The Curbing Cars Newsletter, 7/19/20

All the ways we get around, and how that affects the earth.

Please see the end of this newsletter for an update on our publication schedule.

Two Industries, Two Approaches. An Old Name Vanishes, And A Old One Returns

Last week, a lot of avgeeks were scrolling through Twitter, when we came upon a startling announcement.

British Airways was retiring its Boeing 747 fleet, effective immediately.

Within minutes, timelines were flooded with photos of the Queen of the Skies. There were reminiscences of flights taken on 747's (mine follows in a minute) and lots of analysis on what the move meant.

While the timing of the retirement was a shock, the retirement itself is no surprise to people who follow the industry — and readers of this newsletter.

Back on March 8, when the coronavirus was first making its way into the United States, our friend Marc Stewart talked about how the airline industry would be affected by the looming pandemic.

Marc said, “As long as corporate travel restrictions remain in place and the public deals with an element of fear, capacity is bound to drop even further.”

Meanwhile, this past week, another name from the past was in the news, only this time, it was one that was returning to the marketplace.

Ford unveiled photos of the new version of the Bronco that it plans to introduce in the not-too-distant future.

I produced a short podcast last week for our paid subscribers, in which I explained the reasons why the Bronco is returning, despite its quarter-century association with the O.J. Simpson chase in Los Angeles.

Essentially, it’s very expensive to develop an automotive brand. Once a company owns a brand, it wants to leverage all that it can get out of it.

Some auto executives view shelved brands as wasted opportunities, no matter how those brands may resonate among consumers. That was the case with Bronco, where a team of enthusiasts inside Ford lobbied for years for Bronco to return.

They were certain that customers will passionately embrace it.

As Kyle Stock wrote Sunday for Bloomberg,

“The most successful cult brands create a sort of flywheel effect, wherein customer evangelism essentially co-opts -- or entirely replaces -- traditional sales and marketing.”

So, who is making the right decision — British Airways, or Ford?

Being brutally realistic

I can’t say that I’ve ever been terribly romantic about flying in a 747. I’ve flown it to Japan, to England, and even within the United States, on what was probably a ferry flight by an airline moving the plane from one airport to another.

Yes, I’ve sat upstairs in the famous lounge, and yes, that was kind of fun. Although by the time I flew it, there were rows of comfortably spaced seats, and not the cocktail bar configuration.

To me, the 747 was a way to move hundreds of people from one place to another, and sitting in coach was far less comfortable than the glamour of riding upstairs or up front.

On my first flight to Tokyo, I had an aisle seat in coach on a plane that left late because its passenger load was being combined with that of another jet. It is no fun to fly 14 hours when every seat is filled, and the additional passengers chatted excitedly nearly the entire way.

But, the point wasn’t necessarily my comfort: it was convenience and revenue for the airline.

Once the pandemic hit, revenue disappeared. And, it’s likely to remain gone for some time to come.

There’s no sign that business travel will return in anything like the volumes that a historic fall would yield, let alone the demand that airlines experienced the past few years.

BA may have stunned us all by retiring the 747 so abruptly, but it’s being realistic. Nostalgia doesn’t put people in seats, if they don’t feel safe flying — and if their passports won’t get them into a country.

BA is also sending a signal to the transportation world that things are not going to get better, any time soon.

Without flights from New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles, you simply can’t justify keeping the biggest planes in the air. (Airbus already knew this, when it gave up on the A380.) Better to pull the plug, re-calibrate the fleet, and save what service you can.

Trying to have it both ways

How then, if it is presumably reading the same economic forecasts, can Ford bring back the Bronco?

And, an even bigger question: how can Ford convince consumers that it cares about climate change and the impact of vehicles on the environment, when it returns a vehicle known for its brute force to showrooms?

As I’ve written multiple times, American car companies want to have it both ways, and if they have to choose, they’re going to choose revenue, every single time.

The reason you see pickups and SUVs get the heaviest promotion is that they generate the most money for the Detroit car companies. EVs and hybrids may be the future, but they aren’t paying the bills right now.

If that sounds like a song you’ve heard before, that’s because you have — in the 1990s, in the 2000s, in the 2010s and now, in this decade.

I’m sure, based on the initial interest, that Ford will have orders for its first run of Broncos.

I’m sure we’ll read stories about dealers charging $5,000 and $10,000 premiums for them, and Ford will tut-tut but say that dealers are individual business owners, and they can’t do anything about it.

Remember the Thunderbird

But to anyone who thinks the Bronco is a great idea, I’d reply with another brand name: Thunderbird.

Back in 2002, Ford decided it would bring back the T-Bird with a special retro edition. Neiman-Marcus included it in its famous Christmas catalogue. The available T-birds sold out in minutes.

And then, customers waited months for their cars. When they did arrive, the Thunderbirds were pretty dreadful. Ford fixed the flaws, but it didn’t sell enough to justify production, and the Thunderbird disappeared again in 2005.

Neiman-Marcus, by the way, filed for Chapter 11 protection in May. So, I wouldn’t recommend that Ford try that route with the Bronco.

If the pandemic continues, and the economy doesn’t rebound, and the price of gasoline spikes at some point, it’s easy to envision the Bronco being delayed.

Then, Ford might be looking at British Airways, and wondering, “Maybe we should have followed suit.”

Some stories you should know about

How hot is it? It’s so hot that the heat is starting to have an impact on transportation around the country. In Boston, the MBTA warned customers that they could expect slower trains in order to reduce the stress on the tracks. It asked consumers to report train cars that seem overly hot, and it issued some guidance to help passengers keep cool during their commutes.

Your tires are killing turtles. A new study says that disintegrating car tires are contributing to plastics pollution in the world’s oceans. The micro particles are caught by the wind in all corners of the globe, and deposited into the seas, where they are complicated the problems caused by single-use plastics. Researchers say the average tire loses about four kilograms of material during its lifetime, except here in Michigan, where the average tire disintegrates in about three months. (I’m joking. Sort of.)

Delta warns, but no WARN yet. Delta CEO Ed Bastian is warning employees that even with 17,000 planned layoffs, it’s possible that Delta will have to let more people go. However, Delta has not yet filed the official documents that warn of a significant layoff. “Our goal is to minimize, and if possible, avoid involuntary layoffs,” he said in a memo to Delta staff.

Bicycle industry rescue. You’ve probably been following the stories of local businesses that received PPP loans, which were meant to help them stay afloat during the pandemic. It looks like the bicycle industry got about $11 million in Paycheck Protection Program loans. They went to 136 bike-related companies and 14 nonprofit organizations, with about 1,500 jobs across the industry.

Factory workers: wear masks. Last week, Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer issued a warning to manufacturers to make sure their employees wear masks, otherwise she might have to shut down factories. In response, manufacturers and the United Auto Workers union said their workers are complying with extensive COVID regulations. Although 25 auto workers died from late March to mid-May, no deaths have been reported since then.

A note on our publishing schedule

Effective immediately, Curbing Cars is shifting to a monthly publication schedule.

We will publish the newsletter on the first Sunday of the month, and subscribers will receive an expanded edition of the Mid-Month Report, rather than a mid-week report. They’ve been notified of the change.

The next issue you will receive will be in your in box on August 2, and the next Mid-Month Report will arrive for them on Aug. 12.

While we’d like to continue to publish weekly, and our commitment to covering mobility remains in place, a couple of things are getting in the way.

  • First, producing original journalism costs money, and unfortunately, we aren’t attracting enough paid subscriptions to justify producing a weekly newsletter. We know the pandemic has been hard on peoples’ income, and we understand if you don’t want to pay for another publication.

  • Second, my book deadline is looming in January, and it will require a lot of my focus.

Thank you for your interest in Curbing Cars. The newsletter lives on, but monthly rather than weekly.

See you on Sunday, Aug. 2!

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