iPads On A Plane!

November 1, 2013 on 1:00 am | In Airline News | 6 Comments

The FAA has announced plans to permit expanded use of personal electronic devices on aircraft below 10,000 feet with the provision that during immediate take-off and landing phases, they would need to be stowed in a seat pocket, etc.

Everyone is hailing this as a monumental moment in aviation. And airlines are scrambling to be first to allow it with Delta appearing to be in the lead to win that race by starting it . . . tomorrow.

Here is my reaction: The FAA is staffed with people who are supposed to be very smart and very experienced in making such evaluations. If they’ve come to the conclusion that this is safe, then I stand behind that decision. I do think it would be very, very regrettable to find out one day that “electrons floating in the air” impeded aircraft instrumentation at a critical moment resulting in a crash. So I hope that the FAA has made this announcement on the basis of real science and study rather than political will.

But this doesn’t mean that stupid in the cabin is over. Far from it. The new ruling doesn’t permit phone calls being made and text messages being sent, for instance. You are still supposed to be in “airplane mode” with your PED and you can only connect to the aircraft’s WiFi systems.

How many here think that people aren’t going to text with their phone NOT in airplane mode?

Yes, me too. Because how can you really tell if someone is in airplane mode?

It also isn’t going to prevent a large contingent of stupid from using their PEDs during takeoff and landing phases. Personally, these really are the moments where everyone could stand to have their hands folded in their laps and to be situationally aware of what is going on around them.

Allowing PED use just before landings means that few will put them away and in the even of a crash, we’ll have iPhones flying around the cabin smacking people in the head with fatal results. While that opportunity exists even today, there isn’t any need to encourage it either.

I think the FAA offered something to the public with high perceived value, low real value and which artfully dodges issues around what’s safe in a cabin and even invasions of personal space.

In other words, the airlines still have a lot on their hands with this and don’t be surprised if some just tell you to put your device away until they say so. Much like today.

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787 Return To Service

April 19, 2013 on 3:26 pm | In Aircraft Development, Airline News | No Comments

The FAA has approved the design change made by Boeing to address lithium ion battery risks on the 787.  The FAA will make a directive on how the fix should be made and it will make FAA inspectors available to expedite the repairs.  Boeing has had kits and staff ready to deploy to customers for making these fixes and I would imagine that Boeing has told them “go”.

A couple of observations:

1)  Boeing will destroy its reputation for many years to come with both the public and airlines if this fix proves to be inadequate.  I would want to be very, very sure and very certain that those batteries are contained against everything short of an act of god.  Spin and damage control will not fix that problem.

2)  Nothing that I can so far find has any guidance on what kind of ETOPS the FAA will permit with the 787.  There was, originally, speculation that the FAA and other agencies would be inclined to not grant enough ETOPS time to be useful to 787 users.   If this fix works, then it should not have an impact on ETOPS.  If the original ETOPS granted is amended to be something considerably less, then I think that reflects a lack of confidence on the part of the FAA.

I would expect a practical return to service for the airlines being some time at the end of May or the first of June.

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Changes in Service

March 29, 2013 on 1:00 am | In Airline Service | 1 Comment

Airlines hate to be made to institute any changes in how they treat customers.  They have a loathing for being required to do something by rule or law.

Mind you, they have absolutely no problem with change.  Any time a change can bring about greater revenue or reduce liability, they will happily institute the change asap.  Just look into how much airlines have changed their contract of carriage for what their liability is in lost or damaged luggage.

If I consider just how much the airlines shouted, stamped their feet and groaned over the 3 Hour Tarmac Rule, I have to chuckle a bit.  Airlines and their CEOs in particular made viscious threats about how much this would raise costs and impact customers negatively.  Even my fellow bloggers jumped on that bandwagon and decried the rules.  Some people insisted that the customer really wanted to get to their destination at all costs even if it meant staying on the ground in an airplane for 9 hours.

And then the rule was instituted and these delays have largely just gone away.  There really has been very little muss or fuss.  After more than 2 years of this rule, we see no evidence that the customers costs are raised or that the customer is negatively impacted in a worse way.

To the contrary, airlines are planning and executing these plans to avoid storm induced problems and delays in a great way.  Flights are cancelled earlier resulting in passengers being able to properly reschedule themselves.  Airlines are positioning their aircraft better to recover from delays as well.  Everything really got better.  Few airlines have actually been fined and certainly the industry hasn’t raised airfares because fines raised costs.  (Airfares have gone up, just not because of these fines.)

In fact, the fines are so rare that we’re surprised to hear about them when they do happen.  \

There remains many things that are bad or negative for the industry but the actual service experience for most customers today is vastly improved over what it was just a few years ago.  And largely because of the government getting involved and asking for change that resulted in a more humane, more appropriate approach on the part of the airlines.

 

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FAA Tower Closings

March 24, 2013 on 12:16 pm | In Airports | No Comments

Hey, here is a quick, dirty little secret about the FAA tower closings at airports around the country.

They really don’t impact things much.  Seriously.

The air traffic control systems aren’t closing and those using these smaller airports will still get guidance to a final approach to these airports.

They will just have to coordinate their arrivals and departures between themselves and that’s done already in many places.  Particularly late at night.

It’s not even necessary to discontinue airline flights to these airports.  Airlines can fly into these airports safely and without trouble.  There is the chance that flights to these airports might necessarily get cancelled more frequently in bad weather but the typical flight shouldn’t be affected at all.

For those of you who think this still might be unsafe . . . it’s not uncommon for regional flights into rural airports late at night to arrive under the exact same procedures that will be used for these airports with tower closings.

Yes, it will require a change in procedures on the part of pilots (which they are already trained for) and it will possibly slow traffic into and out of these airports.  And who cares?  These airports aren’t exactly busy in the first place.  That’s why they are on the lists for closure.

Go about your business.  There really isn’t anything to see here.

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Should the 787 be allowed to fly?

February 27, 2013 on 1:00 am | In Aircraft Development | No Comments

Boeing has made a proposal to the FAA that would provide an interim fix to its 787 battery and wants the FAA to approve the idea and allow recertification testing of the solution to start.  The NTSB is not due to issue its own report until late March but it is reported that Boeing wants to get the aircraft flying again by April.

I have mixed feelings about this proposal for the simple reason that an interim fix is comprised mainly of “toughening up” the battery with additional steps taken to prevent and/or contain thermal runaway.  No one has said why these batteries are being challenged more than they should be.

On the other hand, it’s notable that the 787 aircraft built today comprise 50 aircraft plus a rather substantial test fleet that managed to fly many cycles and many different profiles before two successive battery events.  This doesn’t mean there isn’t a problem but it does cast doubt, in my opinion, on the problem being the actual battery.

Even if it isn’t the battery itself that is the problem, extra containment strikes me as wise.

It seems that if Boeing wants to come out of this latest problem with any credibility, it really should be prepared to indicate exactly what the problem is and what not only the interim fix is but what the final fix will be.  When you have both pieces of information, that’s when you ask for an interim fix.  Right now, it is unclear if anyone understands the exact root cause of the problems.

I’ve had it suggested to me that Boeing must understand the root cause given their application for an interim fix.  If it were 10 years ago, I would agree with you.  Today, I think Boeing and, in particular, it’s executive leadership, have not held to Boeing principles on finding solutions to problems.  In light of that and as much as it pains me, I think it wiser to wait until the root cause is understood before approving a fix to the lithium batteries.

A better alternative interim fix, in my opinion, would be installation of a safer battery technology.  I’m sure Boeing doesn’t want to engage in this because it would require other changes to other systems.  If Boeing hasn’t made this their Plan B yet, it really shakes my confidence in their ability to solve problems.

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More comments on the 787 problems.

January 18, 2013 on 1:00 am | In Aircraft Development, Airline Fleets, Airline News | No Comments

With the temporary grounding of the 787 and the program review kicking off on the design and certification of this airliner, there is more and more fear of it.  I agree that the battery failure looks horrific.  Some (Christine Negroni is sounding particularly shrill to me.) are derailing into what, to me, seems like hysteria, over the battery failure in Boston.

The battery issue in Japan was not a fire.  It was found to be “swollen” and that it had leaked electrolyte.  An important issue but not a fire.

Facts are important in this situation and there is one hell of a lot of speculation going on.  So let me join in:

I find it very curious that these problems have cropped up suddenly and, so far, on one airline’s aircraft.  I keep wondering if there is something being done incorrectly in the operation of the airliner to cause this problem.  I would have expected more failures to occur at this point than what has occurred it was a fundamental flaw in the design.

It’s possible the quality assurance for the battery manufacturing is not very good.  It’s possible that the battery design itself is flawed.  It’s possible that the pilots are operating the aircraft in a manner that is overheating these batteries because of an unanticipated design issue. It could be a battery protection circuit issue or a design flaw in that circuit.

We’ll get the answers.  The problem will be solved in one way or another.

I even think the comparisons to the DC-10 and AA Flight 191 are a bit amusing in one respect:  Flight 191 happened because someone was performing an unapproved procedure to maintain an engine.  In other words, the aircraft was being handled incorrectly during maintenance.

But to run around shrieking “Danger! Danger!” is really kind of foolish.  Wait for facts, then make judgements.

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The Dreamliner

January 12, 2013 on 1:00 am | In Airline Fleets, Airline News | 3 Comments

There have been a series of events with respect to the Boeing 787 over the past several days culminating in the FAA announcing that it would do a priority review of the 787′s design and manufacture.  This has people asking if the 787 is dangerous and I wanted to address what I think is already incorrect information being disseminated out there.

First and foremost:  I would fly the 787 tomorrow.  With regards to safety, I believe this airliner is as safe as any other relatively new airliner.

Fuel leaks have been found as a result of incorrect manufacturing installations.  That isn’t a design problem, it’s a manufacturing problem.  And manufacturing problems arise in new airliners.

Engine problems in the GEnX engines used for the 787 have been found in a few of the airliners.  These appear to be truthfully isolated in nature and appear to be getting addressed by GE.  That said, I’ll also concede that there hasn’t been as much visibility on this engine as one would ordinarily like to see if you watch this industry.  In fact, these engine problems have typically been described as a problem on the Boeing 787.  They’re not.  They are a problem for the GE GEnX engine.

The battery fire in Boston is alarming and needs quick and sure investigation.  So little is known here that it, alone, shouldn’t prompt a design review.  It should, however, prompt a quick and sure investigation and it has.

I’ve seen reports of windshield cracking from Japan being cited as a problem cropping up with this newly designed aircraft.  That would be incorrect.  Windshield cracking happens frequently and particularly so in the wintertime.  Temperatures get unbelievably cold on the outside of the aircraft while temps in the cockpits are a comfortable 70 degrees.  There can be as much as a 120 degree temperature differential between the outside of an aircraft and the inside.  Windows, even the best ones, periodically crack because of these temperature stresses.  That’s why cockpit windows are heated:  It prevents cracking.

There have been the odd mechanical issues showing up on the 787.  This is extremely normal and nothing approaching the boundary of “normal” for a newly introduced airliner.  It takes operational time to weed these things out, put fixes in and raise the reliability to the measure its expected to meet.

The best contrast I could offer today is this:  I believe the 787 is a safer airliner than the old MD-80s being flown by many airlines today.  It has the best of the best in technologies and an aircraft company behind it with a safety record that is second to none.   If I just took the number of engine shutdowns, rejected takeoffs, engine mechanical issues causing returns to airports for American Airlines MD-80 fleet, I could create a media scare that would dwarf the 787 perceived issues.

The Airbus A380 went through some very similar times in its first few years as well.  We in the United States didn’t notice them much at all because the A380 wasn’t being flown in the US (and still isn’t) and the safety issues weren’t cropping up in our newspapers and on our TV news shows.

So take these reports with a large grain of salt.

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FAA and pilot requirements

March 2, 2012 on 1:00 am | In Airline News | No Comments

The FAA wants to raise the requirements for serving as a first officer with an airline from 250 hours to 1500 hours (with some special exceptions depending on your training.)  They would also need a type specific rating for the airplane they’re assigned to fly.

This move is supposed to be for safety and, in some ways, it would appear to have merit.  After all, how could more experience before becoming an airline pilot actually hurt anyone, right?

But there is a flaw in this idea that hasn’t really been adequately debated in public.  There hasn’t been a rash of accidents caused by inexperienced 1st officers.  To the contrary, there have been some rather inexperienced captains making mistakes or not even being up to serving as a captain but 1st officer mistakes aren’t being cited as the cause in airliner accidents here or abroad. 

More to the point, there haven’t been a rash of airliner accidents.  Year after year, the airline industry improves on its safety record and that’s a great thing.  It’s also a result of the already incredibly stringent training required at airlines all over.  Flying an airliner is an unforgiving task and if there was an epidemic of inadquate training or just a lack of experience, we would see more airliners crashes. 

I’m all in favor of more safety when its warranted.  In this case, I strongly question whether it is warranted.  In addition, think these new requirements will severely impact airlines with respect to staffing and costs and given the admirable record of the industry, I’m not sure it helps anyone with respect to safety or anything else. 

Make no mistake.  There will be accidents in the future and some will be attributed to pilot error.  That happens.  As a result of Captain Sullenberger and his co-pilot, we have this misinformed idea that there is no substitute for grey hair in the cockpit when it comes to safety.  It is true that what Capt Sullenberger did that day was accomlished in part as a result of his experience.  However, many other younger and nominally less experienced pilots have accomplished equally impressive results in other situations.  

Take a look at the British Airways Flight 38 incident at London Heathrow where in just moments a crew had to belly flop a Boeing 777 short of the runway and did so without fatalities.  It was the First Officer who was flying that aircraft. 

The primary driver in these new requirements is the Colgan Air / Continental Express crash in the Buffalo, NY area and that was a real tragedy.  The First Officer was thought to be severely fatigued (and may or may not have been) but what everyone tends to forget is that it was the Captain who made the real mistakes and that captain was allowed to continue as a captain despite poor performance that had been noted in his records during his career.  In other words, had basic airline policy been followed stringently, it’s unlike he would have flown as a Captain and it is likely that whoever might have flown in his place would have known to push the stick forward to recover from that stall since that’s a rather basic piece of knowledge known to pilots.

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Pilot Fatigue Rules

December 29, 2011 on 1:00 am | In Airline News | No Comments

Last week, the FAA issued its new pilot fatigue rules and I’ve expected airlines to decry the changes because there will be some impact to the productivity that many are taking advantage of based on the current rules.  The FAA recognized that no one rule would necessarily address the problem and therefore came up with a system to guide just how long a pilot may be on duty.

The system takes into account night flying, duty hours as a whole and, most importantly, the need to provide a real opportunity for a pilot to get a real 8 hours of sleep.  For example, under current rules a pilot rest time can be as little as 8 hours and it starts when he/she walks off the aircraft.  That doesn’t take into account the very real needs to A) transport oneself to a bed, eat, bath, and transport oneself back to the aircraft at duty reporting time.  In the real world and under the existing rules, a pilot’s real rest time could often be reduced to as little as 5 hours of sleep.

Now, a pilot gets a minimum of 10 hours of “rest” time and I think that’s a good thing. 

The impact to the airlines may be real but it also is level set among all the airlines.  Costs will likely go up some and, if they do, you can bet air fares will too.  The incremental increase in costs, however, should be fairly minimal. 

Cargo carriers are, apparently, being given the opportunity to opt out of these new rules.  On the surface, this may well seem like a bad idea since their flying is predominantly night flying.  However, the cargo carriers do have significantly different circumstances under which they fly.  In general, their flying is less stressful and less prone to delays and more straightforward.  Today, I can’t find a real objection to allowing a carrier to opt out of these although I suspect the unions for these carriers would disagree with me.

As with all new rules, it will take a while for the consequences to shake out and reveal themselves.  I honestly can’t fathom just how this may impact union contracts but I suspect there will be some things that will need to get renegotiated in the near future. 

Will this prevent incidents based on fatigue?  Yes, on the surface, it should help with the number of fatigue related incidents.  With that said, I should also point out that the fundamental responsibility for following these rules and managing fatigue continue to lie with both the airlines and the pilots.  In other words, there is much more opportunity here for pilots to manage their fatigue but it is also the pilots who must use that opportunity to actually get better rest and benefit from the rules.

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Electrons on a Plane

December 16, 2011 on 1:00 am | In Airline News | 2 Comments

The FAA has just given approval to American Airlines to use iPads in the cockpit at all times including during take-offs and landings.  This would be the same device that just got Alec Baldwin into hot water on American Airlines for use during time at the gate and/or taxi.

I’m not defending Baldwin.  To the contrary, I think that, once more, a celebrity has gone too far in their denouncement of an airline.

Use of these devices probably should be limited during those times.  On the other hand, if there is good reason for their limits for passengers, I can’t fathom a reason why it is OK for pilots.  Particularly since pilots happen to be at the pointy end of the airplane where all the electronics are located.  

disclaimer:  I work for a major aerospace company and I *know* that interference from electronic devices has been experienced and is a risk albeit a very minor one.   There is a reason why we take extra precautious during take-offs and landings.  Those are the two very critical moments for danger when it comes to airliners.  They are more at their limits than at any other time.  Something causing even a minor problem can be a real risk at those moments.

And it’s a risk that can be easily mitigated.  Do we really need to have our devices on at *all* times during our trip?  No, really don’t.  And acting like children because you were asked to shut them off just makes you look silly.

But granting the authority to use them in those very same situations to pilots makes the FAA look awfully silly too.

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FAA moves to improve delays

December 6, 2011 on 1:00 am | In Airline News | No Comments

As a result of the October snow storm delays that occurred at several Northeast airports, the FAA is moving to address those delays rapidly as it finds itself entering the Winter season.

Does this mean more punitivie measures against airlines?  No.

The delays experienced a month ago were the result of diversions to airports that overwhelmed the airports’ abilities to deal with the aircraft and passengers.  Boston refused additional diversions, for instance, due to problems they were experiencing and that caused Hartford to become more overwhelmed than is usual. 

How will they do it?  By bringing those diversions airports into teleconferences and planning sessions when those areas are about to be affected by weather.  Oddly enough, this isn’t done much to date.  But if airlines and airports are part of the discussion as to what is happening at what airport, they’ll be much more aware of conditions at airports they are considering for diversions. 

For example, if airlines had known that Hartford was becoming overwhelmed, they likely would have chosen any number of other airports in the Northeast to divert to.  And if those airports knew they were becoming the airport of choice for diversions, they will be much more likely to manage themselves appropriately including communicating earlier on when they are becoming overwhelmed.

It’s a good, practical solution and fairly easy to implement.  The people involved from the FAA to airlines to airports are all professionals and capable to making rapid decisions based on changing conditions.

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Tarmac Delays result in first fines

November 21, 2011 on 1:00 am | In Airline News, Airports | 1 Comment

The FAA is going to fine American Eagle airlines a negotiated amount of $900,000 for tarmac delays during a day of storms in Chicago on May 29th.  The storms moved through the area more slowly than anticipated and several America Eagle flights bumped into the 3-Hour window.

This is the first announced fine for breaking the 3-Hour rule and it has some implications in that it sets precedent for other airlines going forward in the future.  My first impression is that this fine was a touch heavy on American Eagle.   It certainly is a non-trivial sum and when you consider the thin margins of a regional airline, it certainly makes an impact.  If every regional flight earned $500 in net profit (and they don’t come close to that in the real world), it would take 1,800 flights to earn that fine back.  Consider that for a moment.

On the other hand, American Eagle is by far the worse violator so far.  It has twice as many of these delays as the 2nd place leader, Delta.  

I think this fine has  huge implications for JetBlue and its violations during the October snow storm.  You can bet that JetBlue will be scrambling to defend itself over those delays.  Sadly, there is quite a bit of public perception already going against JetBlue in that instance and perception can often be a great influence in such fines.

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FAA Reauthorization

September 8, 2011 on 1:00 am | In Airline News | 2 Comments

In about 2 weeks, the temporary funding for the FAA authorized in early August expires.  Already there is another political fight brewing over this funding and the issue, oddly enough, is centered on the National Mediation Board which governs labor with respect to airlines. 

Delta and Republicans are upset over a NMB rule issued that appears to make it easier to unionize airlines.  Originally, in a unionization vote a person who did not vote was counted as a “no”.  This resulted in unionization votes that saw votes for and against such but which lost because some portion of the labor pool simply did not vote.  The NMB’s new rules says you only count votes that are actually cast.   Failure to vote is not counted as anything.

Delta Airlines flipped out over this and it did appear that it was designed to make unionization easier at airlines.  At least  at first glance.  Now we’ve seen a number of votes take place and, oddly enough, that hasn’t happened.  The only difference is that even more people vote.   This rule change has not yet resulted in a change of outcome for unionization at any airlines. 

So, is it an issue?  I don’t think so.  Frankly, I thought it was a non-issue when it came about.  If airlines such as Delta thought that people who were skipping the votes were going to continue to do so, I find that laughable.  Of course people were going to go vote.  It’s the kind of thing that can materially change your career forever.  So far, Delta hasn’t been unionized in any way. 

As an aside, its time for unions to give it up at Delta.  There has been vote after vote there always resulting in the status quo being maintained.  People are happy and they’ve got a good workplace *without* paying union dues.  No one is mistreated at Delta and certainly no one is treated any worse or better than at any other airline.  It has permitted Delta to work more closely with its employees and be a more agile company.  There is a reason why Delta is financially succeeding in the toughest times an airline can experience.

Furthermore, the NMB is *not* governed by the FAA.  It’s in appropriate to tie the services performed by the FAA and the fortunes of its staff to a political fight over something that they have no control over.  It is inappropriate to try to extort a Presidency in this manner as well.  I’m happy to let politics be politics and I get that sometimes we have to go the long way to get someplace in politcs.  But this is one of those things that is over the line. 

A clean vote is the right way to do things on these subjects and the FAA deserves to experience more certainty in its future.  You can’t complain about the FAA getting things done when you fund them temporarily for weeks at a time for more than  a year.  In fact, you impact the services provided in a great way because no effective planning can be done. 

And to Congresscritters on both sides of the aisle:  play this fair or expect another steaming load of disgust coming your way from the citizens.  No one has time or patience for these shennanigans.

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Taxes don’t belong to the airlines

July 25, 2011 on 1:00 am | In Airline Fees, Airline News | No Comments

In what I will declare to be the most greedy of moves for 2011, most US airlines have decided to raise fares to offset the FAA taxes that have (temporarily) disappeared as a result of Congress’ inaction on a new bill for the FAA.

By most US airlines, I mean airlines such as American, United, Continental, Delta, US Airways, Southwest, AirTran and JetBlue.  By raising fares, I mean they’ve raised them about 7.5% to offset the taxes that disappeared.   A few airlines such as Virgin America, Frontier Airlines and Alaska Airlines have so far not raised fares to grab that cash.

I am immensely disappointed in this development and particularly disappointed that I find both SWA and Airtran in that group.  Airlines don’t deserve this money and it is shameful behaviour to run and grab it.

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3-Hour Rule: One Year Later

June 15, 2011 on 1:00 am | In Airline News | No Comments

One year later and we still haven’t seen airlines being fined left and right for delays and we still haven’t seen the forecasted crippling effect the three hour rule was predicted to have by airlines.

There have been a number of delays exceeding 3 hours and the FAA continues to investigate these but no fines have resulted so far.  At this time, the FAA seems to be approaching this subject carefully with respect to both the public and the airline industry and that’s good.

After a year, I also think that we could change this rule and offer a bit more “cushion” to airlines.  4 hour limits seem more appropriate at this point and why not impose them upon foreign airlines flying international routes into and out of the United States?

The issue of delays appears to be largely solved and no one is being severely impacted by the solution by all appearances.  If anything, the rule has had the effect of giving airlines the motivation to plan better and cancel flights that, in the past, should have been cancelled.

With all of that said, I would still maintain that we still need at least another year or so to truly judge its effect on the airline industry.

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What do you do when it gets tough?

May 5, 2011 on 1:00 am | In Airline News | No Comments

Advertising Age had a brief interview with Herb Kelleher of Southwest Airlines recently and one thing about it struck me quickly.  It’s a lesson many businesses could stand to learn.

When things got tough for Southwest, they spent more, not less, on advertising and marketing. 

It’s a lesson I learned myself more than 10 years ago when I was partners in a construction firm and new construction jobs dried up.  You don’t fold up, you go hunt the business even harder. 

It seems like an obvious thing but it really isn’t.  Just take a look around you and at what has happened with a great many businesses over the past 3 years.  The first reaction to bad times is to stop spending money . . . period.  People retrench and hunch down to try to withstand the storm about to hit. 

And a few others go and innovate.  With Southwest, it’s advertising but it is much more as well.  They innovate.  They look for smart savings.  They embrace change and they empower people to use good judgement in executing that change.  In the 1990′s, when fuel prices spiked as a result of the first Gulf War, Southwest pilots suddenly started requesting higher altitudes on their flights to the surprise of other airlines and air controllers.  In fact, they got downright aggressive about getting optimal altitudes for their flights.  Why?  Because it saved money. 

Now, among US airlines, Southwest is virtually the only one embracing the need to invest in GPS technology to be prepared for NextGen air traffic control.  Other airlines are making statements to the press about its expense and how the US government should pay for it.  Southwest has it, is implementing it and benefitting from it.  It saves them money now and it will save them more money in the future. 

When Boeing was designing the cockpit for the Next Generation 737 aircraft, Southwest (Boeing’s biggest customer for the 737) asked that the new flat panel cockpits be designed to emulate the “steam” gauges being used in their 737-200/300 fleet so that there would be no transition between the aircraft for its pilots.  Why?  Well, training was one reason but there was a better one underlying that:  Pilots would be able to seemely switch from aircraft to aircraft during their flight day without having to slow down and re-think what they were doing each time they took over a new aircraft.  That made turning flights quickly still doable.

What do you do when it gets tough?  Innovate and advertise.  That’s what Southwest does.

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Everybody wants a piece of this

April 8, 2011 on 1:00 am | In Airline News | No Comments

Since the Southwest decompression incident last Friday, there have been a number of parties suddenly using the event to promote an agenda.  The DoT and FAA have both acted more politically than anyone would necessarily like to see.  In fact, I believe a number of people have failed to see what went right in this incident such as a successful emergency descent and safe landing.  A recovery that was so smooth, all but one passenger continued on their flight when a replacement aircraft was sent.

Now the TWU (Transport Workers Union) is calling for the FAA to clamp down on maintenance being down out of the United States.  What they would really like is for it to be forbidden altogether.  Sadly, this is much more about jobs than it is about safety.  The reality is that if maintenance done outside the United States was the hazard that the TWU would have you believe, we would have catastrophes happening left and right.  The fact is that air travel in the United States over the past 10 years is vastly more safe (by inicidents and type of incidents) than it has ever been before. 

We don’t have lax safety procedures.  We really don’t.  An unpredicted and unpredictable event happened and the good news is that everything that was supposed to happen if the unforeseen happened did actually happen.  the hole in the fuselage was contained, the aircraft performed an emergency descent with no further issues and the aircraft was landed safetly with no substantive injuries.  And for every event remotely similar to this over the past 10 years, the outcome was the same.

Making political hay out of this or any other event is irresponsible and unsafe.  When you begin to allow political motiviations control the ultimate outcome of these situations, you lose the transparency that actually makes this industry safe.  Who wants to self report unsafe events and incidents if they know they’ll be crucified for it politically?

This is my criticism of how France approaches such things.  By opening criminal investigations into air disasters, they encourage people to not cooperate, not self report and, worst of all, not engage in self examination with a goal of avoiding or eliminating the problem in the future.

The most responsible thing that could be done in this event would be to let the NTSB do its job, make its recommendations and then follow those recommendations.   Allowing anyone to “score” politically as a result of this incidents puts us all more at risk.

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Southwest’s Progress

February 28, 2011 on 1:00 am | In Airline News | No Comments

Southwest has gotten a transition plan for its absorbtion of Airtran approved the FAA it would appear they are on track to close their merger later this spring.  The transition plan calls for both Southwest and Airtran to be operating on one certificate early in 2012. 

In addition, Southwest has gotten a transition agreement into place with its pilots’ union which establishes the procedural framework for integrating Airtran pilots into Southwest’s structure.  This does not mean that we yet know how Airtran pilots will be actually integrated into the Southwest seniority list.  The silence on that issue is probably an indicator that progress is being made.  Unions don’t usually start firing public shots at each other unless they feel like progress is being blocked. 

I expect we’ll see more announcements on the merger in the next few weeks and certainly after Airtran holds its vote on March 23.

On another front, Southwest’s Gary Kelly has said that Southwest plans to grow further in Milwaukee.  Like Airtran and Frontier, Southwest sees Milwaukee as a real opportunity and by taking over Airtran, it should have plenty of space and opportunity to continue its growth.  I expect that we’ll see Southwest continue its battle against Frontier in this city as well Denver where both have grown  but more at the expense of United than each other.  Southwest is now carrying more passengers out of Denver than Frontier. 

Finally, Southwest should start flying from the NYC area’s Newark Liberty International Airport.  Southwest gained important slots from ContiUnited as a function of their merger and they’ve now got approval from the airport to begin flying from 3 gates to 2 destinations (Midway and St. Louis). 

With toeholds in both La Guardia and Newark Airport as well as Long Island’s Islip airport, I expect that we’ll see Southwest look for other opportunities to grow each new airport’s flights.  La Guardia, I expect, will be the slower growth airport as slots are extremely valuable there and several airlines are vying to be New York City’s airline of choice.  

One wonders if service to Islip will continue in the face of this NYC area growth and I expect the answer is that the flights will stay as long as they remain profitable and there are no other better profit opportunities elsewhere.  In the near term, I expect they’ll stay.  Islip is nowhere close to NYC and Southwest has been serving primarily East Coast destinations from Islip with Chicago Midway being the one exception to that.  Chicago may perhaps be dropped but I expect that if Southwest has found it valuable to serve the airport today, it will find it to be profitable to do so in the future.  Currently, Southwest’s competition is US Airways at Islip.

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NextGen and jetBlue get a helping hand

February 10, 2011 on 1:00 am | In Air Traffic Control | No Comments

The FAA is hoping to give its NextGen air traffic system a boost by paying jetBlue over $4million to equip 35 jetBlue aircraft with new navigation systems.  It’s hoped that by giving this push, the rest of the industry will embrace adopting these systems quicker and in greater quantity.

So far, many airlines have argued that the FAA should pay them to install these systems.  I think the airline industry has had enough government support for the last decade and its time to get going on investing in their business.  (Not for nothing, this is what happens when you continually save airlines from liquidation via government loans and liberal bankruptcy laws.)

The FAA’s NextGen GPS based system will have a system of ground stations covering the country by 2013 and all airlines will be required to use the system by 2020.  But the FAA also recognizes that if it can get airlines to buy into the improvements sooner than later, it can pull its schedule forward and realize some real gains now rather than later.

Here’s the best reason to adopt these new systems:  they pay for themselves.  Southwest is already making use of this kind of system to better orchestrate its own operations and now expects annual savings of up to $60 million / year.  You can equip a lot of aircraft for $60 million in found money.

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Pilot Fatigue Amendment

February 8, 2011 on 1:00 am | In Airline News | No Comments

Sen. James Inhofe of Oklahoma is about to introduce an amendment exempting certain nonscheduled air carriers from new FAA pilot fatigue rules.  This amendment would permit carriers to require pilots to fly longer hours, stay at the controls longer and return to work after a shorter rest period.

These nonsecheduled air carriers would be certain passenger charters and freight operators.  Specifically, it would benefit carriers such as Evergreen, Atlas Air and World Airways.  It’s no coincidence that carriers such as these carry more than 90% of military passenger traffic and much of their air cargo as well.

Exempting these carriers reduce the costs to the government and this seems to be a case of government making a better deal for itself.  This time, at the cost of pilots.  Pilot fatigue is a real worry and concern and shouldn’t be treated this way in order to get a better deal. 

Two thumbs down to the US Senate for making this move.

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