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You may have noticed no weekly newsletter last week. The hosting company that had been hosting my main Travel Insider site (Siteground) did some “computer maintenance” on Wednesday night last week, and on Thursday morning, after they triumphantly advised all work had been finished, my site was still variously off-line or taking 14+ seconds to load a page. My first attempt to discuss this with the Bulgarian hosting company was greeted by a demand to pay at least $50 for their support response before they’d even talk to me. Subsequently, they told me they’d checked, and there was nothing wrong at their end, it was just a coincidence that at the same time they changed their computer configurations, my site became unresponsive (they only admitted the problem was theirs when I threatened to cancel my account).
This was the last straw after a growing litany of support problems and ever less support assistance, and so I set about switching to a new hosting provider; something that normally takes 15 minutes to accomplish, and which I’ve done many times with the 20+ different websites I publish. But Murphy’s Law knows when best to strike, and for sure, the day before the weekly newsletter is when I’m at my most vulnerable.
To make a long sad story into a short sad story, the matter is still not fully resolved, and I’ve even had to temporarily retreat back to Siteground’s service while trying to sort out some strange problems with the new hosting service. It is a bit like a flight delay – you’re given a series of 15 minute delays, each with the expectation that after those 15 minutes, you’ll be boarding the plane and hopefully making up some time as you then fly to your destination. I’ve spent an astonishing number of hours trying to resolve some issues that seem like they should be five minute challenges, but with sometimes multiple internet companies involved in different parts of the total operation, working out who is responsible for each issue, then getting them to fix it without breaking something else, well, it is not easy. Anyway, bottom line, no newsletter last week, but this one is almost twice the length of a normal one, so hopefully it balances out.
The exciting news for the week – for the two weeks – is in the form of the full details of our 2021 Christmas Markets River Cruise, this December, now being available for you to read through, and of course, for you to then choose to join.
The seven night/eight day cruise is from Vienna to Nuremberg, starting on Saturday 11 December and ending on 18 December. Before the cruise, there are up to five days of pre-cruise option (three days in Prague, two in Budapest), and then at the end of the cruise, there’s a delightful two day extension taking us on to Zurich for two nights, with a stop in Liechtenstein on the way for the benefit of people like me who have yet to visit that tiny micro-nation and are keen to add one more country to their list of visited countries.
Our European Christmas Market cruises and tours are the most popular of all the tours we offer, and rightly so. There’s something so magical about the picture-postcard prettiness of the historic towns we explore, the scenery as we cruise along the Danube, and of course, the lovely Christmas markets themselves – kaleidoscopes of color crammed full of local arts and crafts, regional food (every town has its own size/shape/style of sausage, it seems!) and other specialty items, and of course, the hot mulled wine “gluhwein” in beautiful souvenir mugs that you’ll probably collect more than a few of to take home with you as reminders of a glorious experience.
What I really like is the relaxed bonhomie and Christmas spirit – not only in the towns we visit, where people seem relaxed and are truly celebrating the Advent pre-Christmas period, but also on the ship, where we are a semi-guilty bunch of co-conspirators, all taking refuge on the lovely ship for a week rather than slogging through the tense craziness that is the buildup to Christmas back here!
If you’ve been on a Danube Christmas cruise with me before, this year has a slightly different itinerary, offering you a nice mix of new experiences and familiar repeat experiences. If you’ve been on a Rhine or “land cruise”, it is of course almost completely different. We’ve had people do up to three Christmas cruises with us so far – either repeating the same itineraries or doing different ones, and I’ve of course done something over a dozen, and continue to eagerly look forward to each next one with as much enthusiasm as I did for the first. If you’ve not yet come on one, why not make 2021 the year you finally do.
You can access the main details about the cruise on this page, and you can see a day by day detailed itinerary on this page. Please do quickly decide if you’d like to come with us – Amawaterways tells me they are experiencing record-breaking unprecedented levels of new bookings this week. It is like someone flipped a switch over the Memorial Day weekend – they’ve been averaging 70 calls on hold waiting for an agent for much of last week!
What else? As always for the last year or more, the Thursday Covid diary entry is attached, below, and Sunday’s can be found online, here.
Plus the usual (I always feel I should say “unusual”) assortment of items below :
- Air Passenger Numbers See-sawing
- EU/UK Summer Travel?
- UA Announces “Order” for 15 SSTs
- Yet Another Crazy Airline Seat Idea
- Airline Competition, Aussie-Style
- Rocket Men Competition
- What to Do if Your Monthly Internet Fee Goes Up
- More Wishful Amtrak Thinking
- Same Story, Different Ship
- And Lastly This Week….
Air Passenger Numbers See-sawing
Let’s put it down to the distortive effects of the Memorial Day weekend, but the last couple of weeks have seen air passenger number wobble up and down, with a net upwards movement from 70% to 71% over the two weeks.
I do not expect air travel numbers to return to 100% of 2019 and then continue climbing. I do expect that leisure travel will quickly return to 2019 levels, or at least it will once international travel issues are finally resolved, but I anticipate a much longer and slower return to whatever the new “normal” for business travel might be.
I do think there’s still more upwards movement waiting to happen to lift numbers up from 71% to perhaps 80%, and maybe another 5% once international travel gets fully underway again, but much beyond that I think will only be possible if the airlines start discounting to bring in more leisure travelers to compensate for lower business travel numbers.
EU/UK Summer Travel?
Another two weeks have passed, and we’re still without any clear statement of what will happen, how, or when. Assorted random European countries are now saying they’re open to US tourists, but when you attempt to drill down to the exact nature of the requirements they might have, and what they mean by an official government-issued proof of vaccination, we’re back to the same murky unknowns as we’ve been trying to resolve ever since the April announcements of the EU opening up.
This article has a misleading headline when it suggests “more than 20 countries have lifted restrictions for vaccinated travelers”. The reality is that this number of countries have either wholly or partially lifted restrictions. A partial lift of restrictions is very different to a complete lift, and for most of us, any remaining requirement to be tested is time consuming and costly, unnecessary and unwelcome.
But my sense is we’re very much closer to a “breakthrough” for travel to Europe than we are for travel to the UK. This surprises me, I’d been predicting the UK would be first to open up, but this is neither the first nor the last time I’ve been wrong about things.
Many people had been expecting that the one-on-one pre-G7 meeting between Joe Biden and Boris Johnson on Thursday would result in an announcement of how people could restart flying between the two countries. A move by the State Department to downgrade their travel advisory to the UK from the direst Level 4 maximum do-not-travel warning to a Level 3 “only travel if you’ve a death-wish and your life insurance policy is fully paid up” warning earlier this week seemed to be a step in the right direction, even if strangely timed because case rates in the UK are now three times what they were five weeks ago, and steadily continuing to rise.
But the meeting concluded with the after-meeting statement full of positive platitudes and boasting of creating a new “Atlantic Charter” to rival the 1941 Churchill-Roosevelt earlier document. But as for opening the borders, they’ve agreed to create a task force that will make policy recommendations about how to proceed. No lead time has been given for when the task-force will convene, when it will report, or when any recommendations may be acted on.
But the bureaucratic nature of a “task force” sounds like a slow rather than fast thing, with no guarantee as to outcomes either. Details here.
I’m reserving judgment on this until after the full G7 meeting, Friday – Sunday, in the hope there might be a larger G7 travel pact announced. But it is a desperate hope, and if no good news is received on Sunday, it will be hard to continue to plan for the three tours of Wales/Scotland/England in August and early September.
However, don’t completely despair. I’ll simply shift them ahead to perhaps June next year, and have a whimsical other concept in the planning stages that I’ll tell you more about later this month. Plus, of course, there is the lovely Christmas cruise.
UA Announces “Order” for 15 SSTs
It is now two weeks ago that we saw the deserved demise of Aerion, the most fanciful of the various announced plans for a new supersonic passenger plane and one which had always seemed to me to be totally lacking in commercial sense or viability. Thursday last week saw United Airlines announce it has placed an “order” for 15 of the Boom “Overture” supersonic planes (pictured immediately above), possibly with deliveries starting in 2029.
First, let’s note the quote marks I’ve placed around the word “order”. Although neither United nor Boom made this clear, it seems the “order” is nothing of the sort. Instead, it is a highly qualified conditional expression of possible future intent to proceed, but only if the Boom plane meets United’s requirements and Boom’s promises of performance. United could walk away at any time, and as best we can tell, United hasn’t actually paid anything in the way of deposits either, which is a shame as Boom must be desperately cash-hungry at present.
The Overture plane is similar in size to Concorde, but has only 65 – 88 rather than 100 seats, allowing for it to be somewhat roomier (Concorde had surprisingly cramped seating, although it didn’t really matter – you were never on it long enough to get uncomfortable!). It will have a similar range to Concorde, of about 4,900 miles, which is on the short side of ideal – a faster plane expresses its benefit best on longer routes, and the Concorde was fairly criticized for not having sufficient range to open up more over-water routes.
And talking about faster planes, it is slower than Concorde. Current passenger jets fly at about Mach 0.85, Concorde flew at about Mach 2.02, and the Overture will fly at Mach 1.7. This is disappointing, because a few years ago, Boom was promising the plane would fly at Mach 2.2, making a point of boasting how its plane was superior to Concorde in every respect, including speed. I’d been skeptical of the Mach 2.2 claim, because building that type of jet engine is very much harder than even a Concorde type Mach 2.02 engine, and one of the very vague elements of the Boom concept has always been where it is getting its engines from.
We understand Boom has some type of agreement with Rolls-Royce for engines, but we don’t know the details, and some industry commentators are skeptical about how much of a commitment R-R has made to Boom, noting that the engine development costs would be very high, and with little certainty of being able to sell sufficient engines to recoup the development costs, and further noting how R-R is encumbered with other development challenges at present.
Sure, even a reduced Mach 1.7 is a lot faster than regular jets, but it is also 15% slower than state-of-the-art back when Concorde was designed, 60 years ago. Progress is a funny thing, isn’t it. You’d think with all the new technologies and materials and design/machining capabilities, a new plane today would be able to at least equal Concorde.
The announcement rather carefully said that the new plane could connect more than 500 destinations in half the time. Both parts of that statement don’t stand up to scrutiny. While, in theory, there are for sure at least 500 possible airports the plane could take-off from and land at, the number of routes that UA would actually choose to use it on are surely very much fewer. Currently United says it serves 250 domestic destinations and 120 international destinations in 66 countries (which may or may not include codeshares), so what are the chances UA is about to add another 130+ destinations? Furthermore, many of the cities in its route network would not be well suited for supersonic flights, because the routes they fly are too short for the extra speed to be beneficial, which brings us to the other not-quite-exact part of UA’s claim. Plus some would not be possible because their routes would be longer than 4,900 miles (from the west coast to UK and Europe is 5,500 miles or more).
There’s also the problem of the supersonic boom, and the US ban on supersonic flight over land (I think other countries have similar bans). Boom itself has stated that its first version plane might be too noisy to get that ban reversed, so if you’re limiting flights to only those which are primarily overwater, the number of viable routes becomes even smaller.
The thing about a plane that can fly twice as fast is a bit like being in a car that can drive twice as fast. In the car, you still get stuck in traffic, and have to wait at lights, no matter what the top speed of the car might be. In a plane, you still have air traffic control congestion issues, airport taxi-ways and delays, and speed limits below 10,000 ft (as well as all the airport issues like checking in, security, waiting at the gate to board, and so on). What is the benefit of slicing 30 minutes off the cruise portion of a flight if there’s an hour or more of time spent doing exactly the same other parts of a total gate-to-gate flight operation, no matter how fast the plane can potentially travel.
That’s not to argue that UA’s decision to possibly purchase 15 (and possibly to add 35 more subsequently) is wrong. It certainly seems to be a bold move, although in truth, the ultra-conditional nature of United’s order means that both UA and Boom have plenty to brag about, but no commitments to worry about.
To put the 15 plane order in context, BA and AF each had seven Concordes, and struggled to use more than four or five. Of course, if the Boom planes actually don’t have sonic booms, and if they get approval for overland supersonic flight, they’ll be able to be used on many more routes so perhaps 15 is indeed merely the start of UA’s fleet. Perhaps.
Will the plane be in commercial service by 2029? We really don’t know how far advanced the related engine development program is, or if they’ve finalized and tested materials yet, so at this stage, we’re going to give that date as aspirational rather than guaranteed. Boom’s timeline anticipates the first flight to occur in 2026, with certification and entry into commercial service by 2029. We’ve never understood why developing new planes is so slow these days, so maybe Boom will make good on that timetable. Maybe – and in that context, their earlier timetable saw the plane in service in 2023, so their schedule is slipping with the actual flight date never really coming any closer.
More details here.
In other United airplane ordering news, this article voices the rumor that United is about to order around 150 737-MAX 8 planes, and at least 25 Airbus A321 planes. It is not yet confirmed, but it is probably correct.
Yet Another Crazy Airline Seat Idea
There are at least two things wrong with this new airline seat design concept.
The first problem is look where the lower level passengers faces are. Ummm, how to politely observe that people tend to “pass wind” more often in lower cabin pressures, and half of the passengers have their faces only a few inches away from the posteriors of the passengers in front of them….
Think also of the typical “please move your seats upright so the passengers behind you can eat their meals” – how is that going to work when the seat design assumes you’re reclined back in your seat for the entire flight?
The second problem is to think of the typical airplane cabin. It is not very high. It is not very high at the highest point in the middle of the aisle, and where the seats are, there’s even less headroom because of the overheads. How can you have staggered rows of seats, some elevated by what looks like at least two feet, when there’s not two feet of spare headroom?
A related problem – the fuselage curves inward. That’s not a problem at the normal level, which is the middle/widest part of the cylinder, but go up two feet, and instead of three people per row, you’ll probably only be able to have two) a bit like what happens/happened on the upper deck of a 747 where the seats were necessarily set back from the fuselage due to its greater curvature).
As a bonus third problem, I’ll wager that, late at night in a darkened cabin, or after a few drinks, a passenger on the upper level is going to get up to go to the bathroom or whatever/wherever, only to miss the ladder-style step, and crash to the deck.
Airline Competition, Aussie-Style
I regularly bemoan the lack of real true competition between the airlines in the US. Most of what happens in the US seems as if there are unspoken (and certainly nowhere written down) rules between the airlines, creating a “gentlemans’ agreement” between them as to how far out of line any of them will go compared to the others.
At the other extreme, if a new airline starts to threaten an established airline, we don’t see competition as much as we see vicious assassination of the startup airline with other airlines mercilessly adding new flights alongside the startup’s flights, and dropping their fares below cost price, then bleeding the startup dry of cash and passengers, with the final stage being, once the startup has been destroyed, a return to the status quo of before – fewer flights and higher fares. That’s not competition, that’s anti-competition.
In Australia, things are a bit more, well, frontier-like. A small carrier has been getting ambitious and trying to move into the main routes between Australia’s major cities, routes that had been understood to belong to only Qantas and Virgin Australia. Qantas has reacted by suddenly starting to operate flights between the tiny rural townships the airline (Rex) currently serves, and both airlines haven’t hesitated to engage in public slanging matches, something all the more fun to observe because the CEO of Qantas is not an Australian, but rather an Irishman and, to be polite, a somewhat controversial figure and not universally loved by all his employees, let alone his passengers.
Rex have now taken the battle to the next degree, by printing full page ads in a leading Australian newspaper featuring complaints by Qantas customers about how Qantas has been very slow to issue refunds for flights cancelled during the pandemic. That’s a very blunt and frontal assault on Qantas’ reputation.
We eagerly wait to see how Qantas responds.
Rocket Men Competition
On Monday, Jeff Bezos announced he would be flying his rocket up into space on July 20, the date being the 52nd anniversary of the first moon landing.
I could only guess the mood at Chez Branson – for a long time – 15 or more years – it has seemed he’d be the first person to ride a private tourist type “rocket/plane” into “almost space”. But, as you must surely know, the timing on that keeps slipping, and it has been vaguely referred to as “late 2021” for the last while. How it must hurt to have his years of improbable timelines and the actual snails-pace of progress result in him losing the bragging rights for being the first person to experience a tourism joyride.
The same day, a rumor circulated that Branson will go up sometime over the 4 July weekend, two weeks before Bezos. The rumor source also helpfully points out that Virgin Galactic’s definition of “space” is somewhat fanciful and not widely accepted, so perhaps, even if Bezos flies later, he will still be the first person to reach “real” space.
We can only guess at the degree of pressure Branson is placing on Virgin Galactic to get him up before Bezos.
What to Do if Your Monthly Internet Fee Goes Up
There are two approaches to marketing/selling a product. One is to reward loyal customers, with “retention bonuses” and other discounts and incentives to remain a customer. Some insurance companies take this approach, for example, and perhaps you could even say that loyalty marketing with hotels, cruise lines, and the like, is a similar sort of approach. Companies that adopt this approach look at the cost of adding a new customer, and compare that to the customers they already have and the usually much lower cost needed to keep the customer for another year.
The other approach is to “buy” new customers with very low initial rates, and then to push the price up high after you’ve converted them into a loyal ongoing customer. The reasoning here is that if your service is “sticky” it is more bother than it is worth for most customers to leave and change providers over “only a few dollars a month” different in rates.
As I’m finding out at present with my web hosting company (that offered a low first year rate and then more than twice the cost for each subsequent year) it really is a hassle to move from a “sticky” service provider. Normal internet providers often feel their services are similar, so you’ll many times see special initial rates for three or six or whatever months, followed by “normal” rates subsequently.
It has always felt very wrong to me that my loyalty to an ISP is penalized by being then made to pay more for the same service that new customers pay, and them with higher initial costs of acquisition, deployment, and service/support too. I’ve complained in the past when I can’t get an advertised promotional rate that is half whatever price I’m paying, and – (this is the point I’m building up to) sometimes I’ve even managed to get the promotional rate extended to me as a “one time courtesy”.
Apparently I’m not the only one, as this article coyly mentions. And so my point is to see if you can negotiate whatever you’re paying for your cable or internet service down to the current introductory special prices. It might save you a few hundred dollars over the next 3 – 12 months, and that’s certainly worth a phone call, isn’t it.
More Wishful Amtrak Thinking
Another article this week eagerly talks through a lengthy wishlist of expenditures Amtrak hopes to be able to make with new funding from a Biden administration.
But the many tens of billions of dollars Amtrak says it wants/needs are largely going to disappear without trace into the system, being used to replace old rolling stock and locos, and to maintain track.
Where are the “big ideas” – the transformative new services that will change Amtrak from a “legacy” low-speed rail operator, existing on government subsidies and serving a curious tiny microcosm of the American traveling public, and instead making it a relevant modern efficient effective way of comfortably and quickly traveling around the country?
There’s almost no benefit, just cost, in replacing old carriages with new ones. If the train still struggles to average much more than half freeway speeds, normal people are never going to take it, other than perhaps once as an oddity, and soon enough, the new carriages will in turn become old and need repairs and eventually replacing, too. Normal people will continue to drive or fly, and people with low budgets will take buses – both cheaper than Amtrak and faster.
This is the point the article – and Amtrak – remain obdurately silent on. The current business model for Amtrak is broken. There’s a hint of new potential in the Northeastern corridor, and that needs to be enhanced and extended. But simply tarting up the current old equipment, and even by adding standalone projects like the one in Colorado I wrote about a couple of weeks ago, will do nothing to enhancing the overall Amtrak network.
There’s another element of Amtrak’s business model that is also very flawed – its reliance on being allowed to operate trains over the freight railroads’ rail networks. The problem is that freight railroads have no interest in maintaining their track for passenger trains, allowing them to travel fast and smoothly. They’re happy with slower and somewhat bumpier track for their freight. And while the freight railroads are supposed to give Amtrak trains priority access, the reality is that this doesn’t consistently happen, and as their own slow freight trains fill up their lines still more and more, there is less and less “space” for passenger trains.
This article gives an example of Amtrak’s concerns about being subject to the whims and dictates of freight railroads.
It is time for us to stop saying “America is too big for trains to be viable”. It is no larger than China, Europe, or even Russia. If these three regions can have fast trains criss-crossing vast distances at astonishing speeds, why can’t we do the same?
Same Story, Different Ship
Talking about hopeless cases and never-ending money pits. I’ve several times over the 20 years I’ve been writing these newsletters chronicled the continued struggles the SS United States has experienced, while a dedicated band of enthusiasts try desperately to save the ship and create a viable future for it. It is a very worthy cause, but it seems to lurch from crisis to crisis, and remains to this day lacking in both a long term funding source and also a clear vision for how it can be used in the future, other than as some sort of museum. Tragically, most of its interiors have been destroyed, leaving just a decaying hull and a cashflow-draining never-ending need for emergency maintenance.
You can see more about the SS United States here.
Meanwhile, a similar story has been unfolding, but not quite so visibly, on the west coast, with the RMS Queen Mary. The Queen Mary, owned by the City of Long Beach, has gone through a series of operators, with none managing to make a viable ongoing success of managing the ship, and all the while, the operators, with, it must be suspected, the tacit approval of the city, have been deferring as much maintenance as possible, particularly the less visible sorts of things that while not obviously apparent, become increasingly important and threatening if not addressed.
I’d mentioned the bankruptcy of the latest operators just a month or two back, and now there’s an interesting and distressing article about the terrible state of the ship and the growing need for essential repairs to stop the ship from sinking.
Actually, and in all seriousness, if the ship will never set to sea again, as is almost certainly the case, why not fix it in place with concrete, rather than leave it in a small dock with salt water eating away at it.
In the case of the Queen Mary, its underlying justification – as a tourism draw for Long Beach – remains feasible. But someone needs both the vision and the dollars to make it all happen, and in the 55 years since moving to Long Beach in 1967, no-one has yet proven worth of that task.
And Lastly This Week….
Talking about big ships, the Venetians are struggling to come to terms once more with their love-hate relationship with tourists. They’ve now had a chance to experience the best part of a year with very little tourism, and now they have the first mega-cruise ship returning to their canals and harbor.
Such “experts” on Venice and its tourism issues as Mick Jagger and Francis Ford Coppola have been quick to condemn the return of cruise ships. Of course, if such people choose to visit Venice, they probably do so on their own private yachts. Details here.
Have you noticed how your computer and phone have become noisier? This is an interesting article about something most of us take for granted.
High on the list of really crazy things to do is attempting to set a world record for the highest altitude parachute jump – err, that is, jump without a parachute. Although I guess anyone could try for that, but if the rules also require you to survive the jump, that adds a certain extra element of difficulty, doesn’t it.
Here’s a video of a man setting a new record for jumping out of a plane without a parachute. At a height of 25,000 ft.
Mind you, I know how the guy feels. There’s been more than once I’ve thought about yanking open an emergency exit and stepping out of a plane at 25,000 ft. It is amazing how such a simple thing as flying people from point A to point B can be made so unpleasant by some combinations of planes, flight crews, fellow passengers, and circumstances.
Many of us have seen aggressive flight attendants – they seem like they’re eager for a confrontation and just waiting for a chance to call armed police onto a plane before takeoff or upon landing based on some imagined slight by a passenger who failed to be sufficiently abjectly humble. To be fair, we’ve surely also seen less than stellar passengers, too. But the thing about being a public transportation service is that not all the public are perfect, all the time. My point in this is that while some passengers behave badly, the unspoken reality is that many times their behavior has been provoked and amplified by flight attendants, who have practiced their skills at appearing to act blamelessly while pushing passenger “buttons” that trigger bad reactions.
But the airlines never talk about that. They, the flight attendants, and of course, the flight attendant unions, prefer to focus on blaming us and cowing us into submission from the minute we enter an airport until when we finally emerge at the other end.
American and Southwest have notched the blame-game up to another level. They’re not reintroducing alcoholic drinks onto their flights because of their concern that we’ll misbehave if we’re sold a drink or two.
That’s an increasingly common concept these days. “If one person might possibly do something extremely stupid, that means we’ll have to prevent the 99.999% of the rest of you who would not do something extremely stupid from being able to do things normally, because of the 0.001%”.
So, at the time when I most need a drink, I’ll not now be allowed to buy one. As you can see, in the past, I have been known to enjoy a drink or two to help pass the hours and miles on a long flight, and some airlines have been happy to oblige (thank you, BA).
A friend was writing to me a couple of weeks ago; we were talking about the wines served on Air France in their business class cabin. He said that back in the good old days, he and his wife would simply bring a bottle of good quality wine onto the flight with them and discreetly arrange for the flight attendants to serve them their own wine.
You can imagine how successful that concept would be these days, starting with the “no liquids” rule at the TSA screening point.
Until next week, please stay healthy and safe