... in airtravel

Twice as fast = twice as nice

So today the dutch railways (NS) ran a one-time Amsterdam Berlin intercity service that was 27 minutes faster than the usual 6 hour 30 minutes Amsterdam Berlin intercity service. They achieved this by omitting all stops between Amsterdam and the German border (Hilversum, Amsersfoort, Apeldoorn, Deventer, Amelo and Henglo). According to the NS it should be possible to further reduce travel time to four hours by aquiring engines that are capable of running 200 km/h on the Dutch and the German railwys (right now there is a change of engine in Bad Bentheim that takes about 15 minutes) and by skipping most stops on the German side (Bad Bentheim, Rheine, Bad Oeynhausen, Minden, Wolfsburg, Stendal and Berlin Spandau). The main obstacle against this badly needed upgrade of the Amsterdam Service? According to the Volkskrant all these little places insist on having the train stop in their stations.

Still the NS seems to be fairly determined to upgrade the line and bring the travel time down to four hours1, which would make it roughly competetive with direct flights between Amsterdam and Berlin. Four hours between Amsterdam and Berlin would mean an average speed of 160 km/h which is nice compared to the current average of 98 km/h but it is a far cry from the 200 km/h reuired to qualify as a high speed rail service. By comparison i have recently had the pleasure to travel on the so called Zon Thlays (a dedicated summer weekend only service that connects Amsterdam with the south of France) which runs the 1244 km from Amsterdam to Aix en Provence in 6 hours 47 minutes (an average speed of 187 km/h including a 15 minute crew rest stop at Paris CDG Airport, required by labour regulations). This is nearly twice as fast and makes the 6 and a half our drudgery of the current Amsterdam Berlin service even more unbearable. It brings Marseille within 7 hours of Amsterdam which feels quite amazing in more than one way (both of them being old port cities on opposite sides of the continental European land mass that culturally feel much further apart that a 7 hour train ride).

Now most of the service runs on dedicated high speed lines (with the notable exception of the bit between Antwerp and Brussels which the Belginas refuse to upgrade, in their own petty version of the i-want-the-train-to-slow-down-and-call in-my-little-village described above) and it does not make any sheduled stops between Brussels and Valence, bypassing Paris to the east (see routemap below). The trip feels like a triumph of infrastructure over time and it illustrates that if we ever want to get Euroepans of their addiction to low cost flights we will need to substantially invest into better high speed rail infrastructure.

There is no good reason why people should be able to fly across the continet, destroying the climate in pursuit of the next city trip if we had infrastuctire linking major cities that would allow travelling 1200 km or so within 6 hours (think breakfast in Amsterdam, dinner in Marseille). Now such infrastructure does not come cheap2, but given the climate destroying effects of our addiction to cheap short haul air travel, there are little alternatives.

The most logical source of the required investments would be a suracharge on intra EU airline tickets. A modest €20 per ticket would bring in €12,5 billion per year (based on the 626 million passengers of national and intra EU28 passengers identified in the 2016 air transport statistics). To make the point that people should take the train insteard of the plane it this surcharge should be inreased to €100 per ticket for routes that compete with trains services that take 4 hours or less such as Amsterdam-Paris (1,26M passengers in 2017 = €101M extra ), Paris-London (1,07M passengers in 2017 = €86M extra) and many others. Over time such surcharges could result in substantial funds that can be invested into building a better high speed train infrastructure (think Japan) and in the short run they would make train operators on existing high speed connections much more competetive.

Given the political clout that the airline business has (they have succesfully resited the idea of taxing jetfuel for decades) such a measure would require a lot of political will to enact, but given the untenable trajectory that we are on when it comes to airtravel, there may be little other choices. The only other alternative would be for people to actually travel less. While undoubtably better, it is quite a hard sell on generations raised on cheap jet-fuel and the idea that multiple city trips per year are a basic human right.

Route of the direct Thalys service from Amsterdam to Aix en Provence

  1. Which is probably an unrealistic excpection. This 2018 study by engeneering firm Royal HaskoningDSV (commissioned by Natuur en Milieufederatie Noord-Holland) comes to the conclusion that without upgrading the track the measures described above would result in a retuction of travel time of 46 minutes only (page 32). This would mean five hours and 38 minutes total travel time which is not much better than the current situation. The same study calculates that upgrading the route to proper high speed infrastructue would reduce total travel time time to 3 hours and 4 minutes (page 36, note that this tiem includes transfer to and from the train station) ↩︎

  2. The above-quoted Royal Haskoning study claculates the cost of buliding a HSL network that connects Amsterdam with most mayor metropolitan centers within a radius of 750km to be €78 billion. Such a network would consist of 3310 km of new HSL infrastructure (which, of course would be only one part of a Europe-wide HSL network). ↩︎

What airlines can learn from how casinos are run

18 Nov 2011 | 627 words | consumerism data airtravel

So the latest Planet Money podcast consists of this absolutely fascinating interview with Harvard professor turned casino CEO Gary Loveman. The interview is fascinating on a number of levels, chief among them this detailed look into data-driven behavioral manipulations:

Gary Loveman: Everybody who gambles knows that the house has an advantage. They are not unhappy that they loose any more that one is unhappy that they pay $40 to walk into the magic kingdom at disney. They recognize that there is a fee to provide all this but they get very unhappy if the loss is surprisingly severe – or as a statistician would put it, if they are in the tail of the distribution rather than the mean of the distribution, right?

So we have programs where a customer comes to play, we can observe real-time who in the casino is there on his first visit. It’s all though that [loyalty] card. So if Jude puts that card in and our system recognizes that this is the first time that we met her, a flag goes up to the casino management: New customer, Jude, playing the 25¢ video poker machine number 275 in the front left corner of the casino. And people on our staff will then begin to monitor all such people.

And we focus on those whose gaming results are way out in the negative tail, that is they are playing a slot machine where they should be getting back $94 out of a $100 but they are only getting back 50 out of $100. I know that this is a bad experience for Jude and she is going to feel that this was a very poor first visit. So the question is then: what are you going to do about this?

And you can imagine a couple of answers: one is ‘nothing’ which is the normal answer in consumer life. The other is that someone comes out, introduces themselves to Jude and says: ‘welcome to – lets say – Harrah’s St.Louis‘. Now the first thing that Jude is going to say is: ‘Hi, this place sucks! i am having a lousy day, i can’t win anything’.

Then the question is what do you do then? first of all you apologize, you say ‘Gee i am sorry to hear this, we do not like our customers to have a bad experience, how can i help?’ and you can help by buying Jude dinner, by giving her additional coin to play in the slot machines because at some point the law of large numbers will bring Jude back to the mean. You could offer her a room in the hotel or a ride home in the limo or any number of different things.

We do these kinds of interventions and then we run tests and control against it to see whether of all the people having a bad first experience, those who have a visit from one of our staff are more inclined to come back for the second visit. And not surprisingly they are dramatically more likely to come back.


Gary Loveman: Now when i was an academic i did this with airline data. So imagine through frequent flyer data that we observe that Jude has a visit on an airline, the flight was delayed and her bag was lost. Is it any mystery that she hates the airline? No, she hates the airline, you know that. So if you want her to visit the airline again the next time, how would you treat her? You would want to acknowledge that the last trip was a bad one and you would want to try to do something to make it up. It is exactly the same idea. But the airlines never do that.

Kabul tourist guide

The city of Kabul (and Afghanistan in general) is still pretty high on my list of places i want to visit. Unfortunately, the closest place to Kabul that i got to so far is Delhi. Fortunately, however, there is the fabulous internet where Safi Airways ‘the international airline of Afghanistan’ is publishing PDF versions of it’s fabulous in-flight magazine. Browsing through the three available issues only reinforces my desire to go and visit the place.

As far as the standards of such publications are concerned the Safi Airways in-flight magazine boasts a number of rather unconventional topics (dog fighting, opium addiction) and a somewhat chaotic layout (a story about ‘man eating lions’ is run right next to an article about Kabul’s christian cemetery). Among the quirky stories and hidden in-between a fair amount of ads for armored cars are some real gems like this one about a olympic-size swimming pool on a hill overlooking Kabul that was never filled with water ‘due to the difficulties of pumping water uphill’:

Some of the parts of the magazine are outright amusing. This is especially true for the section of the publication that serves as a city guide for Kabul. The (apparently expat) copywriters seem to have inherited a certain casualness from their work in Kabul which readily expresses itself in the descriptions given in shopping section that covers everything from shopping malls:

Kabul city center is Afghanistan’s first modern style indoor shopping mall that opened in 2005. it is approximately 9 stories tall and is located in downtown Kabul

… to open air bazars offering counterfeit entertainment products …

Chicken street is famed for it’s tourist fare (carpets, carvings knifes etc) and pirated CD/DVD’s

… to sellers of misappropriated goods:

Karimi Supermarket […] make sure to head upstairs for some great stuff that’s fallen off some PX trucks.

Another area where the copywriters really shine are directions to restaurants and shops that are provided alongside these descriptions: The ‘Red Hot & Sizzling” restaurant can be found after making …

… a left at the next traffic circle. slow down, the first gate to the right used to have a red chili pepper hanging up on a pole. Not easy to find.

And in order to get to the ‘Corner Pizzeria’ you have to …

… head down the barricaded street to almost the end. You’ll see big misspelled banners showing you the way.

Update (6 sept): Spiegel online has an interview (in German) with the editor in chief off the in-flight magazine. turns out that the whole thing is intended to be ‘honest’ (as opposed to all other in flight magazines out there).

resilience | /ɹə.zɪl.ɪ.əns/

03 Jul 2010 | 384 words | airtravel amsterdam security terrorism

Last week thursday night someone tried to break in to our offices on the fourth floor of a building on the Keizersgracht in Amsterdam. in order to gain access to the office the wannabe-burglar(s) kicked in the door, pushing one of the wooden door panels into the room. it appears that they then waited to see if there was an alarm system and that they quickly left the building without taking anything from the office when the alarm sounded 20 seconds after the door was kicked in.

So while they had more or less unrestricted access to the office they did not take anything: Not one of our apple cinema displays, nor the cash box or even one of the bottles of fine french wine that we keep to entertain our guests. in other words, our system to prevent burglaries worked as intended: someone intended to break into the office but did not do any substantial damage because the alarm system went of and scared the wannabe-burglar(s) away.

Now the strange thing is that when you tell this story to others they react completely different: instead of recognizing this story as and example of something working as intended, people tend to see it as something negative (‘oh that’s terrible!’ is the usual reaction). Of course this reaction does not make any sense because this kind of event is exactly why we have an alarm in the first place.

Unfortunately this cognitive is not limited to smal scale burglary. It is very similar to how the public tends to react to failed terrorist plots like the shoe-bomber or the pants-bomber or the assorted idiots that are not even capable of blowing up their own cars (exhibit 1, exhibit 2). In all of these events the system worked as intended: no harm was done because the wanna-be terrorists did not manage to acquire explosives capable of inflicting actual harm or because they were simply too stupid to carry out their plots.

Instead of looking at these events as proof that open societies actually display a good measure of built in resilience, the public tends to interpret these events as proof that the terrorists are alive and well and the ‘security’ agencies thankfully exploit this cognitive bias to come up with more (and often absurd) ‘security’ measures.

An evidence-based approached to airport security

03 Jan 2010 | 306 words | airtravel beirut lebanon security

It seems that Beirut International Airport has a refreshingly evidence-based approach to flight security. When standing in line for the second security checkpoint (the one between the duty free area and the actual boarding gates) the security guards produced a half liter metal can from the backpack of the passenger two persons ahead in our line. When he failed to get the lid open with his hands, the teenager directly in front of us handed the security guard a pair of scissors, which he used to open the the can, which turned out to contain black powder (the owner stated that it was paint).

Next the security guard used the tip of the scissors to spoon a small amount of the back powder out of the can, produced a lighter and tried to set the small amount of black powder on fire, which did not result in anything and so the security guard pours a larger amount of the powder on an steel table and tries to light it again which still does not result in an explosion of any kind.

Subsequently, the text on the can is studied some more, the lid it put back on it and the can is returned to its owner (and the scissors to the teenager who had been impatiently waiting all along):

Turned out that the guy with the can of paint was actually traveling on our flight to istanbul and while i was sleeping for most of that flight i certainly did not notice any explosions there either.

[p.s: this is the same checkpoint where, back in 2006 instead of confiscating my beloved multitool they put it in a plastic bag, asked me to write my name and gave it back to me requesting to hand it over to the flight crew for the duration of the flight.]

Swine flue / Flying slums

One of the biggest idiots of our times, ryan air’s Michael O’Leary who has an opinion on just about everything is quoted by the german news website Spiegel online to have claimed that the swine flue ‘only affects people living in slums in Mexico and Asia’ and that ‘people flying short haul in Europe this summer will fortunately not die of the Swine flue’. Funny thing is that Ryanair flights can best be characterized as flying slums, which would make O’Leary a slum lord in addition to be a general nuisance and an idiot.

Deportation airlines

18 Oct 2008 | 367 words | border united states airtravel migration

Deportee boarding a ICE air flight to Guatemala city at Mesa, AZ airport. (photo Michael Schennum/Wall Street Journal)

We have had the deportation class and the deportation alliance but we never really had a proper deportation airline. Seems they have one in the US (land of the free?) though: The Wall Street Journal has a rather surreal article about ‘ICE air’ (ICE stands for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, an agency of the Department for Homeland Security). ICE air (officially they use ‘repatriation’ as a callsign) is a subsidy of the ICE and currently operates a fleet of 10 aircraft operating out of 4 US hubs. the airline primarily flies to latin america (‘three daily flights to guatemala city’) and exclusively transports deportees. The article portraits it as if it was just another airline and puts great stress on the service and comfort enjoyed by the deportees:

In-flight service is polite. “For a lot of these immigrants, it has been a long journey to the U.S.,” said Michael J. Pitts, chief of flight operations for deportations and removals at ICE. “This is going to be the last impression they have of the United States. We want to provide good service.”

[we could probably argue that this copies our deporation.class concept from almost 10 years ago, but then they seem to have failed to implement a ICE points system along the lines of the active miles loyalty programme].

What makes the article so surreal is the focus on efficiency and the constant comparisons to regular commercial airline operations [culminating in this info-graphic illustrating the hub and spoke concept] without ever touching the obvious question: what are these planes flying back to the US? Cocaine? Stranded US citizens on vacation? cheaply made goods from outsourced production facilities? Kind of reminds me of Darwin’s Nightmare

On the other had the article also seems to suggest that these deportation flights are an important component of the migration systems between central america and the US: the inbound trip may cost you a substantial amount of money but your return tickets are free and you still get at lunch box containing ‘a bologna sandwich, potato chips, orange juice and a bag of carrots’

I want one of these [a.s.a.p] ...

28 Sep 2008 | 11 words | art security airtravel

… message plates for x-ray scanners by Evan Roth [via gizmodo.com]:

No wonder...

05 Aug 2008 | 28 words | airtravel stupidity signs united states

… that South Americans and Canadians consider the gringos to be arrogant:

Window display of the Continental Airlines agency on Meiji-dori between Ebisu and Shibuya in Tokyo, Japan.

Data retention (a.k.a Northwest thinks that i am a vegetarian)

11 May 2008 | 298 words | airtravel data food

So just before the meal service during yesterday’s flight to Boston i get a meal tray handed over by a flight attendant. Turns out they have me on the list for a special (vegetarian) meal. Now the strange thing is that i had not ordered such a meal (even cheked my reservation confirmation and it does say ‘no special requests‘ so Northwest’s reservation computer must have come to the conclusion that i am (still) a vegetarian all by itself. Probably based on the fact that i was a vegetarian when i flew NW for the last time (5 years or so ago). All of this would not have been all too unpleasant if Northwest would not have fucked up the definition of a strict vegetarian (VGML) meal. While the main dish had a VGML sticker on it it turned out to be pasta in three cheese sauce. Now everybody who knows me a little bit will know that this is about the worst thing i can imagine in terms of food. Just thinking about pasta in three cheese sauce makes me feel miserable.

Of course the flight attendants did not really care about the whole thing because (a) they simply refused to believe that i had not ordered a special meal (‘is that your name and your seat on that sticker, sir? – eh, yes… then it is your meal’) and (b) because they refused to acknowledge that three cheese sauce is not a a VGML dish (‘does it say VGML on that sticker? – eh, yes… – then it is a vegetarian meal’).

In the end my neighbor offered me his chicken dish (thanks!). now all i have to do is to figure out how to tell the reservation system that i am not a vegetarian anymore…

meanwhile... is the personal weblog of Paul Keller. I am currently policy director at Open Future and President of the COMMUNIA Association for the Public Domain. This weblog is largely inactive but contains an archive of posts (mixing both work and personal) going back to 2005.

I also maintain a collection of cards from African mediums (which is the reason for the domain name), a collection of photos on flickr and a website collecting my professional writings and appearances.

Other things that i have made online: