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Archive for September, 2007

After a fifteen-year-old Russian boy survived a two-hour flight at high altitude as a stowaway inside the wheel well of a Boeing 737, his story received some attention. He stowed away at the Perm Airport by sneaking through a hole in the airport fence. Everyone wondered how a modern airport could allow such a major lapse–how did the boy get from the fence to the wheel well without being stopped? Well, it looks like the lapse continues. Six days later, two newspaper reporters found the hole intact, entered the secured area, and in poorly translated English:

When the correspondents had reached the runway, no one stopped to ask them what they were doing at a closed object. . . . In the middle of the day, when all of the airport’s services were working, two men (correspondents) freely accessed a plane standing in front of the airdrome control point and looked into the plane’s right wing. Finally, one of the technicians noticed some strangers near the plane, looked at them, and . . . went on working.

Well, da, that sure inspires confidence in the safety of Russian aviation. This is surely not what they wanted on the day after the unveiling of the Sukhoi SuperJet 100.

Experiment: Zero Security of Russian Airports [Russia-InfoCentre]

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The House Transportation Committee’s Subcommittee on Aviation held a major hearing on airline delays and consumer issues, and your humble blogger was there to pass on the highlights. The hearing came at the heels of “the worst summer for airline delays” since the Bureau of Transportation Statistics began keeping records thirteen years ago. Only 72.2 percent of flights were on time. Why? Weather, crowded skies, airline issues, scheduling problems, congestion, everything else that regular readers of this blog will be familiar with. The first panel of the hearing featured government officials, including the acting FAA chief, and the second featured aviation stakeholders.

Readers of this blog will be familiar with the background of the current aviation “crisis.” For those who need more, a background paper is here. The hearing was held against the backdrop of the House’s FAA reauthorization bill, which rejected the airlines’ preferred user fees approach to funding air traffic control, instead pumping more money into the agency and continuing to rely on fuel taxes.

I’m not going to summarize what each person said or go over each exchange. Instead, here’s the highlights reel: (more…)

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After her four- and seven-year-old sons were exposed to an R-rated movie with “a lot of nudity” on recent flight, a parent took her concerns to Congress, where two North Carolina legislators have introduced a bill to require airlines to offer “family friendly” seating sections without any visible TV screens. This parent apparently received an apology from the offending airline. (It’s not like R-rated movies are standard fare on main-cabin screens; I once endured the ghastly Princess Diaries 2: Royal Engagement on a Northwest flight.)

I do question the wisdom of Congress regulating customer service standards, I also have to wonder–is this even legal? Are airlines considered public spaces, and if so, how does case law on decency standards apply? Perhaps The NV Flyer, who specializes in this sort of thing, will weigh in for us.

Kid-friendly areas on planes proposed [AP via Things with Wings]

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Travel Weekly reports that after four years of talks, the U.S.-Japanese bilateral aviation agreement has been amended for the first time in ten years, with minimal changes: a minor codeshare rule change, more flexibility in setting fares (“While that provides more fare freedom in theory, the U.S. government never blocked fares, and it was not clear how often the Japanese government did so, if at all. It is possible, however, that airlines avoided offering fares they believed might be rejected.”), fifth freedom rights for some cargo operators, and more charter flights. Progress, sure, but wow, not very much.

U.S. and Japan revamp aviation deal [Travel Weekly; registration required]

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The Department of Transportation has awarded new China route authority (see my earlier post on this), and all the major airline applicants took home a prize. Delta goes first, with immediate approval for Atlanta-Shanghai. The 2008 route is for Guangzhou only, and only United submitted a bid, for service from San Francisco. Finally, in 2009, US Airways will begin serving Philadelphia-Beijing, Northwest will fly Detroit-Shanghai, American will add Chicago-Beijing, and Continental will launch Newark-Shanghai service.

What’s too bad about this is that there is so much pent-up demand for China flights stymied by trade restrictions and tight control. Chinese airlines won’t even use all their allocated routes, but U.S. carriers can’t step in and take them over. Hopefully, recognition of this demand will stimulate movement toward an open skies agreement with China.

What’s great about this is the increased connectivity. By 2009, virtually every U.S. airport with commercial service will have one-stop access to China. This is an impressive gain since deregulation, when Pan Am and Northwest Orient dominated Asia routes (and often flew through intermediate gateways like Honolulu, Anchorage, and Seattle), and especially with respect to service to nonstop service to China itself, which was very limited and did not begin until the 1980s. The remarkable expansion of accessible China service to almost everywhere in the United States is something to applaud.

Delta, United get first crack at new China routes [USA Today via Today in the Sky]

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After looking at the House’s FAA reauthorization bill , it’s time to turn to the other chamber, which is expected to act on its bill, the Aviation Investment and Modernization Act of 2007 (S 1300), this week.

  • The key provision is the establishment of a user fee system for air traffic control. “Not later than October 1, 2008, the Administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration shall impose a surcharge of $25 per flight for air traffic control costs. Except as provided in subsection (b), owners or operators of aircraft in the national airspace system shall pay the surcharges assessed under this section.”The money will go into a modernization fund toward NextGen implementation. As a nod to AOPA, piston-engined aircraft and general aviation aircraft outside controlled airspace are exempt. (106)
  • An Air Traffic Control Modernization Oversight Board is established, with the intention of meeting and overseeing their way to an ATC solution. (301)
  • The Senate bill contains the same stealth-passenger bill of rights as the House bill does. (401) It also expands the Transportation Department’s investigatory power into airline customer service issues. (412)
  • The Senate adds one more beyond-perimeter flight at Washington National Airport than the House does. (414)
  • As in the House bill, the age sixty retirement for pilots is phased out. (706)

The general aviation coalition doesn’t like the user fee provision one bit, even though it will mostly be private jet users affected. They see it as a tiny first step to imposing user fees more broadly–and fees larger than $25. The airline industry prefers to see this now; it’s not as much as their “Smart Skies” proposal calls for, but the general aviation crowd is right–it does set a precedent.

How this provision will be reconciled with the House’s status quo legislation is going to be mighty interesting.

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The FAA Reauthorization Act of 2007 (HR 2881) was adopted by the House of Representatives today in a 267-151 vote. The Senate bill will be voted on soon–and will contain significant differences than the House bill, requiring a battle royal in conference.

I have paid very little attention to news coverage of FAA funding politics, mostly because the two parties annoy me. (Excursions with Edna the Class Warrior, I’m looking at you.) The media have tended to write more about the parties interested in the legislation–airlines, the ATA, general aviation pilots, AOPA–rather than the bills themselves. The debate is over who should pay how much and in what ways for air traffic control services. The FAA is currently funded by general federal funds (about 20 percent) and the Airport and Airway Trust Fund (about 80 percent), which collects revenue from a variety of taxes, fees, and charges levied on airlines and passengers. But now that the House bill has passed, I’ll hit the highlights here, after the jump. (more…)

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Wise words from The Cranky Flier regarding government impulses to bail out failing airlines. Let the market work; it does a great job of responding to demand and generating better service than a nearsighted embrace of the status quo does.

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In 2004, US Airways downgraded its operations at Pittsburgh International Airport from hub to focus city status, taking with it half its flights and leaving swathes of terminal unused. Scott McCartney relates the story of what happened next: fares fell through the floor and low-cost carriers rushed in to take advantage of the situation. For a season, Pittsburgh mourned the loss of its hub and especially its prestigious transatlantic service to London and Frankfurt. But the Allegheny County Airport Authority takes a realistic view about luring back transatlantic service: “We have to depend on our market, and that may only be able to support international flights seven or eight months out of the year.”

Now, Things with Wings reports, US Airways is cutting back even more. Rather than respond with histrionics, the airport authority is welcoming the opportunity to get more flights from low-cost carriers. Moreover, according to a quotation over at Towers and Tarmacs, Pittsburgh is deploying incentives strategically: “We don’t rely just on the incentives. Any airline will tell you that if a market is not there, incentives will not work. The incentives are more a way to help increase brand awareness by telling passengers that there’s not just one carrier at Pittsburgh. At one point, 87% of our flights used to be with US Airways.”

The lesson Pittsburgh has taken to heart–that hub closure is not necessarily a long-term loss–is one for several other airports intent on remaining captive to high fares at their fortress hubs.

More US Airways Cuts Coming to Pittsburgh? [Things with Wings]
Pittsburgh Continues Efforts on Airline Diversity [Towers and Tarmacs]

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The British government is pressuring British Airways to purchase UK-made products in the interests of British jobs, the Times reports. “Government ministers and officials are understood to be urging Willie Walsh, chief executive of BA, to ‘buy British’ by supporting Rolls [engines] and Airbus, both of which have large manufacturing operations in the UK.”

I can’t even begin to go into how backward this is, but I’ll try: First, if Airbus and Rolls Royce offer products superior to their competitors’ (they are both certainly right up there with their competitors), then the decision would require no intervention. Second, BA is a mostly-Boeing airline, although the Times article fervently pushes a scenario in which BA might need to buy the A380. But it doesn’t make sense for BA to buy Airbuses unless it gets a good deal, which is something it needs to negotiate with Airbus. For the British government to get involved in a pricing deal with a private company would be illegal.

That’s right, illegal! (more…)

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