Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Please, Gov. Sanford, You Really, Really Have to Be Quiet and Take a Nap Now

From the "You cannot make this stuff up" news and travel beat, South Carolina Gov. Sanford now says he has had liaisons with other women besides the Argentine chickie-chickie he was "visiting" when he said he was hiking the Appalachian trail. (Which assertion, of course, gave new and enduring meaning to the phrase "hiking the Appalachian trail.")

(And while we're on the subject, can someone please not ruin the phrase "Crossing the Khyber Pass?")

Anyway, in this AP account via the WSJ Online today, Sanford says that he had other, uh, relationships with women other than Mrs. Sanford in which he, uh "crossed lines." But he hastened to add that he "never crossed the ultimate line" with anyone but Maria Belen Chapur, the Argentine woman. Of her, he said, "This was a whole lot more than a simple affair, this was a love story. A forbidden one, a tragic one, but a love story at the end of the day."

Be still my busting gut! And could someone please explain to me what the hell crossing the "ultimate line" means? That? Or that? Or what? No, not that?? Egad!

[Update] -- Wait, it gets weirder. The following bizarre quote comes from a longer version of the AP story than the WSJ one linked to above. The AP had a lengthy interview with the crazy Carolina chatterbox. The governor seems to admit that among his transgressions was dirty dancing. Also he did stupid, although maybe Stupid is someone's name, as in those tee-shirts that say "I'm With Stupid."

Said Sanford:

"What I would say is that I've never had sex with another woman. Have I done stupid? I have. You know you meet someone. You dance with them. You go to a place where you probably shouldn't have gone," Sanford said, declining to discuss details."

This poor man evidently can't help himself as he writes his bodice-rippper novel out loud. Listen, Sanford: Stop that dancing! Stop talking! Instead, type! There's a market for this kind of prose.


Alaska Airlines, JetBlue Top J.D. Power Annual Rankings

Alaska Airlines and JetBlue ranked highest, in the network carrier and low-cost carrier segments respectively, in the annual airline customer-satisfaction survey by J.D. Power and Associates.

Following Alaska in the network rankings were Continental and Delta. Following JetBlue in the low-cost segment rankings were Southwest and WestJet.

On the other hand, the report found that "overall customer satisfaction with airlines in 2009 has declined for a third consecutive year ... The decline is driven by decreased customer satisfaction with in-flight services, flight crew, and costs and fees, compared with 2008."

Uh, wait a minute here. I do think I see a discrepancy. "Decreased customer satisfaction" with "costs?" Wot? Air fares this year have generally been at their lowest levels in memory, as airlines struggle to fill seats and gin up revenue any way they can. Airlines have not been able to cut capacity fast enough to keep pace with the plunge in demand.

Just goes to show you that these "surveys," while generally useful in an anecdotal way, reflect the fact that some of the respondents don't know what they're talking about.

Some airline customers, it seems to me, persist in the absurd belief that they're being shaken down every time they board a plane for that $180 round-trip flight between, say, Boston and Orlando. There's a segment of the market, long conditioned by a variety of airline "consumer" writers, that basically believes they should fly somewhere close to free.

I pound on the airlines fairly regularly, but economics are very plain.

This is an industry in dire financial shape, and some deluded passengers are in for a very rude awakening once the surviving carriers manage to cut capacity even more -- and raise fares to the point where they can make a profit.


Many Survived Mishap on Titanic

The USA Today newspaper has achieved a degree of status today. It appears to be an Onion parody of itself in its coverage of the crash in the Indian Ocean of an Airbus A310 Yemeni airliner that killed more than 150.

USA Today's online headline:

"Jet Crashes; 5-Year-Old Rescued"

Always look on the bright side of life. Ta-da-ta-da.


Sunday, June 28, 2009

Continental Installing DIRECTV on Some Planes

As competitors rush to install AirCell's GoGo WiFi connections on their domestic fleets, Continental Airlines has been very coy about any plans to improve lagging cabin in-flight entertainment and/or connectivity on its domestic aircraft.

However, Continental says it plans to install DIRECTV seatback satellite TV systems on its newer 737s and on its 757-300s. Here's the quiet Continental announcement.

So far, Continental has outfitted 10 of 23 737-900 ERs and expects to have all of those models completed by September. Its 108 737-800s will be done by August 2010, with other 737s and its 17 757-300s to follow (by January 2011).


Saturday, June 27, 2009

NTSB Looking at 2 Other Recent A330 Airspeed-Sensor Safety Incidents

From the NTSB Web site, without comment:

"The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating two recent incidents in which airspeed and altitude indications in the cockpits of Airbus A-330 aircraft may have malfunctioned.

The first incident occurred May 21, 2009, when TAM Airlines flight 8091 (Brazilian registration PT-MVB) flying from Miami, Florida to Sao Paulo, Brazil, experienced a loss of primary speed and altitude information while in cruise flight. Initial reports indicate that the flight crew noted an abrupt drop in indicated outside air temperature, followed by the loss of the Air Data Reference System and disconnections of the autopilot and auto-thrust, along with the loss of speed and altitude information. The flight crew used backup instruments and primary data was restored in about 5 minutes. The flight landed at Sao Paulo with no further incident and there were no injuries and damage.

The Safety Board has become aware of another possibly similar incident that occurred on June 23 on a Northwest Airlines A-330 (registration unknown) flying between Hong Kong and Tokyo. The aircraft landed safely in Tokyo; no injuries or damage was reported. Data recorder information, Aircraft Condition Monitoring System messages, crew statements and weather information are being collected by NTSB investigators."


Friday, June 26, 2009

Enough About 'Clear' Already: The TSA Wanted No Parts of It

But all right, one more time at this, because so many media stories are simply wrong.

Such as those addressing concerns about personal data -- that is, the iris scans, fingerprints and whatever other background information Clear gathered from its customers. That data -- which strikes me as useless except for the basic list of names and contacts for people who were willing to pay $199 for a Clear card and thus might be willing to pay for something else -- was gathered by Clear and one of its partners in technology development, Lockheed Martin.

I just read a story today saying that this "financial and personal information collected as part of the background check process" ... "is held by Lockheed Martin Inc. and can be reclaimed by the Transportation Security Administration, according to Steve Brill, CLEAR’s founder."

I don't know if that's what Brill actually said as regards the TSA because it's that old devil paraphrase.

But the TSA cannot "reclaim" this "information" (presumably the detailed background checks and the biometrics) that it never had. As Kip Hawley explained to me on several occasions, the TSA, as part of a process forced on it by Congress, only received from Clear enough basic personal information to check a prospective member's name against the terrorist watch list. That's no different than the "background" check any one of us gets when flying -- our names are matched against the watch lists.

The TSA charged Clear a small fee for this service, which Clear added to its price. Last year, however, the TSA decided this was an unnecessary exercise that only propped up the false assumption that Clear and its two tiny competitors were offering a government-sanctioned "security" program. So Kip Hawley, then TSA director, simply bailed out on it and completely removed the TSA from an association with Clear and its registsred traveler competitors.

Whatever extensive "background" checks might have been performed were done by private enterprise, not by the government, and were performed through long-ago debunked notions of what a "registered traveler" (nee "trusted traveler") program might be.

The registered traveler program crashed for a lot of reasons, but the basic reason Clear went out of business was that the TSA managed to get checkpoint waits under reasonable control in most airports, and spending $199 a year was no longer seen as much of a value, except by those who used the few airports (Orlando, San Jose, San Francisco, and some others) were line-waits were unpredictable.

The registered-traveler program's underlying philosophy, which Brill himself was a leading proponent of, was that security in the post 9/11 era needed to be a system of risk assessment and risk management -- and not just a vast $45 billion bureaucracy that spends $6 billion a year poking through people's carry on bags looking for screw drivers and patting itself on the back publicly when it accidentally discovers a bag of cocaine (as if it were a police roadblock).

That assessment is still widely shared by security experts.

Clear's biometric cards were extremely reliable forms of ID, also. "Government-issued photo ID cards" are not. Anyone with a good printer and a motive can counterfeit a New Jersey driver's license.

Brill was right about that and other things. But it doesn't change the fact that he's out of business (and on to something else.)

Meanwhile, there is another issue of bad reporting that needs to be addressed here. Clear, at great expense, built lanes in 18 airports (in many cases multiple lanes in multiple terminals of an airport).

It was been posited that this is a boon for competitors. Clear's tiny competitors, FLO and Vigilant, had facilities in a total of three airports. Congress insisted on "interoperability" when it constructed the four-headed, three-legged camel called the registered traveler program. This means that each private operator needed to make sure that its biometric cards were accepted by and compatible with its competitors. So the relative handful of FLO and Vigilant members all had access to the Clear lanes. Clear built all the facilities (and airports and the Clear parent company are now dismantling them.)

In the last year, as the TSA bailed out of the tiny role it once had in the program, Clear began marketing itself basically as a concierge service. FLO and Vigilant did the same.

Security, it turned out, never had anything to do with it.


Thursday, June 25, 2009

Fare Fandango

Thought it might be nice to work an Argentinian allusion into the headline, in honor of, you know.

However, the dance going on in the airline industry is actually a form of musical chairs.

The big plan in the airline industry is to get capacity down below demand and then raise prices, except they have to be careful not to be seen actually colluding on this because 1. Someone could summon the anti-trust cops, assuming there still are any and 2. There's always an airline that decides not to play along and instead lunge for market share while the others try to collectively boost prices.

That said, domestic airlines are now busily putting into effect the second across the board base fare hike in as many weeks, according to the ever-vigilant Rick Seaney at Farecompare.com

The fare fandango started yesterday when American raised prices between $10 and $20 roundtrip on "a significant number of U.S. routes," Seaney said. United "began to significantly match" American -- while at the same time sharply discounted fare sale -- yes, sale -- of $250 to $275 roundtrip to Honolulu from Dallas, Houston, Newark, Atlanta, Minneapolis and Salt Lake City. Hawaii air-travel capacity has been sharply reduced across the board in the last year or so, it should be noted. You want an amazing hotel deal? Hawaii has 'em. Now United is offering amazing fares.

Anyway, back to the fare hikes, today Delta (including Northwest) "significantly matched" yesterday's fare increases at American and United, and Continental is also adding similar fare increases on some routes, and Seaney expects Continental to catch up to the others today.

"US Airways is the only remaining legacy airline that has yet to significantly match," Seaney said. "I would expect them to do so by the end of the day."

All year, airlines have been trying to juice up plummeting demand with spot fare-sales, but those days are waning. "The pace of airfare sales has dried up recently," Seaney said.

Except that crafty AirTran has gone and launched a whole bunch of fare sales offering "new market lows on hundreds of city pairs," said Seaney.


Wednesday, June 24, 2009

How Much Dough Did Clear Burn Through?

Clear was, as I said yesterday, a very expensive failure. With two or three people staffing its access lanes at 18 airports, and with one or two others staffing the enrollment kiosks in terminals, the weekly nut had to have been quite impressive.

And that doesn't count the money spent on the GE-produced electronic shoe-scanner kiosks that the TSA adamantly refused to approve for security use, or the equipment to produce biometric ID cards at each Clear location. Or the development of other technology, which was well underway.

Clear was the brand name of the version of the ill-fated "registered traveler" program that Steven Brill's Verified Identity Pass Inc. tried mightily, and futilely, to install as a component of airport security. The TSA, as I said yesterday, wanted no part of private-enterprise incursion on its security turf, and successfully bled Clear to death.

Kip Hawley, the TSA director for over three years (till January) always insisted to me that he supported the registered-traveler concept, as he was required to do by Congress. But he had what turned out to be intractable objections to various approaches, like Clear's shoe-scan machine and biometric ID cards, that inserted private enterprise into a federal security operation. Hawley always said that the TSA objections to the shoe machine, for example, could be overcome with improvements in the technology -- but it simply never happened.

Unaccountably, the wild-spending Homeland Security Department has not yet named a replacement for Hawley, who left with the change in administration in January. Clear suggested yesterday that not having someone in authority to deal with at the TSA was part of the reason it failed.

Meanwhile, what about the money?

The Wall Street Journal's venture capital blog today has some numbers about the venture capital side of the dough raised for Clear: A total of about $83 million over the six years since it was founded. As we have long known, major investors were Baker Capital, GE Security (which developed and produced the shoe-scanner and other technology), Lockheed Martin and (heh-heh) Lehman Brothers.

Steve Brill told me about 18 months ago that he had a lot of his own money invested in the company, but he wouldn't say how much.

Clear claimed about 250,000 members, and charged $199 a year for the card. However, there were many corporate discounts and hotel-loyalty program promotions that significantly reduced that price for an unknown number of card-holders

Some postmortems on Clear today get things wrong, as the media often has done over the years when trying to get a grip on the botched registered-traveler program. As Bill Moyers once said, "Reporters are paid to explain things they don't understand."

From the Journal blog:

"Verified Identity collected background checks and biometric information from frequent airline travelers and used the information to get its customers through a faster security line at the airport, through the federal government’s Registered Traveler program. The service was active at about 20 airports and the company boasted more than 230,000 customers, which it was charging between $100 and $199 each."

Not to quibble, but the information Clear collected was not used "to get its customers through a faster security line at the airport" through a "government" program. The information Clear collected turned out to be irrelevant in any security sense, and in the last year Clear even stopped referring to itself as a security program.

I'm amazed today by how many in the media, even people who have been covering the registered traveler program since it was first proposed, fail to understand that Clear had no "security" role whatsoever. The only operational association the TSA ever had with Clear was when it imposed a fee to routinely check applicants against the terrorist watch lists. The TSA dropped that association entirely last year, and Hawley told me the reason was that fliers are routinely checked by airlines against the lists anyway.

At that point, Clear (and a couple of tiny competitors) had no valid claim to being a security program.

What Clear membership got you was access to an special Clear lane, where you presented your Clear biometric ID card for scanning (which, it turned out, merely proved that your Clear membership was up to date and that you were the person on the card).

Once you made your pass through the Clear lane, you proceeded to the real TSA security checkpoint line, where like everybody else you had to produce a government-issued photo ID (Clear's biometric card was not accepted as proof of identity by the TSA) -- and then go through the TSA checkpoint just like everyone else.

So Clear access was the same access that airlines give their elite status customers at many airports, though Clear did employ "concierges" whose job was to provide assistance, if needed, to get your belongings up to the TSA checkpoint.

Clear did have its value to many members who frequently use airports where security lines can be unpredictable (Orlando, San Jose, etc.), but it was strictly value as a line-cut pass. That wasn't supposed to be how it worked under the "registered traveler" program, which was originally conceived by Congress (badly) to siphon out a portion of the traveling public who could be "trusted," and therefore get a special wave through TSA security. Never happened.

Meanwhile, in most airports, the TSA under Hawley improved checkpoint procedures so much that the issue of long lines pretty much went away.

Clear did collect financial and other background information during the enrollment process, as part of the original concept of the "registered traveler" idea that was so badly botched by Congress (and resisted by the TSA) -- but ultimately that information was irrelevant in any security sense.

In its demise, Clear is left with a lot of equipment at various airports; airports are left without the rent that Clear paid; and a large number of stiffed members who wonder what will be done with that personal information, including fingerprints and iris scans. Clear says it will be destroyed.

Clear also is left with a valuable asset, however: The names and addresses (other background personal information aside) of a couple of hundred thousand frequent fliers, most of them business travelers.

In a time when airlines and others are finding it difficult to identify who among their customers are business travelers (since business travelers are behaving more and more like leisure travelers), Clear has a List; said List has market value to someone.

Clear also has a proprietary biometric ID card system, and as Brill always pointed out, a biometric card -- implanted with iris scans and fingerprints -- is a foolproof identity system. In a scary age when various overstepping authorities and commercial interests will be demanding to see your ID (even at football stadiums, for example), a biometric ID card system has market value, though there are a lot of competitors.


Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Update From Clear: Tough Luck On Refunds

Here's an update from the Web site of Verified Identity Pass, owner of Clear, addressing some questions about its shut-down. Lots of people are concerned about the personal and financial information that the company collected in processing members for their cards, incidentally.

From the company:

"What will happen to my personal information?

Applicant and Member data is currently secured in accordance with the Transportation Security Administration’s Security, Privacy and Compliance Standards. Verified Identity Pass, Inc. will continue to secure such information and will take appropriate steps to delete the information.

Will I receive a refund for membership in Clear?

At the present time, because of its financial condition, Verified Identity Pass, Inc. cannot issue refunds.

Clear's Privacy Policy

Clear's Online Privacy Policy

Yeah, But Can I Read It in the Pool?

[Above: The Shark-O-Lounger (r)]

Just a passing thought in 102-degree weather in Tucson.

I've been holed up in the Sonoran desert in Arizona finishing a book. The highlight of the morning for me is to get the Times, get an iced tea, and settle into the Shark-O-Lounger (r) pool-float to read the paper for an hour before getting back to work.

Yeah, I know print is doomed, yada-yada-yada.

But can anyone tell me how I'm going to read my paper online, in the pool? Or in bright sunlight?


End of the Lane for Clear: The TSA Won

From the Web site today of Verified Identity Pass, the company behind the Clear airport lanes:

"Clear Lanes Are No Longer Available.

At 11:00 p.m. PST on June 22, 2009, Clear will cease operations. Clear’s parent company, Verified Identity Pass, Inc. has been unable to negotiate an agreement with its senior creditor to continue operations."


I have followed Clear with interest since it started up at Orlando International Airport in 2005 and gradually began expanding to other airports in the years afterward. By the time it ceased operations, it had those blue-hued lanes in about 20 airports.

Here's my take on why Clear finally failed, after hanging on for long past the time when I thought it could stay in business. It can be summed up in three letters: T-S-A.

1. Clear's main premise -- that its "cleared" members could breeze through special security lanes without having to remove shoes and coats -- collapsed when the TSA, under its former director Kip Hawley, flatly refused to approve key Clear technology, primarily a GE-designed "shoe-scanner" that would have allowed shoes to remain on feet. Hawley told me repeatedly that the machine failed TSA tests. But it was also abundantly clear that Hawley wanted no part of private-enterprise technology, privately operated, as a component of airport security -- despite pressure from Congress that the badly conceived "registered traveler" or "trusted traveler" program was to be a joint federal-private enterprise venture in security. Furthermore, in Congressional hearings on the botched "trusted traveler" program that Clear was an emblem of, Steven Brill, the media entrepreneur who founded the Clear company, simply pissed off Hawley with several unnecessarily harsh statements about the TSA. That was a serious mistake. Hawley never trusted Brill.

2. The TSA torpedoed another Clear premise, that its members -- who were issued biometric ID cards encoded with their fingerprints and an iris scan -- would get a special wave-through at TSA checkpoints. Stubbornly, and in my opinion strangely, the TSA insisted that Clear members produce the same standard ID (drivers license, etc.) as everyone else, biometric card be damned. I questioned the TSA on that because a biometric ID card, scanned through a reader, is almost infallible proof of identity, but Hawley was dug in against it, though he never admitted so. The final hurdle for the Clear ID cards was last year, when the TSA said it might consider accepting them as ID if Clear put the holder's photo on them, which meant recalling existing cards (and hauling in members for new photos).

3. TSA vastly improved checkpoint efficiency under Hawley's three-plus-year tenure, which ended in January. In most airports, long waits at security were no longer an issue. (In areas where airport waits could sometimes be unexpectedly long, like Orlando when hordes of tourists suddenly descended, Clear had strong membership). The Clear card's value was unclear -- except as a kind of "head of the line" pass that put you closer to the actual checkpoint, once you cleared Clear's superfluous separate privately run checkpoint.

4. Clear claimed it had more than 250,000 members, but renewal rates were falling as companies cut back and amid questions about the card's real value. It was charging $199 a year for a card, though there were corporate discounts. Nevertheless, Clear was a very expensive proposition to operate. Obviously, it finally ran out of dough, having been bled to death by a federal agency that -- from the very beginning -- wanted no part of Clear and had no trust in the security of a badly conceived "trusted traveler" program that Congress tried to ram down its throat.

5. Just in case the message was not clear to Clear, the TSA pointedly backed out of its very slight relationship with the program last year. From the beginning, Clear members had to be supposedly "cleared" with a "security check" by the TSA before their membership could be approved and their cars issued. That "security check" was nothing more than a simple TSA check of a prospective member's name against the terrorist watch lists. Last year, Hawley removed the TSA from that step, saying that the agency would no longer provide Clear with any kind of federal sanction whatsoever as a security program.

Incidentally, I am astonished at the amount of money that Verified Identity Pass must have burned through on Clear, including on the GE technology that never got approved, and on payroll. In airport after airport, I would marvel at the mostly unused Clear booths, staffed all day by three or four Clear employees at the checkpoints, and one or two other employees at other Clear enrollment booths in the terminals.

The TSA won.


Monday, June 22, 2009

Airline Revenue Plunge Worsened in May

Passenger revenue for U.S. airlines fell a stunning 26 percent in May, compared with May 2008, the Air Transport Association said today.

That's the seventh consecutive months of year-on-year revenue declines.

The number of domestic and international passengers on U.S. airlines fell 9.5 percent, while the average price to fly one mile fell 17.6 percent -- reflecting the failure (from the airlines' perspective) of fare sales the airlines have been firing off all year.

The airlines (and the ATA, their trade group) have been blaming the swine flu scare for revenue falling off the cliff in May, but I'm not sure I buy that, not fully.

We'll see how June works out. As I keep saying, the airlines are going to get smaller, and our options in air travel are going to shrink. Plus prices will rise, once the airlines start reducing more supply. Not a happy time ahead, not at all.


B.A. Pressing Ahead With All-Business-Class Service Between London City Airport and JFK

Despite the ragged environment for premium-class transatlantic service, especially in the financial-services sector, British Airways is going ahead with plans to start twice-daily all-business-class service between London City Airport and JFK on Sept. 29. Tickets go on sale tomorrow.

[UPDATE: In response to a query, British Airways says the walk-up unrestricted fare is $12,290 "plus tax and charges." A B.A. spokeswoman adds, "There are also advance-purchase fares with semi-flexibility ranging from $5,000 to $10,446, all plus tax and charge." I myself would expect that B.A. will introduce some other promotional fares to prime that pump before Fall.]

British Airways will use specially configured Airbus A318s on the route, because an A318 is the largest aircraft that can be used on the runway at London City Airport, which is close to London's financial centers in the City and in the nearby Docklands.

The A318s will have 32 seats that convert to lie-flat beds. The planes will offer the OnAir communications service that enables text and voice messaging via cellphones, laptops and other devices.

Because of weight restrictions at London City, the A318s on westbound flights will not be non-stops. They will need to take off with a light load of fuel and stop in Shannon, Ireland, to be fully fueled for the trip across the Atlantic. Passengers will be able to clear U.S. Customs and immigration during the time spent at Shannon, British Airways said.

The JFK-London City trip will be flown nonstop, with no need for refueling.


Sunday, June 21, 2009

Flight Training: Skill, Drill, and a Captain's Judgment

[Photo: Capt. G. Bruce Hedlund]

G. Bruce Hedlund, a veteran captain for a major airline, writes a personal blog called "It's Not Just You ..." His blog has the same title as a book Bruce wrote, and that book has one of the best opening lines since "It was the best of times ..."

Bruce's book-opener: "It occurs to me that, more and more, I come across instances in my day-to-day life that just do not make any fucking sense."

Like almost every pilot I know, Bruce is a character, an iconoclast and a bear when it comes to flight safety -- yours and (as pilots will always point out), theirs too. And recently, Bruce has been on a personal campaign about what would seem to outsiders to be a fairly small issue of training:

On certain aircraft (I won't name the model because that would make it easier to identify the airline, and pilots who go public on their own are not allowed by employment agreement to name the airlines they work for), the cockpit instrumentation layout has been redesigned and modernized. This redesign is being slowly rolled out through that fleet.

No big deal, really. A commercial airline pilot is always rigorously trained and re-trained, and in this case, pilots who fly this particular model of big airliner -- Bruce among them -- were given a short training session, essentially a video presentation and a subsequent quiz, to familiarize them with this new and improved cockpit instrument panel design that they eventually would be flying

Bruce watched the video and passed the quiz, which was duly noted in his training record, he said, as qualifying him on the new bells and whistles. However, he was glad to be informed that before actually flying a plane with the modernized cockpit configurations, he would have an opportunity to get real-time familiarization with the layout the next time he had to report for hands-on re-training in a flight simulator (twice a year, pilots get re-trained and tested under rigorous conditions in high-tech flight simulators.)

Flying a highly sophisticated simulator is just like flying a plane (except nobody can get hurt if somebody screws up). Typically, in re-training on a simulator, instructors re-evaluate a pilot's basic skills but also throw every contingency possible at the pilot -- instant emergencies of every kind, from stalls to bird strikes. Even though he was now familiar with the display and officially listed as being qualified to go, Bruce was determined not to fly a real plane with the new instrument panel and gauges until he had made a good dry-run in the simulator and felt comfortable with the changes.

Call it an excess of pilot caution, if you will. On the one hand, pilots are men and women with psychological profiles that begin with the words, "We can make it work." But pilots also have a bedrock contract with themselves and with others in their airplanes and in the skies. If the captain of an airliner is not comfortable with conditions he or she encounters on entering the cockpit and preparing the aircraft for flight, that captain has the absolute right to decline to fly said aircraft.

This looks good on paper, of course. In reality, there is pressure not to rock the boat (or the plane). You've been officially certified to take 'er up? Well then, take 'er up! It's all officially certified! Stop yer complaining! (Pilots famously complain about everything).

Only a relatively small number of his airlines' aircraft of that model have the new configurations in the cockpit, as the roll-out continues. But as I said, Bruce walked into one -- and walked out again.

His objections sound fairly basic to me. He told me, "The new display changes the way basic flight information (airspeed, altimeter, etc.) is presented and, hence, how you locate the information and then interpret it. Wouldn't you like to think that I could immediately tell you my altitude and airspeed? And wouldn't you like to think that I could set my appropriate airspeed and altitude 'bugs' correctly?" (By that, he meant, instantly and virtually by instinct, not through fumbling around for a few extra seconds with unfamiliar gauges).

To his surprise, he came to work one day recently for a cross-country flight and stepped into the cockpit of an airliner with the new instrument-panel set-up. That was not supposed to happen before he'd had a go at the simulator.

So he made the proper notification to his superiors and walked off the plane. Another pilot was found to sit in the left seat.

Anyway, there is something of a sub-rosa brouhaha going on over this, and to me it's illustrative of the pressures both airlines and flight crews face in this environment where costs for everything are being cut and keeping the schedule moving are crucial.

"No brouhaha for me," Bruce says flatly. "I ain't going to fly it till I see it in the simulator or on the line with a check airman. That may cause some angst in the training department, but not in my world."

His world, of course, is that person up front flying the airplane.

As a passenger, as someone who has implicit faith in the pilot flying your plane, "That's how you want me to feel, right?" he said.

Right. In fact, damned straight.

Here's a link to Bruce's full blog. And here are some excerpts from his description of the situation:


"...I am currently embroiled in a debate over “qualification” with my employer (a major US legacy airline). The airline has elected to modify the instrumentation of the aircraft I fly from old, “steam driven”, round gauges to a state of the art electronic display.

This new display provides me all of my basic flight information: airspeed, altimetry, rate of climb/descent, and the like. In my 24 years at this airline, I have never flown a similarly equipped aircraft. Nevertheless, last November, in my scheduled recurrent training session, I watched a short video on this new equipment and took a short quiz. At the conclusion of this quiz, the instructor told the entire class that we were now “qualified” to fly a jet with this new display. I took exception to this and immediately contacted the appropriate powers-that-be. "Don’t worry," they said. "You’ll be down for a simulator before you’ll ever see it on the line."

Unfortunately, that promise rang hollow. I have yet to return for my next recurrent training session and was presented with the new display just several weeks ago. Knowing full well the possible ramifications, I turned and walked off the aircraft. I advised the proper folks that I did not feel qualified to fly with such a novel and untried [cockpit display] presentation without first seeing it in a simulated environment. "Well, you’re qualified," they said. Yes, by virtue of a check mark in a box I was, indeed, technically qualified. On a more pragmatic scale, though, I was anything but fully prepared to conduct a safe and uneventful flight.

We each must hold ourselves accountable when operating under the "qualifications" of any permit, license, or approving authority. Drunk driving or any other careless behavior predicated upon the theory of “it’ll be alright” is a dereliction of the responsibility accompanying the qualification. While my airline (and the FAA) consider me qualified to command an aircraft with a display format I have yet to actually touch, activate, and (yes) make a mistake, I beg to differ. The unwritten contract I have with my crew and my passengers expecting only the best from me holds far more import."


Saturday, June 20, 2009

Airline Fees: What Next? Smarter Reporting, I Hope

There is absolutely nothing new in this widely distributed news story today about airlines piling on fees. Old news, rehashed.

There are several things wrong with the story, including the assertion that airlines' see fees as an alternative to raising fares.

To the contrary, airlines jump at any opportunity to boost fares, assuming they can get away with it. Just last week, the domestic industry, acting pretty much in tandem, managed to slip in an across-the-board $20 increase in base fares.

And while fare sales have proliferated (airlines are desperate for cash), fares on many routes between mid-sized cities where competition is not great are up 40 to 60 percent in the last year.

Yes, airlines charging extra for a checked bag (for non-elite-status coach passengers paying discount fares) is an annoyance and, for a family traveling on vacation, a burden. Yes, the fee-fling has gone so far that Ryanair, the cheapo carrier in Europe, is actually considering pay toilets. (This story, rehashing old news, dismisses that as a publicity stunt, but in fact Ryanair's chief executive Michael O'Leary says he is serious about the pay toilets; is able to circumvent EU regulations about providing public toilets, citing the precedent of pay toilets in European train stations; and is in the market for a credit-card reader that will enable the scheme to work.)

But why am I supposed to be wailing about the fact that some airlines are charging an extra $20 extra for priority seating? That is not in the same price-gouging league as charging extra to check in at the airport. In fact, it's a very good idea, from a consumer point of view.

The AP story mentions AirTran as charging $20 for an exit-row seat with extra legroom. But US Airways and other carriers also offer customers that option -- which is in fact generally welcomed by people who fly. When I fly US Airways, for example, I jump at the opportunity to grab an aisle exit-row seat with the extra legroom, for $20. I consider it a bargain, given a low fare and given that I don't have elite-status on US Air and so wouldn't otherwise be able to grab that better seat.

And by the way, why do none of these rehashes ever mention that Continental Airlines, for one, still serves free meals in coach? Or that that $7 sandwich you can buy on some other airline is often a very good sandwich, way better than its free predecessor?

Extra fee-revenue, which ranges up to $1 billion a year for some carriers, has not been sufficient to dig domestic airlines out of the deep hole they're in. Across the board, passenger revenues are down sharply as demand for flying declines in a very poor economy. Business travel -- which airlines depend on for most of their revenue -- is down, but companies are still sending businss travelers on the road. It's just that those travelers are now acting like leisure travelers, waiting for fare sales, adjusting schedules to fly cheap, avoiding the front of the plane except as an upgrade option. It's now common for a budget-conscious business traveler to shop around for a better deal at a nearby airport, calculating in the cost of a rental car or even, gasp, public transportation.

SO it's time for some people writing about air travel to smarten up, to stop rehashing old news, and to begin looking in a grown-up way at basic economics. Oil is going up, industry revenues are down, demand stubbornly resists prodding even by deep fare sales. Unemployment or other economic problems have taken away air travel as an option for hundreds of thousands of people.

There is no way the domestic air travel system can continue to operate without significant change, and some of that change, alas, is going to have to come in customer expectations. Demand is down? Costs are up? Well, the reasonable economic response is that supply must be reduced.

Reality says a smaller air-travel system, with higher fares and far fewer choices, is in our future, and perhaps for a long time to come. This will not be a popular reality.

Rather than winging about someone paying $20 extra to grab an aisle-row seat, air-travel reporters need to start evaluating the economic and political options -- and the national transportation-policy realities -- as our air travel system, and our beloved national travel culture, shrinks.


Friday, June 19, 2009

Their Tax Dollars At Work...

New Mexico is spending $198 million of taxpayer money (and counting) on a theme park stunt called "Spaceport America." Gov. Bill Richardson, keeping what appears to be a straight face, broke ground today on the "spaceport," which will provide Richard Branson's new tourist venture, Virgin Galactic, with a facility to launch well-heeled space cadets into a suborbital ride off the back of an aircraft.

It's $200,000 a ticket. Or $180,000 a ride on Discount Dimwit Days.


777 Lands With 2 Pilots. Why Is This Considered Big News?

I pay pretty close attention to aviation-safety matters, for obvious reasons.

Gotta say, I'm baffled by the breathless treatment in some media of a nothing story about a Continental Boeing 777 that landed in Newark after a transatlantic flight from Brussels, with two fully certified pilots in the cockpit.

Unfortunately, the captain had died of a heart attack in mid-flight. This is very sad, but it is not aviation-safety news -- not with two other pilots on duty.

Overplaying this story does a disservice to passengers who might have legitimate concerns about aviation safety.

By the way, while researching a book, I had the great luck two weeks ago to be able to spend over three hours in a 777 flight simulator at British Airways headquarters at Heathrow. What an informative and exhilarating experience. More on that -- and on how intensely big-airline pilots are trained and re-trained -- in a column this weekend.


Corporate Pantloads on Parade (Continued): More Executive Jet Abuses

We are indebted to the Wall Street Journal today for the amazing news that more corporate grandees from bailed-out companies have been swanning around in their executive jets on personal trips to resorts like the fabled Greenbrier in West Virginia. (Above).

Consider my jaw dropped. Again. I swear, these corporate pantloads seem determined to thumb their noses at the public, following in the path of the notorious three Detroit CEOs who sailed into Washington in their heavy-metal executive jets last Novmber to beg for and get taxpayer bailouts.

At the same time, the damage being done to a recently thriving and important U.S. industry, business aviation, has been staggering. Mostly because of a bad economy, but partly because of the wide net of public revulsion cast over the entire industry, there have been tens of thousands of manufacturing and service layoffs among makers and providers of business aircraft.

The Journal story is probably behind a pay wall, but see if this link works to provide some summary information.

The Journal reviewed corporate flight records from 14 federally aided banks from October through mid-March, and found widespread use of business jets flying top executives and their families to resort areas or to executives' vacation homes, including places in Europe and the Caribbean.

One major example is Regions Financial, an Alabama financial institution that dispatched two corporate jets at the same time to a small airport in West Virginia that serves those arriving by private jet for the Greenbrier resort, where rooms now cost $389 to $650 a day. (They used to be higher, before the economic slump deepened). The bank's chief executive and family members spent four nights there over Thanksgiving -- twelve days after Regions Financial had received $3.5 billion in federal TARP bailout money.

Executives from some of the usual suspects, including Citigroup and Bank of America,
also are fingered by the Journal for using corporate jets for what appear to be personal larks after receiving bailouts from taxpayers.

Many corporations allow executives to use company jets for personal trips. Some of them absurdly cite "security" reasons, as several of the Detroit automakers did -- as if these mostly unrecoginzable characters are somehow in grave danger.

To do this while taxpayers are seething over bailouts to irresponsibly managed corporations is the essence of arrogance. I simply can not understand why the business aviation industry has not denounced these abuses, rather than blaming the media for pointing them out. Marie Antoinette gets a bum rap historically, but even she knew enough to travel modestly back to Paris when the crowds stormed Versailles.

The Greenbrier Resort, by the way, entered bankruptcy this year under its owner, CSX Corp., the big freight railroad. The railroad then sold it to a private investor.

One of the attractions at the lush resort is a massive underground bunker complex that was built during the Cold War as a long-term shelter for Congress in the aftermath of a thermonuclear war. It is loosely alluded to at length in the closing scenes of the movie "Dr. Strangelove."

Further comment on the bunker in this context is unnecessary.


Wednesday, June 17, 2009

More Layoffs at Cessna in Business-Aircraft Malaise

Cessna Aircraft is cutting another 1,300 jobs, following the 6,900 job cuts it announced last month, citing lower demand for new aircraft. Last year, Cessna employed over 15,000 people.

Cessna, based in Wichita, makes the popular Citation line of business jets and other general-aviation aircraft.

The depression -- this is beyond a "slump," folks -- in the business-aviation market this year has been a stunning reversal of recent years of robust growth.

Obviously, corporate cutbacks in a poor economy are by far the main driving force. But I will say this again: A portion of the problem can be laid at the feet of those three auto-maker CEOS from Detroit who swanned into Washington in their heavy metal luxury jets late last year to beg for taxpayer bailouts.

The business-aviation industry simply failed to appreciate the public reaction -- the "optics", if you will -- of that boneheaded stunt, which was a perfect example of how not to use a business jet. It occurred at a time when public sentiment was already boiling over outrages such as the $400,000 junket the insurance company AIG held at a luxury resort, a week after getting its own staggeringly big taxpayer bailout.

Instead of publicly denouncing the feckless Detroit grandees, the industry made a serious mistake by dropping into a defensive crouch and ... blaming the media.

Lost in this reaction was the perfect opportunity for the industry to firmly and clearly state, without equivocation, that using private luxury jets to transport three corporate pantloads and their tin cups on trips to ask for bailouts, on a short route readily served by commercial airlines, was a clear example of how not to use a corporate jet.

Throw them in!

Instead, the National Business Aviation Association, which had firmly established the case for business aviation in recent years, watched an awful lot of good work go down the drain, as people simply were repelled by the CEOs' excess and obvious sense of entitlement, and as that reaction came to envelop the entire concept of "business jet."

Even Cessna dropped the ball, optics-wise, with a campaign it launched earlier this year that seemed to scoff at the perfectly reasonable public reaction against the Detroit grandees.

The campaign addressed corporate executives: "Timidity didn't get you this far. Why put it in your business plan now? In today's corporate world, pity the executive who blinks," the ad says.

By the time the industry got around to clearly re-stating its case for the cost-effective use of business aircraft -- and as I said, that case is a very good one -- it was fighting a defensive action that it still fights today, against a now entrenched public perception and revulsion that can be laid directly to the Detroit fiasco.

On the other hand, some slightly less-dreadful news might be emerging for the industry, though it ain't much. ARG-US, the company that monitors business-aircraft activity across the country says that operations increased 3.3 percent in May over April, although total business-aviation flight activity -- measured by arrivals and departures -- has declined 21.52 percent in the last 12 months.

Here are the percentage of flight declines by cabin category in May 2009 vs. May 2008: Turbo-props, down 10.1 percent; small-cabin jets, down 23.5 percent; mid-size jets, down 15.7 percent; large-cabin jets, down 10. percent.


JAL Re Strike Threat: Never Mind...

JAL, which issued a somewhat assertive statement earlier this week warning of strikes starting today by four of its unions, says never mind.

The airline says it "is pleased to announce that the planned strike action scheduled to start today ... " has been cancelled.

JAL added that "we sincerely apologize to customers who were inconvenienced by the uncertainty caused by the threatened strike action." Very polite and all.


Monday, June 15, 2009

JetBlue JFK-LAX Service Starts on Wednesday

I can't figure the logic, given the current state of air travel and the cutthroat competition on coast-to-coast routes, but JetBlue's new twice-daily service between New York and Los Angeles International starts on Wednesday with an inaugural flight from Kennedy to LAX.

JetBlue announced the new service last February, along with flights between LAX and Boston, also twice a day.

The roundtrip, non-stop walk-up fare on JetBlue Kennedy-LAX, with travel this week, is listed at $699 on Orbitz, the same fare as United's and nearly the same as American's (at $706). Virgin America's is $799.

For advance-purchase travel in mid-July, Virgin America has a $319 non-stop roundtrip fare, as does Delta. United is $326, JetBlue is $334, American is $349.

So JetBlue has not demonstrated a positive fare differential on the new route, and for advance-purchase travel, Virgin America (which has been trying to develop a comparable market brand to JetBlue) is lower.

I'd look for a JetBlue flash fare-sale soon to prime that pump.


The Morning News ...

--HEADS UP if you're flying JAL (Japan Air Lines) this week: Strikes may disrupt operations, though the airline insists that international flights will operate as usual. From JAL this morning:

Possible Strike on June 17, 18, 19, 2009

Four unions representing cockpit crew, cabin crew and ground staff working for JAL International (JALI) may hold a strike on Wednesday June 17, 2009. The unions involved and their respective strike actions are:

---Pilots Union (660 members) Has indicated plans for a 72-hour strike from June 17.

---JAL Labour Union (90 members) and JAL Japan Labour Union (660 members) Mostly representing ground crew. Has indicated plans for a 6-hour strike from 6 am to 12 pm on June 17.

---JAL Flight Crew Union (1,150 members). Expected to stage a 24-hour strike on June 17.

While all domestic and international, passenger and cargo flights are expected to operate as normal on June 17 and 18, 2009, strikes by JAL Pilots Union into the third day on Friday June 19, 2009, may affect some JAL domestic services in the form of flight delays or cancellations. The unions are still in negotiations.


IDIOT OF THE WEEK -- I know it's only Monday morning, but I can't imagine anyone topping this clown for sheer stupidity and bigotry.) South Carolina Republican activist Rusty DePass (which sounds like a character name Mel Brooks might have come up with for "Blazing Saddles") apologizes if "I offended anyone" with this vile comment about Michelle Obama.

--ARIZONA SHERIFF'S DEPT. BRAINSTORM -- Highly doubtful that this tactic (putting "undercover deputies" inside fast-food joints at night to spot drunks with the munchies) will have any impact on drunk driving. But it sure will increase the number of fat cops.


Friday, June 12, 2009

Colbert Nation On the Road in Iraq

[Left: Not funny. Below: Very funny]

I thought Stephen Colbert and his crew, aided by the USO, pulled off an astonishing feat doing a week of four very funny "Colbert Report" shows for the troops in Iraq. That segment on Colbert going through boot camp was a riot, I thought. I also couldn't believe he persuaded President Obama, via satellite, to jokingly order General Ray Odierno, the well-liked commanding general in Iraq, to give Colbert a boot-camp buzz hair-cut on stage in Baghdad. Now Colbert has to wear his grunt hair in New York till it grows out. And that Brooks Brothers camouflage suit was a true inspiration.

Nice work all around, and the shows were obviously wildly popular with the troops.

In some mainstream news accounts today, I did detect an occasional note of condescension about Colbert, who often gets depicted as someone who appeals to people who don't read and instead get all their news from, well, Colbert and, one presumes, YouTube. Dunno, my wife and I TiVo Colbert every weeknight. We get plenty of news that we wouldn't otherwise see from Colbert, Jon Stewart and Rachel Maddow.

On several occasions, Colbert mentioned the well-known USO tours by Bob Hope, who made something of a second career (after the movies) with his Christmas shows in war zones, which he had plenty of to choose from over the years. In what he called an "homage" to Hope, Colbert carried a golf club on stage, swagger-stick-like, the way Hope used to.

Here I gotta put in my two cents, as they used to say back when Bob Hope was considered funny (which was roughly during the Korean War).

I was in Vietnam, in the audience for the Bob Hope 1968 Christmas Show, and while the troops were enthusiastic for the effort (and the dancing girls), very few thought the guy was funny. I would say he basically bombed (poor choice of words, I know). People were scratching their heads. Here and there some chuckles rippled through the crowd, but essentially he laid an egg with stale jokes.

Later on, when the program was broadcast on network television, it was obvious that the TV people had sweetened the soundtrack with uproarious laughter, which I sure never heard that day.

Also, I spent a little time that day with Mr. Hope, who was already well-known for his increasingly reactionary politics. He struck me as a nasty old fart who jollied it up with the brass and basically ignored the grunts, when he wasn't snapping at the poor enlisted guys assigned to serve him.

Ann-Margaret, though, she was way cool, a classy woman.

Thanks for the memories.


Thursday, June 11, 2009

Air Travel: More Capacity Cuts Loom

[Above: Airliners stored at Evergreen Aviation site, Pinal Air Park, Marana, Az.]

We are witnessing the slow but inexorable shrinking of our air-travel system, and it's going to be a long-term phenomenon.

Delta's announcement today of further capacity cutbacks, as oil prices rise and passenger demand (and revenue) refuse to improve, is merely the latest indication that the air-transportation system is shrinking. Look for further cutback announcements industry-wide as airlines fret over selling enough seats on their already reduced fall and winter schedules.

Look at it from an airline's point of view: You can't keep losing money indefinitely. This year's fare sales, some of them drastic in nature, have not primed the pump. The cost of fuel is on an alarming rise, and several indicators suggest that it may keep going up.

If you're an airline, with an understandable desire to remain in business, your options are fairly clear and limited: Reduce capacity, raise prices. And maybe devise new strategies, short of outright corporate mergers, to work with competitors to better divvy up markets, and hope the feds let you do it without going all anti-trust on you. An iffy proposition.

As airline forecaster Mike Boyd points out on his blog this week, airlines in general have a fairly extensive flexibility in removing airplanes from their operating fleets and parking them in the desert. In fact, the sprawling Evergreen Aviation aircraft storage and maintenance site in the Sonoran desert at Marana, Arizona, is near capacity, with more than 300 airliners parked. Other desert storage sites in the Mojave desert California are too. But there is a lot of desert out there.

Boyd sees these developments ahead:

--With a bad economy and with all those U.S. job losses, air travel demand has been fundamentally altered. This only gets worse as the job losses in the auto industry, and related businesses, kick in harder.

--Cities that depend on regional-jet service (mostly in the form of connecting flights to hubs) will lose even more capacity, especially in the longer-haul RJ connections. These will be "adjustments," meaning reduced flying, rather than outright service eliminations.

--International routes to secondary markets are increasingly vulnerable.

--Despite the surplus of good used airplanes sitting on the desert tarmacs waiting for some dreamer to kick the tires, further expansion opportunities are scant for existing low-cost carriers because of the "fundamental evaporation of demand." And forget start-ups, which will have all the market potential "of the beer concession at a Baptist revival," Boyd says.

My own prediction is that we will see more charter operations filling in some high-yield gaps in domestic markets, especially low-fare leisure destinations like Las Vegas and Orlando. In this scenario, passenger flexibility will be gone. You'll leave when the plane is full. Travel habits will change -- but maybe that isn't such a bad thing.



Airbus A330 in Emergency Landing at Guam

Another A330 electrical problem, this one without injuries.


Delta Plans More Capacity Cuts as Revenue Falls and Fuel Prices Rise

Delta Air Lines plans further capacity reductions, citing the plunge in passenger revenue and the threat to its business from oil prices that have risen 20 percent since the start of the year.

Here's a memo sent to Delta employees this morning from the chief executive officer, Richard Anderson and the president, Ed Bastian:

"We are all seeing negative impacts from the global recession and rising oil prices not only in the news, but also in our communities and personal finances. Clearly, the airline industry is not immune. Industry passenger revenues have declined nearly 20 percent in the first four months of the year compared to the same period in 2008. That trend is expected to continue in the near term. On top of this, cost pressures from rising jet fuel prices - up more than 20 percent since the start of the year - coupled with softer travel demand due to the spread of the H1N1 virus, have created a difficult business environment.

These forces that are affecting the industry are creating significant headwinds for Delta. Declining revenues will overtake the more than $6 billion in total benefits we expected this year from lower year-over-year fuel prices, merger synergies and capacity reductions.

This morning, at an investor conference in New York, we will announce additional steps to align our capacity with market demand, preserve liquidity, and ensure Delta's long-term success. This plan includes reducing our system capacity by 10 percent compared to 2008. Capacity reductions will begin in September. In this environment, our merger makes more sense than ever and we will continue to accelerate our integration, as it gives us a competitive advantage and strengthens our financial foundation. We also will maintain tight controls on our costs and capital spending.

Customer demand for international travel has fallen significantly. Accordingly, we plan to reduce our international capacity by an additional 5 percent from what we announced in March, for a 15 percent total reduction in international capacity. This fall's capacity reductions will target routes that have experienced losses in the current economic climate and with higher fuel prices, including:

* Suspending nonstop service from Atlanta to Seoul and Shanghai and instead routing customers for these flights over Detroit or Tokyo, or on nonstop SkyTeam partner flights.
* Suspending nonstop flights from Cincinnati to Frankfurt and London-Gatwick. Cincinnati customers will still be able to reach these and many other international destinations via our other European gateways.
* Suspending nonstop service between New York-JFK and Edinburgh.
* Reducing weekly frequencies connecting Atlanta and Detroit to Mexico City and postponing some previously planned seasonal service between non-hub cities and Mexican beach destinations due to the impact of the H1N1 virus on customers' travel plans.

In keeping with our long-term business plan, we continue to grow the global footprint that is a cornerstone of our successful strategy. While we must reduce capacity this year, our international capacity this fall will still be more than 20 percent larger than it was before our global expansion began in 2005, and we are adding more than 20 new markets to our international network in 2009, including:

* Los Angeles-Sydney
* Salt Lake City-Tokyo
* Detroit-Shanghai
* New York-Prague
* Pittsburgh-Paris
* Atlanta-Johannesburg

By leveraging the unique strengths of our network, hub structure and alliances, we continue to provide the most travel options for our customers. Additional details of network changes are available on DeltaNet.

The additional capacity reductions mean we again must reassess staffing needs. While the challenges of the current environment preclude us from making guarantees, our goal remains to avoid any involuntary furloughs of frontline employees.

We will not allow the economy to negatively affect our merger integration - in fact, the current environment gives additional urgency to accelerate our efforts. You will see us move more quickly to rebrand and consolidate facilities, repaint aircraft and ramp-up our frontline training activities. ..."


FDA Warns Against Clarcon Sanitizer Products

Travelers increasingly pack and or encounter (at airports, hotels, restaurants and even supermarkets) hand sanitizers.

Here's one brand to avoid, according to a warning from the Food and Drug Administration. Seems these products don't do, ah, precisely what they're supposed to do. Just the opposite, it seems.

Risk of bacterial contamination has led the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to warn consumers to not use any products made by Clarcon Biological Chemistry Laboratory Inc.

The Roy, Utah, company recalled some skin sanitizers and skin protectants sold under various brand names after an FDA inspection found that the products contained high levels of dangeroud bacteria.

The FDA said that the following Clarcon products are among those to be avoided:

• Citrushield Lotion

• Dermasentials DermaBarrier

• Dermassentials by Clarcon Antimicrobial Hand Sanitizer

• Iron Fist Barrier Hand Treatment

• Skin Shield Restaurant

• Skin Shield Industrial

• Skin Shield Beauty Salon Lotion

• Total Skin Care Beauty

• Total Skin Care Work

According to the FDA, "Analyses of several samples of over-the-counter topical antimicrobial skin sanitizer and hand protectant products revealed high levels of various bacteria, including some associated with unsanitary conditions. Some of these bacteria can cause opportunistic infections of the skin and underlying tissues. Such infections may need medical or surgical attention, and may result in permanent damage."

The agency said it "finds the inspection results particularly concerning because the products are promoted as antimicrobial agents that claim to treat open wounds, damaged skin, and protect against various infectious diseases.

Here's the full FDA press release.

Here is some company information from Clarcon.. Also here.


Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Oil Prices Sneaking Up; Airlines Sweating Barrels

Here's a number to be watching carefully: The price of oil. A barrel of crude cost over $70 today, its highest price since October.

Airlines, already struggling for survival against a breathtaking drop in passenger revenue this year, figured they at least had a respite from soaring oil prices, even though many now have fuel-future hedges in place as a contingency.

Still, the airline industry is simply not structured to operate with oil prices much in excess of $70 a barrel. If oil keeps climbing -- and remember, it hit $147 a barrel last summer, practically giving the airline industry a collective heart attack -- we can look for airlines to further reduce flights, especially as they plan schedules for the fall season.

If this keeps up, look also for new urgency in pushing for anti-trust exemptions for the kinds of deeper alliances being planned by American Airlines and British Airways, which are quasi-mergers on certain routes that will have the effect of raising fares and reducing flights (and competition).

Just last month, Delta and Air France-KLM finalized an agreement on a so-called "joint venture" -- a merger of certain routes, services and pricing -- that would give the venture control of about 25 percent of passenger traffic between the U.S. and Europe.


Another Luxury Hotel Terrorist Attack, This Time in Peshawar, Pakistan

At least 11 are dead and dozens injured after terrorists drove car bombs into the only five-star hotel in Peshawar, Pakistan, the Pearl Continental Hotel. The hotel is a favorite stopover for Westerners, including aid-agency workers, with business in the North West Frontier areas of that country, near territory now dominated by the Taliban.

Here's a current story from the Daily Times newspaper of Peshawar.


Bummer: 'Year Without Summer?'

Now that's a bummer of a concept, "a year without a summer," and it comes from an expert at AccuWeather. I am, luckily, ensconced in southern Arizona, where the temperatures first nudged over 100 degrees two weeks ago, though it has since moderated down into the low 90s. Being a hot weather nut, I have no complaints.

Meanwhile, given miserable weather continuing throughout the Northeast, airport delays are piling up today. Newark was reporting on-time arrival and departure rates in the low 20 percent ranges all morning today, and La Guardia was worse, with 4 percent of flights arriving on time between 9 a.m. and noon.

A reminder, as these delays ripple through the system. Check your flight schedule before leaving for the airport, and especially watch any connection time. As they cut capacity, airlines have been shortening connection times in many cases, and it is sometimes dicey even to make the scheduled connection at some badly planned airports like Houston. With delays, you can end up breathless at an empty departure gate.


Monday, June 08, 2009

Flight 447: What Happened? (Continued)

It's increasingly apparent that we will never know for sure what happened to cause the loss of Air France Flight 447 and those 228 people who died, unless international search teams, including those from France and Brazil, somehow pull off the impossible and retrieve the black box that is presumably lying three or four miles beneath the Atlantic.

But Patrick Smith, the accomplished aviation writer for Salon, has a very good possible scenario in his weekly "Ask the Pilot" column. Smith is a pilot who flies 767s internationally, including on routes from Brazil. He's an expert, and he also can write. I highly recommend his post this week. It's here.


Bill in Congress Would Limit TSA Use of Airport Strip-Search Machines

There's a move on in Congress to prevent the TSA from replacing all airport metal detectors with those strip-search machines that the TSA has been so eager to buy.

As I reported first, the TSA has plans to replace all airport metal detectors with the machines, which see through clothing and provide an image of a naked body to a screener in a separate room. The TSA said they body images couldn't be stored or saved, but that turned out to be not exactly true. Instead, the machines' storage capacity would have been turned off (and easily could have been turned back on).

For about a year, the TSA (which has been without a director since January) has been testing these so-called whole-body-imaging machines at various airports. In the tests, the machines were used as an option for those who triggered the metal detector and wanted to avoid the much-loathed full-body perp patdown. That was plan A -- to install the machines at airport checkpoints as an option to avoid being groped.

But as I reported, a Plan B evolved to fully replace the metal detectors with the whole-body image machines, which literally see Everything. When you're scanned by the machine (you have to strike two poses), it shows even a Kleenex in a pocket. You can't have your wallet on you. That's the value of the machine as opposed to the metal detector, which just detects metal.

On the other hand, the cost is what has been called a gross invasion of privacy for everyone -- and don't forget, children and teenagers would also be subject to virtual strip searches, Mom and Dad.

The bill (HR 2027) putting limits on the TSA's use of this technology was introduced in the House by Rep. Jason Chaffetz, a Republican from Utah.

It says in part that "Whole-body imaging may not be used as the sole or primary method of screening a passenger" and may be used only "another method of screening, such as metal detection, demonstrates cause for preventing such passenger from boarding an aircraft."

Also, a passenger so selected muct be given the option of "a pat-down search in lieu of such screening."

Also, "An image of a passenger generated by whole-body imagine technology may not be stored, transferred, shared or copied in any form..."


United Airlines Improving International Premium Cabins

In another sign of how deeply U.S. network airlines are involved in competing with well-heeled foreign carriers in the declining premium-class international markets, United Airlines said today that all of its international 767 fleet has now been upgraded with fully lie-flat beds in its first class and business class cabins. The 747s are also being upgraded.

The 767s also have 15.4 inch personal video/TV screens.

I'd publish some photos, but the United Web site images are all video or impossible-to-copy Abobe flash. Sort of like those newspaper stories in which some "art director" has decided to have the text set in the spape of a pear or some other artsy-fartsy form incomprehensible to readers.

By the way, United's May operating results showed a sharp decline in international traffic, where premium class is all-important in terms of revenue per flight. It was off 21.4 percent on the trans-Pacific routes and 38.3 percent on the LAtin American routes.


Saturday, June 06, 2009

Theatre vs. Theater

Whenever I'm in London, as I was for a few days last week, I make it a point to see a play. Which I did last week.

The play was the West End hit "War Horse," an astonishing piece of theater in which very sophisticated puppetry creates the illusion of real-life horses on stage.

The play, the story of a boy and his horse, and how that horse ends up as a charger in the last hopeless days of cavalries during World War I, tends toward the overly sentimental. It's "Black Beauty" meets "All Quiet on the Western Front."

But the puppetry is nothing short of astonishing. If you know how a horse moves and behaves, you soon begin to believe you are looking at real horses. (It's a great play to take kids to, especially girls who are into riding.)

The house was packed at the New London Theatre near Covent Garden. Packed and utterly silent (except for some teary sniffles here and there) till the end, when it erupted in great cheering.

I'm always struck by the comportment of English theatergoers. In short, they know how to behave.

By contrast, going to the theater in New York has lost most of its appeal for me because increasing numbers of the audience simply do not know how to behave. Some people act as if they're at a ballgame. Last year, my wife went to a much anticipated production of "Hamlet" and fled after about an hour because a good number of people in the audience seemed to think it was a situation comedy.

Many formerly loyal Broadway theatergoers learned years ago to avoid any serious play in which a well-known movie or television actor appears, mainly because a celebrity name draws in people who don't know how to behave in a theater. It only takes a few louts to ruin it for everyone.

There is an excellent story in today's Wall Street Journal on the decline in good comportment among Broadway audiences. The headline is classic: "Are Misbehavin'" David Hyde Pierce tells of a group in the front row passing a bucket of chicken back and forth, for example. Patti LuPone blows a gasket over bad behavior. Some idiot arriving late during the Holocaust drama "Irena's Vow" shouts to actress Tovah Feldshuh to halt her monologue onstage while he makes his way to his seat. And so on. (I think the link works, though if there is a pay wall I apologize.)

In London they've still got theater manners. But it's a long way to go for a show.


Friday, June 05, 2009

Flight 447 Search Continues, With Few Clues

Now that the Brazilians have said they were wrong about finding debris far out at sea from Flight 447, French investigators are intensifying their search.

And we're up to our eyeballs in media speculation. We really have no idea now where that plane might have gone down, or even when.

However, here is some very useful background from the BBC today.


Those Grating Houston Airport Announcements ...

Maybe it's because I recently spent a few days in London, where the airport and subway announcements are delivered in polite tones that don't get your skin crawling, but I'm increasingly irritated by those security announcements at the grandiloquently named Houston George Bush Intercontinental Airport.

I know, I know: Just ignore them.

But I can't. Every time I have to make a connection through Houston, which is frequently, I brace myself for that woman with the voice like Granny in the Beverly Hillbillies, threatening "arrest" to anyone making "jokes or inappropriate comments" about security. The same voice also warns the traveling public, "Do not be persuaded by strangers or individuals you do not know well" to carry unknown things onto airplanes.

Oh, thanks for the heads-up, irritating announcer lady. Actually, I was just about to carry on this strange suitcase with the wires sticking out that the sinister-looking man in the boarding area, who identified himself as "Omar from Jersey City," almost persuaded me to take aboard my connecting flight.

Oops, that's probably an "inappropriate" comment. Git the cuffs out.

I know the announcements have been re-recorded since the last time I made an issue of this, because the lady no longer threatens me with "'rist." She now enunciates the word "arrest." Also, "b'longings" is now "belongings."

So a sentient being has given these announcements recent reconsideration.

Is the announcer lady related to someone at the Houston airport? Nothing else accounts for her longevity threatening the public every 15 minutes over the loudspeaker.

The same voice can be heard at a few other airports, though without the arrest threat for making inappropriate comment, which seems unique to Bush Intergalactic. Most airports have pleasant, easy-to-listen-to security announcements done by people with voices that do not persuade you to make jokes or inappropriate comments about security.


Brazil on Flight 447 Wreckage: 'Never Mind'

Anyone still wondering why I posed all those impertinent questions about when the Brazilians actually last had air-traffic control contact with that doomed Air France flight and when, precisely, they should have had their last contact? And why we need independent answers? ... (See selected enraged, obscene comments from Brazil to previous post on this subject).

As DeGaulle once said, "Brazil is not a serious country."

And please, my faithful Brazilian hate-mailers, don't bother to write about your perpetually aggrieved national sensitivity.

Ain't listening any more.

Again, we see a situation involving air-traffic safety in which Brazilian authorities rushed to judgment without having facts. (And again, the world news media failed to demand answers to simple questions before accepting Brazil's conclusions.)

The fact is: That airplane was under Brazilian air-traffic control for about four hours after it took off from Rio, and that time frame possibly includes the time that Flight 447 went missing.

Who? What? When? Where? Why?


Thursday, June 04, 2009

Airline Traffic Results for May: Is This the Bottom?

Is this the bottom, with the next trend upward, or are they merely sunk?

Many U.S. airlines have now reported their traffic results for May, and there is no reason to believe the others will be reporting anything substantially different. The results illustrate the persistence of this slump.

In general, passenger traffic remains down, with continuing reductions in capacity. Airlines don't include revenue figures in their monthly traffic reports, but there is no doubt that revenue remains down. Those frequent fare sales still don't seem to be working.

On the other hand, in a sign that someone has faith, United Airlines has asked Boeing and Airbus to work up bids for an order of 150 widebodies and 757s, worth about $10 billion, according to the Wall Street Journal (via Reuters, here).

Fleet replacement is a major capital-spending challenge ahead for the big airlines. United appears to be moving the ball.

By the numbers for May (comparison to May 2008):

--American Airlines: revenue passenger miles (RPM) down 11.7 percent(13.3 percent domestically), on a capacity decrease of 8.8 percent (12.4 percent domestically)

--Continental: RPM down 9.1 percent domestically (7.1 percent internationally). Capacity down 9.5 percent domestic, 6.7 percent international.

--US Airways: RPM down 5.2 percent overall, down 6.2 percent domestic. Overall capacity down 5.8 percent (down 8.1 percent domestic)

--Southwest: RPM down 8.3 percent; capacity down 3.2 percent.

--Alaska: RPM down 7.3 percent; capacity down 8.5 percent.

--AirTran: RPM down 11.1 percent; capacity down 9.6 percent.

On the other hand, look at scrappy little Allegiant Airlines, which is very carefully picking its shots and filling in some blanks on the domestic leisure-travel. Allegiant reports RPMs up 23.9 percent and capacity up 22.9 percent.


Wednesday, June 03, 2009

NTSB Investigating Near Collision at Charlotte

From the National Transportation Safety Board:

"The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating a runway incursion that occurred on Friday morning at the Charlotte Douglas International Airport (CLT) involving a general aviation aircraft and a regional jet airliner bound for New Bern, NC (EWN).

At about 10:17 a.m. on May 29, a PSA Airlines CRJ-200 regional jet operated as US Airways Express flight 2390, was cleared for takeoff on runway 18L. After the regional jet was into its takeoff roll, a Pilatus PC-12, a single engine turboprop aircraft, was cleared to taxi into position and hold farther down the same runway in preparation for a departure roll that was to begin at the taxiway A intersection. After the ground-based collision warning system (ASDE-X) alerted controllers to the runway incursion, the takeoff clearance for the regional jet was cancelled. The pilot of the PC-12, seeing the regional jet coming down the runway on a collision course, taxied the PC-12 to the side of the runway. The FAA reported that the regional jet stopped approximately 10 feet from the PC-12.

Visual meteorological conditions prevailed with 9 miles visibility. There were no reported injuries to any of the 42 passengers or crew of three aboard the jet, or to any of those on the PC-12."


Survey: Delta, Singapore on Top

Readers of Executive Travel magazine chose Delta and Singapore Airlines as the best domestic and international airlines respectively, in the magazine's seventh annual Leading Edge survey.

Winners were selected in 42 travel categories and are featured in the July/August issue of Executive Travel and online at ExecutiveTravelMagazine.com.

A new category in this year's awards are five "Editors' Picks." The Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority, Asiana Airlines, Kimpton Hotels, Midwest Airlines, and Seattle-Tacoma Airport were chosen by the magazine's editors for innovative efforts to attract business travelers in a tough economy.

Executive Travel is published by American Express. Its readers are mostly frequent business travelers, and the awards were chosen by readers who average 38 airline trips and 100 hotel night stays a year.

Besides Delta and Singapore, this year's winners include:

--Best Domestic Airline for Business-Class Service: United Airlines
--Best Frequent Flier Program - Europe: British Airways
--Best Airline Customer Service - Domestic: Southwest Airlines
--Best Airline for Flights to Central and South America: American Airlines
--Best Domestic Airport: Denver
--Best International Airport: Amsterdam
--Best Hotel Chain: Marriott
--Best Hotel Frequent Guest Program: Starwood Preferred Guest
--Best Hotel for Meetings: Hilton
--Best Car Rental Company: Hertz
--Best Private Jet Service: Delta Air Elite


Flight 447: Some Answers and a Comment

(UPDATE JUNE 8)--Just so sane people can see the thought process of certain insane elements in Brazil, I've been approving a few of the harsh comments and threats that keep pouring in from that remarkable country -- more than 400 in all so far, and most of them full of aggrieved invective. You will notice how freely I am referred to as a "murderer" by some of these nitwits. Note the lies about what I clearly said here and on other occasions. Notice how these comments blithely ignore the findings of the National Transportation Safety Board on the primary causes and contributing factors that led to the tragic midair collision that killed 154 on Sept. 29, 2006 -- when Brazilian air traffic control mistakenly placed two aircraft on a collision path at 37,000 feet over the Amazon. In a nation once receptive to Nazi war criminals, an innocent victim of a plane crash is a "murderer" because he has annoyed some people by insisting that questions need to be posed? What kind of psychology drives this? Whatever it is, I will no longer enable it.

So goodbye and good riddance to my faithful Brazilian haters. You have disgraced yourselves, again (as Yeats once said in a different setting). You, your lies, threats, insults and hate are no longer welcome on this blog.


There are about 300 comments piled up over yesterday's post, from angry people in Brazil, where we have had some history. In that post I reiterated a suggestion that answers were needed on when Air France Flight 447 disappeared, and whether it was in Brazilian airspace when it dropped out of sight.

The answer is that it was not in Brazilian airspace, as was shown by the Brazilian Air Force map that I linked to yesterday, and as proved by the wreckage found at sea.

One small question remains, since the flight had only recently left Brazilian airspace when it crashed: When did Brazilian air traffic control last have contact with the plane; when should it have last had contact, and should it have warned that there were severe thunderstorms in the immediate path? It would be useful to have an answer, especially to the last part to that -- including if the answer is: "Absolutely not."

As to the comments, they are mainly the usual obscene insults, denunciations and threats that I became accustomed to in late 2006 and afterward.

That was when I quite inadvertently became involved in a furor in Brazil after a midair collision over the Amazon, in which a Gol 737 airliner tragically went down in the jungle with 154 aboard, while the badly damaged Legacy 600 business jet I was a passenger on (with four other passengers and two pilots) managed to make an emergency landing in the Amazon with no physical injuries to those aboard.

To make a long story short: Brazilian authorities immediately, and unwisely, jumped to criminalize the accident, blaming the two American pilots before any serious investigation was even underway.

In media interviews immediately after the crash, I pointed out that international pilots were telling me that Brazilian air traffic control had serious systemic and operational flaws, and saying that radar and radio communications were not reliable over the central Amazon. Both planes involved in the midair were flying at 37,000 feet in opposite directions, as ordered by air traffic control.

It seemed to me to be a simple, if horrible, thing. Egregious problems in Brazilian air traffic control caused the midair collision. A contributing factor was the still-unexplained malfunction of the Legacy's transponder, a piece of avionics equipment that should have triggered an anti-collision warning system that would have been the last possible chance to avoid a collision that was already firmly set in place.

None of this is now in dispute by any serious person. Meanwhile, the two American pilots and four Brazilian air traffic controllers are now on trial in Brazil (the Americans in absentia.)

Some die-hards in Brazil, driven by obvious anti-Americanism, still insist that somehow the American pilots deliberately turned off the transponder, which of course makes no sense at all. To this contingent, any suggestion that this disaster was caused by Brazil's military-run air-traffic control system and its outdated operations is a cause for rage.

We are beyond arguing facts. And you cannot argue emotion.

The problems in Brazil's air traffic control system became manifest after the 2006 tragedy, when overworked, underpaid controllers staged work protests that created chaos in that country's air travel system.

Nine months after 154 died in the Amazon crash, another 200 died in a horrible crash at the airport in Sao Paulo.

Given the record, given clear history, it was reasonable this week to ask questions about the role of Brazilian air traffic control in monitoring Flight 447, which left from Rio about four hours before it went down and was traveling northeast in Brazilian airspace most of that time.

It is now clear that Air France 447 was beyond the reach of Brazilian air traffic control.

Many of the comments I'm getting express anger that I would pose questions.

All I can say to that is that, as past events have shown us, you need to ask the questions first, and come to your conclusions only after those questions have been satisfactorily answered.

That is what I did yesterday -- and it is precisely what did NOT occur in 2006, when authorities jumped to conclusions before getting answers to key questions. And even today, partly because of the rush to judgment before facts were in, some of the vital questions remain unanswered.

Back in 2006 and afterward, my own unhappy role, never sought, was to be a lightening rod for rage in Brazil, since I was the only one of the seven survivors of the mid-air collision who was free to discuss it. (The other six survivors were employees of either Excelaire, the charter company that had just taken delivery of the new Legacy jet in Brazil and was flying it home, or Embraer, the Legacy's manufacturer, and unable for legal reasons to comment freely.)

In a disaster, questions need to be asked.

Unlike the situation in 2006, answers have been forthcoming this week, including from the Brazilian Air Force, which runs air traffic control. The Brazilian Air Force has issued timely, detailed reports.

I regret that my post of yesterday has now re-ignited fury. As before, elements of the Brazilian media are misquoting me, saying that I sought to blame Brazilian air traffic control. Not so, I merely sought answers to unanswered questions.

As to the angry comments, there is nothing I can ever do to un-ring the bell that rang two-and-a-half years ago at 37,000 feet over the Amazon. Everything I subsequently wrote about that incident has been shown to be accurate.

I have been accused, repeatedly and till this day, of having no sympathy for the 154 who died in the Amazon in 2006, while I lived. On the contrary, I have consistently expressed my profound grief about those lives that were cut so horribly short. There is, as I said over and over, no reason on earth why they should have died and I and six others should have walked away. For me, it was just a matter of pure unearned luck, of a few feet of wingspan.

I'm not approving most of the the angry comments that are arriving from Brazil. These things merely feed on themselves. In no time at all, we are back to 2006.

A few are posted (for some reason they post to yesterday's blog.)

And then here is another, this from a Brazilian air traffic controller. Forgotten in the furor over the 2006 tragedy was how Brazilian air traffic controllers, most of whom struggling to do their best under very tough working conditions, were also eventually scapegoated, once the American pilots were charged.

Bemildo Ferreira is an air-traffic controller. He titled his message "Questions to a survivor," and wrote:

"Hi, Mr. Sharkey. How you doing? I have few questions. Don't you think you are to much eager to catch the Brazilian guys doing their ATC jobs on a flaw again? I mean, have you ever thought that the Brazilian guys at the Brazilian ATC facilities just do their work at the very limits Brazilian Authorities drawn personally to them? So, if the most of them are military people, don't you think that they are just on their duties within their trained skills? Why wait for more of them?"

I hear you, Bemildo. Not eager, though if I seemed so I apologize. I merely asked questions and meant no insult by implication to the hard-working air traffic controllers in Brazil.

We are all of us captives of fate, subject to luck and caprice, beating against the mortal current.

Be safe.