Wednesday, January 29, 2014

The myth of the idyllic train ride.

Dug "The Highwayman" Begley is infatuated by high-speed rail. So infatuated that he's bought in hook, line & sinker to several BIG myths surrounding it.

Do we want high speed rail from Houston to Dallas? Dug Begley, (Free through today then $$$)

Flying can get you to Dallas a lot of faster, but there's the time spent sitting in the airport terminal, collecting luggage, fighting past the guy in seat 13C who put his bag three overhead compartments behind his seat and then figuring out how to get to and from airports that aren't exactly downtown-adjacent.

It's a hassle, no matter how you choose to travel. That's why momentum has been growing lately for a high-speed line linking the two cities, specifically a plan by Texas Central Railway to co-opt Japanese high-speed rail design and launch it in America. The train, which backers say is set to carry travelers in 2021, could make the roughly 240-mile trip in 90 minutes.

I've seen this argument used a lot, that train travel is going to be free of the many hassles of air-travel. That you're not going to be groped by the TSA, that you won't have to wait in line to check your bag, that you won't be sitting in cramped seats next to someone who obviously lacks both basic hygiene and social skills. The problem is, this just isn't true.

In fact, you're still going to have to go through security and baggage screening, there will still be overhead bins, there will still be travelers who feel it is their right to try and cram 3 carry-ons into a space fit for two and you're still going to have to procure additional transportation to where you're going. The myth of a high-speed train ride being a simple and idyllic trip through the rolling hills of bliss is just not accurate.

This is not to say that high-speed rail is a bad idea. The truth is I just don't know. If you've been a reader of any of my blogs for any length of time you know that I am a fan of moving about Europe via trains. In fact, I love trains. What I'm not sold on is that a train is the best solution for Texas. I've yet to see any studies suggesting that "Texas Triangle Express" is either cost efficient or has enough demand to turn a profit without very hefty government subsidies. In an age where schools are crying for more and more money, where water spending is a coming financial drag and where we don't currently have enough money to pave the roads (and where the New Mrs. White advocates increasing spending for all) I just can't make the financial numbers tie without Texas either a.)Raising sales taxes to somewhere around 50%, or b.)Implementing an income tax of 1000% on everyone making above $30K/year.

Of course, there's this (Quoted in the Begley article):

Former Harris County Judge Robert Eckels, president of the rail company, last week told railroad officials meeting in Dallas that the private company hopes to set its prices at 80 percent of airfare; and make it work without taxpayer involvement.

"We are not going to have a subsidy. If it can't stand on its own, it won't get built," Eckels said.

But do you really believe that? The history of the leeching political class is to initially sell an enterprise as a stand-alone necessity for all things Heavenly and then, after the public is sold on the matter, walk up to the trough and cast dispersions on anyone who questions their Divine Right to drink heartily from it. In most cases, the descriptor that is used is "Public/Private Partnership", which gives the impression of Government and private business prancing hand-in-hand through a field of fiscal daisies while the public is brought along for a ride that benefits everyone and fills the public coffers with reams of money which can then be spent to eradicate illiteracy, homelessness and hunger....or something.

The harsh reality is usually that a handful of politically connected Courtiers make out like bandits with tax dollars, a few politicians get their names on plaques which, they believe, will ensure their immortality for all time (thus, it seems, ensuring their entrance into Heaven due to their overwhelming contributions to their fellow man) and the citizenry finds itself eventually saddled with a Billion dollar bond issue for which there's no revenue stream to pay back. Of course, the Courtier bureaucrats will pooh-pooh the issue and assure everyone that there are no consequences to spending beyond your means and there are several of a new-urbanist lean that will bend over backwards to justify this. In politics, especially at the local level, there's always a large pool of useful idiots ready to chastise nay-sayers on comment forums in exchange for the right to kiss the Pontiff's ring. There's also always a willing group of media Courtiers that just want to matter again dammit. They like shiny things and will break out in hysterics are they granted acknowledgement by the ruling class, or each other.

In media, the descriptor of "great" is thrown around to categorize what is typically a fairly secretarial* report of a local or State issue. Other journalists, secretly masking envy that they were not selected by the ruling class to take notes, fawn and slobber over reporting that is, quite often, both incomplete and full of holes, one-sided and very average. In part this is because they now truly believe that their 'mission' is to promote these ideas that will change the world. In another part it's due to them not associating with those of a different mind-set. The biggest mental circle-jerk in Texas is not found in the Texas Legislature (although that's a close second) it's found in meetings of the Texas Lock Step Political media who have forgotten the roots of America's journalistic tradition in place of a fringe-placement in the ruler's court.

Because of this, myths like idyllic train rides are allowed to persist and grow, and any reasonable discussion of the matter is stamped out like a cigarette in a hay-loft. This neither helps the debate, nor does it do much to advance good public policy. What is does is ensure that our increasingly powerful ruling class always gets their way.

*Secretarial journalism being a term I first read via a link provided by Kevin Whited that I liked and I plan on using.

The State of Disunion

Note: After writing this I perused the writings of the New Mrs. White and realized that I, inadvertently, copied the title from their editorial that ran a few days ago. While our content was markedly different I had forgotten that they used this title. I felt that needed to be pointed out at the beginning of this post. However, I don't think anyone could accuse me of plagiarism based on the markedly different tones of the two pieces.  Then again......

Did you watch last night's Presidential State of the Union Address? If you did, you were witness to one of the bigger collections of fools and children in American history. From Obama promising all of us that he's going to use his "executive powers" to move unilaterally if the duly elected Congress doesn't give him his way to The Republicans responding with a gold couch, tea & cookies and a "Hey, we're nice people too!" plea that felt more like the squeals of the last kid picked in a game of kick-ball than it did meaningful opposition to Presidential policy which has, clearly, spun very far off the rails.

It's easy to look at this mess and wonder How in the world did we get here?" to a place where threats are considered OK in the realm of public debate and serious analysis is nothing more than the media looking at their ideological opposites and basically calling them poopy-pants. As a country our politics has devolved into a snarky game of sound-byte laden half insults that aren't, even though they receive thunderous applause from the Courtiers who are desperately seeking attention and acceptance into the ruling class.

The sad part of all this, the part that even I hate to admit, is that WE did this to ourselves. You can't blame the politicians, they're just doing what the polls tell them to do. You can't blame "big money in politics", which wouldn't matter if we paid attention. And you can't blame the media for their horrible reporting, they have profit margins to make after all and won't be bothered running stories that vast majorities will ignore. Nope, this is all on us America, the "citizens" who, as the President stated, "make the state of our union strong".

The fact is WE elected this sorry lot into office, gave them the keys to the Country and then tuned out in a Kardashian-tinged fog while the merry gang of morons on Capitol Hill ran into a playroom and unlocked a Pandora's Box of horrible policy, regulation and restrictions on what was once, one of the freer economies the world has ever seen. The Citizens of New York elected Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY), who genuinely feels that the IRS should target people for political speech with which he disagrees. The Empire State also elected Congressman Grimm (R-NY) whose idea of a witty riposte is to threaten to "break you (a reporter) in half and throw you off the f*****g balcony" all because the reporter dared not respect the fact that he paid him a great honor by choosing to speak with him first, and the question veered into an on-going campaign finance issue. California gave us the trio of stupid that is Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA), Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and human ferret Rep. Henry Waxman (D-CA) if you're wondering why I'm not selecting any California Republicans it's that they're all so unassuming and gormless as to not matter. Ohio gave us Speaker of the House John "Crybaby" Boehner (R-OH) who has never met a Democratic proposal that he's not comfortable caving to and Kentucky gave us Sen. Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) who should not be mentioned in the same sentence as "leadership" much less be placed in a position of. To put a bow on all of this: John "Winter Soldier" Kerry is the Secretary of State. Think about that for a minute.

Of course, the easy thing is throw blame at other States whilst giving a pass to your own. We all hate Congress but LOVE OUR Congresspersons it seems. I'm not here to do that because Texas is not off the hook, regardless of how "conservative" we think ourselves to be. Texas has given the world Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-TX), Rep. Steve Stockman (R-TX), Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) and Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) who is less a statesman and more a shock of White hair on top of an empty suit. That said, he does give good commercial. As a matter of fact, if you take a look at the entire population of the Texas Delegation there's one, maybe two, representatives that you look at and say "hey, they're OK". Even then however, the Left looks at those same two and might say "they're the most awful people in the world." And that's where the problem lies, we don't have the ability to honestly take a look at political performance and perform an honest evaluation. No matter how horrible a politician may be, no matter how ethically challenged, no matter how clear it is that they have no clue regarding the ramifications of their vote, there is still a core of partisan hangers-on that stand willing to support them, no matter what.

It's true, the Republicans think that they do a better job than the Democrats of calling out their own, but if they do it's only on the margins. For the most part bad politicians are allowed to hang around no matter the levels of their incompetence IF they reside in a district where there's little chance of them being ousted due to the letter behind their name. The thing is however, you're not allowed to criticize their performance lest you be tagged with an "-ist" for all eternity by their supporters. Stating the obvious fact that Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee is a barely functional idiot brands one either a misogynist (sometimes thinly veiled) or a racist. Suggesting that Rep. Ted Poe (my representative) is "all hat, no cattle" gets one branded a communist, and suggesting that the President is out of his league is sure to get one ran-up for high treason.

As it stands I'm unsure of the solution to this mess. At minimum, it's going to take the serf class standing up to the political class and their Courtiers (the media) and demanding accountability. At the maximum it's going to mean flushing out the political class both through the election box, and by demanding the faceless, common-sense free, bureaucracy be purged as well. Unless these things are done we're going to be living in an America that's both high-tax, high-regulatory, but minus the scenery and good wine of the Europeans. We're going to be stuck in a sort of dystopian purgatory where over half of the population is dependent on government services, reliant on a third-world style food supply to keep us moving, and working less and less for ourselves, and more and more to keep feeding the machine that is politics at all levels. Even worse, we'll continue to be subjected to the once-per-year dog & pony show that is the State of the Union, and all of the meaningless, vapid "analysis" that follows. Kardashians anyone?

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

The Sky is Falling! (Psst, and so is our paywall *Temporarily*)

Posted under the Orange Box News items: Weather Alerts! on the front page of was this nugget:

Access, for free.

Apparently, the honchos over at ChronBlog have decided that opening up the pay-wall and allowing users to access their "premium content" while stuck at home during Houston's weather (non)-event will be good for sales. Ostensibly this is to allow the good citizens of Houston to keep up with breaking weather news and other stuff they might need while riding out 40 degree temperatures and moisture. And what do they get during this free preview?

News that a section of the downtown tunnels are closing during the Spring

News that the Affordable Care Act (You might know it better as ObamaCare) is creating hardships for Texas Schools.

News that the City is keeping potentially negative financial audit letters (from 2006, when Annise Parker was City Controller) hidden from the public.

News of road closures (that normally could be found, for free, elsewhere)

An AP (behind the paywall, really?) story that some states are considering a return to old-style executions

An AP story (see above) regarding NSA spying

A third AP story (unbelievable)on AA's $2 Billion dollar loss

And that's just the front page. What this means is that over half of the information ChronBlog has decided to "give away" over the next two days, on the front page, can be found elsewhere for free. Granted, you won't have access to the insight of Chron.columnists such as this and this, but you also get spared the tortured logic found here and here. As a matter of fact, keeping the Chron.columnists behind the pay-wall, and hidden from most of the public's view, might be the best advertisement FOR keeping the thing.

Unfortunately, the New Mrs. White has been released for all to see. In many cases, with some of its reporters, ChronBlog does a very good job covering local issues. In recent years, under the editorial vision of recently demoted columnist Kyrie "Memo" O'Connor, that reporting has fallen off in favor of Joey Guerra's infatuation with side boob, a host of useless, buggy pictorials, worthless lifestyle stories and the sometimes confusing rantings of Jeff Cohen's group of sub-par wunderkind columnists. Rumors are ChronBlog is going to renew its focus on local news stories, leaving the fluff to organizations such as CultureMap: Houston.

This seems like a good move but, we have to plead, please leave the columns behind the paywall, and consider moving The New Mrs. White there, for the sanity of us all.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Houston Bicycling: You can't fix a problem when no one accepts their part of the blame.

Three people died in hit-and-run accidents involving motor vehicles and bicycles over a 45-day span in Houston and that's got those of a sardine-urbanism persuasion up in arms. Because we now have a chronically-angry Houston group angry, we need evidence that we have a war on cycling and the Chronicle has been more than willing to oblige in their unique manner. "Some motorists" they say are waging a "war on cyclists" apparently running around looking for bicyclists to kill. If you take the Apple Dumpling Gang and Dug Begley at their word you could auction off a Houston Cyclists Hunting Permit for far more than the $350,000 that some sap just paid to hunt a Black Rhino.

Already we've had the Apple Dumpling Gang write a love letter to cyclists imploring motorists to "lose the hate" while calling for even the "grumpiest motorist" to be cheered by Critical Mass. I'm sure they're not including the person desperately trying to get to their shift-work job that might be held up by Critical Mass and their "harmless fun" or someone having a medical emergency. I'm sure those "grumpy drivers" might not want to stop and enjoy the parade. How many people might just not be on the roads joyriding on a Friday evening, but actually might be trying to get somewhere important? I see no consideration of those questions.

The Gang also chose to ignore reports of bicyclists hitting cars on the hood if they honked when delayed at a green light, or reports of bicyclists blatantly running red-lights and stopping cars from entering intersections during a green-light because "us taking over the roads for one evening is not too much to ask." Of course, the ideal (espoused by the bicycling community and the Gang) is not to "take over the road" but to "share the road" right? Not if you listen to the rhetoric coming from the bicyclist side of things. Nothing short of owning the road, being given right-of-way in every situation, will ever be enough, and even then they'll demand more. The missing component to a "fix" for Houston's cycling problem is suggesting that there's a problem with the cyclists to begin with.

In his (opinion) column today, Dug Begley, sort of, starts to say there is a problem with bicyclists but stops well short of fully defining it. He also, inadvertently, reveals another problem, specifically, the clueless attitude of Houston's political leadership on this issue. That Mayor Parker feels "inattentive and disabled drivers" to be the sole controlling issue here displays an astonishing amount of ignorance regarding Houston's current cycling culture. Because of this we're given lip-service regarding "complete streets" and a lack of enforcement for an unenforceable "3 foot passage law" which (I've read cyclists say) actually requires drivers provide 6 feet of space.

When you combine all of this Houston is stuck with political leadership that doesn't understand the problem, a media who has clearly chosen sides, a cycling community who is under no pressure to change their ways and Houston motorists who are more uncertain and angrier than ever. Does any of this translate into a "war on cycling"? Of course not, but we're not talking about fixing problems here as much as we are catering to approved special interests and trying to sell newspapers. I don't care which side of the issue you're on, the current state of debate, driven by ChronBlog and City Hall, is not going to solve the problem.

Before I go any further I should state that, despite appearances above, I am NOT anti-cyclist. As a matter of fact I can often be found, out in my suburban neighborhood, pedaling along on my Orient Express to the local store to pick up an item, or riding recreationally on bike-paths in the area. I enjoy riding my bike, especially on days such as we've had recently in Houston, Chamber of Commerce weather makes for a great bike ride. That said, solutions to this problem are going to mean both sides making concessions. To truly "fix" this problem it's going to take a change in dialogue and having both sides agree to some things that they're not going to like.

- First: There is no "war on cyclists". It's time to drop this media and advocacy-group driven drivel once and for all. Yes, tempers are rising in this debate but the reality is they're rising on both sides. Suggesting that motorists are looking high and low for cyclists to maul with their cars is silly. It's just as logical to say that the cyclists are trying to wage a "war on motorists" by restricting their rights to drive where they want without fear of constant harassment by the police and a gang of two-wheeled vigilantes. Ending this bit of childish drivel should be the prequel to fixing this mess. Unfortunately, ChronBlog has historically shown no proclivity, under the editorial helm of Jeff Cohen, to inject sanity in local debates so the suggestion is to just ignore them straight out.

- Second: There needs to be a push for driver education regarding sharing the roads with both pedestrians and bicyclists. In a city where even the Chief of Police ran over a pedestrian (Chief McClelland then received preferential treatment under the law for doing so) it's very clear that people need to be taught about what they're doing in their cars. Instead of calls for "banning cell phones" and "safe passage laws" which are unenforceable, Houston needs to educate its police force on proper enforcement of existing distracted driver laws. It would also be advisable to consider increasing enforcement of existing anti-road rage laws. Angry drivers are dangerous drivers and dangerous driving is illegal. As easy as it is to say: Common sense can go a long way to solving many of the problems.

- Third: Bicycles used for commuting purposes need to be licensed and ensured. Just as a motor vehicle is required to have a license plate, registration and insurance so should bicycles. Plus, if there IS an incident, individual identification is going to be a necessity should a bicyclist break the law. Cyclists should also be insured in the case they are found to be in the wrong and damage is caused. I don't believe that there needs to be a "bicycle driver's license" because existing Texas Driver's licenses should imply an understanding of traffic laws.* I also don’t think that recreational cycling, on bike paths, or children’s bicycles would be subject to the same criteria. On a secondary note, I don’t think underage children should be riding bikes on anything other than residential streets without being accompanies by a bicyclist of driving age who has a driver’s license.

- Fourth: Put an end to Critical Mass, at least in its current format. At this point it's doing more harm than good. Judging from my interactions with members and spokespersons for the group it's not about bicycle awareness but about sticking it to motorists. This not only poisons the well, but it does more harm than good. Moving a recreational ride to Houston's growing expanse of bike trails would alleviate much of the pressure. Yes, you have a right to the road, few are disputing that, and those who are disputing it are just wrong. Houston has spent Millions of dollars trying to provide cycling trails that are safe, expansive and beautiful. You advocated for them, now use them.

- Fifth: The City of Houston needs to work to identify "Prime Bicycling Corridors" and re-engineer them accordingly. While I'm not a fan of "complete streets" for all of Houston I do see windows of opportunity for certain corridors where bicycle and pedestrian traffic is found to be high enough to justify providing individual lanes. The problem, as is usual with Houston Government, is that we're now witnessing Ready! Fire! Aim! logic when it comes to trying to make cycling safer. Cycling corridors should link to the existing bike-trail system, to park systems and touch upon areas where cyclists are most likely to ride. All care and caution should be taken in this study to prevent encroaching on motor-vehicle mobility, because (for the foreseeable future) Houston will remain a car-based city.

- Sixth: Get rid of Mayor Brown's bike "lanes". In most cases they do more harm than good. It's time for Houston to get serious about creating real bike lanes within the areas that bicycle traffic is highest, and end the fallacy that some narrow, poorly maintained areas on the shoulder make Houston a bike-friendly town full of "world-classiness" and other none-such. It doesn't half do that, but it sure sounds good on the campaign trail.

For all of the hue & cry regarding the bicyclists in Houston and their rights to the roads, there are still a lot of false-truths that are allowed to persist because of the proclivities and political-leanings of the leadership and opinion-drives within the city. The idea that "we pay taxes too" is a canard that always dies hard. The "war on cyclists" meme is exciting, and lends a cloak-and-dagger bit of intrigue to the situation but doesn't solve it. Critical Mass running around town banging on car hoods and flipping drivers the bird accomplishes nothing, nor do motorists swerving in front of cyclists or not letting them pass out of spite. Geographically, Houston is huge, there should be enough room for use of transit of all types, provided the planning and execution is done correctly. Given Houston's terrible transit planning track-record however, I've little faith the leadership is going to get it right this time.

*Yes, I understand that this would require a legislative solution at a State level.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Travel Tidbits (01/20/2014)

A few things that caught my eye that I'm unsure deserve the full blog treatment.

Chris Elliot can be a frustrating writer. At times he makes sense. At times he's so far out there in his hatred of the deregulated aviation market that it skews his point.

Please don't call them airlines, they're loyalty companies. Chris Elliot, Huffington Post

A look at United Airline's latest annual report shows why it's no longer entirely accurate to call it an airline. In 2012, it sold $5.1 billion worth of frequent flier miles to credit cards and other third parties. It expects about a quarter of those miles to expire or go unredeemed.

By comparison, United earned $25.8 billion in revenue from its mainline passenger operations for the year.

Still, a significant majority of United's income is derived from the transportation business. Just because you don't like loyalty plans (for, it should be said, political reasons) that doesn't mean that UA is not an airline. Nor does it mean that loyalty plans are bad. In fact, in most cases they're pretty good, even in today's devalued state.

Perhaps the airlines and credit card companies have built a small army of propagandists masquerading as bloggers and consumer advocates, who obediently endorse the loyalty lifestyle in exchange for six-figure referral fees.

He's correct here. I've said before that I would not go to the miles and points bloggers for unbiased information because I don't believe they provide it. That said, I don't think Elliot is providing unbiased, consumer-based, advice either. You can call yourself an advocate all you want but that doesn't make it so. My real advice is to avoid most of the travel press on matters such as this and do what you think is best for your travel patterns.

An interesting article on airline hold policies was published today. It's fairly technical, but a good read.

Contrary to reports from the airlines themselves, they appear to be poised to make money hand over fist. It seems that unbundling and a consolidated market that's preventing entrance by upstart carriers is leading to high-profits.

Finally, those new "slim line" seats are turning out to be a mixed bag. Over half the people don't know whether or not they've sat in them but the one's who do seem to have an overwhelmingly negative opinion of them. I wonder if that's due more to a run of negative publicity? I have not flown in them yet so I truly don't know.

I do wonder this: Recaro makes some great seats for automobiles. If the airline seats are really that bad, why can't they make them comfortable for planes as well?

Thursday, January 16, 2014

The blowback against Hydrogen cell cars is not confusing when you think about it.

Reuters ran a good story today regarding the fight over Toyota's upcoming Hydrogen Cell car. The arguments against the technology are silly however.

Toyota executive calls out Musk as battle for green car future heats up. Reuters

At the Los Angeles auto show in November, Browning, who was then chief of Volkswagen's U.S. operations, ruffled feathers by saying electric was a more viable technology because it was a lot easier for consumers to find electric sockets than hydrogen stations.

Toyota's Carter addressed the infrastructure issue on Tuesday, arguing that the number of hydrogen fuelling stations would grow in time, helped by private-public partnerships such as the one established in the state of California.

The way I see it, there are three main reasons various interests are against the Hydrogen car.

1. It would hurt existing financial plans.
2. It would blunt their arguments that the 'American way of life' is unsustainable.
3. It has a chance at working.

Full disclosure: I've long believed that Hydrogen fuel-cell technology is the wave of the future. I see great benefits in untethering our transportation fleet from fossil fuels. The arguments I've received against all have one fatal flaw. They all assume that the current levels of technology are going to be static for the next 10-20 years.

If you've followed technology over any period of time you realize the amazing lack of understanding this line of reasoning reveals. Yes, it's currently inefficient to create hydrogen fuel cells. But that doesn't mean that it will be ten years from now. Yes, the infrastructure for fueling stations is sub-standard, but it will improve in time as well, provided the cars that are made are good cars.

Arguing the future based on today's technology is not an instrument of debate, but an instrument designed to stifle debate. The reason Musk, Nissan and others are arguing against H fuel cell technology is because they're betting their financial futures against it. That doesn't mean that they couldn't adapt should it succeed (well, Elon Musk couldn't but that's another story). The ecomental argument is being made for different reasons, namely, the reasons that I've listed above.

The last thing the ecomentalists want to see is the success of hydrogen-cell cars with fuel ranges in line with existing technology. Being able to hop into your car, drive for 300 miles and stop by a gas station to fill up the cell is a horrible idea to them. Unfortunately, they can't SAY that out loud because it would lay bare the dishonesty behind their 'green planet' argument. Nothing has the potential to be greener than the hydrogen fuel-cell car. Even electric plug-ins and hybrids rely on a dirty power source. To counter that the ecos point out that current technology for hydrogen harvesting is dirty. Yes, it is, but so is current technology for electrical generation. Funny how that's not mentioned. It's also important to remember that gasoline has moved from the leaded mess that was a pollution nightmare, to today's blends that have so many detergents they create a gasoline that's pink, like babies' skin.

The big problem is that the H fuel-cell keeps the suburbs practical and affordable, and that just can't stand. In a world where one's choice of dwelling has become a moral decision allowing the unwashed, uncultured Suburbanites keep their Starbucks lattes and single-family homes is unthinkable. Letting them keep them with non-polluting technology is a fate worse than death. Because if you're not morally superior in your sardine-urbanist beliefs then what are you? In many cases for those of the lecturing type, their entire personal identity is wrapped up in some modern hipster fog.

I should go on to say that I still see a future for plug-in automobiles, as city cars, where long trips and quick refuelings are not hard and fast requirements. There will even be suburbanites who keep a plug-in electric vehicle for local runs, when they're not riding their bikes or walking to the stores. Yes, Virginia, there are walkable communities outside the city core as well, in many cases they're safer, contain more "boutique" shopping options, and are better laid out than their urban-core counterparts. In Houston especially, I predict that the future of "urban walkability" will be centered in places such as the Woodlands, Cinco Ranch and Sugar Land. Yes, downtown will have the Danger Train and reduced automotive capacity via complete streets, which will lead businesses to move out to where the people are, instead of asking them to bother with coming inside the loop. There's also the reality that the neighborhoods between the Loop and the Sam Houston Toll way will be changing as well, all of this will lead to increased walkability and the sustainability of the region, without having to make-real the unproductive class fantasy of shoe-horning all of Harris, Montgomery and Brazoria Counties into the geographic bull's eye created by 610.

While I don't believe we're in imminent threat of running out of oil soon, I do believe that it will be getting more expensive. Much of this is due to rising International demand and the reality that anti-pollution laws are making it more expensive to process and turn into fuel. Just as hydrogen technology will not remain static neither will extractive technology. Because of this I predict that huge reservoirs of oil, previously unreachable, will be opened to exploration and profitable production. If you think I'm wrong then you haven't been paying attention to fracing at all. To me, a better use of petroleum products is plastics, rather than gasoline, and natural gas for heating, cooking etc. Untethering transportation from this (in some part) would go a long way in reducing demand and keeping prices from spiking at too-high levels.

Of course, no matter how accurate my predictions are there are still going to be those who disagree and continue to make the argument that man is turning Gaia into an EZ-Bake while the American proclivity for mass-produced burgers are turning us all into a Nation of the fat and gormless. Good for them, I hope they're successful, and I hope that none of them burn to ashes in their newly-acquired Teslas.

No, really, I do.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

An interesting piece of United News as it relates to IAH

United Cancels $1.08 Billion of Airbus Orders in Fleet Shift. Mary Schlangenstein and Robert Wall, Bloomberg BusinessWeek

United Continental Holdings Inc. (UAL:US), the world’s second-biggest airline, canceled orders for 12 Airbus SAS single-aisle planes valued at about $1.08 billion that the carrier said were no longer needed. The move affects six Airbus A319s and six A320s, Christen David, a spokeswoman for Chicago-based United, said today by e-mail. The A319s have a list price of $85.8 million each, while the A320s retail for $93.9 million, according to an Airbus statement yesterday. Airlines typically buy at a discount.

Remember that, back in 2012 when United was up-in-arms (allegedly) over the Southwest/Hobby(HOU) International terminal deal United stated that it was moving newer 737's to Chicago(ORD) and Denver(DEN) and shifting older A319/20 metal to IAH where it was establishing a base.

Now it appears that United has decided they don't need any new Airbus' single aisle aircraft and are going to continue the (glacially-paced) retrofits on the old ones. (In most cases, these are the much-older legacy United planes)

Not that the elmination of a 12 plane order is going to be felt at IAH, but it does speak volumes about where United's corporate focus stands right now. I think it's safe to say that IAH is now viewed as a "regional" hub rather than a key hub in United's network.

And they're treating it as such, except for the 787, which is still having trouble with batteries. You can't read too much into the 787 base staying at IAH, Continental (and United) spent a lot of money installing it, and it would take even more money to relocate it elsewhere.

It is time to call the miles and points credit card bloggers what they are.

In many cases, paid corporate spokespersons.

Over the last week there's been much teeth gnashing among the various travel communities regarding the loss of lounge privileges (For the "new" American lounges) on the American Express Platinum Card. Many points-chasers/travelers have openly considered getting rid of the card. Unsurprisingly, this generated a flurry of responses from some of the (too many) miles and points bloggers. To wit....

The Points Guy:

So here’s how I see the card’s benefits valuation breaking down.

Sign-up bonus: I value Amex MR at 1.8 cents a piece, so the 25,000 points that both the personal and business Platinum cards come with right now = $450. However, the bonus sometimes goes up to 50,000 points or even 100,000 points, so if you do not yet have this card I might wait for one of those offers to come around. I’m going to leave this out of my final valuation, but just in case you were wondering. Rather, I’m basing my overall valuation off the value you can get from these benefits every year.

Airline Reimbursement: $200
Lounge Access: $200
Global Entry: $100
Starwood Gold Status: $100
Hilton Gold Status: $100
Fine Hotels & Resorts: $200
Purchase Protection: $100

One Mile At a Time:

•You receive a $200 airline fee credit per year just for having the card, which can in practice sometimes be redeemed for airline gift cards. As far as I’m concerned this essentially lowers the annual fee on the card to $250, since those gift cards are “good as cash” to me.

Matthew Klint on Live and Let's Fly:

The terms and conditions are a bit fuzzy, but I have now used this credit in both 2013 and 2014 to buy a $200 gift card from, good for travel system wide, and received a $200 credit from American Express just a few days later both times.

It's all amazingly similar isn't it? That's not surprising when we find out that American Express has been pushing the same argument:

A Bumpy Take-Off for the Year in Travel, Joe Sharkey, NY Times:

American Express has been arguing that its Platinum Card has other perks that make the $450 annual fee worth the price, including $200 in reimbursements for airline fees, reimbursement for the $100 fee to join the federal Global Entry quick-pass program for travelers re-entering the country after international trips and a host of other travel-related services and benefits.

Now, to be up front, I have no problem with bloggers who are making a very good income off of referral links promoting the company line. However, I do think that, just as there's an ethical need to advertise such financial gain, many bloggers need to point out the source of this defense and that it was disseminated by American Express. Now, I'm almost certain that every one of these bloggers will, hand on heart, say that they came up with these very similar, very detailed answers independently. But there's just no way. Especially when you consider that, in many cases, the wording was almost exactly the same.

This brings us back to the original point of the post: What are miles and points bloggers really?

It's becoming more obvious that they are compensated sales agents and spokes-persons for the credit card companies. This is OK except when they pretend to be offering unbiased advice to the traveler. You need to understand where your information is coming from, that's vital in any industry.

For my part I could care less whether or not you keep your American Express Platinum card. I don't have one myself, and AmEx doesn't pay me a dime to have an opinion one way or another. The devaluation, on first glance, looks to be fairly severe and there is a huge loss of value there. Whether or not you feel the remaining perks are worth it is entirely a personal decision made on your value system. Good luck with that, just don't fall for credit card company contractors who have a skin in the game. Make your own decisions. After all, some of these bloggers don't even review the stuff the companies feed them before publication.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

The Apple Dumpling Gang's outrage problem.

It's important to note that the people in strong support of this:

Stop the Waste, The Apple Dumpling Gang, ChronBlog

Home builders have argued that the increased price of such things will price potential new-home buyers out of the market. But that argument looks silly when you do the math.

According to the Energy Efficiency Codes Coalition, the higher requirements will add about $1,623 to the cost of an average new house in Houston - which is to say, raising the price by less than 1 percent.

Are the same people breaking out in hives over this:

Sobering Tax, The Apple Dumpling Gan, ChronBlog

It's time for some math, so put down that morning Bloody Mary. If you purchase a $10 glass of wine at a restaurant with a mixed beverage permit today, your tab is $10. The owner at the end of the month sends 14 percent, or $1.40, to the state. In 2014, that same glass of wine will cost $10 plus an 8.25 percent tax or $10.83. The restaurant owner sends an additional 6.7 percent, or 67 cents, to the state at the end of the month.

So, to the Apple Dumpling Gang, a consumer tax of $.83 is a more onerous burden to the average Houstonian than is a $1,623 increase in home pricing. Clearly, the beef that the Chron has with higher taxes and costs are not with what they are, but with what letter is behind the politician's name that is behind them.

With recent word that the Chron is diminishing some departments in favor of local reporting may we humbly suggest that the Apple Dumpling Gang, and their silly editorial slant, be among the first to be given the heave-ho.

A better idea for ChronBlog would be to allow local leaders, bloggers, etc. to appropriate the Op-Ed space with meaningful writing. A "both sides" series of essays would be much better than what we're currently getting. Of course, they could still allow someone to continue the farce of 'endorsing' in political races if they still feel that's a meaningful function of journalism. (It's not, but that's a story for a different post.)

Monday, January 13, 2014

A few things to think about as your week gets started.

Not a "list post" per se but a listing of some stuff I don't have time to do a full posting on.

The NFL Divisional Weekend is often called the "Best Weekend of NFL football". Except last weekend it wasn't. As a matter of fact, it wasn't even close. Poor officiating and mis-matched games have sucked the life out of this season. I have some hope for San Fran/Seattle, but not much. They'll play up the Manning/Brady match-up but "meh". It might be a good weekend to find something better to do.

A couple of weeks ago I stated that the war for Houston's soul is over, and fiscal conservatism had lost in a rout. Over the weekend the Chron's Apple Dumpling Gang reiterated that fact by first offering up a missive that proposed not one conservative solution and then following that up with a piece demonizing anyone who would call for a conservative solution. Not that ChronBlog is a driving force in Houston any longer, they're still a good indicator of how the public thermometer is reading. The fact is people want big government solutions, paid for with other people's money, and implemented in a manner that their quality of life is not impacted at all. Our new National Motto should be "Let the other guy pay for it and figure it out."

The public education system is broken, so the arugment is to throw tons of money into a broken system. In most places you'd be laughed off the dias for suggesting such a thing. In Texas you are applauded as a visionary.

There is an entire industry dedicated to abortion. In some cases their interests are purely financial but in some they firmly believe they are engaging in a beneficial form of population control. Either way, They are very happy this morning.

Presented without comment: Lower College Admissions, due largely to a popultion dip, presented as a postivie.

And finally......

I think that this will be a big deal in the travel industry over the next few years. Undoubtedly good for consumers, which is why the domestic airlines will be against it.

Happy Monday and go 49'ers.

Thursday, January 09, 2014

Operationally the airlines are getting worse, in some cases much worse.

Now is the time of year that the MSM travel media, after seemingly not travelling much, takes a look back over the previous year and decides whether or not the airlines are making any progress. For 2013 at least, the numbers are not promising.

The Best (and Worst) Airlines. Scott McCartney, The Middle Seat Blog,

On the whole, it was a mediocre year for airline reliability, the second-worst of the past five in terms of on-time arrivals (2011 was slightly worse), according to FlightStats. And it was the worst of the last five in delays over 45 minutes. That's surprising. There were fewer flights flown than any year of the past nine because of airline mergers and capacity reductions. Less-crowded skies and airports ought to yield speedier service.

Part of the problem is because of that reduced capacity. This means that flights are fuller, take longer to board, and are increasingly experiencing delays because of this. Not mentioned in this article, but something that I've noticed on several flights, are the airlines scheduling itself. It is hard to find an International route that does not have at least two layover options of less than one hour. In many airports this is difficult in the best of situations, especially when a terminal change is needed. On most International flights (and even a few domestic) I've noticed increased wait times for late arriving connecting flights, usually International ones.

Also ridiculous, at times, is the airlines expectation for departure. I've seen non-delayed United flights scheduled to depart five minutes after the plane hits the gate, and the connecting flight was listed as "on time". This is horrendous scheduling by any measure. This is not an article to pick on United, Southwest Airlines was the leading driver in bringing the delay numbers down.

United and American Airlines are currently tied in the race to the bottom, with only American placing in the top 50th percentile in any category, they rank 4th in passenger bumping, United ranks dead last in that category. Oddly enough, Delta is the leading major legacy carrier, coming in just behind Alaska Airlines to finish in second place overall. This caps a year where Delta is seemingly getting everything right, from their profitability to their operations they are running circles around their main rivals. It does help that they've had several years now to work through merger issues. Perhaps there's a chance United and American can follow suit eventually?

As it currently stands things are getting worse, not better. And the improvements through synergies that customers were promised when all of these mergers went down are currently not materializing. An acquaintance of mine quipped, upon hearing the suggestion that International airlines should be allowed to compete on domestic routes, that "once the Internationals got over here and saw how poorly things are ran, they'd decrease service but charge extra for the appearance that theirs was better." There is a lot of truth to this. From a gutting of loyalty programs to demanding customers pay more, what we're now seeing is that the return for this is a whole lot less on most airlines.

It is imperative they get this fixed, because we're already hearing rumbles from an increasingly intrusive-minded federal government that re-regulation is the way to go. That would be a disaster, leading to a return of sky-high fares, limited options and horrible, much worse than current, service.

Get it fixed folks.

Wednesday, January 08, 2014

There are times it's going to be impossible for the airlines to win.

That was my thought when reading the comments of today's Dallas Morning-News story on the nascent merger between American Airlines and US Airways. It's a pretty good article, which begins the discussion that's going to occur over the next few years as the New American tries desperately to avoid the merger pains suffered by the New United.

In some ways, it's always going to be the corporate PR shell-game of doublespeak and outright lies. In other ways, there probably will be some changes in the new airline that they really think you're going to like. The first two concrete examples provided in the story are decidedly anti-customer however, at least, certain customers. Pre-boarding active military is a nice gesture, but boarding them w/first class is really no big deal. If they're flying coach they still will have first pick of the overhead bins (and that, more than anything, is the advantage of pre-boarding). Lowering the unaccompanied minor maximum age to 11 (from 14 for US Airways previously) might impact some people negatively but I doubt it impacts much.

While neither of the above examples should provide fliers with too much heartburn, it's always worrying when two airlines merge that the newly combined company will keep the worst of both while discarding the best. Time will tell on that front.

Of more interest to me were the reader comments, in this case, a couple of specific comments that illustrate just how uninformed/irrational some people are regarding air travel. I've said before (and I'll say again) that I view anonymous, on-line comments to be where intelligence goes to die. I feel so strongly about it that I've disabled them on this blog, and see no compelling reason to bring them back. (As a matter of fact, interaction on my twitter feed and e-mail is still fairly strong) I do occasionally glance at them however, just to see what the brave and anonymous are saying.

For illustrative purposes I will now highlight a few:

Hey, maybe the stewardess can actually acknowledge you as you board onto the plane instead of chatting/gossiping with her co-worker, and just makes a glancing look at you and then turn back to her friend while never stopping the conversation.

And when I ask if there is any room in the over-head compartment for my single carry-on, because every other moron has placed their carry-on and their backpack up there, not just say "Oh, I don't know, you may have to check that in" and then proceed to walk away.

That would be a start. Try aiming higher. Try to surpass the quality and service of Greyhound Bus employees.

First, it's Flight Attendant not "stewardess". Which leads me to believe that "donsanedrin" either a.)hasn't flown much since the 60's or b.)treats the FA's rudely and doesn't deserve an answer. In my experience most (granted not all) FA's are moderately helpful when you just treat them with minimal politeness.

The next comment however is my absolute favorite:

Paula Schlinger

When it comes to customer service how about:

1. More leg room for everyone?

2. Stop nickel and diming us by charging for every little thing?

3. No more canceling flights or no good (e.g., weather-related) reason?

When AA enacts these, then I will know they are serious about customer service!

Let's take this from the top:

1. If you include "more leg room for everyone" then you'd have to remove seats. If airlines are forced to remove too many seats then they won't be able to operate at a profitable margin. See: repeated bankruptcies.

2. The "nickel and diming" to which the commenter refers is the natural extension of people demanding fares that are at the lowest possible price. I'm not a fan of checked bag fees, but there are some fairly simple ways to avoid them that are available to *most* fliers (certainly not all). Free meals are a non-issue to me and you can still go to the bathroom for free and, except for Spirit, you still have access to a fairly wide selection of non-alcoholic beverages. When those things go away, then they'll be "nickel and diming you for every little thing."

3. This one is my favorite. If you think a weather delay is "no good reason" then you either don't understand the dangers of flying in inclement weather, or really understand how the entire aviation industry works. Now, granted, some airlines leave a lot to be desired when it comes to communicating weather delays etc. and some do a horrible job untangling after things go blotto, but that's an entirely different issue than being forced to cancel a flight due to weather.

I highlight these comments to prove this point: With some people, no matter what the airlines try to do it's never going to be good enough. I've seen from several people who say "I'm never flying United again because of what they did to Continental." The problem w/that logic is that it's the Continental team that's in charge at UA. Your beloved airline is the one that's doing this to you, not United.

I feel that I've been as hard a critic on the airlines as anyone. I don't like baggage fees but I understand them. I don't like having to pay for a premium economy seat for slightly more legroom but I understand why space is a commodity on a plane. I don't like United's recent devaluation and many of the changes they've made to thin the ranks of the mid and lower-tier Premiers but I understand the business reason why they're doing it. I "get" weather delays. I also "get" mechanical delays. These things happen. What's more important is how the airline responds to the delays when they happen, and how satisfied I am with the ultimate result.

To me, the real issue is the elimination of the loyalty customer as a target. In their place airlines are courting high-value business and other premium cabin customers and people who are willing to pay more for premium seats. In the future, as this becomes more commonplace, I think that we'll see some normalizing on valuation coming for the business cabins especially. Upgrading to a premier economy seat is already the norm, and I expect this to expand. And yes, there will be more, not fewer, fees going forward.

What the airlines are trying to do is rid themselves of groups of passengers with whom they cannot win. From people like those in the comments demanding premium cabin service at bargain basement prices to (admittedly) low-to-mid level elites, such as I, who played the game of accumulating the most miles for the fewest dollars possible and then using said miles and status to get upgrades and book award flights. People like us were loss leaders for the airline that they'll gladly wave goodbye to as we stand stamping on the tarmac while their planes taxi for take-off.

And I don't blame them one bit. I'd probably do the same were I in charge. Nor am I stupid enough to say that "I'll never fly United again." Quite the contrary. I will be more than happy to fly with them when they offer the cheapest rates to the places that I want to go. When a cheaper option is available on another carrier however, United will not be getting my business because air travel is now a white good. To be honest, there's very little difference between the legacy domestic airlines when it comes to customer service and value and, when flying Internationally, they actually fall very far behind. Yes, they can be (at times) slightly cheaper than the International carriers but not always. If you catch a good sale you're more than likely to beat the tickets of the (now) Big 3 and you're likely to get better customer service to boot. Here's the rub: Even the best International carrier had to cancel flights during this week's Winter Storm. That's a lesson a lot of people need to learn.

Tuesday, January 07, 2014

Goodbye B(C)S, now on to something worse.

Ding Dong the Witch is dead, but here comes her sister, who could be considerably more evil.

Unless you're not a fan of American football, you probably watched last night's final B(C)S Championship tie between the Confused Tigers of Auburn and the thereby letter from the Tribe Seminoles of Florida State. If you're really a fan, you checked out of ESPN's "MegaCast" options before realizing that the #titletalk option on ESPN2 was a load of televised crap.

For a change, the game delivered. When Heisman trophy winner Jameis Winston threw the winning TD pass with :13 seconds left on the clock it marked the, to borrow a phrase from Brent Musberger, "perfect end to an imperfect system." And what a system it was, heavily weighted toward the SEC it was a system that sucked all of the life out of January 1st, created more mis-matches than great games, and reminded us just why, in College ball, the regular season is the attraction each and every year.

Yes, the wheezing old girl gave us some upsets and, especially in this last season, some quality football to watch. But the B(C)S never seemed to understand that its biggest problem lied in its attempts to devalue all remaining aspects of College Football. It was a mess whose time had come and gone. Unfortunately, its replacement seems to be on the disturbing path of being much, much worse.

In theory, it's simple: A 30(ish) person panel is going to meet weekly with the ultimate goal of selecting the "4 teams most worthy of competing for a National Championship." These four teams will then be placed in two of six bowls in a rotation (The Rose, Orange, Fiesta, Sugar, Chick-fil-A and Cotton) with the remaining 4 bowls receiving teams based on conference affiliations. In reality, it's the B(C)S+1. The "one" being the "Championship Game" played at the end. Beyond that, nothing has really changed. There's still the hegemony of the so-called "large" conferences on the Bowls with the highest payouts, there are still factors in place that limit the abilities of the so-called "mid-major" conferences to partake in the reindeer games (in this case, the guarantee that the team with the highest ranking amongst the Little 5 (American, MAC, Mountain West, C-USA & Sun Belt) gets to play in one of the newly termed "FCP" bowls) but now we've increased the possibility that worthy teams will be left out because the "Championship committee" is charged to find the "4 teams most worthy" (notice not the 4 "best" teams) to receive entrance into the playoff.

What is the distinction you ask? Simple.

Let's say the regular season for 2014 ends thusly:

1. Alabama
2. Oklahoma
3. Florida St.
4. Louisville
5. Baylor
6. Auburn
7. UT-Austin

According to the current system Alabama & OU would be meeting for the B(C)S Championship game. It would make sense than that, under the new system, the teams in the playoff would be 'Bama, OU, Florida St. and Louisville right?

Wrong. Under the new system the committee could decide what 4 teams are most deserving based on an arbitrary set of qualifications. Let's say that Florida State has another low strength of schedule, and that Baylor has a bad loss. Louisville, while undefeated, has even a worse SOS than Florida State. What's to keep the committee from bypassing them and grabbing Auburn (let's say with a loss to 'Bama) and UT-Austin (with just a close loss to OU on its resume) to round out the top 4?

Absolutely nothing. Think about that.

Best thing about FSU's win last night? This is an easy one. By beating Auburn the Seminoles have all but silenced Kentucky fans who live vicariously through other teams with that insipid S!-E!-C! chant. Claiming the wins of another school as your own is just sad. And yes, the SEC, although brilliant on the field, is devolving into a depressing mess off of it.

On Musberger: There are rumors circling around that last night's game could have been the final game that Musberger calls for ESPN. His contract is almost up and the four-letter network has a pretty deep talent pool behind him that is starting to get the promotion itch. Chris Fowler has been on the GameDay desk for quite a while now and has made no bones about his desire to move up to the Network's top spot. Rece Davis, behind Fowler, seems more than ready to make the jump to Saturday mornings, which could lead to an entire reshuffling of the show's line-up. If that's the case, Musberger will be missed. Despite his both broadcast opening gaffe, he pretty much nailed the call all night long.

On Corso: Before donning his Florida State gear Coach Corso made a comment that "We don't know how many more chances we'll get to do this." I think this means that he's about ready to move on. We know that he's had at least one stroke, and it's pretty clear by the end of each show that they are starting to grind on him. IF ESPN decides to tumble the dominoes with their announcers, it only makes sense that College GameDay gets a roster refresh as well.

On New Year's Day: I've stated before that the B(C)S destroyed one of College Football's greatest traditions by moving most games off of the traditional New Year's broadcast spot. Losing these games has destroyed the football experience on the New Year in the name of slot exclusivity etc. With all of the new sports networks (Fox Sports 1, CBSSports, NBCSports, etc.) It'd be nice to see some of the "non FCP" bowls stage a mini-revolt and sign some agreements with competing networks. As I've stated before, the best idea would be to limit the number of bowl games to around 15-20 and ensure that all of them are played within 72 hours of NYE w/none later than Jan 1st. It would give fans the clean ending that we used to have and it would cut down on the number of boring bowl games attended only by friends and family.

On Bowl Eligibility: Finally, I've stated this before, but 8 wins should be the minimum for bowl participation. However, it should not, in and of itself, be a guarantee of a bowl slot. If there aren't enough 8-win teams to fill all of the slots them the Bowls would be allowed to dip into the 7-win teams. If there are more than enough 8-win teams however, tough. Your school will get invited if you travel well. After all, it is about making money.

Friday, January 03, 2014

The State of Travel 2014: Of Devaluations and supposed take-aways and why I'm not worried.

While surveying several travel message boards over course of the week I noticed an undercurrent of frustration stemming from recent customer-unfriendly changes to several loyalty programs and the perceived end of the salad days for loyalty reward travel. From airlines making it more expensive to qualify for elite status and devaluing the worth of their miles to Hotels gutting their programs making free rooms and upgrades more difficult and expensive to attain, there's a general feeling of malaise that's seeping into the award-travel community and the feeling is one of animosity. Couple this with the laments of the mainstream travel writers that economy class is getting worse and you have a customer base who's view of air travel is currently bleak, at best.

When I survey the landscape it seems that, while things are not good right now there are opportunities for those who are willing to re-evaluate how they play the game and take a different path. While I agree that the days of easy points and relatively cheap redemptions are gone, there is unique opportunity for those who are willing to put in a little work and there are an increasing number of deals to be had, provided you pay attention.

The way I see it, the biggest plus for travel in 2014 is the Government's new rules that mistake fares (fares that were loaded into the system wrong by the airline) must be honored. This is a boon for those who are willing to track such things. Before this ruling, it was 50/50 whether or not an airline was going to ticket said fares, and whether or not you'd actually be able to get on the flight. In the current environment the best the airlines can do is not credit you the full amount of miles for the flight miles that, given the recent rash of devaluations, aren't worth much anyway. In this new age of air-travel as a white good, I'm more interested in lower fares than I am earning potential for miles. Given that most airlines now offer branded credit card holders many of the same privileges as their elites, there's little reason to worry much about how many miles you'll accrue for the flight anyway. Yes, it is still in your best interest to maintain your elite accounts, with the healthy understanding that they're not going to be tickets to flying First Class in luxury around the world three times with two open-jaws, a 24 hour layover in some exotic location and a ride in a Porsche to your plane anymore.

Speaking of miles, 2014 is going to be a great year to empty out those accounts, to actually experience premium-cabin travel without the worry of having to qualify for status the next year. Instead of working through my qualifications in 2014, I'm spending my planning time working out how to drain my United Premier account to get the best bang for my buck. For you, that might mean taking several trips to Asia, Europe, South America, for me and the wife its flying premium cabin via Lufthansa through either Munich or Frankfurt so she can get a rubber ducky. It's also about getting to Las Vegas (for $5/person) a few times and generally just having a great time saying goodbye to United. When 2015 rolls around, we're excited about not being as stuck as we are looking at Smiling Jeff every flight and getting to see new safety films and new color seats. In the new world of air-travel, travel free agency is going to be at a premium.

When you get down to the nuts & bolts of it most of the airlines are pretty much the same, in economy that is. Yes some domestic airlines still offer peanuts and some (Spirit) charge for bottles of water. But when you get right down to it in economy you're really paying for a seat to get you from point A to point B without major drama. Going forward I predict that on-time service is going to be one of the biggest metrics passengers look at when choosing a flight, that and price obviously. But a low price will only get you so far. Spirit airlines are automatically off the board when I fly due to many factors, the chief of which is their schedule unreliability. Never mind that they have uncomfortable seats, horrid customer service and a ridiculous fee structure (that really makes their fares not as cheap when you include them), the fact that they are more likely to suffer almost complete route collapse when things go pear-shaped is an automatic disqualifier for me. So, excluding Spirit, the rest of the airlines are pretty much the same in economy, so price and reliability are the two main things I'm going to look at.

The final thing I want to address is the myth that economy is now "much worse" than it was in the "good ol' days" of air travel. I could not disagree with this more. Yes, in today's economy you've lost that small packet of peanuts or pretzels and, in some cases, you now have to pay to check a bag, the seats are getting smaller and the leg-room tighter. On the other hand airlines are adding individual IFE screens on many flights, in-flight Wi-Fi is becoming the norm instead of the exception (except on United, where the roll-out is going glacially slow), and in-seat power coupled with the ability to keep your electronic device on has made bringing your own entertainment on-board a very real thing. On top of that, many of the larger airports have taken great strides to improve their food offerings. One of my favorite things is to grab some food in the terminal, and then bring it out once the plane has crossed the 10,000 foot threshold. You say they've taken away food in economy? Well, in case you've forgotten, it was, in almost all cases, inedible anyway. At least now I'm able to pick my lunch and whatever I get have a better than average chance of being tasty. Trust me, if you roll out a Schlotzky's even the group in Business Class will look wistfully as you bite into it. And on long-haul, intercontinental flights, most airlines are still offering meal service in economy. So if you want to eat over-salted food of dodgy quality you can still book a flight to Europe and chow down. I will say this, when US Airways was around there were many times I still brought my lunch or dinner on-board and passed on their free offerings. Even in Business/First United has the frustrating tendency to not stock sufficient selections, so by the time you get to the back three rows you find out that all of the chicken entrees are gone and you're going to be offered either cold cereal or gefilte fish. Pass.

So, in conclusion, while there's a general trend among travel/points bloggers and the know-nothing, flying-averse MSM travel writers to belittle the current state of things I think we're all going to be A-OK. Yes, those heady times where you could apply for a credit card and receive enough miles to fly to Southeast Asia in a seat stuffed with peacock feathers while sipping Krug and dining on baby seal are long in the past, there's still a lot of opportunity to travel the globe at a relatively low cost and that's just fine with me.

Thursday, January 02, 2014

A small glimpse inside the mind of a middling CEO

I would alternatively title this: Why United is flailing.

CEOs: Future is fewer, faster, cleaner airlines. Scott Mayerowitz, AP via The Columbus Dispatch

In 25 years:

• David Barger, CEO, JetBlue Airways: “The freedom to travel between any two points in the world will be commonplace. There will be billions of travelers every year flying on new aircraft that will be environmentally friendly; in fact, they will be making zero-carbon travel maybe even a reality.”

• Sir Richard Branson, president, Virgin Atlantic Airways: “I have no doubt that during my lifetime we will be able to fly from London to Sydney in under two hours, with minimal environmental impact. The awe-inspiring views of our beautiful planet below and zero-gravity passenger fun will bring a whole new meaning to in-flight entertainment.”

• Jeff Smisek, CEO, United Airlines: “The airframe and engine manufacturers continue to develop aircraft that are more fuel-efficient, have lower maintenance costs and have greater range and utility. Longer term, I believe manufacturers will explore engine and airframe technology that could significantly reduce travel times, but advances in this area would have to be safe and economical to make a real impact on our industry.”

The responses were given by various airline CEO's regarding the future of the airline industry. The only Smisek quote printed is in regards to where they see aviation in 25 years. Notice the optimistic thinking of the other CEO's compared to the dull, pragmatic view held by Smisek.

Much has been made, in print, online and elsewhere, about United's run to the bottom. You only need to look at Smisek's view of the future to understand why. Right now they are an airline led by a man with no vision, and even less imagination. It's time for him to go and bring in someone with a plan for growth and improvement instead of cuts and a second-tier strategy.

Civility applies to thee, but not to me. (Houston Critical Mass Edition)

Yesterday KHOU News ran a story, with accompanying video, of a group of Critical Mass bicyclists blatantly ignoring traffic laws, running red-lights and generally causing a menace to traffic in the area. The entire story is here:

Driver says video shows Critical Mass cyclists breaking law. Drew Karedes, KHOU

Cell phone video given to KHOU by a viewer clearly shows a stream riders passing through a red light. Cars can be heard honking repeatedly as drivers wait for the cyclists to pass.

Some drivers who have had their own experiences with the organized ride believe participants are not exercising caution.
"Half of them are my friends. They're punks," said driver Ryan Ottea. "They're using their mass as a weapon for running lights. They're using the mass to stop traffic because they can."

Critical Mass spokesman Kyle Nielsen says that is not true.

He believes riders are exercising free speech rights and are not doing anything wrong.
Nielsen admits that cyclists do pass through red lights to stick with the rest of the group.

"Cars control the roads 29 days out of the month, and I think once a month ride is not unreasonable," said Kyle Nielsen.

There is no question, upon viewing the video, that the bicyclists in question are ignoring and outright breaking existing traffic laws. As a matter of fact, Mr. Nielsen admits as much in his statements. In past interviews, Mr. Nielsen has been keen to state that Critical Mass is all about forcing automobile drivers to follow the laws in respect to bicycles on the road. As a matter of fact, in almost every article where a bicyclists is hit by an automobile cycling advocates raise their grease-stained hands in the air and scream bloody murder about the heathens in cars who are intentionally hunting them down.

This is, as you might imagine, patently false. Yes there are cases where cars and bikes get too close together and yes there are people who have, publically, espoused the belief that bicycles have no place on the roads (a false idea I might add -more later-) but there have been no situations where it's been proven that someone intentionally targeted a bicyclist. In all cases the accidents have been the result of accidents. Tragic as they may be, they're happening because neither car-driver nor bicycle-rider has much experience, in Houston, co-existing.

Then you get Mr. Nielsen’s comments, which strongly imply that the bicycle crowd clearly feels that the rule of law only applies one way. This is destructive and troubling because it means that the majority of Critical Mass riders are self-indulgent pillocks with no concern for their fellow man, which runs counter to the image that they display, or that has been portrayed in the Houston Media.

Unlike some, I understand that bicycles have a right to the road. They are classified as vehicles and share the same rights and responsibilities as do automobile traffic. This also means that the law, the breaking of which is not covered by 1st Amendment rights, applies to them equally. Whether or not Mr. Nielsen thinks them ignoring the traffic laws for one day is "reasonable" is not the question. Nor would I say should Mr. Nielsen’s opinions be given much credence, going forward, due to his apparent lack of understanding of the basics of civil activity in a society governed (ostensibly) by the rule of law.

There are options for Critical Mass to follow the law, one of which is to pay for a police escort to ride shotgun and stop traffic as the group moves through. Of course, this would involve following procedures and paying money and this group seems ill-equipped to be bothered with filling out the paperwork required for such a function. The other option is for the police to do their job and enforce the laws fairly. Whether or not you agree with the goals of Critical Mass you should, at the very least, understand the problems with letting them flaunt the law for no other reason than they just don't feel bothered by breaking it.

Houston is making strides in accommodating bicyclists and their needs as part of their overall transit plans. By any measure this is a positive development. What Houston doesn't need are groups of two-wheeled justice-bringers deciding what laws they will follow and what laws they won't. HPD doesn't need to be taking sides either. This is not a political question but a legal one. The old saying is that justice is blind. In Houston it's become apparent that she's not blind at all. If anything she's dispensed with a very large side of political prejudice. This is both alarming and saddening at the same time.