Weekly Roundup, Friday 26 November 2021

With the increasing global shortage of so many things, is there any truth to the rumor that some airlines have had to “mix and match” on their planes?

 

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Good morning

I hope you had a wonderful Thursday and Thanksgiving.  If you flew somewhere, it seems likely that the most draconian of the predictions of airport chaos didn’t actually eventuate – we discuss that below.  And if you drove somewhere, I feel your pain with the 60% increase in gasoline prices between last Thanksgiving and this year.  Apparently, according to AAA, road trips are up about 10% on last year.

Hopefully the shortage of turkeys didn’t inconvenience you, and the 20% increase in per pound prices for them (or more – the USDA says 8-16lb frozen turkeys increased 27%) was also something you could accept.  I found boneless prime rib roasts for sale at a local Walmart for the unbelievable bargain of $5.59/lb so that was my meat of choice.

Having eaten too much, and relaxed some, this morning’s newsletter is short rather than long.  Perhaps that gives you more time to have a look at my attached review of a new book that explores the origins of the Covid virus.  The unstated comment I didn’t make is “how can we trust our public health authorities with much else to do with the virus when they’re unwilling to even admit where it came from?”.  Also attached is yesterday’s Covid diary entry, with some great content (although, of course, “great content” is seldom of the happy-making type when it comes to this topic).  Sunday’s diary entry is online, here.

I’d invited you to consider contributing to the cost of reviewing a new $250 Amazon Show 15 device last week.  Many of you responded positively, and so I decided to not only get the Show product (arriving in a couple of weeks) but also the discounted Blink camera, and other Blink devices, and a tilt-swivel stand for the Show as well.  I ended up spending considerably more than $250, and considerably more than was contributed, but I think it fair I should participate too, so a win-win for us all, hopefully.

The Blink camera review will be published next week, because they’ve already been received (quick heads-up – they’re very disappointing).  The Amazon Show will be reviewed as soon as possible after receipt.  It is promised on 9 December currently, but Amazon is already getting a bit shaky on honoring delivery promises during this rush season.

The book I reviewed this week was also a kind reader contribution.  Normally I hesitate before committing to review a book, because it is a long process to carefully and critically read a full book (this one was 400 pages).  But a 21 hour power cut this week gave me some “spare time”, and reading the book took my mind of feeling cold and miserable while enduring the never-ending series of promised power-restoration times passing and new power-restoration times being offered, and then those too passing.

It is an amazing thing that this incredibly sophisticated country, and this incredibly sophisticated part of the country (Redmond – home of Microsoft’s world headquarters, and not far from Costco, Amazon, Expedia, and Starbucks headquarters too) struggles to reliably provide power to its residents.

So, Black Friday, yet again.  My favorite Amazon deals :

Echo Dot (and free lightbulb included) :  Third generation for $19.99; current fourth generation, really not any better, for $29.99

Full-size Echo (and free lightbulb included) :  Current fourth generation, has more features and better sound than a Dot, for $59.99

 – choose the Echo rather than the Dot unless you’re conserving cash.  If conserving cash, get the third generation Dot.

Echo Show 5 – Refurbished first generation for $34.99, current second generation for $44.99 or with Blink camera for $49.99

Echo Show 8 – First generation for $59.99, current second generation for $89.99; both with a Blink camera option for $5 more

 – I’d choose a refurbished Echo Show 5 rather than a new one – the only difference seems to be the camera resolution.  I might choose a second generation Echo Show 8 over a first generation (better camera and better processor).  In general, I’d choose the Echo Show 5 because the 8 does nothing more, just has a larger screen.  Unless there’s some value to you in a larger screen, why pay twice as much?  If the Blink camera is a $5 option, I’d include it – I don’t like the Blink cameras (review next week) but as a $5 item, who can complain.

Kindle – standard Kindle for $49.99, 2018 refurbished last generation Paperwhite for $79.99, current generation Paperwhite for $104.99, Oasis for $174.99

 – I’d choose a standard Kindle as a casual “extra” reading device, or a current generation Paperwhite for a unit you’ll use a lot more regularly.

Fire TV Stick – last generation 4K for $24.99, or current generation 4K Max for $34.99

 – I’d choose the current generation 4K Max

Fire Tablet – Fire 7 for $34.99, Fire HD 8 for $44.99, or Fire HD 10 for $74.99

 – Don’t be tempted by the Fire 7, and choose the Fire HD 10 over the HD 8.  Definitely the very best choice.  Don’t pay extra for more memory.  Get a Micro SD chip separately –  either a 256GB or 512GB card seem to be the sweet spot, price-wise.  Buy only a name-brand card – SanDisk or Samsung spring to mind.  If you need more SD cards for cameras, maybe get SD cards, too.

What else?  Please keep reading for :

  • Air Passenger Numbers Keep Increasing
  • International Travel Update
  • United’s One Word Plan to Beat Delta?
  • BA’s Bluff
  • More Rocketry
  • And Lastly This Week….

Air Passenger Numbers Keep Increasing

The seven day average for US air passenger numbers as a comparison to 2019 numbers has now risen from last Wednesday’s 84.3% to this Wednesday’s 90.0% – an all-time high.

Curiously, though, the Wednesday number of passengers – 2.312 million – while also the highest absolute number of passengers since the pandemic started, is a lower percentage of 2019 numbers than was the case for the four days previously (Saturday – Tuesday).  Does that mean people were traveling earlier this year to “beat the rush”?  It will be interesting to see the numbers on Saturday and Sunday.

I’d been speculating what would happen on “crunch day” – Monday 22 November, when the new regulations requiring TSA screeners to be fully vaxxed kicked in.  But I’ve not seen any commentary, anywhere, either about mass TSA staff lay-offs, or jammed up security screening lines at airports on any day this week; indeed, quite the opposite – travel seemed to go remarkably smoothly throughout the country.

The earlier claims being made as recently as last week of the TSA being only 60% vaxxed were based on October and not-updated information from the TSA.  Now they are claiming that 93% were vaccinated on Monday.  But what about the other 7%?  There’s been some gentle backtracking on the threat to fire or reassign them, it seems – exactly as I’d predicted a week ago, there were no mass firings at all.

Furthermore, I’m left with a strong feeling that the “goal posts were moved”.  The original requirement was that by 22 November, staff needed to be “fully vaxxed” with that phrase meaning having had both shots at least two weeks prior to 22 November.

I’m seeing hints that maybe the new requirement is that as long as staff have had one shot, they’ll be allowed to stay on the job, and those who haven’t had one shot are being “counseled” or are offering “religious objections” that are being considered with more seriousness than they’re being offered.

This article cites a statistic for the “at least one shot” percentage and makes the strange new claim that “November 22 wasn’t an end point”.  This article, after affirming the earlier “fully vaxxed at least two weeks prior” requirement, then quotes the Secy of Transportation as saying

In my agency, we have seen numbers approaching 99% of people have gotten in their information per the requirements. Either they’re vaccinated, they’re in the process of it, or they’ve put in a request for an exemption.

In other words, no enforcement whatsoever, which the Secretary is claiming as a brilliant success, not a capitulation.

International Travel Update

While I’m very saddened not to be about to head to Europe for a lovely Christmas Market cruise/tour, I’m seeing increasing signs that cancelling was the right thing to do.  More states in Germany are cancelling their Christmas Markets, as are some in the Czech Republic, and Austria is in a full country-wide lockdown.  With another 15% growth in new Covid cases reported over the last week, and larger rises in Germany, Austria, the Czech Republic, France, the Netherlands, and assorted other countries, there’s little reason to expect a sudden re-opening in the next few weeks.

Add to that a new virus variant of great concern, which has already seen Britain rush to close its borders to travel from Africa (other than with a rigorous quarantine upon arrival), and general increases in virus case numbers pretty much world-wide, and things aren’t looking extremely positive for the near future.

There’s also another developing twist.  The EU is about to limit the validity of a “vaccine passport” to nine months.  So if you’re wanting to go to Europe, you better check when you were vaccinated, and perhaps allow yourself to be bludgeoned into taking another vaccine shot.  As always, I suggest considering a J&J shot rather than a third Pfizer/Moderna mRNA “vaccine” drug.

New Zealand has said it will open its borders and start accepting foreign visitors once more.  But not until April 30, 2022.  Assuming nothing bad happens between now and then.

United’s One Word Plan to Beat Delta?

Here’s a gushing article that is very excited by what it describes as a one word plan for United to become the best airline in the country.  It is, according to the easily impressed writer, a brilliant plan.

The one word plan?  “Quality”.

Excuse me for seemingly slightly cynical, but isn’t the concept of “quality” a much misunderstood and invoked term by all companies and definitely all airlines?  Only Ryanair dares to proudly say, out loud, “We’re a cheap airline, with low fares and service to match”.  Curiously, Ryanair is also very profitable.

Airlines all boast about quality, and indeed, as I’ve observed before, all airlines would love to compete on quality.  But every time an airline tries to do so, it runs up against an insurmountable barrier.  Passengers steadfastly refuse to pay even the smallest of premiums for quality.  Oh, yes, for sure, maybe you would happily do so, and maybe you sort of already do by flying in premium cabins (and wishing you were getting a fair premium service to match the extra fare you’re paying).  But most people don’t and won’t.

There is more profit for airlines to compete on quality than to compete on price, and more opportunities to differentiate their product and create brand differences.  But as long as passengers say “I don’t care how small and squashed the seat is, I don’t care if I don’t get a meal on the finest china personally served at my seat, all I care about is the lowest fare, followed by the best frequent flier program, followed by the most convenient schedule”, the concept of quality doesn’t get a look-in at all.

I’ll agree that United has done a “better job” of providing a no-quality-at-all experience than most other airlines, and indeed, it seems United has committed the unpardonable sin of providing no quality, but still charging the same fare as airlines that still offer a modicum of service.

But will a vague reference to quality enable United to turn around and vault to the top of the airline stakes?  That is unlikely, especially without a clear plan for what they consider quality, how they will provide it, and at what cost to themselves and to their passengers.

It would be lovely to see United make good on this statement.  But don’t hold your breath waiting for it to happen.

BA’s Bluff

London’s Heathrow Airport is proposing to greatly increase the charge per passenger that it levies on airlines, from £22 to £34.50 (ie from US$29 to US$46), to help it recover losses during the Covid slowdown.  This is considerably more than is charged by Gatwick and other London area airports, and BA fears that if it has to either absorb or pass the cost on to passengers going to and through Heathrow, it will become less competitive.

I don’t know for sure, but I have the sense that some of the other operating costs incurred by airlines are higher at Heathrow than other airports, too.

The competition isn’t just Gatwick vs Heathrow.  More than 40% of people fly through Heathrow, making a connection as part of a longer journey, and could easily choose from many other connecting airports, in many other countries, as alternate ways to travel to and back from their destination.

So BA is telling Heathrow that it might move flights away from Heathrow if the charges aren’t revised downwards.

On the face of it, that seems like an empty bluff.  BA is comfortably settled into the nice Terminal 5, and has much of its headquarters and support infrastructure located around the Heathrow area too.  But BA these days is part of the International Airlines Group, along with Aer Lingus and Iberia.  It is no longer a wholly British operation, and could readily consider shifting more flights to hub through, for example, Dublin (or Shannon) or Madrid.  For people traveling to/from other places in Europe, connecting through Dublin or Madrid is as sensible as connecting through London.

BA was also one of the first airlines to abandon Moscow’s then dowdy and dark Soviet era Sheremetyevo-2 Airport in Moscow, moving instead to the lovely new airport at Domodedovo.

I’ve never understood the “magic” of Heathrow as an airport – either as a destination airport to serve London, or as a connecting airport for elsewhere, and perhaps BA is coming to realize, too, that such magic as there is may not be worth its associated cost.  It will be interesting to see how this is resolved.

More Rocketry

Jeff Bezos’ company, Blue Origin, has announced the passenger list for its latest/third “space flight”.  I’m starting to wonder, though – is this all he plans for it to accomplish?  Sending paying passengers on ten minute joyrides up and down is all well and good, but I’d thought he had “nobler” dreams and ambitions for his company.  Instead, it seems to be degenerating into nothing more than an actually functional version of Virgin Galactic (remember them….).

In other space news, yet another startup has ambitious plans for providing space launch services.  Sierra Space, a company I’d not heard of before, has secured a further $1.4 billion round of funding, which it hopes will help it make its plans for a Space Shuttle type space plane, the Dream Chaser, into a reality.  I wish it well.

With the growing number of American private enterprise companies developing (or having already developed) space launch capabilities, I’m left wondering what is NASA doing still contracting with the European Space Agency to have their Ariane rocket fly the James Webb Space Telescope up into orbit.

Not quite a rocket, but the hyperloop concept is one that for a while had everyone talking, and a bunch of startups were making more and more ambitious plans and promises for taking Elon Musk’s original “White Paper” concept and making it into a commercial reality.  But Musk released his White Paper in 2013, and notwithstanding the claims in it that a hyperloop system could be quick and easy to develop, and notwithstanding a series of “pending” major contracts allegedly being about to be signed, eight years later and nothing has happened.

This article talks a bit about the current status of hyperloop.  It is a promising concept that has utterly failed to match Musk’s vision and the early promises by developers with any sort of reality – a failing that has to be shared by all parties involved.  For example, where is the hyperloop funding in the recently passed infrastructure development legislation?  Why are we not seizing on this valid opportunity to leapfrog ahead of all other fast/long-distance mass transport systems and develop a hyperloop system?  Instead, we’re spending billions of dollars more on slow 79mph (or less) trains.

Also not a rocket, but as fanciful as hyperloop, is this article about VTOL “flying car/drone” type taxis, perhaps to be used to get between central city downtown areas and airports.

I’ll call bs on the article and its projections.  While it is careful not to promise a date when we’ll see such a service, it does make the prediction that the cost would be in the order of $3 – $4 per mile.  My last couple of Uber/Lyft rides here in suburban Seattle have been $5+ per mile.  So I totally can not see a flying vehicle costing appreciably less than a regular car on a regular road.

And Lastly This Week….

You know you’re getting old when you have to explain to people younger than yourselves what a typewriter was, and how it worked.  Such foreign concepts as ribbons, white-out, and carbon paper, for example.

But, when I say “was” in the first sentence, above, maybe I’m a bit hasty at claiming the demise of the typewrite.  So this article would suggest (and much to my delight).

I’d quite like to have a typewriter, but more as an “objet d’art” than as an actual working tool that I’d be using day in and day out.  And I do miss my IBM Selectric typewriters – without a doubt the finest expression of typewriter design and functionality ever achieved.

The gullibility and stupidity of some people continues to amaze even me.  This article – about a woman who tried to hire a hitman to kill her ex-husband on the website rentahitman.com – is however a new low in terms of what people do.  Yes, there is an actual website of that name, by the way.  Lots of fun to visit, but don’t ask them for professional assistance, unless you too wish to be featured in a future Travel Insider footnote!

Until next week, please stay happy and healthy.

 

David.

 

 

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