Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Air Traffic Meltdown

It isn't showing up clearly yet on those increasingly sluggish, supposedly real-time sites like FlightStats.com, but air traffic is snarling nationally as the evening crush approaches.

CNN has heads-up reporting on the developing mess. The F.A.A.'s inexcusably aged, badly maintained technology is responsible. This is just one sign of things to come, I fear.

The usual advice: Check ahead before going to the airport. If you're flying, bring snacks. You could be stuck on a tarmac for a while.

And by the way, ignore any news outlets that give you the lame advice to consult the F.A.A. flight delay information page at www.faa.gov! That site hasn't functioned in over a year. The F.A.A. -- which is run, incidentally, by political appointees whose background is mostly in interstate-trucking regulation -- can't get the planes up in the air; you expect them to have a useful public information site?

Update: The F.A.A. has sent out a statement that's as vapid as it gets. The malfunctioning computer, near Atlanta, is forcing pilots to file fight-plans manually. (Remember, there are about 5,000 airplanes in flight at any given time during the day). "Airplanes are safe and controllers can see aircraft," the F.A.A. says. "They are simply inputting flight plans manually, which takes more time than an electronic transfer."

(You betcha it does. It also opens up great opportunity for mistakes.)

The F.A.A. says, "We are working to correct this issue ..."

Issue! Note that they don't even have the simple good sense to call it a "problem."

And the F.A.A. says, "You can see real time which airports are being affected at www.fly.faa.gov"

No, you cannot. As I said, that site has been inoperative for over a year. Must be some "issue" involved.



Sunday, August 24, 2008

10 Dead in Utah Business Aircraft Crash

I don't know why the newspapers outside of Utah don't consider this news: A twin-engine turboprop plane with 10 aboard crashed Friday night in southeastern Utah. Everybody died.

The local papers, in a tone also reflected by the AP, are interested mainly in the emotional aspects of the story, rather than in what happened and why. Authorities Are Investigating, we are assured. Sure as hell the media won't be, once the emotion is wrung out.

The plane was carrying medical-clinic workers doing routine rounds in the rural Southwest.

It was a Beechcraft King Air 100. Here is the Wikipedia entry on that model.


Thursday, August 21, 2008

Well, Let's Find Out ...

Lame coverage of the MD80 crash in Madrid continues in the media. We learn nothing useful about airline safety from weepy relatives, dramatic (often inaccurate) eyewitness accounts, assurances that the Authorities Are Investigating (ask me about Brazil), and pointless photos of ambulances.

Instead, before everybody in Spain takes their usual August Friday off, let's look at the mechanicals on that particular MD80-series plane, and on Spanair's fleet in general.

From the Guardian today:

"...Spanair confirmed an MD-82 was forced to make an emergency landing last Saturday on a flight from Lanzarote in the Canary Islands to Madrid because of problems with both of its engines. The plane landed in the nearby island of Gran Canaria, the destination of yesterday's flight.

A company official said he did not know if the same plane was involved in both cases."

Hmmm, could we maybe ask him to LOOK IT UP?


Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Madrid Crash MD80 Report

The news accounts have settled on a figure of about 145 dead of about 175 on board that Spanair MD80-series plane that crashed today in Madrid.

Here's a preliminary report on the plane and the accident from AviationSafety.net


MD80s and Fatalities

From the invaluable airline-safety Web site Airsafe.com, here is a list of crash fatalities on MD80 -series aircraft. Note the more recent incidents and similarities to what apparently occurred on an MD80 that went off the runway and broke up today in Madrid, with most reports now saying about 150 of the 175 on board were killed.

From Airsafe.com:

Fatal McDonnell Douglas MD80 Events

Other McDonnell Douglas Models DC9, DC10, MD11, MD90

The following events are those involving at least one passenger death on an MD80 where the aircraft flight had a direct or indirect role. Excluded would be events where the only passengers killed were stowaways, hijackers, or saboteurs.

  1. 1 December 1981; Inex Adria MD80; Ajaccio, Corsica: The aircraft collided with high ground in fog during approach. All eight crew and 170 passengers were killed.
  2. 16 August 1987; Northwest MD82; Detroit, USA: The crew neglected to properly set flaps for takeoff. The aircraft stalled soon after takeoff and crashed onto a highway. All six crew and 148 of 149 passengers were killed. Two people on the ground were also killed.
  3. 12 June 1988; Austral Lineas Aereas MD81; Posadas, Argentina: The aircraft crashed three miles (4.8 km) short of the airport during an approach in poor visibility All 15 passengers and seven crew were killed..
  4. 26 October 1993; China Eastern MD82; Fuzhou, China: The aircraft touched down long during a rain storm and went off the end of the runway. Two of the 71 passengers were killed.
  5. 13 November 1993; China Northern MD82; Urumqui, China: The aircraft crashed about 2 km short during an approach in dense fog. Eight of the 92 passengers and four of the eight crew were killed.
  6. 6 July 1996; Delta MD88; Pensacola, FL: During the takeoff, the left engine sustained an uncontained failure, causing pieces of the engine to penetrate the cabin, killing two of the 137 passengers.
    NTSB Accident Summary
    NTSB Accident Report
  7. 1 June 1999; American Airlines MD80; Little Rock, AR: The aircraft ran off the runway, broke up, and caught fire after a night landing. There were thunderstorms in the area at the time of the event. One of the six crewmembers and 10 of the 139 passengers were killed.
    NTSB Accident Summary
    NTSB Accident Report
    Related NTSB Investigation Information
  8. 31 January 2000; Alaska Airlines MD83; near Pt. Mugu, CA: The aircraft was on a flight from Puerto Vallarta, Mexico to San Francisco when it crashed into the Pacific Ocean about 20 miles (32 km) northwest of the LAX airport. Reportedly, the aircraft was diverting to Los Angeles and started a rapid descent from about 17,000 feet. All 83 passengers and five crew members were killed.
    NTSB Accident Summary
    NTSB Accident Report
    Additional NTSB Background Information
  9. 8 October 2001; SAS MD87; Milan Italy: The aircraft was taking off from Milan's Linate airport for a flight to Copenhagen when it collided with a Cessna Citation on the fog-shrouded runway. The airliner then crashed into a nearby hanger and caught fire. There was no indication that this event was the result of a hijacking, sabotage, or other act of violence. All six crew members and 104 passengers on the airliner were killed, as were the four occupants of the business jet and four airport workers on the ground.
    Fatal events involving SAS
  10. 7 May 2002; China Northern MD82; near Dalian, China: This was a scheduled domestic flight from Beijing to Dalian, China. The aircraft crashed about 20 km (12.5 mi) off the coast of Dalian after the crew reported a fire in the cabin. Investigating authorities claimed that the fire was deliberately started by one of the passengers. All nine crew members and 103 passengers were killed.
    Fatal Events for Airlines of Asia
    Fatal Events for Airlines of the PRC
  11. 30 November 2004; LionAir MD82; Solo City, Indonesia: This was a scheduled domestic flight from Jakarta to Solo City, Indonesia. The aircraft skidded off the runway on landing after a flight from Jakarta. The aircraft broke up and came to rest about 100 meters from the runway. The runway was wet and the aircraft was experiencing tailwind during the landing. One of the seven crew members and 24 of the 156 passengers were killed.
    Fatal Events for Airlines of Asia
  12. 16 August 2005; West Caribbean Airways MD82; near Machiques, Venezuela: The aircraft was on an international flight from Panama City, Panama to Martinique when the crew reported to air traffic control that the aircraft was experiencing some kind of engine problem and requested a descent from cruising altitude of 33,000 feet down to 14,000 feet. The crew later reported that both engines were experiencing problems and that the aircraft was not controllable. All eight crew members and 152 passengers were killed.
    Fatal Events for Airlines from Latin America and the Caribbean
  13. 16 September 2007; One-Two-Go Airlines MD82; Phuket, Thailand: The aircraft was on a scheduled domestic flight from Bangkok (DMK) to Phuket (HKT). After landing, the aircraft skidded off the runway, impacted several trees, and caught fire. There was reportedly heavy rain and poor visibility at the time of the crash. There were at least 89 deaths, including 85 of the 123 passengers and five of the seven crew members.
    Fatal Events Involving Asian Airlines
  14. 30 November 2007; Atlasjet MD83; near Keciborlu, Turkey: The plane was on a domestic flight from Istanbul to Isparta when it disappeared from radar screens. The crew had requested permission to land shortly before the aircraft crashed in mountainous terrain near the town of Keciborlu, about 12km (7.5 miles) from the Isparta airport. All seven crew members and 50 passengers were killed.


Spain Plane Crash: Whither the MD-80?

As I've said here repeatedly, airline safety and maintenance is the next big story in air travel.

Re that plane crash that killed at least 45 in Madrid today: The plane was an MD-80, a model of aging aircraft that has had well-documented safety problems in the last year. It was operated by a cost-cutting, financially troubled airline. (More-current reports put the number of dead in Madrid at 150.)

Where did that airplane come from, and what is its maintenance history? Those are the two key questions, and I'll get back to this once I know the answers. These are questions that, I fear, we'll be asking more often in the future as the true extent of the safety/maintenance crisis becomes more clear.


Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Schmuck Runs for Office

... So what else is new, you might ask.

But no, really. Here's a photo of Frank Schmuck, Southwest Airlines pilot and Air Force veteran, who is running for the state legislature in Arizona. The man would have my vote just based on the chutzpah of his campaign signs.

I was on a business trip in Phoenix recently and blinked twice when I saw the first VOTE SCHMUCK sign beside the road. My initial reaction was it was a rude, bad-attempt-at-humor good-government imperative, with an implied comma after the "Vote." (I always bristled at the preternaturally annoying James Carvelle's "It's the Economy, Stupid" slogan)

"Team Schmuck" (I am not kidding -- look) has complained that the opposition is responsible for the rash of disappearances of Schmuck campaign signs from public spots, but I suspect Team Schmuck is fully aware of the potential role of souvenir hunters.

Here is the quite serious bio of this particular political Schmuck, an engineer who notes that he has been referred as the "Father of rubberized asphalt."

I mean, really, you gotta love Arizona.

--And on a different note, some political schmucks simply don't know when to shut up and go to bed. Ralph Nader heard from.


Friday, August 15, 2008

When Flying JetBlue, Watch What You Do

I've been unavoidably off the beat for a couple of days, but I need to catch up on what seems to be increasing incidents of airline thuggery.

Here's an IAGBlog blogcast interview of a 56-year-old Arizona woman who was harassed, threatened, cuffed, manhandled and arrested after she refused a totally out-of-line order by a JetBlue flight attendant to delete some video she had made on board a flight to Las Vegas. The reason for the flight attendant's order to delete video: It might end up online. It's a shocking report, and I don't use that word shocking very often.

Here's a detailed news account of the incident in the Kingman, Arizona Daily Miner.

Kate Hanni, of the passenger rights coalition, is prominently urging passengers to make video recordings of untoward incidents on airplanes. I heartily endorse that idea, but beware: some crazed flight attendant might call the cops. And some half-cocked cops might barrel in and just make things worse, like the ones who responded like Keystone Kops to this baseless complaint when the plane landed in Las Vegas.


Thursday, August 07, 2008

Business Jet Sales Set New Record

The business-jet boom continues, even as (and partly because) domestic commercial aviation continues to deteriorate. Foreign sales are driving some of the growth, incidentally. Here are the new figures from the General Aviation Manufacturers Association:


"WASHINGTON, DC, August 7, 2008 – Today, the General Aviation Manufacturers Association (GAMA) announced second quarter shipment and billings figures. Industry billings continue at a record-setting pace totaling $12.1 billion, a 24.1 percent increase in the first half of 2008. ...


2007 2008 CHANGE

PISTONS 1226 1034 -15.7%

TURBOPROPS 186 222 +19.4%

BUSINESS JETS 476 663 +39.3%

TOTAL SHIPMENTS 1888 1919 +1.6%

TOTAL BILLINGS $9.8B $12.1B +24.1%


Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Now Where Are My Keys, Dammit?

In the week's best "Never mind" moment, Verified Identity Pass Inc., operator of the Clear registered traveler program, found the laptop it had reported stolen from its offices. A company employee found the laptop ... in the office. "It was not in an obvious location," a spokeswoman said.

The laptop burglary was reported on July 28. The laptop contained basic information on 33,000 new applicants for Clear membership -- names, dates of birth, and in some cases drivers license and passport numbers, but no credit card, Social Security or other more-sensitive information like biometric data that is encoded on ID cards. Nevertheless, the Transportation Security Administration on Monday suspended membership enrollment in Clear until the company can demonstrate in an audit that is encrypting all data. The initial applicant data was not encrypted.

Here are two reports on the reappearance of the laptop, one a news report and the other a press release from the company.

By the way, I am puzzled by one thing. The TSA said two weeks ago that it was relinquishing its role in conducting background checks on registered traveler members -- thereby removing the agency from its security role in the registered traveler program. In effect, it seemed to me, TSA -- whose only role had been conducting those cursory background checks -- had removed itself entirely from supervising of the program.

We'll sort it out. Just as soon as I find my cell phone.

[Note: Ellen Howe, the TSA assistant administrator for public affairs, explains it all in the comment posted below.]


Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Two More Airline Emergencies

I'm telling ya, safety and maintenance are the emerging airline story.

Two more troubling incidents:

Today, an American Airlines 757 made an emergency landing at Los Angeles International Airport shortly after takeoff, after a report of smoke in the cabin. The 188 passengers on the Honolulu-bound flight were evacuated down the emergency chutes, according to the Associated Press.

On Monday, an American Airlines MD-80 with 139 passengers on board took off from New York LaGuardia and made an emergency landing at nearby Kennedy International after one engine lost power.


T.S.A. Readies for New 'Checkpoint Friendly' Laptop Bags

The T.S.A. said today that its security officers would be trained and ready by Aug. 16 to handle the new "checkpoint friendly" laptop bags that will allow travelers to keep their laptops in the cases.

Here is some detailed background information on how this innovation came about.

And below is today's T.S.A. announcement:


"WASHINGTON – To help streamline the security process and better protect laptops, starting
August 16 the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) will allow passengers to leave their
laptop computers in bags that meet new “checkpoint friendly” standards.

This public-private collaboration took just five months to go from concept to reality. TSA
reached out to manufacturers in March to design bags that will produce a clear and unobstructed image of the laptop when undergoing X-ray screening. Designs meeting this objective will
enable TSA to allow laptops to remain in bags for screening. More than 60 manufacturers
responded and 40 submitted prototypes for testing.

“This is a solid example of government collaborating with the private sector to conceptualize and
produce a product that really works to improve and advance the security process,” said TSA
Administrator Kip Hawley. “We put the challenge out there and bag manufacturers
overwhelming responded with innovative products that provide a win-win for travelers and

For a bag to be considered checkpoint friendly it should meet the following standards:

* A designated laptop-only section
* The laptop-only section completely unfolds to lay flat on the X-ray belt
* No metal snaps, zippers or buckles inside, underneath or on top of the laptop-only
* No pockets on the inside or outside of the laptop-only section
* Nothing packed in the laptop-only section other than the computer itself.

TSA expects the majority of new bags meeting checkpoint friendly standards to be available for
purchase in mid-August. There are a small percentage of bags currently on the market that meet the new standards, include sleeve-like carrying cases without pockets or zippers. These bag types have been tested and can produce a clear, unobstructed image as long as nothing else is in the case.

TSA is not approving or endorsing any bag design or manufacturer and will only allow laptops to
stay in bags through screening if they provide a clear and unobstructed X-ray image of the

# # #

More Legroom Throughout Coach?

Or a way to cram more people in? Depends on what row of coach hell you're in, as always.

A row of seats broke loose and slid into the row behind during takeoff on a United flight in Seattle, bound for San Francisco, Sunday night. The local newspaper report is way too sketchy for something reported a day after the event -- what kind of plane? A single "loose bolt" lets loose an entire row?

I looked it up (ahem) and see that the flight, United 1139, is operated with a 737-300 configured with two 2x2 rows in first class and the rest are 3x3 rows in coach. So the row that broke loose was the first row in coach.

The usual entities are said to be investigating. But let's say this: Delays, schmelays. Maintenance and safety issues are the new horror story genre developing in air travel this fall. And there can simply be no excuse for a row of seats coming unmoored on an airplane.


Monday, August 04, 2008

T.S.A. Suspends Enrollments in 'Clear' Registered Traveler Program

The T.S.A. temporarily halted new enrollments in Clear, which has lanes in 17 airports and is by far the largest operator of the registered traveler program.

The T.S.A. said it took the action after a laptop containing unencrypted pre-enrollment information for about 33,000 Clear applicants went missing at San Francisco International Airport on July 26. The agency said that Clear -- which is owned by Steven Brill's Verified Identity Pass Inc. -- could resume enrolling applicants once it demonstrated that it is in compliance with rules that require that all personal data stored on computers be encrypted, even the basic initial enrollment information.

Clear has about 200,000 members, including the 33,000 people who were in the initial stages of processing after signing up online, Brill said in an interview tonight.

"We had a burglary in a locked, secured office," he said of the missing computer.

The information stored on the stolen computer consisted only of the applicants' names, addresses and dates of birth and, in some cases, drivers' license numbers and passport numbers.

No credit card numbers or Social Security numbers and "no biometrics of any kind" were stored in the files, he added.

Nor was any information on current members involved, he said.

Brill said that Verified Identity Pass promptly notified the T.S.A. of the burglary and has been working since to encrypt initial basic application information in the same way it routinely encrypts credit card, Social Security and other sensitive information it subsequently receives from applicants.

"There is no reason to believe this is anything other than the simple burglary of a laptop," Verified Identity said in a statement.

The vast majority of registered traveler members belong to the Clear program, which has been expanding aggressively. Smaller competitors operate programs in two airports.

Here is the T.S.A. announcement:


"TSA Suspends Verified Identity Pass, Inc. Clear Registered Traveler Enrollment

WASHINGTON – The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) announced today that it is suspending Verified Identity Pass Inc. (VIP) – the company that operates Registered Traveler (RT) programs under the brand name Clear – from enrolling new applicants in RT due to vulnerabilities discovered in the company’s storage of Clear applicants’ sensitive personal information.

The vulnerabilities came to light after an unencrypted VIP laptop computer was discovered to be missing from San Francisco International Airport on July 26. The computer contained pre-enrollment records of approximately 33,000 customers.

TSA has instructed SFO to ensure that VIP immediately notifies the individuals impacted. In addition, SFO and all other airports using Clear have been instructed to ensure that VIP suspends enrollment, ceases use of any unencrypted computers and secures the devices until encryption can be installed. TSA requires RT service providers and sponsoring entities to encrypt all files containing participants’ sensitive personal information. Noncompliance with such requirements can result in actions including suspension of a program and possible civil penalties.

The suspension will protect consumers waiting to enroll in RT and allow VIP to bring its procedures into compliance. VIP will be required to submit an independent audit, verifying that the required security measures are in place. TSA will verify the audits before enrollment procedures can resume.

Verified Identity Pass Inc. will be responsible for notification and resolution surrounding this incident.

Current Clear customers will not be affected by this action and will not experience any disruption when using Registered Traveler.

TSA is contacting all RT service providers to reaffirm proper security measures are in place, including encryption of sensitive personal information of participants. TSA remains committed to partnerships with private sector entities that enhance the safety and convenience of the flying public."


Friday, August 01, 2008

Work Halted on $4.8 Billion Vegas Casino Project

[Above: The Echelon casino resort complex on the Las Vegas Strip as it will look if and when completed, and bottom, as it looked at the end of June.]

In the most dire sign yet of the economic slowdown affecting Las Vegas, Boyd Gaming Corp. said today it was stopping work on the huge $4.8 billion 5,000-room Echelon casino resort complex now rising in the middle of the Las Vegas Strip. Work may not resume for as long as a year if the economic malaise and tight credit conditions don't improve, the company said.

Las Vegas has about 125,000 hotel rooms, with another 35,000 in the development pipeline.

Huge problems loom even beyond the general economic slump and the credit crunch. Vegas depends heavily on affordable leisure air travel. It had about 36.7 million visitors last year, most of whom arrived by air.

But airlines have been slashing capacity at Las Vegas. In September, airline capacity in Vegas (defined as the number of available seats) will be down about 11 percent compared with September of 2007.

About 25 percent of visitors to Vegas drive from Southern California. That market, too, is shrinking as gas prices remain at all-time highs.

Vegas hotel casinos and other local interests are scrambling to come up with ways to bolster business. Among ideas under study are subsidizing charter flights or even subsidizing a new leisure-travel airline flying limited schedules to and from key major customer markets.

There's some precedent, incidentally. In 1999, two casinos, Harrah's and Rio, started up low-fare National Airlines to entice more visitors from the East Coast. National, which had a fleet of 19 Boeing 757s, went out of business in 2002.


Emirates A380 Shower

[Above: Both first-class bathrooms on Emirates' new A380, starting service today between Kennedy and Dubai, have a shower]

For those of us becoming accustomed to getting hosed by our airlines, here's a tantalizing look at how sweet it can be, assuming you have the bucks or the expensive account to fly Emirates new A380 in first class.