Weekly Roundup, Friday 17 December 2021

The last A380 to be made has now been delivered to Emirates. The end of an era. Alas.

 

364 Supporters (unchanged from last week) Target :  400  Please Join Here

 

Good morning

I received the long-await huge Amazon Echo Show 15 Alexa screen device at the weekend.  I wrote a review of it on Tuesday, and even included a brief YouTube video of its “unboxing”.  The review appears below, with a link in it to the YouTube video.

I continue to struggle with video – the six minute video ended up taking about six hours of my time to film, edit, and get onto YouTube.  Most frustrating was how half the footage I took was wasted due to a camera setting error that wasn’t obvious until viewing the video on a full-sized screen.  So video will remain an occasional incidental thing rather than a core part of what is served up to you.

The quick summary of my Echo Show 15 review is to recommend you don’t buy one.  I was, of course, as keen to like it as I am to like all gadgets, but I can’t pretend it to be a success and a valid purchase for you, other than in some limited situations and circumstances.

Many thanks again to the kind Supporters who contributed to the $300 cost of buying the unit and a stand for it (the stand has still not been received….) – their kind contributions mean you don’t now need to risk spending a similar amount on something that will probably disappoint you too.  If you want an Echo Show, get one (or two or three) of the cheaper Echo Show 5 and Echo Show 8 units, both on sale at present for as little as $45 and $60, respectively.

Talking about Amazon and its deliveries, how are your Amazon deliveries faring in the run-up to Christmas this year?  Mine are all over the board.  Most astonishingly of all, on Wednesday, I ordered a bunch of different items, mainly as gifts for my daughter.  When checking out, Amazon had delivery dates for them variously on Thursday/Friday/Saturday, and strongly pleaded with me to bunch them all up into a single delivery on Saturday.  I was happy to do that; I don’t need them before the 25th after all.

But I woke up on Thursday morning to Alexa telling me two items had just been delivered, and later in the day, I was told to expect another delivery on Friday, with the balance still (hopefully) arriving on Saturday.  Amazon even bragged to me about shipping some of the items early.

Makes you wonder why they ask you to bunch items up into one single delivery if, after agreeing to do so, they then ignore you and split them up again!  I dare say it makes sense in some counter-intuitive way, but it was surprising to experience.

One more thing about Amazon.  I also received, a couple of days ago, one of their new Smart Indoor Air Quality Monitors.  I’ll have a review for you on that next week.  I’m going to end up moderately liking it, in case you’re in a rush to order one yourself – but note it won’t be shipped/arrive until after Christmas, in case you were thinking of it as a Christmas gift.

Oh – one more thing.  Amazon’s new smart thermostat, which I reviewed in November, is currently on special.  Normally $60, currently $48.  Because I ended up recommending it in my review, and because you’re likely to get the entire cost of it refunded by your utility company, you might want to snap one up at this lower price.

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

What else for the week?  Somehow, the newsletter became much longer than I expected, just breaking through the 5,000 word count.  As always, some items to amuse, educate, annoy, and otherwise divert you.  Please keep reading for :

  • Air Passenger Numbers Flatline
  • International Travel Update
  • The Art of the Deal?  Not So Much, Here
  • The End of the Line for the A380
  • End of Year Airplane Orders Appearing
  • A Return to the Days of Sail?
  • Road Speed Limits
  • Faster Passports?
  • How Much Are You – and Will You – Pay for Streaming Services
  • And Lastly This Week….

Air Passenger Numbers Flatline

A week ago, the one week average percent of 2019 air passengers flying this year was 83.9%.  This week, the number is at 83.6% – virtually unchanged, as you can see in the chart.

However, while it is unchanged, it is also at the highest “normal” (ie other than holiday breaks) level since Covid started, and it has not really changed with the growing impact/scare of the Omicron variant, and it looks like we’ll end the year about 2 1/2 times up on the passenger levels at the beginning of the year.  So, if I were an airline, I’d see my glass as half-full rather than half-empty.

International Travel Update

It is getting harder to go anywhere without being vaccinated, and the new trend to watch out for is a requirement not just to be vaccinated but to be boosted as well.  Plus, still the need for Covid testing, too.

Europe has been surprisingly passive in continuing to respond to the Omicron concern.  They’re probably waiting to see what happens.  That’s good if you have Christmas plans to go there, but otherwise, my advice remains to stay away for now and wait until the international virus situation returns to a relatively stable point.  The good news about Omicron is that it will probably be a quick experience, and after a possible brief inundation, things will likely then return back to “normal” levels of infections (and deaths).

New Zealand is rethinking its plan to reopen at the very end of April next year.  They are now wondering if, due to Omicron, they might want to delay that a bit.  And/or because their own domestic vaccination rates have slowed.  So don’t go planning a trip to NZ in May just yet.  Indeed, don’t plan on that anyway – it is entering their winter at that time.  Not a great time of year to be there at all – lots of rain and cold, and little sun with short daylight.

The Art of the Deal?  Not So Much, Here

One of the things Mr Trump boasted about was his ability to get business done and to strike advantageous deals for America and Americans.  His record on that point has been mixed, both before and during his presidency.

While, for sure, he didn’t personally negotiate every government agreement during his term, one of the higher profile acts was the bailout of the airlines last year in response to the Covid crisis.  This article says the government gave the airlines at least $50 billion in support, under various programs. to be used to keep the planes flying and the staff employed.

The reality, however, is that while the money was given, what the government were promised in return was much less than expected.  Jobs weren’t saved, routes weren’t protected, and when passenger numbers slowly started to come back (see chart above) the airlines were somehow caught wrong-footed, unable to cope with what they claimed to be “unexpected” sudden growth in passenger numbers.

The only two things that are certain is that the airlines in some cases made nice profits, directly as an outcome of the government gifts, but the government is not getting what it had expected in return, including the value of stock warrants they received as a way to share in the success of the airlines and the government support.  Of course, the airline CEOs say it was a great program.

Perhaps our next President should be a former airline CEO?  He could hardly make a worse mess of running the government, and might drive some good deals.

Actually, that might be about to happen in New Zealand – the former CEO of Air New Zealand, Christopher Luxon, became a member of the NZ Parliament in their late 2020 election, and has now been fast-tracked to become leader of the National Party.  The National Party is currently in opposition, but with the ruling Labour Party appearing increasingly vulnerable, if Luxon does a good job of things, he’s every chance of becoming the next Prime Minister when the country next goes to the polls in 2023.

The End of the Line for the A380

It is indeed literally the end of the line for the lovely mammoth A380, with the final plane now having rolled off the production line.  Emirates had wanted to celebrate the event, but Airbus preferred to just quietly let it happen, rather than publicly acknowledge the disappointment of the plane and its sales program.

This is a nice valedictory article about the event.  It touches lightly on the reasons the airplane “failed”.  There are maybe three culprits, with two of them probably being surprises to you.

Sure, culprit number one has to be the timid airlines who preferred to operate more smaller planes than fewer bigger planes.  Or are the airlines actually a culprit?  Actually, one can’t really blame the airlines for their choices which have always been rational, albeit self-serving.  The A380 was always intended to be a plane for congested slot-limited airports such as JFK and LHR.  But the transition from hub to hub flights, with feeder flights in and out of the congested super-hubs, and to nonstop flights between secondary airports, has diverted a lot of the traffic away from JFK and LHR, bypassing the expensive, congested, and capacity limited hubs, while giving better flights with fewer connections to passengers.  So, perhaps, we can absolve the airlines of blame entirely.

The second culprit is a surprising one.  The engine makers.  The engine makers had promised new engine technology for the A380 that would give it a performance/economic edge over twin-engined smaller planes for ten years.  But they then reneged on that promise, and deployed similar engines on planes such as the 787 after only three years, which eroded the cost-effectiveness of the A380, giving it an advantage on only the longest flights with the fullest passenger numbers.  That was unexpected and out of the control of Airbus and the airlines.

Which brings me to the third culprit.  Airbus itself.  Airbus always had a bit of a love-hate relationship with its super-jumbo flagship plane, with some factions keen to kill the program pretty much always, right from the start to the finish of its life.

At the end of its sales life, Emirates offered to commit to massively more A380 orders, but only if Airbus would first commit to keeping the airplane as a current airplane for ten years, and releasing an upgraded new version of it with better engines and other design improvements and capacity increases to truly improve its economic performance in a larger number of scenarios.

Airbus wasn’t prepared to do that.  Emirates in effect said “If you have no confidence in the future of your plane, how can we have confidence in it either” and chose not to make a new large order of A380s.

Yes, Airbus was looking at the virtual certainty of a huge order from Emirates, sufficient to keep its production lines open for many more years – perhaps the entire ten years that Emirates was asking for!  All it had to do was promise to make the plane better.  It is worth noting that if Airbus had indeed done so, other airlines – both current A380 operators, and airlines not yet using them – would have almost certainly upgraded the A380s they have, and bought some if they didn’t yet have them.  Plus Emirates most likely would have rotated out its older planes and ordered more of the “super” A380s, too.

This could have brought about a major turnaround for the plane, much as the 747-400 revived the 747.  At the time of the 747-400, the plane was already 20 years old, and the earlier -300 model plane wasn’t selling well (81 in total over its six or more years of active selling).  The new 747-400 ended up with 694 sales, by far the most successful of all the 747 models before and after.

But Airbus chose not to re-affirm its A380, so Emirates didn’t place a large order, and with the 16 December final delivery, the model’s production ended with 251 having been built.  Of the total, 123 have gone to Emirates.

Emirates plans to keep flying most of its planes until the mid 2030s.

End of Year Airplane Orders Appearing

It might be bad news for the A380, but it has been good news for other parts of Airbus this week.  Both it and Boeing like to have a spurt of new orders appearing at the end of the year in an attempt to boost the numbers for the year.

This week Airbus announced a modest but strategically important sale of 40 A220 and A320 planes to Qantas.  Because it displaced 737s that were presently in service, and because Qantas is a well-respected airline that makes sensible choices, it was a great endorsement of the Airbus single-aisle planes.  A day later, not quite so surprising was an announcement by KLM of buying 100 A320 planes – those too will be displacing current 737 planes.  (Both orders also have provisional extra plane options written into them, and in time those options will likely be exercised.  I’m only counting the planes being firmly ordered now.)

I’ve not been keeping count, but my sense is the year has again been kinder to Airbus than to Boeing.  We’ll see final counts early in January.

Here’s another article that puts these two new sales in the context of a pivotal action on Boeing’s part that it has been suffering the consequences of ever since – its thinly-supported-by-the-facts complaint against Bombardier and what was to become the Airbus A220, plus Boeing’s mishandling of a potential buyout of Embraer.

A Return to the Days of Sail?

This interesting item reports on trials of a cargo ship that uses a giant kite/sail as a means of saving on regular fuel when traveling across the Atlantic.  Great idea?  Or great mistake?

We all know that for centuries, all ships were powered by sail.  We also know that no ships are sail powered now, other than as a novelty.  But the idea of a hybrid, using the wind when the wind is favorable, and continuing to use the engines normally when it is not, is an intriguing one, and of course, is easily seized upon by people keen to “save the planet” and unsatisfied with ocean transport already being the most efficient type of transportation there is.

Of course, there are not many places where you have a choice between ship and surface transportation (ie rail, the most efficient surface mode), but according to this eco-warrior type site, when there are choices, ships win out.  A ship can take one ton of cargo 576 miles on a single gallon of fuel, whereas a train can travel 468 miles per gallon per ton.  A freight plane will transport a ton of cargo about 4.5 miles on a gallon of fuel.

So, a sail on a modern cargo ship?  It might work, some of the time, but the ship might have to slow down to benefit from it.  Obviously the wind speed has to be in a favorable direction and traveling at the same or moderately greater speed than the ship itself.  This chart shows average wind speeds across the Atlantic, month by month during the year.  You can convert meters/second to mph by roughly doubling the m/sec to get mph.  So, much of the Atlantic has winds of 20 mph or so for some of the year, but at other times, speeds never get much over 15 mph.  The winds blow predominantly from the US to Europe, although if you go further south, you can get some winds in the other direction.

Modern cargo ships travel at speeds ranging from the mid/high teens of miles per hour through to as high as 25 mph.  (Add 15% to their speed in knots to get mph).

So, it seems that for less than half the year, and primarily in one direction, a sail might help pull the ship forwards.  The rest of the year, and for travel to the US, the winds will be in the wrong direction (the less in line with the direction of travel, the less beneficial the wind, which works on a different basis to traditional ship sails, with probably a fairly narrow range of variance between wind and ship direction, unlike a regular sailing ship).  Even if they are in the right direction, they might be slower than the ship wants to travel at, or too fast/powerful (would rip the sail to shreds).

The article claims that the developers of the concept claim that a sail twice as large as the one they’re testing could potentially save up to 20% of fuel.  One wonders if that is a best case saving, or an all-year balanced saving, and what speed sacrifice and/or journey extension has been required as part of the saving, and if the offsetting costs of slower journey times have been factored in to the equation.

But, let’s just think about the “best case” fuel saving.  20%.  It requires about 6 gallons of marine diesel fuel to ship a ton of fuel between Europe/UK and the East coast of the US (about 3500 miles).  A 20% saving would be 1.2 gallons, and that probably costs about $2.  I’m guessing that it costs in total about $2,000 a ton to ship cargo (depends on a lot of things) so the sail and its $2/ton saving represents a reduction in cost of perhaps 0.1%.

Sails aren’t free and have appreciable maintenance and surprisingly short lives, and wind power is unpredictable.  Ships like to sail to reasonably clearly defined schedules.  So I’m far from convinced there is any commercial sense in this concept at all, and in terms of “saving the planet” why are people again obsessing with trivial issues while ignoring the huge big ones – China and its ongoing expansion of coal fired power stations every month, for example.

Road Speed Limits

This article makes no attempt to hide its sanctimonious opinion of speed limits in the US with its headline – “The American Addiction to Speeding“.  But it gets almost everything wrong, including the headline, and the implied assumption that Americans are more prone to drive fast than drivers in other nations.  Anyone who thinks we are addicted to speeding has obviously never driven on a German autobahn.

It is a wandering and unfocused article, but within it, there are some kernels of truth.  The biggest truth is worth mentioning in light of German autobahns, and indeed, American freeways too, and their very good safety records in both cases.  If it were a simple case of faster speed = more fatal accidents, then the US freeways would be exactly as a ridiculous Congressman predicted when arguing against rescinding the 55 mph speed limit.  He said that, if passed, the bill “would turn our nation’s highways into killing fields.”.  (That’s a phrase eerily similar to the one invariably trotted out every time a state liberalizes its firearms/carry policies – “carnage in the streets”.  Neither prediction has ever eventuated.)

The speed limits on our freeways in much of the country are ridiculously low and could be increased much further.  If you’ve ever driven for tens of miles on a straight level freeway, with good road surface and only occasional other cars, and wondered why you’re being kept to something like a 70 – 80 mph speed limit, you’re far from alone in that thought.

Cars have become much safer at higher speeds.  Perhaps, like me, you’ve memories of, many decades ago, careering across the road at three digit speeds and struggling to keep the car going in a straight line.  These days, cars have better aerodynamic design so they don’t lift up at speed, better suspension to keep the wheels on the road, better visibility, and better brakes.

But the big problem that hasn’t improved is that most American drivers lack the skill to drive quickly.  Our driving tests are laughably easy to pass – there remains a belief that a driver’s license is a right rather than a privilege, and a driving test is merely a throwaway bit of process to get and keep the license one deserves.  Most states don’t even require a candidate to take demonstrate driving on a freeway, let alone to drive at full freeways speeds and demonstrate merging on and off, lane changing, and so on.  Being able to drive the car around a couple of city blocks, park it, and back it around a corner as part of a 15 – 20 minute test in no way shows competence as a driver when it comes to anticipating dangers, responding to critical threats, and so on.

This is greatly different to Britain, where the practical road driving part of their test is much more demanding and difficult to pass.

But the US politicians fear the consequences of making licenses here more difficult, and so instead take “the easy way out” – artificially keep speed limits down, and then intone on and on about the danger of speed.  The danger is not speed per se, the danger is untrained unskilled drivers.

Faster Passports?

The State Department is quoting a delay of 8 – 11 weeks to get a passport application processed, dropping to 5 – 7 weeks if you ask for the “expedited” service.  You’ve got to love the government – only they could charge an extra $60 for “expedited” service that still takes almost two months.

Earlier this week, President Biden signed a new Executive Order commanding the Passport Office to accept online renewal applications, and requiring 16 other federal agencies to also improve their customer service and lead times.  But, and you know there’s a but, don’t you :

First, neither Mr Biden nor his press secretary had any idea how much faster – if at all – an online renewal request would be processed.

Second, there is some ambiguity – although of course an electronic/on-line request would be easier to process, there’s a hint that maybe it will cost more.

And, third, it will take from six to twelve months for the ability to send in online renewals to be enabled.  I know some Indians who could do it in a couple of weeks – it is an extremely trivial task.

While my passport is good for a few more years, I do hope his executive order might help something more pressing that I do need.  For the first time in the 36 years I’ve lived in the US, I have been without medical insurance, now for over five months.  A billing screwup (my fault) meant the Social Security people cancelled my Medicare.  I apologized, and at their request of course immediately sent in the outstanding balance and three months more into the future, on 2 July.  Nothing has happened to my request for reinstatement, and when I last asked, I was told to next check again in January.

While my health isn’t bad, how would you like to be without healthcare and no knowledge of when/if it will be reinstated?  Plus there’s also the delightful challenge that when I am reinstated, I may be charged a penalty, for ever into the future, for the period I did not have coverage.

What is wrong with our country that we treat our citizens so poorly, and confuse five months of doing nothing, on an important easily resolved issue, with the concept of acceptable service?

But, a small victory also this week.  It is “only” slightly more than two years since I applied for my Global Entry/Nexus card to be renewed.  I finally managed to get an interview date for Tuesday, and after an interview by both US and Canadian customs officials that was, as promised, a mere two minutes in duration, have now been approved for a new card.  As a strange unasked for bonus, the new card is not just for five years since the 2019 expiry of the old one, nor for five years from the approval on December 14.  It is until late in 2027.

How Much Are You – and Will You – Pay for Streaming Services

I subscribe to Netflix.  It used to cost something like $6.99 or $7.99 a month, and these days I unhappily pay $17.99.  There’s also Amazon Prime Video, which is included in the $119 Prime fee so hard to cost out separately.  And I also subscribe to Britbox, which is $6.99 a month.

But enough about me.  How much do you pay?  Netflix and Britbox (and Prime) are among the cheaper products.  This article extrapolates from past rates and rate hikes, and guesses what the 2022 and 2023 rates will become for some of the other premium services.  Prices have spiraled to a crazy extent in the last while.  Hulu can cost you up to $71 a month, for example.  Sure, there are still many services under $10 a month, but the emphasis is on “many services”.  $8 for this.  $7 for that.  And so on.  Before you know it, you might be paying over $100/month for streaming services.

It might pay to inventory all the small monthly streaming service bills you are auto-paying and decide if you need them all.

And Lastly This Week….

It is increasingly rare to see both Democrats and Republicans agree on anything at all.  But there’s one strange exception that has survived multiple administrations and almost sixty years – keeping some of the information known to the government about the JFK assassination secret.

Doesn’t that make you wonder – what could possibly need to be kept secret, even now, 60 years later?  Really – what could it possibly be?  As this article reports, Mr Biden is merely the latest in a long line of Presidents to delay the release of the few remaining (but obviously vital) documents.

This article talks about China planning to build a 12,000 mph hypersonic passenger plane that could fly ten people anywhere in the world within an hour.  Well, yes, maybe, but as I’ve said before, and for western as well as Chinese hypersonic plane concepts, none of the developers have any serious interest in flying ten people halfway around the world in under an hour.  Ten people – no.  Ten bombs – definitely…..

Talking about airplane technology, what is it with the airlines and the FAA – they continue to go on about the “terrible consequences” of 5G phone services and the impacts it will have on planes using really old radio altimeters.  Describing this as “a catastrophic failure of government” UA CEO Scott Kirby said 5G phone frequency interference could delay or cancel one out of every 25 flights they operate.  Six former heads of the FCC, plus the current FCC leadership, all say these fears are groundless and without any substance.  If it really is a problem, then the airlines can spend some of the $50+ billion they’ve received in the last couple of years and buy some new radio altimeters to replace the old ones on one in every 25 planes.  But, of course, the airlines would prefer just to have the nation ban some 5G frequency bands entirely.

A technology to welcome, but which is unlikely to appear any time soon, is Amazon’s advocacy for Matter – a new connectivity standard that will see Alexa and similar smart devices from companies such as Google and Apple become compatible with each other.  Yes, it would be great if it were to come to pass, but I don’t see it ever being done “properly” because each company will only implement functions it lacks, but will not share functions it leads in.  Plus they’ll all “cheat” by trying to offer “beyond specification” enhancements that are really useful but not compatible.  All the initial statements of support for the standard are merely playing games and jockeying for position in terms of who will win and lose in the sharing of proprietary capabilities.

This “standards” battle has played out many times in the past, and I see no reason to expect a full fair adoption of this standard this time.  But would love to be proved wrong.

That was quick.  Amtrak’s current CEO, who joined less than two years ago, is out.  Bill Flynn came from outside the rail industry, and now is to be replaced by an “Amtrak lifer”, Stephen Gardner.  Whether that’s a good or bad thing remains to be seen.

I’ve seen all sorts of different face masks, and some of clearly very little value.  But this gentleman’s choice of face mask is more notable than most, although not necessarily any the more (in)effective.  He did fairly ask the question (before being taken off the flight) about what exactly is the definition of a mask, and in what way his choice failed to qualify.  I’ve often made that point – if we’re serious about masks, we need to ban/outlaw the “designer” masks and most of the “washable” masks (what a joke that concept is) and of course, most of all, masks with vents in them, and demand people wear only surgical or rated masks.  Understanding that is not brain surgery, is it.

On the other hand, perhaps it might not matter if it was brain surgery.  According to this article, neither brain surgeons nor rocket scientists are necessarily any cleverer than the rest of us.  I guess the reader who wondered if I was going to work for SpaceX earlier this week had already seen that article!  But please excuse me if I don’t invite you to preside at any brain surgery I might have in the future (and hopefully after my medical insurance has been reinstated).

Lastly this week, a fascinating long read about a somewhat “off the books” group within the CBP and some of the actions they got up to.  The funniest part of it is the name of the featured CBP agent who was apparently/allegedly somewhat “out of control” – his name was Mr J Rambo.  But the J stands for Jeffrey, not John, although if you look at his picture in the article, he isn’t utterly different in visage than Sylvester Stallone.

How is your Christmas shopping?  How much did you do online?  Mine is looking fairly good, but I’ll brave Costco over the weekend, and a “nick nack” store for a few “stocking stuffers” too.  Time to start thinking of New Year resolutions……

Until next week and Christmas Eve, please stay happy and healthy.

 

David.

 

 

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