Weekly Roundup, Friday 17 September 2021

Just another normal space craft? Or something potentially much more scary? See article, below.


355 Supporters (-2 from last week)Target :  400 Please Join Here


Good morning

It’s that time, again.  It is that awkward time of year when I must again activate the annual fundraising drive – that essential part of each year that hopefully enables me to continue The Travel Insider for another year.

If you’ve been a reader for some time, you’ll know that this newsletter, blog, and all the content on the website, is operated on a type of public broadcasting model.  Most of it is free to everyone; without limit, without registration, and without any sort of nagging, but in return, once every year, I ask you to consider voluntarily helping out, at whatever level you feel fairly matches the value, pleasure, interest, amusement, and everything else you’ve received in return.

Certainly, the last year has been the most prolific in the now twenty years the site has been online (I started it in October 2001).  Without exception, rain or shine, holiday or not, every single week has seen two Covid diary entries and a weekly roundup sent to you, and most weeks there’s been a feature article (sometimes even two or three) as well.  I’ve not counted, but that is probably 200 articles, and with an average length of about 3,000 words, a total of around 600,000 words – about the same as you’d get in eight full size books.  There have also been (wild guess) 1500 tweets during the last year, too.

Yes, that is very much a very full-time job for me.  It is, in large part, a labor of love.  I’d probably earn more working at McDonalds, but I like to think – and hope – that in some small way, my work with The Travel Insider is helping to make a small and positive difference to you, in perhaps unexpected ways.

Unfortunately, this year I can also say that possibly some of my work might have even saved your life (I’m referring to the Covid diary articles) or in other ways guided you and given you peace of mind about how to respond to this dreadful pandemic and the equally dreadful mess of mixed, confused, and contradictory messages about what to do and not to do.

Paradoxically, although this has been the busiest year ever for me, it has also been the least revenue-generating, at least for the last 15 or so years.  I cancelled the 2020 tours last February, and while I had hopes for this year, cancelled this year’s touring schedule too.  Travel advertising on my pages is returning very little in the way of advertising revenue, for obvious reasons, and – oh yes, one of the benefits of becoming a member that I introduced in the last year is you don’t get any advertising on the website, so the number of ad exposures has dropped.  I used to get some appreciable referral fees from Amazon each month, but these days their referral rates are little more than half what they used to be, so that’s not looking too good, either.

More than ever before, I rely on you, and on your voluntary support of this site and service.  So, now, can I please ask you to simply click on this link, decide what level – any level at all – of support you wish to contribute, and at a level either quarterly, annually, or as a one-time single act of kindness.  The process only takes you a minute or two, and that’ll be it for the year, even longer if you choose an ongoing support option.

If it is not convenient, please still feel very welcome to keep reading.  Most people don’t contribute, and all are still welcome.  But if you can help out, please become one of the very special few who do.

There are some very small items of reciprocity on my part, in addition to my fervent thanks.  As I said, you’ll avoid the ads on the web pages, plus you get occasional exclusive Supporter-Only extra content.  Every Covid diary entry has extra supporter-only content, and assorted other articles on the site also have extra material for supporters, too.

I’m modestly hoping for 400 supporters.  Currently, the count is at 355, with that number varying up and down each week at present with last year’s supporters expiring.  Many people are kindly renewing last year’s support already for this year, thank you.  So, if you’re already a supporter, please stay, and if you’re not yet a supporter, please make 2021 the year you choose to become one.

Please help The Travel Insider to keep on keeping on, for another year, and further on into our shared future.  Thank you.

And now on with our normal programming.  There’s quite a lot for you this morning – it is probably a two-cup of coffee read rather than a one cup read.  And talking about reading, the first item after the roundup is a review of a fascinating new book, all about the competition between Airbus and Boeing.  Even if you choose not to buy the book, I hope you’ll find the review commentary interesting.

Do you find book reviews helpful?  I only do a few each year, because they are very time-consuming.  It takes a long time to truly, carefully, and completely read a book, and then to come up with relevant commentary and to write a review.  But if you find them useful, I’m happy to add some more.

Tuesday saw Apple launch its latest round of iPhones, plus a new Series 7 set of watches, and two new iPads also.  Apple has been doing product releases every year, around this time, and I’ve been similarly rushing out a quick analysis of their new products within hours of the release event, too.  If you’ve not already received this via a daily or immediate option for received emailed new articles, you’ll find it now, attached.

I have to say that it has been getting harder to be excited and enthusiastic about the Apple releases, and particularly so when it is just a bunch of pre-recorded produced advertisements for their new products rather than a live release event in front of a cheering engaged audience.  I wonder if there’ll be many people lined up overnight to be the first to buy the new iPhone this year – it seems those lines have been getting smaller with each passing year.

Plus, a special treat for everyone.  Thursday’s Covid diary entry is also attached, and I decided to open up the normally Supporter-only section to everyone, so you can see an example of what supporters get beyond the part that everyone gets.  I hope that might help encourage you to become a Supporter.

As always, Sunday’s Covid diary entry was sent out to people with the immediate or daily mailing options, and can be seen online here for everyone else.

Before moving on, one further introductory comment.  Just about everyone with any sort of publication has been rushing to make an even more “meaningful” statement about the 20th anniversary of 9/11.  I’m not going to become another “me too” holier-than-thou opiner on that point.  But I did come across one very different perspective and article on that unfortunate subject -, a pilot’s account of what happened to him, mid-air, on that fateful day.  Well written and fascinating, you can see it here.

And now, please continue for :

  • Air Passenger Numbers Falling, and then Falling Some More
  • Europe/UK Travel Status
  • Boeing Says Back to Normal
  • Musk’s Latest Strange Space Escapade
  • High Speed Rail in Spain
  • What Could Possibly Go Wrong?
  • Good and Bad Deals on TV Streaming Sticks
  • And Lastly This Week….

Air Passenger Numbers Falling, and then Falling Some More

I was curious, last week, to see where air passenger numbers, as a percent of 2019 numbers, would settle after the Labor Day weekend.  Numbers are now smoothing out again, and it seems they are destined to a level lower than prior to the holiday weekend.

The most recent data, through Wednesday, has a one week rolling average sitting at 70.5% of 2019 numbers.  Prior to the long weekend, the number had been sitting in a range of between about 75% and 79%, all the way back to the July 4 weekend.  We’ve not been as low as 70.5% since June 10.

Yes, business travel remains depressed, but I think there’s another significant factor here, contributing to numbers frozen below the 80% level.  That is the lack of international travel – both by us to foreign countries, and by foreign visitors, too.  There’s probably at least a missing 10% of 2019 passenger numbers (ie, the current average could be 80.5%) as a result of these travel restrictions.

I’ve done some research this week, and will share the shocking results with you next week.  Suffice it to say, for now, that in addition to the publicly disclosed travel bans on travelers from 36 countries, there are “shadow bans” on many more countries.

Why aren’t our airlines and other tourism operators screaming about this?  More next week, but not an answer to that question, which seems unanswerable.

Europe/UK Travel Status

New Covid case numbers are declining in much of Europe.  Here in the US, we’ve at least halted the two and a half month huge run-up in our cases, and indeed, have eased back 10% from the latest peak which we reached on the Friday before the Labor Day weekend.

So, while the US is still laughably way above the cut-off numbers to be deemed a “safe” country by the EU, there’s not a lot of tension in the EU, due to their own stabilizing numbers, and what might be a start of a fall in our numbers too, and few countries are responding to the change in EU designation.

But what of the future?  Have a look at this chart – it shows what happened to our numbers last year, and what is happening this year.  It is not completely fair to directly compare the two years, because this year we have the twin major impacts of the vaccine and the Delta variant to factor in.

But, if there is any truth in the virus being at least mildly seasonal, look at what happened last year, starting from early October and rising up to peak in early January.  If we might repeat that, even in milder form, and with our numbers currently being nearly four times higher than they were this time last year, even a doubling of current numbers would see us going off-the-scale bad.  That might be something that would cause the EU to slam their border doors shut in our face, whether we’re vaccinated or not.

So, while I was tempted to try and revive the lovely Christmas cruise for this December, there remain too many variables and unknowns, particularly if there’s going to be a seasonal impact to factor in.  I’m not saying I think our numbers are due to soar again in November/December, but I’m also not saying I’m certain they won’t.

Which brings me to the same closing comment as always – don’t plan too far in advance, and if you’re going to travel somewhere, go now while you can.

Boeing Says Back to Normal

Never mind international air travel remaining seriously depressed, all around the world, and here in the US, air passenger numbers 30% down on 2019.  Never mind also that the Chinese haven’t bought a plane from Boeing since 2017 (while buying hundreds of planes from their own Chinese manufacturers – a competitor Boeing prefers to ignore in the hope it doesn’t exist and will go away).

Boeing told us, earlier this week, that it is now forecasting future plane sales at the same level as before the pandemic, with a full recovery finally taking place through 2023 and completed by 2024.

As you can see, Boeing expects domestic travel back to normal in 2022, and international coming back in 2023 (regional) and 2024 (long-haul).

This second image shows Boeing’s projection that the 25,900 planes in service in 2019 will grow to nearly twice that number, 49,405 planes, in 2040.  With 20,105 of the currently-in-service planes being retired during that period, it represents a market for 43,610 airplanes over the next 19 years.

One third image from the Boeing presentation.  This shows the growth in airplane fuel efficiency, as measured in how many RPKs (revenue passenger kilometers) are generated by each gallon of jetfuel burned.  As you can see, from 1991 to 2019, that number has almost doubled, while automobile efficiency has only grown about 18%.

The three charts are from this article, published by the aerospace analysis company helmed by Scott Hamilton, the author of the book I review, below.

Musk’s Latest Strange Space Escapade

Elon Musk’s SpaceX company launched a remote control/autonomous rocket on Wednesday.  That’s a far from unusual event, cargo rockets go up into orbit all the time, and usually without problems.  But what was unusual is, for the first time ever, an unmanned rocket – well, better to say, unpiloted rocket – had four passengers on board – ordinary people/joyriders, not professional astronauts.  And, yes, truly just passengers – the FAA rather sourly volunteered, the same day that Bezos flew up on his rocket (20 July) that they’ll not be officially recognized as astronauts.

Incongruously, although not touching any controls, the four passengers spent nearly six months training for their flight.  I’ve no idea what the training comprised, although there is a promotional shot of the four of them going skiing together on Mt Rainier.  Clearly, an arduous six months of training.

Unlike the Virgin Galactic 15 minute flight into the upper atmosphere, and a similar flight by Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin rocket, this is a “real” orbital space flight, with the rocket staying in orbit three days before returning back to Earth – indeed, the rocket will go up as high as 357 miles, which compares to the ISS at around the 250 mile mark.  That’s seven times higher than the Virgin Galactic plane flies, and about six times higher than Jeff Bezos went.

The mission, going by the name of “Inspiration 4”, claims to have its prime purpose of raising awareness and to secure $200 million in fundraising for the St Jude charity.  If you don’t know what that charity is, their mission is clearly not succeeding.

Cynics among us would describe it as yet another billionaire fantasy indulgence – the guy who “bought” the mission from SpaceX, Jared Isaacman, has a net worth estimated at $2.4 billion.  Well, that was prior to paying for his rocket journey.

The official website, full of “feel good” claims, talks about conducting valuable micro-gravity research and inspiring projects.  Of course.

But I have to say, after sneering every opportunity I get at Sir Richard Branson’s 15 minute not-space flight, this is a full-on no-holds-barred 100% real space flight.  Three days, and 50% higher up than the Space Station.  That’s a real experience, and I’d not fault anyone who could afford it from choosing to treat themselves.  But please don’t pretend you’re doing it to “support a charity” or “conduct valuable research”.  Be honest, and tell us that the payload isn’t scientific equipment, but is caviar, champagne, and condoms.

The biggest question in my mind is that if we can send unmanned rockets into outer space, and of course, we’ve been doing that for decades, the only new thing is now we’re putting people in them, why are we still needing two expensive and not always very helpful pilots in every passenger jet – especially when, much of the time, the two pilots can program the entire flight into the computer, from departure gate to arrival gate, and not touch an actual cockpit control for the entire flight.

High Speed Rail in Spain

You can probably guess the country in the world with the most miles of high speed rail track – China.  But did you know the second country in terms of amount of high speed rail track, with 2,230 miles of track (less than 10% of China) is Spain?  Trains go at speeds of up to 205 mph (the Avlo service, at 330 km/hr), allowing long distances to pass in short times – 2 1/2 hours for the 390 mile journey between Madrid and Barcelona, for example.

This compares with both the present generation of French TGV trains, and the new generation of TGV-M trains, both of which max out at 200 mph (320 km/hr).

The new TGV-M trains, while the same speed, will use 20% less energy but carry 20% more passengers (740 per train).  They are due to enter service in 2024.

The good news is that Spain is introducing new lower priced fares on their high speed routes, which have traditionally been pricier than normal trains.  The country is also continuing to add further to its high speed routes.  More details here.

What Could Possibly Go Wrong?

A rushed project to develop and deploy nuclear powered space craft.  What could possibly go wrong with that concept?  There is already one project being coordinated by DARPA for nuclear powered space craft, and now a second project is being rushed by through DoD.  Although contracts have yet to be awarded, the timeline sees a prototype flying within three to five years.

There are two problems with these developments.  One on the way up, a second on the way down.  Or, to be more specific, any nuclear powered rocket engine first needs to get into orbit atop a regular rocket.  If something goes wrong on the way up, an exploded or aborted launch could result in nuclear fuel being released into the atmosphere and gently wafting down, maybe into your back yard.

The matching problem is the ultimate end of any such space craft.  Although both projects talk about out-of-earth-orbit missions, the chances are that any DoD activities are going to ultimately be focused on earthly matters, rather than far-away space exploration, which is a NASA not DoD mission.  So expect the most likely uses to be in the form of maneuverable orbital vehicles, to avoid attacks by opposing vehicles, and/or to stage attacks on enemy satellites and their orbital vehicles.

What happens if/when one of those falls back to earth?  Will there be a release of nuclear fuel?  Inhaling 20 mgm of plutonium is enough to kill a person in a couple of months.  I’ve no idea how much plutonium might be in a space rocket, but a 1,000 MW nuclear reactor has several hundred kg of Pu as well as plenty of uranium within it.  100 kg is enough for 5 million 20 mgm doses.  That is not to say that the release of 100 kg of Pu in the atmosphere would inevitably lead to 5 million deaths, and for sure, the actual number of casualties would likely be massively less.  But it is to say that sending highly poisonous and radioactive materials up into space is a high risk activity, and should be avoided if at all possible, and certainly should never be rushed.

We can understand the appeal of using a nuclear reactor as a power source in space, but we can also understand the risks involved.  Does DoD have a similar understanding?

Good and Bad Deals on TV Streaming Sticks

Do you stream video on your television sets?  Chances are you do, and maybe you have an external box or “stick” connected to one of the set’s inputs to do so.

Prices of such devices have been dropping steadily.  Nowadays the very best product is the Amazon Fire Stick 4K, currently on sale for $35, and usually $50.  Amazon has just announced a newer version of this, the Fire TV Stick 4K Max, for $55, to be released on 7 October.  Both are excellent choices.

Even Walmart now sells streaming sticks, for only $30.  But this week saw a new entrant, a US company that seems to often take generic Chinese products and rebrand them with their name in the hope that a gloss of American company will justify charging much more.  This company, Anker, is selling a streaming stick that seems to be no better than the Walmart $30 product, and definitely nowhere near as capable as the two Amazon products, but for $90.  Only the uninformed would ever choose to buy this.  Details here.

One more thing about streaming to your television.  If you have a reasonably modern set, you probably have streaming built in to the set itself.  This is often the best way of all to stream – one less device, one less remote control, one less step and complexity to deal with.  And, oh yes – the capability is free, it is part of the television already.

Talking about streaming, a guilty confession.  I watched a streaming movie on Netflix earlier this week that was so beyond-dreadful that it was compelling viewing.  Battlefield Earth.  Stunningly bad, and in a big-budget, big-star way.  This guy agrees with me, but he is being gentle.  It is so much worse.

And Lastly This Week….

If you’re running out of things to worry about, here’s a doorway to a whole new series of concerns – hackers possibly taking over your car – disabling your brakes, jamming the throttle open, freezing the steering, that sort of thing.  Not mentioned in the article is this is almost entirely the thing of abstract theory rather than an every-day occurrence.  But give it a few years, and who knows….

Did a flight attendant on a United Express flight accept a $20 bribe from a couple of first class passengers in return for overlooking their lack of mask wearing?  That’s what is being suggested, with pictures to back up the suggestion.

Talking about flight attendants and compellingly bad video, many thanks to a reader for sending this YouTube link to a very old Braniff ad.  Oh my, how the world has changed since then.

Finally this week, before you move on to the three other attached articles, and the fourth (Sunday’s Covid diary entry) on the website, could I remind you about the start of our 2021 annual fundraising drive.   It only takes a minute or two to participate, and your support is desperately needed.  Please choose to help out, it really does make a difference and will be greatly appreciated.  Many thanks indeed.

Until next week, please stay healthy and happy





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