Saturday, January 31, 2009

Super Bowl Party Hearty, Whoooo! ....Whoooo? ALSO: The Great Chicken-Wing Shortage, Explained

I wasn't kidding yesterday about the sad spectacle underway in central Florida, as the booster- media pretend that this year's Super Bowl festivities are rockin' and rollin' just like other years. Which they manifestly ain't.

Some game tickets -- which come mostly from a vast pool of tickets made available exclusively to teams, NFL bigshots and their corporate pals, politicians and other grandees (who then re-sell them to scalpers who call themselves the "secondary market") -- were available today for around $1,000. That's two-thirds off the usual going rate for the day before the Super Bowl.

Hotel rooms are still available in the Tampa area. Bustout-level room rates are sharply down from a week ago.

Many of the usual corporate and other promotional parties have been canceled or cut way back. Even many people who actually still have the dough to charter a private jet for the weekend bacchanal don't have the nerve, given the lynch-mob public mentality afoot toward the public display of wretched corporate excess.

So I found it very amusing today to check out the online news site of the St. Petersburg Times, a local paper.

"Feel the Glow? It's Those Stars" declares the breathless main headline, on a story about the swell Super Bowl party that lasted into the morning hours -- can you imagine? A party lasting into the morning hours! -- at the local Hard Rock hotel. Among the "stars" providing that palpable glow, sez the St. Pete Times, were "Host Kevin Dillon ... Playboy's 50th Anniversary Playmate Colleen Shannon ... Pittsburgh Mayor Luke Ravenstahl..."

Wha? They couldn't at least get Rod Blagojevich? I hear he suddenly has the weekend free.

On the other hand, this collapse of the usual Super Bowl corporate-party vulgarity and the general toning-down of the excess might mean one good thing.

Maybe we can just watch a football game tomorrow.

By the way, Stephen Colbert had a very funny segment on the other night in his continuing drive to bring attention to the Great Buffalo Wing Shortage that threatens to adversely impact the really honest and worthwhile Super Bowl parties -- the ones in people's homes and in local bars.

Colbert had on the spokesman for the National Chicken Council, one Richard Lobb ("Lobb on the job," the spokesman explained by way of clearing up how to pronounce his name).

Lobb-on-the-Job explained the chicken-wing shortage (created by the growing nationwide popularity of Buffalo wings) with impeccable logic. "It's a simple matter of supply and demand," he said. "Every chicken has only two wings, and its really not worth it to produce a chicken just to get the wings."

Yes! An abstruse economic principle made invincibly clear by Lobb on the Job, who really ought to have a column.


Friday, January 30, 2009

Monitoring the Airspace Over Tampa

You ask me, there is a ton of steaming baloney being dished up this week from Tampa, site of Sunday's Super Bowl, where more than 4,000 credentialed media are humping out pointless stories that can be done (and are being done, and definitely will be done come Sunday), far, far better by the usual sources on television.

Face it, sports fans and editors: Sports (and football especially) is a story that television staked out a big claim on a long time ago -- and now totally owns. If television has real competition on this score, it's from online media, which often are being employed in conjunction with the flat-screen TV and Surroundsound.

[On the other hand, there is this trenchant point made by Charles P. Pierce in Slate about not only the feckless Arizona Cardinals, but also about the platitudinous shills who provide broadcast coverage of the game for the NFL. But hey, it is just a game.]

Anyway, speaking of online media, this site has an angle on the weekend's proceedings that seems unique: A real-time feed from air-traffic control monitoring the air space over Tampa. I was just listening to it, and an air traffic controller was giving hell to a media aircraft for hogging the space taking photos over the empty stadium.

Last year, this kind of thing was fascinating, because more than 500 corporate and private jets filled the skies over Phoenix, creating traffic jams before and after the game.

This year, the grandees are cooling their jets. It's too early to say precisely, but it appears that the number of private jets that will arrive for the Super Bowl is down very sharply.

Big corporate parties are also being canceled or severely curtailed. This ain't no party; this ain't no disco; with this crummy economy and everybody's spending mood soured, this ain't no foolin' around, to invoke the ghosts of the Talking Heads.

Given that one of the Super Bowl teams is from Phoenix, a place with tepid football enthusiasm but loaded with boosterism, and given the desperation of the central Florida and national media to pump up this slimmed-down, economy-bummed Super Bowl, here's my prediction of what we're going to see over Tampa this weekend:

A lot of hot air.


'Sleep With One Eye Open' and Other Advice for Staying at 'Worst' Hotels

Online ratings sites featuring critiques from customers have revolutionized the hotel-reviews business and taken a lot of wind out of the sails (and sales) of the traditional travel media and their traditionally determined objective evaluations.

By and large, the sites -- is the most prominent -- do a fairly good job of weeding out obvious ringers, that is, they try to flag glowing reviews that seem suspiciously like they may have come from the desktop in a hotel front office, or horrible ones that seem to have come from a hotel's competitor.

So by and large, the sites have real value. I often consult one before booking at an unknown hotel.

Anyway, here is TripAdvisor's annual list of hotels that have managed to attract the attention for being:

"Top 10 Filthiest U.S. Hotels Identified Based on Traveler Cleanliness Ratings

NEWTON, Mass., Jan. 27, 2009 - TripAdvisor, the world's largest travel community, today announced the top 10 dirtiest hotels in America based on TripAdvisor traveler ratings for cleanliness. True to TripAdvisor's promise to deliver the whole truth about travel-the good, the bad, and the ugly-TripAdvisor has identified the 10 dirtiest hotels in the U.S. for the fourth year running.

--Hotel Carter, New York

--Continental Bayside Hotel, Miami Beach

--New York Inn, New York

--Eden Roc Motel, Wildwood, New Jersey

--Days Inn Cleveland Airport, Brook Park, Ohio

--Days Inn Airport/ Stadium Tampa, Tampa, Florida

--Travelodge Bangor, Bangor, Maine

--Velda Rose Resort Hotel, Hot Springs, Arkansas

--Ramada Plaza Hotel JFK International Airport, Jamaica, New York

--Days Inn & Suites Gatlinburg, Gatlinburg, Tennessee

(This is the fourth year that the Hotel Carter, just off Times Square, has made the TripAdvisor list, "and its third year of having the dubious distinction of topping it," says the travel site.}

Here are some choice comments from recent TripAdvisor traveler reviews on various hotels on the list:

--"I think it would have been cleaner to sleep on the street."

--"Rooms were filthy; walls were smeared with unknown substance, furniture was broken and damaged..."

--"I'd rather sleep in my car."

--"One bed had blood on the sheets, other body fluids smeared on the windows, exposed wires, extremely poor service."

--"Roaches everywhere! One so big he could have helped me bring my suitcase upstairs"

--"The room we checked in smelled like cat urine and the air conditioner didn't work."

--"My blanket had cigarette holes in it. The sheets were too small for the bed and barely fit around the bed corners..."

--"The bathroom was unsuitable for bathing. I asked for a cloth to clean the bathroom myself ... and was denied any cleaning cloth or soap to do so."

--"With growing horror I peeled back each layer and found more and more bugs on the sheets, on the mattress pad and on the mattress itself."

--"It was one of those places where you sleep with one eye open."

--"If you are reading the previous reviews thinking 'it can't be that bad' - it is."

--" towels to take showers."

--"The bugs had a better meal at this place than we did."

--"The first room we were given literally smelled like raw sewage."

--"I felt like I needed another shower after using the one in our room."

--"We woke up the next morning to visitors. Our room was infested with ants... I mean they were all over the place. It was awful. We even brought a bunch back home in our suitcase."

[My note: Careful, they can charge you for taking the ants home.]


Thursday, January 29, 2009

Mesa Airlines: I'll Buy 100 Shares Please; Here's My Check for $18

I wish I had paid more attention back when I worked for the Wall Street Journal, and then maybe I would understand what the hell Mesa Air Group, the parent of greatly troubled Mesa Airlines, is talking about in this statement today, which says:

"Mesa Air Group Inc. said that the number of shares of its common stock issuable on January 31, 2009 in exchange for each $1,000 principal amount at maturity of its Senior Convertible Notes due 2023 ("2023 Notes") is 2,525 shares. This number is based upon the average closing price of the Company's common stock for the five trading days ended January 28, 2009.

"Only those holders of 2023 Notes that entered into forbearance agreements with the Company have the put rights referred to above. In addition, as disclosed in the Company's press release issued on January 22, 2009, certain of the holders that entered into forbearance agreements have elected to enter into new agreements with the Company with respect to their 2023 Notes, pursuant to which these holders have agreed not to require the Company to repurchase their 2023 Notes on January 31, 2009."

Man, is that good or bad news for the people who fly Mesa?

All's I know is that Mesa shares closed today at, ahhhh, 18 cents, and its market capitalization is $5 million.

From Mesa's boilerplate:

"Mesa operates 159 aircraft with approximately 800 daily system departures to 124 cities, 38 states, the District of Columbia, Canada, and Mexico. Mesa operates as Delta Connection, US Airways Express and United Express under contractual agreements with Delta Air Lines, US Airways and United Airlines, respectively, and independently as Mesa Airlines and go!. In June 2006 Mesa launched inter-island Hawaiian service as go!. This operation links Honolulu to the neighbor island airports of Hilo, Kahului, Kona and Lihue. The Company, founded by Larry and Janie Risley in New Mexico in 1982, has approximately 4,100 employees ..."

[Update: Good thing I don't still work for the Wall Street Journal. As a reader points out (see comment), 18 cents times 100 is $18, not $1.80, as the headline (now fixed) originally said.]


The Business Jet Industry: Don't They Get It?

The business jet industry, after several years of great prosperity, is in trouble. But the industry apparently just doesn't comprehend the extent and cause of the public backlash that whipped it, starting when those three Detroit auto executives swanned into Washington in November in their heavy-metal corporate jets to beg for a federal bailout.

Instead, the industry continues to blame the press for its travails.

Business jets definitely have their place as productivity tools, especially in these days when what used to be a one-day business trip is often now at least a two-day trip, thanks to cutbacks in airline capacity and routes. (This is not true on the 90-minute Detroit-Washington route, by the way.)

Anyway, the case for business aviation has been made in the media -- including, incidentally, by me.

But sometimes, as I have said here repeatedly (and with good and sufficient extra irony, considering my experience in the Amazon two years ago), a ride on a business jet is simply not a good idea.

The most recent example of corporate tone-deafness was when Citicorp, with $45 billion in taxpayer bailout money in its well-tailored pockets, tried to plunge ahead on an order to buy a $50 million Falcon corporate jet. Citicorp backed down this week amid a political outcry and a rather sharp nudge from the Obama White House.

I am not in the business of giving advice. But this particular industry does not seem to understand that those Detroit knuckleheads "set corporate aviation back 25 years," as Bill Garvey quoted a flight department executive in Business & Commercial Aviation last week. Bill Garvey, one of the most respected aviation trade journalists, is the editor of Business & Commercial Aviation.

Nor does the industry seem to understand that taxpayer outrage is an entirely appropriate response to a company so indifferent to public perception that it tries to buy a new heavy-metal jet soon after it begged for and got emergency taxpayer bailout money.

It couldn't wait a year?

In a letter to members of the National Business Aviation Association, its president, Ed Bolen, writes:

"As everyone in our industry knows, the business aviation community is facing severe turbulence on several fronts. Our industry is being stereotyped and pilloried by the press, and the people and businesses in general aviation are weathering one of the worst economic storms anyone has ever seen.

"The challenges coming out of Washington appear no less daunting: In the three weeks since the 111th Congress was sworn in, business aviation has repeatedly been in focus for lawmakers. A troubling pattern seems to be emerging in which some policymakers are discouraging and disparaging the use of general aviation for business purposes - a pattern in evidence as recently as this week."

The industry dodged a bullet this month, by the way, when it managed to get removed from the bill authorizing the second phase of the bailout language that would have required any company that receives bailout money to get rid of its corporate jets.

But government is still bearing down on the industry with threats of requiring corporate jets to be subject to stricter passenger security (corporate jet passengers don't go through TSA checkpoints). Also possibly looming are a slew of potential new fees, taxes and other onerous burdens on corporate aviation -- much to the glee of the commercial aviation industry, the arch-enemy of business jets.

The case for business aviation has been made, and made well in recent years. But people have stopped listening, and Congress is hopping mad -- and the industry is blaming the media?

The troubles the industry has are fundamentally economic -- but they're also partly atmospheric. In an era of massive layoffs and home-foreclosures, at a time when people are profoundly worried about the economic future, and cutting back on everything feasible and then some, three auto-company CEOs thought it was a good idea to take three big corporate jets on the 90-minute flight from Detroit to Washington to demand bailouts for their companies.

Naturally, the media made note of it. Labeling that "stereotyping" is quite a bit like the case of the young man who murdered his parents and then threw himself on the mercy of the court because, alas, he was an orphan.


New York Hotels See Sharp Declines; National Hotel Business Freefall Continues

After several years of robust occupancy and sky-high room rates, New York City hotels really hit the skids this month.

New data out today from Smith Travel Research show that hotels in New York had a drop of 24.6 percent in average occupancy and a drop of 18.1 percent in average daily room rates for the week ending Jan 24, as compared with the similar week last January.

Revenue per available room (RevPAR) plunged a whopping 38.3 percent for the week.

"While it could be argued that levels of performance in New York probably had the furthest to fall, the luxury stigma and sheer panic-based perceptions surrounding the U.S. economy have done the greatest harm to that market," said Brad Garner, vice president of operations/client services at Smith Travel, the leading hotel research company.

By "luxury stigma," he was referring to fact, as reported here last year, that hoteliers are seeing some customers who would otherwise book rooms (or conferences) back away because of the public perception problem attached to spending on higher-cost goods and services. That's only a part of the problem, of course. The bigger part is that people (and companies) simply don't have the dough.

In the U.S. hotel business as a whole, occupancy fell 13.6 percent; average daily room rates fell 2.7 percent and revenue per available room, the standard metric for hotel performance, fell 16 percent.

You heard it here first, starting last year: The U.S. hotel business is in huge trouble.

It's sad and, if you're a hotel owner, manager or employee, it's frightening. Many hotel property owners -- as opposed to the big chains who own the brand names and manage the hotels -- have never experienced a downturn in the business and are not prepared for the trouble they're seeing, or the trouble that lies ahead, as revenue drops to a point where the mortgage(s) can't be paid.

Foreclosures lie ahead for some. On Monday, PKF Hospitality Research reported that "the number of full-service U.S. hotels lacking the cash flow needed to pay their debt will increase by 25 percent in 2009."

Right now, there is a free-for-all, especially among higher-level hotels, to institute flat-out discounts on rates, or to otherwise bake discounts ("credits" for food and other things; stay-two-nights, get-one-free deals) into the stay.

Layoffs of staff are mounting.

Smith Travel's Garner said that 19 of the top 25 U.S. hotel markets reported "double-digit declines in occupancy, and continued softness" in average daily rates for the week ended Jan. 24.

Besides New York City, four of the Top 25 markets experienced year-over-year occupancy declines of more than 20 percent: Atlanta (-23.3 percent); Detroit (-22.8 percent); Minneapolis-St. Paul (-20.2 percent); and Chicago (-20.1 percent).

Besides New York, 13 of the the Top 25 markets reported RevPAR declines of more than 20 percent. And in Atlanta, the RevPAR drop was 31.2 percent.

Smith Travel classifies chain hotels in seven price/service segments. As has been the case for months, the luxury segment was hardest hit in the week, with occupancy down 19.8 percent and RevPAR down 22 percent.


JetBlue Adding LAX in June

Not everybody in the airlines is cutting back routes. JetBlue said today it will begin flying out of Los Angeles International Airport June 18, adding LAX to Burbank and Long Beach as the airports it flies out of in the Los Angeles area.

JetBlue new service, using A320s, will be from Terminal 6 at LAX, two daily nonstop flights to New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport and two daily flights to Boston's Logan International Airport, adding more competition to important Los Angeles, East Coast markets.

JetBlue had plans to start flying out of LAX last summer, but they were put on hold because of record high fuel prices, which have now come down sharply. AMong JetBlue's competitors on the LAX-JFK route will be Virgin America, the scrappy startup that also, like JetBlue, offers higher-end cabin service in coach than most of the majors.


Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Citibank Bails Out on New $50m Jet

Reacting to pressure from the White House, Citicorp (the Citibank holding company) has decided it isn't such a good idea after all to buy that new $50 million corporate jet. Citicorp, of course, has about $45 billion in taxpayer-supplied federal bailout money in its pocket.

ABC News has the story today.

And by the way, every time a corporation pulls a stunt like this, it sets the business-aviation industry back years. Best prior example: the three big Detroit auto makers who swanned into Washington in their private jets in November to ask Congress for federal bailout money.

I pointed it out immediately that this was a truly outrageous and invincibly dumb thing to do, and that it was almost as dumb for the business-aviation industry to get all defensive about the perfectly understandable public outcry.

Last week, Bill Garvey, the editor of the respected trade publication Business & Commercial Aviation, wrote about the "symbolic bone-headedness" of the Detroit worthies' trips to beg for bailouts in their Gulfstreams, and called the ferocity of the public and political backlash "breathtaking."

He also quoted a corporate flight manager saying of the Detroit debacle: "That single day set corporate aviation back 25 years."

Add another couple of years to that, thanks to the Citibank stunt.


Another Gloomy Forecast Today for Hotels

The hotel business has hit a wall. For months, industry forecasters have been scrambling to keep up with rapidly accelerating downward trends. For months, the bad news has galloped ahead of analysts' ability to evaluate it.

Today, PricewaterhouseCoopers issued a revised 2009 forecast, predicting that there will be a decrease of 11.2 percent this year in the key metric for measuring hotel performance, revenue per available room, which is called RevPAR.

"Marked declines" in occupancy rates and average daily room rates are driving the trend, the research company said.

Till late last year, the domestic hotel industry had stalwartly (and unwisely, in my opinion) resisted lowering room rates -- until it finally sank in to them that the decline in demand that first was evident in late summer, and became obvious by December, was more than a passing phase.

I'll report more later on the situation, which has left many hotel owners (as opposed to the big hotel companies that manage the properties and franchise the brand names) in desperate condition as debts come due and the necessary revenue simply isn't there to pay the bills.

One look at the Las Vegas Strip -- with huge discounts abounding and major projects physically abandoned -- tells much of the story. And don't even ask about Hawaii.

The U.S. hotel industry -- which drives local tourism economies and accounts for hundreds of thousands of jobs -- is in a depression, and no one knows where or when it will end.

[Update -- Here's another grim forecast, this from PKF Consulting in a report released yesterday:

PKF Hospitality Research in a new report finds that "the number of full-service hotels lacking the cash flow needed to pay their debt will increase by 25 percent in 2009, and property values will likely decrease another 20.1 percent, after a 14/1 percent decrease in 2008."

My note, those numbers add up to a looming debacle for many hotel properties, and before long we're going to start seeing some vacant hotels -- meaning the buildings, not just a bunch of rooms -- will be unoccupied.]


Monday, January 26, 2009

Citybank's New Jet and Other Notes

...Citicorp is buying a new $50 million private jet, it says here. Maybe they can fly it to the airport in London that they're bidding to buy, now that all those billions in taxpayer bailout money are burning a hole in their pockets.

... A good word here for Amtrak customer service: I recently booked a trip from New York to Orlando on the Silver Meteor train, in a sleeper compartment, but had to cancel a day before departure time. An Amtrak rep named Mary Lou cheerfully handled the cancellation in about 15 seconds, and my American Express card was credited with a full $588 refund the next day. Don't try that with an airline.

... The news media keep wingeing about rising costs of covering the news, but how come there are 4,000 registered media for next week's Super Bowl -- a story that is entirely, exhaustively, thoroughly covered by television? What exactly is the rationale?

...And since I'm grousing about the news media: I'm sad to see these reporters who just love paraphrases unwittingly but repeatedly distort the facts about that bozo Holocaust-denying, crypto-fascist bishop who's being reinstated into the fold by the Pope. I keep reading that Bishop Richard Williamson's sin was that he denied that six million Jews were murdered by the Nazis. Which suggests that the bishop might believe that merely, say, 4 million Jews were murdered by the Nazis. But Williamson actually said that NO Jews were murdered in Nazi gas chambers, and that the few hundred thousand whom he concedes did die in the camps were merely victims of neglect.

Here is what he actually said in a television interview in Germany two months ago:

"I believe there were no gas chambers... I think that 200,000 to 300,000 Jews perished in Nazi concentration camps but none of them by gas chambers. There was not one Jew killed by the gas chambers. It was all lies, lies, lies."

This goofball, I mean His Reinstated Eminence, also thinks 9/11 was a conspiracy cooked up by the United States government.

[Update, clarification: Williamson made his asinine claims during an interview recorded by Swedish television at a meeting in Germany of the ultra-conservative traditionalist Catholic movement, Society of Saint Pius X. His statements ignited a furor in Germany, where the interview was disseminated on the Internet. In Germany, where neo-Nazi movements are simply not tolerated, it is illegal to make public statements denying the Holocaust.]


Sunday, January 25, 2009

Cell Phones, Telemarketers, and the Annual 'Do Not Call List' Hoax

Every year around this time, chain e-mails proliferate warning that you need to rush to have your cell-phone number registered on the "National Do-Not-Call Registry," because all U.S. cell-phone numbers and the names of their holders are about to be released to telemarketers.

Who wants to be trying to get some calls in, while waiting at some airport, and be interrupted by telemarketing intruders?

Well, the dire warnings are not true. It's an annual hoax, as noted here by the invaluable rumor-chasing and urban-myth-chasing Web site

No such lists of names and cell-phone numbers are being released to telemarketing operations. So there's no big issue.

On the other hand, it's not a bad idea in general to register your cell-phone number (or any other phone number, if you haven't already done so) on the do-not-call list. That is, unless you actually like to get telemarketing calls.

It takes about 40 seconds. The phone number for the Federal Trade Commission's "National Do-Not-Call Registry" is 888-382-1222. You have to call from the number you want to list on the register.

Or you can do it online, and get more information, at the registry Web site.


Saturday, January 24, 2009

Flight 1549 Crew, Front and Center

So much for all that palaver about "an ongoing investigation" preventing the pilots and flight attendants from US Airways Flight 1549 from doing interviews. Turns out Katie Couric landed them, so so speak. (You do not want to ever get between Couric and an opportunity.)

Note that Captain Sully now has a "media advisor."

And so it goes ...


Thursday, January 22, 2009

Business Jet Use Plummets

After years of record prosperity and sales, the business jet industry went into a nose dive at the end of 2008.

No one yet has a firm handle on the situation (the General Aviation Manufacturers Association is issuing an industry review on Feb. 17), but it's obviously dire, with corporate flight departments cutting back or bailing out entirely, and with a glut of used planes on the market.

More background on that later, but stats released today by Aviation Research Group/US show a sharp drop in domestic flight departures in December. Compared with December 2007, departures of business aircraft were down 22.8 percent.

(On the other hand, the December figures showed an improvement over November 2008, when departures were down 33 percent.)

Here's a breakdown of the December departures:

--Departures of "Part 91 aircraft" -- corporate and private aircraft (jets and turbo-props) were down 15.3 percent, with the biggest drop (not counting turbo props, which were off 23.2 percent) in large-cabin jets (off 16.9 percent).

--Departures of "Part 135" aircraft -- that is, aircraft used for charters, were down 33.3 percent, with the biggest drop in large-cabin jets (down 44 percent).

--Departures of fractionals were down 32.1 percent, though the biggest drop was in small-cabin jets (down 44.2 percent).

Aviation Research Group/U.S., Inc. provides specialized aviation services to companies that manufacture, finance, operate, maintain, and market commercial and business aircraft, as well providing products and services to end-user consumers worldwide. It also performs on-site safety audits for corporate flight departments, charter operators, and commercial airlines.


Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Singapore Replaces 747s With 777s on San Francisco-Hong Kong Route (and other items...)

---SINGAPORE ADDS 777s ON HONG KONG ROUTE -- Singapore Airlines is phasing out its 747s in favor of a service upgrade – with fewer seats -- on its San Francisco-Hong Kong-Singapore route, replacing the 747 with a Boeing 777-300ER on daily flights. And on the existing San Francisco/Seoul/Singapore route, Singapore is adding a second Boeing 777.
The new aircraft feature 278 seats, including eight 35-inch wide first class seats; 42 horizontal-flat business class seats and 228 seats in coach. With the switch to 777s, the routes will offer Singapore’s top-of-the-line in-flight entertainment amenities, including larger LCD monitors with an in-flight entertainment system that has more than 1,000 on-demand options; iPod and iPhone connectivity; Berlitz language courses and word processing software.
The 747s being phased out have 372 seats -- 12 in first class, 50 in business and 310 in coach.
Singapore’s passenger fleet consists of 101 passenger aircraft: 14 B747-400s, 76 B777s, five A340-500s, and six A380-800s.


---NEW PREMIUM LUFTHANSDA LOUNGE AT JFK -- Lufthansa opened its new lounge last week at Kennedy International Airport. At nearly 16,000 square feet, it’s about twice the size of the airline’s original JFK lounge, and features three levels, one for each of the airline’s premium segments. The $10 million upgrade is part of Lufthansa’s $200 million lounge-renovation program. The new facility is located directly behind security in Terminal 1.


---ANOTHER RESTAURANT CHAIN FOUNDERS -- ARG Enterprises Inc., which operates 69 Black Angus Steakhouse restaurants in seven states in the western U.S., filed for bankruptcy protection, citing a business falloff in the economic slowdown. Among other casual-dining chains that have filed for bankruptcy in the last year are o file for protection in the last year, including Bennigan’s Steak and Ale restaurants and Buffet Holdings Inc.


---FOLIES FINI -- After a 49-year run, the Les Folies Bergere topless revue at the Tropicana in Las Vegas is closing March 28. The Parisian revue opened on Dec. 24, 1959, under entertainment director Lou Walters, the nightclub impresario and father of Barbara Walters.


---SAFETY AWARENESS -- Following up on the US Airways plane that ditched on the Hudson last week, with all 155 on board rescued, says most passengers pay attention to safety instructions on planes. In a survey of more than 2,100 U.S. respondents, conducted from January 16 - January 20, 68 percent said they frequently pay attention to the in-flight safety presentation and 30 percent said they always do. Of the 32 percent who said they rarely or never pay attention to the in-flight safety presentation, 81 percent said it is because they already know it by heart. Twelve percent said they avoid booking an exit-row seat because they don't want the responsibility of opening the doors and assisting the crew in an emergency.


Shut Up and Get Me a Cranapple Juice

Sometimes flight attendants can save lives, as was the case last week on US Airways Flight 1549, ditched in the Hudson River.

And most flight attendants do their jobs very well, despite the hammering they have received on salary and work conditions over the years from airline managements.

But too often, an overly entitled flight attendant, self-appointed as a junior G-lady or G-man, can grossly abuse their authority, as in this shocking case and others in which passengers who run afoul of a martinet in uniform can be labeled as terrorists. This sort of thing happens more often than we think.


Tuesday, January 20, 2009

US Airways: We Weren't Pitching 'Hero Captain' Story

Under the general rule that no good deeds go unpunished, US Airways has taken a little heat for a perception that it has pitched Capt. Chesley B. Sullenberger III as the singular focus of the story about the amazing crash-landing and survival of all aboard on the Hudson last week.

In fact, let me say that a review of US Airways' media updates and press releases since the afternoon of the crash shows that 1. The airline was forthcoming, timely and useful in its statements. 2. The airline consistently made note of the entire crew and did not overtly single out the captain in its updates.

There was a bit of a kerfuffle, mostly created by the pilots' and flight attendants' unions, over the way Captain Sullenberger was presented in the media as the hero of the day, with almost no recognition given to the co-pilot and the three flight attendants whose skill, courage and level-headedness obviously were key to helping those 150 passengers (who were apparently also level-headed) get safely off that sinking airplane.

The unions blamed the media, but in recent posts I have groused that the basic problem was that detailed information on the co-pilot and flight attendants simply was not available to reporters on deadline. Sullenberger's CV, on the other hand, was readily available from the Web site of Safety Reliability, a company he had earlier formed to promote aviation safety. That's where the media also got the photo of Sullenberger that has been widely used.

Last Friday, the day after the event, US Airways CEO Doug Parker went to New York for a city ceremony honoring the first-responders -- the maritime workers of the New York harbor whose brilliant performance on the river also saved lives.

Here's what Parker said as regards the US Airways employees:

"I, like the rest of you, am extremely proud of our crew for their quick and heroic actions. Today they are safe and doing well, and along with so many other members of our team, are assisting with the official investigation, and they also extend their gratitude to all of the organizations I just mentioned."

A US Airways spokesman, Jim Olsen, said today that the airline's comments throughout have emphasized the role of the entire crew. The numerous timely US Airways updates on the accident -- starting within a half hour of the crash -- support that assertion, by the way.

"The language was very clear that we wanted to publicly thank the crew for their quick thinking," Olsen said. "We totally understand how the perception might be that we were trying to pitch him (Sullenberger). I can assure you 100 percent we have not been pitching this story at all. We have been very much in reactive mode" in handling press requests for interviews.

In fact, the first time US Airways mentioned Sullenberger was in a statement on Friday afternoon that provided the names, ages and some career background on the captain, the co-pilot and the three flight attendants.

Now, obviously, Sullenberger was the main guy who saved the day. If he had not managed to set that crippled airplane down so skillfully in the Hudson, and then with great aplomb overseen the evacuation from the plane, we would be talking today about a far different kind of story.

The other crew were overlooked because reporters knew almost nothing about them. An investigation is under way, and obviously the crew can't be holding press conferences.

But the unions could have been more on the ball last week and put some useful information about the crew. They could have released photographs, for example. I absolutely guarantee you, crew photos would have been prominently used in the news accounts.

Instead, they issued turgid proclamations that looked like they had been written by a committee and that contained no useful information. Now they're carping this week about how the media largely overlooked the other four crew members?


Monday, January 19, 2009

Bank Bailed Out, Let's Buy an Airport!

An investment consortium including Citigroup, which in turns owns Citibank -- and which received a $326 billion rescue package from U.S. taxpayers in November -- wants to buy London's Gatwick Airport, according to a report today by Reuters.

Reuters reports from London:

"A consortium consisting of Citi Infrastructure Investors, Vancouver Airport Services and John Hancock Life Insurance company has made an indicative bid for London's Gatwick airport, a spokesman said on Monday. The group is bidding under the name the Lysander Gatwick Investment Group ..."

Gatwick, London's second largest airport, is now owned by the Spanish company Ferrovial, which is soliciting bids. The Times of London newspaper says in tomorrow's editions that the bids, by five competitors, range up to $2.95 billion.

In May 2007, Citigroup's Citi Alternative Investments unit established City Infrastructire Investors to "invest in and manage infrastructure assets."

Reuters said then that Citi was "building a $3 billion fund, including $500 million of its own capital" for the unit to make infrastructure investments partly as a "hedge against inflation."


Flight 1549: PR Scramble from Airline, Unions

US Airways management, as well as unions for pilots and flight attendants, are scrambling to re-position themselves on the US Airways crash-landing in the Hudson last week -- amid richly deserved criticism that the co-pilot and the three flight attendants did not get proper credit for their roles in the amazing evacuation and rescue from the half-submerged airplane.

As I said yesterday when the US Airways pilots union issued a statement complaining that the media was at fault for focusing almost exclusively on the heroism of the captain, the unions are a little late out of the gate complaining about this.

In a breaking news story, reporters (and in this case the Times led the way, leaving the two feckless New York tabloids in the dust) are hauling butt to get the facts and get to the people who were there. Reporters found dozens of passengers to interview, and it so happened that a photo and detailed information about Captain Sullenberger were readily available.

And there is no question that Sullenberger's skill in landing that crippled airplane on a river and helping to get everyone out safely was the main story.

I immediately took note of the obvious brilliant performance of the other crew members when I first posted about the crash immediately after it happened. But information on the co-pilot and the flight attendants was simply not available.

US Airways, which had rushed to get into the act and lionize the captain, issued a statement today that is an obvious reaction to the criticism that the rest of the crew was overlooked, if not ignored, in the aftermath of the crash and rescue. It said:

"US Airways is extremely proud of the professional Crew of Flight 1549. All five of these outstanding aviation professionals performed in an exceptional way under extraordinary circumstances. The company also appreciates the generous outpouring of support these five employees are receiving, and we recognize the media’s good intentions to speak with them as soon as possible. As the US Airline Pilots Association (USAPA) and the Association of Flight Attendants (AFA) have also said in a statement, the crew has communicated their willingness to share their experiences at the right time. At this stage of the process and investigation, however, they are respectfully declining all media interview requests.

"US Airways will continue to work with the crew of Flight 1549 and their union leaders to determine when media interviews are appropriate."

OK, airline, unions and flack-shops hired to do damage control: Stop whining about the fact that the stories are not adequately being told, if the subjects of said stories are not available. But trust me, this story, like most, has a sell-by date, and a new president is being inaugurated tomorrow. Very fast, this story passes into the realm of book-deal.

Meanwhile, here is the statement, purportedly issued late last week but seen here only today, from the flight attendants union. Like the pilots union, the flight attendants union seems to believe that dry proclamations, approved by bureaucratic committee and reflecting nothing from the actual participants nor any detail that reporters have not already dug out themselves, are sufficient to drive a story forward:

"US Airways flight attendants, represented by the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA (AFA-CWA) were instrumental in the evacuation of 150 passengers earlier this week as Flight 1549 made an emergency water landing in New York's Hudson River. Mike Flores, AFA-CWA US Airways President issued the following statement praising the professionalism of the three Charlotte, NC crew members:

"'What began as a normal flight suddenly turned into something far from normal. US Airways Flight 1549 departed New York's LaGuardia airport shortly after 3 pm. Within minutes of becoming airborne the crew faced a seemingly impossible situation.

"'While the investigation of Flight 1549 will take months to complete we do know this much - the skill and professionalism of the entire crew made all the difference.

"'Never in the history of aviation has a commercial jet made a perfectly successful emergency water ditching. That history is forever changed now because of the actions of the crew of flight 1549.

"'Once the aircraft came to rest in the water, the years of experience and training of the flight attendants took over. All 150 passengers were safely evacuated and the crew was the last to exit the aircraft. That did not happen because of luck. The only way this happened was because flight attendants are first and foremost safety professionals, trained for an event such as occurred yesterday afternoon.

"'The media is calling the event the, 'Miracle on the Hudson'. Obviously the end result was remarkable. Others may judge the result as a miracle but AFA-CWA believes what happened yesterday should be renamed to 'Professionalism on the Hudson'. Clearly, the entire crew were heroes.'"

[My note, the "media" did not coin that asinine "Miracle on the Hudson" term, which came from New York Gov. David ("Hey, It's a Miracle I Got This Job") Paterson.]

Nevertheless, I agree with the flight attendants union. Or I should say, they agree with me.


Sunday, January 18, 2009

Flight 1549: Media Hero Worship, Singular?

[Right: Captain Sullenberger]

An e-mail to members went out today from US Airline Pilots Association, which represents 5,200 mainline US Airways pilots.

The union says it wants to address the issue of "the way the press emphasized the captain of the flight, seemingly ignoring the crew."

"This has not gone unnoticed by any of us," the union says. "It is apparent the press wanted a 'hero' and Captain Sullenberger was selected."

Quoting Captain James Ray, the union's "media sub-committee chairman" (and its spokesman), the union statement said:

"We all share the frustration about the press omitting, to a large degree, the efforts of First Officer Jeff Skiles and the three flight attendants."

The statement went on, "In talking to countless reporters over the last several days, Captain Ray attempted to stress the point and educate them on the matter of 'crew concept.' For whatever reason, they generally chose not to mention this in many of their reports."

Well, the "reason" may be that the media had very little to go on, so far as the other crew members were concerned. A union guy making statements to "educate" the press about the crew concept is not going to do it.

In defense of the media, let's look at the facts:

--Captain Sullenberger himself brought that plane down safely, through great skill and level-headedness (and with no small thanks to his experience as a glider pilot).

--Sullenberger, a dashing figure in his uniform, stood out on the West Side dock where many reporters rushed after the crash. Though he wasn't commenting, he was obviously the Guy in Charge.

--A stock photo and detailed online background information were readily available of Sullenberger. And US Airways officials rushed to lionize him.

--Information on the SIC (the co-pilot, Jeffrey B. Skiles, 49) was not as readily available. Nor did US Airways, or the union representing the flight attendants, get out timely information on the three flight attendants: Sheila Dail, 57, Doreen Welsh, 58, and Donna Dent, 51.

--While the most heads-up reporters, mostly from the Times and local T.V., managed to interview dozens of surviving passengers, who were readily available, as far as I know the flight attendants and co-pilot were not readily available.

This was a breaking story, union. Reporters are hauling butt to collect accurate information and get it online, into print, or on the air. They can't wait for you to draft your statement, get it cleared through union bureaucracy, and issue it three days later.

Stipulated: Captain Sullenberger, First Officer Skiles and flight attendants Dail, Welsh and Dent did a great job. It was a crew working together, as trained.

So let's hear from them all. In what's left of a timely manner.

Meanwhile, flight attendant Welsh, who had a badly cut leg, was released from the hospital "and all crew members have now departed from New York," the pilots union's "special update" -- today -- says.

And now the squabbling over book and movie "rights" begins. That's never pretty. Also, I see that the rapacious therapy industry is circling the survivors, hooks baited with lucrative diagnoses.


Saturday, January 17, 2009

Flight 1549: Skill and Drill, Skill and Drill

Rachel Maddow, on her nightly news and opinion program on MSNBC, adroitly picked up the right theme about the US Airways crash in the Hudson River. She stressed that a skilled, drilled and ready force of civilian and governmental first-responders was the heart of that amazing rescue -- and that this is the essence of that aspect of "homeland" security.

The rescue did not happen by accident or through a feat of deering-do, but rather as a result of investment, quality training and steady maintenance in systems, equipment and people, whether they worked on civilian ferry boats or for the various local and state agencies that maintain the New York harbor maritime infrastructure.

Meanwhile, US Airways yesterday released the names and some background on each of the crew members on the flight, starting with the famous Captain Sullenberger. I'm glad to see the co-pilot and the flight attendants get some of the credit:

--Captain Chesley B. Sullenberger, III, age 58, joined US Airways (PSA Airlines) in 1980. He has a total of 19,663 flight hours.

--First officer Jeffrey B. Skiles, age 49, joined US Airways (USAir) in 1986. He has a total of 15,643 flight hours.

--Flight Attendant Sheila Dail, age 57, joined US Airways (Piedmont Airlines) in 1980 and has more than 28 years experience with the airline.

--Flight Attendant Doreen Welsh, age 58, joined US Airways (Allegheny Airlines) in 1970 and has more than 38 years experience with the airline.

--Flight Attendant Donna Dent, age 51, was hired by US Airways (Piedmont Airlines) in 1982 and has more than 26 years with the airline.

(You might note the various iterations of US Airways in those resumes).

And there are two letters to the editor in the Times this morning that make excellent points.

One, from Kathryn Keene, a former flight attendant, of North Conway, N.H., says that "it is time for the flying public to inspect the way flight crews, pilots and flight attendants are treated by their respective airlines. For many years, retirements have been stolen, salaries have been pillaged and airlines have merged mercilessly, belittling the highly skilled and impassioned professionals to whom so many millions of us entrust our lives."

And another, from Ellen Steinbaum, of Cambridge, Mass., makes this salient point after noting the great performance by crew, passengers and rescuers:

"But what does it say that the feel-good story of the week is about a plane crash?"


Friday, January 16, 2009

Hotel Industry Takes Sharp Downturn

Hotel numbers are tumbling as travel chokes.

The U.S. hotel industry experienced declines in all three key performance measurements, including double-digit drops in occupancy and revenue per available room, during the week of January 4-10, compared with the same period a year ago, according to Smith Travel Research.

Occupancy fell 16.9 percent. Revenue per available room, the benchmark figure for hotels, dropped an amazing 22.9 percent. And finally, daily room rates -- which had remained fairly steady as the hotel industry tried to hold onto rates despite the reality of a demand collapse -- fell 7.2 percent.

At the luxury segment, which is reeling, occupancy was down 24.4 percent, and revenue per available room was down 31.1 percent, while (posted) rates were down only 8.9 percent. Every luxury hotel is now ready to deal on rates.

After years of record profits, the hotel industry is staggered by these numbers, and no one knows when and where it will end.


Flight 1549: That Was No 'Miracle;' That Was Skill and Courage

Of course, the "miracle" workers are at it again. That is, the media keep referring to the spectacular crash-landing and brilliant rescue of passengers and crew from US Airways Flight 1549 yesterday as a "miracle."

Can we please grow up and get off our knees and stop invoking the supernatural, media? The stirring rescue of 155 on board that Airbus A320 half-submerged in the Hudson River off 48th Street yesterday occurred not through divine intervention but through a combination of skill, courage, comportment and preparedness.

And we should be proud, again, of New York in a crisis.

Here is what happened. Knowing the plane was not going anywhere but down, the captain, C.B. Sullenberger, 58, with consummate skill and steadiness, glided that baby onto the river as if it were on pontoons.

In the cabin, flight attendants steadily directed passengers toward the exits. Passengers got out calmly. The captain made two passes through the cabin to make sure that everyone was out, and then he left the literally sinking ship.

Outside, boats of all kinds from the Hudson River waterfront were already nudging up against the airplane. Rescue operations, some of them very harrowing, began immediately. New York's legendary maritime navy swarmed the scene and performed brilliantly -- just as it had, remember, during 9/11.

All 155 on board the plane were saved.

This was not a miracle. This was another magnificent performance by people who do not cave. This was New York at its finest, again.

The miracle theme, repeated incessantly in the media today, was also picked up by New York's Governor David ("Hey, It's a Miracle I Got This Job") Paterson, who has been prattling on about the "Miracle on the Hudson."

Get a grip, people. I've been in a bad airplane crash, and surviving it was no miracle. In my case, it was due to luck, dumb luck, coupled with great skill by pilots who managed to wrestle down an airplane that seemed doomed.

Here is my problem with this "miracle" baloney.

Horrible things happened all over yesterday. Innocent children died in Gaza. There were hideous car accidents all over. People lost their homes and went into the cold due to Wall Street thievery.

Somehow, divine intervention is never cited for the horrors.

When I got home after I went down on a plane in the Amazon two years ago, the television crews trooped to the house like trick-or-treaters (or, as one of my neighbors said, "as if you were a serial killer"). Especially the local ones, they kept asking me about some "miracle."

Here's what I told one of them, who looked crestfallen to have his angle kicked away.

"No, I don't believe in miracles. I believe in good luck and bad luck. If this was a miracle, what do you call what happened to those 154 people who died in a mid-air collision that I walked away from?"

I happened to TiVo that interview on TV that night. The anchorwoman introduced it by saying, "Now we have an amazing story about a local man who doesn't believe in miracles."

And the caption on the screen beneath my face reiterated the point: "Doesn't Believe in Miracles," it said.

That is correct.


Thursday, January 15, 2009

US Airways Plane Down in Hudson River; All On Board Reported Rescued

[Reuters photo]

A US Airways flight has gone down in the Hudson River. All on board -- US Airways said that there were 150 passengers and five crew -- are reported to have been rescued.

The live pictures I was looking at shortly after the crash showed lots of passengers on both wings of the partially submerged Airbus A320. Rescue boats surrounded the plane, which had just taken off from LaGuardia Airport bound for Charlotte.

The temperature in New York was about 25 degrees at the time of the accident around 3.15 p.m. The water temperature in the Hudson River was below 35 degrees.

The sheer number of passengers seen out on those wings as rescue boats surrounded the partially submerged airplane was the first sign that flight attendants did a great job in getting people out, that passengers did a great job following calm evacuation procedures -- and that the pilots managed to put that airplane down in the river with consummate skill.

And the next time I hear that familiar, always ignored, in-flight safety announcement about how seat cushions can be used as flotation devices, I'm paying attention.

[UPDATE: Incidentally, the media are pitching the guess that the plane experienced engine trouble right after takeoff due to a so-called "bird strike," a flock of birds sucked into an engine. But upon examination, this theory seems to be just that, pure speculation. The only reports I see of it, like one currently running on the New York Daily News Web site, say the pilot reported running into a "flock of geese" -- but I don't see any attribution for that information.

A bird strike may well have been the cause, but we'll see once we have some actual evidence.]

Also, as I said, a statement by US Airways, before updates on the crash oddly disappeared from the US Air Web site just before 6 p.m., said that 155 people -- 150 passengers and five crew -- were on the plane. Other media reports have slightly different numbers, from 151 to 153, and they may well be right.

[UPDATE 2 -- Ah, here's some better information -- attributed, if anonymously -- from the Wall Street Journal online about the possible bird-strike cause:

"A person familiar with conversations between the flight crew and air traffic controllers said that the crew reported flying through a flock of geese, sucking birds into both engines. The engines continued to run, but at that point they were chewing themselves up and not making enough power to continue flight."]


Wednesday, January 14, 2009

November Airline Ontime Stats

Here are the November numbers for on-time performance by domestic airlines, from the U.S. Bureau of Transportation Statistics.

Airline On-Time Arrival Pct November 2008

Carrier On-Time Arrival Pct.
1 Hawaiian 89.59
2 Southwest 87.22
3 Northwest 86.75
4 United 85.51
5 SkyWest 85.11
6 Pinnacle 84.90
7 American 84.40
8 Frontier 83.65
9 American Eagle 83.52
10 ExpressJet 83.01
11 JetBlue 82.94
12 US Airways 81.98
13 Alaska 81.37
14 Mesa 81.31
15 Continental 80.73
16 AirTran 80.19
17 Delta 77.40
18 Comair 77.07
19 Atlantic Southeast 75.30
All Airlines 83.33

Source: Bureau of Transportation Statistics


United p.s. Joining Inflight Internet Trend

United Airlines says its premium "p.s." flights between New York and California will offer the expanding Gogo inflight Internet service.

The 13 757s used on the p.s. flights between New York and San Francisco and Los Angeles will begin offering the service in the summer. United says it will consider rolling Gogo out further after evaluating initial customer response on the p.s. flights.

Gogo is a service provided by Aircell, which calls it a "mobile WiFi hot-spot" for airplanes.

It was introduced last year on American Airlines flights between New York and California and New York and Florida. Virgin Atlantic also offers it on New York-California flights and on flights between Los Angeles and San Francisco and Seattle. And both Delta and Air Canada have said they plan to offer it later this year -- in Delta's case on its mainline fleet, by summer.


What an Honorable Pilot Would Never Do...

[Above: Our hero]

...that is, abandon a flightworthy plane on auto-pilot in an occupied area.

This big slob couldn't find a way to fake his demise without endangering people on the ground by deliberately abandoning an aircraft in flight? This is the year's new candidate for the 2009 top-10 list of most-vile Wall Street clowns (candidates accepted daily).

I've known pilots all of my adult life, since joining the Navy in 1966. Pilots may be characters, and some are truly eccentric (more so than in the general population, I would say. I'm thinking here of a former military pilot nicknamed Choo-Choo, who could not resist swooping down to trail a train at a distance when he spotted one in the rural Southwest. But he also made it a point to pull up before he scared the conductor.)

The one thing the vast majority of pilots share is a deep sense of responsibility, and personal honor, in the air.

Every pilot I know, civilian and military, would put an airplane into a mountain, with themselves in the cockpit, rather than pull a despicable stunt like this, recklessly endangering innocent people for his own shabby, sorry benefit.


Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Airline Passenger Bill of Rights Back to Life in Senate

[Photo: Kate Hanni, founder of passengers rights movement]

The long-languishing Airline Passengers Bill of Rights, legislation that would require airlines to adhere to certain customer-service procedures when planes full of people sit on tarmacs during extended delays, is back.

U.S. Senators Barbara Boxer (D-CA) and Olympia Snowe (R-ME) reintroduced the legislation today. It had died during the last Congress. Basically, the bill requires airlines to ensure that travelers are not unnecessarily trapped on airplanes for excessive periods of time, or deprived of food, water, or adequate restrooms.

The airlines fiercely fought the legislation last year and will do so again now, in a new legislative environment that may be more supportive of the initiative than was the case in the last Congress.

The legislation is the brainchild of Kate Hanni, a California woman who was stranded with her husband and son for almost 10 hours on a parked plane in Texas in late 2006, along with thousands of other passengers on flights affected by bad weather. As the airline system strained in 2007 and 2008, literally thousands of other planes sat parked for up to 12 hours, with conditions deteriorating, during bad weather or amid other problems at airports throughout the country.

Hanni has spent the last two years organizing a grassroots coalition -- and pushing the national television and print publicity buttons -- to press for the legislation. She's also tirelessly worked the halls of Congress and various state legislatures.

I have known Kate since she started her drive, and she's a genuine political phenomenon, though a controversial one.

Her group's Web site is at

Boxer and Snowe issued a joint statement announcing reintroduction of the legislation.

Passengers have been stranded for long periods "without access to food, safe drinking water or functioning bathrooms," said Boxer. "People deserve to be safe and comfortable, and know that airlines and the Department of Transportation are going to protect and accommodate them in the event of excessive delays."

Snowe said, "Whether it is the record length of delays, lack of access to adequate food and water or the overbooking of flights, the U.S. airline industry has time and time again failed to protect the basic rights of the flying public. "Given the amount of money Americans are paying for airline fares and the unconscionable litany of fees and surcharges being tacked on to the price of a ticket, Congress has an obligation to step in and set a standard for airline consumer protections in this country. This legislation is a common-sense solution that will ensure the safety of travelers and guarantee their basic needs."

The legislation would require:

---Airlines to offer passengers the option of safely deplaning once they have sat on the ground for three hours after the plane door has closed. This option would be provided every three hours the plane continues to sit on the ground.

---Airlines to provide passengers with food, potable water, comfortable cabin temperature and ventilation and adequate restrooms while a plane is delayed on the ground.

---That the Department of Transportation create a consumer complaint hotline so that passengers can report delays.

---Airports and airlines to develop contingency plans for delayed flights to be reviewed and approved by the transportation department.

The bill also allows the transportation department to fine air carriers and airports that do not submit or fail to comply with contingency plans.

The bill provides two exceptions to the three-hour option -- "to ensure passenger safety and airport efficiency," the statement says.

Pilots may decide to not allow passengers to deplane if they believe safety or security would be at risk due to weather or other emergencies. Additionally, pilots may delay deplaning up to a half hour beyond the three hour period if they reasonably believe the flight will depart within 30 minutes.

Boxer and Snowe first introduced the bill in the Senate in 2007.

Provisions of their Airline Passengers’ Bill of Rights were included in the Federal Aviation Administration Reauthorization bill, which was passed by the Commerce Committee but blocked on the Senate floor.

The case for federal action was strengthened when the U.S. Court of Appeals struck down a New York State law protecting passengers’ rights.

The New York law provided for health and safety measures, but did not address what I regard as the third rail of Hanni's passengers-rights initiative, which is the mandate that passengers must be allowed to leave a plane stuck on the tarmac after three hours.

In overturning the New York law shortly after it went into effect last year, the federal court cited the Airline Deregulation Act of 1978, which greatly restricts the ability of government to legislate any aspect of airline operations.

The bill has strong industry opposition. The best argument the industry can muster, to my mind, is that requiring a pilot to return a plane to the gate after x-number of hours could have unintended consequences. That it, it might well introduce a new level of chaos into airline operating schedules, since that flight will have lost its place for take-off and may well end up canceled rather than badly delayed.

On the other hand, the airline industry's wingeing and caterwauling about other aspects of the bill -- requiring working toilets and adequate food and drink on board stranded planes -- is an example of tone-deafness at its worst, in my opinion. If the airlines can't find a way to treat stranded passengers humanely, and so far most of them have not, then the government damned well needs to step in. Period.

The aviation forecaster Michael Boyd, who has derided Hanni and her movement, seems resigned to the likelihood of some form of passengers rights law taking effect this year.

In his weekly essay yesterday at the web site of his company, Boyd Group International, Boyd excoriates the airlines for not raising hell about the basic cause of delays: An antiquated air-traffic control system and what he regards as a hopelessly inept Federal Aviation Administration, which he says has wasted billions trying to develop a new, long-delayed, obsolete-before-it-even-arrives air-traffic system called NextGen, which he and other critics have derided as "yesterday-Gen."


Brazil Report on '06 Mid-Air Amazon Disaster Disputed by World Air-Traffic Controllers Group

The professional group representing the world's air traffic controllers is taking issue today with the widely publicized, and deeply flawed, report by the Brazilian Air Force that lays most of the blame for the 2006 mid-air collision over the Amazon with the American pilots flying the business jet that landed safely.

The International Federation of Air Traffic Control Associations (IFATCA), in a statement to be released today, expresses "disappointment" with the lengthy Brazilian report, compiled by an aviation investigations panel called CENIPA, which operates under the aegis of the Brazilian Air Force -- which runs that country's long-troubled commercial air-traffic control system.

As have others, IFATCA wonders why the CENIPA, the Brazilan panel, devoted so much time and effort in its 266 pages to "events in the cockpit of the Legacy private jet" that collided with a Brazilian Gol Airlines 737 at 37,000 feet on Sept. 29, 2006, killing all 154 on the civilian airliner. (The two pilots and five passengers on the badly damaged Legacy private jet, of whom I was one, managed to land at a jungle air strip 25 minutes after the collision.)

IFATCA expresses its "disappointment that the well-evidenced failures and safety problems of the Brazilian air-traffic control system, including its contribution to the fatal chain of events of the accident," have not received the required attention and detailed scrutiny" from CENIPA.

From day one, I have said here that Brazilian air-traffic control, especially over the Amazon, is notorious for communications and radar failures. Merely stating what every international pilot who flies over the Amazon knows has made me publicly reviled in Brazil, where from day one the authorities unwisely "criminalized" the accident and unscrupulously campaigned to blame the two American pilots, who are currently on criminal trial in absentia in Brazil under a charge of unintentional homicide that can lead to three-year prison sentences on conviction.

Notably, while the Brazilian military and federal police continue their criminal approach (which included charges against four low-ranking military air traffic controllers), there has been no significant effort in Brazil to address the obvious systemic problems of the air-traffic control system, or even to acknowledge them.

IFATCA's statement makes note of this, saying that it is "disappointing, as in the aviation community there was hope that the final accident report would shed a neutral light on the problems and shortcomings of the Brazilian air-traffic control system."

Last month, on the same day CENIPA issued its report focusing on the American pilots and an apparent equipment failure on the Legacy, the internationally respected U.S. National Transportation Safety Board, which had been an observer in the CENIPA investigation and which also conducted its own independent investigation, issued a report with strikingly different conclusions.

The NTSB report found that the primary cause of the accident was air traffic control failures, among them a fatal order from an air traffic controller who instructed the Legacy to fly at 37,000 feet -- on what would be a collision course with the approaching 737 airliner over the Amazon.

The NTSB report found that a transponder device that failed to signal on the Legacy, and thus inactivated the on-board anti-collision system that would have been the last chance to avert a crash already set in motion by air traffic control errors, was a "contributing factor" in the disaster.

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

And here is a link to the disputed Brazilian CENIPA report. (Warning, it's 266 pages).


Monday, January 12, 2009

Mesa Air Seeks to Head Off Nasdaq Delisting

Mesa Air Group confirmed today that it has received a notice from Nasdaq stating that the company's finances don't meet the minimum standards to comply with Nasdaq rules and that its securities are subject to being delisted from the exchange.

Under Nasdaq rules, Mesa has 60 days from the date of the letter, Jan. 5, to submit a plan to regain compliance.

Mesa's shares are currently trading at about 29 cents, which gives it a market capitalization -- the value the stock market currently attributes to the company -- of about $7.5 million.

Mesa said that the Nasdaq notice is "a result of Mesa's failure to timely file its Form 10-K for the fiscal year ended September 30, 2008." Mesa said it "intends to file its Form 10-K later today and announce its earnings tomorrow, and therefore remedy the deficiency."

Mesa has 159 aircraft with over 800 daily departures to 124 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!.

In June 2006 Mesa launched inter-island Hawaiian service as go!. Go! links Honolulu to airports in Hilo, Kahului, Kona and Lihue.


Saturday, January 10, 2009

How Many Seats?

That's the big question as we slog through an off-peak travel season. How many fewer airline seats are there, and how many fewer are there going to be once travel demand picks up (as it should) in the spring?

In an example of how to do it right online, USA Today has an excellent interactive chart showing OAG figures for the number of scheduled seats on airline domestic departures from all over the country, state by state and city by city. Here's the link.

Some key points (seats on departing flights scheduled as of March 2009 compared with March 2008):

Honolulu -- Down 17.7 percent

Las Vegas -- Down 12.2

Orlando -- Down 8.5

Reno -- Down 26.6

LAX -- Down 7.9

Chicago O'Hare -- Down 8.5

Tucson -- Down 26.6

Cincinnati -- Down 27.7

Those are flights already in the schedule. From everything I'm hearing, airlines are considering cutting capacity even further, so these numbers are by no means firm.


Monday, January 05, 2009

The Incredible Shrinking Air-Traffic System

The numbers keep adding up, or down. Air travel is off sharply, and the airlines continue to shrink their capacity.

American Airlines reported its December operating results today, and its competitors will be showing similar trends.

At American, revenue passenger miles (a basic measure of traffic) were down 9.6 percent domestically and, in a trend that really has U.S. airlines worried because they staked so much on foreign capacity expansion, down 5.7 percent internationally. The comparisons are to Dec. 2007.

American's domestic seat capacity also is off sharply, down 11.8 percent domestically in December -- and down 3.2 percent internationally.

American Eagle, meanwhile. flew 13 percent fewer passenger miles in November, with 13.5 percent fewer seats.

United Airlines also reported its December numbers today. Domestic passenger miles were down 9.5 percent (and 12 percent internationally). There were 13.8 percent fewer domestic seats on United in December, and 9.6 percent fewer on its international routes.

Continental Airlines had similar results, with domestic revenue miles down 9.3 percent (and down 4.9 percent internationally) and seat capacity down 12.1 percent domestically and down 5.6 percent internationally.

Watch the other airline December numbers as they come in tomorrow. The future shape (short-term at least) of our air-travel system is coming into clear focus.

Increasingly, it is going to be less convenient to get from here to there, by any measure. The big question is can airlines maintain current fare levels if passenger demand continues to drop as it has been in these last two tumultuous months?


I Stopped Reading...

...this puff piece on some TV anchorwoman when I saw it reporting her grousing about Continental Airlines charging for food.

Naturally, the comments were paraphrased, a habit that will be among the unindicted co-conspirators when quality journalism finally dies in this country.

But just for the record: Along among its peers, Continental Airlines continues to serve meals, without charge. OK, in coach it's generally either the dread Cheese Pizza or the actually-not-bad Chicken Sandwich, but the meal comes with a salad and a snack. And in first class, here the grub is actually pretty good, Continental still rolls out the silverware and cloth napkins.

Now if I could only figure out a way to get from Tucson to Houston this week without making a two-day trip out of it. No can do, and make my 10.30 a.m. meeting Wednesday at the absurdly named George Bush "Intercontinental" Airport, which the wise-guy pilots one-up as "Intergalactic."


Saturday, January 03, 2009

Another Airline 'Apology'

Airlines never really admit they're at fault for anything. Oh, if they get jammed up in bad publicity they'll eventually put out a statement expressing their regret that some deluded passenger may have taken offense for some perceived grievance.

The current classic example: The apology and statement by AirTran Airways about the nine Muslim family members (all but one native U.S. citizens) who were hauled off a flight at Reagan airport and humiliated because a hysterical fellow-passenger reported hearing one of them speculating to another about where the safest place to sit on an airplane was. (Answer: There ain't one, if it's going down.)

AirTran describes this horror as "involving verbal comments made by a passenger and overheard by other passengers." You will note that so far, AirTran has not specified what these "verbal comments" were. (And of course, reporters have not demanded that AirTran answer the question: Given that you made a federal case out of this, who specifically said specifically what, according to your passenger informant, and in direct quotes please?)

Air marshals were informed and the alarm bells rang at Keystone Kops Central. Emergency! Flight scuttled. Presumed perpetrators, including three children, were "detained for interrogation," AirTran says.

Oops, sorry, no security threat. Just hysteria from some passenger who evidently thinks he's a Junior G-Man in the air and needs to be informing the authorities whenever his mind is, uh, troubled.

Here's the money quote in the statement issued by AirTran:

"Later in the day six of the nine detained passengers approached the customer service counter and asked to be rebooked to Orlando. At the time, the airline had not been notified by the authorities that the passengers were cleared to fly and would not rebook them until receiving said clearance. One passeneger in the party became irate and made inappropriate comments, The local law enforcement officials came over and escorted the passengers away from the gate podium." [Italics mine]

Let's consider the thinking behind that official statement. The Muslim passengers had been insulted, humiliated, detained -- and then cleared of any wrongdoing whatsoever. Later, AirTran says in its apology, one of them becomes "irate" while trying to rebook and makes "inappropriate" comments -- and they call the cops on him again!

"Irate" to an officious gate agent may be "angry," or "upset" or even "insistent" to the rest of us. And what in the world is an "inappropriate" comment, as defined by some gate agent who represents an airline that already has got itself involved in an ugly incident involving the public humiliation of this family?

Hey, I got one.

[Update: I'm amazed at how reporters on this story are letting AirTran get away with not specifying exactly what the "inappropriate comments" were. In the reporting, it's apparent that reporters are simply not asking the AirTran flack to specify just what it is the man said that got him and his extended family hauled off. Here's the comment the AirTran flack was allowed to get away with:

"At the end of the day, people got on and made comments they shouldn’t have made on the airplane, and other people heard them. Other people heard them, misconstrued them. It just so happened these people were of Muslim faith and appearance. It escalated, it got out of hand and everyone took precautions."

So what did the guy say that caused all of this commotion? And who defines “inappropriate?” Didn’t George Carlin make a pretty good point when he demanded to know just what the words were that couldn’t be said on the airwaves?]

{Update Jan. 5: I don't like to argue with a comment (that way lies madness), but I posted the one here from a reader claiming that there is no mystery about what was said. The reader, obviously meaning well, then paraphrases the allegedly inappropriate comment.

The point I am trying to make is: What specifically is an "inappropriate" comment, according to AirTran? What exactly did the allegedly offending passenger say, and what did the hysterical fellow passenger or passengers report they heard said?

The main point is, if we're going to include "inappropriate comments" in law enforcement matters (as occurred in this incident), we need to define what exactly that means. And if we haul a family off a plane for "inappropriate" comments, we need to specify exactly what those comments were -- not justify the action with some vague paraphrase. Again, I refer to George Carlin. What exactly are the words you cannot say? Give us a list.


Friday, January 02, 2009

Ya Can't Fix Stupid ... the immortal words of comedian Ron White.

By now, you know all about the Muslim family of 9 -- all but one U.S.-born citizens -- who were hauled off a flight after some a hysteric or two among the fellow passengers overheard a couple of them talking about where the safest place to sit in a plane is.

Here's the Reuters update on that AirTran embarrassment.

Reminds me a little of the infamous Syrian terrorists on a Northwest flight from Detroit to Los Angeles in June 2004. Remember, some hysterics among the passengers decided that the "Middle Eastern-appearing" men were acting suspiciously, as if they were "probing" the flight for an opportunity to do evil. One of the passengers in fact made something of a career blogging and doing TV appearances about her near-death experience.

The suspicious activity done by the suspects included seeming restless, talking to each other in small groups, and not keeping their seats all the time.

Hey, wait a minute. That also describes the way, say, a bunch of musicians who know each other might behave on a long flight.

Which it turns out they were. A backup band headed to a casino gig near San Diego to play for one Nour Mehama, who is billed as "Syria's Wayne Newton." (And who knew Syria would have its very own Wayne Newton, what a world, what a world).


Thursday, January 01, 2009

Boardwalk Boondoggle Express

We're barely 18 hours into the New Year, and already I have a candidate for the dumbest travel-related idea of 2009. (So far.)

Stipulated: We need more and better train service in this country. You bet.

But a luxury train to transport casino gamblers between New York and Atlantic City? Surely not, you say.

Yep. It starts Feb. 6, thanks to a venture involving New Jersey Transit, Amtrak, and a handful of casinos looking for new ways to literally haul the suckers in.

The casinos say they're mostly funding the venture under contract with the railroads that included having New Jersey Transit buy eight double-deck luxury cars for $11 million each. A New Jersey casino development agency also put money into the pot.

New Jersey Transit and Amtrak say the venture won't cost taxpayers any extra money -- hey, the casinos promise to pay! However the money and funding ultimately work out, I do not know anyone who is making any long-term bets on the fortunes of Atlantic City casinos, which have been struggling and which tend to attract a low-roller market even in good times.

This Bloomberg news story of two days ago provides a stark look at just how bad things are for Atlantic City's 30-year-old casino industry.

Meanwhile, the fact is that we are devoting crucial public-transit resources providing fancy train service so all of those slot-machine-cranking sad-sacks who make Atlantic City the very special place it is don't have to ride the bus from New York.

What a country!

An AP story today proclaims the news, without bothering to look at the financing, that starting Feb. 6, the new service, called the Atlantic City Express Service ("Aces," get it?) will begin operating between New York and Atlantic City, with a stop in Newark (whoopee!).

The service is already over a year behind schedule, incidentally. Initially, it is planning to operate on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays.

The gamblers' express will be on double-deck train cars "outfitted with leather seats, a private lounge and food and beverage kiosks," the AP enthuses, adding: "First-class passengers will receive food and beverage service," which I presume means free grub and booze in English.

The round-trip coach fare is $100, and $150 for first class.

You won't read salient financial details in the AP story, which is predictably disinterested in who's actually paying for this wonder, and who might get stuck with the huge bill if things don't work out. And alas, New Jersey has never been particularly blessed with aggressive news reporting, and the state's only ambitious newspaper, the Star-Ledger of Newark, has been slashing staff and threatening to close its doors.

New Jersey Transit and Amtrak will operate the service. The New Jersey Casino Reinvestment Development Authority is also "partially" funding the venture.

Oh, and 75 percent of the seats on the Boardwalk Boondoggle Express are reserved for customers of the participating casinos.

Our air-travel system is shrinking to the point where a one-day business trip is a disappearing concept; our highways are crumbling; our commuter and corridor trains are packed to overflowing while most of the country lacks viable rail service entirely -- and these geniuses are diverting public-transit resources to a bunch of casinos near the ass-end of the Jersey shore.

Wanna bet on whether this ends in tears and red ink?


Just Sayin' ...

---How bad is the tourism business in Hawaii, which has been clobbered by airline cutbacks as well as the miserable economy? According to OAG, the total number of scheduled airline seats to Hawaii is down 16.2 percent during the period from December through February, compared with the same period a year ago. Great hotel bargains in Hawaii, if you can get there.

---Speaking of hotels, President-elect Obama and his family just moved into the swank but very public Hay-Adams Hotel across from the White House so the kids could start school on time in Washington. The Obamas were not allowed to bunk at Blair House, the official residence across from the White House (and within the White House tight security zone.) The Bush people say that Blair House is "booked" and unavailable to the new president. Now, my regard is, let's say, limited for the so-called Washington press corps (they love that word "corps," like the Radio City Rockettes) -- but still, why haven't any of them demanded an answer to the obvious question: "Booked" for what? Who the hell is using Blair House all these days and nights, and what for, and at what cost? How is this any different5 from doling out the Lincoln Bedroom? Looks to me like party-time for the exiting Bushies and their pals takes precedence over security and a degree of convenience for the new president. Party on!

---BIG nationwide fare sale announced today by Southwest Airlines, for travel Jan. 15-April 30. Airlines have been piling up cash with the bonanza in collapsing oil prices, but most of them are still adding water to the proverbial soup and jacking up customers with higher fares. Let's hope some of them follow Southwest's example. And they may, because the front-office folks are looking very nervously at the numbers that show air-travel demand falling off a cliff, with no sign yet that it'll recover after the normal post-holiday slack period. This is not going to be pretty.

---Am I the only one who thinks the American-TV version of "The Office" totally sucks, except for Rainn Wilson's brilliant Dwight Schrute and a couple of the minor supporting characters? And while we're on the subject of entertainment, I admit Tropic Thunder was a movie for cracked 14-year-olds (I liked it enough, but my wife left the room). But Tom Cruise's performance as the fat, foul-mouthed, crypto-psychotic studio chief was hilarious. Don't count that guy out.