David Rowell

Publisher of The Travel Insider since 2001. Originally from New Zealand, lived in the US since 1985.

Oct 122018
 

An Air Niugini Boeing 737 missed the runway but safely landed in the water – see story, below.

Good morning

First computer problems then medical problems (an ankle) forced an unplanned silence upon me, but here I am, happily back once more and sharing another selection of the great and the grim.

Simultaneously on the great and grim side of things, we had a cancellation off our Christmas “Landcruise” of Northern France and Belgium.  As I do in such cases, I’m happy to give half the deposit as an incentive to get someone else on the tour, and half the deposit back to the people who canceled.

So, if you’d like to come, there’s a $250 per person incentive for one lucky couple, or two lucky individuals.  With the price having dropped already due to the weaker Euro, and a lovely small group of fellow Travel Insiders (every person can have their own double seat on our coach), and a great itinerary taking you places you’ve surely never been to before, or back to places that if you’ve been to before, the chances are that you weren’t there during December in the height of the magic of the pre-Christmas season in Europe.  You’ll enjoy gorgeous markets and festivities in beautiful settings, lovely historic towns (and more modern history too at the WW1 battlefields in Belgium and WW2 Dunkirk in France) while leaving the depths of the pre-Christmas rush far behind you, back home.

As is the case in such situations, the first people able to commit and pay will get this special deal.

Our annual fundraising drive rather lost impetus during the recent break in communications.  I’d like to restart it now, because we’re barely a quarter of the way to our desperately needed target.

Please remember – I freely give you the newsletter and related articles, and in return, you are asked, once a year, to consider helping out with whatever level of support you feel reasonable and fair.  Whether you value your weekly newsletter as you would a cup of coffee, or consider it the same as buying a newspaper, or whatever else, hopefully you do agree that there are items of interest, and items of value.  Hopefully also you realize that our 17+ years of advocacy for travelers has some purpose and maybe even, on rare occasion, some beneficial outcomes, even though we and other small voices like ourselves struggle to be heard against the airlines and their mega-million dollar lobbying budgets.

The evolving nature of the internet has “dumbed down” a lot of internet content providers, and the diminishing ability to earn money from painless advertising has forced some providers to become much more focused on getting advertising support, even if it requires compromising their editorial standards (this article makes compelling but terribly depressing reading).  Please help us to remain fearlessly honest and out of the pockets of the travel suppliers who would dearly love to buy our support.

We’ve a new membership system this year.  Simply go to this page, then click on and choose the level of support you feel fairest, and if you prefer it to be one-off, quarterly or annually, and then create a new membership account on our system so you can instantly access some exclusive member only feature articles, too.

Thank you!

What else this week?  To my horror, my home country of New Zealand joined the growing list of countries who are becoming increasingly interested in being able to access the information on our electronic devices when we enter (and potentially also when we leave) their countries.  The thing that appalls me the most is that this is not a sensible security measure at all; people with something to hide will have such things totally hidden prior to crossing a border.  You can read about it in the article that follows the roundup.

And, now, a lengthy (4000 word) miscellany of items to compensate for my silence and to get your Friday off to a hopefully great start :

  • FAA :  We’re From the Government, and We’re Here to Help You
  • The Biggest Non-News of the Year?
  • US Airport Winners and Losers
  • What the Eye Doesn’t See, the Airlines Don’t Grieve Over…..
  • More on the MH370 Mystery
  • Sully, Redux
  • Uber and Lyft’s Simple Solution to Unpopular Fees
  • Disneyland’s Simple Solution to Overcrowding
  • Making Us Saferer
  • And Lastly This Week….

FAA :  We’re From the Government, and We’re Here to Help You

We wrote a few weeks back how the airlines very cleverly came up with a response to the government threat to bring new legislation and regulations to limit their currently unthinkably high fees for no-cost services such as allowing changes on tickets.  They said “If you limit the fees we can charge to change a ticket, we’ll simply make all tickets totally non-changeable”!

The government quickly backed away from that threat (the other approach of course would have been to raise the table stakes in the game of bluffing and threatened to extend the legislation to make all tickets changeable), but the airlines have decided they rather like the idea of tickets that don’t allow any changes at all, as a reader wrote in to tell me about a United ticket he had just purchased.

Not everything was a total consumer loss.  The government did fearlessly stick to the guns on a few minor matters, and has now mandated the DoT/FAA should set guidelines for seat sizing and spacing on planes.  This is unlikely to see any sudden transformation in the space available to us, however, because all the seats and layouts currently in effect have been de facto approved by the FAA to date, so the FAA is hardly likely to turn around and say “We just realized, we made a mistake, those seats are too close together”.

There is one tangible consumer benefit in the law.  Airlines now have to refund fees they charge us for services they don’t provide.  They’ve been dismayingly reluctant to do so prior to now, and the happy unintended consequence is that with the airlines’ eager shift to making much of the total fare fee based, if we cancel a ticket, or even if we just don’t fly half the ticket, they’ll now have to give us back money, even on a non-refundable ticket, that they otherwise could have kept if they’d simply had a higher fare and lower fees.

Here’s a good list of the other minor changes included in the bill.

The Biggest Non-News of the Year?

Something that seems so logical that it invites endless speculation is the concept of struggling Etihad Airways being taken over by its nearby neighbor, Emirates Airline.  Emirates is, by some measures, now the largest airline in the world, and robustly profitable.  Etihad, a much more recently formed airline (2003 compared to 1985 for Emirates) and much smaller in size, has suffered some missteps in the last several years and is in far from great financial shape.  Emirates is the flag carrier of Dubai, Etihad the flag carrier of adjacent Abu Dhabi, and the two airports are barely an hour apart (potentially much less if occasionally mooted plans to connect the two emirates by high speed rail or hyperloop ever come to fruition).

Both airlines are high quality, and operate similar routes, and there would seem to be enormous opportunities for rationalization if they could switch from competing against each other and unite as a single carrier with a single route plan.

The low level of speculation, which has been present for easily five years, came to a head a couple of weeks ago when Bloomberg published a piece suggesting that Emirates was seeking to take over Etihad.

There are some obvious obstacles, not the least of which is the national and personal pride involved in maintaining each airline, or the investment of billions of dollars into Abu Dhabi’s airport and aviation infrastructure.

But, never say never.  And in particular, if the two airports could be effectively connected, one of the biggest obstacles could be surmounted.  As the crow flies, they are a mere 41 miles apart, and there’s almost nothing but desert between the two airports, making it easy and inexpensive to build some type of rail/hyperloop track, reducing travel time to perhaps 15 minutes or even less – which is comparable to how long it takes to shuttle between terminals larger single-location airports such as Heathrow or Sydney or Manila.

Both airlines rushed to deny Bloomberg’s claim, but it is something we’re not so fast to turn away from.  If Etihad doesn’t return to solid profits soon, Abu Dhabi might decide that it is better to share a profitable airline than to own a chronically loss-making airline all on their own.

US Airport Winners and Losers

Talking about airports and mergers, here’s a fascinating list of the ten most rapidly growing and ten most rapidly shrinking major airports in the US, as measured over the last ten years.

Dallas/Love Field, Austin, New Orleans, San Francisco and Houston/Hobby were numbers 1 to 5 in the growth list, with Dallas almost doubling in traffic over the decade.

The growth of Love Field is no surprise after the lifting of flight restrictions that had been imposed to shift traffic to DFW and to ensure the new DFW airport was a success.

The lifting of restrictions and growth of traffic at Love Field has surely not harmed DFW.  It is now the fourth busiest airport in the world by a count of airplane movements.  It has been dithering about building another terminal (F) and while it is a huge airport, to put that into context, it is fascinating to look at this image which shows an early plan for how the airport might appear in 2001 – 13 terminals.  Currently it has five.

At the other end of the scale, the most shrinking airport was Memphis, followed by Cincinnati, Ontario, Albuquerque and Cleveland, with Memphis suffering a 62% decline in traffic.  Memphis was a former hub for Northwest Airlines, but after being bought by Delta in 2008, its status as a hub steadily declined until being discontinued entirely in 2013.

Cincinnati was a Delta hub which suffered as Delta’s fortunes also suffered in the 2000s, and while at its peak it was having over 670 flights a day in 2005, we guesstimate there to be only perhaps 150 flights a day now, although other airlines are adding service and so softening the blow.

What the Eye Doesn’t See, the Airlines Don’t Grieve Over…..

Ever since the video of Dr Dao being dragged, kicking and screaming, off a United/Republic flight echoed around the internet, airlines have been more circumspect at doing things like that.  They’ve finally understood that such acts appear on Youtube and Facebook in close to real-time, and damage their ability to appear ultra-friendly to legislators.  Indeed, as a result, the new FAA reauthorization bill included a provision to protect passengers from being removed from a flight subsequent to boarding.

So what do they now do?

A hint about that can be seen in this news story.  Ostensibly about a passenger who tried to bring a squirrel aboard a flight, claiming it to be an emotional support animal, the really interesting part (to me) is mentioned in passing toward the end

…police were called and requested everyone be deplaned so they could deal with the passenger.  Police eventually escorted her off the plane …

This raises the unasked and unanswered question – why did every other passenger on the plane have to get off before the police could “deal” with the passenger?  What did the police and airline not want to be done in public?

More on the MH370 Mystery

Talking about unseen mysteries, most of what we think we know about the flight path of the disappeared Malaysia Airlines 777 being operated as MH 370, back in March 2014, comes not from radar traces, nor from officially accepted sightings of the plane flying overhead.  Instead it comes from a very clever and innovative process of calculating the plane’s possible location, based on the doppler effect shift of frequencies and timings between a radio transponder on the plane and overhead satellites.

There are however two awkward assumptions, and one inconvenient rebuttal of this process.

The awkward assumptions are first that no-one interfered with the radio transponder on the plane to cause it to misbehave and give false readings, and, slightly more technically, these calculations just tell us the distance from the plane to the satellite, not the direction.  However, some other calculations and assumptions created a likely flight path (likely only in the self-referential sense of it conformed to the theory) and so as a result, a general region was established where it was thought the plane probably crashed into the sea.

The inconvenient rebuttal is that the seabed in this area has been reasonably well searched, and there’s been no trace of any wreckage whatsoever.  Which forces us to one of three conclusions.  Maybe the search was flawed and needs to be repeated.  Maybe the calculated region where the plane crashed is slightly wrong and needs to be widened some more.

Or, and here’s the big one, maybe the total set of assumptions and dependent calculations are wrong.

It has never made any sense to me that one of the two pilots would take over the plane, fly an irregular flight path over Malaysia and around Indonesia, then fly endlessly south-east with no more kinks or turns before running out of fuel and crashing into the sea.

If you’re on a suicide mission, surely you just want to crash the plane quickly before anything can go wrong to prevent your mission succeeding.  Simply pushing the control column forward at the minute the plan was activated would have the plane crashing into the sea  in the middle of the South China Sea within five minutes.

What we do know, in terms of radar traces, is that the plane seems to have been deliberately piloted to avoid as much radar as possible while heading towards the Bay of Bengal.  Is it not as likely that the plane would continue in the direction it was being steered – a direction that leads to a number of “interesting countries”, rather than that after ‘taking the long way round’ it would then head to the South Ocean and crash somewhere off the west coast of Australia?

It turns out that causing the radio transponder to send misleading signals to the satellites is easier than might be thought, and particularly if the entire event was being staged by a sophisticated group, they’d know how to do it and would also then be able to help arrange that unsuspecting third parties would then be encouraged to use that data to miscalculate the plane’s flight path.

Sure, this is unlikely, but there’s no part of the MH 370 story – nothing that we know, and nothing that anyone is guessing about – that is likely.  It is all unlikely, but it definitely did happen.

Here’s an article suggesting that maybe the satellite data was indeed faked.  But if you prefer the generally accepted theory, here’s an excellent article with some interesting new details.

Sully, Redux

Talking about planes crashing into the ocean, who can forget the famous incident in January 2009 when a US Airways (remember them) A320 lost power in both engines immediately after taking off from LaGuardia due to ingesting birds.  Powerless, and at low altitude, the pilot, Chesley Sullenberger, and his seldom mentioned copilot Jeffrey Skiles did a splendid job of urgently landing the plane in the Hudson River 90 seconds later.  The plane settled in the water and slowly sank, giving passengers and crew time to get off and be rescued, with no loss of life at all.

The telegenic pilot and his endearing nickname “Sully” became an instant national hero, and his piloting feat was much marveled at.  It also provided a reassuring data point and answer to the question “what happens if a plane crashes into the ocean”; although in truth, it was indeed a very well flown landing and a lesser pilot could well have caused the plane to flip or cartwheel, and the outcome could have been tragic.

Another example happened a week ago, when an Air Niugini 737 missed the runway in Chuuk Lagoon.  Some reports say it undershot, others that it overshot the runway.  Either which way, the plane managed a graceful landing on the lagoon, although it is important to note that this was a somewhat powered landing, which is probably a bit easy than Sully’s “dead stick” landing.  Although initial reports suggested that all 35 passengers and 12 crew survived, it subsequently turned out one man didn’t make it.

The big surprise to me is that the plane, with a mere 35 passengers, had 12 crew on board.  Two pilots, and ten flight attendants?

Uber and Lyft’s Simple Solution to Unpopular Fees

In the good old days, Uber and Lyft were truly transformational.  They were very much less expensive than taxis, the cars and drivers were a million times nicer, there was no tipping, and we, the customers, felt in-control of the experience in a way we’d never ever felt with a taxi.  We were flooded with data at every step of the transaction.

These days, the cars and drivers are much the same as regular taxi cabs and drivers.  This is perhaps unsurprising, because now that the market is settling and reaching close to an equilibrium between supply and demand, driver income is plunging, as reported here.  At the same time, at least in my limited experience, the rates we pay have been going up (and in some areas, taxi companies are becoming more competitive as well as more reliable), tipping is now a thing, and we’re starting to see some of the flaws and gaps in the Uber/Lyft service models being provided.

We also have been objecting to some of the fees being charged – service fees, local surcharges, insurance/safety fee, and so on.  Uber first responded by going very opaque on when its surge pricing was in effect and how much it was, but some of the other myriad of minor fees were also upsetting passengers, who were used to basically seeing a single number on a taxi meter.

So, the response of both companies (and these days, it is getting increasingly difficult to discern any difference in fares, fees, or experiences between the two companies) was simple.  Their statements of charge no longer break out the fees.  Problem solved!

Disneyland’s Simple Solution to Overcrowding

You know what EPCOT stands for, don’t you?  Some people believe it stands for “Experimental Prototype Community Of Tomorrow” but those who have visited know that it really stands for “Every Person Comes Out Tired”.

As we surely all know, no matter what Disney attraction we visit, the days are long, the lines are longer, and the distances between attractions longer still.  The chance to occasionally just sit down on one of the benches strewn all around the parks is somewhere between welcome and essential; the alternative being to go to an overpriced restaurant and sit/eat/drink/pay.

As we also surely all know, Disney is increasingly a victim of its own success, with more and more of its parks getting filled to their maximum capacities, making for experiences that are nonstop dreadful all day – at least for us, if not for our children and grandchildren.  Everything is busy/crowded, lines for everything are even longer, and something as simple as just walking down the pathways gets difficult due to the crush of people everywhere, including people stopping to take selfies every few feet.

Disney has recognized that their parks are bursting at the seams.  Some days, at Disneyland they even halt admissions due to having too many people already in the park.  And now they are trying to improve the ability to handle more people more efficiently.  So they’ve come up with a solution – remove the benches that are “getting in the way”.  They are, however, adding some more seats in some of their restaurants.

So one of the few things you could do that didn’t involve either paying more money or waiting in line is now being removed.  Because, as a Disney spokeswoman said, the company is “always looking at ways to enhance elements such as guest flow, seating, and landscaping, which play an important part of a guest’s visit to the parks.”

A strange way to enhance the seating and landscaping, though.  Details here.

Making Us Saferer

Did you know that it is lawful to carry spent cartridges (shells) on airplanes?  But not stones in the shape of live cartridges?  This article tries to understand how small stones, intended as a way to cool down drinks, are dangerous if fashioned in the shape of pistol cartridges, but not if just irregular stones.

A pilot program for a new method of using facial recognition to screen passengers either passed or failed tests, depending on if your glass is half full or half empty.  85% of the time, it correctly matched passengers to their digital images.  But 15% – ie one in six – it didn’t, either failing to find any match or identifying the person as someone else.

Is that good or bad?  Well, let’s just say that if the misidentification labels you as a terrorist, it is truly very bad.  But, one in six odds?  And remember, how many flights a year do you take.  If you think those are good odds, would you care for a similar number of rounds of Russian Roulette?  Details here.

The airlines are apparently not very keen on the concept, because rather than speeding things up, it can slow them down.

And, talking of facial recognition, here’s another type of high-tech/photo recognition and an unintended consequence.  Google has already felt the need to blur out people’s faces, but apparently that’s not quite enough.

Probably few people reading this have ever applied for a US visa.  But if you have, you’ll know you have to answer a series of searching questions, such as “Are you an international terrorist” and “Have you ever been a member of the Communist Party” and “Do you endorse bigamy”.  It isn’t just the US – some other countries ask similar questions on their application forms, too.

Most of us when confronted with such questions find it hard to suppress a giggle or two as we quickly check off all the correct answers.  But, alas, a nice Scottish lady did too much laughing and not enough careful reading, and sent in her visa application having inadvertently confessed to being a terrorist.  Apparently, you can’t subsequently say “Ooops, I’m sorry, I made a mistake”.  Details here.

And Lastly This Week….

Here’s a story that we’re not sure whether we should be applauding or decrying.  Elements of both, probably – which do you think?

There’s a lot less ambiguity about this story, though, although we’re for sure curious as to what is being coyly referred to as “a mystery liquid” actually was.

Similar to ambiguity is controversy.  As readers know, we generally dislike “top ten” lists, but here’s one with an interesting twist – the world’s most controversial airlines.

We’re getting close to Halloween, so inevitably, there are stories like this one doing the rounds.

You can please all of the people some of the time, some of the people all of the time, and, alas, then there are the people who can never be pleased.  Like the person who complained about the tallest mountain in the UK being too high (and although the highest, it is only a very modest 4,411 ft), and the person who complained about the beach that won an award as 2017 Beach of the Year having a rock on it, and another person who complained that a beach was too sandy.  More complaints here.

And on that note, and until next week, may I wish you safe travels.  I’m out of the country/traveling next Thursday/Friday, but will get something to you at some time on Friday, Wi-Fi and airlines willing.

 

David.

 

 

Oct 112018
 

New Zealand has just passed a new law empowering their Customs Officers to levy fines of up to NZ$5000 (US$3400) if you refuse to provide your electronic device passwords on request.

Note that the fine doesn’t mean you then avoid having customs officials and who knows who else examining and sharing the data on your devices.  They’ll still seize your devices then use special password bypass tools to access all your data.  The fine is merely a penalty for not making it easy for them.

Other countries already impose obligations (although rarely penalties) on you to hand over anything and everything you have with you for inspection and a virtual electronic rape, when entering and also (little appreciated, but with equal force) leaving their country, too.

The role of Customs used to be very simple.  For people entering a country, Customs officers were there to make sure that nothing illegal was brought into the country, and to levy and collect duty on such dutiable items as may be appropriate.

As part of their enforcement, they could inspect the items we brought with us to determine if they were lawful or not, if they were dutiable or not, and to assess how much duty, if any, would be collected.

We as travelers would self-report, on a Customs form, information about what we were bringing with us, and only occasionally would our belongings be searched, and usually in a most cursory manner, to ensure the accuracy and honesty of our declarations.

More recently, Customs procedures became even more permissive.  In most countries there is no longer a need to fill out a declaration form and it is now possible to simply walk through a green “nothing to declare” lane, most of the time having no personal/direct contact with any Customs officials at all.

With most countries reducing the duties they levy on imported goods, there was no longer the financial motivation on the part of Customs to aggressively enforce duties, and their role shifted focus more to commercial smuggling of things such as drugs and large volumes of undeclared goods, rather than visitors or returning citizens with an undeclared extra bottle of something in their suitcase.

Customs and Computers – The Good Old Days

I remember, probably twenty years ago, having a major problem bringing my Dell laptop computer back into the US with me.  It was a year or two old, and a bit battered and scratched such as happens after some use and travel, but it aroused the highly trained eye of a Customs inspector, who demanded that I prove I hadn’t purchased it during my travels overseas and was now trying to bring it back to the US, undeclared.

I pointed out to him that it was a US brand of computer, and that it was clearly far from new, but he dismissed such protestations as mere artifice on my part.  I also observed that in my experience, computers were generally less expensive, by a large margin, in the US than in the UK, where I was returning from, and so it would have been unusual for me or anyone else to choose to buy a computer, new or used, in the UK, rather than the US.  These further comments were also of little interest to him.

He told me there was only one way he would be persuaded of the origins of the computer, and that was if I could show him an official US Customs form proving that I had taken the computer with me when I left the country, a week or two prior.

I pointed out to him that the leaving the country process in no part involved an interaction with any of his colleagues such as to allow such a form to be obtained.  He conceded that was so, but said there was a special Customs office in some far away part of the airport to which I should have made a special trip and obtained the necessary paperwork.

The fact that the special office was open normal 9 – 5 pm hours, and I had been on a night flight to Britain was also of little relevance to the necessity of obtaining the stamped form to allow me to bring the computer back.  The fact that the form would have recorded the external nature of the computer, but not the components, meaning I could take an old computer out of the country, then replace its processor, memory, hard drive, etc, and untraceably bring an almost new one back, while still in compliance with the form, was also of no interest.

I asked him how much duty he wished to assess on the computer, at which point he said that, because he was a reasonable and nice guy (!) he’d make a special one-off exception and allow me to bring the computer into the country this time, but next time, I should be sure to have the appropriate paperwork with me.

Although this was an annoying encounter, there was mercifully one thing that neither he, nor I, gave any second thought to – the actual data on the computer.  Why should he, after all?  Data isn’t dutiable.  It is an intangible thing electronically stored on the computer’s hard drive.

This is no longer the case.  The Customs mission has massively changed.

The Pen is Now Mightier than the Sword

The Customs Service now seems to be more focused on border security rather than the goods that people bring in to the country.  And the notion of security is spreading beyond making sure we don’t have any weapons or explosives in our luggage, to now wanting to be able to see if we might have any incriminating data, about anything at all, on our electronic devices.  Data has apparently become more ‘dangerous’ than destructive devices.

Ten years ago, that might have made sense.  But nowadays, although more of our lives are now abstract and electronic, less of this is actually resident on the devices we carry with us – phones, tablets, computers.

As you probably do yourself, these days much/most of our email and even our data files is kept somewhere on the internet rather than on our computer, directly.  If you use Gmail, or Yahoo Mail, or the various Microsoft mail services, your email is not on your computer, it is on their computers.  Whether it is iCloud, OneDrive, Drive, or any of a wide variety of other online storage and backup services, it is possible to have no data on your device at all, and not even a hint of what might be stored somewhere in the ‘internet cloud’.  Google even sells Chrome computers with no data storage – all data is kept in the cloud and nothing on the actual computer itself.

Customs officials are not being stealthy about their growing interest in the data on devices.  There have been public announcements and policy statements about the circumstances that will trigger the search of electronic devices, and how the searches will be conducted.

Which means there are now two types of people passing through the Customs halls in the international arrivals sections of airports.  Ordinary people, unprepared to have their devices seized and searched, and those with guilty consciences, people who have prepared for such encounters.

Locks – and Security – Only For Honest People

Ordinary people have their devices full of personal information, sufficient to delight any identity theft, or any blackmailer.  Who among us doesn’t have something we’d prefer not to share in uncontrolled circumstances, whether it be personal financial data, medical records, sensitive trade secrets and valuable business data, or private emails and photos, or something/anything else at all?

But if someone truly does have something to hide – if they are an international terrorist – don’t you think it a total certainty that they’ll offload that data to some cloud storage somewhere, and delete their browser history and caching so there is absolutely no hint or trace of the data on their devices.  The terrorists will be the ones happy to hand over their devices for inspection, with confident honest smiles on their faces.

Sure, we’re told that Customs Officers must have clear articulable suspicion before they can require us to surrender our devices and our passwords, but that’s a minimal hurdle that any Customs Officer can vault over without breaking a sweat, while trotting out their articulable suspicion.  The person  “looked suspicious” or  “acted nervously” or “seemed anxious”.  Or seemed too calm and unresponsive.  The person “was talking too much” or “only answering in monosyllables”.  The person avoided looking them in the eyes, or perhaps fixed them with a challenging gaze.

Not to mention, of course, the irrefutable extra credibility asserted by the officer “based on my training and experience…..”.  Plus the “computer generated random compliance audits” where no reason at all is offered.

In New Zealand’s new legislation, the Customs Officer must have “reasonable suspicion” but does not need to tell us what that reasonable suspicion is!

Indeed, in New Zealand, a Customs spokesman says that they’ll only search our devices in “flight mode” and will make a point of not going to access any of our cloud accounts.  Assuming this is true, it makes the entire exercise even more pointless, and the smiles on the faces of the bad guys even broader.

Remember, these will be the same officials who wanted to levy duty on my battered old Dell laptop when I was returning to the US, because I couldn’t prove I’d not bought it in the UK the week before.  And while we’re told they’ll respect our data and our privacy, as long as we have physical objects stolen out of our suitcases and carry-ons, including credible allegations not just against baggage handlers out of view, but TSA agents who take stuff in plain sight, as long as we continue to read of officials being arrested for smuggling drugs and weapons and in other ways breaking the laws themselves, we have to consider the integrity and security of our data to be similarly at risk.

The worst part of this is looking at the smug smiles on the faces of the truly nefarious people with information they wish to hide, because they have indeed hidden it.  But the Customs officers won’t see that, because they’ll be too busy searching the devices of innocent people.

Does any part of this make us safer?  And, how long will it be before they next trot out technology to ‘mind scan’ us?

Sep 212018
 

Can you spot three things that show this to be a fake staged picture with fake passengers? See article, below.

Good morning

I must start off by thanking everyone who generously responded to the start of our annual fundraising drive last week.  We had 40 kind people choose to send in some support.

Depending on if one’s glass is half full or half empty, the half full glass perspective notes that we collected almost as much this week as we did the first week last year; but the glass half empty notes that while supporters were being much more generous this year, there were fewer of them – 40 compared to 74.

Astonishingly, of the 40, 18 were super-level diamond or platinum supporters.  Special thanks, therefore, to John, who was not only the first person to respond this year but so far is the most generous, plus Max, Mike, Bryan, Marty and Pete, all Platinum level supporters; and to Mike, Ian, Robert, Paul, Richard, Susan, Peter, Kim, Lary, Bill, Judy, and Gil for breaking through the Diamond level and being also extraordinarily generous.

As this week’s supporters clearly understand, The Travel Insider is a quite remarkable and eclectic collection of analysis, commentary, reviews, and sometimes ridicule about the travel and technology world around us.  Our uniqueness however is both a strength and a weakness – it is hard to conveniently categorize us, and so we rely upon people like you, with an appreciation for more thoughtful and detailed commentary, and an aversion for mindless press releases and ‘feel good’ advertorial pieces, to empower us and our ongoing publishing.

We’ve made supporting us a relatively painless process – all it takes is a few quick details and a credit card.  (There were some bugs in the new system last week, but I think they’ve all now been cleared.)  In return, we have various little extra features for you, including this week a new special exclusive supporter five-page report, which is now the seventh special report exclusively for supporters.

This latest report gives you easy and helpful ways to reduce some costs that you might otherwise occur, while giving you more choices at the same time.  I’m being a bit vague, because it uses a loophole that has been permitted to remain by most of the companies that would otherwise be charging, but it is best not to shout it too loudly and too widely for fear of causing the loophole to close.

Current supporting members can go to their Special Member Reports page, linked from the Member Home Page, to access the report.  If you become a new member, you will get instant access as soon as you join.

So whether you’d simply like to help keep the The Travel Insider appearing in your inbox, or whether you’d enjoy one of these currently seven special reports, plus other items too, please do consider joining your fellow Travel Insiders and adding your support to theirs.

An update on our lovely French and Belgian Land Cruise this December – we had three more people join us this week. Yes, we can still gladly accept another couple or two, and/or another single traveler or two, so please do consider treating yourself to a week-long pre-Christmas celebration of fellowship, festivities, food, and fun as we tour around this beautiful and historic region.

What else this week?  Please continue reading for :

  • United’s “New” Boarding Process – Caution :  Fake Photo
  • United’s “Leadership” Role
  • Airline Answer to Complaints About High Ticket Change Fees
  • Qantas Brings About the End of an Inflight Tradition
  • JetBlue’s Surprising Headphone Choice
  • New iPads and High End Phones Due Soon
  • Airline/Security Killjoys Punish Innocent Passengers
  • And Lastly This Week….

United’s “New” Boarding Process – Caution :  Fake Photo

One of the differences between The Travel Insider and other publications is that we’re probably the only one to reveal to you the fake photo illustrating this story about United’s “New” (as in, actually, not new at all – also a point other media have been too polite to make) boarding process.  The photo is featured at the top of this week’s newsletter.

Why do we call ‘fake’ on the photo?  Well, to start with, have you ever seen such an empty gate area!  Second, note that all the people are young.  No children, no elderly.  Third, note that no-one is bringing more than the legal amount of carry-on with them onto the plane, and only one person seems to have a rollaboard bag.

As for the ‘new’ boarding process, United is reducing the number of lines from five down to two.  They say it will reduce the time people spend in line waiting to board.  That may perhaps be true, but will it reduce the time it takes to board the plane?  Almost certainly, not.

The key element of speeding up boarding isn’t in how you line people up at the gate.  It is how quickly you get people into their seats once they have boarded.  Studies have consistently shown that the typical boarding systems don’t really speed things up at all, and any semblance of structure is lost by allowing people to earn or buy earlier boarding ‘out of sequence’ and the very loose policing of the boarding order at the gate.

The other huge factor that most US airlines seem unable to consider is that if they boarded from the front and back doors simultaneously, they’d almost halve the total boarding time.  Time is money, and planes don’t make money while standing passively on the ground at a gate.  Some airlines quote ridiculous three or even four figure sums for how much each minute or two of delay allegedly costs them.

But then, when you point out they could trim 10 minutes off their boarding time, and another 5 – 10 minutes of their deplaning time too (perhaps 15 minutes in total per turnaround) they say that it would cost too much money to get airstairs deployed and arrange for passengers to board front and back.  Yes, the airlines that will trim an ounce per passenger from the weight of their inflight magazine and boast how this translates to tens of thousands of dollars saved each year then turn around and ignore the enormous savings – and the boost in customer experience too – they’d get if they allowed for both-door boarding.

United’s “Leadership” Role

We mentioned a few weeks back that United had boosted its checked bag fees.  Sure, it was only by $5-10 per bag, but in a scenario where your bags can nowadays sometimes cost you more to fly than your own ticket does, every extra $5-10 in fee is unfortunate and unnecessary.

We wondered about the only other two remaining major carriers and what they’d do.  Both American and Delta refused to comment, presumably wanting to make absolutely sure no-one could accuse them of collusion.  And now, after waiting a polite few weeks, as if by random, and within a day of each other, both airlines have completed their ‘study of the issue’ and have decided – you’ll never guess – to match United’s bag fee increase.  Surprise, surprise.  Airline competition – not!

The true surprise/delight is that Southwest is still sticking to its ‘two bags free’ policy.

Airline Answer to Complaints About High Ticket Change Fees

One of the more egregious fees that airlines charge is their fee to change the date or time you fly.  You can pay $200 to change your travel date, and that’s the minimum amount.  You then may pay more if the new flight is priced higher than the original flight.  And even if your new flight is nine-tenths empty and the flight you’re changing from is desperately oversold – in other words, you’re greatly benefitting the airline, you’ll still have to pay this “convenience fee”.

Just like baggage fees, change fees have been creeping up higher and higher.  Unlike baggage fees, change fees will never go higher than ticket costs; well, actually they do already, but in such cases, you simply throw away your existing ticket and buy a new ticket that is cheaper than the change fee on your current ticket.

There’s something seriously wrong with this logic where it costs more to change a ticket you’ve already paid for than it does to buy an entirely new ticket and throw the old one away.  It has got to the point where Congress is bestirring itself and – on a bipartisan basis, no less – is considering limiting the amounts airlines can charge for change fees.

So what does American Airlines’ CEO say when confronted with that possibility.  He has suggested that if there was to be a limit on how much they could charge for a change fee, they might respond by just making tickets totally non-changeable!  Details here.

It would be an interesting battle between legislation and airline end-runs to circumvent the legislation, but by the end of it, we passengers would be the losers.

There is, however, one very simple piece of legislation that is desperately needed.  The legislation to complete airline deregulation in this country, so that we’ll move away from the farcical situation at present where, for all intents and purposes, there is no longer any significant airline competition.  We have a mere three remaining major carriers with astonishingly similar policies, pricing, operations, and everything else.

Our current semi-deregulation has become a ridiculous situation in which, rather than encouraging a new golden era of airlines and competition, quite the opposite has happened.  The entrenched dinosaurs are hiding behind high costs of entry that dissuade all but the most eager of new entrants, regulations to delay the entry of new carriers, sometimes by years (aided by a compliant and unbelievably inefficient DoT approval process) and anti-competitive tactics to squash new airlines when and if they do appear.

The solution is easy and obvious.  What we need is to remove the restrictions on airline ownership, and a fast-track process for international airlines in good-standing to be allowed unrestricted access to flying within the United States.

You’d see baggage fees and change fees come crashing down to earth in double quick time if that were to happen.

Qantas Brings About the End of an Inflight Tradition

It is funny the things one remembers about one’s air travel experiences.  I still remember, almost like it was yesterday (it was actually 35 years ago) my first business class flight – it was a Qantas 747SP flight from Wellington, NZ to Sydney, Australia.  And the thing that sticks most in my mind was the music – they had “real” electronic headphones rather than the “stethoscope” type awful things that were to be endured in coach class, and a great selection of music, including – and this is the thing I most remember – a stunning performance of Schuman’s Carnaval by Youri Egorov.  Back then, it wasn’t music on demand, it was a fixed program at a fixed time, and I realized at the end that the person next to me was also listening to the same piece.  He turned out to be a concert pianist, and the music and good company (and, ahem, food and drink) made for a lovely experience.

Another strong Qantas memory was being introduced to the Stuart Grand Piano – a stunning Australian designed and made piano – via lovely recordings featuring Australia/Dutch pianist Gerard Willems who recorded all the Beethoven piano sonatas and piano concerti using a Stuart piano.  That helped pass the miles on a long trans-Pacific flight some time in the 1990s.

While it is true that these days I, apparently like most others, usually choose to listen to the music I ‘brought with me’ on my phone or lovely FiiO digital music player rather than roam through airline inflight entertainment systems in search of unexpected treasures, it is still with a sense of regret, nostalgia, and appreciation for past musical treats that I note Qantas is now ending the provision of music channels on its planes.  Not just classical, but all music.

Progress is sometimes a funny thing, isn’t it.  The airlines have better on-demand digital entertainment systems than we’d have dreamed of a decade or two ago, but at the same time, they’re keen to replace the ever lighter and less expensive video displays with a requirement for us to use our own, and now they’re cutting back on programming, too.

JetBlue’s Surprising Headphone Choice

Qantas was also where I first ever heard a set of noise cancelling headphones on a flight; a concept I fell instantly in love with, and I now view my Bose QC25 Noise Cancelling headphones as an utterly essential piece of travel gear, on flights of all lengths.

Noise cancelling headphones provide two essential benefits on any flight.  First, they cut out the background noise.  Because it is ever-present and little varying in tone or volume, our brains struggle to process and cancel it out for us, which adds to our fatigue on a flight.  Using noise cancelling headphones makes for a much more relaxing flight.  Second, if you actually want to listen to music or watch a video, by cutting out the background noise, you have a broader dynamic range so you don’t have to strain to hear the quiet bits and hurt yourself with loud bits too loud.

Many airlines now provide very basic (almost to the point of useless) noise cancelling headphones in their premium cabins, and a few provide high quality noise cancelling headphones.  But Jetblue is providing not just ordinary headphones with no noise cancelling at all in its Mint first class cabins, but, much worse, it is providing open-backed headphones, so they don’t even passively block out some of the background sound.

This is ludicrous lunacy.  They spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on each first class seat/suite, but then save a few tens of dollars on totally inappropriate headphones.  Details here.

New iPads and High End Phones Due Soon

Today sees the first of the new iPhone XS and XR phones being released for sale/delivery.  But don’t let your eagerness run away with you – there will also be new Google Pixel and possibly Samsung phones announced in October, as well as other outstanding but less well appreciated phones.  We’ll be discussing this more in the weeks that follow.  It might pay to wait before you buy a new iPhone (although we do agree they’re the biggest step forward in iPhones since the introduction of the 6 series, four years ago).

We had also observed, with disappointment, that Apple did not announce any new iPads when it announced its new iPhones.  It now seems likely that there will be a separate event for new iPad(s) in October, with the exciting expectation that just like the way iPhones have now migrated to a no-bezel screen, it is likely we’ll see iPads also with no or very thin bezels.

Size and weight have always been much more of a consideration with any iPad than with any iPhone, and there is a ton of bezel that could be eliminated on most iPads.  For example, my iPad Air has external measurements of 9 3/8″ x 6 5/8″, but the actual screen size is 7 3/4 x 5 7/8″.  The unit could lose 1 1/2″ of length and 3/4″ of width, or, if you prefer, could grow its 9.7″ screen to almost 11″ and stay the same size.

Both alternatives are exciting, and if we can get the same or more iPad screen in a package size smaller and lighter than before, that could renew interest in a product range that has been increasingly moribund over the last few years.

Also, on Thursday, Amazon announced a new expanded range of its Echo products, with most of them being available in early/mid October.  Lots of exciting things to tempt us all with between now and Christmas.

Airline/Security Killjoys Punish Innocent Passengers

Never mind the First Amendment.  We’ve long since been cowed into submission with the requirement that we can’t make jokes about bombs when going through airport security, because our screeners are incapable of distinguishing jokes from serious threats.  Rather than hire people with a modicum of sense and humor, we instead have to zip our lips because somehow that makes us all safer.  We celebrate our freedom by sacrificing it.

A passenger got into an argument with ground staff at London’s Luton Airport while walking out to board a plane, taking a short cut rather than going the official route.  As a result of the argument about where he should and should not walk, he uttered the fateful words, “What do you think I’m going to do, blow up the plane?”.  Anyone with anything but concrete between their ears would recognize this as a rhetorical statement designed to underscore how utterly unlikely it was that he was planning to do anything untoward at all.

But, alas, the ground crew clearly had 100% concrete between their ears, and so became alarmed at this passenger’s “threat” and the security of the plane.  Overly compliant police eagerly rushed the plane and dragged the passenger off the flight, and then insisted on bringing bomb sniffing dogs onto the plane to check for the presence of bombs, delaying the flight and inconveniencing all the other passengers.

Would you be surprised to learn that, ahem, no bomb was found.  As for the hapless passenger, he was evicted from the airport and refused travel.  However, he was not arrested after being dragged off the plane and “interviewed” and no charges have been filed.  Sadly, no charges were filed against the ground crew for calling in a totally fictitious bomb scare.

Am I the only one to think this was a completely uncalled for over-reaction to a statement that was utterly and entirely not a threat?  Details here.

And Lastly This Week….

Spotted at Hong Kong Airport last week.

We might think this a comically incompetent spelling error, but when you consider the people doing the signwriting as likely as not neither spoke English as their first language nor used the Roman alphabet as their first alphabet, it becomes more understandable.  But still funny.

“Fly me to the moon” was a Frank Sinatra song, and was meant to describe something unattainable.  But these days, many things are possible if you have money, and Elon Musk (who else) is promising to fly a Japanese fashion magnate and a group of his friends to the moon (and hopefully back again), “as early as 2023”.  The group of 6 – 8 would not actually land on the moon, and the flight would take about a week.  We’re presuming that is each way, ie two weeks for the total flight, which would be similar to but slightly slower than an Apollo mission.

Talking about timings – never one of Mr Musk’s stronger points, we note that his earlier timeline announced in 2017 had him sending people to the moon this year.

How romantic – a China Eastern Airlines flight attendant’s boyfriend proposed to her during the course of a flight she was working.  This delighted her, and the passengers on board.  But it didn’t delight the airline quite so much, who claimed that this meant she abandoned her duties and jeopardized the security of passengers during the brief proposal ceremony.  They fired her.

Apparently, airlines are the same, everywhere in the world, even in China.

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels

 

David.

 

 

Sep 142018
 

The world’s most underwhelming tourist trap? So says a new report. See last item, below.

Good morning

It has been another busy week here at the Travel Insider Galactic Headquarters.

To my amazement, I found myself actually liking the latest release of new iPhones, so much so that I’m staring at my now four year old iPhone 6+, complete with cracked screen, and wondering if it is getting close to an appropriate time to replace it.  But that’s a two part issue, because while I do believe the new iPhone range (XS, XS Max and XR) are a tangible step forward from the last several years of little-changing phones, the bigger question remains “Why pay up to $1449 (plus tax, etc) for a new iPhone when there are almost-as-good Android phones for one tenth that price”?

I’ll write more on that question next week, but for now, please find after today’s roundup an article describing the important aspects of the new iPhones, and, should you decide to get one, helping you to sort out the maze of now seven different iPhone models and 17 different configurations/prices all being sold by Apple.

We had another couple sign up for the Northern France Christmas Markets “Land Cruise” this December, further reinforcing our lovely group of experienced European travelers.  There’s still room for you, too – and don’t forget its new lower price!  Please do consider coming along on this non-traditional way of exploring and experiencing a delightful and traditional European pre-Christmas celebration.

What else this week?  Keep reading please, and in particular, for the first item, which while following the traditional annual theme is being implemented in a very new form this year.

  • Annual Fundraising Drive
  • Reader Survey Results
  • Naughty Boeing?
  • Nuts on Planes
  • More on Flying Taxis
  • Uber’s Political Correctness
  • Massively One-Upped by a Reader
  • And Lastly This Week….

Annual Fundraising Drive

As most of you know, we increasingly rely on you for our continued existence, and use a public broadcasting type approach, whereby we give you almost everything, entirely for free, each year, while hoping for a small gratuity in return during our once a year fundraising drive.

These last 12 months have seen another flood of content delivered to you – I estimate close on a third of a million words of material, about the same as a hard-covered book every couple of months.  I hope there have been items that have educated and entertained you, and helped give you a better understanding of some of the obscured truths in the travel and technology spheres.  Maybe there have been some tips and advice and items that have saved you money or helped you travel better (my favorite travel pillow, perhaps)?

We’ve been sending out weekly newsletters almost every week since about this time in 2001.  The world has changed a great deal, and so too has the internet and our business model.  There was a time, about ten years back, when we were getting around $6000 every month from advertising on our website.  Five years ago, it was about $600 a month.  And now, it is more like $60.  Yes, we could claw our way back to perhaps $600, but that would entail annoying video ads that play and can’t be stopped, and which randomly restart, pop-up or pop-under pages, and all the other ways advertisers try to ensure their messages can’t be missed, but we don’t want that, and neither, we think, do you.

We could start accepting some of the regular requests we get to run ‘guest articles’ which are nothing other than thinly disguised advertisements for nonsense products that neither you nor we would like.  But again, we don’t want that, and we’re sure you don’t, either.

We could even do it ourselves, filling pages with gushy frothy nonsense about how wonderful assorted overpriced resorts are around the world.  Maybe we could even hire a ‘beautiful young couple’ to travel around, filming video clips on beaches, because that seems to be what so much of the traditional travel type publishing is becoming.  You guessed it – not only are we about as far from being a ‘beautiful young couple’ ourselves, but we very much doubt that would be something you’d welcome any more than we do.

So, here we are, cap in hand, turning to you again, and asking you to please consider responding to help keep the site in operation and to maintain its high standard of editorial independence.

Now for the two slightly interesting elements to this.  First, I’ve completely redone the process for how you can support The Travel Insider.  I think/hope I’ve made it very much more convenient, and have managed to free us all from reliance on Paypal (although it is still an option).  Check it out and see how you like it.

Secondly, I plan to focus a bit more on extra bonus content for people who generously support The Travel Insider.  There are already six ‘Special Reports’ for supporters, and a seventh one will come out in the next week.  I’m going to be freshening up the current reports, and hope to add more to that in a steady release of supporter bonuses during the months that follow.  The new system makes it really easy to do this, ranging from including extra paragraphs in regular articles, to extra items in the weekly newsletter, to complete additional articles and reports.

So, a small re-invention at this end, and I hope it will help encourage you to continue your kind support, or to now become a supporter.

Lastly, two final points.  First, every time the fundraising drive comes along, a bunch of people unsubscribe.  Please don’t feel that if you don’t support, you’re not welcome here.  Most people don’t contribute, and if it isn’t convenient for you, please continue to enjoy the material I send out.  Maybe next year you’ll be in a better position to respond.

Which leads to the related question – how much should you give?  That’s very much like asking how high is up.  I can tell you that last year, the largest amount of money came from people who contributed in three figures, and the largest number of people contributed between $50-$100.  But whether you send in $10 or $10,000, the important thing is that you’re helping, and that’s the greatest thing of all.  Sometimes I’ve had people “apologize” for sending in a modest sum, but, as I rush to tell them, even $10 is very much more than most people send in, and is greatly appreciated.

Our target for this year is 400 supporters.  The sooner we reach it, the sooner we can stop these messages!  May we ask you to be one of them?  Details here.

Oh – a ps to the above.  Behind the scenes, this is quite a complex new system to configure.  If something unexpected occurs, please let me know so I can troubleshoot and correct it.

Reader Survey Results

Last week I asked your opinion as to whether passengers should be subjected to some type of health screening prior to flying.  The response option logic felt clumsy when I designed it, and now that I’m having to analyze the responses, I see some logic bugs in it.

Perhaps the complexity of the options and the hard-to-follow logic also caused some people not to reply, meaning there were not as many responses as normal with other surveys, and with 20 different response options, few felt like they were getting significant levels of response.

However, a couple of clear points did emerge.

The first was that people who advocated doing nothing felt more passionately about that than people who were in favor of some type of screening.  Quite a few of the “Do Nothing” people added comments, including the following (slightly paraphrased to reflect a mix of similar opinions) :

The events this week are more likely mass hysteria than a real illness caused by a traveler

This is part of the normal risks of life

Chaos would surely result

Folk who may be unwell should be allowed to board but supplied with/required to wear a mask

None of the people responding who supported some type of screening supplemented their response with comments.

The second point was that while no-one suggested a ‘quick medical test’ for flights up to 8 hours, it was mentioned by 24% of people in their responses for flights 8 – 12 hours, and 60% of responses from people addressing what should be done on flights longer than 12 hours.

In total, 34% of people advocated doing nothing, no matter how long the flight.  The most popular type of screening was a combination of a quick self-answered questionnaire and an IR scan.

Another common point of feedback received was what would the cancellation/change penalties/policies be?  Would airlines waive all penalties if a passenger was denied boarding on medical grounds?  Would they allow the passenger priority waitlisting for a future flight?

To conclude, there was a surprising degree of support for some type of screening, although considerable concern as to how it would work and what the impacts and implications may be.

Naughty Boeing?

There’s a small problem with Boeing’s business plan.  Sure, lots of airlines would love to buy its planes, but sadly, not all of them can afford to pay for them.

The best solution to that has been the US Export-Import Bank, which would finance the sale of planes to international airlines.  But after Congress cut off funding, Boeing had to find another solution, with the key part of the problem being, fairly obviously, that most of the airlines that needed financing were poor credit risks.  Sound airlines had access to other forms of credit.  Sure, if financially stable airlines could get credit on favorable terms through the Export-Import Bank or anywhere else, of course they be interested, but they had access to other financing in the alternative.

So a critical part of building a private sector alternate to the Ex-Im Bank was being able to judge the risk of default on the money being loaned.  A company formed by various high-powered financiers and former Ex-Im Bank executives – Xavian – came up with some very useful formulas which included considering factors not normally evaluated by traditional lenders, and which enabled a startling improvement in assessing overall risk.

Boeing was interested in this, of course, and after signing a non-disclosure agreement, was allowed to see ‘under the hood’ of Xavian and how it operated.  But while Boeing seemed very interested in joining forces with Xavian before signing the NDA and getting access to Xavian’s know-how and trade secrets, after it gained that access, it ‘ghosted’ Xavian (to use a modern term) and ceased to move forward with any sort of alliance.

Instead, all of a sudden, it announced its own financing venture, and apparently making use of similar methodology to that developed by Xavian.

Hmmmm.  It is possible Boeing may have profited to the tune of many hundreds of millions of dollars, thus far, from the financing it has arranged without Xavian’s participation, and Xavian are now suing in federal court.

While no-one really has a read on how the case might evolve, and for sure it will take some time to resolve, it seems that time is not on Boeing’s side, because the uncertainty of the outcome, and the potential for triple and punitive damages, is rather raining on Boeing’s parade.

Details here and here.

Nuts on Planes

In this case, we don’t mean aggressive or belligerent passengers, or just confused and unstable ones, either.  We actually do mean nuts; in this case cashews.

You may remember back in December 2014 there was an incident prior to take-off at JFK with a Korean Air flight when a senior airline executive took offense to being served macadamia nuts in a little bag rather than in a bowl.  The executive ended up being given a term of imprisonment – more for the crime of being very rich and influential, one thinks, than for the argument over the nuts.

In a surprisingly similar scenario, Sri Lanka’s President has made the headlines for complaining about cashew nuts served to him on his country’s national airline, Sri Lankan Airlines.  The phrases “not even suitable for dogs” and “not fit for human consumption” were heard to be uttered by him.  Details here.

It seems unlikely he’ll be sent to prison, which is perhaps more than can be said for some of the airline’s employees, due to long-standing allegations of corruption and a long-running commission of enquiry into the airline and its practices.  The airline is 95% government-owned, with the other 5% being held by airline employees.

More on Flying Taxis

We consider personal flying vehicles about as fanciful as new supersonic aircraft.  We expect to see both appear in about the same timeframe, and while we’ll not say what that time-frame is, suffice it to say we think it to be much further into the future than proponents of both are proclaiming.

We also feel they are both afflicted with a similar problem – affordability.  The suggestions of supersonic flights costing somewhere between current Premium Economy and Business Class fares has us totally skeptical.  On the other hand, few people have even thought the issue far enough through as to speculate on what the costs of ownership and operation of a personal flying vehicle might be, but we suspect they will be substantial.

This seems to be unavoidably so, because most of these craft are designed to provide vertical take-off and landing capabilities.  As anyone who has ever priced out a helicopter hire and compared it to a regular plane knows, being able to do that adds enormously to the cost per hour and mile of flight, because it is a less efficient mode of flight, particularly at slower speeds, where there is very little passive lift and almost totally engine-generated lift from the rotor blades.

So it was with a degree of surprise that I read the claims in this article that a company developing yet another new flying taxi/personal aircraft concept claims they are motivated by a desire to save the planet and will come up with an environmentally friendly concept.  Even more astonishing is their claim that they hope to use their vehicles not just for short travel within a city, but for journeys of some hundreds of miles between cities – the sort of journey that trains already do so well and efficiently.

Will these type of airplanes ever be more efficient than trains or regular planes?  Well, loathe as I am to say ‘never’, I think it is time to say so here!

But one thing is for sure.  Claiming to be saving the planet and layering your company’s goals with lots of high-minded but empty statements is a great way to get support for any type of new creation, even if it actually is doing quite the opposite.

Uber’s Political Correctness

In the past, I’ve occasionally complained about muslim taxi-drivers refusing to transport passengers because the passengers had alcohol with them (in sealed containers, not open and being consumed on the journey).  My feeling, more or less supported by the general obligations of common carriers to provide services to everyone and every lawful thing, is that taxis and their drivers are obliged to transport all passengers and their belongings, as long as all laws are being followed.

We know, for sure, that if fundamentalist Christian taxi drivers refused to transport gay couples, there’d be shrieks of outrage echoing all the way to the Supreme Court.  Because of the common carrier concept, whereas cake makers may possibly be able to refuse to bake wedding cakes for same-sex couples, it seems fairly clear that taxi drivers can’t refuse to transport people of any type of sexual orientation.  The muslims refusing to transport passengers with alcohol, while as clear a violation of common carrier principles, has met a more muted and uncertain response, and we all know why that is.

I’m reminded of that by a recent mention of Uber’s pandering to the politically correct ethos that is sweeping aside common sense at present.  They refuse to transport passengers who have firearms with them – no doubt for the convenience and safety of the passengers, of course.

Indeed, you can’t even bring a firing pin by itself – a thin piece of metal rod no more than a couple of inches long and a tenth of an inch in diameter – into an Uber vehicle with you.  The rationale for this prohibition is as puzzling as is how they’d ever know if you had one (or even 100) firing pins in your pocket when getting into the car.

Uber will allow such items in the trunk, only if they’re in a hard sided locked container.  Details here.

I’d suggest switching to Lyft, but their policy is even more draconian, banning not only guns, but vaguely defined weapons of any and every kind and say that it is up to them to decide (without telling us in advance) what may or may not be permitted.  They helpfully add that the ban applies whether or not it is lawful to own and have such devices in the passenger’s possession.

There’s another interesting thing, too.  Both Uber and Lyft refuse to allow people under the age of 18 to travel in their vehicles, unless accompanied by someone older.  I’d been planning on giving my 14 yr old daughter an account with either or both companies, so if things get a bit unpleasant, anywhere at any time, she can quickly call an Uber/Lyft car and be safely brought home again.

Concerned parents should be worried by that; and we should all be worried at how near-monopolistic public-service companies that we increasingly rely on can refuse to allow us the liberties that the general law of the land does.

Massively One-Upped by a Reader

I was talking about being the proud owner of a piece of coal allegedly from the Titanic’s bunkers, as well as a piece of Berlin Wall and a piece of meteorite last week.  This was not to boast, indeed, I reflected on the at-best uncertain provenance of all three items.

But then I received a note from a reader claiming to have an object that rather left my three so far in the distance as to be imperceptible.  He says he has a piece of Mars rock.  This puzzled me – while of all the people who read the Travel Insider, this guy is the most likely to have such things, I was unaware of any spacecraft that had landed on the Martian surface, collected some samples, and flown back to Earth.  But the reader had great ‘provenance’ for his object in terms of where he obtained it from.

I checked, there have been no roundtrips to Mars.  But there are Mars rocks here.  No, not gifts from little green men in flying saucers.  The explanation is almost more astonishing than that.  The first article on this page is particularly helpful in explaining their origin.

And Lastly This Week….

Oktoberfest starts next weekend and runs through 7 October in Munich.  Unfortunately, the killjoys have found something to complain about the last few Oktoberfests and what they fear may happen again this year.  More details, and pictures (which you might wish to see so as to, ahem, form your own opinion) here.

Oktoberfest is certainly very popular with tourists, and happily doesn’t feature on this interesting list of “The World’s Most Underwhelming Tourist Traps“.  How many on the list have you been to (almost all, in my case!)?

And talking about places popular with tourists, it is Japan’s turn now to politely regret that their country is hosting so many tourists, and not all of whom are polite, quiet and well-mannered.  Over-touristing is becoming an international phenomenon.

I’m sure you can think of places you have visited which were formerly only sparsely populated and now which are uncomfortably crowded.  I can even remember when one could go for weeks at a time in New Zealand and not hear an American accent.

As we inexorably transition from a lovely summer to the depressing beauty of fall, there’s one bright ray of hope to seize.  Apparently we’re most mentally alert at this time of year.

Truly lastly this week, while enjoying the 6,350 words of content this week, please do – with all your powers of mental alertness – consider joining this year’s Travel Insider fundraising drive.  Your help is needed and will be greatly appreciated.  Thank you.

Until next week

 

David.

 

 

Sep 122018
 

Apple’s new iPhone XS Max (left) and XS, with an 8 Plus i the middle to show relative body and screen sizes

If it is September, then not only is Fall making its transformational presence felt, but it is time for an “Apple Spring” with their annual event announcing another year’s worth of iPhones.

This year’s event cast off still more of the Jobs legacy, with CEO Tim Cook in white sneakers, light tan Dockers style trousers, and an open-neck blue button-down shirt.  No hint of the black turtle-neck sweater and jeans that was Jobs’ trademark and widely copied for some years after his passing.

One of the other legacies of the extraordinarily transformational Jobs era that has clearly been discarded is the lack of any apparent attempt at secrecy.  Whereas, during his reign, people would go into these release events truly with no idea of what to expect other than optimistic speculation, the last few years have seen increasingly detailed leaks preceding the event, and this year seemed to leave almost nothing unknown prior to the event, except for, perhaps, the exact pricing of the three new phones that were expected to be released.

New Apple Watch

As an opener for the main event, Apple treated us to the latest version of its electronic watch product.  There was a time when its watch justified a special event on its own, and now that it is folded in as merely the ‘warm up’ item for the iPhone release, we can probably guess that notwithstanding Apple’s hype and bluster, the reality is that the watch has been a disappointment.  When did you last see a person with an Apple watch?

The new watch is to be known as the Apple Watch Series 4.  It has less bezel and more screen than its predecessors, and a smaller case size.  Oh yes, and rounded corners, too.  And some new designs for the watch’s screen.  Although the watch usually has its screen on standby, if you wish to activate the screen, you can now gaze mindlessly at moving bubbles that ‘splash off the edges’ of the screen.

Apple says the speaker is now “50% louder”.  That’s not a term that a sound engineer would use, but probably it means it is a little more than 1db louder, which in real world terms is an almost imperceptible difference in volume.  Doubling in volume is usually the smallest difference in volume that most people notice, and a ten time increase is readily apparent.  But 50%?  Chances are you’ll not notice.

There are some other changes too.  For example, a new accelerometer that can measure up to 32g.  Never mind that your body would be crushed to mush at g-forces considerably less than 32g, and who only knows how well the rest of the watch will stand up to that force, too.  But at least the accelerometer will be fine.  And the usual, inevitable, faster processor.  Alas, no increase in battery life, which is still rated at 18 hours of typical use.

Apple is continuing to push the health monitoring benefits of owning a watch.  This is an interesting and probably very sensible ‘pivot’.  The earlier use-case for the watch (as a new connectivity tool to supplement and even potentially replace our phone) having largely failed to capture the public’s imagination, they are now telling us that their watch may save our life, with more detailed automatic heart monitoring, detecting if we fall over and offering to call emergency services, and so on.

A new Series 4 watch is priced from $399, adding a cellular connection capability pushes the starting price up to $499.  The earlier Series 3 watch can now be had from $279.  The watches can be ordered starting from Friday (ie 14 September) and shipments will start the following Friday (21 September).

New iPhone XS and XS Max

Another vanished element of Steve Jobs was his earlier fierce insistence that there was only one ideal size for a phone screen, and that was (of course) the 3.5″ diagonal screen of the early model iPhones.  Apple has long trailed behind the rest of the industry as a result, being always a few years (and inches) behind the rest of the industry in terms of screen size, until the release of their iPhone 6 which saw them finally come out with notably larger screen sizes (4.7″ and 5.5″) and a welcome move towards the rest of the industry.

The iPhone X saw a sort of larger screen as measured by the diagonal (5.8″) but this was achieved by making it longer and skinnier so the actual area of the screen remained almost unchanged (13.1 sq in, less a bit of space for the ‘notch’ and largely wasted area on either side that probably ends up at almost the same net space as the 12.9 sq in of the all-usable space in the 5.5″ diagonal screened ‘Plus’ series phones).

The new iPhones this year start with the iPhone XS.  One of the ‘problems’ of the iPhone X is that many people pronounced this as “X” like the letter “eks”, rather than 10, as in the Roman number X for 10.  So we wonder how many people will pronounce this as the iPhone Excess rather than as the Ten S.

The XS phone has the same 5.8″ 2436 x 1125 pixel display as last year, again using a high contrast OLED material.  It is a lovely display, although there’s nothing particularly bad about Apple’s standard LED displays, either.

New is a second XS model (there was only one model X last year).  This is the XS Max.  It has a larger 6.5″ display, with 2688×1242 pixels – it has the same 458 ppi density as the XS.

One has to wonder if the “Max” means that Apple will never, ever, come out with a still larger display.  Certainly, Apple is now returning back to a position near the front of the pack with a 6.5″ display.

Interestingly, the thinner bezels and long narrow screen size mean that the actual case size of the XS Max is actually very very slightly smaller than the former 6+/6S+/7+/8+ phones (with 5.5″ screens).  The XS Max measures 6.2″ x 3.05″ and is 0.30″ thick and weighs 7.34 ounces.  The iPhone 8+ is 6.24″ x 3.07″ and the same thickness, weighing 7.13 ounces.

So while the display is large, the phone itself remains acceptably sized.

The distinctive notch remains in the top center of the screen.  There had been some mild speculation, months earlier, that the notch might disappear in this year’s models, but it is remaining in place, and the copying of the notch concept by some Android phones seems to suggest that it may be a semi-permanent fixture.  If you’d been holding out until the notch concept disappeared, you might now be forced to accept they’ll be around for another few years.

Needless to say, like every preceding model of iPhone, there’s a new better/faster processor inside.  This is always semi-amusing, because each year we’re told how stunningly amazing that year’s new processor is, but then, 12 months later, it is no longer at all amazing, and the newer better faster processor brings about what we are told are enormous improvements (according to Apple) that 12 months ago no-one realized were even necessary or possible.

Apple spent some time highlighting some of the uses for the new faster processor.  It seemed that pretty much all the benefit will be in better game experiences.

It was unclear if the rear cameras on the XS series phones were appreciably better than last year.  In both cases, the two cameras have 12 MP resolution and the same f1.8 and f2.4 lenses.  The wide angle camera is said to have a new sensor.  They are very good cameras in the original X phone, so leaving them much the same is not a problem.

The front camera is again 7 MP and f2.2 and we’re told it is ‘twice as fast’ but we’re not told what that means.  Does that mean twice as fast to focus?  To take a picture?  Or twice as fast in terms of light gathering/aperture (clearly not this meaning because the lens has the same aperture rating as last year)?

The phones will now record audio in stereo rather than mono.  That is nice, but anyone serious about recording sound is going to want external microphones and some way of connecting them to the phone.

Good news on the battery life front.  The XS is said to have ‘up to’ 30 minutes of extra battery life compared to the X, and the XS max up to 90 minutes of extra ‘daily use time’ (whatever that means).  They have slightly better battery life than the model 7 and 8 phones.

The new phones will be available for order on Friday 14 September, with shipments starting on 21 September.

Great New Feature – Dual SIM

And now, after all of this (I’m writing this more or less in the same sequence of Apple’s presentation), a surprise bonus feature that will be great for international travelers.  Dual SIM capability.

This means you can have two different phone numbers with two different providers, simultaneously.  I usually need to travel internationally with two phones – one being my US phone with my T-mobile SIM in it, and the other being a second phone with a local SIM in it from a wireless service provider in the country I’m visiting.

Even if you don’t regularly travel out of the country, Dual Sim can be very useful at home – for example, you can have a work number and a home number, both on the one phone.

Dual-SIM has always been a tricky technology to implement.  There are associated issues, such as how to specify which SIM provides your cellular data service, and how to choose which SIM to use when placing a call, are both SIMs active simultaneously, and so on, and different phones approach these with varying degrees of elegance or clumsiness.  Here is the detailed information on Apple’s approach.  It seems to be moderately functional, but also moderately complicated, and for sure, you’ll now want to make sure that all the phone numbers you store include the international country code as well.

In our case, when we travel, we like to use our T-mobile phone for non-speed sensitive data (ie mainly email) because of the wonderful unlimited free international slow data that T-mobile gives, while using the other phone for fast data needs (ie mainly web pages).  It is not possible with most dual SIM phones to have two data services simultaneously, or to specify which apps use which data.  So, dual SIM is good, but not without some convenience compromises.

Apple says it will use one eSIM rather than physical regular SIM plus have a physical slot for a second regular SIM.

For us, the dual SIM capability is the best of the new enhancements and the deal point that might see us reluctantly spending way over $1000 for a new phone.  Our iPhone 6+ is now four years old, so we can’t be accused of needlessly upgrading more frequently than we should!

New iPhone XR

The event then moved on to a third new phone, named the iPhone XR.  This too was widely anticipated, and the rumor mill even got the name of the phone correct.

It comes in more and brighter colors than the other two phones.  It has a 6.1″ display, halfway between the two XS screen sizes, but with a slightly lower quality LED panel, offering only 1792 x 828 pixel resolution at 326 dpi.  At a casual glance, it looks the same as the XS and XS Max phones, and signifies that Apple will no longer be offering tradition designed phones with the touch button at the bottom.

Apple should have done that last year, because its uneasy combination of the traditional design 8/8+ and new design X phones made it unclear which way the future phones would go, and also provided less ‘fashion’ impetus for people who like to conspicuously show off their newest phones.

The screen resolution is unfortunate – it can’t play regular HD video at a 1:1 pixel correspondence, but has to discard some picture quality to squeeze the 1920×1080 (2.1 million pixels) of picture data into the 1792×828 pixel screen, which when adjusted to the same aspect ratio means 1472 x 828 actual pixels, a total of only 1.2 million pixels of picture data.

We understand that Apple wishes to have a clear differentiation between the entry-level XR and full features XS/XS Max phones, but it nonetheless is a disappointment that it moved as far back on its screen functionality as it did.  However, let’s not overstate this – the chances are that most people won’t notice any difference in video quality at all, especially because most video isn’t streamed to phones in full HD quality, anyway.

It has a single front and rear camera, and all the same sensors in its notch as do the other phones.  It also has the dual SIM capability.  It has 90 minutes longer battery life than the 8 Plus phone, although we’re not told which measure of battery life is being used for this.

The XR can be ordered starting on 19 October, with shipments starting on 26 October.

Pricing

In addition to the three new phones released today, Apple will continue to sell model 8 and 7 phones, but unusually, the first model iPhone X has vanished without trace, and will no longer be sold at all.

This gives Apple a broad range of price points and products – an amazing seven different models all currently for sale.

Model Storage Price
XR 64GB $749
XR 128GB $799
XR 256GB $899
XS 64GB $999
XS 256GB $1149
XS 512GB $1349
XS Max 64GB $1099
XS Max 256GB $1249
XS Max 512GB $1449
8 and 8+ 64 or 256GB $599/$749 or $649/$849
7 and 7+ 32GB or 128GB $449/$549 or $569/$669

 

So – which phone is best for you?  Please keep reading.

Which Phone Should You Buy

Apple truly does now have a broad range of good phones, and it might seem slightly confusing to choose the one best suited for you.  So here are some ways to help you choose.

If you’re considering a traditional style of iPhone with a button on the bottom, then you need to choose between an iPhone 7 or iPhone 8.  We prefer the larger 5.5″ screen, better resolution, and longer battery life of the Plus model, but this adds to the price and slightly to the bulk/size of the phone.

There is an important difference between the way the iPhone 7 and 8 models are configured.  The 7 series come in 32GB or 128GB storage capacities, whereas the 8 is offered in 64GB or 256GB.  We are concerned that many people might find 32GB too small.  We are currently using 42.5GB of our 64GB iPhone’s capacity, of which 6.3GB is photos, and almost all the rest are apps.  It would be possible to trim down the apps by 5GB or more, and to copy off most of the photos, so we could get our usage down below 32GB, but we’d all the time be struggling to stay within that capacity.

Unless you know for sure that you’re only going to use some basic apps and will regularly be taking your photos off the phone, the chances are you might find 32GB inconveniently inadequate.  64GB is fine for most people, though.  In other words, don’t choose the 32GB model iPhone 7.

So when you then compare the 128GB version of the 7 series, priced at $549/$669, against the 64GB version of the 8 series, priced at $599/$649, you’re only paying $50 more if you want the smaller screen, and actually paying less for the larger screen unit.  Probably this means that, for most people, an iPhone 8 is the better choice of traditional style iPhone.

If you want a modern looking phone but have no need for the advanced capabilities of the XS, the XR at $749 is perfectly good, compared to the XS at $999.  Unless you clearly see something you’d be missing out on by spending $250 more for the XS, stick with the XR.

If you want the absolute biggest and bestest phone, though, then of course, go for the XS Max, and probably choose to pay extra for the 256GB version to ensure you’ll not have storage capacity problems in the foreseeable future.  It is hard to clearly see any reason to go higher up to 512GB.

Table of Screen Sizes

The actual screen sizes now are :

Model Diagonal Pixels Density Sq In
XS Max 6.5″ 2688 x 1242 458 < 15.9 *
X and XS 5.8″ 2436 x 1125 458 < 13.1 *
XR 6.1″ 1792 x 828 326 < 14.0 *
8+/7+/6S+/6+ 5.5″ 1920 x 1080 401 12.9
8/7/6S/6 4.7″ 1334 x 750 326 9.4
5 series 4″ 1136 x 640 326 6.8
4 series 3.5″ 960 x 640 326 5.8
Earlier models 3.5″ 480 x 320 163 5.8

* * = One needs to allow for some lost space where the notch is and the diminished value of the screen on either side of the notch.

The Missing Product

One thing was missing from the release event.  There had been rumors of a refresh of Apple’s iPad products being announced, too.

Alas, that did not happen, and in particular, their lovely large screened iPad is now getting very long in the tooth.  While we still love our iPads and other tablets, we do have to observe that the earlier hype about tablets taking over all types of computing seems to have been totally off-base, and laptop type computers (and desktop computers too) still retain their primacy for ‘real’ productive uses.

Summary

These three new phones represent a more tangible step forward in phone features than Apple has offered for many years.  The associated lowering in price of the traditional design iPhone 7 and 8 series now gives Apple a broad range of phone styles, features, and prices.

Most people will either buy an iPhone 8, the XR , or the XS Max.

But, before you do so, don’t overlook that excellent Android phones are available, from prices starting below $100.  Do you really need to pay up to almost $1500 for an iPhone when $150 or less will get you a high quality Android phone instead?  We’ll update our various phone buyers guides in the next few days to reflect the new choices, both within the Apple universe and Android.

Sep 072018
 

Should passengers be pre-screened for infectious diseases prior to long flights? Please answer the reader survey below.

Good morning

I hope you had a great long weekend, and that there’s still a generous measure of Indian summer for you to enjoy.

It is certainly way too soon to start feeling the winter blues, but it is not way too soon to start planning an escape from that phenomenon.  And have I got great news for you – our Christmas Land Cruise has reduced in price!

The Euro/USD exchange rate I’d guessed at for our lovely December Christmas Markets Land Cruise is proving to have been a bit high.  The Euro has been kind to us and is lower than I’d been projecting (currently €1 = $1.16, making all travel to Europe great value) and so I’ve dropped the price by $100.  The Land Cruise is now $2395 per person.

But wait – there’s more.  Recognizing the large number of singles coming this year, I’ve negotiated the costs to the bare bones on the single supplement, which now is a very moderate $499.

Of course, these lower rates apply to everyone coming and already signed up, and they’ll apply to you too.  So please now consider adding yourself to our friendly group, whether you be traveling alone, with a friend, or with a whole bunch of friends (ask about our quantity discounts!).

Oh, talking about quantity, several people have said how much they like the smaller groups, so please also remember I’m limiting the total group to no more than 19 people.

What else?  Please keep reading for :

  • Reader Survey Request – Airborne Sickness
  • Baggage Fees Go Up Again
  • Is This Newspaper Article for Real?
  • Still More MH370 Theories
  • The Surprising Cost of a Set of Beats Headphones
  • Another Month of Electric Car Sales
  • And Lastly This Week….

Reader Survey Request – Airborne Sickness

We hope you’ll share your thoughts on this matter.  First, the introduction/explanation, then a chance for you to send in your opinion.  All responses will be collated and reported back in next week’s newsletter.

Introduction and the Problem to be Considered

You might remember, 15 years ago, during the throes of the 2003 SARS scare, a few airports conducted some rather cursory screening of arriving passengers.  This sometimes involved completing a self-declaration and relying on the honesty and awareness of the people, or perhaps mass screening of people with infra-red thermometers to seek out people with elevated temperatures.

Notwithstanding various strains of flu of varying degrees of severity, and the ever-present background rumble of Ebola, most of that largely “for show” screening has now been abandoned, along with the happy disappearance of SARS too.

It is certainly true that modern aviation has transformed the ability of diseases to spread.  A person can catch an infection somewhere in the morning, be on a plane at lunchtime, and 12 – 20 hours later, arrive half-way around the world, and still not have any symptoms apparent.  This means diseases can spread in impossible-to-guess directions, and infected people can be extremely difficult to trace.

However, for us as fellow passengers, a bigger and seldom considered concern has been slowly growing, in line with longer and fuller flights.  What happens if, for example, a person boards a flight with no obvious symptoms, but then during the next however many hours on a trans-Atlantic (or, worse, trans-Pacific) flight, their illness progresses to the point of visible symptoms, and they start coughing and sneezing profusely all around you and all about you and all over you, your clothing, your skin, your belongings, and your food and drink?

And, just for grins, let’s assume that, like so many flights these days, the flight is full and there’s no way you can move seats.

This issue has surfaced in three separate events this week (isn’t it funny how things happen in threes).  First was an Emirates flight from Dubai to New York, during the course of which an unknown number of passengers became unwell.  As a result, when the A380 landed at JFK, it was parked away from the passenger terminals and met by ambulances and paramedics.  A mysteriously hard to count number of passengers were taken away.  Emirates said it was ‘about ten’, other passengers on board said it was ‘dozens’ and the CDC claimed that 100 passengers were affected.  The rest of the people on board had to wait anxiously while authorities decided whether to let them off or in some unclear way quarantine them, somewhere, somehow, for some uncertain time.  Details here.

Then it was American Airlines’ turn.  Twice, with flights from Paris and Munich, both going to Philadelphia.  Details here.

Should the airlines and aviation authorities do something about this and require passengers to have some sort of clean bill of health before being allowed to join with 100 – 500 other people, all in a long narrow tube, more or less breathing the same air, for some number of hours?  Should there be some sort of mandatory pre-screening?

Possible Solutions and Strategies

We should be careful not to overstate the risk, and also not to overstate the value of any measures to reduce it.  Even on long flights, one unwell passenger rarely infects more than half a dozen or so people around them, and often fewer than this.  That is reassuring if they are many rows away from you, but not so reassuring if they’re just a seat or two from your location.  Plus, there’s always the ‘bonus’ of having them cough at you while you or they are walking up/down the aisle.

If something should be done, what should it be?  Do we add a full medical exam as part of security screening?  A quick temperature check with an IR meter?  A self-reporting form?  Something else?

Self-reporting is the least invasive and easiest to require.  But how many passengers will answer it both honestly and accurately?  Many people, if they think they’ve caught something nasty in, eg, Africa, are going to want to urgently fly to somewhere with quality medical facilities, perhaps all the way back home to where their medical insurance/health care applies, and will tell any lies necessary to be able to do so.

Temperature checking risks both false positives and false negatives.  Some people will have an elevated temperature for unrelated reasons, and others may not be visibly symptomatic at the point of checking (which, if at a logical place like the security screening, could be two hours before a flight) but may start coughing/sneezing half a dozen or more hours later.  But it is fairly unobtrusive and can handle large numbers of passengers.

Any other sort of exam is intrusive, expensive, and doesn’t scale well to handle hundreds/thousands of passengers.

Should we require it of every passenger on every flight?  Or only on longer flights (how long)?  Or only on international flights?

On shorter flights, there’s obviously less time for infections to be spread.  On flights within a single jurisdiction, it is perhaps less inconvenient for infected passengers to seek medical assistance.  It is probably somewhat reasonable to say that the longer the flight, the greater the risk.

Below is a list of possible approaches to this.  Please click the link that best describes what you think is best; this will cause an empty email to be sent to me with your response coded into the subject line.

 

All flights Only more than 2 hrs Only more than 4 hrs Only more than 8 hrs Only more than 12 hrs
Do nothing Choose Choose Choose Choose Choose
Remote IR screen only Choose Choose Choose Choose Choose
Self answered form & IR Choose Choose Choose Choose Choose
Quick medical check Choose Choose Choose Choose Choose

 

Baggage Fees Go Up Again

In last week’s newsletter I was observing the astonishing way that baggage fees have increased from zero to potentially the far side of $1000 for a roundtrip within the US, all in the space of about 15 years.  Yes, your ticket might cost you $250, but you might then have to shell out four times the cost of your ticket to fly your suitcases with you.

Admittedly that’s an extreme and uncommon example, but just because it is uncommon doesn’t mean that it is impossible, and the airlines absolutely are eager to separate as much of your money from you as they can possibly get away with.

After making those comments, by an amusing coincidence, later on Friday last week United announced it was increasing its luggage fees.  Sure, “only” by $5 – $10 a bag, and United says the extra income will “allow us to continue investing in the overall customer experience in today’s marketplace”, whatever that means.

Details here.

Curiously, at least as of Thursday night, AA and DL have not matched.  Are they sensing they’re nearing the upper limit of what the market will stand?  Do they think a $5 or so difference in bag fees might earn them some extra market share (sadly, I doubt it).

Here’s the thing that United (and AA and DL) don’t want you to consider, and the reason why I don’t think a modest difference in luggage fees will move much market share.  There’s still one – only one – airline that allows you two free checked bags on every flight, no matter what type of fare you are traveling on.

Do you know which US carrier that is?  If you don’t, shouldn’t you?  If you do, are they your preferred airline whenever schedules allow?

Is This Newspaper Article for Real?

The concept of “click bait” is when a website article has a great headline or opening ‘teaser’, sufficient to encourage you to go and visit it, and to read through the article, possibly clicking on to additional articles, etc.  This helps generate advertising review for the publisher.

The key element of click bait is that the promise of the headline or teaser is never met.

So, when you see a heading “In-flight extras you don’t think to ask for but could make your journey so much better” and a validating sub-heading “Members of cabin crew have revealed the perks you could get simply by asking very nicely…” you just know you’ve got to go read the article, don’t you.  Click, and off you go – and off I went.

Now, if you do read the article, please keep in mind the claim that these are suggestions offered by flight attendants themselves.  So, what could be better than that, right?

The first suggestion :  If you’re in Economy class and ask very nicely, the flight attendants might agree to give you food items from the First Class cabin menu.  Anyone for a cheese platter, perhaps.  With a few grapes on the side, of course.  On bone china, with fine cutlery, including a metal knife.

The second suggestion, and no, I’m not making this up :  Again, if you’re in economy, and want to get a set of free first/business class pajamas, spill food down the front of your shirt and “there’s a good chance the crew might take pity and hunt out a spare pair”.  (Public service message from me – better check it is a flight which offers such amenities, first.)

The other suggestions range from almost as ridiculous as the first two to only borderline insane, although it includes the nonsense that flight attendants will refuse to give you an aspirin if you have a headache because it is against the law (puhleeze – I’ve had flight attendants moan and groan when asked for an aspirin, but none have yet refused to hand one over) but the article then closes with another doozey.

Whether you just need an extra pair of hands or your little one’s throwing a bit of a tantrum, most cabin crew will sympathize and try to help.

This can including holding your baby while you store hand luggage, keeping kids entertained with coloring books and crayons and even provide designated childcare.

Perhaps you should print the article out so you can feign astonishment when the crew open an emergency exit in mid-flight and toss you, your dirtied clothing, and your spoiled brats out of the plane at 35,000 ft and 565 mph.  “What do you mean, you’re throwing us off the flight?  This article says that flight attendants love doing these things for their coach class passengers!”

This article is beyond stupid.  As a rule of thumb, do the exact opposite of what it says to avoid being labeled a smart a**/troublemaker.

Still More MH370 Theories

We seem to be going through a spate of ‘novel’ new MH370 disappearance theories at present (see the last couple of newsletters).

This week’s crazy idea is that the plane crashed in Cambodia.  This is based on a shadowy low resolution image spotted on Google Maps that kinda sorta looks a bit like an airplane wreck.

To find the plane there would of course contradict just about everything we think we now about where the plane flew after its transponder was turned off.  But, at the risk of sounding a bit like Sherlock Holmes, when you’ve searched everywhere the plane should be, isn’t it time to now start searching other places where the plane also could be.

Let’s hope it proves to be more substantial than an earlier claimed Google Maps sighting of the plane.  The last such claim was based on a Google Map image that was dated, ooops, a couple of years prior to when the plane went missing.

This article has more information.  We’re also not too sure about the validity of the implied £54 million reward on offer – that was a specific offer to the marine search company and subject to various conditions and requirements.

The Surprising Cost of a Set of Beats Headphones

We were told, quite some years ago, that the underlying cost of a set of Bose noise-cancelling headphones – the ones that sell for $300+ – was less than $30.  This was believable because it was made by another noise-cancelling headphone manufacturer who claimed his headphones were almost as good as Bose, but only about a third the price – not because his were of lower quality, but because his markup was not so high.

So it is with interest but not surprise that we see this article about how much it costs to make a set of Beats headphones that would retail for $200.

The final bill of materials totals $16.89.  But of that already paltry sum, $7 is spent on packaging.  Of the remaining $9.89, $3.09 is spent on two unnecessary pieces of metal to make the headphones feel more heavy and ‘better’.  Another 44c is spent on the logos on the sides of the headphones.

The actual cost of the two headphone speaker units inside the $200 set of headphones?  $1.80, ie 90c each.  They are described as being ‘complete commodity’ standard headphone speakers.  More than twice as much money was spent on the gift box than on the actual part that makes the sound.

We’ve never understood the popularity of these headphones.

Another Month of Electric Car Sales

Results for August’s electric car sales have now come in.

We also have learned a surprising piece of fine print about Tesla’s claim to having achieved/exceeded its goal of producing 5,000 Model 3 cars a week back in the last week of June.  According to this article, 86% of the 5,000 cars it built that week had to be reworked after being rejected by quality control, which helps reconcile the disconnect between the count of manufactured vehicles and the count of delivered vehicles.

For August, the very good news is Tesla is estimated to have delivered about 17,800 Model 3 cars.  That’s an average of 4020 cars a week, so clearly that 5,000/week target is still proving troublesome, to say nothing of their current 6,000/week target.

But it is also a huge number, eclipsing any number ever sold of any other electric car in a single months.  Although Tesla is charging on with its claimed targets to grow Model 3 production still further to 10,000 cars/week, one has to wonder at what point its production rate will match and then risk exceeding market demand.  Currently, Tesla seems to be delivering more cars than are ordered each week by a wide margin, a fact largely obscured by the uncertain rate of depletion of the not exactly understood backlog of pre-orders for the vehicle.

This interesting article estimates that in August, Tesla was the fifth best-selling car brand in the country, selling more than Chrysler, Mercedes, and many other marques.  That is astonishing if sustainable.

The rolling 12-month averages for other electric cars remain largely unchanged, although the Tesla S and X cars also had a good month (2625 and 2750 units sold, respectively).

And Chevrolet, with its struggling Bolt (1225 sold in August compared to 2107 in Aug 2017 – we are told due to worldwide demand exceeding production supply) managed to give a brilliant demonstration of all that is bad about “old” Detroit that is so vividly contrasted by “new” Tesla.

One of the characteristics of the Tesla vehicles is that the controlling software is regularly updated.  Just like Windows 10 today is very different to what it was when it was first released three years ago, even if our computer is the same, so too are the capabilities of Tesla cars that were produced back then now very different, due to changes in their “operating system”.

GM have just announced new software improvements to the Bolt’s “operating system”.  Great.  But – and here’s the inexplicable total fail – they have said the new improvements will not be given to existing vehicles.  It will only apply to new vehicles.

As far as we can tell, there’s no reason why they couldn’t update their existing vehicles with the new software, and so their decision not to do this seems mean-minded and totally at odds with the expectations of the new world of electric vehicles.  This is part of the reason why people love Tesla so much (and hate the old car companies).  Tesla wraps itself with the mantle of righteousness, whether deserved or not, while other car companies continue consumer-unfriendly policies.

On the other hand, it is only about now that early Tesla owners are starting to see what life is like when their car’s warranty has expired.  Apparently it is not very good.

Talking about Tesla, their stock price continues to soften.  A week ago, it closed at $303, and last night, it closed at $281.

And Lastly This Week….

In a classic good news/bad news situation, BA happily told its customers the good news – no passport or travel data was compromised.

What’s that?  Oh yes, the bad news.  Ummm, errr, aparently BA suffered a cyber-attack that resulted in 380,000 sets of credit card details being compromised.

But, hey – those ultra precious flight details and meaningless passport numbers?  The hackers didn’t want them, so no need to worry.

Fancy a bit of the Titanic?  If you’re like me, maybe you already have an alleged piece of coal that was retrieved from the Titanic wreck site (in my case, it is alongside my alleged piece of Berlin Wall and right next to my alleged piece of meteorite, all with impressive certificates of authenticity).

But if you’d really like a bit of the Titanic, now might be your chance.  Due to financial problems, the owners of just about everything retrieved may be forced to break up and sell their collection, something that they’ve not been allowed to do until now.  Details here.

You’ve got to love Mexico.  Well, maybe.  Their approach to solving police corruption is certainly inventive.  Responding to tales of police aggressively enforcing certain laws and demanding bribes with the threat of terrible official consequences if not bribed, the Mexicans decided the best solution was to simply abolish the certain laws that were being exploited.

So it is now perfectly legal, in Guadalajara, to be, ahem, ‘totally intimate’ with your partner in public.  So, perhaps Guadalajara is now leaping up the ‘really good places for couples’ list, but also, equally, plunging down the list of ‘family friendly’ destinations.  Details – but mercifully no photos – here.

Truly lastly, please do consider our lovely Christmas Markets experience this December, and please share your thoughts about what should be done about screening passengers for communicable diseases.

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels.

 

David.

 

 

Aug 312018
 

The Stock Exchange and other impressive buildings in central Lille, France, where our Christmas Land Cruise is based.

Good morning

Welcome to another Labor Day Weekend and, sadly, the end of another summer.  I’ve been alternating between days with the a/c on and then a day with the heaters on, and soon there’ll be no question which way to set the thermostat at all.

In an interesting counter-current, although the US is producing (and exporting) oil at record levels never before attained, and the net oil imported is at a 24 year low – down from 9 million barrels/day to 6.8m bpd currently, our gas prices at the pump for the Labor Day weekend are at a four-year high.

So that should be providing plenty of boost for electric vehicles, one would think.  But there’s precious little sign of that.  Apart from Tesla’s Model 3 slowly ramping up production to levels promised almost a year earlier, all other electric vehicles for sale in the country are struggling to maintain sales at the level they were at an entire year ago.  This disconnect between the hype and reality of electric vehicle sales is very surprising.

While the cost penalty of electric cars continues to drop, performance and range rises, and general awareness and infrastructure improves, the actual sales remain obstinately flat.  And all the promised “Tesla killer” cars remain ‘next year’.

I’ve added a short article after the morning’s roundup to explain about our Christmas Markets Land Cruise in December.  Some people have been puzzled by the term, and maybe there’s a better phrase to use.

I do think this new approach to enjoying Christmas Markets has enormous appeal (or else I’d not be doing it!) and for the many of you who’ve been with me on a Danube or Rhine Christmas cruise, it brings us to a different part of the European Christmas tradition.

What else this week?  I’m never sure whether to offer more or less when there’s a holiday weekend looming.  Guess which I chose.  🙂   So keep reading for :

  • Maybe We Might Finally See a Spacious Plane?
  • More MH370 Madness
  • A Measure of Baggage Fee Impacts on Airlines
  • Another Sort of Dishonest Fee to Hate
  • The Cheapest Thanksgiving Flights
  • Don’t Buy a New Cell Phone Just Yet
  • Musk Ends His Privatization Charade
  • And Lastly This Week….

Maybe We Might Finally See a Spacious Plane?

How many times have we watched the cycle of initial hype about a new airplane type that will have lounges, shopping arcades, exercise areas, and so on, only to see the final cabins as cramped as any other airplane?

That happened with the 747 and again with the A380,and occasionally happens with less gargantuan planes too.  Indeed, don’t laugh, but the first 707s (these days a larger sized 737 – something we consider small – is the same as the once ‘enormous’ 707) were also hailed as offering a new era of spacious flying.

This vision is being evoked again, this time by Qantas, and on this occasion, there may be a unique reason why it may come to pass.

Qantas has a dream – being able to fly non-stop between London and Sydney.  The interesting thing about that journey is that the distance – 10,573 miles as the crow flies – is almost exactly half way around the world  Add the unavoidable indirect routings, occasional head winds, and air traffic control delays, and you basically need a plane that can fly halfway round the world for the route to work.

There’s no insurmountable reason why a plane couldn’t be built to fly that far, but the practicality is that you get into a vicious design circle.  If you want to give a plane more range, it needs to carry more fuel.  To carry more fuel, you need to make the plane stronger.  If you make the plane stronger (ie heavier) and load more fuel onto it, you’re going to need still more fuel to compensate for the extra weight of the airplane and the fuel you’re carrying.  But then, you need still more fuel to compensate for the extra fuel which you had to load to compensate for the extra fuel and airplane weight in the first place, and so on.

In other words, you need extra fuel to carry the extra fuel which you need to carry the extra fuel to fly further.  You can see the nasty spiral, mainly of costs, that this points to.

But with greater fuel efficiency (ie flying considerably more miles per gallon) of modern airplanes, the amount of fuel needed to achieve this length of route is no longer ridiculously more than longer range planes are carrying already.

While both airplane sizes and airplane speeds are either reducing or staying the same, airplane ranges have been steadily increasing, to the point where the longest range 777 and A350 planes are tantalizingly close to allowing LON-SYD flights.  Qantas is already operating nonstop flights between Perth and London.

(Here’s a Labor Day Weekend puzzle for you – why don’t airlines want planes that can fly further than half-way around the world?)

Qantas has been pressuring both Airbus and Boeing to give their planes the modest increase in range needed to allow for nonstop London-Sydney flights, and reports that both companies have come up with possible solutions.

The airline goes on to dream about how this would lead to onboard facilities to while away the 20+ hour flights such as child-care facilities, bars, exercise room, and sleeping berths.

This is actually possible.  We would not be surprised if such planes had some weight restrictions placed on them, meaning they couldn’t manage the weight of a full squeezed-in-like-sardines load of passengers and all their baggage.  This is the case already on various routes around the world, and currently airlines simply block off some seats on such flights so they fly less than completely full.

With the new dedicated planes for LON-SYD, it might make sense to apply the unused space to other passenger amenities.  We hope that will indeed happen.

But, how long would it be before someone realizes “Well, why don’t we enhance the design slightly and allow it to carry more weight so we can get passenger loads back up to ‘normal’?

So, with today’s technology, spacious planes might indeed briefly appear.  But tomorrow’s technology is sure to return things back to the normal scenario of terribly small seating, insufficient toilets, etc.

The missing MH370 plane is probably somewhere within this circle.

More MH370 Madness

The missing 777 flight, MH370, continues to have new theories advanced to explain part or all of its mysterious disappearance.  Unfortunately, the astonishing early parts of the mystery, and the strange route the plane took, gives much opportunity for ‘creative’ theories, and the Malaysian government’s handling of just about everything – from the critical early stages, doing nothing when the plane failed to ‘hand over’ from one traffic control zone to the next, all the way through to limiting the information it released to investigators, has certainly added fuel to the fire of suspicion that there’s more than meets the eye with this mysterious event.

Of course, there is no denying there is more than meets the eye.  The plane remains obstinately unfound, with nothing more than some arcane theory and reliance on the accuracy of source data that could well be wrong to start with, to suggest the plane is actually somewhere off the coast of Western Australia.  Shift a decimal point, change an assumption, incorporate other data which the current theory requires us to ignore and pretend does not exist, and you could as easily have the plane pretty much anywhere in about a 7 flying hour/4000 mile radius of its last known point.  That is a 46 million square mile area, or almost exactly one-quarter of the entire planet.

Is the Malaysian government actively trying to cover up something more than ‘mere’ colossal incompetence?  Are other major powers involved in a high-level conspiracy?  Was it just a coincidence that a second Malaysia Airlines 777 was mysteriously shot down by we’re not entirely sure whom, over Ukraine four months later, or are the two events somehow linked?

A new theory is now being promulgated, suggesting the Royal Malaysian Air Force was somehow involved in the flight’s disappearance.

There’s really not much to say in response to the theory, because none of us have a full knowledge of many of the facts at all.  And, oh yes, the Malaysian government has strangely cancelled the search for the plane, even though the searching company had offered to search for free.

Was the search cancellation because the government was concerned the plane would be found?  Or was the government concerned that the plane would not be found where it ‘should be’, throwing the official explanation of where the plane flew into a more critical light?

A Measure of Baggage Fee Impacts on Airlines

I mentioned last week the lunacy that sometimes sees it costing more to bring an extra bag with you than it costs for you to fly on the plane, yourself.  Remember, while forking over as much as $400 per bag, per direction; that only 15 years ago you could fly with three 70 lb bags for free on most US airlines.

Three 70 lbs bags now will cost you at least $1020 for a round trip within the US on UA (most likely the same on DL and AA too).

So, remember when the airlines cry about how the average cost per ticket has dropped over the last however many years that they are not adjusting for where all the action is these days – their runaway fees for changing flights, cancelling flights, reserving seats, eating meals, boarding early, and of course, for bringing bags with you.

This article about some increases in baggage fees in Canada is interesting because at the end, it tangentially mentions how the world’s top ten airlines collected $29.7 billion in fee revenue last year, up from $2.1 billion a decade ago.

That’s some increase.  How is it that the airlines are (maybe, maybe not) slightly reducing their ticket prices, while at the same time increasing almost 15-fold in a single decade their usurious fees?

Could it be because the fees usually don’t attract the federal 7.5% tax that the ticket price does?  (7.5% of $29.7 billion is $2.2 billion, although of course much of these fees wouldn’t attract US tax, but still…..)

Could it be because the airlines make it really hard to find out how much these fees actually are, and seek to surprise us with them after we’ve already made our travel plans?

Whatever the reason, just keep in mind the nonsense claim that air travel is cheaper today than it ever has been before is utterly that – a total nonsense claim.

Another Sort of Dishonest Fee to Hate

Talking about airlines and their rapacious race to see who can come up with new and higher fees to add to their tickets, I was booking a restaurant for my daughter’s birthday party lunch this Sunday, and noticed fine print at the bottom of the website that said :

20% service charge: 100% of these funds are distributed to our team in the form of wages, sales commissions, benefits and revenue share. Thank you for dining with us, we appreciate it.

Now let’s fully understand what that means, and also the context in which it is offered.  Seattle now has a $15/hour minimum wage, including for restaurant and all other service type employees who formerly had lower minimums, recognizing the reality that their tip income would most likely boost their income way over the minimum level.

The new high minimum wage destroys one of the two main reasons for tips – ‘because they need the tips to raise their earnings up to a fair level’.  Many restaurants instantly raised their prices to reflect their new higher staff costs.  And some of the bolder diners started no longer paying tips.

So, what have restaurants done?  Have they written in large red type at the bottom of their menus “The chances are that our servers now make as much an hour as many of you do, so there’s no need to tip them any more”?

No, as you can see, at least some have changed from a voluntary tip in whatever amount you choose, to now a mandatory added 20% “service charge”.  And, read the smarmy words carefully.

Sure, all the money from the service charge goes to the “team” (whatever that means, but it probably includes everyone on the payroll, including the office bookkeeper and the CEO), and note how it is allocated in unstated amounts now to cover the base wages of the “team”.  And are we to believe that dish washers in the kitchen get a sales commission?

Instead of a discretionary payment you could choose to make direct to people who need the money, and hopefully in return for good service, you’re now making a higher mandatory payment, which in probably largest part is simply being applied to the total wages bill of the entire company.

The real tragedy?  The number of fools who continue to also add a 15% or larger tip, because of course, the credit card charge slips still “helpfully” have a line for that when you sign them.

The Cheapest Thanksgiving Flights

Google – probably primarily in the form of its ITA Software subsidiary, but these days as a result of its ‘big data’ harvesting in general, is getting into the game of predicting if airfares will go up or down on any given itinerary between now and when the actual travel occurs.

The airlines of course wish to obscure that as much as possible.  The idea of dropping prices isn’t to make it cheaper for everyone to buy tickets.  It is to encourage a few more people to buy tickets on flights that are currently too empty.

Although, as crazy as it might seem these days, this was not always the case.  Until the mid 1990s, the airlines would cheerfully refund anyone and everyone who had bought a ticket at a higher price, if they came out with a lower priced airfare sale.  It would be a nightmare for us at the travel agency I owned – every time an airfare sale would come out, we’d have a rush of clients bringing back their tickets and asking for refunds – a process which I swear the airlines deliberately made as complicated as possible, and which would take 15-30 minutes per ticket.  We’d have to go to all this extra bother, and lose the commission on the difference in fare too, and do so with a weary smile on our face, because that was the way the airline industry worked back then.

Now, not only do the airlines make it almost impossible to get money back if they drop the fare price, but many travel agents will quite sensibly charge a reissue fee for redoing your ticket and refunding whatever might be coming back to you.

Enough of the reminiscing.  These days, with refunds generally out of the question, there’s more focus on buying at the right time.  A number of online services have come up with prediction engines to tell you if a fare might maybe perhaps possibly go up or down, whether you should urgently buy the ticket now or wait a while and possibly see the fare drop.  These work based on historical fare change patterns in the past, and whatever limited view of how full or empty the flight is becoming, and are moderately helpful.

Google, which surely has much more data than anyone else, has now offered a similar service.  This is another inching forward to the point where Google stops pussy-footing around and comes out directly with its own airfare booking service.

Now for the real ‘secret’, such as it is, for the best value airfares.  It isn’t so much about the day you book/buy your ticket as it is about the days of week and times of day you choose to travel.  Shifting your travel dates a day forward or back might change the airfare by $100 or more – if two of you are traveling together, and you save $100 each, that’ll pay for another day of vacation at your destination.

The better internet sites usually allow you to now specify if you want airfares for only the exact dates or if you’re interested in plus or minus a day or two or three for both outbound and return travel.  Usually, you’ll want to see the date range fares rather than the exact date fares, and often you’ll find a lovely surprise lurking in the variation of dates.

Don’t Buy a New Cell Phone Just Yet

A friend asked me to buy a new phone for them and bring it with me when I traveled to their country in the near future.  They were surprised when I refused, and I had to explain why.

In case you’re about to buy a new phone, you too might want to delay doing so for a couple of weeks, maybe for a month.

On September 12 Apple will announce its annual lineup of cell phones.  Not only is this a chance to (shortly thereafter) get the latest and greatest, but it also usually means that their previous generations of phones will drop in price.

And the first week of October is expected to see Google announce its latest Pixel cell phones too.

Cell phones often drop in price a bit in the run-up to Christmas, so whatever type of phone you might be considering, it probably is well to wait at present.

Musk Ends His Privatization Charade

After increasingly far-fetched claims and increasingly desperate attempts to substantiate his claim that he had funding secured for a private buy-out of Tesla, Musk announced on Friday evening last week that he was abandoning this attempt.

You’ve got your choice of reasons why he did this.  Reason #1 is his official claim that it is because most of the current investors didn’t like the idea.  Except that, this would presumably not be the 70% of current investors who just a week ago Musk was saying were keen about the idea and would (somehow?) remain investors in the new private company.

Reason #2 is that his ‘funding secured’ boast turned out to be as vapid as many of his other claims, and it seems he was unable to get the funding that he claimed had already been secured.

Meantime, the SEC investigation continues.  As mentioned last week, this farce of a slow-motion bureaucratic nonsense should have already been concluded (justice delayed is justice denied), and now that the entire proposal has collapsed, it is clearly even easier now to formally ascertain the accuracy of Musk’s original tweeted claim.

Tesla’s stock has now been testing $300, dropping below it briefly a couple of times on Thursday before closing at $303.  This is the same stock that was at $345 on 7 August before Musk’s ‘quirky’ announcement about his privatization plans.  Rather than burn the people holding short positions on Tesla stock (as some people think was his wish), the net result has been to slice 10% off the share price for regular long holders of the stock while benefitting the people with short positions, as well as making it almost impossible now for even mainstream media and analysts to ignore the growing problems surrounding the increasingly mercurial Mr Musk.

Own goal, Elon!

And Lastly This Week….

$75 compensation to keep quiet and not bring charges.  Or perhaps a dinner voucher?  That’s how much United and Southwest respectively offered as compensation to passengers on flights when the passengers found that the man next to them was, ahem, eagerly and unabashedly self-pleasuring himself for much of the journey.

Does that strike you as appropriate – not the self-pleasuring, but United’s apparent desire to avoid calling the police and making an issue of the event?

So, if a federal air marshal on duty briefly flashes his service sidearm to a flight attendant, the pilot calls an emergency and four armed police haul the marshal off in handcuffs (discussed last week).  But if a passenger next to you works away at his ‘short arm’ all flight long, nothing happens.

Details here.

On a not altogether unrelated note, but from a more positive perspective, a new survey suggests that one in 50 passengers claim to have found ‘lasting love’ during a flight.

Now there’s an idea for a new airline fee.  They already charge premiums for various seating options, how about an extra fee to be seated next to an eligible member of the opposite sex.  How much would you pay?  (Probably less than they’d charge!)

Details here.

One of the amusing collections of trivia that has seemed to somehow survive in this world of Google’s knowledge of everything is the Guinness Book of World Records.  We all are vaguely aware of really strange records being created, usually by similarly strange people.

But did you know that, for some people, there’s actually great value in being a record holder.  So much so that after a contested dethroning of one record holder by a new winner, Guinness showed its own version of the wisdom of Solomon and in decreeing which of the two men had the best entitlement to the claim, they – errrr – responded by deleting the category from their list of records entirely!

Details here.

Truly lastly this week, it is sometimes interesting and even fun to look at how email has changed the way we communicate.  Not all the changes have been positive (although we suspect that many of the phrases cited have transferred over directly from older typed memos – probably the doubtless twenty-something-year-old who put together the linked article is unaware that before email, offices had other ways of communicating).

Please do now read on about our December Land Cruise in Northern France and Belgium, and please do consider joining us.

Most of all, please enjoy your three-day weekend, and, as always, enjoy safe travels

 

David.

 

 

 

Aug 302018
 

We also visit lovely and nearby Bruges in Belgium during our land cruise based in Lille, France.

We love visiting the European Christmas markets, and take Travel Insiders to Europe just about every December for this purpose.

Until now, we’ve used a one week river cruise as the central component of these experiences, but this year, we are trying something different – not just different, but also better.  A better experience, and also, a better value.

Our land-cruise will be based in the historic cathedral city of Lille in northern France.

Don’t get us wrong.  We love cruising.  But, like everything that has to provide for 175 people at once, it has compromises.  The food is good, but try as they might to disguise it, the reality is that it is pre-prepared food that has been nicely plated, and carefully chosen to best disguise the truth that it was cooked hours before serving.  The free wine at dinner is lovely, too, but it usually isn’t the sort of wine you’d buy a bottle of if you had to pay for it yourself.

Seldom or never do you have a chance to go and treat yourself to a nice meal ashore, particularly in the evenings.

The shore touring is also wonderful, but it is on their schedule, not yours.  If you want to sleep in, you might miss a stop.  Sometimes you want to spend more time in a place (or less time) and you’ve little choice but to stay with the group so you don’t miss the ship’s departure schedule.  And of course, you’re limited to only those places that are along the river.

On the other hand, who doesn’t love the fact of ‘a traveling hotel’ and being able to unpack once, for an entire week, and truly settle in to your cabin for the cruise.  It is also great to have most of the touring arrangements taken care of, and someone to turn to for friendly advice at any stage along the journey.

The Best of Both Styles of Touring

We’ll see the markets both during the day and at night too.

So we’ve come up with what we feel offers the best of a cruise, and the best of not-a-cruise too.  We’re calling it a Land Cruise.

You’ll get to enjoy the same luxury of unpacking only once – indeed, even better, if you wish, you can stay in the hotel for more than a week, and not be locked into one week blocks of time.

You’ll also have friendly help at hand.  I’ll be along to act as your ‘cruise director’ and to assist you with arranged touring, and also with any personalized variations of ad hoc touring or changes to our included touring.

All days but one we’ll be offering touring to a selection of lovely villages, towns, and historic cathedral cities in the region around Lille, and each day you’re free to come with the group or do your own thing.  You can also join the group later in the day, or stay later at the places we visit and return to Lille any time you like.  Unlike a boat, the hotel isn’t going anywhere!

We include a couple of group meals, and breakfasts each morning.  The rest of the time, you are free to enjoy the local cuisine as we travel around, and the many dining choices in lovely Lille, too.

For full details of our daily touring, please visit the detailed tour itinerary page.

Lille is very easy to get to.  It is on the Eurostar line, so you could fly to London or Paris, or take other high-speed trains from Belgium, Amsterdam, or many other places.

We have plenty of pre-tour suggestions, and a lovely post-tour optional extension that takes us to Luxembourg, Germany, Switzerland and even Lichtenstein too, all detailed on the tour pages.

Click for full tour details and for a day by day itinerary.  I hope you’ll choose to join a small group of your fellow Travel Insiders and come on this “land cruise” in December.

Aug 242018
 

Happy birthday today to my daughter, Anna.

Good morning

The rapid passing of time is never more noticeable than on this day each year, it being today my daughter’s 14th birthday.  As many as you of course know, possibly with grandchildren as well as children, one looks at one’s children with amazement, still vividly remembering what they were like so many years previously, and marveling at how they became so much older, so quickly.

I hope yours give you as much delight as mine does me.

Talking about time passing quickly (clumsy segue here) we are getting ever closer to December and this year’s Christmas Land Cruise.  Come and experience a wonderful week (or more) in Northern France.

We will be based in the historic cathedral city of Lille, and enjoy daily touring to villages, towns and cities in the nearby area, heading to the coast (Dunkirk and Calais), even Belgium (Ypres, Bruges and Ghent) and of course, into the wine area as well (Reims in the heart of the Champagne region).

What else this week?  Please keep reading for

  • AA Blinks and Steps Back
  • Congratulations to Qantas
  • Ryanair’s Check is In the Mail, But….
  • Not Only China Bullying
  • Tesla Tales
  • How Big a Wallet Did You Need in Venezuela
  • Airport Police Swarm Plane and Arrest Federal Air Marshals
  • And Lastly This Week….

AA Blinks and Steps Back

One of the most surprising things in the airline industry is how passive passengers generally are.  I’ve regularly been at meetings with senior airline executives who, when talking off the record and perhaps after a drink or two, have laughed and marveled at how much they can get away with, at how the traveling public just passively accepts insult and financial injury without complaint.

There have been several initiatives that the airlines have hesitantly come up with, and they’ve been ready to cancel them in an instant if they sensed pushback from the public, but almost without exception, there has never been any negative consequences.

That is why we sometimes find ourselves in such ridiculous situations as when a change fee on a ticket would cost more than just throwing the ticket away entirely and buying a new ticket.  Really?  In what far-off galaxy does that pass for fair?  How can a change fee – something that costs the airline nothing whatsoever, other than a fraction of a penny of computer time – be more expensive than selling a new ticket to a new passenger and adding them to a flight?

You want another example?  How about when it costs more for an extra bag than it would to buy another seat for another passenger?  How can a 75lb bag in the cargo hold cost the airline more than a 200lb passenger in a seat, especially if the passenger is being given frequent flier miles and a free drink or two, adds to the wear and tear of the seat, uses the toilet, and so on?

But a happy exception to airlines being able to do anything they want and us passively accepting it seems to be the various attempts by airlines to further restrict the inclusions on their lowest price fares and making it difficult to bring a bag onto the plane as a carry-on.

American Airlines has just decided that it will now allow everyone to take a carry-on with them.

That is good, but what would be even better is if AA and all the other airlines would also fairly enforce their carry-on rules.  Whenever I board a flight and find all the overheads full, after having watched people go down the jetway with multiple massive bags and no airline staff objecting, I am again reminded of how the airlines have an uncanny way of creating the worst possible experience for everyone.  Indeed, I almost feel sorry for passengers when due to some unlikely random stroke of bad luck they find themselves having problems when trying to take way too much stuff onto the plane as carry-on.

The never-knowing element of ‘will there be space for my carry-on in the overhead’ combined with the randomness of airline staff sometimes surprising us all and randomly choosing a few people to be made examples of means that none of us are truly relaxed when boarding our flights.

Congratulations to Qantas

Rising fuel prices have been blamed for tightening airline profits, but there is very little (if any) correlation between airline profitability and airplane fuel costs.

Even in the worst down-trends in the industry, some airlines make money, and others lose much more than others.  Conversely, even in the most booming of times, some airlines struggle to break-even.

Although no longer the poster-child of excellence that it used to be a couple of decades ago, Qantas continues to be closer to the front than the rear of the pack when it comes to quality of service for passengers and quality of investment return for its investors.

The airline has just announced a record breaking profit for its last fiscal year, its biggest/best profit ever, A$1.6 billion (US$1.2 billion).

While largely jingoistic nonsense, their CEO’s boasting about their profit is interesting, because unlike many US carriers, Qantas sees its path to profit as being through providing better quality services and good value fares.  In a statement to the Australian Stock Exchange, he says the record profit

….reflected a strong market as well as the benefits of ongoing work to improve the business.

These numbers show a company that’s delivering across the board.

Our investment in free Wi-Fi and cabin improvements are delivering a better experience for customers as well as higher earnings for Qantas and Jetstar. The overall value for the travelling public remains extremely strong, with domestic sale fares almost 40 per cent lower in real terms than they were 15 years ago.

We’re seeing healthy demand across key sectors matched with improving levels of capacity discipline, which is a positive sign for the year ahead.

And bravo for all of that.  They remain one of my preferred airlines.

Ryanair’s Check is In the Mail, But….

“The check is in the mail” is of course one of the classic lies of all time.  There is also a sub-genre of check-in-the-mail related lies, ranging from “Ooops, sorry, I put the wrong date on it” to “Uh oh, I sent you John’s check, and I sent John’s check to you by mistake, please send me back John’s check and when I get your check back from John, I’ll send it to you” and so on.

Perhaps the most common of the sub-genre of check excuses is to send the check but to ‘forget’ to sign it.

Which is apparently what happened to a batch of checks sent out by Ryanair to passengers who were due compensation as a result of delayed or cancelled flights.  Ooops.

Even worse, some people didn’t notice the lack of a signature and deposited them, only to have them bounce back and be charged a bounced check fee by their bank.  Details here.

Not Only China Bullying

China continues to become more and more assertive as to how it wishes the rest of the world to see its relationship with Taiwan.  With its still very centrally controlled economy, it has the ability to not only influence/control trade with other countries, but also the flows of its citizens/tourists to other countries.

Poor tiny little Palau is on the receiving end of China’s ire.  Palau is one of the dwindling number of nations that still officially recognize Taiwan as an independent country (different sources give the count as between 16 and 19, neither the US nor any other first world nation is among them).  Apparently China has used the carrot approach effectively, having persuaded four more countries to withdraw their recognition of Taiwan in the last two years by bribing them with aid packages, and in cases where that doesn’t work, such as Palau, it is now making it difficult for Chinese people to travel there as tourists, effectively killing the largest part of the tiny country’s tourism industry.

Details here.

Mind you.  We shouldn’t be too myopic in our disapproval.  At the same time China is using its economic strength to influence the world, and its tight internal controls to ‘quality control’ what its citizens get to see and hear, we see similar things happening in the US.  The last week or two has seen a slew of companies disassociate themselves with right-of-center causes.  For example, the shopping site provider Shopify has decided to deactivate customers using their software to sell various firearms items, even though the items being sold and the manner of their sale is totally 100% legal.  Their CEO loftily says that merely following the law is too low a standard for his company.

Other credit card merchants are cancelling the merchant accounts of political blogs because they don’t agree with the political views, and Facebook and its cronies are in a virtue-signaling frenzy to shut down commentators and their commentaries, but exclusively focusing on shutting down right of center opinions and (mis)labelling them as hate speech.

While it is true the First Amendment only applies to what the government can and can’t restrict in the form of free speech, it is a terrifying move when companies that purport to be content-neutral publishers of whatever people choose to write now start selectively censoring lawfully held and lawfully expressed views just because someone on their staff disagrees with them, or because some vociferous member of the public complains.

The most worrisome part of this is to see our nation – founded on the principles of free expression, even when the concepts being expressed were deemed by the authorities at the time to be dangerous and wrong – is now moving to a process of invisible and unaccountable censorship of thought.  No-one appointed Facebook to decide what we can and can’t read, or what we can and can’t say, no-one understands how Facebook chooses to censor content, and there’s no formal impartial review or appeal process to go through.

Is it only me who finds the evolution of the internet surprising – it went from being the promise of an open platform making it easier for everyone to be heard and to express their views, and now it is increasingly a closed platform where only opinions that conform to those held by 20-something-year-olds in Silicon Valley are welcomed.

It is one thing to enforce the nation’s laws.  But by some curious twist of fate, the same people most eager to ban companies and products that exist and act entirely legally have no difficulty at all supporting and advancing acts of ‘civil disobedience’ and outright law-breaking such as helping illegal aliens.  These inconsistencies make plain to anyone willing to see that this is not about ‘avoiding hate speech’ or illegalities, it is all about advancing specific agendas.

Meanwhile, Facebook’s reach is becoming ever more extensive.  They are even asking for and receiving banking records from our banks (without telling us or securing our permission).  I was looking at my Facebook page details the other day, and was astonished to see what types of other companies are also giving Facebook information about me.  While I have about as minimal a Facebook footprint as possible, it seems that without even knowing it, other companies are helpfully telling Facebook things about me that I’ve no wish to share.

A distinctive new model electric car. If you don’t like, you can always choose one of the AK-47s also for sale, and shown in the right background too.

Tesla Tales

The extraordinary tale of Elon Musk’s claim to have ‘financing secured’ to take Tesla private continues.  His stated offer to buy shares at $420 as part of that privatization has not only been shaded by his expression of hope that as many as 70% of the shareholders in the public company would follow him into the private company, but by the market’s continued expression of total disbelief in the concept.

Immediately prior to his tweet about this, the shares were at $345.  After a rapid scramble to buy shared, and having trading halted on the exchange for a while as a result (usually material announcements like this are made outside trading hours), the shares rose to about $380 before people realized it was probably a nonsense, and started to head back down.  Thursday last week they were below the $345 pre-announcement price at $335, and Thursday this week they closed at $320.

Meanwhile the SEC is giving a bravura performance illustrating how slowly it can investigate the simplest thing.  Musk tweeted that funding was secured.  The SEC is investigating that, and has been for several weeks now.

Here’s the thing.  It takes a minute to pick up the phone, call Tesla, get put through to Musk, and ask who the funding was secured with, and ask him to fax/email a copy of the agreement that has been signed.  Five minutes later, a copy of that document would be on the investigator’s desk.  Have him call the source of the funding and get their confirmation that the formal agreement is indeed valid and not a forgery – another five minutes.  Get an attorney to read through it to confirm it truly is an unconditional confirmation – a couple of hours perhaps.

So, within a business day or two, the investigation can be fully completed.  Instead, as many weeks later, no news about what is happening.

What is wrong with our government when very highly paid so-called experts can’t do the simplest things in reasonable time frames?  Even the least informed shareholder has already laughingly rejected Musk’s statement.  But the SEC is investigating.

So, here’s some help for the SEC.  Apparently “funding secured”, when uttered by Mr Musk, doesn’t necessarily mean what other people might think it to mean.  Imagine an invisible asterisk leading down to a few paragraphs of footnotes and disclaimers underneath the unadorned and apparently unilateral statement.

Musk is now backpedalling on his claim, and there’s a conspicuous lack of third parties standing shoulder to shoulder with him in public saying “yes, we’ve promised to secure his funding”.

I guess ‘funding secured’ is a subjective statement capable of more interpretation than most people would expect.  A bit like many of his other claims.  A $35,000 Model 3 being released last year, for example.  Or 5,000 (60% more expensive) Model 3’s being produced a week in June.  And so on…..

It is also interesting that his alleged major potential funding partner is also busy funding the development of one of the major US competitors.

Some people might wonder whether this is all a devilishly clever scheme on the part of Musk to actually depress his company’s share price.  If he is going to take the company private, then the lower he can drive the share price, the better a deal he can secure to buy the shares for the privatization.  Is he being deliberately maladroit?  Will he subsequently come back and use the excuse of a lower market price for his shares as a reason to reduce his offer from $420 a share to $320 a share or less?

Certainly, some brokerages this week announced they were lowering their target price.  JP Morgan lowered their target down to $195.

But not everyone agrees.  One brokerage has now said they can see the shares going as high as $4000 a share.  (Four thousand dollars – this is not a typo, leastways, not by me.)

And, perhaps, most alarming of all this week is news of yet another new electric vehicle competitor.  This one being developed by that well known automotive manufacturer, Kalashnikov.  Yes, the company that makes the guns (also visible in their promotional picture, above)!

Hey, I’ve a great idea for a sales incentive, should their car ever get to market……

There’s something very wrong when this many expensively printed bank notes are required to buy this mass-produced and unprinted roll of toilet paper.

How Big a Wallet Did You Need in Venezuela

We’ve all seen pictures of Germany in 1922-1923, when the exchange rate between the mark and dollar went from not much more than 5 marks to the dollar to almost 5 trillion marks to the dollar; when staff had to be paid daily because each day the value of currency dropped so much.

But have you been tuned in to the astonishing problems in Venezuela – an oil-rich country that should be abundantly prosperous?  Prior to remonetizing and revaluing their currency this week, they’ve been suffering runaway inflation too, to the point where, using one of the most classic measures of a ‘problem’ currency, the sheer volume of paper (banknotes) needed to buy toilet paper is much greater than the toilet paper so acquired.

This article has some fascinating pictures comparing the stack of money needed to buy something ordinary and not very expensive (elsewhere in the world) and the size of the item being purchased.

I’ve always wondered how people managed to carry all their money around with them.  Apparently, in Germany, they used wheelbarrows.

Sadly, the new Venezuelan currency does not seem to be helping to solve the situation.  Probably not a good country to travel to at present; on the other hand, if you’re a contrarian, we understand there are some amazing property bargains to be had at present.

Airport Police Swarm Plane and Arrest Federal Air Marshals

This reads like a story from the spoof website, ‘The Onion’, but apparently it is true, although for sure, a lot of the official explanations are clearly anything but accurate.

We know, for sure, three things.  The first is that two federal air marshals were assigned to travel on a United/Republic flight from EWR to MSP, which they duly did, and were seated, as is often the case, on opposite sides of the aisle in first class.

Please appreciate that while air marshals are secretive and attempt to avoid being recognized by passengers, part of the protocol for going on a flight is that the flight crew know there are air marshals on board and where they are, in case they need to enlist their help, and also, very relevantly, in case they get concerned by ‘suspicious armed characters’ on board who are actually the marshals themselves!

The second is that a radio monitoring site heard the pilot of the flight tell air traffic control that a federal air marshal on the plane ‘actually showed a flight attendant his gun’ (whatever that means) during the course of the flight.  The pilot therefore did the obvious and sensible thing (well, only obvious and sensible if you live in that unique and special world inhabited by overpaid pilots and their flight attendant compadres) and declared an in-flight emergency.

As a result, and the third thing we know for sure, the airport police also did what they defended as being obvious and sensible.  They had the plane stop in mid-field, and a team of ‘at least four’ armed police boarded the plane, and arrested both the federal air marshal who showed his gun – and his partner too, hauling them off the plane, handcuffing them, and taking them to the airport lockup to be questioned.

No-one is able to explain how, even though the pilot has been heard on the radio saying that it was a federal air marshal, a decision was made to arrest the marshal, who likely as not did absolutely nothing wrong, and his even more guiltless partner, too.

There’s so much wrong here, that one just doesn’t know where to start.  But the one thing you can be sure of – no-one is going to lose their job, and no-one will be admonished or censured.  Most of all, not the pilot for declaring the in-flight emergency.

Sketchy details and official obfuscations here.

The astonishing ability of stupid flight attendants and even stupider pilots to invoke massive responses by police to non-events and imagined events on their flights should continue to alarm us all.

And Lastly This Week….

I needed to replace the faucet in my kitchen this week.  I’d never realized just how many variables and ways for a faucet to be bad existed until buying the “Amazon’s Choice” faucet on Amazon and getting it installed this week.  Every part of its operation is a stunning disappointment (and not mentioned in the parade of glowing reviews).

But I’m not going to return it to Amazon and swap it for a better one, even though I could; because the plumber’s fee is so exorbitant.  Guess how much the plumber cost for an hour of his time (and about 15 minutes of driving time to get here)?  $290, plus 10% WA state sales tax.  That’s a rate that even many attorneys (and possibly pilots too) would wish to be able to charge.

I was contemplating the different earning powers of plumbers vs website publishers when I discovered another similar career path that also pays astonishingly well.  The most surprising part of this career placement being that while the basic salary is $71,760, benefits boost it up to $184,678.  Yes, that’s obviously working for a government department, in this case the City of San Francisco.

What’s that?  What is the job, and what skills are needed?  The good news is that few skills are needed.  As for the job, here’s the link.

Still on that subject, do you know why outhouses traditionally have crescent moons carved in their doors?  An interesting bit of Friday trivia for you.

Did you read about the woman who survived for ten hours in the water after falling off a cruise ship.  Sure, the water was warm, but still an astonishing feat.  This ‘how to’ article might be useful to read if you fear you too might fall off a cruise ship in the future.

A ‘secret section’ of the Berlin Wall has just been discovered, 29 years after most of it was pulled down.   Can someone explain to me how it is/was possible to have a secret section of the wall?

Until next week, and – so soon! – our official end of summer long weekend, please enjoy safe travels

 

David.