Airline Roundup Friday 4 February 2011

Sleepypilotb If the previous week was dismal, what term can we use for the last few days?  More than ten thousand of flights canceled, to say nothing of poor Queensland Australia – the half of the state that was not flooded a few weeks ago has now been hit by a ferocious category 5 cyclone.  (More on the bad weather and a cure for same in a special newsletter, Monday.)

And then there are the upheavals in the Middle East as well, about which I'm fearfully minded of the prognostication 'Nothing good will come of this'.

There's a closer to home element to the unrest in Egypt.  What would you do if you were booked to fly to Egypt, either for business or pleasure, at the present?

Or, more to the point, how can you cancel or change your plans at least cost?  That's a very good question which many people are finding themselves now forced to address and answer.  At the risk of stating the obvious, it would be extremely unwise to travel to Egypt at the present time, and palpably unpleasant as well as unsafe while in the country.

Many tour operators are cancelling their tours for all of February, and airlines are cancelling their flights (although not as far in advance).  But what if Egypt was just part of your itinerary, or what if you made arrangements that aren't being cancelled and which you can't get refunds from suppliers for?

Two words – trip insurance.  Did you buy trip insurance, and – more to the point – does it cover the costs of cancelling or changing your travel plans due to civil or political unrest and disorder?  Not all policies do.

This is just one of quite a few different potential traps in any trip insurance policy's coverages and exclusions.  If you haven't done so before, you should read our page Ten Things Your Travel Insurance May Not Cover (and the other two pages in our three page series on travel insurance too) so as to understand what to look for when choosing travel insurance.

Also included in the series are links to convenient travel insurance shopping sites where you can plug in your travel parameters and the sites will automatically quote you rates from most major insurers.  It is amazing how much different in policy premiums and inclusions there are.

It is official.  2010 was a good year for the airlines.  Worldwide, passenger traffic increased by 8.2%, while airline capacity grew by only 4.4% – meaning fewer empty seats on planes.

Do you remember back to the good old days where no-one ever got a middle seat, and it was a rare and special event to be on a full flight?  Now it seems the flight attendants are announcing, during every flight's boarding 'This will be a completely full flight today'.

The international airline organization, IATA, also showed its great sense of the future when it prognosticated that the coming months would be 'marked by oil price uncertainty'.  Who'd have thought that?

But surely the only ambiguity about oil prices is how much higher than $100/barrel the price will go, and how quickly.

By several measures, Delta has been, in the recent past, either the worst or nearly the worst of all the US carriers (highest rate of customer complaints, second to last in both ontime arrivals and baggage handling, and the highest rate of canceled flights).

But rather than complacently ignore this abysmal showing, or make ineffectual excuses, Delta has decided to do something about it.  They will be sending 11,000 of their customer-facing staff to attend one day classes on how to be nicer and more helpful to their passengers.

Well done, Delta.  And let's hope this investment in staff training brings about a palpable improvement in our experiences as your customers.  More details here.

Sleepy pilots.  Flights between Copenhagen and Stockholm last a scheduled 70 minutes, of which only perhaps 45 minutes are in the air.  Furthermore, most of those minutes are sort of 'busy' minutes for the two pilots – taking off, climbing, leveling, descending, landing, (assuming the entire flight isn't of course being flown by auto-pilot, as it may well be) and with plenty of radio traffic and a moderately dense sky full of planes too.

You'd think there'd be plenty to keep most pilots awake and interested, but apparently not.  According to this story, not only did the captain of an SAS flight between CPH and ARN fall asleep, but he did so after the co-pilot left the cockpit to go to the toilet.  We know this is so because when the co-pilot returned and buzzed to be allowed back into the cockpit, there was no response.

Only after repeating buzzing (and perhaps a few panicked bangs on the door too, and maybe calling the pilot on the intercom, and who knows what else) did the pilot wake up and let his colleague back in to the cockpit.

I've nothing against one pilot sleeping when the other is awake and seated next to him, and I've even nothing against both pilots sleeping during a long overnight overwater flight with nothing to do for four, six, or even eight, ten or more hours.  But on a short sector like this, and with the other pilot locked out, don't you think the captain could have stayed awake for the (presumably!) few minutes it took the copilot to go to the toilet?

SAS' official response was to confirm that it was unusual for a pilot to fall asleep in this manner (hmmm – 'unusual' isn't the same as 'unique' or even 'extraordinary', is it!).  SAS went on to say that it wasn't planning to take any disciplinary action against the pilot.  Lucky him.

The pilot said he was sleepy because it was his fourth flight of the day (they were probably all short flights like this) and because he'd only had four hours sleep the previous night.  I'm unconvinced that it was anyone else but his own fault he'd only had four hours sleep the previous night, however.

After Boeing's CEO made some vague comments about probably replacing their 737 family of jets with a completely new design of plane a couple of weeks ago, nothing more has happened.  Well, nothing more has discernably happened at Boeing, that is.

Meantime, a survey of Boeing's airline customers has now been released, showing the totally unsurprising finding that the airlines would prefer a completely redesigned airplane rather than just a re-engined 737.  Fancy that.

North of our border, it seems the Canadian competitor to the 737 (and A320) – Bombardier's C Series jet, which has been languishing with very few orders to date, might be about to announce another notable order, from Qatar Airways.  Another reason for Boeing to quickly get its ducks in a row and clearly announce what it plans to do.

On the other hand, perhaps Boeing has a third option it might choose to adopt.  Its problem, as discussed in my article series on Airbus and Boeing, is that it would be very difficult to re-engine the 737, but it is also somewhat premature to redesign it, due to new design technologies just now evolving and coming available.

However, there's a third option beyond re-engining or redesigning.  How about just discounting down the cost of 737s as they currently are – old airframes and old engines?  For sure, the new Airbus A320neo would be cheaper to operate, but if an airline stands to save maybe $10 million on the purchase cost of a new plane, that saving of cash can be used to pay for a lot of extra jet fuel.

A hint about this as a possible strategy is contained in this article which reports on Boeing's surprising claim that there is still life in its ancient 767 airplane (30 years old so far).  Don't get me wrong – the 767 used to be a lovely plane, but these days it is far from 'state of the art' and most airlines are falling over themselves to get rid of the 767s they have due to them being expensive to operate.

The A330 has been outselling the 767 by more than ten to one recently, and the main reason either plane sells at all is due to the very long waits to get 787 or A350 planes.

But, as quoted in the article linked above, Boeing is talking about dropping the price substantially on the 767 in the hope of picking up some more orders (what marketeers would call moving into the 'cash cow' phase of the plane's product life cycle).

If Boeing can do that to extend the life of the otherwise obsolete 767 plane, why not do it for the 737 as well?

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