Weekly Roundup, January 21, 2022

The “livery” for new US airline Northern Pacific Airways. See item below.

 

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Good morning

And, perhaps, yes, it is a good morning, in a relatively-speaking sense.  The US has now enjoyed seven days of accelerating drops in new Covid cases, and in doing so, joined an increasing number of other countries that miraculously (yes, miraculously, because there’s no explanation) and drastically switched from a seeming inevitable inescapable fate with soaring case numbers setting new records every day to a sudden and equally sharp series of dropping case numbers.

Maybe this year we can finally blow the dust off our passports and plan to travel somewhere without feeling we’re risking life and limb in doing so.  But is it a good or bad thing to observe that the several potentials for global conflict are now starting to present as an equal or greater challenge to our travel plans as is Covid?

Assuming (which is never a good thing, and a spectacularly bad thing when it comes to Covid) that things continue to improve, it also seems the article I wrote yesterday about this year’s Consumer Electronic Show will be a rare one-off article, because hopefully next year truly will see a regular ordinary CES.  Attached below is the article, in which I tried to capture the essence of this year’s bizarre “hybrid” CES, being held partially in person and partially online/virtual only.

While Covid’s impacts might now be receding, it seems it won’t be happening soon enough for another show I like to visit in Vegas most years, the Travel Goods Association Show, which announced on Thursday it would cancel its end-of-February show this year.  That’s a shame, because I’d been thinking of doing the same thing I’ve done several times in the past, and combine that with a Travel Insider outing to Front Sight, located just out of Vegas, for a 4 1/2 day firearms training class immediately afterwards.  But a bit later in March would get us better weather, so maybe that’s an ill wind that blows no good.  More on that topic perhaps next week, and if you’re interested, by all means please tell me now so I can start the planning, which this time might include an interesting new surprise bonus.

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

Plus, another selection of items of interest, following on below :

  • US Air Passenger Numbers – Hello, TSA?
  • International Travel Update
  • A New US Airline Edges Closer to Reality
  • Lots of Nonsense About 5G and Radio Altimeters
  • AA’s Typical Bullying Might Not Work This Time
  • Airplane Competition from China and Russia?
  • Can I Say “I told you so”?
  • Why Didn’t Elon Think of This – Oh, wait…..
  • And Lastly This Week….

US Air Passenger Numbers – Hello, TSA?

Friday last week saw more people flying than the similar Friday in 2019.  This is probably to do with the three day weekend that many people enjoyed.

The TSA still has not corrected its data series, and the nice lady who was helping resolve that for us has gone silent.  What a shame, a rare bit of excellence in the government – the TSA’s two years of consistent reporting – is now becoming as disappointing as so much else.

My sense is that overall, passenger numbers are slightly up on a month or so back.  I’ll try and rework the data myself in time for next Friday, if the TSA continue not to do anything nhouse.

International Travel Update

My optimism continues, unconstrained, when I peer into the crystal ball for the next little while, and what it means for international travel.  Sure, the dear old CDC, always one step behind (except for when it is two or more steps behind) has added 22 more countries to its do-not-travel list, but does anyone care, anymore?  My sense is the CDC is whispering into the wind, and no-one is hearing or even listening.

Of course, it has always been a spectacularly stupid list – telling people it is not safe to travel to countries that have Covid case rate numbers much lower than we have, ourselves.  So ignoring it is the sensible thing to do.

Meanwhile, taking the opposite tack, Europe is considering a radical new approach – simply accepting the virus and living with it.  Assuming such a strategy wouldn’t then create a runaway new surge in Covid cases (and, as counter-intuitive as it seems, it is likely there’d be little impact at all on Covid activity levels) this would be excellent news for us all.  We could consider European travel without having to obsess over rising or falling case numbers and worrying about sudden but drastic changes to what is open or restricted or closed.

Let’s give it a few more weeks, but if we can see Europe as a whole start to credibly easy back with its new Covid case rates (they went up 11% over the last week, on top of an 18% rise the previous week and 49% the week before, so things are moving in the right direction) I think we can all start to think of travel again.  But all it would take is a nasty new Covid variant or some other wild card to invalidate that, so fingers crossed for now.

A New US Airline Edges Closer to Reality

It was perhaps the most promoted airline livery “reveal” ever.  For months I’ve been getting, several times a week – sometimes even several times a day – emails inviting, encouraging, exhorting me to go attend the debut appearance of the first plane for new airline, Northern Pacific Airways.  I didn’t go – it was to be held in Southern California, would have taken two or possible three days of my time, and was little more than a five minute glimpse of the new paint and colors on an otherwise ordinary old 757-200, surrounded by a lot of corporate chest-beating and bold platitudes.

Surprisingly though, or perhaps because their feelings were hurt, there was no formal press release or information pack sent out when the event actually took place earlier this week.  I guess “must be present to win”.

The airline is based in Alaska, and hopes to focus on international flights between major cities in the US and similarly major cities on the other side of the Pacific Rim.

The key element of this is all flights will pass through Anchorage.  They refer to this as the Icelandic model, hoping to echo the success of Icelandair and its connecting services through Reykjavik between North American and European cities.  Reykjavik is sort of on the great circle route between many such city pairs, and Northern Pacific are suggesting the same is true of their routes through Anchorage.

Is that correct?  More or less yes, as you can see from this table.

City Pair Nonstop Via ANC
LAX-NRT 5,451 5,779
LAX-SEL 5,968 6,121
ORD-NRT 6,274 6,279
ORD-SEL 6,533 6,622
JFK-NRT 6,745 6,819
JFK-SEL 6,892 7,161

But to simply look at the miles flown overlooks a key part of the issue.  Having to stop in Anchorage, get off one plane, wait a while, get on a second plane, then continue on to your destination, is much more impactful than simply getting on a plane at one end and staying on it until arriving at the ultimate destination.

A stop in the middle adds hassle, provides more chance for more things to go wrong, and lengthens the total journey time because of the extra time for however miles of detour to Anchorage, the time to descend and land, the time to deplane, wait, re-emplane, wait, take-off, climb back up to altitude, and resume the main part of the flight.  That is probably a two hour addition, even in a close-to-best case scenario.

Northern Pacific’s response and hope is again modeled on the Icelandair approach.  They will try to persuade passengers to see a stop in Anchorage as an advantage, not a disadvantage, and encourage them to break their journey for a day or two or three and enjoy a stop in Anchorage as a bonus part of their total travels.  That of course instantly zeroes out any appeal for business travelers, and I’m not sure how many leisure passengers would welcome regular stops in Anchorage as a feature of trips to Asia.

My guess?  It will all come down to schedules and, most of all, cost.  In the airline’s favor is the presumably low capital cost of the 757s it will operate, and the moderate sized passenger loads (200 max) they carry, making it possible to fill them up, and with the hub and spoke model, each flight leg can carry people traveling between many different cities, making it still easier to get good loads.

But the cost of two takeoffs and landings, and an extra airport landing fee in Anchorage add to the cost of transporting each passenger, and the cost per mile flown is higher in terms of consumables such as fuel on the 757 than it is on a 787.  The 757 also starts to run out of range; with little more than 4,000 miles of range.  That makes Miami to Anchorage okay if the winds and routing are favorable (4,004 miles) but makes Anchorage to Shanghai probably impossible (4,308 miles) and both Hong Kong (5,081) and Singapore impossible (6,665 miles).

So while I’m delighted to see a new US airline about to start service, I’m unconvinced it will prove to be a viable longer term airline, especially until it adds some longer ranged 787 or A330 planes to its fleet.

They have ordered six 757-200 planes; the first (pictured above) is an ex-AA plane and already 26 years old.  They hope to have a fleet of 12 planes in time for their launch, with the date they’ll start operations being earlier referred to as this summer, and now hopefully but vaguely referred to as some time in 2022.  Their Asian destinations will start by featuring Tokyo and Seoul, and their US markets services will include some or all of Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York, Las Vegas and Orlando.

Lots of Nonsense About 5G and Radio Altimeters

The airlines are masters at blaming everyone else for their own self-inflicted problems, and they have mastery of the media to ensure their story/excuse generally overrides rational treatment of any issue.  The current example of this is their demands that wireless companies not operate 5G towers anywhere near airport flight paths, for fear of interference between the 5G signals and the radio signals sent and received by radio altimeters.

Radio altimeters have been around for a long time (since the 1920s), with changing frequency allocations over the years, gradually moving up the frequency bands, both for more precision in measurements, smaller units and antennas, and also because lower frequency bands were becoming more valuable and low-value uses were being steadily pushed further up the frequency spectrum.

When the current generation of radio altimeters were developed. starting in the 1970s, they were given a new slice of the radio frequency spectrum that seemed far removed from anything in use by anyone else – a very generous 200 MHz band between 4.2 and 4.4 GHz.  So, some radio altimeter manufacturers designed sloppy circuits that didn’t bother to test for interference or spurious signals, because they didn’t think there’d ever be any such problem.  They probably saved $10 in doing this, on a unit they probably sold for well over $10,000.

But, gradually, other users have been taking up more and more of the spectrum, and getting close to and even going above the slice set aside for radio altimeters, and now most of the spectrum is allocated, all the way up to 300 GHz.

This is a slice of the chart around the 4.2 – 4.4 GHz range.  The entire chart can be seen here (it is dated January 2016 but there has been no updated one published subsequently).  You’ll see that every allocated use fills a space, and there are no gaps between spaces.  You’ll also see that the slice given to radio altimeters is unusually large compared to many other use allocations (and, truth to tell, way larger than is needed).

But now the radio altimeter manufacturers and their clients, the airlines, are saying “We never knew we couldn’t spill over into other frequencies above or below the ones we were allocated.  That’s not fair.  We should be allowed to break the rules.”

Actually, and this proves the underlying lie.  It isn’t even all radio altimeter manufacturers and all airlines.  About half the units on US planes have no problems “coloring within the lines” of their frequency allocation.  But the airlines don’t want to have to junk the older units and buy new conforming units, and so they are now threatening either more mass flight cancellations or planes falling uncontrollably out of the sky, and asking us to believe it is not their fault, nor the fault of the non-compliant radio altimeters they bought, but rather it is the fault of the nasty FCC and greedy wireless companies for allocating and using radio frequencies that were never given to and never belonged to radio altimeters.

The airlines are also playing their other game splendidly here – the “delaying” game.  They are saying it is not fair that they suddenly found out that frequencies that were never theirs are now going to be used by other companies for other purposes.  The truth is they’ve known for two years about this, and they’ve done nothing to plan for it.

The usually sensible President of Emirates describes this as the biggest screwup of his career, claiming his airline was unaware of some of the issues until this week.  Emirates cancelled flights to nine of the US cities it serves this week.  If that is true, then the big screwup is all the fault of his airline, not of the FCC and the mobile companies at all.  There have been plenty of articles dating back to early 2020 about this issue.  How did Emirates not see any of them?  Why didn’t they buy better radio altimeters in the first place?

So, bottom line – is there a potential risk between 5G cellular tower signals and radio altimeters?  Not at all for well-designed radio altimeters with decent notch filters and the ability to filter out in-band interference from their own signals.  But, potentially yes for badly designed radio altimeters that have a ridiculously broad frequency pickup and little or no filtering.

Who is responsible for this?  The radio altimeter manufacturers, perhaps the FAA for certifying devices that did not follow best-practice design, and, a distant third, the airlines who bought them.

Who should resolve the problem?  The radio altimeter manufacturers (and, in the absence of resolution from them, the airlines and/or the FAA).

What liability/responsibility do the wireless companies have?  None, unless a device malfunctions, and because such events are foreseeable, the onus somewhat shifts, again, to the radio altimeter manufacturers, who are designing and selling a mission-critical device, to include detector and discriminator circuits to minimize and report on any such signal interference.

The last time the airlines relied on a device that only works until it fails ended miserably (ie the 737 MAX with its reliance on a single sensor that was known to have reliability issues).  If the radio altimeter is as essential as they’re now claiming, how on earth did they get to accept such poorly designed ones to start with?

AA’s Typical Bullying Might Not Work This Time

The airlines love to bully “the little guy”.  The mere threat of a federal court case is enough to stop most people in their tracks, even if they’re in the right.  It is easy to make even the simplest seeming of court cases run into a year or more of depositions and motions and discovery, and to ring up six figure sums in legal bills (potentially even seven) plus five figure sums for expert witnesses (potentially six) just to “keep up” with all the legal maneuvering of the other side and not end up defaulting on a motion response or discovery request and losing a case you’d otherwise win.

So we sometimes see airlines suing internet sites to stop them helping people to buy/sell frequent flier awards or encouraging and helping them to buy “hidden city” and “throwaway” fares, even though the winability of their cases is highly questionable.  To the airline, a million dollar court case is a trivial cost and justifiable if it can help them in their “revenue protection” goals.  For a guy with a small hobby website, it means his home and life savings are fully at risk.

So AA’s latest action, seeking to prevent a site from tracking people’s frequent flier mile accumulation and status, based on the least plausible of grounds, seemed like another slam-dunk win for the airline.  But AA failed to appreciate that the website in question, while originally a mom and pop type operation, is now owned by a company valued at over $11 billion, and the company pro-actively sued AA first!

Here’s the story, told by Gary Leff.  We hope this has an unexpected and happy ending.

Airplane Competition from China and Russia?

This article worries about two new planes, one being developed in China (the C919) and the other in Russia (the MC-21).  Both are similar to the 737/A320 type single aisle planes.  And both of course have large local markets that their governments will help them sell into, which is a point often overlooked when Airbus, Boeing, and industry commentators in general sneer and laugh at them.

It is true that both these two planes are generally inferior to the Airbus/Boeing planes.  But it really doesn’t matter, in sales, if your competitor is better or worse than you.  It only matters if you make the sale or they do, and there’s no comfort if the two western manufacturers have to wave away future sales of their key airplane families to the huge airplane market in China, the not-so-large market in Russia, plus the other markets in aligned countries that will obediently buy whatever Beijing and/or Moscow tells them to buy.

To my mind, that is probably the biggest risk.  There’s not a lot of chance either plane will be seen operating flights for a US airline between New York and Chicago.  But with about 200 MC-21s already ordered by Russian and related airlines, and anywhere from under 200 to as many as 1,000 orders for the C-919, that’s a big chunk of sales taken away from Airbus/Boeing already.  These two planes could also be a stepping stone to a re-invigorated Russian aerospace industry (it used to be very large in Soviet times) and a growing Chinese industry, too, with more plane types already being talked about as following in the future.

Both Airbus and Boeing need to realize that their increasingly antiquated single-aisle narrow-body planes are not just competing against each other, but also against newer designs from China and Russia.  Perhaps this should be a reason to accelerate their plans to come up with new successor models, so as to ring-fence the intruder planes into their home countries only and nowhere else.

The Russians in particular have shown themselves willing to put good business sense ahead of national pride, which is why their aerospace industry collapsed – the western planes were just so much better than the last generation of Russian/Soviet planes.  If Airbus/Boeing present compelling products, some/most of those airlines might remain clients.  The Chinese will be harder to win back, and the more established the C919 becomes, the harder it will be.

Can I Say “I told you so”?

I’ve been less than enthusiastic at the thought of mega-ship Covid cruising, particularly during the latest Omicron variant outbreak.  I’ve occasionally heard horror stories about what it is like to be confined to your cabin for the balance of a cruise, with some people reporting appalling food standards and a level of service more akin to a jail than an expensive cruise ship.  Worst of all, it turns out the unlimited drink prepaid packages don’t apply to room-service drinks!

At least one redeeming feature has been that if you managed to avoid the virus, your cruise would likely continue, apart from maybe a port or two turning the ship away.  But this cruise ended up cancelling itself, half-way through, and so in mid-ocean, simply turned around and headed back to New York, four days away.

While passengers had their cruise costs refunded, and were given a credit to apply against a future cruise, it is unclear if they also received assistance changing air travel arrangements from New York back to their home.  Additionally, for those of us with limited vacation time each year, it is a sad waste of precious vacation time to end up with a cruise that comprised four days at sea rather than stops each day in interesting ports.

Why Didn’t Elon Think of This – Oh, wait…..

One of the big problems of electric vehicles is the time it takes to recharge them.

Part of that problem is that while faster charging is possible, it massively increases the cost to the service providing the charging, it stresses the national power grid, and it also accelerates the wear and decreases the life of the batteries.  So, at least until some as-yet mythical new battery technology finally starts appearing in new EVs, we’re all stuck with the “best case” scenario of an hour for a charge, give or take a few minutes and percentage points.

But there’s a wonderful low-cost and low-tech solution that would resolve all of this.  Battery swaps.  Why not, instead of charging your battery for an hour each time it runs low, you just swap it over, much like you can do with a propane cylinder.

Of course, as we know, sometimes you swap a nice new propane cylinder you recently bought yourself for a nasty old rusty one, but that can be solved one of two ways when we’re talking about $20,000 battery packs rather than $20 propane cylinders.

The first solution is simple.  As long as the battery packs can be swapped and reswapped, who cares if sometimes you get a better or worse one than the one you were swapping out?  In the long run, it will balance out, and it doesn’t matter at all.  None of the packs are really yours, you’re simply borrowing a pack and buying the charge within it each time you do a swap.

The second solution is to monitor the life of each pack, and give you credits (or charge you debits) if there’s a material difference between the pack you’re returning and the pack you’re receiving.

However it is done, it is the most trivial of issues.  Swapping battery packs could be and should be an under five minute operation, probably done robotically.  Better still would be if multiple cars all shared the same battery pack configuration, making it easier for the swap-stations to keep an inventory of fewer different battery types.

The thing is, Elon Musk has already thought of this.  He earlier promised that the Tesla Model S would feature a swappable battery pack.  As I remember, this promise qualified him for a substantial grant from California, and in return, he built a “proof of compliance” single battery swap station somewhere, and I think even built a few Model S vehicles that could have their batteries easily swapped in and out.  But after having done a staged demonstration swap or two, the concept was de-emphasized and quietly forgotten about.

We should return to this concept.  It could be a great concept for our present administration to promote in their actions to encourage electric vehicles.  Rather than funding ridiculously slow charging stations (taking many hours to recharge a battery), why not encourage the EV manufacturers to use swappable (and ideally compatible) battery packs, and subsidize the battery swap points.

And, oh yes, the Chinese are already doing it.  They are doing battery swaps in three minutes – that’s about the same or less time than it takes to pump a tank of gas these days (have you noticed how petrol pumps are going slower and slower?).  If the Chinese can do this, why not us, too?

And Lastly This Week….

So it is only a dollar or two a month.  That’s a cost so trivial that probably none of us would notice.  At least, that’s what Netflix is hoping, with its latest round of increases in monthly service fees.  Most of us will see the fee either increase from $13.99 to $15.49, or from $17.99 to $19.99, depending on the option we chose.

So, $19.99 a month?  That is still cheaper than buying Blu-ray discs, right?  Yes, but it is also $240/year, and possibly with taxes on top of the Netflix fee.  Many of us can remember, not all that many years ago, when we were paying less than $10/month.

The biggest challenge is when you are paying for two or three (or more) similar subscription services, all at similar prices.  I guess one thing it does is underscore the value in Amazon’s Prime membership, which pays for itself with its included free Prime video streaming alone.  At what point will people start cutting back the number of streaming services they subscribe to?

That’s actually a timely question.  Yesterday the Netflix share price dropped almost 20% in a single day, due to news of their subscriber growth rate slowing.

I really thought we’d seen the end of the Stratolaunch bizarre one-off airplane thing, but apparently not.  It flew for a third time on Sunday after a 4 1/2 hour test flight.  I remain doubtful of its ability to ever become commercially viable, but it is nice to see it doing something that it seems so ill-suited for – actually flying!  Pictures here.

Lastly, if you’re feeling, as I sometimes do, increasingly detached from so much of the madness of the modern world, and wishing to truly get away from it all. maybe this is the job for you – managing a pub and other facilities on a tiny island off the west coast of England.

Until next week, please stay healthy and happy

 

David.

 

 

 

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