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And happy Good Friday to you all, on this, one of the more solemn days of the Christian calendar.
I didn’t notice a lot of good 1 April jokes this year. Maybe the last 12 months have sucked much of the humor from us all?
But one joke was a bizarre failure. Volkswagen announced it was changing its name to Voltswagen to denote its new ID.4 battery electric vehicle and its future commitment to battery powered cars.
Okay, a fair enough joke, except for one thing. The announcement was made two days early, on Tuesday not Thursday. Then later on Tuesday it was withdrawn and the whole thing sort of shushed up.
My guess? Some “clever” people in the PR department said “Here’s a great idea, we’ll release the joke on Tuesday and let it sit out there for two whole days, helping it go viral and creating a lot of discussion, speculation, and publicity – we’ll get two full days of great publicity, rather than being just one of many corporate jokes on Thursday morning”.
But when it was announced, the reaction was negative rather than positive – “Oh, look, VW messed up, and accidentally got the announcement out on the wrong day” – plus, also, “Oh look, VW has already used this joke before, in Germany”, which robbed the joke of any originality at all.
Does that mean next year some people will start releasing “jokes” three or four days before 1 April? Will it be like Christmas, with an ever-earlier start to promoting Christmas merchandize each year? I hope not!
Another great morning full of content for you. I hope you might be able to enjoy a long weekend – in New Zealand we’d typically have a four day, sometimes even longer, break for Easter, but here of course, basically nothing. My daughter has a “coincidental” Spring Break, but with no mention of its association with Easter.
I’d started writing simply another short section in the material below about Elon Musk and some recent developments, but realized it deserved its own piece, and so allowed it to grow to just over 3,000 words as a feature article. I’m reluctantly coming around to the perspective that he’s actually a force for good in the world, and, most impressive of all, is far from a “one trick pony” such as so many “successful businessmen” in truth really are.
Also attached is yesterday’s Covid diary entry, and Sunday’s entry can be seen online, here. Sunday’s entry was actually published Monday, due to a “drive from hell” on Sunday that delayed my return home; I discuss that in the diary entry.
What else? An update on the “will we, won’t we” bittersweet ambiguity of our Travel Insider Tours in August/September, and plenty more besides :
- Travel Insider Touring Update
- Air Passenger Numbers Continuing to Grow
- The Downside of Growing Air Pax Numbers
- Alaska Airlines Says “If You Can’t Beat ’em, Join ’em”
- Norse Atlantic Airways Lines Up Planes
- Good News for Boeing (and some not-so-good)
- Plane Crash Mysteries
- Almost Hypersonic SST Planned – I’ll Believe It When I See It
- New Model Electric Cars Galore
- And Lastly This Week….
Travel Insider Touring Update
In case you missed it, last week I revealed plans for a series of three tours – one each in Wales, Scotland, and England, for late August and early September this year, subject of course to all the provisos about if Britain will allow international visitors and have its tourism infrastructure open again by then.
The good news is Britain has enjoyed a mild reduction in Covid cases over the last week, and, perhaps more impactfully, a greater drop in daily deaths.
Also a very positive achievement occurred on Sunday, when Britain passed through the point of having 50% of its population having received at least one vaccine shot.
These are pleasing developments. At present, it seems Britain’s more or less coordinated and slow step-by-step approach to re-opening and removing restrictions, together with its rapid vaccination pace to date, is paying off.
Of course, anything could change in the next few months, and similarly, the UK government still has no announced dates or details for how it will allow international visitors more readily into the country, but the underlying groundwork is positive. We also heard, on Thursday evening, the British Prime Minister talking positively about the concept of vaccination passports, which would certainly add an important step for welcoming foreign visitors once more.
Things have not been quite so positive in the US, with a gentle rise in new cases over the last week, with the risk associated being that maybe the UK will initially allow people into the country only from “very safe” countries, with layers of restrictions for people coming from less safe countries, and at least at present, the US is clearly a less safe country.
But, on balance, we think we the last week has been positive, and we are on schedule (but still absolutely not confirmed) for our series of August/September tours to be able to proceed.
With that in mind, I’ve been working through the day by day details of where the tours will go and what will be featured. I hope to offer more detail for you next week; for now, please keep the dates open, and more information will be following as the future gets clearer into focus.
Air Passenger Numbers Continuing to Grow
As you can see, the number of people flying each day in the US is increasing steadily when expressed as a percentage of 2019 numbers.
What you can’t see is how this year’s numbers compare to last year’s numbers. We’re two weeks away from the lowest ever number of passengers traveling (in 2020), and we’re already at a point where eight times as many people are traveling each day as was the case in late March/early April last year.
One thing to keep in mind though is that international travel is not recovering nearly as robustly as domestic travel, due perhaps primarily to all the restrictions countries have imposed on allowing foreign visitors.
The amazing pictures above speak for themselves, and was taken by a friend of a friend at the airport in Hong Kong last weekend.
The Downside of Growing Air Pax Numbers
We’re now back up to 60% of comparable 2019 air travel numbers in the US, and with fewer flights operating each day, planes are starting to fill up again, more than the 60% number would imply.
So Delta’s move, announced this week, to end its “we won’t sell middle seats” policy is understandable, although also disappointing. Their new “fill every seat if we can” policy – already adopted by most other airlines – comes into effect on 1 May.
On the other hand, how nice it is, if vaccinated, to be able to consider travel without the overlay of ever-present fear about possibly catching the virus as part of the travel experience.
Alaska Airlines Says “If You Can’t Beat ’em, Join ’em”
Like many people in the Seattle area, I’ve always been a big fan of our local airline. Notwithstanding its name, Alaska Airlines is headquartered in Seattle.
It has been a consistently good airline, well managed, and slowly/steadily/sustainably growing from being a regional Alaska puddle-jumping airline with a west coast route system bolted on top, to now giving great coverage from its west coast hubs to much of the country.
I couldn’t find a 2019 route map, and many of the other maps it has published “cheat” by including code-share routes operated by other airlines, but this 2017 map, during the integration of Virgin America, gives a sense of its national route system.
One of the best things about the airline, for me, was its great frequent flier program, which was in part because it was an unaligned airline. It had partnerships with airlines from the various different alliances, giving a great diversity of airlines to earn or redeem AS miles with. It still has a great lineup of mileage partners, but it seems not to be as good as it formerly was.
This is in part because former partner airlines became competitors (hello, Delta!), or moved to other partnerships as part of whichever alliance they belonged to.
This week Alaska Airlines has taken the big step of joining an alliance, something it has resisted doing for all the decades prior to now (I’m guessing alliances started about 25 years ago). This article reads more like a press release than actual journalism in the glowing way it describes the move.
Yet again, in describing themselves and their alliances, the airlines cloak themselves in deceptive claims. They pretend alliances give us, their passengers, special benefits and conveniences that would not otherwise be possible if airlines operated on normal, arm’s length, terms.
That is not true.
There is nothing stopping airlines from choosing to work together cooperatively, to interline bags, to code share flights, to give reciprocal mileage benefits, and so on. Indeed, all these things used to be done, or still are done, selectively, outside of alliances.
Rather than making it easier for bags to be checked from any airline to any other airline, what the airlines have done is quite the opposite. It used to be, decades ago, that just about every airline would check your bag on to just about every other airline; but now airlines are willfully refusing to do that for no reason other than to try and force you to stay within their alliance.
Alliances are all about trying to lock us into ever fewer choices. For example, from dozens of airlines that used to fly across the Atlantic, we are now down to just three alliances, plus a few remaining and minor outlier independent airlines.
So we’re sad rather than happy to see Alaska join an alliance. It makes the airline seem a little less friendly and “our local airline” and a lot more blandly corporate and characterless.
Norse Atlantic Airways Lines Up Planes
Talking about independent airlines flying across the Atlantic, Norse Atlantic Airways says it has now agreed with lessor Aercap to lease nine 787 planes that are coyly described as having been “previously operated in the same markets” – translation, ex-Norwegian planes. Apparently Norse will leave the Norwegian cabin configurations as they were, and that sounds perfectly good to us.
That’s a positive step forward for the new carrier. But our huge concern is and remains what the unaccountable DoT will do. It took them three years of shameful delay for no reason whatsoever before the DoT approved Norwegian’s services across the US, and the lining-up of the predictable evil-forces to oppose the Norse DoT application is proceeding at full speed.
Good News for Boeing (and some not-so-good)
This week saw the utterly unsurprising announcement by Southwest Airlines that it was ordering more 737 MAX planes from Boeing. Southwest has placed an order for 100 more planes, with options for possibly 130 further.
Although Southwest had toyed with the concept of the Airbus A220-300, it was clear to almost everyone that the deal was Boeing’s to lose. It seems that Southwest got a steal-of-a-deal from Boeing, possibly even below cost depending on how these things are calculated, but we doubt Boeing will file a trade complaint against itself, unlike what it did against Bombardier some years back. Ironically, the complaint ended up hurting Boeing because it broke Bombardier with the former Cseries jet being sold to Airbus where it is now the much more successful Airbus A220.
Alaska Airlines then piped up, seeking to share the limelight, and confirmed a provisional order for 23 737 MAX planes that had been placed in December. The multi-step process of announcing airplane orders these days allows for both Boeing and the airline to get multiple sets of headlines for what is essentially a single order.
In other 737 MAX news this week, an AA 737 MAX had problems with its pitch trim control, causing the plane to return back to the departure airport of Miami.
The exact nature of the problem is not yet known, but clearly it alarmed the pilots enough to abort the flight and rush back to Miami. The pitch trimming and the MCAS system that automatically activated it was of course the problem that caused the almost two year grounding of the planes, but currently it is being suggested that the problem on the AA flight, while affecting the same system, was for an unrelated reason.
Plane Crash Mysteries
Via an obvious chain of thought, that makes me think of two plane crashes for which we don’t yet accurately know the causes.
The older of the two is the 777 operated as MH370, which went missing almost exactly seven years ago (March 8, 2014). The plane’s mysterious disappearance, and the inability of the authorities to find it, notwithstanding seemingly extensive searching and super-scientific calculations of where it might have crashed, have of course given rise to many amazing and fanciful theories and alternate explanations for what happened.
Here’s the latest such theory. We don’t accept any part of it for an instant, but thought you’d like to see what some people are conjuring up from almost nothing as solid evidence to support their theorizing.
Much more recently is the Sriwijaya 737 crash in January this year. The cockpit voice recorder has finally been located and retrieved, and we hope this will help explain the mystery of “why didn’t the pilots notice the developing engine problem and airplane imbalance”.
It is expected the voice recording will be transcribed and matched to the flight data recorder events and timings within a week. It is not known how much of the resulting findings will be released or when.
Almost Hypersonic SST Planned – I’ll Believe It When I See It
I’ve been critical of the proposed Aerion AS-2 tiny supersonic plane proposal, and consider it the weakest of the three approaches currently being developed. This is not only because of its small size (8 – 12 passengers) but also because of its underwhelming speed (Mach 1.4 – the Concorde was almost 50% faster than this).
But Aerion are now claiming they are developing a second plane that is both larger and faster. The AS-3 may hold 50 passengers, and instead of going at Mach 1.4, or even just over Mach 2 at Concorde type speeds, it may go somewhere in the range of Mach 3 – 5. 50 passengers is starting to get to an economically sensible payload, and Mach 3 – 5 is impactfully fast, whereas Mach 1.4, which only applies for part of any flight, is not much better than current speeds around Mach 0.85 in realworld terms on not-too-long journeys.
Talking about journey length, the new AS-3 would have a massive 8,000 mile range. That opens up most of the major longhaul routes all around the world, especially if it is allowed to fly at supersonic speeds over land as well as over water.
I say “almost hypersonic” – while there’s a clear definition of supersonic – anything over Mach 1, which is about 770 mph at lower altitudes, the term hypersonic is less clearly defined but is suggested to mean Mach 5 and above. Consider the AS-3 to be cruising at perhaps about 3,000 mph – that’s faster than the amazing SR-71 and holder of the publicly revealed world speed record, Mach 3.3, and unofficially about Mach 3.4.
The technology for hypersonic speed requires another whole level of complexity compared to the technology for supersonic speeds, and Aerion has already fudged its supersonic speed for the AS-2 by settling for a much less demanding Mach 1.4 than Concorde, which cruised at about Mach 2.02 (they made a point of taking the speed just above Mach 2.0 to show on the digital speed displays in the cabin). The materials for building the plane, and the engine design, are both different for hypersonic speed – you can’t simply upscale a subsonic airplane engine for Mach 4 the way Aerion appears to be trying to do for Mach 1.4 flight.
It will be interesting to understand the economics of a Mach 4 commercial plane. It would only be valuable on longer routes – a short 1,000 – 2,500 mile flight wouldn’t save enough time to justify the likely extra fare required. But if you can chop a 12 hour flight down to three or four hours, that starts to be something that big-budget senior executives might be willing to pay for.
More details here, but for now, we consider this more a flight of fantasy than a foretelling of a certain future reality.
New Model Electric Cars Galore
We have a feeling that the floodgates are starting to slowly open, and the next year and beyond sees the promise of many new electric cars. None of them show any clear benefits over Tesla, but they all seem good.
Mercedes is bringing out a new EV that it claims will have a longer range than the longest range offered in any Tesla. It is expected to be on sale this summer.
Looking further ahead, there is interesting new competition coming from two unexpected sources – Chinese phone and portable electronics maker Xiaomi, and the Chinese company best known as the major assembly service for iPhones, Foxconn.
That does beg the question – whatever happened to Apple’s own occasionally hinted at interest in electric vehicles.
And Lastly This Week….
A reader drew this YouTube video to my attention. It shows a “booster bag” being used to steal passenger carry-on bags in a very clever and almost undetectable/unobservable way. Something to keep in mind and protect against for when you start flying again.
How many friends do you have? How many should you have? What type of relationship does one categorize as a friend? What is the best number of friends to invite to a dinner party? And, most of all for us in this context, (assuming you’re not on a Travel Insider Tour), what is the best number of friends to travel with?
This interesting article answers all these questions, although you can decide how accurate its answers are.
Talking about interesting articles, in December I reviewed a fascinating book about the underground infrastructures beneath selected world cities. Here now is a great article about the multiple layers of “stuff” beneath New York, and the efforts to try and create a single 3D map of it all.
The surest sign of all that travel is picking up? Rental cars are in short supply, particularly in Hawaii, where in some locations, you can find yourself paying up to even $1,000 a day, according to this article.
Until next week, happy Easter. I’m off to Walmart to buy up some of their wonderful styrofoam “egg carton” boxes of chocolate covered marshmallow Easter Eggs – at $1/dozen, that’s a value that can’t be beat.
Please stay healthy and safe (and don’t eat too many Easter Eggs at a time)