Weekly Roundup, 5 February 2021

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Good morning

My opening comments last week about repairing or replacing my aging Landrover evoked quite a considerable degree of comment and response.  Thank you.

As a result, I tried to move the topic beyond unanswered questions, and towards some directed concepts and answers.  With ongoing emails and public comments, the topic grew a bit, and as a result, I now have an almost 5,000 word article to share with you.  Oh – it is not only an unusually lengthy article, it is also the first part of a two part article – the second part to follow next week.

Perhaps confirming the popularity of the topic, there are already two good and “meaty” reader comments on today’s article, adding still further to its coverage.  You can see them (and add your own, if you wish) by visiting the webpage version of the article.

What else this morning?  There’s a long Covid-19 diary article with lots of charts as well, plus of course, a few items below :

  • Air Travel Numbers
  • Update on When to Start Traveling Again
  • Pilot Errors Galore
  • Unintended Consequences – New Stricter Mask Wearing Rules Have More Loopholes
  • Boeing’s Worst Result Ever = Performance Bonuses to Employees
  • Boeing’s On-Again, Off-Again, On-Again, Off-Again, On-Again, well, you get the story…..
  • Note to Ford CEO – Speed is Relative
  • Tesla Suffers Some Harsh Criticism – Guess Who From?
  • And Lastly This Week….

Air Travel Numbers

There’s been a very slight lift in passenger travel numbers in the last week.  Compared to 2020 numbers, numbers rose from a seven day average of 34.2% to now 35.3%.  Not a huge change for a week, but I’m sure the airlines are telling themselves that anything upwards is better than downwards or flat.

I continue to expect modest upwards movement into the future.

Update on When to Start Traveling Again

Talking about air passenger numbers, I eagerly parse as many articles and official statements as possible, from countries all over the world, trying to uncover the obscured truths of when it will become easy and appropriate to consider international travel again.

The continuing roll out of vaccinations is great, but it is not the only factor to consider.  The underlying disappointment about vaccines, which we’re only starting to appreciate now the initial unquestioning euphoria is fading, is they do not necessarily prevent us from still becoming infected with the virus, they just reduce the chances of us from becoming severely ill.  That’s a disappointment in itself, but the more meaningful one is the vaccines also do not seem to prevent us from being infectious – if we catch the virus, while our symptoms may be minor rather than major, we are still a risk to people around us.

This concern means that countries like New Zealand and Australia plan to keep their borders closed for most of this year, and probably will continue to quarantine arriving visitors once they start to allow people back into their countries, and none of us wish to add the time and money cost of a 7 – 14 day quarantine on to our vacation experience.

The other concern is the new variants of the virus – more infectious, perhaps resistant to current vaccines, and also possibly more deadly.  Rather than seeing countries starting to countenance relaxations on allowing people in to their countries, we’re actually seeing a growing consensus moving towards restricting and quarantining arriving people.

There’s one more point as well.  It seems the lower the virus activity in a country, the more eager they may become to protect themselves from a return to uncontrolled virus growth.  This is understandable.  It makes little sense to worry about arriving people when the virus is running uncontrolled throughout the country, and residents are more at risk from their neighbors than they are from tourists.  But when the virus is perceived as being “under control” then some countries become more focused on “quality controlling” who they let in to their country and what requirements they place on arrivals in terms of quarantining.

In total, we’re seeing a slight shift – a slight delay – in our earlier expectations of travel starting to become easy and appropriate in mid/late summer, and now we’re hoping for early/mid fall, and we’re unsure if NZ/Australia – one of our hoped for Travel Insider Tour destinations in October/November – will be possible this year at all.  This article discusses things some more.

Pilot Errors Galore

Imagine you’re the pilot of a twin jet passenger airplane.  Shortly after take-off, one of the engines misbehaves for 45 seconds and then fails entirely.  You didn’t notice the anomalous engine operating conditions, but you surely do notice the failed engine.  You have no idea what caused the engine to fail, and you’re still in the climb phase of your flight, and now down to one engine.

What do you do?  Land at the closest airport, or fly on for hundreds of miles through deserted countryside to your destination?  And if you choose to fly on to the destination, do you fly the most direct route or a roundabout route?  If you continue on to your destination, do you climb as high as you safely can so if the second engine fails, you’ve got more glide range and time to find somewhere suitable to crash land, or do you fly way below your assigned altitude (which also makes the remaining engine work harder)?

Astonishingly, the two pilots of a Virgin Australian Fokker 100 flight in Western Australia chose all the wrong answers to these and other questions.  Dismaying details here.

Unintended Consequences – New Stricter Mask Wearing Rules Have More Loopholes

The airlines had been enforcing a “you must wear a mask, no exceptions permitted” policy perfectly well on their own.  Our government, on seeing a situation where it did not need to do anything, rushed to “help” by creating a strict series of regulations for mask wearing on public transport.  What could possibly go wrong with that?

Well, as unwittingly hinted at when I poked fun of signs in Eastern Washington, last week, that boasted of how anyone could avoid wearing a mask due to claiming a medical exemption, which would not be asked about or questioned, the same now applies to the federal regulation for mask wearing on planes.  Airlines must now allow people with disabilities that would cause problems wearing a mask to not wear a mask.

Boeing’s Worst Result Ever = Performance Bonuses to Employees

I’ve nothing against Boeing paying its employees well, but it seems a somewhat jarring concept to pay employees a performance bonus for a job well done/good year when the company as a whole reports its worst ever $12 billion loss.

In order to pay the bonuses, Boeing changed the qualification requirement for the bonus to when the 737 MAX was cleared to fly again and the first resumed delivery occurred.  This was of course an issue largely out of the control of every bonus-qualifying person in the entire company, and rather than being an earned reward, transforms the concept of the bonus into an unearned entitlement, something that is neither a reward nor a motivator.

On the other hand, one could fairly observe that almost none of the bonus-qualifying employees (front-line workers, not managers/supervisors) were responsible for it being a bad year for Boeing in the first place, and similarly not responsible for the bad year in 2019 either.

So we’re pleased to see the employees not being penalized two years in a row for their management’s blunders, but we still feel that bonuses – like dividends – are not a guaranteed entitlement.  If the basic salaries/wages of employees need to be supplemented with an annual bonus, why not just write that into the employment contract as an individual level performance bonus rather than something based on a company wide milestone/achievement which few people directly contribute to.

Talking about bad weeks for Boeing, it has had to write-off more 777 orders, reducing the total order count by more than a third, and the more it delays the plane’s eventual availability, the more airlines become able to cancel their present orders.  In addition, Emirates is thinking out loud about maybe converting 30 to 40 of its 777 orders to the smaller 787.  This could reduce the total 777 order book down to 150 or fewer planes, less than half what it was a year ago, and at the point where the entire program becomes very hard to ever be commercially viable.

If only Boeing had stuck to its original delivery schedule for the plane.  If only…..  And talking about Boeing delays –

Boeing’s On-Again, Off-Again, On-Again, Off-Again, On-Again, well, you get the story…..

Some manager at Boeing read half of a business-case analysis of how it was that Ford’s Edsel car was a spectacular failure.  The Edsel, as originally designed, promised to be an excellent and very successful car.  The problem was that Ford took too long in getting the Edsel to market so that by the time it was launched, the market had changed and the car was no longer a good fit for what people wanted.

As a result of reading the bit about “the market had changed” (but not the bit about “taking too long”) Boeing obsessively keeps studying and restudying the market (whatever that actually means) to understand what their new 757-replacement plane should be, in terms of how many passengers it should carry and how far it should fly.  The problem is, after each market study and determination of how the plane should be specified, Boeing doesn’t then pull the trigger and actually proceed to develop it, but dithers, delays, and then realizes it needs to restart by studying the market again.  Rinse and repeat.

Boeing has been doing this for at least 20 years, so far.

The latest iteration of this process was announced this week, with a possible decision to commence development of a new airplane model expected either next year or 2023, and the plane’s entry-into-service late in the decade.

That’s an appallingly leisurely process, isn’t it.  Anywhere from 12 to 30+ months to study the market yet again, while all the time, Airbus is outselling Boeing in the product gap Boeing currently suffers, by a ratio of about 3 or 4 to one.  That’s – oh, I don’t know – the better part of half a billion dollars of airplane sales Boeing is passively gifting to Airbus with every extra month of delay.

What other industry can allow itself the luxury of such a leisurely non-response to a competitive vulnerability?  Which brings us to the next item….

Note to Ford CEO – Speed is Relative

Ford’s CEO says “it is stunning how fast the industry is changing” (in reference to the growing popularity of electric vehicles).  But speed is a relative thing – a tortoise might seem unbelievably fast to a snail, and a car similarly fast to a person on a bicycle.

Let’s consider just how fast the industry is changing.  Nissan brought out its first Leaf in 2010, and Tesla brought out its Model S in 2012.  So, sometime around 2010-2012 is when electric cars changed from novelties to credible appealing vehicles with viable solutions at both the high and (relatively) low ends of the market.  A decade ago, in other words.

Today, Tesla offers the S, 3, X, and Y models, and has a Roadster, Truck, and Pickup all expected out in the next year or two or three.  That’s a great pace of new model launches, particularly for the tiny company that Tesla is.  But what about the rest of the industry?

Well, Nissan, which for four or five years sold more electric cars than any other company, still offers the Leaf, but no other models, and the Leaf has steadily dropped in market share to a point of now relative insignificance.

As for the other major car companies, General Motors has been selling, in painfully small quantities, one model electric car, the Bolt.  Ford has just a few months ago released a high-end car (the Mustang Mach-E).  VW has one.  BMW has one.  Mercedes has none.  Toyota has none.  Honda has none.  Chrysler too – none.  There are some other mainly European niche cars, and a couple of Korean contenders.

Does that sound like a market that is changing at a stunning speed?  Or does it sound like a market fast asleep while Tesla drains away their capitalization, and other new startup companies are getting close to further isolating the established car companies from the future?

Back to Ford.  While stunned at the speed of the market changing, Ford’s CEO says they’ll be “definitely changing” to add more electric vehicles, and hope to have more details to share later this year.

The most stunning thing about the speed at which the big auto companies are changing?  Not so much how fast this is happening, but rather how slow.  As I regularly say, Tesla’s success isn’t because of its cleverness, but because of the stupidity of its competitors.

Ford – and the other big auto companies – better hurry up.  Here’s an interesting article that quotes a Morgan Stanley prediction for the a near future where car companies with any ICE (internal combustion engine) based vehicles will be downscored and valued negatively for such features, being considered liabilities rather than assets.

And this interesting article ponders what will be the last ICE powered vehicle you’ll ever own.  In my case, it might be my increasingly repair-prone Landrover!  The article also says it is assuming that the twin/related problems of electric vehicle range and charging time are not solved in the foreseeable future.  That problem in its two parts could be easily solved, and indeed, Tesla claimed it had solved it, only to have this claim quietly exposed and then ignored as another Tesla hype/lie.

The Tesla solution is/was swappable battery packs.  If the industry could settle on a standard form size for power packs, this would be a tremendously practical solution.  You drive into a battery swapping station, whereupon a robot, a bit like the arms on rubbish trucks that empty your trash bin automatically every week will proceed to open your battery compartment, slide the battery out, and slide a new battery in.  Total time for the swap – two or three minutes; less time than filling your present car with gas, and you’d not have to exit the car at all while it happened.

The robot would communicate with your car to learn who you were and how to charge you for the battery swap, and it would “read” the remaining charge of the battery you were swapping out so you only paid for the extra electricity in the new pack being swapped in.  Built in to the swap charge would be a battery wear fee.

Talking about battery wear, not only would battery swapping be fast and simple, but it would be easier on batteries and on the power grid supply system.  Instead of over-stressing and rapidly aging batteries through fast charging, the swap facility would be able to slow-charge batteries on a basis that requires less sudden surge current from the grid, and which is easier on the batteries, prolonging their total life.

The only problem with this would be getting auto manufacturers to agree on common form factors for batteries.

Tesla Suffers Some Harsh Criticism – Guess Who From?

Never buy a Tesla car when the company is quickly ramping up production.  That’s a recommendation from a Tesla expert and well known commentator.  He recommends buying one of the first few cars in a new model series (lovingly hand assembled) or waiting until production has stabilized.

The commentator also revealed some recent Tesla quality control issues due to rushed production to make last year’s end-of-year cutoff, and described the seats in early Model S cars as “the worst seat of any car I ever sat in”.

Who is this expert, so fast with the Tesla criticisms?  Ummm, Elon Musk, as quoted in this article.

And Lastly This Week….

We continue to be extremely excited by the Starlink low-earth orbiting satellite based internet service.  Truly, it is the best thing to happen to the internet, especially in rural areas, since Al Gore invented it.

For people in rural areas, it gives them a fairly priced high quality internet service that otherwise was totally not available.  For people in urban/suburban areas, it provides competitive pressure, particularly in all the markets where these days there effectively is none.  Thank you, Elon Musk – and would you please hurry up its broader deployment.

A tale of two internet cloud service providers.  Google managed to lose $5.6 billion on its cloud services last year.  Amazon doesn’t disclose how much it made on its cloud services, but it is generally believed to be the most profitable part of the entire Amazon empire and with gross revenues almost four times more than Google’s.

We’re still very sad at the loss of Norwegian from our skies, but at least there will be one piece of good news this summer when JetBlue starts its new trans-Atlantic service.  Sure, there very few flights will hardly match the loss of Norwegian, which in its heyday was rivaling BA for having the most seats flown across the Atlantic every day, but every new competitor is still to be welcomed.  Here are some details of JetBlue’s premium “Mint” cabin.

Truly lastly this week, we are always saddened when cities choose to turn their backs on the quirky and individualistic elements that distinguish them from every other city on the planet.  Lovely unique architecture is being replaced by generic high-rise buildings.  Strange shops and brand names, and restaurants specializing in local food and local service styles are being replaced by mega-corporations and their international franchise brands.

At least Amsterdam can’t get rid of its canals, but it is keen to turn its back on two of the other things that, for some people, have been part of the distinctive individualistic nature of Amsterdam.  Both are much enjoyed by tourists – either just to look at or perhaps to experience in person.  I’m referring to its famous “red light district” and its coffee shops.  The red light district has been moved out of the city center, because there were too many tourists visiting it, and it has been proposed that the “coffee” shops be closed to tourists.

Although this is ostensibly being done to protect and preserve the dignity of the working girls, I had some comment on a tweet of mine, a year or two back when this was first mooted.  All were strongly opposed to being moved out of their historic quarter.

Oh – that reminds me.  Talking about privacy and dignity, the lovely old B-52 has finally progressed to the point that it now offers a privacy curtain around its on-board toilet.  Prior to now, for the 68 years it has been operational, there’s been no privacy.  The move to modesty is believed to be due to now having women on the crews.  Details – but no pictures – here.  (We have to wonder how much the curtains will cost.  Why don’t they just go to Bed, Bath & Beyond, clutching a 20% off coupon, and buy some shower curtains?)

Until next week, please stay healthy and safe

 

David.

 

 

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David.