Monday, August 31, 2009

Holy Smokes!

[Downtown Los Angeles today, looking toward the San Gabriel Mountains]

Los Angeles Fire and Air Traffic Control, Cellphone Service

There are no reports of problems with air traffic control operations in Los Angeles due to that big fire raging in the San Gabriel Mountains, but a look at the map shows some potential for problems if that fire keeps growing.

The FAA Air Route Traffic Control Center for air traffic in southern and central California, including the Los Angeles area, is in Palmdale, Calif. See map.

More imminent is the potential for a disruption of cellphone service in the area because cellular towers are located on Mt. Wilson, which is right in the path of the fire.


JetBlue Hopes to Go International With Lufthansa

JetBlue and Lufthansa said today they’re hoping to start code-share operations.

If approved by the DOT, the initiative will allow JetBlue and Lufthansa to jointly operate service between 12 JetBlue cities in the U.S. into 180 Lufthansa cities in Europe, the Middle East, Africa and Asia.

The airlines refer to these cities as “destinations,” but I don’t. Remember, an airplane flies both ways.

The future of air travel is gradually coming into focus. Less capacity and fewer options, for sure. But more interestingly, closer working relationships between U.S. and international carriers, like the one American Airlines and British Airways expect to forge with exemptions from anti-trust law, the one Continental wants to have on certain routes with Star Alliance, and the ones already in place between Delta and Air France-KLM, which inherited the one in place between KLM and Northwest when Delta bought Northwest.

I would argue that this movement portends a later one in which airlines will press hard to have the law changed so that a foreign carrier can buy a domestic one outright. But that’s a ways off.

The keystone on all of the existing international arrangements is antitrust immunity. There’s some opposition in Congress — Rep James. Oberstar, chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure committee calls these things “immunized mega-alliances.” BUt in general, the trend is going the airlines’ way.

But the trend is clear. The Air Transport Association, the industry’s trade group, is heavily pressuring Congress to grand wide-ranging approval for anti-trust immunity on alliances between U.S. and foreign carriers on specified international routes.

Lufthansa paid $300 million for a 19 percent stake in JetBlue in January 2008, insisting that it was a simple investment in a carrier with a great brand and business model. But a few months later, the Lufthansa chairman, Wolfgang Mayrhuber, told me that JetBlue’s huge presence at Kennedy International Airport, where it is the dominant carrier, was obviously a key part of the investment strategy. All of those JetBlue gates feeding into out of JFK, the most important domestic gateway for international travel.

And remember, an airplane flies both ways.

Here’s the joint JetBlue-Lufthansa statement today. It isn’t yet clear to me whether this planned partnership will require antitrust immunity. Maybe not. Anyone know?


“JetBlue Airways and Lufthansa have signed a codeshare agreement under which JetBlue
would be allowed to place the Lufthansa code (LH) on JetBlue flights.

Initially, the airlines plan to offer connecting service between 12 JetBlue
destinations in the U.S. and Puerto Rico and Lufthansa’s network of 180
destinations in Europe, the Middle East, Africa and Asia. The agreement was
filed today for authorization from the U.S. Department of Transportation

Once a statement of authorization is issued by the DOT, Lufthansa and JetBlue
plan to offer convenient connections between the airlines’ networks, beginning
first with the following U.S. cities:
– Austin, Texas
– Buffalo, N.Y.
– Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
– Fort Myers, Fla.
– New Orleans
– Pittsburgh
– Raleigh/Durham, N.C.
– Rochester, N.Y.
– San Juan, Puerto Rico
– Syracuse, N.Y.
– Tampa, Fla.
– West Palm Beach, Fla.

Customers traveling from these U.S. cities on JetBlue will be able to connect
via New York/JFK or Boston onto Lufthansa flights bound for destinations
throughout Europe, the Middle East, Africa and Asia.

Both airlines are looking forward to the commencement of codeshare operations,
which will allow them to provide their customers with an extended route
network and a seamless flight experience. Pending authorization, codeshare
flights will be available for sale by early October, and will be bookable on, via a link on, or through local and online travel


Friday, August 28, 2009

Limiting Carry-On Sizes: Careful What You Wish For

Lots of people want airlines or (even worse) Congress to impose strict limits on the bulk of carry-on bags. My guess is that means "other" people's bags, though.

The always-nimble TripAdvisor has a survey out today on the potential involvement of Congress in setting a maximum size-limit for airline carry-on bags. According to an unscientific poll of 2,890 respondents conducted this week on, who were asked "Do you think Congress should set a maximum size limit for airline carry-on bags?" -- 54 percent said yes and 46 percent said no.

I suggest we think this through.

How would limits be imposed? Theoretically, bags would be measured by length, width and depth to meet a standard size. But who would do the measuring, and where? How much time would this add to the ordeal of boarding an airplane? If a firm, uniform rule were designed and imposed, my guess is that airlines would try to use those ridiculous uniform size-boxes, which, of course, don't allow for any odd-shaped bags such as backpacks.

I'd be a lot happier if common sense would simply prevail, as if does for the most part now. The carry-on problem is exacerbated by the occasional nitwit lugging on a bag the size of a jukebox, but the problem really is really caused by the fact that more people are toting on board more things that formerly were checked, including some standard-sized carry-on bags, rather than checking them, because airlines are charging to check bags.

Rather that making this into a federal case, common sense could continue to be enforced by gate agents who know a jukebox when they see one and aren't ginned up to police sensible carry-ons. And who have the authority to red-flag obvious violations of said common sense.

Common sense prevailing in air travel? Yeah, I know, I know. But hey: It could happen.


Thursday, August 27, 2009

Virgin America Sees Uptick in Wi-Fi Use

{Update: Fixed mistyped word, "decreases" instead of "increases."]

Announcing improved second-quarter earnings today, Virgin America said that the "take rates" for its in-flight Wi-Fi service "continue to climb, with some flights and routes reporting up to 20-25 percent" of passengers paying to use the connection.

Virgin America was the first airline to have Wi-Fi installed throughout its fleet, and is the only domestic airline that has power outlets near every seat throughout its fleet. One of the road-blocks in the expansion of in-flight Wi-Fi in general has been the limitations of power supply, with most users on other airlines limited to only the amount of battery time they have.

Virgin America uses the industry-leading Aircell Gogo Wi-Fi system.

In contrast to major domestic carriers, all of whom are reeling from sharp decreases in revenue even as load factors climb on reduced capacity, Virgin said its revenue for the quarter rose 46.9 percent. The load factor -- the percentage of available seats occupied by paying customers -- rose sharply to 85.3 percent (up 7.7 points over the 2nd quarter of 2008)

Virgin reported a loss of $11.4 million for the quarter, an improvement over last year's 2nd quarter, when the loss was $62.1 million.

In the 2nd quarter, Virgin started new service to Orange County and added additional flights to its popular Boston to San Francisco route.

It's interesting that Virgin is even announcing its earnings for the quarter, because it is a privately held company with no obligation to do so. Apparently, the investors are happy with the results.

Virgin, which began operating in August 2007, flies to San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York, Washington D.C., Seattle, Las Vegas, San Diego, Boston, Orange County and as of Nov. 18, 2009, Fort Lauderdale.


Sunday, August 23, 2009

More Tarmac Strandings

Lots of airplanes sat idled with stranded passengers on lots of aprons for two or three hours this weekend, with airlines blaming weather.

At least two -- both Minneapolis-bound, what luck Twin Cities! -- sat for longer on Friday -- for 5 1/2 and 4 hours respectively. These were Sun Country Flight 242 and Delta Flight 1140.

In both cases, runway work at the Minneapolis airport and bad weather were cited.

If it's not one thing, it's another.

On Aug. 8, in the most infamous recent case, a packed ExpressJet plane sat stranded all night at the airport in Rochester, Minnesota, where it had been diverted from Minneapolis by bad weather. In a blistering preliminary report, the Transportation Department blamed dispatchers from a rival carrier, Mesaba (flying for Delta Connection on behalf of Delta, on a flight coded as Northwest) for inaccurately telling the captain of the Expressjet flight (flying for Continental Connection on behalf of Continental) that the plane couldn't come to a gate to let suffering passengers off because the airport was closed for the night. It isn't clear yet what authority Mesaba had to speak for the airport itself. A full report is pending from the DOT.

Again, the Business Travel Coalition, a trade group representing corporate travel buyers, denounced the nearly three-year pattern of "nightmarish" conditions imposed on stranded passengers, some of whom have sat on idled planes for more than 12 hours.

The trade group quoted a former airline board member, "Beyond three hours, the airlines need to fix the problem, and if they are forced to do so, they will."

They are about to be forced to do so by the Transportation Department and by congressional legislation on passengers rights. It's going to be very interesting.



Friday, August 21, 2009

Flight 2816: The Plot Thickens

Let me say without any equivocation that it has now become perfectly clear that the captain of the ExpressJet ERJ-145, operating as Continental Flight 2816, did everything she could to try to get passengers off that plane.

As passengers became increasingly distressed packed in that cramped regional jet at the Rochester airport all night, the ExpressJet captain, who has not been identified, pleaded, reasoned and cajoled to try to get those passengers into the airport. She was met with a wall of stupidity and near-indifference.

The U.S. Transportation Department jumped on this case with both feet, and is preparing a final report.

I’ve now listened to the transcripts of the conversations between the ExpressJet cockpit and various outsiders, including the dispatcher on duty at the airport for Mesaba Airlines, flying as a Delta Connection flight, and also identified as a flight for Northwest Airlines, which Delta owns.

The ExpressJet captain was stonewalled and blown off, in my opinion, and the plane sat there all night with cabin conditions worsening and babies crying. There was no food and the single toilet was virtually unusable.

You can listen yourself to the audio excerpts released by ExpressJet, and have a look at the timeline. The Transportation Secretary, Ray Lahood, issued an angry statement today (see earlier post) laying the blame on Mesaba and clearing ExpressJet of fault.

Several issues are still unclear to me.

1. There seems to be great confusion about whether the airport was “open” hours after midnight as the ExpressJet plane sat 50 yards from a gate. Two weeks ago the airport manager, Steven W. Leqve, told me in no uncertain terms that it was nonsense to assert that the airport was “closed.” He said, “the bottom line is the airport was open and there was staff available to bring that airplane to the gate” and get the passengers off. Nevertheless, in the recordings you can clearly hear the Mesaba dispatcher telling the ExpressJet captain that the airport was closed. It’s not clear who was speaking for the airport itself (identified as RST) in the recordings, but the ExpressJet timeline released today says that the captain and ExpressJet dispatch in Houston kept requesting access to the terminal “which was being denied by RST Station Operations.” If the airport operations itself was denying access, that contradicts airport manager’s Leqve’s statement.

2. There is a big fat red herring that keeps coming up involving inquiries about getting a charter bus to come from Minneapolis to pick up the ExpressJet passengers and take them to the Minneapolis airport where the flight had been bound before being diverted to Rochester by bad weather. FForget about the damn bus! That was not the issue. The issue was getting the passengers off the stranded plane and into the terminal, where they would have access to rest rooms, benches, vending machines, clean air, etc.

3. The nonsense continues (and is illustrated on the audio tapes) about the TSA not having staff on hand to “re=-screen” the passengers, so therefore the passengers needed to stay on the plane. That is not an issue. Had they been let off, the passengers would have been in a secure part of the airport, just as passengers on any routine connecting flight are.

4. What about that stuff about the ExpressJet crew “timing out” in the middle of the night, which was offered as some vague excuse for them not being able to take the plane to a gate, as a new crew had to be summoned. (That never made the slightest sense to me. A timed-out captain would not have continued sitting on the apron, hoping to take off). The ExpressJet recordings and timeline show clearly that at 5.21 a.m., the captain reported to ExpressJet dispatch in Houston that she and the rest of the crew “would be approaching the crdew critical off (CCO) time.” That is, the crew needed soon to take off for the short flight to Minneapolis or go to a gate soon, under federal law. At 5.58 a.m., the plane was allowed to come to a gate and let the passengers into the terminal.

5. Is this the straw that broke the camel’s proverbial back in terms of enforcement of a passengers bill of rights? I expect it will be.

6. Will this incident galvanize pressure to require the major airlines to be a lot more transparent about what company is actually flying that plane you’re on? Yes.


As Anticipated, Southwest Plans Fleet-Wide Rollout of Wi-Fi With Row44

Southwest Airlines confirmed today that, as expected, it would roll out in-flight Wi-Fi through its fleet using the satellite-based Row44 system starting early next year.

Southwest has been testing the Row44 system -- emerging as a major competitor to Aircell's land-based Gogo service -- all year on four of its approximately 530 Boeing 737s. Southwest said that feedback from those tests has been "fantastic" from customers.

[For background, please see my interview with Row44 CEO John Guidon in my post of Aug. 7.]

"We have concluded our testing for inflight Wi-Fi and are very happy with both the technical performance of the system and the response of customers who have used it," said Dave Ridley, Southwest senior vice president of marketing and revenue management. "We are pleased to be continuing with our plans to offer satellite-enabled broadband access through California-based Row 44."

Aircell's Gogo system is currently installed on about 600 aircraft, including msot of Delta's mainline domestic fleet and all of AirTran's and Virgin America's fleets. All of American's 767-200s and two-thirds of its MD80s are connected with Gogo. US Airways recently announced that it was going with the Gogo system, which United has also tested.

Now that it has bagged the big prize, Southwest, Row44 is expected to concentrate on international airlines, because its system, unlike Gogo, works over oceans. Row44 signed a deal with Norwegian Air Shuttle to install its system on that fast-growing carrier's fleet.

Of the major U.S. carriers, Continental is the only one that has not yet signaled its intentions on Wi-Fi -- and both Aircell and Row44 would obviouslyu like to snare that one.

The Southwest statement quotes Guidon: "Row 44 is thrilled to be the in-flight Wi-Fi service of choice for one of the most customer-focused airlines in the world.

Southwest said, "During the testing phase, customers have been utilizing the service for anything from e-mail to streaming video. Those interested in using the service during the test period have had the opportunity to log on to the service via their own personal Wi-Fi-enabled device (laptops, iPhones, Wi-Fi-enabled smart phones, etc). Additionally, the airline has been testing a variety of price points for the service and will continue testing price points through the end of 2009."

Aircell sets its own prices. Row44 intends to allow individual airlines to set prices.


ExpressJet Crew Not At Fault in All-Night Passenger Stranding, Transportation Department Says

{Updates, with comment from Continental, Delta and ExpressJet}

In another blistering statement, the U.S. Transportation Secretary, Ray Lahood, says today that an investigation shows that the ExpressJet Airlines pilots actually made repeated attempts to try to get 50 stranded passengers off that cramped regional jet stuck on the apron all night after being diverted to the airport in Rochester, Minn. on Aug. 8.

The fault lay instead with local agents of Mesaba Airlines, which flies as a regional airline subcontractor for Delta, which was operating into Rochester that night. Lahood said that the Transportation Department inquiry found that "the local representative of Mesaba Airlines, the only carrier in a position to help the stranded plane, improperly refused the requests of the ExpressJet captain to let her passengers off the plane, telling the captain that the airport was closed to passengers for security reasons."

This, of course, was total hooey, as the airport manager himself insisted to me and other reporters following up on this fiasco. Passengers on the stranded plane, a Continental Airlines flight from Houston to Minneapolis operated by ExpressJet, could clearly see that the airport was open and that a gate was available 50 yards from where they sat.

The Mesaba actions also created confusion at ExpressJet headquarters, where reporters were told that one of the reasons the plane sat there all night with deteriorating cabin conditions was that the TSA staff had gone home for the night and there was no one available to "re-screen" the passengers if they got off.

As the airport manager also told me, that was baloney. The passengers would have deplaned into a secure area of the terminal, just as millions of connecting passengers do every week in airports all over the country, without any need to go through security again to board another flight.

Again, to me, the question is becoming ever more critical about the relationships (too vaguely defined for most passengers to grasp) between major airlines and the subcontractors who fly for them.

Who's in charge here?


UPDATE: Responding to Lahood, Continental Airlines issued this statement from its CEO, Larry Kellner:

"Continental takes responsibility for the care of its customers, whether they are on our regional partners' flights or on our own. We are gratified that Secretary Lahood recognized the crew's efforts to resolve the situation. While the result for the customers was clearly unacceptable, it is evident that the ExpressJet crew worked through the night to resolve the situation and was frustrated with Delta Connection's [my note: i.e., Mesaba] failure to provide reasonable assistance. We have processes in place to avoid these situations and those processes clearly broke down in this case. We are working to ensure that doesn't happen again."

Later, Delta Air Lines released this statement from its CEO, Richard Anderson:

"Because customer service is so important to our industry, I have personally reached out to Continental's chairman and CEO to ensure we fully understand the facts of this unfortunate incident. Delta is working with Mesaba to conduct an internal investigation, continue our full cooperation with the DOT and share all the facts with Continental."

Here is a link to the lengthier ExpressJet statement.


Meanwhile, here is the full statement from Secretary Lahood, who still sounds hopping mad about this mess:

"The DOT has concluded the preliminary phase of our investigation into the August 8 tarmac delay by Continental Airlines on a flight operated by ExpressJet Airlines. As you may recall, passengers were stuck in a plane on the ground in Rochester, Minnesota for almost six hours. We have determined that the ExpressJet crew was not at fault.

In fact, the flight crew repeatedly tried to get permission to deplane the passengers at the airport or on a bus.

Now, like many of you, I was outraged when I heard about this incident. And, like many of you, I've read a lot of conflicting stories about what happened that night--and I can appreciate any confusion readers may have. So, here is what our investigation found.

* The local representative of Mesaba Airlines--the only carrier in a position to help the stranded plane--improperly refused the requests of the ExpressJet captain to let her passengers off the plane, telling the captain that the airport was closed to passengers for security reasons.

This is what led to the nightmare for those stuck on the plane.

The Mesaba rep said this apparently because there was no one from the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) available to screen passengers. But, in fact, TSA procedures allow passengers to get off the plane, enter the terminal and re-board without being screened again as long as they remain in a secure area.

* While the crew of the Continental Express flight did what they could to assist passengers, more senior personnel within Continental or ExpressJet should have become involved in an effort to obtain permission to take the passengers off the plane.

You know, learning more about the facts of this incident hasn't done a whole lot to temper my anger at the way those passengers were treated. I mean, there was really a complete lack of common sense here. It’s no wonder the flying public is so frustrated.

I will say that this is one of the most thorough investigations ever conducted by the DOT's Aviation Enforcement Office. Members of the Office interviewed passengers, the flight crew, airport personnel and others with knowledge of the situation. They also listened to audio recordings from the aircraft and the dispatcher. In addition, Continental’s customer service commitment, contingency plan for flight delays, and contract of carriage were reviewed.

The Aviation Enforcement Office is considering appropriate action to take against Mesaba as it completes the investigation, which it expects to conclude within a few weeks.

As I said in a previous blog post, DOT has proposed regulations requiring airlines to adopt contingency plans for lengthy tarmac delays and to incorporate these plans in their contract of carriage, and we have asked for comment on whether rulemaking should set a uniform standard of time after which carriers would be requires to allow passengers to deplane.

What has the flying public gained from this investigation? Our findings will be used to help formulate a final rule that will provide better protection for airline passengers. The bottom line is that commercial aviation is complicated by many factors--weather and security among them. But, that passengers should be treated with respect? That part is simple."


Thursday, August 20, 2009

Very Bad Stats for Airlines: July Passenger Numbers Down, Not Just Revenue

Stand by for heavy rolls, as they say in the Navy when the sea gets rough.

We know, of course, that airline revenues have been plunging all year, while the industry tries to buoy itself with fare sales to keep people flying.

But in the primo travel month of July (compared with July 2008), four percent fewer passengers boarded domestic airlines, "despite double-digit declines in fares," the Air Transport Association said.

Revenue for domestic and international flights fell 21 percent in July, the ninth consecutive month in which passenger revenue has fallen from the prior year, the airline trade group said. Average fares -- measured as the price to fly one passenger one mile -- fell 18 percent. In June, the average fare was 21 percent off,compared with June of 2008.

These are very bleak numbers for the airline industry going into the fall season, and the situation is made even scarier for airlines by the confounding creep upward in oil prices. Crude oil closed at about $72 a barrel today.

Something's gonna give.


American Now Has 100 MD80s With Wi-Fi

American Airlines, the launch customer for Aircell's Gogo in-flight wireless system, says it now has the service available on 100 of its MD80s, with 50 more MD80s to go by the end of the year. The service is also installed on American's 15 Boeing 767-200s.

Though it was the first customer to sign up, American has lagged behind competitors like Delta, which will have its entire mainline fleet installed with the Gogo service by early fall. AirTran and Virgin America already have the service on their entire long haul fleets, and US Airways said recently that it would also install the connectivity. United Airlines and Air Canada also have announced plans to use Gogo.

Aircell says that two-thirds of all flights between Kennedy airport and Los Angeles International or San Francisco International now offer the service.

The Gogo system is based on land towers. Row44, a satellite-based competing system, is currently being tested on four Southwest Airlines 737s and a single Alaska Airlines 737.


JetBlue: Tough Luck, All Sold Out

I don't know how many times this kind of stunt can be pulled before you see real signs that you've alienated a significant segment of your loyalty base.

JetBlue says its unusual, massively hyped $599 "All-You-Can-Jet Pass" has been a "great success—we’ve sold out of all available passes!"

Well, high fives to you all. It was a great sale promotion directed at the business traveler who flies frequently.

But the fact is, JetBlue, you welched on the offer almost two days before it was to end. Slammed down the shutters. "Sorry! All sold out!"

Says JetBlue: "We limited the number of passes sold to make sure that everyone who purchased a pass would be able to take ample advantage of it during the September 8–October 8 travel period."

OK, noted. But then the company goes on blithely, as if it were addressing happy customers, rather than a number of people who might feel stiffed:

"Customers who purchased the pass can choose from 57 cities and more than 600 daily flights. Please be sure to review this page and the Full Terms and Conditions prior to booking your pass flights. Happy jetting!"

Right, happy jetting. But I'll bet some JetBlue customers have two other words to say in reply.

If Macy's pulled something like this, it would be considered a consumer scandal. "While supplies last" is a fine-print phrase used in come-on offers by bust-out joints, not highly regarded airlines like JetBlue. If you announce a sale, you keep your word.


Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Overseas Premium Travel Decline Slowing Slightly, Yet Airline Revenues Worsen On Those Routes

The International Air Transport Association put out new figures for June worldwide travel showing the first tiny, tiny evidence in a long while that the decline in international business travel is "moderating slightly." Ever so slightly.

That's a very wispy bit of better news for the airlines, domestic and foreign, that have invested so mightily in premium cabins in recent years. But on the other hand, the IATA figures also underscore what many experts, among them the British Airways CEO Willie Walsh, have been telling me for months. International premium travel will come back eventually, to some extent. But those sky-high fares -- like the $10,000-$11,000 RT walkups between New York and Europe -- are probably gone forever.

Adjustments will be made in terms of service and capacity. Costs must be removed from the systems. And you can quote me on this: Those adjustments will be far-reaching and long-term if not permanent. They will represent the international component of an fundamental reorganization of the air-travel industry.

Some highlights from the IATA Premium Traffic Monitor for June:

--The numbers of passengers traveling internationally in coach had been stabilizing since March, but the trend "seemed largely due to business travelers switching from premium to economy seats, rather than any other stabilizing of demand."

--In June, however, the decline in the overall number of passengers traveling on premium fares moderated. Not that the airlines are breaking out the good champagne here. Maybe a cold bracing beer instead. The moderation was very slight. In June compared with June 2008, premium traffic was off 21.3 percent. That's a slight improvement over the decline of 23.6 percent in May compared with May 2008.

--This tiny, tiny apparent improvement in premium travel demand is nothing more than a reflection of the sharp discounting international airlines have been doing in their premium cabins. Yields absolutely suck. As IATA pointed out, "revenues from premium travel fell an estimated 33 percent in Q1 and 41 percent in Q2." Furthermore, revenues from premium fares were "declining at a rate of close to 40 percent in June."

If you're an airline executive who bet the farm on robust international premium yields, and you know who you are out there, you are not having a good time this year, no matter how often you crank that adding machine.


Monday, August 17, 2009

Business Travel Coalition Ultimatum to Airlines Re Passengers' Rights Law: Straighten Up and Fly Right. Or Else.

I am constantly dismayed by the lack of clarity some of my colleagues — in the MSM and in blogs (jeez, I hate that word “blogosphere”) — show when it comes to discussing the passengers’ bill of rights legislation, which is going to happen in one form or another.

These colleagues, some of whom haven’t learned anything since 2007, keep arguing with me about the “merits.” Merits, schmerits. They simply don’t understand the inevitability. Or that we are at the edge of a fundamental reorganization of air-travel service in this country, unprecedented since the airline industry was deregulated in 1978.

The most recent impetus for the passengers’ rights law, now ensconced in the pending omnibus legislation to provide re-authorization for the F.A.A., was of course the disgraceful incident in which a planeload of passengers on a Continental flight operated by ExpressJet were stranded all night long on a cramped, packed regional jet parked 50 yards from an empty gate at the airport in Rochester, Minn.

The reason for this stranding, the latest among literally thousands since the current spate began in late 2006, was simple: In bad weather, the plane had been diverted from its scheduled destination, Minneapolis, to Rochester, 75 miles away.

Rather than discharging the passengers at midnight when they landed, airline dispatchers chose to keep the plane on the apron, in potential takeoff position, on the off-chance that the weather in Minneapolis would clear with enough of a window to get that airplane in.

The reason for this: Airline logistics and cost-cutting being what they are these days, it made economic sense to at least try to get that aircraft, one of those dreadfully cramped ERJ-145s, into place so it could be used for another flight in the morning. It was a matter of hoping to get equipment in the right place.

Defending itself, ExpressJet, a subcontractor for Continental, gave some amazing shuck-and-jive excuses for the incident — and these were readily bought by the credulous Minneapolis Star-Tribune newspaper, whose initial report was picked up by the AP and by online sources.

Among the laughable excuses conveyed by the newspaper (and those who depended on its half-baked reporting): At the Rochester airport, the TSA staff had gone home for the night, so passengers couldn’t be “re-screened” if the airline let them off the plane and into the terminal. And, the crew had “timed out,” so a new crew had to be found in the middle of the night.

Even worse, credulous news reports conveyed the pitiful ExpressJet excuse that the airport was “closed” for the night. The cordial airport manager, when I spoke to him a day later, was fuming. The airport is open 24/7 and was fully prepared to receive those passengers, if the airline had simply pulled up to the gate.

Airports, as I noted previously, are a little fed up at being blamed by airlines in these events.

All of the excuses put out by ExpressJet and bought by the media were pure baloney. As anyone who has ever flown knows, you don’t have to be re-screened by the TSA at an airport at which you have debarked — for example for a connection. All airport arrival and departure areas are within the secure zones.

And as anybody with even a simple understanding of crew scheduling (even on a regional airline) knows, a crew that “times out” on the tarmac is not legally in position to wait there for a takeoff nod. It is flagged, done, bereft of flying authority. The only option it has is to drive that plane to the gate.

In fact, the ExpressJet crew timed out around 6 a.m., when the plane did in fact dutifully trundle the 50 yards back to a gate that had in fact been open and available all night. A new crew was then sought, and the flight finally arrived at Minneapolis at 9:15 a.m.

I guess the point of all of this summing-up (my previous posts have presented the salient information) is that we need to be clear about the facts, now that the media ragtime-band-and-debating society is at full-blast in demanding the passage of a passengers’ rights law.

We can’t blame all airlines for this mess. But we can blame the airline-industry mouthpieces and various amen-choruses in the (gwaak) “blogosphere,” who have scoffed at and ridiculed the notion that if airlines can’t provide assurances of adequate health and safety measures to stranded passengers, the government damn might will.

You know what, the government damn-well might.

Which brings me to the Business Travel Coalition, a group that I have been long familiar with, which represents the interests of corporations that purchase business travel, a category of spending that weighs in at around $260 billion a year domestically.

I have always regarded this group’s chairman and chief bottle-washer, Kevin Mitchell, as a straight-shooter.

The group and the companies it represents around the world have always been loath to support any kind of government intervention into the operations of the airlines, which were almost completely deregulated in this country in 1978.

So it’s interesting to see their current position, printed in full below.

Essentially, they say, the airlines had better move fast to get a real, enforceable industry plan in place to deal with these atrocious strandings and the corresponding offenses against common regard for the health and well-being of passengers — or the government will.

And guess what, airline industry: Your very best customers, corporate travel buyers, will support that government intervention, if you keep shucking and jiving.

Here is the Business Travel Coalition’s current ultimatum to the airlines:



Since 1999, BTC has testified four times in Congress in opposition to passenger rights legislation. In lieu of Congressional intervention in the marketplace, anathema to businesses whose interests BTC represents, BTC called for the voluntary airline Customer Service Plans that went into effect in September 1999. In testimony in March of that year, however, as well as in all follow-on testimony through the years, BTC cautioned that if the airlines do not fix the service and extended ground delay problems, someone will eventually endeavor to do so for them.

From BTC’s 1999 testimony : “Like other industries that have faced the ominous threat of government intervention, airlines should view this legislation as a major warning and move decisively to address Congressional concerns. The industry needs to take immediate steps to head off this and further Congressional action, which will surely follow, if the industry’s problems are not corrected in the near term.”

Some low-cost and major network carriers have taken positive, but limited steps to address the extended ground delay problem. However, ten years later, airline passengers, consumer groups led by, travel industry professionals and the organizations that represent them such as the American Society of Travel Agents and the National Business Travel Association have said “game-over, lights-out;” it’s time for legislation and a single industry standard. So have many of our nation’s editorial pages such as The New York Times as well as an increasing number of Members of Congress. It is indeed sad commentary on airline industry leadership that the situation has had to come to this.

As part of its due diligence in determining a position on this controversial issue, BTC on July 26 initiated a survey of travel industry professionals, which is still ongoing . It is abundantly clear from preliminary results that airlines have run out of public-relations runway. Even their own employees, senior executives and former board members support passenger rights legislation, according to the survey and related interviews BTC has been conducting.

It seems that no matter where in the world passenger rights standards are proposed, airlines drag out the dire but fatigued “unintended consequences” warning. For example, a spokesman for the Air Transport Association last week told the San Francisco Chronicle, “I promise you that if a three-hour rule goes into effect, we’ll be having this conversation again and talking about the unintended consequences…” And in Europe, the International Air Transport Association and the European Low Fares Airline Association claimed that the now-implemented EU passenger rights regulations would limit consumer choice.

The sky, it turns out, did not fall in Europe. An EU-based travel management company CEO recently told BTC, “The EU regulations on flight cancellations and delays were expected to increase costs without much benefit to passengers. However, it seems not to have had that result. My experience is that vague reasons for cancellations have disappeared, and that the airlines will re-route and provide overnight accommodations when technical reasons prohibit them from flying. Compensation for cancellations is paid without argument.”

Airport Business Magazine Editorial Director John F. Infanger last week likely spoke for many in succinctly stating at the beginning of his blog-post titled The Airlines Talk of ‘Unintended Consequences,’ “… when it comes to the idea of mandating how long passengers can be made to suffer through ground delays at airports. The unintended consequence of them [airlines] continually turning a deaf ear to the issue is likely to be a new DOT reg or federal legislation telling them: Here it is; deal with it.” Infanger ends his post with, “If they want to minimize the unintended consequences, they ought to get in the discussion.”

From BTC’s vantage point, reasonable and experienced airline and travel industry executives have concluded that if airlines cannot solve these customer problems after ten years of Congressional pressure and unfavorable press coverage, then there must be a market failure. That extended ground delays are statistically insignificant is lost on the daughter who had a ninety year old father parked in a hot metal tube for five hours in August. This is first and foremost a health and safety issue. We spend hundreds of millions of dollars endeavoring to incrementally improve upon aircraft accident statistics. Why should passengers expect and accept less with respect to the nearly 500 incidents during the first six months of 2009 in which passengers spent greater than three hours on planes?

Unstoppable momentum is building for passenger rights legislation. Airlines’ loss of control of this debate is the first but perhaps not the last “unintended consequence” resulting from stonewalling for so long on this important consumer issue. They have a closing window-of-opportunity to humble themselves and constructively engage the proponents of passenger rights legislation. The Air Transport Association and its member airlines have been invited to participate in a September 22 Passenger Rights Stakeholder Hearing in Washington, DC ( ). Perhaps they will get the message this time and show up to find workable solutions for all stakeholders.”


Friday, August 14, 2009

Who's In Charge Here? (Part II): Airline Says You Can't Put ANYTHING in Seatback Pockets. 'What Fresh Hell Is This?'

Here's a new one, at least to me. As we taxied before takeoff on a flight tonight from Denver to Tucson, the flight attendant announced that no personal possessions could be placed in the seat-back pocket, because of "FAA regulations."

Nothing, she said. Not a pair of eyeglasses or a newspaper or a paperback book. Only "company-printed materials" were allowed in seat-back pockets, she said, and of course I quote her precisely.

What were these strange new "FAA regulations"? My seat-mate -- a hard-core business traveler and until then a stranger to me -- and I looked at each other. Surely this could not be a new law. But before takeoff, here the flight attendant comes marching down the narrow aisle on inspection, and right away she spots the books each of us had tucked into the pockets, as we had done thousands of times before.

She was on us like a prison guard. "Gentlemen, I told you, nothing in the pockets," she said. Sheepishly, we put our books in our laps, while the "company-printed materials" (the crappy in-flight magazine, the sales catalog, the barf bag and who knows what else) rode merrily alone in the seat-back pockets.

One does not argue with a flight attendant if one wants to get where one needs to go.

What fresh hell is this? I ask, quoting the phrase Dorothy Parker was said to have used upon hearing the telephone ring.

You can't put your reading glasses in the seatback pocket? Your paper? Your ticket?

We are back to the question asked here in the pre-dawn hours of today (the time stamp on this post is set to EDT, I think, but I am on Pacific time as I write this).

Who the hell is in charge here?

Well, as I noted a long time ago today, I was off on a day-long flying adventure from deep rural Nevada to Denver, with a connection to Tucson. As predicted, the prop-plane flight from Nevada to Denver went off perfectly.

Even the connection in Denver went off pretty well. I'd booked the Denver-Tucson flights on US Airways (the ticket said, "flight operated by Mesa Airlines doing business as US Airways Express" with a return for tomorrow, and when I made the change with some difficulty early this morning, I was booked out of Denver on a United flight "operating by SkyWest Airlines doing business as United Express."

My flight from rural Nevada to Denver this morning was operated by Great Lakes Airlines (doing business, it should be noted with a big round of applause, as "Great Lakes Airlines"). Went off perfectly.

And, given a 3+ hour layover in the massive Denver airport, so did the connection, despite the earlier confusion about what my new confirmation and flight numbers were.

At the United Airlines service counter (doing business at least there as United Airlines, thank God), I easily printed out new boarding passes for the 6.58 p.m. flight to Tucson on ... um, let me see if I have this straight now, on SkyWest Airlines doing business as United Express, which in turn is flying on behalf of United Airlines, which was in turn flying on behalf US Airways, the airline on which I had purchased the ticket and thought I would be flying)

Anyway, the flight attendant's name was Judy, and she had nearly as many miles on her as I do, though she looked a lot better for it. When I boarded, with a seat assignment of 1-A (it was a single-class, cramped Canadair regional jet), I saw that a curtain had been pulled across the two seats in that row.

"My seat seems to be blocked off," I said to Judy, who ignored me till I repeated it. In her defense, Judy was involved in the amazing flight-attendant feat of getting everyone on board, but still.

"You did that!" Judy said, pulling the curtain back.

I took my seat, but still I wondered: Why would Judy think that I would deliberately block my seat with a curtain? I mean, what was the percentage in it for me? Was Judy all right?

Dunno. Judy, doing business as an employee of SkyWest, which was in turn doing business as a subcontractor to United Express, which was operating, itself, as a contractor to United Airlines -- and in my case flying me as a full-fare-paying customer of US Airways, well, Judy was proudly in charge of enforcing what Judy evidently believed -- or had been told -- was a new federal law about not putting a book or your eyeglasses in a seat back pocket.

If it weren't for the curtain stuff, I would be sliding Judy a lot more slack here. Like most business travelers, I truly appfreciate what flight attendants go through, and what they have gone through in terms of pay cuts and job security.

But really: Invoking a non-existent federal law (whether on behalf of "security" or "safety") to keep seatback pockets free for advertising crap?

I know some passengers have been out of line stuffing things into seat-back pockets that anyone can see do not beling there. But in a sensible air-travel system, flight attendants -- who are respected figures on an airplane flight -- have no problem invoking common sense.

Upon "deplaning" in Tucson, I asked Judy who had told her that there was a federal law against putting anything in a seat back pocket, including your reading glasses.

"I have a document I can show you," she said.

I was the first off the plane, still under the technical custody of Judy at the time, not at all brave enough to hold other deplaning innocents up, while I examined a document that Judy, her technical custody of me undefined in my mind, claimed that she would produce. As we all sensible people will know, there is no percentage in this.

Meanwhile, pace Judy, who I incidentally saw to be very kind and helpful to a family with little kids sitting nearby, and thus in my mind was a good person, this is why we need to keep asking:

Who the hell is in charge here?


Air Travel: Who's In Charge Here?

Oh, this is already shaping up as one of those days.

I'm on assignment in a town in the middle of Nevada where the only Internet connection I could get in my hotel was at 3.30 a.m., I am guessing because of electronic interference last night from the slot machines in the lobby. This is no problem, though, because I went to bed at 8.

That isn't what has me worried as the day dawns. Rather, it's my adventures so far, this day being so, so young, in simply trying to change an airline itinerary to depart from Denver to Tucson today, rather than tomorrow, as I had originally booked.

I fly this morning from deepest Nevada to Denver on a twin-engine prop plane. No problem foreseen there, because if I wanted I could drive the two miles from my hotel to the "airport" and see a plane waiting there in the dust. I have already met the nice gentleman who runs the airport. I have the utmost confidence that I will get from Nevada to Denver on that piston-prop without a hitch.

The problem so far was in asking US Airways, on which I had booked the Denver-Tucson leg of my return trip, to make the change.

Am not sure how big a problem this will turn out to be (it's only 5 a.m. and my travel-day is so young and full of promise!). But so far, I've had reason to ask a question that I think needs to be asked a whole more more often these days, as airlines hand off flights willy-nilly to subcontractors and competitors.

Who the hell is in charge here?

Here's the day so far:

Around 3.30 am, finally able to get online, I checked the US Airways site to see if I could make the simple itinerary change -- today, not tomorrow -- online.,

Nope, you have to call. OK, fair enough.

The lady answers and I can tell she's vexed because I'm on a cellphone with an iffy signal, and it isn't easy for me to understand her inarticulation. Like, she reads off confirmation codes in what she evidently believes is a universal verbal semaphor: "G as in gopher, P as in Paul, M as in monster ..."

My brain doesn't compute that very quickly. "Cannot you hear me, sir?" she asks impatiently. Lamely, my armor and lance still hanging in the closet at this hour, I explain that I am on a cellphone in the middle of nowhere.

Finally, it's decided that the switch will be made, same flight new day. Even though I understood myself to have a fully refundable ticket, she insisted there would be a $150 change fee.

But now she's mumbling something about United Airlines. Wait, I'm dealing with US Airways, right? No, now it seems as if I am dealing instead with a United flight, operated by United Express, which in turn seems to be operated by some other company whose name I didn't quite git, I mean get. And then, inexplicably, she puts me on hold and I listen to an extremely loud series of commercials for US Airways for 10 minutes before I hang up in despair.

I call back, and a somewhat more pleasant woman named Danielle answers (I didn't git, I mean get, the first one's name) -- though Danielle doesn't seem to be especially interested in the fact that I had just received the runaround from a previous agent, who I presumed had gone to breakfast when she became bored with me.

Danielle taps away, always a welcome sound. No, the previous change had not gone through. Aha! I say, but Danielle seems to disapprove of that impertinence. The change is made, though. It's a refundable ticket, as I knew, so it would be an even swap, today for tomorrow. Danielle has done it.

Still, the flight now was to be on United Airlines, operated by United Express, operated by, what was it? Ajax Airlines & Storm Door Company? The confirmation and flight numbers remained the same, she assured me.

Could she e-mail me the confirmation?

"It probably won't get to you before your departure," she said. My departure, at this point, was still more than 12 hours away.

Not at all confident with this, I go back online to check-in, anxious that the hotel connection will be down again. The connection works, but the check-in doesn't. The US Airways site basically tells me to get lost.

"Your are not able to use Web Check-In for this reservation. Please see details below," it says, adding: "Your flight originates on another airline therefore we are unable to check you in. Here's how to fix it: Please proceed to the airport ticket counter of your originating carrier to check in for your flight."

Wait, I think: YOU'RE my originating carrier. Do I go to you or to United at the difficult-to-maneuver Denver airport, on a short turnaround time from my flight from deepest Nevada?

I go to the United site, and after a lot of fiddling around, I see that none of the information I had was correct. The flight number was different, and so was the confirmation number. But hey, at least United had it. I checked in, without being able to print out the boarding pass. But at least I have a seat tonight from Denver to Tucson, on whatever they're calling the plane and the operator.

I hope.


Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Here's a Unique Fare Sale: $599 One-Month Pass on JetBlue

Read the fine print, but this is an amazing-sounding fare sale on JetBlue for travel in the slow season Sept. 8 - Oct. 8 -- three days advance notice, unlimited flying, assuming availability. $599. There's gonna be some action on this one. Pass must be purchased by Aug. 21.


Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Latest Stranding Incident Spurs New Calls for Passage of Airline Passengers Bill of Rights

You heard it here first: That boneheaded stunt in which a planeload of passengers were stranded all night on a cramped regional jet in Rochester, Minn. is the passengers-rights equivalent of the bone-headed stunt last year when three clueless Detroit auto executives swanned into Washington in their fancy corporate jets to demand taxpayer bailouts.

That stunt set the business-aviation industry -- which had succeeded in recent years in establishing a sensible rationale for business aviation -- back a decade.

The Rochester incident, only the latest of literally thousands of such passenger-strandings in the last 2 1/2 years, comes just as Congress has serious passenger-rights legislation on its agenda. Legislation that the airlines have done everything in their power to block.

Even the most ardent critics of that legislation (including some with reasonable concerns that certain provisions might have negative unintended consequences) now concede that a passenger-rights law will probably pass, holding the airlines accountable for how they treat passengers on flights stuck on tarmacs for long hours.

I myself have always had some questions about the provision in the legislation that says airlines need to return a plane to a gate and let passengers off if they have been stranded for three hours or more. On the other hand, if, as the airlines say, these stranding incidents are statistically minuscule, then any potential problems cause as an unintended consequence of that remedy ought, logically, to be statistically minuscule too. It stands to reason, no?

Meanwhile, I simply cannot understand why the airlines have thumbed their noses at the public over the various health-and-safety provisions in the bill, and have continued to allow passengers to suffer in miserable conditions on stranded planes. Now my guess is the airlines are going to have to live with the whole shooting-match, three-hour provision and all. And it's their own fault.

Here's a joint statement today from Sens. Barbara Boxer, a Democrat, and Olympia J. Snowe, a Republican, who are the major sponsors of the passengers-rights provisions that are contained within the pending FAA Reauthorization legislation that Congress is expected to pass in September:


"Washington, D.C. – Today, Senators Barbara Boxer (D-CA) and Olympia J. Snowe (R-ME) expressed their outrage that 47 passengers on Continental Airlines Flight 2816 were stranded overnight Friday on a deserted tarmac in Rochester, Minnesota – an incident that underscores the need for Congress to pass their Airline Passenger Bill of Rights quickly.

Senator Boxer said, “This incident reminds us why a well-crafted Airline Passenger Bill of Rights is needed now. People should never be forced to spend the night on the tarmac, held captive on an airplane without food, water and sufficient restrooms. Senator Snowe and I are working with our colleagues to build support for this much-needed legislation to make sure it becomes law.”

“The inexcusable actions of Continental Airlines -- to force nearly 50 passengers to remain on the tarmac for six hours -- makes clear, once again, the airline industry’s refusal to protect passenger rights. If a patron visits a restaurant that does not offer some modicum of functioning restrooms or provide adequate food and water, that customer can leave the restaurant and find another. For the airline passenger, that simply is not an option,” Senator Snowe said. “Congress has a responsibility to the American people to ensure there is some level of accountability, some minimum standard in place, which is why it is imperative Congress enact the Passenger Bill of Rights legislation that I have introduced along with Senator Boxer this year. We’ve already crossed one major hurdle, having the legislation included in the FAA Reauthorization bill which was reported out of the Commerce Committee in July, and I stand ready to work with the leadership in the Senate to ensure this measure is brought to the floor for a vote.”

The Senators are sending a letter to their colleagues urging support for their Airline Passenger Bill of Rights, which they first introduced in 2007 following several incidents where passengers were forced to remain on airplanes for as long as 11 hours. Their bill ensures that – at a minimum – travelers are not trapped on airplanes for excessive periods of time or deprived of food, water or adequate restrooms. The measure was included in the FAA Reauthorization bill that was reported out of the Commerce Committee last month. If the FAA bill does not move forward quickly, the Senators will work with their colleagues to pass their stand-alone bill to prevent passengers from enduring similar ordeals in the future.

The Airline Passengers Bill of Rights would:

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

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

---Make airports and airlines develop contingency plans for delayed flights to be reviewed and approved by Department of Transportation (DOT). The bill also allows the DOT to fine air carriers and airports that do not submit or fail to comply with contingency plans.

---Direct the DOT to create a consumer complaint hotline so that passengers can alert the agency about delays."



Airport Council: We're Sick of Bad Reporting, Airline Buck-Passing in Stranded-Passenger Incidents

There is some good, reliable reporting (ahem) about that Continental Airlines flight that stranded passengers all night over the weekend in a plane idled at the airport in Rochester, Minn.

Basically, that plane, a 50-seat ERG-145 regional jet operated for Continental by ExpressJet, sat on that tarmac all night because of decisions by Continental dispatchers in Minneapolis, where the plane was headed before being diverted to Rochester by bad weather in Minneapolis. The decision was to keep the plane on the tarmac, hoping that the weather would break in time to get that airplane to Minneapolis by early morning, so it could be repositioned for another flight.

Gotta keep that hardware moving. The fact that 47 passengers, including babies (not clear whether the babies upped the count to over 50), sat all night trapped in a cramped RJ with poor ventilation, screaming babies, a filthy toilet and no food -- these things simply did not enter into the operational calculations.

The airport was open and prepared to receive those passengers, the airport manager, Steve Leqve, told me. Instead of coming to the gate to let people off, the plane remained on the apron because its pilots were instructed by dispatchers to hang in there and hope for a takeoff opportunity. And so the night went on and on, till the crew finally "timed-out" around 6 a.m., when the plane was forced to go to the gate while the airline scrounged for a new crew, which finally flew the plane to Minneapolis, where angry, stricken passengers arrived at 9.15 a.m.

The national airports trade group said today that it is sick and tired of poor reporting and of airlines trying to blame airports for problems caused by airlines alone. See below.

There was some very bad reporting on this story, which is being widely repeated today on Web news sites that just rewrite news accounts from any source that pops up in front of them. In this case, that would be a report in a Minneapolis newspaper that had several incorrect assertions, and one incorrect and ridiculous one.

That account, based on bad information from ExpressJet, stated that one of the reasons the passengers couldn't get off the plane was that the airport's TSA screeners had all gone home, and the passengers could not be rescreened, as necessary, to get back on the plane.

That is patently absurd, and no reporter or editor should have accepted such a ridiculous assertion. The passengers would have entered the secure side of the airport -- just as about a million connecting passengers do every day in airports all over the country -- with no need to be re-screened to get onto an airplane for Minneapolis.

But you'd be surprised at how many credulous accounts are online today, deriding the TSA and the airport.

Credulous news accounts also accepted an apparent ExpressJet statement that the crew on the stranded plane had "timed out" and thus the plane had to sit there till a new crew was found.

Nonsense. If the crew had "timed out" in the middle of the night, the plane would have had to go to the gate. In fact, the crew didn't time out till about 6 a.m., when the plane did in fact finally go to the gate.

And there's some other nonsense about ExpressJet's inability to "charter a bus" to take passengers to Minneapolis. Delta Air Lines, which had a diverted flight that landed AFTER the Continental/ExpressJet flight, managed to get its passengers to the gate and onto a chartered bus for Minneapolis, the airport manager told me.

Absent-TSA, crew time-out, closed-airport, that phantom chartered bus -- all are red herrings.

As Continental itself made clear, there is no excuse for what happened in Rochester Friday night and Saturday morning.

Meanwhile, airports are getting a little sick and tired of taking the blame for airline misfeasance in stranded passenger incidents.

I've been covering these events since the current string of them started in late Dec., 2006. When remedies are applied, it's usually the local airport authorities that do them. Airport managers, acting where airlines have failed their passengers, have even sent out pizza and other food to stranded passengers.

Greg Principato, the president of the airports trade group Airports Council International/North America, is steamed about the bad reporting, including the most recent bad reporting over the Rochester incident.

Here's what he had to say today:

"The story about passengers stuck on a regional jet Friday night in Rochester, Minn., really has me angry. What angers me the most is this: the airline involved blamed the airport, saying it was the middle of the night, the airport couldn’t take care of the passengers, there were no TSA screeners, etc.

This is bull.

The airport was and is ready to receive passengers in this situation. They are an international airport open 24/7. There were clean rest rooms and vending machines available in the sterile area. The notion that the absence of TSA screeners caused this is also nonsense; the people could have been let off and remained in the secure area of the terminal.

This airline and its personnel screwed up. It happens. When it does, you own the mistake, apologize and compensate those who paid a price for the mistake, and then set about making sure it doesn’t happen again. I was pleased today to see that Continental is offering a refund to the passengers and a certificate for a future flight.

What bothers me is the pattern of blaming the airport and I am tired of it. The director of a small southern airport told me a story about being on a plane that landed early at his own airport. The pilot pulled up toward the gate but stopped short announcing that as they were early, “the airport” wasn’t ready. The airport director talked to the pilot about this; it was the airline’s ground staff that wasn’t ready for an early flight, the airport was all set. The pilot didn’t care; he said it because he could.

The same happens when “air traffic control” is blamed for all sorts of problems, including those caused by airline over-scheduling.

The airline business is a complex one; no doubt. Mistakes will happen. But I am tired of airlines blaming everyone else, with airports being their favorite target of choice.

The airport in Rochester, Minn., was ready to help those people. The airline preferred to leave them on the plane and then found it easier to blame the airport and TSA.

Shame on them. They deserve whatever remedies might be forced on them by a traveling public, and the politicians who represent then, who are fed up with such irresponsibility."


Friday, August 07, 2009

Interview With Row44's Chief John Guidon

I recently spoke at some length with John Guidon, the co-founder of Row44, the company that is emerging as a major competitor to Aircell in the business of supplying in-flight Wi-Fi service on airplanes. Southwest Airlines has been testing Row44's satellite-based system on four of its 737s all year, and is expected to decide this fall whether to roll out Wi-Fi on all of its fleet. Alaska Airlines has also tested Row44 on a single aircraft. Aircell, meanwhile, has installed its Gogo system -- a land-tower based technology -- on nearly 500 airplanes, including all of AirTran's and Virgin America's fleets, with Delta's mainline domestic fleets to be fully equipped by late September. American, US Airways and United are also installing Gogo.

Guidon's background is in satellite, digital communications and internet technology. He's also a private pilot. His technology career included consulting on airborne electronics for Marconi Space and Defense Systems, then as an engineer for Litton, where he was responsible for navigation elements still used in aircraft today. He founded the microelectronics consultancy GME, which he took to $20 million in annual sales and, after 10 years, recast as chip-maker ComCore Semiconductor, which he sold to National Semiconductor for $150 million.

Row44, based in Westlake Village, Calif., this week received its permanent operating license from the Federal Communications Commission.


Q--So far, your major activities are with testing the system on Southwest and Alaska?

GUIDON --Yes, our agreements with Southwest and Alaska are initially related to providing proof of concept through the trials. There's one aircraft on Alaska and four on Southwest, and those planes are still flying. Both airlines have been wonderful development partners,. We are doing everything we can to make sure we become a good mainline supplier for their entire fleet -- but it's never over till the fat lady sings [in terms of being awarded the fleetwide contracts]

Q--Your major development partner, Southwest, doesn't fly overseas, but yet your system works on overseas flights while the Aircell land-based system does not. So why Southwest for Row44?

GUIDON--Well, one of the other things you get with satellite connectivity is a consistency of experience over the entire geography that you’re flying over, land or ocean, as well as the ability to keep increasing the amount of bandwidth you provide as demand for bandwidth goes up. So in the case of a purely North American landlocked airline, if you will, there are real benefits to going with satellite.

And for airlines which have international operations, those initial benefits are augmented by the ability to have a single infrastructure across your entire fleet as opposed to having a hybrid infrastructure. We believe satellite is the correct way to do this, the way to give the best and most consistent experience as this becomes more and more heavily used by larger and larger numbers of people.

Because our system is the same wherever you are, there are no variations in speed which can result from congestion in air-to-ground systems [such as Aircell's]. So from our point of view, one of the strengths we have over air-to-ground is the speed does not vary; the experience is seamless. That's a big deal.

However, the jury is going to be out for some time as to how each of these systems stands up to large numbers of users

Q--The initial foray into in-flight connectivity was Connexion by Boeing, which went belly-up in 2006, partly because of capital costs and partly because it just didn't have enough users. What gives you the confidence to assume you will prevail?

GUIDON --Several factors led to the failure of the Boeing product. The first was that economic climate for air travel, and for furnishing these services, was damaged by 9/11. The second was that the carriers that opted to install this equipment were necessarily only putting it on widebody aircraft, the reason being that the equipment was five times heavier than our equipment, and so was too big to put on, for example, a Boeing 737 or an Airbus A320.

The high density most-profitable markets are the intra, within-a-continent markets. The intra-North American market is the best market in the world, closely followed by the European internal market, because of the density of air travel. You know, 34 percent of all air travel is over North America.

Also, besides the size and weight issue, and the affect post-9/11, Boeing had elected to build everything themselves from scratch. They wrote their own back-office software and everything else, all of which wound up creating a very large company with very high overhead. Contrast that, if you will, with Row44's staff of about 35. Connexion by Boeing had a staff approaching 700 people. They spent well over a $1 billion on their rollout.

Row44 is built on the alternative philosophy, which I learned in a previous company I had started, a fabless semiconductor company, where all of the capital expenditure for tooling and equipment and so on was handled by outside contractors, while the intellectual property is retained within the company. You do everything you can using other peoples resources.

In the case of Row44 that’s what we do. We deliberately keep the company as lean as we can. We sit on top of the Hughes infrastructure -- and Hughes is the world’s largest broadband-satellite operator by a long shot. We use their network operations centers and so on, and that affords us enormous reach and power but also affords us enormous economies of scale because those networks are already in place and already profitable. It makes a huge difference to Row44 in terms of be able to grow rapidly and to provide a very high level of service because we're working with somebody who’s already the premier service in the world at doing just that.

Q--Critics maintain that there is no evidence that enough passengers on an airplane will pay for Wi-Fi connections to make this industry viable. How do you answer that?

GUIDON -- We know from our trials that a very high percentage of people are carrying Wi-Fi devices on board. The number fluctuates, but on average around 30-35 percent are. We might get 30 percent of those people using the service in a free trial period, but of course that number goes down if you charge [Southwest has begun charging for the service in its most recent trials].

Our internal analyses have had a target in the single-digit take range for paying internet customers. That we feel is a conservative number and we don’t want hype anybody on the idea, in an immature market and in a down economy, that there will be users in the double-digit ranges. We do believe in the long term that they certainly will climb there, though. We're very bullish on that.

We know that this is an increasingly essential service that the customer will demand. But we're not saying there are going to be high take-rates overnight

Q--Aircell tells me it costs about $100,000 to outfit one airplane with its Gogo equipment. How much does it cost to outfit a plane with Row44?

GUIDON -- I don't want to discuss actual figures, but it's quite a lot more, let’s put it that way. But we believe that our customers understand the value proposition

Q--Obviously, with most major U.S. airlines signed up (Southwest conspicuously not among them), Aircell has a big lead on Row44. Aircell says it will have 1,000 planes outfitted by the end of this year. What are your projections for Row44?

GUIDON -- I would say perhaps by the end of 2010 we’d be looking at somewhere between 500 and 1,000 worldwide. In the U.S., I’d say by the end of 2010, somewhere around 500

Q--Aircell puts a lot of effort into branding its Gogo system. Will Row44 do that?

GUIDON --Row44 has no branding and no branding ambition. We are firmly of the belief that the passenger is the airline’s customer, not ours. We see no reason to insert a brand between the identity of the airlines and the passenger. Why would a passenger care that they getting their broadband from one place or another? All they want to know is what's the quality of that experience on their airline.

From our point of view, the airlines are analytical about this, and one of the things they care deeply about is the integrity of their passenger experience and the way they do their own marketing. That’s why it's very important to our customers [airlines] to be able to be in control of not only the branding but also the pricing.

Q--Aircell has its own pricing, and it's been discounting. Where does Row44 fall in with estimated prices?

GUIDON -- So much of it is going to be determined by how the airlines want to use the pricing in the market. If Row44 were going to be controlling prices, which we are not, we would shoot for long-haul prices of somewhere under $10, and a short-haul price somewhere close to $5.

Q--What about Wi-Fi smart phones and BlackBerrys? Aircell discounts prices for using them.

GUIDON-- Personal devices, those are always go to be cheaper. It’s hard to consume that much data with a smaller device; the screens are smaller with lower resolution. In general, studies show the amount of data used on personal devices is just smaller, so they're not consuming the same level of bandwidth.

This market is very important. We see an enormous number of Iphones in use. That's certainly the dominant portable smart phones being used on the service, in our experience.

By the way, I believe it's incumbent upon BlackBerry and the service providers to become more aggressive with the provisioning of Wi-Fi across their offerings. Historically they really only had one or two BlackBerry devices with Wi-Fi. To some extent this reflects the concerns and intentions of the cellular operators -- they have questions about what Wi-Fi means to them, and so you're going to see a spectrum of different preferences.

Q-There's a lot of concern about voice over Internet protocol use -- I mean, theoretically, a Wi-Fi device on an airplane can now be used to make voice calls, with all of the social commotion that prospect entails. I know that both Row44 and Aircell try to block VoIP use in-flight, but someone always is figuring out how to cirumvent that. Where are we headed with this?

GUIDON -- It's certainly a hot topic. We block voice over IP; nevertheless, there will always be a cat and mouse game between people who try to figure out ways of getting voice over IP over row44 service and our attempts to stop them. I think that's just what makes the world go around.

We will certainly maintain a policy of not enabling a lot of voice over IP. However, there are other questions that this raises, certainly internationally, where you're already seeing a deployment of cellphone roaming on board aircraft. That's a political hot-potato here in North America, where the airlines are very concerned about the social implications of having people talking on phones, annoying other passengers.

But while there is a sentiment that we just don’t want this on board, nevertheless across the rest of world this seems to be rolling out with no drama

I think a huge amount of use of cellphone on board will unquestionably be texting. But we all have to adapt to the changing ways of social interaction. I'm sure that we’ll figure this thing out. I not particularly concerned about the future of voice roaming on aircraft

Our customers are the airlines. Row44’s equipment is certainly technically capable of producing all categories of mobile-phone connectivity.

Q-Southwest Airlines is obviously your big leap forward, assuming they go with Row44. Beyond that possibility, who are you talking with?

GUIDON -- We are getting ready for a European and transatlantic expansion, because ultimately, of course, we're going to provide global service. The inquires around the globe are very promising; we have a lot of interest across the entire planet.

We're going to have to run really hard to meet what the desired customers’ timing is for those markets. So I would just say, watch us and look at the results. We not a company that all about making a big splash in marketing and presentation.

Q -- So when do you expect Southwest to decide?

GUIDON -- Now that we have been through this proof-of-concept, Southwest will reflect on the timing of what it wants to do, and I am sure they’ll make their own announcement in their own time. It's not something we have any control over.

Q - But you're geared up to go?

GUIDON -- You better believe we're geared up. We use third-party heavy-maintenance facilities that do all of the heavy maintenance for, example, Southwest or Alaska airlines. We train those organizations and they do the installations for us, and they are ready to go.


Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Get a Load of Those Load Factors (Cont'd)

As noted here the other day when Continental said its load factor was 87.8 percent in July, up 3.1 percentage points from July 2008, airlines are packing more people into fewer planes, and their load factors are soaring to the point where on most routes, airplanes are taking off without a single empty seat.

United Airlines now says its load factor in July was 88.9 percent, up 2.6 percentage points from July 2008. Capacity was down 11.4 percent domestically.

Same picture at US Airways: Load factor 87.5 percent, up 2.3 points. Capacity down 11.2 percent.

[UPDATE: Same story at American Airlines: Load factor, 87.3 percent, up 1.4 points; domestic capacity down 10.4 percent.]


Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Nap Time in the Cockpit: go! Airlines Flight Kept Going Because Both Pilots Were Asleep, NTSB Concludes

The two pilots on a go! Hawaii Airlines flight that overshot the airport in Hilo, Hawaii by 30 miles on Feb. 13, 2008, were asleep and unresponsive to multiple attempts by Air Traffic Control to communicate with them, the National Transportation Safety Board confirmed in its final report on the incident issued yesterday.

The weirdly named go! Hawaii is a subsidiary of Mesa Airlines, which contracts to provide regional airline flights to several major airlines.

The NTSB report firmly placed the blame for the incident on pilot fatigue, which is a huge issue brewing within commercial aviation, with its dependence on regional airlines. "The day of the incident was the third consecutive day that both pilots started duty at 0540," the NTSB said. It determined the probable cause of the incident as:

"The captain and first officer inadvertently falling asleep during the cruise phase of the flight. Contributing to the incident were the captain's undiagnosed obstructive sleep-apnea and the flight crew's recent work schedule, which included several consecutive days of early-morning start times."

In June, our increasingly worthless network and cable TV news outlets made a huge breathless deal out of the fact that a pilot died on a Continental flight from Brussels to Newark, even though there were two other pilots on deck at the time and they landed the plane routinely, without incident.

Pilot fatigue is the real issue in air travel safety these days, especially on the regional airlines that account for more than half of all flights, and which are often cost-cutting subcontractors flying on behalf of the major airlines.


Monday, August 03, 2009

Airlines in July: Look At Those Load Factors!

Continental Airlines, usually the first to report its monthly operational results, says it had a load factor of 87.8 percent in July -- 3.1 points higher than the already high load factor in July of 2008.

The load factor is the percentage of available seats filled by paying customers. A load factor above 80 percent means that on most flights, all of the seats are always full.

The current whopping load factors, which will likely be similar on other major airlines, don't mean there's an increase in passenger demand. Au contraire. The number of people flying Continental decreased by 3.4 percent in July - but the number of seats available decreased by 6.3 percent.

Meanwhile, passenger revenue -- the money the airline collects from its customers -- was off by 16.5 to 17.5 percent, Continental estimates.

Do the math and you will achieve a good understanding of what lies ahead. A shrinking system, with planes packed full. And higher fares to jack up those abysmal revenue numbers.


Why You Fasten Seat Belts

Sudden turbulence caused injuries to at least 26 passengers on a Continental 767 flying from Rio de Janeiro to Houston this morning. The plane made an emergency landing in Miami.


Saturday, August 01, 2009

Overreaction to Nut With Bag of Wires Jams Up LaGuardia

I don’t know how secure we should feel whenever we watch the spectacle of the TSA and the local airport cops getting hysterical over a common lunatic, as appears to be the case at LaGuardia today when some nut (drunk and “spaced out” as a vigilant clinician/ticket agent said) showed up with a bag of wires.

Immediate hysteria ensued by the TSA and the Port Authority police (not to be confused with the actual New York City Police Department, which knows how to handle crazy incidents without in the process making them far worse). Here’s the New York Daily News report. Some planes were even called back off the runway and passengers were required to get off.

The TSA we know all about. The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey Police used to be mainly in charge law enforcement of bridges and tunnels, but they’re the main police presence at airports too.

In a real terrorist plot, mass confusion and hysteria — obviously pretty easy to create; I mean how hard is it to find a pliant idiot and hysterical authorities these days? –might be employed as a diversion while the actual plot slips through. The actual plot would be something we weren’t expecting, carried out in the chaos while the authorities ran around barking orders (uncoordinated and conflicting, would be my guess) and scaring everyone to death.

By the way, the post of director of the TSA has been vacant since January. I’ll repeat that. No one is in charge at the TSA.