Weekly Roundup, Friday 27 August 2021

A fanciful new proposed passenger plane that might fly at Mach 5.5. See article, below.


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Good morning

The week has been happily uneventful (assuming you are not in Afghanistan), which has given me more time to continue my series on buying computers and related gear.  The latest article in that series follows.  For a change, and responding to a supporter’s request, I’ll be writing about something entirely different next week.

In this latest article, I mentioned looking through about 200 different computer hubs on Amazon before selecting one.  That was not an exaggeration, and quite literally, I had to stop early one day due to developing a splitting headache from trying to chase down the details of each different product to ensure I was comparing like with like.  Even so, after what I thought to be an exhaustive and exhausting period of “due diligence”, my choice of hub turned out to be a disappointment.  I wrote asking for help to the email provided by the Chinese manufacturer, and the email bounced due to an invalid email box.  I filled out the form on their website, and that returned a server error message.  I contacted Amazon who kindly offered to replace the unit, but I explained I feared it was not a bad unit, but a mis-described unit that simply could not do what it claimed it could do, and so they put me in touch with the manufacturer a third way, and I’m now awaiting a response.

So, spare yourself a similar experience and hopefully benefit from the article, attached below.

Also attached is Thursday’s Covid diary entry, with what I feel to be some good items in it.  Sunday’s Covid diary entry is online, here.

And, the usual pot pourri of items continue, below :

  • Air Passenger Numbers Uncertainly Unchanging
  • EU/UK Travel Update
  • BA to Start a New Airline?
  • Should We Sell (or Lease) Our Airports?
  • Flying Taxis in 2026?
  • High Speed Plane Nonsense
  • High Speed Train Realities
  • And Lastly This Week….

Air Passenger Numbers Uncertainly Unchanging

As you can see, another week has passed with almost no change in air passenger numbers, relative to the 2019 numbers.  But if you look closely at the chart, and I slightly tweaked the scale to allow for this, you’ll see the reappearance of the green line, which is 2021 numbers compared to 2020 numbers.  Because the 2020 numbers started to rise after bottoming out in mid-April, the gap between 2021 and 2020 has been reducing.  This is neither good nor bad, with for now the most relevant measure being 2021 compared to the last “normal” year, ie, 2019.

Next week, with the long weekend, there’ll probably be some disruptions to the numbers, so it might be a while before we clearly return to whatever the 2021 trend might be.

EU/UK Travel Update

The EU apparently met on Thursday (ie yesterday) to re-evaluate which countries it allows relatively unrestricted travel from, and which it imposes restrictions on, depending on the perceived level of Covid risk.

There are four tests the EU applies to determine a country’s status :

  • The number of new Covid cases/million in the previous two weeks
  • Are case numbers rising, stable, or dropping
  • Which variants are active in that country
  • Does the country allow reciprocal travel from the EU

The US massively fails on all four tests.  Its case numbers are almost eight times the cut-off point (750 is the limit, the US is about 6,000).  US cases continue to rise every day without exception.  Almost all the cases in the US are of the most-concerning Delta variant.  And we do not allow EU citizens to visit here.

So by all measures, you’d expect the EU to restrict or ban travel from the US.  What did they decide?

That’s a true question I asked, not a rhetorical one.  We don’t know.  As of almost 11am European time Friday, they haven’t made any announcements about the outcome of the meeting.  They were quick to announce, two weeks ago, that they were leaving the US on the permitted travel list, so this time the silence might be more ominous.

But there might be one other matter they need to consider.  Many of their own member nations also have raging infection rates way about the 750/million every two week cut-off point.  Perhaps they are finding it difficult to ignore their own internal problems while focusing on the US?

I’m continuing to monitor the decision and will tweet any news updates on this matter as soon as they come in.

BA to Start a New Airline?

How often have we heard the phrase “an airline within an airline”, together with massive hype about how the new subsidiary of an old airline will be all the great and good things that the old airline is not and apparently has given up any hope of becoming?

Usually, the idea is code for little more than the idea of “we’ll renegotiate union contracts and pay staff at the new airline much less than we do at our normal airline, and work them much harder”.  Invariably, the unions realize that, and soon enough, end up moving the working conditions and pays back to levels very similar to the parent airline.

Furthermore, the more different the airline makes the subsidiary airline, the less value and benefit there is in having the airline within the airline.  If the subsidiary airline has different planes, different seating, different livery, different staff, different work agreements and pay rates, it can’t easily swap over planes and crew as needed, whereas if it just created a different sub-brand of its main brand, it could still enjoy most of the “economies of scale”.

These realities almost always, with only one or two extremely rare exceptions, and none of the exceptions being in the US, result in the airline within an airline ceasing operations within a few short years of its creation.

But, proving the adage “those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it”, British Airways is now seeking to create a new airline within itself, to become a short-haul carrier based at Gatwick.

We don’t see any upside to this, neither to BA nor to passengers.  That’s not to say it won’t proceed, but it is to predict that it almost surely won’t succeed.  More details here.

Should We Sell (or Lease) Our Airports?

One of the peculiar contradictions of the US is that most of its airports are publicly owned rather than privately owned.  The ownership of airports around the world varies – some countries have public bodies owning them, other countries have airports privately owned by for-profit companies.

There is logic to support both approaches.  The reality is that most airports have almost monopolistic control over the markets they serve, and the ability for a new airport to establish itself in competition against an existing airport is slim to none.  So perhaps they are better treated as public resources?

One of the most successful examples of private airport competition is in an unlikely place – Moscow.  Sheremetyevo’s one-time dominance as the primary international airport was challenged in the early 2000s by Domodedovo, with the result being Domodedovo developed itself into an excellent airport, causing Sheremetyevo to lift its game and become very much better than it used to be, as well.  Both the airlines and the traveling public now benefit from two excellent international airports in the Moscow area.

In London, there used to be one company that owned Heathrow, Gatwick, and Stansted Airports.  The company was required to sell off two of the three airports, with the result that the Manchester Airport Group now owns Stansted and the ultimate owner of Gatwick Airport is a Nigerian businessman who also owns Edinburgh Airport and London City Airport.  Heathrow’s owners had also owned other airports such as Glasgow, Aberdeen and Southampton Airports, all now owned by another company.

It is far from clear if competition (and previously the lack of competition) had much of an impact in Britain, perhaps because even the private airports are still massively constrained and controlled by government regulation.

Turning back now to the US, this article considers the implications of having some of the publicly owned airports in the US either leased or sold to private enterprise.  Their focus is primarily on the cash that would be freed up for the current public owners to spend elsewhere.

At present, public airports are not allowed by law to make a profit.  But that doesn’t mean we, the traveling public, are getting the best and fairest deal by having our airports remain in public ownership.  The airports, while forbidden from making a profit, are not so strictly controlled when it comes to requiring them to operate sensibly, commercially, and efficiently, and we suspect many times, they become somewhat inefficient as a result.  Perhaps commercial considerations might encourage airports to provide a better service, charge less, and make a profit, too?

How much is an airport worth?  Depending on the valuation method, and after deducting the sums an airport owes, the article provides valuations ranging from potentially as high as $11 billion (LAX) to as low as -$4 billion (ORD) – yes, that’s a minus sign, O’Hare might have a negative net worth of $4 billion.

The thing that gives us the most pause is wondering what local government bodies would do with a sudden $1 billion or more cash receipt after selling an airport.  The money is technically ours – we, the residents of the area the airport and local government body served, but there is realistically no chance the money would be returned to the residents, is there!?

Flying Taxis in 2026?

One of the nonsense aviation concepts that people love, but which the engineers are unlikely to ever create, are “flying cars” or “flying taxis”, particularly if they are battery powered, and particularly if they are autonomous self-flying craft.

Here’s a fanciful article predicting 100 flying taxis in Melbourne, Australia, in 2026.  We can not see the practicality of this.  The vertical take off and landing capability is energy intensive and probably noisy, will require dedicated “pads” just like helipads, with space for such pads being expensive and at a premium in densely built-out cities like Melbourne.  If a pickup/dropoff pad is not nearby, the convenience factor evaporates entirely and a regular taxi or public transport quickly becomes preferable.  The economics of the service would see very high costs per mile needing to be charged to users.  It may also be weather dependent – both from a ride quality point of view and a safety point of view, and Melbourne can have winds and rain such as to impact on fair weather flying operations.

Talking about safety sorts of issues, sooner or later, one of these craft will inevitably fail, and plunge down to the ground, which in a dense urban/city environment means not only killing the passengers on board, but probably innocent others on the ground, too.  At which point, the entire concept risks being regulated and restricted into oblivion.

An “Uber of the air” it most definitely would not be.

With the growing hypersensitivity to “save the planet” ideology, we wonder whether the concept of expensive and energy-inefficient private transportation for the elite will win much politically correct support, compared to the concept of developing better and additional mass/public transportation solutions (of which Melbourne is already moderately well provided).

You can decide – which will fly, first?  Uber-style flying taxis, or pigs?

High Speed Plane Nonsense

We’re still waiting to see the ultimate in crazy articles – one predicting a long-range large-size supersonic plane offering fares less than coach class and powered by batteries.  Doubtless, the article will appear, it is just a case of when rather than if.

But, for now, ranking almost as far up there on the “Pigs will fly before this plane does” scale, is this article predicting hypersonic passenger travel, with the first test plane taking to the air in 2023 – maybe.

Hypersonic speeds are speeds more than five times the speed of sound – in comparison, the Concorde flew at Mach 2.02, and the Boom Overture is currently expected to fly at maybe Mach 1.7.  The article sort of falls into the deep end right from the start when it refers to United Airlines buying 15 of the Boom planes.  UA hasn’t agreed to buy anything at all; it issued a highly conditional letter of possible intent to maybe buy some planes in the future if they meet or exceed all their wildest hopes and dreams.

The article talks about a plane with a top speed of Mach 5.5 – just over 4,200 mph.  The article says this means a flight between New York and London would take less than an hour, with the distance between JFK and LHR being 3,451 miles.  Mathematically, and in theory, that claim is correct.  In reality, the time would be at least two hours after allowing for taxi time, under 250 mph speeds below 10,000 ft and under Mach 1 speeds over land, and even longer after building in air traffic control delays, inefficient routing, and so on.

Still, it would be fantastically fast.  But how likely is it?  Therein lies the problem.  The concept relies on engines not yet developed, and airframes not yet designed, made out of materials not yet specified.

Which means it also relies upon a ton of funding – as in probably tens of billions of dollars (it costs over $10 billion just to make a minor tweak to something as unchallenging as the 737).  The article reports on the company having secured $60 million of funding from the DoD.  That’s not even pocket change compared to what it will need for the entire project.

Of course, as hinted at by the DoD funding, the first application for such aircraft is more likely to be in what the article politely refers to as “freight” rather than “passenger” applications, with the “freight” being bombs.

Bottom line, we don’t think the time-line is realistic, and we’d like to see at least 300 times more funding in place for the development.  And, then, at the end of it all, what will there be?  How many passengers will such a plane carry, at what cost per passenger, and what about the noise problems for flying over land?

High Speed Train Realities

This article tells us something that has been reported many times before, over the years.  There is strong voter support for high speed rail.

But, what the article, and the survey it quotes from, don’t tell us is that voter support is highly conditional upon the voters themselves not having to pay for the high speed rail they’d like to see serving their region.  Sure, the underlying concept is appealing – a high speed rail corridor connecting Vancouver BC, Seattle WA, and Portland, OR.  But the cost – last estimated in 2018 as being $24 – 42 billion, so now in 2021, probably $30 – $50 billion, and ultimately, probably growing to close on $100 billion – who will pay for that?  California is unable to pay for its similar priced rail project, and by the time the arguing between BC, WA and OR, and the cities and regions within those three states/provinces, was completed, who only knows who would pay how much and for what.

Don’t even get me started on the subsequent issue of whether the service would ever break even, or if it would soak up more money ever year for ever after.

Offer a voter a free high speed rail service, and it is astonishing only about 60% of voters expressed enthusiasm.  Tell them it will cost them, personally, many thousands of dollars each, and watch the enthusiasm evaporate.  For the few remaining enthusiasts, tell them they’ll probably be dead before the project has been completed.

Until high speed rail can promise affordable benefits in a reasonable time frame, it will continue to be an aspirational but unattainable dream.

And Lastly This Week….

Talking about things that everyone wants, but no-one wants to pay for, the residents of Tokyo are now unhappily having to face the bill for their Olympic Games hosting.  Depending on who you believe and what costs you include, it seems the Games ended up costing someone – Tokyo or Japan nationally – between $15 and $25 billion dollars.

In return for this sum, what did Japan, Tokyo, and its residents receive?  Essentially nothing at all, other than a lot of hassle and inconvenience.  Forget the specious nonsense of “global awareness” – who in the world has not heard of Tokyo already?

The Olympics have an aberrant, even offensive, caricature of their original noble concept.  Amateur sportsman nobly competing together?  Now it is nationally funded teams with budgets in the millions or billions competing against other national teams with similar budgets, with precious little remaining of “enthusiastic noble amateurs” and a whole lot of corporate dollar-driven greed.  Is it time to totally rethink the whole concept?  But what could replace it?

Talking of things that have gone from sensible to ridiculous, the very well paid “baristas” at Starbucks are complaining they’re having to work too hard, making fancy complicated drinks that take them “too long” to make.  Why should the barista care?  They get paid the same an hour, whether they’re serving straight drip coffees or the most complicated drink with the most ridiculous mock-Italian name.  Starbucks, the company, certainly doesn’t mind – all those extra options, each adding another dollar or two to the total, have them laughing all the way to the bank.

The prima donna “baristas” need to realize they’re only one notch up from burger flippers – don’t think for an instant that there’s any special skill in making a coffee these days.  The machines are fully automated, leaving only the adding of the extra ingredients for the staff to do, and anyone can push down a pump handle on a syrup dispenser.

One of the enduring mysteries of Google is not so much the things it succeeds at, but the things it fails at.  Sure, some of its projects are quixotic and as such, failure is unsurprising, and it is hard not to admire Google for trying out new wild-and-crazy ideas in the hope of something practical evolving from them.

But how about instant messaging?  That’s a seemingly very simple sort of app, and something which a company the size of Google should be extremely well placed to succeed at.  This is particularly so when you consider the user base of people Google has, either using a Google/Android phone, or Gmail, or some other Google app.

Google’s first messenger app was launched 16 years ago this week.  And now, after 16 years and apparently something like 22 different products and attempts at breaking in to the instant messaging field, Google still remains an outsider looking in.

Here’s a lengthy article that looks at Google’s never-ending missteps in the instant messaging field, even while other new companies were appearing from nowhere and becoming massively large and massively successful.  I wasn’t sure whether to laugh or cry as I read through it, wondering all the way through how people who claim to be so clever and “data driven” could actually be so aimless and stupid.

What part of “do not step off the marked trails” is hard to understand?  Especially when the second line says “danger – if you step off the trail you risk being scalded to death”?

A 26 year old lady from CT decided that the signs and dangers didn’t apply to her at Yellowstone National Park.  She managed to avoid breaking through the surface and falling into a boiling water or mud pool, but she didn’t manage to avoid the park rangers.  She has now been fined $1,000, levied another $1,000 community service payment, a $40 fee, and, oh yes, sentenced to a week in jail.

As this article says, it is better to spend a week in jail than in a hospital’s burn unit.

And on that cautionary note, please stay healthy and happy





1 thought on “Weekly Roundup, Friday 27 August 2021”

  1. BA owner IAG seems to have truly lost its marbles. Having looked at selling off BA’s Gatwick slots, where it is number two behind EasyJet, it’s now thinking of creating a new discount brand instead of turning its slots over to Vueling, IAG’s existing short-haul discounter. It’s worth noting that BA’s Gatwick flights now fly mostly to Spain and Portugal. Vueling of course is Spanish-based.

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