Airlines, hotels, travel & tourism

Electric planes

Are electric and hybrid airliners the shape of wings to come? The airline industry is currently under pressure to clean up its act and become greener, but most current solutions offer little more than marginal improvements. Biofuels and hydrogen could make an impact in terms of emissions but both suffer from supply constraints, amongst other issues. So how about electricity? Can you power a plane with an electric motor? The answer is yes, but there are problems. Small sports planes are light enough to take off under electric power, but large commercial aircraft can’t. The problem is primarily the batteries. With a conventional 200-seater airplane weighing in at 115 tons, roughly a third of the weight is liquid fuel. If such a plane was electrically powered you would need 3,000 tons of lithium-ion batteries. A weighty problem if ever there was one. But there are solutions on the horizon.

For example, electric motors are very efficient, so it might be possible to build a hybrid plane that uses conventional jet fuel for take-off and climb and then switches to eco-friendly electric power for cruising (precisely where fossil fuels do most of their damage). Increasing wingspans would help increase lift and it’s quite possible that many of the lightweight batteries and other components currently being developed for electric and hybrid cars may eventually find their way onto planes. Boeing and Airbus (and NASA) are developing ideas for electric planes, but don’t expect to see one until 2030 at the earliest. And if you think this is just blue-sky thinking that won’t get off the ground, you could be wrong. Indeed, it’s always possible that traffic congestion down on the ground might fuel the serious development of personal flying vehicles or PFVs. The idea here is that because electric planes are so quiet they could one day be used in built up areas without causing complaints. This is wild and crazy thinking but as Michael Dudley, Chief of NASA’s Fleet Vehicle Research and Technology Division puts it: ‘Over time they (the ideas) will sort themselves out and you end up with optimum designs’.
Ref: New Scientist (UK), 6 November 2010, ‘Electriflyers: Hybrids take to the sky’ by Mark Schrope
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Search terms: electric power, hybrids, flying, planes, fuel, clean-tech
Trend tags: Sustainability

Standing room only

Just when you thought that low-cost air travel couldn’t get any worse comes news that an Italian seat manufacturer called Aviointeriors has developed a standing room only seat. The seat, codenamed SkyRider, was displayed at the Aircraft Interiors Expo in the US in September (2010) and is intended for short-haul flights of two hours duration or under. The pitch of an aircraft seat is the distance between a point on one seat and the same point on the seat in front. A standard economy class seat generally has a pitch of 75cm-82cm, although a few low-cost operators already go as low as 71cm. The SkyRider seat has a pitch of just 58 cm.

But that’s not all. The seat isn’t really a seat at all because you are not fully sitting. Rather you are half-seated and half standing. Uncomfortable? Aviointeriors say the seat is: ‘comfortable, dynamic, upright and healthy’, but passengers may have a few other things to say. Both Boeing and Airbus have expressed scepticism about the seat but neither has dismissed the idea fully. Primary concerns about the seat are safety related, especially the issue of evacuating a plane full of such seats in an emergency. Nevertheless, budget carrier Ryanair (who else!) has expressed strong interest in the concept. So what would the future of flying look like if standing-up seats do make it into the air? The answer is polarisation. In the back of a typical Boeing 737, for instance, you might have 98 SkyRiders, with 66 standard economy seats in the middle and 16 fully flat beds in the front in business class. With flying, as with much else in the future, you pays your money and takes your choice.
Ref: New York Times (US), 20 September 2010, ‘Legroom Tight Now? New Seat Is Less Spacious’ by J. Sharkey
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Search terms: seats, seating. economy
Trend tags: Low cost

Chinese tourists eat Chinese and buy brands

The most famous willow tree in China is in England. Hundreds if not thousands of Chinese tourists visit the tree every year, immortalised by a Chinese poet, although most locals in Cambridge have no idea why they are there.

Given the sheer size of China’s emerging middle classes, any sight that finds its way onto a Chinese tourist map can find instant fame and often fortune too. Some of the stops on tours are fairly obvious - The Eiffel Tower, The Grand Canal and the Louvre – but others are less well known and are being shaped by the particularities of Chinese history and culture (for example, Trier and Metzingen).

In Japan, the Ministry of Tourism created a campaign some time ago to double the number of outbound Japanese tourists. Soon Europe and other parts of the world were flooded with camera-pointing Japanese. The South Koreans came next and now it’s the turn of the Russians, the Brazilians, the Indians and especially, the Chinese.

Interestingly Chinese sightseers differ in a few significant ways to sightseers from other countries. Apart from sheer numbers, one distinctive feature is shopping. Chinese tourists like the sights but they like the brands too. Indeed, they often stay at budget hotels to boost their shopping budgets because genuine foreign brands can be as much as 40% more expensive back in China. Hence, there are Mandarin-speaking staff at shops like Louis Vuitton in Paris. Another strange stopover is Bordeaux, thanks largely to China’s obsession with high-end wine labels.

Surprisingly, the UK doesn’t really feature on Chinese itineraries. Other oddities (irregularities from other tourists) are that Chinese tourists prefer to eat Chinese rather than local. One survey found that 46% had only eaten ‘foreign food once during their trip and 10% not at all. One other reason for the influx of Chinese tourist is deregulation, in the sense that people can fix their own plans nowadays. Previously, travel was highly regulated and visas could be difficult to come by.

So what’s next? Many Chinese visitors are already on their second or third group tour so individual trips could be the next wave. Other than that, expect longer queues at some well-known travel spots and an influx of money into some lesser-known places.
Ref: The Economist (UK), 18 December 2010, ‘A new grand tour’
Search terms: Chinese, tourism, brands, shopping, wine, foreign food, Louis Vuitton
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Trend tags: Power shift Eastwards

Inconvenient truth or a web of deceit?

In September 2010, Trip Advisor became the first travel website to record 40 million unique visitors in a single month. This user-generated site (owned by Expedia) offers reports on hotels made by the guests themselves. At least that’s the theory. The trouble is that like many online comments, reviews feature anonymous usernames and there are no checks to ensure that people posting comments have actually stayed at the hotels on which they are reporting. Most of the time this isn’t an issue. Most reviews are real, made by real people, paying real money. Given that comments are dated you can also establish, with some degree of accuracy, how a hotel is performing right now. But sometimes things are not quite what they seem.

The first major issue is hotels writing their own reviews or paying others to write good reviews for them (quite common according to some sources – there are even ad agencies that openly tout such a service). The second issue is quite the opposite. While a good review can make a small business, a bad review can break one and some hotels are posting bad reviews of competitors. In theory the 2009 European Union Commercial Practices Directive should prevent such wrongdoing, but in practice it doesn’t. Nevertheless, such actions are illegal and there is already case law set regarding disclosure in such cases.

The argument against taking legal action against people posting fake or misleading reviews is that hotels have the opportunity to post their own comments, but in the case of small hoteliers they are probably not even aware that this can be done. So what’s the solution? Preventing anonymous posting would be one idea, as would ensuring that only people paying for a hotel room or restaurant can comment upon it (something which some sites already insist upon). But perhaps a better long-term solution will be algorhythms that sort truth from fiction or reliability ratings that verify who someone is and how reliable their comments generally are.
Ref: Daily Telegraph (UK), 9 October 2010, ‘Can you really trust trip advisor?’ by
C. Starmer-Smith
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Search terms: hotels, reviews, Trip Advisor, anonymity
Trend tags: Transparency