Weekly Roundup, Friday 10 December 2021

A Pan Am Boeing 377 “Stratocruiser”, a derivative of the B-29 Superfortress. The plane was in service between 1947 – 1963 – perhaps the golden age of air travel? See last item, below.

 

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Good morning

Or perhaps, I could more accurately say, good evening.  Yesterday saw the earliest that darkness would fall for the year.  Mornings still see the sun rising later until the solstice on 21 December, but nightfall is now starting to become very slightly later each day.

I have one of the various Alexa-controlled color-changing LED lightbulbs that Amazon sometimes gives away in promotions installed in a light fitting, so when I get up in the mornings, I can not only turn on my bedroom light, but also the light down the hall, meaning I don’t have to get up in the dark and fumble my way from lightswitch to lightswitch.  My normal morning routine was upset earlier this week.

As I usually do, when I wake, I have a series of interactions with Alexa.  But this time, things didn’t go according to plan.

Alexa, what is the inside temperature :  This had the Echo unit in my bedroom flash its light for a while, then turn off with no answer.

Alexa, set the thermostat to 68° :  After a lengthy pause, Alexa confessed  “I’m having trouble connecting to the thermostat right now”.

Alexa, play Classic FM :  All of a sudden, some horrible modern pop music jolted me fully awake – most definitely not the genteel sounds of Classic FM in London.

Alexa, turn on the bed light :  Just a beep, but no light turned on.  This was perhaps the most regrettable failing of all, because the light switch is inaccessible, behind the bed head.

So I got up, quietly, in a dark and cold house.  Apparently Amazon’s cloud network had an outage from about 7am until late evening, impairing its Alexa service and much more besides, including some airline check-in systems.  And, perhaps most notably, some people with Ring door locks couldn’t unlock their doors.

Technology……..

Talking about Amazon’s technology, I’d hoped to now have in my hand the new Alexa Show 15″ screened device.  It was promised for delivery yesterday, but late in the day I got a notification not to expect it until Saturday.  That was after ordering on Sunday a device for which the Prime shipping was slated not to be same day, or next day, or even two day, but six day.  I’ve had various other slow shipping experiences too, plus a recent misdelivery.

To close these introductory comments on a positive note, somehow, ten days ago, I stumbled across an amazing website that I’m now in love with.  You might like it too.

I still buy all my music on CD, and then “rip” it into digital form so I can play it on my computer, on my phone and tablet, and on my portable music player.  The second half of an article I wrote a while ago explains how to rip CDs and copy them to digital devices.  Because my music-of-choice is classical, I almost never feel an urgent need to buy a particular CD as quickly as possible, and because CDs, unlike lp records, don’t really wear out, I always keep an eye out for second hand CDs at good prices.

I’ve sometimes found people selling CD collections at a low price per disk on Craigslist, and sometimes strike it lucky at random garage sales too (I should add it isn’t just bargain-hunting luck – it is more a sense of finding out-of-print great performances featuring conductors and soloists I’d love to add to my collection).  Now I’ve found a website that specializes in selling second hand CDs (and some other things – DVDs, Blu-rays, and used equipment too) – Decluttr.

I tested it out and bought a few CDs and was delighted.  The CDs were very quickly shipped, and while some of them were quite visibly used in terms of battered/cracked cases, the CDs all read perfectly.  I bought a few more earlier this week, and I chose from the 800+ different titles the site was selling on the basis of “two for $7”.  Even better, the “two” meant “two CD sets” in some cases – operas and compilations with two disks were being counted as a single CD, so potentially you could get four disks for $7.

At the end of the order, I was given a link to share with friends that ostensibly will give new clients a 10% discount on their first order, plus, they say, something for me too (I’ve no idea what!).  So, two CD sets for $6.30 (and with free shipping)?  Why not go have a look at what they have – they’ve plenty of non-classical disks, too.  I’m going to get my daughter to sign up so she can order some 10% off disks for me!

Stop Press :  I just revisited their site – they now have 2775 CDs of all types at two for $6!  Even better still.  I’ve no idea how they make money, but will enjoy their bargains as long as they’re there.

Talking about recorded music, I had a chance last weekend to watch the three part docu-series “Get Back”.  This is about The Beatles and their rehearsals and rooftop performance in January 1969.  It was presented in brilliant UHD (4K) and HDR/DV form, and with great sound too.  Although only three parts, it is about eight hours in length, but the time flashed by while watching the compelling story unfold.

To actually see this group in live rehearsal (because the filming spanned a month, they quickly seemed to forget about and ignore the cameras and so it was very candid), and to hear some of the songs one of course knows and loves, evolving from nothing into close to their final form, was profoundly interesting.  In addition, getting a sense for the dynamics of the group and how their music-making took place was absolutely an amazing thing to witness.

I was struck by how unassuming they were – just a bunch of four guys in their mid/late twenties, fooling around and “jamming”.  But, at the end, when they did their bizarre and short-lived rooftop concert on the top of their Abbey Rd Studios building, the transformation into a professional music group was astonishing.

The most surprising thing to me was not so much the enormous number of songs they knew off by heart – their own dating back to the early days, almost ten years earlier, and also those of other groups; but how they never wrote any of the music down, just the words.  I know – at least at the time – none of them could read sheet music, but they were clearly very familiar with chords and scales, so I’d expected them to write down chord progressions if nothing else.

If you have a chance to see the series, and assuming you don’t ardently dislike The Beatles, I’m certain you’ll find it as captivating as I did.  They truly were a band for the ages, weren’t they.  By coincidence, a couple of days ago marked the death of John Lennon, on December 8, 1980.  George Harrison subsequently died on November 29, 2001 (of throat cancer).  Happily both Ringo (now 81) and Paul (79) are still with us.

Thursday’s Covid diary entry is attached.  Sunday’s is online here.

And now, please continue to :

  • Air Passenger Numbers Wobble
  • International Travel Update
  • Changes at the Top
  • Another List of Ranked Airlines
  • How Much is a Frequent Flier Mile Worth These Days?
  • “If You Have Two, You Have One, and If You Have One, You Have None”
  • Hydrogen Powered Planes
  • Mercedes’ Meaningless Victory over Tesla
  • Are Those Wires Gold or Aluminum?
  • Some more “S’s” for a Beach Vacay in Mexico
  • And Lastly This Week….

Air Passenger Numbers Wobble

As the travel ripples post-Thanksgiving slowly subside, it has been hard to see any direction or trend in daily air passenger numbers, compared to 2019.  Soon we’ll see a new distortion – that of Christmas and a week later, New Year; so while it will be mildly interesting to see what is happening, it won’t be for almost a month until we can get a sense for whatever the new normal – in what will have become 2022 – might be.

International Travel Update

I’m increasingly hesitant to give any sort of statement of reality at present, because I feel things could change in a heartbeat.  For example, some of the countries that just a week ago started banning travel from Africa has already removed their bans.

Britain is really spooked by the Omicron variant, and, to be fair, by its high case numbers anyway (currently they’re having about 2.5 times the new cases each day that we are), and so, to much dismay and argument, are close to a new lockdown, with people being required to work from home and other restrictions appearing from Monday.

Austria’s lockdown seems to be working well, but who knows if it will be lifted or extended next week.

My sense is that the Omicron variant will start to impact on new case numbers in the next couple of weeks, and we might see a surge of countries returning to more restrictive scenarios.  Or maybe not – a lot of countries are anxiously waiting to see just how bad it might become before choosing their next move.

I’m going to reverse my usual closing comment.  In the past several months, I’ve been saying “Travel now, things might get worse if you don’t”.  Now I’m going to say “Defer your travel if you can, because things will probably get better in a few months time”.  Prevailing wisdom seems to anticipate a fast ramp up of Omicron cases followed by a similarly fast decline, with the decline perhaps starting in mid/late winter.

So might the optimism of a new spring see fewer restrictions (as well as being a nicer time to travel)?  Wait and see, if you can.

Changes at the Top

American Airlines has announced that CEO Doug Parker is stepping down after 20 years and will be replaced by current President Robert Isom.  This was an expected transition.  Parker will remain as Board Chairman.

The new Southwest CEO Robert (formerly known as Bob) Jordan is getting ready to step into his new role, in February next year, replacing Gary Kelly.  He lists among his top priorities that of making the senior executives more diverse.

Some of us would prefer him to make them more competent, rather than more diverse.  To be blunt, any hiring manager finds himself with two choices, sometimes with a lot of daylight between them  – the best person if viewed without consideration for “diversity” in all its ridiculous manifestations these days, and “the most diverse” person who helps the company check off the most number of diversity categories.  Seldom is the one person both the most diverse and the best suited.  Any company that seeks out diversity is in effect saying “It is no longer a case of choosing the best people”.

Let’s hope Southwest’s diversity choices are more successful than that involving, ahem, a senior politician widely believed to have been selected on diversity rather than competency grounds.  🙂

Another List of Ranked Airlines

As you may have noticed, I’m usually somewhat skeptical of airline rankings, because the methodology seldom seems to mirror the reality of actual experiences we encounter – and perhaps also because airlines can vary so much within themselves from “a good crew on a good flight” to “a bad crew on a bad flight”.  The unpredictability of experience on each airline often eclipses the slight differences between the airlines – they all have similar airplanes, fares, terms and conditions, and just about everything else, especially in the coach cabin.

This ranking (link below) is neither better nor worse than most others, although I do see it gives a score for how many complaints each airline gets – that’s a meaningless number, because of course, small airlines get fewer complaints than bigger airlines.  The complaint score needs to be factored by the number of passengers flown and shown as a complaint rate per thousand passengers.

Other rankings could also be criticized.  The meal score, for example – who expects a meal on a short SkyWest flight?  But SkyWest becomes the bottom scoring airline, along with Spirit (a rock-bottom budget carrier) for meals.

A large weighting was given for the maximum free baggage allowance, whereas in reality, many of us, much of the time, get zero free luggage these days.

Here is the page with rankings for 12 US carriers and 25 international carriers.  It was surprising to see Emirates, KLM and Aeroflot all scored the same, and Etihad at the bottom of the list.

How Much is a Frequent Flier Mile Worth These Days?

That’s a question the airlines hope you don’t ask.  Perhaps it is a logical extension of their increased “sophistication” when it comes to setting their airfares, but as you surely know, almost all airlines have long since abandoned the original formulas about how many miles were required for free travel.

In the good old days, as best I can remember, 20,000 miles got you a free roundtrip coach ticket in the US, maybe it was 40,000 for a free first class domestic roundtrip, then 60,00-75,000 for an international coach class ticket, 75,000 – 90,000 for business class and 90,000 – 120,000 for first class.  At the same time, a domestic ticket averaged about $350; it was harder to come up with average values for international travel in any cabin, but it was clear that each mile was worth about 2c domestically in coach, and way more than 2c internationally.  First class to Australia or Britain could go up to the best part of $10,000, so the high end of a mile’s value was about 10c.

Since then, “free” tickets have increasingly not even been free, with assorted fees tacked on – a redemption fee or something, and all the government taxes that previously were deemed not to apply to free tickets are now being collected by the airlines, although whether or not they’re remitted to governments is anyone’s guess.  Some airlines (most notably BA) have also tacked massive dollar costs onto their “free ticket” redemptions – there was a time when they would have been considered fuel surcharges, perhaps, but now they’re just BA’s naked greed being rudely exposed for all to see.  I’ve not flown BA in over a decade, and am unlikely to do so in the future, primarily for that reason.

Not only are free tickets now costing “real money”, but they are also costing greater numbers of miles.  Plus, the airlines have gone secretive about the number of miles needed – it varies by day and by flight – and don’t get me started on what seems to be one of their most favorite tricks these days with international business and first class travel.  If you try to fly internationally on say a four sector flight – two out and two back – you’ll find that only the shorter sectors in each direction are available in business or first class and you have to fly the longer sectors in coach class, but the entire journey still costs you the full number of business or first class miles, even if less than one third is actually in the class of service you pay for.

This reached its logical extreme, for me, about a decade ago when I was flying Fiji Airways between Los Angeles and New Zealand.  That’s a long flight LAX-NAN (Nadi in Fiji, but pronounced “Nandi”) and then a much shorter flight NAN-AKL, and vice versa on the return.  Fiji Airways told me there were no business class seats for the NAN-LAX sector, and so I had to fly that sector in coach class, even though I’d redeemed the miles for business class.

I reluctantly accepted that, and while waiting in Nadi for the flight change, I found out that business class was not full.  But could I now get them to upgrade me to a business class seat?  No.  I spent the entire two or three or however many hours on the ground in Nadi on various phones to various people at Fiji Airways, and the inexplicable answer was “We’d rather fly with an empty business class seat than give you the seat you paid for”.  I checked, and sure enough, the flight NAN-LAX still had empty seats in business class when we took off.

With all that as background, how much is a frequent flier mile worth now?  It all depends, and the much greater value associated with premium cabin international travel has long since evaporated.  Gary Leff was citing, this week, a “sale” on frequent flier mileage-redeemed tickets to Europe being promoted by Delta.  Their sale price for a business class ticket from Austin to Rome was 369,000 miles (plus $73 in fees).

I just checked.  Choosing random dates in January, it seems you can travel AUS-FCO-AUS for a cost of about $2725, which suggests a value of less than 1c per frequent flier mile.

Even more puzzling – that special sale price of 369,000 miles?  Move a day or two outside the sale period window and there’s plenty of availability at 148,000 miles (almost 2c/mile).

So the sale price is more than twice the regular price for a mileage award on that route?

That’s a really strange special sale to be promoting.

“If You Have Two, You Have One, and If You Have One, You Have None”

That’s an adage we teach in firearms classes.  One gun, one magazine – never enough.  Modesty prevents me from revealing my preferred counts.

But, in an opposite sense, the trend to fewer pilots in the cockpit continues.  Did you know that when it first came out, the 747 had a crew of four?  I was looking at old Pan Am materials earlier this week and was amazed at that.  Now, of course, and like every other reasonably recent plane, it has two.

But an article sees a time in the near future when freight planes might have a single pilot.  My response to that might not be the same as yours – my response is to be envious.  Why should freight be flown better than passengers?  However, the article goes on to project that passenger planes will reduce to a single pilot in the foreseeable future too.

So that’s the first half of the adage quoted.  I’m eagerly looking forward to the second part – “If you have one, you have none”.  Pilotless planes are likely to be safer and generally better than those with pilots on board.  Truly, for two reasons.  First, you’ll not have to worry about pilots being unavailable or out of hours or sick or on strike or whatever.  Second, if you look at airplane accidents and near accidents, and separate them into two categories – “A pilot saved this from becoming a tragedy” and “A pilot caused this to become a tragedy” it seems that most such analyses have many more accidents in the “a pilot caused this” category than in the “a pilot saved this” category.

Just like autopilots on cars are promising (and, if you believe Elon Musk, already delivering) much greater safety than cars with humans driving, there’s every reason to expect that eliminating the human factor will improve airplane safety.  As a reassurance, you can be certain that pilots won’t be phased out until the benefit of doing so is vividly clear and agreed.

Hydrogen Powered Planes

We know about hydrogen powered cars, right – cars that have a fuel-cell that takes hydrogen and converts it with oxygen from the air into water vapor, and generates electricity as part of the conversion, with the electricity then powering the vehicle.  (Usually there’s a battery in the middle too, to give a reservoir to soak up electricity when the car doesn’t need it, and to give it back when the car needs more power for acceleration or hill climbing.)

A hydrogen powered plane is usually considered to be something different.  The hydrogen directly fuels the jet engines, with surprisingly little modification from current engine designs.  This is simpler and lighter than a system with a fuel cell and battery bank and electric motors.  The primary benefit of a hydrogen powered plane is the engines burn hydrogen rather than jet fuel, and their emissions are limited only to water vapor.

The challenges are three-fold, but at least two of them are not impossible to resolve.  First, the changes to make the jet engines hydrogen burning – while not enormously complex, they are still important and costly to do and test/certify.  That’s of course a one-off, but engine makers are not keen to accept what could be a multi-billion dollar cost until they’re certain there’ll be a market for thousands of the new hydrogen engines.

The second problem is that hydrogen takes up more space than jet fuel.  The offsetting good news is that hydrogen gives up more energy per pound/ton than jet fuel (more than twice as much) but it takes up appreciably more space (depending on how it is stored).  That requires some airplane redesign, but is also far from a deal breaker.

And now for the third challenge.  The big one.  Hydrogen is considerably more expensive than jet fuel.  As I said last week in the context of “zero emission” fuel that is analogous to jet fuel, the fuel cost is a huge part of any airline’s operations (rule of thumb used to be be a third for fuel, a bit less than a third for labor, a third for everything else and a tiny bit left over for profit) and the airlines are of course very sensitive to optimizing that cost as much as possible.

Hydrogen is costly to “create”, costly to transport, and costly to store.  Note also the unspoken obscured truth – most “clean burning hydrogen” currently comes from methane or another short-chain petrocarbon, leaving you with mainly carbon dioxide as the other product of the reaction.  It is clean to burn, but not at all clean to make.

Ideally, hydrogen can be sourced from water, by electrolysis, with the byproduct being oxygen which can either be sold or simply and beneficially released into the atmosphere.  The long-term dream is to have surplus solar and wind power available for free when the wind is blowing strong and the sun shining brightly, and rather than waste/lose that power, use it to extract hydrogen from water.

That’s a great idea in theory, but that word “free” is wildly unrealistic.  Advances in battery technology and other electricity storage systems, and the growing ability to also use electric vehicles as a reservoir to store surplus power and then to take the power back from whatever storage system when extra power is needed, suggests that any “surplus” power will increasingly have several different ways to be monetized.  If electrolysis requires current commercial power rates, then hydrogen fuel will never get close to commercially appealing.

So hydrogen powered planes really depend on the cost of the hydrogen and the price loading people will accept to fly on a plane that burns “clean” hydrogen rather than “dirty” jet fuel.  Neither number is clearly understood, yet, and my sense is that very few of the hydrogen-advocates have considered the reality of their hope that there’ll be a very low-cost abundance of surplus renewable energy that otherwise would be wasted.  That’s just not going to happen.

However, optimists are rushing to develop a hydrogen powered plane of a commercial size and range.  It looks great on paper, but until we can put a per-mile cost on the hydrogen it will need, it remains a theoretical exercise only.  This article optimistically projects that by the mid-2030s hydrogen powered planes might start to become affordable.

Mercedes’ Meaningless Victory over Tesla

The headline sounds significant – Mercedes has beaten Tesla in the “race” to get a true auto-pilot system deployed in regular passenger vehicles.

This is of course something Tesla has boasted of having for some years now – “Full Self Driving” has been just one of the names used to describe it.  But, in truth, the capability has never lived up to its name or the hyperbolic promises of Mr Musk, and if anything, successive versions of it have become increasingly more restrictive and requiring more driver participation, rather than the opposite.  The self-driving capability has been one of the defining promises of the Tesla range, but still clearly not fulfilled.

So the announcement about and formal regulatory approval in Germany of the Mercedes “Drive Pilot” package seems to be significant and an embarrassment for Tesla.

But read the full article, and try not to spit out your coffee when you read that the Drive Pilot package can only be used on the German autobahns, not the surface streets – well, that’s not too surprising perhaps.  But, the next part is where coffee goes flying – it can only be used at speeds below 37 mph (60 km/hr).  That’s right, on Germany’s famous and sometimes un-speed-restricted autobahns, the Mercedes auto driving package is only good at stop-and-go speeds.

It is a toss-up, but I think Tesla is still ahead on points in this competition.

Are Those Wires Gold or Aluminum?

Most electric wiring is aluminum these days – while not quite as good a conductor, it is cheaper than copper.

I find myself wondering what type of wire is being used in California with the project to electrify 52 miles of track between San Francisco’s 4th and King Station to San Jose’s Tamien Station.  The project is, unsurprisingly, running over budget, and now is expected to cost $2.44 billion.

Please appreciate that the track is all there.  The bridges and everything else are all there.  This $2.44 billion is just to stick overhead “catenary” wire above the track – something you’d think to be relatively easy, inexpensive, and fast.  But the 52 miles are taking seven years (maybe more) and that $2.44 billion (so far) works out to $8,887 per foot.

Hence my question.  Aluminum?  Or Gold?  How is it possible to spend $8,887 a foot to run overhead track wiring?

Some more “S’s” for a Beach Vacay in Mexico

Some people refer to a certain type of vacation as a Sea, Sun, Sand and Surf vacation – in other words, a somewhat tropical beach destination.  Something like, for example, Cancun.

Well, now you get a bonus one, possible two more “S” attributes if you choose to go there.  Soldiers, and possibly even Shooting.  It has become necessary for Mexico’s National Guard to now patrol the beaches in Cancun to cut down on drug cartel shootouts.

Not my idea of a fun vacation at all.  Details here.

And Lastly This Week….

The rivalry (some would say “pissing contest”) between Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk is already abundantly apparent, particularly in the field of rocketry.  So one can only guess how annoyed Mr Bezos is at this article.

I mentioned in the article about pilot numbers that I was looking at some Pan Am memorabilia.  There’s a huge collection of lovely material on this website, which for a few more days is free, to commemorate the sad 30th anniversary of Pan Am’s ultimate closure.  If you read this in time, do treat yourself to a look around the site.  Today’s opening image is from their site.

I had to explain to my daughter last weekend who/what Pan Am was – who’d have thought there’d come a time when Pan Am had zero name recognition!

Truly lastly this week, even the sometimes unstoppable-seeming People’s Republic of China can occasionally struggle to get things done on time.  Such as, for example, their C919 passenger jet, intended as a competitor to the 737 and A320.  Details here.

Until next week, please stay happy and healthy.

 

David.

 

 

 

 

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