Weekly Roundup, 22 January 2021

The lighter the color, the worse the state for driving in. See article, below.

 

 

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Good morning

I’ve been getting an encouragingly large number of people asking me about Travel Insider touring plans for this year.  Thank you.  The short answer is hopefully we’ll go some places in the third and fourth quarters, starting from maybe September or thereabouts.

But there’s a longer answer, too, and in reality, the future at present is as much guesswork as it is scientifically mapped out.  As for the longer answer, which of course applies equally to any personal travel plans you might be considering, independent of Travel Insider tours, you’ll see it expressed in a feature article below, “When Should You Start Traveling Internationally Again”.  Sadly, it seems we’re all going to have to be a bit more patient for a bit longer.

What else this morning?  The usual bits and pieces, including :

  • Air Travel Numbers Steady
  • Another Meaningless List (Safest Airlines)
  • Boeing Rushes to Respond to Safety Criticisms
  • Airbus vs Boeing, 2020
  • Best and Worst States to Drive In
  • Electric Cars and Their Batteries
  • TSA Mission Creep
  • And Lastly This Week….

Air Travel Numbers Steady

After a fairly steep fall the previous week, this week saw a reasonably steady level of air travel numbers.  What I am finding interesting however is what is also being revealed, now that we can match 2021 numbers with the same numbers in both 2020 and 2019.  Although the difference is small, and might vanish tomorrow, there is already appearing a slight drop in 2020 numbers compared to 2019 numbers – something that seems unexpected early in 2020.

This week is the week the virus first appeared in the US, here in the Seattle area.  The year started with the appearance and promise of stability, peace, and prosperity.  Of course, we got “none of the above”, but in mid January, all three seemed almost assured.  It is very surprising that 2020 air travel was slightly down on 2019 numbers, well before even the quietest of whispers about the coronavirus started to impact on our lives.

It will be interesting to see if the 2020 numbers stay lower than 2019 between now and 1 March, when the TSA data series first started tracking 2020 vs 2019.

Another Meaningless List (Safest Airlines)

One of the oldest tricks in the PR books is, when trying to score some free publicity, to come up with some type of list or ranking of items, products, services, companies, whatever.  You then weave a story making the list into a credible and important type of list, and issue a press release which invariably gets printed by many media outlets.  With some extra cleverness, you send congratulatory award certificates to the highest scoring companies, and get them to start referring to their award wins in their material, thereby validating your ranking.

I’m of course not saying that the airlineratings.com list of the world’s safest airlines is a made up bunch of nothing.  But I will say that probably their best ever list was in 2018, when rather than name the very safest airline in the world, the second most safe, and so on, they grouped together 20 airlines and called them all equally excellent.

The thing is, which they recognized in 2018, but neither before then nor after, it is extremely hard to evaluate airlines for safety when most airlines fly for many years at a time without a single crash or casualty.  Instead, if you even bother, you start considering all sorts of empirical issues that may or may not be meaningless.  Plus, if you do rank from 1 to 385 (airlineratings.com rate 385 airlines) you spend all of the next year worrying that your best scoring airline might have an unlucky break, suffer a total hull-loss accident with hundreds of deaths, and so the next year, drop from first position to somewhere in the bottom quarter of scoring airlines.

I also wonder about the liability issues.  It is far from inconceivable that a person’s survivors might choose to sue, saying “the only reason our dead mom/dad/whoever flew on XY Airlines was because of your recommendation; if he’d chosen PQ Airlines instead, he’d still be alive today”.

But, if you’d like to know, they rate the top five airlines as :

  • Qantas
  • Qatar Airways
  • Air New Zealand
  • Singapore Airlines
  • Emirates

Interestingly, one of those top five airlines was, for a long time, on a company I used to work for’s “do not fly list”.  The company owner, a Lloyds “Name”, said it was rated very low by Lloyds in terms of safety.  But the airline has great marketing.

The first US airline to appear is Alaska Airlines.  And showing how really strange the list is, it groups Virgin Australia and Virgin Atlantic together as if it is one airline, operating to the same standards and safety levels.  The two airlines are totally different, operate under different national safety standards, and have very different financial stresses and situations as well.

Even more astonishingly, in justifying their choice of Qantas as the world’s safest airline, they cite the British Advertising Standards Agency – a body not well known for its aviation expertise, and a statement from that august institution observing that Qantas is the world’s “most experienced airline” – a description that could not only be considered contentious but also as totally irrelevant from a safety evaluation perspective.

Even funnier is airlineratings.com’s claim they give extra points to airlines that adopt “new more advanced aircraft such as the A350 and 787”.  You’ll remember the 787’s battery fires and enforced grounding, and enduring quality control problems ever since.  And wasn’t the 737 MAX another new more advanced aircraft, too?

More information here.

Boeing Rushes to Respond to Safety Criticisms

Talking about safe airlines and advanced aircraft, you may recall, about two years ago, two 737 MAX crashes, and the 20 month grounding of all 737 MAXes that followed, together with a string of revelations about inappropriate Boeing processes and procedures.

Boeing of course, after first doing its usual “It surely isn’t our fault” thing for way too long, then went through the traditional ritual of claiming to have learned important things from the two crashes, and to have reformed its former ways.

But, other than such statements, and a very minimal number of ritualistic acts of resignation by executives with great pension plans, some of us wondered what had actually happened?  Where was the wholesale expunging of passive enablers such as Board members?

Finally, just a couple of days ago, Boeing moved to the next Act of this episode of Kabuki Theater.  They appointed a person to the newly created position of Chief Safety Officer.  Was this a willing and genuine heartfelt act of contrition on their part?  Or was it a reluctant and mandated part of a negotiated settlement with the Justice Department, as actually seems to be the case?

The new Chief Safety Officer, Mike Delaney, is a long time Boeing employee.  He was the Chief Project Engineer for the 787 program from Feb 2008 – Jan 2010, then VP of Engineering in general for the entire Commercial Airplanes division, involved in compliance, certification and safety activities, and then became the VP of Airplane Development, including leading the design, development, testing and certification of the 737 MAX plane.

He certainly has the background to understand Boeing’s safety and certification issues and challenges, but to some degree, one could wonder if both the 787 and 737 problems did not occur on “his watch”.  Some might wonder if he is too closely a part of Boeing’s past to be able to easily now encourage Boeing to adopt a new approach.

Airbus vs Boeing, 2020

Last week I reported that for 2020, Boeing had a net of -1026 orders and delivered 157 planes, ending the year with a backlog of 4223 planes in its order book.

Airbus reported its results this week.  Airbus had a bad year, too, but nothing like Boeing.  It reported a net of 268 orders, delivered 566 planes, and ended the year with 7184 orders in its backlog.  Details here.

It was definitely a better year for Airbus than Boeing – the depths of Boeing’s net of 1026 cancellations, particularly when Airbus had a gross of 115 cancellations plus 383 new orders (netting down to the 268 orders reported) just can’t be comprehended.

In 2019, the numbers were -87 orders for Boeing compared to 768 orders for Airbus, and 380 deliveries for Boeing compared to 863 for Airbus.

So, for the two years, Boeing “sold” -1113 planes and Airbus sold +1036.  The delivery discrepancy can be in large part explained by the 737 MAX grounding.  But the sales?

No, it wasn’t all about Covid, because that’s as much a factor for Airbus as for Boeing.  No, it wasn’t all about the 737 MAX grounding, because all airlines knew that sooner or later, at some time in 2020, the airplane would be recertified, and airlines usually order planes for future delivery, not for immediate delivery, so the grounding, while it lasted, and although inconvenient for airlines that had their delivery scheduled messed up, was of little impact for airlines planning their fleet needs for three or six years out.

So why was Boeing’s year (or, even more validly, its last two years) so spectacularly worse than Airbus experienced?  I hesitate to say, because I don’t know.  Will Boeing now have a spectacularly good year or two to compensate for two very bad years?  I really don’t think so.

In the 20 years since 2000, Boeing has outsold Airbus in 7 years, and Airbus has outsold Boeing in 13.  From 2000 to 2018 (ie before these two bad years) Boeing booked a net of 14,522 orders, and Airbus booked 15,254.  So while Airbus has had a slight edge over Boeing, it has not been an enormous lead.  But these most recent two years are something totally different.

Boeing’s response is to continue to timidly tiptoe in tiny steps towards replacing its 757 series planes (last produced 17 years ago, last sold some time longer ago than that), and to come up with something to replace its 60 year old 737 original design.  Is no-one awake or alive in Boeing’s C-suites?  Do they not feel a sense of overriding urgency to restore their world leadership in passenger jet design and sales?

Best and Worst States to Drive In

I took my daughter to the Dept of Licensing Office earlier this week to collect her first ever driver’s license.  I almost thought it was a pleasant process – instead of the usual process of taking a number, waiting in a crowded office for 30 – 45 minutes before going up to a window to get a new license, we had an appointment, went in to an almost empty office, waited only a few minutes, and enjoyed a cheery interaction with the man behind the counter.

But then I realized one other change in experience.  In the past, the license issuing office was not only a walk-in service, but was only a couple of miles from my house.  This time, because of the virus, we had to make an appointment weeks in advance, and drive 90 miles (each way!) to the nearest office able to see us.  Ugh.

Still, at least they would see us.  I’ve got to prove my date of birth and citizenship to the Social Security Admin (something I’ve done countless times already during my various steps on the long road to eventual citizenship), and the only way they’ll let me do that is if I go in person with the original documents to one of their offices.  But the only office that will see me has no appointments available, apparently not now and not never, and if I don’t show the documents by 17 January, my application for Medicare will be deemed to have been withdrawn.  Yes, I know it is now 22 January…..

That’s a bit like renewing my Global Entry/Nexus Card, something I’ve been unable to do for nearly two years, I think, due first to a government shutdown and now of course due to the virus.  That application (and fee) has also now expired, even though it is not my fault.  I’m keen and eager to go see someone to get it completed.

But, I digress.  Back to the best and worst states to drive in.  As the father of a new driver, I was of course a bit alarmed (but not at all surprised) to see that Washington is the third worst state (after HI and CA).  As for the best states, if you’re in Texas, Indiana or North Carolina, Anna and I envy you.

Details here.

Apropos which, one of Elon Musk’s typically grandiose concepts has been his “Boring Company” – promising to dig tunnels under cities to relieve the traffic congestion on surface streets.  Other than a short 1.14 mile test stretch close to Musk’s office in Hawthorne, CA, in the four years since the company was founded, it hasn’t managed to land any major projects with cities around the world, although some have come quite close to approval, and a much modified concept has been developed underneath the Las Vegas Convention Center.

But there continue to be forward-looking pieces about cities that may be considering developing tunnels to relieve traffic congestion.  Here’s one, about Miami.

Electric Cars and Their Batteries

Talking about driving, here’s a brace of articles on one of those evergreen topics – electric vehicles that might displace Tesla’s ascendancy, plus an article on that other reliable topic – amazing new batteries that will transform electric vehicles, but not just yet.

The first electric car article is dismaying.  Yet another car manufacturer shows itself as totally failing to understand part of the simple Tesla secret sauce.  Tesla became successful because it developed fun, fast and stylish electric cars that were easy to drive and which had a long battery range.  Sure, most of the time, 100 miles of battery range will cover 99% of all your driving, but it has been consistently shown, again and again, that people are fixated on battery range.  Tesla’s cars now typically offer over 300 miles of range on a full charge, and their longest range Model S currently gives just over 400 miles.

Mercedes is coming out with an electric car, but it seems likely to have a range of about 260 miles.  That’s more than adequate for most people, most of the time, but it pales into insignificance against Tesla cars with 300+ and even 400 miles of range.  In the totality of designing an electric car, adding a bit more battery to boost the range from 260 to 360 miles is not a huge expense, but Mercedes – not a company known for its penny-pinching – has decided against this.  Standby for another failed Tesla competitor.

There are two aspects of the benefits of long range batteries.  The first is obvious – not having to search out a recharging station on a long journey and endure an hour or so to recharge your battery.  The second reason is more subtle.

The unspoken reality of electric cars is that while they are inexpensive to drive when using your own electricity at home to recharge with, if you have to buy electricity from a recharging station somewhere on your travels, the cost per mile for “fuel” skyrockets.  The average cost of a kilowatt hour of power is about 13c, but a commercial charging station might charge 43c, and possibly appreciably more.  With about three miles per kW/hr, you can be paying upwards of 15c a mile for electricity, which is more than most cars cost to run on regular gasoline at present (eg 25 mpg, $2.50/gallon = 10c/mile).

The second possible Tesla competitor actually looks like it might be viable.  There are two sorts of Tesla competitors.  There are the flawed products from the major car manufacturers, and then there are imaginative products from new startups that run out of money and never make it to market.

Rivian is a startup, but it is a very well-funded startup, and seems likely to get some appealing vehicles to market, starting later this year.  They’re also avoiding direct head-to-head competition with Tesla, at least initially, so I’m interested and optimistic about the company and their chances of succeeding.  Details here.

As for the latest “wonderful new battery”, it is a battery that can be quickly recharged.  That’s definitely a great thing.  Presently, while electric vehicles can sometimes start off charging quickly from an almost fully discharged battery (150 miles of charge in 15 minutes) that rate of charge starts quickly dropping as the battery gets more and more charge in it.  Compare that, by the way, to petrol.  A petrol pump, dispensing petrol at, say, 7 gallons per minute (about an average speed), can easily give 150 – 250 miles of extra range – but not in 15 minutes, instead, in a single minute.  And as many miles again the next minute and the next minute, with no slow down.

Amusingly, the battery manufacturers say the big problem with their new battery is that charging stations don’t have enough power coming in to their facilities to be able to provide the massive rate of charge the battery can withstand.  That is indeed at least partially correct.  It will provide interesting stresses not just on the last mile of our power grids but further back up the escalating series of voltage distribution cables and their current carrying capacities.  The article doesn’t say, but it seems reasonable to guess one of these batteries might be capable of taking power at a rate of perhaps 1,000 kW.  A one bar heater is about 1 kW or slightly more.  A typical home has about a 200 Amp 208 V two phase circuit going into it, which is capable of 40 kW, and most homes average a load of about 1.25kW.  So, charging a single car battery requires as much current as on average is required by 800 houses.  Charge two cars at once, and you need the same as 1600 houses.  If you’re like my local Costco, with 24 pumps, and usually with all 24 in use, and you want to charge 24 cars simultaneously, that is the same as having almost 20,000 houses – in other words, the same as a population of 40,000 – 50,000 people.

My guess is that recharging stations will get mega-capacitors that they will charge up between cars, slowly, and use to then very quickly transfer the charge into a car when it connects.  I’m not sure sufficiently high capacity capacitors exist at present, but it seems like a necessary area of future development.

But it will still require impactful changes on our electricity distribution networks.  Lots to think about.  Details here.

One more point.  A competitor to the battery-electric vehicle has long been the hydrogen fuel-cell powered vehicle, now often referred to as a hydrogen fuel-cell electric vehicle, or some variation of that to include the word “electric”, as a concession to how electric vehicles now dominate as an alternate to internal combustion.  (Amusingly, a hydrogen/fuel-cell vehicle uses both batteries and electricity in its power train, which is one indication of how overcomplicated such vehicles are.)

Hydrogen fuel-cell powered vehicles are an over-engineered and overly complex and less efficient way of getting power from a wind turbine or coal-fired fuel plant or whatever else and to the wheels of a car than is the case with a battery electric vehicle.  Because of that, and notwithstanding the quixotic love for them persistently shown by Toyota in particular, and the similarly irrational eagerness by our and other governments to subsidize them while turning an increasingly cold shoulder to battery electrics, they have never become popular.

That has the potential for changing.  There is one special use case where their handicapped economics and inefficiencies are negated.  That is where there is surplus and therefore “free” electricity.  You can’t suddenly arrange for thousands of battery electric cars to suddenly rush to charging stations when there’s too much electricity (something that will become increasingly common as we add more and more uncontrollable renewable power from wind and solar sources), and so that electricity currently is wasted and essentially lost, or attempted to be stored via inefficient and expensive methods.

That otherwise wasted power could be used to create hydrogen, either via electrolysis of water or by “burning” petrocarbons to get hydrogen and carbon dioxide.  Yes, that’s a dirty little secret of hydrogen power – the hydrogen sometimes comes from petrocarbons, and releases CO2 in the process, and even worse, the energy used to extract the hydrogen might come from having burned more hydrocarbons (oil or coal or natural gas) at the power station.

But if free clean electricity could be used to create hydrogen from water, it could become a low cost and eco-friendly way of creating hydrogen fuel.

For now, here’s an article about how Abu Dhabi is keen to create hydrogen from petrocarbons and then ship the hydrogen around the world.  If it has free electricity, it might perhaps be almost economical to do so, but otherwise, it seems like a complicated and costly way of creating hydrogen, too far away from where it is needed.

TSA Mission Creep

In the wake of the Capital rioting, the TSA announced they were ‘working with law enforcement to process hundreds of names to see if the people “pose a risk” and should be added to the no fly list’.

Notice the careful wording in that announcement.  “Pose a risk”.  A risk to what?  The TSA’s job is to ensure terrorists don’t repeat 9/11 in any of various imaginative variations on the typical terrorist theme, using public transport.  Their job is not to make it difficult for would-be protesters to travel to protest, whether such protests might be peaceable or end up violent.

Seriously.  Please read that last sentence again.  The TSA’s job is to protect airplane and air flight safety, not to be an advance guard for local police departments or anything else.  This is a huge leap forward in what the TSA mission is and should be.  It is only a thin step from their unilaterally deciding to put people on a no fly list due to past protesting behavior (which may or may not have been prosecuted, and which may or may not have resulted in convictions of any sort at all, let alone felony convictions) to their questioning people at the document check station “What is the purpose of your journey”, and disallowing people onto planes who were unable to prove a bona fide reason for traveling.

Many people forget that the first amendment isn’t just about free speech.  It is also about “the right of the people peaceably to assemble”.  If the TSA makes common carriers, otherwise obligated to carry all people to all places, off-limits for some people, then their rights to peaceably assemble have been violated, as have their due process rights in terms of the procedure by which they were added to the no fly list.

Let a court impose a judgment after full judicial review that restricts a person from traveling (and let that case waft up to the Supreme Court).  Maybe even pass a specific law empowering the TSA to do exactly this.

But don’t have a government body secretly decide, all by itself, and without specific empowering legislation, who gets to travel and who does not get to travel.  Details here.

And Lastly This Week….

Disney has nixed its annual passes for its theme parks.  They’ve been on life-support for some years, getting more and more expensive, and being able to be used for fewer and fewer days.  With its limited capacities due to Covid at present, Disney has finally cancelled the program entirely.

Like most people who don’t live close to a Disney park, I’m delighted to see them gone.  It has never felt fair to be waiting in long lines for attractions, with many of the people in front being locals who have paid effectively very very little for their day of fun – just one of dozens of days they enjoy every year, compared to my high cost for my one special day.

One of the worst things about “the good old days” of travel between New Zealand the US was the necessary fuel stop in Hawaii.  On the way to the US, it was at about 2 or 3am – nothing was open in the airport, and it happened just at the point in the flight where you’d finally managed to go to sleep.  Needing to then get up, off the plane, and go through immigration and customs and then return back to the plane again made sure you didn’t get much sleep at all.

On the way to NZ, it was late at night in HNL, and all the shops had just shut at the airport.  It too was an unwanted interruption.

Air NZ has decided to make its flights stop in HNL again, to allow crew changes there.  They’ve decided, due to Covid concerns, it is safer to have crews breaking their flights and spending time in Honolulu rather than Los Angeles.

It seems to me the difference in risk as between an airport hotel at HNL and one at LAX is vanishingly small, while the inconvenience to passengers, the two hours of extra travel time, and the extra take-off/landing cycle, airport fees, and fuel burn, all make it impactful on the airline and its customers.  I wonder if they’ve really thought this through…..  Details here.

Now here’s a support animal I’d be happy to share a plane with.  It wasn’t actually a support animal in any event.

I’m not quite sure what I’ll be offering you next week.  I’m traveling out of town, leaving on Monday, and probably not back until Sunday.  I’ll try and send something out, but I’ll be in places where there’s not an abundance of internet.

Until next week, please stay healthy and safe

 

David.

 

 

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David.