Weekly Roundup, February 18, 2022

Not a sight you’ll see any more – leastways not with the name “Crystal Serenity” on the bow. See last item.


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Good morning

I was looking at used car prices this week, and realized the statistic in a chart part-way down this article is no exaggeration – used car prices do indeed seem to have increased 40.5% in a year.  But I don’t agree with the claim that meat and poultry is up 12.2% – it seems most of the cuts of meat I buy (cheap not expensive ones!) are up way more than that.  Since when did it become normal to pay well over $100 for a modest sized piece of prime rib (with plenty of that weight in the bones) to roast?  Seeing pieces of shrink-wrapped meat in the supermarket meat case with $150 prices on them is still a shock I’m struggling to adjust to.

When will we finally get ahead of chip shortages that have bedeviled us for two years now?  Although not for chip reasons, it certainly seems that VW and Porsche prices won’t be dropping any time soon.

On the other hand, many of us are beneficiaries of the uncontrolled soaring in house prices.  But if you only own one home, that’s a hollow victory, because you can’t readily spend your increasing equity in your home, and if you sell it, you still need somewhere to live.  We’re not benefitting, while younger people are now struggling to get a foot on the property ladder.  Who wins from this?

I have been pre-occupied this week with several non-travel issues.  And I’ve got to say, researching used cars is even more challenging than new cars, with so many more variables to consider, and a broader range of choices.  Trying to reach back to find the differences in model years and what they mean in practical every day drivability, for example, and trying to assess the trade-offs between older/cheaper but less remaining life/higher cost of repairs (and fewer modern features) is never easy.  The thought of simply repairing my Land Rover becomes more appealing every day, as a “coward’s way out” of this conundrum – or, at least it did, until I saw it prominently (and perhaps deservedly) featured in this article.  As you may recall, I’ve written two articles on this topic so far.  I’d say there’s at least another article or two in this process to write about, but it won’t be me writing it, because I just can’t see any way to reduce this morass of uncertainty into any simple series of steps and suggestions.

Meantime, I still can’t quite break the Covid diary habit.  Thursday’s is attached, and Sunday’s is online, here.

Please note the reader survey immediately below, and of course, the usual mix of the unusual also :

  • Reader Survey – Travel This Summer?
  • US Air Passenger Numbers
  • International Travel Update
  • An Example of the Potential Dangers of a National No-Fly List
  • The Oldest Excuse in the World
  • No Excuse for Naughty Dogs on Planes
  • Even the Californians are Turning Away from their New Train Project
  • Amtrak Has the Opposite Problem
  • Could It Possibly Be that Richard Branson is Exaggerating?
  • And Lastly This Week….

Reader Survey – Travel This Summer?

I’m having growing numbers of readers writing for advice about travel this summer, and some also enquiring if there’ll be any Travel Insider Tours.  In both cases, the answer is very much “I don’t know”, and so I decided to turn to the “Brains Trust” for advice – ie, to run a Reader Survey.  Please do share your thoughts.

What do you plan to do for this summer?  Will things be back to 2019 style travel?  Perhaps with a bit of extra caution?  Will you wait and see?  Restrict your travel to closer to home destinations?  Or?

Please click the answer that best matches your current thinking.  If several answers apply, please click several answers, that is a fair response too.

As is usually the case, clicking an answer should cause your email browser to create a new email to me with your answer coded into the subject line.  I’ll add everything up and report on the answers next week.

I’m going to travel more this summer to make up for lost time

I’ll travel the same as “normal” (ie prior to 2019)

I will travel and have already made commitments to do so

I hope to travel but am holding off making commitments for a while, yet

I’ll probably travel, but not so far away, nor for so long

I’m really not certain at all about what to expect

I’m going to stay close to home this year

Some other response (send your thoughts in the body of the email)

It will be very helpful to us all to see what the collective wisdom of Travel Insiders suggests.  Many thanks for sharing your thoughts.

US Air Passenger Numbers

That was quick.  No sooner had I predicted, last week, a general rise in air passenger numbers, possibly up to and then continuing to pass last year’s better periods and numbers, than look what happened.  Numbers shot up, and are continuing to rise.

With US Covid cases having almost halved in the last week, this is not unexpected, and there’s growing pressure on airlines and airports to end mask mandates.  On the other hand, while case numbers are plunging, the continued elevated numbers of deaths (over 2,000 a day) are mute testimony to the dangers of ignoring the Covid risk entirely.  If we do abandon all masking, we must be prepared for the consequences.

International Travel Update

I was helping a couple of Travel Insiders with a cruise for later in the year, and they reminded me of a very relevant point.  Most travel insurance policies are not covering you for travel delays in case you test positive for Covid prior to flying back home to the US, and have to spend a week or more in isolation, marooned somewhere, potentially an airport hotel of all awful places, and eating only room service meals slid under the door.  That is both expensive and unpleasant, and a risk which, in some countries, has certainly been tangibly present over the last few months.

With many countries abandoning the need for testing prior to arrival, because they quite sensibly recognize that incoming visitors are no more a threat than local citizens, it seems the US and its requirement for everyone to be tested in the 24 hours prior to flying to the US is now again becoming an outlier with a stricter policy.

So the note of concern at present is more about returning to the US than it is about traveling internationally and what happens in the countries you visit.

In a note of confidence, Air France announced this week to release a summer flight schedule between the US and France that would have 20% more flights operating than in summer 2019.  Keep in mind though that, currently, travel to France requires you not only to have submitted to the jabs, but to have accepted a “booster” jab as well.

An Example of the Potential Dangers of a National No-Fly List

I prophetically wrote last week of the tendency of flight attendants to file anticipatory complaints against passengers who they fear will be going to file complaints against themselves and other flight attendants.  I’ve read credible accounts of this happening before, and when people complain about how the police will close ranks and protect each other from public complaints, they’ve not seen anything compared to what can happen when a group of flight attendants scheme and plot to protect one of their own, or all of their own on a particular flight.  And similarly, the unwritten offense of “disrespecting a cop” is even more strenuously applied when it comes to “disrespecting a trolley dolly”.

This week, a wonderful example of their perfidy came to light.  A passenger, his wife, two young children (one and four years old) and their nanny had all booked to fly on British Airways from Heathrow to Turin.

They checked in at the airport with no problems, but at the gate were told that because business class was over-sold, their nanny had “drawn the short straw” and would be downgraded to coach class.  The various articles I’ve read about the situation (such as this) seem to suggest that the passengers had paid for all five tickets, rather than used award miles, and in that case, it is a strange decision on the airline’s part to break and therefore upset a group of five, rather than to downgrade a single passenger traveling alone.

But, this is just the introduction to the story.  The five of them apparently stoically accepted this and got on board the plane.  Boarding was completed, the plane started to push back, and they noticed an empty seat in business class.  So, of course, the man, Charles Banner, asked the flight attendants if their nanny could come back up front, to the seat they’d paid for.

Astonishingly, the flight attendants refused, and Mr Banner continued to advocate for his nanny to move forward.  Perhaps at this point I should mention to you that this passenger is a senior barrister – a court room lawyer, a Queen’s Counsel no less, something the flight attendants did not know.

He – Charles Banner, QC, then said “I’m filing a complaint about this with your bosses”.

Well, as I observed last week, you can guess what happened next.  The flight attendants immediately went on the attack mode, and is so often the case, the pilot instantly sided with the flight attendants, returned the plane to the gate, and refused to fly the plane until the entire family of five got off “his” plane.  The police of course responded eagerly, and with guns, to “assist” the family off the plane and out of the airport.

Having had a similar thing happen to me – a refusal to allow me to take the business class seats I’d bought for me and my daughter on a Fiji Airways flight from Nadi to Los Angeles, because none were available, only to note plenty of available seats, both showing as available before boarding and subsequent to pushing back – I can totally understand this man’s disappointment and puzzlement at BA’s actions.

But at least Anna and I weren’t forced off the plane.  Their treatment is the point where a law suit should follow.  I wonder if he knows any good lawyers……

Why do airlines go out of their way to gratuitously maximize the pain and suffering they cause their passengers?  I’ve got to believe that Mr Banner was a regular BA passenger, and he’d just paid for five business class tickets to Turin.  Shouldn’t that have earned him a modicum of fair treatment in return?

I’ll repeat – I really hope Mr Banner, QC, goes “all in” on a law suit against BA.

Coming back to my original point, if there were a national do-not-fly register in the UK, on which people could be added based on nothing more than the unchallengeable say-so of some spiteful flight attendants, what do you think would have happened to Mr Banner and his family?

This do-not-fly threat is not a way to discourage the crazy people who go beserk in the middle of a flight – nothing will discourage them.  It is a bludgeon to force meek submission to the most outrageous of airline mistreatments by normal people.

The Oldest Excuse in the World

This week Stephen Dickson, head of the FAA, gave six weeks notice of his intention to resign from the position, to be effective at the end of March.  Having been in the position for barely two years (since August 2019) this was something of a surprise.  The reason for his resignation?  Dickson says – get ready for it – it is “to spend more time with my family”.  Is he deliberately signaling, by using such a hackneyed and much abused “excuse”, that he was pushed out and forced to resign?

Some of the usual “experts” have muttered about the FAA’s many problems not having greatly improved under his tenure, and have further cited the recent terrible mess caused by the FAA’s last-minute worrying about 5G radio service around airports.  Such comments might be correct, but tell me any other government department in which the reasonably recently appointed new head is ousted after barely two years in the job, due to his department not having greatly improved.  While the concept of senior accountability is great, it is also not realistic to expect government bureaucracies to suddenly change profoundly, and neither is it realistic to expect that the FAA Head is personally and directly accountable for the actions and (in)competence of each and every one of his 45,000 employees, of which only a handful or two actually directly report to him.  If we’re to hold Mr Dickson accountable for the operational incompetencies of the FAA, what about the ex-Mayor of South Bend?  Shouldn’t the Secretary of Transportation also be accountable?  Or, for that matter, the ex-Mayor’s boss, the guy behind the desk that once had a plaque on it saying “The buck stops here”.  Why make Mr Dickson the fall guy?

The significance of Dickson’s departure is underscored because his appointment was for five years, so his departure is almost two years ahead of the agreed period of employment.

I don’t know enough about either his tenure or the circumstances of his decision to, ahem, “spend more time with his family”, but at arm’s length, he’d seemed like a decent and sensible executive who refused to bow to pressure to speed the 737 recertification process.

Earlier this week, the FAA also said it would not allow Boeing to self-certify its trouble-plagued 787s as safe to fly, and that was surely a decision that upset Boeing and its political supporters.  He’d earlier forced Boeing to go slow on its 777X development program too.  So there’ll be few tears at Boeing over his departure.  I’m not suggesting the 787 announcement then his announcement are linked – there have been rumors for a month or so now about his possible stepping down.

I’ll simply note that honorable people – and he seems to be honorable – usually honor commitments they make, such as five year employment contracts.  His departure surprises me.

No Excuse for Naughty Dogs on Planes

Talking about excuses, the problem with bogus “service animals” – with “animals” now more narrowly defined as only dogs (no more llamas, pigs, horses, goats, snakes, turkeys, and assorted other creatures) being allowed onto planes on the basis of fake certificates continues, a situation that distresses not only normal passengers when confronted with untrained and sometimes unfriendly dogs, but also genuine service dogs and their owners.

I’m a dog owner myself, but much as I love my German Shepherd, I can see the wrongness in pretending she is a service animal, while also seeing the benefit that real service animals can provide to their owners.  What I can’t see is how/why the airlines continue to be so passive at requiring credible proof of a dog’s bona fides.

While I’m sure the dogs’ owners don’t want any more trouble and bother, I expect that if they are willing to pay $20,000 or more for a properly trained dog, either they or the people training the dog would be willing to go to an official service animal certification service and get the animal officially registered.  Proof would then be very simple – have the dog’s embedded chip ID registered with the airlines, and have chip readers at airports – they wouldn’t need to be at every check-in counter, just a few customer service positions.

That would be an effective way to almost completely eliminate imposters.

Even the Californians are Turning Away from their New Train Project

Last week I wrote about the Californian High Speed Rail project – ostensibly between San Diego/Los Angeles and San Francisco/Sacramento, but in reality possibly between Bakersfield and Merced.

That sentence – especially the last half of it – sort of sums up my objections to the project which, at least in theory, was something I’d expected to love and eagerly support.  But the reality seems to be that the project was always designed to fail – first due to the unrealistic costings and future ridership projections that also look rather “pie-in-the-sky”, and secondly because it was always planned without California’s state-level commitment to pay for it, but rather on the optimistic basis of magically miraculously getting money from the federal government to pay for most of it.

The frustrating thing is that a service between those four cities is an ideal application of high speed rail.  Get the speed up and cut the time between Los Angeles and San Francisco to around 2 1/2 hours (the original project that won voter support 14 years ago, in 2008, promised a travel time of less than 2 hrs 40 mins), and it becomes a very appealing “no brainer” for most people traveling between the two cities, and there’s surely enough population at both ends of the line to support frequent service.

But what the voters did not agree to is a line costing probably three times the initial cost estimate, well over a decade, and only going between Bakersfield and Merced.  Oh – and the promise of a 2 hr 40 minute travel time – that seems increasingly unlikely to be achieved, either.

Which is why even the strongest railfans are now wondering what is going on, and is it time to kill the entire transmogrified and failed project?  This LA Daily News article is just one example of the mounting opposition.

Amtrak Has the Opposite Problem

So the Californians have a plan, sort of, but no money.  Believe it or not, eternally-cash-strapped Amtrak has the opposite problem.  It has $30 billion, but doesn’t know how to spend it.  (Do I hear a voice saying “Send it to California”!)

The money is sort of spoken for, it is for the “Gateway Program”, which is a fancy way of saying the connecting route/tunnel between New York and New Jersey.  This is not new, this is something that has been studied, studied again, studied some more, and then studied even more still.  It also now has a “medium high” priority, and a target completion date of 2035 – twelve years of major construction work with the New York unions “helping” is a breakneck speed.  In China, of course, it is unimaginably slow.

But the one thing Amtrak lacks is a good-to-go plan for how to proceed with the project.  Details (or lack thereof) here.

Talking about Amtrak problems, it is also experiencing another challenge that I’ve touched on before.  It wants to modestly add two roundtrip journeys between Mobile and New Orleans a day – a restoration of their “Gulf Coast” service that last operated back in 2005.  The problem they have is the freight lines that own the track are objecting, saying they couldn’t even squeeze two trains a day onto their busy lines.

That’s a surprising claim, and as this article lightly hints, seems to be as much an anticipatory objection, seeking to make it hard for Amtrak to try and add services, anywhere, at any time.

Poor old Amtrak.  It can’t win for losing.

So, you want some Amtrak good news?  Well, it just received some new locos that look “cool” we are told.

For me, I could care less about what a loco looks like (unless it is steam powered, of course!)  What matters to me is whether the new locos will allow for faster travel times or not.  Sure, with a 79 mph max speed, and much track limited to significantly lower speeds, the maximum speed of the locos is not really an issue.  But there is another important factor – journey time is influenced not just by maximum speed but by acceleration – how quickly the locos can pull their consist of carriages up to the appropriate speed.

This can save seconds after every time the train slows for a curve or other speed restriction, and even more seconds every time a train restarts after a full stop, either for a signal or at a station.  A few second for every speed recovery after a slow down, and 15 seconds perhaps after every stop, multiplied by a large number of slow-downs and a significant number of stops, can shave a helpful number of minutes off a longer journey.

And talking about acceleration, let’s now move on.

Could It Possibly Be that Richard Branson is Exaggerating?

This article quotes the irrepressible Sir Richard Branson (this is not meant as a compliment) as claiming his joy-rides into the upper atmosphere – now eagerly being sold for $450,000 a person – involves

Going from nought to three Mach [three times the speed of sound] in eight seconds is extreme.

Let’s just think about that, shall we.  Mach 3 is about 700 mph (the actual speed depends on temperature and pressure, which is why speeds close to or above the speed of sound are referred to in relation to the speed of sound rather than a fixed number).  So Mach 3 would be 2100 mph, give or take a bit.

To get to 2100 mph in eight seconds requires a bit more acceleration than going from 0 – 60 in your car in five seconds.  You’d have to increase your speed by 262 mph every second.  To do that would involve an acceleration force – a “g-force” of almost exactly 11g.

To put that number in comparison, the Space Shuttle reached a max g-force of about 3g when taking off.  The Russian Soyuz rockets are a bit stronger – 4g, a rate which was about the same as on Apollo moon rockets when taking off.

A fighter plane pilot, wearing a special g-suit that pressurizes parts of his body to help the blood flow under the g-forces, and in the peak of fitness with lots of training, will start to black out at about 6g or thereabouts.  And never mind the pilots – the planes themselves have limits.  The most advanced fighter jets struggle to exceed 8g, and anything over 9g would, as is delightfully stated, “permanently change the aircraft”.

But 71 year old Sir Richard tells us that he managed 11g without a g-suit and with almost no training, for a full eight seconds and didn’t lose consciousness?

I’ll politely say that I find that surprising.   I also do not find the thought of an 11g for 8 second experience as something I’d want to pay $450k to experience, even if I’d be mercifully unconscious for most of it.  All I can say is it is a good job the flights are incredibly short – there’s a good chance doctors will be able to revive and save you after it lands.

And Lastly This Week….

Remember the articles about Hertz reporting its cars as stolen, even when they had been returned and were sitting on their lot?  About people being arrested and jailed for felony auto theft and spending days in jail and many dollars contesting the charges – charges that Hertz was astonishingly reluctant to withdraw?

If you were like me, you probably told yourself that it was a very rare event, only when systems got totally snafu’d.  But you’d be wrong.  A court filing now has Hertz reluctantly admitting this happens, on average, almost ten times a day.  Every day.  To be exact, 3,365 police reports a year, every year.

The only good thing about this is that the revelation occurred as part of a class-action law suit in which more than 100 Hertz customers who were arrested on false theft charges are mounting against Hertz.  They’re asking for $530 million – looks like there might be another bankruptcy in Hertz’s future.

A low cost Canadian airline, Swoop (actually owned by WestJet) is planning to add new service to New York, Chicago, Nashville, San Francisco and Los Angeles this summer, and will add more flights to San Diego, Palm Springs, Las Vegas, St Pete-Clearwater, Orlando and Phoenix.  Flights operate from Toronto, Hamilton and Edmonton.  Details here.

I mentioned Crystal Cruises’ bankruptcy when it was announced a few weeks ago.  The cruise line has now said it is totally closing down.  If you had a cruise booked with them, you should be speaking to your credit card issuer and asking them to refund you the money, because it was paid by you for goods and services that haven’t been and won’t be provided.  Travel insurance sometimes cover you for payments lost when travel operators go bankrupt.

The pace of fusion research seems to be hotting up (okay, bad joke).  After reporting on major Chinese developments a few weeks ago, here now is news of progress at a British research facility, which sustained a fusion reaction for an impressive five seconds (typically these reactions last small fractions of a second).  It generated one third the amount of power it took to create the conditions for the fusion to occur, which isn’t exactly a net win in energy, is it.  But that too is a good improvement, and only needs a three-fold improvement to get to break even, at which point all subsequent improvements get the process “in the money” and generating a net surplus of energy.

So when will we see “real” fusion.  The next major step forward, in the west, is currently scheduled for 2035, all going well.  From there to commercial fusion?  Anyone’s guess, but it seems like it may be one of those things that few of us will be around to benefit from.

And lastly this week, here are some lovely sounding new train journeys in Europe.  The one I’m keenest on (they all sound great) is the overnighter between Brussels and Prague.  Unlike many overnight trains that so often seem to leave ridiculously late and arrive even more ridiculously early, this is a nice one with a mid evening departure and a mid morning arrival.  Just perfect for some sightseeing out the windows, a nice leisurely dinner and breakfast, and perhaps a glass or two of something special.  Plus, as a bonus, some hotel suites that few of us are likely to ever stay in – my favorite has to be the one in London that is so significant that it has its own postal code!

Until next week, assuming a war with Russia doesn’t get in the way, please enjoy safe travels





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