Weekly Roundup, January 7, 2022

There was a time when a search for an image of “a person holding a blackberry” would have brought up many and very different images to this one. Alas, no longer (see final item).

 

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Good morning

How are the New Year Resolutions holding up?  My two perennial ones – eat less and exercise more – didn’t really last out 1 January.  But I’m proceeding apace with the big life-changing one, more on that when there are definite things to be shared.

I had something that has never happened to me before occur on Wednesday morning.  I turned the computer on (yes, I’ve done that many times before).  The screen lit up, and I noticed a teeny tiny spider crawling across the screen.  I tried to blow it away, but it seemed too small to be dislodged, so I got a piece of paper and tried to wipe it off the screen.  Still no effect.

Okay, no more Mr Nice Guy.  I tried to squash it, at which point I discovered – it was not on the outside of the screen, but on the inside.  I didn’t even know that was possible.  How did it get there?  How could I get it out?

It continued to amble about the screen (probably also wondering how to get out) and was a very annoying distraction.  Eventually I called Vizio and asked them for help.

This was where things became surreal.  First of all, the girl couldn’t understand what a spider was.  “There’s a line on your screen?”.  We moved forward, with no more than a necessary amount of shouting on my part, and the next rendition was “You have a spider’s web on your screen?”.

Eventually, without too extensive a biology lesson, she finally understood.  Her solution was to turn the screen off and on again, and do a full reset.

I wondered out loud exactly what effect turning the screen on and off would have on the spider.  But the girl was not to be swayed, and said it was the next step on her troubleshooting list, so we had to do that.

Feeling like the one-eyed man in the kingdom of the blind (remember, in the story, he eventually gives in and blinds himself) I did as she instructed, at the end of which, the spider was still there.  The girl then came to the next line of the troubleshooting, which clearly read “Blame the customer, end the call”.  She said “It seems you must have damaged the screen, and that doesn’t fall within our warranty.”  The screen has been sitting, unmoving, on my desk since I bought it, with its only excursion being to the dining table for when a service man had to replace a faulty motherboard shortly after buying it.

But because that was the last line of her checklist, appeals to rational reason failed.  Eventually, I got her to grudgingly agree to switch me to a level two support person.

The level two person had a different script to follow.  She went straight to her bottom line.  “A spider?  Oh, yeah, that sometimes happens.  But it isn’t a manufacturing defect, so it isn’t covered by our warranty.”

Just keep that in mind next time you’re choosing a screen.  Vizio screens are designed to allow spiders to come set up home inside them, and it is a feature, not a fault.

Oh, Vizio have another trick up their sleeves, too.  My other Vizio screen – the big 75″ one – now has grey horizontal lines on it.  They’ve agreed to fix it under warranty, but they’re now insisting to see original proof of purchase before they’ll send someone out.  A credit card receipt is apparently not good enough.  I don’t have the register printed receipt, and even if I did, the heat-sensitive ink has probably faded between now and then.  I’d registered the set with Vizio within a day or two of purchase, because I needed extensive help from them (and never received it) trying to get it calibrated, and they never indicated that a proof of purchase was needed, either then or later, and they even sent a repair person out to fix the smaller screen without asking for purchase proof either.  I’m guessing that the repair for these horizontal lines is actually going to have to be a replacement of a screen gone bad, and clearly they’re now ducking and diving, trying to avoid liability.

Note to self :  Only buy from Costco or Amazon…..

Still thinking of electronics, this is the week of the annual Consumer Electronic Show in Las Vegas.  It was decided, in the happy days during the middle of last year that it would be safe to have a regular in-person show again for 2022, after making the 2021 show a “virtual show”.  But in mid December, a large number of major exhibitors and attendees started to have second thoughts, with the result the show is half live and half virtual.  A disappointment and frustration for everyone, whichever type of show they wanted.

They also shifted the dates.  Usually the show is in the first half of the week, so I can write about it on Thursday night, with the show complete and enough time passed for a vague sense of what was hot and what was not to coalesce and allow me to give you a sensible report on the show.  But this time, the show is in the second part of the week (I’ve no idea why the dates changed).  So, although I’ve virtually “visited” over a hundred small and sometimes interesting exhibitors, I don’t yet have any sense for any major themes running through the show and what the major exhibitors (assuming any remain) are doing.  So I’ll hold that over until next week.

There is, of course, Thursday’s Covid Diary entry attached (I see it is the 275th Covid article, in just under two years) where I think I have a worldwide scoop.  The “over a million new Covid cases” that the US allegedly suffered on Monday never happened.  I’m going to guess that one journalist, somewhere, made a foolish mistake, and every other journalist rushed to copy his headline-grabbing claim without checking the source or stopping to think about the unlikely nature of the number.

Sunday’s Covid diary entry is online.  No scoops, but some hopefully useful insights all the same.

And also, plenty more following, below :

  • US Air Passenger Numbers?  Hard to Say
  • International Travel Update
  • Boeing’s Four New Year Resolutions
    • Sell More Planes in 2022
    • Start Delivering 787s Again
    • Fairly Win the Next Air Force Tanker Tender
    • New Airplanes
  • Airbus New Year Resolution, Too
  • When is a Flight Cancellation Not a Cancellation?
  • Keeping What is Theirs
  • And Lastly This Week….

US Air Passenger Numbers?  Hard to Say

One of the brightest lights in the Covid firmament has been, believe it or not, the TSA, who almost without fail have every day promptly released, by 9am Eastern time, a count of the number of passengers who passed through their airport checkpoints the previous day.  This gives a great and instant feel for “where we are”, using 2019 as a baseline for “normal” numbers.  Last I accurately reported it, on 31 December, the previous seven day average was running at about 82.4% of the 2019 number.

But something happened on 1 January, and there’s now a “data anomaly” in the TSA’s past year numbers.  After some spectacularly failed attempts at finding someone at the TSA who would acknowledge this, I’ve now found a lovely lady who is actually even based in the Seattle area.  We’ve been having discussions about the attempts of our respective daughters to drive in our brief burst of snow a week ago.

She’s been trying to get clarification from the TSA statistical people, and called me triumphantly on Thursday morning to announce the problem resolved.  But as soon as I had a chance to speak, I pointed out how it has not been resolved and still exists, so she is back to the drawing board.

I can guess that numbers are remaining fairly stable at close to that same 82% level, but I’ll hold back the chart until the TSA have cleaned up the numbers.

International Travel Update

It continues to be a crazy mess of contradictions.  Some countries (for example, England) are liberalizing their travel restrictions, sensibly reasoning “people from other countries are no more dangerous than our own residents, so what’s the point”.  Other countries are selectively opening and closing their borders to people from various countries, and I think, if I remember rightly, France has currently tightened up on people from the US.

Anything I tell you today might change tomorrow, but one thing won’t change in the next few days – my recommendation not to travel outside the US unless you must.  Even if Omicron is less dangerous, as happily seems to be the case, the challenges of complying with varying requirements to enter/leave countries, and to enjoy restaurants, bars, and sightseeing while you’re there, make it all much more hassle than is fun.

I continue to expect this to change, and for the better, in the next three months.  But for the next month, expect things to be difficult and rapidly changing.

Also of note, although most cruise lines pretended not to hear the CDC recommendation not to go cruising in the next little while, there are some cruise sailings being cancelled by the more responsible (and/or, the worst affected) cruise lines.  Plus there are stories of cruise ships not being allowed into ports due to unacceptably high levels of Covid cases on board.  Cruising just doesn’t look like much fun at all, at present.

Boeing’s Four New Year Resolutions

If I were the Boeing CEO, I’d have (at least) four resolutions for 2022.  It looks like, so far, Boeing is doing okay on one of those, while it is unsurprisingly way too soon to say for the other three.

1.  Sell More Planes in 2022

Neither Airbus nor Boeing have finalized their order counts for 2021 yet, although it seems Boeing is currently the odds-on favorite to come out ahead.  That would make a welcome change from 2020, when Airbus rang up 268 new orders, and Boeing netted a negative number – 1,026 orders cancelled.  2019 was not much better, with Airbus selling 768, and Boeing having net cancellations of 87.  (2018 was a win for Boeing, and the nine of the ten previous years saw Airbus winning).

For sure though, Boeing wants to and needs to sell some more planes this year.  Its forward order count has dwindled down to 4,210 at the end of November, against a count of 7,036 for Airbus.

Sure, you might say “that is five years production, that’s not a problem”.  But that isn’t how the forward orders work.  An airline might order planes as far as ten years ahead, so those five years of full production actually represent more years of limited rather than full production.  Boeing probably has unsold planes scheduled to be produced during this year which it is very keen to fill.  I should also point out that airplane production rates are cumbersome and very difficult to adjust – either up or down.  It takes months of forward planning to arrange for a product rate increase, and much negotiation with suppliers (and labor unions) for rates to decrease.

Happily, every cloud has a silver lining, and Boeing’s sparse order book helped it to win an order from Allegiant for fifty new 737-MAX planes this week.  Allegiant currently operates a fleet of older A319 and A320 planes, and it seems that Airbus couldn’t offer it any deliveries of newly ordered planes for some years, whereas Boeing could.  And also, ahem, it is likely Boeing heavily discounted the planes to get an “in” at Allegiant.

Still, a win is a win, and that’s a great start to Boeing’s 2022.  Perhaps not such a great start for Allegiant, though – its share price dropped on the news, with some analysts worried that expensive new planes would eat into the airline’s low-cost operating model.

2.  Start Delivering 787s Again

The 20 month ground-stop on all 737 MAX planes, world-wide, is something we’ll remember for a very long time.

Not quite so prominently appreciated are the fifteen months now that Boeing has been unable to deliver any 787 planes, due to several vexing issues.  That’s an enormously impactful problem, too – Boeing can only report the sales in its P&L when the planes have been delivered and paid for.  Plus, Boeing is continuing to incur costs in keeping its production line open and making planes that it can’t yet deliver.

It is even thought that Airbus has enjoyed a small windfall of new A330 sales due to Boeing’s freeze on the 787.  That’s a double blow to Boeing – it can’t complete its own sales, and it has to watch Airbus scooping up new sales that Boeing “deserved” to win.

Best case scenario, the soonest Boeing might be able to restart deliveries is April.  Worst case scenario?  Well, how long is a piece of string….

3.  Fairly Win the Next Air Force Tanker Tender

The Air Force is now ready to order the next tranche of new tanker aircraft.  The last time around saw an incredibly long and convoluted process, resulting in a “win” by Boeing that was not only, well, shall we say, “surprising”, but also a win that, while giving Boeing a contract for some 767-converted tankers, probably has ended up costing Boeing more in contract penalties and cost overruns than it hoped to make in profits.  A pyrrhic victory indeed, although it kept arch-competitor Airbus out of the Air Force.

But what about this next bidding process?  Boeing clearly is concerned, because it seems to be deploying all its “friendly” journalists to start writing articles about Airbus and the tanker contract – articles that seem to be woefully one-sided and far from fully accurate or fair.  This article discusses how Boeing is trying to tilt the tables in its favor.

4.  New Airplane(s)

Last, but definitely not least, Boeing needs to finally do something to solve the two huge problems it is struggling with.  The first is the gap between its largest 737 and smallest 787 – a gap formerly filled by the 757, but now being filled only by the Airbus A321.  This has been a problem for twenty years – from when the 757 ceased to be an actively sold plane around about 2002, to now.  That’s an astonishingly long time to do nothing except watch your competitor eat your lunch every day.

Boeing also needs to switch from the defensive (and undefendable) with its obsolete 737 series of jets, and replace them with a clean sheet new design full of “best practices” and minor design tweaks (like a few more inches of width between the cabin sides) so it becomes a plane with best-of-class operating efficiencies and best-of-class passenger experience.  Currently, the 737 MAX series is marginal at best in terms of operating costs, and behind the newer A320 series for passenger experience issues.

While not quite as longstanding a problem as the gap left by the retirement of the 757 product range, it is every bit as real a problem, with Airbus winning more than half of all single aisle plane orders at present – even when its prices are higher and the wait for deliveries is longer.

This too is a long-standing issue Boeing has been unable to bring itself to resolve.  It was a problem certainly from the time Airbus announced the A320neo series of planes in 2010, and a not so urgent problem prior to then.

Airbus New Year Resolution, Too

Perhaps the biggest challenge for Airbus is to try and not look too smug as it enjoys its turn at being the clear market leader, and not to become too complacent in that position.  It too needs to be thinking about the successor plane to the A320 series, and how to time that against whatever Boeing might finally do and when and what and how.

It also needs to decide if it will develop a larger A220-500 plane.  Well, it seems the question is more an issue of when rather than whether, and this decision ties in with the plan for the A320 line.

The A220-100 (seating 100-120 passengers) is smaller than the smallest 737 or A320 series plane, but the A220-300 (120-150 passengers is a credible alternative to the smaller Airbus and Boeing single-aisle planes.  The A220-500 would of course be larger than the -300 (final configuration details not yet released), moving it into the middle of the “sweet spot” for most 737/A320 configurations.

If Airbus keeps the A320 models as current models, it would not want a new A220-500 competing against its own planes (although it would love to see the plane taking still more orders away from Boeing).  But if it develops the A220-500, it can shift the general size range of the A320-replacement up to a larger size, and that would help it close the gap in the middle between the A320 and 737 and between the A330 or 350 and the 787.  While the A321 is doing that adequately at present, it is an imperfect and default option, succeeding mainly because of the lack of anything better from either company.

If Boeing gets its act together with a 757 replacement, Airbus will struggle to meet that with just the A321.  There has been discussion of an even larger A322, but the other and better (but more expensive) approach is to change the A220 from just the small part of the market to the small and medium/small part, and then the new A320-successor can be the medium and medium/large part of the market – countering whatever new plane Boeing develops, and also putting pressure on smaller 787 planes.

Boeing can’t do this.  It needs its 737-replacement to go from the very small size up to whatever size, because is doesn’t have an alternate range for the bottom end of the market.  That was part of why it wanted Embraer, so it could do exactly what Airbus can now do – have the Embraer products compete against both the A220 and smaller A320 models, and then come up with a single new plane to compete against the larger A320s and fill in the 757 gap too.

So, yes, currently Boeing is being squeezed between a rock and a hard place, while Airbus watches smugly.

However, Airbus is not without its challenges.  Such as, for example, how to placate the airline and executive who probably are the world’s most difficult airline and executive to please – Qatar Airways and its mercurial CEO, Akbar Al Baker.  Currently they are demanding $618 million in compensation from Airbus (a number that grows larger by another $4 million every day) due to what they claim to be quality control problems with the A350 planes they’ve received.

It does seem there are some problems, but exactly how severe they are is in dispute.  It is a nasty argument and has been going on for too long already.  Let’s just say we’re uncertain if Qatar Airways’ next airplane order will be given to Airbus.  Details here.  The airline currently operates A320, A330, A350 and A380 planes from Airbus, and 777 and 787 planes from Boeing.

When is a Flight Cancellation Not a Cancellation?

The FAA gratuitously “did a solid” (a phrase that always makes me think of toilet-type doings) for its friends in the airlines when it advised of the potential for ongoing flight delays into the new year.  Not cancellations.  Just flights that are delayed – so long they never actually take off.

There certainly have been some continuing cancellations.  On Thursday, AA cancelled 107 flights, Delta cancelled 66, and United cancelled 245.  Southwest however had to do a special walk of shame all by itself – it cancelled a stunning 659 flights – 21% of its total schedule for the day.  These cancellations (and associated delays) do seem to be more fairly weather related, as is suggested by looking at the misery index time series map on FlightAware.

Keeping What is Theirs

Half the government functionaries seem to ignore the presence of the virus and all its disruption, and insist on everything being done the same as “normal”, even though we’re in something unthinkably removed from normal.  The other half seize upon the virus as an excuse to transition from bad service to no service at all.

We could debate which approach is worse, but we can agree that both are bad.  An example of the former is the EU, which requires airlines that have slots at in-demand airports to “use them or lose them”.  In normal times, that is fair.  It is one of the oldest tricks in the airlines’ books of tricks to hold onto scarce landing/take-off rights (ie “slots”) simply to keep competing airlines from getting into airports that the current airline happily dominates and can price tickets higher to/from.

But the times are not normal, and all airlines are suffering reduced passenger numbers and so are prudently reducing their flights to match the reduced level of demand.  Oh yes, and that also helps “save the planet”.  The EU typically requires airlines to operate at least 80% of the theoretical take-offs and landings they have rights for if they want to keep them, and has reduced that percentage to 50% due to Covid (and slated to rise back to 64% in April).

But international flights in/out of Europe have been cut back a lot more than domestic flights within the US, and some airlines with primarily longer-haul route systems can not keep operating flights, even at the 50% level.  Most notably, Lufthansa says that if it has to use half its slots this winter, it will need to fly 18,000 unnecessary and possibly even totally empty flights.  Other airlines will need to operate smaller but still substantial numbers of unnecessary and loss-making flights.

The EU has yet to respond to the realities of the industry.  No-one seems to be asking them to continue insisting on unnecessary flights, but common sense is a rare commodity in the EU’s unaccountable bureaucracy.  Details here.

And Lastly This Week….

Elon Musk’s wonderful new Starlink internet service has simple small satellite dishes that you can even place on the ground.  They point more or less straight up, and have a very clever feature – they have a heater circuit for the winter, melting any snow that collects in the dish and which might otherwise interfere with the dish’s ability to send and receive an internet signal.

Apparently, these heated dishes can provide other benefits, to other beneficiaries, too.

Still thinking of Mr Musk, his vision for sending men to Mars is bold and positive.  He is to be admired for setting a very aspirational goal, and if anyone could achieve it, he is probably the person who could and maybe even can/will.  But I wonder if his vision extends to cannibalism?

To close the week with a close, Blackberry finally discontinued support for its operating system this week.  If you’ve a traditional Blackberry with a keyboard, you know this already.  The end of an era (although I did notice a new phone being shown at CES this week with a physical keyboard, and running regular Android – only available in the UK not US at present).

I think I owned three or four Blackberries, plus had some other more cludgy “work around” keyboarded phones as well.  They were great at the time, but that was then and this is now.  The iPhone, in 2007, marked the end of the Blackberry; it just took a long time to die.

I love to see a well-turned phrase in a good article, and this one caught my eye :  “The pandemic seems like a Möbius strip of bad news”.  The article’s main heading was clever enough, too – “A Nation on Hold Wants to Speak With a Manager“.  You have to wonder how it is possible for any rational company to equate good customer service with making their Customer Service impossible to contact, hiding real people behind obscured phone numbers on websites and at the end of exhausting phone menu-trees that do all they can to keep you away from a live person.  Those same companies of course then choose the cheapest contractors in the furtherest away countries, and give them neither the skills, training, knowledge, nor discretion to actually solve problems.  So it is an article that resonated with me.

As an aside though, I found myself speaking to a delightful lady at Best Buy Customer Service earlier this week.  She understood my problem, solved it positively, and then offered me a $50 gift certificate as an apology for the inconvenience.  Wow.  Best Buy was also very pro-active at telling me about delays to the shipment, whereas Amazon these days disguises its frequent delays by simply sending you a happy-making message telling you when your shipment will arrive, but omitting to mention the new arrival date is some time later than the original promised date, and hoping you won’t notice.  There was a time when Amazon’s typical response to a late shipment was to give you a free month of Prime Membership as compensation.  Then it became a $5 gift certificate, unwillingly given after much fuss.  Now, it seems to be nothing.

One other interesting article, about the possibly soon-to-transpire next stage of Putin’s Grand European Tour – ie, the conquest of the rest of Ukraine, an event possibly briefly delayed by a detour in the form of a “Peacekeeping Force” being sent to Kazakhstan.  Who would have thought that the roots of this conflict might rest in some objects believed to be in New York, and the bizarre actions of the DHS by choosing to search the wrong church (and therefore not find the objects in question).

Mind you, that’s not as bizarre as the story we’re expected to believe about how the FBI found plenty of incriminating tapes and disks at Jeffrey Epstein’s New York townhouse, but then left them there, untouched and unguarded, because their search warrant was only to search for such things, not to then impound any things so found.  It took them an unthinkable four days – not four hours, not four minutes – to get a new warrant to authorize the seizing of the evidence.  In the meantime, the evidence had – get ready for this surprise – disappeared.  See, for example, here.

It took me a while to grow into appreciating Leonard Bernstein and his music, but now I wholeheartedly agree with all who hail his score to West Side Story as one of the outstanding musical achievements of the 20th century.  It is a tour-de-force composition of raw and deep emotion, and technically is brilliantly orchestrated and developed.  If you feel similarly, here’s a lovely documentary on Bernstein recording a “professional” version of the music, with professional high-end opera singers, and himself conducting the orchestra.  It gives a great insight into how the music first gets into the score, and then takes on a life of its own through the performance and is shaped by the conductor into a work with a unique personality.  Many composers are bad conductors, even of their own work (for example, Stravinsky was notoriously awful).  But Bernstein was brilliant in both aspects of music making and it is a lovely documentary.

I mention this for two specific timely reasons.  The first is the new Spielberg version of the musical/movie, West Side Story, now in theaters.  I’ve not seen it, but apparently it is brilliantly filmed and well acted/sung.

The other is the death of the lyricist who wrote the words for West Side Story, Stephen Sondheim.  I’d been going to say “a couple of weeks ago” but I see it was actually November 26 last year.  Time rushes by….  With that sad passing also in mind, here’s a second very much shorter video which tells the amazing story of one of the musical’s biggest/best-loved numbers, “Somewhere”.  Although I am familiar with the pieces cited in that video, I’d never joined the dots together the way the presenter does.  Absolutely fascinating.

On that musical note, I shall leave you until next Friday, all going well.

Until then, please stay healthy and happy

 

David.

 

 

 

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