Weekly Roundup, Friday 12 March 2021

An A220 shown in the livery of new US airline startup, Breeze Airways.  See item, below.



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Good morning

Another week, another four-figure car expense.  This is becoming a weekly occurrence at present, much to my dismay.  After writing about and analyzing in detail, just a month ago, the concept of when it is time to retire/replace an older car, I’m now wondering/fearing if I’m getting to the terrible point where so many different things sequentially fail, one after the other after the other.  But one thing is for sure, I’m not likely to replace my aged Land Rover with a new $111k SUV announced by Jeep this week.  Jeep seems to be straying into fairly esoteric pricing at that point.

This time the problem was an alternator failure, made more “exciting” because the car didn’t give any indication the alternator had stopped working, until it failed to start due to a dead battery, while I was 150 miles from home.

Believe it or not, I managed to drive the 150 miles with an almost dead battery and failed alternator, although the last few miles were with no electronics, transmission stuck in one gear, no dash displays, and a miracle that the spark plugs still sparked and fuel pump still pumped.

The good news part of the experience was the battery didn’t also need replacing.  I look after the battery quite well (touch wood!), using a battery conditioning gadget I’ve written about and recommended before, and also with a convenient portable emergency car battery starter, also written about and recommended before.

The one other extra “tool” that I get great support from, normally, to understand what the vehicle is doing is my ScanGauge monitor that simply plugs into the car’s ODBII port and gives me realtime monitoring of various engine parameters.  I’d not selected any battery/voltage parameters so didn’t get any advance warning – it can display any four of about 25 different attributes at a time.

I had to laugh, as much as one can, when the car wouldn’t start.  I’d pulled up alongside a drive-through coffee stand, turned off the engine while waiting, and had just paid the amazingly bargain price of $1.50 for a triple espresso with a bit of water added – a customized Americano, in other words.  Fortunately, I tipped the girl the other 50c, because when I went to start the car and it failed, she demonstrated the difference between what one would expect in metro Seattle and what happens in the country.

She straight away wondered knowledgeably if it was a battery or alternator failure, volunteered she had jumper cables, went to an oversized pickup and drove it up to my car, pulled out well-used jumper cables and proceeded to expertly work with me to connect the two batteries together.  Gotta love those country gals!

What else this week?  Thursday’s Covid diary entry was coincidentally timed with what some are claiming to be the official first anniversary of the start of the Covid crisis.  11 March seems like way too late for the start of the crisis – air travel was already plunging, President Trump had declared an emergency on 31 Jan, and by 11 March, over half the world’s countries were already reporting Covid cases.

Sunday’s Covid diary entry is here.

A computer problem with the mailing service prevented many people from voting in last week’s reader survey poll, so I’m holding it over for another week.  Plus, of course, the following items too :

  • Reader Survey Repeated :  Flight Misbehavior Penalties
  • Air Travel Numbers Rising
  • When Should You Restart Traveling?
  • Some Good News for Boeing
  • Breeze Airways Moves Closer to Reality
  • Another Airline (and Country) Seeks to Discourage Air Travel
  • A Different Perspective on Restricting Tourism
  • Travelers United Sues MGM Over Resort Fees
  • Electric Vehicle Batteries
  • And Lastly This Week….

Reader Survey Repeated :  Flight Misbehavior Penalties

If you missed the survey last week, or were unable to send in your response, please would you do so now.  If you were able to send in an email response with no error, there is no need to vote a second time.

What type of consequence should a passenger suffer if they become disruptive on a plane?  In the immortal words of words of William Schwenk Gilbert, and sung to Sir Arthur Sullivan’s tune by the Mikado, “the punishment should fit the crime”.  (Here’s a fun version taken from what is known as the “White Production” by English National Opera and starring Eric Idle of Monty Python fame, dating to 1987, totally crazy in the way that only the English can be, and well worth watching in full.  As a bonus, here’s the first act entry of Eric Idle.)

Criminal justice is actually a fearsomely complex topic.  How do you equate totally different offenses when it comes to determining punishments?  Is the object of punishment to deter, to rehabilitate, to punish, to obtain reparation, or some combination?  Should a billionaire be fined the same sum as a homeless person?  Is a five year jail term equally just to a 25 year old as to a 75 year old? And so on.

But now zooming in on misbehavior on planes, there was a recent case where a passenger refused to wear a mask, ended up in a scuffle with a flight attendant, and was “escorted” off the plane while it was still at the gate.  What do you think would be the fairest consequence/punishment?

Imagine you’re Judge Judy, perhaps.  Please click the link for the outcome you feel most appropriate.  This will create an empty email, with your answer coded into the subject line.

If you can’t decide on just one outcome, feel free to click two or more.

I’ll collate all the answers and report back to you next Friday on the results.

As always, thank you for sharing your thoughts.

Air Travel Numbers Rising

We’re now in the exciting period where 2021 air passenger numbers are rising while in 2020, they were plunging, and I predict that probably next Thursday, the rolling seven day average will see 2021 number rise above 2020 numbers.  With 2020 no longer being a “normal” year, it is necessary to compare 2021 numbers both with 2020, to see how things are changing as the virus problems evolve, and with 2019, to see how the numbers compare to a normal year, making for two very different trend lines.

For now, suffice it to say that the last seven days saw first a dip and then a rise in numbers compared to 2019, and, absent surprises in terms of virus case numbers, I expect numbers to rise in future weeks.  Which brings me to the next point.

When Should You Restart Traveling?

If you’ve had both your vaccine shots (or your only one shot if getting the J&J vaccine), it seems you can much more safely consider traveling, and you can safely accept a higher level of risk of encountering infectious people.  That makes travel easier to consider.

But I’d recommend you keep your travel thoughts to domestic rather than international travel.  When you start crossing borders, the need for quarantines as well as tests can become onerous, and with there always being an element of uncertainty in test results, the last thing you want is to find yourself stuck in quarantine for your entire foreign vacation, or unable to fly home and also stuck in quarantine at the end of your stay.

It is also true that other countries are at different stages in their Covid experience and how they are responding to it, and these stages might change at any time with little or no notice.

If you can find an enticing domestic airfare, and can create an itinerary/experience around what is open and what is allowed, then the near future might be a great time to travel.  But I think international travel remains sadly impractical for now.

Some Good News for Boeing

Boeing enjoyed not just one but two pieces of relatively good news this week.

The first item reports that for the first time in 14 months, Boeing is now in a position with more new orders than cancellations (31 more orders than cancellations), although this was almost entirely because of a 27 unit USAF tanker order – not altogether a part of their Commercial Airplanes division.  But whatever the number, the simple fact of having a plus rather than minus sign alongside is cause for great celebration.

The other item is yet another drip in a story that has been coming out over many months – a widely expected and anticipated major order for 737 MAX planes by Southwest.

After flirting with an apparent public interest in Airbus A220 planes last October, it seems about as certain as anything ever is that Southwest will soon be announcing an order placed with Boeing.  The article refers vaguely to “dozens of firm orders” and in total, a multi-billion dollar deal, but that’s not really telling us much.  The order could be for more than 100 planes, and probably with some mix of firm orders and options.

Southwest currently operates 474 737-700s, which it plans to, over time and probably over a number of separate orders, upgrade/replace with 737 MAX 7 and perhaps 737 MAX 8 planes.  Southwest currently has 55 737 MAX 8 airplanes in its fleet, and 255 additional MAX airplanes on order.

If I was Southwest, I’m not sure I’d order heavily into the MAX airplane family.  It might be better to get only the essential minimum needed for replacement and growth.  Hopefully the MAX planes will be replaced sooner rather than later by an entire new airplane series.  Airlines that skip the MAX and can go straight to the successor plane will have a substantial advantage over airlines that invest heavily into the MAX series.

Breeze Airways Moves Closer to Reality

We’re not altogether convinced that 2021 is the best of years in which to start a new airline – there is so much excess capacity at present that the big airlines could effortlessly add new flights to squash any new startup.

But David Neeleman has an impressive track-record of successfully starting up airlines.  First Morris Air in the early 1990s, an airline that grew rapidly but which struggled against established airlines, and was sold to Southwest Airlines after a brief but wild time.  Next came JetBlue, still going strong.  Then Azul in Brazil.  He also had an involvement with the established Portuguese airline, TAP.

He is now starting another airline in the US, Breeze Airways (initially known as Moxy Airways).  He did push back its start from 2020 to 2021, and the airline has now been granted DoT approval to operate with up to 22 planes.

The plan for Breeze is to uncover secondary routes between underserved cities and offer nonstop flight between them.  The hope is to find routes that are too unappealing for the major airlines and so to quietly grow in the shadows.  Breeze will start with Embraer E190 and E195 planes having 108 or 118 seats, and then add A220 planes with 160 seats.

We wish them well.  They’ll need all the good wishes (and passengers) they can get.  More details here.

Another Airline (and Country) Seeks to Discourage Air Travel

In July 2019, KLM came up with the extraordinary concept that people should fly less often, take trains more, and be “responsible” for making air travel decisions.  There’s no need to point to the obvious – here’s a company in the business of selling air travel, telling people not to buy its product as often as they do.  I guess they’ve been very happy with the collapse in air travel last year.

Many cities or regions or even, occasionally, entire countries also find themselves suffering from what at least some of their people view as over-tourism, and unhappily seek ways to reduce the throngs of tourists who visit every day.

Air New Zealand, and indeed, New Zealand as a whole, is finding itself in that position.  The airline’s chief environmental adviser had some strange advice – adding extra fees to discourage people from traveling to New Zealand would be a good thing, he said.

The left-wing New Zealand ruling party is mulling adding up to NZ$155 (about US$100) to all fares, to fund “climate-based initiatives”.  This is of course far from a new concept – the British have been adding fees, potentially higher than a mere $100, to air tickets for many years, also ostensibly to fight “climate change” but in reality, probably merely vanishing into the general government spending pot.

New Zealand is going through a rather uncertain period.  International tourism has been its major “export” for the last some years, vying sometimes with dairy product sales, and so has been a major employer and also tourism has increasingly impacted on many people in the country.  When I lived there, now over 35 years ago, hearing an American accent anywhere in the country was a rarity and a strange and “special” experience.  Most tourists were either from Australia or the UK, or were simply locals traveling elsewhere in the country.

Foreign visitors were such a novelty that we loved to see them and felt honored they’d made a choice to come visit us and see our country.  The only “impacts” from tourism were positive – most New Zealanders seldom or never traveled further away that Australia, and it was fascinating to meet people from far-away countries that we could only dream of visiting in person.

But nowadays, with international tourism numbers having doubled and doubled and doubled and doubled and probably even doubled again over the years, not only have NZers themselves traveled the world much more, but the number of tourists in the country has becoming impactful in a not so positive way.  Foreigners have imposed their bad habits on the locals – whether it be in the form of tipping, something all NZers used to hate and despise and refuse to accept, or in their propensity to forget which side of the road they’re driving on and come around a corner too fast, in the wrong lane, straight into an oncoming car driven by a local safely in the correct lane, or in any of many other impactful ways.  Foreigners have pushed up the prices of some things, and made other things harder to experience and enjoy for locals, and more crowded.

This is of course far from unique to NZ only, but it is the country I’ve most noticed the change take place.  Visitors might still view NZers as being friendly, but they’re a lot less friendly than they used to be.

So New Zealand now finds itself in the curious position where the government is simultaneously spending tens of millions of dollars every year promoting itself as a destination to foreign visitors through its national tourism board, but also bemoaning the success of such campaigns and trying to develop ways to discourage some types of tourists from visiting, especially in the form of pushing up the cost of visiting.  Plus you have the government-owned airline (Air NZ) doing the same thing – spending millions of dollars in advertising, and also worrying that it is being forced to “impact on the environment” by flying more and more planeloads of people.

Covid has shown NZ that it can close its borders, 100%, and not suffer extreme consequences.  Prior to a year ago, NZ thought it needed tourism as an essential industry in order to remain prosperous and economically sound.  Almost a year of utterly no inbound tourism has shown the country that while there has been pain, it hasn’t been as profoundly damaging as most people feared it would be.  Maybe it doesn’t need as much tourism as it thought it did.

NZ is an extreme example, because most other countries have allowed limited amounts of tourism and business/”essential” travel to continue over the last year; very few have banned all travel of all types, which NZ has done.  For NZ, the only exception is NZ citizens returning home to live there permanently (and there’s a several month waiting list of NZers wanting to return home – they’re only being allowed back in small numbers).

2020 might prove to be the year where the twin concepts of growing environmental activism and growing dislike for foreign tourists matured to the point of becoming major constraints into the future – not just for New Zealand, but for many countries.

A Different Perspective on Restricting Tourism

If/when any destination seeks to restrict its tourism numbers, there is always an inevitable outcome.  The cost of traveling to that place rises.  That’s an almost unavoidable “law of nature” along with gravity and entropy – the scarcer something becomes, the more valuable it becomes, aka, the law of supply and demand.

Sometimes destinations will use that to directly benefit themselves, in the form of allowing unrestricted tourism, but adding so many taxes and fees on all tourist activities that the number of people drops.  Less commercially-aware destinations simply impose quotas, which means the extra charges flow not to the destination but to the “gatekeepers” – the tour operators who bring people to the destination.

Economists think this is good.  The price of a good or service can naturally float up or down to create a steady state in the market between supply and demand.  If a person wants something badly enough to be willing to pay a high price, they can get the thing they want, and people who don’t value the thing at the cost of it can simply skip it.  This is how much of western economics works.

The contrast of course was seen in communist countries.  Cars, for example, were very affordable, but they were also extremely rare.  Apart from rampant corruption, a person with more money couldn’t get a car any sooner than a person with less money, and this created a series of market distortions, starting right from the problem that car manufacturers were selling cars at a loss and couldn’t afford to make more to meet the market demand because they weren’t allowed to raise the price.

We’re seeing a similar situation in the US, with the re-opening of Disneyland on 1 April.  California is limiting Disneyland to admitting a mere 15% of its visitor capacity.

So what is Disney doing?  It isn’t so much raising its prices as it is eliminating its discounts.  For a long time now, Disney has had some amazingly discounted annual passes available to Californian residents.  Originally, it was a great idea – it gave Disney “top up” income and a way to bring in more people when the park wasn’t too full.  The thing is that if you live in, say, Chicago, dropping the cost of a Disney admission from $100 to $20 really doesn’t encourage you to go and visit the park, because you’re still having to pay for a roundtrip air ticket, perhaps two nights of hotel, local transportation, and all the other assorted costs that go into a multi-day journey anywhere.  Sure, your Disney ticket drops from $100 to $20, but your total travel budget changes much less impactfully – perhaps from $600 to $520.

The important flipside is not only does dropping a ticket cost do little to grow the numbers for people from further away, but raising the ticket price does little to reduce the numbers.  So your $600 visit to Disneyland now becomes $650?  That probably doesn’t discourage many people, as has been shown with Disney’s ever-greater admission costs and still ever-greater number of visitors each year.

So, over the years, the original pass concept evolved, and in particular, the local residents became very clever at using the passes to best advantage.  They’d not spend much else in the park – after getting in on an unlimited pass for “free” (other than the upfront annual pass cost) Disney had hoped that locals would do the same as visitors from out-of-state and spend big on food, drinks, and souvenirs.  Not so.  The locals would often spend nothing on anything at all, but instead would go direct to all the biggest and best rides, and spend as much time as possible on those rides.

Passholders became disproportionately impactful on the park experience and ride waiting line times, while contributing less and less additional revenue.  Disney has been cutting back on the number of days passes can be used, but with the Covid closure and now restricted operations, it seems that one of the first things Disney is doing is zeroing out all pass access.

Viewed dispassionately, that’s a very sensible thing to do.  And viewed as a non-local, I’ve always felt it somewhat distortive and unfair to see people enjoying unlimited access to Disney parks just because they live nearby.  In past years, there have been occasions when I’d have paid for an annual pass, and quickly saved much more than the pass cost over the course of several special visits to Anaheim, but because I was not a Californian resident, I was not able to get such a pass.  Why should your zip code and state of residence have such a huge impact on your Disneyland admission fee?

Coming finally now to the point, here’s an interesting article that is so dripping in outraged entitlement.  Disney’s cancellation of its pass program means poor people in California will now find it difficult to afford to go to Disneyland many times a year, the article whines.  This is apparently not fair, although the article spares no thought for the total inability of poor people in other states to visit at all.  We’re waiting for a second article in what could become a lengthy series, decrying the cost of first class air travel as also being elitist.

I’m the first to agree that a Disney experience is appallingly expensive.  But, unlike the article writers, I’ve never thought it at all fair to give massive discounts to local people, with the result being that out-of-state visitors, paying top dollar and with the least amount of time to enjoy a Disney experience, are having to suffer longer wait times for rides they’ve never experienced before.

Thank you Disney for bringing some equity back to your pricing.

Travelers United Sues MGM Over Resort Fees

Here’s a lawsuit we love.  A traveler advocacy group, Travelers United, has filed a lawsuit against the MGM hotel group claiming that MGM has breached provisions of DC’s Consumer Protection Procedures Act against misleading and deceptive pricing, namely, the way it tries to “sneak in” resort fees on top of the more prominently advertised hotel room rates.

It raises a good point in its filing when it points out that in 2020 various MGM properties closed their pools and/or gyms, but still kept their resort fee charges at exactly the same level, even though the gym/pool access was possibly some important component of what these fees allegedly cover and provide to guests.

It also points out the ridiculous situation where sometimes hotel room rates are lower than the resort fees added to the room rates – in particular, Excalibur with a $22/night room rate and a $35/night resort fee.

We really hope they succeed in their suit, although such success would be minor rather than major, because it would only apply in DC.

The big unanswered question has to be – what is the FTC doing?  Why is it not doing something about resort fees, too?

Electric Vehicle Batteries

Am I the only one to notice the way that pump prices for petrol are soaring?  I saw a headline earlier this week reporting how California had 47 fuel price rises in 48 days.  Here in WA, prices that a year or more ago were getting all the way down to almost $2 are now grazing $3, and showing no signs of stopping their rise – a 50% increase pretty much since the election.

This of course shines more light on electric vehicles as an alternative (and making the news of a $11k price reduction on the Chevy Bolt all the more appealing).  I read a couple of slightly confusing articles, more or less right after each other, this week, on the topic of electric vehicle batteries.  The two articles were confusing on their own and even more so when placed side by side.

We all know the main reason electric vehicles are more expensive than gasoline powered vehicles is due to the cost of the batteries.  In very round figures (see the two articles) it costs about $200 per kWhr of battery storage in a vehicle, and with a vehicle having perhaps 70 – 100 kWhr of battery capacity, that represents as a cost of $14,000 – $20,000 for batteries.  Sure, there are some compensating savings – no engine in particular, but the battery cost clearly makes it hard to come up with a decent automobile at a low selling price.  Apparently the average EV sold for $53,000 in February whereas the average for all new vehicles was $40,000 – although be very careful with that statistic.  It seems to me that the “average” electric vehicle has more options and features than the “average” of all vehicles of all types.

This article talks about how GM has arranged to get a new type of battery that will drop its battery costs by 60% by “mid-decade”.  That’s great news, and if it translates to a $10,000 or greater reduction in sticker price, that helps narrow the affordability gap substantially.

The article however doesn’t tell us what reductions in normal Li-ion battery costs might be during the same time period, although to be fair, that number is of course speculative rather than exact.  But it is likely the net benefit of the new technology is less than 60%.  The article also talks about another GM initiative that promises to also save 60%, and it seems these are two different 60% savings.  Is the new 60% saving in addition to or instead of the previous 60% saving?

The other article, which actually came out first, explains how Tesla has a major battery pricing advantage over its competitors, because Elon Musk is very focused on cost control.  That seems like a “probably true” statement, doesn’t it.

But, pick it apart, and see what happens.  First, the big question that isn’t answered is “Why is Tesla’s battery price so much lower than other car companies when they are all buying generic batteries from the same battery suppliers?”.  Tesla buys batteries from Panasonic, LG Chem, and CATL (a Chinese battery supplier).  So do many/most other car companies.  How can Tesla negotiate a $142/kWhr cost for batteries when the average car manufacturer is paying $186 – 30% more?

And Musk’s cost control is not clearly apparent – it costs him $45 per kWhr to put those batteries into a battery pack, whereas it costs GM $38 to put their batteries into a battery pack.  Tesla is spending 20% more than GM to put the cells into a battery pack with associated heating/cooling capabilities and power management features.  The industry average is $60.

The second article also predicts Tesla’s battery cost will trend down during the decade.

And that is probably the one clear thing – electric cars will continue to get better value and with better batteries.  Something to look forward to, but not necessarily something to act on today.

And Lastly This Week….

Here’s an interesting suggestion/discussion – do the masks that air traffic controllers wear muffle their voices and make them harder to understand?  Is it a safety issue?  If it is, how to resolve the problem?

The defendant says “Virgin is no longer a brand of international high repute“, in response to Virgin suing the Florida rail operator Brightline for reneging on the agreement to pay Virgin $250 million for the use of the Virgin brand name on its trains.

Some of us wonder exactly when Virgin was a brand of international high repute, particularly in the context of their former UK rail services which were, at least in the earlier years, somewhat controversial.  Is it still a brand of international high repute when associated with its always-delayed Virgin Galactic “space” flights?

Truly lastly this week, Amazon has come up with an amazing new invention for its Alexa voice controlled devices.  Invisible sound waves that can travel from an object that somehow mysteriously emits these waves to another object that can somehow equally mysteriously detect and receive them.  This article reveals the concept of “invisible sound waves”.

We understand that Amazon’s next invention might be visible light waves, possibly to be revealed on 1 April….

Until next week, please stay healthy and safe, and don’t forget the “spring forward” clock thing this Sunday morning.





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