Weekly Roundup, Friday 9 July 2021

If you didn’t recognize the name Cathay, could you guess what this ad was selling?  Possibly furniture?  See final item, below.


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Good morning

I hope your July 4th was enjoyable.  It seems most of the country had good weather, and it also seems that civil disobedience was out in force, at least in my area.  Despite a county-wide firework ban, there was a solid series of flashes and wooshes and bangs for many hours on 4 July, all around the area.

Attached is Thursday’s Covid diary entry, which shows continued unbroken growth in daily new case counts in the US, and at generally much greater rates of growth in most of Europe, too.  My suggestion last week – if you want to travel to Europe this summer, do so now, while you still can – remains even more true this week than it was last week.  Sunday’s Covid diary entry is on the website, here.

As I was writing this morning’s newsletter, I realized that my commentary to do with air passenger number trends called for a reader survey.  But instead of moving that to the top of the newsletter, I’m leaving it in sequence so it “flows” more naturally.  Please do be sure to read down to it, and please do share your thoughts on the topic – how long is too long on hold?  I might send the results to the DoT to see if they could include an appropriate provision in the new air passenger rights they’re considering creating.

What else for the week?  Please continue on for :

  • Air Pax Numbers Mildly Up
  • Reader Survey – How Long is Too Long (On Hold)?
  • European and UK Travel This Summer?
  • China Still Dragging Out its 737 MAX Recertification
  • FAA Dragging Out the New 777X Certification
  • DOT To Introduce New Air Pax Protections?
  • The True Cost of Electric Aircraft
  • Will Sunday See Branson in “Space”?
  • John Kerry.  Maskless.  Again.
  • And Lastly This Week….

Air Pax Numbers Mildly Up

It is a curious thing.  Consistently during the pandemic, each holiday weekend has seen a short-term surge in air travel numbers before returning to the trend line prior to then.

This July 4th was no exception, although I’d half-expected a more marked surge, because it seemed like this holiday weekend was the almost official end of virus-related restrictions.  But as you can see, there was a small surge over the weekend and now things are essentially back to where they’d be if the blip had not occurred.  Indeed, all of the blip was in Thursday/Friday travel, with both days slightly exceeding the numbers in 2019, but then numbers steadily fell back again on Sunday/Mon/Tue/Wed.

The thing to keep in mind now is that while our passenger numbers are running just over 80% of 2019 numbers, the airlines are probably keeping their capacity down to a matching number (or even lower).  So flights may be more full than they were in 2019.  Both the airlines and the TSA are weakly trying to claim that the growth in passenger numbers has surprised them, but what part of the orange line over the last four or so months in the above chart is surprising?

Not only are many flights totally full, but cutbacks are being experienced in other parts of airline operations, too – particularly customer service (and no, that’s not really a surprising situation, is it).

This article details some of the worse customer service fails, and in particular, you’ve got to feel sorry for the lady who was cut off after waiting ten hours on hold to speak to an airline rep.  Which leads on to this next comment and reader survey.

Reader Survey – How Long is Too Long (On Hold)?

There really should be a law against companies that have you wait ten hours on hold (especially if they then disconnect you!).

I remember, from the bad old days of dealing with my former internet provider, that they’d answer the phone oh-so-quickly if you were signing up for new service, but it could be 45 minutes or longer waiting on hold to report a service outage.  Companies should have an obligation to provide some level of acceptable customer service – some states require insurance companies to have a real person answer the phone within five rings, for example.  At the very least, they should be required to give the same or greater priority to servicing current customers than they give to selling to new potential customers.

It would surely be fair to say no-one should need to wait more than – well, pick a number, some number of minutes on hold before being able to speak to a rep who is able to handle and resolve 90%+ of all customer service issues during the course of the phone call.  That is the other trap.  The person you speak to is unable to do anything except say no, and to refuse to help you.  Good customer service doesn’t start until you’re in direct contact with the person who has the authority to say “yes” and to sense/decency to know when to do so.

So, here’s the reader survey.  For companies primarily with an online or remote presence, companies that you deal with over the phone or over the internet, rather than in person; what is the maximum acceptable wait on hold prior to being connected to a “real” customer service agent who has the authority and understanding to resolve at least 90% of all customer service issues during the call?

Please click the link that represents your answer.  That will generate an email to be sent to me, with your answer coded into the subject line.

As always, I’ll tabulate the results and share them with you next week.

Many thanks for sharing your thoughts and expectations.  Look for the results next week.

European and UK Travel This Summer?

The UK, in fits and starts, is getting closer and closer to allowing vaccinated passengers from “orange list countries” (most countries, including the US and Canada, are on the orange list) to enter the UK for a vacation and without needing a period of quarantine.  But, despite the never ending series of optimistic press releases, we’re not at that point yet.  Will it be next week?  The week after?  Or some other time?  No-one knows.

It does seem however that when the UK finally gets this done, we’ll simply need to show our “CDC Vaccination Record” slip of paper to “prove” we’ve been vaccinated.

The irony is, with the UK’s ever increasing rates of new Covid cases, by the time they finally get to the point where we can travel there, none of us will want to go, due to raging out of control rates of new virus cases.  Ignoring tiny countries with less than a million people, in the last week, the UK had the seventh highest number of new Covid cases of anywhere in the world, per head of population.

Europe remains reasonably open, but (and the details are in the Covid diary entry, below) just about every major European country is now experiencing rising Covid case rates too.  But at least, unlike the UK, their increases are on a small base number, so it will be some time before they get to the level of activity currently in the UK.

However, sooner or later, it seems possible that the European unity of approach to virus control measures will start to fracture again, as it did last year, and each country will start creating its own policies for who it allows in and who it doesn’t allow in.  Keep in mind also that case rates are rising in the US (and Canada) too, meaning there’s a chance of restrictions applying to American visitors.

In other words, if you’re going to Europe, and especially if you want to go to Spain, Portugal, Greece or the Netherlands, go as soon as possible.  Or hold off for a few months until fall, when hopefully the still climbing, but ever-more-slowly, percentages of vaccinated people in these countries will finally stop the virus growth.

For now, it definitely seems appropriate to plan for our lovely Danube River Christmas Tour/Cruise.  Please do come join with a group of your fellow Travel Insiders on this lovely cruise/tour in early December.

China Still Dragging Out its 737 MAX Recertification

With the growing hostility between the US and China, and the eagerness of both countries to use trade as a weapon (perhaps a better term would be “negotiating tool”) it would seem no surprise at all that, long after the rest of the world has allowed the 737 MAX to return to the skies, China is still dragging out its approval.

But, actually, China is in danger of “cutting off its nose to spite its face” – although when you’re a dictatorship with a (com)pliant population, that is probably of little concern to its leadership.  This article has an interesting analysis showing that China desperately needs to get more 737 planes as soon as possible, due to its present planes aging to the point of needing replacement (plus of course, China’s never-ending growth).

Their own 737-competitor, the Comac C919, isn’t going to be available in anything like the numbers needed for many years.

FAA Dragging Out the New 777X Certification

Poor old Boeing.  Is there a single airplane in its lineup that isn’t giving it problems at present?  How about the new 777X series of planes?  They too are suffering from a closer FAA scrutiny and greater risk-avoidance, and the FAA is now saying they want to extend out the process between now and when the plane might be able to be certified.

As the article explains, there have been some alarming unexplained incidents on test flights, and a general feeling of unhappiness with how things are progressing.  The net result is the 777X, which was supposed to enter service in early 2020, is unlikely to do so until 2024.

The two 777X plane models will be the largest passenger planes in production when they finally make it to market, holding 384 and 426 passengers in two cabin configurations.  The largest Airbus, the A350-1000, holds 369 in a typical two class configuration.  So about the best thing that can be said for Boeing’s delays is that at least they’re not losing sales to a competing Airbus plane, because there really isn’t one.  A less kind comment might be to wonder just how large a market there is for a 400+ seater plane these days.

DOT To Introduce New Air Pax Protections?

This article suggests the DoT might introduce some new rules to give us added rights and protections against the airlines.

Sadly, it makes no mention of a “must answer the phone within xx minutes” rule, but maybe, after you’ve voted in the reader survey above, the results of our survey might be helpful in making that happen!

It is worth noting however that the DoT absolutely is not the traveler’s friend.  At every past opportunity to introduce similar rules and requirements, it has refused to do so, preferring to accept airline advocacy for why such protections would be harmful.

At least this time, the initiative is being driven by the Biden Administration, so maybe it will get past the DoT inherent dislike of consumer protection, but I’ll reserve judgment.

For now, ponder on how the DoT is boasting of fining unruly air passengers, but is quiet about its “proposed” $25.55 million fine levied on Air Canada (for egregiously not refunding over 5,000 tickets on flights AC cancelled).  Why do airlines get the luxury of negotiating down fines for their egregious behavior, but not passengers?

And don’t even get me started on their eagerness to approve airline mergers, because they are (try not to laugh) “good for travelers”.  Maybe the DoT should read this article….

The True Cost of Electric Aircraft

Here is a truly excellent two part article series from the good folk at Leeham News and Analysis on the topic of electric powered aircraft.

They’ve written before on the topic, and at greater length.  These two articles are a great summary and well worth reading in full, but if you don’t want to, the conclusion is stark and simple.  There’s no way in the world that battery-electric commercial airplanes can be expected in any foreseeable future timeframe.

While the cost of providing power to fly a given weight a given distance is cheaper if coming from electricity than from jet fuel, that’s only the smallest part of the complete picture.  The weight of the batteries transform and overwhelm the airplane design and the economics of flight, and while the electricity is cheaper, the extra power needed for the huge increase in size and weight of a battery powered plane eclipses the saving in electricity, and indeed, the batteries themselves, with finite lives, become very expensive to keep replacing, too.

First part             Second part

They like the concept of hydrogen powered planes as a future alternate and “green” technology.

I’d add that there is still plenty of improvement possible in using conventional powered planes.  For example, this article explains how JetBlue’s move from Embraer E190s to Airbus A220s will reduce their operating costs per seat by 29%.  That’s an enormous saving by airline standards.

Will Sunday See Branson in “Space”?

It has been a long time coming, more than a decade of waiting, but perhaps spurred to action by Jeff Bezos and his expected space flight in his New Shepard rocket on Tuesday 20 July, Sir Richard Branson promises to finally make good on his many-times broken/delayed promise to fly his Virgin Galactic rocket, and will do this on Sunday (11 July) – by Branson’s standards, that being close enough to his most recent promise to do so over the July 4 weekend.

With a mere two days to go and no cancellation yet announced, are we about to see the proof of “Every dog has its day” and will Branson finally head up to almost space?

It is looking more likely this time it might actually happen, and with the basic design concept of the “rocket” being much less stressful seeming than the more traditional rocket Bezos will use, we’re reasonably sure that if Branson takes off, the chances are good he’ll land safely a very short while later (less than an hour from take-off to landing, much less than that with the “rocket” under its own power rather than being carried aloft by the transport plane).  This article is headed “Richard Branson is taking a big risk going to space”.  Really, the risk isn’t that big at all, but an article headed “Richard Branson expects to safely go to space on Sunday” doesn’t align with the mythos of Branson the daredevil risk-seeker.

The one thing I remain uncertain about though is how many attractive young ladies in mini-skirts will crush around him upon his return.  Will he get to show us his underwear this time, such as he likes to do on other occasions (I can think of several unfortunate reasons why that might be relevant!)?

It seems impossible to write about human space travel without also including a reference to Elon Musk, so here is a mention of his SpaceX Crew Dragon module, where the seat with the best view is, ahem, the toilet.

John Kerry.  Maskless.  Again.

This article and its pictures show John Kerry going through Boston airport on Monday without a mask.  He had earlier been photographed, maskless, on an AA flight in March, something he denied, photos notwithstanding.  This time he didn’t even bother commenting.

As much as I object to the willful flouting of the laws that are supposed to apply to our political “leaders” the same as to us ordinary citizens, there is one part of this article that seems beyond ridiculous – Kerry being required to go through one of the whole body scanners at the security checkpoint.

John Kerry may or may not be many things, but a terrorist?  Definitely not.  The TSA needs to focus on people who might be threats, and let the people who definitely are not terrorists pass by, unimpeded.

And Lastly This Week….

The picture opening the newsletter talks about “Life elevated with Cathay”.  The airline is now seeking to make itself into a “lifestyle brand” – a vomit-inducing phrase that means nothing whatsoever, and introduced by a photo that means nothing whatsoever.

To explain it, their press release also says nothing whatsoever

A new premium travel lifestyle brand “Cathay” is launched today that aims to bring all we love about travel together with everyday lifestyle.

Over the coming months, “Cathay” will be rolling out a range of new offers in spending, dining, shopping, hotels, and wellness – enabling us to engage with our customers not only when they fly with us, but every day.

Would someone please gently remind them that they’re an airline.  The last thing any of us would think of, when wishing to consider “wellness” (another vomit-inducing phrase) or dining or most other things is an airline that tortures us in a too-small-seat with appalling food and rip-off prices, terms and conditions, and snarling service.

Cathay – and pretty much every other airline – need to understand that as long as their core product is based on an antagonistic and adversarial zero-sum relationship with their passengers, there’s no point in trying to build from that point of mutual dislike.

Oh, talking about zero-sum, I noted earlier this week that my 16 year old daughter has signed up for a distance-learning program on Game Theory, which is all about things such as zero-sum outcomes, and is defined as

the study of mathematical models of strategic interaction among rational decision-makers.  It has applications in all fields of social science, as well as in logic, systems science and computer science. Originally, it addressed zero-sum games, in which each participant’s gains or losses are exactly balanced by those of the other participants. In the 21st century, game theory applies to a wide range of behavioral relations, and is now an umbrella term for the science of logical decision making in humans, animals, and computers.

I was very impressed by this, and also a little puzzled about why she had voluntarily chosen to take a course on this topic.  Eventually, she confessed.  She thought “game theory” was the study of computer games and how to design and win them.  But I hope she’ll stick out the real game theory course.

Something that has been quiet for a while has been the awkward topic of cell phones and cancer.  But just because there’s not been a lot of coverage doesn’t mean the “too hot to handle” topic (because no-one wants to give up their phone these days) has gone away.  Here’s an article about a new UC Berkeley study showing a “strong link” between cell phone use and brain tumors.

Truly lastly this week, happy 75th birthday to the bikini.

Until next week, please stay healthy and safe





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