Archive for April, 2009

Photo op gone wrong, and more

  • A thorough account of an ill-thought-out idea. [WSJ]
  • The U.S. Department of Transportation will make its decision on antitrust immunity for core Oneworld partners American Airlines, British Airways, and Iberia by November. [ATW Daily News]
  • “Rarely have I ever seen a former ranking official use that credential in more irresponsible ways than has [Mary] Schiavo since she left office. Having her comment on this will only undermine public understanding, but we have come to expect irresponsibility from her.” Ouch. [Airport Check-In]
  • The Midway Airport deal fell through, and now BAA is receiving smaller than expected bids for London’s Gatwick Airport. Too bad for BAA and good for the bidder; Gatwick is a valuable property that will be solid long-term investment, like most sparse infrastructure components. [FT]
  • Taiwan continues to expand bilateral aviation ties with mainland China. [ATW Daily News]
  • How to make the TSA even less accountable. [ANN]

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Matt Phillips digs up a 2006 PLoS Medicine article by John S. Brownstein, Cecily J. Wolfe, and Kenneth D. Mandl that found a correlation between the grounding of commercial aircraft in the days after 9/11 and the later peak of the 2001-2002 flu season, which peaked at the normal time in countries that did not ground their aircraft. The takeaway from this? “At the regional level, our results suggest an important influence of international air travel on influenza timing as well as an influence of domestic air travel on influenza spread in the US.”

[O]ur results suggest that inter-regional spread occurs by a different mechanism, where air travel may be an important mode of long-range dissemination of influenza. We find that the effect of airline volume on regional influenza spread is largely based on travel in November. Though influenza activity is highest between January and March, initial regional seeding of infection may occur earlier. Our results suggest that for a non-pandemic year, travel during the Thanksgiving holiday may be central to the yearly national spread of influenza in the US. Similarly, we found that international airline travel influences the absolute timing of seasonal influenza mortality.

The flight ban in the US after the terrorist attack of September 11, 2001, and the subsequent depression of the air travel market provided a natural experiment for the evaluation of the effect of flight restrictions on disease spread. The importance of airline activity was highlighted by the delayed peak of influenza in 2001–2002 following the period of reduced flying activity. This finding is further validated by the absence of a similar delay in influenza activity in France, where flight restrictions were not imposed.

Thus, even though air travel is a major agent in spreading flu, by the time infections peak, the virus has already been seeded around the country and the world.

Matt interviewed John Brownstein, and their discussion is available at the Middle Seat Terminal blog post.

For more: yesterday’s post.

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The outbreak and rapid spread of the H1N1 swine influenza virus in Mexico and now the United States puts policymakers and business leaders in a difficult position vis-a-vis air travel. Pandemics exploit all the virtues of the air travel boom of the past few decades — a system that transports people and goods for travel, commerce, and economic opportunity suddenly becomes a primary agent of deadly disease. It’s the downside risk of international economic and cultural integration. Such integration still pays handsome benefits, however, and the risks can be mitigated by a multilateral public health infrastructure poised to go into action.

We are now in a critical moment for U.S. and World Health Organization (WHO) policymakers and the international aviation industry. To declare a pandemic right now and impose travel restrictions (as the U.S. and WHO have not done) might overstate the threat from swine flu and excessively impair travel to Mexico and U.S. border regions. But this outbreak appears to be unusually aggressive, with high mortality, suggesting that policymakers should nip it in the bud regardless of the cost to the travel industry. As the first case was reported in Europe, EU authorities issued travel advisories for the United States and Mexico. The danger to the aviation industry from either an over-aggressive response or from a widespread pandemic is high. In April and May 2003, at the height of the SARS epidemic in Southeast Asia and Canada, air traffic in the Asia-Pacific region dropped 45 and 51 percent, respectively. U.S. carriers with extensive routes in Asia — Northwest and United, especially — also suffered. This is an even worse problem in a recession, in which the prospect of future growth after an epidemic-related contraction is limited.

Part of the problem for policymakers is that U.S. citizens are inexperienced with pandemic response procedures. We are used to frequent and easy travel, not only by air but also locally, for work, school, or recreation. With deadly infectious diseases like smallpox and polio eradicated, we have become lazy. Less than half the number of people for whom the annual flu vaccine is recommended get it. Activists play on fear to spread the unproven belief that ingredients of children’s vaccines can cause autism, and their success in misinforming the public is correlated with a spike in pediatric measles infections (Megan McArdle referred to parents who decline to vaccinate their children as “twee BoBo sociopaths“). Our cities are unaccustomed to quarantines. How would you react to an order to stay indoors except for essential business? Would you obey it? The discipline of disease control is honed over time and cannot be immediately adopted with success. Moreover, the scale of the United States is also unsuitable for a concerted public health response. It’s one thing to isolate SARS in a tiny enclave like Hong Kong (which is extremely vigilant, at any rate) or on an island like Taiwan (unconscionably prohibited by Beijing from receiving WHO support during epidemics, by the way).

Whether or not this swine flu outbreak becomes an epidemic or a pandemic, policymakers and airline industry leaders need to be prepared for the dark side of global integration. Preventing the spread of epidemic diseases should be at the top of any government’s list.

Further reading:


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I recently found on my computer this photo taken during a trip to Gibraltar in 2005:


This is the barrier where the sole road into Gibraltar crosses the airport’s runway. (The airport terminal is in the background in this photo.) The road and walkway are closed during the few times a day when a plane is landing or taking off. I case you can’t see clearly, the signs say:

Pedestrians are to keep within the white lines.
Please cross quickly.

Litter can cause aircraft accidents.
Put your litter in the red bins.
Keep the runway clear.

It’s a bit surreal walking across an active runway. Gibraltar is a great aviation destination. Below the fold are a few photos from the terminal, through which my traveling companion and I departed the Mediterranean coast and returned to London.


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I’ve done several off-blog items on the subject of international airline alliances lately. Here they are:

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  • The FAA is attempting to temper the effects on passengers of its safety oversight, especially after last year’s regulatory overkill. [Aero-News.Net]
  • Southwest announces its first service into a slot-constrained airport: LaGuardia. Big step for the airline. [Nuts about Southwest]
  • The rush is on to hire more air traffic controllers as waves of them retire, but the controllers’ union says there are still too few being hired and that many of those that have been hired recently are of “low caliber.” [Today in the Sky]
  • How American is Virgin America? Oberstar asks. [ATW Daily News]
  • The privatization of Midway Airport is stalled as investors have trouble rounding up the necessary funds. There’s not a lot of capital for private-sector infrastructure projects right now. [Middle Seat Terminal]

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The Dutch travel tax has been so successful, it has to be scrapped:

The Dutch Government is to scrap from July 1 its air passenger ticket tax, first dubbed the ‘eco’ tax when it was introduced against major opposition by aviation and local industry last year. The controversial departure tax, which ranges from 11 to 45 euros, is blamed for a steep decline in passenger traffic at the main Dutch airports, particularly at Amsterdam Schiphol.

The tax was billed as a “green tax,” meaning that it was intended to raise the cost of flying sufficiently to deter passenger travel — and hence greenhouse gas emissions — on the margin. It apparently did this swimmingly well, better than I would have expected:

Schiphol Airport, Europe’s fifth biggest in terms of passenger enplanements, recorded a drop of 430,000 passengers in February, a 13.7% fall against the same month a year ago. The number of locally boarding passengers fell by 17.7%. The number of transfer passengers, who were exempted from the tax, declined by 8.5%.

As the story notes, this tax was not levied on transfer passengers in an attempt to keep KLM and its Schiphol hub competitive with airlines based at Paris, London Heathrow, Frankfurt, and Copenhagen. Since transfer passengers make up a huge share of Schiphol’s business, the surcharge would never have made much of a dent in the Netherlands’ aviation carbon footprint. The fact that transfer passengers were exempted and that the tax is pulled just when it seems to be working vindicates the complaints that it is a “revenue grab.”

The suspension of this tax also illustrates a tax problem. In an age of free movement across jurisdictional boundaries, tax competition is heightened, especially in areas like the low countries where a competing, lower-tax airport may be just a short drive away. “The airport operator along with Dutch carrier KLM had previously warned that potential passengers would try to avoid the tax by flying from airports across the border in Belgium or Germany,” the story report. “The Belgian Government has already abandoned a proposal to introduce a similar tax.” Unless the EU or a larger jurisdiction is going to impose a charge like this one, countries that impose it on themselves in a global downturn are making an economic death wish.

See my previous posts on the Dutch travel tax here, here, and here.

[H/T: Cranky]

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