Monday, December 31, 2007

That Phony Healthy-Airport-Food Report, Back Again



First off: Happy New Year.

Here, incidentally, is how that ball-drop tradition in Times Square got started.

And now to less festive matters:

Once again, the news media credulously report the annual "healthiest airport food" press release from an outfit that calls itself the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, without wondering who this marvelous committee is.

It's 2008 tomorrow, and I am growing weary. Don't reporters ask basic questions anymore?

The grandly named Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine is, in fact, a social-agenda organization run by a psychiatrist with ties to the zealots at People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.

All of us are for ethical treatment of animals, of course, but we all know that P.E.T.A. has other agendas, among them an opposition to eating meat or dairy products, and a holier-than-thou attitude about food in general.

Not that there's anything wrong with a nice salad.

The annual "Physicians Committee" report -- which defines "healthy" basically as "not meat or dairy" -- used to get a lot more publicity before, uh, someone blew their cover 3 years ago.

Any reporter who picks up their press release without identifying who the people behind it are is simply sloppy. (And the link in the fifth paragraph is by no means the only example.)

The report still gets giddy treatment in local media, especially television news reports, which typically gush when the "physicians report" gives good marks to the local airport).

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Friday, December 28, 2007

Chicago, Chicago...

Again today, I draw your attention to Chicago O'Hare, while most of the travel media are still running around clucking about Kennedy flight caps and the grossly overstated problems of mishandled bags and overbookings.

It's 1 p.m. Central time, and already, according to FlightStats.com, 442 departures and arrivals have been canceled at O'Hare, where it's snowing. So far this month, about 3,000 flights have been canceled at O'Hare.

[Update, Dec. 29 -- 621 departures and arrivals were canceled yesterday at O'Hare -- and this time it was American Eagle and American combined that led the pack. So it's time for American Airlines passengers as well as United passengers to be wary. Check those flight schedules well in advance.]

And the month isn't over.

As I've said, weather is part of the problem -- but we always have weather. And in past years, a good number of the canceled flights would have been flown -- subject to delays, which get recorder statistically.

Then there's the trend this year toward stranding planes on the ground for long periods of time, which has given the airline industry some of its worst publicity ever.

With the passengers' rights movement gaining force, the last thing airlines want is pictures on TV and in the papers of passengers stuck in planes amid deteriorating conditions. And thanks to Kate Hanni's coalition (www.flyersrights.com), some of those stranded passengers have cameras in the cabins and know where to send the videos and pictures to get attention.

So that's one factor.

Another is pilot and other flight-crew shortages as the end of the month and year arrive. This has been an especially acute problem with United Airlines, incidentally. Crews "time out" near the end of any month, but United especially doesn't seem to have enough resources in place to keep the planes flying. And now it looks as if American and its regional subsidiary might be in the same fix.

Anyway, it's another peak holiday travel time, and an awful lot of passengers are simply not being flown on flights that disappeared from the schedules. Those flights don't show up as delays, of course.

Meanwhile, an awful lot of planes -- and crews -- are out of position, scattered all over the Midwest and beyond.

It's a good time to stay home.

If you have to fly, as I do today (though luckily not through the Midwest) -- well, good luck to you.

As I have said before, the air-travel story this month is not delays -- which continue to be terrible. The story is cancellations.

If it's canceled well in advance (and evidence shows that's happening), a canceled flight doesn't generally draw hundreds of passengers to the airport, where their misery is publicly manifest, and where the unhappy crowds make for compelling news photos and video. Cancel the flight well enough in advance, and a lot of the affected passengers don't even arrive at the airport.

How many of those cancellations are being made preemtively by the airlines to keep the mounting problems out of sight?

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A-Hunting We Will Go!


The only real business travel being done this week is by the poor devils running in primary elections in godforsaken places -- and the reporters whose sorry job it is to follow them around and try to look clever to each other, day after dreadful, soul-murdering day.

Via Drudge, who doesn't ever do any actual reporting but would have made one heck of wire editor on some old Hearst paper (assembling other people's work in the dead of night) the latest on Huntsman Huckabee.

The link is to a Chicago Tribune blog, incidentally.

Sweet Sufferin' Jayzus, another Elmer Fudd emerges! Can't we require some basic firearms safety training, at least, if these tough-talking politicians who themselves managed to "duck" actual military service themselves are going to be packing heat on the campaign trail?

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Thursday, December 27, 2007

Passengers' Rights Move Spreads in States

The airlines have plenty of nightmares beyond the obvious ones like $150 a barrel oil. One of them is the spreading trend in the states to adopt legislation, modeled on a New York State law that takes effect New Years Day, spelling out what airlines must do when they strand passengers on parked planes for three hours and more.

Under the New York law, which has become the model for other states' initiatives, airlines are required to provide food and water and to empty the toilet tanks when they're full. These would not seem to be measures that you'd need a law to address, but airlines have demonstrably failed to address these problems on their own.

And they continue to strand passengers on idled planes, as they have since this fandango began last Dec. 29, when hundreds of planes were diverted from Dallas and thousands of passengers were stuck on planes idled at airports like Austin for eight hours, without food and as sanitary conditions deteriorated.

Legislators in New Jersey, California, Connecticut, Rhode Island and Florida are planning to introduce legislation similar to the New York law. Now a state senator in Arizona has stepped up to the plate.

The year-end holiday mess has begun at airports. United Airlines has been canceling flights by the hundreds, partially because the airline's flight-crew scheduling procedures have melted down as the month wanes.

Look for the passengers' rights movement to gain traction in 2008. And when it does, the airlines will scream bloody murder about what the airline industry regards as misguided interference in its operations, interference that they claim will have unforeseen negative consequences for the traveling public.

Whatever. A strong grassroots populist movement is afoot, and the airlines have no one to blame but themselves as it spreads.

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Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Cancellations Plague United Passengers

Keep your eye on United Airlines as the month runs out, especially if you're flying United, of course.

United has been canceling a pretty hefty number of flights lately, and its pilots union claims that bad weather in the Midwest isn't the only reason. As the month and year wind down, a lot of flight crews are at their limits, procedurally and emotionally. And United, it seems, according to this Chicago Tribune report, has been having a hard time getting enough pilots on the job.

At O'Hare, according to FlightStats.com, there have been 339 United cancellations as of 5.30 p.m. Central time today (there were 3,246 departures and arrivals scheduled for the entire day, with the evening crush still ahead).

Yesterday, there were 636 departures and arrivals cancellations of United flights, out of a total of 2,773 departures and arrivals all day.

Press reports usually note only the departure cancellations. I count both departures and arrivals because both categories represent flights that were not flown at O'Hare, so please be aware of the distinction.

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Stranded Passengers: The Video

We've been hearing about stranded passengers all year, from numerous instances in which airlines have kept passengers on idled planes on tarmacs for six, eight, 10 and in some cases over 12 hours.

Kate Hanni has done an astonishing job organizing a grassroots movement to press for passage of federal legislation to address these strandings, which are a direct consequence of an airline system stretched too thin, with no slack to accommodate weather or other disruptions. See the Web site of the stranded passengers coalition at www.flyersrights.com

You've read about these things. But now more people are recording their experiences, especially after this video on YouTube was widely disseminated. It shows what it was like on a Delta flight stranded on a tarmac for over 7 hours. Listen to the song and dance, shuck and jive, that emanates from the cockpit.

(This Delta flight wasn't even close in its misery to many others. Overflowing or stopped-up toilets, sick, frightened and hungry passengers, and foul air have been standard experiences on these flights).

My prediction: Now that New York State has stepped up to the plate and passed its own version of a passengers rights bill that will force airlines to provide basic health, safety and sanitation provisions to passengers stuck on tarmacs for 3 hours or more, there will be strong pressure in 2008 for Congress to move on the federal passengers' rights bills that have been languishing most of this year in the Senate and House.

Airlines, meanwhile, are doing everything they can to prevent any more of these videos and graphic reports from stranded flights.

Bad weather isn't the only reason they're canceling so many flights that would in the past have been flown, subject to delays. The airlines are very seriously worried about more bad publicity, especially now that some passenger back in seat 23B has video rolling.

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Monday, December 24, 2007

Bulletin: MaxJet Ceases Operations



MaxJet went bankrupt and ceased operations today. The all-business-class discount airline had flown between the U.S. and London Stansted Airport for two years.

I mentioned here Dec. 8, after MaxJet abruptly halted trading its shares in London and didn't have the gumption to tell its customers why, that travelers should avoid the airline.

If you hold a ticket on MaxJet now, you're what the bankruptcy court calls an unsecured creditor -- meaning you're at the back of the creditors' line when it comes to divvying up any assets that might be left. But credit card companies issue refunds for services not provided, so if you're holding a MaxJet ticket, call your credit card company immediately.

MaxJet's end comes two months after American Airlines began flying a new route between New York and London Stansted, in what was seen as a strategic move to grab business-class market share from MaxJet and Eos, which also fliles to Stansted, an airport more convenient to London's financial district than Heathrow. As is its wont when trying to chase a competitor from a market, American undercut MaxJet's fares.


Eos, meanwhile, issued a statement saying that its load factors were over 73 percent in September. "All signs point toward continued growth" next year, said Eos, which flies 757s outfitted with 48 business-class seats. MaxJet flew 767s with 102 seats.

Lawrence Hunt, the chief executive of Silverjet, which flies all-business-class 767s from Newark to London Luton, told me today that Silverjet "should be profitable by March." London-based Silverjet is the only of the four all-business-class startups that also offers a non-transatlantic route, between London and Dubai. The other all-business-class start-up is l'Avion, which flies between Paris and Newark.

(In May, British Airways is expected to launch a new mini-airline -- being developed under the code name Project Lauren and said to be formally named "Open Skies" -- with mostly premium-class seats between Paris [or perhaps Brussels] and Kennedy [or perhaps Newark]. The official announcement is scheduled for Jan. 9.)


MaxJet's statement today about going belly-up did not say so, but Reuters reports that MaxJet "prepaid Eos Airlines for about 500 seats" to accommodate passengers it has stranded. I haven't been able to confirm that yet. I certainly wouldn't take it to the bank -- or bankruptcy court.

Meanwhile, here is the sad and sorry Christmas Eve statement from MaxJet:

"Dear Friends of MAXjet:

It is with deep regret that I must inform you that MAXjet filed Chapter 11 bankruptcy on 24 December 2007.

With today’s fuel prices and the resulting impact on the credit climate for airlines, we are forced to take this drastic measure. Our top priority is to assist our customers, particularly those who already have begun their travel with us, in securing alternative flight accommodations.

MAXjet has contracted with Eos Airlines for seats on Eos’ scheduled all-Premium service to accommodate passengers awaiting a return flight between New York and London.

Passengers needing return travel between London, Los Angeles and Las Vegas will be contacted regarding their flight re-accommodations. Any customers who choose to make flight accommodations directly should seek a refund from their point of purchase (credit card or travel agency) for the unused leg of their journey.

We have also secured hotel rooms in London, New York, Las Vegas and Los Angeles through early January 2008 which we will provide to affected passengers whose travel plans have been disrupted.

On behalf of the entire MAXjet family, we extend our apologies to you for the inconvenience. We are extremely saddened to discontinue a service that we so passionately believe in, and we thank our loyal flyers who helped build MAXjet since our start in 2005.

Sincerely,

William D. Stockbridge

President and CEO

IF YOU HAVE STARTED YOUR TRAVEL… MAXjet is contacting customers with their new travel itineraries in priority order based on date of departure. Please contact MAXjet Customer Care at: US phone number: 1-866-837-9880 UK phone number: 44 (0)1279 216 478 Email: mailto:intransit@maxjet.com

Please have your contact information and either a confirmation number or flight date/number ready. Any customers who choose to make flight accommodations directly should seek a refund from their point of purchase (credit card or travel agency) for the unused leg of their journey.


IF YOU HAVE NOT YET BEGUN YOUR TRAVEL, BUT HAVE BOOKED TICKETS… Seek a refund directly from your point of purchase (credit card or travel agency). For further information, passengers who have not yet begun travel may contact: US phone number: 1-888-435-9629; UK phone number: 44 (0)1279 216 428 Email: mailto:%20info@maxjet.com Please have your contact information and either a confirmation number or flight date/number ready.
Investor Relations "

--end of MaxJet statement.

Incidentally, MaxJet said it had "contracted" with Eos, the all-business-class carrier that started up operations about the same time, to fly passengers awaiting a return flight to New York from London. Those passengers will be accommodated when seats are available on Eos, which stands to gain considerably from MaxJet leaving the New York-London Stansted market.

Keep in mind that a "contract" by a bankrupt company to secure services is a questionable proposition. Have a backup plan if you're one of those affected.

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Thursday, December 20, 2007

Federal Court Tosses Out Airlines' Bid to Block N.Y. Passenger Rights Law

A federal judge in Albany, N.Y., this afternoon threw out a move by the airline industry to block enforcement of the New York State Passengers Rights' law, which will take effect Jan. 1.

Besides denying the injunction, the federal court went further, affirming New York state's right to enact and enforce such a law, and denying the airlines bid for a summary judgment based on the airlines' contention that the state law is an unconstitutional violation of the provisions of the 1978 federal Airline Deregulation Act. (ADA)

The New York passengers' rights law "is limited and discrete in scope: the provision of lavatories, fresh air, food and water for passengers confined for over three hours on an airplane," U.S. District Judge Lawrence E. Kahn ruled. Consequently, the state law "is not preempted by the ADA," his decision said.

The passenger rights' law is fiercely opposed by airlines who fear that similar legislation will spread to other states and perhaps spur passage of a more-sweeping federal passengers' rights bill. The law requires airlines who keep passengers on board planes stranded for three hours or more on tarmacs in New York state to provide adequate food, water, ventilation and sanitary conditions. It sets a penalty of up to $1,000 per passenger for failure to do so.

California, New Jersey and several other states are considering passage of similar laws. And passengers' rights bills are pending in both houses of Congress. The federal bills would add a measure even more onerous to the airlines, requiring airlines to allow passengers to return to a gate and debark after three hours of being confined to the cabin of a parked plane.

"What you're going to see is other states following suit, and hopefully the Congress stepping in more aggressively, now that we know the states are moving on this," Michael Gianaris, a New York state assembleman who co-sponsored the bill, told me this afternoon.

The airlines, Mr. Gianaris said, "brought this on themselves. They promised action voluntarily. They didn't do that. It's an ongoing problem. My preference is not to legislate, but clearly in this case it was absolutely necessary."

In dismissing the airlines' lawsuit, Judge Lawrence Kahn said that the airlines had no ground in arguing that state regulation of in-cabin services, such as providing water and working toilets, was an unconstitutional violation of the 1978 Airline Deregulation Act, which specifies that states could not set their own rules over airline flight operations.

"The field of health and safety is one of the most established areas of state police-power," the judge wrote, adding that "the Passenger Bill of Rights is an exercise in state protection of the public health. Fresh air, water, sanitation and food are necessities in the extreme situation in which this act applies."

The Air Transport Association, the airline trade group that filed the lawsuit, issued a statement that seemed to minimize the U.S. District Court, which it referred to twice, in its text and in the headline, as a "New York lower court." The U.S. District Court is not a New York court, but a federal court.

ATA said it was issuing its statement, "in response to the New York lower court's decision regarding ATA's challenge to the legality of the state's airline passenger rights legislation."

The statement said, "ATA believes that the court has misinterpreted the law. We are considering our options, including filing an appeal. ATA's sole purpose in filing this lawsuit was to preserve the principle that commercial aviation is best regulated by one source -- the federal government -- and not 50 individual states."

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Sunday, December 16, 2007

Just Askin'

(Road Warrior Stocking Stuffer? Caffeinated sugar-free mints. See last item.)


--Who's supposed to fix the technology for the air traffic control system? The F.A.A., which talks an awfully good game and yet continually fails to deliver desperately needed new technology to manage crowded skies. The F.A.A. has a much-publicized Web page for checking the real-time delay conditions at U.S. airports: http://www.faa.gov/ -- click the "Airport Status and Delays" link at the top right for a map showing major airports and (supposedly) their current operational status. Trouble is, the thing seldom works. More often than not, the map is as frozen as the air-traffic system.

--Who's counting? I know I sound like a broken record on this, but reporters really ought to be paying more attention to mounting flight cancellations. All the media ducks are quacking over Kennedy because they're being told to by the authorities, but it's O'Hare where the mess has been piling up for the last month every time bad weather smacks the Midwest. Yesterday, there were 398 cancelled departures and arrivals at O'Hare. Of the 1,904 flights that did take off or land there, 1,487 were delayed -- 1,006 of them by 45 minutes or more. Stats as usual from Flightstats.com. [Update: As of 8 p.m. Eastern time tonight, just about half of the 890 flights scheduled for Boston departures and arrivals had been cancelled.)

--Is there no dumb-ass local police stunt that small-town papers won't treat credulously? As security expert Bruce Schneier points out , this is a very good way to alert thieves that you have something possibly worth stealing in the car.


--Speaking of local papers, can the Iowa and New Hampshire primaries come soon enough? After that, the national media can stop pretending that the journalistic sad-sacks who run the editorial boards at poor-quality newspapers in Des Moines and Manchester actually have compelling to say.

--What in the world accounts for all of the gushing reviews of the movie "Waitress." Saw it last night on DVD, and my report can be paraphrased from the reaction of Dorothy Parker, dismayed at the infantile cuteness in a Winnie-the-Pooh book she was reviewing: I fwowed up. O.K., the pies in the diner were pretty. But Jayzus, was no reviewer even remotely troubled by the sweetly-presented in-office affair between the sorowful pregnant waitress and her gynecologist? In most jurisdictions, the district attorney and the medical board both would have had a term for this bum: sexual predator. (I know the writer-director, Adrienne Shelly, was tragically murdered just before the movie was released. Doesn't make the movie any more tolerable, though.)

--Stocking stuffer for a hard-core business traveler? These things have been around for a while, but I just discovered Penguin Caffeinated Peppermints, in a black tin box that advises on the back: "3 Penguins are the caffeine equivalent of 1 cola beverage." Sugar-free, too. They also come in chocolate and cinnamon flavors. By an outfit called ifive brands in Seattle. Web site http://www.peppermints.com/

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Thursday, December 13, 2007

What Is Lufthansa Thinking? Here's a Guess



What is the German carrier Lufthansa thinking, buying a 19 percent stake in JetBlue, which has no overseas routes but a whole lot of point-to-point routes into Kennedy airport? (Cost of investment: $300 million.)

Two words: Open Skies.

At the end of March, under the new Open Skies agreement between the U.S. and the European Union, European carriers will be able to greatly expand operations in the United States -- assuming they can get the scarce, and soon-to-be-scarcer, airport slots.

And what does JetBlue have? Lots of slots and gates at Kennedy -- where the feds are about to crack down on allocating slots. Not to mention a very good reputation for customer service, last Feb. 14's ice-storm strandings notwithstanding.

Suddenly, it makes a whole lot of sense to me. With British Air already committed to launching a subsidiary airline to fly from European cities to Kennedy and other U.S. cities in May, and with other carriers looking for entry and gateway slots, a new game is about to begin in international air travel. And the buy-in is high.

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Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Cowboy Down



I like rodeo and professional bull-riding, which are two separate things. I admire the hell out of rodeoers, male and female, and I am in awe of the skill and stone courage it takes to get on the back of a bull who's been trained to be mean. Or let's say even meaner than your average bull.

If I'm on a business trip somewhere and there's a rodeo in town, I'll try to make it.

On the other hand ...

There's been a lot of press lately about bull-riding as a great spectator sport, the "new NASCAR," as it's being called. That's wildly exaggerated, but it's true enough that the sport is gaining lots of new fans.

But there's no mention of the physical realities of bull-riding, a sport in which a 30-year-old who's been on the circuit for a dozen years is often over the hill physically.

I like to ride. Horses, not bulls, of course. Like most recreational riders, I tend to frown on a horse that's bucking in any form. If a frisky bucking horse can't be lunged out, stay off it unless you're prepared possibly to get dumped.

Riding in the Southwest and West over the years, I've gotten to know a fair number of cowboys and wranglers, some of whom have been on the bull-riding circuit. The bull riders often share two things in common: Very severe physical injuries and a lack of health insurance.

Every horse rider has been dumped on occasion.

But try it on a raging bull, in a sport where the best of the best are hoping to hang on for 8 seconds. (The bull always wins, no matter what.)

Here is the reality of professional bull-riding. And these guys are the money guys at or near the top of the sport. Behind them are hundreds of itinerant cowboys scrounging gas money to get to the next event, without the dough to do more than stumble into an emergency room hoping for a quick patch-up before heading off into that sunset.

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Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Flight Cancellations Accelerating

I know the weather was truly awful today in parts of the far Midwest and the Plains. But flight cancellation numbers keep mounting as evidence that airlines might be simply scratching a lot more flights to keep them from being listed as badly delayed.

Stats are from the invaluable Flightstats.com:


--As of 8.30 p.m. Central time today, Chicago O'Hare had 810 arrivals and departures canceled .

-- Kansas City had 338 cancellations -- out of 559 scheduled flights. [Update Dec. 12 -- Southwest Airlines canceled all of its 71 departures yesterday from the Kansas City airport, saying it did not want people to risk driving to the airport.]

I am being told by pilots and by industry sources that airlines, seeing bad weather, are canceling flights that in previous years would have been flown, if greatly delayed -- expressly to keep the delay figures down and specifically to head off those news accounts of miserable passengers trapped in airports or on parked planes.

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Sunday, December 09, 2007

Open Skies: Shakeup Coming in Transatlantic Business-Class Markets

British Airways, as mentioned in yesterday's post on the troubles at MaxJet, is creating a new mini-airline that will fly transatlantic routes from various European cities.

The service will start next spring after the Open Skies agreement takes effect at the end of March. The agreement between the European Union and the U.S. greatly relaxes rules on which cities international airlines can serve between Europe and the U.S.

The name for B.A.'s new subsidiary hasn't been announced yet, but B.A. has been developing it under the code-name "Project Lauren." There's lots of speculation about the name, and I'd point out that the domains flyopenskies.com, along with flyopenskies.co.uk and the .eu and .de extensions all were registered and parked in early October by someone.

Several months ago, B.A. chairman Willie Walsh said he wasn’t sure whether the anticipated new service would be all business class or a combination of business class (which B.A. brands as Club World) and premium economy (which B.A. calls World Traveller Plus).


B.A. has now decided to launch the airline starting in May. The new B.A. airline will fly 757s most likely configured with two cabins — business class and premium economy, though I don't know yet whether B.A. will brand the business cabins Club World. Initially, B.A. will devote only two or three 757s to the new routes.

The strategy, as Walsh described it to me months ago, is to fly from various U.S. gateway cities with heavy business travel demand to premium-market cities in Europe — he named Paris, Frankfurt and Amsterdam and said others were possibilities — using 757s.


Given British Air's worldwide networks and alliances, a B.A. entry into the boutique end of the transatlantic premium market would be bad news for MaxJet, since MaxJet flies out of the B.A. bastion at JFK. MaxJet uses 767s that are 18 years old on average.

But it probably wouldn't be good news for Silverjet, sincer Silverjet has long-0range plans to expand after Open Skies. And Eos can't be applauding the prospect of a new layer of premium service by the formidable B.A. B.A. flying a new premium service between Paris and the U.S. is bad news for l'Avion as well.

Not known: Where is the also-formidable Virgin Atlantic on this new strategy? Virgin -- whose luxury Upper Class business-class service is a high-shelf competitor to B.A.'s on the transatlantic London markets -- also has been talking about a new premium service niche between European cities and the U.S.

So there's a realignment in store over the Atlantic, come spring. And there could be casualties, perhaps well before spring.

MaxJet, which abruptly halted trading in its shares on Friday without explaining why, was said to be scrambling for emergency financing. In a statement today, it said it was continuing to operate flights and take bookings.

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Repeat After Me: Security, 9/11, Rudy, Security ...




Via YouTube. But remember, in American politics, farce has a tendency to return as history.

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Saturday, December 08, 2007

MaxJet Alert





MaxJet, the two year-old all-business-class airline, suspended trading of its stock on a London market.


In a very vague statement yesterday, the airline said "it is business as usual" -- which itself is a red flag because suddenly suspending trading of your stock is by definition not "business as usual." It is not a good sign for a start-up company to clumsily try to hide whatever the problem, disruption or unexpected turn of events is.


MaxJet has been reporting significant losses.

See this story today in the Times of London. (The London Times story says MaxJet is based in the UK. It's actually based in at Washington Dulles airport in Virginia). Also see this one in the Independent.


MaxJet is one of four discount all-business-class international startups to come on line in the last two years.

The others are Eos, which flies between New York and London and occupies the highest-end niche with its 48 lie-flat seats in 757 airplanes; Silverjet, which has been posting respectable loads on transatlantic routes between Newark and London; and l'Avion, which flies between Newark and Paris. (L'Avion seems to be competing with Air France for the title of Crappiest Airline Web Site in the western world, incidentally).


MaxJet flies 767s, with an average age of about 18 years each, between Kennedy and London Stansted; Las Vegas and Stansted and Los Angeles and Stansted. In late October, MaxJet suspended its service between Washington Dulles and Stansted.

The MaxJet roundtrip fare between New York and Stansted is about $3,900. Silverjet, meanwhile, has a fare sale, about $2,200 roundtrip on its Newark-Luton route. American Airlines, by comparison, charges over $8,000 for a refundable round trip business class seat from Kennedy to Heathrow. (Don't gasp: the walk-up first class roundtrip fare is about $13,000).

On Friday, Silverjet brashly announced that MaxJet passengers "worried about flight cancellations" would be accommodated on Silverjet on Friday and Saturday, on a space available basis, if they produced a MaxJet ticket. (MaxJet flew its normal weekend flights.)
The start-ups have generated industry interest in all-premium-class service, by the way.

British Airways and Virgin Atlantic have been making noises this year about possibly starting some all-business-class routes, or maybe even starting separate small airlines with all-business-class service (or a combination of business class and premium economy class).

There has been speculation that British Air might be looking to acquire an all-business-class airline, but I'm skeptical of that. For example, Willie Walsh, the CEO, told me that B.A. has plenty of suitable planes in the fleet that could, if called upon, be easily converted to accommodate all-business-class or premium-class cabins, depending on routes, flying to various cities in the U.S. from London and various other cities in Europe.
With oil prices hammering every airline's operating-costs projections, there are bound to be a few casualties among recent airline startups. I'd be surprised, for example, if the Midwest-based SkyBus makes it through the winter.

Meanwhile, in the absence of forthright information from MaxJet about what's going on, I'd avoid MaxJet, at least for now. Holding a ticket on an airline that goes belly-up is an EZ Pass to that queue marked "Unsecured Creditors."

If MaxJet is going to continue operations, the airline need to get out front of this situation and level with its customers. Pronto, and in detail.

***

Here is the MaxJet statement:


"MAXjet has temporarily suspended its share trading on the Alternative Investment Market (AIM) in the UK. This decision has no effect on MAXjet’s normal operations, and the Company and its Management Team assures its customers that it is business as usual. MAXjet continues to make bookings for its daily flights to/from London, Stansted and New York, Las Vegas and Los Angeles. There are no changes or cancellations in the flight schedule, and MAXjet will continue to offer its award-winning service."

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Friday, December 07, 2007

The Morning News: A Modest Proposal

--This character says "media must stop creating celebrities out of lunatics." But, but ... what will all those Washington reporters do all day?

--The "lyrical terrorist" who posts online poems about how cool it is to behead infidels was given a suspended sentence after a conviction on (weak) terrorist charges in Britain (where else?). Great outfit, incidentally. Add a wimple I'm back in fourth grade being whacked by Sister Mary Godhelpus.

--Via the always excitable Drudge, Agence France Presse quotes John McEnroe fretting about Mafia influence in tennis. Suddenly a new mob-nickname world opens: Tommy "White Shorts" Fatarino; Vinnie "Fuzz Balls" Pecatori. Beware the rackets ... OK, I'll go do some paying work now...

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Thursday, December 06, 2007

The Morning News

--Only USA Today, folks, could come up with a headline like this over its story online today about the mall massacre in Omaha:

Horror for holiday shoppers:
'Terrible way to start' season

No, that isn't a parody from the Onion. It's really the headline they put on the story.

[Update, 7.20 a.m. -- The day crew must have got up and had a horrified look at the Web site, because the headline has now disappeared in favor of a more appropriate one. Maybe Al Neuharth was wandering around the office in the middle of the night muttering about what's really important in the USA, and his password still worked.]

***

--Speaking of Onion, the Onion News Network Undercover Investigative Unit demands answers on airport security.

***

See Salon's "Ask the Pilot" columnist Patrick Smith today on the Thanksgiving Express Lanes farce and the airplanes-underfueled nonsense overblown by ill-informed reporters.

***

--Jayzus, come back to Earth and stop smoking that stuff, Pico. In which a travel writer actually states the following: "Air travel is as comfortable and reasonable today as it's ever been."

###

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

2 Airline Trends That Will Make 2008 Worse





Here are two things we should be paying more attention to: 1. Flight cancellations. 2. Plans by U.S. airlines to further reduce domestic seating capacity next year, in a system in which all domestic flights are already full.

First, flight cancellations:

Since the start of the Thanksgiving holiday, the airlines have been able to avoid a lot of bad publicity – the kind that comes from stranding passengers for many hours on planes parked idly on tarmacs – by canceling flights in advance when conditions start going south.

Obviously, weather is a factor. The Midwest has been hammered with ice and snow. But hey, it’s December. Weather is always a factor. What’s different now is that many airlines have cut domestic flights and seating capacity, and the system has no slack.

The airlines have learned that massive flight delays create very picturesque scenes in airports that resemble Red Cross camps and draw in the media cameras, and could lead to unwanted Congressional attention (assuming Congress is capable of paying attention to anything).

Not to mention Kate Hanni and her vigilant army of about 20,000 volunteers working for federal legislation to force the airlines to treat stranded passengers better. Kate has been advising passengers stuck on planes to take pictures.

So for the airlines, you could argue that it’s a lot more expedient to cancel flights in advance -- and hope that the media doesn’t notice beyond those lame AP bad-weather reports that usually just note that “hundreds of flights were cancelled.” As if the real number doesn’t count or is too hard to find out.

It isn't, by the way.

Let’s look at Chicago O’Hare from last Saturday. Hobbled by bad weather, O’Hare struggled to get 30 percent of its flights in and out on time. But the flight-cancellation figures (from FlightStats.com) were something else: Of 1,120 scheduled departures that day, 354 were cancelled. Of 1,187 arrivals, 337 were cancelled.

That’s nearly 700 flights that simply did not take off, either from Chicago or from other airports with Chicago as the destination.

Because O’Hare has a high percentage of regional-jet flights (many with about 50 seats), let’s be very conservative and say that each cancelled flight represents, what, 80 passengers? That’s probably a low average, but even then it represents over 55,000 people who didn’t make a flight last Saturday – in a system where all flights are already full, meaning it can’t readily handle tens of thousands of displaced passengers.

Let’s return to O’Hare today (figuratively, because it’s again not a good day to be flying there). More bad weather. And another very high cancellation rate.

Today, as of 1.30 p.m. Central time, 370 flights have been cancelled at O’Hare. [Update, Dec. 6: The total number of cancellations at O'Hare was 508 yesterday.]

For the flights that did fly, the on-time performance during the morning was well under 30 percent -- and the vast majority of late departures and arrivals were at least 45 minutes behind schedule.

That’s just a snapshot. But it’s a picture of things to come.

We’ll soon be seeing another round of those excitable media stories about record numbers of travelers taking to the skies for the Christmas and New Year holidays.

But record numbers of travelers have been taking to the skies all year. And in a system where nearly every seat is already full, an influx of holiday travelers doesn’t mean all that much, beyond misery as usual. In fact, most of them merely replace the business travelers who back out of the system during the holidays.

Barring a big airfare increases to offset oil prices (and the airlines have so far been able to do much more than push through a series of small incremental increases of $5 or so each), demand is likely to continue rising, in already known patterns. The weather is likely to disrupt flying a lot more than it did at Thanksgiving, again in known patterns.

So stand by for heavy rolls, as they say in the Navy when the seas get rough.

Meanwhile, as predicted here, the airlines are further reducing capacity for next year, meaning the squeeze gets even tighter.

Delta, for example, said this week that it would (further) reduce domestic capacity by up to 5 percent in 2008, while adding capacity to lucrative international expansion routes. Sometime in 2008, Delta says, international flights will account for 40 percent of its overrall seats. Southwest Airlines -- which recently started a new focus on luring more business travelers -- said this week is was further reducing growth plans for next year and planning to mothball some older 737s.

United Airlines -- which has already announced a 3-4 percent reduction in domestic capacity next year -- also is looking at a big international expansion in 2008 and the following two years.

According to this AP report, Jake Brace, the chief financial officer, told an investors' conference in Chicago yesterday that United "can carry out its next round of international expansion by reconfiguring or shifting planes from its domestic operations" -- but may also buy some new long-haul planes. (My question: Yeah, you and whose wallet?)

If you're a domestic airline competing with all of those fancy international airlines, you can maybe foist some Boeing 767s onto your international customers, but I wouldn't do it with the fierce competition flying better airplanes. The current long-haul workhorses, the Boeing 777-ERs, cost about $270 million each, a little more than a 747.

Assuming its uncle doesn't die and leave it about five billion dollars to buy new long-haul airplanes, how does United really propose to beef up international operations by 15 percent?

Hey, I can answer that! Shift more big planes to overseas routes and fly more crummy little regional jets on ever-longer domestic routes. And cut service in smaller markets that don't cough up enough dough per passenger.

As Michael Boyd keeps pointing out, when domestic airlines cut capacity, the first places they put the screws to are small and mid-sized markets where the economics don’t work well because they don’t have well-established business-travel feeds into airline hubs, especially feeds into international routes.

So look out Small Town U.S.A.!

And keep an eye on those cancellation figures to get an idea of how the system is tottering.

The latest report from the Bureau of Transportation Statistics shows that 132,632 domestic flights were cancelled in the first 10 months of this year, compared with 94,282 in that period in 2006, and 117,393 in 2005.

Yes, flight operations are up slightly, given the increased relilance on small-payload regional jets. But remember, each cancellation represents x-number of passengers thrown into a system that, by definition, can't readily accommodate them.

###

Sunday, December 02, 2007

Free the London Underground Emma!


Proving that only some Brits have a great sense of humor, the nitwits who run the London Underground system fired Emma Clarke, the woman whose voice is heard on some of those famous voice announcements for the London subway system.

You know, "Mind the gap" and all that. The voice that tells you what the next stop is. The one with the accent that American feature writers always call "plummy" and the English used to call "Received Pronunciation."

Emma's offense: She got interviewed by the Mail on Sunday newspaper and allowed as how she doesn't ride the subways herself. She takes buses or taxis instead.

"The thought of being stuck in the Tube with strangers for minutes on end and having to listen to the endless repeated messages of my own voice fills me with horror," she said. Sounds to me like she was joking, incidentally, but that isn't the point.


Emma (above), a comedy writer, is also a voice-over specialist for radio and for advertisers. On her Web site, she's posted a variety of pretty funny spoof announcements. Here's the link.

I love the gentle admonition to American tourists. And also the one about people engrossed in "their Sudokos." Also the one about Londoners who think their city is the center of the world.

The nimrod PR man for the London Underground said that Emma was fired because "we wouldn't employ somebody to promote our services who simultaneously criticized our services."

I recently saw the excellent movie adaptation of the play "The History Boys," and reading the PR man's statement caused me to hear the voice of Clive Merrison, the wonderful actor who played the pinch-faced Headmaster, in my head.

Now if someone would only track down that American lady who sounds like Granny from the Beverly Hillbillies, and who does those grating, annoying announcements for U.S. airport terminals -- like that infuriating one they keep running at the Houston airport that says you will be arrested if you make "eny inappropriate remarks or commints concerning s'curity."

I'll bet that lady doesn't have a Web site with funny spoof announcements.

She could get 'rristed.

###

Snow Day 2 [With 3 P.M. Update]

A lot of airplanes are out of position today because of the ice storms in the Midwest, which arrived in the Northeast overnight as snow. Luckily it’s a Sunday and, if nothing else goes wrong, the air-travel system should struggle back to shape by tomorrow.


Till the next time the weather turns bad. This being the cusp of winter, that'll be soon enough.


But consider: Of the 2,297 departures and arrivals scheduled yesterday at Chicago’s O’Hare, 683 were cancelled. That’s a whole lot of airplanes spending Sunday morning where they aren’t supposed to be, in a system without any slack.

Questions: Where are the thousands of people who were booked on those cancelled flights? How many are still stuck in airports, given the fact that there are often no short-term re-booking options if your flight doesn’t fly.

Anyway, be sure to check on your flight times today or tomorrow.

[Update Sunday 3 p.m. -- I was maybe a little too optimistic earlier. Cancellations to and from airports in the Northeast are piling up, and no way does this get fully sorted out by tomorrow, even if the weather is great. As of 3 p.m., there already had been about 225 cancellations at Newark. Snow-and-ice delays were stacking up at Kennedy, LaGuardia, O'Hare and Philadelphia, and at San Francisco high winds were delaying flights.

If you're traveling tomorrow, plan ahead. And make sure you have an apple or a granola bar or two in your carry-on, in case your flight gets stranded for hours on the tarmac, as sometimes happens.]

###

Saturday, December 01, 2007

Best Thanksgiving Travel TV News Feature

The Onion News Network on the scene, as usual.

Also, in light of the hostage-taking disturbance at Hillary Clinton headquarters in Rochester, New Hampshire, yesterday, help for schizophrenics.

###

Snow Day in the Midwest

Delay alert if you're traveling today, especially from, to or through the Midwest:

Freezing temperatures and ice are hampering air travel in the Midwest and into upstate New York. As of noon, Chicago O'Hare had a ground-delay program in effect. Aircraft de-icing was slowing traffic at Minneapolis/St. Paul. Des Moines Airport was closed this morning and hadn't re-opened as of noon, after a United regional jet skidded off the runway.

(Update: At 6 p.m. Eastern time, O’Hare is a mess. According to FlightStats.com, of the 426 flights scheduled to depart O'Hare between noon and 6 p.m. Central time (an hour from this writing) 159 have already been cancelled. Of 461 flights scheduled to arrive from other airports in that period, 163 have been cancelled. Not delayed -- cancelled. Now the delays and cancellations at O’Hare and elsewhere in the Midwest are starting to roll out to either coast, and come tomorrow a lot of airplanes are going to be sitting at the wrong airports. Good thing today is a Saturday (though that sentiment does you no good if you happen to be flying today).

###

For Rudy, A Little Travelin' Music



Not at all sure Rudy is going to be able to 9/11 his way out of this derision about his 2000-2001 business-travel expense accounts. These are being widely e-mailed. Source: Bartcop.com

###

Friday, November 30, 2007

Peninsula Manila: Crisis Management 101

(Above: The lobby of the Peninsula Manila hotel. Without the tank.)


I deal with a lot of PR people. A few of them are stone dopes who do things like pitch good story ideas to multiple people simultaneously (you want to P.O. a reporter? There's a very fine way). But most of them are at least pretty good -- and some are absolutely excellent, top of the game, smart and savvy.

The hotel industry, it's been my experience, tends to have some of the very best PR people. In fact, I enjoy all hotel people in general, especially at the big multi-national companies. You routinely run into a savvy GM who's now running the resort in, say, Phoenix, having just come back from a few years running the five-star property in, say, Cairo.

I'm writing a book about my travels in the last eight years, and I find that some of the best stories are associated with hotel people.

They're among the last of the great classic travel adventurers, hotel people are. The good ones can think on their feet anywhere in the world, hit the ground running, never have a hair or a collar out of place, and still manage to keep the kitchen running and the sheets washed.

I'm especially impressed today with the way the staff and management at the Peninsula in Manila appear to have handled the nasty hostage crisis this week, which was the Manila radicals' latest adventure in Woody Allen-land, with crazy armed rebels who evidently had no idea what the hell they were doing.

Two bishops were said to have been part of the rebel group. Manila has one of these half-baked coup attempts about once a year, but this is the first one I've heard of that included a luxury hotel and two bishops. Not to mention a tank smashing through the Peninsula's doors and being driven right into the lobby.

Anyway, it's over.

Savoir-faire is what the best hotel people have, and they showed it in Manila, from what I'm hearing from friends in the industry.

Here are is how the hotel PR people handled the crisis. No fancy flack language, no obfuscation, just the facts -- and the contact names and numbers. No baloney. That's exactly what a reporter needs on a deadline in a bad situation. And it's also what you or I as a business traveler perhaps with plans to stay at the hotel might need to know:

***

News release Nov. 29, 3.15 p.m. -- "The Peninsula Manila has been occupied by a group of gunmen. There are no reports of any injuries to hotel guests, patrons or staff, and the matter is being dealt with by the relevant Philippine authorities ...The Peninsula Manila is currently being evacuated and hotel guests are being transferred to neighbouring hotels. ... The Peninsula Manila is now closed until further notice ..." {My note: The list of contacts for guests and press were attached, with names and phone numbers}

News release, Nov. 29, 7 p.m. -- "The occupation of the Peninsula Manila has now ended and the rebels have left the hotel. The matter is now being dealt with by the relevant Philippine authorities. Hotel guests are currently being accommodated at neighbouring hotels. ..." {Again, the list of contacts was attached}

News release Nov. 30: -- "Following the recent incident at The Peninsula Manila, the hotel is now closed temporarily and will re-open for business at 3:00 pm on Monday 3rd December 2007.

"Guests with bookings for arrival before Monday 3rd December are kindly requested to make alternative arrangements for their visit to Manila. For assistance, please contact the hotel on + 632 887 2888 or reservation.pmn@peninsula.com , and our staff will be pleased to help.
For general enquiries, please contact The Peninsula Manila on (632) 887 2888.

"For media enquiries, please contact Ms Irene Lau, Corporate Affairs Manager of The Hongkong and Shanghai Hotels Limited on (852) 9094 3153 or Ms Sian Griffiths, Director of Communications, The Peninsula Hotels on (852) 9026 5217."

Just the facts.

###

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Just Askin'


How high are air fares prices headed? It's anybody's guess, with oil prices basically out of control and the media focused on nonsense like the purported success of the "Thanksgiving Express Lane" White House publicity stunt.

Given the lack of scrutiny, it's my guess that the airlines are feeling free to run up fares in this brief slack period before the next holiday crunch. (Though, of course, most leisure travelers have already purchased their tickets for holiday travel, unlike many business travelers).

FareCompare.com reports a "significant increase (in) matching activity by Northwest Airlines, US Airways and Alaska Airlines." United started this latest fandango.

"Northwest Airlines significantly matched the $20 roundtrip increase for both business airfares (those less than 14 days advance purchase) and leisure airfare in over 18,000 city pairs," reported FareCompare.com's chief executive officer Rick Seaney, who added:

"US Airways significantly matched both business and leisure airfare in over 9,000 city pairs -- Alaska Airlines matched in over 200 city pairs.

"This latest wave of matching by the legacy airlines of the 10th attempted increase since Labor Day has left Continental Airlines as the lone holdout not to match – I expect them to match over the next few days."

***

Just askin' ...


Did the airlines and the air-traffic system dodge the bullet this Thanksgiving holiday period? I'd say so, though I'd also point out that the overall on-time rate of about 75 percent was nothing to hire a brass band over.


Nice weather also had a lot to do with whatever success the system claims. Last Monday, when the weather did become gloomy in the Northeast, and nasty in Atlanta, the delays began stacking up again, making for a bad night at airports from Atlanta to Boston.

By the way, the Air Transport Association, the trade group representing the interests of major airlines, posted timely operational updates for the period on its Web site. Good for the ATC. Trouble is, you have to look at that damn Edna. (Above. Sorry.)

Just askin' ...

Is Registered Traveler doomed as a technology-based alternate security program for those who pay the annual fee? One who thinks so is Bruce Schneier, the security-cryptology analyst and author, who told me recently he thought private-sector security technology was a deeply flawed concept.

"At first I thought Registered Traveler was really stupid," he said. That's when the programs were being marketed with promises of tecnology like electronic shoe-scanners that would allow members to avoid the hated requirement to take off shoes for a pass through the magnetometer.


The program -- now up and running in 14 airports -- is also based on members carrying a biometric ID card encoded with iris scans and fingerprints. You get the card (with a $99.95 membership at the major operator, Clear, for example) after the TSA runs your name against no-fly lists and terrorist watch lists.


Neither the shoe scanner nor the biometric ID have yet been approved by the TSA for checkpoint security use. Clear and two small competitors are now marketing their versions of the RT program essentially as fast-pass lanes with concierge service to help you keep track of your stuff as you go through regular security.


Schneier thinks that's the way to do it. "I'm perfectly happy with people paying extra money to go in faster," he said. "Concierge service, that makes a lot of sense. But basically the background checks are irrelevant. Dump them. The verified I.D. is irrelevant. Dump it."

But a fast-lane concept itself? "People are going through (the RT lanes) faster just because the amateurs are not in those lines. I'd pay money to go through the line with just people who know how to go through security."


Just askin' ...

--Why hammer Rudy for his entourage's 9/11 travel expenses to visit his girlfriend, when his good bud, the naughty police commissioner Bernard Kerik, was actually commandeering a Ground Zero condo -- donated as a rest spot for emergency-personnel -- to shag the scary Judith Regan? Oh, I see. It was the Hamptons for Rudy. ...

--You think they're kidding about air travel becoming more like taking the bus? In his weekly newsletter in Travel Insider, David M. Rowell notes that the Delta's new executive vice president for operations used to run Greyhound.

--Why did the media take those Thanksgiving Express Lanes -- opening up some military space for commercial traffic to stack up -- seriously?...

--Is Christopher Hitchens the only national reporter with guts to address fraud dressed up in religious vestments? Hitchens, who told the stone truth about Mother Teresa, calls out Bishop Romney and those oh-so-delicate campaign reporters in a piece in Slate (And yeah, Romney is a Mormon bishop) … Did you know that Caroline Kennedy just turned 50 years old? Not possible, but true. ... Does Junior Gotti even begin to comprehend the notion of irony? ... What are the the four most terrifying words in journalism? "First in a series" ...

--Will no one speak for Teddy Roosevelt? The Sudanese government imprisoned a British teacher who taught at an exclusive grade school in Sudan for blasphemy, inciting hatred and insulting Islam. Her offense: Her students had a teddy-bear-naming contest, and the name Muhammad, which of course is a common name throughout the Moslem world, was selected. Hmmm. It would seem the authorities in Sudan might have more important things to concern themselves with ... like, oh, dunno, Darfur? Incidentally, teddy bears derive their generic name from Theodore Roosevelt, who was president at the time the little stuffed critters became a craze. ...


--Now that they've screwed up everything else, are they about to screw up the simple, utterly practical, all-weather, easy-to-use-without-gizmos-with-keys, ain't-broke-don't-fix-it book. (Yep.)


--And lastly: Is there anything Diane Sawyer won't do?


###

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Brazil Blog. The Transponder: Case Closed?

The Brazilian Air Force panel investigating the horrific Sept. 29, 2006, mid-air collision that killed 154 in the Amazon has concluded that the American pilots could not have accidentally turned off the transponder in the business jet that survived the crash. And nobody who isn't certifiably crazy thinks they did so deliberately.

(Update, Nov. 30 -- Down the rabbit hole again: A Brazilian federal judge says the pilots have to return to Brazil for trial. Case closed! Call the witnesses! See my Brazil blog. )

###

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Thanksgiving and the Pilgrims, The Worst Business Travelers Ever




I cannot be held responsible for my actions the next time I am presented with one more Thanksgiving feature about either that dirty old rock sunk in trash-filled muck on the beach in depressing Plymouth, Mass., or about the damned miserable Pilgrims.

Why do we buy into this nonsense every Thanksgiving, an otherwise fine holiday? Why do we teach children these stone lies?

The Pilgrims' voyage was the earliest example in this country of a really, really bad business trip that never should have been undertaken.

Having been given the bums' rush from England, where they were unable to establish their odious form of sexually-repressed religious fanaticism, they inflicted themselves upon these shores expressly to implant a tradition of religious fanaticism, intolerance and Taliban-like retributiveness in the unsuspecting New World.

I think the Indians were remarkably tolerant of these gapers, considering that the Indians carried hatchets.

I tell British friends who pronounce themselves appalled at some of the things going on in the U.S. today that their own ancestors bear a good part of the blame. I mean, they imposed the Pilgrims, and the Pilgrims' partners in repression and religious hatred the Puritans, upon us 400 years ago.

"Can we send them back now?" I ask. "No, thank you very much," the Brits reply quickly.

Anyway, happy Thanksgiving.

We're holed up for the holiday at our getaway in the Sonoran desert, where it's 80 degrees and spectacularly sunny. This year, my daughter, son-in-law and their two small children joined us in Arizona.

Last night near twilight, my wife took our 4-year-old grandson for a walk in the Saguaro National Park. The boy is at an age where television and peer influences press the idea of "monsters" on him, and his parents have been very successful at dispelling the notion that monsters exist.

But on their walk on a long path, my wife and grandson encountered a huge jackrabbit that was more than 3 feet tall. The beast must have weighed 30 pounds, said my wife, a woman who never, ever exaggerates, and who only takes a single Coors Light on occasion.

The humongous jackrabbit just sat there looking at them, and as they looked back, he moved off to a spot 10 feet away and resumed staring. Then everybody walked on.

Now to me, this constituted an encounter with an actual, living monster. All of that work gone to hell, telling the kid there are no such things! But the boy just took it in stride, informing me later that he saw a rabbit "that was as big as me."

[I know Sonoran jackrabbits are not known for growing to anywhere near that size, but there are plenty of anecdotal reports online of just such beasts, and a cowboy I know out here says he's seen more than a few. Trust me: This was a monster jackrabbit].

But enough about rabbits.

The morning travel news is keyed to the idea that air travel yesterday went off fairly smoothly. My jaw dropped to see news organizations actually credit that risible "Thanksgiving Express Lanes" nonsense (that's a reference to Bush's hyped press conference last week, where he said some that commercial airliners would, for five days, be able to wander into air space reserved for the military off the East Coast. The effect is like adding an extra lane to a congested section of I-95 feeding into a tool plaza. That anyone took the Thanksgiving Express Lanes ploy seriously is a great wonder.)

Air travel went off yesterday without horrendous hitches because the weather was good. But many airports, especially in the New York area, still reported serious delays. And nothing has been fixed.

Meanwhile, as predicted, an airfare hike snuck in while the media were running around shrieking about travel delays and other worsening problems, real and imagined.

The fare hike, which could be the start of the 9th round of incremental industrywide fare increases since Labor Day, was slipped in by US Airways Tuesday night, according to the vigilant Rick Seaney of Farecompare.com

US Air calls it a "fuel surcharge." Call it what you will. According to Rick, US Air filed a $4.65 per ticket increase, which comes to $5 with the 7.5 percent U.S. sales tax. That means, you pay an extra $5 whether you buy a roundtrip or one-way ticket.

You'll hear no carping here about these small fare increases, buy the way. Oil is about to kiss $100 a barrel again and the airlines need to raise fares a modest amount. They also need to improve service and improve their attitudes along with those slightly higher prices -- and that doesn't mean cutting capacity and strangling routes in small and mid-size cities.

I just wish they wouldn't be so coy about it. Come right out and say it: Can everybody please chip in for gas?

###

Monday, November 19, 2007

Bwaaaaaahahaha: Holiday Hobgoblins

Every Monday I enjoy reading the airline forecast expert Mike Boyd's provocative, refreshingly cranky, online column on air travel -- even though he dismisses most travel reporters as dimwits. Of the the big holiday travel day on Wednesday, he says: "The good news is, it should be like pretty much like any other Wednesday. The bad news is, it should be pretty much like any other Wednesday." Here's the link.

###

Saturday, November 17, 2007

The Morning News: Kyla We Hardly Knew Ye


Does every incident in this country ultimately turn into cheesy irony?


Remember Kyla Ebbert, the 23-year-old college student (and, let's get it out of the way now, part-time Hooters waitress) who was barred from a flight by a snippy Southwest Airlines agent named Keith for wearing the outfit shown at left?

To me, the incident was an indication mostly of Southwest Airlines disgracing itself. Again. (See my posts of Sept. 15, 13, 9 and 7.)

Well, now I see from an item today in Salon that Kyla has flipped her 15 minutes of fame into a photo layout in Playboy.


Jayzus.


Incidentally, does anyone still buy Playboy, even for the articles?


Says Salon, with a bit of a Fox entertainment-TV, male-adolescent snigger:

"After consulting with Mom and Dad, Ebbert agreed. She's currently featured on the magazine's Web site in a spread titled, wait for it, "Legs in the Air" (it goes without saying, NSFW)." [Geezer alert here: I have no freaking idea what that coy 'NSFW' means. I'm just guessing it indicates if you're 13 years old Salon says you shouldn't click on it. Me, I say go for it.] (Update Nov. 19 -- Readers inform me it means "Not Suitable For Work." Thank you.)


Anyway, Salon adds, "If Playboy's overloaded server is any indication, plenty of people would have been more than happy to be her seatmate.


"Southwest capitalized on this media circus by recently offering "miniskirt" fares -- now Ebbert's getting her piece of this prurient pie. When asked to comment on the photos, Ebbert simply said: "I don't see anything wrong with the female body."

Me either, sweetie. And I certainly got nothing against what the author Jim Harrison calls "nekkid women."


The issue is her brain, not her body. Kyla, trust me: You do not have a career in Hollywood no matter what any of those nice people told you. It's time to go back to school and shut up now.

###

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Hype Arriving at Gate 1600

The airlines and their pals the pols are increasingly afraid of the potential for a major breakdown in air traffic over the year-end holidays. Every time I check my e-mail I have another breathless press release about how they're rushing to make it all o.k. Don't worry! We're on top of it!


Even the White House has stirred itself and got into the act. Uh-oh, now I know for sure we're in the jackpot.

Note the tone in the media. Now we have an official White House promise! It's NEWS! Jayzus, I can see the correspondents posing in front of those airport tote boards already, and it's not even time for the network news.

Anyway, you heard the following here first:

--The risible "Thanksgiving Express Lanes" proposed by the White House. Selectively opening up air-traffic lanes reserved for, but little used by, the military in the Northeast will be the equivelant of opening up an extra lane on some ramps on I-95 north of Miami. It will funnel traffic into a slightly wider space and promptly pour it right back.

--After they announce caps that will put limits on the numbers of flights at JFK and LaGuardia (and they will), some of that traffic will spill over to Newark, which already has some of the worst delays in the country.

--The White House says the government is "encouraging airlines to take their own measures to prevent delays." That's simply a reiteration of "promises" the airlines have made in a desperate attempt to sidetrack a federal Passenger Bill of Rights law, versions of which are now in both houses. Conspicuously missing from all of the vague "proposals" are guarantees, or mandates, on how many hours stranded passengers can be kept on board planes for the convenience of the airlines. That is the third-rail that nobody in government really wants to touch.

--The phony pose of rushing to action will hand the airlines a beautiful opportunity to announce further domestic capacity and schedule cut-backs, except on lucrative business-travel routes and domestic routes that feed into international connections. You know, as a patriotic gesture.

--The Executive Branch? Come on. Every one of them, from the President to the head of Transportation and Homeland Security departments, and the inept FAA, is a short-timer, planning to cash-in the minute the next president raises a hand to take the oath of office. You really don't think they're serious about fixing a very complex problem, do you? There's no upside to that. Just hold a press conference to Show Your Care. But hey, there's a war on! Where's your flag lapel-pin?

--On the other hand, the White House has cleverly positioned itself to win no matter what happens. If the holidays go off without a major hitch, the Bush administration will take credit for it (and just watch how fast some media dimwits rush to credit the risible Thankksgiving Express Lanes, when any actual credit should go to luck and good weather). If it all goes to hell, the White House is on record expressing its concern and desire for action.

Meanwhile, the House Aviation Subcommittee held a hearing today to examine the preparations by airlines and airports to handle the holiday travel rush.

“The airline industry has had a very tough year in terms of customer service,” said Rep. Jerry Costello, the Illinois Democrat who chairs the subcommittee, which heard from airline and airport executives. That would be the understandment of the month (so far).

"No one expects them to eliminate all delays, but it is how they mitigate delays and how they treat their customers when delays happen that matters,” he said.

The witnesses noted that the airlines have hired additional staff, particularly customer relations personnel, and will use what the subcommittee press release calls"enhanced communications with passengers to inform them about delays and time-saving practices." (Right. Airlines say they bought some new PCs and software to fix the problem. Ran down to Best Buy and picked up a few things.

The statement added, "The airports have also added staff, and will have more food and water available and the necessary equipment to get passengers off of planes if necessary in case of long delays."

Well, we'll see. The very last thing the airlines want is still another debacle with passengers stranded on plans for six, nine, 12 hours. Very bad PR, that. But if bad weather hits in a system with no slack, during a peak travel season, with all planes full, there may be nothing they can do to prevent another ugly occurrence.

Kate Hanni tells me that she and her 20,000 or so volunteers in her Coalition for Airline Passengers Bill of Rights are loaded for bear during the new travel-torture season, which starts tomorrow.

Kate, whose energy has been unflagging as strandings became a huge issue this year, is virtually single-handedly responsible for the current rush within the airlines, the Congress and now the White House to get on the popular side of the issues of stranded passengers, both those stuck on parked planes and those stuck in airports where airlines have no ability to accommodate them, sometimes for days.

As soon as the subcommittee posts a transcript of the hearing, I'll link to it.

The subcommittee heard testimony from among the usual suspects:

Richard Anderson, chief executive officer of Delta Air Lines; David Barger, the chief executive of JetBlue; Edward P. Faberman, executive director of the Air Carrier Association (and a lawyer who represents airlines and airports); Krys T. Bart, executive director of the Reno-Tahoe International Airport and the chairman of the American Association of Airport Executives; and Gregory Principato, president of the Airports Council International – North America.

We'll see what they had to say for themselves once a transcript is available.

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Airline Delays Accelerating?


Above: Pinal Air Park near Tucson, one of two big desert sites where airlines can park planes.

I once worked for a smart newspaper city editor who had a couple of pet peeves on behalf of readers. Top on the list was: In a story, don't ask me any damned questions. I'm a reader who is paying you 25 cents (this was a long time ago) to give me answers, not to annoy me with questions.

That said, are airline delays accelerating?

The stats are sketchy, as the Thanksgiving holiday travel season/airport torture-fest starts tomorrow. But early indications do not look good, in an air-traffic system stretched to its limits. Last night, I was getting calls from people maneuvering flight cancellations and delays on the West Coast, bound for New York.

Here's how it looked yesterday afternoon and night at New York airports, which are the dog that wags the national air-travel system tail. Ground-delay programs were in effect by late afternoon at all three airports, which also were citing weather, specifically "low ceiling," for mounting delays.

Using the brilliant old technique of looking out the window, what I saw was a moderately cloudy late afternoon, with no storms and no rain. It was a Wednesday before the holiday season, a slow travel day, and weather across the country was O.K.

Anyway, at Newark, a mere 17 percent of the 347 flights scheduled to arrive between 3 p.m. and midnight yesterday were on time. Of the late arrivals, the vast majority, 208, got in 45 minutes or more (and sometimes much more) after arrival time. (The stats are from http://www.flightstats.com/)

At Kennedy, only 36 percent of the 338 flights scheduled to arrive between 3 p.m. and midnight arrived on time. Of the late arrivals, 135 got in 45 minites or more after arrival time.

At LaGuardia, 18 percent of the 274 flights scheduled to arrive between 3 p.m. and midnight arrived on time, and of the late arrivals, 153 got in 45 minutes or more late.

This, folks, does not look good.

Meanwhile, the airlines are busy giving songs and dances to anyone who taps them on the shoulder. They're tripping over one another to send out press releases assuring the public that they will more more adept at providing adance information to travelers in the event of impending disruptions.
Not to worry!
Several major airlines have actually issued press releases saying they've reiterated or imposed procedures for addressing the ticking-time-bomb problem of stranded passengers. Most say they will re-assess the situation when a plane is stuck on the tarmac for three hours, allowing pilots and ops centers to try to work out a way to get the plane back to the gate.

And the airlines are also claiming that they have installed new technology to run their operations more efficiently and to track delays and diversions better.
Yeah, and I've installed a new system to address the problem of mounds of clutter on my desk. It's called hope. My wife calls it "pipe dream."

Are delays accelerating?

My hunch is, you bet.

How will the airline deal with disruptions?

My guess is they'll punt. The airlines -- network carriers and low-cost carriers alike -- are terrified by surging fuel costs and declining revenue quality, to the point where schedules could be pulled back on short notice.

Mike Boyd's airline-forecast column this week at http://www.aviationplanning.com/ makes some very intriguing points.

Some are long-term look (chronic high oil prices, severe pilot shortages, especially on the regional carriers, looming labor-union trouble).

And some are short-term -- most prominently, that rising fares might finally trigger a sudden, unanticipated drop in demand, causing airlines to "valve off" capacity.

Valve-off capacity? That means, basically, remove more seats from the system and on short notice.

How do you do this? Well, if you're a big network carrier with all those older planes, say Northwest and American, you can rather simply yank some out of service and park them in the desert till things blow over, if and when. After all, you own that trusty old MD80, which has been paid off since Christ was a corporal, as that same city editor I knew used to say.

If you're a low-cost carrier you have a bit more of a problem. Chances are higher that your (newer) planes still have a monthly payment due. Parking them in the Sonoran or Mojave deserts, where they generate no revenue at all, isn't an attractive option.

I'm hearing a lot of speculation right now that airlines have contingency plans to "valve down" capacity on short notice even before the end of the year. Any fall-off in passenger demand caused by rising fares wouldn't really manifest itself in the next six weeks of peak travel, since most polans have been made and most tickets have been purchased. But the smell of panic is in the air.

My bet is the airlines slip another unilateral fare hike in this weekend. It would be the ninth incremental fare hike since Labor Day.

Sorry, but I have to leave this with another unanswered question.

Will panicked airlines, despite their growing fears of serious federal intervention if they start stranding passengers in large numbers again, reduce capacity on short notice?

I was walking past Macy's in Manhattan yesterday and my spirits lifted as I watched the crews and trucks and cranes installing the massive store's Christmas decorations. I was up by the skating rink in Rockefeller Center the other day and it too was beginning to look a lot like Christmas.

We're headed to Tucson this weekend for Thanksgiving. (Pinal Air Park, where airlines can mothball or temporarily park planes, is nearby, and I expect to pay it a visit).
But then it's back home. I like New York at Christmas. And that is where I intend to be, far from the airports.
At least that's my hope and/or pipe dream.

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Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Great American Airlines Ad

No kidding, check it out. (The one titled "Team Building.")


It's one of the new American Airlines ads produced for business travelers, and it made me laugh out loud. You ever been to one of those goofy training seminars?

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Monday, November 12, 2007

Plane Porn: The Private A380












Lookit that! Those are some renderings of what an Airbus A380 might look like outfitted as a private jet.

I wrote about this a while ago, but now there's an actual buyer identified. (Airbus told me they have still another private-A380 buyer lined up, but didn't identify the person).

The superjumbo Airbus A380, the first commercial flight of which occurred recently from Sydney to Singapore on Singapore Airlines, is also being marketed as a business jet for the extremely rich.

But build a little skepticism in for media hype here, because it's going to be many years before Airbus delivers any A380 to any private customer. So far, 10 A380s have been built, of the total 189 on order by 16 corporate customers, including international airlines (no U.S. carriers, and none on the horizon) and airline fleet-leasers.

By the end of 2009, assuming there are no further production hitches in the hitch-plagued production schedule, Airbus will have completed fewer than 100 of the planes already ordered.
So that's a long time before the Saudi prince -- who's currently in a mere private Boeing 747 -- gets his plane (and by the way, sweet Jayzus, how many princes does that country have? I know it's somewhere in the thousands).

(Some of the background in the AP story linked to above is ridiculously wrong. You can't get a LearJet or a Gulfstream for "$2 to $5 million," for example. Add a zero to those single digits. Also, that British editor the AP quotes is misinformed. There are dozens of commercial airliners that have been converted to private jets, including A319s and 320s and Boeing 737s, 757s, 767s and 747s. There are at least 10 private 747s flying now.)

Anyway, it's nice to have a look at what the designers of a private A380 have envisioned. These mock-ups were given to me last year by Lufthansa Technik, the Lufthansa subsidiary that specializes in private jet interior design, among other things.

The A380 currently sells for about $320 million. Add another $100 to $125 million for the interior fixings, Technik says.

I flew the A380 on a shakedown flight between Frankfurt and New York earlier this year, by the way. That plane, operated by a Lufthansa crew, carried about 500 people in three classes.


The A380 actually is actually certified to carry 853, just to give you an image of the other extreme from the Saudi prince's airborne palace. Imagine, just you and 852 others on a plane! Or lined up at the baggage carousel.

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The Morning News: Coincidence? You Decide


Vice President Dick Cheney, the warrior who dodged the draft during Vietnam by applying for and receiving five deferrals ("I had other priorities," he once explained), gave the memorial Veterans Day speech yesterday at the Tomb of the Unknowns in Washington.

Meanwhile, news reports said the monument, formerly known as the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, has developed cracks.

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Sunday, November 11, 2007

The Morning News: Yo, Rocky Travel






Top: Philadelphia Museum of Art

Right: Crappy "Rocky" statue before they moved it down to the sidewalk.



The city where I was born, Philadelphia, has always had a split personality. I personally once heard the thuggish late mayor Frank ("I'll Make Attila the Hun Look Like a Fag") Rizzo refer to the Philadelphia Orchestra as a "band" -- which kind of sums it up for me. Though in fairness I should add that he did call it a "really great band."

Here's a link to Rizzo.


Actually, it's a nice town in a lot of ways -- not all of which are apparent in some Philadelphia-generated tourism information, which tends to focus on things like that godawful kitsch statue of the movie character Rocky Balboa, which was once located actually above the magnificent steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art before some of the more sensible people in town managed to haul it down to a basketball arena in South Philadelphia and then, under pressure, install it in a less prominent spot near the Art Museum.



And don't let anyone tell you that a visit to Philadelphia should include a stop at the 9th Street Market, more commonly known as the Italian Market, in South Philadelphia. The last time I was there it looked more like a souk in Yemen, but without the charm, selection, sophistication, sanitation and fresh produce.

Here's some ungrammatical local hype on the Philadelphia 9th Street market -- and yes, on the side of that building, that's a kitsch mural of the late Mayor Attila the Hun himself. Incidentally, Rizzo was still another of those tough-guy warriors who somehow managed to avoid combat -- unlike, say, the actual Attila the Hun. Rizzo the Hun was in the pre-World War II Navy for less than a year before he was discharged under circumstances that have never been adequately explained.)


[If you're visiting Philadelphia, don't say I didn't warn you about that grossly overhyped street market. Here is an excerpt from a travel review of the market on TripAdvisor.com last year: "The thing we were most surprised and disappointed about was how small the "Italian Market" area was, and how many vacant stores there were. The worst thing about it was the filth - the streets and sidewalks were absolutey filthy with trash, as well as a lot of dead pigeons. ..."]

But back to Rocky:

In Philadelphia, the Rocky statue/movie prop, now installed on a sidewalk near the Art Museum, at least out of the way of the grand view, is notable for its utter lack of irony.


On the other hand, there's a gem of a story in today's Times about a Rocky Balboa statue in Serbia, where there appears to be a new culture, perhaps politically derisive, that evokes American kitsch iconography, perhaps ironically.

The nuance of it all! Makes me actually think that maybe Serbia might be worth a visit, if that's the way they're thinking about stuff there these days.

Also, the photo caption on the Times's Serbian Rocky statue picture, which begins with the words "Yo Adriatic!" is itself worth a special Pulitzer Prize.

And by the way, the word "Yo" does not come from hip-hop culture. In Philadelphia, it has always been the way to begin most exclamatory and many interrogatory sentences.

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