Weekly Roundup, Friday 16 July 2021

18 years after its founding, and 11 years behind schedule, a Virgin Galactic “almost space” flight successfully took part owner Richard Branson up for a brief joyride on Sunday.

 

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Good morning

The last week has seen daily new Covid cases rise 69% in the US, 39% across Europe, and 33% in the UK.  While, to my mind, public health authorities, everywhere in the world, are being way too slow to respond to this latest global wave and surge in Covid cases, Thursday saw two counties in California re-activate indoor mask policies, and I’ve got to believe similar policies will start to re-appear across the US and similarly in Europe.

What does that mean for travel?  In particular, a question I’ve been agonizing over for the last week is what it means for our Christmas Markets Tour/Cruise.  The question is especially difficult because, maybe, by December, the current growing wave will have subsided and things will be back to normal.  On the other hand, the timing for this wave is similar to the timing for a wave at the same time last year, which did then sink back down, only to rear up again for ultra-high numbers in the run-up to Christmas (see the chart in Thursday’s Covid diary entry, below).  If the same happens this year, it would be very disadvantageous for December travel.

Ultimately, I’ve decided there are too many unknowns and risk factors present to allow me to be sufficiently confident of positive experiences being certain everywhere we go.  So I can not proceed in good faith with the Christmas Markets tour/cruise, particularly because it spans eight different countries, and it would only require one of those countries to do something awkward, or any of the other countries to restrict travel to/from that one country, to endanger the entire experience.

I have been mulling over the concept of a New Year celebration somewhere in Europe to celebrate the end of our “Annus Horribilis” and to start the beginning of perhaps an annus mirabilis instead.  But the same considerations that ruled out an early December cruise/tour are arguing against a late December celebration too, and I’m finding myself forced to accept that, for now two years in a row, I’ll not leave these shores, neither by myself, nor with you accompanying me on a Travel Insider Tour.  Ugh.

So, what about 2022?  Frankly, today, that’s as much a mystery to me as is the balance of 2021.  My thinking is it all depends on two things – first, the world’s ability to grow its share of vaccinated people, and second, whether or not new game changing virus variants (like the Delta variant that has arisen to destroy many of our plans for this year) appear, or if the random element of such things falls in our favor.

Currently I do not feel fully optimistic that things will be back to 2019-style normal, but I am of course fully hopeful.

What else for this week?  Attached is the third and final part of my series on the new Starlink internet service; this third part looks at other ways of achieving the same goal, and at Starlink’s several competitors.  But, amazingly, and as I comment in the article, it seems Elon Musk has done it again.  Just like he managed to steal a good half dozen years of headstart over the established major car manufacturers with his Tesla company and products, it seems he is now several years ahead of his established major telecom industry competitors for Low Earth Orbit based internet service, as well, and the competitors most likely to initiate competing service will have inferior products.

A point about the Starlink service.  It promises to revolutionize internet connectivity on planes, too.  Starlink hopes to offer fast internet service to airplanes in flight – I’m not sure the airlines would drop the fees they charge us, but they might give us faster connection speeds.

Also attached is yesterday’s Covid diary entry.  Sunday’s can be viewed online, here.

Plus :

  • Reader Survey Results – Waiting On Hold
  • US Air Passenger Numbers Stabilize
  • UK/European Travel Update
  • Delta Makes a Profit – Thanks to Taxpayer Gifts
  • Continued Boeing Quality Woes
  • Passports – New Year, Old Story
  • Amtrak’s Ever-Increasing Ask
  • The Year’s Least Surprising Headline
  • And Lastly This Week….

Reader Survey Results – Waiting On Hold

Last week I shared the story of a woman who said she was ten hours on hold, waiting to sort out a cancelled flight problem with her airline, only to then be cut off.  I asked you if there should be a law requiring companies that you normally deal with over the phone or online, rather than in person, to answer all calls within a specified maximum hold time.

Noting also the way that companies would likely try to cheat the system, I further specified that the call would have to be answered by a “real person” who is sufficiently empowered as to be able to resolve most customer service issues on the spot.  None of us like talking to a “customer service” person who doesn’t understand what we’re saying and who only has the authority to say “No”, and never yes.

Here is how your responses came in

As you can see, the “average” answer, and also, by chance, the most popular answer, was to require calls be answered in no more than five minutes.

I’d also acknowledge the 5% of responses who said this wasn’t something that should be legislated.  I totally understand that perspective – you can’t legislate common sense or good behavior, no matter how hard you try, can you.

Ideally, a free and fair market would take care of this by itself.  Companies with customer-friendly policies would be rewarded, companies with unfriendly policies would lose customers (who would shift to the good companies).  But, with so much of the world we live in today either offering us no choices (or, commonly, no “real” choices – all the different suppliers are equally bad), or such a difficulty in shifting from Brand A to Brand B, and with such stunningly egregious abuses as making customer service callers wait hours while people calling to buy new products/services get their calls answered quickly, perhaps the “free market” needs a bit of a helping hand?

I know from when I had a call center in my travel company, we’d sometimes break through five minute waits on hold.  This was not a deliberate policy on our part to make people wait – it was back in the day when people called in on our dime, on our (800) number, and it was costing us almost 30c a minute while they waited on hold, and that was 25 years ago when 30c was worth much more than it is now, so there was an automatic penalty built in to start with.

But sometimes you get a person off sick, a person doing some other task for the day, someone tied up on a call that goes on for ever, a person traveling, another person on annual leave, someone at lunch, and a sudden surge of calls for whatever reason, and while we tried to get to every call as quickly as we could (we never gave preference to sales over service type calls), sometimes we spilled out over five minutes.  So I’d probably argue in favor of a requirement that “90% of all calls must be answered within 5 minutes, and the balance within ten minutes”.

US Air Passenger Numbers Stabilize

After the wild gyrations up and down before, during, and after the July 4 weekend, passenger numbers as a percentage of 2019 numbers have become very stable, sitting just under 80% for the last four days, unchanged, which is also exactly the level of two weeks earlier, prior to the 4 July “blip”.

Will the previous steady growth trend that ran for the last three weeks in June resume?  I guess that is up to the airlines.  If they can get their act together and schedule enough planes, pilots, and flight attendants (to say nothing of gate staff and all other ancillary service people), then maybe the “friction” of flying will abate and people will comfortably start traveling again.

The disgraceful experiences of the last few weeks are certainly nothing any of us would wish to experience (again).

The standout example was an Allegiant Air flight from Las Vegas to Stockton, California – a 350 mile journey normally taking an hour.  On this occasion, it took 17 hours, including all the “usual” litany of airline screwups, including the particularly delightful one of placing all the passengers in a “holding area” without bathrooms.

It is particularly unacceptable because part of the reason for the most recent airline bailout ($54 billion) was so the airlines could re-staff up in anticipation of increasing passenger numbers.  So, what happened to the $54 billion and the benefits we were promised in return?

Another factor possibly impacting on air travel numbers again might be the current virus growth.  Will people, without being formally told, start to cut back on their travel plans again?  I think we’re still a bit premature to expect that to happen, so maybe we will see some more growth, at least up to the point where the current reduced level of business travel leaves a remaining unfillable hole.

What do you think?  Remember, I post daily updates about air passenger numbers on Twitter every morning if you can’t wait for next Friday’s analysis.

UK/European Travel Update

My recommendation to go to Europe asap if you wish to travel there this summer remains.  I fear it is only a matter of time before Europe starts to react to their soaring new Covid case numbers, either by making it more difficult for us to go there, and/or more difficult for us to enjoy an unrestricted vacation experience once we get there.

Astonishingly, it seems that England is about to allow Americans to visit the UK without quarantine – just with proof of vaccination, a Covid test prior to travel, and a second one within two days of arrival.  Last I saw, a couple of the details were still a bit unclear, but the scheme is due to take effect on Monday next week (July 19).  I’d expect some possible teething problems for a day or two.

The people at JetBlue must be celebrating.  They are scheduled to start their new international service from JFK to Heathrow on August 11.  That’s close to perfect timing in terms of England’s re-opening.  They must have an excellent crystal ball.

It isn’t just the US that England will now allow visitors from.  It is all countries on their “amber list” of countries, which is most of the countries in the world.

Oh – one other thing.  Don’t forget you’ll need another Covid test prior to flying back to the US, too.

So, if you want to go to England, perhaps you should plan to go the week of 26 July or subsequently – but not too much later, because surely, sooner or later, England will realize that it is leading Europe in terms of new Covid cases every day and reimpose some controls.

Restrictions remain on activities in Wales and Scotland.  Details here.

Delta Makes a Profit – Thanks to Taxpayer Gifts

The trillions of dollars the government was frantically throwing around the place last year was never intended to allow businesses to profit from the government largesse, merely to reduce the losses suffered from the Covid consequences.  We were all in this together, all having to accept some hardship, and the government grants were intended to make sure that there were no unfair disproportional burdens on some sectors of the economy.

Delta Air Lines has just reported a second quarter profit of $652 million – the first profit after five quarters of losses.  But how much of that profit came from government subsidies?  All of it.  The airline received a nice $1.5 billion in government cash during the quarter.

Don’t you think DL should give back $652 million of that $1.5 billion?  Remember “the government” isn’t some magical money tree – it is you and me, and that government subsidy is from our taxes.

We wonder if Delta’s balance sheet includes an asterisk and reference to a possible liability in the form of a $1 billion lawsuit from one of their currently employed pilots.  Craig Alexander claims Delta pumped him for all the details of a crew communication/scheduling app he developed, under the suggestion they would buy it from him, but then proceeded to develop their own app, an app that ended up identical to his app.

He invested $100k of his own money in developing the app, so naturally he is suing Delta, and not for the $100k, but for $1 billion, due to their allegedly stealing his idea.

Astonishingly, he apparently remains employed by Delta.  Perhaps the people who would fire him are still laughing so hard they’ve not been able to gasp out a dismissal notice.

Continued Boeing Quality Woes

More problems with both the 737 and 787 this week.

The 737 has a pair of pressure sensors that detect if the plane’s cabin pressure drops too low.  Like any other mechanical device, over time, they wear, and eventually fail.  Sometimes both devices fail, meaning that the cabin pressure could drop dangerously low, and the pilots wouldn’t receive any warning.  Hypoxia could result without anyone realizing it, with fatal consequences.

The problem is aggravated because if the devices fail, they do so in a way that means they continue to send “safe pressure” type signals, and so there is no obvious indication they have failed.  Such “latent failures” had been thought to be very rare, but in September 2020 an airline reported that three of its 737s had both sensors fail, something only ascertained during periodic testing of them (once every 6,000 flight hours).

Boeing said such failures aren’t a safety issue, a stunningly wrong statement to make.

It has now conceded that maybe they might be a safety issue, and agrees with the FAA that the inspection schedule should now be every 2,000 flight hours rather than every 6,000.  No grounding is required, but the new testing schedule must be implemented immediately.

Details here.

Problems continue as well with the 787 and its myriad of manufacturing quality control issues.  This time there’s a problem with a forward pressure bulkhead.  Boeing says it isn’t a flight safety problem, but promises to fix the issue prior to delivering any more planes (it has about 100 undelivered 787s on the ground at present, not a good situation to be in at all).

This is a pause on top of a pause – deliveries have already been paused for an earlier problem.

Details here.

Passports – New Year, Old Story

Is there ever a summer where we’re not warned the Passport Office is backlogged and if our passports need renewing, to do so well in advance of (ie many months before) planned travel?

And so it is, again this year.  Never mind the fact that only a vanishingly small percent of the normal number of Americans are traveling this summer (I’ll guess 20%).  We are still being told the State Dept is causing massive delays in processing passport applications.  It says expect about an 18 week turn around for a renewal, or 12 weeks if you pay extra for “expedited” processing.

Only in the government would 12 weeks for a process that we all know takes minutes to complete (because if you pay qualify for a rush, while-you-wait, passport, you get one in an hour or so – I know because it has happened to me) be described as expedited.  Of those 18 weeks, there’s a week or two for mail each way, then just about the entirety of the balance of the time is the request sitting in a pile on someone’s desk, ignored.

Currently it costs $145 for a new passport or $110 to renew one.  Expedited service adds another $60.  Oh, one more thing about that expediting fee.  It doesn’t even guarantee faster service.   If you don’t get faster service, you can at least apply for a refund of the expedite fee.  There’s no indication how long a refund might take.

Details here.

Seriously, at what point do we as US citizens start to demand and require a decent level of service from our civil servants?  We were discussing maximum wait-on-hold times above, how about maximum passport processing times, too?

And also, ahem, maximum “renew our Global Entry card” times, too.  In my case, I applied to renew my Nexus type of Global Entry card on September 9, 2019 (and paid the $50 or so renewal fee at that time).  It took until April 30, 2020 to have the application “conditionally approved” (7 1/2 months), with a requirement for an in-person interview to complete the review.  At about the same time, all Nexus offices closed due to Covid.

So, almost two years now, and still no offices are open for interviews.  The CBP blames the Canadians, but when asked about doing a Zoom interview, like all normal businesses have been doing for the last year, there’s no further response.

A two year wait to renew a card that is valid for only five years just doesn’t seem right.  There’s also the delightful bit of fine print – if I don’t have my interview within two years, the application lapses, and I have to restart a new application, and pay a new application fee.

Amtrak’s Ever-Increasing Ask

In April, Amtrak asked for $31 billion over five years to overhaul its Northeast Corridor route.

Subsequently, a bipartisan Congress deal is proposing $66 billion to be shared between Amtrak and freight railroads.

President Biden has asked for $80 billion to develop high-speed rail routes in the US.

Amtrak says it would like to add as many as 39 new “corridor routes” connecting 166 cities by 2035.

And now a new government commission says that $117 billion should be spent on the Northeast Corridor between now and 2035 – that would be the same corridor that Amtrak was asking for $31 billion over five years for, just three months earlier.  This would reduce the travel time between New York and either Boston or Washington by 30 minutes – currently the northern route is 3 1/2 hours and the southern route 3 hours, so those are appreciable time savings.

Is it $31 billion over five years or $117 billion over 14 years?  That huge divergence in numbers does Amtrak’s credibility no good.  And why oh why in this great nation would updating track and tunnels take 14 years, rather than 14 months?  You just know, don’t you, that any public works project timed over 14 years is going to end up taking 28 rather than 14 years, and going to end up costing four or eight times as much money.  There’s no accountability in a 14 year project.  A three year project has monthly milestones and accountability.

We’re not arguing against any of this, but we are saying that Amtrak needs to focus on the art of the achievable, and come up with a single consistent coherent and realistic request.  Currently they are like a kid in a candy store, wanting lots of everything.

Yes, the Democratic control of both chambers and the presidency gives Amtrak a great opportunity, but it needs to respond appropriately.  It needs to quickly present a really simple bullet-point list of projects and prices to get Congress to sign off on and fund, and to give priority to short-term projects with fast deliverables – things that will bring visible benefits to taxpayers and Amtrak customers now, not in 14 years time.  You’d expect Amtrak to have such things in their top-drawer, and existing PowerPoint presentations on their hard disks, ready to distribute any time there is a sympathetic ear to their pleas.

The Year’s Least Surprising Headline

Dear old Sir Richard Branson finally got his joyride to almost-space on Sunday.  That excited a lot of commentary, of course, although astonishingly, the company’s share price has been in steady decline all week.  It closed on Friday last week at $49.27, quickly dropped on Monday morning to $43.68, then continued dropping through to Thursday’s close of $31.74.

There is one metric that I’m eagerly watching for.  It is a key one in terms of how viable and profitable the company can become.  How long will it take from Sunday’s flight until the next flight, and then how long again from that flight to the next and the next?

If Virgin Galactic can’t quickly turn this and additional craft around, its maximum monetization obviously drops.  Quick turnarounds are as important with space planes as they are with regular planes.  SpaceX is targeting a 24 hour turnaround for its rockets.

We’re told the first Virgin Galactic commercial flight won’t be until an unstated time next year.  Why the delay?

The next private space flight will be Jeff Bezos, on Tuesday next week (July 20).  We wish him similar great success.

Anyway, the year’s least surprising headline?  “Space tourism won’t be affordable for the masses any time soon“.

And Lastly This Week….

Yes, I’d love an electric car.  But they remain expensive, and of course, the limited range can be a problem, too.  Take, for example, this new car – in most respects it is lovely.  But the cost and range……  It could be yours for just over $900,000, and it gives you nine miles on electric power.  Like all Aston Martin super-cars, it’s a lovely car, but not entirely practical for you or me.

Talking about the limitations of electric cars, do you remember the early problem with the 787s and their battery packs having an unfortunate tendency to burst into flames?  Well, GM feels their pain, as do GM Bolt owners, apparently.

The risk of a Bolt’s battery bursting into flames is deemed so high that owners are currently being told to park their cars outside and away from any buildings.

Some of the longer read articles one encounters on the web are excellent.  Here’s one from The Atlantic that gives a very surprising explanation for the mysterious packets of seeds from China that were coming into the country earlier in the year.  If time allows, a great read.

Truly lastly this week, a person was complaining about being seated next to a crying baby on a long flight.  He asked to be moved.  There were empty seats, safely many rows away from the crying infant, but the flight attendants insisted he stay where he was, all flight long.  The reason might surprise you.  The reason is given, here.

Until next week, please stay healthy and safe

David.

 

 

 

2 thoughts on “Weekly Roundup, Friday 16 July 2021”

  1. lifegotinteresting

    I was sorry to see your decision about the Christmas Markets Cruise, just as I was sorry to see you have to cancel your UK tours earlier. They are prudent and thoughtful decisions, of course, but they just remind me of the terrible impacts Covid has had on businesses of all kinds, my own included, since March 2020. Let’s hope that Delta ends up an overblown risk, vaccinations increase and finally end the danger of Covid to us all, and soon. But the jury is definitely out.

    I have a good friend who approached me for advice on planning a blow-out trip to Paris for him and his Wife in a few weeks. I had to warn him about the impact of the protests, and the use of the new Vaccine Pass app, needed for restaurants, cafes, museums, and trains (which hasn’t even been fully worked out yet), which is, of course, in French, and only seems to recognize French vaccination certificates. It should be fun for all the Americans who flood Paris every Summer, and who will find their plans flummoxed. International travel just has a lot of new, and hard to anticipate challenges. I think the key is to plan short trips, over prepare, and always have a Plan B, and perhaps a Plan C …

  2. Hi –

    A little more detail on the difference between the Amtrak’s $31B Northeast Corridor (NEC) request and the $117B Northeast Corridor Commission proposal. The article you referenced could have provided a bit more detail on the commission.

    The commission membership includes 8 state governments, 9 transit authorities (of which Amtrak is only one), and other federal representation (at least the Dept. of Transportation).

    The commission was looking at everything related to the Northeast Corridor which beyond Amtrak includes NJ Transit, SEPTA (SE PA), etc. Beyond the track, signalling, power, etc. stuff to improve the Amtrak service, there are things like to flyover rail bridges near Newark Penn Station that would allow the High Bridge and Bergen County lines in NJ to directly connect to the Northeast Corridor and into New York Penn Station.

    There are similar items in the commission proposal in pretty much all states.

    So the Amtrak numbers and the commission numbers are apples and oranges.

    Corey

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David.

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