Weekly Roundup, Friday 21 May 2021

A very unappealing publicity shot of the new Ford F150 Lightning, but a very exciting new battery-electric pickup, discussed below.

 

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Good morning

I had an email problem this week that I only discovered on Thursday – one of my email addresses – my main Travel Insider email address – wasn’t receiving email.  While I am never 100% perfect at replying to emails, I’ve accordingly been even worse than normal this last week.  If there’s an email you’re expecting a reply from, please resend it.

It is amazing how the challenges of “business” and life in general evolve, isn’t it.  Who’d have thought, a couple of decades ago, that email would be so central to our lives.  And, more recently, it isn’t just email, it is texting, and indeed, cell phones and all the new ways of communicating, over and beyond a simple phone call, in general.  I’ve noticed that when I give out my landline number to people, they so often automatically assume it is a cell phone number – I know this, because they then start sending text messages to it.

That’s one part of text messaging that needs to be improved – receive and read receipts.  It is possible within the Apple/iPhone ecosystem, and similarly, is becoming more common and integrated in the Android universe too, but both companies are resisting bridging between the two systems.  It is also possible with chat apps such as WhatsApp and many others, but I find I want to try and keep the profusion of chat apps down to a manageable number, rather than continuing to add every new and fleetingly popular new chat app to my phone.

Apple is even more actively resisting cross-platform compatibility – I know a number of people who are cursed with iPhones and are now unable to send me text messages.  This is because, in some cases, Apple is refusing to accept that my phone number, once connected to my iPhone, way back before I saw the light and happily converted to Android, is no longer an iMessage number and so intercepts any text messages to that number and redirects them to their iMessage app, which of course means the message goes nowhere near my Android phone.  Just another little pinprick of pain to remind me why I’m so glad to have escaped Apple’s cloying straitjacket of an ecosystem.

I’m not the only one to be happier away from iPhones, as you’ll see below.  Although I have to concede there are two Apple products that I still reluctantly love with a passion – their Watch, and their iPads.  I might write again about their lovely line of smart watches soon; for now it is interesting to note, in passing, that maybe, at last, Google/Android and Samsung might effectively team up to create some worthy competitors to Apple’s Watch.

As for the iPad, I remain astonished that no other company has come up with credible options to the iPad line of tablets.  I drool over the 12.9″ iPads every time I see them (the latest generation are just appearing in stores now), which is not to say I also don’t still very much appreciate my old iPad Air.

I’ve a book review for you as a feature article this week.  It is a fairly short review of a fairly short book, but it caused me to dally down Memory Lane for a while, remembering the car I’ve loved the most out of the many I’ve owned over the 45 or more years I’ve been a car owner – a Rover P6B (aka 3500S).  There’s a picture of one that is identical to mine heading up the review article.  My second-favorite car is the first I ever owned – a very ordinary (but special to me) light pastel blue Ford Mark IV Zephyr; actually, when I think through my cars, there hasn’t been a single one that I’ve not loved.  Well, maybe the old late 1980s Range Rover, which spent way too much time in the dealership being worked on, out of warranty…..  And, surprisingly, the other big disappointment was the first car I ever bought brand new, shortly upon arriving in the US – a “fully loaded” 1985 Ford Thunderbird that I custom spec’d out and had as a special factory order.

Talking about cars, as it seems we are, I saved myself about $150 on Thursday.  I started my Land Rover and the (for some of us) dreaded “Check Engine” light came on.  As you may know, when that happens, you’re usually up for something like a $150 “diagnostic fee” and then quite possibly some more money subsequently to fix whatever the fault is.  But in this case, I looked at the lovely ScanGauge II that I’ve added to the vehicle, read out the fault code, looked it up by simply asking Google what the code meant, tightened the gas tank cap in response to the code meaning, pushed a button on the ScanGauge to reset the fault, and the problem was solved.  It took me all of two or three minutes, and didn’t cost a penny.

I reviewed the ScanGauge II when I bought it – Amazon tells me I purchased it on 13 January, 2009, so it has given over 12 years of great service so far.  Highly recommended if you like to know lots about what is happening “under the hood”.  I’ve become popular with friends – they know that if they get a Check Engine light, they simply need to come around with a six pack of beer, and before we’ve had a chance to even finish the first bottle/can each, the problem will have been diagnosed, usually solved, and the Check Engine light reset and switched off again.  All without even popping the hood.

Oh – back to the book review.  It is – as you’ll see below – about fun facts and trivia to do with cars and road travel.  I’m not sure I’d spend $15.20 on the paperback, but the $2.99 Kindle version is an easy purchasing decision to make.

Also attached is Thursday’s Covid diary entry, and Sunday’s diary entry is online, here.

It has been a fairly quiet week this week – perhaps because of my email problems!  Which is why I’m being more chatty to start with, to make up for what I’d thought would be a slightly reduced amount of content below (but which ended up being longer than a “normal” newsletter!).

But please do keep reading for :

  • A Week With No Air Pax Growth
  • Travel Insider UK Touring Plans for Aug/Sept
  • Europe to Welcome Vaccinated Visitors – But When and How?
  • Boeing Resumes 737 MAX Deliveries
  • Bezos Space Seat Auction Popular
  • Virgin Galactic’s Next Test Flight Scheduled
  • iPhones No Longer as Loved as Before?
  • A Pickup for Non-Pickup Drivers?
  •  Amtrak Thinks Small Instead of Big
  • And Lastly This Week….

A Week With No Air Pax Growth

A week ago, the seven day rolling average for the percentage of people flying compared to 2019 was 66.6%.  Now, this week, the average is 66.8%; ie essentially – and surprisingly – unchanged for the entire week.

It is strange to see what has happened over the last several months.  As the orange line on the chart above shows, we enjoyed a long period of steady daily growth, and that was to be expected.  It seemed to match the mood of positivism and reducing daily new cases/increasing vaccinations.

But then there was a puzzling period of retrenchment, more growth, and now a week with virtually no change whatsoever.

Anyone care to guess what the next week will show?

Travel Insider UK Touring Plans for Aug/Sept

Let’s have a look at the UK numbers first.  A week ago, they were reporting an average of 2,297 new cases a day and 9 deaths.  Now, a week later, the numbers are 2,301 new cases and 8 deaths a day.

On the face of it, that is more good than bad.  Case numbers are holding steady, and death numbers are dropping.  But there’s a large element of nervousness, particularly in England, due to the increasing prominence of an Indian variant of the virus – this seems easier to catch, and so there is more propensity for case numbers to grow than if the virus strain was the previous type.

England is putting in a lot of extra resource to increase the rate of testing people for virus infections, and is also trying as hard as it can to encourage people to be vaccinated, hoping to limit the spread and reduce the number of people vulnerable to the virus.  There has been some speculation the country might slow down their path out of the remaining weak lockdown measures, but that remains uncertain.

Talking about uncertain, the other point of as-yet unclarified uncertainty is the policy on allowing vaccinated visitors into the country without the need for quarantine (and hopefully without the need for testing, either).  No-one is revealing much about what will happen with these issues, yet, but there are two hopeful signs.

The first is that JetBlue has announced it will start its new service to London on 11 August.  That is sooner than some of the earlier mooted service-commencement dates, and implies they’re optimistic that by that time, there’ll be some demand for travel between the two countries.

The second is discussed in the next point, below – Europe’s headlong semi-rush to welcome us into their countries.  My sense is that if Europe adopts a liberal open-borders policy for vaccinated visitors, the pressure on the UK (from their own tourism operators) to do the same will become almost irresistible and the government will feel forced to match the EU policy.

So I continue to expect our three tours to Wales, Scotland and England will be able to operate.  If one, two, or all three of these are of potential interest, please do register your interest in participating – I need to get a sense for numbers asap so I can try to plead for rooms from hotels in the places we’ll be visiting to be set aside for us.

Europe to Welcome Vaccinated Visitors – But When and How?

There has been a lot of talk from EU leaders about their decision to open their borders, allowing vaccinated people to visit without the need for quarantines.

But the talk remains just that – talk.  Much as I said a week ago, there have still not yet been any concrete details shared about exactly what the entry requirements will be.  We do know that all three vaccines being used in the US are deemed to be acceptable by the EU authorities, but more than that, no-one is yet saying.  We don’t know when this new open-border policy will start (late June is being mentioned), and we don’t know if there’ll be any need for infection testing, even for vaccinated people, and it is not yet guaranteed that all EU countries will be operating the exact same policies, which might make crossing borders between EU countries more challenging.

This is a slightly messy chart, but it shows many European countries on it as well as the US, Canada, and a couple of other countries so you can get a sense for the level of virus activity in Europe at present.  Most countries are showing clear downward trends, and it is lovely to see the US now near the bottom of the list.  It is much easier to encourage European countries to have a liberal travel policy for Americans when our virus rates are lower than theirs.

So I’m probably going to reverse my earlier predictions and, even though I was and remain correct about Europe having higher infection rates and lower vaccination rates than the UK (and US), I’m now going to predict their borders will open to vaccinated Americans sooner than Britain’s will.  Whether they’ll be open in time for you to celebrate 4 July in Europe, or shortly after, I’m not sure, but there’s very likely to be some of Europe open for some of summer.

Boeing Resumes 737 MAX Deliveries

It seems that Boeing has resolved its electrical grounding problem with the 737 MAX and is now able to start delivering fixed planes once more.  This article explains a little more about it, but the exact details remain unclear, and the reference to it being only a short/quick grounding – while fair compared to the getting on for two year grounding of the 737 MAX previously – is a very kind way of describing over a month of delay, something that has to be impactful to both Boeing and its 737 MAX customers.

Let’s hope that marks the end of the 737 MAX troubles.  Any more would definitely brand it a most unlucky plane, and no-one likes to be uncomfortably racing through the thin air at 35,000 ft and 550 mph in an unlucky aircraft.

In other Boeing news, this is an interesting article that talks about whatever it is that is the current flavor-of-the-year at Boeing in terms of their constantly changing plans for developing a new airplane.

The best part of the article is its analysis which suggests that it is already too late for Boeing to try and plug the gap in its product line caused by the retired 757 and 767 models.  To try and restate the reasoning in the article, it could be said that Boeing and Airbus are currently “out of sync” with their airplane development strategies.  Currently Airbus has effective and attractive plane models/configurations that are addressing the gap that Boeing allowed to grow in its product range.

If Boeing does develop a new airplane model (or models – don’t forget the way-passed-its-use-by-date 737 series), Airbus can simply wait until Boeing has committed to new airplane designs, and then, at its leisure, while enjoying years of ongoing production due to the large backlog of orders for its current models, develop competing products that will use newer technology and offer better operating performance and economics than Boeing.  This means that a new model series that Boeing has developed and hopes to sell for the next 20, 30, maybe even 40 or 50 years, will possibly become technologically obsolete by a newer/better Airbus design within perhaps ten years.

Airplane design these days is like a slow-motion game of snooker.  It isn’t enough to simply come up with a good airplane design yourself, you’ve got to time and plan it so your design eclipses the design of your competitor, forcing them either to accept reduced market share while desperately trying to earn back the development costs of their similar/inferior model, or requiring them to write off billions in unrecouped development costs for a short-lived little-sold plane series and develop yet another new plane series sooner than planned.

For the last couple of decades, Airbus has been playing that game better than Boeing.

Bezos Space Seat Auction Popular

Talking about racing across the sky, the Jeff Bezos backed Blue Origin company’s auction for a seat on their space ship’s first passenger flight is proving wildly popular, with the current high bid standing at $2.6 million, a number that is sure to rise, particularly in the inevitable last-minute frenzy of bids (the auction closes on 12 June).  (Update – now $2.8 million)

But does that mean there’s a huge market of people all willing to pay $2+ million for a brief taste of space flight (11 minutes)?  I read a ridiculous article suggesting that the interest in and high prices being bid in this one-off auction were validating Virgin Galactic’s business model.  But that is nonsense.  The high price for this one single seat on the first-ever flight is due to its uniqueness.

There are probably several dozen extremely wealthy people who would love to be able to indulge in that piece of “conspicuous consumption” and end up with bragging rights that in their distorted values world would be worth way more than $3 million to them.

But the high bid and other bids below it for this one seat tell us nothing about what people will pay for one of six seats on the 100th or 200th generic flight going briefly up to the outer reaches of the atmosphere then quickly back down to earth again.  For Virgin Galactic to succeed it needs to be able to sell tens of seats, every week, not just one seat, once.

And talking about Virgin Galactic……

Virgin Galactic’s Next Test Flight Scheduled

Virgin Galactic say they expect their next test flight to take to the air sometime on Saturday.  You’ve got to believe (or at least hope) that when they’re scheduling a flight a mere two days in advance, their projection/prediction will actually prove to be reliable and accurate.

But with Virgin Galactic, who ever really knows what to expect, and they’re already hedging their bets, saying the flight is subject to weather and technical checks.

It is extremely difficult for Virgin Galactic to compete with their crazy-deep pocketed competition, both the Bezos/Blue Origin and the Musk/SpaceX companies.  VG’s only saving grace is that joyrides through the outer reaches of the atmosphere are not quite such a core product of either Blue Origin or SpaceX, but for sure, the “ultra-cool” factor that Virgin Galactic had in abundance, 15 years ago, has now totally faded.

This is an interesting article about the whole concept of “space tourism” and the hype which marketeers are keen to infuse into it.

My question is – if a passenger on a 20 minute joyride into the upper atmosphere can call themselves an astronaut, why can’t a person on a 30 minute flight between Chicago and Detroit call themselves a pilot?  And the next time I go on a cruise, after I’ve gone on a tour of the bridge and engine room, I think I’ll start calling myself a captain, too.

Back to the no longer cool Virgin Galactic, even their stock price is heading back down, although it jumped some 15% up on the company’s Thursday announcement of the Saturday flight.  The enormous positive reaction to the Saturday flight announcement – something long promised and overdue – suggests to me a market that is desperate for any news at all, and eager to spin the most routine of announcements positively.

iPhones No Longer as Loved as Before?

Here’s an interesting survey on consumer satisfaction with both cell phones and cellular wireless service providers.

The surprising issue, to me, was to see that the six phones at the top of the customer satisfaction list were all Samsung phones.  Apple didn’t get a look-in until 7th place.

This was surprising, all the more so because I absolutely loathed the Samsung A71 I struggled with for a few agonizing months last year.  While the A71 is not on the list, the things I disliked about the phone were not phone-hardware issues, but Samsung operating-interface issues, which are presumably shared exactly the same on all other Samsung phones too.

But there are two things to keep in mind.  First, the scores are on a 100 point scale and as you can see, there’s almost no gap between the top scoring phone (85 points) and the top iPhone (82 points).

Secondly, how accurate is it to compare how satisfied people are with their phones when they’ve never tried different brands of phones and styles of interface?

So, while one can use these results to poke fun at “The Cult of Apple”, the reality is the results don’t really mean much at all.

A Pickup for Non-Pickup Drivers?

As part of America’s trend back towards bigger cars – ie SUVs, there’s been a resurgence of interest in pickup models.  The auto manufacturers have encouraged this by making “crossover” type pickups – vehicles with a “crew cab” – ie four doors and two rows of seats, as well as a pickup bed behind the cab.  Does that mean, in theory, a pickup is now as suitable as a sedan for a four or five person family, plus with even more cargo space than the largest SUV?  Maybe it does.

I’ve never considered myself a “pickup kind of guy”, but the Ford F150 Lightning pickup announced this week might be enough to convert me to becoming an enthusiastic pickup owner.  Why?  Because, as hinted by its name, it is a battery-electric powered vehicle, and with some lovely extra features.

In addition to all the automation and features that you’d expect in a state of the art vehicle these days, you can use the battery power to run electrical appliances wherever you go – up to 9.6kW of power, which powers a huge amount of equipment.  This leads to what is a foretaste of a feature that ultimately all electric vehicles will offer – the ability to act as an emergency power supply for your home if you suffer a power cut.

Ford says the vehicle’s stored power can run a typical home for up to three days.  I sometimes have a few hours at a time without power, but I only once in 36 years have I had an outage run over three days, so that’s tremendously beneficial and good enough for almost any eventuality.

The value of this capability actually goes further still.  As our power grid becomes more intelligent, connected vehicle batteries will be able to charge up and store cheap surplus power during the day when utility companies and in particular, wind and solar power plants are generating more power than needed, and then in the evenings and other times of high load demand, give the stored power back to the grid, giving the grid more surge capacity and needing fewer standby power plants to handle peak loads.  When this capability is widely deployed, it will solve the current huge problem of solar and wind power – the inability to match their power generating abilities with the demands and needs of power consumers, via an inexpensive and vast reservoir of storage batteries in people’s vehicles.

The F150 is reasonably priced by EV standards, but – as is invariably the case, it seems – won’t go on sale for another year.  More details here.

One thing is for sure.  The F150 is many times more attractive than this bizarre looking new EV.  And, of course, inevitably, if you should like this “Canoo” vehicle, it too won’t be available until next year.

Amtrak Thinks Small Instead of Big

Amtrak’s executives must be very excited now they have a truly pro-rail President in the Oval Office, and a President who is itching to spend billions, maybe trillions, on “national infrastructure” – and if that’s not code for “more passenger rail” then nothing ever will be.

If I were part of the Amtrak leadership, I’d be camped out on the White House steps, presenting glossy picture-book style proposals to Biden every day, hoping that one or more of them would catch his eye and earn his support.

But instead, Amtrak is excited about a new passenger rail corridor concept to run from Pueblo (south of Colorado Springs) and go 200 miles north, through Denver, and on north, via Boulder and up to Fort Collins, then ultimately to Cheyenne in Wyoming.  They are thinking of operating two daily roundtrips between Pueblo and Fort Collins, and a third that will go all the way to Cheyenne.

This is all extremely tentative at this stage.  Routes haven’t been set – for example, it isn’t yet even known if the route would go via Denver Intl Airport or not (surely that would be one of the essential inclusions).  It is also not clear whether this would be conventional speed (ie slow) rail, or something faster.  One of the oh-so-many (and expensive) “planning” (ie “dreaming”) documents talks about using “existing, proven rail technology” which sounds like a euphemism for “slow and obsolete”, and with two freight railroads (BNSF and UP) involved, that suggests still further the tracks would be designed and signaled for slow rather than high speed service.

It is claimed the region has about 5 million people within it.  That’s probably correct, but how many of those people would be close enough to a rail station, and how many of their destinations would also be matchingly close to a rail station, as to make it worthwhile?

And how could any investment in new track and rolling stock be amortized acceptably over a planned paltry 2 or 3 trains a day?  That pretty much guarantees there’ll never be a train within an hour or two of when you want to travel on the route, further limiting the ridership.

Most of all, though, I’m not sure if Joe Biden remembers where Colorado is.  Why isn’t Amtrak aggressively tempting him with much tastier rail treats in the Boston-New York-Washington corridor, and the Eastern states in general?  With routes that can grow organically – get 100 miles of service this year, add another 100 miles next year, and so on (if it were China, there’d of course be another zero on those numbers but we have to be more modest).  If this 200 mile route is ever built, how can it grow?  It is 300+ miles from Pueblo (a not large city of 111,000 people) to the next major metro area south (Albuquerque) and as for Cheyenne (pop 64,000), well, the entire state of Wyoming has only 580,000 people in it.  The next major connecting point would probably be 430 miles west to Salt Lake City, or 530 miles east to Omaha.

It just doesn’t make sense to build a tiny 200 mile stretch of rail service in the middle of nowhere with no easy way to then grow it further, and without the high population density that is necessary to support rail and associate feeder/distributor public transport to/from the train stations and ultimate destinations.

As I always say at this point in any rail article, I love rail and would be delighted to see it developed in the US.  I’d love to have high speed rail in my Seattle area – up to Vancouver and down to Portland.  But the prime areas for creating new passenger rail service are all east of the Mississippi.

If Amtrak is ever going to become relevant in the US, it needs to first build its services where the people and voters are.  Empty states like Wyoming and even Colorado should be at the bottom of the priority list, not the top.

And Lastly This Week….

Here’s one of these hard-to-understand lists (in terms of methodology and results) lists, purporting to show the ten countries which ex-pats most like to live and work in.  Taiwan, then Mexico, then Costa Rica make the top three – all of them being surprises (to me).

The headline overstates what actually happened, but you’ve got to understand how the temptation to create a headline that says “Autonomous taxi goes rogue, escapes from rescue crew” could get the better of the writer or his editors.

Possibly even at the moment you’re reading this (11.42am Pacific time) I’ll be getting the Johnson & Johnson single-shot vaccine today (Friday).  Assuming I don’t have “a reaction” to it, I’ll be back next week, of course.

Until next week, please stay healthy and safe

 

David.

 

 

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