David Rowell

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

Aug 152018
 

A picture of a Horizon (ie Alaska) Q-400 almost identical to the one that was involved in Friday’s incident.

Friday evening’s theft of an airplane was almost as strange as the reactions that inevitably followed.  Let’s first talk about the facts of what happened, then move on to the ‘expert’ commentaries and opinions.

What Actually Happened

At about 7.30pm on Friday 10 August 2018 a Horizon Air employee used a pushback tractor to move and reposition a Bombardier Q-400 twin turbo-prop engine regional commuter plane that was in a maintenance area at Seattle’s main Seattle-Tacoma (Seatac) airport.  He turned it 180° so it was facing out to the runways, uncoupled the tractor, and then boarded the plane, started the engines, taxied, and took off.

The plane had been parked at a maintenance facility at one far end of the airport grounds, immediately adjacent to the start/end of the three parallel runways at Seatac.  No-one would have noticed or thought anything about seeing the plane being turned by the tractor, nor would they have thought anything of the plane starting up and starting to taxi, it would only have been in the less than 30 seconds or so when he went off the general ramp area and onto the taxiway approach to the runway that he would have started to cause people to wonder what was happening.  As he approached the runway the tower did radio to him, mildly asking for his flight number, but he ignored that request and less than a minute later was in the air.

The middle of the three runways was clear, so he turned 90° onto the runway, applied power, and very shortly thereafter, with a very light plane (little fuel, no freight or passengers) was climbing steeply into the sky.  This article has good maps of what happened on the ground, I’ve not seen any hard copy of the route he flew, but it doesn’t really particularly matter and isn’t all that significant.  This article has some good video clips.

He then spent the next hour flying around the Puget Sound area, and was fairly quickly joined by a couple of F-15s from the Oregon Air National Guard that scrambled from Portland, and reportedly not just crashing through the sound barrier, but possibly getting to speeds of as high as 1500 mph on the short 130 mile run from PDX airport to the area south of SEA where the Q-400 was flying.

Maybe the fly-boys wanted to treat themselves to the exhilarating sensation of full thrust afterburner flight.  And this was a potentially unique situation – normally, airplanes that attract fighter ‘escorts’ are filled with innocent passengers, making for a very uncertain series of responses by the fighters.  Would a fighter really shoot down an airplane with 400 people on it?  And, if they don’t shoot the plane down, what else can they actually do to “escort” the plane?

That is a question that, so far, has happily never needed to be answered (and which most commentators prefer to avoid considering), but in this case, the empty airplane with only the illegal pilot on board would allow for a much easier decision if it seemed the guy was about to plunge his plane into a tall building or major population center.

The plane, piloted by a Richard Russell, eventually crashed into an unpopulated forested area on a tiny island, killing himself and destroying the plane.  This was most likely due to running out of fuel (he’d earlier indicated that his remaining fuel was getting alarmingly/critically low), or possibly a deliberate decision to ‘end it’ such as he had talked about in radio exchanges with the Air Traffic Control center and various pilots who were online to help him land the plane if he wished.

For much of that time he was in radio communication with the ground, and showed himself to be an amazingly likeable and friendly guy.  There was absolutely no suggestion at all that he was wanting to do anything dangerous (to others) with the plane, and he didn’t have any ‘ideological message’ that he wanted to illustrate with the stolen plane.  He was just a very average ordinary guy who ended up doing a really stupid thing and not knowing how to de-escalate the situation other than to kill himself, and by the time thoughts of trying to change the outcome arose, his fuel was almost gone.

Although not entirely focused, and at times showing an appreciation of the appalling situation he had gotten into, he was certainly about as exactly opposite the stereotypes of who would steal a plane as possible.  You can hear a good share of the radio transmissions here.

The Nonsense that Followed – The Difficulty of Flying

The headline stealing nature of this event naturally attracted headline-seekers who saw an opportunity to push their various narratives, and/or just to get some airtime and publicity.  Much of the public commentary that followed has been utter nonsense.

For example, many people who should know better have rushed to express their astonishment and puzzlement at how it was possible for a Horizon Airlines Q-400 plane to be taken by one of their employees.  It is true that Richard Russell – a 29 yr old who had been working for Horizon for 3 1/2 years as a ground handler, had no formal flight training or known experience flying airplanes.

Supporting this narrative, which has been diverted to suggest “there must be more that we don’t know”, Horizon Air’s CEO, Gary Beck, described Russell’s flying as involving “incredible maneuvers”.  He went on to say he didn’t know how Russell had achieved the experience that he did.  This suggests that Mr Beck has either lived a very sheltered life or knows very little about flying.  It has been said that Russell performed one or more barrel rolls – they were probably aileron rolls, which are one of the simplest things to do in a plane, but even if they truly were barrel rolls, there’s nothing incredible about doing that, especially in a likely circumstance where they would have been far from perfect (it is much harder to evaluate the purity and perfection of a barrel roll when watching a plane fly past, at a continually changing angle, than it is when on the plane).

On the other hand, his eventual crash was attributed by the Sheriff’s Department as a result of Russell “doing stunts in air or lack of flying skills”.  The degree of flying knowledge the local Sheriff’s Department has is, to be fair, probably close to zero, but surely then they should have been silent rather than rushing to make ridiculous comments.  No mention was made of the two most likely reasons for the crash – running out of fuel and a suicidal tendency, both of which were clearly signaled in the radio communications between Russell and the ATC.

Experts were stunned that a man who had never flown a plane could do so, and “simply starting up an engine takes a fair bit of knowledge” according to a Mr John Cox, a former pilot-union official.  The official went on to say that “how he got that knowledge is important” for investigators to find out.  Cox’s comments were backed up by “Ask the Pilot” blogger Patrick Smith who went as far as to say

Without some systems knowledge, some rudimentary flying skills, and a whole lot of luck, it’s more or less impossible [to start a plane]. The average person, if put in a Q400 cockpit and told to go flying, couldn’t get a propeller turning if his or her life depended on it, let alone take to the air.

These two statements in particular are even more specious than the others, because they come from ‘experts’.  As always, it suits the pilots to play up the “special skills” required to fly a plane, and to shelter being the concept of what an ‘average’ person can or can’t do.  Maybe the notional average person can’t start an airplane, but it does not require decades of experience and thousands of hours of flying time and tuition to learn how to do so.

In reality, starting airplane engines is a simple process, somewhat akin to starting an older car with manual choke.  In simple terms, put the engine in neutral, turn the ignition on, adjust the mixture setting, move the throttle forward, push the starter button.

In slightly more technical terms, as an assist for Mr Smith who says that although he used to fly an earlier model of the same plane family, it would take him some time and effort to do what Russell did, you turn the battery master on, select 3 batteries on, select Engine # 1, start it up, repeat for #2, and off you go.

Where would you learn how to do this?  Ummm – maybe Mr Cox prefers to pretend it doesn’t exist, but Microsoft Flight Simulator and similar programs (X-Plane is perhaps the best) walks you through all these things in a very realistic environment.  This is nothing new.  The first release of Flight Simulator was in 1977, although the first releases had very primitive graphics and functionality.  But for the last decade or two, the greatly more sophisticated modeling, and the realistic graphic quality (it can now be used on huge 4k monitors with very fast refresh rates giving smooth and photo-realistic motion) of Flight Simulator has been as close to the real thing as you can get short of spending tens of millions of dollars on a full-motion simulator.

Flight Simulator is so good that pilots themselves use it, and not just to study the basics of flight, but to polish up advanced flying skills.  For example, this book, on a pilot’s website, talks about how Flight Simulator isn’t just used for fun flying experiences, it can also be used by real pilots to train for advanced certifications.

And, it gets even easier than this for non-pilot ‘average’ people.  You don’t even to have to buy a copy of Flight Simulator, load it on your computer, buy a joystick, etc, and learn the FS controls.  You can simply go to YouTube and watch a video of other people showing you how to do everything from sitting down in the pilot’s seat prior to the start of a flight to getting up again at the end of the flight.

There’s no point in getting into arguments about how easy or how simple this is, particularly after we’ve had such a vivid demonstration of a non-pilot doing exactly this.  Suffice it to say that some people would indeed be unable to even understand the labels on most of the controls.  Others would quickly feel at home and be able to get a plane airborne.  Landing it may well be a different matter, but that’s not so relevant to this discussion.

Here’s the thing – it doesn’t suit the purpose or interests of any self-declared experts to concede that flying a plane is a simple skill that can be taught, even at an advanced level, about 95% through a $50 program, rather than needing to spend hundreds of dollars per hour in a ‘real’ plane.  Even the airlines themselves now acknowledge the benefit of flight simulator training, and while it is true that a real full-motion flight simulator is much more immersive and ‘real’ than sitting at one’s computer with Flight Simulator, we’re merely talking degrees of reality and value.

It is a bit like the difference between the camera on your cell phone and a dedicated full size camera.  For most of the time, and most purposes, these days a cell phone camera is sufficiently good, it is very seldom that normal people need to use a $5,000 – $50,000 camera.  It is the same with learning to fly a plane.  For most types of flight knowledge/experience, Flight Simulator or one of its spin-offs and enhanced versions provides all the skills you need.

Another source expressed amazement at how Russell had been able to program the flight computer in the plane.  Newsflash – you don’t need to program the flight management system at all if you just want to fly in manual unassisted mode, as clearly was the case on Friday night, and again, if the source had listened to the radio recording, he’d have heard Russell say that he wasn’t using the flight computer – another captain was trying to ‘help’ by suggesting he enter in a course to the flight computer so he (Russell) could then concentrate on solving the other issues confronting him.

More Nonsense – Something Must be Done About the Security Risk

Waves of other people expressed surprise and fear – how is it possible, they demanded to know, that an umpty-ump million dollar plane was sitting ‘unprotected’ on the ground so that ‘anyone’ could just waltz in and steal it.  To hear these people, this was not an extremely rare extraordinary circumstance, it was a major vulnerability that was about to flood our nation with stolen planes.

Pilots of course were quick to point to how this affirms the need for two pilots in the cockpit all the time (they’re feeling increasingly threatened by automation and the truth that one pilot is more than plenty, most of the time).  They didn’t also point out that there are a dismayingly large number of cases where planes with two pilots have been taken over by one of the two pilots, who has then suicided and crashed the plane.  Nor did they point out that by having two pilots per plane, you’re doubling the chance that one of them might be suicidal.

Other ‘industry experts’ suggested that not only must we always have two-man crews in the cockpit, but we should have every ground worker at airports shadowed by a second person at all times, too.

Other experts made the ‘safe’ suggestion that we need better screening of all personnel with access to parked planes at airports.  Apparently they believe that a once every few years screening would be able to predict a random event a year in the future that causes someone to ‘go off the deep end’ and think suicide-by-plane type thoughts.  We should point out that by all accounts Richard Russell was a well liked person and good worker, with a stable home life and generally presenting as a very low risk in every respect.

Thorough screening would involve interviewing each person, and then going out to interview friends, family, neighbors, and co-workers, plus doing a record screen to see if there were any external stress points.  This would probably require about 20 man-hours per screened employee.

Oh, according to the Seattle Times (see linked article, above) there are about 13,600 employees at Seatac airport with authorized access to airplanes.  So, 20 man hours each, per year, and if we say each screener has about 1350 productive hours a year, that means about 200 people, full-time, screening airport employees.  Let’s say a cost per federal employee of $120,000, and we’re looking at $24 million a year just to screen at Seatac.  Now multiply that by 500 or so other commercial airports.  We’ve just created a new $10+ billion a year federal program, that most probably will be 75% ineffective.  And that leaves “unprotected” all the general-aviation type airports and smaller air-fields in the country – there are 15,000+ airports in the US altogether, of which 5,000+ have sealed runways.

Hmmm – that plan sounds eerily like a description of the TSA, doesn’t it!

And, wait – before we go rushing off to create another mega-government agency, there’s another relevant consideration, too.  At least at present, it is not the responsibility of an airport to control access to the planes within its boundaries.  To put this event in legal terms, this was a case of employee theft of company property.  While it is possible the airlines and airports (and, ugh, government too) might join together to create industry-wide solutions, at present, each airline is responsible for the security of its own planes.

And let’s not lose sight of the gravity of this ‘problem’.  One stolen passenger plane in no-one seems quite sure how many decades.  Not exactly the most serious problem society has to wrestle with at present, is it.

Other people have suggested that airports should have emergency procedures in place so that fire trucks could be deployed in an emergency to block runways.  We know airports with too few fire trucks and too many/too long runways, so this would require getting some more vehicles and people to crew them, and then we wonder how long it would take to deploy the firetrucks compared to how long it would take for a stolen plane to fly off.

Update :  Actually, we have an answer to that, thanks to reader Art – the FAA requirement is that a firetruck must be able to get to the midpoint of the furtherest away runway within two minutes of a call.  However, experts note that in most cases, a runway would need to be blocked in at least two places, because blocking just at the midpoint would probably mean that unloaded planes could take off and clear the obstruction in just half the runway length.  Although it might take two minutes to get one fire truck to the mid point, in some cases (such as Seatac) the midpoint is actually the closest point to the firestation.  We’re not sure how long it would take to get two firetrucks, one to a point one-third along the runway and the second to a point two-thirds along.

It is true that parked planes on the ground are essentially unlocked.  Our experts seem unable to comprehend or unwilling to share this simple truth.

Continuing the thought process from the preceding paragraph, and as discussed in the previous section, once you’ve gained access to the plane, you don’t need any sort of key to start a plane.  In most cases, you just flip switches, with YouTube and Flight Simulator available to walk you through every step of the process.  Taxiing a plane is no big deal, and taking off is dead simple and most of the time as easy in real life as it is in Flight Simulator – more or less full throttle (chances are the plane you’ve stolen is very lightly loaded with no passengers, bags, or freight, and probably without a full load of fuel either), optionally a bit of flap, and off you go.

There Actually is A Simple Solution

While it might seem astonishing that most planes don’t even have a $5 ignition key/lock system, remember that commercial passenger planes in particular are parked in very secure airport spaces.  The security is preventing access to where the plane is – ie the entire airport, not in preventing access to the plane itself.  And consider also that if a determined person really wanted to steal a plane, and it did have an ignition key lock on it, don’t you think that, just like how ignition key locks can be defeated on regular cars, the same thing couldn’t be done on the plane as well?

Actually, that last statement does need some further examination.  With so much of modern airplanes now being computer-controlled, including their engines (via FADECs), it isn’t just a case of ‘hot wiring’ the ignition switch any more.  Instead, you give computer commands, either directly, or more intuitively/interactively through the traditional types of cockpit controls.  It would be possible to add a digital controller that would not authorize the airplane computer to start the engines or do anything unless it was given a particular passcode  – similar to how one can password protect/prevent unauthorized logins to your phone, tablet or computer.  This could be further augmented by requiring some type of physical device as well – ‘two factor’ authorization.

This process could be made flexible, so that some people would be given a passcode to allow them to start the engines but not advance them beyond idle, allow others to take the engines briefly up to full power (for testing purposes) before killing the engines again, and another password for enough power to taxi but not to take off.

Only the great god-like beings in their fancy uniforms, aka the pilots, would be given super-secret passwords to actually be allowed to fly the plane.  You know, the ones that must have an upper case letter, a lower case letter, a digit, and a special character, etc etc.  Of course, they’d probably write these on slips of paper and leave them clipped to the plane control columns, but at least it would be a start.

Another approach would be to require the airplane to “phone home” and ask for permission to be started whenever someone tries to start it.  In a three-way communication, the plane and the requesting person could both communicate with a central computer and see if the request to start its engines and the person making the request were both authorized or not.

In reality, there are several different approaches along these lines, all of which would greatly increase the difficulty of having planes flown away by unauthorized personnel.  They also seem likely to be more effective than trying to screen the already screened airport employees some more, and none of which would be nearly as costly as additional screening would be.

So why are none of the experts calling for this?

And a Last Thought

Believe it or not, there is one variation of ‘unauthorized people stealing planes’ that is less uncommon than you might think, but which seldom gets talked about.  This happens when people repossess planes on behalf of lenders when the plane owners default on loans.

Much like repossessing cars, repossession agents will sometimes take a stealthy approach to reclaiming the plane, for fear the owner will simply fly it away and hide it.  They’ll find a way to get access to the airfield/airport where the plane is stored, enter the plane, and simply fly it away.

One wonders what lenders would think about high-tech software/password locks on planes.  They’d probably require an override access code as part of their lending process.

Aug 102018
 

Nowhere in the world will be more than 3 1/2 hours away from anywhere else if Boeing’s new HST comes to fruition.

Good morning

I hope your summer is proceeding apace and that you’re not being impacted by the fires and smoke coming from them that seem to be filling so much of California at present.

We have the usual sprinkling of fires here in WA too, but orders of magnitude less than the 300,000+ acre main fire and many slightly smaller ones in California currently, making in total for the largest amount of fire in the state’s history.

Some have been quick to attribute the fires to global warming, but it seems the primary reasons are actually coming from an opposite set of circumstances – greater ‘care’ of forests meaning that old dead wood accumulates rather than being allowed to burn in natural cycles of smaller fires (there’s a rush to extinguish all fires these days, meaning an accumulation of fuel for when fires run away) and of course, greater proximity of residential housing to forested areas making the outcomes of fires more directly impinging on people rather than just on places and things when they do occur.  Add more and more people to the mix, and perhaps growing carelessness when people are in forested areas, and so more fires are started, they burn more readily, and they impact more on people.  Plus – oh yes, budget restrictions limiting the state’s ability to adequately respond.

I’m writing to you today with a sore neck and shoulder, so will try not to be too irritable as a result.  My aches may have been gained from testing a new type of travel pillow – I was excited by the concept of this ‘design and build your own’ approach to a travel pillow, but as for the reality, well, the article follows this morning’s roundup.

What else this week?  Please keep reading for :

  • Norwegian Temporarily Operating Deluxe A380 Flights
  • Will the New Supersonic Airplane be Obsolete Before it Flies?
  • A Difficult Day Today for Ryanair
  • Taiwan Tries to Fight Back
  • Is Airbnb Being Naughty With its Reviews?
  • Is the TSA Really This Stupid?
  • Is Elon Musk Pumping and Dumping?
  • And Lastly This Week….

Norwegian Temporarily Operating Deluxe A380 Flights

I wrote last week about a charter/lease airline adding a used ex-Singapore Airlines A380 to their hire fleet.  After some initial flights for the British airline Thomson Airlines, it has now been hired out to Norwegian, and is being used on flights between  JFK and Gatwick.

Norwegian continues to struggle to maintain its schedule while its regular 787s are taken out of service due to the problems with their Rolls-Royce engines, and after hiring in other replacement aircraft, it has now started operating the A380 on this route.  Apparently a mere $400 extra (each way) will get you access to one of the former SQ first class suites on this plane.

But you’ll have to hurry.  The A380 moves to another assignment on 24 August, this time helping out Air Austral – another airline struggling to maintain its schedule due to the same problems with its 787s and Rolls-Royce engines.

The Norwegian experience hasn’t been all good with the A380 so far, due to scheduling problems between itself and JFK – there are fewer gates at JFK that can accept the A380 and it seems that may not have been fully allowed for when deploying the A380.  Oooops.

I’m sure I’m not the only one who is desperately hoping that exposing the A380 to several of these airlines might light a spark that causes one or more of them to decide to buy some second-hand A380s directly and add them to their fleet in a more carefully integrated and managed manner.

Wouldn’t it be an amazing combination – a low-priced airline offering deluxe travel on the world’s most impressive airplane.

Will the New Supersonic Airplane be Obsolete Before it Flies?

Talking about wonderful airplanes, here’s another “puff piece” article about the development of new supersonic airplanes, and in particular, talking about the strangely named Boom plane that is showing more credibility than most other contenders in terms of actually progressing to a real working plane.

That is a fairly low bar to pass, however, as we very much doubt many of the others will ever make it into the air.  But we’re starting to see the rise of a surprising challenge to the Boom as well – as is mentioned in passing towards the end of the article, Boeing is now starting to join the ‘other’ chorus of announcements of exciting new airplane technology, but this time not just for old-fashioned supersonic speed, something that has been around for decades, but for the very much faster hypersonic speed which is all the rage in futuristic circles these days.

Why fly at only Mach 2 – 2.5 when you could fly at Mach 5?  Without allowing for taxi time, take-off and landing, that would allow for just under an hour’s flying time between New York and London – or, in other words, you’d spend more time in the plane while on the ground at JFK and Heathrow than you would flying between the two airports.  The 15 hours between Los Angeles and Sydney would now take just under two hours.  Nowhere on the planet would be more than 3 1/2 hours from anywhere else.

On the other hand, maybe there’s still a chance for the Boom.  Boeing projects its hypersonic plane (illustrated above) might not reach the market for another 20 – 30 years, all going well, whereas the Boom is optimistically hoping to enter service a mere five years from now (but color us doubtful on the likelihood of both those dates).  This could give Boom an easy 25 years of life before being threatened by a future hypersonic plane, and we’ve not yet any idea on what the per passenger costs may be for hypersonic travel (Boom is claiming extraordinarily low prices for its SST, more or less comparable to current business class fares).

Some cynics suggest there’ll never be a hypersonic passenger plane, that all the research is destined purely for military use as a new global weapons delivery platform.

A Difficult Day Today for Ryanair

It looks like Ryanair will cancel about 400 flights today due to a 24 hour strike by members of pilot unions in Belgium, Sweden, Ireland and Germany.  The pilots want more money and not to have to accept being reassigned to different home airports from time to time.  Ryanair was given a mere 48 hours notice of the pending strike.

This industrial action is the result of two things – the first being the growing worldwide shortage of pilots, and the second being Ryanair’s concession last year to allow its pilots to unionize.  Its reward is coordinated chaos by its employees, such as will be suffered by up to 55,000 travelers today.

The growing militancy of Ryanair’s pilots is already harming the company’s profit and passenger numbers.  Are we to again see a group of self-centered pilots destroy their ‘golden goose’?  With the shortage of pilots at present, the shift in the supply/demand equation is not working to anyone’s benefit except the pilots; we as passengers need to be increasingly wary of such deliberate disruption as is being experienced by Ryanair this week.  And if the increasingly aggressive and assertive pilots get their way, the net result is obviously going to be higher fares.  There’s no upside to us at all.

Details here.

Taiwan Tries to Fight Back

Talking about becoming increasingly aggressive and assertive, the independent nation of Taiwan (oooops, sorry, readers in China, there’s a chance this may trigger the “Great Firewall of China” such that you don’t get to see this week’s newsletter) has a population of 23.6 million.  Its neighbor, the increasingly aggressive and assertive China has a population of 1380 million.

The enormous market size of China is such that whenever China says “jump”, most airlines respond compliantly by asking “How High”.  And when China says “You’ve got to pretend that Taiwan is not independent“, airlines scramble to obscure this truth in their itineraries/schedules and on their in-flight displays.

We don’t like this bullying by China, but we do understand the airlines’ responses.  Is there an airline on the planet that wouldn’t happily sacrifice access to a market of 23.6 million people if it protected their access to a market almost 60 times larger?  Taiwan apparently hopes there may be a ‘unicorn’ airline that is bold and brave enough to risk China’s ire by doing the right thing and continuing to acknowledge the independence of Taiwan, and is mulling over how to force airlines to do so.

A hint to Taiwan – this is not a battle you can win.  Don’t force airlines to choose between you and China, because you’ll surely lose if you do so.

Is Airbnb Being Naughty With its Reviews?

One of the key elements of Airbnb’s astonishing success is that it provides potential guests with the comfort and confidence they need to choose Airbnb instead of a regular ‘known quantity’ hotel/motel room.  A large part of this credibility are the reviews attached to each different listing, where previous guests review and rank the quality of stay they had.

But can you trust these reviews?  There are of course three potential ways the reviews could be skewed.

The first would be an Airbnb featured owner paying his friends (and his guests) to write over-the-top glowingly positive reviews.  This is actually a sensible business strategy – the small cost involved of having your friends come and officially stay at your Airbnb property and then writing great reviews would almost certainly be quickly recouped in new bookings.  Of course, the property would have to be reasonably good, or else the true strangers would soon contradict the glowing reviews, but for a good property eager to gain instant credibility, it is a viable strategy, much like what sellers do on Amazon all the time.

The second would be people writing unfairly negative reviews of a property to tilt the scales in the other direction (maybe the same person who is paying people to sing the praises of his property is also paying people to write bad reviews of other properties).

But it is the third strategy that is perhaps the most insidious – the one which only Airbnb itself can do.  That is censoring negative reviews, much like what has occasionally been uncovered on TripAdvisor in the past.

Airbnb of course insists it would never do any such thing, because its brand relies upon credible reviews.  But then there are reports such as this one which leave one uncertain and wondering.

Our take is that most reviews on Airbnb are fair and reliable, because if the company is indeed ‘gilding the lily’ and eliding negative reviews, it is harming the credibility of a key part of its brand promise.

Is the TSA Really This Stupid?

The good news is the TSA is looking at adding dogs as another of its much vaunted multiple layers of airport security.  The way it seems this will work is that dogs will walk along the line of people waiting to go through TSA screening, and if neither the passengers nor their bags cause the dogs to alert, then the passengers will be whisked out of line and sent to a special super-fast lane with cursory or no screening at all.

In theory, this makes sense, but I’ve two comments about the concept of dogs as being the answer to all our screening needs, and I offer them as a dog lover and owner of many German Shepherds and Labradors over time.

The first is to note that dogs tire quickly, and can only work very short shifts before needing to be given a break.  They need to be constantly stimulated, and to regularly find what they’re looking for.  To have what appears to be a single dog on patrol during a single eight-hour shift probably requires a team of four or more dogs, each working a shorter shift.  The training and maintenance costs are enormous.

The second is to observe the far from infallible behavior of such dogs.  I vividly remember chatting with a K-9 handler from a Sheriff’s department at the local Fair one year.  He was showing off his lovely German Shepherd and boasting of the dog’s magical ability to sniff out explosives from a distance.  I said, standing next to the dog and, after letting it sniff me, and while petting it “Golly, so you mean, if I had a gun or something on me now, he would alert?”.  The handler assured me proudly that would be the case and I evinced the appropriate amount of being amazed and impressed.

We chatted for a while longer then I left, anxiously patting my left and right sides, wondering if I’d forgotten the pistol and spare magazines that I usually carry with me.  But, no, they were all where they belonged, but for whatever reason, the dog had decided not to alert, even after sniffing me and being right next to me for a couple of minutes.

But that’s not really the stupidity that I’m bemoaning, here.  You see, the TSA plans to deploy the dogs on people in the regular inspection lanes, such that those who pass the dog inspection are now likely to make it through security faster than people in the PRE-check lane.

Yes, that means you might pay $85 for the promise of fastest screening but now have to wait longer than the ordinary folks who paid nothing.

Astonishingly, while the TSA acknowledges that this may penalize people who went through the rigmarole, screening, and cost of joining their PRE program, it says it still wishes to encourage people to join PRE.  Details here.

Is the TSA really this stupid?

Is Elon Musk Pumping and Dumping?

A few fortunes were made, and a few more were lost earlier this week when, apropos of nothing, Elon Musk stunned the world at lunchtime (Eastern time) on Tuesday by announcing that he was considering taking Tesla private.  Not only was he considering doing so, but he had already secured the necessary financing to do so, as he explained in his preferred method of communication with the world, Twitter.  He said he’d buy up the outstanding shares of Tesla for $420 a piece.

This caused the share price to soar.

In many people’s opinion, the share price was already acting irrationally.  Last week saw another huge quarterly loss announced, and his claim to now be producing over 5,000 Model 3 cars a week and on track to move to the ultimate target of 10,000 a week is laughingly out of touch with observed reality.  For example, in July, a month with 4 1/3 weeks in it, you’d expect production to be something like 22,000 or more Model 3 cars, but it seems in total that maybe slightly more than 14,000 were produced – a contradiction politely ignored by Tesla fans the world over.  Bloomberg have been running a Tesla Model 3 production tracker for some time, and Musk’s claim to have exceeded a weekly rate of 5,000 in late June and multiple times since then is contradicted by Bloomberg’s analysis, which suggested a peak of 3868 cars in the best week in June, and July weekly rates ranging between 2500 and 4300.

There’s another puzzling thing that no-one is talking about, too.  What happened to the almost half a million pre-orders for the Model 3?  Last month Tesla announced that people could order a new Model 3 with no waiting delay at all, just a normal factory order manufacturing lead time of about a month (that has now lengthened to 2 – 3 months).  Scarcely more than 50,000 Model 3s had been delivered at the time Tesla said it would accept open orders from everyone.  Has everyone else on the waiting list cancelled?

Or are there still people, hoping against hope for a $35,000 Model 3 as was originally promised (good luck with that – the current lowest priced Model 3 is $50,000, and a fully loaded one goes for $79,500)?  In late May, Musk was promising the $35,000 version could appear as soon as September.  That time has been, uh, ‘revised’ and now the website is talking about sometime in the Feb – May 2019 time frame.  Why has no-one held Musk to account for this broken promise?  This broken promise is all the more regrettable, because the $7500 federal tax credit is due to start expiring, reducing first to $3750 in perhaps December before then disappearing entirely.  So the ultimate promise – a $35,000 car and $7,500 tax rebate to make the net price $27,500 – looks like it will never be offered.

One more point.  While, yes, Model 3 deliveries are climbing rapidly, deliveries for their Models S and X continue to flatline.  US deliveries in July for both models (2525 cars total) were appreciably lower than in July last year (3075 cars total).

Nonetheless, the share price had risen to about $345 earlier in the week from its previous $300 territory; and after Musk’s tweet about buying up Tesla stock for $420 it shot up over 10% to pennies less than $380, before rapidly falling back to about $350.

About 20 million shares changed hands on Tuesday after his tweet, compared to about 9 million on a normal day, and Wednesday saw another 20 million or so, still at prices over $370, before reality set in and the price started dropping back down to where they’d been before.  We expect some short sellers in particular may have been harmed by sudden urgent margin calls, while the 40 million shares sold at higher than expected values represented a transfer of wealth in the order of $125 million or more to some lucky people.

All because of a tweet from Elon Musk, and a fanciful claim that started imploding almost as soon as it saw the light of day, as reported, for example, in this article.   Although Musk was careful to say he was ‘considering’ taking the company private, rather than making an outright statement that he would do so, the other part of his claim – that financing had been secured – has been met by a lot of surprised faces all wondering how you can do a cash-flow buy-out of a company with such strongly negative fundamentals and no spare cash to cover the cost of the billions in debt that would be required, and no-one willing to admit they were part of such a brave financing team.

It has also become yet another of the growing list of matters of interest to the SEC.

And Lastly This Week….

Uber, even under its new leadership, continues to experience controversy and challenges to its business model, most recently in New York where the city in its wisdom has decided to freeze the number of Uber and Lyft licenses issued.  Internationally it often finds it hard to compete against local competitors.

But there’s a new competitor just appearing in the US which, while clearly being well positioned for a certain niche market, probably doesn’t have Uber entirely concerned.

There’s no shortage of lists of “the top nn places to visit”, most of which are fairly strange in their methodology and selection.  But here’s a slightly more novel list, a list of 50 places you’d likely want to visit, but can’t.  Chances are you’ve been to one or two of the places on the list, and if you wished to, could probably visit a few more, too.

On that note of frustration and potential fulfillment, can I close with a reminder of all the places you can visit on this year’s Christmas Markets Land Cruise.

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels

 

David.

 

 

Aug 092018
 

The Cori travel pillow has two adjustable pillow pieces (blue in this picture).

The endless quest for a magic way to transform a coach class seat into a comfortable travel experience continues unabated.  The obvious difficulty in achieving such an objective, and the continued hurdles being placed in our path by evil airlines and their ever-more-inadequate seating is being matched by ever-more-creative devices and ways of possibly improving our travel comfort and maybe even helping us snatch some sleep on a long flight.

One of the most interesting new ideas we’ve come across is that offered by the Cori travel pillow.  Its unique feature is the ability to adjust its separate pieces to exactly suit your wishes and sitting/sleeping posture.

The device comes standard with two pillows – one shorter (about 6″ long), the other longer (about 9″ long), and a strap to mount them on.  Each of the two pillows is about 3″ wide, and about 2″ thick before being squished.

The strap is about 32″ long, but you’d use at least four inches for overlapping the two ends so they can join and be held together by Velcro.  The strap is 2½” wide and about 1/3″ thick.  There is a wider part that is 4¼” wide and 9½” long in the middle – this appears to be intended as going on the back for rear neck support but of course you can position it any way you wish.  A set comprising one strap and two pillows weighs just under 9 ounces, and it can be rolled up into a fairly compact form when not in use.

The idea is you place the two pillows on the strap as you wish, and then wrap the strap and pillows around your neck.  The pillows have velcro patches on them that adhere to a velcro liner in the strap, allowing for easy placement and adjustment as you may wish.  The strap also uses velcro to adhere to itself.

The pillow pieces are filled with memory foam.  They come in a range of cheerful but not too over-the-top colors.   The velcro has a much finer/softer hook side that isn’t nearly as stiff or scratchy as regular velcro, but still provides a great adhesion capability.

A video complete with an annoying inane soundtrack (calling it music would be an undeserved compliment) that plays too fast for our liking on their website demonstrates some aspects of the concept.

The idea seems great, giving us the freedom we wish to come up with the ideal placement of pillows and a securing strap to match exactly what we want, and the rapturous expressions on the attractive models in the video seem to support the idea that this is the best idea since floating soap.  The company claims they have developed “The World’s Happiest Travel Pillow” – we’d never really considered evaluating pillows as innately happy or unhappy, but we’ll go with their flow if indeed the pillow is as good as it might potentially be.

For sure, the pillow doesn’t have any immediately obvious unhappy type drawbacks – it is neither heavy nor bulky, and both the ’embarrassment’ factor and the ‘obtrusive/impactful on fellow passengers’ factor when using one on a flight is much less than some of the other devices out there.  It seems to have everything going for it.

So how did it work for us?

This picture illustrates a different layout for the two pillows.

Using the Cori Travel Pillow

Alas, my immediate reaction upon opening up the package was one of puzzlement.  Being a bit deterministic, I felt there was probably a better and best (and therefore also a worse and worst) way of setting out the pillows for optimum support and comfort, and I was not used to the concept of deciding for myself how to use the three part device.  Other travel pillows have occasionally offered a very minor amount of customization such as how tight one secures them or how much you inflate them, but this was an entirely different degree of freedom.

I stared at the three pieces, I dutifully watched the video several times (with the volume muted), and I read the various instruction manuals and promotional fliers.  I paged through their website.  But nowhere did I see a clearly recommended layout.  Instead, I saw five different layouts on the tag attached to the unit – plus a sixth showing a question mark and inviting me to customize the layout as I wish.  But are five choices better than one?  Is the freedom to customize better than having something pre-designed and good to go?

So I started to try different combinations myself, and each time felt disappointed because I did not end up looking as glamorously fulfilled as the girls on the video.

Freeing myself of a desire to emulate the video girls, I focused more directly on simply coming up with a layout that worked well for me.  I got close on a couple of occasions – tantalizingly close where I was able to tell myself “If I place my head in this position, the pillows really do work” but then I would go and spoil it all by moving and discovering that if I then moved my head in a different direction, there was no support at all.

I even tried adding optional extra pillow pieces to the strap so as to have more support in more places, until I caught myself and realized that what I was attempting to do was to build a modular copy of the lovely Releaf pillow that remains my favorite of all travel pillows.  It gives immediate and easy support, all around my neck, without any fiddly pieces or adjustments, just a single strap.

The wider portion of the strap was also pretty much useless.  It had no built-in firmness or body to it, and so provided no support, just more soft floppy bulk.

Did I enjoy the freedom to in effect design my own perfect travel pillow?  I expected I would, but no, I didn’t.  I hasten to concede this may reflect poorly on me, rather than on the product, but in my case I found it frustrating rather than flexible, and no combination of pillow placements and strap ended up feeling comfortable.

The product is currently going through a successful Kickstarter campaign, with $34,428 raised compared to an initial goal of $7,340, so clearly my views aren’t shared by everyone else (although the funders haven’t got to actually try one, and I too was initially captivated by the promise of the concept).  The product seems likely to retail for $49.95 or thereabouts (SGD70), and if you invest in the Kickstarter campaign you stand to get one for as little as $36 (SGD49), with shipping in November and delivery probably in time for Christmas.  But a Releaf pillow, my current ranking favorite of all travel pillow products, is a mere $19.99 on Amazon and available now.

Aug 032018
 

Bedbugs – not just on hotel beds, but sometimes on airplane seats, too.

Good morning

We were silent last week; not because there was nothing to write about, but instead due to the matter I’d foreshadowed over several recent newsletters coming to the fore – it turned out that what I’d thought to be ‘only’ computer viruses was actually a determined attack on our computer servers, not by programs but by people.

I guess that means we’ve graduated to the ‘big time’ – becoming sufficiently important and influential as to infuriate people of opposite views who seek to silence us rather than engage in reasoned discussion.  That is sadly the way things are becoming these days – if it isn’t a computer attack, instead it is a public campaign, heavy on the vilification but light on the facts, petitions, Twitter hashtags, calls for boycotts, and so on.  Being fairly impervious to all these other types of opposition, it seems that computer crashing was the preferred response.

We seem to now be back up and close to completely recovered, and with slightly more hardened systems than before, and new hosting based in Bulgaria of all places.  But if the Department of Defense, the Democratic Party, and assorted mega-corporate and credit card type servers can be hacked, clearly nothing and no-one is 100% safe, and it is entirely possible we might go down again.

It is close to a perfect crime, unfortunately, and unless one has state-level resources, there is no easy way to determine where the attacks are coming from.  Sure, there was an up-surge in malicious visits from IP addresses that resolved to China, but any decent hacker these days spoofs or masks their IP address so as to obscure where they are really coming from.

It was interesting though, because part of the recovery process caused me to stumble across articles I’d forgotten I’d ever written, and – if I may say so – I was surprised at how much content there is on the blog and regular websites, and while some of it is ordinary, there are other articles that have withstood the test of time and that I remain very proud of.

One piece of data I did lose, however, were the excellent comments on my Airbnb article.  The site crashed on Saturday before its backup cycle could grab a copy of the excellent comments that had been provided on the Thursday and Friday.  That’s a shame.

I have one more Airbnb experience to share.  I was due to stay at another Airbnb property earlier this week.  I ended up cancelling, because the owner called to tell me not to worry, but there had been a fire at the neighbor’s house the previous day, and parts of his property had been damaged by the fire, too.  The owner was kindly offering to move out of his own house for the two nights I had planned to stay in his second spare house, so there wasn’t a huge inconvenience being threatened to me at all, but I felt awkward at the owner’s very kind offer of self-sacrifice and just cancelled the entire booking (much to the owner’s relief).

That’s not likely to be a common Airbnb occurrence, but I thought you’d like to hear of it.

For comic relief, in the middle of everything, I received an email from a domain name trader/broker.  He had a Chinese buyer wanting to purchase one of my domain names for a very generous sum.  I hadn’t used the name for years, and to suddenly be offered I think something like $50,000 for a no longer needed domain name was a lovely bonus to come my way.  I’ve always nurtured the hope that, a bit like winning the lottery, one of these days, someone might suddenly appear to buy one of my spare domain names for a vast sum, and here, at last, it was quickly becoming a reality.

Apparently Chinese regulations require official validation of domain name ownership, a translation of everything into Chinese, and a fair value certification so as to protect Chinese buyers and also prevent such transactions being a way to evade their government restrictions on transferring money out of the country.  That sounded like a complicated process, but the broker said he was used to that, and it would be very easy.  He put me in touch with an officially accredited service that would do all the paperwork to guarantee the transaction being accepted.  Their fee was very reasonable, and there was the promise of getting the $50,000 in just a few days, after almost no work or hassle on my part.

But – do you already see the trap?  It was the requirement to pay a fee, up front, to this officially accredited service to validate the transaction.  The whole thing was a scam, designed simply to get me sending money to a third party who would then take the money and artfully disappear.  I wasn’t tricked, being a long-time believer in the adage “If something seems too good to be true, it probably indeed is not true” but it was nice to dream and pretend to believe for even a very few minutes.

Remember – no matter how credible, any time you stand to get a lot of money for anything, but have to make a small payment in advance, you’re being confronted with merely a slightly reworded version of the classic Nigerian prince seeking your help to move his millions of dollars out of the country scheme.

I’m still putting the finishing touches on the restored websites and services, but wanted to reappear in your inbox this morning.  So here’s a longer than normal 4700 word newsletter for your Friday morning pleasure – please keep reading for :

  • The Airline that Isn’t Allowed to Die
  • The International Airport with No Passengers
  • Trying to Make the Airlines Accountable for Cabin Temperatures
  • At Last – A Used A380 Returns to Service
  • Bedbugs – On Planes as Well as in Hotels
  •  More Proof the Government Can’t or Won’t Count to Four
  • More TSA Mission Creep
  • Canada Perceives Germany as a High Risk Country
  • Another Example of Why You Read The Travel Insider
  • And Lastly This Week….

The Airline that Isn’t Allowed to Die

Sometimes the best thing to happen to an airline is to allow it to quietly fade away and disappear.  Badly run airlines that exist only as a result of government support mess things up for the good airlines.

The badly run airline’s inevitably ridiculously inefficient labor practices are held up as a model by trade unions with demands that other airlines match the same pay rates and working conditions.  The poor service standards and travel experience gives other airlines no incentive to lift their own game.  And the government subsidies allow the airline to charge too little, or to overschedule, or in other ways make it difficult for airlines that need to make a profit to provide similar competing flights.

We, the public, absolutely do not benefit from sub-par airlines being subsidized and allowed to remain operational.  They should be left to die, and the governments that were funding their life-support should instead focus on helping new better carriers to replace the failed airlines with better business models and better passenger experiences.

In this particular case, the airline that has been staggering from one financial crisis to another, from one bail-out to the next, from reorganization to further reorganization (while leaving the fundamental core problems unchanged!) is Alitalia.  As this article explains, the airline has soaked up over €9.5 billion in bailouts in less than ten years, and currently is losing money at a rate of over €400 million a year and with no clear indication this will ever change.

A key to the airline’s problems, and why the latest government assistance will do nothing other than give it more cash to lose, is in the government’s statement that it wishes to “protect the needs of its workers”.  If Alitalia was free to renegotiate two things, it could become as profitable as any other airline in Europe – if it could renegotiate its labor contracts, and win the freedom to decide which city pairs it serves and which it abandons, it might become a great success.  But with both its “hands” tied behind its back – its operations and its costs – it is doomed merely to continued failures.

An additional negative point is that Alitalia’s Skyteam partners Delta, Air France/KLM and Virgin Atlantic have dropped it from their trans-Atlantic joint venture.  Even other legacy/dinosaur airlines no longer wish to associate with Alitalia.

It is also likely that some/most of the government support the airline has been getting is illegal under EU (and possibly also WTO) regulations.  But even the regulatory bodies seem to have given up.

The International Airport with No Passengers

Governments are great at interfering with normal and natural economic forces.  If they aren’t perpetuating the existence of airlines that deserve to die, maybe they are squandering enormous sums building things that no-one wants (except the construction companies).

Like, for example, a major new international airport in Sri Lanka that cost $307 million, built in the middle of nowhere as part of a planned new commercial and transportation hub (only a government would think that transportation hubs work well when they’re not anchored by major cities immediately adjacent).  It opened in 2013, and last year was averaging 7 passengers a day, a number which has now dropped down to zero.

Details here.

Trying to Make the Airlines Accountable for Cabin Temperatures

Now that we’re in the hottest part of summer, it is almost time for the annual articles about the appalling heat on London’s Underground lines.  The overcrowding – too many people, and too many trains – and the tunnels which trap the heat and soak it up mean that the tunnel wall temperatures are rising inexorably, year after year, and so too therefore are the temperatures on the trains, now often breaking through and above 100°.

Most of us seldom have to suffer London’s Underground, but the chances are, you do travel by plane semi-regularly, and as you’ll know, sometimes the temperatures at the gate on planes can be terribly bad.  Even when at cruising levels and in the middle of a flight, the temperatures on some planes seem to always be bitterly cold, while on other planes, while the air temperature outside might be -60°,  inside the passenger cabin it is somewhere above +80°.

I’ve always marveled how a $100 million plane seems unable to have a reliable $10 thermostat and $10,000 a/c unit to provide some semblance of comfort to the passengers and flight crew.  But that is overlooking the reality of the problem – of course the planes have both thermostats and heating/cooling systems, and usually very sophisticated ones.  But they’re only as good as the people who get to dial in the settings, and perhaps the flipside of the sophistication of some of these systems is that the flight attendants (or pilots) don’t know how to control them.

Then there are the people who, when being told that the temperature is too hot or too cold, don’t just change the temperature by a degree or two, but by ten or twenty degrees.

Nonetheless, the reality is that poor temperature management impacts just as much on the flight attendants as it does on us (with the difference being they’re more readily able to change the temperature than we are).  One of the flight attendant unions has now come out with a smartphone app – 2Hot2Cold – which allows passengers to report uncomfortable temperatures on flights.

They have also petitioned the DoT, asking them to create a new rule setting temperature limits on flights.  That sounds like a good idea in practice, but as one who always prefers being too cold to being too hot (it being easier to add clothing than to take it off, particularly on a public flight!) the proposed temperature limits fill me with horror.  A “target” range of between 65 – 75 sounds almost acceptable, although even 75 is pushing the high end of my comfort zone (the accepted ideal temperature is 68-70 by various organizations that ‘know about such things’), but a “target” range is far from a hard limit, isn’t it.

So they also specify a maximum temperature of 80°, or 85° if all the in-flight entertainment is operating.  And, of course, the IFE equipment generally is all switched on, isn’t it.

Strangely, while they will allow maximum temperatures 15° above the optimum range, the minimum temperature stays at 65°, a mere 3° below the optimum range.  Why so unbalanced?

Which means, should this rule be passed, by law it will be okay to be on flights where the temperature is 85°, and with thermometers never being exact, who is to say if the 85° reading is actually 90° or not.

In what way would this new rule actually improve things, for most of us, most of the time?  I come back to my earlier statement – is the best we can hope for in a $100 million plane an a/c system that can’t keep the temperature below 85°?

And, talking about thermometers, if you want to participate more authoritatively in discussions (arguments) about temperatures – both in airplanes and also in hotels – why not get a small lightweight travel thermometer, costing something under $10.  Here’s a selection from Amazon.

Don’t get a travel thermometer with a long thin ‘probe’ or sensor.  That looks too much like a stiletto knife.  But get one with a digital display – it isn’t any more accurate, but it is more impressive and persuasive.  Many times I’ve had engineers in hotels try to tell me the a/c is working perfectly, only to change their tune when I’ve held my thermometer up to the air register in the hotel room and shown them the air coming out is at ambient room temperature.

At Last – A Used A380 Returns to Service

It is amazing to think that the A380 has now been in service for so long that some airlines are starting to retire the early A380s they first purchased, particularly Singapore Airlines, which was the first airline to start flying them in October 2007.

The subject of what would happen to used A380s has been one of intense speculation.  Would they be quickly bought up on the cheap by bargain hunting airlines that couldn’t justify full price, but would rush to buy the planes at less than half new price?  A new A380 lists for about $450 million and probably sells for about $300 million.  We estimate the used A380s would be offered for sale around the $75 – 100 million price point, depending on how long since/how soon before the next major maintenance cycle, and the type/state of the engines.

The first two retired SQ planes apparently have been broken down for spare parts, realizing more money being parted off than they seemed likely to get by being sold as going planes (about $80 million per plane according to industry gossip).  That was not a good thing for Airbus and A380 owners – everyone prefers a plane that has a ready and high resale value over a plane that can’t be sold on at the end of its economic life with its present owner.

But the third A380 was taken by a Portuguese charter/lease operator in April, Hi Fly, and just this week entered service, operating on behalf of Thomas Cook.  Rather amusingly, the plane still has its SQ type cabin configuration, with ultra-deluxe first class, lovely business class, great premium economy and regular economy seating, offering passengers a level of comfort that is quite unlike that on other Thomas Cook planes (mainly A321s).

It is unclear, but it is possible Hi Fly is going to be adding a second A380 to their fleet as well.  We hope they do, and wish them and their A380s the best of good fortune and great flying.  Anything that keeps the A380 program alive and well has to be a good thing for us all.

Bedbugs – On Planes as Well as in Hotels

If you’re like me, you probably know a little about bedbugs, but view them as a very remote problem that you’re blessedly unlikely to ever encounter yourself.

Maybe.  But also, maybe not.  Think of them like you would unprotected sex with a new partner – in essence, you’re not only becoming intimate with your new partner, but with all his/her recent other partners, too, and their recent partners, also.  Just because he/she seems like a ‘good’ person, who is to know about the friends of friends?

The same with bedbugs.  Just because you stay at “good hotels”, and just because most of the other guests also look like “good people”, who knows what other hotels and places the people have been that were sleeping in the bed last night that you’ll be sleeping in tonight.  One of the ladies on the Great Britain tour in June told me the nightmare story of how she and her husband picked up a bedbug infestation in a hotel while traveling, and how it cost over $20,000 (I think that was the sum) to get rid of them.  After trying various failed strategies, eventually they had to basically turn their entire house into a furnace/oven, heat it up to some temperature over 120°F for some hours, and hope the heat killed all the bedbugs and all their larvae waiting to hatch, etc.

She now refuses to even bring her suitcases into the room when checking into a hotel (she’ll leave them on the hard floor in the bathroom) until after she has stripped and searched the bed for signs of any bedbugs.  After hearing her story of the terrible nightmare they brought into her life, I’m almost motivated to do the same.

Which brings us to the matter hinted at in the headline.  As this story reveals, passengers on Air India flights, even in business class, and on their flights out of Newark, have been having bedbug problems with the bugs being in the airplane seats.  We’ve occasionally seen other stories of bedbugs on flights (for example a BA flight from Vancouver to London not quite a year ago – BA’s response was to say that reports of bedbugs on their flights are extremely rare), and there’s of course no reason why bedbugs shouldn’t be as happy on planes as they are in hotel rooms (and your home).

Of course, the really big question is what would you do if you discovered what you thought to be bedbugs on your airline seat on a full flight?  With other people being forced to sit in urine soaked seats, and with accepting broken seats being a normally expected thing, one wonders just how sympathetic the flight attendants and airline might be.

Needless to say, the first thing to do is to photograph them.  And keep your distance.  They don’t fly, nor do they jump, but they do crawl quite quickly.  Don’t give them a chance to transfer to you or any of your belongings.  And, keeping in mind the cost and inconvenience of getting rid of them, if you did automatically place any clothing or soft sided bags on an infected seat, we’d be tempted to recommend you just leave the items there rather than take them with you and risk a broader infection.

More Proof the Government Can’t or Won’t Count to Four

I wrote recently about Customs and Border Patrol officers seizing cash from a couple on a domestic flight in the US after being tipped off by the TSA who noted the cash in their carry-on.  There is nothing illegal about carrying cash, in any amount, in the US, and eventually, after incurring who knows how much expense in legal fees, the couple had most but not all the money returned (the CBP refused to show, on the ‘receipt’ they gave for the seized money, exactly how much money they seized).

This is of course a direct and flagrant breach of the Fourth Amendment that supposedly guarantees us freedom from unreasonable searches and seizures.

But it is far from the only such breach.  Motivated by giving themselves the ability to keep the money they seize, some law enforcement agencies are way too eager to seize money and valuables and then require us to be able to prove that the items are lawfully ours – you know, the whole concept now being that we’re guilty until we can prove our innocence.

Another example came to light last week, with another flier having $29,000 seized from him at O’Hare, also on a domestic flight.  The money was taken in February; six months later and he is still waiting for its return.

The article also observes that in the ten years 2007-2016 the DEA has seized $3.2 billion in cash from people, with not a single conviction associated with their cash seizures.

There was a time when our society was built on the premise, stated by English jurist William Blackstone, and in place long before his 1765 statement, that it is better for ten guilty people to go free than one innocent person be wrongly convicted.  That 10:1 ratio has slowly but inexorably weakened, while the need for unanimous juries is moving to a majority vote, and a standard of proof ‘beyond a reasonable doubt’ now being increasingly watered down to ‘based on a preponderance of the evidence’.

Now it seems the 10:1 ratio is flipping, and it is better that 10 innocent people should be inconvenienced, arrested, tried, and convicted, rather than risk one guilty person going free.

You can decide yourself what the ratio should be, but while doing so, keep one thought in mind – has the increasing eagerness of our law enforcement agencies to attack the innocent and require us to prove our innocence actually made us any safer?

More TSA Mission Creep

It is easy to forget that the hurried creation of the TSA in the panicked days after 9/11/2001 was never a needed response to the four plane hijackings.  The problem wasn’t with security screening.  The problem wasn’t even so much with allowing box cutters onto airplanes; the real problem was the official doctrine that airplane passengers and crews should cooperate with hijackers rather than oppose/resist them.  That is how four or five guys with nothing more than some box cutters managed to “overpower” the (non-resisting) flight attendants and pilots, and fly their planes into buildings.

But the people who respond to such things were also the people who had created the policy that created the problem in the first place.  Rather than accept blame, they found it easier to blame the contract security screening companies, and to respond by increasing their empire by substituting private contractor security companies with an entire new government department, the TSA, and then the Homeland Security Department which the TSA became part of.

We were assured the TSA would simply provide ‘more effective’ airport screening, with ‘better trained’ and more highly skilled personnel.  In the 17 years since then, there has been precious little evidence of any improvements in the actual screening routines, and whenever results of tests are made public, it remains plain that well over half of all firearms go through TSA screening without being discovered.

But the only response to such embarrassments is for the TSA to call for more people, more resources, more money, and to expand their actions further.  If their airport screening is unreliable, their response is not to fix it, but rather to start boasting about 20+ different ‘layers’ of security, and to say it really doesn’t matter if the screening fails, because of all the other layers of security they also have in place.

These ‘layers’ now see them at bus terminals, subways, and even sports stadiums, doing their best to interfere with our ordinary activities and freedom of assembly and movement (part of the First Amendment).

We were also told that of course they wouldn’t be tipping off other law enforcement groups when as part of their screening they uncovered evidence of other non-terrorist law breaking.  Well, that was a promise that was very quickly broken – as is obvious in the preceding article, for example, and the passengers who now get pulled to one side for offenses ranging from unpaid parking tickets to outstanding child support.

The latest element of mission creep is quite a large step forward, even by their standards.  As a result of complaints and whistle-blowing by their own people, we now learn of their new “Quiet Skies” program where they’ll surveil people, looking to find examples of suspicious behavior.  This surveillance isn’t just within airports, but could be elsewhere too.

So what does it now take for innocent people to attract TSA surveillance?  Not much, it seems.  As well as the usual things, like daring to complain if mistreated/abused by the TSA, if you happen to fly to some unusual countries, or are ‘possibly affiliated’ with someone else who might possibly be of interest, or if you do one of various other fairly ordinary activities, you may be added to this new surveillance list.  There are apparently 15 different “rules” for determining if you are a person of interest or not, but the rules are of course not public.

Apparently an average of about 35 people are being surveilled every day under this program.  More details here.

Canada Perceives Germany as a High Risk Country

We don’t know what the TSA with their Quiet Skies program thinks if you’ve recently visited Germany, but if you’re going to Canada, arriving from Germany apparently raises a red flag.

This article, mainly about the risks people run when entering Canada and possibly having their electronics searched, mentions that coming from high risk areas increases your chance of having your electronics searched.  It lists Southeast Asia, Cuba, and Germany as examples of high risk areas.

Actually, most of all three countries/regions sound fairly safe to me.  Why not mention Islamic nations in Africa/Middle East?  Are they not as high a risk as Singapore or Germany?  And to suggest that Cuba is a threat at all to Canada is laughable.

Another Example of Why You Read The Travel Insider

I’ve done many things in my life, and I’ve written many things during the course of 17 years and many millions of words as The Travel Insider.  But one thing I’ve never done is gushingly recycle supplier press releases and try to pretend they are news or my opinions.

Unlike, it seems, Travel + Leisure magazine.  It is hard to think how Disney themselves could have written a more glowing article than this one about how wonderful it now is to stand in interminable lines waiting for rides at Disneyland.  Right from the heading – “Disney’s New App Will Make You Look Forward to Waiting in Line” it is clear that this is going to be a rather one-sided piece that ordinary people may struggle to relate to.

Talking about the app, the article claims

Inside the parks — and on four specific attractions — it shines, leveraging that oft-dreaded wait time into an experience that’ll make those breezing past near-envious.

Because, after all, the reason we go to Disneyland is apparently not to go on rides and enjoy the atmosphere directly in person, but instead to wait in line as long as we can while burying ourselves into a Disney game on our phones – a game that, as the article also points out without realizing the irony in it, can also be played at home or anywhere else in the world.

Definitely not the sort of article you’d ever see on The Travel Insider.

And Lastly This Week….

18 things tour guides are too polite to tell you?  That’s the promise of this article, and as a sometime/sort of tour guide myself, I found myself nodding in agreement with many of them.

In the last newsletter, I linked to a YouTube video of a guy testing just exactly how strong a 737 cockpit door was (surprisingly strong, as it turned out).  Here he is now testing a cockpit window.

Truly lastly this week, I read an interesting tip somewhere recently.  If you want to make zoo animals come up to see you when you’re going through a zoo, wear clothing as similar in color and style as possible to that worn by the zoo staff.  The animals associate people in that clothing with receiving their food and other generally positive experiences, and so are more likely to come and check you out if you’re similarly attired.

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels

 

David.

 

 

Jul 202018
 

Roomy seats, plenty of overhead space, and even decent sized toilets too. The A220 promises to be a delightful plane.

Good morning

I hope your summer is progressing positively.  I’m spending much of mine inside, wrestling with computer problems.

A hardware failure was bad enough, but during the recovery process there was a brief period of unavoidable vulnerability while opening the server to the internet to download OS patches, and the server almost instantly became infected with viruses.  Several weeks later, I’m still struggling to rid the server of the viruses, most of which are designed to use my computer’s processing power to mine bitcoins for unknown people somewhere in the world.  I have four different anti-virus programs (Windows Defender, ClamWin, IObit Malware Fighter and Malwarebytes) and while one, two or three of the programs will give the computer a clean bill of health, the remaining one or two obstinately keep finding viruses.

What a strange problem – rogue bitcoin miners taking over computers to mine their bitcoins for them.  Definitely not the sort of problem we’d have ever expected, even only five years ago.  The sooner the entire cryptocurrency craze and associated blockchain processes dies its overdue death and disappears into the annals of history as another utterly senseless fad, the better it will be for us all.

It is also an interesting lesson that one should not rely on a single anti-virus program.

Well, Messrs Putin and Trump have held their summit, and while opinions differ as to how well our side was represented, at least WW3 didn’t break out and perhaps we’re even lurching slightly towards a rapprochement of sorts, something that is long overdue.  We shouldn’t let 70 years of communist rule blind us to the fact that we have more in common and more to benefit by allying with Russia against shared enemies ranged against us both than we would benefit by alienating Russia and adding them to our list of overt and covert enemies.

The main benefit to us Travel Insiders though is that with apparently stable relations, there is no reason to be concerned about US-Russia induced unrest in the countries we’ll be visiting on our Quad K tour this October.  I know some people were concerned about this, and now that the summit has been concluded with no escalations, I’ll hold the tour open for another week or so to allow another couple or two to join us.  Details here.

Now that the main Travel Insider website is up again, I can also mention again our lovely Christmas “Landcruise” through northern France and some of Belgium, and optionally Luxembourg, a bit of Germany, Switzerland and Lichtenstein too, this coming December.  Enjoy all the best elements of a river cruise, while suffering none of the attendant constraints, with a great value experience shared with a lovely group of fellow Travel Insiders.  Details here.

I stayed in an Airbnb apartment for a couple of nights last week.  I’ve used fore-runners to Airbnb like VRBO and similar sites to arrange longer stays at places, much preferring an apartment or entire house to a small hotel room for an extended stay, but this was the first time I’ve used the Airbnb service.

The experience was interesting, sufficiently so as to provide enough points to write about, and I’ll probably use Airbnb again in the future, but I’ve now come up with a list of ten things to check and understand before selecting an Airbnb property.  See the article at the end of the newsletter for more on this.

Actually, a better option might be to read it online, because there’s an excellent reader response already from John Stub, and links to a couple of other relevant good articles about staying at Airbnb properties.  The way the system here works is that those comments don’t get sent out with the original article.  Feel free to add your own thoughts too if you wish.

And what else?  Please keep reading for :

  • Boeing Dithers its Way through a Short-Term Opportunity
  • Airbus A220 Reverses Plane Shrinkage Trend
  • Another Thing to Blame President Trump For?
  • Sooner or Probably Later, Virgin’s Promise Will Finally Come True
  • Supersonic Plane Slow to Market
  • Planes Plunging
  • China Muscles in on Hyperloop Technology
  • And Lastly This Week….

Boeing Dithers its Way through a Short-Term Opportunity

In a way, the airlines these days are spoiled for choices.  It is only 50 years ago that airlines essentially had a choice of one only passenger jet – the 707, and primarily in only one version, initially the 707-120 and subsequently the 707-320.

But by the early 1980s, although the 707 and 720 planes were no longer in active production, they had been placed by the 727 and three different version of the 737, plus the 747 which was in its prime, and the 757 and 767 too.

The concept of having multiple versions of each model plane continued into the 777 and 787 series of planes, too.  Airlines became accustomed to being able to choose exactly the configuration of plane for whatever type of routes they wished to operate – long, medium or short range, large, medium or small passenger loads.

In time, Boeing retired the 727 and then the 757, 767 and most recently the 747, leaving ‘only’ various versions of the 737, 777 and 787.  More or less as the numbering coincidentally implies, this leaves a hole in their product range that was formerly filled by the 757 and in part by the 767 too, a hole that Airbus has been exploiting primarily with its A321 plane, and which Boeing has been struggling to fill with its largest size 737.

For many years now Boeing has been talking about creating a new plane which it currently refers to as the New Midmarket Aircraft, and which is widely expected to become the 797.  I’ve occasionally mentioned this in passing, and devoted entire articles to it twice in 2015 and more recently in March this year – “The Current Airbus vs Boeing Slow-Motion Battle“.

It had been generally expected that Boeing would start to talk more definitively about the new plane at the Farnborough Air Show which has been underway this week in England, but that was not to be.  If anything, rather than getting more clarity and certainly about its future planes, Boeing seems to have become more uncertain about what, if anything, it should be doing.

Meanwhile, the 757s and 767s which this new plane is ostensibly to replace are being slowly but surely taken out of service, as are old Airbus A300 and A310 planes.  As often as not, it is Airbus A321 planes that are being selected to replace them.  One of the effects of Boeing’s inability to decide what to do is that the total market size for this plane is shrinking, rather than growing.

Here’s a good article on the subject.

related interesting article notes that Boeing is walking back some of their earlier fanciful plans for an oval-shaped fuselage made out of composite materials.  The company now says it might make a regular circular fuselage and out of aluminium, because it is cheaper.  What’s the bet that it will end up the same diameter as the 737/757/727/720/707?  Surely nothing could be cheaper than to extend the life of what has become a sorely inadequate fuselage diameter for six abreast seating.

Airbus A220 Reverses Plane Shrinkage Trend

Talking about nasty narrow seating, the more modern Airbus planes, which were never cursed with on dimensions dating back to the 1950s, have always offered a little more seat width than the single aisle Boeing planes.

The new Airbus A220, notwithstanding its roots as the Canadian designed and developed Bombardier Cseries, takes the concept of wider seating and extends it delightfully further.  Some seats on other planes are now no more than 16″ wide (thank you, United) according to this article which has interesting tables showing the reduction in seat pitch and seat width over the years.

We all bemoan seat pitch – ie the legroom in front, but these days it is the seat width that is the more constraining factor for most of us, most of the time.  While seat pitch has also reduced, so too has seat thickness, making it harder to directly compare the experience of sitting in an old seat with say a 34″ pitch and in a new modern thin seat with say a 31″ pitch.  But there’s nothing that can be done to make a narrow seat seem any wider than it is, and we’re at a point now where seat width is narrower than the shoulder (or waist) width of many fliers.

Good news with the A220.  It offers a standard seat width of about 19″, and its middle seats can go as wide as 20″, making that wedged in feeling much less extreme.  Details here (and illustration above).

Both Delta and JetBlue have ordered A220s.  Definitely a plane to look out for in your flying future.

Another Thing to Blame President Trump For?

Some people have coined the term “Trump Derangement Syndrome” to describe the rush to blame anything and everything on President Trump, and to castigate everything he does.  Examples abound, should one care to observe them.  For example, it was amusing to note that first Trump was lambasted for agreeing to meet with Kim Jong-Un, then the same people lambasted him again when he briefly called the meeting off.

One of the more ridiculous accusations though came from ‘hired political gun’ Airbus.  Airbus recently distinguished itself by complaining to order in Britain, adding its voice to the long list of companies prophesying doom and gloom if/when Britain’s protracted and painful Brexit process is finally concluded.  Airbus’ claim that it would no longer be able to source airplane parts from Britain was never anything other than ridiculous because of course it already sources airplane parts from all around the world; but it served the needs of the ‘remainers’ in Britain who wish to derail Brexit and helped make the already hopeless seeming Brexit process all the more doomed.

But Airbus’ willingness to make these nonsense statements – which it subsequently admitted was made at the request of government officials trying to torpedo the Brexit process – did not earn Airbus the quid pro quo it so eagerly expected.  Instead, the government awarded a no-bid contract to Boeing, which outraged Airbus.  Some of us thought it nice to see Airbus get its come-uppance.

Airbus is at it again, however, and now is complaining that it is having to hide the identity of some of the new customer orders for airplanes it has been showily boasting about at the Farnborough Air Show this week.  It says the customers don’t want their identity disclosed for fear of President Trump finding out.  Not to be left out, Boeing quickly chimed in, saying that it had fearful customers, too, although that claim makes absolutely no sense whatsoever – why would President Trump object to any company, anywhere, buying American made planes from Boeing?

The reality is concealed within the linked article.  The ‘shy’ buyers are from China, and it is normal standard practice for Chinese buyers to hold off on revealing their identity until the Chinese government has approved the transaction.  Often, the government (and Airbus/Boeing too) like to defer such details until they can make a showy staged announcement at an opportune time, such as when there is a delegation of senior officials from one country visiting the other.

Sooner or Probably Later, Virgin’s Promise Will Finally Come True

I have a friend who, as long as I have known him, has been predicting a catastrophic stock market crash.  We first met in 1985, when the Dow Jones index was at about 1500.  Today it is at 25,000.  He continues to predict the coming crash, and is seemingly untroubled by the extraordinary appreciation in value that has happened over the last 30 years.

The thing is that sooner or later, there inevitably will be a crash, and indeed, every short-term blip to date has been greeted by his excited claims of “I told you so”, only to have him lapse into silence as the blip disappears and the upward march resumes.

My point is that sooner or later, he will be “proven right” and he’ll then expect his 30+ years of being utterly totally wrong will be forgiven.

It is a bit like that with Sir Richard Branson and his repeated predictions that “real soon now” his Virgin Galactic “space craft” will start flying paying passengers for brief tastes of space.  He is now saying flights will start by next May.  If that does indeed happen, it will be ‘only’ ten years behind schedule – when he first launched the company in 2004, he was predicting flights by 2009, and since about 2008, the time-frame for flights has pretty much always been some time in the next year or two, although in May 2013 he was confidently predicting them for Christmas that year, a mere seven months out.  That was over five years ago….

Here’s a piece on his latest promises and predictions.  You never know, this might be the time he finally gets it right.

Supersonic Plane Slow to Market

Another project that has Sir Richard Branson on its periphery (one of his companies is helping with manufacturing and testing, and Virgin Atlantic holds options for ten of the planes) is the Boom supersonic jet.  The jet, projected to fly slightly faster than Concorde, would carry just over half as many passengers (55), and it is claimed will be able to operate profitably while charging passengers fares probably comparable to today’s business class fares.

At the Farnborough Air Show, company executives advised that they are delaying the projected entry into service by two years, from 2023 to now 2025.  The reason for this?  They’ve found things to be harder than they expected.  While that surprises them, I’ve long expressed total disbelief as to the reality of a 2023 date, and am neutral about the achievability of a 2025 date.

One of the biggest issues has been the engines for the plane.  Designing an airframe is comparatively trivial compared to coming up with engines that will be fuel efficient at both sub-sonic and super-sonic speeds, and there’s been very little research done on that since way back when Concorde was being brought to life in the 1960s.

Boom now claims to have engines for their plane developed and actual engines on site and ready to be mounted on planes.  If that is indeed so, and also if they perform as hoped, then 2025 seems more achievable, even with Sir Richard’s “help”.

Details here.

Planes Plunging

A Ryanair flight from Dublin to Zadar (the oldest continuously inhabited city in Croatia, in case you too didn’t recognize the name) was diverted to Frankfurt after suffering a ‘decompression event’ in the cabin and being forced to do an emergency descent, dropping 30,000 ft in five minutes.

This article doesn’t say what the cause was for this.

Not quite so mysterious was another emergency descent, this time on an Air China flight.  It appears one of the pilots was “vaping” in the cockpit and turned off the wrong parts of the plane’s air conditioning and pressure systems, in the hopes of ensuring that no smells would be passed back into the passenger cabin.  But he turned the wrong things off, and the net result was a loss of pressurization causing the emergency descent, and it was only after the plane levelled off at a low altitude that the pilots realized what the problem was.

Air China forbids any type of smoking or vaping by its pilots.  Details here.

China Muscles in on Hyperloop Technology

Innovation isn’t yet dead in the US.  We still have great ideas, but somehow, we no longer seem to be able to move forward on the ideas and make them into realities.

One such example is hyperloop technology.  First given a high-profile public airing by the erratic Elon Musk back in 2012, it has seen several competing companies take the core concept and develop it in several different forms, but none have yet come up with a proven working commercial realization.

One of these companies has benefitted from the warm embrace of Sir Richard Branson, who bought into the hype(rloop) in late 2017, and promptly added some more hype of his own.  That company is now called – no surprises – Virgin Hyperloop One.

But while Sir Richard is busy predicting an extravagantly exciting future for his hyperloop company ‘real soon now’, another company, Hyperloop Transportation Technologies, has announced a collaboration with a Chinese company to build a short 6.3 mile test track, which may then possibly be extended to longer commercial lines.

Although there is no mention of when this test track will be constructed, would you care to bet it might be much sooner than the various developments Sir Richard is boasting about with Virgin Hyperloop One?

There’s something terribly tragic about how all the apparent hyperloop projects that are being mooted are in other countries, not in the US.  Hyperloop technology is being developed in and around the Silicon Valley area, an area filled with futurists and venture capitalists, and in a state that is committed to spending probably $100 billion to construct a high speed rail line.  Why can’t there be a marriage between the technologists, the venture capitalists, and the Californian government, and put all that enormous talent and funding towards replacing the essentially not yet started conventional train line with a new technology hyperloop, and reaffirm the US role at the forefront of transportation technology.

Venture capital and risk taking were the two elements that drove so much of the US high tech success over the last several decades.  But now it seems the Chinese government has become the go-to source for such forward thinking and investment.  Who would have anticipated that, a decade or two ago.

And Lastly This Week….

The iconic Taj Mahal is struggling to stay its trademark white, with pollution and insect droppings threatening to turn it variously yellow and green.

India’s Supreme Court has called efforts to protect it a hopeless case and suggested that perhaps, if the problems aren’t resolved, the best thing to do would be to tear it down.  Ah, the wisdom of judges.

Secret rooms in hotels?  Not only ‘secret’, but also special.  Here’s an interesting article about this concept.

It is common for new airplane designs to start off spacious and luxurious, before ending up like all other planes, jammed as full of seats as is (in)humanly possible.  But here’s a ‘plane’ design that is more likely to survive the transition to actual operations, due to the special nature of the aircraft.

We note there seems to be no security door to the cockpit.  Have you ever wondered just how secure those doors actually are?  Here’s an interesting video of a personable young man who sets out to answer that question, using a 737 cockpit door.

 

David.

 

 

Jul 192018
 

This beautiful professional picture promised a lovely Airbnb apartment and stay. The reality? Not quite so great.

One of the most apparently successful of the new ‘sharing economy’ internet startups is Airbnb.  It started business in 2008, and in the ten years since then has gone from being an irrelevant footnote to the main accommodation choices, and is now the largest single source of accommodation offered in the entire world.

It nowadays claims to have over 5 million lodging listings spread over 81,000 cities in 191 countries.  The largest traditional hotelier is believed to be Marriott, with 1.1 million guest rooms in its system.  Expedia is developing and expanding a similar service to that offered by Airbnb, called HomeAway, and it has perhaps more than 1.5 million listings.

Airbnb’s accommodation choices run the entire gamut from quite literally air beds in a living room through to renting entire luxury penthouses and showcase quality sprawling luxury mansions.  Still privately held, it reported revenue of $2.6 billion in 2017 and a net profit of $93 million, both numbers being up on 2016.  Recently, it has been valued at perhaps somewhere in the range of $53 – $65 billion, more than Marriott, the world’s largest hotel company, with a $46 billion.

This valuation is extraordinary when matched with its small net profit and the fact that it doesn’t own a single hotel room.  Its last round of financing, early in 2017, was based on a $31 billion valuation.

The company and its service has truly revolutionized not only accommodation options for travelers, but also has provided an entirely new way for people to make money from second houses, investment properties, and even spare rooms in their primary residences, with flow-through impacts to the property market and reportedly many investors now valuing and buying properties based on their Airbnb rental potential.

In a manner eerily similar to the other great ‘sharing economy’ service, the private car type taxi services such as Uber, Lyft and others, Airbnb has plenty of detractors and critics – mainly either traditional hoteliers or cities, but matched by a fiercely loyal group of users (also like Lyft/Uber).  Hoteliers, no matter what they publicly say, are feeling the impact of Airbnb, and cities are concerned that Airbnb operations are changing the character of neighborhoods, causing commercial accommodation services to appear in residential neighborhoods, and are also very aware that many Airbnb hosts are not registering with the city, obtaining necessary business licenses, or collecting and remitting the sometimes steep taxes cities levy on hotel stays.

It is unclear what share of total accommodation stays are now directed through Airbnb, and the company’s market share varies enormously from region to region.  It seems that in areas where it has an active presence, it might perhaps have a 5% – 10% market share, and about one-quarter of all travelers use Airbnb at least once every year.

All of the preceding is interesting, but what does it actually mean to you as a potential Airbnb client and guest?  I tried an Airbnb a week ago, and while one experience is far from indicative of that which would follow from every stay, the overall system issues and procedures are fairly standardized.

Talking about standardized, there is no standard at all for Airbnb listings.  Whereas you can be fairly certain what to expect every time you stay at a Best Western, or at a Hilton, or any other branded chain, Airbnb listings can literally be anything.  You need to read the listing carefully, evaluate the photos, being aware of how wide-angle lenses can make things seem larger than they are, and also wonder/worry about the parts of the accommodation that aren’t photographed.  You need to read the reviews carefully, and appreciate that most reviewers tend to be astonishingly forgiving and positive in their reviews.  You need to understand exactly where the property is located, and use Google Streetview to get a feeling for the surroundings – is it a good neighborhood, or are there homeless people sleeping under the bridge just down the road and round the corner?

What is access to the space like, and what is security like?  Is the space up a flight or two of stairs?  If so, are they steep and narrow, or broad and easily climbed?

You also need to understand exactly what the person renting the space expects you to do.  Even though there is probably a cleaning fee levied, you’ll likely be expected to do some cleaning yourself, and take out the trash.

One more thing to be aware of.  Sure, you’ll see a fairly obvious nightly rate, although make sure this rate relates to the dates of your stay.  But what about additional fees and charges – is there a cleaning fee?  How much of an extra charge does Airbnb add on to the published rate?  And, of course, the chances are there’ll be some taxes collected too, perhaps to be passed on to the city (and perhaps not!).

In my case, the quoted $65/night rate, based on a two night stay, ended up at $85/night, and then taxes went on top of that.  One can’t really blame Airbnb for taxes, but the lead $65/night rate suffered a 30% boost through extra fees and profit-taking by both Airbnb and the host.  These are not optional fees, they are unavoidable mandatory fees (for cleaning and Airbnb’s variable added fee).  They should be included in the lead rate.

How would you feel if your $400 airfare actually ended up costing you $520, and then the government taxes were added further?  We demand (and the law requires) to know the total cost of an airline ticket up front, shouldn’t we expect the same of an accommodation service, too?

In addition to the rate, what are the cancellation fees like?  In my case, the listing had a headline about a 48 hour free cancellation policy, which at first glance seemed like one could cancel with no penalty up to 48 hours prior to arriving – a fairly common industry standard.  But when I expanded that section, what it was actually saying was that I could cancel within 48 hours of making the booking, but then if I cancelled subsequently, between 14 – 7 days there’d be a 50% penalty of the total booking, and within seven days, there’d be a 100% penalty.  That is harsher than most hotels, all the more so for the cancellation fee being of the total booking, not just of the first night.

This brings up a good point.  Not only is it common for business travelers to need to change or cancel their booking, making such penalties almost inevitable, but it is also sometimes desirable to extend a booking too.  That is usually possible with a regular hotel that has maybe 100 or more rooms.  But when you’re booking a single room or a single unit/apartment/house, perhaps someone else has booked to take it from the day you had scheduled to depart, making any extension to your booking impossible.  So you might have to switch properties halfway through your stay, because for sure you can’t cancel the original booking, even though it can’t accept your request to stay longer.

Another issue is ease of contact/communication with the person renting the unit.  I never got any direct phone number, and all communication had to be either via email or via an app on my phone, which I never downloaded.  I’m starting to rebel against the need for apps for everything, because that is increasingly the case – everything needs its own app, and finding them on the phone is getting harder and harder.

When I had a problem (not able to unlock the front door due to the access code apparently not working) and wanted to urgently immediately phone someone and get the problem solved, I had to instead send an email and wait for the owner to receive and reply to the email, while standing unhappily outside the house in the 90° heat at the end of a long day.

The apartment I rented in Spokane had gorgeous photos, and seemed stylish, modern, and finished to a high standard.  At a cost of $65/night – or, for that matter, at a true cost of $85/night, it seemed like a great bargain.

But, in reality, it was a mix of great and not-so-great.  I’d not realized there were about 25 steps to reach the apartment front door.  And I’d also not realized it was in a not-so-great part of town, making parking my car on the street a not quite so relaxed event.  Yes, there were indeed a couple of homeless people living under a nearby bridge, something none of the reviews had done anything more than perhaps very delicately and obliquely hint at.

The apartment interior was essentially as shown in the photos.  But I’d failed to realize there was no work desk.  There was a tiny high-top wobbly table with two high bar stools that I guess was intended for two people to eat small meals on (see picture), but the tiny table was too small for my laptop and extra external screen, and the bar stools rapidly became uncomfortable to sit on.

What does one do in a case like that, when unexpectedly one’s planned working productivity plunges down to close to zero?  One has a drink, right!?  Except that, while there was a kitchen with cutlery and crockery and glassware and pots and pans, and a nice large fridge/freezer, there was neither a bottle opener nor a corkscrew!

I mentioned the 90° heat.  I’d checked with the owner that the apartment did have air conditioning.  She assured me that not only did it have a/c, but that the apartment was naturally very cool to start with (a statement that invariably is a lie, or, to be kinder, is accurate only when there is no-one inside and no internal heat sources generating heat).

When I was finally able to unlock the front door and access the apartment, I was greeted by what seemed to be no cooler than the outside air.  I immediately went to turn the a/c on, only to discover that it comprised one teeny tiny unit in a living room window which struggled to drop the temperature at all – indeed, in the dead of night, with outside temperatures back down into the 60s, it was still struggling to bring the inside temperature into the mid 70s.

This forced me to strip almost to complete nakedness in a desperate attempt to cool down, which caused me to become aware of the fact that the living room windows had no curtains (I had not thought to check for that when looking at the picture, above).

The spacious apartment had a bedroom down the far end of a hallway, and none of the very small amount of cool air coming from the a/c unit made it to the bedroom.  Unfortunately, there was nothing to sleep on in the living area, or else I’d have slept there for the two nights.

The apartment has a five-star rating on Airbnb, and something like 300 generally gushingly positive reviews.  I found it a hellish experience full of unexpected gotcha moments.  And at the end of it all, I was expected to do the dishes, load the washing machine with used sheets and towels, and take the trash out to the rubbish bins around the corner of the building – all the things one doesn’t want to do when on vacation, and doesn’t have time to do when traveling on business.

That’s not to say I won’t try Airbnb again in the future.  But I’ve now got a better idea of what to anticipate, and what to check before committing to a booking.  You should do the same.  Specifically, be sure to understand :

  • True total cost compared to other Airbnb listings
  • True total cost compared to other accommodation on other sites
  • Cancellation policies
  • Check-in and check-out times
  • Location (safety/crime/etc)
  • Access (steps, locks, security)
  • How to contact the owner instantly/real-time if needed
  • Adequate air conditioning in summer everywhere in the apartment
  • Bring your own bottle opener/corkscrew (!)
  • Workspace – Desk and chair (and internet!)
  • What chores one has to do at the end of the rental

Good luck.  You might need it.

Jul 132018
 

Part of the futuristic city that is Astana, Kazakhstan’s new capital city, created out of what was formerly desolate desert. See it as part of our Quad K tour, this October.

Good morning

Before anything else, may I mention our Quad K Tour.  We’re now three months out from this exciting travel experience, when we go to Kiev, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan (and optionally to Moldova, Transnistria, and more of Ukraine, too).  We get a huge variety of unusual and even, dare I say, unique travel experiences in countries that, while close together, couldn’t be more different.

We go from the extravagant wealth of Kazakhstan to the poverty of Kyrgyzstan, from the optimism of Kiev in the ancient foundation of what became the Slavic nations and Russia, to the birth of a new not-yet-formally recognized nation, from hang-overs from the Soviet era in Moldova to optionally reminders of the grim legacies of Soviet safety standards at Chernobyl, contrasted with some regions of outstanding natural beauty.

We’ll travel by train, plane, and automobile (well, actually, touring coach) on a very varied journey, as part of a small group of Travel Insiders, joined by Joe Brancatelli and some of his JoeSentMe.com readers too.  It promises to be a memorable (in the most positive sense!) experience, and if you’d like to come, please let me know now.

Here’s the main page with links to the detailed itinerary pages and of course an application form to join.

And now, a few articles for your Friday enjoyment :

  • Boeing’s New Moves
  • The Magic Number 8
  • More from Jet Blue
  • Our National Transportation Infrastructure Disaster
  • China Opens the World’s Longest Sea Bridge
  • Suitcases Again
  • Government Seeks Immunity for TSA Malpractice – Can’t Afford the Lawsuits
  • And Lastly This Week….

Boeing’s New Moves

In a move that was almost inevitable, Boeing has now consummated a marriage/merger of sorts with Brazilian aircraft maker, Embraer.  Details here.

Although Boeing says the deal has been two years in the making, everyone knows that it was the surprise of Airbus joining forces with Bombardier in Canada that caused the Boeing/Embraer deal to receive the necessary approvals by both companies and the Brazilian government.  Completing the formalities are expected to flow over the next year or so, but the marketplace now understands that Embraer has the backing of Boeing.

Embraer and Bombardier are both manufacturers of smaller (regional) jets, and to a more or less convenient and suitable degree allow for Boeing and Airbus to extend their range of planes further down in size.

It is interesting, perhaps, to see how both companies are now more focused on smaller rather than larger planes.  Boeing has essentially ended its 747-8 program, Airbus’ A380 struggles on life-support (in the form of Emirates’ orders), and there are even suggestions that the largest 777 planes might be ‘too big’ these days, too (the 777-300 holds about 400 passengers in a two-class configuration, only about 10% fewer than a 747).

On the other hand, while the airlines and airplane manufacturers seem to be focused on smaller sized planes, they’re not focused on the smallest planes.  This article records the end of the propeller powered passenger plane, albeit a passing that relies on a fairly narrow definition of what comprises ‘the end’ to qualify.

While Boeing might no longer be interested in big planes, it is at least genuflecting at the altar of fast planes.  This article reports on Boeing’s aspiration claims to be developing a hypersonic passenger plane.

As the article gently points out, even Boeing’s most optimistic thinking suggests that an actual plane might be 20 – 30 years out from now.  But what the article doesn’t question is why Boeing is even talking about a plane that clearly it has no plans to do anything other than talk about for at least another decade.

The reality is that a hypersonic plane could be developed and in the air in about a decade if a manufacturer was serious about pushing the project forward at a positive rate of progress (it only took seven years to place a man on the moon).  Alternatively, there is no sense whatsoever in starting R&D now for a plane not slated to start flying for another 30 years, because (hopefully!) during those 30 years, there’ll be advances in materials, metallurgy, fuels, engines, and changes in passenger/airline patterns and demands such as to surely make any assumptions today irrelevant and unhelpful within that extended time frame.

It would seem that Boeing’s announcement is merely a ‘me too’ statement and an attempt to be relevant in a field that is crowded with overly ambitious and utterly unlikely announcements from other companies.

The Magic Number 8

Airbus, which has a nine month lead on Boeing/Embraer in terms of integrating its acquisition (Bombardier) into its product range this week announced that the Bombardier planes, formerly known as the C series CS100 and CS300 will now be known as the A220-100 and A220-300.

I’d like to congratulate Airbus on its brave numbering decision.  No, I’m not being sarcastic.  I mean it.  Too often in the last decade we’ve seen Boeing and Airbus alike adding the number “8” to their plane designations, because it is considered a lucky number by the Chinese.

For example, the 747, which had gone through models -100, -200, -300 and -400, in its last iteration suddenly became the 747-8.  Not that the number 8 did it much good – the Chinese bought a mere 8 of the 150 planes sold.  Similarly, Airbus, which had been releasing model series in the sequence A300, 310, 320, 330, 340, suddenly made their next plane the 380 before resuming its sequence with the A350 next.

Not only did Airbus number their super-jumbo out-of-sequence as an A380, but the first (and only) model within the series was numbered the A380-800.  Only five A380s (out of 331 total) have been sold to China.

Similarly, the first model 787 was the 787-8, of which 26 of the 353 delivered have gone to China.

On the other hand, a cynic might wonder if, in leaving the ‘magic’ number 8 off the A220 series, Airbus isn’t quietly acknowledging the reality that China’s own airplane programs may effectively close the smaller end of the market to its new A220 plane.  Interestingly, neither the Comac ARJ21 in its two model variants, the -700 and -900, nor the much larger C919, have the number 8 in their model designations.

Or perhaps Airbus is simply acknowledging the abject failure of the number 8 to boost its sales in China.

Isn’t it a sad reflection on western companies when they think that adding a digit “8” to an airplane costing tens or hundreds of millions of dollars will help sell the planes to the Chinese, whereas the Chinese themselves show no interest in numbering the planes they are now manufacturing themselves with this special number.

So is it “cultural sensitivity” to add an 8 to plane model numbers?  Or is it insensitive and condescending – “We think you’re so primitive and superstitious you’ll choose our plane based on the number we give it rather than its price/performance/value”?  And, ummm, just how well is that working for you, Airbus and Boeing?

On a luckier note though, Airbus must have been surprised and delighted to get an order for its newly numbered A220 earlier this week when JetBlue announced an order for 60 of the A220-300.  JetBlue was known to be evaluating its future small jet needs, but a decision wasn’t expected until late in the year.

Boeing/Embraer must have been horrified, because the new planes will replace the Embraer planes JetBlue is currently operating, plus the choice would seem to mark a fairly aggressive rejection of the Boeing/Embraer unification.  JetBlue still has 20 Embraer planes on order, and is expected to cancel those.

A great start to the new A220, and an inauspicious beginning to the Boeing/Embraer partnership.

More from JetBlue

Here’s an article written before the JetBlue announcement about its A220 order.  The article talks about a long speculated topic, JetBlue’s possible aspirations to start flying to Europe.  The article’s main point is that an improved A321 would be a good plane for JetBlue to operate.

A minor point in JetBlue’s announcement this week of its A220 order is that it swapped some of its current A320 orders for A321s.  It is not clear if these will be regular, long range or newer longer range variants of the A321, but it is an interesting hint as to what JetBlue might be thinking.  For that matter, the A220-300 can fly from Boston to London, too.

Another related point is that Lufthansa bought 19% of JetBlue back in 2007, but sold its shareholding in 2015, freeing JetBlue from any previous concerns or constraints that might have existed about competing with its major shareholder.  Meanwhile Lufthansa is believed to be bidding to buy Norwegian Air, possibly getting into a bidding war with IAG (BA’s holding company) in the process.

We’d much prefer to see Norwegian remain independent, but there is no denying the airline probably grew too quickly and now is struggling with its cash flow.  In encouraging news, Norwegian announced an unexpected quarterly profit earlier this week, and that might buy it some more time before it has to place itself on the auction block.  But, sadly, it is worth noting that its profit was a result of exchange rate shifts – without that one-off boost, it would have suffered another loss, and so its ongoing future remains troubled.  Details here.

Our National Transportation Infrastructure Disaster

I’ve been traveling a bit over the last week or so, and enjoying time in Eastern Washington where I discovered that my reflexive fear of freeways does not apply in Spokane.  After 30+ years of always worse-seeming congestion whenever I unavoidably brave one of the Seattle area’s freeways, what a wonderful change it was to be in a location where the freeway is a ‘force for good’ and a welcome opportunity to speed up one’s journey between points A and B, rather than an angst-filled experience with unknown amounts of congestion and unpleasantness.

I again find myself wondering why we were able to build our interstate highway system starting in 1956 – a magnificent and transformative total of over 48,000 miles of multi-lane freeway, mainly created from scratch; but now that we have it, we not only struggle to maintain it, but we can’t continue a very slow pace of ongoing improvement and expansion in areas where population and traffic numbers are growing.  Seriously, isn’t part of making America great again giving us back that which was once a huge part of our world competitiveness – an efficient transportation infrastructure.

Indeed, think about it.  Our freeways are increasingly inadequate.  We’re unable to build any high speed rail at all, and our freight railroads complain about being congested and maxed out.  And – talking about freight – did you know that there’s even a desperate nation-wide shortage of truck drivers, harming our ability to move goods by road in a speedy and efficient manner, too.

Let’s see – what’s left?  Oh yes, our aviation system, where we still have not yet enabled a new type of navigation and air traffic control system that has been ‘under development’ and needed for decades – this article, headlined “FAA bungles $36 billion NextGen Aviation Project” reports on some but not all of the associated frustrations of this unbelievably mismanaged and delayed mess-up.

We should also include an honorable mention to our Postal Service, which has created the ridiculous situation where it is cheaper for a Chinese company to mail something all the way to an address in the US than it is for us to mail the same item across town, and where a first class letter takes longer to be delivered today than it did a couple of decades ago.

None of this is showy, and little of it is vote-winning, but isn’t it time that our political leaders don’t just blame other countries as for why our balance of trade is so poor and we are seemingly unable to maintain our own manufacturing base; and also look at some of the positive solutions that would help us climb up the world competitiveness ladder once more.  America’s golden years in the 1950s and 1960s were based on the strength of its manufacturing and its competitiveness on the world stage, benefitting from its efficient transportation infrastructure.  Which would you prefer – a trade barrier that artificially raises the cost of many imported items, or greater investments in our national infrastructure, allowing American-made goods drop in price and compete not only in our domestic market but internationally, too?

Could we please focus back on the basics of pouring concrete to build and repair our freeways and bridges, laying high speed rail track, and allowing well-proven technology that is already 30 years old to be used to ‘modernize’ the air traffic control system, which currently is relying on technology that is 60 and more years old.

Talking about modern technologies, we’re not even leading the world with internet services any more.  We’ve dropped to tenth place for regular/wired internet speed, and we’re as low as in the mid 40s when our wireless internet speeds are ranked.

And when we talk about rankings, why is it that we take it for granted now, and even joke about, how our airlines and airports are no longer among the world’s best.  There is no reason, other than what passes for blithering incompetence, why we couldn’t and shouldn’t be world beaters in those stakes, too.

Why can small new foreign airlines outsmart major US carriers, even though they operate the same planes on the same routes between the same airports?  Shouldn’t decades of experience and enormous international route networks and every imaginable economy of scale, to say nothing of anti-competitive international alliances, actually help US airlines to do better?  Instead, according to the latest survey reported here, out of a list of 72 airlines, the best ranked US carrier came in at the 23rd position (American), followed by United in the bottom half, at 37 and Delta at 47.  The best three airlines were Qatar, Lufthansa and Etihad.

The article reports on a list of 141 airports, too.  About the best that can be said for US airports is that while they didn’t make the top ten (the best three being Doha, Athens and Haneda) neither did they make the worst ten (the lowest three being Lyon, Stansted and Kuwait).  Slightly strange choices at both ends of that list, but whatever the methodology, why is it that US airports can’t compete?  Instead, we suffer experiences such as I did a couple of weeks ago with an experience for arriving international passengers at Seattle that is worse than many third world airports provide.

But rather than focus on improving their service, US carriers are currently fixated on trying to obscure their sneaky and exorbitant fees and other charges.  This article reports on the latest round of attempts by US airlines to repeal the regulations requiring them to disclose the full cost of their fares and to allow them to further obscure their semi-mandatory ‘optional’ fees (such as the cost of food, water and luggage on lengthy flights).

China Opens the World’s Longest Sea Bridge

In a ghastly segue, after complaining about our crumbling infrastructure in the US, it is sad but appropriate to observe that China has just opened what is claimed to be the world’s longest sea bridge.

It is 34 miles long and cost $18 billion to construct, linking Hong Kong and Macau to Zhuhai on the Chinese mainland, and in doing so, cuts what was formerly a 3 – 4 hour journey down to 30 minutes.  Details here.

We’re not entirely sure of the validity of the article’s claim that it is the world’s longest sea bridge.  Maybe it is the longest road bridge across water, but we note China has other very long bridges, too, including the world’s officially longest bridge, a high speed rail bridge that is 102 miles long (in the US we can’t build a 102 mile high speed rail line on regular land, let alone on a bridge).

China has all of the world’s ten longest bridges apart from one in Taiwan, one in Thailand, and two in the US – the 24 mile bridge across Lake Pontchartrain and the less well-known 23 mile Manchac Swamp Bridge, also in Louisiana.

Suitcases Again

One comment that I sometimes return back to, and which I feel is always worth restating, and which I can now add further to.  One of the ladies on our Grand Expedition of Great Britain in June had her wheeled suitcase break a wheel right at the beginning of the tour.  She mentioned that her previous suitcase had also failed on a journey (that time it was the handle breaking) and if memory serves me right, it might have been when she was on a previous Travel Insider tour, too.

Two comments about this.  First, don’t ‘save money’ on your suitcase choices.  There’s nothing worse than a failed suitcase while traveling.  Whether it be wheels, handles, zippers, hinges, or sides cracking/breaking open, I too have, in the past, suffered all of these types of failures.  But since I started using Briggs & Riley bags, I’ve never again had any problem at all.

The robustness of their suitcases is matched by the robustness of their guarantee – they warrant their bags for life, no matter what the reason for damage may be, including even airline damage.

The other comment is to suggest that if you don’t have a Briggs & Riley bag, there is at least one small step you might be able to take.  In the ‘bad old days’ when I mainly traveled with a Delsey suitcase, I always carried a spare/replacement wheel with me, so that if/when a wheel failed, I could replace it on the spot (something I had to do on occasion).  See if you can put together a repair kit with things like zipper pulls, wheels, and handles, and perhaps also keep a strap in your suitcase as well in case you need to use it to keep it shut.

Amazingly, B&R give repair kits away for their bags.  So not only do you have an ultra-reliable bag to start with, but you can go even further down that path by asking for a repair kit and traveling with that, too.

Government Seeks Immunity for TSA Malpractice – Can’t Afford the Lawsuits

Okay, so I’m slightly paraphrasing, but as this article reports, a divided Federal Court of Appeal has decreed that TSA screeners (and therefore the TSA itself) are/is immune from suits arising from their treatment of airport passengers.

In explaining the case for immunity, the US DA defending said that the decision reflected Congress’ “duty to protect taxpayer dollars” from the cost of lawsuits.

Ummm – wouldn’t a better and more general protection for taxpayers be to mandate the TSA improve their game and make offending agents and their managers accountable?  Fire them when they act wrongly and malevolently?  Instead, the government argued – and the court agreed – that such actions, pretty much without limit, are protected and we, the traveling taxpayers, have no recourse.

Isn’t that a bit like a manufacturer cancelling their guarantee and warranty because they can’t afford the cost of the claims?  No manufacturer could do that and hope to remain in business.

Details here.

And Lastly This Week….

A time traveler?  Possibly, but also, possibly not.  This article reports on a person who claims to be a time traveler, and who offers up some video footage to prove his claim.

One can’t help but wonder why his alleged video ‘proof’ of being from the future was apparently filmed on a current era cell phone.

In case you haven’t heard (and how could you not), we’re about to be treated to Amazon’s “Prime Day” deal day on Monday and Tuesday.  But, before rushing off to buy things from Amazon that you hadn’t really planned to buy, perhaps you should carefully view this article and consider the warnings within it.

On a slightly more serious note, the concept of “Fake News” has become a core part of our lexicon of late, and some apparently venerable and respectable organizations have started offering checking services to validate (or not) contentious claims.

But are the checkers any more credible than the claims they have appointed themselves as arbiters of?  This article reports on something that strikes at the heart of our free and open democracy, and reveals a terrifying infiltration of political polemic that infects not just the fake news but the fake news checkers, too.  Chilling reading.

Finally please do think about our Quad K tour in October.  Indeed, don’t just think – decide to come along!

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels

 

David.

 

 

Jun 292018
 

Our group at the start of our Grand Expedition of Great Britain, posing at Land’s End.

Good morning

I returned from my lovely three weeks in Britain on Wednesday, only to discover that while I was flying home, somewhere over the Arctic, my main server had crashed.  This changed my plans for Wednesday afternoon and most of Thursday from one of calmly unpacking suitcases and recovering from jet lag to one of panicked rushing about the place, to and from the server co-location facility, computer stores, and so on, and about the only good thing about it was that, when I woke sleeplessly on Thursday morning at 4.30am I could immediately get back to trying to recover from a very nasty hardware failure and associated data corruption.

The main Travel Insider website remains down, but email is working again and the Blog site is now up again, with most of the lost data restored/recovered.  I hope the main TI website will be back up later today.  Alas, the outage was not only inconvenient but also, inevitably, costly, but it is the first major hardware failure in five years, so I feel that overall things aren’t too bad.

The rest of this week’s newsletter is more in narrative form than the usual form, although still hopefully plenty long enough.  So please continue reading for :

  • Grand Expedition of Great Britain Report
  • Plans for British Touring in 2019
  • Returning Back to Seattle Experiences
  • The Future of Hotels?  Let’s Hope Not!
  • Another Virgin Failure
  • The Worst Problem We Had in Britain
  • Online Travel Agencies – Did You Think They Were There to Help You?
  • And Lastly This Week….

Grand Expedition of Great Britain Report

So, how was our inaugural Grand Expedition of Great Britain?  In general, it was wonderful, although I plan to make some tweaks to the itinerary before we do it again.

The core part of the expedition was to do the “Bucket List” aspirational journey between Land’s End in the South-west corner of England up to John O’Groats in the North-east corner of Scotland.  This is sort of like the “Route 66” concept in the US, and something many British people hope to do at some point in their lives.

Notionally and historically it is considered an 874 mile journey, but new roads and choices mean it is possible to cover the distance in as short as 850 miles.  We went a more roundabout way, and ended up taking 2145 miles, to say nothing of about 500 miles of additional travel before and after the main expedition!

The fastest time to travel, by car, between the two points was set last year, when a person did the journey in 9 hours 36 minutes.  Yes, the driver did break the speed limit (he averaged 87.6 mph!).  We took a more sedate pace, with a total elapsed time between having our pictures taken at each end of 9 days 21 hours 51 minutes.

We generally had excellent weather for the entire time we were on our expedition, with one notable exception – we went up into the Orkney Islands to the north above Scotland, where the wind was howling with a strong gale, low temperatures, and occasional rain.  But that was one day only, and the next day it was back to calm and sunny warm weather again, and the general feeling was that it added to the experience to visit the Orkneys – a place that holds the feeling of being windswept at the best of times – in such distinctive weather.

We saw some amazing places on our extended expedition, and took detours to places off the traditional tour routes, sometimes on an unplanned basis as a result of tour member requests.  This sometimes added a wonderful element of serendipity and surprise, but once was a surprise disappointment when we detoured to see the Ironbridge Gorge, only to find the Iron Bridge itself was totally covered in plastic sheeting due to current restoration work.

Happily, we had another great group of Travel Insiders participating, particularly because nearly everyone was returning for a second (or third, fourth, fifth, and in one case sixth tour).  Twenty people did the entire tour, earning themselves a formal Certificate of Journey, and another five did part but not all.  Our coach driver Jim, on his third Travel Insider tour, was another highlight and he helped ensure we all had a wonderful time and a comfortable safe journey.

I hope everyone enjoyed the tour as much as I did.

Next time I’ll lengthen the journey time and reduce the time spent before and after the main Land’s End/John O’Groats section, so we can travel at a more leisurely pace, and with two night stays at all places with one exception (Glasgow), making it more a case of experiencing the different aspects of England and Scotland (and Wales which this time we spent one night in) rather than simply passing through them.

Plans for British Touring in 2019

The Grand Expedition may be offered again next year, indeed, you can express your preference.  I’m trying to choose between that or another of our Scotland Island tours, or maybe something entirely different.  Do you have a preference?  If so, let me know which you’d prefer.  In all three cases, it would be start in early/mid June.

(a)  Another Grand Expedition like this year, about 16 days, starting in Penzance and ending in Edinburgh or Glasgow, optional extension before the tour in Salisbury.

(b)  Our Scotland’s Islands and Highlands tour, about 12 days, starting in Glasgow and ending in Edinburgh or Glasgow, traveling through five of Scotland’s islands and some of the Scottish highlands, optional extension in Scotland before the tour.

(c)  A meandering tour between Edinburgh and Glasgow, about 10 days, including travel south to the “Borders” area, perhaps briefly crossing into England (Berwick, possibly Newcastle), and of course, a Scottish island (Arran) and a visit to the Ayrshire coast.  Would include a stay at New Lanark and at a Scottish castle.

I will also offer at the end of whichever tour we choose, a “land cruise” in York, England.  This will follow the model of this year’s Christmas Markets Land Cruise, in which we settle for a week in a comfortable hotel, and enjoy daily optional touring around the region.

In the case of York, the touring will be to places varying from astonishingly beautiful abbey ruins (Fountains and Rievaulx) to seaside towns (Scarborough) to Victorian era spa and market towns (Harrogate and Pickering) as well as to places of outstanding natural beauty (the North York Moors National Park and Yorkshire Dales National Park), a stately home or two (Castle Howard in Particular) and some unusual but interesting other attractions (Eden Camp, maybe a historic brewery, and possibly some other things too), as well as plenty of time to enjoy amazing York itself.

This could be taken as a separate stand-alone vacation, or added on to all or some of our immediately preceding Scotland tour.  It will operate in later June/early July.

Please let me know if any of this sounds interesting to you so I can get a better feeling for what to offer.

Returning Back to Seattle Experiences

My return journey back to Seattle was interesting.  Let me start off by boasting a little bit, if I may.  I decided I wanted to check in for my flight at 7.50am.  Can you guess what time I left my hotel room in order to get to the airport and check-in counter by 7.50am?

Well, the chances are you wouldn’t have guessed the correct answer, because I treated myself to an ‘at airport’ hotel at Gatwick.  Now there are plenty of hotels that claim to be at their associated airports, but this one – a Bloc hotel – was actually in the terminal building.  So after electronically checking out in my room, I left it at 7.45am, walked the short distance (but through four closed fire doors – ugh!) to the elevators, rode them from the eighth floor down to the second floor, walked a hundred feet, and there I was, at the Norwegian check-in counter.

What a wonderful start to the day that was.  Sure, the hotel room itself was almost claustrophobically small, and it had a ‘wet’ bathroom – ie, a shower head that sprayed water, uncontained, all over and around the bathroom, but for a brief overnight stay, and allowing no hassle or delay and an easy relaxing “nothing can go wrong” journey to the check-in counter, I was perfectly happy.  Recommended.

I was curious as to what form the ‘extra security on flights to the US’ might take.  On occasion in the past, in London and elsewhere in Europe, the extra security has taken the form of an interview about the reason for one’s visit to the US and the reason for one’s visit to UK/Europe, sometimes in quite clever detail.  So I wondered what the augmented security might be.  As it turned out, it was nothing more than a rushed “Did you pack your bags yourself/do you know everything inside them/were the bags ever outside your control” questions of yesteryear.  No questions about anything else at all!

And as for restrictions on electronics, neither the 30 radios I had in my checked bags nor the many electronic items I was carrying on were given a second look at all.

But then, a nasty surprise at the Norwegian check-in counter.  They weighed my carry-on – both my backpack and shoulder bag, leaving nothing unweighed.  This has only ever happened to me once before (on an Aeroflot flight).  Fortunately, the agent chose not to make an issue of my 25.1 lb weight (the limit is 22.4 lbs for carry-on), but I did note other passengers were not being as fortunate, and were having to either transfer items to their checked luggage or check their carry-on.

If you like to travel with heavy carry-on bags, or if Norwegian’s miserly 44 lb per checked bag limit forces you to load up your carry-on, consider yourself warned.  Fill your clothing pockets before checking in (perhaps consider a capacious Scottevest product) and then transfer items to your carry-on after the check-in and weighing has been done.

The flight back home was made nicer by the exceedingly rare luxury of an empty seat beside me.  But I did not like Norwegian’s policy of charging $3 for a bottle of water.  One should drink more not less water on a long flight, but at $3 for a 12 oz sized bottle of water, there’s a tendency to ‘save money’ and not do so.

As for the $45 meal I prepaid, it comprised an amorphous lump of beef and gristle (mainly gristle) making it simultaneously the most expensive meal of my entire three weeks away and also the nastiest.

Don’t get the wrong idea – as airlines go, Norwegian is definitely one of the better ones in terms of overall value for money and travel experience, but $45 for an airline meal?

We arrived back to Seattle more or less on time and then sat on the ground for a while before being allowed off the plane.  The reason for this ground delay became apparent when entering the terminal building.  Immigration was backed up, almost all the way from the main hall with all the Immigration booths, back through the lengthy corridors to get there, and much of the way back to where we entered the terminal building.  The backup wasn’t only for foreigners, it was for US citizens too.

Fortunately, my Global Entry/Nexus card allowed me to struggle through and in front of everyone else, but then upon arrival in the Baggage Hall there was a fresh scene of appalling crowding and chaos.  There was almost not a single square foot of unoccupied space, either by people or by bags offloaded off carousels (I guess the delays, probably of an hour or more, to get through Immigration, meant that bags were way ahead of their owners).

It took a stunning 80 minutes from when the plane stopped and turned off its engines until my two bags arrived on a carousel.  That is appallingly beyond any measure of a reasonable time for bags to arrive.  Please don’t think that it was only my bags that were delayed – probably half the people on the flight were still waiting for their bags when I finally got to leave with mine.

There was one more ‘treat’ in store for me.  I had committed a tactical blunder.  I engaged a roving Customs officer in conversation, rather than trying to stay anonymous and blend into the crowds.  I did this because I wanted to know if the nightmare crowds were normal or a special one-off event.  She told me that it was, alas, an all-too normal experience this summer, and they were expecting the crowds to get bigger as we moved into the main summer period.  Ugh!  After some more polite conversation, she then asked to see my Customs declaration.  I showed her my Global Entry form, whereupon she wrote “R/A” on it and politely told me “That means you’ll have to go through Agricultural screening, perhaps they’ll find some food in your bags or something” and moved on.

She didn’t ask me if I had any food, or anything like that.  We had simply conversed about the crowded baggage area and her plans for her pending retirement, and the farm property she already owns in Graham, WA.  The whole idea of the Global Entry program is that the people accepted into it are spared the need for additional or random screening unless something specific causes an officer to have a direct concern.

But I was wise enough not to argue that with any of the officials in the airport, because one of the sad elements of the police state we’re becoming is that anything, no matter how trivial or ordinary, can be deemed suspicious, by the people we are permitting to become the unquestioned and unquestionable rulers of our lives and destinies.  Doing anything other than complying could have escalated the consequences negatively (even though I had neither food nor anything else illegal) and massively added to the delays.

Suffice it to say the entire experience at Seattle airport was worse than in most third world countries.

The Future of Hotels?  Let’s Hope Not!

During the three weeks I was away, I of course stayed at a number of different hotels, including a series of hotels all belonging to the Premier Inn group in the UK.  This chain, totaling some 750 hotels and 65,000 rooms, is the UK’s largest hotel brand, and is notable for having a fairly consistent experience, air conditioning, some reasonably good locations, and being fairly priced.  I chose them so we could have a balance of ‘characterful old’ hotels (but with no elevators or air conditioning and sometimes quirky facilities) and modern/efficient hotels that while bland, had modern facilities and conveniences.

The Premier Inns are a curious blend of excellence and awfulness.  The overall effect is similar to what might happen if an experienced hotelier started to design ‘the perfect mid-price hotel’ and then, half-way through, was replaced by an accountant who completed the plans on the basis of ‘the least cost to operate hotel’.

So the rooms are reasonably spacious and the beds very comfortable, with a great desk/work area and multi-input large television.  But go into the bathroom, and instead of a regular roll of toilet paper, you have a metal can on the wall that dispenses single sheets of toilet paper.  When you check in, you’re greeted by a computer screen with no staff to be found.  But the computer interface is stunningly badly designed, and requires 95% of everyone checking in to ask for help, once a staff member can be found.

Finding a staff member is difficult.  The same people seem to be simultaneously answering the phone, helping at reception, serving in the bar, taking things up to hotel rooms, and helping in the restaurant.  And there is never enough of them.

You can’t charge items in the bar or restaurant to your room, instead you have to pay for everything, every time you order.  That slows down service – one morning there was a long line of people waiting to be admitted to the breakfast room because the one person on duty was having to take payments for breakfasts from people as well as check room numbers and show people to tables.

But perhaps the most infuriating thing of all is their decision to eliminate phones from the hotel rooms.  Yes, I know that these days 99% of everyone travels with a cell phone.  But, that overlooks two use cases.  The first being international travelers, who now have to make a potentially very expensive/international call on their phone simply to call reception for a trivial issue.  The second is for internal calls in general – for example, you might not know someone’s phone number but you know their hotel room number.  How do you now contact them?  You can no longer call on an internal phone direct to housekeeping.  And so on.

This problem also manifested itself in an unexpected manner.  I needed to speak to another person in the group, and didn’t know their room number.  The hotel staff refused to give it to me, due to ‘data privacy laws’.  Normally, the workaround for that is to ask them to connect you via a house/internal phone to the person’s room, but there was no way they could do that.

Talking about data privacy laws, one Premier Inn also insisted on recording our passport details, and even wanted to know where we would be traveling to next.  This was something they said by law they had to do.  I asked about this at the next (privately owned) hotel and the owner laughed at the notion and said there was no need for that information to be obtained.  One couple had left their passports with friends in another part of the UK while traveling around for safety.  But the simple solution to this requirement was to lie to the (usually foreign) employee or to the computer screen and just say you were British, in which case, no passport details were required, making a mockery of the whole process.

I do hope other hotels won’t follow suit and cut back on staff to a similarly dysfunctional level, eliminate room phones, treat us to institutional toilet paper dispensers, and so on.  But I fear Premier Inns are showing us what will increasingly become the norm for all hotels.

Another Virgin Failure

I took the train from Edinburgh to London, traveling down what was once Britain’s best rail line, the East Coast Main Line.  For the last few years since March 2015, the trains have been operated by Virgin Trains East Coast (a company that, notwithstanding the prominent Virgin branding, was actually majority owned by Stagecoach).

But just a couple of weeks ago, VTEC prematurely cancelled their operating franchise (it was supposed to run for eight years with assumed renewals to follow) due to having lost money on the operation.  Only a few years earlier, Sir Richard Branson had been complaining about the short period of the franchise, asking for a 20 or even better 30 year award of the operating rights, but it turned out, after three short years and large losses, that even eight years was too much for him to manage.

Never mind the business issues surrounding another Virgin failure (this being their second rail failure).  I was again amazed at the inadequacy of their carriages, with space for barely five bags in the luggage racks in a carriage that could hold up to 76 people.  Call me paranoid if you will, but the idea of leaving suitcases in the semi-private obscured vestibule between carriages does not seem prudent, and I always worry not just at having my suitcases pilfered or stolen while on the journey, but at simply having someone take one with them when getting off the train at an intermediate station.

I was also surprised at what I perceived to be a deterioration in track and ride quality, with the ride seeming to be considerably rougher than I remembered it from the previous year and years past, and journey times starting to lengthen once more (albeit obscured by having fewer stops in about the same total travel time).  This is not a Virgin-created problem (they just operate the trains, another company owns/maintains the track) but it is disappointing to experience such poor ride quality.  Sure, it is amazingly faster and better than Amtrak, but it is also very inferior to that on Europe’s better high-speed lines.

As an aside, Britain’s rail privatization in 1995 has attracted a lot of criticism in the 23 years since that time.  But please have a look at this chart to see privatization’s astonishing impact on passenger numbers.  After reaching a peak in the 1910s, passenger numbers steadily declined from 1.5 billion a year to half that number immediately prior to privatization, but since then, passenger numbers have skyrocketed up and now are at the all-time highest ever numbers, almost 1.75 billion a year – a level of ridership which is straining all aspects of the rail network.

The chart seems to make it unavoidably obvious that this astonishing turn-around in rail patronage is the result of privatization.

The Worst Problem We Had in Britain

At first I thought the headline was one of these ‘silly season’ scare stories that help to sell newspapers during the slow season each summer, but which actually mean nothing to normal people leading their normal lives.  This related to Britain and Europe suffering from a regional shortage of CO2 gas – not something one often thinks about, but an essential ingredient in carbonated beverages and also used in a number of other food processes, as well as in hospitals and elsewhere too.

And then, on one of the last evenings in Scotland, several of our group went to a local bar in Aberdeen, only to be told that there was no beer on tap, due to the CO2 shortage.  The adjacent microbrewery had closed down entirely because it couldn’t get any CO2 at all.

And now it seems the problem is spreading still further, even affecting the creation of that quintessentially British breakfast pastry/bread, the crumpet.

Happily, it seems that perhaps next week will see some of the CO2 factories restarting their production.  But it might be a difficult weekend for some.

Online Travel Agencies – Did You Think They Were There to Help You?

I still remember the naive eagerness that was shown by so many travelers as they turned their back on regular travel agents and rushed to embrace the impersonal internet booking services in the early 2000s.

But, really, did such people truly think the internet services were there to help them?  To provide a fairer and more impartial honest service?  To give them lower prices?  Sadly and surprisingly, that is exactly what many people thought.

At the same time, travel suppliers switched allegiances and started to give better rates and preferential treatment to the ‘new’ online companies, in the belief that by ‘going direct’ (in truth, by switching their choice of middlemen) they’d save money.  The same hotels that thought this never paused to question “If these companies are going to save us money, how is it that we’re giving them bigger discounts and commissions than we used to give to regular travel companies?”

In unhappy reality, the internet travel companies have shown themselves to be far more venal than anyone ever anticipated.  Not only have they increased the commission costs to hotels, but rather than passing any of that saving on, they’ve simply kept it all for themselves and have acted to, in many cases, preferentially promote the hotels they make the biggest profits on to travelers.

Rather than increasing competition and choice, they’ve reduced it, and they are using their market strength to dictate terms to hotels.

At last, some people are starting to appreciate the monster that has silently and stealthily grown, and the UK’s Competition and Markets Authority has recently sent warning letters to a number of major sites requiring them to review their policies.  This article is interesting because it lists the types of deceptive behavior at issue.  Need I add that such activities are likely to be as common on US sites as they are on their UK counterparts.

And Lastly This Week…..

The TSA predicts that today (Friday) will be its busiest day ever as people travel for the 4 July long weekend; indeed their stats seem to be suggesting a succession of record-breaking days.  I wasn’t sure whether the 4 July ‘weekend’ would be this or next weekend, due to it being on a Wednesday – maybe some people are taking the entire nine days off?

But, whether they are busy or not, alas, they still have time to closely search 96 year old women.

Whether you take this weekend, next weekend, both, or neither, I do hope you have a great 4 July and remember that, as flawed as our country can be at times, it still truly remains one of the very greatest.

Until next week, please enjoy safe and uncongested travels (and heed the TSA’s anxious reminder not to pack fireworks into your luggage!)

 

David.

 

 

Jun 082018
 

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

 

David.