Friday, February 27, 2009

Got Any Spare Change, Man?

The concept of coin-operated toilets used to be just a joke we made about the proliferation of fees for every damn thing on an airplane.

Now, maybe not. Ryanair's boss Michael O'Leary got the Brit newspapers all clucking when he proposed just that, charging one British pound coin ($1.43 at current exchange) to use the john on a plane.

My first hunch was that O'Leary was just off on another publicity stunt and would later grandly announce that Ryanair had listened to customers and decided not to have coil-operated toilets.

But then some Ryanair spokeswoman, possibly just a nitwit, told the Times of London that Ryanair had investigated the situation and found "that there is no legal requirement for an aircraft to have a toilet onboard, so if an airline does have a toilet they can charge to use it."

Meanwhile, lookit this character on YouTube who has invented a coin-operated toilet paper dispenser, and touts it as another way to save the damn planet. Or another way to add still another fee to the wonderful world of flying.


Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Joe Sharkey Says: 'Every Time Someone Mentions Hideous Corporate Excess, a Business Jet Loses Its Wings'

A book deadline looms over me like some foul Dracula (hey, publishers actually expect you to deliver a manuscript in a reasonable period of time, after having paid you dough in advance! What is this outrage, paternalistic capitalism???!!!)

Anyway, I don't expect to be posting here for a couple of days. Unless, of course, another outrageous event gets me typing the blog (with weekly pay approaching the “high double digits,” as the great Calvin Trillin famously said of his remuneration at the Nation magazine), when I should be typing something else.

However, I will say this, having watched President Obama’s speech last night, and having written so early and so often about the public backlash over corporate excesses, including the manifest but occasional misuse of corporate jets (some of which backlash is misguided, since a good case can be made, and has been made often by me, for the sensible use of a company plane for bottom-line oriented business purposes).

The president only obliquely mentioned this last night, but he did say the words “corporate jets” in his gentle litany of abuses that cannot be tolerated any more, And I say this: Every time someone mentions corporate excess, a business jet loses its wings.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

You Can't Fix Stupid (Continued) Ron White says.

Another another bailed-out bank had a luxury hotel bash. Lookit, from

By the time these bank cretins are all rounded up, there won't be a luxury hotel industry left in the country because even decent people traveling on their own dime will be afraid to be seen in one. (That's already happening, as I have said.)


Monday, February 23, 2009

Business Jet Use Off Sharply Again in January

The business aircraft industry is facing what can only be called a calamity. For months, I've been reporting on the sudden end of good times for a global industry (largely dominated by U.S. manufacturers and American technology) that only six months ago was projecting another record year and anticipating new orders totaling $300 billion in the next decade.

Here's the latest bad news for the industry.

In January, according to Aviation Research Group/US, the number of flights by business jets and turboprops was off 42.5 percent from January 2008. The fractional market was hardest hit, with a 49.6 percent drop. Across the board, the declines by cabin type were: Large cabin jet (minus 38.7 percent); Mid-size jet (minus 45.7 percent); Small cabin jet (minus 47.3 percent); Turboprop (minus 37.4 percent).

Turboprops, by the way, are being more heavily marketed these days by manufacturers like Hawker Beechcraft because of fuel efficiency and because it looks far better to be seen flying a prop plane than a corporate jet, in terms of public perception, which is a huge factor in the distressed state of the business jet market.


US Airways Restores Free Drinks

Reversing a much hated and widely ridiculed money-saving policy, US Airways will offer free soda, juice, tea, water and coffee in coach cabins again starting March 1.

(Booze still will cost $7.)

US Airways said the "beverage purchase program was introduced last year as part of US Airways’ new a la carte business model – where customers pay for what they choose to use."

“`We are firmly committed to the a la carte model and believe it’s the right one for our business,” said the CEO, Doug Parker. “It is also a work in progress – US Airways was the only large network carrier to charge for drinks and that put us at a disadvantage.'”

By the way, I'm flying US Airways more often these days because I travel between Newark and Tucson frequently, and my usual airline, Continental, has really cut service in Tucson, and even made connections more difficult. My last trip out, I flew US Air nonstop to Phoenix and rented a car for the easy 100 mile drive on I-10 down the desert to Tucson.

US Air, like most airlines (Continental excepted) doesn't provide free meals. But I did buy the Reuben sandwich they offered ($7, I think) and it was excellent. Deli quality. I also paid a small extra fee for priority boarding in an aisle seat toward the front on the A320, which is a more comfortable plane than those 737s Continental uses. If US Air can offer me priority boarding, decent food and my choice of coach seat for a few extra bucks, I'm beginning to lose faith in the value of my faithfully maintained elite status on Continental, which basically gets me priority boarding. On my last few attempts to book a trip on Continental, the only seats they had were middle seat. And I do not do middle seat. One of the skills a frequent business traveler should learn quickly is how to avoid the middle seat.

So that drive up the desert Interstate with the radio on doesn't sound too onerous these days.

Oh, and note this from today's blog essay by Mike Boyd, the consultant:

"If the airline industry wants to get through the next four years without being legislated into the second-coming of Aeroflot, it will need to re-think how it is perceived by the public at large. Right now, due to inept and sometimes biased media coverage, aided by what are in some cases poorly-conceived airline policies, Darth Vader would beat airlines in a popularity contest."


Travel to Detention Center: Who's Paying?

The stories of that rotten scandal involving those judges in Pennsylvania who were taking millions in bribes to sentence juveniles to trips to crooked juvenile detection centers is missing a key piece of information, and reporters (typically) aren't asking the right question:

Who's paying? The criminal justice system doesn't have the kind of dough to be bribing some s---heel judges with that kind of money. My very strong guess is this is an insurance scam -- that the money is coming from mental health insurance of some sort, and the "sentences" are rooted in one or another of the ridiculously vague diagnoses involving "oppositional defiance" or some such contained in the code-book for robbing the mental health system, the DSM. I wrote a book about 15 years ago on just this kind of scandal -- crooked cops, school authorities, clergy and counselors literally kidnapping adolescents and using crooked psychiatrists to cook up various diagnoses to put the kids away till the insurance money ran out. You could look it up, or buy it on Amazon for like 13 cents. (It was badly published and went out of print years ago.) Title is "Bedlam"


Thursday, February 19, 2009

More Cuts at Delta, Part of 'Massive Downsizing' by Airlines

Get ready for more news like this:

Delta Air Lines, currently assimilating the operations of Northwest Airlines, which it acquired last year, said it's giving buyouts to 2,100 workers who have applied, and may eliminate even more jobs. Last year, Delta cut 4,000 jobs. (It currently has 70,000 employees, including the Northwest work force).

As part of what it called a "massive downsizing" underway throughout the domestic airline industry, Delta indicated that it might also make further reductions in seat capacity. Last year, Delta reduced its capacity by 11 percent (with most of the cuts hitting domestic routes) and said in December that it planned a further 6-8 percent reduction this year. Toay's announcement indicates that the cuts might go even deeper.

Too many reporters chronically parrot the incremental palaver they get dropped into their tin cups from from their main sources, airline front offices. Here's my prediction: By the end of this year, our domestic air-travel system will be 20 to 25 percent smaller that it was two years ago. That means fewer options, more connections to get there, fewer flights, higher fares, planes more packed full than ever, lousier customer service -- and a big public outcry about the deterioration of our national air transportation system and the utter lack of preparation our government has demonstrated so far.


Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Poor Piloting, Not Ice, Emerging as Probable Cause in Buffalo Crash

The Wall Street Journal today says that investigators are looking at pilot error, not ice buildup, as the cause of last week's crash near Buffalo of a Continental Airlines commuter plane operated by Pinnacle Airlines' Colgan Air subsidiary.

On approach to the airport, the plane was evidently flying too slow and about to stall (which means, fall out of the sky because it has no lift). "The pilot pulled back sharply on the plane's controls and added power, instead of following the proper procedure of pushing forward to lower the plane's nose to regain speed," the Journal said, quoting NTSB investigators. This ensured that the plane would in fact stall.

The NTSB is still investigating, and has not yet made an official determination of the cause or causes of the crash, which killed 50 people.

The pilot, Marvin Renslow, 47, had been flying the Dash 8 Q400 turboprop planes for only a few months. He made about $50,000 a year flying for Colgan. The co-pilot, Rebecca Lynne Shaw, 24, was also relatively inexperienced in the aircraft. Her salary was less than $30,000 a year.

Whatever the cause or causes of the crash, it is imperative that the media and the authorities look into who is actually flying these planes; how they are trained and paid; how their work schedule is set up (fatigue is a chronic complaint among regional airline flight crews); and the safety and maintenance records of these relatively unknown airlines that the well-known airlines use to fly their customers, who usually have no idea that they're flying on an airplane operated by a subcontractor who may have a questionable record.


Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Who's Flying That Plane?

I am a great believer in the value of "crowd sourcing," which is a concept gaining acceptance among those journalists who understand that the hidebound old way of doing business (running to the same tired sources for an "on the one hand, on the other hand" pile of 1,500-word irrelevance) doesn't work in a digital age.

Often, readers have more cogent things to say than the usual suspects we keep quoting. Often, they have more expertise. And the Internet gives us the ability to present an argument at length,

Anyway, Paul Ferber, a professor of political science at Rochester Institute of Technology, makes excellent points about the way major airlines have "outsourced" much of their flying to small regional and commuter airlines, some of which we board without having any idea of which corporate entity is actually flying the plane. He also has cogent things to say about the way the airlines have blithely cut service to many cities.

Here's Professor Ferber's e-mail:

"The tragic accident in Buffalo this past week should force us to reconsider the role of commuter airlines and prop planes in the commercial aviation picture. Have you noticed how fast Continental has danced away from this one? Sure, they stand by ready to assist Colgan Air in dealing with this accident, but they are also pretty fast to label this as an accident involving Colgan Air.

Perhaps they should be reminded of whose name was painted on the airplane.

As you may have guessed, I am no fan of commuter airlines, and almost never fly them, despite flying to the level of Silver Preferred on US Airways for every year since the late 1990's. But I am constantly amazed at how the majority of the traveling public has allowed itself to be bamboozled by the major airlines into being outsourced to a product that is inferior in everything from overhead baggage compartments to the safety record. Plus, these outsourced flights are flown by airlines that, in most cases, we have never even heard of.

There is some limited truth in the argument that some travelers have no choice, as detailed in the article in Sunday's Times. No choice that is, other than to fly or not fly. For some small places the only choice may be regional airlines or nothing. But not for places the size of Buffalo. The fact of the matter is that the major airlines would have no choice but to offer service with their aircraft and their employees if enough people refused to book these commuter flights. But people put low fares first, and sign up and line up for the puddle-jumpers.

I enjoy your column a great deal, and think it encourages people to give greater thought to various issues regarding commercial aviation. I hope that this accident prompts people to rethink their traveling priorities.

For me, I'll just continue to restrict myself to the one (1) US Airways flight out of Rochester, the 8:25 a.m. to Charlotte. Yes, they've reduced us to the point where we don't even have a single flight to Philadelphia, aside from those covered by the regionals. And when they get rid of the one flight to Charlotte, that will be the end of my days on US Airways.

United, AirTran, and JetBlue are realistic alternatives."


Sunday, February 15, 2009

A Regional Airline Pilot's Work (and Rest?)

The FAA says the duty-time regulations discussed below are safe. Are they? This pilot, whose e-mail to me this afternoon describes the grinding routine, says "Hell no!" I've withheld his name till I hear from him again that it's ok to use it.

His e-mail:

"ALPA has been beating this drum for years and finally making some minor
headway. I hate that 50 people had to die, but maybe this will be the kick in
the pants it takes for the FAA (or Congress) to pass some duty time regulations
that have a basis in medical science (as opposed to being pulled out of some
administrator's ass 50 years ago, which is pretty much how we got where we are

The compensatory rest regulation, for instance, was originally designed so that
pilots would be able to catch up the day after weather/mechanicals/etc. caused
them to dip under the nine-hour required rest period. Unfortunately, airline
pressure on the FAA managed to convince the FAA to issue an interpretation of
this rule that brought about our current scheduling nightmare -- that pilots
could be SCHEDULED for less than required rest as long as compensatory rest was
built into the next day's schedule. That's in total contradiction to the
original intent of the rule and it's dangerous, but every regional airline
(including mine, which I will not name) does it and there's not a damn thing
any of us can do about it because the FAA says it's OK.

I don't know what things were like 50 years ago when all these regulations were
conceived, but the reality of modern airline life is something like this:

You get into the airport at, say, 2200. Your "off-duty" period officially
starts 15 minutes after the flight blocks in, so that's 2215. In reality,
you're lucky if you have all your stuff packed up, the postflight completed,
and are on your way to the hotel van at this point. By the time you actually
get to the hotel, it's 2240, assuming the van was on time. I don't know anyone
who can fall asleep the minute they walk into their hotel room, so let's say
that at best, you're asleep by 2315. You've already lost an hour of your "rest"
right there, and that's a best-case scenario.

Now, your block-out time the next morning is 0800. The FAA says this meets the
requirement of nine hours off-duty ("rest") time, since you go back on duty 45
minutes prior to departure time. Of course, the airline requires you to be AT
THE AIRPLANE at this point, so in order to be there on time, you had to leave
the hotel at 0630 (it's a 20-minute drive and the hotel van only runs on the
hour and half-hour, so an 0700 van is too late). Most people I know take at
least half an hour to wake up and get ready in the mornings, which means you
couldn't set your alarm for any later than 0600, which means you got less than
seven hours of sleep on a "nine-hour" overnight in this best-case scenario.

The really fun schedules are the ones where the airline gives you a
reduced-rest overnight (less than nine hours) on day 3 of a four-day trip and
then schedules you for eight hours of flying in five (or even seven!) legs on
day 4. Those schedules are also perfectly legal according to the FAA, but are
they safe? Hell. No.

The way to fix this is nothing short of a complete overhaul of duty time
regulations. I don't have a problem with the scheduled flight time limitations
(eight hours of scheduled flying is tiring, yes, but it's doable on plenty of
rest), but I definitely have a problem with the rest requirements. The
realities of hotels and transportation to and from the airplane are such that
any scheduled off-duty period of less than 10 hours is entirely too short
(you'd be lucky to get eight hours of good rest even then), and the 15-minute
"debrief time" after a flight is utterly preposterous. (To be fair to the FAA,
I believe that's actually a contractual thing rather than part of the FARs; it
could be longer if our contract specified it to be.) Here's what I would
propose as a starting point for new language in FAR 121.471(b) (which,
incidentally, also greatly simplifies figuring out rest requirements, which are
currently a NIGHTMARE to determine):

* Flight crews cannot be *scheduled* for less than 10 hours of off-duty time
during consecutive days of duty under any circumstances at all.
* Off-duty time, for the purposes of rest requirements, is defined as that time
the flight crew is at the rest location (hotel). It does not include time spent
en route to or from the rest location.

The first provision still allows the somewhat controversial continuous-duty
overnights (also called "stand-ups", "high-speeds", and "illegals" by various
pilot groups), while preventing airlines from scheduling back-to-back two-day
trips with very short rest in domicile between trips. It also eliminates the
concept of "reduced-rest" overnights entirely. Put simply, if a crew arrives
two hours late to their overnight, the crew gets 10 hours off duty, period. If
that means the flight the next morning goes out two hours late and people miss
their connections, tough cookies for the airline and the passengers. I'd rather
they miss a connection than end up a smoking hole in the ground, and I'm sure
they would, too, if you put it to them that way.

If we can't have the second provision, the minimum off-duty time in the first
provision needs to be 11 hours to make up for it."


NTSB and Icing ... On-the-Job Pilot Training? ... Cockpit Fatigue ... NTSB vs. FAA?

[UPDATE, 2 pm MT: According to the AP, the plane that crashed near Buffalo was inexplicably on autopilot at the time it went down. The AP attributes this to Steve Chealander of the NTSB. However, there is no direct quote from Chealander stating that the plane was on autopilot, just a paraphrase (though he does discuss autopilot operations in general in direct quotes). I am always wary of paraphrases.]

[Update 7 pm MT: As I suspected, the AP seems to have it wrong. Paraphrasing is often thin ice. The auto-pilot disengaged before the crash, is what the NTSB actually said.]


Here are some more things to consider after the horrible Buffalo crash:

1. Here's an alert from the National Transportation Safety Board on the dangers of aircraft icing, from December. The NTSB is famously careful about maintaining its boundaries, but I'm saying here that a public rift is developing between the transportation safety board, which is respected by professional pilots, and the Federal Aviation Administration, which is not. In fact, the FAA is seen with good reason as a stooge of the airlines. (Remember, till it got nailed last year, the FAA referred to airlines as its "customers.")

[For more evidence of a widening rift between the NTSB and the FAA, look at this report in today's Buffalo News. It quotes Jim Hall, the former chairman of the NTSB, accusing the FAA of "lax oversight" ... "in its failure to adequately address known safety risks related to icing."]

It's important to note, though, that while icing is a known hazard, icing has not been determined to have caused the Buffalo crash, which is under investigation. And often, airplane crashes result from a chain of events.

2.Another issue that needs to be addressed more clearly: The first officer working for Colgan Air on the doomed Buffalo flight was 24 years old and made less than $30,000 a year. It's widely known that regional airlines captains are expected to "train" co-pilots on the job. We need to know a whole lot more about that.

3. And a big issue bubbling just below the surface, which desperately needs attention, is regional-airline pilot fatigue. Again, it's clear that the NTSB is sending signals that the FAA is not on the job:

Look at this NTSB accident report on a Pinnacle Airlines regional flight that ran off a runway in Michigan with 52 on board during in snowy conditions in 2007. "Poor decision-making likely reflected the effects of fatigue produced by a long, demanding duty day," the report says. "Contributing to the accident," the NTSB adds pointedly, were "the Federal Aviation Administration flight-and-duty-time regulations that permitted the pilots' long, demanding day."

By the way, Pinnacle Airlines owns Colgan Air, which operated the Continental Airlines regional Dash 8 Q400 turboprop aircraft that crashed.

And also by the way, if you're a regional airline pilot and you have something you think needs to be said about fatigue, pop me an e-mail at


Saturday, February 14, 2009

Area Man Doesn't Believe in Miracles

Oddly absent from media coverage of the horrific crash of a Continental Airlines flight near Buffalo is any re-evaluation of this wondrous term "miracle" that was being thrown around so readily last month, when a US Airways A320 free-landed (or "ditched") in the Hudson River, with all 155 aboard saved through skill, bravery and level-headedness of human crew, passengers and New York City first-responders -- not to mention stone cold luck.

In much of the media narrative for the Hudson River incident, human skill and courage took a supporting role. Primarily, in some of the media, this was the "Miracle on the Hudson," as the accidental New York governor, David ("Hey, It's a Miracle I Got This Job") Paterson, kept prattling.

Our media lexicon of piety, while fulsome and abundant, evidently does not have a word for the withholding of a miracle -- which is the only logical way one can define the consequences of the Buffalo crash, assuming one had previously defined the consequences of the Hudson River crash as the bestowing of a miracle.

Piety is not my strong suit.

On Sept. 29, 2006, I was one of seven men who walked away from a horrific mid-air collision at 37,000 feet over the Amazon in Brazil. Such a thing had not happened before, people surviving a high-altitude collision of two aircraft, unless it was in a military aircraft with an ejection seat and parachute.

What a miracle!, many said. But 154 passengers on the other plane, a Brazilian 737 airliner, were killed in that collision, in a hideous fiery plunge into the jungle. Where, I kept thinking, was their miracle? Why did I, so manifestly unworthy, receive this blessing, while they did not?

I bristled at this use of "miracle" because words have meaning and consequence. Valuing the supernatural as a component of a safe air-transportation system makes it easier to devalue skill, training, human courage and the importance of a well-maintained air-safety infrastructure.

When I got back home from Brazil, after I had filed my story, I dutifully made the network media and major print-media rounds, including the morning shows like Today. That afternoon, the local New York media began arriving at my home.

At times during the day, several crews were stacked up out front like trick-or-treaters. I remember being impressed by the famous television-reporter faces that showed up at the door -- thinking, hey, these people still do actual, knock-on-a-door legwork.

The last local news crew showed up in early evening. There was another familiar face, I guy I had seen on New York television for decades. He and his crew set up in the living room, as they all had, and he began the interview with a question that indicated what his angle would be.

"Do you believe in miracles?" he said, beaming in anticipation of my answer.

He looked crestfallen when I told him no, I did not believe in miracles, I believed in luck. "If what happened to me was a miracle, what do we call what happened to the 154 people who died on the other plane?" I said.

He soldiered morosely through the rest of the interview and packed up to rush into the studio for the 11 o'clock news, which I happened to catch on TiVo.

The anchorwoman introduced the segment by saying: "Next is an astonishing story of surviving a horrible airplane crash ... by an area man who doesn't believe in miracles."

And sure enough, under my image on the screen appeared the words, "Doesn't believe in miracles." Local TV news, I thought, is indomitable.

Which brings me back to the horrors of the most recent crash, and what I would argue is a responsibility to demand an explanation of a celestial miracle-worker who received the credit for the happy ending of the Hudson River crash: Why was a miracle withheld for those people on that plane approaching Buffalo in the wind and ice the other night?

Believing in miracles, one might also demand an accounting of the cruel coincidences inherent in this latest human disaster. Explain, for example, why this happened to the kind and gentle and tenacious 9/11 widow, Beverly Eckert, who died in the crash en route to a commemoration of the birthday of her husband, who had died on the 98th floor of one of the fallen towers that day? Explain to me the awful, cruel irony that Mohammad Atta, ringleader of the terrorist monsters of 9/11, boarded American Airlines Flight 11 on Sept. 11, 2001, having arrived in Boston on a connecting flight aboard Colgan Air -- which was the operator of the doomed Buffalo flight.

Shouldn't one logically point out the following to any sentient, all-powerful potential miracle-worker with a hand in human tragedy: Devising or countenancing such gruesome coincidence is an act of psychosis, malevolent and unforgivable in any rational world?

Today I see pious scenes of stricken worshipers praying in churches, drawn there on a Saturday by the Buffalo crash. Praying for what? In any rational world in which the belief in supernatural miracles stubbornly persists, the faithful would be arriving with pitchforks and torches, demanding a full accounting.


Icing and Other Questions

Yes, the Dash 8 Q400 airplane and its siblings in the Bombardier line of Dash 8 turboprops are highly regarded airplanes, despite the landing gear problems that were associated with three non-fatal crashes in Scandinavia in the fall of 2007.

And clearly, wing-ice has emerged as the probable primary cause of the horrific crash that killed 50 near Buffalo Thursday night on a Continental Airlines flight operated by Pinnacle Airlines subsidiary Colgan Air.

So here are the major lines of inquiry as I see it:

1. Big turboprops apparently are more susceptible to icing -- which of course makes operational changes in a wing's shape and attack -- than jets. Let's have a close look at de-icing systems on the Q400, which have already been flagged by the FAA.

2. Maintenance: the next big story in commercial aviation. Who maintains the fleet, and where? Across the board, regional airlines, squeezed hard by the majors for whom they fly, have been slashing costs. Follow the money.

3. Following the money, who flies these airplanes, and under what conditions? You don't have to press very hard to find underpaid regional jet pilots who grab a miserable night's sleep in the terminal before hauling themselves back into the cockpit for the next shift -- which is then flown in technical adherence to the law.

Look at the working conditions of the crews of our regional airline system and tell me how confident you feel getting on a flight on a windy, icy night. (Or how confident they feel).

The pilot of the 74-seat Dash 8 that crashed near Buffalo was Marvin D. Renslow, 47, employed by Colgan since September 2005. The first officer was Rebecca Lynne Shaw, 24, who was hired by Colgan a little over a year ago.

According to data from IAG AirInsight, Colgan Q400 captains make about $58,000 a year. First officers (co-pilots) make ... are you ready? ... $27,000 a year.

Here's some interesting background in an e-mail from Michael Ciasullo, the managing director of IAG:

"Pilots will fly about 6-7 hours on days when they are scheduled to fly. This is called block time and is measured from the t, Pilots' formally scheduled flight time "is measured from the time they leave the gate until they pull into the arrival gate at their destination.

However, there is another thing called duty day and that is essentially from the time the pilot leaves the hotel in the morning until they get to their hotel at
night. This can make the work day up to 14 hours long. Your pay is based off
block time so as soon as you pull into the gate the pay clock stops but you
still have to sit and wait to fly the plane to the next destination. You
don't get paid for sitting in the terminal or waiting.

So, in summary, their 'off time' can be up to double their actual flying
time on the days they fly; pilots don't fly every day. They will do 6-7-8
hours a day for 2-3 days in a row maybe three times a month. All adding up
to about 75 hours or so. Pilot are limited to 1,000 hours per year of flying
by the FAA."

And therein, folks, lies a hell of a story.


Friday, February 13, 2009

The Dash 8 and Safety Questions

[Right: The Dash8 Q400]


This Reuters story on the horrible crash that killed 50 when a Continental Airlines flight approaching Buffalo went down last night has good reporting and background, but one glaring problem: It somewhat cavalierly dismisses manifest recent safety problems on Dash 8 Q400 turboprop airplanes, three of which crash-landed in Scandinavia in the fall of 2007 because of landing gear malfunctions.

But here's a truly remarkable comment to Reuters from one of those aviation professors who always seem to be available for instant speculation:

"There have been a few crashes with the Dash 8 over the years, but I don't recall anything that has been noticeably pointed out in the literature about that particular airplane that would suggest any issues," said David Greatrix, professor of aerospace at Ryerson University in Toronto.

Well, the "literature" aside, I'd say we do have some "issues," as I have said before about this aircraft.

There is no indication that any landing gear problem might have caused last night's disaster on approach to the Buffalo airport.

The Wall Street Journal said today today the plane made a sharp right turn as it approached the runway from about six miles off, and that the erratic turn occurred "about the time that the pilot would have been configuring the aircraft for landing."

On the other hand, the NTSB said that the Dash 8 crew reported ice buildup on the wings at some point before the final approach.

Ice or not, it is time to connect some dots on the history of the Dash 8, including some along the various maintenance trails. That would include de-icing systems.

Another thing that will be looked at more closely: The ATC recording as the Buffalo flight went off screen shows that air-traffic control in Cleveland, about 200 miles away, was handling the flight at the time it went down -- presumably at the point where a handoff to the Buffalo tower was being made for final approach.

Meanwhile, here's an interesting take on turboprops and icing problems, from Clive Irving, a consulting editor on aviation issues at Conde Nast Traveler, link via the Daily Beast.

The Continental Airlines flight was operated by Colgan Air under contract with Continental. Colgan is a subsidiary of Pinnacle Airlines, which used to be known as Express Airlines.


Tuesday, February 10, 2009

British Airways Amazing Business Class Fare Sales

When you consider that roundtrip walk-up business-class fares across the Atlantic were pushing $10,000 earlier last year, it's amazing what is now occurring in the premium airfare world.

British Airways, whose Club World business-class service is among the best in the world, launched a fare sale yesterday with Club World fares starting at $1,998 (plus about $250 in fees) roundtrip to London Heathrow from Kennedy, Newark, Boston, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Washington, Atlanta and Chicago.

Tickets must be bought by midnight Feb. 15 for travel between April 1 and May 24. A 50-day advance purchase, and a Saturday night stay, are required.

Meanwhile, the hard-charging British Airways subsidiary OpenSkies, which flies all business class service, has a fare sale through Feb. 16 -- $2,098 roundtrip (plus up to $300 in fees) between Kennedy and Paris Orly or Amsterdam Schiphol. That's a 30 percent discount from the usual lowest OpenSkies fares.

The travel dates are the same as the British Airways sale: April 1 through May 24.

Hotels, by the way, are discounting like mad, all over the place. has a 24-hour fare sale now underway. Las Vegas, from $22. San Francisco, from $49. Et cetera.

It is a very good time to travel, obviously.


Baloney Watch (Cont'd)

A reader e mailed me suggesting that I follow up on a news article elsewhere today that got all worked up over the fact that people who buy nonrefundable tickets and then don't fly on the appointed date can't in turn donate those unused tickets to charity.

Sorry, but at the risk of sounding like my friend Terry Trippler (stalwart defender of the airlines in all matters), I'm on the airlines' side here. It's nonsense to expect an airline to re-adjust complicated fare and yield-management distribution systems because someone raises a faux-populist issue about bereft charities.

An airline ticket is priced in an intensely competitive environment. A nonrefundable ticket, which is purchased at a discount to a fully refundable ticket, actually has some refundable qualities, in that it retains value for one year from the purchase date -- provided the holder cancels the trip in advance.

Within a year, that ticket can be re-booked -- by paying a "change fee." Now here is where I think the airlines are behaving like roadside bandits in Baja, in that the typical change fee has now been jacked up to $150. (Southwest doesn't play this game, incidentally, and that's one of the reasons people are very loyal to Southwest. But Southwest also doesn't operate with the degree of requisite complexity that, say, Delta does).

But the issue raised wasn't change fees, it was a half-baked notion that the airlines should go to the extraordinary trouble and expense of allowing unused nonrefundable tickets, purchased at a significant discount and under specific fare rules, to become transferable -- to whoever and wherever. For charity.

Baloney. The logistical costs of doing this would certainly drive up the overall prices on all tickets. Far better to use the ticket and write a check to that charity, or donate frequent flier miles, which is simple to do and doesn't involve the complexity and potential fraud.

And if you can't use the ticket in a year, well, them's the rules. It's why it was way cheaper than a refundable ticket.

And double baloney to a statement in the source cited by my e-mail friend that "spoilage" -- that is, unused tickets -- encourages airlines to overbook flights.

That's a shaky assertion riding in cahoots with a largely nonexistent problem, overbooking. The Transportation Department's most recent statistics on overbooking, released today, show that 1.10 of every 10,000 passengers were bumped in the last quarter of 2008.

So overbooking is statistically minuscule. Secondly, if you cancel a flight on a nonrefundable ticket -- and canceling it is the only sensible thing to do once you know you aren't going that day; otherwise you lose full value of the ticket -- the airline knows that you are not showing up, and that seat returns to inventory. You have to be pretty dumb not to cancel if you have a ticket that you know will retain a certain value.

And you can't fix dumb.


Southwest Tentatively Testing WiFi

[UPDATE: I'm wrong in the below post, the snark part (of course). Southwest (see appended note from Southwest at end) did prominently state which flights have the WiFi test service.]

Southwest Airlines says today it's testing inflight WiFi service, in an announcement that makes it sound like it has invented the wheel and that this is something that hasn't been fully put in place already by other airlines.

(Sort of like those reporters who keep "discovering" the inflight WiFi story as if some of us hadn't been writing about its evolution for two years.)

Whatever, Southwest says it is testing "aircraft to satellite technology" on a single plane, with three more to join in by early March. Mysteriously, Southwest does not see a need to identify the Wi-Fi enabled aircraft.

Southwest also says it is forming a partnership with Yahoo! to "offer an in-flight homepage with destination-relevant content."

Translation: Advertising.

Says Southwest:

"When Southwest customers board the WiFi enabled aircraft, they will be
greeted with WIFi placards and onboard instruction sheets. Those interested
in using the service during the test period will have the opportunity to log
on to the service free of charge via their own personal WiFi-enabled device [sic]
(laptops, iPhones, WiFi-enabled smart phones, etc.). Cellular technology
will not work with the WiFi service. The service is being offered on a trial
basis, and has not yet received final FCC approval."

I do expect Southwest will let us know as soon as they work out the kinks and get this sucker rolling beyond Mystery Aircraft No. 1.

Here's the note from Southwest:

# Paula Berg - Southwest Airlines Says:
February 10th, 2009 at 12:04 pm e

Joe - Indeed we think this is exciting news, as do many of our loyal Customers.

The wi-fi enabled aircraft (N901WN) left Dallas as Flight 1 this morning, from there is will travel the following route:

Flight 20 HOU – DAL – LIT
Flight 860 LIT – LAS – LAX
Flight 159 LAS – BUR – OAK

Flight 1147 OAK – ONT – PHX (departing OAK at 6:45 a.m. PT)
Flight 1791 PHX – SAN – OAK
Flight 291 OAK – SNA – PHX
Flight 209 PHX – OAK
Flight 1442 OAK – PHX

We did identify the aircraft number on our blog in several spots. I’m sorry that you missed it.

Also, just to clairfy for your readers, Southwest Airlines is the first US carrier to test satellite-delivered broadband Internet access on multiple aircraft.

Paula Berg
Southwest Airlines
# joesharkey Says:
February 10th, 2009 at 6:10 pm e

By the way, I know Southwest is the first to test satellite internet delivery. Satellite delivery is, by the way, very promising for flights over oceans.


Monday, February 09, 2009

Flying To Paris? Not So Fast...

...The French have surrendered. (Again). It says here that the Paris airports are shutting down tonight because a snowstorm is predicted.

This a week after London went into hysteria and came to a standstill over 5 inches of rapidly melting snow.

Out here in the Sonoran desert where I'm holed up, a long run of 80-degree winter days has ended, with snow already on the mountains and even some snow predicted for the desert valley.

Lucky me, I'm not going to Paris or anywhere else.


Friday, February 06, 2009

British Airways Premium Traffic Down Sharply

British Airways, which offers some of the world's best long-haul premium service in its first class and Club World business-class cabins, said today that its premium traffic declined by 13.7 percent in January. That's as measured by passenger revenue miles flown, compared with January 2008.

This sharp decline in premium passenger miles flown comes even as British Airways, like most competitors on the industry's highly lucrative long-haul premium routes, has been discounting and offering promotions that include free nights at London hotels with the fare.

B.A. is a bellwether for the industry. The decline in premium traffic, much of it dependent on the now-staggered financial services business, is a still-underreported crisis for the major airlines. Few of them have yet 'fessed up to the real crisis in premium traffic -- on which several U.S. airlines have bet a good chunk of the farm.

Obviously, this is a very good time to book international premium-class fares if you are so inclined.

From the B.A. statement today:

"British Airways added more discounted fares to its World Offers sale for travel between January and September 2009 with reductions on a range of longhaul destinations including New York, Cape Town and Grand Cayman and shorthaul destinations including Paris, Venice, Milan, Vienna and Prague..."


Thursday, February 05, 2009

International Traffic Off Sharply: A New, Bad Trend for Major Airlines

Most major U.S. airlines made big bets on the resiliency of international travel last year, and the bets are going sour.

The initial reports on air traffic in January give a rough outline of a problem that will soon be obvious, because international traffic revenues are buoyed by premium fares in business class and first class.

By all anecdotal indications so far (although premium traffic is not broken out in the routine monthly operational reports), premium traffic on international routes is in a tailspin. Those $9,800 round trip business class fares over the Atlantic (OK, big companies supplying a lot of business could get them for $5,000) are history -- the $9,500 AND the $5,000.

Mike Boyd, the airline forecaster, refers to the international premium-fare collapse as a "neutron bomb" for domestic airlines that depend mightily on them.

Anyway, here are some of the January results (without any break-out of premium traffic, as I said):

--Delta, which has the most diverse routes over the Atlantic, and thus is at least somewhat insulated from the most severe downturn, in New York-London premium traffic: Delta's international traffic was up 6.6 percent in January (compared with January 2008) -- but on an increase in capacity of 11.3 percent.
(It was far worse domestically. Delta mainline domestic traffic was off 6.7 percent on an 8.5 percent capacity decrease. Regional routes were worse, with regional traffic off 14.4 percent on a 13.6 percent decrease in capacity.

--Northwest (which Delta, which acquired Northwest last year, still reports out separately): International traffic down 5.7 percent on a capacity decrease of 2.4 percent. Domestically, Northwest traffic was down 10 percent on a 9 percent decrease in capacity.

--American Airlines: Off 8 percent internationally with 2.8 percent fewer seats; off 13.9 percent domestically with 11.6 percent fewer seats.

Keep your eye on those international numbers as this slump deepens and travel demand continues to decline. The major airlines are very, very worried about that so-far not widely assessed bad trend.


As Business Jet Orders Slump, Bombardier Announces Layoffs

Bombardier's aerospace division is cutting more than 1,300 jobs as faces a 10 percent drop in business jet orders.

This occurs during an abrupt decline in new orders for business jets, and a corresponding rise in the number of customers backing out of existing orders. No one saw this coming late last year, when the business jet industry was still posting record sales and profits.

More later today on why this is occurring, and on the way the business jet industry missed an opportunity to make a reasonable case for its products, rather than blaming the press for the troubles it's having in an bad economic environment coupled with a fierce public backlash against corporate high-riding arrogance -- best exemplified by the three Detroit CEOs who famously rode their corporate jets to Washington last November nto beg for taxpayer bailouts.

Bombardier, based in Montreal, makes both commercial regional jets and a line of business jets. The workforce cuts will take place at the company's facilities in Montreal, Wichita, Kan., and Belfast over a five-month period, beginning this month.

The company said it expected to deliver about 10 percent fewer business aircraft this fiscal year. In fiscal 2009 (which ended Jan. 31), Bombardier delivered 239 business jets, compared with 232 in the previous year. The company blamed the new forecast drop on a greater-than-usual number of deferrals and cancellations of existing orders.

The industry in general has not yet assessed the additional impact that will come from the evaporation of anticipated new orders this year.


Monday, February 02, 2009

Atrocious Marketing Stunt of the Month (So Far)

Are there no limits to cheap exploitation in this country?

Here's a Reuters story about two popular new video games, both of which exploit the brilliantly heroic emergency landing of US Airways Flight 1549 in the Hudson River last month.

In "Hero on the Hudson" players try to land a nosediving plane safely on the river. If you fail to land the plane correctly, it "sinks with burbling sounds," Reuters says.

In the other game, "Double Bird Strike," the goal is to evade flocks of birds -- a suspected cause of the US Airways jet's crash on Jan. 15.

According to Reuters, both free online games were created by MTV Networks, a division of Viacom.


Snow Snarls Heathrow and Gatwick (Updated)

Headed to or from Heathrow Airport any time soon? A freak snowfall has London tied in knots, with a huge mess at Heathrow, which was closed today as conditions deteriorated. Operations at Gatwick Airport also were severely restricted.

Earlier, Heathrow had issued this statement:

"Due to the current heavy snow fall at Heathrow Airport, flights to and from the airport today will be subject to significant delays and cancellations. Please check with your airline for the latest information before leaving for the airport.

"Services on Heathrow Express are currently suspended and a very limited service is operating on Heathrow Connect trains between Heathrow and Paddington. With bus and rail services affected and difficult road conditions across the country, please take extra care and time if you do intend traveling to the airport."

Here's a London evening newspaper report, which says more snow is on the way and that freezing weather will linger all week.


Starbucks Ditches Its New Gulfstream G550

[Above: The cabin of a G550]

The business aviation industry keeps insisting -- without conceding the egregious recent tone-deaf, bone-headed mistakes by the Big Three auto-makers and by Citigroup -- that the media and politicians are stigmatizing corporate jets. More on that fundamental PR goofup later, but here's another example of a company that has ditched the jet, in this case Starbucks' new Gulfstream G550.

Here's the Aero-News Network report. And yes, companies that can make a legitimate case for using a corporate jet -- and there are many -- are bailing out because of the backlash from the public and from shareholders feeling the pressure.

(By the way, I'll bet that Starbucks itself -- with its far-flung locations in so many areas where commercial air service ranges from crummy to nonexistent -- is an example of a company that can justify the business use of a private jet in terms of productivity.}

Meanwhile there's a glut of recent-model corporate jets on the used-aircraft market, and it's growing. This morning, someone was advertising a 2010 delivery position for a new G550 -- at $44 million. I think there's some room to bargain.


Turns Out It Was a Real Football Game ...

...despite all the phony pre-game hype from Tampa.

James Harrison's 100-yard interception return will certainly live among the great Super Bowl images, as will Springsteen (hey, a halftime show that didn't actually suck, unless you're one of the Springsteen-haters, in which case it definitely sucked), not to mention that amazing fourth quarter -- and all those penalties throughout the game. (The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette today refers to "the stupidest mudslide of crippling penalties by two teams seemingly incapable of getting out of their own way."}

Incidentally, speaking of penalties, how dumb and inherently violent does a football player have to be to try to punch-out another football player wearing a NFL Riddell helmet and facemask?

One other abiding image for me was during pre-game, when five quiet American heroes -- the pilot, co-pilot and flight attendants from Flight 1549 -- got a standing ovation from the crowd. You had to look fast on TV, because the director couldn't wait to crop out everyone but Captain Sullenberger (ditto for many of the papers that ran a picture today, some of which even ran a photo of Sully alone with, for some God-only-knows reason, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell).

But there they are, all five of them.


Sunday, February 01, 2009

Super Bowl Fatigue: Is It Spring Training Yet?

Fed up with phony corporate Super Bowl hype, not to mention those pious coaches and players incessantly invoking a deity to further their careers?

Here's a parrot singing "Take Me Out to the Ballgame." Spring training is near!

I've given up following the Super Bowl hype, but I have to make note of the several stories I read recently about the few major corporate-sponsored parties that were still held in Tampa.

Does anyone not laugh at breathless feature stories about the usual party-celebrities-for-hire like Paris Hilton (this century's Zsa Zsa Gabor, but without the conversational skills) and Diddly-Squat Coombs or whatever his name is?

Also, note the stories saying how some of the big promotional party organizers, hoping to equalize the male-female ratio for the sad sacks who pay to get in, recruited several hundred attractive women attendees from Tampa area talent and modeling agencies.

Hardee-har-har-har, as Ralph Kramden would say. Flash: There is not much of an industry in professional modeling and talent agencies in central Florida. There is, however, a thriving business in strip clubs -- and that's where a lot of the party-recruiting was done.

Nothing at all wrong with that -- just let's not get all grand about how ICM or the Ford Models agency might have supplied all of the good-looking portion of the party-hearty list!