TSA: “Nothing to see here.” [shifty eyes]

“It’s perfectly normal for an employee who makes $9 an hour to be able to steal a 20 ton commercial aircraft,” says representative of government agency that fails at its mission over 90% of the time.

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supersonic will soon be back, but it won’t be big

Sometimes technology seems to go backwards.  For example, the US used to operate the shuttle which was a relatively advanced reusable spaceplane.  Now NASA has nothing, and the replacement vehicle in development has more in common with the Apollo or Soyuz space capsules than it does with the shuttle.

Likewise, Concorde first flew in 1976.  Here we are over 40 years later and every single commercially viable passenger plane of any size is exclusively subsonic.  I’ll save my thoughts pf NASA’s failures for another day.  Today I want to focus on supersonic.  More and more in the news you see that several companies are trying to dive back into supersonic.

But first, what happened after 1976?  In short, supersonic failed for a number of reasons:

– It was never cost effective: Concorde burned a lot of fuel, had a large maintenance footprint, and could never get the cost per seat / seat vacancy ratios correctly to turn a consistent profit.

– Development: Because of the cost considerations, nobody saw a reason to develop a successor to Concorde.  By the end of the 20th Century, Concorde was a 20 year old design and the airframes were reaching the end of usable service.

– 2000: The Air France crash was the end of the road.  Adding up the cost and service life against the reality of a full crash was the end of the program.

And there we’ve sat for decades.  But now folks are willing to try again.  Why:

a) Air travel and airline technology has become so advanced as to be scary in terms of safety. Western airlines have a safety record that’s downright miraculous. Lawnmowers kill more people each year.

b) Modern super fuel efficient engines combined with advanced computing might be close to cracking the code on the cost problem. When you add in the composites that make the newer airframes strong and lighter I think they might cross the threshold on turning a profit per flight.

c) Humanity is more obsessed with time. In the business world, seconds matter whereas when Concorde last flew perhaps only minutes mattered. Think of it, in 2000 smartphones didn’t even exist.  The world has gotten faster, and so I think folks will be far more inclined to put down the cash when they’re staring at the reality of a flight time that gets cut in half.

But will it work?  Well, let’s examine the most realistic commercial supersonic venture.

Boom Supersonic has already booked aircraft orders, 10 from Virgin, and 20 from JAL.  The expectation is they’re flying commercially by 2025.  Its jets will seat 55 passengers, go across the Atlantic in half the current time, and cost approximately $5K per ticket.  Boom claims to have cracked the code on fuel efficiency and subduing the impact of the dreaded sonic boom.

My conclusions:

1) I searched online, trying to book over two months in advance, Heathrow to JFK with a one week dwell.  The cost for an Economy seat is $400.  Boom’s jet is single aisle, single seat each side.  To me, this is an exclusively Business / First Class jet.  Economy does not apply. For a Business flight it’s all over the place.  You can go on TAP Portugal for $2.1K.  Air France is $6K.  United is $7K  To fly BA is $7.5K.

So let’s get something straight.  If Boom states that it’s $5K per seat they either mean the cost to them and/or they’re fibbing on future prices.  When all the major carriers are already charging Atlantic rides for well over $5K for subsonic, then my back of the napkin math says a Boom supersonic seat costs closer to $10K.

So right off the bat you’re looking at a ticket that’s 20 times more expensive between Economy and supersonic.  Thus, to declare that the supersonic ticket is already in the realm of the super-rich is an understatement.  Already it’s the same high-risk niche market Concorde had to struggle with.

2) I don’t care what Boom or others claim, the sonic boom problem is a major problem.  Even if Boom can produce a severely muffled boom, they still can’t break physics, there will still be a boom.   And if there’s a sonic boom, it’s going to be regulated.  If it’s regulated, it’s not going to be easy.

All supersonic has to do is lightly tap one skyscraper apartment window in Manhattan and there will be people up in arms about how the boom is giving them phantom headaches.  Then the lawyers come out of the bushes and it’s a gigantic mess.  Can Boom and other companies get around this by only going supersonic over water, sure.  But in the end as with Concorde, the sonic boom problem is not going to be a rounding error.  It’s a big problem.

3) Think about the turnover rate of a standard subsonic jet.  Take a 737 flying inside the US.  On any given day, one jet is expected to fly over half-a-dozen flights.  They have to turnover at the gate in less than an hour and get back in the air.  They have to not seriously break over hundreds of hours of constant flight.  They have to do it at the safety rate of zero crashes.  Can Boom or other companies crack the code on this, keep the aircraft available enough to fly again and again to generate profit, and do it safely every single fight?  I think they can definitely do it.  But I’m not sure they can do it and consistently make money.  New technology is hard to master.  And going supersonic on a completely new airframe isn’t going to be an easy thing to do.

You need only look at the development hell Airbus and Boeing have gone through with their latest subsonic jets to realize how hard building airplanes is.  Going supersonic is going to generate a whole new level of difficulty.  Plus, Boom is a company that doesn’t have a sustained record of success with previous aircraft models.  Look at what happened with the Bombardier CSeries.  That jet crashed out in development hell because Bombardier made too many mistakes.  They had to sell out the airframe to Airbus for like $1 to avoid bankruptcy.  And the CSeries is a pretty basic modern subsonic jet, and it still was impossible for Bombardier to succeed.  I’m not sure I think companies like Boom truly understand how hard their task will be to develop and build supersonic without going bankrupt in the process.

In closing, I think we’ll see supersonic return and soon.  But given that the passenger market is still only the exclusive rich, the remaining associated problem of profit risk, and my concerns about technology development, I think the end result is supersonic is going to be a very, very small footprint by say 2030.  Only a handful of jets will fly and the companies that run them will be scraping by paycheck to paycheck on cost.  In the end, I don’t think supersonic is going to be viable for major airlines on anything but a small scale.  It’ll be a niche market, or perhaps become a major chunk of the private jet market.  But large scale from major airlines?  I just don’t see it.

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But who knows, maybe I’m wrong?

eclipse! eh, or not

This eclipse thing was apparently a big deal. Folks cashed in their retirement savings to fly to a city within the path of the total obscuration. Only to pray to their deity of choice that there weren’t thunderstorms.

I on the other hand had a plane to catch back home for work. So I assumed I’d be airborne when the eclipse actually occurred. We get aboard the aircraft and the stewardess goes through the typical excruciatingly long six minute United introduction which includes instructions on air travel, United ads, and directions on how to construct your own log cabin. After she’s done, the captain actually leaves the cockpit and stands in front of first class to address the whole plane.

He basically says all will be well, both he and the copilot have eclipse glasses (which he shows us), and that the aircraft is rated as “100% capable of solar eclipse flight”. This got many chuckles from the passengers who weren’t mind melded with their smartphones. I didn’t laugh though, because I know what solar flares can do (in theory) to a fly-by-wire aircraft. Can a solar eclipse enhance a solar flare? I have no idea. But I had a lot of beer and coffee in the 12 hours prior to this flight, so in that psyche anything is possible. Even elves. So many elves in the forest. Run!

So based on my understanding of how the eclipse was supposed to play out, and the pilot’s comments, you would think the eclipse would have happened while we were aloft, right? Nope. First off, I was right side center seat. The guy on the window was a 300 pound former NFL headhunter with a Kansas City barbeque shirt. He played freecell for a half hour then fell asleep. All without ever opening his window shade. So I kind of had to peer around other windows. Did the sun darken? Eh, maybe, I wasn’t sure. But by the time I’d landed on the east coast I’d concluded that the eclipse was over. I was ready to get on with my day.

Then they’ve got CNN [sigh] on at the baggage claim and it shows the eclipse just beginning in Oregon. So I’m wondering if I traveled back in time or what. Nope, no eclipse while in flight. It seems the United pilot executed the verbal equivalent of a placebo. I wonder if the United corporate hacks told him to do it? Either way, it was entirely unnecessary because nothing actually happened while we were in the air.

So I get my car back from the haunted, overpriced airport parking garage and go pick up the dogs. Every once and a while I glance up at the sky to see if the sun has changed. Yes, I broke the dreaded rules. I looked at the bare sun with mine own eyes. Because nobody ever does this at the beach or on a regular basis. But the nannies of modern society would have you believe up to yesterday, that if you looked at the eclipse with bare eyes for three seconds your eyes would burst into flames and three kittens you did not know would die horribly.

Anyways, eventually I got home with the dogs and began to unpack, occasionally looking outside. Nothing ever happened. Did it get a little darker out? Maybe, or was that because of the scattered clouds? Who knows? I’m out there to get the mail and my neighbor Jimmy (who’s a little slow, but is a real nice guy) is like, “Hey [insert degenerate blog author name here], where is the eclipse?”

I told him I had no idea, that it was a bust, and that I’d given up. And so it was. I had 80-85% obscuration of the sun where I live, or so the Internets told me. But without eclipse glasses the sun is too bright to be able to see much of it at all. Go get eclipse glasses? Eh, maybe. But what’s the fun of looking at this through special darkened glasses. I might as well observe astronomy through a telescope with a lens made of aluminum foil.

Oh well, what a waste, whatever. I’ve developed one very specific conclusion from my only eclipse experience. It’s either total eclipse or bust. Anything less than 100% is like drinking non-alcoholic beer or driving below the speed limit. I have no idea when the next American solar eclipse is. Maybe I’ll be a bleached skeleton before it occurs? But if it does, and I care enough, I’d rather fly somewhere to see 100%. And pray to my deity of choice that there weren’t thunderstorms.

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Yep, didn’t see that.

an ode to flight

In the last three weeks I’ve been all over the map.  I have no idea how many individual flights it was.  I literally can’t remember.  Was it 8, 13, 17, who knows?  All I know is where I ended up.

But the thought occurred to me just how darn routine air travel is.  You show up, you fly, you get to where you need to go.  Sure there are delays and occasional customer service nightmares, but it’s statistically about 700 times safer than your drive to the airport.

We take it all for granted.  The last major Western carrier to lose a plane was Air France Flight 447, an Airbus A330 which fell into the Atlantic on June 1, 2009 killing 228 aboard.

In other words, for nearly eight years the airlines have a crash record of 100%.  This is insane.  Given the complexities involved you’d think bad things would happen all the time.  Nothing ever works 100% of the time.  I think even washing machines hurt more people each year.

When you really think about it, it’s pretty cool.  It shows that when we’re serious, humanity can do some real awesome stuff.  It’s mind boggling that it’s this way.  Yet it happens.  Take a moment to relish it.

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safer than locking yourself in your own closet

the Giant Octopi are pleased

So I’m on a 737 full of live humans bound for Chicago Midway.  We’re all getting settled in for a quite brief flight of only two hours.  The flight attendant makes her usual announcements and then casually mentions that the aircraft wifi is not working.

About 1/3 of the plane gasps in frustration or offers a bunch of “ohh”s.  Kind of like if you’re at a hockey game, and the home team fires a shot that just misses and clangs off the pipe, and the whole hometown crowd yells “ohh”.  That’s what the plane sounded like.

I shook my head, and continued to read my paper magazine who’s design was originally modeled in 1632.  Apparently folks can’t do without access to the Internets for a whole two hours.  The Giant Octopi are pleased.  They’ve got humanity wrapped around their little finger.

At the time of this incident, Bezos, Zucky, and all the other Giant Octopi goons suddenly got the urge to smile.  They didn’t know why, but I did.

Gee wiz people, read a book, talk to somebody, stare at the back of the tray table and let your mind wander.  Anything at all will do.  But do please unplug from time to time.

algorithms are never going to drive your car

The wave of the future is you sitting in your car reading a book or drinking a beer on the way home from work. Man, that’d be sweet. Trillions will be spent trying to make this happen. But I still don’t believe it’ll ever happen in large scale.

Once upon a time I dabbled in computer science. It’s been so long since I did that, that in writing the word ‘algorithm’ in this post’s title I had to re-spell it like ten times. But I remember enough to know just how flawed computers are. It’s why everything eventually breaks, at least once. Or has to be restarted every now and again.

I mean, airplanes don’t tend to crash anymore, but remember those are always human input at the end stage. It’s interesting that in all these autonomous car dreams (experimentally on the road today) that nobody seems to be seriously considering autonomous airliners. I’d bet a substantial amount of my freestanding international gold reserves that your average person would be a hundred times more comfortable getting in a robot car over a robot plane. Even though the fatality rate on the roads is astronomically higher than the skies.

The challenge with the robot car is not the computer hardware, or the sensors, or even trying to rewrite thousands of federal, state, local, and insurance road laws. It’s the algorithms. These algorithms will guide the way the car drives, navigates, how it responds to failures, how it handles emergencies, dangerous situations, and so on. If the algorithms don’t work, or are flawed, at least some badness will always occur. And in my mind, since algorithms are always written by humans, the flaws are never going away. And you can’t restart your car while you’re driving 65 mph down the road. Though I suppose the car could pull you over and then restart, if the algorithm handles the error resolution correctly.

But also, it comes down to what humans are willing to entrust to an algorithm. For example, I heard this used in a play on that morals exercise, if you’re in a car at 45 mph and you go left you run over one person, if you go right you run over three people. What do you do? But in more relevant terms for our discussion here, at 45 mph if you go left you run over one person, if you go right your car hits a jersey wall. Your significant other is in the passenger seat.

Or, with different circumstances, what if you go left it’d be two people you’d hit. If you go right you still hit the wall, but it’s just you in the car. How does the situation change if you’ve got kids in the back? Do you go left or right? Both these options suck, but it’s a decision that determines the fate of other fellow humans, or you and your car partner.

Yet in the self-driving car world, the algorithm makes this decision for you. You have no say. Then the programmers have to turn around and pre-program (somehow) for the car to handle a limitless number of other eventualities. Would you let your car decide any of these situations for you, for your family? I wouldn’t. An algorithm doesn’t get to make those kinds of choices for me. Only I do.

why does your luggage need to do your laundry?

I remain an outlier on many things, mostly because of my deranged nature. For luggage, ditto. On all my flights I figure 95% of fellow travelers are wielding the soft-side-roller-bags. I’ve still got me the 47 year old soft-duffel-bag. My prior-existence-ghost bought it for me from the Sears catalogue in 1969 and shipped it to my future self, Back to the Future style. It showed up on my doorstep one day about a decade ago with a short note saying, “Here you go,” written in blood red marker (at least I hope it was marker). The note also included various unwarranted written expletives and a big frowny face.

This bag is an awful shade of dark green, and as of about six months ago has a growing hole in the side of it. When the hole gets so big a pair of socks could ferociously escape my plan is to replace it. This bag has been kind to me. When that dark day comes, I’ll dispose of it in some kind of fitting ancient ritual involving fire, beer, and a worthy accelerant. That way, the bag’s spirit can live forever in Valhalla where a drunk thug will use it to hold his clubs and mead.

For its replacement, I won’t go with the roller bag though. I’ll still go get a fully soft-duffel-bag. Why?

1) I hate the way a roller bag constricts tight packing. The one roller bag I used for one or two trips could fit a pair of shoes, an outfit or two, and a toothpaste tube. That was it. By contrast, I can viciously cram 127 pounds of non-refined-coal into my soft bag if I so chose.

2) Poor maneuvering quality of roller bags. You could not imagine a more ridiculous design for moving forty pounds of cubic mass around a crowded airport. It’s easier to steer a canoe without an oar then turn a roller bag in traffic. I think the gross turning radius for your average rolling bag technically carries you directly through the nearby airport window and onto the tarmac. And the big baggage guy would just be standing there over your crippled frame, frowning, shaking his head, with his arms crossed.

3) Laziness. As best as I can figure, the primary advantage to using a roller bag is you can carry a lot of weight without having to hoist it upon your shoulders. In other unrelated news, 37% of American adults are chronically obese. I’ve never understood the acceptance to lose mobility, just so you can avoid throwing forty pounds on your back. Especially because people do this all the time. For example:

a) Hoist your five year old upon your shoulders through the airport.

b) Carry a bag of mulch from your car to the backyard, repeat twelve times.

c) Swipe a big bag of cat food from the till, running fast so you can get out the door before they notice your heinous crime.

d) Carry your laundry up and down the stairs, up and down the stairs, with a sock attrition rate of 17%.

e) When you were a little kid, you carried the equivalent ratio weight of forty pounds of books on your shoulders given your size at the time compared to today.

But now, all of a sudden we are incapable as a human race of carrying forty pounds for a 1/2 mile through the airport? Our future alien Overlords find this an appealing trait.

4) Carryon luggage. I’m just going to go ahead and say this (it’s okay if most of you or nearly all of you disagree), if I met the guy who invented the concept of overhead compartments, I’d punch him in the stomach repeatedly until I was physically restrained by a pack of elves. In order that the traveler may avoid an average of 11 minutes wait time upon arrival to said airport baggage claim area, the rest of us have to endure:

a) 17 extra minutes to departure time as people cram their trash into the overhead.

b) 23 extra minutes upon arrival time as people slowly and methodically retrieve their bags from the overhead.

c) Dummies trying to shove their bags into areas where a two year old would say, “won’t fit Daddi,” but they become aghast and angry at everyone when they keep trying to fit it, and it still doesn’t work.

d) Ultra-dummies who actually fight over bin space as if it were meat in a caveman world.

The only time I’ve used the overhead was when I did a whole four day trip using nothing but a small soft backpack. I had that thing so bulging there was nowhere else for it go. Otherwise, I have my small bag which goes underneath the seat, and the duffel gets checked. That’s it. Total inconvenience time towards fellow humans = less than zero.

I suppose you could make the argument that the airlines force folks’ hands due to the checked bag fee, and I kind of get that. But, I contend the overhead bin thing is not necessarily a checked bag fee fault. I mostly fly Southwest, which charges no fee, and yet I still see the same overhead bin insanity described above.

But hold on there, there’s more! Oh my, don’t you wish this post was over! Oh please, do kindly end this.

I have recently noticed, and this Post article confirms, the growing trend of hard-sided-roller-bags.

This is (apparently) to ensure the bags can take damage, you can stake your belligerent overhead bin claim like an Overlord, and a hard case allows introduction of technology. You heard me right, the tentacles of the tech world Giant Octopus aren’t content hooking up your toothbrush to the grid. Your luggage needs to get in on the action too. For whatever reason.

And so, for several hundred $ you can have luggage that contains USB ports, self-weight assessment, remote locks, does your laundry while stored within, possesses linked Wi-Fi options, location tracking, anti-squirrel defense net, battery charging, and the option to mind link with the nearest zoo animals.

Why does your luggage need to do your laundry? Bags exist to carry your stuff from one place to another. That’s it. Why is any of this technology needed in luggage? Except perhaps, as a means to separate $ from your wallet and deposit it into the account of a private equity firm.

Please do, please do join me. Return to your travel roots. Soft bags only. Fight the power, or whatever, I can’t think of a decent motto for my non-existent movement. Soft bags only. Just do it. Or else.