Airline Roundup Friday 18 February 2011

Wunaladreamingb Forgetful United Airlines?  United discovered, late Tuesday, that it had not completed safety checks on a critical equipment upgrade on its fleet of 757s – an upgrade that that occured the better part of – ooops – seven years ago.

Now you might think that after seven worry free years, another day or so wouldn't hurt, but United panicked and so cancelled all 757 services until the checks had been carried out.  A shame about customer inconvenience of course, but better to disrupt the travel plans of tens of thousands of customers than to risk a one in a billion chance of a 757 having a problem by allowing them to continue flying unchecked for another day or two until a convenient check could be scheduled in regular airplane downtime (as it turned out, the checks failed to uncover any points of concern at all).

Well, you might agree with United on that point, but I wonder if the stranded passengers did.  Or maybe United's excessive caution (albeit almost seven years late) was due to the interesting coincidence that the day it announced the grounding of its 757 fleet was exactly 50 years after a 707 flying from New York to Brussels crashed shortly before landing, killing all 72 on board.  The reason for the crash was never established.

No word as to the threat of any FAA fines.  More details here.

Naughty Delta.  The DoT sort of fined Delta sort of $2 million for failing to comply with its obligations to serve passengers with disabilities.  This makes it the largest penalty ever levied for a non-safety type violation.

The DoT, as part of the Air Carrier Access Act, requires airlines to provide assistance to passengers with disabilities while boarding and deplaning aircraft, including the use of wheelchairs, ramps, mechanical lifts and service personnel where needed. Carriers also must respond within 30 days to written complaints about their treatment of disabled passengers, and specifically address the issues raised in the complaints.  Apparently Delta has not been discharging its obligations adequately.

As for the 'sort of' a fine, $1.25 million of it can be allocated by Delta towards the cost of bringing it in compliance with its obligations.  So only $750k of it, going to the DoT, is money Delta won't get any benefit from.

Bigger is better, right?  Not when it comes to airlines.  As I've conclusively shown before, bigger airlines have higher operating costs, rather than lower operating costs.  The concept of 'economy of scale' does not, can not, and never will apply to airlines.

So when we read of the new president of the Air Line Pilots Association speaking approvingly of the need for US airlines to merge still more, perhaps we see a clue as to why bigger airlines have higher costs.  Because they tend to pay more to their pilots, and not coincidentally, can give their pilots better perks too.

The pilots also get a stronger and stronger bargaining position as the airline they work for gets bigger and bigger.  Whereas a small airline can do various things to combat a pilot strike, and even if the airline simply ceases operations, there is little flow through effect to the rest of the industry, if a huge dinosaur carrier now has a pilot strike, there just aren't sufficient surplus pilots out there to hastily conscript, and the loss of a mega-airline's capacity such as UA/CO or DL(and formerly NW) would have serious implications through the rest of the airline industry.

So of course the pilots prefer mega-airlines to mini-airlines.  But we should continue to oppose them.

What on earth is happening to frequent flier programs?  The number of miles needed to redeem a free ticket have lengthened and lengthened and lengthened.  Frequent flier miles are worth perhaps a quarter of what they had been worth a decade or two ago – a scurrilous devaluation, because the cost to us to accrue the miles hasn't also gone down four fold.

Reader PJ writes in on this topic :

May I take a moment and share my "tale of woe" this week with regards to airline programs, specifically travel with points.

Every May I treat my wife to a trip to Paris and France for her birthday.  On various occasions we've even driven to JFK from the Philadelphia area to reduce the number of segments required to travel.

In the past I have bought coach tickets and then used miles to upgrade them . But now it involves a hefty $350 one way additional charge to do so, each way, for each of us, so the end result is another $1,400 to for the both of us.  So, in essence, buy the tickets for approx. $850 each and then use 100,000 miles AND pay $1,400 for the upgrade in addition to the miles.  I guess a pair of Biz Class tickets at a total $3,100 is better than the actual cost.  But does anyone really appreciate how many flights it takes to accrue that many miles?

When I contacted Delta Airlines to secure Business Class tickets for this May 2011, which as per the "Program" should cost 100,000 miles each I was informed that yes, we could use my miles to do so.  How many?  350,000 miles for each ticket.  Period.  This is OUTRAGEOUS.  I am certain that you agree.  700,000 miles?  Even if I had that many I am shocked and wouldn't do so.

Then, since I actually have middle premium status on American Airlines as well, upon contacting them, they actually were able to confirm the Biz Class tickets on British Airways for 100,000 miles each ticket.  Oh, and the taxes and fees for EACH 'free' ticket will be $670.00!  EACH.  And it will involve a 10 hour layover in Heathrow.

These loyalty programs have deteriorated rapidly over the last few years.  It is horrible.  It used to be that you could plan 11 months in advance and secure tickets.  Now they even make THAT a difficult endeavor.

This points to my instincts from 10 years ago when I made the decision to preferentially fly AA rather than Delta.  I have 1.89M miles (flown) on Delta but 2.4M "Program Miles" flown.  They will not grant me Lifetime Gold Medallion status until I hit 2M flown miles, but did execute a "Status Match" for one year.

The last 3 flights on Delta were horrible.  I did not travel for 3 years and upon resuming, I requested Delta allow me to to resume as Gold Medallion.  They ignored my request and upon resubmitting it I received a computer generated letter declining.  I called AA and they granted me Gold on the spot and I have been Platinum ever since.

I think I'll go back to flying AA almost exclusively again.  Even though their upgrades are not complimentary, being Gold with Delta means little now that they have a fourth tier, Diamond.

Thanx for letting me vent.

If you're even a casual fan of the America's Cup yacht races, you'll know that one of the areas that the different yacht designers/builders focus on is creating as low a drag hull as possible, to help the boats go through the water as smoothly as possible.

As an occasional glider pilot, I know that prior to competing in a race or other special event, I'd first polish the skin of the glider, removing all dirt and obstructions.  And, at a more individual level, you probably know how male swimmers will often shave off all their body hair to cut down on water resistance.

Easyjet is looking at a similar concept for its planes.  It is looking at covering its planes with an acrylic exterior polish that fills microscopic sized pits and groves in the top layer of paint, so as to make for the smoothest possible surface.

The special liquid is about 1/1000th of a millimeter thick.  To put it another way, it would take 250 layers of this special polish to make a thickness 1/100th of an inch.  Some of the leading edges of the wings have a thicker layer for longer life.

Or, to put it another way, coating an entire plane with this material adds approximately 4 ounces to the plane's weight.

Compare that to the paint job on the 747-300 pictured at the start of this entry, the beautiful Qantas jet known as Wunala DreamingThe paint on Wunala Dreaming weighs a ton – about 10,000 times more than a coat of this special anti-friction polish paint.  Indeed, the weight of the paint is so much the plane can't fly some long haul routes that other Qantas 747s can fly.  Because of this, it was planned to repaint it in standard colors after a year, but the plane proved so popular and so iconic that they've kept its colors.

Anyway, back to Easyjet's polished planes.  The benefit to Easyjet is believed to be a fuel burn reduction of 1% – 2%.  That might not sound like much, but when you have planes consuming many of millions of dollars of fuel a year, it can make a huge difference.

Here's an amusing article that attempts to match airline fees to each of the seven deadly sins.

Talking about passenger charges, maybe someone should match up the ever increasing government taxes and fees that are added to our tickets to the seven deadly sins, too.  Our government has just come up with a new way to raise money without costing votes – charge an extra $5.50 per person to visiting Canadians.

With the better part of 20 million Canadians flying to the US each year, that's another $100 million that doubtless can be put to good use.  Besides which, now that the Canadian dollar is embarrassingly stronger than our own dollar, I guess our government figures it serves them right for having such a better economy.  Details here.

Fear not, Canadians.  We're being threatened with greater fees, too.  The proposal to increase airline Passenger Facility Charges (PFCs) has come up yet again.  Currently we pay up to $4.50 per takeoff and landing pair at each airport we fly to/through on a ticket.  The administration is proposing to increase that cap from $4.50 up to $7.

Now you might think 'Oh heck, it is only another $2.50, there are bigger things to worry about in life' but think it through.  Twenty years ago, there was no such thing as a PFC charge at all.  So multiply all the take-off and landing pairs you do in a year by $7, and you're looking at probably $100, $200 or more in extra travel costs that didn't exist at all 20 years ago.  Don't be tricked into thinking it is only $2.50 – it is more like some hundreds of dollars a year in total.

And ask/answer this question – what extra are you now getting for this extra money you pay that you didn't get twenty years ago?  How are airports in any way better?  And the answer to that question can't be 'They have better shops and restaurants' because those are profit centers, not cost centers for the airports.

Has all this money translated into faster baggage handling?  Better and cheaper parking facilities?  Improved bathrooms?  More and more comfortable seating, with power plugs at each seat?

And – you'll love this.  The airports are justifying their grab for more of our money by saying 'We think the market can clearly absorb a $7 fee'.  Their reasoning – if the airlines can get away with charging some dollars for a pillow, a blanket, or a bite of food, then so too surely can the airports get away with upping their PFC rates.

On the other hand, there's no denying the ability of airports to spend money like there's no tomorrow.  Miami International Airport is nearing completion on an airport improvement project that has spanned 15 years and cost a stunning $6.4 billion.  Details here.

With 16.5 million passengers a year, and the hope of growing that number some more, a $7 per passenger PFC would bring MIA an easy $110 million a year.  And don't forget the airport also gets gate lease fees, landing fees, rental fees for shops, a percentage on everything sold in the airport, fees from rental car companies, parking fees, and who knows what other fees from what other sources as well.

Actually, of course, the internet knows.  If you're interested, why not read through this 50 page booklet prepared by MIA listing all the different fees they charge to the various users of their facility.  Yes – 50 pages of fees, from an 'analog coaxial cable recovery fee' to a 'disruptive passenger fee' and so on through 50 pages of imaginative charging.

Talking about appalling fees, I must have blinked some time in the last I'm not sure how many months, and missed another pin-prick of a new fee on rental cars.  I booked a rental car for next week in Los Angeles, and chose Hertz, my sometimes preferred rental car company.  But whereas last year (and as far back into the past as I can remember), they were providing child booster seats for free, this year they are charging $11/day for them.  So a four day rental would be a $44 charge.

That's pretty good money for Hertz, when you consider the cost of renting a small car is little more than twice the cost of the booster seat, and furthermore, when you consider that you can buy a backless booster seat for about $20 (and the ones Hertz supply are well worn and as bare bones as possible).

Yes, to rent a booster seat from Hertz I have to pay twice as much as to buy one.  Needless to say, I'm simply bringing the one I already have, but it doesn't make me like Hertz or their appalling rip-off of a fee.

Here's a good commentary about airline early boarding policies, and touches on the theme I regularly raise – Southwest transitioning from a 'different' (and arguably better) type of airline to increasingly becoming another me-too dinosaur.

Lastly this week, still on the subject of fees and early boarding, here's another in the side-splittingly funny series of short comedy videos I've been featuring the last couple of weeks.  Please do watch all the way through to the end for a delightful 'sting in the tail' of the fee and service being provided/featured.




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