vivianjames

Spot the difference competition

Pictured:
1) Vivian James, an embarrassing stereotype of outdated social attitudes and behaviours;
2) Vivian James, an Australian writer.

If you’ve no idea what I’m talking about, then you’ve probably missed #gamergate, the latest example of of socially inadequate men attempting to drive women out of ‘their’ space of video gaming.

Here is an excellent short version and here is an excellent extremely long version.

Twitter won’t kill the general feed, cos that’d kill Twitter

Long-time Twitter users, myself included, value it mostly for the general feed (everyone you follow, live and in chronological order) and the ability to replicate the general feed model for specific lists you’ve made of people you follow and for specific search terms and hashtags.

They need the cash to settle this guy's image rights suit
They need the cash to settle this guy’s image rights suit

At the same time, Twitter is a confusing experience for novices and newbies – and to keep the venture capital taps flowing, the service needs to demonstrate growth.

So this week Twitter-the-company has talked about taking something that resembles its existing “discover” feed, which shows some highlights from the last couple of days of a user’s interactions, their friends’ interactions, and paid-for commercial content, and steering new users towards this ahead of the general feed.

This has cause a bunch of people who mostly should know better to lose their shit (sample lazily pulled from the article above):

There is a tiny flaw in their reasoning: it is bollocks.

Why? Well, you need to remember that Twitter’s value – to users and advertisers alike – is completely different from Facebook’s.

Facebook collects detailed demographic information and combines that with your interactions with the site to create a scarily tailored advertising profile. That’s what it’s for. At work this week, I bought a Facebook advert to reach people in Perth, WA who are interested in space exploration. This would have been simply impossible before Facebook existed.

It's difficult to manage a wide group of stakeholders
It’s difficult to manage a wide group of stakeholders

Twitter doesn’t. It provides a direct, unmediated platform for anonymous people, pseudonymous people, named people, famous people, and brands, to all interact on the same level. It doesn’t collate demographic information; the demographic profile data it shows to advertisers is based on surveys of people and the networks they use, not on the information they provide to the site.

But the demographic profile it has is extremely valuable: Twitter’s users are older and richer than the users of any network other than LinkedIn. They are also stroppy as hell, as the storm over this issue (not to mention every other issue that there is in the world) has confirmed.

Twitter-the-company has a balancing act to run, trying to bring in new users so it doesn’t get Kiss of Death growth headlines that deter people from putting up money, but at the same time making damn sure it doesn’t alienate its existing users to any degree beyond that which is necessary to sell advertising, because that would also deter people from putting up money.

The way it deals with this balancing act will, absolutely and definitively, not be by turning into a version of Facebook with the targeting data that makes Facebook into Facebook removed.

So stop worrying. It’s not going to happen.

Abbott, Birthers, written constitutions, judges, hilarity

Australian PM Tony Abbott was born in the UK in 1957. Being born in the UK between 1948 and 1983, he immediately became a British citizen by birth. His mother was an Australian citizen, so he also immediately acquired the right to Australian citizenship by descent.

Paperwork and patriotism

Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott
Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott

The law in force at the time provided automatic citizenship by descent on registering with the Australian government, for anyone under the age of 25. Abbott’s parents didn’t do this at the time of his birth, and also didn’t do this when they moved to Australia in 1960, when Tony was three years old, as assisted migrants (Ten Pound Poms).

Abbott acquired Australian citizenship by registration in 1981, at the age of 23, when he applied for a Rhodes scholarship to Oxford University. Taking an Australian Rhodes scholarship requires you to have Australian citizenship, and to have been resident in Australia for five of the last 10 years. Abbott presumably discovered on application that he wasn’t the Australian citizen he believed himself to be [1].

Not worrying about formal nationality was common at the time of Abbott’s birth and emigration: British and Australian nationality were only legally separated with the two countries’ 1948 citizenship acts, and up until 1973 the distinction remained irrelevant for most practical purposes. British citizens [2] were eligible to move to Australia without strict migration criteria, vote in Australian elections, and become Australian citizens after a year’s residence without having to undergo the naturalisation process that applied to other foreigners. For another decade, up until 1984, British citizens were eligible to vote and stand for office in Australia without becoming Australian citizens – and British citizens who were on the electoral roll in 1984 and continue to reside in Australia remain eligible.

So, Abbott’s parents were a bit crap at admin, in a context where nobody really thought that the legal difference between British and Australian citizenships mattered (the majority of Australians in 1960, and a large proportion in 1980, had been legally British during their own lifetimes despite never having set foot in the UK, because all Australians were legally British until 1948). His parents filled out a form well within the allowable 25 years allowing him to claim citizenship through birth rather than naturalisation.

People going on about this aspect of Abbott’s early life are basically idiots, with fewer legs to stand on than the average snake.

Independence Day: 3 March 1986

This map clearly shows that only the top half of Western Australia is British
This map clearly shows that only the top half of Western Australia is British

The Australia Act 1986, passed simultaneously in the UK and Australian parliaments, severed Australia’s remaining formal colonial ties to the UK [3]. The UK Parliament renounced its right to legislate with effect in Australia (at state or federal level), the UK government renounced all powers to advise the Queen on Australian matters, and the UK Privy Council lost its status as Australia’s official highest court of appeal.

The long title to the Act describes Australia as “a sovereign, independent and federal nation”, and the High Court of Australia confirmed in Shaw vs Minister for Immigration in 2003 that the Act marks the start date for Australian independence. As well as being a far better date to celebrate Australia’s national day than either the current Australia Day (commemorating the First Fleet of white criminals and prison guards on 26 January, 1788) or the sometimes-suggested alternative of Federation Day (commemorating the establishment of the federal parliament on 1 January, 1901), this declaration of independence had a particularly weird unforeseen consequence for federal politics.

Seriously, foreigners are the wurst
Seriously, foreigners are the wurst

One of the major drivers behind Federation was settler paranoia about non-white people and people of non-English descent, and the desire to impose greater control on borders [4]. This is reflected in the Constitution, whose Section 44i bans people who are “a citizen… of a foreign power” from standing for federal parliament.

This clause came out of fear of fifth-columnists, traitors, Germans, Chinese spies, and all the other things that continue to fill the nightmares of white right-wing hicks. Since all Australians were British citizens at the time, nobody from the British Empire was considered to be of a foreign power; that only applied to the weird ones who ate garlic, drank coffee and didn’t even speak English. But if you were of German birth and wanted to stand for federal parliament, you needed to renounce your German citizenship first, even if this wasn’t cancelled upon your acquisition of Australian citizenship.

You can probably see where this one is going

After the Australia Act 1986, the High Court determined in Sue vs Hill (1999) that since Australia was independent, the UK was now also on the list of undesirable places full of dirty foreign traitors who shouldn’t be allowed to sully the federal parliament’s door – and therefore, that anyone who was an Australian/UK dual national was required to renounce their citizenship before they were elected to federal parliament, just like dual nationals of other countries.

In a country with a flexible constitution, this would have been a good cue to take the sensible measure of repealing a ridiculous law enacted by 19th century xenophobes and serving no purpose whatsoever. But the Australian constitution is extremely hard to amend, requiring a process of national referendums, which would be overkill over a mild and faintly embarrassing procedural inconvenience – so Section 44i remains in force. Anyone born a foreign citizen seeking federal office needs not only to become an Australian citizen, but also to renounce their foreign citizenship.

Which brings us to the more significant accusations against Abbott.

"The second that dickhead gets thrown out, I'll down this in one."
“The second that dickhead gets thrown out, I’ll down this in one”

Former PM Julia Gillard, also UK-born, made clear as PM that she had formally renounced her British citizenship before entering the Australian parliament in 1998. Abbott has never said this publicly in the same way, arousing suspicions from various corners. Yesterday (2 September), his office issued a statement that “The Prime Minister is an Australian citizen and does not hold citizenship of any other country”.

This is a noticeably less strong claim than the one that Gillard made: it could mean he renounced his UK citizenship either before standing for parliament, or at some point after becoming an MP, or last week.

Screeching Birthers are still talking out of their arses

But Tony Abbott’s eligibility to be a federal MP in this parliament doesn’t hinge on whether he had renounced UK citizenship in 1994, when he first became MP for Warringah – it hinges on whether he had renounced UK citizenship at the date of the last federal election, which was his second as Leader of the Opposition and prospective Prime Minister. It’s vanishingly unlikely, given that Section 44i and Sue vs Hill are both known quantities, that the Liberal Party would have been incompetent enough to go to election twice with a leader who was ineligible for office.

Even if this had somehow happened, which would be hilarious, the result would be to invalidate Abbott’s election as MP for Warringah, forcing a by-election in an safe Liberal seat, with a large continued Liberal-National majority in the lower house even in the extremely unlikely event that the by-election were lost. There would be no requirement in the constitution for Abbott to stand down as PM at this point: the PM isn’t mentioned in the constitution, and there is no legal requirement for the PM to be an MP. More likely, he’d stand in the by-election (since we know he is now eligible), win it, and then carry on regardless.

Nonetheless, the whole shebang does draw attention to an extremely silly constitutional provision that Australia would be best without.

[1] Something rather like this happened to a friend’s sister, who was born in Australia after the 1986 Australian Citizenship (Amendment) Act to parents who at the time were not permanent residents. She discovered aged 18, having lived her whole life in Australia, that she wasn’t an Australian citizen and needed to apply for naturalisation rather urgently.

[2] For reasons that are painfully complicated, the law actually referred to British subjects, which is not quite the same thing as British citizens, but that’s a post for another day.

[3] Elizabeth II’s powers in Australia are as Queen of Australia, not as Queen of the United Kingdom.

[4] luckily, this no longer applies to anybody ever.

A Qantas of solace

Qantas announced its financial results today. Predictably, they were a car crash (Qantas still hasn’t had a plane crash [*], but they’re definitely a crash). $646 million operating loss, and $2.6 billion in one-off write-offs from revaluing the company’s aircraft fleet. No rock and roll fun.

Fiddling and burning

As Qantas CEO for the last six years, and about as many restructuring programs, much of the blame has fallen on Alan Joyce. “Alan Joyce is to Qantas what Caligula was to the Roman Empire”, said independent Senator Nick Xenophon, who never met an exaggeration he didn’t love.

cali_mm
Qantas CEO Alan Joyce chairing a board meeting

And it’s true: while he hasn’t yet made his horse a board director, Joyce’s strategy has been something of a disaster. His approach to a long-term structural weakening in Qantas long-haul, combined with an epic boom in domestic demand, was to ignore the former (leaving the long-haul airline with a fleet of fuel-guzzling 747-400s, highly-efficient-when-full-but-hard-to-fill A380s, and senescent 767s up to the end of 2013), and deal with the latter by starting a price war with its only real domestic rival, smaller, lower-resourced, lower market share Virgin Australia. Although at least the domestic airline’s ageing planes were replaced with efficient new 737-800s.

Under Joyce, Qantas’s investment has been focused on expanding pan-Asian short-haul budget airline Jetstar, which has had modest success in Australia and Singapore, less success in Japan, embarrassment in Vietnam, and dismal failure to even get an operating license everywhere else (including Hong Kong, for which the airline bought six brand new A320s that have been sitting idle). Much of the failure has been due to Qantas’s and Joyce’s failure to understand the Asian operating environment, where the perception that the airline is controlled by local partners is vital to local regulators.

More recently, as long-haul became predictably loss-making, the airline has slashed services, cancelled further A380 deliveries, life-extended 747-400s up to the point where they’ll be welcomed in museums on decommissioning, postponed 787 deliveries (despite the fact that, due to Boeing’s program delays, the airline is due an exceptionally good price on its 787s), made no effort to lease 777s in order to decommission 747-400s, and negotiated a codeshare with its biggest international rival that hands over most of its long-haul services out of most Australian cities.

And rather than attempting to either blitz or alleviate Qantas’s troubled relationship with staff and their unions, Joyce ratcheted the tension up to maximum, closed the airline for a day to hold a lockout, and then stuck a band-aid over the wound.

So, yes, Joyce has been inept. But what about the environment he’s facing?

They can’t be better than us, so they must be cheating

A lot of cant is talked about this, partly because local airlines in rich-people countries are very good at placing PR stories in the media, and partly because it’s the only area where rich-people country airlines and airline staff have aligned incentives. The general story is that it’s grossly unfair that airlines like Qantas are losing out, because their rivals in less-rich-people countries are “government sponsored foreign airlines with unlimited piles of cash”.

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A highly subsidised government-controlled airline stealing Qantas’s passengers

Anyone using this lie should be banned from aviation commentary. It is a bullshit excuse used to defend the incompetent management & overpaid staff of legacy airlines in rich-people countries from profitable foreign rivals.

Looking at airlines that could be considered Qantas’s competitors, Emirates is immensely profitable; it does not have any state subsidy. Singapore Airlines and Air New Zealand, both major shareholders in Virgin Australia, and Cathay Pacific are all slightly less profitable, but also unsubsidised. The remaining foreign government-controlled airlines that run on subsidy are basket cases that can’t fill their seats anyway: Malaysian Airlines, Air India, Alitalia.

The alleged indirect subsidies that critics like to pretend Qantas’s rivals receive are also illusory. Yes, fuel is cheaper in Dubai than it is in Sydney. But the economics of long-haul air travel are such that you have to refuel every time you land, so a Qantas flight that goes Sydney-Dubai-London has exactly the same fuel cost as an Emirates flight that does the same. It’s also true that company profits are taxed less in Dubai than they are in Australia, but you need to be making a profit in the first place before anyone taxes it.

The problem is, if you are an airline with new planes, new IT systems, and staff recruited on current contracts, you have a hell of a cost base advantage over an airline which doesn’t. This is highlighted by, um, Jetstar and Virgin Australia, never mind the foreign rivals. The foreign rivals also have the advantage of being on the way between somewhere and somewhere (with the exception of Air New Zealand, which really doesn’t).

The “cheating” narrative exists, of course, because it’s a first step in the one cause that unites unions and management everywhere: extorting money from the taxpayer to preserve unviable business models. Once you’ve established the trope that it’s unfair of Emirates and Cathay Pacific to steal all of Qantas’s international passengers using their home advantage, a subsidy to ‘level the playing field’ is a logical next step. To the current Australian government’s credit [**], it doesn’t so far seem to be showing any signs of playing ball.

Portrait of the CEO as a doomed man

Alan Joyce said in the results statement, “We expect a rapid improvement in the Group’s financial performance – and a return to Underlying PBT profit in the first half of FY15, subject to factors outside our control”. Note that ‘factors outside our control’ here means whatever he wants it to, like Humpty Dumpty. And note that he has said variations on this theme at almost every results announcement so far.

Etihad CEO James hogan
Etihad CEO James Hogan

Things should be less terrible for the airline going forward. The various doomed attempts to forge new Asian carriers seem to have been dropped; Qantas has addressed some of the terrible usage patterns of its international fleet (no longer leaving $300m aircraft parked up in London for 20 hours a day), 2,500 of the 5,000 layoffs in February have actually been made; and the write-off to aircraft values will save about $200m a year in depreciation charges. If not quite profit, that would seem to be enough to keep the airline’s loss manageable given its cash in the bank.

But while Qantas’s future is reasonably secure, Alan Joyce’s surely can’t be. The results today were greeted with near-universal incredulity that he hadn’t been sacked already, given the sheer number of times he’s come forward with another round of sorry apologies, another insane unworkable Asian solution, and failed to save money on the core business. He’s a hate figure for the airline’s staff and the Australian public.

So why hasn’t he been, then? There are two possible alternatives:
1) As with the sacking of BP CEO Tony Hayward following the Deepwater Horizon disaster, there is no point in bringing in the untainted CEO until the worst of the disaster is over. Joyce’s head needs to roll, but this might as well happen in six months when the current cost-cutting program is complete and it’s time to make longer term strategy decisions again; or
2) Australian business is utterly nepotistic and corrupt, with supine boards made up of drinking buddies who cosily tolerate each other’s incompetence no matter how gross.

We’ll see which it is over the next 12 months. Meanwhile, if I were the chairman at Qantas, I’d offer the Australian CEO of Abu Dhabi carrier Etihad, James Hogan, all of the money in the world and total free reign over all decisions to come home and repeat some of the magic he worked out in the desert.

[*] Fatal or hull-loss accident since the start of the jet era.
[**] Given the current Australian government’s performance at literally everything else, you have no idea how much this pains me to say.

$27 million a year is a bargain price to buy a government

It’s been Good Times Online as Crikey gets hold of a copy of News Australia’s detailed management accounts for fiscal year 2012-13 (I’ve uploaded a copy here, since the Crikey version, hilariously, is paywalled).

As a way of demonstrating its commitment to journalism, News has threatened to sue anyone who reports on the topic. The fact that The Australian loses $27 million a year (almost as much as the Guardian, despite being a barely-read Canberra local paper rather than a major global news organisation) has been noted as particularly hilarious.

If you try and frame The Australian as a newspaper in the traditional sense, of using content to sell readers to advertisers, then the level of fail here is baffling. News is a private company, not a charitable trust dedicated to furthering the cause of journalism. The continued existence of The Australian (and the continued employment of its coterie of gibbering morons at an average wage of $174,000) is a mystery.

But I don’t think that’s what’s going on. The News Australia accounts show that the actual value in News Australia comes from its pay-TV businesses.

News Australia’s profit for FY12-13 was $367 million. Its share of profit from pay-TV (Foxtel, Fox Sport and Sky New Zealand) was $230 million. Add in REA (which runs realestate.com.au)’s $146 million profit, and you’re already above total group profit. The newspapers in total – even including the profitable regional tabloids – contribute less than nothing [*].

That breakdown isn’t entirely fair, since it ignores $75 million of parent company costs – which are mostly, but not wholly, newspaper focused – and also $40 million of amortisation costs related to the Foxtel stake (whose accounting treatment I don’t understand). But it makes clear where the financial heart of the business lies, and it’s not in dead trees, or even their digital equivalents. It’s in having a monopoly on pay-TV delivery in Australasia.

Hell, it’s probably the only business of any real worth in the whole of News Corporation, since its assets outside Australia now consist solely of dead-tree businesses.

What are the ongoing risks and opportunities for pay-TV? Well, the biggest opportunity is in gouging people out of even more money for it, and the biggest risk is that people stop subscribing to it. Both of these depend mainly on government: the more draconian copyright legislation is, the more stringently it is enforced, the harder it is for you to just get things from Netflix and iTunes, the more crippled the ABC is, and the slower your broadband Internet is, the more value Foxtel has.

So that’s what The Australian is for. When you’re defending $230 million of annual profit, paying $27 million a year to shape the opinions of Very Serious People in Canberra regarding copyright law, competition law and telecoms policy isn’t a bad investment at all.

[*] per pages 3, 13 and 14 of the accounts. These are complicated by the fact that stakes in the various businesses changed over the year, with some some Fox Sports revenue counting as operating income and some as income from investments.

Meanwhile, at the Festival of Russian Language Films

“We’re really excited about this Russian-language film festival we’ll be hosting with you guys. But, um, we’re a bit uncomfortable with the fact that Putin’s rights-abusing and civilian-killing government is contributing to the funding. Their grant is only GBP1,400 so it’s no biggie; we’re happy to make up the difference ourselves as long as you turn down the donation.”

“THAT’S OUTRAGEOUS AND WE REFUSE. YOU ARE RACIST AGAINST ALL RUSSIAN SPEAKING PEOPLE.”

(inspired by this, obviously)

Spiritus in coelum

Ad me quiescam et requiescent cum moriar
Qui optimus in locum ire
Mori cum cubabo
Spiritus in coelum ascendere ad
Spiritus in coelum ascendere ad
Ibi ego ire cum moriar
Ad me quiescam et requiescent cum moriar
Qui optimus in locum ire

Scio te oportet praeparare
Obtinuit amicus Iesu
Ut scias, cum morieris
Ille agnus commendo
Quod spiritus hominis in caelo
Agnus commendo
Quod spiritus hominis in caelo
Illic es amet ire cum morieris
Et cum te ad mori
Qui optimus es agnus dei ire ad locum

Numquam ego peccator peccare
Jesus amicum habeo
Cum moriar, ut scias
Cum me ille agnus
Et spiritus in caelo
In caelo, cum spiritus me O
Ibi ego ire cum moriar
Ad me quiescam et requiescent cum moriar
Et ascende ad locum qui est optimus
Et ascende ad locum qui est optimus

(Nordmannis Lignum Viride fit a Medicus et Medici)

Representative democracy: a Socratic dialogue

Stolen and edited from Jim Bliss:

“Representative democracy is the least bad!” – can you believe there are people who genuinely put that forward as an argument for democracy?

“Look guys, we’ve all had a taste of the cow shit, the horse shit, the dog turd and the cat poo… and we pretty much agree that the cow shit is the least unpleasant; so it’s going to be cow shit for dinner from now on”

Little guy at the back… “hey everyone! I’ve just found these things growing over here. I’ve decided to call them strawberries, how about we eat these instead of the cowshit?”

Lengthy murmuring among those gathered, before… “Nah, we’re going to stick with the cow shit, it’s tried and tested”.

Why security and safety theatre is the worst

Safety and security are brilliant. Safety and security theatre is bullshit. If you support safety and security theatre measures, which includes nearly all routine airport security, you are helping to make everyone worse off and nobody safer.

Whilst world-travelling over the last month, I discovered that most European carriers [1] now allow the use of small electronic devices except for actual RF transmitters throughout the flight – including take-off and landing. Which isn’t surprising, because there isn’t and never has been any evidence that they ever have (or indeed potential that they ever could) do anything whatsoever to harm a plane.

However, most Asian and Australian carriers [2] still make you switch off your Kindle during take-off, despite the clear evidence and overseas best practice confirming that this is bullshit. This is solely because of safety theatre, enforcing archaic rules for no reason.

There is some (still only hypothetical) evidence that interference from actual RF transmitters could harm older aircraft, so banning mobile phone use in aircraft which haven’t actively been demonstrated to be phone-safe is for the best. It reflects the evidence-based precautionary rules which have made air travel the second-safest transport mode in existence [3].

However, efforts to provide mobile phone cells on modern aircraft which are certified safe have also flagged on many carriers, because they are required to overfly countries whose non-evidence-based regulatory requirements prevent it (chiefly China and the US, although US carriers do at least provide ground-cell-based wifi domestically). So online internet connectivity is a painful process confined to a few carriers, where it generally doesn’t work very well. Entirely because of dumb, non-evidence-based safety theatre.

Security theatre, meanwhile, is the one thing which makes short-haul flying unequivocally worse than 15 years ago, despite the immense improvements in the in-flight experience. The only thing which can prevent a terrorist attack on a flight is intelligence on terrorist groups. If a terrorist gets anywhere near an aircraft, that is an epic and terrible failure in security policy on a par with letting him blow the damn thing up – which, in any case, he almost certainly will be able to do despite the security theatre currently in place.

When a country is ruled by ignorant fuckwits and its security agencies are incompetent, as with the USA in 2001, evidence which would have got the 9/11 gang arrested even by the Keystone Kops long before any attack took place is ignored, terrorists gain access to planes, and terrible things happen. This is followed (hopefully) by improvements in intelligence, and (certainly, because people are stupid) by additional useless security theatre.

This is why getting a plane to America is now even more unpleasant than it used to be. It’s why you can’t take nail clippers on a plane, despite the fact that even McGyver could do no more harm with them than his nails. Even the US TSA floated the idea of resisting the ban on small pointy objects in 2013, on the grounds of its obvious uselessness, only to be shot down by grandstanding politicians screaming TERRORISM!!!!!.

When a country is not and its security agencies are not, as with the UK in 2006, a major terrorist gang gets intercepted and arrested long before they get anywhere near an aircraft with their ridiculous plot [4], and nothing bad happens at all. This is followed (hopefully) by improvements in intelligence, and (certainly, because people are stupid) by additional useless security theatre.

Which is why you [5] now need to stick your tubes of piles and herpes ointment in a transparent bag for public viewing, drink breast milk in front of random strangers, and pay $6 for a bottle of water airside. It’s why – if flying to the US or Australia – you can’t even buy duty free gin in the departure airport (or are forced to check it as cargo and hope it turns up in some random corner of the arrival airport within a few hours of your luggage).

As with safety theatre rules, security theatre rules don’t apply consistently across countries, because they are all made-up bullshit. If there were any need for them, they would be universal. For any rule which does apply universally – like, say, the transport of lithium batteries in hold luggage, or the prohibition on firearms in the cabin – this reflects the fact that it is evidence-based.

I’m not arguing that we should compromise on safety for the sake of convenience [6]. But if every airline, airport and regulator worldwide adopted EU rules on electronic devices on all aircraft (they’re fine), RF devices on tested aircraft (they’re fine), and Hong Kong’s rules on liquids, belts, and shoes (they’re fine), then flying would be a better experience, and the level of public safety would not be diminished at all.

Instead, for the sake of nothing but appeasing ignorant morons, we still have to arrive two hours early for a plane in order to queue endlessly whilst someone’s grandma gets interrogated over the forgotten nail clippers and syrup of prunes in her handbag.

[1] BA and Ryanair, who represent a decent cross-section. Probably there are some who don’t.
[2] Cathay Pacific and Qantas, likewise.
[3] Rail is safest, obviously.
[4] The plan would have failed due to its physical impossibility even had the plotters made it onto a plane – at best, the leaders could have burned their own dicks off, like the Nigerian gentleman whose Christmas 2009 was even worse than mine. Nonetheless, I accept that preventing people from burning their own dicks off on aeroplanes is for the best.
[5] Yes, you, specifically. You do all of these things. I know you. I know where you live.
[6] This is an argument I am happy to make in general, but I’m not using it in this piece.

Long-haul flying: we’ve never had it so adequate

Something which gets neglected by most travel writers – I think because long-haul economy-class flying is inherently a bit shit – is the immense extent to which the actually-flying bits of the long-haul rigmarole have improved over the last 15 years. The pre- and post-flying bits have worsened, of course, which makes short-haul flight far, far worse, but that’s a story for another piece.

At the turn of the millennium, by no means all planes flown by serious airlines even had seat-back in-flight entertainment (IFE). The last time I flew long-haul on a BA plane with only ceiling CRT screens was in 2002; the last time I flew long-haul on a US carrier (who count as somewhere between top-tier and third-world) which had them was in 2004. Surprisingly, the last time I ever flew long-haul without seat-back entertainment was on Air Canada in 2008.

But back then, even seat-back IFE was shit. You had perhaps eight channels playing on a continuous loop, so once you’d watched a film, you were stuck with whatever was next on the channel for 90 minutes until the loop ended, or joining something else completely halfway through. So even if there were channels featuring things you might reasonably want to watch, it was still a frustrating process. The same was true for music: at best, there might be one radio station vaguely to your taste, which repeated every two hours.

If you had a decent laptop, it’d be twice the size of your seat tray and would have a battery life of an hour or two. There were no power sockets in economy. If you were ridiculously dedicated to work, you might bring a second battery, taking your laptopping time up to a grand total of three hours. The concept of doing anything other than work was fairly ridiculous, not least because downloading films in the first place would have taken you all month and most of your disk space.

So you were often left with books, which are obviously a great medium, but a bit of a pain in the arse to lug around, especially if flying 20 hours for a two-week trip away.

Compare all of this with now, where any half-decent carrier has a video-on-demand system. As I’ve discovered on this Cathay Pacific flight, any carrier which isn’t from an English-as-first-language country [*] will end up with a fairly average range of videos to watch. Qantas are exceptionally good at VOD programming. BA and Virgin aren’t bad. But even Malaysian Airlines has enough to keep you occupied for 12 hours if you don’t mind watching HBO re-runs (and come on, there are worse ways to spend 12 hours).

If you do object to HBO, you also most likely have a Kindle with every book you own on it, a tablet or small-form laptop onto which you’ve pre-loaded your own favourite TV shows, music and online long-reads to catch up on, and you have access to AC and USB power sockets. The only thing you’re missing is the internet (unless you’re on Emirates, in which case you have all the fun of 1998-era dial-up internet, or above the continental US on a domestic flight). Noise cancelling headphones cost under $50.

And if you’re on an A380 or B787, newer thin-material seat designs, airflow systems and lighting systems mean that you can pack more people in without making legroom worse than it was in a 2000-era 747-400, you can breathe better and feel less groggy, and you’re subjected to lighting patterns designed to maximise sleep and wakefulness and minimise jetlag.

Don’t get me wrong. We’re not built to sleep in upright seats, and once a flight goes over the nine-hour mark even a Broadwalk Empire marathon starts to lose its appeal. Economy-class flying is still more of a chore than a joy; otherwise nobody would pay the price of a car to travel in the premium classes. And the improvement is largely down to wider improvements in the electronics industry, rather than anything specifically to do with carriers improving.

But that doesn’t negate my point. Long-haul flying is a hell of a lot better than it was when I was a callow youth – even though back then I was able to drink solidly through the whole thing and not worry about the destination consequences of hangover, no sleep and horrible back pain…

[*] insert your preferred first language if not English.

The idle musings of John B