Weekly Roundup, Friday 25 June 2021

Looking across the Danube to the Fisherman’s Bastion in Budapest, featured in our Danube Christmas Cruise pre-tour.


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Good morning

It has been a strange week.  I discuss this more fully in Thursday’s Covid diary entry (see below), and the Cliff Notes version is that Europe is opening up to US visitors, but US new Covid case numbers look like they’re starting to climb again, so how long will Europe’s openness last?

I spent most of the week creating a wonderful celebratory European tour and cruise for August, now that it is possible for us to travel there again.  But by Thursday afternoon, and seeing three days in a row of growing new cases reported each day, and fearing this would continue, I decided not to release the tour this morning.

If you’re clever, you can find it on the website, if you want to know what it might have been.  And if it turns out, in the next few days, that I may have been precipitate in my decision not to proceed, I’ll of course quickly let you know.  I’d dearly love a chance to visit Europe again after too long away, and I’m sure you would too.

Although the next month or two or even three look a bit uncertain, I remain as confident as anyone can ever be that things should be in a more managed state by December, and we’re proceeding “full speed ahead” with the Danube Christmas Markets Cruise.  We now have seven Travel Insiders coming, all but two of whom have been with me before, and three of whom have been with me on Christmas Markets cruises before.

Please do think about treating yourself to this magical experience, on a lovely ship, visiting lovely destinations, and most of all, with a lovely group of fellow Travel Insiders.

What else?  Thursday’s Covid Diary entry is below, and opens with a discussion with my predictions for US and European Covid case numbers, and Sunday’s can be seen here.

I sent out, at minutes past midnight on Monday morning, a special Amazon Prime Day mailing, with a guide to Echo units attached, in the expectation that some of you might be interested in buying some of these wonderful devices at the heavily discounted Prime Day sale prices.

I practiced what I preached and pre-ordered one of the new Echo fourth generation units.  It arrived on Monday, and I discovered, purely by chance, that it has an unadvertised and really useful extra feature – a temperature sensor.  So I had to quickly revise my guide, and this new feature has shifted my recommendation from “Buy the Echo Dot unless there’s a special reason to get something better”; I now think the full-size Echo is the better choice, depending on relative pricing at the given time, and whether you can get use from the temperature sensor or not.

I’m always interested in understanding the temperatures in my house – it is a tri-level open design, and there’s often a lot of variation between temperatures on the bottom level and top level (as much as 10° if I don’t have heating/cooling on), so it is great now from my desk in the lowest level to be able to get advice on temperatures elsewhere in the house.  I could even create “routines” (discussed in the 30 page guide I’ve written about how to use Echos, linked in the article) to cause the Echo to tell me if it gets unusually hot or cold, or to do other things in response.

I’m adding the updated Echo article to this morning’s mailing in case you missed it on Monday.

Plus, please keep reading for :

  • Air Passenger Numbers Hit 75% of 2019
  • Europe (not the UK) Reopens for American Visitors (But for How Long?)
  • Change at the Top for Southwest
  • First AA Adds Flights, then they Cut Them
  • US Hotel Occupancies Approaching 2019 Levels
  • Sleeper Trains (in Europe)
  • Microsoft Keeps Giving (Windows 11 Will be a Free Upgrade)
  • Might Musk’s Starlink Internet Already be Obsolete?
  • Great YouTube Commentary on the TSA
  • And Lastly This Week….

Air Passenger Numbers Hit 75% of 2019

A week ago, we were averaging 73.5% of 2019 air passenger numbers, and now we’ve had two days of 75% of 2019 numbers.  The airlines must be delighting in our returning to the air, and indeed, we’re probably happy too.

I’m starting to hear stories of people on full flights – after a year where sometimes there was only one person per row, it is a bit of a shock to be back to the bad old days of crowded flights, no space in the overheads, and everything else associated with full planes.

Progress is a funny old thing, isn’t it.

Europe (not the UK) Reopens for American Visitors (But for How Long?)

I’d been very worried that the EU’s promise to allow American visitors would have a “sting in the tail” in the form of requiring some sort of validated proof of vaccination, something more than the handwritten slips of paper we got when we were vaccinated.

There’s absolutely no way to prove anything based on the data on those slips of paper, and there’s an active trade going on in creating fakes.  With the EU going to some lengths to create an “official” and validated true proof of vaccination, it seemed almost certain they’d expect the same from us.

I was wrong.  Earlier this week, it turned out that even Germany was going to be happy accepting the tiny vaccination forms and was willing to pretend they are genuine and valid.  As I said, after checking a number of different European countries, and while there were differences in how it all worked, the bottom line is essentially that in much of Europe, it is now possible to easily visit and enjoy time in-country.

But most countries say they’ll be reviewing the countries they have on their “travel permitted” lists, usually it seems every two weeks or so.  So, and this is the key thing, we have to keep our new case numbers down to remain on the travel permitted list.

The other wild card is how Europe itself will be impacted by the new Delta variant of the vaccine.  If the numbers of cases in Europe start to rise, and they return to various levels of lockdown, then even if we are still allowed to visit, what would be the point if many places were closed?

Fortunately, as you can see, Europe is resolutely moving forwards with its vaccination programs, with an extra 15% of the EU being fully vaccinated in the last month alone.  If they can have three or four more months with vaccinating at that rate, they should be much better insulated against the virus and able to consider their fall and winter without too much concern.

Clearly, based on the strongly rising numbers of new cases in highly-vaccinated Britain, a 47% fully vaccinated rate is insufficient to get the virus under control.  But how much higher is necessary?  Would 57% be enough?  67%?

As for the UK, there is mixed messaging galore emerging from there, and the only clear thing has been a comment that the first part of the process will be to liberalize the basis on which vaccinated Brits can travel abroad; it will not be until some time subsequently that the country might consider allowing vaccinated foreign visitors in without requiring quarantines.  About the only certain part of their plans is you shouldn’t expect to travel to Britain any time soon.

Change at the Top for Southwest

Gary Kelly has been CEO of Southwest since 2004 – a long time for an airline CEO.  He has proved to be a steady and reliable leader, and under his guidance the airline has continued to grow and to almost always post profitable quarters.

He will step down on 1 February next year, becoming Executive Chairman instead.  The new CEO, Robert Jordan, has been with Southwest for 34 years, so seems likely to maintain the airline’s heritage and values.

Although I seldom – almost never – fly Southwest, I recognize them as a fine airline with more passenger-friendly policies than most other airlines.  Well done and thanks to Gary Kelly.

First AA Adds Flights, then they Cut Them

If only other airlines were operated so as well as Southwest.  Like, for example, American Airlines.

AA added more flights to its summer schedule – an appropriate thing to do, in line with the steadily increasing demand for air travel once more (see the graph just a little way above).  This demand was not unexpected, and the new flights were scheduled some months prior to their actual operation.

But AA has discovered that it might not have enough staff (particularly pilots) to operate the extra flights it scheduled.  So they’re now cancelling some of the flights they added – 950 in July, so far.

A rational airline would check it could operate new flights first, and only add them to the schedule if they could be operated.  But AA marches to its own tune….

US Hotel Occupancies Approaching 2019 Levels

2020 was an interesting year for the accommodation industry in the US.  Some types of accommodation had their best year ever – typically this would be “external corridor” motels, free-standing cabins, and motorhome/campground type parks.  Other types of accommodation (especially corporate style hotels) had a terribly bad year.

This is an interesting article and series of state-by-state charts showing hotel occupancies.  Surprisingly, DC remains the most affected area, whereas some states show little sign of any harm at any time, and others such as Nevada are now back to normal.

This article talks about the revival of business in Las Vegas and the first new super-hotel opening there in a decade.

Sleeper Trains (in Europe)

Who doesn’t love the thought of going on an overnight sleeper train somewhere.

The gentle motion of the train and the clickety-clack lull you to sleep, and you wake the next morning at a new destination, having traveled while you slept, giving you more leisure time at the destination.

Vague notions of all the different “train movies” surround the concept, adding more to its mystique and even its romanticism.

So why aren’t there more sleeper trains, everywhere in the world?

The answer is perhaps surprising (and I should start off by conceding that with continuous welded rail, there’s no longer any clickety-clack!).  Sleeper trains work best on 6 – 12 hour journeys.  Much less than six hours, and the “overnight” becomes awkwardly short; much longer than 12, and you start to experience loss of “prime” daytime as well as night time for your travels.  With ever faster trains, traveling times have massively reduced, and many of the journeys that used to fit well into an overnight schedule now take less than half a day and can be easily done without the need for an overnight.

There’s another factor as well.  Sleeper trains are expensive for rail companies to operate.  A carriage that could hold 45 – 75 people in first or second class seats might only hold 15 – 20 people in sleeping compartments, plus sleeping compartments require more servicing between journeys, and, perhaps worst of all, whereas a regular carriage can run multiple journeys from early in the morning until late at night, sleeper carriages can only run a single journey, once a day.

This means that the cost of offering sleeping accommodation on a train is very much higher than the cost of regular seating, and the number of routes where sleepers can operate is much more restricted.  It has become very difficult for train operators to provide regular every-night type sleeper services, and most have ended up with much more expensive special experiential type carriages rather than functional regular carriages, and their high cost means it is cheaper to fly or to travel during the day and stay in a hotel overnight, reducing the number of people who’d choose to travel by sleeper.

But, a train enthusiast in France, with a girlfriend who doesn’t like to fly, is hoping to create a network of sleeper trains across Europe over the next some years, and first trains to possibly operate in 2024.  The things a man will do for the woman he loves!

We wish him well, but we’ll believe it when we see it.  Details here.

Microsoft Keeps Giving (Windows 11 Will be a Free Upgrade)

On Thursday Microsoft officially took the wraps off its new operating system, Windows 11.  It seems that it isn’t remarkably different to Windows 10, but has some new layout and interface issues, and also integrates more closely with Android.  Some testing of pre-release versions of Windows 11 suggested it might run more quickly, which would be a lovely boost of added life to my eight year old PC.

Details here.

The most astonishing part of the release was that it will be given as a free upgrade to people with Windows 10, some time in the Fall.  That means, if you’re like me, you received a free upgrade from Windows 7 or Windows 8 to Windows 10 back in 2015, and now you’re about to get a further free upgrade to Windows 11.  Maybe the last time you gave money to Microsoft for an OS was back in 2012 with the release of Windows 8, or even further back with the release of Windows 7 in 2009.

That’s an amazingly long time for a commercial company to just give away its core product.  But I’m not complaining.  Thank you, Microsoft.

Might Musk’s Starlink Internet Already be Obsolete?

Elon Musk’s concept of filling the sky with tens of thousands of low-earth-orbiting satellites to provide internet everywhere without needing to run cable through the countryside is a brilliant concept, at least in theory.

But there are drawbacks.  The LEO satellites, even at 300-350 miles altitude, relatively quickly fall back down to earth, and even if they last 5 – 10 years, a 30,000 satellite constellation would require 3,000 – 6,000 replacement satellites every year.  That’s not to say it might not end up practical and profitable, but maybe there’s already a newer and better idea.

How about solar powered drones that are  only 12 – 15 miles above the planet (they would fly at 70,000 ft), and which can stay aloft for a year or more before needing to return to earth for maintenance and then returning for another year in the sky.  The fuel cost is close to zero, the launch cost is close to zero, and a much closer to the ground relay means less latency and potentially faster internet service.

Here’s an interesting article about these solar-powered drones.  The number of potential applications is massive, and these could present an easier and less espensive solution than Musk’s 30,000 LEO satellites.

Great YouTube Commentary on the TSA

Here’s a YouTube presentation that wonders if they’ve uncovered the TSA’s Worst Blunder.  It is hard to say if they have or not, there’s a fairly long list of expensive technologies the TSA invested in and junked, never having ever deployed them into service.

But a great commentary and fun to watch.

And Lastly This Week….

Did you know that when you order through Uber Eats and some of the other food delivery services, the meal prices you see for the items from restaurants have already been marked up?  The delivery service potentially makes money three ways – it gets a commission from the restaurant, it charges more than the restaurant price, and there’s the delivery fee too.

This isn’t information Uber rushes to share with its customers.  Some State Attorney Generals think that it should.  I agree.

The world’s highest hotel has opened in (where else) China.  Well, I guess another possible answer would be Dubai, but it is Shanghai.  Rooms range from introductory specials at $450/night to more pricey $9,000/night suites.

I asked you last week about where in the world you would be if you saw a rooftop sign when flying in to land, welcoming you to Perth, Australia.  The answer, surprisingly, is Sydney – the rooftop sign was painted as a practical joke to alarm people coming in to land and looking out the window.

A new question for this week.  Do you know the airport that has not just one three letter airport code, not even two codes, but three, all of which are currently in use?  Hint – I came across this when writing up the details for the August European cruise/tour that I’m not now going to operate.

I’ll provide the answer next week.

A group of aviation enthusiasts in New Zealand have launched a campaign to buy the last remaining Air New Zealand 747 before it is scrapped.  The 747 is currently in storage in New Mexico, and the enthusiasts hope to buy it and fly it to an aviation (and assorted other stuff) museum in New Zealand for preservation.

Interestingly, after flying the plane to New Zealand, they’d then return the engines back to the US.  The four engines are worth much more than the airframe.  The total cost to buy the plane, fly it to NZ, then return the four engines to the US, is around NZ$2.5 million or about US$1.75 million.  More information here.

Lastly this week, a point to ponder.  Keep in mind that the leading cause of airplane crashes these days is pilot error.  Even the two 737 MAX crashes were in large part pilot error, because the same problems had appeared on other flights and better pilots had resolved the problems without fuss or danger.

So, who would you prefer to be up-front and piloting your plane?  The very best pilot the airline can find and recruit?  Or a member of a minority, preferentially recruited so the airline can boast about its reverse-discrimination policies?

Personally, I’m gender/race/orientation blind when it comes to choosing people like pilots, or indeed, most other people in most other situations too.  I want the best person for the job, and if the best person happens to be a middle-aged white guy, then he’s welcome to the job.

United disagrees.  It has a policy when recruiting pilot trainees that half of every class will be “people of color and women”, no matter what their flying skills may be.

Until next week, please stay healthy and safe





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