Weekly Roundup, 15 January 2021

The converted 747 that takes the Virgin Orbit rocket (under the wing) for the first leg of its journey into orbit. See story, below.


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Good morning

This was the week of the annual Consumer Electronics Show in Vegas, but this year it was held “virtually”, online, rather than as the usual physical trade show with almost 200,000 people crowding into the Las Vegas Convention Center.

My initial delight at having CES transform from an unpleasant and costly endurance test to a convenient no-cost experience I could enjoy from the comfort of my own home and computer screens rapidly evaporated.  Much as I love technology and gadgets, to my astonishment I found myself missing some of the elements of CES that, just the week before, I’d been dreading.

Perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised.  I’ve always said the most resilient part of business travel would be trade shows and conventions.  But the experience was so unlike what I’d expected that I ended up writing about it, with an interesting twist in the story toward the end when I muse as to why it was not better than it was.  The article is attached at the bottom of this morning’s roundup.  As is also, of course, attached, yesterday’s Covid diary entry, with the Sunday entry online if you wish to read that, too (and haven’t done so already).

So what of this year’s virtual CES?  What is new and exciting?  Almost nothing is the short answer, and clearly it isn’t only me who has been feeling underwhelmed and short of things to excitedly write about.  There’s been very little in the usual media outlets about the show.

There was, as there inevitably is, some new enormous screen televisions at ridiculously high (six figures) prices.  Plus more 8K resolution video monitors, but they’re about as necessary as, well, politeness prevents me from completing that simile.  Suffice it to say that for most of us, at typical screen viewing distances, an 8K screen will look no different to a 4K screen.

And, oh yes, there’s nothing in the way of 8K content to watch on an 8K screen anyway, and still very very little content in 4K.

When 8K content does appear (or, perhaps that should be “if”) it is likely it will require at least a 100 Mbps data line and possibly as high as a 200 Mbps data line for smooth streaming of video to your screen.  Most of us can support the 35 – 50 Mbps required for 4K, and just about all of us can support the 12 – 15 Mbps required for 1080P HD, but 100 – 200 Mbps is not a common and reliably guaranteed speed for many of us.

8K screens are an example of an industry desperate to come up with the next new thing we all have to upgrade to buy.  But just like their failure with 3D, it is getting harder to come up with features that we actually want.  If/when prices drop sufficiently, maybe 8K sets will become the new standard, just the way 4K sets went from being esoterically expensive to normally priced.  But until then, we don’t see a lot of demand for this new higher resolution.

There was assorted vague talk about the promise of 5G but little specifically taking advantage of it, although Samsung surprised everyone by releasing their latest generation of high end phones, the S21 series, with prices $200 below last year’s S20 models.  It is well past time for cell phones to stop what had become a steady march of price increases every year.  The phone makers have realized that higher prices are hurting not helping them, because it is causing all of us to delay our phone replacements – particularly when each new year’s models have almost nothing different or tangibly improved from the previous year.

Unsurprisingly, there were more smart products and home automation, including a lot of remote controlled door locks.  But these have lost their “gee whiz” element – just about every kitchen appliance can now be connected to the internet or to a voice assistant.

There was yet another attempt to get a phone that is both small is size but with a potentially large screen when needed – a phone with a screen that rolled up when not in use.  Talking about big screens, a full width dashboard/screen was proposed for new Mercedes cars – the screen goes from the driver door side of the dash all the way to the passenger door.

And the, there was of course, probably the usual (or should I say “unusual”) assortment of really strange things that will probably never ever end up on shop shelves, but this year it was harder to find them than in previous years.

This year’s strangest device – at least, out of the small range of products I saw – was a mask with a built in microphone and external speaker so your voice wouldn’t sound fuzzy and indistinct.

The device I liked the most is a very clever idea.  A remote control (for a television) that recharges itself via a built in solar-cell.  When you think of how infrequently you press a key on your remote, and for so short a time, it seems you really don’t need much power to run the device, and a small solar cell that generates power either from sunlight or indoor lighting means no more battery changes in the remote.

General Motors displayed a concept flying car, but don’t get too excited about that (unlike some journalists, who in their desperation to write anything at all, gave it way too much praise).  There have been plenty of flying vehicle concepts shown at CES before, but in this year’s virtual CES, the GM flying car was also virtual.  It was nothing more than a computer graphic simulation.  Its correspondence with present or near future reality is therefore little closer than the latest model space ships on the latest Star Wars movie.

As perhaps the ultimate and unintended expression of how boring and dull CES was, Engadget – a blog that exists solely and exclusively to make the ordinary seem exciting – gave its “Best of Show” award to – drum roll please – a new computer CPU chip from AMD.  The chip had nothing unique or special about it, other than the never-ending cycle of smaller/faster elements that every new computer chip has compared to every previous one.  Indeed, the same day AMD was awarded its best of show award, Intel were announcing their latest generation of CPU chips, making the “excitement” over the AMD device even more ridiculous and artificial.

What else this week?  Well, perhaps of no direct interest to any of you, although maybe yes, and certainly, if you have middle grade/high school age children or grandchildren, perhaps of interest to them.  Not only am I finally getting around to publishing a novel I wrote 20 years ago, but my 16 year old daughter is trying to one-up me by publishing the fantasy novel she wrote two years ago.  I think it is actually not a bad story at all, and a best-selling award-winning author wrote a very kind review quote for her.  Available on Amazon, of course, in both  Kindle and paperback formats.   Yes, I am indeed a very proud father.

Please continue reading, below, for :

  • Air Passenger Numbers Starting to Drop Again
  • New Air Passenger Rights
  • New Air Passenger Wrongs
  • 737-500 Crash in Indonesia
  • Norwegian Ends Long-Haul Flights
  • Is MSN Now Printing Press Releases Word for Word?
  • Boeing “Sells” -17 Planes in December.  It was a Good Month for Boeing.
  • A Tale of Two Airlines
  • Another Virgin Company Struggling to Meet Deadlines
  • And Lastly This Week….

Air Passenger Numbers Starting to Drop Again

As you can see, after the rolling seven day average peaked on 4 January at 48.7% of 2019, it has been more or less steadily downhill ever since, with Wednesday this week down to 38.0% of 2019.

My sense is we’re nearing the end of the post-holiday correction, and perhaps soon numbers will start to tick up slowly again.

The TSA introduced the numbers for same day in 2020, so it is possible to compare now to 2019 and/or 2020.  Currently there is almost no difference in the seven day average when matched against either 2019 or 2020.  I’ll track both, and certainly, when we approach March and the 2020 numbers started to fall off compared to 2019, it will then become interesting to see both sets of data.

New Air Passenger Rights

A couple of very small tweaks from the DoT in terms of our very limited rights as passengers on planes.  Passengers who are “bumped” – involuntarily denied boarding due to their flight being oversold – now have their entitled compensation minimum raised  from $675 to $775 for delays of less than two hours, and twice that – up from $1350 to $1550 – for delays of over two hours.

Mishandled baggage claims are now capped at $3800 instead of $3500.

The most important change is that once you’re on the plane, the airline can’t require you to leave.  That’s certainly a reason not to be last to board – it seems that “possession” (of a seat) entitles you to keep it, no matter what the airline might wish.  No more dragging people unwillingly off flights (other than for bad behavior, of course – see next item).

New Air Passenger Wrongs

In a regrettable bit of grandstanding, the FAA made an offensively meaningless announcement of a new “zero-tolerance” policy on Wednesday, allegedly “empowering airlines to implement a no-nonsense, stricter legal enforcement policy against unruly airline passengers”.

The reason this is regrettable and unnecessary is because – and this is apparently news to the FAA – the airlines already have a less than zero tolerance rule, not just for visibly unruly passengers, but for all manner of other passengers too.  If a flight attendant doesn’t like your clothing or thinks it too brief, you’ll be ordered off the plane.  If a flight attendant doesn’t like the picture or slogan on your t-shirt, off you go.  If a flight attendant thinks you are looking at them aggressively, or, best (worst) of all, if a flight attendant merely “doesn’t feel comfortable” about a passenger, off you go again.

And when I say “off you go”, many times you’re taken off by a squad of four or more police officers.  Due process?  Nope, not a bit of it.  Federal prosecutions?  All too often!

It is already an FAA stated offense to refuse to follow the directions of a uniformed crew member.  That’s a 100% catch-all for everything.  If they tell you to strip naked and dance up and down the aisle, and you refuse, you’re already in trouble.

The latest uncalled for aggression from the FAA does nothing to encourage a calmer more tolerant environment or attitude on the part of flight attendants or passengers.

The strangest thing about this?  The new zero-tolerance policy expires on 30 March.  Why?  How is it that unacceptable behavior on 29 March becomes acceptable on 31 March?

737-500 Crash in Indonesia

On Saturday a 737-500 operated by Sriwijaya Air crashed shortly after taking off from Jakarta.  All 62 people on board were killed.

First, to be clear, this is not a 737 MAX.  It is a previous generation 737-500 plane, 26 years old.  It was originally operated by Continental, then United, and in 2012 was sold to Sriwijaya Air.  It had been out of service for seven months, but was returned to service in mid December, being re-certified on 17 December and resuming flights on 19 December.

The plane is described as “plunging out of the sky”.  It seems both engines may have still been operating, although we don’t yet know if they were operating normally, at the time of the crash.  Indeed, we know almost nothing at all as to what may have caused the crash.

People have rushed to speculate, and most of such speculation seems to be based on nothing valid at all.  Some people have worried about the heavy rain, but the weather was perfectly normal for Indonesia’s monsoon season and, guess what, planes can fly in the rain.  Some people have worried that maybe the pilots had not been flying enough recently to remember how to take off safely and fly the plane (puhleeeze).  It is possible that sub-optimum crew responses took a problem that could have been solved and made it into the crash, and the crew did not communicate or respond to ATC for several minutes so it seems they were busy struggling to recover the plane from whatever was causing the problem, but it seems unlikely that pilot error was the initiating cause of the problem.

Some people worried that having the plane stored for seven months might have caused some problem due to non-use for that time.  That’s a distant possibility, and obviously something went wrong, but the plane had been flying for three weeks and so any problems from its period of inactivity had presumably been worked out.  There is a suggestion the plane may have had a problem with its auto-throttle in the recent past, and that could be significant and might fit in with some of the observed behavior of the flight, but is currently unconfirmed.

The data recorder “black box” has been recovered, the cockpit voice recorder has not yet been recovered, but probably will be in the next few days.

More might be known next week.  At present there is insufficient information to start to make any type of guesses, but it might be helpful to point out there is not yet any suggestion of any systemic problem with all 737-500 planes.

Norwegian Ends Long-Haul Flights

Perhaps winning the prize for saddest news so far this year for most of us in the US is the announcement that Norwegian Air will no longer operate its longer distance flights, including all flights to/from the United States.

The airline, in announcing the end of its longer flights, made no mention of plans to reinstate them.  Never say never, but for now, it seems Norwegian is the latest airline casualty, at least in the US market.

It is amazing to think that in its heyday, it was carrying more passengers between the US and UK every day than BA.  Yes, the loss of this good-quality good-price independent competitor will definitely impact on the prices we pay to fly to the UK and Europe, whenever it is we start flying there again.

One post-script to this.  While of course the airline’s rapid growth and then Covid both caused it grave problems, a credible case could be made that it was the years of delay by the DoT, refusing to even look at Norwegian’s application to fly to the US, that was the root cause of all of this.  The DoT just did nothing, month after month after month.  It knew it had no choice but to approve an application that was perfectly in order in every respect, and it knew that Norwegian promised the huge benefit of more competition on the dismayingly uncompetitive trans-Atlantic routes.  But, presumably at the behest of the US carriers, the DoT just did nothing, for the longest time.  How to describe that other than as corruption?  Norwegian was massively harmed by these gratuitous delays, as were we all by the lack of a major competitor that, once it did become operational, seemed to benefit us all by giving us more flights and choices and encouraging all airlines to drop their fares.

Is MSN Now Printing Press Releases Word for Word?

This article sure reads like a pure press release, unedited from how it was received by MSN.  It boastfully talks of JetBlue’s new A220 planes, with the claim that the planes are “outfitted with a unique two-by-three seating configuration”.

Now we know that the word “unique” is much abused, but this has to be an extreme example.  Every A220 has a two-three seat configuration.  And even that wasn’t a new development.  Ever since 1963, DC-9 planes and their MD-80 and eventually the Boeing 717 successor planes have offered two-three seating.  Other less common planes have long had it, too.

So what is unique about this?

The release/news article also contains one of the silliest phrases known to mankind.  “Vegan leather”.  That’s an oxymoron.  There is no such thing as a vegan leather, any more than there’s an “experienced virgin”.  Why not tell the truth and call it “some awful artificial mush that we’ve treated with an abundance of chemicals to imitate real leather”.

Boeing “Sells” -17 Planes in December.  It was a Good Month for Boeing.

Boeing reports this week that in December, cancellations outweighed new orders received, with a net of 17 more cancellations than orders received for the month.  That might sound dreadful, but actually, it was one of Boeing’s better months in 2020.  For the other 11 months, it averaged -92 net orders a month, bringing the year’s total “sales” to -1026 planes.  That’s the worst year it has ever reported.

For deliveries, it managed to deliver 157 planes, the worst year since 1977.  It ends the year with 4223 planes in its backlog.  Airbus numbers haven’t yet been released, but will probably be slightly better than Boeing’s.

In other Boeing news, it received a stern telling-off by one of their best customers, Tim Clark, President of Emirates Airline.  He said Boeing needs to demonstrate fundamental changes after producing its flawed 737 MAX and urged it to recognize culpability and accountability at the very top.

Some of us have been saying that for a while, of course.  But we’ve also noticed a dismaying lack of consequences, especially in terms of their Board of Directors, which doesn’t seem to have demonstrated effective oversight at all, and eagerly await for the hollow-sounding ritualistic statements of contrition to translate into meaningful actions.

We say that not only in terms of hard to see changes to current design and oversight practices, but in terms of its corporate direction and strategy.  Airbus is waiting to release new enhancements to its A321 series of planes (mainly in the form of new wing sections), planes which are already eating Boeing’s lunch at every turn even before new enhancements.   The main reason for the delay is Airbus wondering – as are we all – if/when Boeing is going to announce its future intentions for its aged and no longer entirely adequate 737 family.

At the same time, there remains the “middle of the market” gap – a gap all the more important as airlines shift their focus from big planes to small and medium sized planes.  Boeing has yet to come up with a clear plan to replace the 757.  And its plans for a new generation of 777 planes look increasingly far-fetched and unnecessary due to lack of demand for that size of plane.

It is time for Boeing to start spending some money on what it terms “moonshot” programs – programs to develop an all-new 737 replacement incorporating the latest and greatest new technologies, and an all-new 757 replacement.

A Tale of Two Airlines

Talking about Emirates, they’re already starting to grow back their services to the US and elsewhere.  That surprises me, but I guess they know best.

However, a competitor airline, Qatar, has announced that they will be retiring half their fleet of A380s.  The other half are scheduled to be phased out by 2028.  Their often idiosyncratic CEO, Akbar Al Baker, had a surprising reason why they are doing this.  You and I might think the obvious reason would be lack of passenger numbers.  But that would be a humbling statement to make.  Instead, we are told the planes are being retired on ecological grounds – they are, according to the CEO, “one of the worst aircraft when it comes to emissions”.

Now, let’s be clear about this.  The A380 hasn’t changed since when Qatar took delivery of their planes, starting in 2014.  And while they’re not the most fuel-efficient of planes, they’re far from the worst.  It certainly is a coincidence that Qatar Airways suddenly became concerned about airplane emissions right at the time that their traffic numbers had taken a major hit.

Another Virgin Company Struggling to Meet Deadlines

Virgin is not just the silly short joyrides up high into and debatably out of the atmosphere, as per their Virgin Galactic brand.  It also is trying to develop a “real” rocket, under the name of Virgin Orbit.  We like its concept – as pictured at the top, it is carried up into the air on a special 747 carrier plane, and launched, already at some speed and some altitude, sparing it the need to carry as much of its own fuel.

Unfortunately, that’s not been going too well for them so far.  It’s latest test launch was supposed to be last Sunday.  Then it was going to be Wednesday this week.  Now they’re hoping for Sunday.  But – don’t worry.  They’ve penciled in the next couple of Sundays too, in case this Sunday also fails to see their rocket take off.

Details here.

And Lastly This Week….

I remember when the big concern about digital cameras was about how to print out the digital images.  The digital files were deemed “useless” for most normal people, who “of course” needed hard-copy prints to look at and share and place into albums.

Then the concern became focused on how to digitize film negatives (and positives) because all artwork was shifting to digital forms.

Well, making a long story short, when did you last print out a picture?  Yes, exactly.  Me too.  The last time I needed a printed picture was for a visa application, and before that, a passport, and these days, even most visa applications want electronic images too.

So, while it feels sad, it is perhaps not altogether surprising to read that Costco is now shuttering all its photo centers.

The Covid cancellation of so much travel last year has caused some interesting gyrations in the attitudes and statements of people who demand to have their cake and to eat it too.  I’m talking about the people who hate tourists, but love the money they bring.  They’ve been getting a taste of what life might be like without tourists, and are now struggling to come up with platitudes that represent an appropriate compromise between sounding greedy and idealistic.

Thinking outside the box, in terms of city-planning – here’s a fascinating idea about a mega-city that is only a few blocks wide, but 105 miles long.  It sounds like a ridiculous idea, and reminds us sort of like Detroit Airport’s terminal that is something like a mile from end to end.

But we can see how this could be brilliant.  There would be no need for private cars, and no traffic problems.  You can walk from anywhere to the center of the long narrow city (maximum of five minutes walk), and then take fast (for short distances) or extremely fast (for longer distances) public transport to wherever else in the city you wanted to go.  This article – unfortunately dripping in hate for the author of the idea – explains more about the concept.

Until next week, please stay healthy and safe





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