Weekly Roundup, Friday 3 December 2021

Ignore the name. This is actually a new US startup airline. See article below.


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Good morning

It has been a very busy week for me, but hopefully not for you.  The pre-Christmas season often seems to be semi-frantic, which is one of the reasons I like getting away from it all for a week or two in Europe between Thanksgiving and Christmas.  Of course, this year was obviously not a good year to do so.

Indeed, trying to keep up with and make sense of the Omicron news has been a large chunk of the week, with the net result being a 5,000 word Covid diary entry (attached below) published on Thursday night (and a 4,000 word one on Sunday too, available on the website).  I think I’ve managed to set out things reasonably well, and in Thursday’s entry below you’ll see I even wonder if maybe Omicron might be a blessing in disguise.

I hope you got some great Black Friday/Cyber Monday deals.  Now for pre-Christmas sales, then post-Christmas sales, before the new year and an awkward period of full-priced products for who knows how long.  And with the hot breath of inflation, who knows what “full-priced” will be!

I do have one non-Black Friday bargain to share with you – a reader wishing to sell an unused Pixel 4a 5G phone (the same as I have, the phone I love).  That’s below.  As are a few other items for your Friday reading pleasure, of course :

  • Air Passenger Numbers Falling After a Disappointing Thanksgiving
  • International Travel Update
  • A Not-Used Pixel Phone Bargain
  • United’s Beyond-Trivial One-Off Publicity Stunt
  • Another US Startup Airline
  • Out of Practice Pilots?  Or Just Incompetent?
  • Thoughts on John Cleese’s Latest Touring Show
  • It is Time to Give Up on Hertz
  • And Lastly This Week….

Air Passenger Numbers Falling After a Disappointing Thanksgiving

To be fair, no-one really knew what to expect with Thanksgiving’s air passenger numbers, although some not-very-brave people were predicting “the highest number in two years” – that sounds like a lot, but simply meant more than last year, and that for sure was a given.  Others were expecting (or hoping) to see numbers at or even above 2019 numbers.

Reaching or passing 2019 numbers almost seemed achievable.  On the Sunday before Thanksgiving, we reached 95.3% of the numbers the same Sunday in 2019, and the three days around it were above 90% as well.  But then the Wednesday before Thanksgiving was only 88%, and Sunday after Thanksgiving was only 85%.  Monday was a bit better (86.3%) then Tuesday/Wednesday have both been around 80%.  Those are good numbers for the year, overall, but in terms of reaching or exceeding 2019 over the Thanksgiving weekend, a disappointing (for the airlines) failure.

For us as passengers, it was a delightfully trouble free weekend, with no serious weather problems and airports that weren’t too crowded.

The big issue now is what will happen in response to the scrambled mess of new international travel restrictions and requirements arising from Omicron fears.  Will the boost that seemed to be coming from international travelers fade away again, and will we, ourselves, cut back on travel too?  It will be an interesting few weeks ahead, for all reasons.

International Travel Update

I’d thought of giving you a quick summary of the various new requirements for international travel around the world in response to Omicron, but decided against it, because things are complicated and unclear in some situations, not-well-thought-through in terms of practicalities in others, and in almost all cases, extremely subject to change.

Add to the new Omicron concerns and (over)reactions a continued but uneven growth in new Covid cases in UK and EU, and things are definitely a bit fraught at present.

The last week has certainly been a vivid example of the concern I’ve been expressing – things can change very quickly and very dramatically.  It makes it difficult to confidently plan for travel far in advance, although traveling domestically seems little changed, other than for an extension of the “must wear a mask” rule, now running through 18 March 2022.

A Not-Used Pixel Phone Bargain

A reader bought a new Pixel 4a 5G earlier this year, based largely on my several recommendations for this excellent phone – I’ve one myself and love it.  But she never activated it, and it has sat untouched in its box ever since.

She thought it might make a good Christmas present for someone (perhaps to buy for themselves!) and so is offering it for $300.  It is unlocked, has the latest 5G features, and while a new Pixel 5a 5G has superseded it, the two phones are almost identical, with the same CPU and capabilities.  The 4a 5G can be upgraded to the latest Android 12 (and Android 13 in time too; I’m not sure about Android 14 whenever that appears).  She is also including a Loopy Tropical Hibiscus patterned protective case for the phone.  That was an extra $45 when she bought it.

I see on Craigslist that used Pixel 4a 5G phones are selling for about $325 or more, usually without a case.  So $300 including a case for an unused phone seems like a great deal (or I’d not be passing it on to you).  Add $10 for tracked shipping.  The lady has been a long time and very generous Travel Insider supporter, so seems trustworthy, but as an added point, I’d be happy to act as a third party “escrow” service if you wished – you send the payment to me, she ships when I’ve received it, and when the tracking shows the phone has been delivered, I then release the money to her.

Let me know if you’d like to take advantage of this and I’ll put you in touch with the seller.

United’s Beyond-Trivial One-Off Publicity Stunt

Feeding the monster is never a good idea.  Appeasement gave us World War 2.  The concept of compromise is lost when the other side doesn’t compromise, but keeps asking you to compromise again, as if it is for the first time.

I’m reminded of those thoughts when I read the latest bit of airline capitulation on the topic of “100% sustainable aviation fuel”.  First, to be clear, there is no such thing as 100% sustainable aviation fuel.  Even if there was a fuel as such, a better outcome – if you care about such things – is not to fly the plane at all.  Just like planting trees – planting trees doesn’t compensate for a flight in the sense that the tree could still be planted without the flight.

But, the aspirational myth of “100% sustainable aviation fuel” has been brought into being, along with vague and lengthy timeframes as to when it might be expected to be filling the 35,000 or so gallon tanks in the 787 you’ve just boarded.  There are three things to keep in mind :

(a)  It is very much more expensive than normal jet fuel

(b)  That is essentially the only difference, a plane doesn’t care if it is sustainable or regular jet fuel any more than your car cares if it is Shell or Mobil gas in its tank

(c)  It is in very limited supply

So airlines are making a big deal out of how “special” this fuel is, and are inventing apparent needs for lots of testing and trials before it can be commercially used.  Occasionally an airline will make a big deal out of flying one engine with sustainable fuel, or something like that.

This week, it was United’s turn to earn glowing headlines, because for the first time ever, it operated an entire commercial flight on sustainable fuel.  To be sure, it was a short lightly loaded flight between Chicago and Washington, on a 737.  But – hey, their CEO risked his life by showing his confidence in this new fuel by flying on the plane too (remember, the engines don’t care what sort of generally conforming fuel they are burning).

The flight used about 500 gallons of mainly recycled cooking oil, engine grease, and the like.  United says its Eco-Skies Alliance has agreed to buy over 7 million gallons of this fuel over a year.

But let’s put that in context.  United itself uses about 4.3 billion gallons of jet fuel a year.  So that is about 0.2% of its total fuel burn.  Except that presumably the other Eco-Skies Alliance members are also sharing in the 7 million gallons, too.

As I said, this is a gigantic and meaningless boondoggle.  But uncritical reporters love to write about it as if it is meaningful progress and really important.

Another US Startup Airline

I often think about the lessons of failed Virgin America, and of the so many other US startup airlines that have also failed to survive and thrive.  Then I look at new startup proposals, and even new startup realities, and wonder whether they are doomed to repeat the missteps of their predecessors.

Here’s an airline I struggle to feel very optimistic about.  Don’t get me wrong – I desperately want every new startup to succeed.  We in the US have a critical shortage of airlines at present, and need as much competition as possible to keep the big three or four carriers (American, Delta and United, plus Southwest as a fourth) on their toes and market-focused.

New Californian airline Airbahn sounds wrong right from the start – sure, “air” is English, but “bahn” is German and means train or track or lane or even streetcar.  Why give a US carrier a half-German name?

Its plan is a familiar one.  It plans to operate point-to-point rather than hubbed flights, between secondary airports, in California, Nevada, and Canada.  There is another recent startup doing almost exactly the same thing – I can’t even remember their name, for all the impact they seem to be having.

The Achilles Heel of this new startup seems to be their choice of airplane.  Don’t get me wrong, the A320 is a lovely plane.  But this airline wants to be a low-cost carrier, and using older A320s, on thin secondary routes, as a startup airline, just sounds too hard to me.  It is very difficult to fill a 174 seat plane, as a startup, on secondary routes, and with a low-cost model, they need to fill most of those seats, or else the not perfectly low costs of the A320 will mess up with their operating profits.

Why didn’t they get A220 planes with around half as many seats?  Or anything else that is smaller than a full sized 174 seat A320?  Even the major airlines use smaller planes on secondary routes, and sometimes struggle to fill them.  The major carriers also uniquely have the benefit of flying people not just on the secondary route, but on from there to an ultimate destination and back.

I wonder how long it will last?  Until its backers choose to stop bleeding cash, probably.  Maybe a year, possibly two, but I’d be astonished to see Airbahn still out there in 2024 – unless it comes up with some clever new twist between now and then.  Some more details here.

Out of Practice Pilots?  Or Just Incompetent?

Flying a plane is not intuitive; there is not the same instinctive one-to-one link between what you do and what the plane does, and what you feel and what the plane is doing, as is the case in a car.  It is a “perishable skill” which is why pilots are required to stay “current” – ie fly a certain number of hours per every so many months, to do three take-offs and landings every three months.  If they fail to keep current, they have to do a short requalification course and prove they’re still competent before being allowed back into a plane’s cockpit.

But, having said that, there is a difference between the finesse of a skilled pilot who can sense what a plane is about to do, and make control changes before (yes, truly, a good pilot is anticipating not reacting) they are needed, in an almost magical manner to keep the plane flying smoothly and safely; and a very basic pilot who forgets that you should keep the plane above a minimum speed and height.

Indeed, if there are three things that are repetitively drilled into pilots from day one until the last day they ever fly, it would be the pivotal importance of airspeed, attitude and altitude.  Those are things every pilot never forgets.  He might forget the speed at which to lower or raise the flaps, or the correct take-off speed for a certain weight, height, and temperature, but he knows how to find those out in the manuals that abound in the cockpit.  Airspeed, attitude and altitude – those should be like breathing, and all the more so when you don’t have much of any of them.  The lower and slower you are, the less margin for error, and the more obsessed you become with protecting these essentials of survival.

The strange downside of modern airplane autopilot systems is they remove some of these imperative needs.  Now you can just tell the plane what speed and what altitude you want, and then forget about it (all the more so with the addition of the “auto-throttle” setting.  With the airspeed and altitude set, and power adjusting automatically as needed, the attitude more or less follows automatically.  Some pilots almost never touch the flight controls these days – they just adjust the autopilot settings – it is easier, and usually smoother and probably more fuel efficient too.

Which brings me to an astonishing error now being investigated in Scotland.  A 737 was coming in to land, and the control tower told the plane to abort the landing and go around for another landing, due to an emergency helicopter needing the airspace.  That’s not really a big deal – you generally push one button which changes the plane’s settings from a landing configuration to a climbing configuration (changes to flaps, landing gear, engine power, airspeed, attitude and altitude).  While that single button press is making the sure the plane changes from slowing/descending/landing to speeding up/rising/taking off, the pilots then decide what they’re going to do next and where they’re going to go.

Even that is usually simple.  Most airports have a specified flight path and procedure and heights to follow if you’ve had to abort a landing.  Sometimes it involves flying a series of left turns, sometimes a series of right turns, to bring the plane back into alignment for another landing attempt.

So the 737 correctly abandoned its landing and started climbing, and then turned left to fly a “left circuit” around the airport and back to land again.  But then, the air traffic controllers noticed the plane had suddenly started to speed up and descend unexpectedly.  The plane was at 3,000 ft, but descended to 1,565 ft before – either as a result of the warning from the tower or the pilots realizing, it started to rise.  The inappropriate descent had continued unchecked for an entire minute.  More or less ahead were some hills, a mere 665 ft below.

What went wrong?  How did the plane get within 30 seconds of crashing with neither pilot noticing?

I’ve noticed pilots have a new “Get Out of Jail Free” excuse for bad piloting.  They blame it vaguely on the airline or on life in general – they haven’t had enough flight hours and so are losing some of their flying skills.  To my mind, rather than an acceptable “no fault” excuse, if there were any truth in that claim, it would be shocking and reflects very poorly on pilots agreeing to fly a plane they acknowledge they are no longer skilled enough to handle safely.

But in this case, I’ll guess it was a much simpler issue.  The pilots might have programmed the autopilot to a new speed and altitude, but forgot to actually activate the autopilot.  They then stopped paying attention to what the plane was doing, and probably were busy finding the “approach plate” to fly for their missed landing and go around, and neither of them noticed either the plane slightly pitching down or slightly increasing in speed, and neither of them looked out the window and saw the ground closer than it should be, filling the screen, and getting closer.  Neither did either of them look at any of the instruments that would have told them altitude, rate of descent, and speed.

This seems to have been nothing to do with “losing their edge” due to lack of recent flights (the pilot had flown ten flights in the last month).  It seems more like appalling lack of attention to the fundamentals of flight by both pilots due to the break in routine caused by the go around.

Details here.

Thoughts on John Cleese’s Latest Touring Show

Coming back to my comments about the difficult of planning ahead in the international travel update section above, I received an early pre-booking offer to attend a new John Cleese show – but locally, not internationally.  It is scheduled to be in Seattle’s McCaw Hall on Monday May 23, and described as “An Evening of Exceptional Silliness”.

Even though I think it is years since Cleese last did something truly funny, he is one of those people you just have to look at and immediately burst out laughing – in part because he does look slightly odd, and in part because one starts thinking of all his past work.  And so I was briefly tempted.  I’ve never seen him live, although I have to say that the many “live” shows I’ve subsequently seen on YouTube seem to be 90% old sketches repeated, and 10% of unmemorable new content.

But I then found myself wondering :

– What will the world be like in May

– What will Cleese be like in May

– What will I be like in May, too, for that matter

Will a happy alignment of three positive outcomes occur?  If it weren’t for Covid, few of us would give it a second thought.  But, at present…..

I also noticed reference to a requirement to comply with a vaccination policy, but it didn’t say what that policy would be.  How can I agree to a policy that probably has not yet even been determined?  Will it require a booster shot?  Maybe two?  Even three?  An extra Omicron vaccine?

I winced to see the cheapest seats were $90 each, which after booking fees climb to $113.43.  $23.43 in booking fees?  For something all done automatically online, and with the booking company then getting my money for free between now and May as well.  Add it up along with travel to and from the theater, parking, an intermission nibble and drink perhaps, a souvenir program or something else unneeded but bought on impulse, and it quickly becomes a $300 experience.  I guess that explains why they were offering a plan to pay off the ticket price over six months – since when did theater tickets get so expensive you need six months to pay for them!

Bottom line, I passed on the offer to buy tickets.

It is Time to Give Up on Hertz

Over the years and decades, I’ve been members of various rental car company frequent renter programs.  But the one I’ve always been most sentimentally attached to was the first I ever joined, almost exactly 40 years ago – Hertz.  Over the years, as variously a corporate renter, a travel agent, an Amex Platinum card member, and assorted other things, I’ve earned or been given all sorts of wonderful status and have generally enjoyed their cars and their service, while acknowledging also that there are always cheaper rental car options, wherever you go.

It seems unthinkable to me to switch loyalties.  But, their actions have increasingly troubled me.  I don’t mean the occasional “everything went wrong at the same time” type terrible messups that happen to even the best-run companies on occasion.  I mean problems that hint more at being corporately endorsed rather than problems which you absolutely know senior executives are as horrified about as you are.

Earlier this year, Gary Leff and others wrote about Hertz repeatedly filing false complaints with the police about people that Hertz wrongly claimed “stole” its vehicles.  One person spent five years in prison, even though Hertz could have spent five minutes to find in their system the proof of the wrongness of their accusation.

You might say that would never happen to you.  But it did happen to someone – to several people – and so it clearly could happen to you, or to me.  Do you want to risk being held in jail – even just overnight – because Hertz is too lazy/incompetent/uncaring to tell the truth and sort out its messed up records?

And now, this week, a new story emerges – a story that is wrong in so many parts, and at so many levels, that I feel utterly betrayed by Hertz, and unable to trust it at any level, ever again.  And whereas we all might hope that, as fine upstanding citizens, some sort of “safety valve” would pop and keep us out of jail (dream on…..) we all know that messed up bookings can be an equal-opportunity problem that at times prove the match for even the most ultra-galactic-VIP status level customers.

Please read the three page letter to Hertz in the link, above.  It explains what happened in polite careful detail.  The long waits on hold to customer service, only to be cut off.  Everyone blaming everyone else, and saying they couldn’t themselves fix the problem.  The false hopes and promises, then the letdowns and despair.

Now tell me you’ll rent from Hertz, ever again.

And Lastly This Week….

A common adage is that if you can invent a better mousetrap, the world will beat a path to your door.  It might be an adage, but it is nonsense.  One example of that is Amazon’s Kindle eBook reader and the superior Nook eBook reader that was/is sold by Barnes & Noble.

B&N eventually gave up on developing their own competing line of eBook readers, and while eBooks can be purchased elsewhere as well as on Amazon, it seems almost no-one ever buys eBooks elsewhere, and Amazon’s proprietary Kindle format is difficult/impossible to use on third party readers.

So it was surprising to read that B&N are coming out with a new Nook eBook reader.  The only thing is, it is smaller than an Amazon Paperwhite Kindle, and more expensive.  Plus, it doesn’t work with Amazon eBooks.

Three strikes and you’re out, I think.  I’ve no idea why B&N are releasing this new device, and even less idea why anyone would ever buy one.

Talking about unnecessary gadgets, I increasingly feel that Windows 11 belongs in that category.  I can’t identify a single “must have” feature, while struggling to work around its glitches and bugs, and hating some of the new layouts.  Most annoying of all – it has become “noisier”.  I sometimes hear noises that break my concentration, but I can’t tell what is causing them (or how to stop them).  This is very frustrating, as is a higher incidence of “screen takeovers” by ads and “helpful information”, and Microsoft’s more intrusive acts to thrust their Edge browser at you, no matter how much you try to avoid it.

It used to be a joke that every other Windows is good, and the alternate versions are bad.  After good Windows 7, and bad Windows 8, we had good Windows 10.  I hoped that Microsoft might have broken out of that sequence, but increasingly it is looking like Windows 11 is bad.

Here’s an article that teases us with the hope Microsoft might be thinking about undoing some of the unpopular changes to its Start menu design.

Please don’t feel the need to upgrade to Windows 11, especially if that requires first upgrading your computer.  Just say no.

A new survey by the Economist’s Intelligence Unit of the world’s most expensive cities has a surprising “winner” (ie, the most expensive city).  Paris and Singapore came in as second equal most expensive city. Bet you’ll never guess the most expensive.

Talking about surprising statistics, did you know that for a short while in 1989, the world’s sixth or seventh largest navy was considered to be owned not by a large country, but by PepsiCo Inc?  Here’s a fascinating story about how that came to be.

I think I’ve found a new “aspirational favorite” hotel in London.  Aspirational in the sense I’d probably never be able to justify its nightly room rate, but it promises to be the blend of ultra-service and historic tradition that I most appreciate in a fine hotel.  I don’t like modern hotels with “harsh” and “hard” surfaces everywhere, and glass walls facing out onto an ugly city street.  I like darker buildings, lots of wood and leather, and Victorian era grandeur.  I’ll even enjoy an old slow elevator with character in preference to a fast generic cube that rushes between floors.

The new Raffles London at The OWO hotel, due to open in late 2022, promises to be the sort of hotel I most like.  The key to its appeal is in the abbreviation OWO.  It is being built in the former Old War Office building in Whitehall.  It will have 120 rooms and suites, 85 residences, and 11 restaurants and bars, and is coming up the home straight of a fastidious five year restoration.  The article tells you some more about the hotel, but alas, the property isn’t yet ready for interior pictures of what to expect in the common areas and rooms.

Talking about restoring old structures, here’s an article about old unrestored structures – a photo essay on some abandoned relics in the former Soviet Union.  I find such things and images endlessly fascinating.

Until next week, please stay happy and healthy.






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