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David Rowell

David Rowell

You can see an extensive mini-bio about me here http://www.thetravelinsider.info/info/about.htm And here's a Google Plus link : Google

Jun 072018

Is Heathrow finally going to get a third runway? Maybe, but also, maybe not. This week’s announcement is merely another step in a lengthy process with no clear end in sight.

Good morning

As you may recall, I’m in the UK for the next several weeks on this year’s Grand Expedition of Great Britain tour.  But a few quick thoughts for your Friday.

I flew from Seattle to London on Norwegian, making a dual first for me.  My first ever flight on a 787, and first ever flight on Norwegian.

The 787 was pretty much the same as any other airplane.

Some people report feeling more refreshed upon arrival after a long 787 flight due to the slightly higher humidity and slightly greater pressurization; I really can’t say I felt much different, one way or the other.  Does the difference in pressure between 10.9 psi at an 8000 ft pressurization level and 11.8 psi at a 6000 ft pressurization level really make that much of a difference?  Does the difference between 5% humidity and 10% humidity really make that much of a difference?

Certainly, it is not a bad thing to have more humidity and air pressure, but is it actually a difference one can feel and benefit from?  Or are these meaningless numbers that unthinking industry commentators love to recycle when obediently repeating mindless praise of the 787 from press releases issued by Boeing?

On the other hand, I did like the windows with their electronic shades.  That was quite fun, and looking on the other side of the cabin, seeing all the windows with varying degrees of shade suggested that people liked experimenting with their window settings – what else do you have to do on a nine-hour flight, after all!

I think I’d also read that the 787 windows are larger than ‘normal’ (whatever “normal” actually is).  Maybe so, but if so, it was not apparent or impactful, and the woman seated next to the window in my row said the window felt ‘too high’ for her.  I agreed, and when you think about it, 99% of the time, we look out of an airplane window and want to either look straight out or down, not up.

One difference I did notice, unprompted.  The cabin seemed a bit quieter with the engine noise not so intrusive.  I have long had a theory that one of the causes of ‘flight exhaustion’ is the constant barrage of noise assailing one on a flight, so the quieter cabin (plus noise cancelling headphones) is definitely a plus.

When I bought my Norwegian ticket, it only cost a couple of hundred dollars more to upgrade to their Premium cabin for the flight to London, but it was going to cost $800 more for an upgrade on the return, so I upgraded to London but not back again.

Their premium cabin is sort of somewhere similar to a high-end Premium Economy or a very low-end Business class.  The seats are slightly wider, and recline further with leg rests, but they don’t go anywhere near horizontal/flat.  The food was good, but not brilliantly great, and still was served, coach class style, in boxes and with plastic trays and cutlery.  For a few hundred dollars more, and noting it also included lounge access prior to departure in Seattle, and two checked bags rather than one, and the food included ‘for free’ rather than sold as extra, it was easy enough to justify, especially on top of a wonderfully inexpensive base coach fare to start with.  But for $800+ extra on the return, that is more of a struggle for a value-conscious traveler.

Their inflight entertainment choices were not enormous, but the video monitor was wonderfully high quality, and I enjoyed watching the new remake of “Murder on the Orient Express” featuring Kenneth Branagh as producer, director and star.  While the story line is as ridiculous as ever – perhaps even more so in this version, seeing the great deal of thought and care that Branagh lavished on his creation of the Poirot character was a highlight, as were the brilliant sets.  Very different to what Agatha Christie/Hercule Poirot fans have come to love so much with David Suchet’s outstanding performances – neither better nor worse, but a thoughtful re-interpretation, although I have to admit the new version of the moustache was a bit overwhelming and distracting.

Perhaps the worst part of the flight were the pre-flight nuisances in Seattle, and the best part of the flight the arrival into Gatwick.

I had a new annoyance waiting me at TSA screening.  My carry-on bag was selected for manual screening, due to some of the unusual things in it (20+ magnets for the tour member namebadges), but I had to wait at least five and what seemed more like ten minutes for that screening to occur.

The reason for the delay?  Someone else had their bag inspected, and then was taking for ever to put everything back.  Clearly they had all the time in the world, and an exact way of carefully placing every item in their carry on bag, and they muddled along, oblivious to the world around them, and while I repeatedly asked, the TSA refused to hurry the person along, and clearly there was only one official designated spot in the entire many-lane inspection area that they would consider opening my bag at.

When it came to boarding the plane, the six young and clearly woefully inexperienced gate staff showed that their true talents lay in re-enacting a Keystone Kops comedy.  I’ve never seen such an uncoordinated dysfunctional approach to boarding a plane.  We left over half an hour late, mainly due to their inability to board the plane efficiently.

But, the good news was at Gatwick.  I was disappointed that one of the benefits of Premium class wasn’t an expedited pass to go through Immigration – at Heathrow, as you probably know, the line to go through Immigration, particularly in the peak morning hours and the summer season – can extend to an hour or longer.

But, the reason for no fastlane pass soon revealed itself.  I reached Immigration to find no line at all.  I went straight to a ready and waiting Immigration officer, and was through within seconds.  Little or no wait for my bags, and all in all, it was a very fast and wonderfully enjoyable transit through a much smaller and easier airport than Heathrow.

Getting from Gatwick to Salisbury involved two train journeys.  The first one involved the tail end of rush hour passenger loads for the first few stops, meaning I was standing uncomfortably in a vestibule rather than seated anywhere.  That train split in two at one point, which was a very fast process, the only challenge being making sure I understood which part to be in for the completion of that leg of the journey.  Then a change of train at Havant, and the rest of the way to Salisbury.

I had to observe, as I traveled on these two very ordinary ‘standard’ type commuter trains, how is it that even regular short distance commuter trains in Britain travel smoothly and comfortably at speeds of up to 83 mph (in this case – faster on some other short distance commuter services), when we can’t get Amtrak over 78 mph as a system wide max speed limit, except for a few short stretches on the northeast corridor.  We were running over really old rail routes (sure, with upgraded track and signaling), through towns and country, and comfortably gliding along at 80+ mph.

Sure, we all understand that in some mysterious way, “high speed rail” is magically expensive and impossible for the US, but this wasn’t high speed rail.  This was ordinary rail, but in a country where “ordinary” clearly has a very different meaning.

Also offered to you is a terrible story that demanded to be a feature article rather than a couple of paragraphs within this.  It tells the terrible irony of a couple who lawfully emigrated to the US from Albania 13 years ago.  They were planning to travel for a visit back to Albania, and fearful of corruption in Albania, took steps to protect them from that.  But they couldn’t even get to their plane in Cleveland before US government corruption gave them a bigger problem than anything they feared but befell themselves in Albania.  Please do read the article and feel the same outrage I do at this.

Just a few other things to keep you going.

  • Heathrow – Another Non-Progress Step
  • Most Ridiculous Airline Survey Ever?
  • Mr Musk’s Massive Mess
  • And Lastly This Week….

Heathrow – Another Non-Progress Step

News earlier this week emerged that the British Parliament’s Cabinet has approved plans for adding a new runway at Heathrow.  Apparently they’ve already done some wheeling and dealing with other political parties to ensure the resulting legislation would pass the whole parliament – this being necessary because their slim majority is likely to be insufficient to pass the legislation alone, due to some number of MPs refusing to support the measure, including the colorful Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, who has said he will lie down in front of the bulldozers to prevent the development proceeding.

But will the parliamentary support be sufficient to finally clear what has been a 20 year process of delays and backsteps and repetitive studies and findings and conclusions?  Almost certainly not, with opponents already preparing for another round of legal objections and delays.

Although the benefits of Heathrow would be thought to most strongly associate to people closest to Heathrow and have least impact for people a long way away, the strongest opponents are those closest – not just due to personal concerns of extra airplane noise, but just ‘because’.  And those most strongly supportive have ended up being, astonishingly, the Scottish, with the ruling Scottish National Party apparently having done a deal with the British Conservative Party to support the legislation, with part of the deal being more flights from Scotland to Heathrow and some concept of a transportation hub in Scotland, too.

This would seem a poor choice for the independence minded Scots.  Wouldn’t they be better advised to create a world-class international airport, perhaps in the middle between Glasgow and Edinburgh (the two cities are only an hour apart, so an airport in the middle would be close and convenient for both cities), and to suggest to England that instead of building more capacity at Heathrow, they divert capacity to the new Scottish super-airport?

Details here, and some information about the ready-and-waiting opposition here.

Most Ridiculous Airline Survey Ever?

I know it is hard for mainstream journalists to write positively about American airlines, but they do try their very hardest to do so, even when creating risible results.

For example, this story is headlined “Passengers say they love these 10 US Airlines the most”.

Right from the headline, we know this is going to be, to use the new term, ‘fake news’.  Who loves a US airline?  What defines airline love?

But the real problem is that after listing the five major airlines and five minor airlines that are most ‘loved’, what airlines are left?

Even after including Air Canada as one of the five major US airlines, one has to stop and puzzle out – what ‘major’ airlines are not on this list?  And then one realizes that not only is United the fifth “most loved” major airline in the US, but is probably also the top most hated airline in the US.  And that calls for a very different sort of story and headline.

The article starts off by claiming that we are all very happy as passengers.  But that just shows how short or nonexistent the memory of the doubtless young person making that statement is.  And as for the artless nonsense inherent in the comment

And when things do go wrong, airlines are empowering customers — especially those who download mobile apps — to make their own decisions about rebooking.

I guess the person telling us how wonderful this is has never tried to call an airline during a system-wide series of cancellations.

We turn to apps, with varying degrees of success, because when we try to phone an airline for help, we either get hung-up on by an overloaded system that tells us to call back later (while we’re desperately stranded at an airport), or placed on hold for literally hours.

We turn to apps because when we go to an airport ‘service’ desk, it is either unattended, or the people there tell us to phone the (800) number or use an app.

I know, from personal experience with the people who I help arrange travel for, that not everyone is comfortable using apps, and I also know, from personal experience of my own travels, that apps don’t always do everything I want them to.

If you want to see all that is wrong with mainstream media coverage of the airlines, go read the article.

Mr Musk’s Massive Mess

Good news and bad news for Tesla.  The good news – May production numbers for the Model 3 continue to climb.

And then, the bad news.  Where to start.  First, although May revealed a total of 6,250 Model 3 vehicles produced and sold in total, which is a new record number, it still seems impossibly distant from their promise to produce/sell 23,000 vehicles in June.  None of the Tesla fans in the mainstream media are mentioning this, instead there’s been much crowing about the growing number of vehicles sold, with little or no commentary about how far behind every previous production promise the actual number is.

It is also interesting to contrast the production of 6,250 vehicles for the entire month of May with Tesla’s claim that, back in April, they were making them at the rate of 2,270 vehicles a week.  That would surely suggest more than 10,000 in May (allowing for some gentle increase in production rate).  6,250 is less than three weeks of production at the April rate.

Talking about Tesla promises, none of those 6,250 Model 3 vehicles was a promised $35,000 vehicle.  Most were $50,000 plus, and indeed, Tesla is now releasing a new higher-end Model 3 that will cost $78,000.  That is lovely, for sure, but there’s no real magic in making $78,000 electric cars.

The unique promise and appeal of the Model 3 was supposed to be that it was a good all-round car for a realistic $35,000 price, and qualifying for a $7500 subsidy.  Tesla has yet to produce a single one of the cars that they promised, for $35,000, and by the time they do, it seems likely the US government $7500 subsidy either will have expired or be just about to expire.

Why no $35,000 models?  Again, that’s a question that few in the press have dared ask, but there is an answer just waiting to be shared.  Tesla have admitted that they can’t actually make and profitably sell a Model 3 for $35,000.

They are now promising that a $35,000 priced variant might start to appear “as soon as” September.  That’s not exactly a firm commitment, not that it would matter if it were, of course, because firm commitments seldom are honored, either.

But meanwhile Mr Musk has moved on, and is promising three new models in 2020 – the Model Y, the Roadster, and the Truck.  The Roadster, he is now saying, may include some sort of rocket technology.  As if.  Pigs will fly before his Roadster flies.

In other unrecorded bad news for Tesla, May figures suggest that the models S and X are struggling to maintain sales levels, with both models selling appreciably fewer than they did in May last year.

Oh, in one more piece of largely unreported bad news, it seems that now 23% of people who placed deposits on Model 3 cars have cancelled their deposits.

Looking to the future, here’s a fascinating article about battery electric vehicle sales in general.  The key point, clearly shown in the chart, is the enormous increases in sales volumes reported by every company on the chart, apart from two – BMW and Tesla.

See how other companies are massively catching up and overtaking Tesla, and note also the other companies that don’t even appear on that list and which are also growing their BEV products in leaps and bounds.

Meanwhile, Tesla’s shares continue to show astonishing firmness.  Investors were quick to seize on Musk’s latest round of promises, accepting them gladly and without thought as to the appalling link in the past between Musk’s promises and the ensuing reality.

And Lastly This Week….

Many industry watchers have been curious to see the fate of the second-hand A380s that were returned back to their lessor by Singapore Airlines, and offered for re-lease or sale.  As anyone who has ever bought a new car knows, one of the considerations in buying a car, along with its purchase price, is how well it might hold its value – that’s a factor built directly into lease rates, and which should be equally considered when we’re paying cash or financing the purchase regularly.

So, what is the second-hand value of a used but well-cared for A380?  Based on the fate of the first two used A380s, it seems their value is no more than scrap value.  The two planes, while offered to airlines to purchase or lease, have now been consigned to the scrap yard, to be parted out and sold as spare parts.

Another negative blow to this wonderful plane.  I had hoped that a low cost of ownership or a flexible lease would encourage more timid airlines to add some A380s to their fleets; I understand that the cost of a new one is a difficult financial challenge, as is the need to then fill the plane commensurately for it to pay its way, but if one could acquire an A380 for perhaps a quarter of the price of a new one, the up-front price, and the ongoing cost of ownership, would both be massively improved, meaning the plane could more quickly break even on each flight with fewer passengers, and more quickly return a profit with increased numbers of passengers.

But apparently no airlines share my view on this, and the niche nature of the A380 – making hundreds of millions of dollars for Emirates, giving strategic advantages to a handful of other airlines, and overlooked by every other carrier – remains unchanged.

A380 fans (and that includes me) continue to optimistically say that the plane is merely ahead of its time and that in years to come, it will prove more popular.  But that is a claim that has been made for over ten years now; one wonders just how much longer one will have to wait until (if) it becomes true.

The feature article this week is in part about the Customs and Border Patrol.  Here’s another recent article that sheds an additional light on what they do in airports, and in particular, a question that springs to mind is why exactly the specific table mentioned in the article has been given the name it has by the CBP.

Am I the only person to fear we’re starting to lose control of the increasing number of agencies that have increasing power over us?

Truly lastly this week, why not another of the occasional articles about the glory days of flying, many years ago, and the uniforms worn by airline hostesses, back before they became unisex flight attendants.

I can’t hold out much hope for a newsletter next week or the following week, but we’ll see what happens.

Until next time, please enjoy safe travels





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Jun 062018

Whatever happened to the Fourth Amendment to our Constitution.

Not everyone will agree that we are afflicted by system-wide government corruption in the US; and sadly, some of those who claim we do, espouse causes that are as corrupt and biased as they claim the government is to start with.

But please read this story of an elderly Albanian couple who moved to live in the US.  They decided to make a visit back to Albania, and like very many other ex-pats who now lawfully live in the US, wanted to take some money back to their less advantaged family members in Albania.

Fearing corruption in Albania, they felt the only safe way to bring money back to Albania and to give to their relatives was to bring US cash with them, thereby avoiding the uncertainties of the Albanian banking system and official scrutiny there.  This is a very common action.

So they amassed $58,100 over 13 years to take back with them, and placed 581 $100 bills in a large envelope in their carry-on.  They then went to fly from Cleveland to Albania, with their first flight being from Cleveland to Newark.  This is an important detail.

Going through TSA at Cleveland, a screener noticed the envelope with “$58,100” written on the outside, opened it, discovered the wad of $100 bills inside, and so, called Customs and Border Patrol officers, who seized the money.  They also detained the gentleman flying with the money and strip searched him, complete with the full rubber glove treatment.

This is also another example of the TSA’s “mission creep”.  What business of theirs is it whether a passenger has $1 or $1 million in their bag?  There is no risk to the safety of the flight; if anything, a passenger with lots of cash on them would be more eager to safely survive the flight.

Back to the unfortunate Albanian couple.  After being given the full ‘treatment’ by CBP officers, the officers chose to keep the money, giving him a receipt but not stating the value of the money they were keeping.

That’s not a very useful receipt, is it – can you think of any other “receipt” anywhere in the world which doesn’t actually state the specifics of the money paid/received/kept?  And would you be astonished to learn that now CBP are claiming there was less money in the envelope than the person says there was…..

The government is not only disputing the sum of money they took, they are now refusing to return it, alleging the money to be illegal.  The couple have tax records and bank statements for the entire 13 years they have lawfully been resident in the US to show how they legally earned and slowly saved the money, but the government doesn’t care and is saying “So sue us, then”, which is what the couple has been forced to do.

Apparently we are now guilty until proven innocent, and the burden of proof has now shifted to us, to prove our innocence (how do you prove a negative) rather than to the government to prove our guilt.

The government is also suggesting that the couple failed to disclose their attempt to take the money out of the country – you need to fill out a form when taking more than $10,000 out of the country.  But this was a domestic flight – there is no form or disclosure needed to transport any amount of cash on a domestic flight.

So, here’s the irony.  The couple were scared of running afoul of corrupt officials in Albania.  But they couldn’t even fly out of Cleveland before being ensnared by corrupt US officials.  Even worse, the corruption is not at a low level, but empowered by actual laws in this country, that make it legal to steal money (and other goods and assets and property) from US citizens and then force the US citizens to take the government to court to prove the government was wrong.

How much will it cost to sue the government?  How long will it take?

Didn’t we fight a war against the English with this as one of the root causes?  The Fourth Amendment to our Constitution, headed “Protection from Unreasonable Searches and Seizures” says

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects against unreasonable searches and seizures shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched and the persons or things to be seized.

Would someone please pass this on to the Customs and Border Patrol.  It seems they skipped their civics classes at school.

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May 312018

If it makes you feel any better, the airline you were almost forced to fly on (due to lack of choices), probably has even less choice of airports than you do of airlines. See article, below.

Good morning

Things are slightly panicky here, with me off to Britain on Monday for our Grand Tour of Great Britain.  This will be the biggest and most complicated tour we’ve ever done, covering more distance, staying at more places, and seeing more things, than ever before.  Happily it is with a great group of 24 Travel Insiders participating.  I’m immensely looking forward to it, even though it promises to be hard work (for me but hopefully not for them!) during the three weeks it is underway.  Mind you, if “hard work” involves enjoying a tour through some of the best known and least known highlights of Britain, in (hopefully!) lovely summer weather with a great group of companions, then bring it on.

Talking about ‘bringing it on’, sadly, it is obviously too late for you to join us for this year’s tour.  But we do have two more Travel Insider excursions later in the year, and also both distinctive, in their very different ways.

The first is our Quad K Tour in October, which will be setting new records for ‘adventurism’ – taking you to places in Moldova, Ukraine, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan (and ‘the country with no name that doesn’t exist’), but happily in comfort rather than distressed conditions.

And then in December, we’re offering a new type of tour – a “Land Cruise” around the traditional Christmas Markets in Northern France and Belgium.  We define a “land cruise” as a tour that emulates the concept of “stay in one hotel room for a week” such as is offered by the river cruises, and also a tour which takes you somewhere different every day for sightseeing, but by coach or train rather than by boat, and therefore not limited only to places close to navigable rivers.

So, continued travel innovation, however you wish to enjoy it.  Please do join us for either (both!) of these tours.

And, to encourage you to travel with us, or even to travel somewhere/anywhere, without us, this week’s feature article is on yet another attempt to make coach class travel more comfortable, another type of travel pillow.

This one – the BCozzy pillow – comes close to displacing my long time favorite, the Caldera Releaf.  But, the more I stare at the two pillows, side by side on my desk, the more I suspect that on Monday morning it will probably be the Releaf that I stuff into my carry-on, simply because it takes up less space.

What else this week?  Please keep reading for :

  • The Only Thing Worse than Monopolistic Airlines?
  • How Ryanair Makes its Money
  • MH370 to Remain a Mystery?
  • Britain Thinks Big on Rail
  • Talking About China, A Sobering Statistic
  • Microsoft’s Stealth Turnaround
  • Why Does the TSA Search “Safe” Areas and People?
  • And Lastly This Week….

The Only Thing Worse than Monopolistic Airlines?

One has to appreciate the delightful irony when airlines complain about being negatively affected by monopolistic suppliers of services.  While their hypocrisy knows no bounds when telling regulatory bodies that their own alliances and unions will magically create additional traveler choices and bring more competition to the skies (of course they do utterly the opposite), when they find themselves up against monopolistic suppliers, they run complaining, often to the same regulatory bodies they had earlier been proclaiming the benefit of their own monopolies to.

The biggest monopoly of all, when it comes to the totality of the air travel experience, is something we generally take for granted and seldom think about.  No, I’m not talking about the TSA.  Neither am I talking about the FAA.  After all, government monopolies are, by definition, ‘good’ and here to help us all, right?

I’m thinking instead of airports.  Now it is true that in some locations, there are apparently multiple airport choices.  How many airports are there in the New York area?  You might immediately say three, and think that is surely enough choice for the airlines, but let’s not forget that all three of these are operated by the same organization – the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.  If you say “Well, there are other airports in the area too”, perhaps you should be reminded that Teterboro and Stewart Airports are also operated by PANYNJ.  (Tiny White Plains Airport avoids PANYNJ ownership, for what it is worth).

My point is that, for the airlines, there is no escape from PANYNJ within the New York area.

On the other coast, it is true that the Los Angeles area might seem to support more competition.  The Los Angeles World Airports organization (a department of the city of Los Angeles) only operates LAX and tiny Van Nuys Airport, and there are plenty of other airports in the area.  But if you’re an international airline, it seems your only practical choice is LAX, because it is so large, and has all the connecting flights in and out to offer.  LAX has an almost 80% market share of all air travel in/out of the Los Angeles region, with the other half-dozen or so airports sharing the other 20%.  That’s as near a monopoly as you’re likely to find, even with the apparent competition from other airports.

Many smaller centers have only one airport.  And, indeed, many smaller countries have only one airport for international flights, even though it might have multiple tiny airports for regional flights within the country.

A case in point is my home country of New Zealand, where the Auckland Airport dominates the rest of the country for international flights.  Only one other airport has runways that can readily accept all international types of airplane anyway (Christchurch), and most airlines fly only to Auckland, nowhere else.

Which brings me to this delightful article, where the airlines that are essentially forced to fly in and out of Auckland, and to accept whatever terms and conditions and fees the airport chooses to levy on them, are now complaining to New Zealand’s Commerce Commission, saying that the airport is charging higher than it should for its services.  They make this claim based not just on the fees they are charged, but they follow the money all the way through to the airport company’s bottom line profit and dividend distribution to shareholders, claiming that at every step of the way, the airport is making more money than it should.

“Making more money than it should” is an uncomfortable concept to free marketeers, but so too is having no viable alternates of choice.  At least we can appreciate the airlines trying to control their costs in this situation, so as to pass such savings as they can negotiate back to their passengers in the form of lower fares  on to their executives as bonuses and shareholders as extra profit.

Yes, the pot is calling the kettle black.  One wonders which is the lesser of two evils – at least airports go halfway to making a credible pretense of trying to create a moderately pleasant experience for us as we pass through them.

Imagine if airlines owned and operated the airports.  We’d have to pay to sit on a seat while waiting for our flight, and we’d have to pay more if we wanted a seat in our own gate lounge.  Seating would shrink in size, and the rows of seats would be pushed together so as to make it impossible to take a seat in the middle of a row.  We’d have to pay to bring bags into the airport, and even more if we wanted to take them into the secure area.  There’d be ten times fewer bathrooms and long lines to use a stall, which would be halved in size.  Food choices would disappear and prices would skyrocket, and stores would be reduced to selling expensive junk, cigarettes, perfume and alcohol.

How Ryanair Makes its Money

I mentioned last week that Ryanair had reported a record profit for its last year, while observing that it generally offers the lowest published fares of any carrier in Europe.

So, the secret of its success?  It has a more imaginative and lengthy list of “optional” extra fees and services than most other carriers, and often offers these “options” at higher costs than its competitors.  If you are flying Ryanair, you have to be very carefully aware of what these fees are, and adjust your travel planning to avoid as many of them as possible.

This week showed a great example of a Ryanair “gotcha!” type fee.  They’ll charge you if you don’t check-in online, in advance, and if you don’t print your own boarding pass before getting to the airport.  The reason these fees made the news this week is that they have narrowed the time window you have to do these things online, from four days down to now only the last two days prior to the flight’s departure.  Clearly, the less time you have to do this task, the more likely it is you might forget or not be able to conveniently do so.

Oh yes – how much does Ryanair charge should you turn up at the airport without having checked in online and pre-printed your boarding pass?

If you checked in, but either didn’t print, or lost your boarding pass, they’ll charge you £20 (about $27) to print you a new one at the airport.

And if you haven’t checked in already at all, their fee increases to £55 – about $75.

Yes, for some Ryanair flights and fares, you could pay more to check-in for them, at the airport, than you paid to buy the ticket in the first place.  Details here.

And the airlines wonder why we hate them…..

MH370 to Remain a Mystery?

The revived search, earlier this year, for the mysteriously disappeared 777 that was operated as MH370 caused a flurry of media coverage these last few months, including the revival of many old theories that had long since been passed over, but now being offered breathlessly as sensational new theories as to what happened to the disappeared plane and its passengers.

The confidence manifested by the searching company (they agreed to only get paid if they found the plane, and exuded a near certainty of belief that they’d quickly find the plane), the seemingly more exact science behind establishing the plane’s probable location, and of course, the huge areas of ocean already searched, leaving little still remaining, all seemed to make it likely that the plane would be found.

But now, after completing both the new search area and two additional ‘bonus’ search areas too, still no plane.

Am I the first to suggest that perhaps it is time to re-examine the nature of the assumptions that are ‘telling us’ where the plane ‘must’ be?  Is perhaps the MH370 disappearance more mysterious than it has been reduced to apparently being; are there more unknowns and uncertainties, and is the reason the plane remains obstinately unfound due to the fact we’re working from the wrong data, the wrong assumptions, the wrong interpretations, and looking in entirely the wrong place?

We know only two things for sure.  The first is that MH370 remains entirely unaccounted for.  The second is that it is not where the consensus of conventional wisdom asserts it must be.

The good news is that whatever it was that caused the loss of the 777, it clearly is not an endemic design weakness in the 777.  With over 1500 777s having been delivered, and most still flying, the plane has been extremely reliable, and the mysterious disappearance has not been repeated in the four years since March 2014.

But while that might be comforting to us all next time we set foot on a 777, it adds to the mystery of what happened to this particular 777.  Even if “the pilot did it” as seems to be the current suggestion, how did he do it, and where is the plane, and why is it not where it is ‘supposed’ to be?

The harder it is to locate, the less interested the authorities are in continuing the search.  But, it seems to me, the harder it is to find, the more interesting the entire puzzle becomes, and the more important it is to resolve.  Why are the Malaysian authorities unwilling to extend the contract with US searching company, Ocean Infinity, when it is costing the Malaysians nothing to have Ocean Infinity continue to search?

More details here.

Britain Thinks Big on Rail

Sadly, ‘making America great again’ seems to be more focused on negative penalties rather than positive incentives.  Although there were promises for massive investments in our infrastructure, and even in our rail system, most of the MAGA moves undertaken by President Trump seem to revolve more around erecting trade barriers and creating domestic protection policies.  Rather than boosting our ability to compete on the world stage, he is protecting our industries from the pressure of more advanced competitors from other countries.  This perpetuates weak companies and poor practices, and delays rather than encourages our industries from improving their game, something that we as consumers deserve, and which any type of government support should assist.

A tariff/trade barrier approach has never ended well for any country and its economy – I say that still vividly remembering the days of quotas, import licenses, and 150% import duties on many goods some decades ago in New Zealand.  Surely making America great involves boosting our industry and enabling it to compete on a world stage, not handicapping its competitors and restricting our businesses to limping along within the US alone.

The reason for this outburst is the despair engendered by reading an article about proposals for further investment by Britain in its rail network.  We’ve already seen how in little more than a decade China went from zero to now leading the entire world with its high-speed rail services, going from no high-speed rail track at all to now having more high-speed rail in service than the rest of the world combined.

But the people who excuse China’s success and apologize for our abject failure have to come up with a different set of excuses when it comes to countries such as Britain – countries that are even more massively crippled by dysfunctional planning requirements and approvals and permissions, even higher labor costs and more union intrusion, and where land is exceedingly scarce, always expensive, and invariably involving things that are immediately elevated to the status of unique/precious landmarks, historical sites, and so on.

But not only does Britain already have way more high-speed rail than we have today, it is considering an enormously ambitious plan to add much more – 1,000 miles of new track by 2050.  Details here.

And before the apologists rush to point out that Britain is better suited for rail than the US due to its shorter distances, allow me to respond by observing that while the vast emptinesses of the mid-west are perhaps not prime candidates for high-speed rail, the dense east-coast and rust-belt regions have comparable density and more population than does Britain, and are every bit as well suited for similar or even greater rail investments.

Talking About China, A Sobering Statistic

My sense is that 99% of the US people are 99% wrong about 99% of the reality of China today.  I fear that level of misunderstanding pervades our political leadership, too.

We tend to misunderestimate (to use that delightful term) China in every respect.  For example, look at this chart which only goes to 2016.

China has already exceeded the US in terms of GNP measurement.  And its dependence on exporting to the US is diminishing every year, because its domestic markets are growing much faster.  In the last decade, exports (to everywhere in the world, not just the US) have gone from being 35% of the total Chinese economy to now 18.5%, and it is expected this trend will continue.

Is it just a coincidence that China’s military posture and willingness to adopt positions at odds with the US has been growing to match the reduction in China’s dependence on the US?

However, many of us ignore these things and sneer at China as still being an impoverished nation of peasants.  Even the better informed people seldom visit outside of Beijing and Shanghai, and never experience the reality of the extraordinary development and renewal that is surging across every part of China, not just within the major cities.

Never mind that there are 772 million internet users in China (compared to about 300 million in the US).  Never mind that more than twice as many students graduate from universities in China each year than in the US.  And noting that China outpaces the US 9:1 in STEM graduates, we suspect that few of China’s graduates are emerging with degrees in “Womens’ Studies” and “The Problem of White Privilege”.  China is building a new university, somewhere, every week.  For that matter, never mind that there are thought to be more billionaires in China than in the US (594 compared to 535, although the real number in China is probably higher).

The statistic that most hits home, to me, today, is one about health.  I’ve always said that while the US undoubtedly is afflicted with the most expensive healthcare system in the world, it also has the best healthcare system in the world, concluding that, yet again, you get what you pay for.  Yay for us.

But, no longer.  Sure, there have always been countries with greater life expectancies; and we suffer from the vices of modern civilization – overeating, overindulging, and underexercising.  But to now find that China is beating us at healthcare, too – a WHO report just now released shows that people in China (including the peasants) now (well, as of 2016 data) live healthier, longer, than we do – that’s a truly sobering revelation.

Microsoft’s Stealth Turnaround

With my usual sense of impeccable (but bad) timing, I held off on buying Microsoft shares during the 1980s and 1990s, always reasoning that its meteoric growth must surely stop and correct itself any day now.  When I finally did buy in, it was time for Microsoft to experience its terrible years under Steve Ballmer, and its share price more or less froze in place for a decade.

But then a wonderful thing happened.  Steve Ballmer left (not long after I sold my shares).

And at some point, probably during his bombastic reign, people shifted from hating Microsoft to either no longer thinking of it at all, or feeling sorry for it as having quietly left the center-stage position it once held in the IT revolution.  We no longer talked of Microsoft’s predatory practices, or its seeming unshakeable dominance in multiple markets.  Sure, Windows continued and continues to hold the overwhelming largest OS share, but somehow, it no longer seemed as important or as threatening a choke-hold as it once was; so much so to the point that Microsoft actually gave away its latest version of Windows (Windows 10) for free; and not only was this an astonishing change on Microsoft’s part, few people really noticed or commented on it.

These days, the headlines are full of anti-competitive acts and privacy infringements galore by Google and Facebook in particular,  and the eliteness of Apple has also faded.

Two articles are relevant to this.  Here’s a Wall St Journal article on the new monopolies being created by high-tech companies, and it features Amazon, Google, and Facebook.  But no Microsoft.

Meanwhile, this article observes how Microsoft’s share price has taken off again, growing 40% in the last twelve months alone, and causing it now to catch up to and then overtake Google’s parent company in total market capitalization.

The most astonishing thing of this is the stealth-mode way in which Microsoft has revived itself.  No-one hates Microsoft at present, not even the EU.  Not even me!

Why Does the TSA Search “Safe” Areas and People?

Here’s a good article from a writer who seems to dislike the TSA considerably more than I do.

As you may know, and hopefully not from personal experience, two things sometimes happen when you go through security at an airport.  You might go through the metal detector with no beeping, only to be told you’ve been randomly selected for secondary screening, a process which can range from trivial and non-invasive (running some explosive trace detecting swabs over your belongings) to the mild (a quick patdown) to the unpleasant (an intimate exploration of the bulges and recesses of your personal areas).

The second thing that sometimes happens, with the new machines that you walk into and stand, feet apart and arms raised, while you’re scanned for illegal things on you.  At the end of that scan, the machine might show, on a generic outline of a person, an area of ambiguity that it requires a screener to check – usually a rectangle that covers perhaps a square foot of body area, somewhere on your front or back.

Usually the reason for the alarm is obvious, and sometimes it is a total mystery with nothing being found.

But, in such cases, and here is where we move to the cited article’s main point, usually that search to resolve the ambiguity is focused on the specific area highlighted on the outline figure of a person, perhaps extended a few inches further on every side just to be sure.

Why, if the machine shows something around a shoulder, should the screener be getting intimately acquainted with your crotch area?

Yes, why indeed.  Why, if you’ve been passed by the machine, are you then ‘randomly’ selected for a second and possibly very intimate search for no reason at all?  Can’t the machine be trusted?  If it can’t be trusted, why are we using the machines at all?

And, if the machines can be trusted, why, when one shows a suspicious area of your body, might a screener use that as an excuse to unpleasantly touch you in places you’d prefer not to be touched?

And Lastly This Week….

There is a respected investing strategy – contrarian investing, to do the opposite of what everyone else does.  Apparently, there may also be a contrarian travel strategy too.  Whereas most of us are thinking of Hawaii’s current volcanic activity and perceiving it as a place best avoided (or, at least, that part closely impacted by the newly active volcano), and regular news stories are painting apocalyptic pictures of the lava flows and the “vog” that is being released and spreading, some people see it as a great reason to go visit.  A future Travel Insider tour destination, perhaps?

Chances are you’ve treated yourself to one of the ‘big name’ Vegas magic shows at some point in the past.  And chances are, like me, you’ve been amazed at some of the routines and the seeming impossibility of how they work.

I’ve always thought that the features where the performers ‘randomly select’ members of the audience are particularly staged.  The only way to explain some of the things that happen would surely be if the audience members were actually participating in the show.  But this news story and the law suit it reports on seems to suggest, that at least for some of the tricks in some of the shows, the audience members truly are random tourists.  Maybe it is magic, after all?

Talking about magic, a Canadian attorney seems to be perplexed not at a magic trick, but at why the Canadian Customs people select some nationalities more than others for inspection at airports.  He says “there doesn’t seem to be any logical reason to have such a high statistical number of people being checked”.  Seems perfectly obvious and logical to me.  The relative chances of being stopped are shown in this article.

Of possible interest though is the statistic that Canadians are searched twice as often, when returning back to Canada, than are Americans.  While you might say that confirms your perception of the relative honesty of ‘us’ and ‘them’, the simple reality is that people are much more likely to be bringing ‘a little something extra’ that they forget to declare when they return home from time out of the country, than they are when briefly visiting a foreign country for a couple of days.  I’m sure that US border statistics would show that when arriving in the US, American citizens get more attention than Canadians do.

And truly lastly for the week, much of the world took time out from their obsession with the strange American women with names beginning with K to spend a day or two gazing at the Royal Wedding in Britain a week ago.  The wall-to-wall tv coverage created a great demand for ‘talking head’ experts who could try to talk away the hours of not very much happening that the networks chose to treat us all too.

One of the more popular of such experts was a posh Englishman with a plummy accent and an appropriate upper class name – Thomas J Mace-Archer-Mills.  Except that, it now emerges, he is neither posh nor English.  He is actually a lower/middle class American from up-state New York who changed his name (and his accent) and moved to the UK with an, ahem, uncertain immigration status.  Ooops.

The newsletter will be a bit irregular for the next several weeks.  I’ll try to send out a newsletter or two, but no promises.

Until perhaps next week, please enjoy safe travels





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May 312018

The BCozzy pillow’s wraparound design solves the problems of regular travel pillows and makes it easier to fly comfortably in coach class.

At this year’s Travel Goods Show, a showcase of new travel products held annually in Vegas, there were very many new types of travel pillow on offer, few of which showed any promise or potential to be practical solutions to the perennial problem of how to get some sleep in coach class on a long flight.

For a long time, my favorite solution has been the Caldera Releaf product (click to visit my review).

And then, out of the blue, I came across an interesting product – the BCozzy Pillow.  At first it seemed to be nothing more than a traditional (and therefore useless) U-shaped travel pillow.  But, it isn’t just a U, it is more like a spiral, with the two ends overlapping for about 150°.  And therein lies its magical transformation for useless to useful.  This overlap solves the appalling weakness of the traditional travel pillow (ie the inability to support your neck and head so it doesn’t fall forward).  It also solves the other weakness of a traditional travel pillow (too much bulk at the back) because it has less bulk at the back that on the sides and surely much less than where the two sides overlap.

After almost falling asleep at my desk, I continued to evaluate the product.  It can also be used by rotating the overlapped area to the side if you wish to have more side support than front support, and the entire unit can be folded in half and doubled over on itself to give you still more options as to thickness and location of support.  It has some sort of foam inside – probably poly-urethane, and vaguely like memory foam but not exactly the same, and has a sewn cloth/velour type cover that can’t be removed for cleaning.

I quickly found myself liking it as much as my Releaf, and possibly even more.

But there is one small issue.  The Releaf folds up to a nice compact size, the BCozzy, even after some compression, remains probably twice the bulk/volume of the Releaf, maybe even closer to three times.  It is also slightly heavier, but an ounce or two here or there really doesn’t matter, it is more the bulk that is the challenge.  Perhaps recognizing this, the BCozzy comes with a loop that can be used to clip it around the handle of a roll aboard or other piece of luggage, thereby carrying it externally rather than within your bag.

The BCozzy comes in both adult and child sizes, and is priced at $29.97 or $24.97 (adult/child).  It is available in several color combos – suggestion, get muted soft colors, not bright colors.  This compares to the Releaf with pricing generally between $16 and $20.

The Bcozzy can be purchased directly through their website, or if you want faster shipping, through Amazon too, of course.

Finally – which is better?  The BCozzy or the Releaf?  The BCozzy is every bit as comfortable as the Releaf, making this a very hard call; it is also slightly easier to put on or take off, and perhaps looks a bit more ‘normal’ when worn (in case that matters to you).

On the other hand, the Releaf is easier to pack (although you can carry the BCozzy on the outside of your bag), very slightly lighter, and somewhat less expensive.

Both are very good, and whether you get one or the other, you really need to get one of these two fine products.  Your coach class travel experience will be positively transformed.

I’m not going to say ‘get one of each from Amazon and then return the one you don’t like’ because by some accounts, Amazon is getting a bit more strict on people with too many returns.  But maybe get one of each and give the one you don’t like to a less-favored distant relation next Christmas!

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May 242018

Boeing’s next generation of 777 airplanes will have the outermost 11.5 ft of wing tip able to be folded up while on the ground so as to use less airport space. See article, below.

Good morning

My 1500 mile road trip last week was a bit tiring, but also interesting.  In particular, I had many hours to think about many things, and one of the thoughts I had, while watching the gas gauge in my Landrover almost visibly dropping (it was consuming about 5 gallons an hour in Montana) was to wonder what the journey would be like in a Tesla instead.

Well, those idle thoughts ended up coming to close on 3,000 words of commentary about the practicality (or, ahem, otherwise) of today’s electric vehicles on long road trips.

This was intended to be just a couple of paragraphs in this morning’s newsletter, but by the time I’d fairly and fully considered the matter, it became a large-sized stand-alone article, and so the main newsletter is going to be comparatively short.  But do read the article, and marvel at how different things are with electric-powered vehicles, including the scenarios where the faster you drive, the longer it takes you to get somewhere.

Mr Musk’s thoughts about that interesting side-effect remain unknown.  I better not say any more, for fear of being added to his own version of a ‘fake news’ list – ie a list of anyone who dares to disagree with whatever he says.  That list, once extremely short, is growing longer every day.

Talking about getting on a bad list, what was supposed to be the week’s feature article is actually considerably shorter.  The TSA now have their own “watch list” of undesirable passengers.  The good news is that this is indeed just a watch-list, it is not a no-fly list.  So what is its purpose, and does it matter?  Please read the article to find out.

What else this week?  With our Grand Expedition of Great Britain now a mere two weeks away from commencing in lovely Salisbury, can I remind you of the remaining two tours this year – our Quad K Tour of European Asia (if that’s not an oxymoron) and the featured former-Soviet Union countries we’ll be visiting, which runs in October, and our wonderful “Land Cruise” through northern France, Belgium, and thereabouts, in early December this year.  Come on either, come on both, but please do come on at least one of these tours, both about as different from regular mainstream tours as it can be.

I think the piece de resistance for our Grand Expedition will be the private organ concert I’ve arranged at Romsey Abbey for our group, but with so many other amazing experiences also crammed in to the 2 1/2 week itinerary, it is hard to say for sure.  I can’t guarantee private concerts for the next two tours, but I will try my hardest to make them memorable in every positive sense of the word.  Please do consider joining us.

Here are several other pieces to fill your morning read :

  • RyanAir’s Record Profit
  • Airport Innovations
  • Folding Wings
  • Banned from Amazon?
  • And Lastly This Week

RyanAir’s Record Profit

By all accounts RyanAir had a rocky year of it last year, with pilot disputes and manning problems resulting in over 20,000 cancelled flights, but that didn’t prevent them from reporting a record profit for their last financial year.

Passenger numbers grew by 9%, and profits grew by 10% to €1.45 billion (about $1.7 billion).  The airline expects a further 7% growth in passengers this year, but also fears for a 9% growth in costs, due to both the returning ever-higher oil prices (did anyone ever truly think that the plunge in oil prices would be anything other than a temporary anomaly) and their increasing staff costs.  Details here.

As you surely know, RyanAir is famous for its astonishingly low fares.  The secret of its success?  A no-frills approach to airline operations, and filling their planes almost as full as possibly can be.

Low fares and high profits.  That’s truly a win-win for passengers and shareholders.  One wishes the US carriers could emulate both parts of this formula.

Airport Innovations

United announced a partnership with a relatively new VIP service provider at LAX known as The Private Suite.  Some articles have been poorly written as if this is a wholly United venture, but it is not.  Anyone can join, and can fly in or out of LAX with any airline.  All it takes is money – $4500 a year membership and thousands more per journey through the airport.

In return, you get a team of eight people working to make your experience as ultra-deluxe as possible, with private suites for TSA screening, immigration and customs if coming in on an international flight, a private terminal building away from the main airport terminals, and private car transfers to and from your flights – direct between the plane and the terminal.

Here is one of the recycled United press release type coverages, and here is The Private Suite’s direct website.

But what if that is slightly out of your budget?  I think any of us who have several decades of airline club membership under our belt realize that the clubs have become more crowded and less pleasant these days, with a few stand-out exceptions, of course.

Indeed, club lounges have become so unpleasant that a new startup is now building tiny little private ‘phone booth’ type structures in airport concourses, and reports that the best locations seem to be adjacent to club lounges!

They have an interesting concept, as long as claustrophobia isn’t a concern.  Details here.

Folding Wings

Talking about crowded space, it isn’t just inside the airport buildings that space is at a premium.  We also know that is true on the roads in and out of airports, and in the perennially expensive parking lots.

But did you stop to think about crowding out on the tarmac, where the planes are, too?  With the determination that longer wings make for more efficient flying, planes are taking up more and more space with ever greater wingspans, and now Boeing has secured FAA approval to copy what has been standard on aircraft carrier planes for decades – giving their next models of 777 planes folding wings.

The idea is the outer sections of the wings can fold upwards while the plane is safely on the ground, reducing the separation needed between each plane and each other plane.  This will enable a new 777 to add 23 ft to its present 212 ft wingspan and take up no more space at the gate than the earlier model 777s.  The new model planes are expected in 2020.

Sounds good?  Folding wings – what could possibly go wrong with that!  Boeing says it has built dual control systems to prevent them from folding up inadvertently in flight, so nothing to worry about, apparently.  Details here.

Actually, I’m not too worried, and would guess that even if the folding part snapped off or folded up in flight, the plane could still at least make a controlled descent with that part of the wing missing.

Banned from Amazon?

A modern shopper’s nightmare would be to discover that one was banned from Amazon.  For many of us, it is hard to imagine life without Amazon, and it is even harder to find any type of comparable service to turn to if Amazon were to become unavailable.

But apparently the world’s wealthiest man and the company he founded is starting to feel more confident in the marketplace, and is seemingly banning some former customers without warning, due to a perception they have been returning too many items.  First reported in the Wall St Journal, and subsequently echoed in articles such as this one (which doesn’t require a subscription) there are some terrifying tales of people who wake up one morning to suddenly find themselves banned from Amazon, apparently due to returning too many things.

I know people who strategically shop Amazon, buying clothing in particular in multiple sizes and returning the sizes that don’t fit, and I know other people who sometimes view ordering then returning items as akin to taking something off the shelf in a regular store, handling it, turning it over, and then placing it back on the shelf again.

It is easy to understand how some people may also carry out the classic type of return privilege abuse by buying expensive clothing, wearing it once, then returning it, but surely in all cases, even the most egregious, some type of series of graduated warnings should be offered, and a formal returns policy published.  For example, perhaps the first level of response would be to start charging freight on returned items, and a second level would be to only credit the item’s value but not the shipping costs to the customer either, and a third level to start charging a graduated restocking fee, and a fourth level to simply sell on the basis of no returns will be accepted.

We have all allowed Amazon to assume a special role in society more like a single source utility than like a competitive retail store, relying on them to remain as customer-friendly into the future as they have been in the past.  Have we allowed a monster to mature in our midst?

And Lastly This Week

No, really, it is a service animal, says Chris Pratt, in this promotional spoof video for yet another Jurassic Park movie, when he tries to bring a velociraptor onto a flight with him.

Talking about bringing unusual things onto airplanes, the standard throwaway line is to talk about a person who brought everything but the kitchen sink with them onto a plane.  But, what say you did want to bring a kitchen sink with you?  Or, at the very least, a stove and fridge.

Happily, for the 0.1% of people who both feel the need for this and can afford it, there’s a new line of luggage with built-in kitchen appliances.  Yours for slightly less than $8,000.

Lastly this week, who was it who said the camera never lies?  Sure, Photoshop has made a mockery of that statement, but even before then, ordinary photography can be misleading, as this article illustrates.

Oh, and truly lastly this week (for it is hard to think what to offer next after this), whether a lie or a truth, there are some pictures you wish never to see, and some sights you wish never to encounter on a flight.  Such as, ahem, this one.

I do hope you have a lovely three-day weekend and enjoy this, the traditional start of yet another summer.

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels





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May 242018

A top of the line Tesla Model S can, in theory, take you 335 miles on a single charge. In reality, you’ll probably be recharging twice that often, maybe more.

I’m as keen a convert to electric cars as anyone could ever be, when it comes to driving them locally around town, in situations where each day you’ll never exceed their built-in range limit.  What could be easier than simply plugging the car into an at-home charger each evening when you get home, and unplugging/driving off again the next morning.

With battery-electric cars now commonly exceeding 100 miles of ‘real’ range between charges, the Nissan Leaf offering 150 miles, the Chevy Bolt offering 240 miles, and high-end Tesla Model S cars going up to 335 miles (albeit at costs rapidly breaking through $100,000), clearly 99.9% of the time, while simply doing ‘normal’ daily driving, we’re never going to give a second thought to running out of charge during the day, and will never have to squeeze in a visit to a public charge facility.

This is the happy reality that most electric car owners enjoy.

Electric Cars Are Great Around Town, but What About on Longer Journeys?

But what about going on a road-trip, where you’re traveling a distance that is further than a full charge (or even further than two full charges)?

Tesla boast of their supercharger network, which they point out will add 50% to a car’s charge in 20 minutes.  That might seem slow rather than fast, but they say is more convenient than it seems, because you can productively use those 20 minutes, not just sit in the car waiting impatiently.  They suggest you go and grab a bite to eat, use the restroom, etc, while the car is charging.

There’s an element of truth in that, but also an element of obfuscation.

I compared the reality of my recent road trip between Seattle and Central Montana with what Tesla itself says would be the experience using one of their cars and their supercharger network.

This journey was about 760 miles each way, requiring me to stop for petrol twice in my gas-guzzling Landrover, which averaged 17 mpg, and with a 21 gallon tank, has about a 360 mile range.  To be specific, my first stop was at a gas station with a McDonalds attached, and I grabbed a couple of burgers and used the restroom (too much information?), meaning that the total time from when I pulled off the freeway to when I re-entered it was 19 minutes.  That sounds sort of like a 20 minute Tesla top-up, doesn’t it (but wait for further analysis on that).

The second time was a stop for gas and bathroom only, no food.  It took 9 minutes from leaving to rejoining the freeway.  So, in total, two breaks and 28 minutes added to the journey time, inclusive of everything. The actual time spent pumping petrol each time was about three minutes, the rest was getting on and off the freeway, getting my credit card authorized, and going inside to do things and buy things.

Even if the Landrover used less gas, or had a bigger tank, the ability to stop, stretch, and attend to basic bodily needs on what totaled almost 11 hours from start to stop, would have still been present and a limiting factor.  So, a bit like Tesla’s claim that stops will take about 20 minutes, no matter how long you actually spend filling the tank, I was averaging 14 minutes a stop.  That sounds perfectly fine – 14 minute stops by regular car, compared to 20 minute stops in a fancy Tesla.

Unsurprisingly, it was the same for me both ways, and indeed, I even stopped at one of the same places both ways.

Now for the Tesla and their 20 minute claim.  Sure, it has a 335 mile range if you do what they gently suggest you don’t normally do and fully charge rather than only charge up to about 90%.  And sure, you can dump a 50% charge into an ’empty’ Tesla in potentially 20 minutes.

But now for the fine print.

The Reality of Electric Car Charging – Vastly Different

The first challenge is that you can’t run a Tesla as close to empty as you can a regular car.  With a regular car, most of the time, you’re never more than perhaps 5 – 25 miles from a gas station, so you don’t mind running the gas gauge most of the way to zero.  With Tesla, other than going to an ’emergency’ place with a plug and charging at a rate of a three or four miles of added range per hour of charge (or possibly better chargers at 30 – 50 miles of range per hour, etc), you need to focus on their network of superchargers.

In some parts of the country, the supercharger stations are close together, but in other parts they are far apart.  The good news was my route was generally following I-90, and Tesla has been building its network first to follow the major interstates.  But I-90 in rural Montana – not quite such a high priority!

So when charging stations are (say) 100 miles apart, you can’t simply drive until almost empty, then recharge all the way to full, then off you go again.  You need to never go below 100 miles as you pass one charging station or else you won’t get to the next one.

The practical/effective range of your 335 theoretical miles has just dropped to 235 miles (or maybe less, as we discuss below).

Also, the 20 minutes for 50% has some fine-print associated with it.  This 20 minutes is to take a battery at close to 0% charge and quickly bring it to 50% charge.  But the second 50% of charge will take very much longer – maybe another hour, perhaps even longer.  The closer to full the battery gets, the slower the charge rate becomes.

If you’re always charging a battery with at least a one-third charge, which you’ll need to be if the superchargers are 100 miles apart, you’re not going to get much benefit from the initial period of fast charging.

And – oh yes.  The Tesla supercharger units each have two cords hanging off them, so they can charge one or two cars simultaneously.  But in total, they only put out enough power to sort of charge 1.5 cars at once, so if you share a unit with another car, your charging rate will slow down (at least during the period of full/fast charging).

And, another thing.  There’s always a slight frisson of uncertainty – will there be a spare charging spot at a supercharging station or not?  Once upon a time, the answer was always yes, you could be sure to get a spare spot, but as Teslas become more numerous, in some areas, at some times, availability can be patchy, and whereas at a gas station, with people taking less than 5 minutes to fill their tanks (most gas pumps dispense petrol at rates between 6 – 9 gallons/minute), people going from almost empty to almost full can tie up a Tesla charger for an hour or more at a time.  Even worse is when a car has finished charging, but their owners are still inside the coffee shop enjoying a coffee and snack.  A petrol pump can handle maybe 12 cars an hour, a Tesla supercharger, perhaps less than one.

Plus, you leave the freeway, and chances are there might be two or three or even four gas stations close to the exit.  If one is busy, you go to the next.  But with Tesla’s superchargers, if one is busy, the next might be 100 miles away, and maybe you don’t have 100 remaining miles of range to get there.

You should also remember that in addition to charging time and potentially waiting time, and even more extra time if sharing a charger with another car, you also have a few minutes to drive off the freeway and get to the charging site, and a few minutes to get back to the freeway at the end of things.

So, how many stops and how long connected to a charger for a maximum range Tesla S 100D?  I could guess, but happily, I don’t need to.  Tesla has a great calculator on its site that allows you to work that out directly, although note it reports only optimal charging time without allowing for these real world factors and imperfections.

Nonetheless, trusting this to be accurate, albeit in a best case scenario, the Tesla calculator said there would be, in total for the roundtrip between Redmond, WA and Montana, four charging stops eastbound to MT, and five charging stops westbound on the way back (compared to my actual two stops each way).

The calculator estimated total charging time – not to fill the Tesla each time, but merely to give it enough charge to get to the next charger – would be 3 hrs 5 minutes eastbound, and 3 hrs 20 minutes westbound.  Add, say, five extra minutes per stop to get between the freeway and charging station and back to the freeway, and in total, you’re looking at a total of 7 hours 10 minutes, best case scenario, an average of 3 hrs 35 minutes each way.  It is likely your actual experience would be slightly worse, and could be very much worse, depending on how busy each charging site was.

This is an interesting paradigm shift, by the way.  With regular gas-powered cars, you fill the tank as best you can, to save time and minimize stops.  With electric cars that charge progressively slower the more full they become, you seldom want to fully recharge the vehicle.  You just want to put enough charge in to go a reasonable distance to another super-charger, trying to avoid needing to keep adding more unnecessary charge in the ‘very slow charging rate’ zone.  There’s a complex trade-off between making ‘too many’ stops to recharge and spending too long charging ‘too much’ each time you do stop.  It is totally unintuitive and you have to trust the computer works it out correctly for you.

Oh – one other thing.  The Tesla site required me to not take the completely quickest route to Montana, due to charging station locations.  So you’re adding an uncertain amount of still more time due to the less direct route.

Still another thing.  There was no charging station within 50+ miles of my destination (Harlowton).  I would have to tightly ration my local travels while staying in Harlowton, making sure I could still get back to the nearest charger on my return.

With the longest range Tesla, it would take at least 3 hrs 35 mins each way for charging.  With my gas guzzling Landrover, I spent 28 minutes each way.  10hrs 15 mins of driving and 28 minutes of stops comes to a long but tolerable day of 10 3/4 hours.  But 10 hrs 15 of driving, plus 3 1/2 – 4 or even 5 hours of stops takes a long day and makes it into a forced overnight en route.

Oh, and if one changes to a less expensive Tesla S 75D, with a shorter 259 mile range, the roundtrip now requires 14 instead of 9 charging stops, 8 hours, best case scenario, of charging, and 1 hr 10 mins of getting to and from the chargers.  Say 9 1/2 or more hours of stops, about 5 hours each way.

Are we at the point where we start to concede this isn’t quite as great an experience as Tesla suggests?

For Compulsive Eaters, Only?

So we get the concept of “it only takes a bit more than 20 minutes to put half a charge in a Tesla, and you can spend the time getting a bite to eat, using the bathroom, etc”.  But what if you have to make seven stops, and each more like 40 minutes, each way?  A stop every hour and a half?

Do you really think you’re going to want to have seven long meals, that closely spaced?  Not even Elon Musk himself can pretend this to be convenient.

Talking about Mr Musk, please don’t forget that these are his figures, taken from his website calculator.  They are presumably unassailable, other than perhaps being susceptible for being too optimistic.  And still you’re looking at driving for about 80 minutes and then stopping for about 40, on and on and on.

It Gets Even Worse

The 259 mile range of the Tesla is irrelevant when you’re recharging not once but twice every 259 miles, as this scenario requires.  (So too is the ’20 minutes for 50% claim when you’re primarily topping up the ‘other’ half of charge, slowly, rather than the first half of charge, quickly.)

There are still more considerations and potentially negative modifiers.  The speed limit on most of I-90 in Montana is 80 mph, and of course, drovers tend to go somewhat faster.  What happens to the range of an electric car at 85+ mph, compared to its likely test-assumption of perhaps 60 mph cruising speed?  What happens in the temperature extremes when more energy has to be spent heating or cooling both the car itself and the battery pack too?

Tesla used to have a range calculator in which you could plug in assumptions about speed and outdoor temperatures, but that doesn’t seem to be on their website any longer.  However, here’s an interesting table created from when they were disclosing such data.  For a Tesla S 85D, it would get 294 miles at 65 mph but almost a third less, about 205 miles, at 85 mph.  And this Tesla article suggests temperature extremes might cost 10 – 15% of range.

There is another interesting phenomenon, imperfectly described in this article and shown in the graph above.  Because range decreases with speed, and because electrical charging time is much more significant than the time it takes to pump an extra gallon of gas, there is surprisingly little time benefit derived from driving faster on a long journey with an electric car.

Much of the time you save driving is then spent recharging, indeed in this particular scenario, if you drove faster than about 77 mph, your total travel time started increasing.

Is This Example Realistic?  Is Long Distance Driving Feasible?

This is just one example, and you could of course cite other journeys with other outcomes where the ‘time penalty’ for using electricity is less extreme.  But you could also come up with other journeys, including within Washington, which has the second highest adoption rate for Teslas after California (ignoring HI), that are not only very inconvenient, but even impossible without making do with slower third-party chargers.

The reality is that even the longest range Tesla and the fastest ‘superchargers’ still make for a miserable long-distance travel experience.  That will change in the future with better battery technology and faster chargers, but for now, it is silly to pretend that it ain’t what it is.

I am reminded of how, ten years ago, people were pretending to love watching video on 2″ iPod Nano screens offering only 320×240 pixels.  Now, with 6″ sized phone screens (that have almost ten times larger viewing area and 30 times as much screen resolution), and with 7″, 8″, 10″ and larger tablets out there, we can all agree that watching video on a 2″ screen was a laughably inane concept.

Chances are, in time to come, and excitingly in the near future, we’ll all agree that lengthening journey times by as much as 50% so as to travel by electric car was an outrageous inconvenience rather than a trifling pinprick.  We eagerly look forward to a time when recharging a battery-powered car is as convenient – and even less frequent – than refilling a petrol powered car is today.

But until that time comes, if you enjoy long road-trips, better keep a good old-fashioned gas-powered car in your garage alongside your electric-powered pride and joy.

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May 242018

Not content with bullying little old ladies, the TSA has now established a secret list of travelers it doesn’t like.

News has leaked out that the TSA has now started keeping its own special ‘watch list’ of people it doesn’t like.

Like so much to do with the TSA, this watch-list is more charade than reality.  Being on the watch-list apparently means nothing – you are not selected for additional screening, and are not prevented from flying.

But it does mean you get ‘stink-eye’ from TSA officers, and if there’s an ambiguity they can exploit to make your passage through screening more ‘eventful’, there’s every reason to think they will, because that seems the only possible purpose of this list – to identify people to hassle.

Like many other watch-lists, it is ultra-top-secret, and there is no known way to find out if you are on it, or to appeal your inclusion and seek a review and removal.  To get placed on the watch-list, you need to be deemed a ‘potential threat’ by some unaccountable TSA employee.  What does being a potential threat mean?  It means you may have appeared unruly when going through screening in the past, or swatted away a screener’s hands, or in some other way created “challenges to the safe and effective completion of screening” or simply “loitered suspiciously near security checkpoints”.  We guess that means not to wait for anyone you’re traveling with to also emerge through their screening experience, but rather to quickly move as far away and safely out of sight as possible.

None of these behaviors are illegal, they are merely things the TSA doesn’t like.  So, you get on the list not for breaking any laws, not even for the suspicion of breaking laws in the past, present or future, but just because the TSA takes a disliking to you.

What does happen if you’re on the list?  No-one knows.  Why are the TSA maintaining it if there is no official consequence for being on it?  Again, no-one knows, which in some ways is even more scary than there being an official stated outcome.

So, should we even care if we’re on that list?  Does it matter at all?  We’d suggest yes, because when we start having government departments,  are already blessed with an enormous amount of discretionary power, creating lists of people they don’t like, based on nothing other than their own subjective and delicate feelings, sooner or later, those lists will not only multiply further, but will suddenly start having unexpected consequences.

You might find that you fail a future Secret or higher level security clearance.  Or perhaps be passed over for a promotion you were expecting.

And, noting there have been proposals before that people on the various other watch-lists should not be allowed to purchase firearms, you might suddenly find yourself unable to buy firearms, due to a reason that can’t be shared with you, and due to an original “offense” on your part that was in no way illegal, totally unrelated to anything to do with firearms or public safety, and which you’re unlikely to remember, let alone be able to explain.

You’re guilty until proven innocent, and not even given a fair chance to struggle to prove the negative, that you never did anything wrong.

Officially, the TSA says there are only ‘about’ 50 names on the list, but “two other government security officials who are familiar with the new watch list, describing it on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss it, said that the number of names on the list could be higher, with travelers added daily”.  In other words, it might be 50, or it might be 50,000.

As this article points out, the TSA is not an intelligence gathering service.  It is merely a bunch of rent-a-cop security screeners, required to do nothing more than stare at X-ray screens and listen in case a metal detector beeps.  But they are dangerously eager to boost their powers and their self-importance.  Remember the fuss over their uniforms – how they first had simple shirts with the letters TSA on them, then added embroidered shield badges, and now wear ‘real’ shield badges.

Consider all their attempts to expand into other areas – their “VIPR” teams ridiculously staging showy interventions on occasion, with plenty of press invited to watch.  Or their “Behaviour Detection Officers” – a ten-year multi-billion dollar program that has resulted in utterly zero success.  Or their various forays into new types of bomb detecting technology, all failures, and now gathering dust unused, in cavernous government warehouses.

Here’s a suggestion for the TSA.  Why not create a watch-list of your own employees – the ones who steal passenger belongings, who break things, who smuggle drugs, who provide rude and surly service, as well as the ones with an impressive variety of criminal convictions who you somehow still decide to employ.

Police yourselves before you start worrying about us.  Best of all, please just focus on your X-ray screens and listening for metal detector beeps.

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May 102018

The TSA apologized for the cultural insensitivity of asking a Sikh to remove his turban at airport screening.  Now try walking through with a baseball cap on and see what happens.  Article below.

Good morning

Spring is in full fling, and I hope your summer, due to officially start in just a few weeks on Memorial Day, is shaping up to be a great one.  But, please, cast your mind a wee bit further ahead, for the early and late fall, too.  What are you doing then?

How about a trip to Moldova, to Odessa, to Kishinev, Kiev, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan – yes, our expanded/improved “Quad K” tour, scheduled for mid/late October?

And/or, how about northern France, Belgium, and a bit of Luxembourg, Germany, Switzerland and even Lichtenstein too on our early December “Land Cruise”.

Both of these are truly distinctive and different tours, which will give you new ways of seeing and experiencing new places, with a lovely group of fellow Travel Insiders.  Why not join us for either of these tours, or indeed, for both of them (ask for a quantity discount!).

Closer to home, Amazon has seized upon the pending Mother’s Day event this weekend as a reason to offer us all generous discounts on some of their electronic devices.  Tablets for as little as $40 (don’t buy a 7″ tablet for $40, hold out for the 8″, which is currently only $20 more, at $60, or the lovely 10″, which is $120).  Kindles for as little as $60 (again, spend a bit more and get a Paperwhite for $100), and Echo devices for as low as $40 (in this case, the cheapest is also probably the best).  But hurry, their deals are only good through Mother’s Day.

These deals seemed like a good chance to revisit my Echo Dot articles, and to now add another article to the series.  This time, I’m writing on how to get more/better use from them, and offering a ‘cheat sheet’ with helpful ways the Echo devices can be used, and the commands that apply.

Plus, I was listening to the local classical radio station doing one of its fundraisers last Friday and noted their comment about how they appreciate their supporters year-round, and realized it was a while since I’d done something special for the special people who support The Travel Insider.  So if you’re a Travel Insider supporter, go to your special page of deals and download an Echo cheat sheet that is twice as long, with many more ways to get value from your Echo devices.  And, thank you.  You are appreciated by me, year-round!

The article follows this week’s newsletter.

What else this week?  Please keep reading for :

  • The Entitled French Employees
  • 787 Engine Problems – Getting Worse Before Getting Better
  • How Safe is Space Travel?
  • The Turned-Off Travelers
  • More Perspective on the Puzzling Lack of Electric Car Sales
  • Super-capacitors and Electric Vehicles
  • TSA Apologizes for Asking Passenger to Remove Turban
  • Talking About Potentially Dangerous Canadians
  • The Pen of My Aunt is On the Table
  • And Lastly This Week….

The Entitled French Employees

It looks like another summer of travel disruptions in France, with airline and rail unions demanding more money and less work.  Here’s an article that reports on Air France losing its second CEO in less than two years, apparently due to an inability to reach a work agreement with his employees.

The article has an interesting table that shows how the average AF employee earns perhaps 30% more than the average British Airways/IAG employee, and about 15% more than the average Lufthansa employee.  But still they want more.

An article several days earlier noted how KLM is the stronger part of the two airline group, and dared to opine that without KLM’s profits, Air France alone might be another Alitalia, tottering on the brink of extinction.

Air France has struggled through 13 days of intermittent strike action since 22 February, and with the situation unresolved and the employee groups (pilots, cabin crew and ground staff) sensing blood in the water after having effected the loss of another CEO, you can be sure they’re not feeling at all conciliatory.  I’d consider booking away from AF over the summer months, particularly for travel within Europe.

Usually, when any of the European carriers have industrial action, they attempt to continue operating their long-haul flights while sacrificing shorter flights within Europe.

787 Engine Problems – Getting Worse Before Getting Better

Napoleon used to say that the attribute he most valued in his generals was luck.  It is a bit the same with airplanes – some planes have an aura of good luck surrounding them, others not so much.

One of the less lucky planes was the DC-10.  Fundamentally it was an excellent airplane, but it had some unfortunate problems in its early days, including problems that weren’t its fault at all (Air New Zealand flying one into the side of Mt Erebus in particular).  But it developed a reputation of being a troubled plane, passengers booked away from it whenever the chance was offered, and airlines shunned it.

The 787 has to be seen as another unlucky plane.  Its entire development process and cost overruns and problems and delays were very unfortunate, and then its exploding batteries added further to its burden of bad luck.

Now it is again suffering bad luck, due to some of the Rolls-Royce engines fitted to some of the planes, and their propensity to fail, with two particular vulnerabilities.  This is particularly significant because every element of the 787 program and its engines too was notable for being “rigorously tested” – but by computer rather than in real life; something I never felt good about, but which the FAA was so thrilled by that it fast-tracked the plane to a super-generous allowance to fly up to 5 1/2 hours away from the nearest emergency landing location.  The FAA agreed with Boeing that it was so impossibly unlikely that a 787 would ever have any problem, and even if it did, it was unthinkable that it would then have a second problem such as to harm the plane’s ability to continue safely flying for another 5 1/2 hours.

That assumption has now been demonstrably rebutted by the Rolls Royce engines.  If one of the two engines on a 787 suffers from the first of the two engine problems causing it to fail, then the extra load on the second engine might stress it to the point where the second of the two engine problems happens on the second engine (or the first of the two problems, for that matter, too), which means, as I calculated a couple of weeks ago, it then has something like 15 minutes to find somewhere to land.

The FAA responded to this risk by reducing the 5 1/2 hours down to 2 hours 20 minutes, and at the time I wondered “why allow 140 minutes when the plane might have only 15 minutes”.  Is safety now based on hoping for best case scenarios rather than anticipating worst case scenarios?

Apparently the FAA has pondered my question carefully, and now is reducing the ETOPS time (time away from the nearest place to land) for 787s with risky engines down to 60 minutes.  That’s much closer to the 15 minutes of flying time a crippled 787 might have remaining, but having now ‘only’ 45 minutes at risk instead of 125 minutes is of no comfort if the plane crashes during that time.

This latest move has further limited the range and routes such 787s can fly.  Unfortunately, it seems that some airlines aren’t carefully planning ahead and are hoping for the problems to somehow solve themselves, so if you’re scheduled to fly on a 787 (especially if operated by United, Virgin Atlantic, Thai, Air New Zealand, or Norwegian) in the next month or two, you might want to keep an eye on the airline’s scheduling and how “your flight” is being operated each day between now and when you fly.  If nothing else, the flight might follow a more circuitous path, taking longer to reach the destination, and possibly needing to add a refueling stop along the way.

More details here.

How Safe is Space Travel?

Talking about air safety, a question we seldom need to ask ourselves is how safe is space travel.  But now that Elon Musk is boldly going into that arena, it may become a bit more relevant, particularly with his earlier predictions that he’ll make rocket travel between, eg, New York and London, as cheap as regular airplane travel while taking less than an hour (I may be slightly misremembering the details but this is the gist).

That was of course a ridiculous promise, even by Muskian standards.  But this week he went further, and predicted a future where rocket launches will be as routine and as safe as airline flights.

This is an interesting prediction, because just a few days earlier, a well researched article was published expressing grave concern that Musk’s approach to rocketry may be dangerously cutting some safety corners and creating levels of risk unheard of since the bad old days of the Space Shuttle programs where for a while there was a 1 in 12 chance of disaster hovering over every shuttle launch.

Apparently there is an official safety target for rocket launches.  The target is to have a chance of death no greater than one in every 270 flights.  Mr Musk of course disputes that his approach to rocketry is dangerous (a brave contention to make when one of his few rocket launches to date exploded during its fueling process prior to launch, the very issue that has NASA concerned), but whether it conforms to NASA’s surprisingly modest objective of fewer than one fatality every 270 flights or not, how does that stack up compared to regular airline flights?

Well, remember that we’ve just ended a multi-year series with no commercial airline fatalities at all (ended with the woman being sucked out of the Southwest 737).  Every day there are 42,000 flights, in the US alone.  If there were one problem per 270 flights, that would be 155 (I’m not sure if the measure is flight crashes or passenger deaths) – every day.  That is 57,000 every year – the same as all US troop casualties in the entire Vietnam war, every year.  Air travel is unthinkably safer than rocket travel, even in the best case scenario.

But Mr Musk claims his more-dangerous-than-normal processes will be as routine and safe as airline flights.  Let’s hope there’s more substance to this promise than to the delivery schedule promises for his latest Model 3 cars.

The Turned-Off Travelers

I’m about to head across country to visit a truly haunted hotel.  Google tells me it is 711 miles east of here, and while – on the face of it – that is clearly way too far to drive, I’ve decided to do exactly that.  Drive.  It is a nice time of year, an easy drive most of the way on I-90, and much too nice to suffer inside airports and airplanes.

By most measures, that is not sensible.  The rule of thumb is that somewhere around the four-hour point, it gets ‘better’ to fly rather than drive.  My 1400 miles of driving will cost as much as flying, and it is probably twelve hours each way (after allowing for stops and meals).  That makes for a considerable time cost, and I’ll probably have to stay an extra night away, too.  But I’d rather do all of that than fly.

I say this as introduction to this article, which reassures me I’m not alone in this growing aversion.  It uncovers a broader trend showing that while the numbers of people driving, riding trains, and even taking long distance bus services are all steadily increasing, the number of people flying is barely growing.

Most astonishing of all was a Business Travel Coalition survey that found 83% of their members are making fewer business trips – and not just one or two fewer, but a reduction from an average of 19 trips a year in 2012, and now down to 12 last year.  That’s over a one-third reduction.  In total, the US Travel Association estimates that an aversion to the hassles of air travel saw 32 million fewer air journeys last year.

The same is not true of other methods of transportation.  For example, comparing 2001 and 2017 travel for the four big holidays of Memorial Day, 4 July, Labor Day and Thanksgiving, there was a growth of 33 million people driving.  As for air travel, the airlines grew by a mere 410,000 passengers.

Whether for business or pleasure, people are avoiding flying.

But, this behavior is sadly invisible to the myopic accountants that run airlines these days.  They congratulate each other for removing an olive from salads, and for increasing fees and penalties.  Their idea of innovation is to print inflight magazines on lighter-weight paper, and to remove inflight entertainment screens to save weight and reduce costs – passengers can use their own screens/devices instead, they say.

These people will calculate out exactly the saving in costs or boost in profit that each such measure represented, and have a very clear vision of the ‘trees’.  But they’ve no perception whatsoever for the ‘forest’ that their trees lie within.  How do you cost out the millions of people who have decided not to travel at all, particularly when your overall passenger numbers are inching ever upwards and thereby obscuring the reality of passenger losses?  And even more particularly when you’re blinded by numbers alone, but have little perception of the real world from whence they came.

More Perspective on the Puzzling Lack of Electric Car Sales

I wrote last week, expressing puzzlement at the shortfall as between the professed level of interest and commitment to electric vehicles that assails us every day from major car manufacturers, and the apparent eagerness of people to buy them, but the reality of barely stable numbers of electric cars being sold.

This week results of a recent survey were released, telling us that last year, 15% of Americans said their next vehicle would be electric.  Last year, 17.2 million vehicles were sold in the US.  A 15% share of that would be almost exactly 3 million vehicles.

The actual total of all types of electric vehicles sold last year, ranging from pure BEV vehicles to barely electric at all hybrids?  Not quite 200,000.  Just a shade over 1% of all vehicles sold.  Fifteen times less than the survey anticipated.

Oh, the survey also told us that this year, the percentage of Americans expecting their next car to be electric has increased further, from 15% up to now 20%.  Electric vehicle sales through the end of April show no signs of this being any more a reality than the 15% fantasy from last year.

Meantime, auto manufacturer hype continues at a much greater speed than their electric vehicle sales.  Audi erupted in print this week, claiming it would sell 800,000 battery and hybrid electric vehicles in 2025 (a date sufficiently far in the future that none of the people making that claim today need to fear any measure of future accountability).  That’s a particularly impressive claim when matched alongside their current lineup of pure electric vehicles in their product range :  zero.  One is expected to be released in August.

My point is simply to observe the enormous shortfall between what auto manufacturers say they are doing, what car buyers say they want, and what is actually happening.

Super-capacitors and Electric Vehicles

On the other hand, there was also an encouraging piece this week about further developments in the field of super-capacitors – indeed, these new capacitors are being termed ultra-capacitors.

I’ve always loved capacitors, way back from when I was a little boy.  There is something magical at how they can almost instantly soak up a large charge, and equally quickly, pass it on to whatever load is calling for it.  Batteries will do the same thing, of course, but thousands of times more slowly, and after perhaps 500 cycles, batteries start to lose their capacity, while capacitors are still at full capacity after a million or more cycles.  They also are more efficient at accepting and then giving back charge, with between 85% and 98% of the current returned back when the capacitor discharges, compared to 70% – 85% in a battery.

So why aren’t all electric vehicles using capacitors instead of batteries?  Currently there are some major weaknesses in super-capacitors.

They store less energy per pound and less energy per cubic foot, than lithium-ion batteries.  About ten times less.  That is a big issue – literally as well as figuratively.

They cost very much more – about ten times more, maybe even twenty times.

There are two more subtle challenges, too.  The first is that whereas a battery maintains a steady voltage during most of its discharging, a super-capacitor’s voltage almost instantly starts declining, requiring additional electronics ‘in the middle’ to manage the supply voltage being used to power the vehicle.

They also ‘self-discharge’ more quickly and lose their charge over time.  They’ll lose half their charge in about 30 days, compared to a lithium-ion battery that only loses about 5% in the same time period.

But super-capacitor technology is improving, and while we’re some way away from seeing vehicles powered exclusively by super-capacitors, the concept of electric/electric hybrids, with a combination of both super-capacitors and regular lithium-ion batteries, seems like a great approach.  The Li-ion batteries can be present as reserve and extended power, while the super-capacitors are present for surge/sudden power and to quickly recapture as much power as possible when braking, and also, when connected to a charger, to quickly top themselves up before allowing the Li-ion batteries to charge at a more sedate rate.

Super-capacitors have other potential uses, too.  Imagine a cell phone that could be recharged in ten seconds.  You’d not mind so much if the battery life were shorter, because you could recharge it in a flash any time you wished.

Ultra-capacitors seem to promise even more than super-capacitors.  More details about this exciting technology here.

TSA Apologizes for Asking Passenger to Remove Turban

Political correctness will quite likely end up being the death of us all.  Before I explain that statement (should it need explaining) let’s just first imagine what would happen if, when you go through airport security screening, you refuse to remove your shoes and jacket.

Does the TSA become ultra-understanding and polite, and apologize for upsetting you, and whisk you through without further ado?  Or do they tell you that the choice of removing your shoes and jacket is entirely up to you, but the choice of whether you get through security and onto your plane is entirely up to them, and unless you do your bit, they’ll not do their bit?

And now, imagine instead that you’re a member of a religious order that has special dress requirements.  It turns out that a woefully culturally insensitive TSA member asked a Canadian gentleman with a turban wrapped around his head to remove it.  He has since been disciplined for daring to make such an outrageous request, and the TSA publicly apologised, saying

We recognize that passengers may be unable or unwilling to remove items for religious, medical, or other reasons, and should expect to undergo additional screening protocols.

In this particular case, the passenger was also a minister in the Canadian government, and a Sikh, so probably not a threat at all, but it seems from the TSA carefully worded statement that across the board, any passenger may refuse to remove any item for “other reasons” and the only consequence will be undergoing “additional screening protocols”.  A suggestion – if the additional screening protocols include rubber gloves and a tube of KY jelly, be sure to include your trousers and underwear as items you don’t wish to remove.

Good luck with that if you’re a white middle class male.  Details here.

Talking About Potentially Dangerous Canadians

Yes, I know.  “Potentially dangerous Canadians” is a seldom seen phrase.  But whereas the TSA was quick to realize the error of their ways, a cherubic faced 27-year-old lady who had just graduated from a Masters program in geology was arrested in Georgia and shown no such leniency.  It was off to jail for her, and apparently it was only because she live-streamed her arrest from the back of a police car that she managed to get people to intercede on her behalf, because the police were denying her bail and allegedly telling her she could be in jail for a month before her case came before the judge.

What was her crime that warranted such a response from Georgia’s finest?  She was – get ready for this – guilty of speeding, driving a car on I-75 while in possession of a valid Canadian driver’s license.  (In case you’re wondering, this is Georgia, the state in the United States, not Georgia, the country to the east of the Black Sea.)

Apparently, in our Georgia (but probably not in the other Georgia), driving while Canadian, even though lawfully in the country, is a more serious offense than driving while intoxicated, and gets you straight to jail for a potentially indefinite time and with few rights.  The aggravating nature of the lady’s offense was that she did not also have her passport with her to back up the sophisticated license and photo-ID already on it to prove she was the person depicted on the license.  So deputies from Cook County did the obvious and only sensible thing, concerned that the lady might be using a fake license, and locked her up.  Oh yes, and just in case she was going to transmit coded messages to her accomplices, they also refused to let her call any Canadian consular officers or her parents.

Although, eventually, and at considerable expense to the lady, the charges were dropped, the Georgian officials refuse to admit that what they did was extraordinarily stupid.  So, if you’re Canadian and thinking of driving in Georgia, consider yourself warned.

One can only imagine what the Georgian authorities do to illegal immigrants from Mexico (yes, probably release them immediately).  Details here.

The Pen of My Aunt is On the Table

Some of us will instantly recognize that nonsense phrase as part of the joys of learning a foreign language.  In my case, I can still instantly translate it to “La plume de ma tante est sur la table” – 50 years since learning this phrase and I’m still hoping for a chance to slip it out into casual conversation in France.

Language learning has improved since then, and I absolutely love the Pimsleur approach to learning languages (it was invaluable when I learned some Russian 20 years ago), now widely adopted and mimicked by most other language programs too.  A key part of this process is listening to and repeating natural conversational phrases and sentences, without too much focus on grammar or the ‘rules’ of the language.  In other words, natural learning, the same as we learned our native language.

But the key part of this is the ‘doing’ part – you’ve got to actually say out loud, not just think, the phrases, so as to create a sort of ‘muscle memory’ for what to say and how to say it.

The relevance of this?  Easyjet and Emirates (an unusual pairing of airlines) have announced they’ll be offering language classes on their flights as part of their seatback entertainment.  Emirates will offer 15 languages, and Easyjet will offer 136 different languages.

A wonderful new service?  Or a new level of hell?  We in the US have refused to allow people to speak on their mobile phones while flying, but now we are to encourage people all around us to start droning out “La plume de ma tante est sur la table” in an unsynchronized cacophony of different languages.  I think I’d almost prefer to eavesdrop on the person next to me saying “You’ll never guess where I’m calling you from” on their phone.

Details here.

And Lastly This Week….

Inbetween his rockets and his cars, Mr Musk is also interested in drilling tunnels, and established a new company to do that, his “Boring Company”.  His claim was he could dig tunnels more quickly and less expensively than could anyone else.

How is this possible, you might ask?  The answer turns out to be quite simple.  He’ll make the tunnels smaller.  Apparently he was awake in one of his geometry classes and remembered that the area of a circle is proportional to the square of its radius, so if you reduce the radius of a tunnel by half, the total reduction in area is four-fold rather than two-fold, which sort of means you can drill four times more quickly and therefore four times less expensively.

But – is it really possible to shrink transit tunnels that much?  Oh yes, definitely, Mr Musk assures us.  We won’t need wide lanes for cars, because each car will be placed on a sled that will travel autonomously through a tunnel, not needing so much safety room around it.  That sounds almost believable, doesn’t it, but there is one minor detail that perhaps needs to be looked at again.  The Boring Company tunnels will be so small that even a regular Tesla Model S or X car would be too wide to fit in them, whether on a sled or not.  Details here.

This is from the guy who tells us to trust him, that his rockets will be safer than any other rockets ever made.

I wrote last week about the Hopper app and its ‘secret fare’ offerings.  But apparently, even naming some of the airlines participating in the program was too much of a breach of secrecy, and Westjet urgently cancelled its participation in the new service after having been named as one of the airlines.  Air Canada admitted it was participating, but said its fares, while semi-secret, were not at all special, and were available through other sources as well.  Details here.

That is of course another part of the problem the airlines face.  Anything they try to do with any particular marketing channel immediately causes an uproar from their ‘partners’ in other marketing channels, who rush to demand the same fares, even if they are selling in different ways to different people, and would use the lower fare prices for nothing other than boosting their own margins.

I also wrote a separate tongue-in-cheek article last week about New Zealand’s problem, being omitted from some world maps.  Their response was for one of the country’s comedians, and the country’s Prime Minister, to team together to make a comedy video making fun of the situation.

China believes it has a similar problem, but has come up with a different solution.  Some countries and even some airlines refer to places such as Hong Kong, Macau, Taiwan, and Tibet in terms other than as inseparable and included parts of China.  China has now served official notice on airlines that dare to refer to such places in other than the approved terms, telling them they may find themselves subjected to additional scrutiny or suffer ‘demerits’.  United and Qantas are among the known recipients of such letters.

Here’s a brave article from the South China Morning Post website – a newspaper and online service that is struggling to maintain what remains of its own editorial freedom.

I think I prefer the Kiwi approach.

Lastly this week, more on the mysteriously missing MH 370 flight.  Here’s an article that claims to have a complete list of conspiracy theories about the flight’s disappearance.  Their list is woefully incomplete – some might say that is further ‘proof’ of a conspiracy!

And now, truly lastly, are you a “first class thief”?  Apparently, lots of people are – I know this for sure, because I’ve been to large themed conventions where the “stolen goods” are offered for sale.  Note – I was not there as a seller!

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels





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May 102018

The low-cost Echo Dot (and its various more expensive stable-mates), available in various colors and sleeves, responds to voice commands with voice answers, and controls other electronic gadgets.

We’ve had a love-hate relationship with our Amazon Echo devices since  getting our first back in 2016.  We love what they do, but we hate that we don’t know more about how to use them better, and we get annoyed at ourselves when we forget the appropriate voice commands to do the things we wish to do.  So, for our own benefit, as well as for yours, we came up with a cheat sheet of some of the most useful commands and features of these devices.  A copy of this is attached, and a more extensive version is available to our kind supporters from their special supporter resource page.

First, a quick refresher on what the Amazon Echo is.

Amazon’s Echo units are voice controlled.  You speak to them, asking them questions, or asking them to do things, and they reply to you.  For example, ask them for information about the weather or news, and they’ll tell you.  Ask them to turn on your upstairs lights, and if you have a compatible smart light switch connected to those lights, they’ll turn the lights on for you.  Ask them to set a reminder message for you at 2pm to do something, and so on.

Order a pizza, book a restaurant through Open Table, schedule a Lyft or Uber car, ask what movies are playing in local theaters (or television programming), have them convert Euros to dollars, ounces to cups or liters, and so on.

Their speakers can also be used to play music, or as an intercom service, both within your home/office or more broadly to contacts elsewhere in the world.  They can be connected to your phone as well.

Some models of the Echo devices also include cameras and screens.  And, similar to how Amazon’s Kindle eBook reader started off as a dedicated device and then evolved to become an app available on most phones, tablets, and computers, so too is their Echo app increasingly available on phones, tablets and computers too.

We first reviewed the Echo in December 2016, and then did a follow-up review with more commentary and ideas about how to use Echo units.

The least expensive Echo unit is the Echo Dot.  Usually listing for $49.99, the Echo Dot is currently on a “Mother’s Day Special” for $39.99.  If don’t already have some, perhaps now is a good time to dip your toe in the water and try one; and if you already have some, maybe now is a good time to get another one or two to add to more rooms in your house.

Add one of these between your wall socket and the light or other appliance plug and you can then remote control whatever is plugged in to it.

The other essential thing to add to your Echo unit are remote control plugs so you can have your Echo devices turn things on and off for you.  You can get replacement wall mounted light switches for regular lights if you don’t mind the small amount of rewiring needed to install them.  But for items that plug into a wall outlet – including lights and all sorts of other electrical appliances – it is tremendously simple just to add a unit between the wall socket and the device plug – no wiring required.

These smart plugs have plunged in price.  When we first started buying them, we were paying $40 for each plug and feeling pleased at the ‘bargain’ we’d uncovered.  Now you can get them for as little as $12.99 each, and packs of two, four, six, etc at slightly lower per-unit costs.

There are a couple of things to watch out for when buying smart plugs.  The first is to make sure they can be directly controlled by Echo units – some require a ‘smart hub’ that interfaces between the Echo units and the smart plugs, but most don’t.  The best thing is to look for an “Amazon Certified” badge on the listing.

The second is to see what the current rating is for the device.  Most are rated for 10 amps, some are rated for 15 amps.  If you’re simply switching on and off simple appliances and lights, 10A is probably plenty, but if you’re wanting to turn on heavier machinery, heaters, or cooking equipment, then you’ll probably need 15A.  10A is enough for about 1100W of power, 15A is good for 1650W of power.

Here is a link to a ‘cheat sheet’ with some of the most useful of the many commands you can use with your Alexa Echo.  Some of them refer to built in capabilities of the devices, and others relate to additional ‘skills’ that you download to your device – a bit like adding apps to your phone or tablet, for example, and a very easy process to do.  (Note – Travel Insider contributors can go to their contributor page and download an extended version of this document.  If you’re not yet a contributor, you can become one here.)

When we wrote about the Echo unit in December 2016, there were about 4,000 different skills.  Now there are more than 25,000, and you can even now develop your own skills through a fairly easy ‘do your own programming’ “skills blueprint” tool that Amazon offers.  As far as we are aware, currently all skills are completely free (even in cases where an equivalent phone based app costs money to purchase), making it enticing to wade through some of the long listings of skills to find ones that could be of interest.

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