Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Happy New Year!



"Rincon Chiaroscuro"

Tucson, Arizona, twilight, New year's Eve 2008

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Can You Get There From Here?

Airlines have so reduced their routes and seating capacities that the travel story of the new year is going to be the higher costs and sharply increased difficulties of getting there from here.

Even as fuel costs have tumbled, airlines are tightening the screws on the flying public, which they figure will now put up with just about anything. (Though once we have a look at passenger traffic data for December, we'll see just how much air-travel demand is falling, and will continue to fall in 2009).

Here's an example of the current mess: I need to get from Tucson to the ridiculously named George Bush "Intercontinental" Airport, preferably early in the morning of Jan. 7, in time for a 10.30 meeting at the airport.

That's about 900 miles, incidentally.

No can do. Instead, I'll need to fly in the day before and spend the night.

Fares? On Orbitz.com just a few minutes ago, here was the range among various airlines for that one-way flight (all requiring stops): $1,124 to $489.

Southwest Airlines, not listed on Orbitz, came in at a more sensible $226, but it requires a stop in Los Angeles and it arrives not at Houston Intergalactic (oops, I mean "Intercontinental") but at Houston Hobby Airport.

Why not consider the option of taking the train, as so many people are suggesting these days?

Ha-ha: The best Amtrak can do is get me from Tucson to Houston on Jan. 8, and the trip requires 26 and a half hours. The fare is $115 for a seat, and $891 if you want a sleeping compartment.

And how about the bus? Well, I can board a good old Greyhound at 6:30 a.m. on the 6th and arrive in Houston a mere 26 hours later, after transferring buses in El Paso and again in Dallas.

And sorry, but I can't get it out of my mind that during the summer, shortly after Greyhound began a marketing campaign saying there is no "air rage" on the bus, a lunatic on a Greyhound bus in Canada literally chopped the head off a sleeping passenger.

Hey, if that can happen in peace-loving Canada, no way I'm taking my chances in the middle of the night in El Paso.

###

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

A Child's New Year's Wish



---I came across this letter on a humor forum on the aviation Web site ProPilot World. It's purported to be real -- a child's note to a pilot -- and it expresses everything we can hope for in the new year.

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Monday, December 29, 2008

8,800 -- Count 'Em -- 8,800 Flight Cancellations Since Dec. 19

By the numbers, here is why the holiday travel season has been such a nightmare in the air:

There were nearly 8,800 flight cancellations at major U.S. airports between Dec. 19 and yesterday, Dec. 28, according to Flightstats.com

Bad weather, of course, was the main culprit. But even though air travel is off in sheer numbers this holiday season, airlines have removed so many seats from the system that there is absolutely no slack. Crews and aircraft have been chronically out of place as weather stacks up delays, and preemptive cancellations have been the norm on the worst-weather days.

And every canceled flight means that many more passengers are stuck at the airport, hoping to find space available on another flight (difficult to do, since a shrunken system means most planes are already full, even though demand is down.)

So far (ain't over yet, sorry to say), the worst day for cancellations, according to Flightstats.com, was Dec. 19, when 2,175 flights were scrubbed. Two days later, more than 1750 flights never took off.

And on-time arrivals also were abysmal. On six of the busiest travel days in the 10-day holiday period so far, fewer than half of the scheduled flights arrived on time. And excessively delayed flights -- those arriving late 45 minutes or or more -- exceeded 20 percent on most of the 10 days.

Portland and Seattle, clobbered by snow and ice, fared the worst starting on Dec.20. Both Chicago airports were snarled the day after Christmas. On the 27th, delays and cancellations rippled throughout most of the air-travel system, especially affecting Dallas, Atlanta and, again, O'Hare.

Local media reflexively send someone out to the regional airport to remark on the numbers of people stranded and take pictures, but so far, no one has had a look at the big picture: Once again, our vital national air travel system has teetered and tottered and caused social disruptions. It won't be the last time.

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Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Merry Christmas



[Sunset, Christmas Eve 2008, Tucson, Arizona]

O'Hare: Cancellation City

In case you want to keep count, 548 of the 2,474 scheduled commercial flights into and out of Chicago O'Hare yesterday were canceled.

At snow-beaten O'Hare there have already been more than 100 flights canceled as of 9 a.m. central time today -- about half of them American Eagle flights.

At O'Hare and elsewhere around the country, the huge number of flight cancellations from the weekend onward have messed up the nation's airlines royally, with stranded passengers clamoring to be accommodated on flights that were already booked weeks ago, and with crews and airplanes out of position.

Yes, air travel is down sharply this holiday season. But the system is still in a huge jam.

Not a good day to be flying. If you must, need I suggest that you check ahead?

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Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Severe Downtown in Hotel Industry

Here's another update on one of the underreported current business stories:

After riding high for the last few years, U.S. hotels are getting clobbered in the economic slump.

And luxury hotels, as I have been reporting here, are getting hit the hardest.

Data for November released today by Smith Travel Research, the leading hotel research firm, show a 12.9 percent industry-wide decrease in revenue per available room (RevPAR), the key metric in analyzing hotel fortunes. The comparison is to November 2007.

But lookit the November RevPAR as broken out for the luxury segment: At luxury hotels, RevPAR plunged 20.7 percent in November.

Down the scale after the luxury niche, the trend is obvious: For "upper upscale" chain hotels the decline is 13.7 percent. For "upscale" hotels it's minus 12.8 percent. For "midscale without food and beverage" the decline is 11.1 percent. For economy hotels, it's 9.6 percent off.

Mark Lomanno, the president of Smith Travel, noted that the "one silver lining" is that "the industry has been able to achieve positive year-over-year, year-to-date ADR [average daily rate] growth through November."

Even in the luxury segment, average daily room rates this year through November ($288.11 nationally) were up a slight 0.6 percent compared with the same 11-month period in 2007.

Still, luxury hotels are loath to be seen discounting and, as noted here before, are instead offering many promotions, including three-nights-for-the-price-of-two type deals, that are actually rate cuts that don't show up on the nightly rate cards.

We'll see how long before the dam bursts and hotel room rack-rates, especially at the top levels, come tumbling down. That's because a lot of customers, especially business travelers, are "trading down" to cheaper-level hotels -- and many simply are not showing up at all.

Overall industry-wide average occupancy in November in U.S. chain hotels fell 10.6 percent, Smith Travel said. For luxury hotels, the drop in occupancy was 15 percent in November compared with November 2007.

However, Smith Travel is optimistic that the industry slump won't last throughout next year. "We believe that after a very bumpy first half of 2009, the hotel industry will begin to see the light at the end of the tunnel as the second half of the year unfolds," Lomanno said.

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Brazil Crash: Finally, Someone Gets It Right

In all of the stories updating the Brazil mid-air collision, almost no one in the media has really got it right.

This includes one William Langewiesche, in a journalistically disgraceful article in the current Vanity Fair, in which the evidently clairvoyant Langewiesche narrates a fatuous description of the scene on the Legacy jet -- without having had the courage to contact any of us who were actually on the plane for our observations on his suppositions.

More on that later.

Anyway, I am impressed by an article this week in Air Transport World magazine. The writer, Aaron Karp, gets it exactly right in his update on the shaky Brazilian air force report on the crash. Here's his report:

***

Assessing blame: Gol 737 crash report cites ExcelAire pilots, but experts finger ATC

December 22, 2008--The final report released earlier this month on the Sept. 29, 2006, midair collision between a Gol 737-800 and an ExcelAire Legacy 600 that led to the deaths of all 154 aboard the 737 has cast a sharp focus on ATC organizations' critical responsibilities in managing traffic as well as the problematic role politics can play in accident investigations.

Brazil's Centro de Investigacao e Prevencao de Acidentes Aeronauticos (CENIPA), a division of the country's Air Force, issued a report widely praised for its attention to detail and its willingness to spotlight weaknesses in the Air Force-controlled ATC system. But the decision by CENIPA to cite negligence by the ExcelAire pilots as a probable cause left aviation safety experts scratching their heads (ATWOnline, Dec. 11). While there is little dispute that the ExcelAire pilots inadvertently turned off the Legacy's transponder, causing no information on the aircraft's position to be sent to ATC for 58 min., the "primary responsibility" for the accident clearly rests with ATC, Flight Safety Foundation President and CEO William Voss tells ATWOnline.

Voss has particular expertise in ATC, having served previously as director of ICAO's Air Navigation Bureau and director of air traffic systems development at US FAA. "Radio failures and transponder failures are the kind of things that ATC expects to deal with," he explains. "They're routine and should have nothing to do with whether aircraft remain separated ... [When a transponder fails], there is a long list of things that has to be done by the ATC unit." As the US National Transportation Safety Board stated in its response to the Brazilian report, the controller with responsibility "never attempted to try a relay through other flight crews, emergency frequency, or any other means" to communicate with the Legacy.

Beyond trying alternate means to contact the ExcelAire pilots, controllers also assumed that the aircraft remained at the same altitude where it was when the transponder went off and directed the 737 accordingly, a major mistake, according to Voss. "A controller has an absolute obligation not to assume that an aircraft is at an altitude, but has an obligation to prove where the aircraft is," he says. "There has to be clear proof. . .What should be done if you can't prove [the aircraft's position] is you go to the aircraft you're talking to [the 737] and turn him." ATC assumed the Legacy was flying at 36,000 ft. when it was actually at 37,000 ft., the same altitude as the 737.

One of the reasons there does not appear to have been the necessary urgency when the Legacy lost contact is that ATC communication over the Amazon is known to be spotty. "On both sides of the microphone [pilots and controllers], there was never a sense that this was an ATC communication failure," Voss explains. "Everyone expected communication to be intermittent."

Another factor, one that certainly can serve as a lesson going forward, is the difference in how US and non-US pilots respond to ATC communication lapses. In the US, pilots are instructed that ATC's last assigned altitude overrides the flight plan. Outside the US, international norms call for pilots to revert to the flight plan since ATC communications may have been misunderstood, particularly when borders are being crossed. So controllers outside the US may think that the pilots would "fall back on the flight plan, which is absolutely counterintuitive to a pilot raised in a US environment," Voss says, adding that US pilots who fly internationally should be instructed on this "difference in philosophy."

This may be what CENIPA was getting at when it alleged that the two Americans piloting the Legacy were unfamiliar with Brazilian air traffic regulations. Nevertheless, all issues related to the crash "stem from the basic investigative question, namely, how the primary mission of ATC to separate aircraft within positive controlled airspace was unsuccessful," stated NTSB, adding that the pilots were "not in violation of any regulations." Preliminary reports found that the pilots attempted to contact ATC 19 times in the 8 min. prior to the crash without success.

The rush in Brazil to blame the surviving ExcelAire pilots was severe in the immediate aftermath of the accident. The pilots were detained in Brazil for more than two months after the crash amid a heated political atmosphere, and Brazilian police in late 2006 charged them with endangering aircraft safety. Brazilian officials were criticized heavily for "criminalizing" the accident investigation and, while the final report goes further in citing ATC errors than many expected, political considerations may have contributed to its tone, which seems to place equal blame on the Legacy pilots.

"The takeaway from this is that politics and aviation safety mix very badly," Voss says. "This [accident] caused a significant political uproar in Brazil and some of the comments made by officials [in the crash's aftermath] had significant political overtones, and political pressure was brought to bear in the investigation. . .Very political, knee-jerk reactions should not be playing a role in accident investigations."

--Aaron Karp

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Monday, December 22, 2008

Holiday Travel: Ho-Ho-Hopeless?

Man, is this shaping up to be a miserable week in the air, despite the fact that the number of people flying this holiday season is projected to be about 10 percent lower than the 2007 year-end holiday season.

Bad weather across the country, combined with airline seat cutbacks, are giving the old one-two to holiday travelers this week. Not only do snarls at one major airport ripple to other airports, but each day of major delays and cancellations creates fleet and crew scheduling problems on the next day (and days).

As of 6 p.m. Eastern time today, according to Flightstats.com, the following airports are experiencing "excessive delays," defined as having flight operations averaging more than 45 minutes in late arrivals:

--Los Angeles
--San Francisco
--Portland
--Seattle
--Las Vegas
--The absurdly named George Bush Houston "Intercontinental" Airport
--Chicago O'Hare
--Orlando
--The ridiculously named Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport
--Boston
--Kennedy
--La Guardia
--The hilariously named Newark Liberty International Airport

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.

Initial Accident Report on Denver Crash

Here's the initial accident report on the Denver crash in which 38 people were injured but (thanks no doubt to excellent responses by flight attendants, passengers and firefighters) no one was killed.

It's from the Web site Aviation Safety Network.

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Twittering the Denver Plane Crash

Twitter provides interesting first-person accounts of what it was like to be one of the more than 100 passengers who escaped that burning Continental Airlines 737 that veered off the runway and caught fire Saturday night in Denver.

(Note the comment about the passenger who quickly got an emergency door opened. I'll be thinking of that the next time I consider ignoring the flight attendants pre-takeoff safety spiel.)

Clearly, passengers and flight attendants kept their cool -- and prevented this from being a horrible disaster, rather than just a frightening accident.

Some excerpts from various passengers accounts on Twitter, starting with the aftermath:

***

@marioOlckers I think this will be it. I wouldn't want to be a celebrity, but it's been an interesting experience doing a couple interviews about 1 hour ago

***

Wife just picked me up from the airport. Relieved. about 17 hours ago from Touchdown! The crowd goes wild!

***

MetalRox gratz! about 21 hours ago from twitterrific in reply to MetalRox
@showtunes no-won't get our luggage for a while I think and sounded like my mac is likely melted to the floor about 21 hours ago from twitterrific in reply to showtunes
@richard_holland those who would/could fly again and were still wanting to get to Houston. I wonder how many took the bus instead?

***

Waiting in the continental club for the "replacement" flight. Noticing I'm a little sore.

***

Heading to the airport for another try at flying to Houston.

***

I'm very grateful to still be here. Thanks again to all the well wishers. I'm amazed and humbled by it all.

***

there was a fire station nearby and that's where we all ended up right after the crash

***

I made for the exit door as quickly as I could, fearing the right wing might explode from the fire. once out, i scrambled down the wing

***

Whoever was on the left side exit row, god bless him, was johnny on the spot and instantly had the door open - people crowded out in a mass

***

By the time the plane stopped we were burning pretty well and I think I could feel the heat even through the bulkhead and window

***

i believe it was after the jolt that the right engine, which was near my row, caught fire

***

i think we might have gone into a ravine and dropped some distance as there was a sudden bottom-dropped-out feeling and then a jolt

***

shortly after we veered off, the plane quite obviously left the runway at high speed (maybe 100 kts) and proceeded to go 4 wheel driving

***

a 1st class passenger I talked to indicated he saw the left engine come off at the time, but it's unclear if this was a cause or an effect

***

to all who've asked, it's hard to know exactly what went wrong -- we were in the middle of a normal takeoff when we suddenly veered off

***

You have your wits scared out of you, drag your butt out of a flaming ball of wreckage and you can't even get a vodka-tonic.

***

Continental keeping us locked up at the presidents club until they can sort everything out. Won't even serve us drinks.

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Christmas Week Option: Stay Ho-Ho-Home?

I need to stipulate that this is being written from Tucson, where I can look out the window as I type and see the green Sonoran desert roll out to the Rincon under sunny blue skies, where birdies and bunny rabbits make room for each other at the seed block like business travelers at a breakfast buffet ...

Ok, ok, I'll put a lid on it.

But lucky me (and my wife), we got to Tucson from the hilariously named Newark Liberty International Airport last week (with a connection through the absurdly named George Bush Houston "Intercontinental" Airport), at a time when the weather across the country was just fine, and the flights were running on time.

Wotta mess the air-travel system has become in the last few days, though. Lazy reporters on TV and in the papers keep telling us that "dozens of flights" were canceled. They get this useless information from some guy at the local airport who answers a phone number that's been on metro-desk call lists since the Carter Administration, and who really doesn't have a clue about the actual numbers, as he just works for the city.

So let's make that "several thousand" flights have been canceled since the weekend. If you want a real-time tally, go to Flightstats.com (and click on airports, and then "airport scorecard" and enter the specific airport.)

If I weren't already where I wanted to be, I'd be considering staying home this holiday season rather than plunging into the air-travel system.

Right now, early on Monday, the biggest problems are in Seattle, where 537 of the 953 scheduled flights yesterday were canceled. And as of 6 a.m. Pacific time today, more than 200 flights have already been canceled at the cumbersomely named Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. Today's a brief respite from snowy and icy weather in the Northwest (it returns tomorrow), so it's apparent that the large number of preemptive cancellations reflects tie-ups in the system -- as previous large numbers of cancellations in the Northeast and Northwest have put hundreds of aircraft out of their normal positions.

At the hilariously named Newark Liberty International Airport yesterday, 236 flights were canceled. At Kennedy, it was 161. At O'Hare, 265.

So the system is not in good shape to handle even the weaker holiday travel demand this year (especially considering that there are at least 10 percent fewer seats in the air compared with last year's year-end holiday).

Obviously, anyone flying needs to check ahead and make sure the flight is operating as scheduled.

Also, airlines have been playing musical chairs with their fleets, and if the equipment suddenly changes to reflect lower demand or just plain airline convenience, that aisle or exit-row seat you thought you had prudently booked in advance may not be available. So check and make a phone call if you feel you've been capriciously relegated to 28-B from 8-D.

Even last week, with things running somewhat smoothly, the Continental flight my wife and I boarded at the hilariously named Newark Liberty International Airport changed from a 767 to a 757. My wife's exit row seat disappeared and she ended up in a middle seat in a crappy row, you know, the one right in front of the exit rows.

And she's flown more than 50,000 miles this year on Continental, so elite status evidently didn't count for anything when they switched planes.

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Sunday, December 21, 2008

38 Hurt As Continental Airlines 737 Veers Off Runway in Fiery Crash at Denver

A Continental Airlines 737-500 veered off the runway into a ravine on takeoff last night at Denver International Airport. The cabin was in flames as passengers were evacuated on emergency slides, and 38 of the 112 on board were reported injured.

Weather did not appear to be a factor, as conditions in Denver were normal. Firefighters said the fire on board melted overhead bins.

Here's the Denver Post report today. The plane, Flight 1404, was taking off shortly after its scheduled 6 p.m. departure, bound for Houston, when it went off the runway.

UPDATE: 8 pm Sunday, and the dopey AP story on the wire now goes on about how it was "a miracle" that no one was killed. Oh, miracle, schmiracle. There is good luck and there is bad luck (says a guy who had some extremely good luck in a plane crash not so long ago, and who cringed every time that word "miracle" was uttered, aware that for others no less deserving, the "miracle" did not apply).

On that Continental 737 in Denver last night, my hunch is that a bunch of very skilled, very heads-up flight attendants, combined with level-headed passengers who did not panic and an extremely good response from airport firefighters, and a big dose of good luck, created this alleged "miracle." (But of course, getting that story would require actual reporting from the scene, rather than prattling on about superstitious miracles.)

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Saturday, December 20, 2008

5 Airports=1838 Flight Cancellations Yesterday

Heads up (again) if you are flying today. Confirm your flight and its departure time in advance. The logistics of the system are a mess.

That's primarily because yesterday's snowstorm whacked operations at the three New York airports, and the two closest major airports, Philly and Boston.

In all, 1838 flights were canceled yesterday at those five airports, according to Flightstats.com.

The hilariously named Newark Liberty International Airport racked up 547 canceled flights. At LaGuardia, it was 456. Kennedy had 266. The rest were about evenly divided between Philadelphia and Boston.

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Friday, December 19, 2008

NYC's Hammered Luxury Hotels: What? Us? Discount?

As I've been saying, luxury hotels have really been hammered since the Wall Street collapse. It isn't just business and leisure-travel spending cutbacks, though those are major factors.

It's also appearances or "optics," as they say. In this day and age, there is a grave reluctance to be seen spending lavishly, or to be seen listing those $750-a-night 5-star hotel rooms on the corporate expense account.

The highest-flying of the luxury hotels have been in New York City, where business was firm till mid-September -- when it tumbled off a cliff.

There is a core principle in the luxury hotel business: Avoid discounting. If you cut your public rack rates to gin up business in bad times, you may well have a very hard time raising those rates again when good times return.

That wall is starting to crack. Meanwhile, as I have said here and elsewhere, including in the current Institutional Investor magazine, you can cut very good deals right now with luxury hotels in the U.S. and abroad. They will be only too glad to hear from you.

Now some expensive hotels in Manhattan are putting a happy face on discounting.

NYC & Company, the city’s tourism PR outfit, said today that nine luxury hotels are launching a so-called Third Night promotion. The hotels are not cutting their rates, see, but ... well, you get a third night free if you stay for two consecutive nights. The promotion runs from January 9 to February 27.


The participating hotels are: Jumeirah Essex House, Loews Regency, the London NYC, the New York Palace, the Sherry-Netherland Hotel, Trump International Hotel & Tower, the Plaza, the Waldorf Towers and the Carlyle, A Rosewood Hotel.

And by the way, the Trump International Hotel is not considered a top-luxury hotel in New York. It's generally rated as a four-star hotel. And I got that assessment from one of the anonymous inspectors for the Mobil guides.

Meanwhile, it isn't just the hotels that are willing to break the no-discount rule in the luxury racket. NYC & Company said that Saks Fifth Avenue is participating in the promotion by offering a "shopping package" at its Manhattan flagship store.

In the desperate obfuscation of distress-PR, NYC& Company says mysteriously that the Saks deal "includes an exclusive personal shopping experience in the Fifth Avenue Club, a special offer to save a percentage on any regularly priced purchases made, and complimentary coffee and dessert in Saks Fifth Avenue’s CafĂ© SFA."

I understand the free coffee and cake part, but hey: What's the percent off the purchases? Is it a secret from the rest of us? Why?

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Brazil Crash: Ignoring the NTSB Report

I'm amazed (why???) at how some in the media, including some in the aviation trade press, who really ought to know better, have followed the official Brazilian Air Force line on the crash investigation.

It's as if key findings of the 266-page Brazilian investigation -- the product of the very organization that was in charge of the air-traffic control system that created the collision -- have not been flatly contradicted by the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board. The NTSB, which does not have an ax to grind in this matter, is a professional, internationally respected investigative agency whose report on the Brazil crash said that the probable causes were specific mistakes and systemic faults in Brazilian air traffic control, which is maintained and operated by the Brazilian Air Force.

But lookit Aviation Week's report on the matter, which doesn't even allude to (let alone link to) the NTSB report but rather gives credence to the report by Brazilian military authorities who have been determined since day one to scapegoat the Americans. (Brazilian judges, on the other hand, have largely maintained perspective, and may yet redeem Brazil's honor in this terrible matter.)

And just in case Aviation Week hasn't seen it, here is the NTSB report. One should read it before writing anything about this case.

The NTSB report, by the way, does not whitewash possible, emphasize possible, mistakes by the American pilots that might have contributed to the chain of awful events that led to this hideous accident. It puts them in perspective.

And by the way, the American pilots are already on trial in Brazil and have been for months. The proceedings move very slowly and -- I would hope -- deliberately.

###

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

British Airways Reduces Fuel Surcharges

British Airways lowered its fuel surcharge by as much as a third on long-haul flights. U.S. airlines haven't yet followed in lowering the surcharges, which reached $300 and even higher during the days of $147 a barrel oil last summer, and remain there still, even with oil hovering in the low $40s.

On coach fares for flights over nine hours, British Airways reduced the surcharge by $45 to $141 per flight. For first class and business class service on flights over nine hours, the surcharge was reduced by $52 to $205.

So far, there has been no indication that U.S. airlines will drop the surcharges, which can significantly add to the cost of an international fare. The charges especially irk corporate travel managers because they are generally applied on top of negotiated fares for volume corporate business, with no discounts.

U.S. passengers sometimes find it difficult to sort through the fine print on fees and taxes in airline fare contracts to identify the fuel surcharge.

In Washington yesterday, Sen. Robert Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat, introduced a bill that would require carriers and ticket brokers to provide more clear and more timely information to passengers about taxes, fees, charges, fuel surcharges, and fees for services.

The bill states in part, "... it shall be an unfair or deceptive practice ... for any air carrier ... or ticket broker--`(A) to display the price of a ticket for air transportation without simultaneously displaying all taxes, fees, charges, and fuel surcharges ... or (B) to fail to provide an online purchaser of a ticket for air transportation with information, including the amount and description, of each tax, fee, charge, and fuel surcharge applicable to such ticket before requiring such purchaser to provide any personal information, including name, address, phone number, e-mail address, and credit card information."

It adds that " ... it shall be an unfair or deceptive practice ... for any air carrier ... (A) to fail to provide an online purchaser of a ticket for air transportation with information regarding fees for checked baggage, seating assignments, and optional in-flight goods and services; or (B) to increase the price of a ticket for air transportation through a fuel surcharge that is not correlated to the price of fuel paid by the air carrier or the amount of fuel used by such air carrier for such air transportation.' ..."

Any day now, we'll be hearing from the airline industry squealing about that.

###

Hands-Free Cell Phones Kill, and Other Media Blather

Want to see an example of media innumeracy at its schoolmarmish best?

Look at this alarmist report relayed today by the Poynter Institute, misstating the findings of an already flawed "study" on cell-phone use by people driving cars.

Is it dangerous to drive (or, more dangerous) while using a hands-free cell-phone to hold a conversation? Well, as you can see, the study carelessly flips among hand-held cell-phone use, text messaging and hands-free cell-phone talking. And the journalist "expert" blithely states something that simply is not documented in the badly written report, or its sloppy methodology. The report is by the AAA, an organization that loves to make guesses and is accustomed to credulous media attention, especially around the holidays.

Come on, how is hands-free cell-phone talking any different than holding a conversation with another person in the car? Or listening to the radio? Or singing the Star Spangled Banner, or "99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall," really loud, for chrissakes? If it is different in kind, I'd like to see evidence.

But all the schoolmarms want you to know that something, uh, might be dangerous if you don;t watch out. Like driving in the first place.

The Institute -- the Ding Dong School of journalism academe -- tells us that the "two thirds of drivers" who believe that using hands-free cell-phones is safer than using hand-held ones "could be wrong."

Yeah and I say tomorrow "could be Friday."

But it ain't.

More phony-baloney alarms to further buzz-kill the holiday season. And it's only Dec. 17!

By the way, did you know that Christmas trees can catch fire if you're careless with matches, candles, or frayed wiring on lights? (Don't laugh. Right now, there's probably some poor schnook in some unhappy newsroom somewhere working on that holiday perennial.)

UPDATE: Oops, too late. Newsday already has the tree-fire scoop.

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Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Airlines Scrambling to Fill Seats

Don't believe any media palaver you hear about the annual holiday travel crush and high fares. Airline executives are stunned by the extent of falloff in travel demand as the Christmas-New year's holidays loom. And they're discounting like crazy on select routes.

This is being written from San Francisco, where I flew nonstop from Newark on Saturday for less than $300 round-trip, in a 737 that was about half empty in coach. I looked online to change seats for my return home today, and that plane also appears to have about a third of its coach seats unsold. Even at the last minute, I easily snagged an exit-row aisle seat.

For travelers in a grim economy, there is good news. Sales are everywhere, but you have to seek them out with some sleuthing on the supplier sites and also on the third-party sites like Kayak, Farecompare, Expedia, Travelocity, Priceline, and others.

The key words are "select routes" because airlines have slashed capacity on so many routes that some planes to some destinations are still packed full.

But have a look at Southwest's current fare sale (through Dec. 21, for travel in the traditionally slow period of Jan. 6-March 11)) of $49 to $159 one-way on "select routes."

AirTran also has a new sale, with 14 days advance purchase. An example: Chicago-Orlando, $83 one-way, off-peak, with travel through March 11.

Yeah, I know airlines usually run fare sales for the slow season after New Year, but the extent of the discounting right now -- again, on on select routes -- is amazing.

It's especially true, by the way, for transatlantic travel, and particularly travel in business class. That risible $9,800 round-trip business-class fare between New York and London may still be posted, but it's a fiction. Business-class fares across the Atlantic are now being offered, with only small restrictions, at discounts below the levels even the more hard-nosed corporate travel managers used to be able to negotiate. That means in the $3,500 round-trip range and often significantly lower.

I've always argued that the best use of frequent-flier miles if you have a ton of them is upgrading to international business class, assuming the seat is available. Right now, the seat is probably available.

United Airlines, meanwhile, is now discounting its "economy plus" seats -- the ones up front in coach with 5 inches of extra legroom. They're 30 percent off when purchased through Thursday. (examples, $37 extra Los Angeles-Philadelpia, rather than $54. Or $104 extra Los Angeles-Sydney instead of $149).

I recently flew in United economy plus, and I have to say that the extra price (I think it was about $30 on a San Francisco-Tucson trip) was well worth it. I like getting the better seat without having to go through the craziness of the annual elite-status one-legged footrace to qualify for priority seating.

All I want in a coach seat is a little extra legroom, and the extra five inches that United offers effectively turns a cramped coach seat into something close enough to a domestic first-class seat. I don't need the food and free drinks. All I want it a little comfort without having to pay an extra $1,000 to get it.

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Thursday, December 11, 2008

Hotel Slump Worsens; Luxury Properties Hardest Hit

Hotels, which first felt the effects of a decline in travel in late summer, are facing business conditions that continue to deteriorate. And luxury hotels, which got severely hammered as Wall Street tanked this fall, are feeling the slump most of all, according to Smith Travel Research.

During the week of Nov. 30 through Dec. 6, compared with the similar week in 2007, U.S. hotel occupancy fell 9.8 percent; revenue per available room (RevPAR) dropped 12.7 percent and average daily room rates dropped 3.2 percent, Smith, the world's leading hotel research firm, said today.

Jan Freitag, the vice president of global development for SMith, said: "This is now four out of the past five weeks that we’ve seen double-digit RevPAR declines, which are driven by double-digit occupancy declines" in most chain hotel segments.

The luxury hotel segment had the biggest drops across the board, including a 13.0-percent decrease in occupancy, a 7.6-percent drop in average daily room rate and a 19.7-percent fall in RevPAR. The segment called "midscale without food and beverage" -- hotels such as Hampton Inn and Marriott Courtyard -- was the only segment to have an increase in any of the three key performance measurements. Its average daily room rate rose 0.3 percent.

The markets that saw the greatest drop in occupancy were Phoenix (where it dropped 22.2 percent); Seattle (-19.7 percent) and San Diego (-18.1).

The markets that saw the largest decreases in RevPAR were Phoenix (-25.4 percent); Atlanta (-24.5 percent) and New York (-22.8 percent).

The markets that experienced the greatest increase in RevPAR were New Orleans (+18.7 percent) Chicago (+18.4 percent) and San Francisco/San Mateo (+10.6 percent).

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Lede of the Year Award

This is off the Huffington Post, which unfortunately doesn't credit the source, but here is my candidate for lede of the year. And trust me, gems like this do not get written accidentally. Some writer thought about every word.

"SANTIAGO, Chile — Madonna is causing "crazy enthusiasm" and "impure thoughts" on her first concert visit to Chile, a prominent retired cardinal complained on Wednesday, as he paused in a tribute to a late dictator to denounce the pop star."

And the second graf ain't bad either:

"Roman Catholic Cardinal Jorge Medina criticized the flamboyant singer during his homily at a Mass in honor of the late dictator Augusto Pinochet, who oversaw the deaths of some 3,200 dissidents during his 1973-1990 rule."

Beautiful.

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Airline Holiday Recipe: Put 10 Lbs. of Stuffing in a 5-Lb. Bag?

Airlines are hoping everybody cooperates and takes to the skies over the Christmas holidays.

The Air Transport Association is guessing that there will be a 9 percent year-over-year decrease in the number of passengers who will travel globally on U.S. airlines during the 21-day winter holiday travel season that starts Dec. 18 and runs through Jan. 7.

This isn't a guess, though: The number of available seats has declined 9 percent from the same period a year ago "resulting in full or near-full flights throughout the holiday," the airline trade group says.

[On domestic routes, the routes the vast majority of Americans will fly over the holiday, the decrease in seat capacity is actually more like 12 or 13 percent compared with last year.]

However the math ultimately works out, expect full planes, even if the decrease in air travel demand is sharper than the ATA forecasts -- which is my own prediction.

On the other hand, if you're flexible there are serious fare-sales to be found, as airlines try to keep people flying.

For example, I have to get to San Francisco and back. On short notice, I booked a round-trip fare on Continental, with a Saturday night stay, at $283. Right, $283, round-trip, coast to coast.

But fares vary wildly, depending on which routes have open seats, so shop around.

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Links to Crash Investigations

Here's a link to the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board findings on the Brazil crash. (10 pages).

Here's a link to the Brazilian Air Force report. (Note: It's long, 266 pages)

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Who You Gonna Call ...

Who you gonna call to investigate a horrible mid-air collision: an internationally respected professional aviation authority such as the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board -- or a a group of people who owe their paychecks to the military authority responsible for operating the very air-space in which the accident occurred?

Some news reports today give abundant credence to the 266-page report issued yesterday by the Brazilian Air Force (which runs all air-traffic control in that country). The report, signed by two Air Force generals, naturally finds that the American pilots of a business jet were almost entirely responsible for the tragic mid-air collision over the Amazon that killed 154 on a 737 Brazilian airliner on Sept. 29, 2006.

(The New York Times story today puts the issue into proper context. Here's a link. Newsday also gets it right. The AP, of course, does not.)


The Brazilian report does concede, in a few of its 266 pages, that various, uh, issues with Brazilian air-traffic control may have, uh, been, uh, simultaneously ongoing, uh, concurrent with the occurrence of the, uh, incident.

Off to the races and down the rabbit-hole we go again.

I'll link to the Brazilian report today.

I'll also link to the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board findings, also issued yesterday.

The NTSB came to a far different conclusion -- that the "probable causes" of the accident were systemic errors and specific mistakes in Brazilian air-traffic control, including the fact that the American business jet that collided with the 737 had been ordered to fly at 37,000 feet, on a collision course that went undetected on the ground at air traffic control, for about 50 minutes until the collision.

The NTSB finds that the air-traffic control mistakes were the "probable causes" of the disaster. The NTSB found that the non-functioning transponder and anti-collision system on the Legacy was a "contributing factor." Neither the Legacy pilots nor the air-traffic controllers (who were supposed to be monitoring the flight) realized that the Legacy transponder wasn't signaling for about 50 minutes before the collision.

No one has yet come up with anything but a guess to explain how the transponder went off-line, by the way. Was it pilot error? Somehow, with a slip of the foot or hand, did one of the American pilots accidentally turn off the unit? Was it faulty equipment? No one has been able to say.

The Brazilians have basically thrown everything including the kitchen sink into these charges against the American pilots, Joe Lepore and Jan Paladino, and ExcelAire, the Long Island air-charter company that had just bought the Legacy in Brazil and was ferrying it home when the disaster occurred.

There is another, uh, issue, incidentally. And it involves the Brazilians' strategic release of the voice recordings from the Legacy cockpit during the entire flight, most notably during the 50 minutes up to the collision and the 25 harrowing minutes afterward as the damaged Legacy was going down, before the pilots spotted a runway gashed into the deep jungle and fought the plane down safely.

Yesterday, the International Federation of Air Line Pilots Associations released a statement denouncing the leaking of cockpit voice recordings. Such leaked recordings, the international pilots group said, "are being used by a media provider for public entertainment."

Now, the grandly named International Federation of Air Line Pilots Associations (IFALPA) has long been known for its own tradition of elephantine harrumphing, not to mention bureaucratic obfuscation. What in the world are they getting at?

Media accounts noting the IFALPA statement correctly surmised that it addressed what is, in fact, a disgraceful use of cockpit voice recordings -- to provide meretricious, cheap dramatic thrills for the paying audience (or readership, with Web site links to the horror) as a plane and its passengers go down in hellish horror.

Incidentally, my own first public comments on this horror came as I was consumed by a far-lesser horror, having been one of seven people on the Legacy who survived the disaster. At least I was alive.

After being held in custody and questioned endlessly day and night in Brazil following the accident, addled, deeply traumatized and emotionally and physically exhausted, I arrived back in the United States on a flight that came into Kennedy airport at dawn. I cleared Customs and saw my wife and our two-year-old grandson (whom she had been babysitting that weekend) waiting anxiously ahead.

But as I went to them, I was ambushed by a Brazilian TV crew based in New York and demanding to know how I felt about the 154 dead. The bodies were only then being pulled out of the jungle. I had had no access to news reports while in custody. I could not even begin to grasp the horror that had suddenly fallen into the lives of the families and loved ones of the dead.

Stunned and stammering, I tried to convey my profound sympathy with the TV lights in my face. And in days of numbing, seemingly endless TV, print and radio interviews afterward, I tried to do it again and again, but in Brazil the emotional howl against the Americans was overwhelming. It did not seem to matter that we who had lived mourned those who had died. Instead, we were falsely depicted in the Brazilian media maelstrom as being cold and uncaring, the perpetrators of an unspeakable crime.

But back to the matter of those cockpit recordings:

In a disaster, cockpit voice recordings pick up the screams of the dying passengers. Using them to exploit a horror is despicable -- but we all know what some media are capable of in the service of cheap dramatic narrative, the curse that will finally kill decent journalism in this country.

But the IFALPA statement, as weedling as it was in general tone, also illuminated a problem specific to this incident. Let me explain:

If you are a layperson unfamiliar with how an airplane is flown, and if you were to listen to the cockpit chatter on any flight, you would probably be surprised. It doesn't sound at all like those stentorian pronouncements the captain makes to the passengers in the cabin on that 767 in its final approach to Houston.

That's because flying a sophisticated airliner (and the Legacy is a modification of the Embraer 135/145 regional-jets familiar to most airline passengers) is nothing at all like driving a car down Interstate 95.

Unlike a driver, a pilot does not need to constantly have a hand on the equivalent of a steering wheel on an airplane flying at cruise altitude under auto-pilot. Pilots don't have to keep their eyes ahead every second, as you do on a highway. In a cockpit under normal conditions, pilots can gossip, joke, gripe, talk to a flight attendant, whatever -- and still be absolutely vigilant about the aircraft in flight.

In a journalistically disgraceful article in the January Vanity Fair magazine, William Langewiesche, himself a private pilot, spins a fantasia that purports to narrate the scene in the Legacy cockpit on Sept. 29, 2006.

To do so, he makes gross suppositions about the motives and thoughts of those of us who were on that airplane, based exclusively on his interpretation of the Legacy cockpit voice-recordings, including an audio copy that was slipped to him by the Brazilians -- who, of course, uh, had no ulterior motive. (Shockingly, Langewiesche did not speak with the pilots or, I can hereby attest, with me or any of the other four passengers on board, or any of their legal representatives, to construct his fantasia. But you'll hear more on that later -- here and elsewhere.)

The flight being utterly normal till it crashed, the voice recordings depict a routine cockpit environment at 37,000 feet in wide open skies. The plane was on auto-pilot. The pilots performed their standard duties. In the interludes, they chatted with each other.

At one point, they can be heard expressing confusion about how to turn on an in-flight entertainment system that shows the aircraft position, altitude, etc. on screens back in the cabin. At another point, one of them took his new digital camera out and they groused about the typically indecipherable instructions.

At another point, the captain, Joe Lepore, left the cockpit to use the bathroom and stayed away for 16 minutes. At various points, as is utterly typical on a business jet flight, some of the passengers came up to the open cockpit door and chatted briefly with the pilots.

At the pilots' invitation, I went forward and very briefly exchanged some pleasantries before returning to my seat by the left wing to continue working on my laptop.

(By the way, I was in the Navy for four years and I never called a ship a "she." Despite what Langewiesche interprets from a muddy voice recording, I doubt very much that I said "How's she flying?," as if I was some schnook trying clumsily to sound cool to the pilots. I haven't listened to the recordings, but most likely I said, "How's it flying?" But checking with me would have killed the joke. I was also in naval aviation, and I am not unfamiliar with airplane cockpits of all sorts. As I reported in the New York Times right after the crash, I read the Legacy's altitude off the altimeter, despite Langewiesche's clumsy ridicule. If he'd checked with me ... oh, never mind.)

I had been in Brazil on assignment from a trade magazine to spend two days touring Embraer's headquarters near Sao Paulo, including its factories. It was two days and nights of wonk-work, being marched through production facilities and interviewing engineers, designers and Embraer planners.

Among the many things the Vanity Fair article gets very wrong is that. I was not on assignment to write about riding on some business jet, which would have been a stupid assignment. When the plane crashed, of course, that changed. I would have told Langewiesche that he was wrong -- wrong about the scene on the flight, wrong about so many things but, of course, he never attempted to contact me. And yes, more on that lapse later, here and elsewhere.)

Anyway, my point is (and I think it was IFALPA's as well) that unscrupulous media can use any cockpit voice recording to suggest, to those unfamiliar with what really transpires in a cockpit on routine flights, that the pilots are goofing off. (By the way, if you read the Vanity Fair article, note how the far more relaxed and even raucous scene in the cockpit of the doomed Gol 737 is depicted without ominous portent.)

Is this merely a journalistic objection, a protest that an honest journalist does not, not ever, pipe a scene to create a false impression and build a phony narrative from guesses?

Well, there's more.

The Brazilian Air Force report on the crash just happens to, uh, make note of the very same observations about the scene in the Legacy cockpit, strictly as extrapolated from the voice recordings.

It notes, by way of trying to buttress its contention that the pilots were grievously at fault in myriad ways, that "the haste to depart and the pressure from the passengers hinder[ed] adequate knowledge of the flight plan."

{By the way, the alleged "pressure form the passengers" is in part a shot at me, a risible suggestion, also unwisely made in several instances by Langewiesche, that the presence of a reporter on board the airplane created "pressure" on the Legacy pilots and contributed to the crash. More on that later, here and elsewhere.)

The Brazilian Air Force report says -- in assertions directly disputed by the U.S. NTSB report that, of course, has no ax to grind -- that the Legacy pilots' preparation for the flight was "inadequate."

The cockpit interaction, says the Brazilian Air Force report asserting that the Americans caused the disaster, was characterized by "informality."

That's one of the reasons that cockpit voice recordings shouldn't be put in the hands of the unscrupulous who are determined to manipulate the uninformed.

But more on that later. Here and elsewhere.


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Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Brazil Crash Was Primarily Caused by Air Traffic Control Errors, U.S. NTSB Report Finds

The U.S. National Transportation Safety Board issued investigative findings yesterday that concluded simply that the Sept. 29, 2006 mid-air collision that killed 154 over the Amazon was chiefly caused by mistakes by Brazilian air-traffic control that put both aircraft on a collision course at 37,000 feet.

The NTSB report also cites a “loss of effective air-traffic control” as a probable cause of the disaster, as well as “systemic shortcomings” in Brazil’s military-operated air traffic control system.

The report then cites some "contributing" factors in the disaster.

"Contributing to this accident," the NTSB report said, were the "undetected" loss of transponder function on the Legacy caused by "inadvertent deactivation," as well as a breakdown in radio and radar communication between air traffic control and the Legacy on for 50 minutes before the crash.

The NTSB had a team that participated in the lengthy Brazilian military investigation into the crash. The Brazilian military operates air-traffic control in that country, and controllers are military personnel.

The Brazilian report, also issued yesterday, puts far more emphasis on blaming the American pilots and minimizing the air-traffic control errors. The pilots, who are in the U.S., have been criminally charged by Brazil.

The NTSB report describes the “probable cause” of the disaster this way, referring to the Brazilian airliner that went down with all on board as “GOL1907” and to the American Legacy 600 business jet by its tail number, “N600XL” The report refers to Brazilian air-traffic control as “ATC.”:

"The evidence collected during this investigation strongly supports the conclusion that this accident was caused by N600XL and GLO1907 following ATC clearances which directed them to operate in opposite directions on the same airway at the same altitude resulting in a midair."

It adds, “The loss of effective air traffic control was not the result of a single error, but of a combination of numerous individual and institutional ATC factors, which reflected systemic shortcomings in emphasis on positive air-traffic-control concepts."

It adds, "Contributing to this accident was the undetected loss of functionality of the airborne collision-avoidance-system technology as a result of the inadvertent inactivation of the transponder on board N600XL” and “further contributing to the accident was inadequate communication between ATC and the N600XL flight crew."

The report makes a striking contrast to the over 200-page report issued yesterday by the Brazilian Air Force investigative panel, which heavily emphasizes the allegation that the American pilots were largely to blame for the crash.

But the NTSB’s findings state that the Legacy pilots were “not in violation of any regulations” during the flight. Here are some of the findings from the U.S. panel:

---The Brazilian air-traffic controller supervising the flight handed it off "at an unusually early point" as it approached a new sector near Brasilia, losing a routine opportunity for a necessary navigational fix.

---As the Legacy entered the Brasilia sector about an hour before the collision, air-traffic control did not issue an altitude change order for the plane to descend to 36,000 feet for the next leg of the trip over the Amazon.

---Controllers supposedly monitoring the plane in both sectors were "unaware of the statue of N600SL’s altitude clearance" – that is, they did not realize that the Legacy was flying, as cleared, at 37,000 feet -- "and did not take positive action to provide an amended clearance, confirmation or appropriate coordination."

---Technical problems and confusion on the ground caused the controller handling "led to a misunderstanding" in the air-traffic control center at Brasilia about what altitude the Legacy had been cleared at.

---"The collision-avoidance technology aboard [the Legacy] did not function, likely due to an inadvertent deactivation of the transponder …" And "the flight crew of N600XL did not notice" that the transponder was inactive.

---On the ground, "ATC did not take appropriate action in response to the loss" of the Legacy transponder and continued to behave as if the Legacy transponder was operating properly.

---"Neither ATC nor the flight crew recognized the significance of the long time period without two-way communication …" and "ATC did not take adequate action to timely correct a known lost-communication situation with N600XL."

---Air traffic control mistakes in assigning and utilizing radio frequencies and sector-configuration radar "contributed to the breakdown in communication with N600XL and the accident sequence of events."

---The Brazilian military command that runs the air-traffic control system "did not provide adequate training and supervision" for controllers "to appropriately handle this situation."

---Contradicting suggestions in the Brazilian report, the NTSB found that "the evidence does not fully support" Brazilian assertions that inadequate training and flight planning of and by the pilots contributed directly to the accident.

The report by the Brazilian-military-run CENIPA panel -- whose conclusions a Brazilian judge said on Monday were not admissible in a court of law -- goes to great lengths to blame the Americans, while only sketchily conceding that air traffic controllers played a role. Four low-ranking Brazilian air traffic controllers have also been charged criminally in the accident, though the Brazilan Air Force is trying to remove them from civilian court jurisdiction to military jurisdiction.

Joel Weiss, an attorney representing the American pilots, Joe Lepore and Jan Paladino, said today of the Brazilian CENIPA report:

"In counterpoint to the NTSB report, the CENIPA report hides the real and obvious cause of this tragic accident. ATC placed these two competent flight crews on a collision course, traveling toward each other at the same altitude on the same airway. [The Brazilian report] also buries the fact that this was not only a result of major errors by individual air traffic controllers, but of institutional errors built into Brazil’s ATC system. The pilots should not be blamed for a string of utterly catastrophic errors committed by ATC."

A statement issued by ExcelAire, the Long Island charter company that had taken delivery of the new Brazilian-made Legacy 600 in Brazil just hours before it crashed, said it was "unsurprising" that the "heavily slanted" CENIPA report placed "unfair blame on these American pilots."

ExcelAire said, "It is a report by one branch of Brazil’s military, CENIPA, that must deal with catastrophic errors on the part of another branch of Brazil’s military, ATC. It transparently amounts to an attempt to save face in relation to ATC failures that should result in an international black-mark against the safety of Brazil’s ATC system and its skies."

David Rimmer, ExcelAire's executive vice president [and, along with me, one of the five passengers on the Legacy], said: "There is no reliable evidence that the transponder failure was reflected on the Legacy’s cockpit display. On the other hand, an important factor in the accident was the undisputed evidence of the failure of ATC to recognize the transponder failure and to provide increased separation as required by international aviation regulations. If ATC had increased aircraft separation as required, the accident would have been avoided."

I'll link to the Brazilian report as soon as I get a translation.

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More on Brazil Crash Charges: Judge Discounts Air Force Report in Criminal Case

More on the decision this week by a Brazilian federal judge to drop one of the key charges against the two American pilots in the 2006 mid-air collision that killed 154.

In his decision dropping one of several charges against the pilots, the judge also took aim at the Brazilian Air Force report on the crash that is expected to be released later today. The Brazilian Air Force is in charge of air-traffic control in that country.

The judge's ruling on Monday said that the Air Force report, which is almost 300 pages long "does not have any value in the trial" of the pilots (who are now in the U.S.) or the four low-ranking air traffic controllers who were also criminally charged in the crash.

The Air Force report "is not an official report produced under the scrutiny of the [courts]. Therefore, the judge cannot examine it and refer to it for one or another conclusion," federal judge Murilo Mendes ruled.

This is not the first time that the courts and the Air Force and federal police have been at odds in this horrible case. For over two months after the crash on Sept. 29, 2006, the American pilots were held in Brazil without charge.

On Dec. 9, 2006, hours after a judge ordered the pilots' passports returned, freeing them to leave the country, the police and military hastily cobbled together criminal charges in a last-ditch but unsuccessful attempt to keep the American pilots detained in Brazil. The pilots barely made it out.

As noted yesterday, the judge in Sinop on Monday dropped charges of negligence against the pilots, Joe Lepore and Jan Paladino, both employees of the Long Island air-charter company ExcelAire at the time of the crash. ExcelAire had just taken delivery of the new Legacy 600 business jet in Brazil and the pilots were ferrying it to New York with five passengers aboard [note, I was one of them] when the collision occurred.

In its ruling this week, the federal judge in Sinop, Mato Grosso, said that there was no evidence that the American pilots were negligent in the air-traffic control communications failures that preceded the crash.

He left standing against the pilots charges that they had failed to adhere to the original flight plan (the Legacy had been ordered to fly at 37,000 feet by air traffic control, rather than the 36,000 feet stated in the flight plan filed before take-off), and that the pilots were responsible, along with air traffic control, for not noticing that the Legacy's transponder was malfunctioning or otherwise off-line for 50 minutes before the crash.

The charges against the pilots, basically unintentional manslaughter and unintentionally exposing Brazilian skies to peril, are not extraditable under U.S.-Brazilian treaties. But the charges carry a possible prison term of there years in Brazil.

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[Thanks to Richard Pedicini in Sao Paulo for translations and updates.]

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Brazil Crash: Key Charge Dropped Against U.S. Pilots

One of the charges against the two American pilots charged by Brazil in the Sept. 29, 2006 mid-air collision over the Amazon that killed 154 has been dropped, though others still stand.

Just before the expected release tomorrow of a lengthy Brazilian report on the accident, a judge in Mato Grosso state dismissed negligence charges against the pilots, Joe Lepore and Jan Paladino, both of Long Island. They were pilots of the Legacy 600 business jet that managed to land safely after the collision at 37,000 feet. [I was one of the seven survivors on the Legacy.]

The charge that was dismissed was of negligence, an assertion that the American pilots were at fault in radio-communications failures during the roughly 50 minutes before the crash. International pilots have said consistently that Brazilan air space over the Amazon is plagued in spots by radio and radar blind zones. The Brazilian military authorities responsible for the nation's air space deny this.

The Brazilians still are charging the American pilots with criminal offenses. One charge is that they failed to follow a flight plan that listed their designated altitude at 36,000 feet in the air space where the crash occurred. But it is not in dispute that Brazilian air traffic control had ordered the Legacy to fly at 37,000 feet.

The other charge centers around the malfunctioning of the Legacy's transponder, a radar-beacon-like device that signals the plane's location and triggers an automatic anti-collision system. A working transponder would have been the last possible chance to avoid a collision that had been set in place for 50 minutes. It is not known what caused the transponder to malfunction. The pilots remain charged with inadvertently causing the transponder to go off-line.

Both pilots returned to the United States in December of 2006 after being held in Brazil for more than two months. They are being tried in absentia.

On Wednesday, a nearly 300-page report by the Brazilian Air Force -- which operates the country's air-traffic control system -- will be released. The report will concede the air-traffic control and communications errors, but will also blame the pilots for inadvertently turning the transponder off and for not being aware that it was off till after the collision. Brazilian air traffic control also failed to notice that the aircraft was not signaling for 50 minutes, when controllers mistakenly believed the plane was at 36,000 feet.

At the same time the Brazilian report is issued, the United States National Transportation Safety Board will issue its own findings.

The NTSB will find that the probable causes of the accident were the air-traffic control orders to the Legacy to fly at 37,000 feet past Brasilia, and the complex on-ground communications and technological errors that occurred in air traffic control as the two aircraft, the doomed plane a Brazilian 737 that crashed in the jungle, unknowingly bore down on each other.

The NTSB will state that the transponder malfunction was a "contributing cause."

You may bet on the fact that some elements of the Brazilian media will inaccurately assert -- as they have in fact been doing for days as the report is selectively leaked -- that the Brazilian Air Force report blames the American pilots almost exclusively for the disaster.

I'll post a link to the full Brazilian report as soon as I have a translation. I'll post the NTSB findings as soon as I get the text.

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Alienating Elite-Status Passengers (Cont'd)

In a continuing quest designed evidently to alienate the very people who keep the airline afloat, United Airlines is peddling more perks previously reserved for its elite-status passengers, including priority boarding.

Dunno about you, but one of the reasons I maintain elite status (on Continental, which hasn't pulled these kinds of stunts and which treats its elite-status customers right) is priority boarding. This has noting to do with "elite" or "status," and everything to do with being able to get on the airplane quickly and find space for my carry-on near my seat.

On every flight I've flown in the past few months, the overhead bin battles have been intense. With checked-bag fees creating more carry-on bulk, the bins can't handle it. Flight attendants are distressed at the tension.

If you're one of the last 10 or 20 unfortunates to board on many flights, you often find yourself unexpectedly having to gate-check your carry-on, which is a huge inconvenience, considering that you had planned to have that bag and its contents available in-flight.

And I'm not talking about carry-on slobs here who lug on bags the size of juke-boxes that should have been checked in the first place. I'm talking about most of us who play by the rules and honor the social contract.

The checked bag fees have simply overwhelmed the bins.

The point is, priority boarding is a valuable perk. And in selling elite perks for 25 bucks and up, United is pulling the rug out from under its best customers. Again.

In the press release, by the way, a United worthy actually makes the risible assertion that adding more and more fees is a great way to allow customers to "customize their own travel experience."

Jayzus, who lets these guys out in public.

Here's the press release:

CHICAGO, Dec. 8 – Customers who want to breeze to their flights more quickly may now do so with United’s new Premier Line, the newest of the Travel Options by United.

Starting at $25, Premier Line provides priority access to three types of specially reserved lines that offer customers convenience at check-in, security and boarding, including boarding for connecting flights.

"When we asked our customers what travel services are most important to them, they told us that access to priority lines was something they value highly," said Dennis Cary, senior vice president and chief marketing and customer officer. "Premier Line provides convenient access to fast-track lines and is another choice for our customers to customize their own travel experience."

Premier Line is available in the U.S. at United’s five hub airports – Chicago, Denver, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Washington-Dulles – and at 9 other airports, including Boston, New York LaGuardia, and Seattle. It may be purchased at united.com when booking a ticket, while checking-in online, or anytime through the “My Itineraries” page at united.com. The option will also be available in the coming weeks at United’s airport kiosks.

United’s Premier Line service is offered to a limited number of customers each hour based on time of departure. Elite Mileage Plus members will continue to enjoy complimentary access to priority lines as they have in the past.

In addition to the new Premier Line service, customers may further enhance their travel experiences with other services from United’s Travel Options portfolio. For example, customers may conveniently ship their luggage overnight with Door-to-Door Baggage, and may choose United’s Economy Plus seating section that has up to five more inches of legroom (for elite Mileage Plus members, access to Economy Plus is complimentary). Also, with United’s Award Accelerator offering, starting at $9, customers may earn travel awards faster by multiplying the number of miles they receive when they fly.

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Monday, December 08, 2008

Let's Roar, the Pilots Want to Sleep

I love this story today in the aviation newsletter AVweb.com saying that the superjumbo A380 aircraft are so quiet in long-haul flight that off-duty Emirates pilots trying to sleep in the compartment near the flight deck are being kept awake. They're having a hard time sleeping because without the "white noise" effect of typical aircraft engines, they "can hear all the crying babies and flushing toilets" in the passenger cabins.

Last year, when I flew a Lufthansa-operated A380 on a shakeout flight with a full passenger load from Frankfurt to New York, the first thing I noticed on board was how quiet it was. So as someone who sometimes depends on noise-canceling earphones in flight and a portable white-noise machine for hotels on the road, I feel their pain.

[Correction: Please note the excellent comment below. On the Emirates A380, the crew rest compartment is poorly located (from the crew's perspective) aft, not forward by the cockpit.]

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Saturday, December 06, 2008

Your Border Patrol At Work

I've been thinking about the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol lately because I'm often in southern Arizona and am always amazed when I encounter a highway Border Patrol checkpoint, sometimes as much as 50 miles from the border.

The drill is always the same. I'm on a rural highway in the desert. The checkpoint always has about a dozen uniformed agents and what appear to be some cops, all armed. The typical drill is, a Border Patrol agent, struggling through English as a barely second language, orders you to roll down your window and asks that you state your citizenship.

Say "United States" and -- presumably -- fit the approved racial profile, and off you go with a courteous "Thank you."

It always galls me because I have been pulled over by a federal agent who has no real police power this far from the border. I have been required to essentially prove my citizenship, well beyond the legal boundaries of a national border. Where, I always wonder, does the border zone legally end? In Oklahoma?

These intimidating checkpoints strike me as fundamentally unconstitutional.

But not wishing to spend the day in quasi-custody on some dusty desert pullover arguing the Bill of Rights with people who care only about when their shift ends, I say "United States," and I'm waved on.

Long way around the barn to note that one of the worthies from the Customs and Border Protection division of Homeland Security in Boston has been busted for ... hiring illegal immigrants to clean her home.

Here's the story from the Boston Globe.

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Friday, December 05, 2008

CUSTOMER: "What time does the Dallas flight depart?" ... AIRLINE AGENT: "What time can you get here?"

Whoa, lookit these operating numbers from the major airlines, all of which have now reported in on their November traffic:

Folks, people simply ain't flying. At least not anywhere near the way they used to.

United Airlines had a 17 percent drop in revenue miles flown in November, compared with November 2007. It was minus 14.5 percent for American; minus 10.7 percent for Continental and so on down into the high minus single digits for the rest of the mainline carriers.

The discount carriers that mostly fly domestic routes were all also off significantly: Minus 8.3 percent for Southwest; minus 7.8 percent for JetBlue.

Capacity -- reported as available seat miles -- was down across the board (except for Southwest, where capacity was basically the same as November 2007). But across the board, the capacity declines were exceeded by the traffic declines.

In other words, air travel is in a great big slump -- just as airlines (ya just can't catch a break, guys and gals in the airline business, and I feel your pain) are looking at the bonanza of under-$50-a-barrel oil.

Watch carefully for those fare sales, because more of them are coming.

Meanwhile, airline stocks remain in the tank because Wall Street doesn't have much faith in air-travel demand. Then again, what the hell does Wall Street know about anything.

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Thursday, December 04, 2008

To Repeat (Again): Sometimes a Ride On a Business Jet Is a Real Bad Idea

Oh, my. The National Business Aviation Association has gone all defensive-crouchy today in reaction to what seems to me to have been very legitimate ridicule of the three Detroit CEOs' use of three private jets in November to make the 90-minute flight to Washington to argue for the $25 billion bailout (which seems to have inflated in price to $34 billion in a few short weeks).

It has been clearly stipulated here -- on numerous occasions -- that business jets make eminent sense as productivity tools for certain companies in specific situations and for exactly the reasons that the N.B.A.A. points out. Every company I know that uses them employs a mix of flight options -- commercial and private -- for carefully defined business reasons, including the need to get a crucial employee -- or team of employees -- to and from a destination, at the best value in terms of time spent on the road, and direct productivity.

Below is the N.B.A.A. e-mail to its members today, reiterating the case for the smart use of business aviation.

But the N.B.A.A. overlooks the issue at hand, because the use of business jets in this particular circumstance by the Detroit CEOs, swanning into Washington in Gulfstream splendor in these awful economic times to demand taxpayer bailouts, was just plain stupid -- worse, even, than the insurance giant A.I.G.'s half-million-dollar-plus hotel bill for a sales retreat at a St. Regis hotel in California, a mere week after A.I.G. got its own federal bailout.

The word for this in public relations is "optics" -- that is, a cognizance of the appearance of the thing.

"Optics," as any luxury hotel owner will tell you right now, is the reason lots of high-level corporate travelers are now staying at the Sheraton rather than that five-star hotel they stayed at till Wall Street sank the economy. Because of possible public perception, many are staying downscale for the time being, even though they may have utterly justifiable reason -- service, location, etc. -- to stay at the five-star.

Obviously, the Detroit automakers realized the optics problem of the company jets for use on a short hop to the capital, because when the Detroit grandees came back to Washington this week, they all drove cars. (And held forth in arranged media phone interviews on the road.) Why they didn't simply do the smart thing, which is fly commercial, is a question that can only be answered by the PR geniuses who make Detroit the special place it is.

Shortly after I first got into this end of the reporting business in early 1999, I began doing occasional stories on business aviation, which fascinated me.

Business aviation was at the time digging itself out from an economic slump that was partly the result of public attitudes toward scandalous abuses in the use of corporate jets in the 1980s. Remember the buccaneer RJR Nabisco chief F. Ross Johnson parading around golf buddies and even flying his poodle to join the family vacation, as he and other executives treated the company fleet of 10 jets -- known as the RJR Air Force -- like personal toys?

In 2000, when the business aviation industry was showing early signs of the spectacular recovery and growth period it was about to enter, I asked the then-president of the N.B.A.A., Jack Olcott, about that public perception, and resulting decline in business-jet sales that it had helped cause.

"To a certain extent the [business-jet] community brought this upon itself" with those abuses, he said, adding: "The excesses of the '80s were really only very limited examples, but they received tremendous media attention."

The N.B.A.A. statement (below) had the opportunity to make that point about the very limited example the automaker CEOs set.

Alas, it does not, and instead calls the perfectly legitimate media reaction to the extremely bad judgment of the Detroit CEOs "sensationalist." But I nevertheless suggest that anyone interested in this issue go to the N.B.A.A. web site and read the background material on the industry, which makes a very good case -- Detroit aside.

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"Dear NBAA Member,

In light of the recent, overwhelming news coverage of the Big 3 auto executives' use of business aircraft, and the hearings on Capitol Hill this week related to the auto industry, I wanted to make you aware of NBAA's work to advocate for the business aviation community in the current environment.

As we know, the news coverage of the auto executives' use of business aviation, now in its third week, has taken a sensationalist view of not only the use of business aircraft by the Big 3, but the utilization of business aviation for any company, anywhere. As companies that use business aircraft know, these assets are essential business tools that provide enormous value to companies and their shareholders. Historically, studies – including those commissioned by NBAA – have reinforced this long-held view.

Like everyone else in our industry, NBAA has been frustrated by the mischaracterizations of business aviation that have been put forward, and we've been responding forcefully. As the story has unfolded, we have given interviews to a whole host of news outlets to correct misperceptions, inform reporters' understanding of our industry, and give context to the coverage. While we can't guarantee that our comments will be accurately portrayed or even included in every story, we have nevertheless pressed our case with CBS News, USA Today, National Public Radio, the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times, the Associated Press, Business Week, and many others – we are even talking with overseas news outlets.

Additionally, we're reaching out to news organizations, putting the resources in their hands that clearly explain why thousands of companies of all sizes, all across the U.S. look to business aviation as a solution to their transportation challenges, especially in a challenging economy. The information we've given the media is available on an online resources page that can be accessed from NBAA's redesigned web site, www.nbaa.org, or at NBAA's Media Backgrounder page at www.nbaa.org/news/backgrounders.

Of course, NBAA staff alone can't always respond to every negative story in every newspaper in the country, local television show, or posting on the Internet. Your participation is also needed, so that news organizations understand the true face of business aviation, and why it is so important not only for the businesses that rely on it, but also for supporting the growth of jobs, investment and economic activity in places across the country. If you're planning to write a letter to your local newspaper editor, or weigh in on the Internet, we hope the resources we've made available on our web site can also be used to help you assemble your comments.

Obviously, we'll continue to vigorously defend the industry as this story evolves. And as always, we welcome your thoughts and suggestions.

Sincerely,

Ed Bolen
President and CEO
National Business Aviation Association"

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Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Auto-Makers: So What's Your Story Re Corporate Jets?

Last I heard, the worthies who run Ford, GM and Chrysler were insisting that using corporate jets to fly to Washington to beg for a $25 billion taxpayer bailout, as they all did last month, was absolutely necessary because of efficiency, productivity and (snort) security.

Now we have this Mulally of Ford setting out today in a car for the long drive to the capital for a new grovel session tomorrow.

Hel-loooo: There is a way more efficient means of getting from Detroit to Washington than driving a Ford or swanning in on a $50 million Gulfstream.

It's called commercial air service. It's all the rage.

Somebody, please flag down Mulally at the Interstate rest stop and tell him the roundtrip coach fare between Detroit and Washington (nonstop flying time 97 minutes) is available at last-minute purchase today for $222 on AirTran and US Airways; $296 on Continental and $312 on Delta and United.

He can even fly Detroit's own, soon-to-disappear airline, Northwest. But the fare is $1,225 -- and you can't blame that disparity on the autoworkers wages.

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Delta Slashing Capacity

Delta Air Lines today announced a further cut of 8 to 10 percent in domestic capacity for next year and a 3 to 5 percent cut in international capacity.

Confronted with demand that keeps falling faster than they're been able to cut seating capacity and flights, airlines are about to line up to announce even more capacity cuts next year.

The result, as I have said for months, will be the start of a fundamental restructuring of the air-travel system in this country -- and it won't be good news for travelers.

Delta, which recently acquired Northwest Airlines in a merger, noted that despite the fact that oil prices have fallen $100 a barrel since July, the airline industry "now grapples with a U.S. economic recession that has eroded travel demand."

All airlines reduced capacity this year. United Airlines, for example, cut fourth-quarter mainline capacity by 16.6 percent.

Wisdom in the conventional media said that the already announced capacity cuts would likely suffice, as airlines benefited from a sharp drop in fuel costs. Some of us said otherwise, as air traffic obviously began to plunge and as airlines took a unique opportunity to downsize for the future.

Meanwhile, a day after Continental Airlines said that its traffic was off sharply in November, Southwest Airlines announced today that its November traffic was off 10.7 percent compared with November 2007. The average load factor was 63.2 percent, down 6.1 points. Load factor is the average number of available seats sold. Available seats were down a slight 0.4 percent in November, Southwest said.

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Monday, December 01, 2008

Airline Demand Still Falling




Air-travel demand is evidently continuing to fall at a rate greater than the ability of airlines to reduce seating capacity. This increases the likelihood that airlines will need to reduce fares until they get their capacity in line with demand.

Continental Airlines today was the first to report its operating results for November. The numbers -- all compared with November 2007 -- are compelling:

---Domestic passenger traffic was off 15 percent (and down 5.4 percent internationally).

---Domestic seats available were down 12.4 percent. (So the drop in actual traffic exceeded the drop in seating capacity).

---Domestic average load factors -- the percentage of seats sold on an airplane -- was down 2.5 points, to 83.1 percent (and down 2.4 points to 77.4 percent internationally). Load factors in the 80s are still amazing, meaning that on most flights, every seat is sold -- but the drop is notable.

Meanwhile, shares of U.S. airlines tumbled today. The stock market in general tanked today, of course, but Reuters reports that the airline stock decline outpaced the overfall decline in the Dow Jones average and attributed it to "speculation that [airline] bookings may suffer more now that the nation's economy has officially been declared to be in recession."

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To Repeat: Sometimes a Ride on a Business Jet Is a Real Bad Idea




It isn't often that I disagree with my learned friend Michael Boyd, of the Boyd Group aviation consultancy. But today I do.

In his always-compelling "Hot Flash" weekly essay on his company's Web site Aviationplanning.com, Mike today lights into those of us who have condemned as tone-deaf the chief executives of the Big Three auto makers, each of whom used a private company jet to travel to Washington a few weeks ago to ask Congress for a $25 billion bailout.

His essay today is headlined: "It's OK for Al Gore, But Not for GM: The New Evil: Business Jets!"

Well, I would respectfully argue, it is indeed OK for Al Gore (a private citizen who is not seeking a taxpayer bailout and who did not run an auto-maker into the ground), and but not for GM, to be swanning into Washington on a $50 million private jet. As we all recall, the Detroit worthies were looking for taxpayer rescue after decades of gross mismanagement.

As I said here earlier, business jets can make good sense as productivity tools, not just for valuable top management to travel but for middle-management teams, technology teams and others who need to be somewhere fast -- especially somewhere without good commercial air service -- for solid bottom-line reasons.

Mike writes today: "The [Detroit] CEOs looked like Team Nebbish From The Planet Motown. But the real story came later. A vigilant TV network correspondent discovered, no doubt after five minutes of earnest research and a cab ride to Reagan National, that the CEOs, coming to Washington to ask for taxpayer money, actually flew, yes!, private jets!

"The outrage! They're losing billions, and they have the fat-cat crust to fly in private corporate jets down to Washington to beg for money! The fat pigs! They could have flown commercial, just like the rest of us! Congress, don't give 'em diddly.

"And that became the fodder for every indignant talk show host on the air. Nobody dared ask any questions. It was now dogma, and don't argue: These CEOs are pigs who have killed off their companies, then run to Washington in luxurious private jets asking for our hard-earned dollars.

"Well, here's a flash for the intellectual fundamentalists who are so righteously calling for these CEOs' heads, based on the mob-belief that they sipped champagne and smoked Davidoff 25s on the way to Washington, while the rest of us were having our toiletries examined in the TSA line at DCA: Those executives did the right thing. They should have taken those corporate aircraft to Washington."

And the Detroit worthies should have argued along these lines, Mike says:

"First, we have a corporate flight department because in many instances it allows us to move our people far more efficiently than commercial air. Time in our business can be critically expensive. When we need to move a team of production engineers from Lansing to our plant in Shreveport to fix a line problem, commercial flights would take all day -- or, depending on the time the failure takes place, more than a day. ...

"In my case, yes, I did utilize corporate aviation assets to get to Washington. I fully intend to do so again should a similar event arise. To do otherwise would be irresponsible to my shareholders, employees and investors. I report to them, not to gadfly reporters, or to inept agenda-laden 'environmentalists' who would be happy to see us all live in nice clean caves.

"As you must certainly know, this is a crisis for my firm and the entire US auto industry. Immediate attention is needed, including my full-time efforts on the matter. ...

"...I have a company in crisis and must be in touch at all times. On the corporate jet I have communication with all parts of my company at all times. I conduct business while on that airplane. This being a crisis, I find that is far more effective than being out of pocket, lining up at Detroit Metro, waiting in line at the TSA that you toss money at regardless of its effectiveness, then waiting again to board the flight. Then there is the sloppy air traffic control system you inflict on the public, which requires airlines to fly in excess of the time they really need to, and gives me a 20% chance of not arriving on schedule, anyway."

Noted. But I absolutely do not buy the argument. The Detroit worthies have plenty of backup in the executive suites, and spending a few hours on an easy commercial airline flight from Detroit to Washington posed no critical problems. This was not a crisis in Shreveport demanding attention. One of the auto-makers flacks had the audacity to argue that the corporate jet is needed to ensure the personal safety of the CEO.

Pul-ease. I've ridden on a business jet that crashed in the damned Amazon.

Flying corporate jets on short-haul trips to ask for taxpayer money in Washington exhibited arrogance and a breathtaking level of tone-deafness.

I don't care if their only other option was to stick out a thumb and hitch-hike to the capital. They had no business using private jets in this instance. Period.

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Sunday, November 30, 2008

Big Mess at Airports

Overall air travel is down during this Thanksgiving holiday period, but bad weather (ice, snow, heavy rain) has caused major snarls at airports in the East and Midwest today.

The New York-area airports, natch, are the biggest mess, with delays of up to four hours at Newark and over two hours at Kennedy and LaGuardia, according to Flightstats.com.

Also reporting big delays: O'Hare, Denver, Orlando, Boston, Miami and Louisville. As the early evening peaks arrive, the delays are sure to ripple to other airports. Lighter-than-usual Thanksgiving air travel aside, the Sunday after Thanksgiving is traditionally one of the busiest travel days of the year.

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Saturday, November 29, 2008

Hotlines, Updates Posted by Mumbai Hotels

The two luxury hotels that were among the targets of terrorists in Mumbai have posted Web sites with helplines and updates.

Here's the Taj Mahal. And here's the Oberoi.

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Friday, November 28, 2008

GM Wants to Hide the Heavy Metal




[Above: A G-IV cabin]

General Motors evidently got the F.A.A. to keep the public in the dark about the use of at least one of its corporate jets, Bloomberg reports today.

That would be the leased $50 million G-IV jet, tail number N5116, that the GM chief executive, Richard Wagoner, flew into Washington on Nov. 19 to beg Congress for a $25 million industry bailout. The top dogs at Ford and Chrysler, Alan Mulally and Robert Nardelli, also swanned into the capital from Detroit that day in their own companies' private jets.

Information on the movements of all aircraft, including private jets, is usually readily available at Web sites like Flightaware.com

But movements of the GM aircraft, which last visited Washington on Tuesday, could no longer be tracked publicly after that.

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Thursday, November 27, 2008

International Air Travel Slumps for 2nd Month -- This Means More Fare Sales Are Ahead

International air traffic declined in October for the second consecutive month, the International Air Transport Association said today.

The fall-off was 1.3 percent compared with October 2007, smaller than the 2.9 percent drop in September.

And here's a strong indication that we can expect to see even more fare sales ahead on most international routes. Load factors -- the percentage of available seats filled with paying customers -- dropped 7.6 percent and 11.1 percent, respectively, on the all-important North Atlantic and Asia-Pacific routes, compared with October 2007. That means far more seats are flying empty, and until they're able to reduce capacity, airlines are going to be looking to fill those empty seats at whatever price they can get.

"While the drop in oil prices is welcome relief, recession is now the biggest threat to airline profitability," said Giovanni Bisignani, the executive director of the air transportation organization. He added that a "deepening slump" in airline cargo traffic (which fell 7.9 percent in October) is "a clear indication that the worst is yet to come."

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