Weekly Roundup, Friday 30 April 2021

 

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A change from the several pictures of modern planes we’ve featured over the last few months.  This is a lovely Pan Am ad from the early 1950s for their new DC-6 trans-Atlantic service.  Click this link for a much larger version.

Good morning

I wonder what your plans are for the Memorial Day weekend this year?  Last year, for the first time in 20 years, the AAA chose not to issue a traffic forecast for the 2020 Memorial Day weekend, and it seems they are silent again this year, so we’ll have to just wait and see what happens.  I did read, earlier this week, that in some parts of the country, road traffic is now up to 97% of 2019 levels, so I guess this might be a busy weekend on the roads, even if not so much in the skies (see below).

If you are going on a long journey by car, you might find today’s feature article interesting and helpful.  I’ve been reviving my other car after a three year “rest” in my garage (I was told on Thursday by the mechanic who works on it that it has been driven a mere 500 miles in five years), and realized that one of its limitations is that it is harder to interface its older sound system to modern audio players, and the workaround I’ve used in the past has never been very satisfactory.

So here’s an article, below, explaining how to connect just about any type of audio playing device to just about any type of car sound system, no matter what the respective outputs and inputs may be.  I hope you find it helpful.

Yesterday was sort of a special day for me – my Thursday Covid diary entry was the 200th article I’ve published on the virus.  I absolutely did not expect that when I first started writing about it in February last year.

I made the 200th article slightly longer than normal, with of course some looking back at what has happened to date and why.  It too is added, below, of course, and I hope you find it interesting.  Sunday’s Covid diary entry is online, here.

One point of mild interest, which you’ll see mentioned in the Covid diary article.  To celebrate the 200th article, I’m briefly dropping the price of my 480 page book about the virus, in its Kindle form, reducing it from its usual $8.99 price to a special $1.99 price for a week.  That price reduction starts Saturday morning.

What else for the week?  More of the same-old, same-old, of course, although even the samest and oldest of items always seem to have slightly new twists, don’t they.

Please keep reading for :

  • Air Passenger Numbers Strangely Stalled
  • Travel Insider Touring – Britain, Aug/Sep – Firming Up
  • The FAA Stirs and Says Something About Boeing
  • New Airlines and New Routes
  • How Much Did Your Most Recent Uber/Lyft Ride Cost?
  • The Subtle Campaign Against Elon Musk’s Starlink
  • Forget Virgin Galactic.  This is a *Real* Space Flight for Civilians
  • Real ID?
  • And Lastly This Week….

Air Passenger Numbers Strangely Stalled

The most recent data is for Wednesday, so it might be just starting to see a lift in numbers because of the Memorial Day weekend.  The seven day rolling average on Wednesday was 58.8% of the 2019 numbers (and, in case you wondered, 1187% of the 2020 number!), whereas on Wednesday last week it was at 57.9% of 2019.

Generally, over the last six or more months, long weekends and other holidays have seen obvious and temporary rises in passenger numbers.  We’ll have to wait and see what happens for this holiday, but currently the seven day average is lower than it was at the beginning of the month, so April hasn’t shown any growth at all.

But perhaps this slowdown in growth is a good thing.  The TSA is struggling to ramp up its staffing in time for an expected busy summer season.

Travel Insider Touring – Britain, Aug/Sep – Firming Up

Britain’s Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, continues to speak confidently about removing more restrictions, and this week he went as far as to say “there is a very good chance” all Covid restrictions could be lifted on 21 June.

I’d cynically suggest this is not only due to Britain’s continued fine controlling of its Covid cases (daily new case numbers, on a seven day average, dropped from 2,493 last week to 2,259 this week, while the deaths stayed steady at 22 deaths a day), but also due to the need to “keep up with” the EU.  Although the EU has much greater levels of new Covid cases every day, and much lower vaccination levels, it is talking in terms of allowing Americans to travel to Europe this summer.  It seems almost certain that if Europe were to do this, the pressure on Boris Johnson to do the same would be impossible to resist.

The huge difference though, between the UK and EU, is what would greet us upon arrival.  Germany has just gone into a stricter lockdown than anytime this year, and other EU countries are also keeping reasonably impactful restrictions in place to combat their own numbers, which are showing a propensity either to rise or to stay at unacceptably high levels.  There’s no point in flying to Europe if you can’t enjoy yourself once you get there.

So the suggestion that Britain might be completely open and free of Covid restrictions is extremely good news; let’s hope it proves to be the case.

I’m also noticing, as I’m working through hotel arrangements for these tours, that some of the hotels are already astonishingly full for late August and early September.  Clearly other people are also planning to travel to the same places at the same time.  Accordingly, I’m going to try and get all three tours up, online, and ready for you to confirm your interest in by this time next week.

I have reached some tentative price points as well.  The seven day six night Wild Wales tour looks like being $2145 per person (share twin).  The ten day/night night Scotland’s Four Corners tour looks like being $2545 per person, and the nine day/eight night Overlooked England tour may be $2395 per person.  The numbers will go up or down depending on the number of people in the tour – these numbers are on the basis of 18 people per tour.

Next week I’ll tell you about all you’ll be getting included for your tour price.  For now, you can see very brief outline itineraries and coach routes on this page.

The FAA Stirs and Says Something About Boeing

As you might see in my Covid diary entry on Thursday, I wrote about “regulatory capture” in my opening comments.  It is one of the few credible explanations for some of the impossible to defend or explain actions on the part of the FDA, CDC, and all the other government agencies charged with public health management.

Regulatory capture has also been discussed as a huge part of how/why it is/was that the FAA have been so passive and accepting of whatever Boeing tells them.  The concept of “self-certification” was an awkward one to reconcile with having an independent certification agency in the first place, and the outcome of what happens when self-certification is inadequate and unsupervised, whether it be for 787 batteries, or 737 MAX MCAC flight controls, is clear and obvious for all to see.

Of course, every time things blow up in both Boeing’s and the FAA’s face, both sides resolve to have learned their lesson and promise such problems will never happen again.

The most recent embarrassment to the FAA (and to Boeing – you can decide who should be the more embarrassed) have been the newly discovered electrical problems with the 737 MAX – first one problem then a second problem hot on the heels of the first one.  The FAA has been notably silent and passive on this, but have finally got around to issuing a “must fix now” type order that requires the affected planes to have the problems solved.

The big question, which this article delicately raises, is Boeing is now being asked, but unable to answer, how it is their 737 MAX, after some 20 months of grounding and a total re-examination of all systems, and in particular, electrical and electronic systems, and which was then certified by both Boeing and the FAA as being the safest plane ever, has now revealed that is has two more safety problems, even in planes newly manufactured.

New Airlines and New Routes

This week saw the inaugural flight of new airline, Avelo Airlines, from Burbank to Santa Rosa, a one hour flight entirely within California.  This article does a dutiful job of returning the favor of a free seat on the flight with a positive review of the experience.

Avelo is currently a tiny airline with three 737-800 planes and eleven routes, all short, and most with less than one flight a day.  It offers very low fares (for at least some of its seats…..) and no frills.

We wish it well, but it will be a long time before it starts to impact on “the big four” airlines.

This week also saw JetBlue receive the first of its A321 planes that it will use for its new trans-Atlantic flights to London.  Rather to many people’s surprise, it will be flying to Heathrow rather than to one of the secondary airports (Gatwick and/or Stansted had been the most likely), although it has fewer “slots” than it had hoped for.  It will be based in Terminal 2, aka The Queen’s Terminal, a relatively new terminal that opened in 2014.

How Much Did Your Most Recent Uber/Lyft Ride Cost?

I’ve several times in the past commented about how the cost of Uber and Lyft rides could only go one way, and that would be up.

In the early years, when both companies (particularly Uber) were burning through billions of dollars in cash each year, the companies were in effect massively subsidizing the cost of each ride we took.  Add to that a further “subsidy” in the form of drivers being paid way-too-low earnings, and sooner or later, both those unsustainable factors would need to be resolved.

Perhaps Uber in particular was as naive as to believe there’d be some magical “economy of scale” that would solve all their problems, but that never eventuated.  Certainly, their artificially low costs per ride won them a huge amount of awareness and created an entirely new phenomenon – ridesharing instead of using one’s own car, instead of using public transport, and instead of using taxis or limo companies.

But the truth of Uber and other similar companies is they were never anything much more than a new version of a traditional old fashioned cab company, and with similar costs and earning abilities.  Now that they can no longer continue to lose billions of dollars, and now that they are being forced to pay drivers more fairly, the only way for these requirements to be achieved is by pushing up the fares we pay.

It always struck me as foolish to believe that part of the Uber “revolution” would be ongoing low-cost rides.

I use both companies a great deal less now than I formerly did, because I’ve noticed the steady trend to more and more expensive fares.  My sense is they’re no longer any less expensive than the taxi companies in this area, although the cars are usually more pleasant.  Sadly, the lovely drivers that were the case in the early days have also become more similar to regular taxi drivers.

This article cites some stunningly high costs for Uber fares nowadays, and while there might some element of Uber’s controversial “surge/peak pricing” in the fare costs, they seem to be increasingly common and no longer the rare exception, but more the rule.

The Subtle Campaign Against Elon Musk’s Starlink

I regularly write about Elon Musk’s transformative new Starlink satellite based internet service.  It will not only be transformative, in the most positive way possible, to people in areas that lack fast affordable broadband currently, but it will also be transformative to the internet companies that currently provide over-priced slow service in such areas.

To be fair, the current over-priced and slow service isn’t entirely because the present ISPs are being rapacious and predatory.  It is an unavoidable economic fact that if there isn’t a high density of customers, it becomes terribly costly to provide high speed internet to people, and some types of feasible service are unavoidably slow.

In effect, what Musk is doing is the same thing that has seen many developing nations jump straight from no phones to cell phones, avoiding the need for costly infrastructure investments in wired networks for landline phones.  The density concept is not an issue – or, if anything, is actually a negative issue – for a satellite based internet service which works best with low density subscribers.  It is cheaper to provide satellite based internet service than terrestrial based internet service in many cases where the population density/customer base is low.

But these other companies, currently doing the best they can, are not keen to see their business destroyed.  Additionally, new companies want to compete with Starlink, and are racing to catch up with Musk and his year or more headstart over them, including a deep-funded venture from Jeff Bezos, Kuiper.

So these various companies seem to be “pulling out all the stops” (do you know the origin of that phrase?) with a broad-based campaign of disinformation, fear, uncertainty, and doubt.  They are seizing on several issues, none of which really are all that convincing if carefully evaluated.

(a)  Space is getting too congested, there wouldn’t be any room for the thousands of satellites Musk is planning on putting up there :  The truth – there are 231 million square miles of space at the 330 mile altitude that Musk wishes to place about 33,000 satellites in total.  That works out to one satellite for every 7,010 square miles of space.  To put that into context, the US is 3.8 million square miles, so that is like 542 satellites in the entire US.  Each satellite would be at least 160 miles away from each other one.  Is that really congested?  Sure doesn’t seem so to me.  Plus, don’t forget, other satellites can be at higher or lower altitudes.

(b)  There is a danger that other space craft will hit Musk’s satellites :  Even with eventually 33,000 of his satellites up there, various national tracking authorities are keeping track of every one of his satellites, their predictable orbit/path, and also keeping track of every other object above us too.  Any potential collisions will be known about well in advance, and Musk’s satellites (and most others too) are steerable and can be programmed to avoid collisions.

(c)  His satellites are blocking the night sky, making astronomy more difficult :  This is partially true, but I bet if you asked Elon nicely, he’d launch one or more space telescopes at high altitudes so they could see out into the universe, not only without his satellites in the way, but without all the other space objects and without the distorting/blocking effect of our atmosphere.

Here are some articles that have appeared all in the last week.  While the subtext of “Starlink is bad” doesn’t always directly shine through, it seems to me the timing of such articles (there is an FCC decision currently pending about allowing Musk to launch more satellites) is not a coincidence.  Mind blowing quantities of space junk (most of it not Musk’s fault), a near miss with space junk (note the distance of the “near miss” was 30 miles), and space junk is interfering with telescopes.

Forget Virgin Galactic.  This is a *Real* Space Flight for Civilians

The Bezos/Musk rivalry goes beyond Starlink and Kuiper.  They are also butting heads when it comes to space-flight, with Jeff Bezos now complaining that Musk’s SpaceX unfairly won the NASA contract for a future manned flight to the moon.  We actually thought the decision to give the contract to SpaceX was an excellent decision, as does this article.

There is also some competition between the Bezos owned Blue Origin company and the company which Sir Richard Branson owns less and less of, Virgin Galactic (he sold shares totaling 2.5% of the company’s issued shares a week ago, reducing his stake down to 24%).

To be fair, Branson’s vision for Virgin Galactic, when first expressed in 2004, was ambitious and exciting, all the more so because the first flights were promised a mere five years later, in 2009.  Now they’re talking about first flights in 2022, and who only knows if that will be achieved, and in the meantime, what was great in 2004 is starting to now look much more ordinary and unexciting.  (To compare and put things in context, 2004 is three years before the first iPhone appeared.)

Blue Origin is now claiming it will be operating commercial flights into space later this year, and unlike Virgin Galactic’s flights which struggle to qualify as a space flight due to their short duration and relatively low maximum altitude, the Blue Origin flights are thought to be longer and travel up to something more like “real space” (100+ miles up, rather than 65 or so miles up).  They will start selling tickets in a week, and hope to have their first commercial flight before the end of the year.

It is not clear exactly how much tickets will cost – one source quotes them as saying “hundreds of thousands of dollars”, another source quotes a suggestion that the price will be comparable to Virgin Galactic (they charge $250,000).  For people looking for a space flight, we expect they’ll not stress over the last few dollars, and will instead seek the most appealing experience, and we have to say that it looks like Blue Origin will be massively better than Virgin Galactic.

You have to feel sorry for people who bought – and paid for – tickets on Virgin Galactic, a decade or more ago, and were promised a flight not long after their ticket was paid for, and who now not only have not yet had a flight, but see a better competitor coming along.  I wonder if Virgin Galactic give refunds?

Now, tell me again about the reason for that very high share price for Virgin Galactic……

Real ID?

One of the outcomes of the 9/11 attacks was a determination that there needed to be higher standards for the issuance of ID that would be used to allow a person to fly.  “Normal” driver’s licenses had no uniform set of requirements that states required for people to prove they were who they said they were, and in some states in particular, were far too easy to get fraudulently.

So in 2005, the Real ID Act was passed.  This said that as of a certain date, only identification that conformed to a specific set of higher standards would be accepted by the TSA to confirm a passenger’s identity.  The deadline for when only “Real ID” compliant identification would be accepted was set as 11 May, 2008.

Well, that date came and went, and the mandatory nature of Real ID requirements was deferred a year, then another, and another, and so on, to the point that now the Department of Homeland Security has just announced that the latest deadline, which had been 1 October this year, has been deferred still further, until 3 May, 2023.

What is it with this country and identification requirements?  Why has it taken 16 years to fail to introduce new ID requirements, and why are we being given another two years still further to do so?

And Lastly This Week….

Do you remember the Paul Allen funded Stratolaunch venture and its strange double-hulled plane?  Like many of Allen’s ventures, it was a somewhat quixotic concept and showed no obvious or easy path to profit.

After Allen’s death in October 2018, the Stratolaunch company was very quickly closed down, and for a while it seemed it would vanish without trace, and its bizarre plane would become another Spruce Goose type oddity, with only one test flight to its name.

But new owners have repurposed the plane.  It was originally intended to carry rockets up to a reasonable altitude to give them a head start in terms of altitude and speed before then proceeding on their own up into space.  It will now be used as a ferry craft to take new test planes (especially the new generation of supersonic prototypes) up to a point where they can be launched, much as happened way back when the X-1 was released from a B-29.

It is hard to see that there’ll be sufficient “one off” business to keep the plane and the business it supports operational, but maybe there will be.

Another possible casualty of Allen’s death is the magnificent air museum he funded so generously, next to the Boeing site just north of Seattle in Everett.  It has already sold off one of the stars of its collection (a Mig-29), and has closed indefinitely, possibly because of Covid, but also possibly because of the funding gap caused by Allen’s passing.

This is a slightly counter-intuitive article about the implications of how airlines arrange for their passengers to board a plane and the risks of getting an infection vary with boarding method.  The key two points for maximum safety seem to be to stop too many people rushing on at once and all bunching together in a “traffic jam” in the aisle, and to ban putting things in the overheads.  What are the chances of either of those measures coming to pass?

Here’s some aspirational eye candy to encourage you to start traveling again – the world’s 100 top hotel suites, or at least, one magazine’s opinion of what they might be.  I’d certainly not turn down a chance to stay at any of them.

I hope you have a great long weekend.

Until next week, please stay healthy and safe

 

David.

 

 

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My Covid Book on Special Sale

My essential book to help you through the Covid crisis, The Covid Survival Guide, is currently on a limited sale, but only until the end of Friday 7 May (celebrating the 200th article I’ve now published on the topic).

The Kindle version is only $1.99 instead of normally $8.99.  The print version is on sale too.

Click to visit Amazon and get your special discounted copy now.

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David.