mm409: Blast from the Past! No. 27

June 13, 2008

MUDGE’s Musings

What a great day to post this! I’m headed home from Boston, and sincerely hoping that I need not loathe nor fear any of the experience.

There’s most read, and then there’s favorite. This is a post which yr (justifiably) humble svt is, regrettably, but not regretfully, not at all humble about.

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Blast from the Past!

A post we really, really loved to write, and read, and re-read…

From last summer, originally posted September 12, 2007 and originally titled “Fear and loathing at the airport.”

MUDGE’S Musings

We’ve tackled the unpleasant topic of air travel a couple of times this summer.

As a subject of interest, it won’t go away.

A couple of recent cases in point, about a week old, but worthy of attention nonetheless.

We begin with Business Week, recently demoted from its 35-year reign as MUDGE‘s #1 absolute all time favorite business magazine by the new (160-year old!) #1, The Economist, the best magazine on the planet. But, BW is always a fine read, and this was the cover story for the Sept. 10 issue:

bw_255x65_thumb1

Long lines, late flights, near collisions—everyone is unhappy with the state of the U.S. air travel system. Unfortunately, no one, especially not the FAA, seems able to do anything about it

When Marion C. Blakey took over at the Federal Aviation Administration in 2002, she was determined to fix an air travel system battered by terrorism, antiquated technology, and the ever-turbulent finances of the airline industry. Five years later, as she prepares to step down on Sept. 13, it’s clear she failed. Almost everything about flying is worse than when she arrived. Greater are the risks, the passenger headaches, and the costs in lost productivity. Almost everyone has a horror story about missed connections, lost baggage, and wasted hours on the tarmac.. More than 909,000 flights were late through June of this year, twice the level of 2002.

And if you think the Summer from Hell is over, fasten your seat belt. The FAA predicts 1 billion passengers a year will take to the skies by 2015, a 36% increase from the current level. FAA officials say this year’s Labor Day crunch could become an everyday flying fiasco within eight years, costing America’s economy $22 billion annually.

Read the rest of this entry »

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mm404: Boston, Day 0

June 8, 2008

MUDGE’s Musings

Flew out of O’Hare this morning headed to Boston for a conference.

We all complain about air travel:

The “Transportation Security Agency” that doesn’t look or act like it could secure its way out of a paper bag.

The airlines who cram people tightly together into smaller and smaller aircraft, and can’t raise prices fast enough to cover their high altitude fuel prices so they’ll soon be charging you to check your luggage (what’s next? air fares denominated in dollars per pound of passenger weight? if it comes to that, guess I’m driving to Boston next time!). And of course, by charging for checked baggage, American (soon to be followed by all the others) are merely incenting hapless travelers to resort to larger and larger carry-ons, for which there is already too little space on those smaller and smaller aircraft they insist on using.

The air travel system in general, with too many of those small airlines crammed into too small terminals, resulting in “weather related” delays and, in some really ugly cases hours sitting on taxiways without food or drink or ventilation.

But, today, I can’t complain.

Read the rest of this entry »


mm139: Fear & Loathing At The Airport

September 12, 2007

MUDGE’S Musings

We’ve tackled the unpleasant topic of air travel a couple of times this summer.

As a subject of interest, it won’t go away.

A couple of recent cases in point, about a week old, but worthy of attention nonetheless.

We begin with Business Week, recently demoted from its 35-year reign as MUDGE‘s #1 absolute all time favorite business magazine by the new (160-year old!) #1, The Economist, the best magazine on the planet. But, BW is always a fine read, and this was the cover story for the Sept. 10 issue:

bw_255x65

Long lines, late flights, near collisions—everyone is unhappy with the state of the U.S. air travel system. Unfortunately, no one, especially not the FAA, seems able to do anything about it

When Marion C. Blakey took over at the Federal Aviation Administration in 2002, she was determined to fix an air travel system battered by terrorism, antiquated technology, and the ever-turbulent finances of the airline industry. Five years later, as she prepares to step down on Sept. 13, it’s clear she failed. Almost everything about flying is worse than when she arrived. Greater are the risks, the passenger headaches, and the costs in lost productivity. Almost everyone has a horror story about missed connections, lost baggage, and wasted hours on the tarmac.. More than 909,000 flights were late through June of this year, twice the level of 2002.

And if you think the Summer from Hell is over, fasten your seat belt. The FAA predicts 1 billion passengers a year will take to the skies by 2015, a 36% increase from the current level. FAA officials say this year’s Labor Day crunch could become an everyday flying fiasco within eight years, costing America’s economy $22 billion annually.

There was a time not long ago when the head of the FAA would be the last person you’d expect to express public doubts about potential catastrophe. Today, Blakey is unabashed about the rising risk of flying. There have been 339 incidents so far this year where planes got too close to each other or to objects on the ground, up from 297 in the same period last year. On Aug. 16 a passenger jet on the runway at Los Angeles International Airport came within just 37 feet of another airliner—the eighth such incident this year at LAX alone.

“While it is the safest form of transportation,” Blakey says, “deep in your heart you still know that [when you’re] flying at 30,000 feet with no safety net you’re counting on the system—a system that is at the breaking point.”

So why is it that we can put a man on the moon but can’t fly him from Atlanta to Charlotte, N.C., without at least a two-hour delay? While Blakey bears some responsibility for the abysmal state of air travel, she follows a long line of FAA chiefs who failed to put much of a dent in the agency’s to-do list. It’s not a lack of money. Last year the FAA did not spend all of the money it was allocated. Nor is it a lack of knowhow. Existing technology could easily meet the demands created by the exploding number of fliers. Nor, for that matter, is it security concerns.

Instead, it’s a fundamental organizational failure: Nobody is in charge. The various players in the system, including big airlines, small aircraft owners, labor unions, politicians, airplane manufacturers, and executives with their corporate jets, are locked in permanent warfare as they fight to protect their own interests. And the FAA, a weak agency that needs congressional approval for how it raises and spends money, seems incapable of breaking the gridlock. “The FAA as currently structured is impossible to run efficiently,” says Langhorne M. Bond, administrator of the agency from 1977 to 1981.

When no one’s in charge, no one can be held accountable. Small aircraft operators blame the big airlines for scheduling too many flights out of the major airports. The big carriers say the smaller operators aren’t paying their share of what it takes to maintain the air traffic control system. The controllers complain they are understaffed and underpaid, and that their facilities need repair. The FAA says it needs new revenue sources to invest in new technologies. Congress says the FAA needs to manage the money it has better. And passengers blame everybody in sight, but aren’t willing to spend a dime more on tickets.

The balance of the story is useful, but check back here after you take a look at it, and let’s compare notes, shall we?

[Per L-HC’s reformed process, please click the link below for the complete article — but then please come on back!]

Fear & Loathing At The Airport

BW places the blame on the antiquated air traffic control system, and paints this discouraging picture of its replacement’s chances of appearing in many of our lifetimes:

The FAA has been trying to shift to a satellite-based system, as well as better computer and automated communications networks, since the 1980s. But this rational, not particularly controversial goal has been difficult to achieve because the agency has to please so many constituencies. Ask Charles Leader, a former McKinsey & Co. consultant and aircraft industry executive who heads the Joint Planning & Development Office, a consortium of seven government offices, which is charged with designing what the FAA calls its Next Generation Air Transportation System (NextGen). The new system would allow planes to fly straighter paths, closer together, even in bad weather, freeing up space in the air and reducing work for the controllers. It’s expected to cost upward of $44 billion—half paid by the government for facilities, half by airplane owners for gear in the planes. The catch: The current completion date is now estimated to be 2025. As a result, Leader talks not in years but in “epochs.” The parties involved include the FAA, NASA, and the Transportation, Defense, Homeland Security, and Commerce Depts., along with the White House. “It’s very challenging,” Leader says. “Not because anyone is against it. There are just so many agencies.”

Ugh! Looks cool, though…

bwnavigation

What Business Week totally overlooks is Patrick Smith’s insightful explanation (followed up here) for why the issue has reached its tipping point this year:

Regardless of what is or isn’t causing this climatic weirdness, its impact wouldn’t be half so bad if not for the staggering volume of air traffic attempting to navigate through and around it. I’ve never seen anything like it. Long waits and holding patterns are routine now, even on clear sunny days. And an ever-growing percentage of that traffic is made up of regionals. Check out those evening conga lines at Kennedy, and you’re liable to spot a 500-passenger Boeing 747 sandwiched between four 50-seaters. Elsewhere it’s similar. At LaGuardia and Washington-National, the number of RJs and, to a lesser extent, turboprop feeder craft, is astonishing, often outnumbering the Boeings and Airbuses of the majors.

Smith’s thesis is that the airlines have systematically downsized aircraft, in order to fly fewer empty seats, and as a result ever more passengers are being flown in ever smaller airplanes, cluttering up the taxi lanes in the ways he and Business Week illustrate.

The system is broken, and we beleaguered passengers are caught between the gears. Because, just like with our lead-painted toys from the home of always low prices, we passengers demand the absolute lowest fares, regardless.

___________________________________

Around the same time the BW issue appeared, one of MUDGE‘s favorites, Stanley Bing, weighed in:

bing

jefferson.jpgAs we enter into this Labor Day Weekend, with so many of us hitting the skies to enjoy this last little lick from the ice cream cone of summer, I thought it would be timely and appropriate to offer what seems to me to be an achievable, realistic draft of a document that has been much discussed by lawmakers and other philosophers: A Traveler’s Bill of Rights:

  1. You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say or do while imprisoned within the air travel system can and will be completely ineffective.
  2. You have the right to get to the airport very early, only to find that your trip has been canceled.
  3. You have the right to accept the excuse for that cancellation or not, whatever.

Bing continues in this vein:

The Bing Blog The real air traveler’s Bill of Rights «

Best of all is this right, not exercised nearly enough:

20. You have the right to stay home.

It’s it for now. Thanks,

–MUDGE


mm132: Delay imperils Dreamliner’s delivery date

September 7, 2007

MUDGE’S Musings

Friday is apparently catch-up day here at L-HC. In mid-July, Boeing rolled out the 787 Dreamliner to great acclaim.

Based on how industrially complex modern designed from scratch aircraft are, should we be surprised that delivery times are slipping?

chitrib

By Julie Johnsson | Tribune staff reporter

September 6, 2007

Boeing Co. officials acknowledged for the first time Wednesday that there is an increased risk it won’t meet its delivery schedule for its first 787 Dreamliner.

Production glitches have forced the planemaker to postpone the new jet’s maiden flight, once slated for late summer, until sometime between mid-November and mid-December, Scott Carson, president and chief executive of Boeing Commercial Airplanes, said on a conference call with analysts and reporters.

That leaves Chicago-based Boeing just six months to gain federal certification for the 787 before the first aircraft is due to be delivered to Japan’s All Nippon Airways in May. To compensate, the company plans the most aggressive flight testing for the groundbreaking jet in its history.

Boeing still believes it can deliver the first plane on time. But the delays leave it with little or no buffer to deal with any problems it discovers during its flight tests, said Mike Bair, who leads the 787 program.

And, indeed, it’s the complexity that’s making problems for Boeing.

[Per L-HC’s reformed process, please click the link below for the complete article — but then please come on back!]

Delay imperils Dreamliner’s delivery date — chicagotribune.com

Remember how everyone beat up Airbus because their schedule for the gigantic double-decked 380 has slipped by a couple of years?

Boeing made out well, reopening production of a 40-year old 747 model that seemingly was destined to cease manufacture, due mainly to Boeing’s aggressive selling to customers such as FedEx and UPS who found Airbus’ 380 delays unacceptable.

And during this duress, Airbus’ original, too-derivative design for a Dreamliner competitor, model 350, failed to move the market and has required a total redesign, which has delayed prospective deliveries of the newly named 350XWB until the middle of the next decade.

Airbus, a typical European governmental/industrial mashup of Tower of Babel proportions, has gone through multiple violent management changes as a result.

But, guess what? Boeing has discovered for itself that designing and manufacturing a commercial airliner, in these days of global participation (i.e., if you want to sell airplanes to Indonesia, you’d better manufacture some component there, even if it’s a landing gear door), is a pretty tricky business, requiring logistical organization perfection on a worldwide scale.

And, remember the Challenger tragedy of 21+ years ago? It was an average, utilitarian, unglamorous O-ring that did it in.

And the Dreamliner’s current problems are with average, utilitarian, unglamorous fasteners.

For want of a nail, indeed…

dreamliner

Pretty, though.

It’s it for now. Thanks,

–MUDGE


mm118: Overhaul of Air Traffic System Nears Key Step – washingtonpost.com

August 27, 2007

MUDGE’S Musings

Those of us victimized by the airlines, airport management, the TSA, too many too small aircraft in the skies (per Patrick Smith, most recently quoted here and here) can find a glimmer of hope in this report:

washingtonpost

Satellite Network Projected to Cut Flight Delays but May Take Years to Complete

By Del Quentin Wilber

Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 27, 2007; Page A01

The federal government is expected this week to award a contract worth more than $1 billion to build the key components of its next-generation air traffic control system — a high-tech network that officials say will alleviate chronic flight delays.

The system comes at a critical time, officials say, with flight delays at record levels and commercial aviation expected to continue growing steadily. The network will rely on satellites, rather than radar, to guide aircraft, and it is expected to allow planes to fly closer together and take more direct routes, saving fuel and time while reducing pollution. Government officials say it will also improve safety by giving controllers and pilots more precise information about planes.

An ambitious plan, to be executed of course by the lowest bidder.

[Per L-HC’s reformed process, please click the link below for the complete article — but then please come on back!]

Overhaul of Air Traffic System Nears Key Step – washingtonpost.com

And, of course the ADS-B system is controversial in the U.S. (happily adopted in lots of the rest of the world, but what do those gals and guys know about technology, anyway?) — everybody who wants this system in the U.S. wants someone else to pay for it.

And I can’t help but feel, the way the story is written, that the air traffic controllers union feels that should the national system be improved it will come at the expense of employment of controllers. Hey, guys, traffic’s expanding! Jobs for everyone! (Of course, if it’s just a matter of talking on a two-way satellite radio, and looking at a screen, the everyones might be working out of their homes in Bengaluru, or Shanghai, but that’s details.)

Of course, this writer will probably be more concerned about a different variety of wings by the year 2020 (if alive, I’ll only be 18 years away from retirement!), but we can all dream, can’t we?

It’s it for now. Thanks,

–MUDGE

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mm105: Ask the Pilot Returns!

August 18, 2007

MUDGE’S Musings

He never left, really, his column appears in Salon every other Friday. But his appearance in this space in July had two interesting effects.

1. For two days, the post evinced the largest readership ever for L-HC, by a two or three times.

2. One of those readers turned out to be a Salon lawyer, taking MUDGE to task for reproducing the article in its entirety, a copyright violation. They get millions of hits a day — Patrick Smith’s article pushed L-HC into the stratosphere, so to speak, with two days of 90 hits. They had every right to be concerned.

Anyway, it was Patrick’s topic, airline delays, that intrigued everyone, and he revisits that subject most brilliantly here.

salon

Ask the Pilot

Tired of long delays? Look at the bright side of flying: It’s cheaper and more accessible than ever.

By Patrick Smith

Aug. 17, 2007 | As the airlines announce their highest-ever load factors (percentage of seats sold), 2007 clocks in as the most delay-plagued year in aviation history. The past few months in particular have been excruciating, with bottlenecks victimizing tens of millions of fliers. The problem has not gone unnoticed by the media, major and minor. It seems that every last reporter and pundit, at every outlet from the Christian Science Monitor to National Public Radio, has run a feature story on the country’s ever-worsening air traffic crisis.

Up to now these stories have mostly been missing the point, failing to show that the real culprit here isn’t summer thunderstorms or faulty air traffic control equipment; it’s the airline industry’s obsession with pumping more and more airplanes — particularly smaller regional jets (RJs) — into an already saturated system. At long last, some of the coverage is getting it right. Namely, I refer you to Scott McCartney’s excellent report, “Small Jets, More Trips Worsen Airport Delays,” in the Aug. 13 edition of the Wall Street Journal. McCartney, author of the paper’s “Middle Seat” business travel column, examines the airlines’ untenable fixation with frequency. Even with a greater number of people flying than ever before, the size of the average aircraft has been shrinking. That means more takeoffs, more landings, more gridlock. The average jetliner now has 137 seats — 23 fewer than it did five years ago. The use of RJs, which carry anywhere from 35 to 70 passengers, has increased nearly 200 percent in that span.

I’ve yet to read a better analysis on the subject, and I’m glad someone’s finally taking notice of the problems with regional jets — a topic I covered extensively back in June and mid-July.

Patrick goes on to make some useful observations about how we air travel consumers have actually put ourselves in this position:

And you can’t entirely blame them. After all, we’re getting what we ask for. When airlines come around asking for opinions, their customers invariably answer yes, absolutely, they want and appreciate the opportunity to choose from no less than 35 daily departures between Los Angeles and San Francisco, Chicago and New York — even if only a quarter of those flights are anywhere close to departing on time.

So, here’s the link to the article, per our Salon-induced process. Enjoy, and say “Hi!” to their advertisers, from MUDGE.

[Per L-HC’s reformed process, please click the link below for the complete article — but then please come on back!]

Salon.com Technology | Ask the Pilot

He’s fascinating when discussing the actual cost of air travel:

The real cost of air travel — the price of a ticket adjusted for inflation — has fallen sharply over the past 20 years, even with tremendous surges in the cost of oil. According to the Air Transport Association, fares in 2006 averaged 12 percent lower than what they were in 2000, in spite of a 150 percent rise in jet fuel costs. Long after deregulation, fares have continued to drop as airlines have worked to squeeze cost from their product. Amenities and customer service aren’t what they used to be — on the whole they’re acceptable, and of late they’ve been improving — but what do you expect from carriers whose per-mile profit margins are sometimes a penny or less? Airlines sell what people claim to want. And if you read the surveys, even more than wanting lots and lots of flights to pick from, people want tickets at rock-bottom fares.

Traveled to Boston a couple of weekends ago, for business, at an extraordinarily low fare (my employer never expressed the appropriate gratitude — short of paying for it of course!).

Could control outbound, scheduled for the morning (always a better bet — accumulative delays have less time to accumulate in my experience), and still departed and arrived about 45 minutes later than scheduled, par for the course and not bad, all things considered.

The return was the Wednesday evening the conference was completed; when the courtesy shuttle got us back to Logan, found some colleagues who had decided not to wait for the free bus and took the taxi due to bookings on earlier flights still glumly awaiting their aircraft — storms in the Midwest.

Our flight was scheduled for much later, as it happened giving the weather at our destination an opportunity to clear, and again left and arrived about 45 minutes later than scheduled; for that hour of the night (a bit nerve-wracking when we realized that it was the last flight to O’Hare in the day’s schedule), not a bad outcome.

And my extended stay at Logan yielded this interesting benefit.

loganrainbow

For a larger view, click here.

Yeah, a rainbow, absurdly bright; and those of us snapping it got an unusual benefit, the reflection of the retro American Airlines logo mounted high on the wall opposite the terminal’s window. Photographed and transmitted by the way, on my LG EN-V (yes, no longer does MUDGE have EN-V envy!). By the way, this reduced image hardly does the original justice.

We’ll let Patrick have the last word:

And another nice change to savor, the next time you’re turning lazy circles over a holding fix: The person next to you might be ugly, and he might not stop talking, but at least he isn’t smoking.

It’s it for now. Thanks,

–MUDGE

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