Weekly Roundup, Friday 12 November 2021

A new type of airplane design promising greater efficiencies. See article, below.


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Good morning

It has been another busy and productive week, with two feature articles for you this morning, plus two Covid diary entries, and of course this too.

The first article attached is a good example of how it sometimes takes a lot of time to get these articles done – I had to install a new “smart” thermostat in my home as part of the process.  I am many things, but a handyman, I am not!  But if even I can succeed at that endeavor, perhaps you can too, and I did end up liking the new Amazon Smart Thermostat the article is all about.

Note that I’ve also updated the special Supporter Alexa Commands Reference Guide, growing it another two pages to 36 pages, and available here.  This includes general updates and additions, plus a new section on thermostat commands.

The other article is in what is becoming a series of “Buyers’ Guides”, this one on Kindles.  I hope, next week, to have one on televisions; I’ve written some preliminary articles, but still need to write the article where I tell you what to look for, what to be absolutely certain to have in a new television, and what doesn’t matter so much.  With great discounts on televisions already appearing now, this far before Black Friday, I’ll try and get it published earlier in the week for those of you who get the immediate or daily updates.

Plus, of course, Thursday’s Covid diary entry – the 258th article I’ve written on this unfortunate topic.  Sunday’s entry is available online, here.

And below, please keep reading for :

  • Air Passenger Numbers Seesaw
  • International Travel Update
  • Reader Survey Results – Hotel Room Servicing Policies
  • Is United About to Change Air Travel as We Know It?
  • Talking About Net-Zero….
  • A Bit of Turbulence, But in a Good Cause?
  • A New Airplane Design
  • Following a Southwest Plane Around the Country
  • Bezos Delays Next Moon Mission
  • And Lastly This Week….

Air Passenger Numbers Seesaw

Last Wednesday, air passenger numbers were running at  80.8% of 2019 numbers.  In the days that followed, they went down and up and down and up and down, and this Wednesday, were at 79.6%.

This was a disappointment and a surprise.  On Monday, we started to receive international flights from all the European and other countries that had been banned from visiting, and I’d been expecting a measurable lift in domestic air passenger numbers with international passengers adding domestic sectors either after their incoming flight or before their departing flight.

There is no sign of any jump in numbers at all.  Maybe this will happen more slowly with a gradual increase in visitors from other countries, but the immediate effect was disappointingly (for the airlines) non-existent.

Land border travel was definitely popular though, with large lines on both sides of the Canadian border on Monday.

International Travel Update

Highly vaccinated Europe is now becoming “highly Covid-infested Europe”, after yet another week with strong rises in new case numbers.  I’m seeing patchy reports of local tightenings of social distancing, vaccine passports, and mask wearing type regulations, but nothing across-the-board impactful at national levels.

There’s no clear explanation why Europe’s Covid case numbers are spiraling upwards at present, which means there’s no easy way to guess what the future holds.  Will they start falling again?  Or keep heading skywards?  Your guess is as good as mine – maybe even better!

Reader Survey Results – Hotel Room Servicing Policies

Many thanks to everyone who sent in their opinions/preferences as to how often hotel rooms should be serviced.

Three of the offered responses weren’t selected at all by anyone – willingness to pay $10-$20 extra to have your room serviced, and being happy with room servicings once every six or seven days.

As an aside, and to put the unwillingness to pay more than $10 for an extra room servicing into context, most hotels work on the basis of a room servicing costing $25 – $40, allowing for the cost of consumables and supplies, laundry, and labor.  I find that slightly high, and it is always an interesting contrast between housemaids complaining they are being forced to clean too many rooms an hour, with, eg, “only” 20 minutes allotted per room, and the five minutes it takes them to do my room if I’m in it at the time.

Anyway, let’s see how you responded.

The clear preference was for a room servicing every day.

I guess the big issue is “who benefits”, and most of us view the issue of fewer room servicings as simply being a chance for the hotel to spend less money and make more profit, with no fair balancing reduction in room rate to reflect their reduced costs and customer service.

Perhaps I should have asked the question differently – “If you could save $20 a night (and your company is not paying the cost for you) by not having the room cleaned, how frequently would you want the room cleaned on an extended stay?”.

Many thanks to everyone who shared their thoughts on this.  Hoteliers, take note!

Is United About to Change Air Travel as We Know It?

The headline excitedly tells us “United Airlines Just Made a Major Step Towards Changing Air Travel As We Know It”.  The actual article reads like a United Airlines press release, and not a very good one at that.

It claims, with no evidence whatsoever, that United’s “largest trans-Atlantic expansion in its history” (a quote from what is indeed a UA press release) is a step towards operating supersonic flights across the Atlantic.  Even if we ignore the implication that the article writer believes United will give priority to offering expensive supersonic flights first on leisure routes such as to Palma de Mallorca and Tenerife (which of course they won’t – those flights will be filled with bargain leisure passengers going on vacations), the article has a huge underlying assumption – that United is actually serious about buying and operating SSTs.

As of now, there’s no evidence that United is at all serious about this.  Yes, it expressed a high-visibility interest in possibly ordering SST planes in the future, if and when they became realistic and subject to them meeting United’s performance and cost requirements at that time.  That’s so conditional a statement as to have no binding effect at all on United.

The article goes on to tell us that operating SSTs will help United become emissions-free by 2050.  How, exactly, is totally unexplained.  Considering that the SST developer (Boom) says the costs of flying on its future plane will be similar to business class, that suggests underlying fuel burns of maybe 3 – 6 times more per passenger than on a regular jet.

We also noticed the article says UA will start supersonic flights in 2026.  Wikipedia (and other sources I’ve seen in the past) say that Boom will start test flights in 2026, and United might start commercial flights in 2029.

Talking About Net-Zero….

The throwaway article we looked at in the preceding item mentioned United joining in an industry commitment to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050.

We’re told about “key initiatives” involving new aircraft technologies, sustainable aviation fuels, improved efficiencies, reducing airport emissions and enhancing airport resilience.

Let’s think about each of those.

(a)  New aircraft technologies :  What would those be?  Nothing is being held back at present, apart from the impractical, impossible, and unaffordably expensive.  We’re at close to “state of the art” in terms of design and materials; the future opportunities for greater efficiencies are minimal rather than major.

(b)  Sustainable aviation fuels :  These have been around for a long time, already.  There’s nothing complicated about them, and every year or two, an airline goes PR-crazy and touts a “test flight” using such fuel, even though there’s about as much to “test” with the fuel as there is a need to test Shell gasoline in your car after using Mobil prior to then.  Nothing ever comes from the test flights, because the fuel is crazy-expensive, and only available in very small quantities.

(c)  Improved efficiencies :  A typical meaningless phrase tossed out there by unaccountable politicians and airline executives, all of whom will be well-retired long before 2050.  While there’s a lot to criticize about airline operations, are there any deliberate inefficiencies?  Are there any simple solutions?  No and no.

(d)  Reducing airport emissions :  What is this and how will such emissions be reduced?  Better insulation so less energy is spent on HVAC, perhaps?  Airports that are already way too hot in summer allowed to be even hotter still (and colder in the winter, too)? Turning off walkways and escalators/elevators to make passengers walk?  Turning off half the lights, leaving passengers in a semi-dark gloom?

(e)  Enhancing airport resilience :  We guess this means “not crashing and burning every time snow is forecast”.  This is a simple thing to do.  But, while simple, it is also expensive, which is why airports and their airline clients have been unwilling to do so.  These measures could be implemented tomorrow, but who will pay for them?

These five “key initiatives” range from unachievable to unaffordable.  If the air travel industry does indeed go to net zero by 2050 (in the US and Europe, but definitely not in China, most of Asia, and Africa….) expect to pay massively more for your airline tickets.  And rather than looking forward to United’s SSTs, expect the planes you do fly on to operate at ever-slower speeds, to save on fuel.  Oh, and one more thing – keep reading.

A Bit of Turbulence, But in a Good Cause?

This is an interesting article – a bit like “slipstreaming” where one vehicle follows closely behind another on the freeway, and being able to travel more efficiently through the “hole” punched in the air by the vehicle in front, Airbus has been experimenting with a similar concept with planes following each other just under 2 miles apart.  At 550 mph, that distance would be covered in 13 seconds, so that is remarkably close.  Usual parameters for the separation between two planes following each other call for between 6 – 12 miles of separation.

A flight from Toulouse to Montreal apparently saved 5% in fuel consumption.  That’s appreciable.  It isn’t “net zero”, but if we ever get to that point, it will be through a series of small steps such as this.

But, there are a couple of things the article doesn’t mention.  There are two reasons for the current minimum separation distances.  The first is simple safety.  The second is comfort.  Almost by definition, this concept by Airbus has the following plane flying in the air disturbed by the first plane – both by its passage through the air and as a result of the exhaust gases from its jet engines.  That disturbed air is turbulent air.

But who reading this wouldn’t be eager to accept a bumpy flight for eight hours, with the seat-belt sign on the entire journey, as a small sacrifice in return for saving 5% of the plane’s fuel burn….

I’ve a better idea for Airbus.  Why not, instead of two planes following each other, you simply have one single larger plane?

This touches on the obscured truth of how to save the planet.  The most efficient solutions are the ones the airlines (and us as passengers) would least like.  Instead of a dozen flights a day on less efficient single aisle planes, how about one flight a day on a super-sized mega A380 or 747?

A New Airplane Design

I suggested above that there was little in the way of design tweaks and improvements to the current style of airplane design.  That is true, but…..

There are totally new and very different types of designs that are occasionally aired and proposed.  The “Blended Wing Body” concept is often proposed – it could give very large capacity and great economy, but the problem is that people located further out from the center of the plane would experience ever-greater motion effects as the wings moved up and down in ordinary flight, in turbulence, and when turning.

This article shows details of a new “bullet plane” design concept.  It is initially being developed as a small business jet, capable of holding six passengers, cruising at 460 mph, and with a maximum range of 4,500 miles, all at 18 – 25 mpg.  Remarkably, it is powered by a V12 diesel engine.

Can this concept make it to production, and can it be scaled up to a commercial passenger jet holding 200 or more passengers?  Currently, the company is focused first on the six seater, then on two upsizings – to 19 then to 40 passenger capacities.  It will be a long time (but before 2050) before it is known if it can successfully upsize all the way to commercial sizes.

But full-marks for the outside-the-box design concept and thinking.

Following a Southwest Plane Around the Country

This mildly interesting article looks at the scheduled daily itinerary for a specific Southwest 737 during its system “meltdown” a few weeks back, and contrasts each day’s schedule with the reality of where the plane actually flew.

There certainly are some substantial deviations between the scheduled itinerary and the actual itinerary.  But, the article completely misses a key part of the story.  Did other planes fly the missed segments that this plane was scheduled to do?  We know the plane being tracked switched from its initial schedule to instead operating flights for other planes, so obviously there were instances of swaps between planes – things that passengers would never notice.

What can we learn from the article and the examples shown?  Without knowing what happened to the missing flights, nothing.  A surprisingly disappointing article from one of the better aerospace reporters.

Bezos Delays Next Moon Mission

NASA is blaming the sour-grapes lawsuit by Jeff Bezos, after his Blue Origin sued to override NASA’s award of the moon project contract to Space-X, as a major factor in the schedule for returning a man to the moon slipping a year.

NASA was unable to progress the project during the lawsuit, and it is only now that Blue Origin has lost its complaint that NASA can resume its planning and progress.

The plan and promise from SpaceX was for a 2024 landing.  Now NASA is hoping to make a 2025 landing, and points out that its problems aren’t just due to the delay from the Blue Origin lawsuit, but also due to reduced funding from Congress.

The big problem seems to be that the 2024 date was a Trump decision….

In other news, it has been a busy week for SpaceX.  They brought one crew back from the ISS earlier in the week – here’s an amazing video clip of the capsule re-entering the atmosphere.  They now have a new crew flown up to it, a 22 hour journey from Cape Kennedy.  Two manned flights in a week – is that a new record?

And Lastly This Week….

A mother and her daughter were met at the jetway by two Denver police officers when they landed at Denver Airport and got off their Southwest flight.

The reason for the, ahem, “meeting”?  Flight attendants on board had radioed ahead, reporting they suspected the mother of “trafficking” her daughter.  It seems that delusionary over-imaginative flight attendants concocted an elaborate series of accusations of suspicious behavior both in the terminal prior to boarding and while boarding (the suspicious behavior seems to mainly center around the lady and her ten year old daughter wanting to sit together).

Needless to say, the mother was doing no such thing.  She’s now engaged an attorney and wants the airline to be “fully accountable”.  We wish her luck.

Rivian is a new electric car company.  As of late October, it had built 56 pickups and delivered 42 of them to customers.

That is good news and we’re pleased to see the company starting to produce vehicles.  It just had its IPO, and when share trading opened, it had an implied value of – wait for it – $91 billion.  To compare that with other car companies, GM is worth $86 billion and Ford is worth $77 billion.  Since trading commenced, the value has risen almost 10% further, so it is now worth, in round figures, $100 million.

Sure, Tesla is valued at over $1 trillion.  But, really, a new startup, no profit to date, and a valuation greater than GM or Ford?

Talking about valuations, but at the other extreme, would you like to buy your own jet.  As in, passenger jet.  A 707, no less.  There’s one currently for sale, with a reserve price of not quite $2,500.  Other “bargains” include a number of 737s, a DC-3 ($350, that would be a heck of a deal, even with a few zeroes added to the price, and even if in utterly unflyable condition), or assorted Soviet era planes.  This article explains the sale, and this page lists the planes.

Save the phone box?  The demise of public phones has been well documented, but in Britain, there are moves afoot to save at least 5,000 of their iconic red call boxes.  This article tells you all that you need to know, and a bit more, about these once-useful and even essential structures.

Truly lastly, a feel-good story for you.

Until next week, please stay healthy and happy





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