Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Biz Jet Sales Slump Seen; More Bad News for Vegas

Two new economic indicators in a time of mounting trouble:

First, the long-booming market for business jets is softening, says Forecast International, the aerospace analysis company.

Forecast International says it expects annual business jet production to reach nearly 1,400 units in 2008, and exceed 1,600 units in 2009. But the company projects that annual production will then suffer a three-year decline, dropping to a level of 1,515 units by 2012. Growth is expected to resume in 2013, with yearly production exceeding 1,700 units by 2017, the final year of the time period covered by the study.

Overall, Forecast International projects that 15,936 business jets, worth an estimated $223 billion, will be produced from 2008 through 2017. This total includes about 5,600 Very Light Jets (VLJ). "The VLJ sector is expected to be a very dynamic portion of the market," Forecast said.

I’d exercise real caution, by the way, in very-light jet projections, given the flame-out earlier this month by DayJet, the air-taxi startup that was the biggest customer for the Eclipse 500 (with 28 deliveries and 1,400 orders representing about half of the Eclipse order book).

Eclipse, which recently announced a new manufacturing deal in Russia, has also been saddled with production problems in the U.S. affecting deliveries of the jet, whose price for available delivery in 2010 is now $2.15 million, according to the Eclipse Web site.

On his Web site, Michael Boyd, the aviation forecaster, recently said that the very-light jet “revolution” has ended, though the various models of VLJs are attractive small planes. One big problem, Mike says, has been the disappearance of the “breakthrough low-acquisition cost” for VLJs and especially the Eclipse 500, which originally was marketed at just under $1 million.


Meanwhile, more bad news in Las Vegas:

According to the AP, Morgans Hotel Group cut its capital commitment to its portion of the already sidelined $4.8 billion Echelon mega-development, creating another serious setback for the joint venture project with Boyd Gaming, the casino company.

Boyd stopped work on the Echelon project on the Strip in July, citing the credit crunch -- and in doing so, Boyd exacerbated fears in Vegas about a growing economic turndown. Boyd said that construction on the project might resume in a year or so.


Monday, September 29, 2008

Brazil Crash, 2 Years Later

Above: pilots Joe Lepore and Jan Paladino on their return to the U.S. in December 2006.

Two years ago today, I was quietly working on my laptop on a Legacy 600 business jet flying routinely at 37,000 feet over the Amazon in Brazil when hell broke loose.

With a horrific crash that I still feel in my bones today, the business jet collided in mid-air with a Boeing 737 operated by Brazil's Gol airlines. The 737, its left wing shorn off, went down in the jungle, killing all 154 on board. The Legacy, its left wing severely damaged and its horizontal stabilizer chewed up, flew on somehow, losing speed and altitude until its two pilots, through a stroke of breathtaking luck, found an airstrip in the jungle and wrestled the plane down.

Through skill and courage, those pilots saved my life and the lives of the four other passengers on the brand-new, $27 million, 13-seat private jet, which was on the first leg of a delivery flight from its Brazilian manufacturer, Embraer, near Sao Paulo. (The pilots, Joe Lepore and Jan Paladino, pointed out, as pilots will, that they also saved their own lives.)

When the crash occurred, no one on board knew what had happened. Both planes were flying on a collision course at 500 miles an hour each. At such closing speeds, you just don't see it coming.

Three hours after our landing, while in custody at the obscure military base in the jungle, word came that a 737 had gone down.

For Joe and Jan, the world collapsed.

After what seemed like endless interrogations, the other passengers and I were released two days later, but the pilots were kept in Brazil for over two months. After a judge finally ordered their release, Brazilian military and police authorities hastily cobbled together criminal charges alleging that the pilots had been negligent.

It very quickly became clear to me, shortly after the landing in the jungle, that a coverup and a scapegoating was under way. The accident occurred two days before a heated presidential election in Brazil, with a subsequent lengthy runoff period where Anti-American hysteria was palpable in the rush to criminalize the accident and blame the U.S. pilots.

It also quickly became clear to me that Brazil's air traffic control system was notoriously unreliable, an assertion made to me by more than a dozen international pilots and since fully confirmed by the evidence. The system, strangely operated by the Brazilian Air Force, depended on unreliable equipment and poorly trained controllers. There also are well-known radio and radar blind spots over the Amazon.

Both planes were flying where they'd been told to fly by air traffic control. A separate element was the malfunctioning on the Legacy of a piece of equipment called the transponder, which triggers the anti-collision warning that would have been the last chance to avoid the hideous accident.

For 18 months, I wrote extensively and too passionately about all of this on the now inactive Brazil portion of this blog. I have no desire to revisit that commotion now or re-fight those awful battles.

But I do need to provide an update, because people keep asking me: What ever happened to those two pilots? The story, real all the time to those of us who lived it, quickly disappeared from the U.S. media radar screen.

Joe still works for Excelaire, the Long Island charter company that owned the Legacy. Jan left the company to work for an airline.

Both pilots are still on trial, in absentia, in Brazil. If they are convicted of the charge of negligent homicide, they will become international criminals. If they are convicted, the United States will not extradite them to Brazil because we don't have a treaty covering that. But they will need to be careful, for the rest of their lives, about where they travel.

The Brazilians are about to release their long-in-progress report on the crash, and it is expected that the pilots will be squarely blamed, although it is also expected that a small group of Brazilian air traffic controllers will also be blamed and some concessions will be made about faults in the Brazilian air-traffic system.

Once the Brazilian report is officially released, perhaps as early as this week, the National Transportation Safety Board in the United States, which has been conducting its own parallel investigation, will be able to release its report. The N.T.S.B. report is expected to be far more fair and accurate.

I'll make note of it and post both reports here when they are available.

Two years ago, with adrenaline pumping in the initial surge of survival, the seven of us who survived pledged that we would meet every year on the anniversary.

We never kept that promise because, as time passed, there has been no closure (I cringe to write that awful word) -- and there is, of course, no joy, because so many died while luck favored us, for no good reason at all. There is survival for the lucky ones -- for me, for Joe and Jan, for David Rimmer, Ralph Michielli, Henry Yandle and Daniel Bachmann, for the Amazon 7.


Shuttle Rebuttal

Everyone who's written about Delta's announcement that it is adding a first-class section to the MD-88s it uses on its Shuttle operation -- myself included -- has overlooked one obvious reason for the move, pointed out to me today by Joe Brancatelli: Fleet flexibility as the Shuttle market shrinks.

"With a standard configuration of first/coach, the planes no longer have to be dedicated to the shuttle runs," he notes. Instead, they can be redeployed, as needed, on the regular fleet for longer-route service.

As I said on Friday, the roundtrip Shuttle fare between New York and Washington or Boston is nearly $700. Whoa. This, of course, is exactly what individual fliers and corporate travel departments have been saying as well, and Shuttle traffic has been softening. The Wall Street collapse will only add to that.

I don't think Delta's move had much if anything to do with the extra $100 to $200 it might theoretically wring out of Shuttle users for first-class seats, because the coach fare is already so daunting. As Delta made a big point of saying, the new first-class section will enable elite-status fliers to get free upgrades.

So it's a perk and a ploy.

As to the bus: Obviously, a cheap ride on one of those new bus shuttle boutique services is an option for business travelers, but it takes half the day on the bus, so it's not for someone who has to rush to Washington (or New York) at the last minute, which is where the core of the Shuttle market is -- or was.

Amtrak isn't a lot faster than the bus, but it's a lot cheaper than the Delta or US Air shuttles. And, of course, it's a lot greener than either.


Friday, September 26, 2008

Delta Adding First-Class Seats to Shuttle: New Elite-Status Perk?

In the go-figure file, add this:

Delta is reconfiguring the MD-88 planes in its Shuttle fleet to accommodate 14 seats in a new first-class section. There will be 128 coach seats. It's effective Dec. 1 and here's the Delta announcement.

Who is going to pay for first-class seating on the Shuttle's short hops between La Guardia and Reagan or La Guardia and Boston? (The New York-Washington route, by the way, is the most popular route for private jet use, also under the go-figure file.)

Well, Delta seems to make a big point in this announcement of saying that "SkyMiles Medallion members will be eligible for complimentary upgrades on Delta Shuttle fleets." Sounds to me like Delta is adding an elite-status perk to juice Shuttle traffic.

By the way, the Delta Shuttle roundtrip fare between LaGuardia and Reagan right now is a thought-provoking $689. That's a coach seat, of course.

For further reflection, I refer you to this piece in the Escapes section of today's New York Times, about the popularity of new boutique shuttle-bus services along the same routes served by the Shuttle. These buses are starting to attract business travelers, says the Times article — which I am assuming got urgent attention this morning at Delta headquarters in Atlanta.


Thursday, September 25, 2008

Analyst: Airlines Becoming Mid-Priced Luxury Product

I think this guy at Stifel Nicolaus has it generally right, that the airlines that survive this shakeup will emerge with a fundamentally different model, selling a mid-priced product for the moderately affluent and affluent, rather than a cheap transportation commodity.

Based on that assumption coupled with generally declining oil prices, the brokerage issued a buy order on American, Continental, Delta and United. That's not a bet I'd be rushing to make, but still, the assessment of the new air-transport model seems about right to me.

With airlines slashing domestic capacity, we're witnessing the end of a 25-year-long era of dirt-cheap, wildly abundant air-transportation options. And it's not going to return.

Totally left un-addressed in Washington: What kind of a national air-transport system will we be left with, once the new model emerges? Who gets left out? What options will they have, if any? What is the overall effect on the hugely important tourism industry?

Airlines are busily parking planes. Mostly, it's regional jets and older single-aisle mid-sized jets that are ending up in the Sonoran and Mojave deserts -- each one reflecting a diminution of domestic capacity that won't be replaced.

Meanwhile, airlines are now figuring, anxiously, that they might be able to reconfigure themselves and make it, barely, if oil dips to around $80 a barrel. But as Kevin Mitchell, the chairman of the Business Travel Coalition, told me the other day: "Operating with $80 oil, nobody is going to be replacing fleets."


American Airlines Two-Fer on UK Fares: Another Sign of Weakening Trans-Atlantic Market

In another sign of growing concern among airlines about the softening trans-Atlantic market, American Airlines is offering a free companion ticket for travel later for customers who fly between the U.S. and the U.K. before the end of the year. The offer is restricted to purchasers of first-class, business class and higher-priced coach seats (Y, B or H).

This is another small tick in a story to watch. The trans-Atlantic markets are glutted with capacity, and a fare free-for-all is brewing until it all shakes out.


Sun Country Airlines: 'Business As Usual' Despite FBI Probe At Parent Company

Sun Country Airlines says it's "business as usual" despite an FBI raid at its parent company, Petters Group Worldwide. Petters is a holding company that also owns Polaroid, Fingerhut and other enterprises.

Incidentally, I suppose this has been remarked on before, but what's an airline based in Minnesota doing calling itself "Sun Country?" Oh, wait, I get it: The pitch is we'll take you out of this miserable weather to some place where there's sun.


Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Conde Nast Business Travel Poll: Singapore, Virgin Atlantic, Virgin America Top-Rated in Premium Classes

Here are some rankings from the annual Conde Nast Traveler business-travel awards, based on a readership survey:

Top Trans-Atlantic Business Class
1. Virgin Atlantic
2. Singapore Airlines
3. Emirates
4. British Airways
5. Continental

Top Trans-Pacific Business Class
1. Singapore Airlines
2. Cathay Pacific
3. Air New Zealand
4. Thai Airways
5. Korean Air

Top U.S. First and/or Business Class
1. Virgin America
2. Alaska Air
3. Continental
4. Hawaiian
5. Delta

Top U.S. Hotel Chains
1. Peninsula
2. Four Seasons
3. Ritz-Carlton
4. Mandarin Oriental
5. Park Hyatt


Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Delta Offers Double Miles to UK, France, As All Airlines Expect Softening on N. Atlantic Routes

Delta Air Lines is offering double miles for flights between New York or Los Angeles and London and, with code-share partner Air France, between New York and Lyon and Salt Lake City and Paris. The offer is good for flights through Dec. 15. Here are the details.

And here is my current take on the transatlantic market: Traffic is falling, especially on the U.S.-European routes and especially to London, including premium traffic. The breakdown on Wall Street and the resulting shock wave in London's financial markets have airlines that invested heavily in first-class and business-class capacity very, very worried because the financial industry has been the most resilient in buying premium seats.

Look for widespread business-class fare sales soon.

Delta itself admits that London is an industry problem. "Heathrow is a bit of a bloodbath currently," Ed Bastian, Delta's president and chief financial officer, said last week at the Calyon analysts conference.

However, Delta, which has been expanding its international capacity at a heady clip for a year, is in effect hedged somewhat against the ongoing softening on the North Atlantic routes with its concentration on routes to Africa, the Middle East and Latin America, which Bastian said have "dramatically higher growth rates" than the European market.

Delta's projections for the rest of this year continue the international expansion and the concurrent reduction in domestic capacity. According to Bastian, international capacity is up 15 percent and domestic capacity down 12 percent in the third quarter, which ends next week. For the fourth quarter, Delta projects international capacity to also be up 15 percent and domestic capacity down 14 percent. Comparisons are to the 3rd and 4th quarters, respectively, of 2007.


Monday, September 22, 2008

Airline Group: Today's Oil Price Surge Proves Intense Market Speculation

The Air Transport Association takes note of today's remarkable jump in the price of oil and says it's the smoking gun proving its contention that speculators are intensely manipulating the oil market.

On the other hand, the Financial Times has a more nuanced explanation.

Here's the ATA statement:

"The Air Transport Association (ATA), the industry trade organization for the major U.S. airlines, today reacted to oil’s largest one-day price gain in NYMEX history, stating that this record increase reaffirms that speculation is playing a significant role in driving up the price.

"Reversing recent price decreases, today oil spiked at $130 per barrel, closing at $120.92 per barrel – the largest one-day price gain in NYMEX history. Although ATA recognizes the impact of the financial crisis on Wall Street, the weak dollar and the aftermath of Hurricane Ike, the unprecedented 16 percent jump over the weekend – from $104.55 per barrel last Friday to $120.92 per barrel today – also reflects the impact of excessive energy speculation.

"'The market’s extreme volatility suggests that speculators, who withdrew tens of billions of dollars from the commodities markets when Congress threatened to tighten oversight of excessive and harmful speculation, breathed a sigh of relief last week when action in the Senate seemed unlikely, and returned to the energy markets in full force,” said ATA President and CEO James C. May. “Well, speculators are back and prices are up.'"

"May again called for a bipartisan approach to reining in excessive energy speculation, stating that Congress must pass a comprehensive energy plan or all Americans will pay the price as oil prices return to or exceed this summer’s record levels."


AA Flight Skids Off O'Hare Runway, No Injuries; 757 Had Been Diverted to O'Hare By Electrical Problems

American Airlines Flight 268 from Seattle to JFK was diverted to Chicago today after experiencing electrical problems in flight. The 757-200 then skidded off the O'Hare runway as it landed. There are no reported injuries.


Continental Reverses Course on 500-mile Elite Status Minimum Credit

Continental Airlines has overturned a boneheaded decision earlier this month that greatly PO'd many of its elite-status members and seemed, to me at least, not to offer any concurrent real cost benefit to Continental itself.

The 500-mile minimum credit provision for trips of less than 500 miles has been reinstated, Continental said in an e-mail message today to many of its elite-status members. Several other airlines had earlier whacked the 500-mile minimum, but Continental frequent fliers expected better -- and got it.

Nice to see an airline admit a mistake and, mirable dictu, actually fix it.

Here is the Continental e-mail:

"Earlier this month, we announced that OnePass members will earn the actual miles flown rather than a minimum of 500 miles per flight for tickets purchased on or after Nov. 15, 2008.

We've listened, and our Elite members think this change unfairly dilutes the benefits of the OnePass program. Therefore we are exempting you from this change, and Elite members will continue to earn the 500 mile minimum on all segments flown under the current policy."


Air Taxis Seek to Fill DayJet Gap

{Above: The Cirrus SR22}

Incremental news on air taxis may be pretty small beer on a day that begins with me reading the following sentence in the Wall Street Journal: "With the move, Wall Street as it has been known will cease to exist."

Excuse me while I grab another mug of coffee and assimilate that.

Anyway, a group of air-taxi providers who mostly use Cirrus SR22 propeller planes says it can fill the service gap left in the Southeast by DayJet, the pioneering air-taxi company that suddenly ceased operations on Friday.

Here's the Wikipedia entry on the Cirrus SR22, which is best known for a unique feature, a parachute designed to ease the plane -- which has only one pilot -- to the ground in a dire emergency.

DayJet, which had 28 Eclipse 500 very-light jets and had orders for about 1,400 more, had established a market in Florida and nearby states with its on-demand, per-seat model. But DayJet badly needed investment capital to expand in order to make its business model work, and the dry-up in the credit markets finally brought the company down. Meanwhile, with the collapse of its major customer exacerbating growing production and other problems, Eclipse Aviation, maker of the Eclipse 500, has an uncertain future.

Still, given service cutbacks by major airlines that make a simple trip from, say, Tampa to Tallahassee an day-ordeal, usually with a stopover in some place like Atlanta, it's apparent to me that the air-taxi business has a market. The question is, will that market be served by small jets like the Eclipse 500, or will it be served by propeller planes and turbo-props, with proven reliability, known availability and better fuel efficiency?


Saturday, September 20, 2008

Many Dead in Terrorist Attack at Islamabad Marriott

At least 40 people and probably more were killed today in what initial reports are calling a terrorist suicide car-bomb attack at the Marriott Islamabad hotel in Pakistan. The 280-room, 5-story hotel is popular with American tourists and as a dinner and meeting spot for Americans and others in the Pakistan capital.

Here is Marriott's statement this afternoon, in the company blog written regularly by Bill Marriott, the CEO, who is the son of the founder and the man who built Marriott into a major worldwide presence in the hotel industry. Marriott's statement also lists phone numbers for information on guests at the Islamabad hotel.

I remember meeting a palpably grieving Bill Marriott not long after the 9/11 attacks. At least 50 of the nearly 3,000 killed in Lower Manhattan that day were inside the Marriott at 3 World Trade Center, which firefighters were using as a staging area before the towers collapsed. The hotel, which sat between the Twin Towers, was destroyed along with the Twin Towers and 7 World Trade Center on 9/11.

(I also remember that my neighbor, employed by a Wall Street investment firm, was working out in the rooftop gym at the Marriott World Trade Center when the first plane hit on 9/11. He staggered home that night to a distraught wife and family who had no idea whether he was alive, after wandering in shock for hours through the maelstrom. To this day, he doesn't know how he got out of the hotel or how he made his way home, covered in grime and soot, his suit pockets stuffed bits of paper containing phone numbers jotted down by New Yorkers who had offered him help and a place to stay. In the New York area, memories of 9/11 are often personal and still quite raw.)

Anyway, here's a Web site with basic information about the Islamabad hotel.


4 Dead in Business Jet Crash in S. Carolina

There's been another fatal business jet crash, late last night, involving a Learjet 60 that apparently went off the runway on takeoff at an airport in Columbia, S.C.


Friday, September 19, 2008

DayJet Ceases Operations

DayJet, the most ambitious of the new "air-taxi" services, has ceased operations. DayJet was the chief customer for Eclipse 500 very-light jets, and Eclipse itself has been struggling with production and other problems

The credit crunch, which had earlier caused DayJet to curtail expansion plans and lay off half of its 250 employees in May, was cited as the main reason for halting operations. The trouble at Eclipse Aviation was another.

DayJet is based in Boca Raton, Fla., and operated flights in Florida and adjoining states.

The news of DayJet's closing is stunning to those in the industry who envisioned a new era of personal air transport on cheap little jets like the Eclipse 500s, with air-taxi companies that served smaller regional airports with point-to-point on demand flights, selling tickets either by the seat (as DayJet's extremely complex business plan did it) or by the entire plane, as a kind of charter-service.

Here is the sad announcement from DayJet, and here is the FAQ notice the company sent out this afternoon.

At its closing, DayJet had taken delivery of 28 Eclipse 500 aircraft and had about 1,400 outstanding orders, which accounted for more than half of Eclipse's total order book.

Customers holding tickets purchased through credit cards (and not debit cards, which don't carry the same legal protections in the event of a service not rendered) can their contact credit card companies for refunds.

And whither Eclipse Aviation? Here's a report with some links for background on Eclipse's troubles.

{Update Sept. 20 -- The Albuquerque-based aircraft manufacturer issued a statement today saying that "while DayJet was Eclipse's largest customer, Eclipse's business model and success has [sic] never relied solely on DayJet. Eclipse still has hundreds of orders to fill independent of DayJet, and existing customers will be happy and eager to move up in line. Eclipse also anticipates ongoing interest in the United States as well as fulfilling the strong demand for the Eclipse 500 in the global markets."}


Thursday, September 18, 2008

Air Canada Drops Fee for Extra Checked Bag

Days after a tin-eared United Airlines doubled the fee for a second checked bag to $50, Air Canada gains major customer-service points by eliminating the fee, citing the drop in fuel prices.

Go, Air Canada!


'Saudi Arabia the New Dubai'? Um, I Don't Think So

Holy cow, here's Saudi Arabia, abetted by some American profiteers, trying to position itself as the 'new Dubai.'

Hold on before you rush to get that visa, though. Nothing really has changed in Saudi Arabia except the desire for more outside investment.

The current State Department Travel Warning on Saudi Arabia says that Americans are "strongly advised to avoid staying in hotels or housing compounds that do not apply stringent security measures ..."

Also, before you head off to a fun-filled holiday in the jolly desert kingdom, remember that, as the State Department advises: "Married women need the permission of their husbands to leave Saudi Arabia ... This is true regardless of nationality."

All things considered, I'd rather be in Atlantic City.


Monday, September 15, 2008

United Doubles Fee for 2nd Checked Bag to $50

The Wall Street pirates are scaring the bejabbers out of us honest citizens, while the price of oil has dropped below $100 a barrel.

What better time, then, for United Airlines to demonstrate just how big its tin ear really is?

United quietly upped the one-way fee for checking a second bag to $50, for tickets bought starting tomorrow for travel starting Nov. 10.

In an announcement sent on the PR Newswire, United spoke of the "challenging economic environment." Apparently with a straight face. Here's the announcement.

The fee for the first checked bag remains at $15. For now.


Houston Airports Resume Some Operations

No outsiders should be traveling in Houston unless it's absolutely necessary. I'm hearing from people that conditions in the Houston region are worse than generally assumed, especially given the widespread power outages and the heat and humidity.

The city has imposed an overnight curfew -- 9 p.m. to 6 p.m. -- all week.

But according to the Houston Airport System, which operates Bush Intercontinental and Hobby airports, you can drive to or from the airports if you have "proof of travel plans."

Bad bureaucratic language survives any natural disaster, but I'm guessing that "proof of travel plans" means a printed airline ticket receipt or boarding pass. And hey, good luck there, given that there's no electricity in most of the area.

Here's the statement from the airport authority, and the cap italics are mine:

“Starting Monday, Sept. 15, some airlines will resume flights into and out of Houston at George Bush Intercontinental Airport (IAH) and William P. Hobby Airport (HOU).

Air travelers are advised to arrive at the airport for their flight at least two hours before the scheduled departure. While the City of Houston has issued a curfew—ANYONE WHO HAS A CONFIRMED AIRLINE SEAT NEEDS TO BE ABLE TO PROVIDE PROOF OF TRAVEL PLANS IF THEY ARE DRIVING ON HOUSTON ROADS after 9:00 p.m. or before 6:00 a.m. as they are traveling to and from one of Houston’s airports. Airport employees who drive to and from the airports will need to provide a photo ID if they are traveling during the curfew hours.

Due to the fact that some airlines are resuming flights and others are waiting until Tuesday, Sept. 16, it is very important that customers confirm travel plans with their individual airline prior to going to the airport.

Flooding still exists on some roads and recent rain since Hurricane Ike has caused additional flooding. Travelers are advised to allow extra time on their way to the airports to safely navigate the access roads.

Air travelers may also check flight schedule changes with the Houston Airport System flight tracking information line at 281-230-7000 or www.fly2houston.com.


Sunday, September 14, 2008

Overnight Curfew All Week in Houston

Houston has imposed a 9 p.m. to 6 a.m. curfew starting tonight, through next Saturday. The AP story says imprecisely that the police say that residents should not be on the streets during the curfew. Obviously, the curfew includes everybody, not just residents.


Saturday, September 13, 2008

Alitalia On the Brink

If you're booked to fly on Alitalia, good luck.

The airline and its unions are well beyond an impasse. Desperately needed new investors took a look at the situation and ran away as fast as they could Friday. Here's a report in the Guardian that sounds very dire.


Clueless F.A.A. Info (Cont'd)

Again, do not be fooled today by that useless F.A.A. "Airport Status and Delays"so-called real-time map at www. faa.gov

See that merry green dot over George Bush Houston Intercontinental Airport, signifying no delays, and all is well? Well, there definitely have been no delays at IAH as of 1 p.m. EDT. Yes indeedy -- exactly two planes took off so far today, and by dang, both left on time. There were no arrivals.

On the other hand, not shown on the happy little F.A.A. map: There have been 847 canceled flights so far today at IAH, according to the very reliable Flightstats.com

Yesterday, when the F.A.A. site was also showing that "everything's-hunky-dory" green dot over IAH all day, there were 980 canceled flights at IAH.

By the way, on a totally unrelated note, I read today a feature story that mentioned "Coffee Tea or Me?," the racy 1967 runaway best seller about the exploits of two sexy stewardesses (and that's what they were called).

Actually, that book was a wonderful hoax. It was in fact written by Donald Bain, a New York ad man who met two stewardesses trying to peddle a book but realized that they only had a few little anecdotes, nowhere near the stuff necessary to make a book.

So Don and a publisher signed the stewardesses up to pose as the "authors" on publicity tours for the book, full title: "Coffee Tea or Me: The Uninhibited Memoirs of Two Airline Stewardesses."

Don wrote the book strictly from his own imagination, and didn't fess up to the hoax till almost a quarter century later, when an anniversary edition appeared. He later went on to write the "Murder She Wrote" mystery series and many other books (80 in all), and he's a gentleman of the first order.


Friday, September 12, 2008

Delays, Cancellations Evening Update

To show you how useless it is to depend on media recitations of "flight delays" during what the airlines call irregular operations, George Bush Houston Intercontinental Airport has a 100 percent ontime arrival rate this afternoon between 3 and 5 p.m. CDT. No delays!

Exactly one plane took off and dang, it was on time!

No planes arrived.

On the other hand, 936 flights have been canceled at IAH so far today.

Meanwhile, Flightstats.com was showing "excessive delays" at all three New York area airports, at Philadelphia and at O'Hare. That reflected the backup ripples from Houston and, in the New York area, some rain and clouds.

The F.A.A. Web site's map on airport delays (which has unaccountably sprung back to life in the last day or so, after being comatose for most of a year) has a merry little green dot over IAH. Click on it and you get this clueless information: "General arrival/departure delays are 15 minutes or less."


As Hurricane Looms, Continental Shuts Down Operations at Houston

Continental Airlines just suspended flight operations at IAH through Sunday morning.

UPDATE 3:30 P.M. -- Continental said this afternoon that it "plans to reactivate the [Houston] hub on Sunday morning, although some flights on Sunday will remain subject to cancellation."

All operations, including Continental Express and Continental Connection flights, are affected.


Airport Delays Today: You Could Look It Up ...

... and you should, because the television media sure aren't doing it for you.

The excitable Weather Channel has hyped so many storms that you often can't tell what to really expect. But from that source and from others today, it does appear as if a very bad thing is about to occur, with Galveston and Houston and the Louisiana coast in the path of a hurricane whose chief threat appears to be the tsunami-like sea surge it is pushing northward in the Gulf of Mexico.

But besides its live reports, the Weather Channel also offers information on matters such as airport delays, and my jaw dropped a few minutes ago when I saw the reports on the screen claiming that there are no delays at the major airports in the nation. The information was attributed to the F.A.A.

There's your first mistake, depending on the laughable live F.A.A. flight-delay data. The media keep referring people to the F.A.A. flight-delay map at www.faa.gov -- which hasn't worked in a year.

But go online to a reliable source like Flightstats.com and, whoa:

As of 10:30 Central time today, a stunning 566 flights had been canceled at Houston International Airport. That has the effect of reducing the official delay number (assuming the F.A.A. was publishing even that, which is isn't), because a canceled flight is not, of course, a delayed flight.

On the other hand, the crisis at Houston International (and crisis is the operative word) is creating massive problems now rippling into the other big hubs. Atlanta, for example, has a ground hold on traffic, with delays mounting. So go LaGuardia and O'Hare. And just wait till the ripple effect from the canceled Continental and Express Jet flights in Houston barrels into Continental's other major hub at Newark.

So I'd ignore the mainstream media if you need information on flying today. They're stuck in an old formula that looks at inaccurate information on flight delays, and simultaneously ignores the very different measure of flight cancellations. "Many flights were canceled today at O'Hare" is a piece of lame reportage that does you and me no good whatsoever.

Instead, go online to individual airline Web sites and sites like Flightstats.com -- and keep in mind that it's going to be a real mess flying today, especially at hubs east of the Mississippi.

Oh, and by the way, a lot of people I know think the best online weather-report source is Weather Underground. I agree.

Update 12.30 p.m. EDT: Wait! Everything's up to date at Faa.gov! Somebody must have got a stern memo, because I see the F.A.A. "airport status and delays" site is finally up again, with live links. Click on the green light at Houston and it says of IAH: "General arrival/departure delays are 15 minutes or less." Of course, as noted above, that's because more than 550 flights have been canceled so far today at Houston.


Thursday, September 11, 2008


Yesterday was a magnificent late-summer day with bright blue skies in the New York area, so much like September 11, 2001, and as I drove my wife to the train station for her commute into New York City we felt that day again in silence.

Early this morning I kissed her goodbye as she left for a flight to Washington, and we felt that day again without words.



Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Go, AirTran!

Something's going on with a few smart airlines. They seem to realize that treating your best customers right is a good marketing idea. Who'da thought ...

Now we have AirTran actually improving frequent-flier benefits for its best customers -- at a time when the tin-eared major carriers seem to be making great efforts to alienate their most loyal customers by reducing elite-status benefits.

Here's the AirTran announcement today:

AirTran Airways Upgrades A+ Rewards Program for Travelers' Benefit

...Low Cost Carrier Offers More Benefits to its Best Customers -

ORLANDO, Fla., Sept. 10 -- AirTran Airways, a subsidiary of AirTran Holdings, Inc. (NYSE: AAI), today announced new upgrades for its A+ Rewards frequent flier program as part of the airline's mission to provide more options and benefits for its most loyal passengers.

Effective immediately, changes to the A+ Rewards program include:

-- Elite members will be allowed to upgrade to Business Class at the gate starting 40 minutes prior to departure, regardless of fare class purchased and based on availability. Up to one extra passenger may be upgraded if the flight is booked on the same reservation.

-- Elites and A2B corporate customers will be given priority standby status.

-- Elites will have access to an exclusive phone number for calls and questions regarding their program, reservations or redemptions. This phone number can be found when Elite members log in to their account at www.aplusrewards.com.

-- Elites will have the same privileges as Summit members when traveling on our partner Frontier Airlines. These privileges include free DIRECTV(R), complimentary inflight beverages, exemption from redemption fees and exemption from change fees.

Other changes include:

-- Effective February 1, 2009, A+ Vouchers for A+ Rewards flights will no longer be created. After that point, A+ Rewards credits may only be redeemed for flights or upgrades.

The A+ Rewards program allows passengers to redeem A+ credits for one-way flights and operates with A+ credits rather than miles for a faster route to a free* ticket. No matter how many miles are flown, four round-trips equal a free* one-way ticket. AirTran Airways' current A+ Rewards policy has successfully avoided fuel surcharges, increased requirements for redemption and other stringent policies that complicate many frequent flier programs.

"At AirTran Airways, we value our frequent fliers and take great pleasure in rewarding their loyalty to our airline," said Tad Hutcheson, vice president of sales and marketing for AirTran Airways. "We have heard two primary complaints about other loyalty programs: 'Free*' tickets are loaded with fees and complex requirements, and more and more benefits are being taken away. At AirTran Airways, we have addressed these issues so that our free* tickets truly are free*, while adding benefits and perks to our best customers instead of removing them."

AirTran Airways is also careful about selecting its partners for the A+ Rewards program in order to not flood the system with A+ Rewards credits. As a result, fewer people compete for available free* seats, making it easier for passengers to redeem their A+ credits. With a two-year expiration policy for our Elite and A+ Visa customers, travelers have plenty of time to cash in their free* tickets. ..."


Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Go, Singapore!

Singapore Airlines today cut its fuel surcharges for short-haul and medium-haul flights, citing declining fuel prices. Let's hope the trend catches on in the industry, but I wouldn't bet on it.

The airline, which operates the world's longest nonstop commercial flight (18 1/2 hours between Newark and Singapore), is keeping the $180 one-way fuel surcharge for flights between North America and Singapore.

But it's lopping $10 off the $110 surcharge for flights between Singapore and Australia, New Zealand, China, Japan, Korea, Hong Kong, Taiwan, India, Bangladesh, Maldives, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Also included are flights between Dubai and Istanbul, Dubai and Moscow, and Bangkok and Tokyo.


Do Not Try This Online

There's a stone brilliant full-page piece of advertising by Southwest Airlines in today's Wall Street Journal print editions. It goes right to the heart of the various extra charges airlines like to pile on after they tell you what the fare is.

The headline says: "These fares look the same until you hold them up to the light."

Below that, on the left side of the page, it says: "Southwest Airlines: $69." And on the right side of the page it says "The other guys: $69."

But hold the paper up to the light and you see a drop-list of extra charges piled onto the $69 fare by the "other guys." It's printed in reverse on the back side of the page. Under the Southwest "$69" is empty space.


Monday, September 08, 2008

United Airlines Bankru ... Oops! Never Mind!

I'm always annoyed in general by Web stories that don't have dates on them. But here's a case in which some numbskull evidently put a brand new date on a six-year-old newspaper story and blithely sent it out today as news.

No, United Airlines says, it has not filed for bankruptcy. That's soooo 2002.

But the Wall Street Journal is reporting today that the false story "quickly circulated on Wall Street" until United got out its statement denying it.

Shares of United's parent company, UAL, collapsed this morning after the false report circulated, to the point where they were trading at $4 in late morning before trading was halted. After noon, with the story debunked, the shares resumed trading, and closed at $10.92 today, down $1.38.

In its statement, United hastily blamed the Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel for the foul-up and demanded a retraction from the paper, which is owned by Tribune Co.

But the Wall Street Journal and the Sun-Sentinel said that the error was made after a reporter for Income Securities Advisors, a newsletter about distressed debt that is carried on Bloomberg News business terminals, mistakenly picked up the six-year-old Chicago Tribune report from the Sun-Sentinel archives while Googling "bankruptcies."

Bloomberg itself then compounded the error by publishing a headline about the false report. Then, it was off to the races on Wall Street.

United entered bankruptcy in 2002 and exited in 2006.

Meanwhile, the headline on the fiasco on Bloomberg.com this afternoon reads, a bit churlishly, it seems to me:

"United Parent UAL Says it Didn't File for Bankruptcy."

United couldn't be reached for comment on when it didn't stop beating its wife.


Lost in America

Keep in mind, these people's votes count just the same as yours ...

Last month, a group of vacationing family members and friends from Southern California in four vehicles used a Global Positioning System to find their way out of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in the wilds of Utah. "They got stranded on the edge of a 500-foot cliff," according to a report in the Salt Lake Tribune, which added:

"The incident is part of a growing problem of people relying on technology to find a quick route across an area of deep canyons, washes and primitive roads that could be too much even for off-highway vehicles."

The travelers were rescued after calling for help on a cell phone.

The article in the Salt Lake City paper said that dozens of similar incidents have occurred in the wilderness of Grand Staircase-Escalante. Among the most recent ones:

--A Pennsylvania couple following GPS instructions who got lost and stranded for four days

--A Connecticut family following GPS instructions who got lost and stole a rancher's pickup to tow their bogged-down car. The pickup ran out of gas and the family was rescued ... by the rancher whose pickup they'd stolen.

--A group from Belgium stranded after following GPS instructions. "The family had to lick condensation off their minivan's windshield for water" before they were finally rescued, said the newspaper, in a report by Mark Havnes.

Thanks to the wonderful weekly "High Country News" -- always a great read -- for the tip.


Soaring Fares? Maybe Not ...

It may be time to have another look at those reports about soaring fares this fall. So far, what I'm seeing (though admittedly from a small personal sample) is low fares.

I just booked two trips on Continental. One was to Mike Boyd's Boyd Group aviation forecast in Aspen in early October. Since I plan to be in Tucson for a while afterward, I needed to book an open-jaw itinerary -- Newark to Denver and then, about two weeks later, Tucson to Newark. I figured I'd be looking at $700 or so -- but the fare came in at a very amazing $375, round-trip.

From Denver I needed to get to Aspen, and back to Denver the next day. On Frontier Airlines, that round-trip cost $159. Then one-way from Denver to Tucson: $99 on Frontier. Very good Frontier fares there.

Next I needed to book from Newark to Atlanta and back on Oct. 29-30. The nonstop fare on Continental, $239.

Incidentally, speaking of prices, but this time in the opposite direction, has anyone else noticed how restaurant prices are getting way out of control? My wife and I recently spent a few days in Cape Coral and Naples, Fla., spending some time with my son and his girlfriend. Dinner for four on three successive nights, at very standard restaurants, nothing fancy, averaged over $100 before tip. And in Cape Coral, at least, the food was just bloody awful, with a numbing consistency.

When we returned our rental car at the airport in Fort Myers (a soul-numbing town that I avoid except to go to the airport), we spoke with an agent there who, without prompting, said he envied us our trip back to New Jersey.


"I need a food fix," he said.


Saturday, September 06, 2008

Governor's New Private Jet, Better Than the Old Private Jet

Hey, I understand that a private aircraft is the only way to get around efficiently on the grueling drive of a presidential campaign. Seriously, you simply cannot do it if you're waiting for that connection in Atlanta. For this kind of use, private jets make eminent sense.

Still, I do enjoy seeing faux populists get cornered when reality comes knockin'.

The lede on the story about the delivery of Gov. Palin's new private campaign jet in the Arizona Daily Star of Tucson: "Will she sell this one on E-Bay?"

(Actually, the Alaska state jet was never sold on E Bay.)


Friday, September 05, 2008

Continental Reduces OnePass Benefits, Adds Fee for 1st Checked Bag

Sorry to see Continental Airlines cave in like a $3 suitcase:

Continental -- by mine and most other accounts the best domestic major airline -- has gone over to the Dark Side and put the screws to its frequent fliers who fly short hauls, by eliminating the 500-mile minimum of elite-status points and frequent flier miles for any trip flown, no matter what the length. It's effective in January.

I simply do not understand that move, which matches similar bone-headed moves by US Air and others in punishing frequent fliers. I mean, with more than 10 trillion frequent flier miles outstanding in the universe (by Randy Petersen's count), where is the percentage in this for an airline that's interested in not further infuriating its most loyal customers? Miles are Monopoly money, fer chrissake.

I've said that maintenance and safety are the next big airline story. The second next big airline story is the frequent-flier-miles house of cards. Stay tuned.

Meanwhile, Continental also will begin charging for the first checked bag.

Here's the e mail Continental sent to its OnePass elite-status members today:

"Our OnePass members are important to us, so we are making every effort to keep you informed of some changes to our checked baggage policy and the OnePass program.

Effective Oct. 7, 2008, customers will be charged $15 for their first checked bag when traveling on tickets purchased on or after Sept. 5, 2008, within the U.S., Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands and Canada.

Because you are an Elite member, you are exempt from paying the fee and will be allowed to check your first bag free of charge. Customers traveling with you are also exempt from the fee as long as they are traveling in the same reservation.

Effective for travel on or after Jan. 1, 2009, OnePass members will earn the actual miles flown rather than a minimum of 500 miles per flight for tickets purchased on or after Nov. 15, 2008. This affects base miles and Elite Qualifying Miles on flights operated by Continental* and most OnePass airline partners.

Also effective for reward travel booked on or after Jan.1, 2009, reward travel mileage requirements will increase for customers traveling between North America and Tel Aviv (TLV) and between Hawaii and Tel Aviv.

Effective for travel on or after March 1, 2009, Elite Mileage Bonuses will decrease for Platinum members from 125% to 100% and for Silver members from 50% to 25% for tickets purchased on or after Nov. 15, 2008. Gold members will continue to earn 100% mileage bonuses.

Full details of all changes can be found at continental.com.

We appreciate your business and look forward to serving you soon."


Wednesday, September 03, 2008

New Title, New Plans

I've been AWOL for a bit, holed up at my Sonoran desert compound.

Am back starting tomorrow with a new title, which reflects the title of a book I am writing on air travel, to be published next year: "High Anxiety."