanently, but we don’t believe that any more than we believe international change fees will never return, either.

So a good move, but still leaves some measure of risk on our side.  Details here.

Which Would You Prefer – a Meal or an Amenity Kit?

Japan Airlines is trying out a new idea.  In attempt to save money and reduce food waste, it is trialing the idea of giving passengers a choice between an inflight meal or an upgraded amenity kit.

That would be a difficult choice for me.  As this article shows, even the upgraded amenity kit is no better than the useless junk that gets passed off as amenity kits these days – I still remember back fondly to the “good old days” when a first class amenity kit had really useful things in a large presentation folder/pouch, and were a treasure to eagerly collect and keep.  Now the standard kits these days have nothing of interest, just things like a tiny toothpaste, maybe a comb, eye shade, sock sort of things, ear plugs, wet wipe, and perhaps some makeup items, in a throwaway pouch.  Who remembers things like souvenir postcards and pens and writing pads?  Packs of cards?

But airline food is rarely much to treasure, either!  So, a difficult choice.

Understandably, you also have to choose at least 25 hours in advance, so they know how many meals (and kits) to load for the flight.

Virgin Galactic About to Make Good on its Promises?

Friday – today – might be an exciting day.  It is the start of Virgin Galactic’s pompously described next “launch window” for their next and much delayed test flight – you know, the one that was to feature Sir Richard Branson, last July (that is July 2019, not 2020) to commemorate the Apollo moon landing.

A Rocket Crash by Any Other Name……

I’m reminded of the old joke – two surgeons talking between themselves.  “So how did it go, operating on Mr Smith?”.  “Oh, great.  The operation was a great success.”  “Yes, but a shame that Mr Smith died.”

In this case, Elon Musk’s Space X proudly announced the outstanding success of the latest trial of the rocket that in final form is to travel to Mars.  Everything was a great success until literally the last minute, at which point a RUD occurred.

RUD?  A “rapid unscheduled disassembly”.  Or, to us non-technical types, the rocket crashed and burned, spectacularly.

Details here.

A bit reminiscent of the official description of the Challenger explosion, shortly after takeoff, back in 1986.  That was termed “a major malfunction”.

FBI Bullying Ruled Illegal

The Supreme Court unanimously ruled this week against the FBI.  The FBI had approached some Muslim men and asked them to act as secret informants and to pass information back to the FBI about other people in their Muslim communities.

I’m all in favor of that.  But where the FBI went egregiously wrong was that after the men refused to do so, the FBI told them that if they didn’t cooperate, they’d be deemed to be security risks themselves and so would be placed on the TSA No-Fly list.

The men still refused, and the men ended up on the No-Fly list.

After bringing suit in lower courts, as if by magic, the men were removed from the No-Fly list, and so the lower court said there were no longer any grounds to continue an action against the FBI and dismissed the case.

The Muslim men pointed out this was a nonsense ruling – they’d lost substantial money and suffered major inconvenience as a result of not being able to fly.  The appeal ended up in the Supreme Court, where they finally won their unanimous verdict.

It should go without saying that the murky and unaccountable No-Fly list is absolutely not intended to be used to bludgeon and coerce people into informing.  Or is it?  No-one knows how it works or why people are placed on it….

Details here.

And Lastly This Week….

The 737 MAX has now flown its first commercial flight since the grounding on 11 March, 2019 – 21 months earlier.

But can you guess who was the first airline to get one back in the air?  American Airlines?  Southwest?  Wrong and wrong.  It was an airline you’ve probably never even heard of – Gol Airlines, a low cost Brazilian carrier.  I’ve no idea why they were able to get a plane up and operating faster than our two MAX-owning carriers.

I’m anxiously awaiting several Christmas gifts I’d ordered and which it turns out are being shipped from China – something that wasn’t disclosed on the seller websites until after they’d got my money.  I hope, when they say “shipped”, they don’t mean on this particular vessel.

It is an interesting thing – as small boat owners know, thousands of containers fall off ships every year, but usually not thousands off a single ship.  Depending on what is in them, the containers can float on the surface, semi-submerged and almost invisible (totally invisible at night) for days/weeks/months or longer.  The thing about this – and not something most people ever pause to think about –  is if you’re in a fiberglass hulled boat and doing some oceangoing passage making, and your boat collides with a container, even at a relatively low speed of 12 – 15 knots, there’s a very good chance your boat will be destroyed by the impact and sink in double quick time.

Surprisingly, even with the vastness of the oceans, this is not an unknown occurrence.  It removes a huge amount of the liberating experience of being at sea and able to go wherever you like if you’re constantly and fearfully scanning the distance ahead, looking for barely visible semi-sunk containers ahead, and try having a good night’s sleep with the knowledge that at any minute, there might be a sudden loud noise, sudden deceleration throwing you out of bed, and barely a minute or so to get topside and to deploy a life raft, and hope the battery in the EPIRB (emergency beacon) is working.

Truly lastly, this amazing video looks like the sort of thing that people would stage while they’re bored with nothing to do during a Covid lockdown, but I see it was actually made ten years ago.

The most amazing part of the video, to me, is that it has had over 67 million views.  I’m going to guess that the makers of the video are getting one cent for every view (could be more, probably not any less).  If it is one cent, then that video, which apparently took an uncertain number of people working uncertain hours “several months” to create, and which was partially paid for by State Farm, has generated about $670,000 in income.  Hmmm – should I switch from writing weekly newsletters to creating these types of videos?

Assuming I’m not otherwise occupied building contraptions and stacking rows of dominos, I’ll see you next week, and until then, please stay healthy and safe.





1 thought on “Weekly Roundup, Friday 11 December 2020”

  1. As far as International ticket change fees go, I can tell you from personal experience (I didn’t change any flights, but was informed about them) that Korean Air, outside if the 24 hour cancellation window from initial booking, is still quite happy to collect hundreds of dollars for cancellations, changes, or refunds (depending upon class of service and number of days until flight).

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