Thursday, October 30, 2008

Fare Sales Bustin' Out All Over

Airlines are reacting swiftly to falling demand with fare sales. More than ever, if you're flexible (and who isn't these days?), you can find a pretty good price, assuming you can plan in advance (and can't we all, these days).

Rick Seaney at says in an e-mail:

"In the past 24 hours the proprietary airfare tracking system, which processes tens of thousands of airfares daily from over 500 airlines, noted the largest domestic airfare sale activity [of] any time in the past year."

My note: That's big news, since the first half of the year was remarkable for 21 successive across-the-board fare increases.

Suddenly, fare sales are all over the place for holiday travel, Rick says, adding:

"Northwest was the instigator Tuesday night as they fired out a wide-reaching domestic holiday airfare sale hours before their official merger announcement with Delta. The other major airlines have spent the day hurriedly matching and extending this sale.

"Take, for example, Delta Air Lines with the only non-stop between Atlanta and Nashville. The cheapest airline ticket on Monday was just under $500 roundtrip, but with Delta matching Northwest’s sale, that same seat can be had for $238 roundtrip (Mon. 24-Nov., returning Friday 28-Nov.).

"In years past we have tracked holiday airfare sales, but they typically were initiated less than two weeks before the holidays -- many times at the last minute.

"With unprecedented domestic seat cutbacks this year (211,000 fewer seats available each day domestically by Christmas), we were not optimistic about holiday sales – it appears however that the airlines have traded the year-long oil crisis for a global economic crisis. Demand began to wither at the end of the summer under pressure from higher airfares/fees, and more recently by consumers pulling back as they worry about the ramifications of the downturn in the U.S. economy.

"We expect to see more matching activity Thursday and urge consumers to take a second look at holiday airline tickets– they may be pleasantly surprised. The cheapest days to travel around the holidays are Tuesday, Wednesday and the day of the holiday – steer clear of Sunday and Monday after the holiday on returns."

Check out Rick's blog,, where he plans to post new fare-sale information as he digs it out later today "after all the matching activity has settled in."


Wednesday, October 29, 2008

'Begging the Question' At Qantas Over Another Safety Incident

I'm obviously no grammarian schoolmarm, but it drives me nuts the way you see the media mangle variations of "Begs the question," evidently under the faulty assumption that it means "Demands that the question be asked."

Nah-uh. Here's a definition of begging the question:

A Qantas spokesman was asked if a malfunction that knocked out onboard radar during a 12-hour flight today from Los Angeles to Auckland created a safety concern.

"None at all. Otherwise they wouldn't have operated the flight," she replied.

That's begging the question. And considering the spate of mishaps involving Qantas jets in recent months, it's also pushing the luck.


Going Postal

... or FedEx, whatever.

United Airlines will deliver your bag -- for $179 each way on flights of 1,000 miles or more. That's $358 plus taxes.

Hmmm, they used to actually deliver you AND your bag for that, and with a reasonable guarantee that at least one would arrive each way.

Honestly, I just do not understand how anyone can write about these ridiculous airline money-raising stunts without laughing.

Consider me amused.


Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Play Ball?

Considering one ridiculous baseball spectacle last night -- the ground crew hosing down the infield at the ballpark in Philadelphia during a driving rain -- led me to consider another: the madcap scramble by the road manager of the Tampa Bay team to hastily find 50 or so hotel rooms on a moment's notice, late at night in Philadelphia, because the Tampa team had already checked out of its hotel, not expecting to spend another night in Philly.

I want to meet that guy! Talk about a real challenge in business travel -- which is something, after all, that sports teams do an awful lot of.

(And by the way, the weather forecasts consulted by everybody except, apparently, Major League Baseball and Fox, all predicted rain and wind for last night. Did the notoriously cheap Rays simply fail to ensure a hotel plan B in case of a rain-out?)

Last night's spectacles came as the bozos who run Major League baseball in cahoots with the bozos who run the Fox television outfit continued their efforts to destroy the World Series -- in this instance by playing a game that should never have been started, continuing it long after it should have been called for rain, and then "suspending" it in utter, total confusion in the 6th inning.

By the way, I'd forgotten that sportswriting can still be worth the time. Here's Bill Conlin today in the Philadelphia Daily News.


Friday, October 24, 2008

Boom Ends, International Air Traffic Plunges

Five years of surging growth in international air traffic came to a halt in September, when 2.9 percent fewer passengers boarded international flights compared with September 2007, the International Air Transport Association said today.

Load factors were down 4.4 points to 74.8 percent in a system with more capacity than ever.

"The deterioration in traffic is alarmingly fast-paced and widespread," said Giovanni Bisignani, the trade group's director. This is the first time since the short-lived SARS crisis in 2003 that global traffic has dropped month-on-month.

Steady 5 percent monthly growth rates on the all-important North American routes -- where U.S. domestic carriers have vastly increased capacity and made big bets on long-term growth -- "turned into a 0.9 percent contraction" in September, the group said.

Even the booming Middle Eastern business took a major hit. After years of double-digit month-on-month growth, passenger traffic on Middle Eastern carriers dropped 2.8 percent.

And my opinion is: This just gets worse. It does not get better for a long, long time. Our domestic and global air-transport systems are undergoing fundamental change.


Thursday, October 23, 2008

The Littlest Road Warriors

It's definitely a trend to combine business travel with leisure travel when possible, including taking a spouse or friend along.

But Sarah Palen's children appear to be racking up those frequent flier miles on the taxpayer dime... Note that the kids' friends sometimes travel along on "state business."

From the Anchorage Daily News.


Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Fixing the Terrorist Watch List Mess?

Well, the feds have taken a big step in the right direction.

The Homeland Security Department today issued a 195-page "rule," a federal document setting forth for evaluation proposed procedural changes in the way the federal Terrorist Watch List is (mis) administered at airports.

The long-sought change is called Secure Flight. Secure Flight will "improve aviation security and fix the major customer-service issue of watch list misidentifications, a frustratingly common occurrence for travelers under the existing airline-based systen," the Homeland Security secretary, Michael Chertoff, says in the announcement.

The entire 195-page proposed rule change is here.

Basically, the new procedure, subject to congressional approval, would turn over to the Transportation Security Administration the direct supervision of the list at the point of contact with air travelers. Right now, the airlines do this -- and do it very badly. The airlines say they have been saddled with an impossible task, incidentally.

Great public confusion surrounds the watch list, most of it the fault of individual airlines. Airlines actually all keep their own, usually haphazard, versions of a list that is then matched against the actual federal watch list when a passenger with a name that matches or approximate an actual identity on the federal list turns up. The process is repeated every single time that passenger shows up at the airport.

Asinine examples of misidentified "terrorists" are legion.

A toddler with a name like Jack Anderson (whom I've written about) gets flagged as a suspect at an airport because an airline has that name, or a variation of that name, on the list compiled by the airline itself, based on the airline's interpretation of the T.S.A.'s summary of the actual federal list, which is (of course) secret.

Yes, I know it is maddeningly complicated.

But the fact is, airlines tend to indiscriminately mass names on their lists, partly because it would be expensive to actually do a better job of reducing so-called "false positives," and partly out of other concerns, among them liability. An airline that waves on passenger who is on the actual terrorist watch list, and who then commits an act of terrorism, is an airline with a huge liability exposure.

The actual watch list is maintained by a federal agency called the Terrorist Screening Center, administered by the F.B.I. On that list -- itself a compilation of about a dozen previous "terrorist" lists formerly maintained by various law enforcement and intelligence agencies -- are detailed identities of suspects. Not just names and aliases, but birthdates, criminal records, descriptions, surveillance reports and much other personal identifying information. That level of identifying information, if checked against airline passenger manifests, would make it much easier to eliminate from the check-in hassles all of the seven-year-olds, nuns, congresspeople, war heroes and other obvious innocents who are routinely told by the airlines (inaccurately) that they are on the "watch list" or, in some of the stupider examples, the "no fly list."

Privacy concerns are the basic reason the airlines have been saddled with this chore, which they hate. The argument had been that an airline providing personal information to the federal government in advance of someone flying was an invasion of privacy. And the airlines themselves can't collect in-advance personal information aside from your name -- unless you volunteer it, for example by enrolling in a frequent flier program.

O.K., so far so good. Homeland Security is moving in the right direction. The misapplication of the watch list and the confusion introduced by the airlines has been a disgrace.

Now we need to look more closely at the actual federal list, which contains hundreds of thousands of records but lists the identities of fewer than 20,000 American citizens, all of whom have been judged as security threats in one way or another by one government intelligence or law enforcement branch or another. The actual list has two sections -- "no fly," meaning you simply ain't getting on the plane and "selectee," the far bigger category, meaning you've been investigated and the authorities want to have a close look at you and your plans, even if you do get on the plane.

Most of the people on the actual list, I have no doubt, are genuine bad actors. But lists have histories in intelligence files.

One specific question out of many: What is the name "Jack Anderson" doing on the actual list, for example? "Jack Anderson" is a kid, now 7, from Minnesota who was flagged at the airport on a family trip to Disney World. But another "Jack Anderson," you'll recall, was a crusading, muckraking columnist who made life miserable for Richard Nixon, J. Edgar Hoover and other known American scoundrels. Because of his journalistic activities, Mr. Anderson was on the Nixon enemies list and had an massive secret FBI file.

Now that Homeland Security has moved to fix the problem of misidentification, I would argue that it is time to move to the next level and look into whether we need to more thoroughly scrub the list and separate the actual bad actors from whatever identities of various "political enemies" may have been carelessly allowed to migrate onto it over the years -- like Jack Anderson the columnist, dead for 13 years now.


Saturday, October 18, 2008

Northwest Airlines: More Capacity Cuts?

I'm always amazed at how reporters, enslaved as so many of them are to the dubious virtues of ready corporate access, believe the story is the fortunes of the airlines -- and not the dire prospects current airline tactics portend for a vital part of our national transportation system: air travel.

Airlines are engaged in a long-term strategy to shrink the domestic air-transport system and keep it shrunken. Now, even with oil prices about half of what they were a year ago, the process continues.

Northwest is the latest to send a clear signal of its "flexibility" in the area of reducing service even beyond what's been announced. This is presented as a means to "soften the blow through downsizing."

My question: Soften the blow for whom?


Small Town USA and the Moose Lady

Above: My small-town America

I'm weary of writing about damn airplanes. How about a change of pace?

How about small-town America and patriotism?

I was getting a little depressed recently with that Moose Lady shooting her mouth off about how all of us who don't live in some crappy hole like Wasilla, Alaska, are "un-American" -- lacking, as we are, in small-town virtues, whatever they are.

And then it occurred to me. I live in small-town America. In a town with a population a little less than Wasilla, Alaska. A town with working gas lamps along the streets, a train station where I can get to New York in 25 minutes, a wonderful library where nobody tries to ban books; a town with nice, helpful family people who do not measure their lives in six-packs ... the whole nine yards of small-town, patriotic America. Unlike Wasilla, my town does not have a polluted, dead lake and a collection of ugly big-box stores.

At the train station in my small town, there is a small monument with eight names on it. The names of American citizens, my neighbors in my small town, population 8,000, who were murdered in the terrorist attacks of 9-11.


Wednesday, October 15, 2008

AA Cuts More Capacity for 2009

AMR, the American Airlines parent company, announced a $360 million loss for the third quarter and said that its mainline capacity will be 14 percent lower next year than in 2007 (after a 9 percent reduction this year).

(By the way, ignore the absurd headline about a quarterly profit that AA put on its announcement. That figure includes a big asset sale. The bottom line is the net loss.)

American did not break out domestic vs. international capacity cuts for next year, but the trend has been that domestic routes are being cut far more than the more-profitable international ones.

American's regional-airlines capacity (almost all domestic) will be 14.5 percent less in 2009 than in 2007, following a 9.5 percent cut this year.

As I've said, the domestic airline system is shrinking substantially. Watch as the other major carriers -- happy with the current drop in oil prices and determined to operate as smaller entities in the future -- announce new 2009 capacity cuts soon.


Thursday, October 09, 2008

At United Airlines, With 4th Quarter Capacity Already Down 16 %, More 'Adjustments' May Be Coming

As I said the other day, don't buy the airline PR palaver about the size of capacity cuts ahead in the domestic airlines. They're going to reduce the air-transport system even more than they've been saying.

United Airlines is already down 16 percent domestically for the last three months of this year, its vice president for industrial relations, Kathy Mikels, said at a Calyon Securities conference in September.

In Sao Paulo yesterday, United chief executive officer Glenn Tilton told ATWOnline that "more adjustments could be needed" as United lays off workers (7,000 in the current round) and assimilates the benefits of lower oil prices to shrink its operations and wheedle federal approval for antitrust immunity on select code-share markets with Lufthansa, Air Canada and Continental.

"Adjustments," of course, is corporate Goodspeak for "cuts."

Antitrust approval in select code-share markets means "OK to fix prices and undertake quasi-mergers on lucrative routes without all the costs and legalities of an actual merger."

Across the board, airlines are seizing the current economic crisis as a reason to slash as much capacity from the system as possible.

There is an analogy here, by the way, to the U.S. regional newspaper business. Gannett Newspapers, for example, are famous for slashing costs and jobs and allowing circulation to fall to the level where, readers be damned, the highest sustainable advertising revenue can be squeezed at the least possible cost in a monopoly market. The result was newspapers that had no news in them, but enough advertising to ensure short-term high profit margins. In a monopoly market.

That's one thing, if we're talking about the Bumbutt Bugle-Journal.

It's quite another when we're talking about the dismantling of a big chunk of a vital national transportation system.

And we should be talking about that, soon.


Wednesday, October 08, 2008

American Express Cuts Platinum Card Benefit

American Express sent out a notice to its Platinum Card holders informing them that a major benefit of holding the card -- which costs $450 a year -- is being cut.

Effective Nov. 15, the "domestic companion airfare program" disappears. That's the perk that allowed card holders to book free companion tickets four times a year, based on availability (which was always very limited, but still...).

The card still offers rewards points (as do other, cheaper airline and travel-loyalty credit cards), free access to participating airline clubs for ticketed passengers of said "participating" airline on day of travel, and various concierge services.

Lookit the intelligence-insulting, disingenuous way American Express words its notification that a key benefit of the card is being slashed: The first sentence of the letter speaks of "a change to one of your Platinum Card benefits."

A "change?" What, the corporate spell-check can't handle the word "elimination?"

What, they think card holders who pay $450 a year won't read on through the palaver and ascertain that they're getting stiffed?

"We evaluate the benefits offered on the Platinum Card regularly to ensure we are delivering services that Card members want, value and that meet their needs," the letter says, explaining why the card is ... well, no longer as valuable.

Its corporate mind-set tuned to Goodspeak, there is no explanation from American Express of why this perk has been cut, but I gather they want card holders to believe it's ... in their best interests.


With Demand Plummeting, Airlines Cutting More Flights Than They Said They Would

As I've been pointing out to anyone who prefers reporting over airline PR, passenger traffic started going into free-fall a couple of weeks ago. And airlines have been cutting schedules and capacity faster than they claimed they would as passengers simply stop showing up.

OAG has stats out today showing schedules for the fourth quarter, which of course includes the peak Thanksgiving and Christmas holiday season: Domestic flights are down 11 percent and capacity is down 9 percent over last year's fourth quarter.

OAG's chief operating officer Steve Casley said: "The scale of the decline in the U.S. market is worse than the previous schedule analysis showed, with airlines taking 265,000 flights out of operation this quarter. When you consider that the combined cuts from all the world's airlines totals 451,000 flights, then it really puts America's domestic capacity decline into perspective."

You can listen to airline PR or listen to this: Even the fourth-quarter published schedules are squishy, given empty airports and rapidly declining demand. My prediction is airlines will cut more flights by trimming the published schedules, and that the holiday travel season will be a great big bust.

It is, on the other hand, a not-bad time to travel if you’re flexible. Fares are holding steady and, in many cases, coming down. Frequent flier award seats are more available than in the past.


Qantas Flight 'Nosedived' At 37,000 Feet

More details on that Qantas flight over the sea off western Australia yesterday in which about three dozen passengers were injured, some seriously.

The plane, an A330 carrying 313 passengers and crew, climbed about 300 feet from its 37,000 feet cruising altitude before "abruptly pitching nose-down," according to the accident report on the Aviation Safety Network. The report says a possible "systems irregularity" combined with sudden turbulence was the likely cause. It isn't clear yet what the "systems irregularity" might have been.

By the way, I just love the quote from an Australian air-transport safety official in the account in today's Wall Street Journal. He says, "certainly, there was a period of time when the aircraft performed of its own accord."

Uh, here on planet earth, that means "fell."

A plane that abruptly pitches nose-down has a remarkable ability to concentrate the attention.

Here's a detailed report in the Australian, a newspaper, with comment from passengers who literally hit the ceiling.


Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Another Qantas Mishap; 36 Injured

There's been another safety-related incident on a Qantas airliner, this one on an A330-300 that suddenly lost altitude on a flight to Singapore from Perth, Australia. At least 36 passengers were hurt, a dozen of them seriously.

This is the latest in a series of recent incidents involving Qantas, which has long prided itself on having one of the best safety records in aviation. The most serious previous incident was in July, when an oxygen container exploded in a cargo hold and blew a hold the size of an SUV in the side of a 747 that then had to make an emergency landing.


AIG's Post-Bailout Business Trip Bash

Interesting to see some business-trip expense accounts are still riding high while the rest of us are scrambling.

It seems that executives of AIG, the big fat insurance company we all bailed out recently to the tune of $85 billion, had themselves a swell executive retreat -- right after the bailout -- at a super-expensive Southern California oceanfront resort, the St. Regis Monarch Beach.

Here's the $443,343.71 hotel bill, by way of a Huffington Post link today to the House Oversight Committee's Web site report on hearings into the bailout.

Rooms at the St. Regis Monarch Beach run from $565 to over $1,300 a night, by the way.

Hey, it's just dough, and it's all expense-accountable, right? And that $23,000 the high-flying AIG executives spent on hotel spas? Hell, they'd just been through a very stressful time, friends.


Sun Country Bankruptcy; Mesa Slashing Jobs

The company that owns Minneapolis-based Sun Country Airlines filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection yesterday. In a statement, the company said:

"Petters Aviation and its subsidiaries, including MN Airlines, LLC, d.b.a. Sun Country Airlines, filed for protection under Chapter 11 of the United States Bankruptcy Code. Sun Country Airlines will continue to operate and fly its regular flight schedule.

Stan Gadek, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of Sun Country said, "We were forced to take this action as a result of recent events at Petters Group Worldwide. We do not anticipate any disruptions, and expect to operate business as usual... Customers can book their flights in confidence and know that they will continue to receive the great service that they are accustomed to on Sun Country."

I'd take issue with that "book with confidence" assertion. Make it, book with caution. And remember: If you do book on Sun Country, use a credit card because by law credit card charges are refundable for services not rendered, such as a flight that disappears if an airline suddenly goes belly-up. If you book with a debit card, or pay with any other form of currency, you are not covered.

And incidentally, the "recent events at Petters Group Worldwide" is a reference to an FBI raid last month on Petters headquarters.

Petters Aviation is a wholly owned unit of Thomas Petters, Inc., and owns MN Airline Holdings, Inc., the parent company of Sun Country Airlines.

MESA AIR, meanwhile, is "reducing staff across the board," its chairman, Jonathan Ornstein, told ATW Online, an aviation news site. Facing a projected $250 million drop in revenue this year, Mesa Air Group is finding it impossible to "support the same level of overhead," Ornstein said, without adding details.

For August, Mesa reported a 13.9 percent drop in revenue passenger miles flown on an overall drop of 24.5 percent in total passengers boarded. Delta Air Lines dropped its contract with Freedom Airlines, a Mesa unit, in August.

Mesa currently operates 159 aircraft with over 800 daily departures to 126 cities, 38 states, the District of Columbia, Canada, the Bahamas and Mexico. Mesa operates as Delta Connection, US Airways Express and United Express under contract with Delta Air Lines, US Airways and United Airlines, respectively, and independently as Mesa Airlines and go!, the Hawaiian carrier that links Honolulu to the neighbor-island airports of Hilo, Kahului, Kona and Lihue.


Monday, October 06, 2008

Good News for Award Travel

Airlines are having such a hard time selling tickets these days that an old joke can be adapted to fit the situation:

CUSTOMER -- "What time does the flight to San Diego leave?"

AIRLINE CLERK -- "What time can you get here?"

Good news for frequent fliers. In general, with airline traffic falling sharply, this is a very good time to redeem frequent-flier miles for award tickets and upgrades.

Meanwhile, Virgin America just upgraded its award-trip feature online. Here's the announcement.


Friday, October 03, 2008

Outlook Darkens at Sun Country Airlines

Minnesota’s Sun Country Airlines is warning employees that it could shut down later this fall, but hopes to stay in business.

A month ago, Sun Country joined some of the big guys in alienating customers and added a fee ($12) for the first checked bag. Not that an annoying extra fee could put you out of business in this terrible economic climate, but it sure can’t help you keep customers loyal. Basically, though, Sun Country's immediate problems are the credit crunch and the FBI investigation at its parent company. (9/25 post).


Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Southwest Introduces Elite Access Lanes

The world really is changing.

Southwest Airlines said today it will introduce priority security lane access for its Business Select and Rapid Reward A-List Customers at select airports.

Southwest said it will open the lanes, branded "Fly By," at these airports later this month:

Baltimore/Washington International, Dallas Love Field, Phoenix Sky Harbor
International, Orange County John Wayne, Denver International, San Francisco
International, and Los Angeles International.

Southwest said it plans to add more airports to the Fly By rollout starting in November, continuing to implement the priority security lane program throughout its
system on an airport-by-airport basis.

To use the lanes, passengers must have an A-List identification card or a Business
Select boarding pass.