Conde Nast Traveler

Sully Flies Again: Live Blog

Chesley Sullenberger


6:30 a.m.  I spot Capt. Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger (right) and First Officer Jeff Skiles outside a food court at Charlotte Douglas International.  They were on their way to the crew room. Flight's on schedule!

7:00 a.m.  Gate check.  I shoot a quick video.  Please excuse the camerawork!

7: 26 a.m. So...I'm at the gate for Flight 1050 from Charlotte to New York LaGuardia--as we reported yesterday, this is Sully's real first flight back. US Airways would have everyone think the flight back to Charlotte later today is the first one.  Amazingly the airline seems to have kept a pretty tight lid on the news.  No "welcome back" banners at the gate, no TV trucks parked at the terminal.

But still, it was inevitable that word would be get out.  A crowd of US Airways suits was the tip off.  Then Sully and Jeff Skiles, his first officer on flight 1549, showed up and boarded the plane.

Word is now spreading around the waiting crowd. 

I had bumped into the duo as they were getting coffee in a food court a half hour earlier. Sully was gracious though when he learned that I'm a reporter, he quickly set out the ground rules for our encounter:  "I'm not doing any one on ones."  He averred that he's 'glad to flying with Jeff."  Then a minder showed up to inform the planes that "there's no plane yet," so they headed off to the crew lounge.

OK  they just called the flight.

7:44 a.m. Overheard on the jetway:  "Oh no!  I don't want to land in the Hudson!"

7:45 a.m. Sully gives a "This is captain...."  Everyone cheers!

9:35 a.m. We just landed--right on time. It was a textbook perfect landing, but then again it couldn't be anything but.


Top 5 Rumors About the Future of Travel

Southwest: Soon to touch down in Paris?
Photo: Jim Frazier on Flickr using Creative Commons

by Barbara S. Peterson

It's not as sexy as show biz or politics, but the airline industry generates its own share of wild rumors and bogus stories. And it's not hard to see why: The airlines themselves have pushed the boundaries of what is plausible; witness their creativity in concocting new fees (see rumor number 3, below). Sometimes we just want it to be true, as in the latest whopper this week: Über-discounter Southwest Airlines, famous for its spartan service on short flights, was said to be seriously weighing long-distance flights to . . . Europe!  South America!  Visions of its trademark $99 fares to Paris or Rio, though, were quickly dashed when the airline trashed the tale as "untrue."

So, what happened? A reporter for Air Transport World, a respected trade journal, interviewed a senior Southwest exec at a Beijing confab, and some vague remarks about international service morphed into an online "scoop." The magazine later backpedaled, and Southwest  made it perfectly clear that it has no interest in "long-distance international flying." (It may start international flights to Mexico, but that's hardly the same.) Seriously, it was pretty crazy when you think about it.  Southwest is a success because it's never strayed from its formula of single-class, no-frills flights using one type of aircraft, the narrow body 737; that's why it can offer low fares--and hire stand-up comics as flight attendants. Why jeopardize all that for the chance to lose a bundle overseas?

Read after the jump for some of the other most persistent rumors.

Continue reading "Top 5 Rumors About the Future of Travel" »


Eight Years After 9/11, Security Loopholes Remain

We need smart security that doesn't depend on searching the same innocent
people time and time again as if they were first-time travelers.

Photo: Marc Asnin, Condé Nast Traveler

by Barbara S. Peterson

Two weeks ago, on a marathon trip around the country that took me to ten airports, I suddenly realized that I hadn't removed a plastic bag from my carry-on in months. Not that I wasn't still supposed to, judging from the ubiquitous "3-1-1" signs and the occasional squawks from the loudspeaker. I was just too preoccupied with juggling my shoes, purse, laptop, coat, and other paraphernalia--and I travel light.  

I had had it with this irritating ritual, and I figured screeners would determine that the tiny amounts of shampoo and toothpaste in my carry-on were no threat. And I suppose I was right: Not once did a screener ask me to open my bag and dump out my cosmetics, a humiliation I regrettably had to inflict on scores of travelers during my two-month stint as an airport screener.

Then came news from London last week of a conviction in the case of the accused terrorists whose 2006 plot to bomb transatlantic airliners by using liquid explosives bequeathed us this annoying checkpoint ritual. That was followed by yesterday's foiled hijacking attempt in Mexico involving a crazed preacher who claimed that his juice cans contained explosives (they were filled with sand).

In microcosm, the liquids loopiness encapsulates everything that has gone awry with our response to the breach of airport security that took place on 9/11. For all the money that's been plowed into the TSA (upwards of $40 billion), the charges that it's all just security theater resonate. 

To wit: The TSA, with little fanfare, has been testing new handheld gizmos that are supposed to detect liquid explosives. If they worked as advertised, we'd be able to hang on to our water bottles and bath lotion. 

But one of my former colleagues who still works at a TSA checkpoint at a major airport tells me the real story: It's a farce. "We wave it around and the passenger is really impressed!" he said. "But we know the real story--it doesn't work."

Continue reading "Eight Years After 9/11, Security Loopholes Remain" »


To Tarmac or Not to Tarmac

Kate Hanni, founder for the Coalition for an Airline Passenger Bill of Rights, talks to CBS news about being "Trapped on the Tarmac"

by Barbara S. Peterson

The notorious overnight stranding of a commuter plane at an airport in Minnesota and a six-hour delay of a plane at Kennedy last week have made a federal "airline passenger bill of rights" seem almost inevitable. Something else that is equally inevitable: another barrage of news stories about "tarmac delays," "stranded on the tarmac" and the like. We have the Department of Transportation's "tarmac delay task force" and House and Senate bills setting out clear requirements for how to handle these "tarmac" holdups. One senator was once moved to decline the verb "to tarmac." Now for the latest, shocking development in this debate: what if this word has been misused all along?

That's what one reader wrote to us recently, after I used the word in one of my posts:

"Can't we please retire the inappropriate word 'tarmac' to specify the place where modern mega-ton air-transport aircraft park?" lamented stepwilk. "There hasn't been a tarred MacAdam surface (named after the 19th-century Scots road engineer, as I remember) in a century, except for the odd lightplane airstrip. A 767 or Airbus A330 would sink through a true tarmac like an ice-road trucker in April."

I hope he also complained to the Associated Press, Wall Street Journal, CBS news, and the countless other media organizations that have ushered "tarmac" into the popular lexicon.

Continue reading "To Tarmac or Not to Tarmac" »


The Hell Hole of Heathrow's Terminal Five

Not a line in sight at Terminal 5's main terminal.
Photo: garybembridge on Flickr using Creative Commons

by Clive Irving

Nearly 18 months after the disastrous opening of British Airways Terminal 5, its early teething troubles are behind it. The overall experience is as advertised: The main terminal T5A provides speedy check-in, efficient security and clear signage. Once in the passenger areas it may feel too much like a shopping mall, but it's a polished, light and airy one, with a wide and good choice of food and refreshment. (The owner is not British Airways, but the British Airports Authority, which has a history of being more energized by the profits of shopping than the convenience of travelers.)

Note my caveat, "the main terminal T5A." There is another limb, the satellite terminal T5B, and that is where most BA flights between the U.S. and London have their gates. Between the two concourses is a large area of taxiways. In order to get passengers to and from terminal T5B into T5A (where immigration and baggage halls are for incoming flights), the architects built a tunnel for robot shuttle trains.  This tunnel is deep--to reach the train outgoing passengers have a choice of either a steep and long escalator or elevators.

The real problems begin, however, with arriving passengers.

Continue reading "The Hell Hole of Heathrow's Terminal Five" »


JetBlue Sells Out Travel Pass Deal, But Don't Give Up on September Travel

by Barbara S. Peterson

If you were thinking of ducking work obligations for a month to take advantage of that wild JetBlue deal--a 30-day unlimited travel pass for $599--better cancel that meeting with the boss. JetBlue has halted sales of the pass ahead of its original deadline, August 21, due to what the airline claims was higher than expected demand.

Then again, you should be thinking of traveling in September even if you missed out on this one. September is typically one of the slowest months for the airlines, and that will be especially true this year if the disappointing summer numbers are any indication. So look for a flurry of short-term discounts to drive up sales.  And the notice can be short--very short, as in hours. So check out @JetBlueCheeps on Twitter every Monday, when it posts the latest and greatest discount fares, follow airlines such as @UnitedAirlines for sale notices, and check out travel forums. We found this discount deal from Southwest at


Another "Wrinkle" in the Dreamliner

If nothing else, the Dreamliner makes a good model

Photo: 1yen on Creative Commons

by Clive Irving

Pity the poor Boeing test pilots, all suited up and nowhere to go. Sitting out on the tarmac at Everett, Washington, the first Boeing 787 Dreamliner looks sleek, every inch the airliner of the future it is supposed to be. So far, though, all it has been able to do is to roll up and down the runway under low engine power. At least we know the wheels turn. As for actually leaving the ground, don't hold your breath.

That was supposed to happen at the end of July. At the last minute the first test flight was canceled--and no new date set. The 787 was grounded because of structural faults found where the wings meet the fuselage. Now it is revealed, in today's Seattle Times, that a section of the fuselage just behind the wings has flaws.

As is so often the case with the 787, this new problem only became public well after its discovery. Transparency isn't part of Boeings management philosophy. The major problem with the wing involved two Japanese subcontractors, Mitsubishi and Fuji. This new glitch involves an Italian company, Alenia, which manufactures sections of the fuselage--called barrels--using composites. On June 23 Boeing issued a stop-work order on the Alenia barrels.

The problem in Italy involves a part of the structure called stringers--stringers are also involved in the wing weakness. This time wrong-sized stringers have been found to cause the outer skin of the fuselage to wrinkle under stress, such as when the airplane lands. Boeing is keen to play down this problem, saying that a solution is already designed and will be executed swiftly.

Nonetheless this greatly adds to the already substantial evidence that when Boeing decided to build the 787 using a far larger proportion of composites than ever before they did so without understanding how these materials behave when subjected to the stresses of flight.

Indeed, when the wing flaws came to light it seemed at first that they showed up in tests only at an extreme level of stress--150 per cent of what could be expected in flight. Now it has been revealed that the wings failed under stresses much closer to actual flight conditions.

Boeing has said that the new date for the 787's first flight will be announced near the end of September. Few experts believe that that will happen until next year. In the meantime, the test pilots can do other stuff. Many of the advanced new systems in the 787 apparently work just fine, as do the engines. It's just that, as it is, the 787 is in no state to leave the ground.

Further reading:
* The Dreamliner Problem Gets Worse (Daily Traveler on CNT)
* Is the Dreamliner in Real Trouble?(Daily Traveler on CNT)
* What is Wrong with the Dreamliner? (Daily Traveler on CNT)
* Boeing's Dreamliner Debacle (Daily Traveler on CNT)
* Read The Daily Beast for more aviation expertise from Clive Irving, Condé Nast Traveler's senior consulting editor.
* On the Fly: The Daily Traveler on the airline industry


Cramped in a Stinky Jet: What the Latest Air Travel Squalor Story Means for Passenger Rights

Kate Hanni, founder for the Coalition for an Airline Passenger Bill of Rights,
in Washington ,D.C., on April 20, 2008
Photo: Stephanie Pfriender Stylander, Condé Nast Traveler

by Barbara S. Peterson

No one would wish the horror of a night trapped inside a cramped and stinking regional jet on anyone.  But the Continental Flight 2816 debacle couldn't have come at a better time for those pushing for a federal airline passengers bill of rights, which in theory would prevent anything like this from happening again.

The media frenzy over the ordeal--and firsthand reports from some of the 47 fliers stuck in the squalor of the ExpressJet plane--spawned a slew of predictable promises from government officials and politicians to act. Most recently, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said he'd look into whether any laws were violated.

So Kate Hanni, the irrepressible leader of the passenger rights movement, ought to be feeling pretty good about the prospects of victory, right?  But when I spoke to her this morning, she was more cautious in her outlook. Read after the jump for her reasons why.

Continue reading "Cramped in a Stinky Jet: What the Latest Air Travel Squalor Story Means for Passenger Rights" »


Airlines' Sick Policies Need Rx

Sick and traveling: To tell
or not to tell? Airlines don't
always make it easy to know.

Photo: Rescue Dog on Flickr
using Creative Commons

by Barbara S. Peterson

We just heard from a reader facing a tough decision: A day before his family of five was set to fly from California to Italy, his son got diagnosed with the H1N1 virus. But when he called the airline to see about delaying travel plans until the boy recovered, he was told he'd be slapped with a $1,000 change fee ($200 per ticket).

"I am not a rich person, but the $1K won't be the end of the world. I just wonder how families with less means would react. My guess is that most people would still travel knowing that they are sick if they had to eat the cost."

Duh! And, our correspondent went on, "It's interesting to me that the government and airlines do not take special consideration for [this] pandemic disease."

Good point. It seems that the airlines are talking out of both sides of their mouths when it comes to the swine flu outbreak. We're told that we shouldn't travel; indeed, the advice from physicians is to stay inside and away from the general public for at least a week. And yet when people do the right thing, for example inform the airline of their conditions, they get penalized.

Continue reading "Airlines' Sick Policies Need Rx" »


Jet America Flops Before It Opens


by Barbara S. Peterson

Father of deregulation Alfred Kahn, the Cornell economist, once quipped that "maybe it's sex appeal, but there's something about airlines that drives investors crazy." A perfect example of this syndrome--minus, perhaps, the sex appeal--came this week as the latest low-fare wannabe, JetAmerica, confirmed the obvious: It wasn't getting off the ground anytime soon.

JetAmerica, if you recall, was offering a new twist on an old marketing gimmick. The airline, which was to serve Midwest cities like Lansing, Michigan, from Newark Airport, promised to practically give away a handful of seats on its flights at fares from $10 to $20. (Remind anyone of Skybus? That was another short-lived airline founded by the same entrepreneur, John Weikle.) Its Web site promises refunds on the roughly 25,000 tickets it had sold.

As Department of Transportation spokesman Bill Mosley explained, the airline was technically a public charter, meaning it didn't operate any planes itself but instead planned to contract for the flights with a "real" airline--and under the DOT's rules, monies collected by a charter firm must be held in escrow. The DOT said it hadn't had any complaints yet from customers who'd bought tickets.

The fiasco calls to mind other ambitious airline deals that have stayed stuck on the tarmac. Of course it's no mystery why--it's the economy, stupid--but it all makes you wonder why anyone in his right mind would go near anything with wings.

Read after the jump for a list of other recent flops.

Continue reading "Jet America Flops Before It Opens" »


The Latest Survivable Air Mishap Gets No Miracle Treatment

After 89,090 flight cycles, an Aloha Airlines plane lets go of its top in the 1980s.
Photo: Hawai'i State Archives, Aloha Airlines Disaster

by Barbara S. Peterson

A couple of days ago, a Southwest plane suddenly lost cabin pressure when a hole the size of a basketball ripped open in the ceiling of the fuselage. What followed was a textbook case of quick response:  the pilot descended to below 10,000 feet to stabilize the pressure (passengers had already donned oxygen masks) and swiftly landed the Baltimore-bound jet at the nearest  airport in Charleston, W. Virginia;  all 131 people board got off without injury.

So why is no one calling this one a miracle?

First, no birds were involved. I'm serious: the Hudson River splashdown of US Airways flight 1549, which made a hero of Captain "Sully" Sullenberger, was occasioned by a freak occurrence.  It's hard to fault the airline, the pilots, air traffic control or any other of the usual suspects for a flock of gargantuan geese taking out two engines at once.  This recent one was different and more problematic.

The Southwest plane was an older model 737, having logged some 42,000 cycles (takeoffs and landings). The airline said the craft was checked frequently for cracks, as required.  But it was all too recently that Southwest was dinged for $10.2 million by the FAA  for failing to check some 40-odd planes in its all-737 fleet for wear and tear.  The airline fought that initial penalty and the two sides settled for $7.5 mil.  Southwest insiders have told me they feel they've been unfairly treated because the FAA was trying to overcome cynicism about its coziness with the industry. But the incident raised memories of a truly horrific incident in the late 1980s when part of the ceiling peeled off an Aloha Airlines plane, and a flight attendant was sucked through the hole to her death.

As they age, planes are subject to stress cracks, which are hard to spot when they first appear--that's why airlines are supposed to subject older models to increasingly rigorous scrutiny.

But with more than 5,000 planes in the US commercial airline fleet the feds can't be there for each inspection, so airline maintenance is largely self-regulated.

Continue reading "The Latest Survivable Air Mishap Gets No Miracle Treatment" »


Iran Air Crash: The Russian Factor

A Tupolov TU-154M.
Photo: pastobert on using Creative Commons

by Clive Irving

If you are shopping for the best airliners in the world, there are four places to go: the United States, Europe, Brazil, and Canada. If you are operating an airline in Iran, too bad. The combination of international sanctions against Iran and the xenophobia of Iran's ruling thugs rules out dealing with Western suppliers.

Today's crash in Iran of a Russian-built Tupolev 154, killing 168 people, points to the risks involved in flying in Iran. The 154 was once a sturdy workhorse for the internal routes of Soviet Russia, similar to the Boeing 727, and the first Russian airliner to have avionics up to Western standards. Other countries in the Soviet bloc used it, and as long as it was well maintained it was--by the standards of 1960s technology--dependable.

By today's standards, though, the 154 is a relic. Its weakest point was always its engines. Adapted from engines designed for military use, they were powerful but guzzled gas and left a smoky trail. Keeping those engines serviced, and finding the spare parts for them, would require the search and bargaining skills of the bazaar, which is probably how it worked in Iran for the airline involved in today's crash, Caspian Airlines. Engine failure is a prime suspect in this case.

The sad truth is that Russia once had some of the finest airplane designers in the world. Even today, their best aeronautical minds are hired by other nations' plane makers, including Boeing. And there is a nascent Russian airliner industry, cross-fertilizing their skills with those of Europe and the United States. Like the Chinese, they want to get into the big world markets.

But for now, "Russian-built" is a warning that all flyers should heed--and another reason to check out not just an airline that you could encounter but the provenance of the airplanes they fly.

Further reading:
* On the Fly: Condé Nast Traveler on the airline industry


Bin Hog Backlash

Warning. Heavy luggage

by Barbara S. Peterson

Pay for your carry-on baggage? Yikes!

Lately a wave of stories is stoking the notion that there's a 'carry on crisis' in air travel: Too many oversize duffels and golf bags chasing too little on board space.  Seems more like an old problem in search of a solution. But the latest panaceas are setting a new standard in loopiness. 

Let's take them one by one:

Make TSA's airport screener workforce police bag size 
The idea to make airport screeners the enforcers has a superficial logic.  They are, after all, already there, manning the checkpoints through which we all must pass.  But this seems like a classic case of mission creep run amok and several emails from former colleagues of mine at the TSA checkpoint point out they are already taking on new tasks from the airlines  (such as checking boarding passes against IDs). This would only make lines far worse--plus give screeners less time for what they really should be doing, like looking for suspicious people or items. 

Charge for carry-on bags and let people check bags for free   
This strikes me as back-asswards.  While charging for checked luggage at least has a certain logic to it--the airline must employ a staff to handle the bag and get it to and from the plane--your allotted quota of carry-on gear shouldn't really cost the airline anything.  Besides we've been trained by the airlines for years to bring valuables with us; otherwise  insurance claims would inevitably spike.    

Of course those arguing in favor of this notion say that carry-ons do extract a cost--when bins get too full, flight attendants have to intervene--most often by gate checking the overflow.  But that's been the case for years. 

Remove all the charges on luggage and raise fares instead to cover handling costs
In a perfect world, airlines would be able to raise prices to cover a rise in costs, just like they do in other industries.  Do you want to know how many times the airlines have attempted and failed to do just that?  Besides, the airlines are moving more to an a la carte model, and that's not necessarily a bad thing, especially for those low-maintenance fliers who already travel light. 

As Delta's CEO Richard Anderson explained not long ago, the fee is partly meant to discourage fliers from thinking of airlines as a free shipping service. "We are not an overnight express company.  We have had had people show up with 30 or 40 bags...and when you get to bicycles and the myriad of other stuff they try to check, then we are turning into a cargo carrier."

Still, why can't airlines do a better job of managing this? 

Next time you go to the airport take a look around. There are noticeably fewer airline employees at airports as money-losing carriers slash staff.

Finally a lot of the angst over carry-ons seems to be sparked by bad behavior on the part of a few insensitive travelers.

Bin hogs, it seems, fall into two species: The Clampetts, those clueless but probably harmless goofballs who seem to view the airplane as a flying moving van, and the Bag Bullies, who consider it a blood sport to indulge in such selfish strategies as stowing their bag in a bin nowhere near their seat--but conveniently near the exit.

The first gang can probably be tamed with some extra education.  As for the second group ---you know those announcements they make while we're boarding?--perhaps a gentle reminder on bag etiquette could be added.  And for those who persist, some more direct intervention from the flight attendants might be in order. 

I know that will get a lot of protests from the crews, who are understandably overwhelmed.. but that is unfortunately part of their job.

Further reading:
* Fees on top of fees for your checked bags courtesy of USAirways and United Airlines
* Jet America, covered early in the Daily Traveler, delays launch (The Cranky Flier)
* On the Fly: Barbara Peterson on the airline industry


Is the Dreamliner in Real Trouble?

No Highway in the Sky starring Jimmy Stewart and Marlene Dietrich

by Clive Irving

Here's a riddle: What connects Jimmy Stewart, Marlene Dietrich and the Boeing 787 Dreamliner? 

It's a 1951 movie called No Highway in The Sky. Stewart plays Theodore Honey, an aeronautical engineer, who is investigating the crash of a new plane. (Dietrich's role is ornamental). Honey suspects that metal fatigue, a barely known problem at the time, caused the crash. Authorities ignore his warnings but when the tail falls off an airplane just before takeoff Honey is vindicated. 

A pretty clunky drama it was--until, three years after it appeared, the world's first jetliner, the de Havilland Comet, suffered a series of mysterious crashes. Eventually, structural failure was proved to be the cause and metal fatigue was a factor.

That lesson was learned. More than fifty years of experience has ensured against structural failure in modern jets. But Boeing decided to build the 787 in an entirely new way, virtually eliminating metal and using, instead composites--where layers of fibers are bonded and molded into shape.

This technology was pioneered in military airplanes. Composites are of great appeal because they are both stronger and lighter than metal. An airliner, however, is very different. It is not subject to the stresses of combat, but it flies far more frequently and for far longer. For the first time, the 787 uses composites in parts that carry the greatest strains, critically where the wings meet the fuselage.

When Boeing suddenly announced, toward the end of June, that the 787's first flight was being called off, it cited problems at that very point. Thirty six ruptures had occurred at the core of the wings, 18 on each side of the fuselage. This structural failure showed up late in what are called static tests, where a complete airplane is stressed to breaking point--well beyond what the 787 would be expected to encounter in service. But there are some failures, like this one, which reveal themselves only in real time--the process cannot be sped up--and are not to be ignored because they expose unsuspected physical characteristics. This brings us back to Theodore Honey. He realized that metal could fail simply by aging. He predicted how long it would be before the airliner in the movie would be stricken by such a failure.

When composites fail, they do so in ways that cannot be detected by the maintenance checks used to detect metal fatigue. The FAA recommends inspecting composites with the use of X-rays and ultrasound scans, rather than the visual checks used for metal, where hairline cracks are often harbingers.

The test failure of the 787 indicates that Boeing has yet to fully understand the behavior of the materials it is using.

The company confessed that the weakness in the wing had not shown up on its computer models. This may well mean that aging remains an unpredictable element in the strength of composites and that only time exposes danger areas.  Two Japanese subcontractors, Fuji and Mitsubishi, are responsible for the critical wing components. Neither they, nor Boeing, have accumulated any experience of how composites of this size and carrying the greatest stresses of flight will stand up to prolonged use in airline service. No passengers would ever be put at risk--Boeing's own engineers and the FAA's certification system would ensure that. But until these new concerns are answered, the 787 program, already two years behind schedule, is likely suffer more delays.

Further reading:

* Ultrasound Camera Makes Internal Composite Damage Easy to Find (
* What is Wrong with the Dreamliner? (Daily Traveler on CNT)
* Boeing's Dreamliner Debacle (Daily Traveler on CNT)
* On the Fly: The Daily Traveler on the airline industry


So Far, a Bad Year for Air Accidents

People gather at Roissy airport, north of Paris, Tuesday June 30, 2009, to hear information about passengers aboard a jet from Yemen which crashed in the Indian Ocean early Tuesday
Yemenia Airways and Europe's Black List
The Airbus A310 with 153 aboard that crashed in the Comoros Islands today provoked a quick response from the European Union's Transport Commissioner, Antonio Tajani... More
Air France Flight 447
A better black box?

Commuter pilot life
Continental's Flight 347

Read more airline news coverage in Daily Traveler's On the Fly.


More on Clear, the Registered Traveler Program Gone Missing

by Barbara S. Peterson

Two days after the sudden shutdown of Clear, the country's biggest registered traveler program, the behavior of the parties responsible is stoking outrage. Apparently the mostly anonymous folks who were running Clear after the all-too-visible Steve Brill got pushed out as CEO in February have done the expected thing: gone underground

However, "acting CEO" Jim Maroney did take time to hold a conference call with airports and the TSA.  The TSA is still acting like it has nothing to do with what it describes as a "market driven private sector program" it midwifed into being, a fiction that blogger Danny Sullivan ably destroys.

The airports at least had the decency to share what transpired during that call, because there's a big question about what will happen to all that personal information a quarter million people gladly shared with the company to save the time and uncertainty involved in navigating the airport security mess.

I still have my old, expired Clear card so I tried calling the number on the back:  866-848-2415. No luck. It just rang and rang. I called Delta, the biggest airline partner of Clear, and am waiting to hear back. Then I looked up the investors.  Spark Capital, the Massachusetts venture capital firm best known for its backing of Twitter, coughed up $44 million in funding not long ago. Not surprisingly, they won't return calls seeking comment.

But the buck stops at the TSA,whose dissembling--on top of their mishandling of this and other improvements (witness the demise of the 'puffer machines' they bought at great taxpayer expense)--is the true scandal here. While they are officially not commenting, at least as a government agency they'll have to answer the inevitable questions from Congress.

So readers...  do you or did you have a Clear card and what are you doing about it?

Did you renew it recently when the company was aggressively hawking multi-year memberships at a discount?   What did you think of the service? 

Further reading:
* Waiting for the All Clear (CNT/Aug. 2008)
* On the Fly: Barbara Peterson on the airline industry


Clear Registered Travel Program Shuts Down

The lights are out on Clear.
Photo: .schill on Flickr courtesy of
Creative Commons

by Barbara S. Peterson

Clear, the biggest private-sector "registered traveler" program in the nation, shut down suddenly last night, and a quarter of a million customers are waiting to find out whether their cards will ever get them out of security-line hell again. (It's not looking too good right now.) The biggest mystery is not why it failed, but why it hung on as long as it did given the open hostility to the venture displayed by both the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) and the airlines.

I was one of the those customers--I'd tried the service myself and thought it was a great idea--and on at least two occasions it saved me from missing a flight. But I found it frustrating that other benefits, like not having to remove your shoes or laptops, were not forthcoming because the TSA wouldn't approve the necessary machines. They were manufactured and paid for, but they just sat there, unplugged. I'd recently let my card lapse when the fee went up to $199 from the original $128 I had paid; I couldn't justify that expense, and, in general, security lines have eased. (That is not because of the TSA; it's the economy, of course.) Still, during a grace period when I could use my lapsed card, I arrived one morning at the Delta terminal at New York's LaGuardia to see a horrendously long line at the checkpoint. As I sailed past it, I was reminded that the best argument in favor of a program like Clear is not having to worry about the unpredictable nature of security.

The original idea, after all, was backed by Congress right after 9/11.

Continue reading "Clear Registered Travel Program Shuts Down" »


The Paris Air Show and the Brouhaha over Air France's 330 Crash

Photo: Barbara Peterson

by Barbara S. Peterson

The vintage planes assembled at Le Bourget Airport for the centennial of the Paris Air Show sounded an oddly off note this year amid all the bad news in aviation. Not only was this the worst economic crisis in years, but speculation over the causes of the crash of Air France Flight 447 (an Airbus A330 plane) compounded the gloom. Still, the biennial event, the world's biggest gathering of plane makers and their customers, drew many thousands of visitors, who jammed roadways named after Lindbergh and other aviation heroes leading into the historic airfield a few miles north of Paris. 

The nostalgia, stoked by various aerobatic demonstrations, didn't do much to paper over the unpleasant reality of aviation in the year 2009, however.  Yesterday, a press conference held by the agency leading the investigation into the Air France accident yielded little solid information, with French officials pleading for patience. At the same time, EASA, the pan-European aviation safety body, said it would decide by Friday whether to require all airlines flying the A330 to replace speed sensors that may have malfunctioned. Not doing this contributed to the Air France jet's mysterious demise (see Clive Irving's piece, to follow).

Airbus executives, too, were put on the defensive at a news briefing.

Continue reading "The Paris Air Show and the Brouhaha over Air France's 330 Crash" »


The Commuter Plane Switcheroo

Colgan Air flying as Continental Connection

Photo: Caribb on

by Barbara S. Peterson

It hasn't been a good week for that breed of airline known variously as regionals, commuters, or, less affectionately, puddle jumpers. (It's a safe bet that if you've flown anything whose name includes  "connection" or "express," you've been on one.)

First, the Federal Aviation Administration and Department of Transportation jointly stated that they would start scrutinizing how these little-noticed lines train their pilots. That's a response to revelations that the pilot at the controls of Continental Connection flight 3407, which crashed in Buffalo on February 12, had flunked numerous "check rides," the ultimate test of a pilot's skills. Other pilots involved in commuter accidents had had a similar failure rate.  

Then Congress got into the act, with hearings on both sides of the aisle. Why aren't airlines legally required to check the records of pilot applicants for their pass rates?

Continue reading "The Commuter Plane Switcheroo" »


Flight 1549: The 'Miracle' That Almost Wasn't

by Barbara S. Peterson

I just returned from Washington, D.C., where Captain Chesley B. "Sully" Sullenberger (who needs no further introduction by now) was the lead-off witness at the National Transportation Safety Board's hearings into the now legendary USAirways Flight 1549.  The overused qualifier "miracle" was mercifully retired during the sober-minded inquiry into the one major accident in recent memory that didn't result in fatalities or serious injuries. 

Yes, Sully and his co-pilot, Jeff Skiles, rightly deserve praise for their handling of a full engine shutdown and water landing of a plane crippled by a bizarre bird strike, with all 155 people aboard surviving. But still, if just one element had gone awry--a single passenger killed or disabled during the evacuation--the miracle would have quickly morphed into a nightmare.

Continue reading "Flight 1549: The 'Miracle' That Almost Wasn't" »


Skybus: The Sequel

by Barbara S. Peterson

Introducing JetAmerica, a new budget airline start-up aiming to fly between Newark and destinations in the Midwest and South. But wait, the $9 fares Jet America is shamelessly hawking sound a little too familiar. Hmmm. . . .

Remember Skybus? It was that Columbus, Ohio-based budget airline which used the same gimmick (except it was $10 fares) to grab free publicity, only to shut down in 2008, less than a year after its debut. Skybus was started by John Weikle, the same entrepreneur behind JetAmerica. Poor John. He apparently suffers from a strange compulsion to pilot an airline despite what he obviously knows firsthand: that the odds of succeeding are almost nil.

Or perhaps he has learned something from the Skybus debacle because JetAmerica--if nothing else--is starting out modestly, with one leased 737 that will fly from Toledo, Ohio, to Newark when it launches on July 13. Other cities to get service this year are Lansing, Michigan; South Bend, Indiana; and Melbourne, Florida. The cities are reportedly subsidizing some of JetAmerica's costs to lure flights to their airports--smaller depots like these have suffered disproportionately from the big airlines' cutbacks in the past year.

The $9 fares will be good for the first 9 to 19 seats on the plane, which can hold more than 150 depending on the configuration. I checked a few fares for future flights, and they were more in the $59 and $79 range, sans fees. With fees, the total tab for a trip from Newark to Florida was in the $189 range, not bad but not amazing, either. 

The original Skybus barely lasted a year. Officially, soaring fuel prices were to blame. But how about a dubious business model? Yes, Ryanair has succeeded along these lines in Europe by stripping down the airline experience to the basics--you get a seat--and then layering on the charges. Recently the European carrier has raked in the free publicity by threatening to make its passengers pay to pee.

Ryanair also flies to unsung airports that are conveniently near major cities. But that doesn't necessarily transplant to the United States. JetAmerica's proposed routes aren't likely to generate a huge demand. 

And Skybus, you may also recall, also got dinged for its lack of customer service. Judging from its Web site,, customer service isn't in the plan--there's no phone number or information on where to reach the company. A small disclaimer tells the story: The airline is actually a charter line operating under the aegis of Miami Air International.

When doing business with start-ups, keep in mind that more than 200 have gone out of business since the airlines were deregulated 30 years ago.  Caveat emptor.    


Oprah's Skyping with Virgin America

by Barbara S. Peterson

Did you know that air travel history is being made today? That you, too, could witness a feat rivaling that of Chuck Yeager and Buzz Aldrin?  

Well, if you take that teaser from Virgin America literally, you haven't been near a Virgin plane lately, where tongue-in-cheekiness is mandatory. Tune in to the Oprah Winfrey Show today and you can listen in on an air-to-ground Skype call to the daytime TV host, marking the fact that today Virgin America becomes the first U.S. airline to offer Wi-Fi access on its entire fleet. The airline beat out several other contenders, including Delta, Alaska, and AirTran, which have all pledged to soon wire themselves up so you can surf the Internet from 30,000 feet. (American is also moving swiftly to add Wi-Fi to some 300 planes by next year.) 

Don't think you will be able to duplicate the phone call to Oprah or to anyone else, though: Voice communications are still banned aloft in the United States. Why? Not because the calls would endanger the plane but because the traveling public likely won't stand for a planeload of people screaming, "Guess where I am?" into their mobiles.

And if you can't get enough of Virgin founder Sir Richard Branson and his antics, tune in on his ongoing feud with Stephen Colbert. It began on the eve of the Virgin America launch in 2007 when the two had a dustup on TV, but it had its latest round on Letterman last night.


The Commuter Pilot Life: Recipe for an Accident?

All 49 passengers and one person on the ground were killed when Continental Connection flight 3407 crashed minutes before its scheduled landing at Buffalo International Airport on Feb. 12, 2009.
Photo: Dave Sherman / AP

by Barbara S. Peterson

Thousands of commuter-airline pilots are increasingly carrying a greater percentage of the two million or so passengers who fly every day in the U.S. But at a safety board hearing in Washington this week, I heard some pretty shocking testimonies about the conditions they endure. Take the case of one Rebecca Shaw, 24 years old, a first officer (or copilot) for tiny Colgan Air. She lived with her parents in Seattle, earned less than $17,000 a year, and "commuted" to work thousands of miles away in Newark by taking red-eye flights to save on hotels or apartment rentals. For a time she held a second job at a coffee shop in Norfolk, Virginia; that's where she started out flying for the puddle jumper. 

Hearing Shaw's story was one of the more disturbing moments during this unusual three-day hearing of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB). The session was held to examine the circumstances that led to the crash of Continental Connection flight 3407 in Buffalo, New York, on February 12--a flight contracted out to Colgan, of which Shaw was the copilot. Shaw, along with 48 people aboard died--one person on the ground was killed, as well--and it was the worst transportation accident in the country in seven years.

It will take many months before the NTSB comes out with a firm conclusion on the cause of the accident. Crashes rarely have a single cause, anyway; they're usually the result of a series of cascading mistakes. But it was hard to avoid the impression that the crew was far from "ready and rested," as required by airline policies. Those of us in attendance got to hear a lot about the life of an airline grunt: Wal-Mart level wages; catnapping instead of getting a real night's sleep; 16-hour days. All of this prompted Kathryn Higgins, one member of the safety board, to say, "This is a recipe for an accident, and that's what we have here."  

And the tape of the cockpit voice recorder--now available online for anyone to read--revealed a disturbing laxness. The pilot, Captain Marvin Renslow, and Shaw were chatting and laughing when they should have been paying attention to their instruments, which would have given them the first sign of the trouble that ultimately doomed the plane.

Continue reading "The Commuter Pilot Life: Recipe for an Accident?" »


El Al, the Pope's Airline

Photo: phinalanji on Flickr using Creative Commons

by Barbara S. Peterson

The upcoming visit of Pope Benedict XVI to Israel, only the third visit ever to the country by a pontiff, is already stirring the expected controversies over his itinerary.

It could be a publicity windfall for Israel's tourism industry, which has been battered by recent violence in Gaza. El Al Airlines, which on May 15 will fly the pope back to Rome from Tel Aviv on a 777 emblazoned with the Vatican insignia, is hoping that travelogue-y footage of a sightseeing pontiff will reassure jittery travelers that it's okay to visit Israel. Of course, security is always an issue in a country that has basically been at war for most of its history.

But other travelers are staying home because of the economy. So for those who want to follow in the pope's footsteps, El Al is offering round-trips that are 30 to 40 percent cheaper than last year's summer fares. If you book on or before May 23, you can grab a $699 round-trip between New York and Tel Aviv; after May 23, the price jumps to $803, and from June 20 through August 19, it's $1,199. And, through May 25, you can get airfare and a five-night stay at Jerusalem's five-star Inbal Hotel for $1,249 per person (based on double occupancy). The airline also has family discounts of 10 percent off for the first child, 50 percent off for the second, and 25 percent off for every child thereafter. And it is discounting business-class tickets up to 40 percent this summer with a round-trip fare of $2,400. (Note: These prices do not include taxes.) Read more about fares and discounts on El Al's Web site.


Fighting Swine Flu with Foot-in-Mouth

by Barbara S. Peterson

To hear the airlines tell it, it isn't swine flu we should be worried about, it's the foot-in-mouth disease that appears to have been contracted by Vice President Joe Biden. 

Many of you may have heard the Veep's response to a question from Matt Lauer on the Today show on what the public should do to protect itself against the deadly flu: "I would tell members of my family--and I have--I wouldn't go anywhere in confined places now. It's not that it's going to Mexico; it's you're in a confined aircraft where one person sneezes and it goes all the way through the aircraft," he said.

The airlines quickly shot back: "Vice President Biden's comment that people should avoid air travel in response to the [swine] flu outbreak was extremely disappointing,"  said James C. May, head of the Air Transport Association of America. "The airlines have been working daily with government agencies, none of whom suggest people avoid air travel, unless they are not feeling well. The fact is that the air on board a commercial aircraft is cleaner than that in most public buildings."

Continue reading "Fighting Swine Flu with Foot-in-Mouth" »


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The editors at Conde Nast Traveler answer questions and share travel secrets, tips, and dispatches

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