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It has been a very Amazon-y type of week for me, and not altogether in a good way. An item I ordered on 19 November, promised for 22 December delivery, was advised to me late on 20 December as now being a month late. How did they not know that sooner than the day they were supposed to be shipping it to me?
I won’t recount the random shipping experiences with Amazon, because it is a busy Christmas and you’ve probably had your own similar experiences. But I also had experiences you’ve hopefully been spared. On Wednesday, a nearly new Echo Dot failed. It took forever to find where on their website Amazon is currently hiding its phone number to speak to someone and arrange a replacement. But the good news – the shipping label to return the bad one gave me 11 months in which to return it!
And then on Thursday, i finally accepted that my one month old Amazon Smart Thermostat had a problem. This time the phone number was easy to find, but the wait on hold – a cheery recording told me it would be under a minute – extended to the better part of an hour before I was then cut off. The next time through the process, the rep insisted on troubleshooting my faulty thermostat, and in doing so, ended up essentially “bricking” it. That wouldn’t be a problem for some of the year, but in mid-winter, one wishes to be able to enjoy the heating as needed. The rep arranged for a rush replacement unit to be shipped to me. In the Christmas season, “rush” doesn’t mean “same day” or even “early next morning”. It means five days later!
I managed to restore the thermostat to some semblance of operation for the next five days.
With all that as background, it was a struggle to feel open-minded when reviewing Amazon’s latest new gadget – a Smart Indoor Air Quality Monitor. I realized, as I was writing the review, that this was the third Amazon new product in a row that I was reviewing, and in all three cases, they felt “unfinished” and “rushed to market” rather than well developed and fully thought through. Two of them also used the word “smart” in their titles, and both are decidedly un-smart.
The review of the air quality monitor is attached after the newsletter. Also attached is Thursday’s Covid diary entry, and Sunday’s can be seen online, here.
I think one of my near year resolutions will be to trim back to one Covid diary entry a week in 2022, just as soon as the Omicron issue has settled down and the pace of news slows. Of course, better still would be to go to zero entries a week, due to no more virus activity of note. That may be possible too – although things do not look good today, I think if you look three or six months ahead, with hopefully new vaccines (one was approved this week in the EU and by WHO, more are expected in the new year), new treatments (the Paxlovid treatment was approved this week – pricy but based on one small study, possibly good), and growing natural immunity, there might be an end almost in sight.
What else for the week? I’m finally becoming infected – not by the virus, but by the Christmas spirit. Classic FM has done a brilliant job this year with their selection of Christmas carols, and I realized earlier this week that it was indeed almost starting to feel like Christmas. However, I’m not being totally neglectful of my year-round duties, so please keep reading for :
- Air Passenger Numbers Exceed 2019
- International Travel Update
- Norse Atlantic Getting Closer to Flying
- Rental Cars – Ugh
- False Sympathy
- Vacation Budgets
- Punishing Innocent People
- And Lastly This Week….
Air Passenger Numbers Exceed 2019
You won’t see it directly on this chart, because it shows the running seven day average, but on Wednesday, for the first time since March 3, 2020, daily air passenger numbers in the US exceeded those on the same day in 2019. 2.081 million people flew on this Wednesday, compared to 1.191 million in 2020 and 1.937 million in 2019. That’s a resounding 7.4% above the 2019 number.
Are we seeing the start of a bumper Christmas travel period? Or are people simply changing their dates of travel this year compared to last year? Certainly, the latter explanation is possible (although Tuesday was also a very good day with 99.9% of 2019 numbers).
Also worth mentioning is that airlines are again starting to cancel flights – not for weather reasons, not for lack of passengers, but for lack of pilots with remaining duty-hours available. Foreseeable? 100% absolutely. But this is far from the only month-end when airlines suddenly start cancelling flights.
The excuse offered this year is to blame it on surging Covid cases from Omicron. That might ring true, if it weren’t for the inconvenient truth that, as of today, case numbers last year were appreciably higher than case numbers this year, and had been surging exactly the same in December 2020 as they are now in December 2021 (see the chart in the Covid Diary extra section).
If you’re planning on traveling between now and early January, cross your fingers and make sure you’ve backup plans in case your flight cancels. I don’t mean to dump on my many travel agent friends here, but at times like this, it can sometimes be really helpful if you’ve made your booking through a good responsive travel agent with some reasonable after-hours availability. Because, if there are going to be mass cancellations, you can almost guarantee you’ll not be able to get through to any airline staff, even if you wait on hold for hours and call back each time you’re cut off.
Make sure you travel with an external battery pack for your phone, too, because invariably, when you need to make a long emergency call, your battery is nearly dead. Choose one with at least 10,000 mAh of capacity, ideally one with 20,000 mAh, and try not to pay much more than $1 per every 1,000 mAh – in other words, a 20,000 mAh unit for $20 or thereabouts. Pay another dollar or two for a unit that has a tiny built in flashlight – you never know when that might not come in handy.
International Travel Update
There has been a flurry of tightenings up and closures and restrictions. Notable closures include Israel and Singapore. The Netherlands are open for people to enter the country, but once you get in, you’ll find little available to go/see/do, with the same increasingly true of more and more of the rest of Europe, too. Thailand’s limited opening has closed again.
If you’re planning on travel in the next couple of weeks, be sure to check for varying travel requirements, and make sure that what you want to see/do will be open. In general, the next few weeks do not seem like a good time to be traveling to many places, and with US new case numbers soaring, look for more countries considering restricting US visitor entry.
Norse Atlantic Getting Closer to Flying
Good news that the new startup airline, Norse Atlantic, has now taken delivery of its first 787 – probably one of the ones formerly operated by Norwegian Air.
The new airline hopes to start flights across the Atlantic next Spring. Or maybe Summer – stories differ, and rather improbably, it seems that more recent stories are projecting an earlier start date. Usually new airline start dates slip out rather than move closer.
The airline applied to the DoT for permission to operate service to/from the US in September, an application that in theory should be quickly rubber stamped and approved. But that was “only” three months ago, which is a mere drop in the bucket at the rate at which government departments operate.
Initially they’d be very much smaller than Norwegian was, but they have plans to grow steadily and sustainably, and for sure, we need new competition across the Atlantic.
Rental Cars – Ugh
I expect to be traveling to Arizona in January for a week or slightly longer. With some misgivings, I decided I’d fly rather than drive what would be a 1500 mile drive each way. I could get nonstop flights to/from Phoenix for about $250 (plus $100 for the short journey to/from the airport in Seattle – there are no longer shuttle vans, and the cost of Uber/Lyft is now as bad as or worse than taxis), but then came the issue of a week of rental car. $800 for a no-changes, no-cancel booking, and probably $840 for one with “normal” conditions attached. Probably that would come with a bunch of fees and taxes and every other imaginable thing the creative rental car companies could think of, and Phoenix is about 3 – 4 hours from my ultimate destination. Yes, there are less expensive cars, but I’m going up into the mountains and want 4WD. $100+ a day for a rental car? Ugh!
So maybe I’ll drive – could be worse. I might treat myself to an overnight in Vegas one way – a shame it wasn’t earlier in the month or I could have considered combining the journey with a CES visit, although the Consumer Electronic Show, slated for the first week in January after being “virtual” last year, is being beset with cancellations at present.
While my desire to drive/avoid planes might be greater than that of many people at present (although when even the airlines themselves volunteer that the risk of being infected is more than two times higher on flights at present due to Omicron, and with the probability of nearly full flights, who really wants to fly anywhere), it is definitely in large part a function of the awful rental car experiences people are suffering at present that pushes me all the way to driving.
This is a good article, with great links within it, to some of the way-too-many problems people have been suffering with rental car companies over the last year and longer.
I’ll have to check and see if any of the states I’d go through (WA OR ID UT NV AZ) are on this list – the most dangerous states for winter driving.
It seems every time I call a customer service department with a problem, I’m always first given a lengthy speech about how personally sorry the rep is to hear of my problem, and how they know how disappointing/frustrating it is, and how they’re going to help me solve the problem. They apologize for the problem, even when it is not their personal fault, and even if it isn’t really their company’s fault either. I don’t like any part of this, especially the lack of sincerity with which it is all said.
Another part of the reason I don’t like the 30 seconds taken out of my life forever, each time it happens, is because there’s also a negative correlation – the greater the expression of mock-sympathy up front, the less help they then offer.
American Airlines clearly employs customer service agents with as much empathy as a piece of wood. Because it now has a computer program “artificial intelligence” that is monitoring calls and can detect anger and frustration on the part of callers.
I don’t know about you, but when I’m angry and frustrated, you don’t need a super-computer to sense that. Or, if you do need a computer’s help, you absolutely should not be in a customer service position to start with.
And if I think I’m interacting with either a computer or a person who can’t do anything except woodenly read through scripted responses and offer up lies like “I’m very sorry, but there’s nothing we can do to help you”, that makes me more frustrated rather than less. (As you surely know, the correct phrase is almost never “there is nothing we can do” but rather “nothing we will do”.)
Why do companies think that computers are a substitute for well-trained empathetic and empowered customer service agents?
Do you carefully budget even a weekend mini-vacation? And, if you do, do you then stick to your budget, and carefully analyze your actual expenses against budget at the end of the break (or, even worse, every day during your break!)?
This is a slightly interesting article that surprised me when I saw that the average weekend getaway for two in the US is budgeted to cost $1,800, but ends up costing $380 more. $1800 seems like a lot to start with, and a $380 overage is a lot more on top of that.
63% of the people surveyed said they have a “strict budget” for weekend trips.
I tend to try and plan the cost of a trip in advance, but when I’m on the road, if I come across an unexpected opportunity to add another experience or sight to my travels; if it is affordable and sensible, I’d rather do it than turn away and say to myself “Because I didn’t know about this before I traveled, and because it isn’t in the budget, I’ll just finish my day early today and spend the time I could have been doing this, sitting in my hotel room doing nothing instead”.
I’ve helped many thousands of people with their travels over the years. I’ve never once had someone return and complain to me about spending more on good things they wanted to do. Sure, I’ve had people complain “everything is so expensive” but that is different to complaining “I kept finding more amazing things to do and spending money to do them”.
While there is a fallacy of chasing after sunk costs, when you’ve already spent $1800 (or more) for a vacation/leisure experience, and particularly if you’re not likely to return there in the near future, spending another $100 here or there is often prudent rather than excessive. Treat yourself, and see/do what you wish.
Good travel is not about minimizing your costs. Good travel is about spending money, wisely.
Punishing Innocent People
A friend featured as “a possible person of interest” in a federal investigation recently. He cooperated fully, because he had nothing to hide and was keen to clear his name as quickly as possible. But not long after the investigation commenced, he got a letter in the mail advising him that his Global Entry privileges had been revoked. A standard sheet of paper listed the possible reasons for the revocation, and it was fairly obvious that the only possible reason was his featuring in the investigation.
Not long after, he was exonerated and the investigators moved on. So he wrote to Homeland Security asking for his Global Entry privileges to be restored, including copies of the police investigation notes and their finding of absolutely nothing to support any further interest in him as part of the investigation. They refused.
He appealed to the Homeland Security Ombudsman. It seemed like a “slam dunk” case – somehow the computer spat out his name as part of an investigation, he was thoroughly investigated and cleared of all suspicion. If there were grounds for revoking his Global Entry to start with, there definitely were no grounds for an ongoing and apparently permanent cancellation. He was never arrested, never charged, and conspicuously cooperated with the investigation, something the police appreciatively noted in their case notes. He has an excellent personal and professional history, and he and his family are respected in their up-market community and more broadly. He is a regular international traveler, and both the Global Entry and associated PreCheck services have been very helpful to him. He has been punished, not for a crime, and not by a court, but by faceless bureaucrats, for the accidental misfortune of being coincidentally (and lawfully) in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Currently the mayor of his city is now making representations on his behalf to DHS. The outcome of that is as yet unclear.
I was thinking of his unfortunate situation when I read an article about how unruly passengers will lose their TSA PreCheck privileges (and almost certainly, Global Entry too). On the face of it, this seems like a fair outcome – if a person acts like an idiot, they have voluntarily relinquished any claim for preferred treatment that is reserved for sensible people.
But, and here’s the problem. It is a bit like my friend. We have a right to “due process”, and if someone is to have an impactful penalty imposed upon them, that person surely should be allowed to present their side of the story, to confront their accuser, and to call other witnesses. Instead, there’s a “below the radar” path between flight attendants, the FAA, and the TSA.
As has been regularly shown in the past, flight attendants have sometimes been known to invent outrageous lies to “teach a passenger a lesson” or to “pre-emptively strike” by accusing the passenger of something before the passenger has a chance to make a complaint about the flight attendant. To have the unrebutted and unsubstantiated (and probably not even sworn) testimony of a flight attendant become all that is needed to cause a person to lose something of value they’ve paid for and qualified for doesn’t seem very American to me.
Maybe if a person was prosecuted for bad behavior, and found guilty, that might be a different story. But isn’t it for the court to then impose a sentence on that person, rather than to have whatever sentence they impose be amplified by another semi-judicial body?
There’s something wrong when a person is obliquely investigated for a crime and quickly found to be completely innocent, but in a reversal of the “innocent until proven guilty” mantra, is punished for life by the removal of an unrelated privilege he had earlier earned and qualified for and never abused.
And Lastly This Week….
Here’s a great idea. Milwaukee airport has coat racks for travelers. If you’re flying from Milwaukee to somewhere less cold (a very easy thing to do at this time of year) the idea is you can drop your bulky coat, scarf, gloves, etc, at the airport when you check in, and not travel with all that extra bulk and weight. Then, on your return, pick them up when you get back and dress for the cold again before leaving the airport. Brilliant idea, and the sort of friendly thing I wish all airports would think up and offer.
Although this is the third year the airport has offered the service, they say no other airports have copied them.
Here is an ironic outcome of a stupid idea/product/concept. People with concerns about 5G phone signals have been buying a “quantum pendant” which is supposed to somehow protect the wearer against the 5G radio waves. Usually such things do nothing at all, and are a total waste of money. But it turns out that these products, sold in the Netherlands, not only didn’t protect the wearer against cell phone radiation, but actually were radioactive themselves!
Still talking about great ideas, here’s some more about the new Disney MagicBand+, which astonishingly, it turns out is being made for Disney by Amazon. It might become an interesting and transformational new tool for planning a day at a Disney Park, which is of course the whole object of the exercise.
But with Amazon now being three for three over the last three weeks – a major outage of their AWS cloud computing services each week – I do hope Disney has backup plans in place in case these wearables suddenly become less magic.
And talking about the internet, this survey suggests that average internet speeds for people in the US doubled this year compared to last year. 99.3 Mbps is starting to become a decent connection speed for most purposes. Of course, that statistic rubs salt in the wound if you’re somewhere away from high speed internet service – seeing everyone else get faster and faster speeds, and more and more services that rely upon it, while you remain stuck at a slow DSL or worse, satellite speed.
We’ve still a week to go until the end of the year, so there could be more last minute airplane orders announced, but for now, after two good orders to Airbus last week, Boeing has weakly tried to match that with a small 19 plane order from UPS. Somehow, freighter sales don’t seem as glamorous as passenger planes, and for sure, old to the point of almost obsolete 767 airframes are decidedly less glamorous than new 787 or 777X airframes. My guess is that UPS were given a very good price on this order.
Here’s one of the first of what is sure to be a flurry of articles predicting 2022. I hope the general consensus of articles will be more positive than this one, although I do acknowledge the growing push-back against technology.
And, as an antidote to high tech, what do you do when your plane gets a puncture, and sits there blocking a remote runway in Nepal? Perhaps the same thing these people did.
You may have occasionally seen articles about Tesla owners who get very exasperated by the slow service times and the high costs of replacement parts for their vehicles. But what can they do except suck it in and accept it as the flipside to owning a Tesla.
Well, there is something else you could do, although it is quite uncommon – indeed, this gentleman in Sweden might be the first.
Well, that’s about it from me today. Besides, you might be in a rush to complete your Christmas shopping! I hope not, and hope you’re ready for a great Christmas, with the people you wish to be with, and with plenty to eat, drink, and unwrap. Most of all, I hope you’re already where you need to be, and that your travels went smoothly.
I’ll be having roast lamb as the centerpoint of my Christmas dinner as a nod to my antipodean antecedents, and in memory of Christmas markets not visited either this year or last, served with plenty of gluhwein. I hope your own Christmas dinner in turn suitably conforms to your own traditions.
Until next week and New Year’s Eve, please stay happy and healthy.