Weekly Roundup, New Year’s Eve, 2021

 

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Good morning

Are you ready for 2022?  Do you feel you really got value for the year you spent in 2021?  Well, perhaps better not to dwell overly on the last 365 days, few of which have been as good as any of us would have hoped for, and instead wish for a better 2022.

A positive aspect of this awful year and the last few weeks in particular is, I believe and hope, that wrapped up within the present mighty struggles we’re facing against the Covid virus is our salvation and a hope for a better 2022.

If the claims of experts prove correct (and that’ll be a notable first, won’t it!) most of us can expect to get infected by the Omicron variant some time in the next three or so months.  But is that a bad thing?  Maybe not, if the current hopeful guesses about the weakness of the Omicron variant hold up (and it is still too soon to be certain about this).  Whatever one’s views about vaccinating might be, perhaps Omicron will make them moot and “give” us all immunity that is probably at least as good as the vaccine immunity, and hopefully without much more in the way of side effects.

Rather than continuing our failed attempts at vaccinating everyone, and the matching failure of creating herd immunity based on never-very-effective and quickly-fading vaccines, perhaps we’ll quickly end up with better protection via Omicron, and by the time summer comes around, truly be able to enjoy travel once more, without masks, without restrictions, and without fears or anxieties or uncertainties.

That’s my hope.  And with that as context, I’m not even dismayed to see how on Thursday the case count in the US rose to an unheard of 566,000 new cases reported.  The previous two records were on Wednesday and Tuesday, but before this week, the highest daily count we ever had was 304k on January 8 and then 280k on January 7.

Where shall we go, as a resolute group of Travel Insiders, in 2022?  I’m open to suggestions, and am ready to start planning for the late spring/early summer and late summer/early fall and beyond.

I hope your Christmas was great.  I missed out, by only a few hours, on a white Christmas – something unthinkable when I was in New Zealand with Christmas falling in the summer rather than winter, and so something especially treasured on the rare times it happens in Seattle (less than once a decade, I’m told).  But since Sunday, unusual but regular small falls of snow have kept the ground and trees freshly white.  It has also been extraordinarily cold for this area, and my heaters have been struggling to keep ahead of the cold, and also my humidifier has been struggling to keep the humidity within a reasonable range, too; indeed, I’ve been slow-boiling water on the stove to augment the humidifier, rationalizing this less efficient form of humidifying on the basis that the energy being spent wasn’t wasted, because the heat was almost as valuable as the humidity.

I don’t know if it is the sprinkling of snow here, or if it is a broader national disaster, but I’m currently unable to get anything from Amazon with less than about a six day delivery time promised.  Many things that would normally be same day, or next day, or second day, are all now showing as a week out.  It is really changing my approach to simply calling up the Amazon page any time I need something.  Indeed, it got so bad that earlier this week I found myself buying two new gadgets through Best Buy rather than Amazon.  To my appreciative surprise and delight, not only did they offer free second day delivery, but they made good on their promise, and were regularly communicating the status of the order and shipment.

I wish I could say the same thing about the UPS driver who delivered the package, though.  To my astonished horror, I watched him through one of my security cameras on Thursday afternoon.  He walked down the driveway from the street, approached the three steps that went down to the porch in front of the front door, stopped short of them, and threw the package from there, down the steps, and with sufficient force for it to bounce off the door and end up sitting neatly on the door mat as if it had been carefully placed!  I wish I could say that was the first and only time I’ve watched a delivery driver do that, but, alas, it isn’t.

My sympathies to those of you who suffered flight disruptions either prior to Christmas, or any of the days subsequently.  I write about that further, below.  The only surprising part of that is comparing the trouble-free Thanksgiving travel with the challenging Christmas travel.

Did you watch the Queen’s Christmas Message?  Perhaps it isn’t as much an American tradition as it is within the UK and Commonwealth, but it is one of the high points of each year for me.  Although very different in nature this year to most years, it remains another opportunity to witness the sagacity and stolidness of this most wonderful of monarchs.  While she’s never uttered the famous “Après moi le déluge” that was reputedly said by King Louis XV of France (“after me, the flood”), I can’t help wondering if that statement, true for Louis XV, might not also be true for Elizabeth II (and I suspect she’s well aware of this, too).

The end of her reign will mark the end of an era, and indeed, the passing of the final last remnant of the British Empire.  She became Queen in 1952, during the Presidency of Harry Truman, and is now on her 14th President (and also 14th UK Prime Minister). Her successor utterly fails to inspire or to demonstrate the same depth of wisdom and self control.  For all reasons, I wish her many more years of good health (she turns 96 on April 21, 2022).

What did you get for Christmas?  Something nice, I hope.  And whether it was a present from yourself or from someone else, maybe you took advantage of one of the deep discounts on new 4K televisions.  Or perhaps you got one during the Black Friday sales, or maybe you’re hoping to get one with the end of year and early new year sales.

If so, I’ve just the thing for you.  Please see the new article, below, about getting a 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray player to go with a new 4K HDR television.  You’ll be stunned at how much better a 4K Blu-ray is than any type of online 4K streaming.  The other thing that I rediscovered (and am now surprised I’d ever forgotten) is how Blu-rays (and DVDs before them) often come with wonderful extra features as well as the main movie.  So, yes, 4K Blu-rays, and an appropriate player to feed them to your 4K television.  Recommended.

Also below is Thursday’s Covid diary entry.  My Sunday entry is online, here, and was much shorter than normal.  I was treating myself to a bit of a Christmas break, and suspect I might do the same again this coming Sunday.

A few items below, such as :

  • One of the Worst Weeks for US Air Pax
  • International Travel Update
  • Norse Atlantic Airways Gets Half the Paperwork it Needs
  • Who Cares About the Passengers – Apparently Not Delta
  • Not a Good Way to Save Fuel
  • The Guardian Calls BS on United’s Sustainable Flying Fiction
  • United Bans a Masked Passenger from Flying because his Mask was Too Good
  • And Lastly This Year….

One of the Worst Weeks for US Air Pax

After Wednesday last week’s first time breakthrough with more passengers traveling than the same day in 2019, numbers have generally eased back and have yet to exceed 2019 counts again.  Whether this was because fewer people wanted to travel, or because fewer people could travel, is however a bit of an open question.

Pretty much every day has seen a four figure number of flights canceled.  The airlines, always eager to seize a new excuse to cover up their inability to staff at adequate levels, have been gleefully claiming this is due to staff off sick with Covid.  Plus, of course, some mutterings about weather as well, that being an excuse that is always offered up, no matter the time of year or actual weather conditions.

I’m very doubtful about the validity of the Covid excuse.  While the number of new Covid cases reported each day is very high, when you express them in population terms, they become very low.  With the exception of Wednesday and Thursday this week, there’s always been less – often way less – than one person in a thousand reporting Covid infections each day.  So call that perhaps 1% of the population in total (assuming ten day absences).  Some airlines have been cancelling many more than 1% of their flights….

The most likely cause is the airlines failed to honor their promise to spend the government grant money on maintaining adequate staffing levels, and now are scrambling to staff back up to the needed levels, even though – as you can see in the chart above – the rise in passenger numbers has been very slow and steady rather than sudden and unexpected.  Add to that the arrangement where staff members – especially pilots – limit the hours they’ll fly in total per calendar month, and there’s always a “tight period” at the end of a month, and when the tight period coincides with the double whammy of Christmas and New Year at the end of the month, any airline that isn’t well staffed will be challenged.

We’ll get a good reality check on the Covid impact in a week’s time, when the staff will all be at the start of a new month and year, and will be fully available, other than for real Covid (and weather) problems.  Based on the rapidly rising numbers of Covid cases, flights would be expected to be cancelled more and more.  But my guess is quite the opposite will happen.

International Travel Update

Europe’s on fire, in terms of raging growth in Covid cases, as I discuss in the attached Covid diary entry.  It seems likely that after the New Year, many countries will tighten up on their social distancing measures.  Until the current surges subside, don’t plan on traveling anywhere outside the US.

One more thing to consider.  The CDC reports that for the two weeks through Wednesday, about 5,000 Covid cases were reported on cruise ships around the US coast.  That’s an astonishing number.  They’re saying not to go cruising for a while, and while they’ve not ordered cruising to stop (I wonder why not?) they might do so at any minute.  I’d defer any cruising plans for a month or two until we’re on the other side of this present surge.

Norse Atlantic Airways Gets Half the Paperwork it Needs

The new startup airline and, I guess, “spiritual successor” to Norwegian Air, has now received its Air Operator’s Certificate from the Norwegian Civil Aviation Authority.  This was of course an essential part of the process that will hopefully culminate in flights between the US and Europe next spring.  The other essential part of the paperwork puzzle is getting approval from the US DoT, which is maintaining its frustratingly inscrutable silence for way too long on a request that has little credible opposition and which the US-EU bilateral Open Skies Agreement essentially requires that approval should be automatic and quickly granted.

What is it with our government departments and their inability to provide a bare-bones level of basic service to us, the people they are beholden to serve?  I’m sure Elon Musk also has some thoughts about this at present, suffering from his own SpaceX delays due to the FAA delaying a review of his Texas launch site for a further two months.

I really felt badly about Norwegian’s struggles – its appalling struggle to get DoT certification, followed by a “perfect storm” of things going wrong.  Yes, some of its problems were definitely of its own making, including over-extending and growing too fast, but it is easy to admire the high quality product they generally provided us and the noble nature of their quest.

Norse Atlantic seems to be planning a slower growth rate.  Let’s hope it proves more sustainable.  And that it does indeed start in spring.

Who Cares About the Passengers – Apparently Not Delta

There was a curious case reported early this week where, halfway to China, Delta turned a flight around and brought it back to the US.

This was apparently Delta’s passive-aggressive way of signaling its unhappiness to China with new Covid-related between-flight cleaning requirements in Shanghai.  Delta said the requirements would significantly extend the ground time and would not be operationally viable.  In other words, instead of being able to operate the route with probably two planes, they’d need to grow to three planes but still operate the same number of flights.

That would be unfortunate, but nothing that couldn’t be solved, one way or another.  And even if Delta decided to discontinue the route, what person in their right mind would cancel a flight, in mid-air, half-way to China?  This is particularly a challenge because of its international nature – what about the non-US people on the plane now having to re-enter the US but possibly with expired or single-entry visas that had been already used up?  What about the Covid testing requirements?

It is unclear what happened to the passengers on the cancelled flight.

As well as the incredibly thoughtless and uncaring attitude to its passengers, if Delta thinks the Chinese government cares one iota about Delta’s public sulking, it couldn’t be more wrong.  China is using draconian measures without care or compromise when it comes to limiting the Covid spread within China and to ensure no embarrassing problems surface that would interfere with their showpiece winter Olympics in Beijing, to be held in mid February.

Not a Good Way to Save Fuel

Airlines have become very focused on saving weight.  They’ve used that as a justification to cut back on food and drink, to eliminate magazines and newspapers, and other “heavy” items such as pillows and blankets.

Perhaps the most significant “discretionary” weight that airlines have become keen to minimize is that of fuel.  As a rule of thumb, airplanes burn 3% of their weight in fuel every hour.  So a plane on a six hour transcontinental flight would burn almost 20% of the weight of any fuel it had on board and landed with, unused.

Flights are required to have a minimum amount of fuel “spare” when they take off, expressed typically as a percent of total fuel required plus some minutes of fuel as well.  So a longer flight needs more fuel margin than a shorter flight, a challenge which some airlines routinely get around by filing a flight plan from, say, Los Angeles to Fiji, and then from Fiji to Sydney.  Then, as they get near Fiji, they recalculate the percent fuel they need to have for the short remaining flight on to Sydney and change their flight plan to now go nonstop to Sydney, and legally comply with the fuel load requirements all the way through the flight, due to the pretend plan to land in Fiji on the way.

Within the US, such drastic measures are seldom needed, but even so, planes can sometimes find themselves having underestimated the fuel they need, and becoming forced to land somewhere short of their destination to top up their tanks.  Here’s one such example – a Boston to Phoenix flight that had to land in Oklahoma City after running low on fuel, due to head-winds.

I’ll politely point out that the jetstream head winds, and any other types of winds, are seldom a surprise, particularly over the US which has thousands of planes in the air over almost the entire country, reporting on weather and wind conditions close to realtime.

The Guardian Calls BS on United’s Sustainable Flying Fiction

The Guardian and I are generally at opposite ends of most ideologies, but as is sometimes the case, people of opposing views can unite in the case of outrageous nonsense that offends people of all opinions.

Such as United’s “holier than thou” claims about its eco-sensitivity and laughable promise to become “100% green”, and without using “carbon offsets”, all by 2050.  Here’s The Guardian’s take.

I’ve regularly pointed out the nonsense of those claims, all three parts of which make little sense, and the lack of clear progress towards the admittedly very distant target.  The problem always becomes when the public posturing and pandering has to be translated into costly realities.

The only way for any business to become truly 100% green is of course for the business to simply close down.  Well, even that wouldn’t work.  Imagine if United stopped flying.  Its current passengers wouldn’t also stop, they’d simply shift to other airlines.  United’s occasional high-visibility “experimentation” with “sustainable aviation fuel” (itself a rather malleable concept, I suspect) is put into context in the article – of the airline’s planned 4 billion gallons of jet fuel burned in a typical year, a mere 1 million gallons – one four-thousandth of its entire fuel consumption – is sustainable aviation fuel.  And there’s no current facility in existence that can provide 4 billion gallons a year.

The Guardian also gets upset at United being an eager early adopter (maybe, very conditionally) of the planned new SST coming out at the end of this decade (perhaps, possibly).  This new plane is suspected to consume fuel 5 – 7 times faster than regular planes.

Passing mention is made that currently air travel represents about 2.5% of global carbon emissions.  That compares with 28% coming from China, an amount that grows with each of all the regularly opening new coal fired power stations it is bringing on line.  Why not simply prevail upon China to reduce its emissions by 10% – to put up some wind turbines instead of building new coal fired power stations.  That would allow for all airlines to fly without embarrassment.

United Bans a Masked Passenger from Flying because his Mask was Too Good

Our crazy approach to masks seems to cut both ways.  On the one hand, we refuse to distinguish between useless washable “fashion masks” and actual functional medical masks.  As long as a person’s face is obscured, the assumption is that whatever it is blocking our view is an acceptable mask.  That assumption is nonsense.

On the other hand, a United passenger with a “Versaflo” type mask (pictured on the left) was not allowed to fly while wearing it.  The ostensible reason was that if the cabin depressurized, he’d not be able to remove the Versaflo headgear and put the mask on before he died from lack of oxygen.  That is of course a crazy claim, but the airlines have special expertize at deploying crazy claims.  As this tweet reports, the person, sans mask, got to travel, but now believes he caught Covid while on the plane without the full Versaflo protection.

Oh, by the way, I continue to see, regularly, people with masks below their noses.  Or people with masks that have release valves in them, to make it easier for the mask-wearer to exhale, thereby allowing their infection a free pass and easily flowing into our air space.  I’m not sure which is the more annoying – at least a person without a mask at all is making a statement.  Like it or not, at least they’re being honest, rather than trying to subtly cheat the system.

And Lastly This Year….

Much as I dislike coach class seating on long flights, I think I’d rather be there than in an airplane toilet for 4 – 5 hours.  A conscientious teacher from Michigan, flying from Chicago to Reykjavik a week ago, started to feel unwell with a sudden sore throat.  She had a spare Covid test with her, so she tested herself and it showed positive.  To keep herself away from other passengers, she sequestered herself in a toilet for the 4 – 5 hour balance of the flight, with the flight attendants passing food and drink to her through a crack in the door.

One man’s trash is another man’s treasure.  I’m reminded of that adage when reading a sad article about plans to demolish one of the massive empty building/factor complexes in Detroit, the former headquarters of the American Motors Corporation.

I guess it makes sense to raze it to the ground and build afresh, but it is also sad to see the loss of a building that perhaps one day might be considered to be a historic treasure and a great loss to the city’s character.  A cynic might note how a building that was last sold for $500 in 2015 is now being sold for $5.9 million, and wonder just how much money is changing hands and who is benefitting from this project.

Here’s a photo essay of buildings of a different kind – beautiful train stations around the world.  Let’s hope they’re not due a date with a wrecker’s ball any time soon.  How many have you visited?  I can claim ten, and I’m sure many of you will be able to claim many more.

Careful what you ask (Alexa) for.  A girl asked Alexa for “a challenge to do”.  Alexa suggested an, ahem, experiment with electricity that has some folks outraged, and which evoked the curious comment from a fire chief that America’s (weak) 110V power can cause you to lose fingers, hands, and arms.  I guess I’m lucky from my many encounters with much more “manly” 230V power in NZ, and during one science fair experiment, 20kV power too…..

So, New Year resolutions?  For me, I am firmly resolved to visit some new train stations and not lose any fingers, hands, or arms.  Plus also, I am planning some major and exciting changes in 2022, featuring the fulfillment of a long time desire, and almost certainly requiring a change of abode involving a change of state.  I’ll let you know more about this when I’ve something substantial to report (hopefully February) with possible new locations ranging from MT to NV to AZ to TX, or possibly other locations as yet unconsidered.

As for less firm resolutions, all the usual ones apply again this year, the same as every other year – to eat less, exercise more, etc etc etc.  They won’t last long.

If your resolution is to treat yourself to an electric car in 2022, I’m envious, but have to point out that, as lovely as they are, and as low-cost as electricity may be, the total cost of electric vehicle ownership tends to be higher than regular vehicles.

Might fusion power be in our future for 2022?  Almost certainly not in 2022, and the promise of fusion power is one that keeps getting delayed, year after year.  This article suggests we might finally be getting closer, but what it only gently hints at within the article is that if/when fusion power becomes real, it will almost certainly not be a breakthrough in Boston that causes it to happen.  Rather, it will be in China, where researchers are closer to sustainable fusion than anywhere else in the world.

To close on another new year resolution that has been, ahem, broken regularly in the past, Elon Musk is telling us that almost complete self driving will appear in his cars next year.  Would that be the same self-driving capabilities he has regularly claimed his cars already possess?

Until 2022 – a time that only recently seemed impossibly distant, and now of course is not – please stay happy and healthy.

 

David.

 

 

 

 

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