Weekly Roundup Friday 28 June 2013

The story of US airlines as told by freeway signs.  Frontier - up for sale.  Midwest - closed in 2011.  United - merged with Continental.  US Airways - hoping to merge with American.
The story of US airlines as told by freeway signs. Frontier – up for sale. Midwest – closed in 2011. United – merged with Continental. US Airways – hoping to merge with American, and two blank spaces for airlines that may have disappeared entirely.

Good morning

I was driving out to the airport in Seattle this last week, and as I approached the terminal, I suddenly realized an amazing thing, something I’d not consciously perceived before.

As with most airports, there are a series of curbside signs with the names of airlines to provide guidance for where to drop people off, conveniently close to the relevant check-in areas.  Each of these signs has slots for four airline names, and I remember occasionally in the past seeing one slot with two different airline names squeezed into it, due to there being so many airlines and too few name slots for them all.

Seatac airport, like most major US airports, continues to experience annual increases in passenger numbers.  But, as I went around the terminal driveway, I noticed that nearly all the display boards had, at the most, one airline name on them.  The only remaining crowded boards were in the international check-in area, where there were lots of airline names.  But the once crowded listings of US airlines are now almost empty.

The hollowing out of the US airline industry isn’t a future trend.  It has already happened.

But fortunately, we still have a few remaining airlines to write about, and so please find articles this week on :

  • United Scores a 787 Hat Trick
  • 787 Battery Safety Devices Can Fail and Plane Still Allowed to Fly
  • It Took Five Ultra-Skilled Pilots to Save the A380 from a Potential Disastrous Crash
  • Airline Competition – This Week’s Most Quotable Quote
  • The DoT Pretends to Fine Naughty Delta $750,000
  • The Return of People Express Airlines?
  • The Most Unusual Reason to Order Family Off Flight Ever?
  • More Electronics for Pilots; Maybe for Passengers Too?
  • The One (?) that Got Away
  • Lists of Biggest Travel Co’s, Best Landmarks and Best Airlines
  • This Time, the Flight Attendants Have Proof
  • James Gandolfini Proves that Holidays Can Be Dangerous
  • A Lawyer to Hate and a Lawyer to Love
  • And Lastly This Week….

United Scores a 787 Hat Trick

Last week United had two 787 flights that needed to make emergency landings.  On Sunday that count rose to three, making for a ‘hat trick’ (explained here if you don’t recognize the term).  This meant that half of United’s 787 fleet (ie three of its six planes) were all simultaneously on the ground due to flights cut short by emergency landings.

And, shame on me, whereas the two events last week each seemed newsworthy and justified special bulletins from here, the Sunday event now seems like just another normal occurrence with these bedeviled planes.

So should we feel excited about, or sympathetic for, BA’s excited announcement of the start of its 787 services with flights between London (Heathrow) and Toronto starting on 1 September and flights between LHR and Newark on 1 October?  Or just ignore it entirely?

787 Battery Safety Devices Can Fail and Plane Still Allowed to Fly

As you surely know, Boeing’s “fix” of the problematic batteries on the 787 comprised in large part of measures to limit the damage if/when batteries might burst into flames again in the future.

One of those measures is a disc that isolates the pressure inside the battery box compartment from the lower pressure outside the plane.  There is some thought that pressure changes might not be good for the batteries and these discs reduce the pressure differentials the batteries experience.

Of course, like any other mechanical thing, they might fail.  But the FAA says it is not necessary to check them every flight, but rather only once every 14 flights, meaning there’s a chance the plane might be flying with a failed disc for 13 – 14 flights.

Okay, we understand that everything needs to have a compromise between perfection and sustainable reality, so we’ll accept the FAA’s ruling with only a small amount of surprise.

But, wait.  There’s more.  If a failed disk is discovered on the once-every-fourteen-flights inspection cycle, the plane is allowed to continue flying for up to another 21 flights prior to the disc needing to be replaced.  That is a total of potentially 35 flights – maybe 400 or more flying hours, many of them a long way from any airport – that the FAA is allowing this failed safety device to remain unrepaired.

Details here.

It Took Five Ultra-Skilled Pilots to Save the A380 from a Potential Disastrous Crash

Talking about airplane near disasters, the final report on the near disastrous engine explosion on a Qantas A380 – flight QF32 on 4 November 2010 – has now been released.  It includes some alarming revelations about how Rolls Royce (the engine manufacturer) had become lax on safety standards to the point where it was acceptable to not bother reporting what were considered to be ‘minor’ quality ‘non-conformance’ issues (see half-way down this article).

To me, the key point was how the plane coincidentally had not two but five pilots in the cockpit – the normal captain, his first officer, the extra second officer who would relieve the other two pilots during the flight from Singapore to Sydney, plus a ‘Check’ captain (a senior pilot who checks on the performance and safety standards/compliance of pilots during actual flights) and a supervising check captain too.  Between the five of these gentlemen, they had amassed an extraordinary total of 76,000 hours of flying experience, and being five of the best examples of the superlative flying skills that Qantas pilots generally have to start with, they managed to save the day, notwithstanding engine fragments having damaged over 600 control circuits, hydraulics, indicators, and just about everything else in the plane.

The captain of the flight subsequently wrote a great book – ‘QF32 ‘ – and is quoted in this article as having described the situation after the engine explosion as having error messages and check list actions spewing out of the plane’s computer monitors as fast as ‘dinner plates at a buffet’.  What a lovely metaphor.

Depending on whether one sees one’s glass as half full or half empty, you can either be encouraged or concerned at the totality of the QF32 incident.  It is alarming that an uncontained engine explosion did extensive harm to the plane, but it is reassuring that the pilots were still able to compensate for failed systems and land what remained to be a still flyable plane safely.

Here’s an earlier related article on the benefits of having lots of pilots in the cockpit when things go wrong.

I’m reminded of the story of how a reporter asked a pilot ‘How do you feel about the trend to reduce the engines on a plane from four down to two?’.

The pilot’s answer ‘Ideally when my co-pilot tells me “We’ve got an engine problem with number four engine”, I want to be able to reply to him “Is that the fourth engine on the port wing or the starboard wing”.’

Clearly, to the desire to have as many engines as a B-52, we should add a hope that the cockpit has as many flight crew as a B-52 too.

Airline Competition – This Week’s Most Quotable Quote

As reported by the redoubtable Joe Brancatelli about halfway down this interesting article on diminishing airline competition, Senator Jay Rockefeller (D-VA) opined on the value of airline promises and claims when seeking approval to merge.  He said

Other airline CEOs have repeatedly promised that merging their airlines would lead to more choices for travelers in small and rural communities.  I have found that not to be the case.

Indeed, Senator Rockefeller didn’t need to restrict his observation to only smaller communities.  Airline mergers inevitably lead to fewer choices to passengers in all sized communities, and service to formerly large hubs is just as much at risk as is service to smaller airports.  Just think back to former hub cities such as St Louis, Memphis and Cincinnati, and Pittsburgh.

In the case of the merged US/AA, there would be nine ‘hub’ cities in the new airline (Charlotte, Philadelphia, Phoenix, Reagan National, Dallas/Fort Worth, JFK, LAX, Miami, and Chicago/O’Hare).  It is hard to countenance that the merged airline would keep all nine as hubs – where are the ‘synergistic economies of scale’ if all nine hubs are to remain?

The DoT Pretends to Fine Naughty Delta $750,000

Talking about playing ‘let’s pretend’, the lede on this story tells how Delta has been fined $750,000 for not following proper procedures when bumping passengers off flights.

This is all the more aggravating as it follows Delta’s earlier $375,000 fine in 2009 for similar violations.  So you’re doubtless in full agreement with the $750,000 fine levied on Delta and delighted to see this second fine is twice the first fine.  Well done, DoT, right?

There’s only one thing, though.  If you read down to the final paragraph, you’ll see that $425,000 of the ‘fine’ can be used by Delta to buy tablets for its staff – tablets that it was going to buy anyway.

That’s a bit like getting a $60 parking citation, and being told that you can spend $40 of it to buy gas for your car.  It isn’t a $60 fine at all, and neither is the $750,000 fine truly a $750,000 fine.  It is only a $325,000 fine – less than the $350,000 fine imposed in 2009.

Hardly an impressive or stinging fine at all, is it.  And shame on the DoT for trying to make a $325,000 fine read like it was actually a $750,000 fine.

The Return of People Express Airlines?

Some airlines have a magic to their names that lives on well past the demise of the company.  Pan Am and Braniff are two names that keep on keeping on, and if I was to make a list of other names with potential for future resurrection, I’d put Laker Airways and People Express near the top of the list.

People Express started service in April 1981, one of the first of the new post-deregulation airlines, and it quickly became prominent as the poster-child for everything we had hoped for in the new deregulated industry.  It quadrupled in size from 1981 to 1982, doubled again in 1983, doubled again in 1984, and increased 50% more in 1985, and became the fifth largest US airline in 1986 before collapsing and being bought out by Continental later that year, then disappearing entirely in 1987.

During its ascendancy the airline innovated in many different parts of airline operations, including pioneering the concept of charging for drinks and snacks and luggage, and had a simplified fare structure which people could even pay in cash after the flight had taken off.  The amazing thing was that – as best I vaguely remember – people didn’t even mind its fees, because we were all delighted in its low fares and innovative thinking.  On the other hand, it wasn’t an unalloyed brilliant customer service success – its low-service and high over-booking/bumping rates earned it the nickname of ‘People’s Distress’.

Headquartered at Newark, the airline added flights to 50 destinations, including internationally to Europe (and Canada).  Here’s an interesting, albeit incomplete, history of the airline.

The reason for revisiting People Express – or as it subsequently stylized its name, PEOPLExpress, is that its name has been picked up by a new startup carrier and will be reused for its new services, with details of where and when it will fly to be announced this summer.

Making the new startup less a speculative venture and more something likely to proceed is that it has bought out an existing airline so it has immediate access to an FAA operating license and to airplanes.  The new People Express will be based in Newport News/Williamsburg, VA, and will take advantage of the emptying out of the airport after AirTran was purchased by Southwest and subsequently curtailed service there.

The startup purchased Idaho based carrier, Xtra Airways, which operated charter flights, and has five 737-400 airplanes.

We wish the new People Express well.  More details here.

The Most Unusual Reason to Order Family Off Flight Ever?

Flight attendants and pilots are very creative when it comes to ordering people off planes.  It is almost as if they don’t like having passengers on board.

But just when we all think we’ve heard, seen, and read every possible reason to force people off the flights they’ve paid for, we get struck between the eyes with a new atrocity that sets a whole new level of evil idiocy.  Alas, one such event recently afflicted a hapless family, guilty of wishing to fly an Easyjet plane back from their vacation on the island of Jersey (one of the Channel Islands just off the coast of Normandy, France), returning to Newcastle in England.

While on holiday, the couple’s 19 month old daughter had fallen and scratched her cheek, and after a flight attendant drew this to the pilot’s attention, he refused to allow the family to fly, out of concern that the pressure changes in the flight might get worse, and (even more strangely) he was worried about the safety of the other passengers on the A319.  Are scratches contagious?

He told the family they’d have to get off the plane, and wouldn’t be allowed on any future Easyjet flights until they’d secured a doctor’s note declaring it safe for the infant to travel.

Now this was not just a simple case of having to get off the flight, rush to a doctor, get a note, and rush back to the airport for the next flight out.  You see, there were no further available flights from Jersey for three days, causing the family to spend an unexpected $1000 in hotel bills, and causing the mother (7 months pregnant) to miss a checkup back home, and causing all the other issues that you can doubtless guess at too.

Did the pilot do the right thing?  Judge for yourself – you can see a picture of the infant and her scratched cheek in this article.  (Always assuming, of course, that there is some sort of altitude related complication for scratches on one’s cheek!)

But to add a surprising postscript to this story – because words fail me in how to comment further on it – here’s a heartwarming story of a person who did get on a flight, albeit a Delta flight in the US rather than an Easyjet flight from Jersey.  Sometimes the most unlikely people end up surprising and delighting us.

More Electronics for Pilots; Maybe for Passengers Too?

There has been a flurry of airlines announcing their plans to deploy iPads to replace the bulky heavy written materials that pilots currently have to carry with them.  All the various manuals, rule books, maps, and other materials can weigh as much as 35lbs, and might total 3000 pages.  An iPad and associated ancillary items weighs only about 2 lbs, takes up less space, might be easier to work through to find materials as and when needed, and are enormously simpler to keep up to date and consistent.

The Wall St Journal has a great roundup on this subject, and cites some amazing claims such as how American Airlines believes this will save it $1.2 million in jetfuel every year.  At that rate, in three years it will have paid for the iPads.

No doubt you’ll be noting how pilots are allowed to bring more electronics into the cockpit – the very nerve center of the plane and close to where all these hypothetically super-sensitive electronics might be located and liable to malfunction at the merest sight of something electronic – while we passengers remain stuck in the ‘no electronics below 10,000 ft and often not above that either’ zone.

Good news.  The FAA is now hinting that, inasmuch as its regulations have anything to do with the airlines’ insistence on the no electronics rules the way they do, it may be about to liberalize its regulations almost to the point of now requiring airlines to allow passenger electronics (but not cell phone calls) on planes, during every stage of a flight from boarding to deplaning.

An advisory panel has drafted a report that seems to support this, but won’t make a final formal recommendation to the FAA until September, and who knows how quickly the FAA will then move to implement its recommendations.

Details here.

Lists of Biggest Travel Co’s, Best Landmarks and Best Airlines

We love the lists that various organizations compile in all sorts of categories, because they invariably end up with at least one ‘ringer’ on the list; at least one winner that seems to make no sense at all.  Or, if it does make sense, is something we’d absolutely not have guessed about.

Let’s see how well you do.  Based on market capitalization, what is the largest travel company in the world?  Consider travel agency groups, airlines, hotel groups, rental car companies, cruise lines, and so on.

There are of course many ways to judge company ‘size’ – other ways involve staff employed, total gross revenue, and net profit.  But we’re not here to debate the measuring stick, merely to ponder the answer.

The answer, according to this list :  The largest travel company in the world is China Airlines ($58.2 billion market cap) followed by Eva Airways ($55.1 billion) and then the Las Vegas Sands Hotel Group ($41.8 billion).  Surprised?

A more pedestrian type of list would seem to be one of the ongoing series of lists generated by Tripadvisor, this one being the 25 top landmarks around the world.

If you’re like me, you probably found few surprises on most of the list, until you got to number 12.  Sandwiched neatly in the middle, surrounded by other attractions that are tens, hundreds and thousands of years old (the top three landmarks being Machu Picchu, Angkor Wat and the Taj Mahal) is (drum roll please) the fountains at the Bellagio in Vegas.  Hmmm….

Here’s one more list – one which I’d find impossible to create myself, because it is an oxymoron.  It is a list of the best economy class cabins on airlines.  How can one talk about ‘best’ in the context of economy class?

Furthermore, it doesn’t seem to be a very rational or well thought out list.  It deems Air New Zealand to have the world’s best economy class, and talks in glowing terms about the airline’s distinctive ‘Sky Couch’ feature.  This is where you can fold the armrests out of the way in a block of three seats, and extend the seat cushion, to make a block of three seats into a ‘sky couch’ on which two passengers can allegedly rest and relax.

This is close to impossible, however.  It is both too short to stretch out on (only about 50″ long) and too narrow for two people to lie side by side on (something under 30″ wide, not all of which is usable if the seats in front of you recline).

As for its list of other features about Air NZ, it fails to point out Air NZ’s sometimes rigorously enforced 15lb limit on cabin bags (my carry on bag always weighs more than this), something that hardly earns it a spot as the very best coach class airline at all.

Oh, Air NZ is also one of the villainous airlines that squeezes ten seats into each row on some of its 777s, making for an appallingly narrow 17.1″ seat width.

While I believe all coach class cabins are merely variations on a theme of awfulness, I see no reason why Air NZ should be considered to be ‘the best of the worst’.

(Of course, some lists are just so strange as to – well, judge for yourself.)

The One (?) that Got Away

Each week I get self-congratulatory emails from the TSA boasting of how they managed to find firearms in passengers’ carry on bags.  But there are two things these ‘we’re so clever’ emails omit.

The first point they are silent on is that invariably these are not ‘artfully concealed’ firearms being smuggled on to planes by terrorists intent on doing evil things.  Instead they are guns that the owners simply forgot they had in their bags (which is embarrassingly easier to do than non-gun owners might think).

The second point is that there is no understanding at all as to how many extra guns were not detected.  All we know is that when the TSA tests itself, even to ridiculously low standards, the tests consistently reveal at least 20% of all test objects get through the screening process without being detected.

So when I read this story of a US Airways flight attendant being caught by the Italian airport security screeners in Rome, with a .40 cal SIG pistol in her carry-on bag, it seems obvious that this was not a gun she somehow acquired in Italy and was taking back to Charlotte, but rather one she had taken with her from the US to Italy at the start of her travels.  And that begs the question – how did she get it through security when flying out of the US?

One also wonders if this was the first time she had done so.

Interestingly, she also had ammunition for the gun in her checked suitcase, including five shell casings that had been fired.  What was she shooting at in Italy?

Will we expect the next self-congratulatory note from the TSA on handguns discovered to include an asterisk and a footnote that they also failed to detect a large-sized SIG semi-auto pistol on at least one occasion?

Talking about footnotes, here’s an item about a woman who slashed herself with a razor blade at JFK, which of course begs the question – how did she get razor blades through security?

This Time, the Flight Attendants Have Proof

One of the questions we always ask, but which is never answered when flight attendants run amok, making ridiculous allegations against passengers, is ‘Where is your proof?  Where are affidavits from other passengers?  Where are videos and pictures taken by passengers with cameras?’

Adding further weight to our belief that any time anyone misbehaves on an airline these days, not only do other passengers intercede forcefully, but many more passengers pull out their phones or other camera-equipped devices and start filming is this story of a shamefully behaving foul-mouthed woman who refused to stop talking on her phone as the plane prepared to depart from Fort Lauderdale on Sunday.  There seems to be plenty of proof out there about this woman’s actions.

So, all the more reason that the way-too-compliant pilots and police should insist on confirming proof before accepting anything they are told by a flight attendant.

James Gandolfini Proves that Holidays Can Be Dangerous

Former Sopranos star James Gandolfini dramatically demonstrated the danger of holidays by dying of a heart attack in Italy last week.

Holidays – dangerous?  How so?  As a doctor points out in this article

When you’re on vacation, you don’t eat the same way that you do when you’re at home.  People tend to indulge, and that can lead directly to a heart attack.

The article goes on to allege that summer vacations are a time when we eat too much, drink too much, do too much physically, and possibly forget to take medication as scheduled.  I’ll plead guilty to two of the first three….

Don’t say you haven’t been warned!

A Lawyer to Hate and a Lawyer to Love

Whenever you find a local government official who can instruct an officious attorney to do whatever the official wishes him to do, because the official is not spending his own personal money, you have a recipe for potential disaster just waiting to happen.

In such cases, ordinary citizens can find themselves relearning the adage ‘You can’t fight city hall’ – or, more to the point, you can fight, but you can’t win.  City hall has an unlimited budget to bully their citizens whichever way they capriciously wish.

A case in point occurred recently when a resident of West Orange, NJ, started up a website, westorange.info, apparently with the desire to publish free information about his city.  Nothing unusual or bad about that, surely.

Well, the town council disagreed and feared that this new website, with almost no content or anything, would somehow drain the traffic away from their expensive official website (and what would be the harm of that anyway, you might be wondering).  So they told their city attorney to sort out the problem and get the other site taken down.

Which brought about the city attorney’s officious bullying letter to the website owner, and the beyond brilliant reply back from the website owner’s attorney (who graciously agreed to represent the website owner, free of charge).  You can read the correspondence here, and you can further read what happened at the next city council meeting here.

And Lastly This Week….

Following on a mini-theme of the last few weeks, here’s another interesting article with before and after pictures of 13 airlines that ‘rebranded’ – ie, changed the logo on their planes.

In some cases, the ‘rebranding’ is almost impossible to spot.  Generally, it seems, the more trivial the change, the more pompous and meaningless the ‘inspiration’ quoted.

Talking about logos and rebranding, what to make of this doubtless inadvertently relevant seeming exhortation on United’s emergency toilet paper.

Last week we featured a short video showing the Chinese approach to loading an airplane.  It is true that it made us think of certain other formerly communist countries, and so this week, we can offer you the Russian approach to unloading a train’s baggage wagon.

I’m not entirely sure of my publishing schedule for next Thursday/Friday; Thursday being 4 July of course, and the week after that sees me on a 7 day 3000 mile roadtrip.  I do hope you’ll have a wonderful Independence Day celebration.

Until next week, may you enjoy safe travels, and although you might conceivably be traveling somewhere to see fireworks, the TSA would like to remind you not to bring your own with you….







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