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Airlines are expensive; why isn’t airfare?

Your correspondent has opined before in this space that air fares need to go up drastically in order for airlines to survive as an industry. I have tended (perhaps unfairly) to place the blame on the airlines—and their reluctance to hazard market share by making ticket prices reflect the actual costs of operating their flights.  We’ve seen what a similar denial of reality can produce—witness the insurance industry’s artificially low premiums before (and panicky soaring rates after) September 11th, 2001, for example.

Chris Manno—retired Air Force pilot, current American Airlines captain, and proprietor of the usually funny and always interesting JetHead blog—draws the linkages between five major factors that are conspiring to ruin air travel for all of us.  Here is Conspirator #2:

2. Alfred E. Kahn. Known as “The Father of Airline De-Regulation,” economist Alfred E. Kahn was Jimmy Carter’s Chairman of the Civil Aeronautics Board. His blueprint for airline de-regulation was based on a flawed economic model, and was as misguided as economist John Kenneth Galbraith’s assurance to Lyndon Johnson that the Viet Nam war would be short and wouldn’t affect inflation. Kahn proposed complete de-regulation of airline routes and fares, positing that the marketplace forces would drive down ticket prices and provide the American public with cheap and plentiful airline seats.

What he failed to consider in his economic model is the fact that not only is the product—an airline seat—not inexpensive to produce, it is also linked to energy costs which are both volatile and unpredictable. “Cheap airfares” for the public are incredibly expensive to produce, forcing in the progressive “unbundling” of the airline product: now passengers must pay for each component of the flight—a checked bag, food, beverage, amenities like a pillow or a hard-copy ticket—and the revenue still only marginally covers the price of the product, with the airline industry losing billions nonetheless. Consumers insisted on paying less for an airline ticket, so now they can cough up for food and drink at airport prices between flights. Everything must yield revenue or there is no airline, and nothing with revenue potential on board can be simply given away.

— Manno, Chris.  “The Big 5 Conspire To Ruin Your Air Travel.” JetHead, 18 March 2010.

It’s worth reading the whole thing.  You’ll laugh but you’ll also cry, because things are going to get a whole lot worse before they get any better.

Category: Aeronautics  Tags: ,  Comments off

Temerlin McClain: American Airlines “Engine” & “Way of Life” ads (2002)

Perhaps it is the vagaries of CRTC-regulated Canadian television, the fact that we are not the target audience, or their transitional (and presumably, ephemeral) nature, but I don’t recall seeing either of these ad spots eight years ago.  They are meant to capitalise on patriotic feelings amongst Americans after September 11th, 2001, but they are also fairly brilliant in underlining the message that airlines are an essential component of global commerce.


Way of Life.

The director and cinematographer for these ads are geniuses. They are filled with tons of modern and old-school airline iconography; subtle nods to the decades-old liturgy of airline advertising, and the occasional subtle “screw you” to bin Laden and company.  For example:

  • Obligatory shot of arrivals and departures board with “On Time” status has become common in airline TV ads since the 1980s.
  • Aircrew in front of aircraft and cabin crew walking along jetway, both shot from extreme low angle = power and strength.
  • Baggage handlers and rampies running/moving quickly = efficiency
  • Marshaller’s clenched fist—part of “set/release brakes” and “do not touch controls” hand signals—(Engine, 00:50) = also an easily recognisable symbol of solidarity, strength and defiance; “we won’t let the bastards get us down.”
  • Mechanics servicing aircraft and pilots inspecting landing gear = we are diligent and safe.
  • Silhouetted AA MD-11 pushing back to reveal sunrise, another MD-11 leaping skyward in the background, accompanying text “the freedom” prominently displayed onscreen (Way of Life, 00:26).  This shot is pure visual poetry; the cameraman in me wonders how many mornings they spent out on an apron shooting that exact confluence of events.
  • Silhouetted MD-80 flying in golden sunrise/sunset above the Unisphere, accompanying text “anywhere” (Way of Life, 00:32).  Another superb shot where the visuals match the text.
  • The AA captain saluting passing military servicemembers (Way of Life, 00:41) is both a mark of respect for those in uniform, and a nod to past airline posters which have—paradoxically—often pictured their civilian aircrews saluting the public in their print ads.
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Missing the proverbial boat

Low-cost carrier AirTran (formerly ValuJet) is running a promotion in partnership with Sports Illustrated, featuring the magazine’s famed swimsuit edition.  To this end, AirTran has bedecked one of its 737s with the following swimsuit-clad figure.

Said adornment has caused the AirTran chapter of the Association of Flight Attendants to note its displeasure, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution (and also via Gawker):

“It is our feeling that this is not only contrary to the family image that this company tries to promote, but also potentially offensive to their female employees, the majority of their flight attendants who will have to work on this aircraft,” the union said, adding that it “creates a potential for verbal abuse by male passengers.”

— Yamanouchi, Kelly.  “Flight attendants protest AirTran swimsuit plane.” Atlanta Journal-Constitution, 2 March 2010.

The airline feels, correctly, that a swimsuit-clad lady ornamenting a single aircraft fuselage is not unduly concupiscent.  Being in the tradition of beautiful yet tasteful Second World War bomber nose art; or the even more recent revival by Virgin Atlantic.  Which is some twenty-five years old now, and your correspondent is not aware of any swimsuit-lady-driven spike in male-initiated verbal abuse of female flight attendants in Virgin’s operating history.

Considering that such art adorns every Virgin Atlantic aircraft (and there are some 37 of them), one must, by the Association’s reckoning, assess the risk to those cabin crews as being several times greater than that borne by AirTran.

One may also wish to remind the Association that the swimsuit lady was on the outside of the aircraft, so the time of the greatest risk of inappropriate male behaviour was pre-boarding, while the AirTran 737 was at the gate and the passengers were still outside the aircraft, capable of seeing the woman on the fuselage.  After boarding, the greatest risk is to the cabin crews on adjacent aircraft, whose passengers still have a shot at seeing the swimsuit-clad woman on the 737’s exterior.

But that is all based on the Association of Flight Attendants’ fatuous reckoning of human nature.  In reality where adults dwell, the Association’s biggest blunder lay in focusing on the symptom, not the cause.

Swimsuit-clad ladies painted on airplanes are not the problem.  The airline trying to lure male passengers by dangling a pathetic chance of chatting with SI swimsuit models on a flight from New York to Vegas, plus two weekend parties with same, is the problem.

Party with the SI Swimsuit Models in Las Vegas!

Is Sports Illustrated your favorite magazine? What about the Swimsuit edition? Well if you love both, this is the event of a lifetime. Travel on AirTran Airways with the 2010 Sport Illustrated Swimsuit models from New York to Las Vegas for the party of the year! One winner and their guest will fly on AirTran Airways along with SI Swimsuit Models featured in the 2010 SI Swimsuit issue.

The winner will receive

  • Airfare for two (2) to New York to board the flight to Las Vegas
  • A two (2) night hotel stay in Las Vegas
  • Two (2) tickets to the SI Swimsuit On Location Party at the The Mirage Resort & Casino
  • Two (2) tickets to the Club SI Swimsuit Party at the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino

— “AirTran Airways Sports Illustrated® Swimsuit Fly Away Sweepstakes—Official Rules.” AirTran Airways, 2010.  Web.  2 March 2010.

So, the SI swimsuit models were contractually obligated to fly from New York to Las Vegas with the contest winners, and probably also to mingle with them a teeny bit at said SI-sponsored parties (all of this having wrapped up, in actuality, by February 12th, 2010).

To be blunt, the contest involves flying across the country in order to converse with contractually-obligated attractive women in three carefully controlled situations.  The only chaps this is likely to appeal to are those that don’t think they have a shot at chatting with any locally-derived attractive women who can stay or depart at their own leisure.  And such chaps might, indeed, decide to make a play for a flight attendant, or behave inappropriately.  If that were to happen, however, it would have nothing at all to do with a woman being painted on a 737 fuselage, and everything to do with the contest which caused that woman to be painted on the fuselage.  And the management which endorsed said contest, which would be properly understood as the root cause.

Rather than start a round of hand-waving over something utterly inconsequential, AirTran’s members of the Association of Flight Attendants would be much better advised to address the root, and not a mere symptom.

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The price of greatness is responsibility

One cannot help but chuckle all the way through this post by Chris Manno (a.k.a. Jethead).

Yeah, it’s all about the four stripes. A lot of stuff changes the day you put them on.

Sure, there’s the instant recognition from coworkers. They know the reality behind the symbols of authority and reflect that in their very manner. That’s the outward effect. Inward? Well, you know you’ve arrived.

…You have to be confident to earn the respect of the Cabin crew, plus that of your fellow pilots, who are secretly happy about the fact that you have the four stripes, not them, although they do love to kid around. Never mind that it could be–SHOULD BE–them in the left seat now occupied by your sorry lard ass, no one’s bitter.

— “Airline Captain: It’s all about the prestige.”  JetHead, 18 February 2010.

The closing image and caption are not to be missed.

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Good call

Speedbird 38, a British Airways Boeing 777-200ER (registry G-YMMM) landed short of Heathrow's Rwy 27L on January 17th, 2008.

BA 777 Landing Short Heathrow., originally uploaded by ldn2ca.

Every person will, at some point, encounter an extraordinary situation in which regulations or prior training will incline them to take one course of action, but the specifics of the scenario will lead their instinct to override it and choose another.  Most of us will not be placed in a situation where that call is time-critical and the course of hundreds of lives will depend on the outcome.

On January 17th, 2008, the flight crew of ill-fated Speedbird 38 (BA038) made a last-minute adjustment to their flap settings, opting to extend their touchdown zone rather than have the guts ripped out of their crippled steed by Runway 27L’s localizer array and approach lighting.

Captain Peter Burkill altered the flap settings to reduce drag when the Boeing Co. 777 was only 240 feet above the ground, the U.K. Air Accidents Investigation Branch said in a report today. That delayed the impact for 50 meters (164 feet) and the plane came down on a grass apron with no fatalities.

The Boeing cracked a wing and had its wheels ripped off in the crash on Jan. 17, 2008, after frozen fuel lines stopped its engines from providing sufficient thrust as it neared Heathrow. Had the pilot not adjusted the flaps the 777 would have plowed into a cluster of antennas that communicate with the instrument landing systems of aircraft before touchdown, the AAIB said.

…“You have to take your hat off to Captain Burkill because while reducing the amount of flap helps maintain speed it also diminishes lift and it’s something you never, ever do,” said Kieran Daly, an air-safety commentator and former pilot. “So really it’s an extraordinary thing. An act of genius.”

— Prione, Sabine.  “British Airways Pilot Averted Worse Crash, Study Says.” Bloomberg BusinessWeek, 9 February 2010.

Despite that good decision, the award of the BA Safety Medal (only awarded three times previously), and a later return to flying duties, Captain Burkill took voluntary redundancy and left British Airways in 2009.

He’s got a website to market his upcoming book, and few brief blog posts, too.

Category: Aeronautics  Tags: ,  Comments off

I’ll pass on the Mile High Club, thanks

While your intrepid gazetteer is supportive of many efforts to further man’s mastery of the skies, making sexytime in an aircraft lavatory is one of those pursuits that he has never been able to fully comprehend.  For some of us, the appeal of flying lies in the way in which the aircraft becomes an extension of the person; granting the freedom to move in three dimensions with the winged creatures of the earth, to take in sumptuous and serene vistas which few can routinely see, to visit remote locales which few have visited.

The idea of spending one’s time aloft locked in a tiny windowless closet, taking in the smell of human waste and chemical disinfectants, while simultaneously trying to put Tab A into Slot B seems like Missing The Point on a rather grand and tragic scale.  There is no philosophy in it, no majesty or grandeur.  It is like winning a million-dollar lottery prize, and spending every last cent of one’s winnings on table salt.

JetHead, a veteran captain having logged 24 years flying service with American Airlines, also does not see the point:

2. Mile High Club? Seriously?

What, in an outhouse? The last guy’s skid marks (remember: no water) stinking the place up? Now THAT’S amore. And you’d have to be an idiot. Your buddy who claims he did it in the lav (yeah, right) is an idiot for even thinking about it.

— JetHead.  “Airliner Lavatories: No Blue Sky and NO DEUCE. Ever.”  JetHead’s Blog, 3 February 2010.

He also goes into some detail about the ventilation systems, and how the ah, aerosolised byproducts of lav activity make their way into the cockpit very quickly.  Ew.  Very funny read, though.

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Second opinion

Clarence Center Plane Crash 2/12/09, originally uploaded by bowler6788.

Kent Wien, 757/767 pilot and author of Gadling.com columns Cockpit Chronicles and Plane Answers, points out where the NTSB’s examination of the Colgan Air 3407 accident falls short of the mark.

Glossed over in the report was the fact that both the captain and first officer had very little sleep over the previous 24 hours. The NTSB says the captain had ‘reduced sleep opportunities’ and attempted to rest in the company crew lounge. Apparently the attempts at sleeping there weren’t effective since the captain logged on to a company computer at 3:10 in the morning.

…But one of the investigators in the Colgan accident, Robert Sumwalt refuses to allow for the possibility that fatigue was even a contributing factor in the accident, saying “…just because the crew was fatigued, that doesn’t mean it was a factor in their performance.”


…The role of fatigue was mentioned during an NTSB hearing on the Colgan accident. Board chairman Deborah Hersman argued that several issues, including the crew’s sleep deficits and the time of day the accident took place, were factors and said that fatigue was present and should be counted as a contributing factor to the crew’s performance.

But the view of board member and former USAirways pilot Robert Sumwalt prevailed. He concluded that fatigue wasn’t a factor in the accident. It didn’t stop them from detailing the role it played in Colgan 3407 (PDF LINK)

So if nicotine is found to cause some cancer, but its role in a person’s life expectancy cannot be determined, should we rule it out as a possible factor in a lung cancer death?

— Wien, Kent.  “Plane Answers: NTSB glosses over fatigue in the Colgan crash.” Gadling.com, 4 February 2010.

RELATED: Kent argues convincingly that the Colgan crew was not distracted by idle chatter, since they didn’t say anything other than the usual callouts for two minutes prior to the stall condition.

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This is how the market works

G-EUXM, originally uploaded by dm.photo.

Unite, the British Airways cabin crew union, has decided to launch what may be the most ill-timed job action in the history of aviation.  The union plans to go on strike for twelve days, from December 22nd through January 3rd, effectively halting BA’s operations during the busy Christmas season.  The airline is fighting a rearguard action, trying to have a court halt the strike due to alleged balloting irregularities.

Meanwhile, BA’s competitors smile as they twist the shiv.  British Midland Airways and Virgin Atlantic have both boosted seat capacity on major routes, to offer the stranded another way to hearth and home.  BMI has also granted the use of their own lounges to BA silver and gold cardholders.

Some of British Airways’ saner cabin attendants are now contemplating the scope of the PR disaster engineered by their union, realising that kicking the travelling public in the nads during the holiday season might indicate a certain lack of civility and graciousness.  Not to mention fatally crippling their erstwhile employer.

There’s a lesson in there, somewhere.

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