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:

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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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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


mm085: Danger In The Repair Shop

July 26, 2007

MUDGE’S Musings

My habit is to enjoy Business Week at (my usually) solitary lunch break. Imagine my digestive condition after reading this:

Business Week Online

JULY 30, 2007
GLOBAL BUSINESS

Danger In The Repair Shop

FAA inspectors are warning about the risks of outsourcing maintenance

The global economy has given consumers a lot to worry about these days: lead-laced toy trains, tainted toothpaste and pet food, and counterfeit drugs. Now add this to your list of fears: commercial jetliners that are routinely repaired in maintenance shops around the world that the Federal Aviation Administration has neither the funds nor the staff to oversee properly.

No one seems more worried than some of the FAA’S 3,000 inspectors themselves. They are sounding the alarm that foreign maintenance shops receive inadequate oversight and have become a risk for shoddy work and counterfeit parts. In interviews and in recent congressional testimony, inspectors and their union representatives say they are able to scrutinize thoroughly the work of only a handful of the 698 overseas maintenance contractors licensed by the FAA.

These facilities are sometimes found to hire unskilled and untrained employees. Inspectors, moreover, don’t have any ability to oversee an unknown number of obscure maintenance shops that lack FAA certification.

Fears about the safety consequences of outsourcing maintenance have been around since at least 2001. Worries were heightened in 2003, when an Air Midwest commuter jet crashed, killing 21, following faulty work by a domestic maintenance subcontractor. Now those anxieties are on the rise again as major carriers, faced with soaring fuel prices and cutthroat competition, move more of their work overseas. In March, Delta Air Lines (DALRQ ) outsourced the maintenance of airframes on 12 Boeing (BA ) 767 aircraft to a Hong Kong company, part of a wider strategy of moving repair work overseas that the company says saves about $250 million annually.

Two years ago, United Airlines Inc. (UAUA ) outsourced its 777 maintenance to another Chinese company. Delta and United say overseas outsourcing is safe and the facilities they use meet FAA standards. “Safety is always our first priority,” says United Airlines spokeswoman Megan McCarthy. “We’re not worried about the quality of the work.”

Every major U.S. carrier, in fact, has outsourced repair work beyond U.S. borders. But the extent of such work is growing. The Transportation Dept. estimates U.S. airlines spent 64% of their maintenance budgets, or some $3.7 billion, at outsourced facilities last year, up from 37% in 1996. And with U.S. consumers ever more wary of tainted goods and services from China, the latest push could stir a fresh wave of anxiety.

Already, some legislators and safety advocates are warning that outsourcing repair work is a disaster waiting to happen. In an interview with BusinessWeek, Senator Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), who chaired a June Senate subcommittee hearing on foreign maintenance facilities, said she thinks “Americans would be shocked if they knew we have foreign repair stations that are not secure, employees without criminal background checks, and mechanics who are not qualified.”

According to some FAA inspectors, there’s plenty to worry about. In Taiwan, for instance, inspectors have been deeply troubled by what they observed over the course of the past two years at Chiang Kai-shek International Airport, where Boeing is modifying four 747 jumbo jets into extra-large cargo freighters. Inspectors say they found discarded B-747 parts, which they worried could wind up back in a commercial aircraft. As the old parts came off the planes–everything from aluminum panels to generators–they were dumped into unsecured bins, according to two inspectors who each shared their concerns separately with FAA inspector Linda Goodrich, a 23-year veteran of the agency and a senior member of the FAA inspectors’ union.

The repair shop, a unit of the Taipei-based Evergreen Group, a transportation conglomerate, is required to seal off the work area and destroy the parts, according to FAA regulations. Inspectors worry that any scavenger could grab the parts and resell them into the brisk market for counterfeit aircraft parts. The FAA itself has estimated that some 520,000 counterfeit parts make their way into planes each year. “These parts could be installed back on a passenger jet,” says Goodrich, who is based in Washington, D.C. “There’s no telling where these parts might show up or what could happen.”

Boeing Co. officials say the company followed FAA regulations and the parts in question have been destroyed. A senior Evergreen executive agrees that the work complied with FAA guidelines and that the parts were disposed of properly.

[Following publication of the story, Boeing officials conceded that FAA inspectors’ account was accurate. Boeing officials confirmed that two years ago parts taken from 747 jets were not identified, destroyed or disposed of properly. But as soon as the problems were identified, Boeing and Evergreen resolved them, said Boeing spokeswoman Mary Hanson. “Boeing did have some initial issues with scrap part identification and marking when it first started up the modification program in Taipei,” Hanson said. “Procedures to ensure proper part identification and marking were promptly put in place.” She said Boeing and Evergreen have since been in compliance with FAA rules.]

More broadly, the FAA disagrees strongly with its unions that foreign maintenance facilities pose a risk, citing the impressive safety record of U.S. carriers in recent years. James J. Ballough, FAA director for Flight Standards Service, says the agency visits each foreign repair station annually. “I am confident that we get a true picture of the compliance posture of those repair stations,” he says. “We have a great safety record.”

Some FAA inspectors, however, dispute the official line. They claim their biggest problem is simply getting the funds and clearance to travel to overseas sites. One inspector based in the Midwest says he is charged with inspecting dozens of facilities in Asia and Europe. But he’s able to visit only one or at most two such facilities a year, and then only briefly. “We’re not able to oversee the work to ensure it’s been done properly, whether they are properly using the tools, whether they have trained technicians,” says the inspector, who insisted on anonymity for fear of losing his job. “When such facilities were located in the U.S., we’d be in the shops every day.”

When inspectors do get overseas to observe the overhaul of, say, a jet engine, they say they find myriad problems, including faulty engine installations and improperly documented parts, a red flag for counterfeiting, according to Goodrich and several other FAA inspectors. Another common violation is not cleaning critical rotating parts before they’re inspected and checked for possible cracking. Such cracks, if undetected, could lead to an air disaster if the component fails, the inspectors say.

Such accounts are similar to testimony before Congress last month. “Our mechanics have found that aircraft returning from overseas flights had departed with obvious mechanical problems,” testified Robert Roach, vice-president of the International Association of Machinists, which represents many of the U.S.-based airline mechanics. The union opposes outsourcing and views it as a threat to its members’ jobs.

The ranks of FAA inspectors are likely to thin, not grow, as half of them are set to retire by 2010. But more inspectors wouldn’t help what is perhaps the most worrisome aspect of repair outsourcing: the hundreds of unlicensed maintenance subcontractors that operate completely below FAA radar. Licensed outsourcers often turn to these shops to save money, according to recent congressional testimony by Calvin L. Scovel III, the Inspector General for the Transportation Dept.

The IG testified that uncertified foreign repair stations have been performing maintenance that goes well beyond the simple oil changes and tire pressure checks previously thought to be taking place at these facilities. Instead, they’re repairing critical components, such as landing gear, and performing complete engine overhauls. The IG said that the FAA did not know the extent of maintenance performed at uncertified repair facilities, though he said the FAA is trying to find out.

And how do U.S. carriers follow up to ensure the work has been done? The IG said they rely mostly on telephone calls to the repair shops with which they’ve contracted.

By Stanley Holmes

Danger In The Repair Shop

So, once again the Republican stewards of our nation have screwed up yet another facet of the government that they have been trusted to oversee.

Why should any of us be surprised that the administration that has brought us the circus in Iraq, the post-Katrina catastrophe, and the threat to the Bill of Rights that is the Dept. of Homeland Security should have stumbled so badly managing airliner repairs?

In this case, the joke just might be on them — since you have to figure that the members of the plutocrat party spend more time traversing the airways than we serfs.

Meanwhile, MUDGE is not a frequent traveler by anyone’s standards. Of course, for the first time ever for this employer I am due to fly to Boston for a conference in 10 days. And of course, United is my employer’s preferred carrier.

Do you suppose my boss would allow me a few extra days so that I can make the drive?

It’s it for now. Thanks,

–MUDGE

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