Weekly Roundup, Friday 15 October 2021

A fascinating new improvement for Global Entry members.

 

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Good morning

Congratulations to Captain Kirk/William Shatner for his brief ten minute space-ride experience this week.  He certainly delivered a resounding endorsement in return upon his safe landing.  I found it easier to relate to his experience – his pre-launch anxiety only thinly disguised, and his epiphany and delight upon his return – than I did that of Jeff Bezos on 20 July, or Richard Branson a week earlier.

But anyone who tries to paint this as a “must do experience for everyone” is totally off-target.  It isn’t for two reasons.  First, there’s nothing like the capacity for everyone to fly to space, not even for “just” the 1% to do so.  It will unavoidably always be an extremely restricted experience.

Secondly, not many of us will choose to pay the cost associated with the 10 – 15 minutes of not-quite-space-flight.  We don’t know what the Bezos company is charging for their flights, but (and discussed below) Virgin Galactic is now accepting new reservations at a cost of $450k per person.  How many of us can justify that sort of cost for such a fleeting experience?

And, with the concept of costs and affordability now raised, we’re another week through this year’s annual fundraising drive.  It was a good week, we managed to more than keep up with our renewals and new memberships pace of last year, and inched slightly forward to 346 current supporters.  Thank you.

But could I ask for a few more of you to join in with almost 350 of your fellow Travel Insider readers and help keep the newsletter and everything else in operation for another year.  Out of curiosity, I counted what I’ve written over the last twelve months :

51 Newsletters

107 Covid Articles

45 Special Features

That’s a total of 203 items published over the last year, and I’m guessing there were about 600,000 words spread across them all.  Almost four items every week – probably more than you read, but what you don’t read and skip over, someone else seeks out and values.

So I’m actively doing my part, providing you with a range of material every week.  I rely, in return, on your kindness and sense of fair play.  You tip other service providers for all sort of trivial and often unneeded things (my two least favorite being people who open doors and people who tell the cab driver where I’m going).  I’m hoping that at least some of your weekly Travel Insider content is of more value than having someone parrot what you just told them to a cab driver, or holding a door open for you when you’re empty handed and well able to open it yourself!  Is that worth “a tip a week” on an annual basis?  Please also note, if you wish, you have an option to choose to send in what you feel to be fair levels of support every quarter rather than once a year.

I’ve lots of ideas and hopes for 2022, but they all come to nothing if you don’t help me to keep the lights on (and, increasingly, as we move further away from summer, not just the lights but the heat too!).   Please choose to become a Travel Insider Supporter, at any level you feel appropriate and acceptable.  Thank you.

I’ll close the fundraising portion with an example of what you get from me that you don’t get from most other publications.  Here’s an article on Engadget about a new $800 streaming speaker.  Before Engadget was bought out by AOL and went “corporate” it was scrappy and didn’t hesitate to poke fun at products, but now, in articles such as this, you get what looks more like edited press release and respectful descriptions.

Only I will say “You’d have to be out of your mind to pay $800 for a football shaped streaming speaker” and add to that a jeer at the nonsense concept of a “150mm subwoofer for a deep, detailed bass”.  I suspect they say “150mm” in the hope we don’t realize that’s a fancy way of saying “small 6″ speaker” and the notion of a 6″ speaker in a football giving “a deep detailed bass” is little more than a copywriter with an overactive imagination.  Compare that to my review of the new range of Amazon Echo speakers, back in June.

Talking about technology, I spent an interesting couple of hours earlier today “attending” a virtual trade show.  I’m still undecided how I feel about such events, but one thing is for sure.  I love the efficiency and affordability of it.  I’ve been thinking of going to a Travel Goods show in February in Las Vegas, but by the time I add together airfares, accommodation, other transportation, meals, and sundries, it is somewhere between $500 and $1000 to participate, and two or three days of time to do so.  I might get three or four interesting articles to tell you about in return.

Compare that to a virtual trade show, where I managed to browse several dozen “booths” in under an hour, at my desk, and then spend another hour or so talking with people who had interesting products via Zoom chats.  At least one promises to translate into a review of a great new form of security system, and maybe there might be some other items to share with you too.

Some of us have been waiting and wondering when the US is actually going to announce the date in “early November” when it finally ends the senseless ban on most international visitors.  Three weeks after the 20 September announcement, the actual date remains a mystery (why?).  But even when this ban on 33 countries ends, that doesn’t mean, for many people in many countries, travel to the US becomes easy and practical once more.  Please see the article I wrote about this, below, revealing the unofficial “shadow bans” the US has placed on so many nations.

Also below is Thursday’s Covid diary entry, and – you guessed it – as always, Sunday’s is online, here.  There’s a deepening mystery that I’m slowly starting to dig into – our official vaccination numbers aren’t adding up.  Based on data disclosed, from a baseline of 50% fully vaccinated in the US on 13 August, and tracking the numbers of new vaccinations, we should be at/over 68% today.  But the official number is only 56% – a 6% not 18% rise.  What’s up with that?

One more bit of introductory trivia.  I went to see the new James Bond movie, No Time to Die, on Wednesday – choosing the quietest time of day on the quietest day of the week to spend three hours in a movie theater.  I chose well, there were only four other people in the huge auditorium with me.  If you like James Bond, two recommendations for you :

1.  Rewatch the immediately preceding movie, Spectre, first.

2.  Then definitely do watch this new movie.

It was a great movie, and I really liked how the five-movie Daniel Craig set moved in an overall integrated story-arc, from a clear beginning in Casino Royale to an equally clear ending in No Time to Die.  The movie also featured some callbacks to earlier James Bond movies, in particular, OHMSS.

And now, some more pieces for the roundup, immediately below – a big one, today :

  • US Air Passenger Numbers Slightly Up
  • EU/UK Travel Update
  • Emirates Insists Boeing Planes Perform as Promised
  • Cancelled Flight Refunds?  Maybe, Maybe Not, in the UK
  • Ryanair Refuses to Fly Refunded Passengers
  • Global Entry Enhancement
  • Southwest’s Meltdown
  • Sometimes Just Saying Sorry Isn’t Nearly Enough
  • Amazon’s Unfair Competition
  • Amazon Air Growth
  • Amazon Freight Growth
  • Amazon Breakup?
  • More on Civilian Space Flight
  • And Lastly This Week….

US Air Passenger Numbers Slightly Up

The last week has seen a net lift in passenger numbers, as a percent of 2019 numbers, going up from a rolling seven day average of 76.7% a week ago to a new average of 77.8%.  Not exactly a rate of growth that’ll set the world on fire, but if the airlines can see their glass as half full, any growth is better than shrinkage.

I’m sensing growing optimism (and/or growing “Covid fatigue” and increased willingness to accept risks) so it seems likely to expect these numbers to continue to grow – but as long as virtual events like the “trade show” I “attended” today continue, the business side of air travel will remain depressed, even if the leisure side is continuing to rebound.  Plus, there’s the missing international passengers still not able to come in from currently banned countries, too – that could be worth another 10% when it materializes.

EU/UK Travel Update

The EU is not doing as well as might be hoped with Covid case numbers, having had a further 12% rise in cases in the last week.  The UK, after enjoying some nice dips from their 21 July peak, has been having rising numbers again too, and are reporting new cases every day at a rate of more than twice the US rate (after adjusting for population).

This was used as an excuse by London to cancel its public New Year Eve fireworks event for the second year in a row.  Maybe it is prudent, but it surely isn’t what any of us were hoping for as we went to get our vaccines and looked forward to something close to “life as it used to be” returning.

Good news for our northern neighbors.  Unofficial reports suggest the US will allow Canadians to start driving across the border from some time in November.  When in November?  Ummm…..  Errr…….  Don’t know.

Emirates Insists Boeing Planes Perform as Promised

Now there’s a slightly novel concept – insisting that the $150+ million dollar new planes you buy from Boeing perform as per the promises in the sales brochure.

The frustration Emirates has with Boeing is very visible when its President says that if new planes don’t work as promised, he’ll simply send them back to Boeing.  In the past, performance problems have been quietly negotiated behind the scenes and resolved in some way or another, but now Tim Clark (Emirates’ President) is insisting the planes work as promised.

This article also lightly mentions in passing not just the 3 1/2 year behind schedule order for 777-9 jets, but also the order for 787 planes, which is currently halted due to quality control problems.  The bigger issue for Boeing is the underlying problems with these two product lines and its weakening image/reputation in the marketplace as a whole.

It is one thing to have Ryanair trying to publicly negotiate down the price of 737 MAX planes, it is another thing entirely when a prestige airline such as Emirates expresses disappointment.  The article also glosses over rumors of Emirates having another look at the A350 as an alternative, switching orders from Boeing to Airbus.

Cancelled Flight Refunds?  Maybe, Maybe Not, in the UK

So your airline cancels a flight you’re booked on.  You’d expect either to be rebooked on a similarly scheduled flight, or, as a very poor second best, to get a full refund on the fare you paid, right?

The issue became rather pressing last year when so many airlines were cancelling flights due to Covid.  In the UK, both BA and Ryanair tried to avoid refunding passengers, offering to rebook them or possibly, as an alternative (with BA but not Ryanair) offering vouchers for future travel, but not actual refunds of the money paid.

This created a growing amount of unhappiness – understandably so – among passengers who had paid for flights that they could no longer take.  If it was a “must travel” type flight, they’d have to buy another set of flights from another airline, possibly/probably at a higher cost, while still having the money for the cancelled flights held by the first airline.

Britain’s Competition and Markets Authority – the appropriate government body for such problems – conducted a four month investigation into the situation.  Its finding?  They said there was “a lack of clarity in the law” and so they were dropping any further action.

So it took four months to ascertain a lack of clarity in the law?  Why not four hours?  Or, at the most, four days?  And, after finding a lack of clarity, why not press a case through the courts to resolve the issue?  Details here.

And as for that lack of clarity, we’re unaware of any legislation now going through the process to become law to make the airline obligation clearer.  If an airline chooses to cancel a flight, it seems beyond unfair that it should be able to keep the money from all the ticketed passengers on the canceled flight.

Ryanair Refuses to Fly Refunded Passengers

Continuing on from the previous article’s comments, some people who had their flights canceled by Ryanair, and after failing to get a refund from the airline, simply complained to their credit card company, and had their credit card company reverse the charge.

But Ryanair is having the last laugh.  It is now refusing to fly such people, ever again.  Indeed, it seems it will deliberately wait until passengers are almost literally at the airport and about to board a new Ryanair flight before telling them they’ll either have to return the refunded money or be taken off the flight about to depart.

That’s a very hard-ball approach to customer relations, isn’t it.  But keep in mind that Ryanair has distinctively low fares with very few competitors; clearly they feel they can get away with it.  Details here.

Global Entry Enhancement

A reader wrote in to share his latest experience returning back to the US.  He flew back from Mexico to LAX, and went to one of the Global Entry terminals, because he belongs to that privileged program.  But what happened next surprised him :

We came back to LAX last night and as usual went to Global Entry.  What a surprise!  You no longer need your passport!   You just stand in front of a screen for five seconds, your name comes up, and you are on your way!

That’s not to say you can now travel internationally without your passport.  Clearly, what happened was that Homeland Security/Immigration took the passenger manifest from the flight (which has names, dates of birth and passport numbers, plus assorted other identifiers), and pre-matched Global Entry members.  As part of Global Entry enrollment, you have a set of digital photos taken, so when the reader went to a Global Entry kiosk, the camera in the terminal recognized him, and because it was expecting to see him, nothing further was needed.

I look forward to being able to experience a similar thing, but after waiting two years so far to get my Global Entry/Nexus membership renewed, I’m not too sanguine about when that’ll happen!

Here’s a somewhat related article – Apple is about to release a new feature onto their iPhones allowing travelers to show a digital version of their driver’s license, stored in their iPhone “Wallet”, at airport security screening points.  Eight states have agreed to accept this so far (I’ve no idea why this requires state level rather than federal level approval).

For the other half of us with Android phones, the capability will land on our phones, too, not too far into the future.

Southwest’s Meltdown

Starting on last Friday, Southwest went through three days with major numbers of cancelled flights (and delays on others).  Smaller numbers of cancellations flowed into Monday/Tuesday, too.

These things sometimes happen with any airline, especially if a couple of airports suffer weather-related closures, messing up an entire route-network and impacting on flights way far away from the affected airports.  Southwest apologized, and indeed explained that the reason for the problems and cancellations was weather related.

Except that, no-one believed them.  No other airlines were experiencing similar problems.  This caused a furious divergence of opinion as to what was happening.  On the one hand you had people saying “It just proves how incompetent WN (Southwest’s code) is and how inadequately staffed they are” and on the other hand you had people claiming it was a pilot-based “sick out” due to unhappiness with the airline’s Covid vaccination mandate.

What was it?  The people saying it was nothing to do with a vaccine dispute said “The pilot union said it is nothing to do with a vaccine dispute” but the thing is, the union, by law, is not allowed to organize such unofficial strikes, and so would disclaim responsibility, no matter what the truth was.

One thing was clear.  The pilots were reporting in sick or “fatigued” – a vague term that can refer to mental fatigue as well as physical fatigue, but the bigger problem seemed to be the airline’s inability to adjust and optimize the crew it had and where they and planes were.

At the same time, the union was complaining officially about the vaccine mandate, and towards the end of the situation, Southwest’s CEO Gary Kelly was saying “If you don’t want to be vaccinated, claim a religious exemption” together with an obligatory ‘nudge, nudge, wink wink’ to hint this was an easy way out to defuse any angst out there.

Of course, if you were stranded somewhere, the reason for the stranding was very much secondary in your thinking.

The other point that is not often made is the oft-cited “We can’t fly, because we’re out of hours” stopping of work may not always be as inviolable an obstacle as it may seem.  When a pilot or flight attendant claims to be “out of hours” that might mean they’re at risk of exceeding the FAA maximum duty/minimum rest mandates.  But it might also mean they’re at risk of exceeding what their union has negotiated with the airline in terms of duty/rest cycles.  If it is the latter case, there’s no law preventing any pilot or flight attendant from “saving the day” and actually continuing to work.

Sometimes Just Saying Sorry Isn’t Nearly Enough

A gentleman flew on United from Knoxville, TN to stay with family for a while in Spokane, WA.  He is a dialysis patient and has a portable dialysis unit he travels with.  Because of its essential nature, he of course carries it on to the plane with him, and has extra paperwork that gives him permission to do so.

He flew with the unit, without any problems, on the two flights to Spokane, and on the first leg of his return.  But for the flight from Denver to Knoxville, the pilot refused to allow the unit on board, and made a public announcement to the entire plane full of passengers about the man’s “transgression”, then had him and his wife booted off the flight.  Details here.

What is it with some pilots?  How can they be so inhumane, uncaring, and unthinking?  And just plain stupid, to boot.  Do you really want a pilot with such a tiny mind to be in charge of a plane and all the complexities of issues that might happen during a challenging flight?

We’ve got to make pilots more accountable for such inexcusable acts.

Amazon’s Unfair Competition

Here’s a story, similar to others that have occasionally surfaced, about how Amazon uses its “godlike knowledge” of everything that goes on in terms of the products that are bought through its site, and with that complete knowledge, picks out the profitable product opportunities and starts sourcing them directly themselves and selling them under one of their brand names (not all of which are obviously Amazon owned).

Individual sellers have no idea how well competing sellers are also doing with their similar products, and have no idea about what is being determined in terms of price flexibility, the value of spending money on Amazon advertising, and so on.  Amazon knows all about every different item being sold through its site, giving it an enormous advantage over the companies that are selling through its platform, and as the article shows, it doesn’t hesitate to exploit that advantage and to start competing against the companies that are also its clients.

Does that give Amazon an unfair advantage?  And do you really think that the companies selling through Amazon are happy that Amazon can see and knows the inner-most marketing details of how and what they are selling?

Amazon Air Growth

This item is 100% predictable and I’ve been expecting it for some long time.  Amazon Air (sometimes called Prime Air) – Amazon’s own air freight service – continues to grow, and Amazon continues to become less a contractor with third party air freight services and more increasingly, an air freight operator in its own right, with its own airplanes.

The latest development is Amazon looking at buying some larger longer-range planes to boost still further its ability to fly its goods from factories in China (and potentially elsewhere too).

More strength to them, of course.  It seems highly likely that Amazon’s efficiencies don’t just flow to its bottom line, but also see us with good value products and amazingly low shipping costs bundled into them.  But if you’re not Amazon, it sure makes it hard to compete in yet another dimension – the sourcing and shipping, as well as the subsequent selling.

Amazon Freight Growth

Another thing I’ve been absolutely expecting from Amazon is for them to do to freight services the same thing they did for computer services.  After creating a mammoth computing resource for themselves, they then started renting out computer time to other companies, and now Amazon Web Services is the largest provider of cloud computing services in the world, and the AWS operation is also thought to be Amazon’s most profitable business unit.

So, it comes as absolutely no surprise, as Amazon expands into its own delivery service, to read that they’re now looking at offering regular delivery services to third-party clients; in other words, competing with their former delivery partners, UPS and Fedex (and lesserly, USPS).  There’s a video about this about 3/4 of the way down this page.

Amazon Breakup?

So we have a company that is dominant in an increasing number of sectors, and looking to grow into still more sectors, leveraging its strength in one area as a way to leapfrog to dominance in the next.

At what point does the Justice Department (or Federal Trade Commission) wake up and decide Amazon needs to be broken up?  Separate business units for AWS, for the Amazon retail sales platform, for its product manufacturing/selling, and for its shipping operations?

It is certainly increasingly the case that only a very few companies can hope to viably sell online without doing so through Amazon.  At the same time, it also appears to increasingly be the case that no other company can become “another Amazon”, selling everything through the one website – not even Walmart, not even Costco.  When did you last buy something online through Walmart or Costco or another “we sell everything” general type website, rather than a specialty brand name retailer?  Do such alternate sites even exist?

And with Amazon also “tilting the tables” by not only providing a market-dominating retail platform, but also by using its position as platform owner/operator to then “cheat” and selectively start creating competing products to sell against its former retail partners, aren’t we now at the point where something needs to be done?

More on Civilian Space Flight

The last Virgin Galactic flight was an almost “real” one with Sir Richard Branson on board.  It took place on 11 July, and was “almost real” in the sense that it operated what is planned to be a typical flight when it goes into commercial service, but it was not a regular commercial flight with regular passengers.

While it had an apparently alarming flight complication during its short itinerary, it landed safely.  The next flight was scheduled for September or October.  On 14 September, Virgin announced a delay until mid October, and yesterday Virgin announced it was delaying its next flight until the second half of next year.  The first commercial flight is now set for some time in the fourth quarter of 2022.  The company’s stock price promptly fell by 13%.

We’re not going to criticize VG for choosing safety over schedule, although it is unfortunate that yet again, the company at the last minute suddenly announces another major delay, making all future dates never very credible.

This contrasts with the Blue Origin space ship, which went up on 20 July, and then operated a second flight on 13 October.  That’s not exactly a breathtakingly fast tempo either, but it is more in line with its promised timeline and schedule.  Both companies show there’s a very long way to go before turnaround times drop down to a few days, rather than a few months.

The other big news has been the disclosure that VG is now selling seats on future flights for $450,000 each.  That’s up from earlier prices of $200,000 and $250,000, and seems to suggest not so much a market that is willing to pay twice as much for the very short flight experience, but rather a company that has realized it can not make a profit selling tickets at a lower price.  Perhaps this is also because it has reduced the passenger carrying capacity from six passengers (plus two pilots) down to only four passengers (plus two pilots).  So the higher fare in large part simply offsets the reduction in passengers carried.

Who knows how “elastic” the pricing and corresponding demand is for the VG experiences.  Maybe the people that would drop a cool quarter mill won’t think twice at almost doubling their spend?

We don’t know how much the Blue Origin flights will cost, so it is hard to analyze VG’s pricing much more.  The two flight experiences are massively different – the Blue Origin flight is much shorter, but goes somewhat higher, and is much more physically stressful, with G-forces peaking at around 6G.  The Virgin Galactic ride is much gentler (about 3.5G max) and longer, although the actual time weightless is similar – four minutes for Blue Origin and six minutes for Virgin Galactic.

It is impossible to know, as an outsider, how to rate the relative risk factors.  But I fear the risks to be palpably high on both craft.

But, when it comes to delays, there’s another company that cries out for mention as well.  Boeing.  Their Starliner is so far behind schedule as to be off the scale.  It was supposed to be ferrying astronauts up to the ISS back in 2018.  Now there’s no clear understanding when it will enter service, with astronauts being shifted to arch-competitor Elon Musk’s SpaceX flights through fall of 2022, and the next Starliner test flight not expected until some time vaguely in the first half of next year.  When that evolves on to an actual commercial flight is anyone’s guess.

So, Boeing has massive problems with its tanker contract, is still trying to recover from its extended 737 MAX grounding, has its new 787s currently not being delivered due to quality control issues, and is at least 3 1/2 years behind schedule for the new 777 plane.  And that’s before we start to consider its inability to come up with a 757/767 replacement, or a plan for what will follow the 737.

Where exactly is Boeing doing well at present?

And Lastly This Week….

That magic reality-distorting field known as the Olympics is already starting to be deployed in Los Angeles.  This article reports on some great new extensions to LAX, with the key marker being “for the 2028 Olympics”.

It is hard to believe there’ll be that many extra people needing to fly through LAX for the Olympics.  The thing is that whenever the Olympics are held, while a lot of people visit for the Olympics, an offsetting and sometimes larger number of “normal” people defer or cancel their plans to travel to the same region around the same time.  The net result can sometimes even be fewer visitors in total rather than more.

Airline competition is never nice, and often there’s an overlay of government involvement, with a national government wishing to support its “flag carrier” as much as it can without running foul of international aviation treaties it might be a signatory to.  But some competition is definitely more fierce than others, and this article gives a fascinating look at what is happening in Tajikistan, and the apparent running down of the national airline, and why.  Chances are you’re not planning a flight on Tajik Air any time soon, but it is an interesting article to see “how business is done” in other parts of the world.

Lastly, only in California.  A new law not only bans traditionally pink and blue colored toys, but also tries to “save the planet” by banning tiny gasoline powered engines on things like leaf blowers and weed trimmers.  I’ve had both electric and gas powered garden equipment, and almost without exception, the electric powered products have been much weaker/slower and much more hassle.

But the really astonishing part of the law is that the ban on gas-engined devices extends to generators, too.  If I’m understanding this article correctly, your emergency generator – you know, the one you use when the power goes out – will need to be electrically powered.  That’s not going to work well.  A typical car battery/golf cart battery has about one kWhr or less of power in it.  A typical generator gives you anywhere from 2 to 10 kW; meaning you’d need 2 – 10 batteries for each hour of “generator” use.  Now allow for a couple of days without power, and you’re looking at anywhere up to 500 batteries, at a cost of perhaps $50,000, to replace your $5,000 generator and 75 gallons of gas.  Plus, of course, if it goes over two days, you’re out of battery charge, and with no way to recharge them, whereas with a regular generator, you just go and buy another dozen gallons of gas.  Don’t get me started on where you’d put the 500 batteries, the trickle-charging requirements, or, with an average 5 or so years of life, the need to place 100 of them every year.  As I said – only in California.  Hopefully!

Truly lastly, have you upgraded to Windows 11 yet?  I’m eagerly checking every day, but whatever Microsoft’s upgrade schedule is, it hasn’t reached me and my nearly new LG laptop.

Until next week, please stay healthy and happy

 

David.

 

 

 

 

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