Weekly Roundup, 12 February 2021

United is to spent $1 billion on these four seater 60 mile range planes.

 

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Good morning

I had an extremely rare event happen on Wednesday.  The website was the focus of a DDOS attack, with unknown adversaries trying to crash the site and knock it offline.  It didn’t take long to resolve the attack, but as a precaution for the future, I’ve made the site a bit more sensitive to “suspicious behavior”.  If you are inconvenienced by the site being too “trigger happy” in the future, please let me know so I can dial it back a bit.

They say you’re getting old when the policemen start looking younger than you.  Like some of you reading this, I’m well past that stage, but I came across a new fascinating indication that I’m no longer in a prime demographic.  This survey reported on people’s attitudes to the concept of Covid “vaccine passports” (a ridiculous idea, by the way).  It analyzed responses by Generations X, Z, and Millennials, but Baby Boomers?  Nary a mention.

As promised last week, I provide the second part of my two part article on whether you should repair or replace an older vehicle needing some expensive repairs.  I also developed a spreadsheet to help you do some what-if analysis to better understand the total cost of ownership of your vehicle and any possible alternates.  It has some complicated formulas behind the scenes in an attempt to make it simple for you to fill out and play with, and while there are some simplifications in its logic, I hope it will help you in your decisionmaking.

I show a public version of a completed spreadsheet over its four pages of printout, and for supporters, you can download a master copy to use as you wish.

In my own case, after carefully analyzing my own quandary at great length, I found that the most essential repairs for my aging vehicle were a bit less expensive than feared, and the lovely lady who owns the excellent specialty repair shop for Landrovers tells me lots of her clients have over 300,000 miles on their similar model Landrovers, so am encouraged to keep mine for a bit longer – all the more so after she indicated that the engines in more modern models have plastic timing chains that fail about every 75,000 miles, requiring about a $7500 repair each time.  That’s an amortized cost of 10c every mile just to cover the cost of a timing chain – something that Landrover probably saved 50c on by changing from metal to plastic.

Truly, there’s no good part of car ownership, is there.  But hopefully this second article and companion spreadsheet will help you more confidently plan your own future moves.

What else?  Yesterday’s Covid diary entry, of course, and Sunday’s is online here.  It astonishes me that I still feel a sense of urgency and importance with many of the items I share twice a week.  I’ve been writing Covid articles for over a year now, and there’s still so much we don’t know, and so much we could be doing better.

What else this morning?  A few items below :

  • Air Travel Numbers
  • When Should You Start Traveling Internationally Again?
  • Business Travel “Permanently Curtailed”?
  • A $15 billion Unexpected Gift to the Airlines
  • United Shows it Has Plenty of “Mad Money”
  • Will Window Seats Become a Thing of the Past?
  • Qantas Shows How to Respond to Covid Curtailments
  • Electric Vehicle Thoughts
  • And Lastly This Week….

Air Travel Numbers

The rolling seven day average number of people flying has increased from 35.5% of last year’s number a week ago to 37.5% on Wednesday this week.  That’s a gentle rate of increase, and it has been somewhat steady in its slow rise for two weeks now.  Based on dropping new virus case numbers (yay!) and the somewhat misplaced confidence in our magnificent achievement with now over 40 million vaccine doses injected (more than any other country in the world), it seems likely this number might continue to carefully increase for the foreseeable future.

When Should You Start Traveling Internationally Again?

I’m feeling more optimistic about the future now than I have at any time in the last year.  But what I don’t have a feeling for is the exact timeframe in which the future will improve.

Indeed, it seems to me that not only will New Zealand and Australia be closed for probably most/all of 2021 (as discussed last week), but travel to Britain will be “unreliable” and uncertain, and similarly unpredictable to parts of Europe (Germany is tightening its borders again at present).  Keep in mind that just because you have been vaccinated, and it is now safe for you to travel, does not mean it is safe for other countries to allow you to visit – you still might be bringing the virus with you, and if a country has lots of local closures, you’ll be affected by them, whatever your vaccination status.

The more infectious virus variants, and the ones that aren’t stopped by current vaccines, threaten to set our progress back.  I’m no longer realistically expecting to be able to offer tours in late summer to Britain/Europe, nor to New Zealand/Australia in October, and am waiting another few months before making a decision on a December Christmas Markets tour.

Business Travel “Permanently Curtailed”?

This article talks about the likelihood of business travel being permanently curtailed as a result of companies becoming familiar with Zoom and other teleconferencing products.  Unfortunately, it doesn’t tell us who made that bold statement, or possibly it is a paraphrase of comments from Bill Gates.

I wouldn’t be entirely surprised, although I think business travel will slowly float up again over some years.  To say “permanently curtailed” is a bold prediction, although it would be bolder still if the nameless person making the claim also suggested what level of permanent reduction can be expected (Bill Gates suggests at least a 50% permanent drop).

This is a bad thing for the airlines, temporarily.  But it is a good thing for the nation as a whole – if it makes business more efficient, and reduces their cost base, it helps us compete better on world markets, justifies new investment and new jobs, and maybe helps our society transition back to a more “doing things” type of economy.

A $15 billion Unexpected Gift to the Airlines

With little or no warning (although we’d noticed an increase in articles the last couple of weeks about airlines theatrically worrying about the need for more layoffs), it was announced this week that the ever-changing Democrat bailout bill is including $15 billion in further gifts to the US airlines.

Ostensibly this will go towards protecting jobs through the Payroll Support Program.  That’s a noble concept, even if being selectively applied to airlines more than to other travel companies, but like so many noble concepts, it is greatly flawed in execution.

I’ve now seen a couple of applications companies have made for such funds, and the key concept is that it seems the funds can be used to protect jobs that would otherwise be at risk.  What does that mean?  In both cases, it means companies that were little harmed by the virus have received government subsidies to continue employing their normal staff, doing normal things.  Sure, it has meant their staff haven’t been laid off, but here’s the thing – as best I can tell, the staff weren’t going to be laid off, anyway.

We don’t know what impact the $15 billion will have on airline staffing levels.  But we do know that American Airlines is pressing ahead with its plan to lay off 13,000 employees (although perhaps this will be modified/reduced once the latest tranche of cash reaches their coffers).

The thing I’ve a bit uncomfortable with is how airlines are getting such a focus of support, while hotels, rental car companies, and other travel businesses are not.  Why is an airline employee’s job more important than a restaurant or hotel worker’s job?

Additionally, this is treating the symptoms, not curing the ill.  Shouldn’t/couldn’t the $15 billion be better spent boosting demand for air travel, or creating other mini-economic growth allowing laid-off airline employees to move to jobs where they can be productive, rather than subsidizing people in jobs that don’t need them?  For sure, AA isn’t going to have twice as many flight attendants and pilots on its flights just because the government is paying their salaries.

Another way of expressing my unease at these subsidies is that they are designed, by their very nature, to perpetuate the airlines’ pre-Covid business models.  But, as the preceding article mentioned, it is possible that the aviation world is now permanently changed.  Rather than encouraging the airlines to maintain their old marketing focus and cost structure, shouldn’t the airlines be encouraged to see the writing on the wall and adapt?

We’re seeing some examples of that with airlines selling their bigger planes, and short term examples by selectively adding or reducing flights on certain sectors, but if there is to be a permanent 50% curtailment in business travel, which probably represents more like 65% – 70% of all airline income, what are they doing to adjust to this ugly new reality?

United Shows it Has Plenty of “Mad Money”

I know I ended the last section by calling on airlines to adapt and change in anticipation of the new air-travel marketplace that seems likely to replace the “good old days” prior to Covid-19.  But there are sensible and not so sensible ways to adapt.

In adopting what some people might think is a less sensible approach, one has to wonder if United Airlines actually needs any further government gifts at all.  On Thursday it announced it was spending $1 billion to buy fancy futuristic electric planes that will have a maximum range of 60 miles.  We’re not sure, but we think these planes will carry a maximum of four passengers.

What part of United’s core business model is helped by buying experimental new electric micro-airplanes that fly up to four people no more than 60 miles?  If you’ve a business that is desperately needing billions of dollars of government gifting, shouldn’t you be focused on protecting and building on its core essentials, rather than dropping $1 billion on a long-shot that has value mainly as something to boast about around the boardroom table.

Will Window Seats Become a Thing of the Past?

I love sitting by the window on a plane – or, perhaps better to say, I love the abstract notion of beautiful views down to the unrolling scenery below the plane.  The reality is so often disappointing – the flight is either above clouds or at night or over the water.  In addition, with wide body planes, you might end up a long way away from a window, and if people by the windows close their shades, the whole thing becomes meaningless.

Well, that’s a challenge just begging for a technological solution.  It should be added that in general, airlines don’t like windows.  They add complexity, cost, probably weight, and extra maintenance too (good airlines regularly polish the outside surfaces of windows to remove micro-abrasions from high speed dust impacting on the windows during flight).  They’d be happier with no windows at all.

Add all that together, and the concept of “virtual” windows seems almost unstoppable, doesn’t it.  This article talks about some of the potential uses of modern digital display panels instead of windows on planes.

It might seem like a great idea, but how long do you think it would take to end up being destroyed by greedy airlines, who see the panels as a great way to bombard their captive audience with nonstop advertisements?  It is bad enough not being able to turn off the seat-back videos for mandatory videos at present, and they are just tiny screens.  Imagine if the entire cabin was erupting in pulsating flashes of iridescent colors like a wall of demo big screen televisions at an electronics store.  Now imagine if the audio was being played through the pa system at the same time.

Eye shades will definitely be required.

Qantas Shows How to Respond to Covid Curtailments

Not for the first time, I find myself wishing the US allowed foreign airlines to fly domestically.  Never believe the lie that the airline industry is now deregulated in the US – it is still selectively regulated, but in the sense now of keeping competition out, rather than allowing competition in.

As I have said in several earlier items, airlines need to be desperately and urgently thinking about ways to bring people back to the skies.  Sure, they can offer short term deals and discounts with one hand, while trying to “cheat” and take much of the discounts back again via a plethora of fees for bags, booking, seat assignments, eating and drinking on board, and so on.

Qantas is taking a more positive approach.  It is improving every element of the total travel experience.  Which would you prefer?  To save $20 on an airline ticket, but have to battle your way through every part of the journey, from checking in, through security, waiting in the gate, boarding, flying, eating/drinking on board, getting off again, finding your bag, and so on?  Or to pay an extra $20 and to have a pleasant, positive, stress-free and trouble-free experience through every part of your traveling?

Qantas is betting, in its domestic Australian market, that a smooth and comfortable travel experience will win it more customers.  We think they might be on to a good thing.

Electric Vehicle Thoughts

The thought occurs to me that if I keep my Landrover for another five or more years, I might never buy another internal combustion powered vehicle.  The same may well be true of you, too.  We don’t need much more reduction in cost premium for an electric vehicle, we don’t need much more range per charge, much faster charging times, or more omnipresent charging stations to close the gaps in the totality of the current electric vehicle experience.  I’m eagerly looking forward to that, although please don’t believe that “fewer moving parts” will mean less maintenance.

For example, a modern Tesla is thought to have 60 different motors in it, and goodness only knows how much electronics.  Tesla in particular is walking back its original excellent warranties.  If your vehicles are like mine, the actual internal combustion engine is probably the part of your vehicle that needs the least maintenance these days.  It is everything else that gives most of the trouble – one time I had to replace the electric switch that released the rear door – a $600 repair, for example.  Suspension repairs can be another big item, and so too are fixing all the other electric and electronic “doo-dads”.  To say nothing of puzzles such as the a/c system that always tests as having no leaks, but which every year or two invariably needs to be topped up with more refrigerant.

All these items will be at least as present in an electric car.

This week a group of economists released their research on how far people drive their electric cars.  That would be interesting to know, but their research was essentially useless.  First, it looked only at California drivers.  Secondly, it only looked at drivers who had paid for a very expensive $10k – $15k smart electric meter to be installed in their home.  And thirdly, it used data from a period between 2014 and 2017, before longer range EVs were released.  A Nissan Leaf, in 2014, had an 84 mile range.  A Leaf today has a 150 or 226 mile range, and the longest range Tesla now goes over 400 miles.

Is it any surprise the results were much lower than expected?

You have to wonder how much the research cost, and why something so predestined to irrelevance was ever undertaken.

Toyota has long been the most significant hold-out when it comes to developing battery electric powered vehicles.  While they’ve been very prominent with their Prius hybrids, the company has harbored a deep loathing for BEV, preferring instead to tilt at the windmill of hydrogen powered fuel cell cars.

Unfortunately hydrogen fuel cells seem to be a technology likely to remain dependent on government subsidies to survive, and facing the chicken and egg situation of needing hydrogen refueling stations to encourage people to buy the vehicles, but the refueling stations needing the promise of vehicles wanting hydrogen before a business case can be made to justify them.  One of the big advantages of battery vehicles is the relative ease with which they can be recharged at home.

Even if the various challenges were resolved, the running cost of a hydrogen fuel cell vehicle is much higher even than a gasoline powered vehicle, making the underlying use-case weak to start with.

Toyota surprised the world this week by grudgingly announcing it planned to release a pair of battery electric vehicles in the US, late this year.  One is thought to be some sort of Lexus, and nothing much is known about the other one.  We also don’t know prices or range or anything else.

Their lack of enthusiasm was/is palpable.  Yet another example of a company that could take on Tesla, but isn’t?

And Lastly This Week….

A bit of “plane porn” for you – beautiful pictures and video of the bomber trio apparently flying over some football game somewhere last weekend.

It is amazing when you look at these three planes to realize that the “newest” of the trio, the B-2 Spirit, first flew 31 years ago.  A new bomber, the B-21 (as in “21st century”) may enter service in five or six years, although isn’t expected to be operationally deployable before 2030.  Probably no-one reading this would be astonished if those dates slipped.

I hope you’ll have a nice long weekend, and until next Friday, please stay healthy and safe

 

David.

 

 

 

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