Weekly Roundup Friday 3 June 2011

Good morning

It has been a week of steady posting from me to you – at least, it has been for those of you who receive realtime or daily updates, as opposed to the weekly consolidations.  I hope there is plenty to interest you.

One of the problems when two airlines merge is in combining their two sets of pilots (and flight attendants).  Airlines generally operate on a seniority system where what counts is not your technical skill, flying ability, or experience per se, but rather the number of years you’ve been on the job.  Based on their hire date, pilots get preferential access to the types of planes they want to fly and the routes they fly on (and it is much the same for flight attendants, too); their length of service also very importantly feeds into their priority for free travel and upgrades.

When one airline buys another, the question then is how to merge the two sets of seniorities.  Now you might think this to be a totally simple/trivial issue – your hire date is your hire date, whether it was originally with Airline A or Airline B.  But that is almost never the case, at least not to start with.  The way a pilot thinks is ‘before the merger, I was at number 500 on a list of 5000.  There were only 499 pilots more senior than me.  Now we’ve bought this other airline, none of its pilots should get ahead of me – they should go to the back of the line (or at least somewhere behind me in the line)’.  Alternative, pilots in the airline that was bought think, similarly ‘I was formerly number 300 on a list of 3000 pilots.  Just because we were bought by another airline doesn’t mean that I should now become number 800 on a list of 8000 pilots – I’m moving backwards in my seniority.’

In reality, one would think there to be little difference between being number 300 in a list of 3000, 500 in a list of 5000, or 800 in a list of 8000 – sure, there may be more people in front of you, but there are more planes and routes to bid on.

 There are other issues as well that add further to the complexity – unavoidably, one airline has been paying its staff better than the other airline.  Do the poorer paid pilots now get their pay brought up in line with the better paid pilots – that is a suggestion that the airline generally objects too, and surprisingly it can also be a suggestion that the better paid pilots might object to as well – ‘we need to maintain our historical relativity of a 10% premium in our pay compared to the pilots in airline B’.

But the airline B pilots find it hard to understand why, in the newly merged airline, they should be paid less for doing the exact same job as the former airline A pilots, and the only other solution – dropping the pay of the airline A pilots down to the level of the airline B pilots – seldom is greeted with much enthusiasm by the airline A pilots either.

So, with that as background, guess how long it sometimes takes for a merged airline to get agreement reached between the various different unions?  But bear in mind this is not rocket science, and many times the pilots for both airlines even belong to the same union.  Airlines have merged so many times in the past, you’d think there’d be some sort of standard industry formula, wouldn’t you?

Well, in the case of US Airways, the merger between America West and US Airways occurred in 2005.  As of today, six years later, the two sets of pilots have yet to resolve their differences and no new agreement has been achieved.  The pilots have continued to work under the agreements that related to the two previous airlines.  The pilots are now suing the airline, saying the airline has failed to bargain in good faith.

I wrote recently about airlines requiring us to turn off our electronics prior to the plane pushing back from the gate, only allowing us to turn them on again above 10,000 ft, and then requiring them to be turned off again from something above 10,000 ft until after the plane has safely landed.

The reason for this is due to concerns about our electronic devices interfering with the plane’s electronic devices, an unfounded concern that has no substance behind it.

Now, with that in mind, what to make of Alaska Airlines’ announcement this week that it is replacing traditional pilot flying manuals with iPads.  Alaska says their former print manual weighed 25lbs; an iPad weighs about 1.5 lbs.

The iPad will contain about 400MB of data, with electronic versions of 41 different flight, systems and performance manuals, reference cards and other materials, complete with links and color graphics.

It isn’t just the weight that is saved, it is a lot of trees too.  Manual sections get updated and need replacing, and AS figures the switch to what are termed ‘electronic flight bags’ will save 2.4 million pieces of paper (not sure over what time period).

But it seems they are not allowing themselves to use these devices during the same time we are not allowed to use electronics in the cabin.  Will they really power it completely down or just switch it to ‘sleep mode’?  So what happens when the pilots needs to look up a checklist while the iPad needs to be switched off?  If an emergency, can they wait the 42 seconds it takes to power up the iPad and switch to the Goodreader program they use to display their manuals (then however much longer beyond that to go to the proper page of the proper manual?  Say nearly a minute in total?

What is a minute, you say?  Well, as you’ll read further down this week’s newsletter, the Air France A330 that was at 35,000 ft took a mere four minutes to fall out of the sky and crash into the ocean – so when you’re at (say) 8,000 ft, seconds count.  Imagine if the pilots of the US Airways A320 that lost both its engines and had to land in the Hudson had to wait a minute to get the appropriate checklists open?

Don’t get me wrong.  I think an electronic flight bag is an excellent idea, although I’m not convinced the stock standard $5 Goodreader software that AS is using is the best way to manage the data in an iPad where seconds count.   I use the Goodreader software myself, but often have difficulties using its ‘double tap’ command to switch between documents, and if I was piloting a plane that was plummeting to the ground, I suspect I’d have a huge difficulty doing a perfectly timed double tap.  Because of this, I actually travel with two iPads on occasions such as when I’m leading a group, allowing me to have multiple documents and maps open simultaneously.

I also think that it is foolhardy to turn off the iPads – why not instead spend a bit of money to test and prove them to be safe in the cockpit; then, having done so, allow us in the cabin to use our iPads too.

Oh – one more thing?  Remember the pilots who overshot their destination – some people think because they were asleep, but the pilots said they inadvertently did that because they were involved in working out their future scheduling on their laptop computers (perhaps a seniority problem) and lost track of time.  Will AS limit what other software is on the iPads (particularly, ahem, games!) – their promotional photo (above) seems to suggest their iPads have the full normal suite of distractions programs on them.

The results of an interesting survey have just been published, showing how likely you may be to get award travel tickets when trying to cash your miles in for a free ticket.  The best airlines were GOL (a Brazilian carrier) with 100% availability on the flights queried, followed by Southwest (99.3%) and Air Berlin (96.4%).  The next US airlines were Jetblue (79.3%) and UA/CO at 71.4%.

The worst three airlines were Emirates (35.7%), then Delta (27.1%) and occupying the most shameful spot of all, US Airways with 25.7%.

That’s a huge spread.  The best US airlines give you three times (or more) the chance of finding the seats you want/need as do the worst US airlines.

The survey tested both for availability way in advance and for short notice availability; the short notice availability often showed better availability than the well in advance booking attempts – something I’ve always felt to be the case but never been able to scientifically prove.

My guess has always been that close in to a flight’s departure, an airline will often decide they have just about sold all the regular revenue seats they can, and so will release some of any remaining seats into inventory for frequent flier award redemption.  Here’s their report on what they did and what they found.

One of the game changers in the booking travel process is Tripadvisor.  While it is a bit of a dangerous weapon, when used very carefully, it can offer helpful insights into what to expect at hotels you are considering.

After ignoring it, some hoteliers are now hyper-sensitive to their Tripadvisor reviews (it is a shame they aren’t as sensitive to looking after their guests while on-property!) and there have even been lawsuits and the threats of lawsuits by hoteliers variously against Tripadvisor and individual reviewers due to what the hoteliers feel to be unfair reviews (I’ve had lawsuits threatened against me, both for Tripadvisor reviews and those on my site in general).

On the other hand, when they’re not complaining about or threatening to sue Tripadvisor, some hoteliers are trying to cheat the system themselves by creating fake positive reviews of their property (or bribing guests to do it for them), and/or creating fake negative reviews of their competitors.

But what are the alternatives to Tripadvisor?

It is an open secret in the industry that some apparent hotel reviewing publications are nothing other than for-profit businesses that sell reviews to hotels.  You want an average quarter page review – you pay so much.  You want a good half page review – pay more.  And a full page extravaganza – reach deep into your pocket!

What a great business to be in.  After filling a book full of paid-for reviews, you then turn around and sell the book to the unsuspecting public, making your money a second time over.

On the other side of the coin, some organizations who are almost certainly completely unbiased by commercial considerations provide reviews that seem quite detached from the reality of the hotels they review – I’m thinking in particular of AA reviews in the UK.  The AA started off with a praiseworthy objective, but somewhere along the way things went awry.  They have a very formulistic approach to reviewing hotels that leaves almost no room for subjective interpretation.

This is good inasmuch as it removes the element of personal variation from one reviewer to another, but it has also lead to hoteliers designing their hotel not to be a good hotel for guests, but to instead be optimized for passing the AA review guidelines.  I’ve stayed at high rated AA hotels that should be at least a star below their AA rating in terms of subjective experience.

So whatever advice you choose, there are limitations.  Perhaps the best approach is a mix of all of the above?

Although not using Tripadvisor data, the German Organization of Hotels and Restaurants has now announced a fascinating plan to completely revise how they allocate stars to German hotels.  It combines ratings from professional reviewers and from ordinary guests as well as data from the hotels to create composite ratings blending information from all three sources.

Clearly, no single source of data can be relied upon without reference to other sources of data which may be using totally different (but equally or even more relevant) criteria to judge the hotels on.  Maybe the blended system being adopted by Germany might be a good approach?  We’ll have to wait and see.

And talking about European tourism issues, there’s a storm change afoot in Amsterdam that will affect some tourists.  The Dutch government announced it will ban tourists from buying marijuana in the famous ‘coffee shops’, and will require Dutch citizens to be over the age of 18 and to become a formal ‘member’ of the coffee shop, while simultaneously limiting the number of members each ‘coffee shop’ can have.

It is thought that a significant slice of Amsterdam’s tourism business comes from foreign visitors seeking to experience their ‘coffee shops’.

The new restrictions will be in place by the end of this year.  More details here.

 Here’s an interesting new service being developed – an ‘in-flight 911 service’ that would allow pilots to contact up to 100 agencies and emergency services  simultaneously at the touch of a single button in their cockpit.

Sounds like a good idea, but – 100 agencies?  Please tell me there aren’t even 10 agencies that have an involvement with in-flight emergencies.  What extraordinary bureaucratic overkill that would be!

I’ve written two articles this week on the dangers posed by cell phone radiation – and, alas, by many other household and workplace devices too.  But, from another perspective, here’s a totally different danger posed by talking (too loudly) on a cellphone.

Next week I’m off to Britain, allowing myself plenty of spare time (in case of volcano problems) prior to our Scotland tour that starts on the Sunday 11th.  But I expect to have a newsletter same as usual on Friday morning 9th.

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels

Davidsig265 David.


1 thought on “Weekly Roundup Friday 3 June 2011”

  1. I agree that most if not all electronic devices will not affect the airplane operation, but they can create a safety situation by their use.
    The cabin must be ready for takeoff when it leaves the gate so the pilot knows when given clearance they can proceed. They can stow the iPad while its running since will not effect safty in any way.
    If electronic devices are allowed to be used before 10,000 feet then passengers will be paying attention to the computer, iPad, or whatever and not what is happening around them if a safety issue comes up. Think about it, if the flight crew has only 60 seconds, or less, to get people to get ready to evacuate the plane because of a problem how can they get everything stored so they don’t become a possible missiles or get in the way of evacuating the plane what’s going to happen?
    Safety is never easy or in many cases not very obvious.

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