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Archive for October, 2007

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TSA screeners had failure rates of up to 75 percent in finding bomb components, according to a classified report leaked to USA Today. “Screeners at Los Angeles International Airport missed about 75% of simulated explosives and bomb parts that Transportation Security Administration testers hid under their clothes or in carry-on bags at checkpoints, the TSA report shows.”

As usual, the excuses are hilarious: “The failure rates at Los Angeles and Chicago are ‘somewhat misleading’ because they don’t reflect screeners’ improved ability to find bombs, [spokeswoman] Howe said.”

Not hilarious at all is the unconscionable failure to improve security at great taxpayer expense and with far more personal intrusion and annoyance. “Tests earlier in 2002 showed screeners missing 60% of fake bombs. In the late 1990s, tests showed that screeners missed about 40% of fake bombs, according to a separate report by the Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress.”

It’s not as if this is actually “news.” TSA’s had its chance. Let’s call it a day.

Most fake bombs missed by screeners: 75% not detected at LAX; 60% at O’Hare [USA Today]

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US Airways has responded to A. L. Bardach’s article (fisked here by yours truly) on the Carol Gotbaum incident. I received the letter in an email. It is reprinted with permission after the jump.

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Sunday’s Washington Post featured an insanely over-the-top airline crisis story by A. L. Bardach. It begins with what should be a Bulwer-Lytton finalist:

I am haunted by the death of Carol Anne Gotbaum.

Yes, the death of Carol Gotbaum in a Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport holding cell was sad. She was a young mother: one might say it was tragic. But I hadn’t commented on it yet because it didn’t seem like an indictment of the air travel system or a particular airline. It was simply the very sad story of an unstable woman unable to deal with a stressful situation. Any impropriety on the part of the police is being investigated. From the accounts I’ve read and the videos I’ve watched, the police officers were firm but not over the line.

There’s every reason to believe that Gotbaum would be alive today if she had been allowed to board her flight to Tucson and take her rightful seat.

Sure there is. So she was denied boarding because the plane was full. Overbooking happens. For most airlines, if they didn’t overbook, they would fly with too few passengers and costs would go up. Overbooking is part of flying, and if you can’t deal with it responsibly, then find another way to get where you’re going. Or book a first-class ticket, or premium tickets, so that you get the best treatment.

According to the New York Times, US Air had revenue last year of $11.56 billion. Of that, $1 billion was the result of diligent overbooking.

I have no idea where the figure in the second sentence above comes from. Does US Airways denote “Profits from Overbooking . . .Mwa Ha Ha” on its balance sheets?

The stressful, often incendiary situations created by overbooking infuriate perfectly healthy, well-adjusted passengers. It’s not hard for me to imagine that an emotionally fragile, vulnerable person like Gotbaum could have felt absolutely desperate.

No one can say this enough: if you can’t handle the fire, get out of the kitchen. If you need some help, bring a helper along with you. Gotbaum’s family is up in arms over her treatment (understandable, indeed), but surely the airline denying her boarding is no more irresponsible than letting an “emotionally fragile, vulnerable” woman travel alone. Why didn’t her family help her out? If anyone else deserves blame, it should fall on the police officers for failing to appropriately read a case of mental illness before anyone should blame the airline. Cain may have been his brother’s keeper, but US Airways cannot possibly be its passengers’ keeper–at least not when the passenger has not boarded.

Her only mistake was showing up at the US Airways gate and believing that her paid-in-full, reserved-seat airline ticket meant that she would actually have a seat on the plane.

Now we veer into “has this author ever actually flown on a plane” territory. She is awed by the fact that yes, sometimes someone with a ticket doesn’t get on the plane. (Check your contract of carriage.) Yes, people, this happens occasionally, and far less often than Bardach leads you to believe. (In 2006, it was about 0.001 percent of the time. Help! Crisis! Civil rights!) It does not require a passenger’s bill of rights. Gotbaum made some more mistakes too: screaming at airline staff, refusing to cooperate with instructions. Those are what got her arrested. She was not jailed for missing her flight, people.

We made the same mistake.

Now we go into an air travel sob story, and it’s not a particularly good one. The author’s flight was overbooked; so was the next one. The author actually describes crying at the airport. Maybe she should stay home, too. Good thing her husband was traveling with her so he could handle the situation like an adult. In the end, the author reaches her destination.

I get really tired of these lame sob stories. I’ve certainly engaged in my share of air travel woe-sharing around the office, but I certainly don’t broadcast my experiences for the world, especially if they’re as tame as Bardach’s. Ninety-nine percent of my flights have offered exactly what was promised: I arrive on the other end roughly on time with my luggage. We obviously need changes, not least in how we price congested airspace, but cases like Gotbaum’s get so much attention because they are so exceptional! One of Bardach’s comments is spot-on, however: “Some pilots, he said, made only $19,000 a year and did not have adequate training.” I’ll address how policy relates to pilot pay at some point in the future. Bardach deserves credit for busting the myth of the overpaid pilot.

Some of what we heard from such disgruntled personnel was later confirmed in the New York Times. On May 30, the newspaper ran an article looking behind the scenes at the airline practice of overbooking in which US Air figured prominently. It quoted a US Airways official as saying that employees called in sick because they didn’t want to deal with overbookings, and a Boston gate agent complained, “You know you’re going to be yelled and screamed at to the point you have to call the police.”

I wouldn’t want to work there either. I have a relative who is a cabin crew member for Alaska Airlines, and she had a four-hour ground delay the other day. I feel just as sorry for the crew who have to deal with us, the grouchy public, as I do for passengers in these situations. Fortunately for Alaska passengers, my relative is professional, fun, and hard-working, so I’m sure they were treated as well as they could have expected.

Surely US Air/Mesa employees aren’t bad people. They’re doing their jobs — understaffed and underpaid — in an industry with seemingly no oversight or accountability.

Surely the employees aren’t bad people. But “no oversight or accountability”? Bardach has no idea what she’s talking about. Aviation is one of the most overseen industries in the world! Safety standards are rigorous, and our airlines’ safety record is excellent. Air travel is governed by a number of international conventions. Airports are minutely regulated environments (if poorly controlled by the TSA). Remember that scene in Meet the Parents when Ben Stiller gets arrested “because you can’t say ‘bomb’ on an airline”? Well, you can’t lose it in an airport terminal or you’ll get arrested. This is surely a sign of a surfeit of “oversight.” In fact, the blog commenters going nuts about this (like at the Huffington Post) seize on the Gotbaum incident as an example of some sort of Amerikan police state. But if true, that’s the fault of the police, not US Airways!

My husband and I didn’t just get mad, we got even. Upon our return to Santa Barbara, we filed a complaint in small claims court for $7,500, the maximum allowed. US Air settled with us in June.

Good for you, Ms. Bardach, the legal system worked. You got reimbursed. Stop using a dead woman to propagate your ill-informed rants about air travel in America. Carol Gotbaum’s death cannot be blamed on the airline she was supposed to fly. Tone down the hyperbole.

Why Flying Now Can Kill [Washington Post]

UPDATE: US Airways has responded.

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The Dutch government has decided to impose an additional tax on all passengers departing or arriving in the Netherlands (primarily affecting Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport and the airline that hubs there, KLM). Like Britain’s Air Passenger Duty (APD), the Dutch tax differentiates between European flights (€11.45 per segment) and longer-haul flights (€45). The levy is part of what the Dutch finance ministry calls “the greening of taxation,” according to ATW Daily News. But the tax might not actually quell flying from Schiphol (ostensibly the reason for an environmentally friendly tax)–it may just push a lot of it to nearby airports in Belgium and Germany.

So how much will this set back travelers to the Netherlands? I did some research to compare flights to Amsterdam and to Brussels from the same airports on the same airlines on the same days, and here are my results. All total fares below are inclusive of taxes and fees.

  • Vienna-Brussels on Austrian Airlines
    10/18-10/21
    Total: €271.96
    Tax: €90.96

    Tax breakdown:

    • Security and fuel surcharge: €44.00
    • Passenger Service Charge: €15.29
    • Passenger Security Charge: €8.00
    • Passenger Service and Security Charge: €23.67
  • Vienna-Amsterdam on Austrian Airlines
    10/18-10/21
    Total: €335.29
    Tax: €95.29
    Tax breakdown:

    • Security and fuel surcharge: € 44.00
    • Passenger Service Charge: € 15.29
    • Passenger Security Charge: € 8.00
    • Passenger Service Charge: € 13.22
    • Noise Isolation Charge: € 2.00
    • Security Service Charge: € 12.78

    Total tax after “greening”: €117.79

In this case, one can save almost €30 in tax by flying to Brussels.

  • Charleroi-Madrid on Ryanair
    10/17-10/21
    Tax: €16.42
    Tax breakdown:

    • Airport Taxes: €5.78
    • PSC–Non-Refundable: €4.85
    • Insurance & Wheelchair Levy: €5.79 (a Ryanair specialty)
  • Eindhoven-Madrid on Ryanair
    10/17-10/21
    Tax: €27.20
    Tax breakdown:

    • Airport Taxes: €12.25
    • Government tax: €9.16
    • Insurance & Wheelchair Levy: €5.79

    Total tax after “greening”: €49.70

Again in this case, one can save more than €30 by flying from Belgium rather than Holland.

  • Brussels-JFK on Delta
    10/18-10/21
    Total: €411.34
    Tax: €41.00

    No tax breakdown offered
  • Amsterdam-JFK on Delta
    10/18-10/21
    Total: €478.34
    Tax: €52.61
    No tax breakdown offered
    Total tax after “greening”: €142.61

Remarkably, the Dutch tax puts a €100 transatlantic premium on this flight. If I lived in the southern part of Holland, Brussels would be sounding pretty good right now.

Britain’s APD increase has driven air traffic to continental European airports; the Netherlands now seems to want to replicate that feat. For now, KLM’s large hub operation will remain intact. Unlike APD, the proposed Dutch tax exempts passengers merely changing planes at Schiphol. But how green is that? Do planes carrying mostly transfer passengers somehow emit less carbon dioxide or nitrous oxide? Such an exemption lends credence to the Association of European Airlines’s claim that this is a revenue measure masquerading as a pro-environment measure.

Regardless of motivation, my brief analysis shows that passengers will experience dramatic increased costs. Some will simply stop flying; others will seek cheap flights from other nearby hubs. Brussels is only 130 miles from Amsterdam, a two-hour drive; Dusseldorf is only 145 miles away; and low-fare hub Charleroi is 170 miles away. There are many other airports intruding in the Dutch “catchment area” for airline passengers, and “the greening of taxation” will drive many passengers away.

The tax will be debated next month in the Dutch parliament. One can be sure that these calculations will figure into the debate.

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  • Connecticut towns are teaming up to fight the FAA’s proposed New York airspace redesign in court. [Aero-News.Net]
  • Congratulations in order: Singapore and the UK complete a comprehensive open skies agreement. [ATW Daily News]
  • Britain’s Competition Commission did not authorize the maximum airport charges airport operator BAA wanted; BAA threatens that the decision will hold up improvements at Heathrow, Gatwick, and Stansted. [Towers and Tarmacs]

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  • Ryanair founder Tony Ryan died yesterday at age seventy-one. His legacy: a budding transformation of Europe through cheap travel. [AP/IHT]
  • 9/11 families who lost loved ones in Flight 77, which crashed into the Pentagon, settled a lawsuit with American Airlines and other companies. [Aero-News.Net]
  • The Russians are coming! The Russians are coming! (In aerospace competition, anyway.) [The Cranky Flier]
  • Did Airbus execs ditch shares just before A380 delays were announced? The French financial regulator is investigating. [AP/MSNBC]

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