Weekly Roundup, Friday 18 December 2020

A proposed electric plane design that could maybe hold 186 passengers, but not expected to fly for quite some time, pending better battery technology. See item below.

Good morning

It has been a great and productive week in many respects.  Best of all,  another ten people chose to become Travel Insider Supporters during the last week, bringing us to 335 members.  Thank you very much.

And if you’ve not yet done so, perhaps you might think about tossing a small Christmas “envelope” this way.  Many people pass out thank-you gifts at this time of year, and I’d be most happy to be alongside the rubbish collector, the gardener, the UPS guy, and whoever else benefits from your kindness at present.  :)

Becoming a supporter is simple and quick.  Thank you.

As I said, it has been a productive week.  I started off by spending the weekend comparing and evaluating three sets of noise cancelling headphones side-by-side (Bose QC35 II, Bose NC700 and the new Wyze headphones), I decided that the worst of the three was the most expensive of the trio, the Bose NC700.  As for the other two, the five-times more expensive Bose QC35 was very similar to the Wyze headphones.  I’ll write this up, probably over Christmas, but for now, the $50 Wyze headphones continue to look like a huge bargain, with only one really annoying weakness.

That was not the major accomplishment, although identifying a set of headphones $200+ cheaper than the QC35 and $300+ cheaper than the NC700s is already a good thing.  The big deal, for me, and who knows, maybe for you too, was a final surge of effort culminating in finishing the first edition of my “The Covid Survival Guide” book, now handed off to Amazon and expected to appear as a Kindle eBook perhaps Tuesday next week – in time for some last minute gift shopping, either for yourself or to pass on to friends, perhaps!  I’ve set the price initially low ($4.95, similar equivalent in offshore markets) so that you can grab a copy at a great price, then I’ll move it up to a market price after you’ve had a chance to get the eBook at a Travel Insider special price.

A paperback version will be released too, but the lead times are a bit longer on that and it probably won’t appear until after Christmas.

Of course, already I’m shifting gears to a revised edition.  Happily there’s a way I can send out updated versions, for free, to people who buy the Kindle eBook.

A copy of Thursday’s Covid diary entry is attached.  It is shorter than normal, a normal length Sunday entry can be found on the website.

A few other items as well :

  • Air Passenger Numbers Equivocate
  • How Quickly Will Travel Return to Normal?
  • Southwest Settles With Boeing
  • Virgin Galactic’s Failed Test Flight
  • Russian Plane?  Check.  Russian Engines?  What!
  • Who Gives Way?  We Need Rules of the Road in Space
  • An Annoying Trend
  • Cars, Batteries, and Stuff
  • And Lastly This Week….

Air Passenger Numbers Equivocate

A week ago, the rolling one-week average of this year’s air passenger numbers was 32.0% of last year’s number.  During the week that followed, it very slightly dipped, then recovered and very slightly rose, ending at 32.4% this Wednesday.

It will be very interesting to see how the holiday travel changes the numbers over the next two to three weeks.  As you can see from the chart above, all previous holiday periods have experienced bumps in numbers before returning back to the trend prior to the holiday.

My guess is we’ll see a similar bump.  But, who knows, maybe this time, unlike every other time, people actually will heed the pleas not to travel.

If you don’t want to wait until next Friday for the next update on air travel trends, I send out tweets every morning with daily updates.

How Quickly Will Travel Return to Normal?

My sense is that travel company executives are shifting their future-planning from the concept of “when will this end” to the new concept of “how quickly will things return to normal”.  That’s a slightly happier question to be asking, of course.  It seems the general consensus of when things will end mirrors the results of our reader survey published last Friday – the third quarter of next year, plus or minus a month or so.

As for how quickly travel will return to normal, that’s definitely a very big unknown.  In the case of business travel, some business leaders are suggesting it might remain at massively reduced levels for many years to come.  But for leisure travel, there seems broad agreement that people will start vacationing again very quickly.

Yes, I know….  I’ll get a schedule of 2021 Travel Insider Tours up, probably during the Christmas break.

One pointer to how quickly leisure travel might recover comes from Australia and the Qantas budget-airline subsidiary, Jetstar.  Australia has been deeming itself to have conquered the virus (although a surprise outbreak appeared in Sydney this week throwing that claim into doubt), and Jetstar report that early in the new year, bookings are very strong to the point they’ve had to increase flights to a level 10% higher than before the virus struck.

Southwest Settles With Boeing

Southwest had to ground 34 737 MAX airplanes during the 20 month grounding of the plane.  They said this week they’ve now reached a settlement with Boeing for compensation.  They didn’t say what it was, but they did coyly indicate that they are taking delivery of 35 new 737 MAX planes between now and the end of 2021, and that there will only be an “immaterial amount” of capital spending to buy them.

According to this article, 16 of the 35 planes will be leased.  Does that mean the other 19 planes are being given to Southwest for free (other than for any deposits that may have been made) as part of the Boeing settlement?  That would seem to be a very fair settlement.

Southwest also says it won’t start flying its grounded or newly delivered 737 MAX planes until March next year, due to the lead time primarily in pilot training.  Another reason of course, although not stated, is due to not really needing the planes with the current depressed air travel numbers.

Virgin Galactic’s Failed Test Flight

Virgin Galactic finally had their latest test flight on Saturday last week.  Unfortunately it was a failure – due to a “computer connection problem” the main rocket motor failed to fire, meaning the craft had to make an unpowered glide back down to a safe landing.

Now, Virgin being Virgin, their spin-doctors were out there spinning furiously almost before the plane had returned back to ground.  We are told that the test was a great success, because it demonstrated how effective the safety measures were.  That’s not really as impressive as it might seem – there’s nothing very special about an unpowered landing.  The Space Shuttle did that over 130 times.  I’ve done hundreds, in gliders.  Sully even did it into the Hudson.

We are also told, in particular by this reporter who eagerly parrots the spin about how wonderfully safe the unpowered landing was (“speaks volumes about the company’s robust fundamental safety architecture” – my goodness me…..)  that it will be an easy fix to resolve the computer losing its connection problem.

Maybe he has some inside scoop.  But there’s been no detailed official explanation about exactly what it means for the computer to lose a connection.  One has a mental image of a USB cable falling out of its connector, or something else simple and trivial.  But the phrase “losing its connection” can mean vastly more complex things as well.  In particular, I’m minded of another recent problem to do with engines and computer connection problems – the 737 MAX.  We were told that would be an almost instantaneous easy fix, and it took 20 months.  It will be interesting to see how long it takes Virgin Galactic to solve its connection problem.

We also note the snail’s pace of its testing schedule.  Why did it take 22 months between the last “very successful” test flight and this one?

And rather than seeing Sir Richard proudly riding his rocket up into the sky mid last year, we’re now told that not only did he not fly on this flight, but he won’t be on the next one either.  But the company still plans to start commercial service sometime in the first half of next year.

A dollar says they don’t/won’t.

Their share price dropped 20% on Monday morning, with only very mild recovery during the rest of the week.

Russian Plane?  Check.  Russian Engines?  What!

Back in the “good old days” of the Soviet Union, Russia built what were actually reasonably good planes.  They were big and heavy, as were their engines, they were not very economical and the engines not very reliable, they were also not excellently maintained, and they were very noisy.

As the Soviet Union crumbled, Russian commercial airplane manufacturers saw their captive markets disappearing, while they lost their R&D funding to come up with new planes.  An airplane with some promise, the IL96, suffered from its Russian engines that had an extraordinarily bad reliability record – as I vaguely recall, they were experiencing an engine failure something like every other roundtrip between Russia and Seattle.  Fortunately it was a four-engined plane, and I believe subsequently some were re-engined with western engines.

All subsequent airplane designs were equipped with western engines, but now the country is toying with a Russian airplane engine again, albeit now on a two rather than four engined plane.

We’re not certain how many airlines will choose the Russian rather than Pratt & Whitney engine option, although it is quite likely the Russian government will encourage airlines to choose the local engine.  Details here.

Who Gives Way?  We Need Rules of the Road in Space

Space is big.  We know that.  So what are the chances of you in your space ship, or you with your satellite, having to swerve to avoid someone else?

Actually, the chances are greater than you might think, because although “space” is vast, the usable orbit areas above the planet are much more concentrated.  There a very narrow band directly above the equator, and about 22,236 miles above, where geosynchronous satellites are located.  There are 402 satellites in that orbit already, and in total, only 1800 could fit, although some positions are less desirable than others.

Then there are much lower satellites that move with respect to the earth’s surface.  Generally, no satellite ever wants to be less than 100 miles above the earth’s surface, because below that point, atmospheric drag starts to increasingly be a problem.  An exception might be spy satellites, which want to be as close to what they’re observing as possible, and if they’re in the atmosphere a little bit, that’s less atmosphere to have to see through.  Virgin Galactic hopes to fly not quite 70 miles up.

The International Space Station is about 254 miles up.  Elon Musk’s constellation of potentially 42,000 Starlink satellites will be about 340 miles above the earth’s surface.  GPS satellites are around 12,550 miles above the surface.  And so on for all sorts of other satellites.

As a result, already there are cases where two satellites are on paths that might intersect or at least get uncomfortably close.  Who gives way?  There’s no answer to that yet, but as a case this week illustrated, there’s an increasing need for a code of practice.

An Annoying Trend

I’m getting increasingly frustrated by another example of technology eclipsing common sense, with the result being massive inconvenience for no good purpose.

Have you also noticed the trend whereby we get sent “one time codes” by text message or phone call or email as part of logging in to websites.  This is of course “for our protection” – words almost as terrifying as “I’m from the government and I’m here to help you”.  And any possibility of arguing is stilled by the ultimate justification – “it is necessary for security”.

Originally, those codes seemed to typically be three digits long.  Even that was a bit of an overkill, because typically you get only one chance to enter the code number correctly, but reading a three digit number off your phone and typing it in to a log-on screen is no big deal.  That means for a hacker to access your account, they’d need :

  • Your Username
  • Your Password
  • Your Physical Phone

And frankly, if they have your phone, it doesn’t matter if the code is one digit or one hundred digits.

Since those happy days, though, the code numbers have been growing.  Four digits, five digits, and now six digit numbers often appear.

Earlier this week, I encountered my first ever eight digit security code, courtesy of the Social Security Administration.  Why????  (To get Medicare, I need to present in person documents proving my age and citizenship, but all their offices are closed due to the virus and have been since March.  I am not allowed to mail them because of a concern they might be lost!  It beggars belief they don’t already know my age and citizenship from 100 different government sources.)

Note to techno-geeks who design such things.  Just because it is physically possible to generate and send lengthy one-time codes doesn’t mean you should do so.  Could you please return back to three or four digits.

Cars, Batteries, and Stuff

Here’s a review of Ford’s new electric Mustang.  It sounds really nice.  Mind you, GM’s electric Bolt sounded really nice too, but somehow, GM (and its disinterested dealer network) managed to mess that up and the car never got anywhere near the market presence it seemed capable of.  Will Ford (and its dealers) kill the promise of the electric Mustang, too?

Talking about electric cars, not only do we regularly see articles about the promise of new electric cars due out in a year or two (but never actually being sold at the time the article is written) but we also see plenty of articles about amazing new battery technologies that will transform electric vehicles, with longer range, faster charge times, longer life, and lower cost.  Those articles always weakly end up with a mention of future production in some years time.  Here’s an example, with the promise of commercial production five or more years out.

Would it be unduly unkind to note that while we’ve been seeing such articles for many years, none of the batteries have ever appeared?

Which might pose problems for the designers of new electric airplanes, many of whom are attaching a small asterisk to their promised leadtimes for when their planes will appear, with the asterisk pointing to a disclaimer “subject to new battery technologies being developed in time”.  Here’s an example of that type of asterisked promise.

Still thinking about “electric” cars, here’s an article about hydrogen fuel-cell powered cars – they are electric in the sense of the fuel-cell creating electricity out of the hydrogen and atmospheric oxygen.  That is the first interesting thing we note – for the longest time, these vehicles went to lengths to differentiate and separate themselves from battery/electric vehicles.  Now they are trying to sneak in under the umbrella of “electric vehicle”, recognizing that it is the “electric” part which is the winning concept, not the hydrogen part.

The article is very kind to the concept of fuel-cell powered cars, and graciously ignores covering many of the limitations and challenges.  You also need to get out your calculator to discover the obscured truth – a hydrogen powered car costs about four times as much per mile to drive as a regular gasoline powered car.

Could I suggest that is the real problem these cars have spectacularly failed to be accepted in the market.  They’re just way too expensive to buy and way too expensive to run.

And Lastly This Week….

Unsurprising news.  People were happier with their air travel experiences this year than for many previous years.  Amazing what a difference it makes to have a nearly empty airport, no long lines, and a nearly empty plane with no middle seat filled.

But talking about those empty middle seats, they’re becoming harder to find again.  This article explains which airlines still keep them empty.

I never tire of the lovely drive along the shores of Loch Ness; indeed the last Scottish tour had a rare treat and we went up the eastern side of the lake, something very few people and no tour buses (other than ours!) ever do.  It is a really beautiful lake, with beautiful surroundings, and of course, has the overlay of mystery because of Nessie, the Loch Ness Monster.

I’ve never seen Nessie, and fear that perhaps the monster died some decades back because these days, although everyone has a camera with them, and more people are visiting the lake than ever before, there has been a marked drop-off in sightings.  But I do believe there formerly was something or some things in the loch, and here’s a great read that looks at the history of Nessie-sightings from a slightly different angle.

Yes, we’ll almost certainly include Loch Ness in our 2021 Scotland tour.

So here we are, a week from Christmas.  If you’re planning on some last minute online shopping, you should not wait much longer.  My sense is that most of the delivery companies are struggling to keep up at present (that includes Amazon) and this article talks about a “historic crush of package threatening to overwhelm the USPS”.

I will have a newsletter for you next Friday, and I hope it will find you full of the joy of Christmas.

Until then, please stay healthy and safe





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