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Archive for July, 2007

The tragic TAM crash of July 17 at Sao Paulo’s Congonhas Airport that killed almost 200 people has, when coupled with the government’s bad handling of the 2006 Gol disaster and ongoing air traffic control (ATC) problems that recently scattered inbound planes flying over the Amazon region, made Brazilians and foreigners alike of flying in the country. ATW Daily News reports that even President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva is afraid to fly:

“It’s no secret to any Brazilian that we have an aviation crisis,” he said. “Personally, when the airplane door closes, I deliver myself to God. Even with my luck in the hands of God, I confess I’m afraid. I confess this publicly because I am not embarrassed to say we are afraid.” Silva vowed to “do what has to be done and spend what has to be spent” to make air travel safe in Brazil.

Safety is of the utmost importance. But also important is the perception of safety. On the one hand, if the Brazilian government were to deny that there is a problem, it would be engaging in happy-talk. On the other hand, for the president to publicly disavow flying might be going too far.

Brazil’s airlines do not have especially unsafe records. The public notices big events that happen close together and draw perceptions from that, but statistics compiled by Airsafe.com indicate that TAM and other Brazilian airlines are safe to middle-of-the-road for Latin American airlines and doing downright well compared to U.S. giants American and United. Patrick Smith, as usual, counsels calm. So, we cannot merely write off Brazilian airlines as unsafe.

But Brazil’s ATC system needs repair, and it needs to get its employees–public servants, defense officials, even–in line. As long as ATC is a government task conducted on the premise that it is a matter of safety and security, then Calvin Coolidge’s statement after the Boston Police Strike of 1919 applies to them: “There is no right to strike against the public safety by anybody, anywhere, any time.” Ronald Reagan put this to the test with air traffic controllers in 1981, and over 11,000 striking controllers were fired.

Brazil’s controllers have been playing at the edges of a strike. Maybe it’s justified, maybe not. Regardless, they are public safety officials at a time of perceived crisis. Brazil’s skies are safer than the doomsayers say. It is irresponsible for anyone to be toying with the public perception of safety at this time.

Brazil needs to fix its real aviation problems. It doesn’t need its president and its air traffic controllers exacerbating the crisis of confidence in aviation safety.

Congonhas main runway reopens as Brazil’s president admits ‘I’m afraid’ to fly [ATW Daily News]

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Second-tier cities in the United States often have self-esteem problems. They (that is, the boosters, chambers of commerce, and city fathers–the average citizen doesn’t much care) persuade themselves that if only they had X, Y, or Z, they would have more prestige. This is what persuades cities to drop hundreds of millions of dollars into sports stadiums, and also what persuades cities to make irrational policy decisions about air travel.

Cleveland recently gave up its dream of nonstop flights to Asia, currently the sine qua non of aviation prestige. The city had next to no chance of getting such flights: Continental’s hub at Cleveland Hopkins International Airport is the airline’s smallest, and its only other transoceanic flights are seasonal routes to London and Paris. But a girl can dream, so Cleveland had planned to spend up to $54 million on extending a runway to attract these not-so-forthcoming flights. When expenses soared, Cleveland wisely put the prestige project on ice.

But Cleveland is at it again, offering (the article humorously refers to it as “investing”) $3.5 million in subsidies and waived landing fees to airlines who launch new service to Hopkins, especially in “the West and South and international destinations.” Ah, those favored “international destinations.” There go the city leaders again, trying to pay for prestige with public money.

Airport check-in: Cleveland: More direct flights wanted [USA Today]

See also: Why having a hub is not that big a deal.

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The City–shorthand for Britain’s financial sector–is trying to flex its muscles with the British government over Heathrow Airport. Considered (inexplicably, to me) one of the world’s most desirable airports to fly in and out of due to its relative proximity to central London, Heathrow is losing its competitive edge to airports like Amsterdam’s, Frankfurt’s, and even Paris’s Charles de Gaulle. Business leaders are concerned that elite travelers’ distaste for Heathrow will affect financial activity in Britain. What’s wrong with Heathrow?

  • Many terminals are falling into disrepair. They are poorly laid out and connections are difficult. Heathrow is in the early stages of a decades-long renovation process.
  • Long lines, for tickets, security, customs, and immigration.
  • Baggage-handling is troubled.

I’ve only flown through Heathrow once. It was neither particularly pleasant or unpleasant, but it was more crowded and congested than Gatwick, which is only a bit further from central London by fast train. I don’t see why Gatwick isn’t more popular with travelers and airlines than it is. But Heathrow’s not all that bad.

Perhaps the real problems with Heathrow, then, lie not with its management BAA or with the airport itself but with British aviation policy. In February, Britain’s Air Passenger Duty (APD) was doubled, ostensibly to suppress demand for air travel in order to cut back on emissions (not likely, but that’s for another post). The cost of a round trip jumped by as much as £160, making an international hub like Heathrow a less competitive place financially. London used to be one of the cheaper European gateways. And what has the effect been on traffic at Heathrow?

The latest passenger figures show the airport is losing travellers to other leading European hubs. There was a 1.8 per cent year-on-year fall in passenger traffic at Heathrow in June and a 1.2 per cent fall in the first half of this year, according to BAA.

Britain’s steep APD is hurting Heathrow, and to judge from the City’s concern, it’s hurting the British economy too. The City minister said that “the government was determined to prevent London’s competitiveness being eroded.” Heathrow is suffering the effects of the government’s policy. A competitive air travel fee structure would be a good way to fix the problem.

‘Hassle of Heathrow’ takes toll on City [Financial Times]

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According to an AFP report, Thai “airlines are now required to submit their low-fare ads to the government for approval.” This after the government received complaints about additional taxes and fees and limited availability. Low-fare carriers have long neglected to advertise fees–as have mainline network carriers–but regulatory pressure is forcing innovative airlines to include taxes in their advertised prices, as legendary nickel-and-dimer Ryanair now does. Regulatory pressure may have the consequence of making travelers more immune to the high taxes currently charged, especially on international flights, but the Thai action seems to go beyond that, giving governments far too much authority over airfares, preventing true competition.

Thailand tries to clarify prices in ads by budget carriers [AFP via Yahoo News]

See also: How nickel-and-diming is consumer-friendly.

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