Weekly Roundup, Friday 28 May 2021

Electronic transponder tolling is very convenient, but what if you don’t have the transponder? Why isn’t there a universal transponder? See article, below.

 

368 Supporters (unchanged from last week) Target :  400  Please Join Here

 

Good morning

Are you ready for the long weekend?  By all accounts, travel will be greatly up on last year, both in the air and on the roads.  However, if you can remember back to the dark days of May 2020, travel – both on the roads and in the air – was then at very low levels, so it is no real achievement to anticipate large increases this year.

Thinking some more about travel, please see the items below about our updated prognostications for the August and September tours in Wales, Scotland and England, our best guess for what is happening in Europe, and, excitingly, a first preview of our December Christmas Markets cruise.

Attached is my Thursday Covid diary entry.  It is a fairly long one, but I think it is also one of the better ones I’ve written; hopefully you will agree. Sunday’s diary entry can be seen online here.

Another attachment is the first of a two part article I’m writing about rural (or, more broadly, universal) broadband internet.

One more introductory comment.  Our formal annual fundraising drive isn’t due to start for a while, but that is primarily focused on renewing supporters, many of whom have been regularly and kindly supporting The Travel Insider for a decade or more.  If you’re not yet a supporter, can I ask you please to consider becoming one now – it would be lovely to move the current supporter count of 368 up to the modest target of 400.  With an atrocious year behind me, and some time still before things might possibly start to return to normal, your support, if possible and convenient for you, is strongly needed and much appreciated.  Thank you.

What else?  Please keep reading for :

  • Air Travel Lurches Slightly Upward
  • Travel Insider UK Touring Plans for Aug/Sept
  • Europe’s Summer Opening Plans (if Any)
  • December Christmas Markets Cruise
  • Airbus Gives Us a Peek Into the Future
  • American Airlines Aamazingly Bad Idea
  • The Little Known Backstory to the Belarus Diversion
  • Airbnb’s New Vision of Its Future
  • SpaceX vs the Rest, and a Prize for Losing
  • Electronic Toll-road Charges in the US
  • Food Prices and Service
  • And Lastly This Week….

Air Travel Lurches Slightly Upward

After a flat week with neither increase nor decrease last week, things finally started to move upwards on Monday and Tuesday, then leveled out again on Wednesday, albeit at a new high point, 70% of the 2019 travel numbers.  The weekend may be anomalous due to the three day weekend, but it will still be interesting to see what happens.  Don’t forget, I tweet every morning with each previous day’s updated numbers.

Here’s an upbeat article about travel patterns for the weekend, including reference to the US airline industry booming, with two new startups.  It is true there are two new startups, but it is worth noting that one of them (Avelo) is extremely tiny, so small that it struggles to be even a rounding error in total air traffic numbers; and the other (Breeze) has been in planning for years, and is (hopefully) well funded.

Travel Insider UK Touring Plans for Aug/Sept

The UK virus numbers have significantly changed from last week, and not in a good way.  The previous week saw an average of 2,301 new cases every day and 8 deaths a day.  Now, seven days later, the average new case number has climbed sharply up to 2,773, although the daily death count remains at 8 (it takes up to a month for the death rate trend to change when the case rate trend changes).  This is as I’d worried about last week, with blame being laid at the feet of the more infectious Indian variant of the virus.

This is not encouraging the UK to more aggressively open its borders, and in any event, there are no new policy statements about this due for another week or two.  Fortunately, we still have plenty of time before our planned three tours to Wales, Scotland and England in late August through early September.  I’m simply asking for tentative expressions of interest at present, and won’t ask for money until it seems clear we can proceed.  Meantime, please do look over the three tours and send in your expressions of interest as you may choose to do.

Europe’s Summer Opening Plans (if Any)

Never underestimate the bureaucratic inefficiency of the European Union, and the underlying fractious nature of its member states.

It is now almost six weeks since the EU proudly announced it would allow vaccinated Americans to visit this summer.  Depending on when you deem summer to start, summer is almost upon us, but other than continue to emptily repeat that we’ll be able to visit, the EU has yet to tell us how that would work.  What form of vaccination proof will they require?

This recent article’s headline sums it up accurately – “Confusion reigns as Europe reopens to vaccinated travelers“.  And this article includes the statement

… officials in the U.S. and the E.U. are in ongoing talks aiming to make a vaccine certificate acceptable throughout both regions, so that travelers could rely on one universal health pass to get around. Officials in Brussels have said that, while such a vaccine passport is being developed, interim proof of vaccination (i.e., the document provided in a traveler’s home country) may be accepted for entry into and travel within the E.U.

Note the use of the phrase “may be accepted”.  That’s a million miles different than “will be accepted”.

So, at least for now, I continue to suggest that any travel plans you have for Europe in the next month or two be made tentatively and without any non-refundable deposits or payments.  Maybe the next week will be the week this finally all comes together.  Or, maybe not……

But I am sure that sometime in the next month or so things will finally be sorted out, leaving us all with some of summer for travel to Europe.  Plus, of course, all the fall and beyond, which brings me to…..

December Christmas Markets Cruise

It seems well past time for us to have another river based Christmas markets experience, and I’ve lined up a great one with Amawaterways (of course).  It will travel from Vienna to Budapest, with us boarding in Vienna on Saturday 11 December and leaving in Nuremberg on Saturday 18 December.

As is usually the case, I’m also lining up great pre-cruise and post-cruise options.  We’ll spend two or three nights in and around Budapest before joining the cruise, and two or three nights in and around Prague after leaving the cruise.

It is a really great itinerary, including a stop in lovely Durnstein, somewhere that Amawaterways never used to stop at, but which I have kept asking them to include.  In addition to our own pre and post cruise options (better value than the standard Amawaterways pre and post options, and with better inclusions and nicer hotels) there will also be other special elements added to our cruise – a special cocktail reception, a shipboard credit for your spending pleasure, and special off-ship touring too.

I’ll have the full details online for you to read through and choose to join this coming week.

Our Christmas market cruises are the most popular of all our touring itineraries.  If you’ve been with us on one before, come again and enjoy the lovely Amacerto ship and the slightly changed itinerary – as you probably know, some people have been on these cruises with us multiple times.  If you’ve never been on one before, isn’t it time you come along and see for yourself why they’re so popular!

Airbus Gives Us a Peek Into the Future

As I’ve several times discussed, including just last week, the Airbus/Boeing competition is a carefully choreographed ballet, planned years ahead, which each company trying to get the other company to commit first to a new generation of airplanes, allowing the second/slower company to then respond with a “better” series of planes, and stealing a march on the other company for the entire perhaps decade or longer life of the competing models.

This is referred to obliquely in this interesting article about Airbus having been developing entirely new wings for its A320 series of planes.  This is something it has been working on for at least six years already, but which it is in no hurry to deploy, preferring to keep it “in reserve” until it is needed as a rapid response to some new Boeing innovation.  As the article says

With the new wing in its back pocket, Airbus can afford to wait for the U.S. firm to make a move and then respond having seen what it’s up against.

We’re not told what the impact of a new wing would be in terms of fuel efficiency.  My guess is at least 5%, probably 10%, and unlikely to exceed 15%.  It seems certain that a new wing would be paired with a new generation of engine which might add another 5% – 10% in efficiency, so in total, the new wing/engine package could boost efficiency (and thereby reduce costs) by 10% – 25%.

If I owned an airline, I’d rather wish that Airbus would hurry up and get the wing out there now, rather than sitting back and waiting to see what Boeing might do next, whenever that will be.

American Airlines Aamazingly Bad Idea

Think of the last half dozen times you’ve flown somewhere and what you’ve observed of the airline staff working the departure gate.  There are usually at least two people, sometimes three or more.  There is a steady line of passengers waiting at the podium for all manner of questions/problems/requests, and an air of barely controlled chaos on the agents’ side of the podium.

Then, when boarding starts, pressures escalate even more – you’ve got agents scanning the boarding passes, agents releasing and reassigning seats, agents sorting out the inevitable confusions and challenges, agents gate-checking bags and/or charging bag fees, agents liaising with the flight crew to finalize passenger manifests and paperwork, and generally doing all the other “stuff” that needs to be done prior to pushback.

Have you ever seen the agents, during these times, looking bored, and with nothing to do?

With that as introduction, guess what American is going to do?  It is going to reduce its gate agents to just one agent per gate.

That has to be the craziest decision AA has come up with, although it sure has a long record of not very customer-friendly actions over the last few years.  The obvious-seeming outcomes will be longer boarding times for flights, meaning we’ll have to check in still earlier, and be required to be at the gate even more in advance of departure, and if we have any issues/needs, it will be harder to get the agent’s attention and focus to get them resolved.

The decision becomes even crazier when you consider that AA has just added to gate agents’ workload by requiring them to charge passengers who show up with oversized carry-ons.

The Little Known Backstory to the Belarus Diversion

You’ve surely heard about the Ryanair flight that was traveling between Athens and Vilnius in Lithuania.  It was “forced” to divert and land in Minsk, Belarus, after the Belarusian authorities told the pilot there was a bomb on board.  This is a good and comprehensive explanation of what happened.

The “clever” part of the trick played by Belarus to get the flight on the ground so they could arrest a leading dissident (and his girlfriend) was telling the pilot, who surely would first have responded “thanks for letting us know, we’re already descending to land in Vilnius and will be on the ground shortly, so we won’t fly a long way further and go off our route to land in Minsk”, that the bomb had a geo-trigger on it that was designed to detonate when the plane approached Vilnius.

European countries have erupted in a largely meaningless series of showy expressions of outrage about this, and some have gone as far as to refuse the Belarusian national airline, Belavia, permission to operate to and from their airports.  Some airlines are now ostentatiously rerouting their flights around Belarus rather than flying shorter routes overhead, a “cutting your nose off to spite your face” type act that surely will be quietly discontinued very quickly, because longer flights mean more fuel burned and higher costs, and there are very few principles more important to airlines than keeping costs low!

Russia has eagerly stepped into the argument, raising the stakes for airlines seeking to virtue signal by avoiding Belarusian airspace.

The US has happily climbed on the bandwagon of morally outraged countries, expressing their own condemnation of the deed.  For sure, it was a very naughty thing for Belarus to do.

But…..

This is not the first time an airline has been forced to land by a country over which it was flying.  Belarus is merely copying something the now-outraged but somewhat forgetful US did, in 2013.  Even when it isn’t requiring airplanes to land, the US continues to demand details of every passenger on every plane that overflies the US, even if the plane is traveling from one foreign country to another with no plans to land in the US en route.

We don’t approve of what Belarus did, and didn’t approve of what the US did, either.  We doubly don’t approve of the hypocrisy of the US in now expressing faux outrage over Belarus’ actions.

Airbnb’s New Vision of Its Future

While Airbnb is certainly well-imbued with typical internet hype, it also deserves a lot of credit for taking a concept that had been rattling around and going nowhere and making it viable and prominent – using the internet for people to rent rooms and apartments to strangers.

Airbnb was by no means the first such service.  VRBO (now part of Expedia) started in 1995, whereas Airbnb started in 2008; and there were smaller regional versions of VRBO long prior to then.  But Airbnb did it better than all the others.

So when they start talking about their vision of the future, it is worth listening to it.  This article explains how they see their service moving from short-stay bookings to longer-stay bookings, and make the interesting point that if you’re staying somewhere for 28+ days, you have a different set of expectations and needs.

They also expect (well, perhaps better to stay “hope for”!) more long-stay business as an adjunct to more liberal “work from somewhere other than the office” type policies.

SpaceX vs the Rest, and a Prize for Losing

Here’s an utterly ridiculous article suggesting that SpaceX is on the verge of creating a monopolistic position for itself in space.

Certainly, its new rockets are proving successful, and if you choose to count satellites merely by number, rather than by size/sophistication/cost, they have a lot of tiny inexpensive low-altitude satellites launched and plans to launch tens of thousands more, but space is enormous, there’s plenty to go around, and nothing to stop other companies from doing whatever they wish as well.

It is of course the instinctive response of companies in many countries, whenever facing competition, to seek government regulation to carve themselves a niche, rather than resorting to simple competition and striving to create a better product/service and at a better price.

Meanwhile, the repercussions of SpaceX’s strong win of the NASA Moon landing contract continue.  Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin company apparently bid twice as much as SpaceX to get the NASA contract, and while it then claimed NASA was unfair in giving the deal to SpaceX, that seems to have now been abandoned as a totally untenable basis of objection.

So Bezos and Blue Origin is trying a new approach.  They’re now asking for $10 billion to become a “second supplier” to NASA, alleging that some unknown harm might flow to NASA if it gives the entire moon contract to SpaceX.

Building in $10 billion of supply-chain redundancy might make sense in a time-critical or just plain critical project.  We did that with last year’s Operation Warp Speed approach to vaccine development, funding and pre-purchasing quantities of multiple different potential vaccines.

But we’re talking about a moon landing project that, as lovely as it is, absolutely is in no way critical to anything, and neither is it unduly time-sensitive either – quite the opposite.  The concept of a new moon landing has been a plaything of politicians for 50 years so far.  If SpaceX fails in some form or another, hopefully the NASA contract is well enough written to minimize the harm/loss to NASA, and at that stage it can switch to whatever is the best Plan B at that time.

But giving a $10 billion gratuitous unnecessary gift to the world’s most wealthy man “just because” he got too greedy and missed out on the original contract is totally unnecessary and wrong.  Details here.

And if Bezos thinks second-sourcing is so important, how about second-sourcing his near-monopolistic grasp on online commerce and donating $10 billion to create an Amazon competitor for us all.

Electronic Toll-road Charges in the US

Something to think about if you’re going on a roadtrip this weekend.  One of the most annoying parts of traveling in some parts of the US these days is that when you start driving your rental car, you find yourself on a toll-road that no longer has toll booths and people taking payment from you.  Instead, cars have electronic transponders, like have been common in Europe and elsewhere for a long time, and your account is automatically charged for each journey you take.

That works great if you’re a local, but what if you’re not local and traveling somewhere where you don’t have a transponder?  Here in Washington State, if you don’t have one of their “Good to Go” transponders, you’ll get a bill in the mail that is $2 higher than the electronic fee/transaction.  If you’re in a rental car, there’s a good chance the rental company will charge you a massive handling fee for sending the toll charges on to you.

Recognizing the growing number of different toll charging systems, way back in 2012 Congress passed a law requiring all systems to be compatible with each other and for cross-billing.  So you’d only need one transponder, could travel anywhere in the country, in any car, and have all the fees routed back to your one account.

That’s the sort of sensible thing we so rarely see coming out of Congress, and of course, there has to be a catch whenever something that good happens.  As, sadly, indeed there is.  The catch is that very few states have implemented any sort of national system.  And, as good as the new law was/is, it omitted a very important element – any sort of penalty if states chose not to comply with its provisions.

Can you believe that?  How often have you seen a new law passed that obliges us to do or not do something, and which doesn’t have plenty of penalty provisions associated with it?  But this law is toothless, and most states are simply ignoring it.

One possible reason?  Certainly in Washington, the billing system requires you to open an account with a minimum $30 balance, and to keep it in funds at all times.  So the state has a massive “float” of millions of dollars to enjoy, and that float would be at risk if it became part of a national service.

The solution?  Amend the law, making it illegal for all states to charge out-of-state residents unless they participate in a mutual electronic charging relationship with the state the out-of-state driver is from.  A simple amendment, wouldn’t take much more than one line to add, and would surely speed states to urgently implement national billing networks.

Here’s a good article on the topic.

Food Prices and Service

Disney have kindly gifted all of us who like to complain about the outrageous cost of a day at one of their theme parks with a whole new thing to complain about.

Their food has always been expensive, but they’re now taking expensive food to a whole new level – a $100 sandwich.  Well, to be fair, they say it is big enough for six to eight people, but how often are you at Disneyland with five to seven others, all wanting to share the same food item?

Perhaps the $100 sandwiches are needed to help fund the cost of restoring Disneyland’s crumbling Matterhorn ride.

Talking about $100 sandwiches, did you hear about the high-end steak house in Philadelphia that has set a minimum per person charge of $100?  They also have a fairly detailed dress policy.

This lit up Twitter for a while as one of the “trending” and most talked about topics, with most of the comments being from people that, ahem, are probably not the target market or current customer base of the restaurant, and who seemed to be under the delusion that they had a right to go to any restaurant they choose, wearing any type of clothing they wish, to stay as long as they want, and eat as little as they can in the process.  Needless to say, in today’s crazy world of imagined insults, many people decoded this as a racist policy, designed to keep poor/Black people out of the restaurant.

The reality is that most restaurants are limited by the number of tables they have and meals they can serve per day.  There’s an expectation on the part of the restaurant that there’ll be some sort of fair correlation between the time you spend and the money you spend, and if they’re turning away customers, their expectation of course adjusts.  High end restaurants also often choose to set dress standards as part of their market positioning to create a specific type of atmosphere and ambiance.

This is all 100% fair – service providers charging how they wish, and with such conditions as they wish.  Do I need to add that it is totally race/gender neutral – if you’re comfortable wearing a tie and spending $100 (plus tax and tip) per person on dinner, they’ll hold the door open and sincerely welcome you inside, no matter what or who you are or identify as.

And Lastly This Week….

Talking about Disney, I think we all know and recognize that somewhere between its opening in 1955 and today, the original vision of a family-friendly middle class (ie affordable) fun park has been superseded, and now it is rapaciously exploiting every opportunity to separate you from as much of the contents of your wallet as possible.  In part that is understandable, but in part, Disney has lost a lot of its charm, and has hardened from being one of the best elements of American entertainment and social/recreation activities to now being one of the most commercial elements.

But do all theme parks have to be so crassly and obviously commercial?  On the face of it, this might seem unavoidable and necessary.  But perhaps there is hope.  Here’s a heartwarming story about a lady who spent her life dreaming of a closed-down amusement park that then, to her delight, was restored and re-opened, and at which she managed to score a job.  Let’s hope the amusement park – Santa’s Village, in Scotts Valley, California,  is as nice as her writing is.

Starbucks is generally considered a considerate and generous employer, paying its baristas well and offering good benefits.  But some of their workers are discovering an unexpected and very negative part of their work environment.  They actually have to, ummm, errr, work.  And, even worse, their jobs are limited in the creativity and self-expression they can enjoy, so much so that some unhappy workers have accused Starbucks of treating them like “coffee-making robots”, and that is “sapping their will” to continue working for them.

If that’s not the most clear example of the generation of snowflakes we’re raising, I don’t know what is.

This article has more – about how making complicated drinks takes longer but “isn’t being translated into our labor hours” – a strange and meaningless statement because they’re paid by the hour.  But what the article is silent about is any realization by the Starbucks workers that this is the real world, and if they continue complaining, they’re in real danger of being replaced by real robots.  Do they know they’re unlikely to find better jobs than Starbucks anywhere else – I hear that Amazon is always keen to take on more warehouse workers, pee-breaks not included…..

Worthy of note is that Virgin Galactic’s latest scheduled flight did indeed actually proceed on Saturday and seemed to be executed flawlessly.  Bravo to VG.  But a small voice in the background points out this was their first flight in two years – not exactly a rushed schedule, is it.

I hope you’ll have a lovely long weekend, and until next week, please stay healthy and safe

 

David.

 

 

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