Weekly Roundup, February 25, 2022

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Good morning

What a surreal week it has been, and I don’t just mean countries abandoning all Covid controls and constraints (England no longer even requires infected sufferers to isolate).  Nor do I mean the snow here in the Seattle area, rare at the best of times and particularly so this late in the season.

I’m thinking more of events in Ukraine.  If words were bombs and bullets, the western powers would have annihilated the Russian invaders, long since.  But of course they’re not, and Mr Putin knows that better than most, having ignored empty ineffectual words from the west for over two decades.

Yes, there are obvious travel impacts, and so I felt empowered to add a few words of my own on this topic.  With a former Russian wife, having briefly lived and worked in Russia, and with a Ukrainian (not sure what the relation is – the husband of my ex-wife’s sister), and having a great interest in that part of the world, I’ve been watching with disbelief and dismay as the slow-motion train wreck that is the invasion of Ukraine has slowly unfolded.  Some of you might be surprised that I’m not advocating a “kinetic” response to Russia’s invasion, but I am most definitely advocating, that if we are to do nothing, that we shut up and stop posturing, because the more we say but the less we do, the weaker and more ridiculous we look.

So, lots of reading for you this morning.  There’s a Thursday Covid diary entry (possibly the last), with Sunday’s online here.  There’s the opinion piece on Ukraine.  And also, in preparation for a trip I’m taking on Sunday for a week, there’s a review of a new digital portable luggage scale.

You might remember I wrote a week ago about another airline dropping its baggage allowance down to 40 lbs.  I’m flying on one of the 40 lb airlines when I return back from Texas next Saturday (Spirit) and have been struggling to work out how to make do with a single 40 lb suitcase.  The first essential step was to get an accurate portable scale so I could pack up to 40 lbs but not over.  The good news – they are smaller and lighter and less expensive than ever before (just under $10 on Amazon).  If you don’t already have one or two, you should get one.  My article tells you more.

I’m not sure how much I’ll be able to write next week while I’m on the road – I’m hoping to write a review on Bluetooth headsets – I seldom use my current BT headset, which I bought in 2010, and so it seemed about time to see what is currently the latest and greatest – I expect I’ll be relying on it extensively during the busy week ahead, so I’ve a couple of around-the-$20-mark headsets arriving today which I’ll test over the next week.

Please keep reading for the results of last week’s reader survey and, hot on its heels, a new survey too, plus a few other items.

  • Reader Survey Results – Summer Travel Plans
  • New Reader Survey – Ukrainian Travel Impacts
  • US Air Passenger Numbers
  • European Travel Update
  • Sanctions Might Be a Two-Way Street
  • I Wrote a Fiction Book About This 20 Years Ago – Now it is Becoming Reality
  • More Mileage Depreciation
  • Another Virgin Futuristic Failure
  • Another Walmart Response to Amazon
  • And Lastly This Week….

Reader Survey Results – Summer Travel Plans

Last week I asked you what your plans are for travel this summer.  I was curious to see the split between the confident people eager to catch up on two years of missed travel and the cautious ones hedging their bets in case of another twist in the Covid saga of disappointments.

Many thanks to everyone who replied with their thoughts and intentions.  I hope we all get to realize our plans, whatever they may be, as and when we make them.

What do you make of the results?  There is a broad mix of responses, and while over half are from people intending to travel, a third of responses show a degree of caution.

I agree that currently all the signs seem very positive, but also acknowledge that we’ve been at that point before, only to be surprised and disappointed.  Let’s hope “third time is a charm” and 2022 can go off without a hitch.

As for me, I’m unwilling to travel anywhere that requires me to get a booster vaccination shot, at least until such time as the US FDA finally joins the world community and approves the Novavax vaccine.  Happily, the UK is not requiring booster shots, so perhaps an England, Wales or Scotland trip could be on the cards later in the spring?

New Reader Survey – Ukrainian Travel Impacts

Even as (if) Covid is fading from the forefront of our thinking, might the problems in Ukraine (when do we start calling it a war?) impact on your travel plans?  For me, the answer is possibly yes – there’s a worry that 2022 will be another year with my long-awaited trip to the ‘stan countries being deferred yet again.

How about for you?  Does the Ukrainian situation make you more cautious about flying in general, or not at all, or something else?

Please click the link on the answer that best describes your thinking.  That will open an empty email to me with your answer coded into the subject line.  Just send it as is, there’s no need to add anything more to it.

No Impact – I’ll not be flying over or near Ukraine, all my other flights will continue unchanged

Mild Impact – Might travel be disrupted across Europe in some form?

Moderate Impact – I’d been planning to travel somewhere that is now difficult because of Ukrainian/Russian issues

Major Impact – I’ll wait until things calm down before planning any more international travel

Total Impact – I’m cutting back on all my flying, even domestically

As always, I’ll count the answers up and share them next week.  And also, as always, your participation and help is greatly appreciated, and makes this more interesting for us all.

US Air Passenger Numbers

The increased “wobble” in numbers is probably due to the inelegant matching the TSA is doing with its comparative numbers this year, but after trying to adjust for the wobble, you can probably see that the last week has brought a very slight further increase in passenger numbers compared to 2019.

There might also be some small distortion from the long weekend this last weekend.  But clearly, air travel remains firm at around 87% of 2019 numbers, but a long way from the 2020 numbers that are only now starting to register a response to the virus.

European Travel Update

I think I can probably end this section, because other than saying “keep checking” and reporting what seems to be a steady liberalization of travel rules, there’s not much more that needs to be said.

The big challenge nowadays is in two parts – European countries demanding you have a booster jab before they’ll let you in, and the current US requirement for people to test negative within 24 hours prior to their homeward travel.

Sanctions Might Be a Two-Way Street

One of the things about sanctions is the arrogant assumption that “they need us more than we need them”.  That is not always the case however, especially with the increasingly hollowed out economy that is all that remains of the former industrial might of the US.

We also see that with Europe reluctantly agreeing to (for probably the briefest of moments) turn its back on Russian oil and gas.  But that’s not the only thing that Russia has that we might want – how about titanium, for example?  Did you know that the titanium used to build the SR-71 planes had to come from the Soviet Union (who didn’t know it would be used to make SR-71 planes, of course)?  Russia still dominates the market for titanium, and one single Russian company supplies 35% of Boeing’s titanium needs, 65% for Airbus, and 100% for Embraer.  Details here.

I wonder what other modern essentials are Russian dominated/controlled?  Maybe we’ll be finding out in the next few months.  Even metals as “ordinary” seeming as aluminum have a strong Russian component – the second largest aluminum company in the world, as measured by primary production output, is Rusal.

This is of course why our tensions with China are very carefully modulated.  We’d definitely be on the losing side of any sanctions with China – indeed, we’re already on the losing side, and that’s without any sanctions.  China is no longer our “captive” nor our “cheap” source of labor and industrial resource (and, in truth, probably never was).  Here’s an interesting article about our dependence on China for batteries for EVs.

Earlier in the week, China scored another victory in its quest to dominate and control the global solar cell market, with LG saying it will withdraw from the market after finding it too hard to compete with China.

I Wrote a Fiction Book About This 20 Years Ago – Now it is Becoming Reality

In 2000/2001, I wrote a book, “Mission: St Petersburg”, that was part a submarine story, and part a techno-thriller Tom Clancy style action/adventure novel set in St Petersburg, Russia, and Seattle – two cities I was very familiar with.  After writing it, I didn’t publish it until about this time last year.  You can get it, in Kindle format, here.

The central premise of the book was how the Russians had developed a special new coating for their submarines that both quietened them and gave them better fuel economy, and the American efforts to obtain that technology.  Every part of it was as close to exactly real-life as I could make it, from submarine procedures to train timetables and travel times, and also sharing some “insider” aspects of life as an FBI agent (which they cleared for publication).  But the one thing I created from nothing was the concept of the special coating for the submarine.

So imagine my delight in reading about a very similar type of coating, now being used for a similar purpose on airplanes.  The linked article claims the new coating will result in a “significant reduction” in aerodynamic drag and reduce carbon dioxide emissions and generally save the planet.  But exactly how significant is the reduction in drag?  Ummm – it goes on to say it will make the plane slightly more than 1% more fuel-efficient.

More Mileage Depreciation

I’m practicing what I preach.  Because I’m no longer an elite level member of any mileage program, and hope never to qualify for that dubious status again in the future, I tactically book flights based only on the cheapest fare and best travel times.  That’s why I’m flying down to TX on Alaska Airlines, but back on Spirit.

For normal people, I see little or no value at all from amassing miles, unless it is into a program that never expires them, and perhaps is supplemented by credit card miles too (although now I’ll use other credit cards for any purchases that will get me 2% or more cash back instead of miles).

Whereas the value of each mile used to easily exceed 2c each, depending on where you were traveling and how, now they seldom reach even 1c.  Yes, if you get “trapped” into the golden-handcuffs of a mileage program’s upper levels, values change and other considerations become important, and, to state a usually overlooked truth, if someone else is paying for your travel, mileage program benefits, as mild as they are, also become more important.

The latest example of continued falls in the value of miles is in these changes to Alaska’s program.  Of course, with “variable award levels” these days, it is close to impossible to understand exactly how much miles are truly worth, other than simply noting they’re worth a gosh sight less than a decade or two (or three…) ago.

Another Virgin Futuristic Failure

One of the strangest things is the almost total and complete failure of hyperloop technology to progress from concept to commercial reality.  The initial business case for hyperloop type travel, as developed and advocated by Elon Musk, seemed compelling.  It promised a low cost to construct, low cost to operate, saving the planet by only using clean green energy, and higher speed transportation than even airplanes.  What part of that picture is anything other than amazingly attractive?

I was puzzled that even in Elon Musk’s then home-state of California, the authorities turned their back on hyperloop technology while pursuing an ever-more-expensive and underwhelming high-speed rail line.  Surely, I thought, California of all places would embrace the futuristic benefits of hyperloop technology, and with a major transportation project being developed, it seemed the right technology, in the right place, at the right time.

A number of different start-ups appeared, all developing Musk’s concept and for a while there were a series of encouraging reports about progress achieved, and expressions of interest for systems coming from all around the world.  Soon enough, the hype got to the level that Sir Richard Branson felt compelled to jump in and slap his Virgin brand on one of the companies (in 2017).

Since then, there have been feasibility studies galore, but no actual systems ordered and under development.

I’d wondered at the time if the Virgin branding and Branson involvement would prove to be a good or bad thing.  The answer has finally appeared.  Bad thing.  Virgin Hyperloop has abandoned its plans to develop a passenger transportation system, and has laid off half its staff, while hoping to create an alternate freight transportation system instead.

Another Walmart Response to Amazon

I marvel at two things every day.  The first is how the world’s largest and most successful car companies did nothing except watch and laugh at Elon Musk as he built Tesla into a behemoth that now is more valuable than any other car company in the world.  That’s a marvel that grows with every passing day, because even now, there are no credible threats to the core Tesla market of Model 3 and Model Y vehicles, just promises of potential competitors, always due “next year”.  Tesla has managed to pick up a ten year head start on the major auto companies – not because Tesla is outstandingly clever, but because the major auto companies are outstandingly stupid.

The other marvel is Walmart vs Amazon.  Well, the earlier marvel was Sears vs Amazon – remember Sears?  The company that pioneered and perfected mail-order found it impossible to make the smallest of pivots from print catalogs (remember them?) to a website.

And then it was – and still is – Walmart’s turn to flounder and flail (or should that be, founder and fail) with unsuccessful attempts to leverage its position as the world’s largest retailer in an attempt to stop steadily bleeding off market share to Amazon in every product category.

It seems every year Walmart has a new multi-billion dollar plan to dominate the online marketplace, just as it did the bricks-and-mortar marketplace, and to vanquish Amazon.  Walmart certainly had every possible advantage over Amazon at every point of the operational requirements to get customer orders and quickly deliver goods to them.

But has any of their multi-billion dollar efforts ever paid off?  Not as best I can tell – the one or two times I’ve been so annoyed with Amazon as to try out Walmart instead, I’ve found the experience clumsy and awkward and unappealing, the shipping slow, and the prices no better than Amazon, all capped by a much smaller selection of products.  I quickly return to the Amazon fold, albeit reluctantly, every time.

If Walmart can’t win over buyers like me who worry about Amazon’s dominance and are keen to help other companies compete, how can they ever hope to get the vast majority of Amazon’s customers – people who unthinkingly love the Amazon interface, service, and range of benefits?

Well, here’s the 2022 answer to that question.  Maybe I missed it, but I don’t actually see anything in the article that looks likely to win you or me over to Walmart.

Let’s hope they come up with something better in 2023.  Or perhaps 2024.

And Lastly This Week….

Britain had some extraordinarily bad weather early this week. A lot of the country spent much of Monday watching live cam-feeds of planes trying to land at airports around the country.

For a change, here’s some footage that some readers will sort of remember from having enjoyed one of our lovely Scotland tours in the past.  It is a Calmac ferry coming into one of the ferry terminals.  The extraordinary thing to keep in mind is this is on the Clyde, in sheltered waters, inside the breakwater, right by the dock.  One can only guess what it was like out in the open.

I’ve worked on ferries in some of the roughest waters in the world (Cook Strait in New Zealand) and taken many ferry journeys, around Scotland and elsewhere, but have never seen anything like this.  I’m absolutely stunned that the captain took the ship in to port.  Do watch it.

(Note to potential future Scotland tour members – I’ve never been on a significantly rough ferry crossing in Scotland.  They do happen, but very rarely, especially at the times of year we visit!)

The London Mound is no more (and thank goodness for that).  Looking at the pictures of it being dismantled makes me wonder if it was hollow – it looks like maybe it was not a pile of dirt, but just a veneer of dirt stuck onto a hollow form.  Whatever it was, the £2 million project ended up costing £6 million, was greeted by hoots of derision and dismay, and suffered from almost zero visitors, adding still further to its loss and hastening its demise.

Talking about closed tourist attractions, here’s an interesting pictorial on other closures, and this article looks at abandoned subway facilities.

One more thing to glance through this morning – some interesting pictures of airports, many years ago.

Please remember that next week may or may not see a newsletter due to my travel commitments

Until next week or the following week, please enjoy safe travels






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