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ON THE FLY

Kinder, Gentler Airport Security: An Update

by Barbara S. Peterson

Breaking news: Arizona Governor Janet Napolitano is a leading contender for Michael Chertoff's job as Homeland Security secretary.

And, some more on the last post: The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) blog is entertaining reading in part because of all the mostly unfavorable comments that inevitably follow each post from the in-house bloggers. Case in point: TSA put up a post yesterday about its new PR campaign, headlined "Why?" which purports to be a way of communicating to the public the reasons behind some of its "more controversial" measures. Typical comment: "Without even viewing your videos, I can see that you are again misleading the public." Meet the bloggers here.

The latest "successes" touted by the TSA are again being dismissed as "security theater"--just feel-good measures that don't really achieve anything.  TSA was ready for that, though, and Kip Hawley actually had a good point: Even the fairly low-tech "family lanes" are effective because they have cut down greatly on the number of fliers that set off alarms because they're befuddled (e.g. they forget they have car keys in their pockets). That has the beneficial effect of freeing up screeners' resources to focus on more important things.

ON THE FLY

Bush Officials Claim a Kinder, Gentler Airport Security

Michael Chertoff title=
"Smile, people!"  Chertoff makes
nice with the TSOs.

AP Photo

by Barbara S. Peterson

Earlier this week I was one of a small group of bloggers invited to a post-election briefing with the top dogs in charge of the nation's security, Homeland Security secretary Michael Chertoff and Transportation Security Administration director Kip Hawley. The message: Homeland Security, a mega-agency that didn't exist six years ago, is getting more customer-friendly. Don't quite see it that way? Here are some of the successes they trotted out:

* The "What's Your Lane?" program, which allows fliers to be screened along with their peers (e.g. families in one line, business travelers in another). The results, they claim, have been so positive that the "family/special needs" lanes will be rolled out nationwide this week, in time for Thanksgiving. No word yet on if or when they'll expand the "expert" lanes nationwide, and they may be redundant at checkpoints with registered traveler lanes.

* Improvements in the technology capable of detecting dangerous liquids will make it possible to get rid of those irritating rules on quantities by the end of next year.   A handheld gizmo, which, as one screener describes it, resembles a pistol with a computer the size of an iPod attached at the end,  is supposed to sniff your shampoo and spring water for explosive vapor.

* And sometime in January, you will start giving your birth date, home address, and full legal name when you make an airline reservation--all part of a "secure flight" initiative that will reduce the number of innocent people who are falsely flagged as potential terrorists because their names resemble those of actual bad guys.

Continue reading "Bush Officials Claim a Kinder, Gentler Airport Security" »

ON THE FLY

Delta Baggage Fee Update

Delta Northwest
AP Photo

by Barbara S. Peterson

Remember our recent post about how Delta and Northwest, who just tied the knot, had incompatible fee structures?  Well, it's hardly a surprise that while Northwest's name will soon be repainted with the Delta livery, its stingier policy on bags will survive the merger. 

Delta was the only major airline that didn't charge for the first checked bag, but now it's adopting Northwest's $15 charge, bringing it in line with the rest of the industry. And AirTran is following suit.

Just remember one thing: Don't expect the fee to get your bag to the carousel any faster. Airlines are laying off thousands of airport workers in their bid to become profitable, in a recession, no less...

ON THE FLY

Why WiFi But No Cell Calls Aloft?

by Barbara S. Peterson

Virgin America is the latest airline to make it official: The company rolls out WiFi capability on November 22, and claims it will be the first airline to have Internet access fleet-wide by the second quarter of next year. Of course, as a smaller airline with about two dozen planes, Virgin has an easier time of it than, say, American. Note: American has already been testing the service on certain flights, namely New York to San Francisco, LA, and Miami.  And Delta has promised to bring WiFi to the majority of its passengers within a year. (Given that it's also in the middle of a mega-merger with Northwest, don't be surprised if Delta's timetable slips.)   

This is good news, no?  For a fairly nominal fee (around $13) you can e-mail, surf the Web, and instant message from your airplane seat--you can do everything, in fact, except make a phone call.

So much has been made about the new WiFi deals that one tiny fact seems to be lost: Not long ago, you were able to phone home from 35,000 feet using the seatback "airfone" service that has now been ripped out to make way for WiFi access. Originally, though, that freed-up bandwidth was supposed to go towards cell phone use. Aircell, the company licensed to use that space, was formed in part to provide such services to private plane operators--who use it today. (The commercial airline service Aircell offers operates under the brand name Gogo.)

Continue reading "Why WiFi But No Cell Calls Aloft?" »

ON THE FLY

Air Travel: A Hot Topic for Obama?

The Daily Traveler by Conde Nast Traveler
Obama
Flags a flying for Obama--and
hopefully planes will, too.

AP Photo

by Barbara S. Peterson

Out of the speculation about President-elect Barack Obama's economic plan comes this surprising development: Air travel could be a hot topic in the new administration. 

Barely after the votes were tallied, one possible choice as Treasury Secretary, New Jersey Governor Jon Corzine, was opining on CBS radio this morning about the woeful state of the nation's air traffic control and what the new president ought to do.  Namely, invest tons of money to get it up to 21st-century standards like using satellite technology to guide planes instead of antiquated radars.

Corzine, who's been advising Obama informally on economic strategy, said he envisions "a stimulus package with an infrastructure investment that will create jobs and provide returns in the long run."  Drawing a parallel to the building of New York's Lincoln Tunnel during the Depression, he added: "One obvious one (now) would be the air traffic control system, which is grossly under-invested in and outdated," he said.

Corzine dismissed talk that he would join the Obama administration. But he certainly knows about the impact of aviation gridlock: the three major airports serving New York City, including Newark in his home state, have the worst delays in the country and are supposedly the cause of more than half of all delays nationwide.

Fixing air traffic control isn't as simple as building a bridge or a tunnel. The problem is complex, and "next gen" satellite technology will take 15 to 20 years to roll out under ideal circumstances. One part of the picture may get addressed very soon after Obama moves into the White House, though: Air traffic controllers are demoralized and understaffed, in part because they've worked without contracts with their employer, the Federal Aviation Administration, for more than two years. As a senator, Obama sponsored a bill--opposed by the Bush White House--that would have forced the two sides to go back to the bargaining table. Meanwhile, new controllers saw their pay cut by 30 percent as more seasoned controllers quit or took early retirement. The resulting staff shortage certainly isn't helping flights get to their destinations faster, and controllers claim that labor peace would help things run more smoothly.

Continue reading "Air Travel: A Hot Topic for Obama?" »

ON THE FLY

Monsters, Inc.: Delta Is World's Biggest Airline Thanks to Northwest Deal

Delta
AP Photo

by Barbara S. Peterson

Back in early 2001, Senator Chuck Schumer warned of a wave of "monster airlines" as lumbering legacy lines like United and TWA rushed to find merger partners. It took a few years, but the era of air behemoths may finally be upon us. Yesterday the Justice Department (DOJ) gave its blessing to the union of Delta and Northwest. With 75,000 workers, nearly 800 planes and 375 destinations around the globe, it'll be the world's largest airline, leapfrogging American, which has 675 jets (thanks in part to its own merger with TWA eight years ago). 

Delta today took out full-page ads in major newspapers and sent emails to SkyMiles members  trumpeting the creation of a "premier global airline" and promised&well, not a lot, except business as usual at both airlines as they figure out how to combine forces. In the short term you probably won't notice much of a change. The airlines say it'll take from one to two years to integrate their operations fully; in the meantime, they'll maintain separate Web sites, reservation lines and frequent flier programs.  Elite status and membership at airport clubs is "secure," said Delta. Both carriers are members of the Skyteam Alliance, which includes KLM and Air France.

But there's a lot to sort out, and if the past is any guide, we may all be in for a bumpy ride.  Mergers are typically followed by a rash of operational snafus and labor strife as airlines attempt to mesh separate workforces with different cultures and rules. Indeed, Delta is largely non-union, except for their pilots, while Northwest is highly unionized--and its unions have already vowed to add Delta's workers to their rolls. Consumer groups and organizations such as the Business Travel Coalition predict that the combo could bring higher fares and service cuts.  There's also speculation that hubs like Northwest's at Memphis and Delta's at Cincinnati may be scaled back.

Continue reading "Monsters, Inc.: Delta Is World's Biggest Airline Thanks to Northwest Deal" »

ON THE FLY

Happy (?) 30th Birthday Airline Deregulation

by Barbara S. Peterson

Thirty years ago this Friday, President Jimmy Carter signed into law the airline deregulation act of 1978, ending a half century of tight government regulation. The law's supporters, a surprisingly bipartisan crowd ranging from Ted Kennedy to Milton Friedman, promised that it would lead to lower air fares and better service, and that a new generation of consumer-friendly upstart airlines would rise to take on the "dinosaur" airlines that had been protected from competition for years (the same "legacy" airlines that still dominate most of the business, minus a Pan Am or TWA here or there).

Not exactly how the flying public sees it these days.

Mention the D-word and it conjures up not just the sorry state of air service but debacles ranging from Enron to the current calamity on Wall Street. 

Continue reading "Happy (?) 30th Birthday Airline Deregulation" »

ON THE FLY

TSA to Scrap Annoying Rules on Liquids, Shoes...Maybe

shampoo
Suspect giant shampoo bottle.

by Barbara S. Peterson

Given all the bad news for fliers lately--more fees, fewer flights, and more trouble redeeming your miles--it's not surprising that a mere suggestion that something about air travel might improve got a lot of traction in the media. That something is the annoying drill at the checkpoint. You know, the Kabuki dance that entails removing your shoes while simultaneously guzzling that last bit of spring water you will shortly surrender--and that's while plucking your laptop from its case and somehow clinging to your boarding pass.   

Of all these rituals, the liquids rules are the most loathed. Introduced in the wake of a foiled plot to bomb airliners out of London in August of 2006, the resulting "3-1-1" routine struck most travelers as confusing, if not downright silly (see the whole list of rules here). And worse, it may have been unnecessary. Aviation experts question whether liquids carried aboard in innocent-looking soda bottles could bring down an airplane (see my story on TSA last spring). During their recent trial, the London bomb plotters denied that they were attempting to destroy airplanes (although they did admit to planning to set off an explosion near a terminal), and while their testimony was obviously self-serving, the prosecution wasn't able to prove they were capable of pulling off another 9/11-style attack. And yet, we continue to dutifully present our baggies full of doll-size shampoos and mouthwash at checkpoint.

Continue reading "TSA to Scrap Annoying Rules on Liquids, Shoes...Maybe" »

ON THE FLY

More Runway Mishaps

Closecall
Why aren't runways getting safer?
AP Photo

by Barbara S. Peterson

Several near-disasters at U.S. airports in recent weeks have put the spotlight back on runway safety (where it should have been all along). The most recent close call, at Allentown, Pennsylvania, involved a 60-passenger United Express flight, which had to swerve at 140 mph to avoid hitting a small plane on the same runway. The two planes reportedly missed each other by 10 feet. In another incident over the summer, a SkyWest commuter plane came within 15 feet of smashing into a prop plane at an airport in Fresno, California.

Since the beginning of the year, several jets carrying hundreds of people have been involved in runway incursions at major airports, such as when a Southwest 737 had to lift off precipitately from a San Diego runway to avoid hitting a private jet in its way. In fact, according to government investigators, the rate of these runway mishaps is up this year, despite highly publicized efforts by the FAA to raise awareness of the threat.

Continue reading "More Runway Mishaps" »

ON THE FLY

Passenger Rights Bill Left at the Gate in Washington

Waiting
Flying is a waiting game these days.
AP Photo

by Barbara S. Peterson

With the nation's attention riveted by congressional dithering over the Wall Street bailout, it's not surprising few people noticed that another attempt to pass a federal "airline passengers' bill of rights" just went down in defeat. President Bush signed a bill Tuesday night that would fund the FAA for another six months, but without a guarantee giving fliers basic amenities during long waits on the tarmac, a provision sought by some consumer advocates. 

FlyersRights.org leader Kate Hanni, who's been pushing for the bill of rights, agitated for the provision to be tacked on to the stop-gap FAA bill, which would have guaranteed its passage. (Bush was to sign this bill or the nation's aviation system would have ground to a halt when funding ran out October 1.) The consumers' rights measure would require airlines to outline how they would handle lengthy tarmac delays, such as the infamous JetBlue Valentine's Day meltdown two years ago. Carriers would have to show they could provide minimal services such as clean water, fresh air, and working restrooms to those trapped on planes stuck on the runway, and they'd have to permit fliers to deplane after a certain agreed-upon deadline. Airlines say such rules would wreak havoc on their operations, forcing pilots to return to the gate even if they were near the head of the line for take-off.   

Despite this week's defeat, the issue isn't going away: the FAA will again be on the brink of insolvency on March 9 unless a new bill is passed, and a whole new set of players will be in Washington. And it should be noted that passenger rights is not the only hot potato holding up passage of a more comprehensive aviation bill. A massive multi-billion dollar plan to modernize the nation's air traffic control (ATC) system has also been stuck in limbo; private plane operators are fighting a new user fee on their flights to help fund the upgrade, which they say is unfair given that commercial airlines are by far the greatest users of the air traffic system. The major airlines counter that they've been subsidizing small operators that clog up the skies.  The deadlock has so far kept the country's ATC system frozen in a 1950s time warp, without the benefits of a satellite-based GPS-type system that could better handle the expected one billion U.S. passengers by 2015.

Further reading:
* On the Fly
* FlyersRights.org

ON THE FLY

The New Terminal 5 at JFK

T5
The old terminal 5 at JFK.
Photo: Stephen Lauren

by Barbara S. Peterson

Anyone who's recently flown through JetBlue's cramped and outmoded hub at John F. Kennedy's Terminal 6 will undoubtedly welcome the opening of the airline's new JFK base next week. The $875 million, 650,000-square-foot edifice will triple the airline's living space and will offer a slew of amenities ranging from free Wi-Fi to touch screens for ordering food to be delivered to you at the gate. And there will be plenty of grub: The new Terminal 5 gustatory offerings will occupy 53 percent more space than in T6, and will include sit-down restaurants serving sushi, tapas, steak, and the like, as well as a massive food hall with brand names ranging from Boar's Head to Lucy's Asian Kitchen. 

We'll review the new digs after T5 officially debuts on October 1. If you're transiting the complex next week, keep in mind that most airport openings are hardly glitch-free (remember the chaos at Heathrow's own T5 not long ago?). But at a party to preview the space earlier this week I did notice something strange: While the event called attention to the "icon" in its midst--the Eero Saarinen-designed TWA terminal that's attached to the new one--the landmark remains shuttered. This is despite claims (made as recently as last spring) that the renowned structure would be restored and reopened at the same time as its modern counterpart.

The 45-year-old TWA terminal, by the way, has been closed since 2001, but I've been inside twice since then on special occasions, and each time I was reminded of what a marvel it is--all the more reason why it should not be left as an eyesore as the rest of JFK gets a long-overdue upgrade. The Port Authority would only say that at some point next year it will start the process of figuring out what to do with the building--not a very encouraging sign.   

Further reading:
* On the Fly
* UPDATE: JetBlue announced late yesterday (September 25) they are pushing back the opening of their new terminal by three weeks. So it's already fulfilling at least one thing I said: These things are never glitch free.

ON THE FLY

Where McCain and Obama Stand on Air Travel: Part Two

Obama Plane
Obama boarding his plane,
McCain's directly below him.

AP Photo

by Barbara S. Peterson

To continue yesterday's discussion of the issues our presidential candidates face that could greatly affect the way we travel, here's more on where they stand:

Airline Regulation

Senator Obama has cosponsored an air travelers' "bill of rights" that has been pushed by consumer groups. It would require airlines to provide food, drinking water, and fresh air to passengers stuck on the tarmac and also to give passengers the right to demand a return to the gate after three hours.McCain has not endorsed the bill, and the last time he spoke out on the issue was around ten years ago, when as chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee he briefly supported new regulations on airlines designed to improve customer service and reduce delays. He later backed off when the airlines promised to police themselves (with, apparently, mixed results) and has not mentioned the subject in his current campaign.   

Ending Dependence on Foreign Oil

Few industries are more dependent on oil than the airlines--jet fuel has gone from less than 20 percent of the carrier's total expenses to nearly 40 percent in less than three years. Even if the price of oil drops sharply, the search for alternative fuels to power aircraft is seen as critical to the long-term survival of the airlines. (Continental has announced it will test a biofuel-powered 737 this fall, but otherwise the industry has been slow to embrace the concept.) Both candidates are in favor of getting the U.S. to kick its addiction to foreign oil, but they have different ideas for how to get there: Obama supports subsidies for corn ethanol, despite the concerns that it could produce even more greenhouse gas emissions than oil; McCain strongly opposes subsidies for the biofuel. They differ on other alternatives as well, with McCain favoring nuclear power and offshore drilling, and Obama pushing a cap and trade program to reduce greenhouse emissions. 

Further reading:
* Passengers' Rights and the Presidential Race: Where Do the Candidates Stand?
* Obama's planes caused worries first in July, then again this month
* On the Fly: Barbara Peterson on the airline industry
 

ON THE FLY

Where McCain and Obama Stand on Air Travel: Part One

Obama_2
AP Photo

by Barbara S. Peterson

Presidential candidates may fly around the country more than the average traveler, but what do they really know about air travel angst? Aside from a bizarre string of in-flight emergencies experienced by Senator Barack Obama in the last year, neither of the parties' nominees has said much about aviation during the current campaign. But the new administration will face a host of issues that could greatly affect the way we travel. Here's a quick look at where they stand:

FAA Modernization and Air Traffic Delays

The candidates agree on one point: The air travel system is in disarray. Both favor a move to a satellite-based, GPS-style tracking system to replace the current radar-based network. But here, the devil is in the details: McCain has sided with the commercial airlines that want to shift more of the costs to private plane owners--when the Federal Aviation Administration funding bill was still in committee, he voted against an amendment that would have eliminated the new $25 per-flight user fee on such "general aviation" operations. (It isn't known how Obama would have voted since the bill never made it out of committee.) McCain's vice presidential pick, Alaska governor Sarah Palin, is a strong supporter of general aviation interests, not surprising in a state heavily dependent on private flying. Last year she signed a resolution opposing the new GA fees. 

Senator Obama favors hiring more air traffic controllers, who have been without contracts for nearly two years, and he has sponsored legislation to force the FAA to return to the bargaining table with the controllers. Senator McCain has signaled that he might seek to privatize air traffic control, as has been done in a number of industrialized countries such as the U.K.; Obama is firmly opposed to such a move.

Airports, Maintenance, and Safety

The airlines' capacity cuts will fall disproportionately on smaller communities. Obama supports preserving the Essential Air Service program, a subsidy that has continued well beyond its original expiration date due to support from certain members of Congress whose districts might otherwise be left without any scheduled flights. Obama is also supportive of labor issues--not just the controllers but also groups like the machinists, who have raised alarms about losing jobs to offshore maintenance facilities. The Republicans have been loath to intervene in labor disputes, and that is not likely to change under a McCain administration.

Check back tomorrow for the rest of our run-down on McBama's thoughts.

Further reading:
* Passengers' Rights and the Presidential Race: Where Do the Candidates Stand?
* Obama's planes caused worries first in July, then again this month
* On the Fly: Barbara Peterson on the airline industry
 

ON THE FLY

Seven Years After 9/11, Fresh Concerns About Airport Security

by Barbara S. Peterson

Verdicts in the 2006 UK "liquids bombers" trial were handed down by a London jury this week, just days before the seventh anniversary of the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington. The liquid bomber plot, if successful, could have rivaled 9/11 in its devastation, targeting seven transatlantic flights simultaneously. But only three of the eight men charged in the 2006 plot were convicted of any crime, and the jury didn't find anyone guilty of the most serious charge: conspiracy to attack airliners. The jury apparently did not believe there was enough evidence to support the accusation that they were about to attack planes; in their defense, the accused admitted they were up to something. They testified that they were planning to set off bombs in garbage cans outside Heathrow's Terminal 3--not to board planes with homemade bombs using lethal chemicals disguised as soft drinks.

The prosecutors were apparently stung by the jury's decision, and on Wednesday they announced they would retry the case. But given the impact the foiled terror plot had on the way we travel, prompting all those annoying carry-on liquid rules, it's worth revisiting a question we asked in our September issue that year, too:  "Five years after 9/11, Are We Any Safer?" In our report, in which we teamed with several security experts, we found that aviation security was still lacking in a number of key areas. Among them: the ability to detect explosives. The truth is, technology that can distinguish between dangerous and benign liquids carried by passengers is now available--but it is only being tested at a few airports.

Despite some skepticism about whether the UK bomb plotters could pull off a 9/11-style attack, the details of the case that came out during the trial were alarming: A computer disk belonging to the self-styled leader of the group showed highlighted schedules for flights operated by American Airlines, United Airlines, and Air Canada to cities such as New York, San Francisco, and Toronto during the late summer and early fall of 2006. The computer files contained information on baggage policies, with highly specific information about Heathrow Airport. The bomb making materials discovered at the plotters' hideout were fairly sophisticated, according to Scotland Yard, and the British prosecutors presented expert evidence that these makeshift explosives--using a disposable camera as the detonator--would have been powerful enough to bring down a jumbo jet.

In this case, we know the details because good intelligence led authorities to the plotters. But while slapdash airport security allowed hijackers to board planes on 9/11, intelligence failures and dismissal of early warning signs also gave them the opportunity. It is worth noting on this anniversary that the passenger pre-screening system currently in place is essentially the same one that was in effect on 9/11, not to mention it is still being run by the airlines, which say they don't want the job. The TSA's much delayed plan to modernize the system for flagging potential threats (and finally to clean up old lists that repeatedly target innocent fliers), now known as Secure Flight, is now said to be scheduled for completion in 2009.

ON THE FLY

Upstairs, Downstairs: Emirates Inspires New Airline Class System

Emirates A380
Airbus CEO Thomas Enders exits
an Emirates Airbus A380.

AP Photo

by Barbara S. Peterson

In the last few weeks we've seen a few signs of a trend: Not only is the gap widening between the amenities in the airlines' premium and economy cabins--actually, customer service is just about disappearing from the back of the bus--but also more airlines are introducing flight cabins that are so exclusive that you never have to lay eyes on the masses sitting in coach!

Singapore has expanded its all-business-class flights to Los Angeles, flying nonstop from Changi, after launching the service on its Newark-to-Singapore nonstops a few months ago. One of the perks, in addition to the wide seats, semi-private "pods" and the like, is that you get spared that embarrassing spectacle of coach fliers marching through premium territory on their way to cattle class--what one airline insider jokingly calls the "walk of shame" (though to be fair, in Singapore's former layout for the flights, the world's longest at around 18 hours, the now-retired coach cabin had more legroom and space than on other planes.)

Now Emirates has taken the airline's class system to new heights, literally, with its first A380--the world's largest commercial airliner, with two full-length decks. The upper deck is reserved exclusively for first and business classes, with 14 and 76 seats, respectively; the lower level (one must resist calling it steerage) seats 399. The behemoth plane made its debut on a nonstop Dubai-to-JFK run on August 8, and is now flying thrice weekly on the route (to be increased to daily frequencies this fall). In addition to in-flight showers for first class--an industry first (and an expensive one, adding tons of extra weight to the plane)--the premium class fliers get to board the plane directly from their own airport lounge, using a jetbridge that connects only to the top deck. Economy fliers board from the main jetway to the bottom deck.

But here again, the coach class isn't your average knee-knocking horror show: on Emirates, coach fliers get a bit more room; after all, the flight is more than 15 hours. The New York Times recently profiled the designer responsible for eking a few more inches out of the economy space.

Open Skies, the British Airways spinoff that began three-class service between Paris and New York in June, has decided to drop coach class altogether with the launch of its second route--New York to Amsterdam--on October 15. The plane will now have just 64 seats--40 in Prem Plus, its version of premium economy, and 24 business class seats. The idea, says the airline's chief, Dale Moss, is to give the cabins the feel of a private jet. In other words, tourists in t-shirts are not welcome.

Further reading:
Singapore Airlines' New FlyPod Service

ON THE FLY

CNN on Policing Porn in the Skies


Last week Barbara Peterson reported on American Airlines introducing WiFi to a select number of flights. Now here's CNN bringing up the naked elephant in the room. According to CNN, flight attendants may have to police what passengers watch. (If that's the case, where was my flight attendant when the seat neighbor called up Glitter?)

ON THE FLY

American Airlines Rolls Out the WiFi


A Gogo-produced video explains how in-flight Internet connectivity works.

by Barbara S. Peterson

After months of speculation about when, or even if, inflight WiFi would come to pass, American Airlines switched on the system this morning on its fleet of fifteen 767-200s that operate coast to coast out of JFK, San Francisco, and LAX airports, as well as on a daily Miami to New York roundtrip. The airline had wanted to be first in the market, a goal that undoubtedly became more urgent with rival Delta boasting it would offer WiFi systemwide within a year--although it has yet to install it. (Virgin America has also signed up for the Aircell service, which uses the brand name Gogo; JetBlue, Southwest, and Alaska are pursuing similar setups, but none has come out with a firm startup date.)   

When I stopped by JFK Airport at around ten this morning, I found Aircell CEO Jack Blumenstein and American technology manager Doug Backelin hunched over their laptops in the Admirals Club, monitoring how things were going on the six WiFi-equipped aircraft that were airborne at that moment. One eager flier had jumped the gun and used the service on a red-eye flight from the West Coast last night, ahead of the official launch at 7 a.m. today. "He got on at 1:05 a.m. Central time, and he was on for four hours!" Blumenstein said with a laugh. So far, they said, results were promising--on one plane 50 people were logged on at once. 

The service costs $13 per flight ($10 for shorter flights, when that's introduced). Fliers can register ahead of departure on gogoinflight.com or do so at the boarding gate or on the flight itself. There's no limit to how many fliers can be on at once, though whether it could handle a full planeload of Web surfers has yet to be tested.

Continue reading "American Airlines Rolls Out the WiFi" »

ON THE FLY

Airlines Embarrassed Over Bag Fee Brouhaha

Troops
Troops coming and going.
AP Photo

by Barbara S. Peterson

The airlines' new baggage fees have so many exceptions and contradictions that most of us have just given up trying to make sense of them. Some airlines charge for the first bag (American, United, USAirways), some let you check the first one free but then really get you on the second one (at Delta, a second bag is $50 each way), but there is one area of consistency: Dare to check a third bag and you'll fork over more than $100.

Okay, we can all understand the logic of that, although a small number of the airlines' VIP fliers are largely exempt from the new luggage levies.

But those VIPs apparently didn't include the men and women who are serving in the U.S. military overseas. They've got good reason for lugging along a lot of stuff, but the airlines either didn't think of this or were unmoved by their plight, demanding that uniformed members of the armed services pay up like the rest of the Clampetts crowd.

Until, however, a story appeared in a military publication detailing the plight of young soldiers who barely had enough cash to pay for their additional baggage and then had to wait months to be reimbursed by the military.

The unflattering coverage prompted a quick reversal:
* American Airlines waives third bag fee for military
* AirTran waives all bag fees for military personnel

ON THE FLY

Virgin America Joins the Space Race

BransonSpace
Branson brings space to the masses.
Photo: Hotelchatter.com

by Barbara S. Peterson

Paparazzi and VIPS like astronaut Buzz Aldrin gathered at a remote airfield in Mojave, California, this week to witness the unveiling of Sir Richard Branson's latest pet project: a space tourism jet that will blast well-heeled passengers 60 miles above earth when the Virgin Galactic company opens for business some two years from now. The double-hulled gleaming mothership, dubbed WhiteKnightTwo, will be the world's largest all-carbon composite aircraft when it begins flying the Virgin colors to an altitude of about 50,000 feet--at which point it will launch a smaller rocket ship called SpaceShipTwo, which will take six passengers and two pilots on a two-and-a-half-hour thrill ride. The amateur astronauts will experience weightlessness and get some amazing views of earth. (They'll arrive a bit lighter in the wallet, as well: the "fare" for this flight is $200,000.) 

Although his guests came for the historic viewing, Branson couldn't resist the chance to tout his vast travel empire, especially Virgin America, the domestic U.S. airline that's about to mark its first anniversary. Not only did we arrive at the Mojave event on a chartered Virgin America A320 from LAX--bearing the slogan "My Other Ride Is a Spaceship"--but also the airline's loyalty program members have a chance to earn a seat on a Virgin Galactic flight. 

Continue reading "Virgin America Joins the Space Race" »

ON THE FLY

The TSA's New Game Show: What's Your Line?

Tsa_blackdiamond
What's your flavor?

by Barbara S. Peterson

Amid all the new fees and policy changes airlines are inflicting on their customers this summer, the process of going through security is getting more, er, interesting. The Transportation Security Administration is testing a new concept that allows travelers to select a particular lane to stand in, based on their experience or needs. Currently in use at 21 airports, the system is designed to give frequent fliers, who presumably know their way around the security drill, a way to bypass a line clogged with inexperienced fliers. 

The TSA apparently sees the traveling public in three basic flavors: "expert" (designated by a black diamond icon like those you see on ski slopes); "casual," meaning somewhat experienced; and "family/special needs." But as this whole idea depends on people's ability to rate themselves honestly--and let's face it, no one wants to end up in the longest lane--the system may not run as smoothly as the TSA intends. In fact, the other day, when I was at Kennedy Airport, a few travelers stopped to read the "What's Your Lane?" signs TSA had posted around the terminal to explain the routine, and many appeared to be befuddled by the new designations.

Continue reading "The TSA's New Game Show: What's Your Line?" »

ON THE FLY

Close Calls Lead to Safety Upgrades

Close call
We don't want this on the runway.
AP Photo

by Barbara S. Peterson

Perhaps it is just a coincidence that after another close call at Kennedy International Airport--the second in less than a week--the Federal Aviation Administration has rolled out one of the most ambitious airline safety projects in recent memory. Four hundred million dollars have been committed to upgrade runway safety lighting at 20 major airports around the country, including, naturally, JFK.

In the most recent incident at the New York airfield, which occurred last Friday, a Delta 767 and a Comair regional jet came within a half mile of each other horizontally, and 600 feet vertically (far closer than is allowed by FAA rules, which mandate gaps of three to five miles horizontally and 1,000 feet vertically). As the two events were very similar--they took place on the same runway, with one plane taking off and the other executing a "go around"--the FAA said it would change the way planes take off and land on those particular airstrips.

With runway safety on the front burner, the FAA is accelerating its plans to expand the safety lighting system, which we wrote about in our June issue. While it costs $20 million per airport to install, it is a fairly low-tech approach, using a series of ground lights (much like traffic lights) to signal to pilots whether or not it is safe to enter a runway. In fact, the system has already been in use at Dallas Fort Worth, where it has reportedly prevented dozens of airport fender-benders. San Diego's airport has a similar system, but it doesn't cover all situations--and it didn't activate in the case of a near-collision between a Southwest plane and a private jet during an incident last January. But as safety experts continue to warn of the potential for runway disasters, the nation's busiest airfields have been demanding they get the new system ahead of schedule. Other airports in line to get the new lights over the next three years include Chicago O'Hare, Atlanta Hartsfield, Boston Logan, Los Angeles International, Newark, LaGuardia, Washington Dulles, and airports in Charlotte, Denver, Detroit, Fort Lauderdale, Las Vegas, and Minneapolis.

ON THE FLY

Summer Air Traffic Woes Redux

Ap04021108904_2
Watch your tail!
AP Photo

by Barbara S. Peterson

Despite reports of a shrinking airline industry (whose one bright spot might be a reduction in the time spent awaiting takeoff), it's business as usual at major U.S. airports: too many flights, an out-of-date air traffic control system, etc. All of which bears on what happened--or didn't happen--last Saturday at JFK airport. 

According to the controllers union, two planes came very close to colliding as one was attempting to land and another was about to take off. The few facts agreed upon by everyone connected with the incident are that a Cayman Airways flight was executing a routine go around--an aborted landing followed by a second attempt to land--while a LAN Chile Flight was taking off from another JFK runway perpendicular to the first. Controllers quickly spread word of the incident, claiming the planes were within 100 feet of one another, an assertion the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) just as quickly denied.

Continue reading "Summer Air Traffic Woes Redux" »

ON THE FLY

American Airlines Previews Wi-Fi. But Skype Gets Blocked

Internet in flight
Filled with glee at the prospect of
working (and instant
messaging) onboard.

AP Photo

by Barbara S. Peterson

Chances are you'd feel differently about all the new airline fees if you were getting something new for your money--especially if that something were to help ease the tedium of a long flight. Starting today, American Airlines will begin testing that premise with a sneak preview of Wi-Fi connectivity aboard two flights--one from JFK to LA and one in the return direction--allowing passengers to send and receive emails, download and send attachments, and surf the web while aloft.  If it works, American says it will roll out the service (possibly in a couple weeks) called Air Cell's "GoGo" on all of its 767-200s that fly on longer routes, such as New York to San Francisco, LA and Miami. Today's experiment will be free, but after that, the charge will be $12.95 per flight. 

One thing you will not be able to do is use internet voice services like Skype; those will be blocked, in keeping with the federal ban on phone calls. (In Europe, by contrast, inflight cell calls are permitted by law,  but not all airlines have the necessary hardware yet.) Otherwise, there are no limits on content. "It's exactly the same as if you were at a Wi-Fi hot spot at an airport or at your local Starbucks," says Americans Doug Backelin. He adds that the service will be able to handle a full planeload  of users. Eventually, it should be on most domestic flights--the service works only in the continental U.S. and so it won't be offered  on international routes.

American may be the first legacy airline to introduce Wi-Fi, but JetBlue has been testing a different service aboard a single plane since last December. And Virgin America says it will soon introduce the Air Cell service on all of its 15 A320s.

All business and first class seats in American's fleet have built-in power ports, and if you are consigned to a seat in coach, you can still plug in your laptop--power ports are scattered around the economy section . To find out where they are located,  look up the seat map for your plane.  More info on the Wi-Fi capability is available here and here.

ON THE FLY

United Joins American in Charging Luggage Fees

by Barbara S. Peterson

It's official:  with United's announcement that it will follow American's lead and begin charging passengers $15 each way for the first bag you check, it won't be long before the rest of industry follows suit. United is doing it a little differently, however; while those buying tickets starting tomorrow will be subject to the fee, it will only start kicking in for domestic trips scheduled for Aug. 18 or later. American's applies to tickets purchased this Sunday and beyond. 

Each airline exempts international travelers, first and business class customers and some very high-milers from the fee.  That means, of course, it'll fall hardest on the vacationing families who are flying on the lowest fares--a family of four, checking one bag each, would pay $120--for something they long assumed was part of the overall ticket price. The price goes up with each bag you add:  it's $25 for the second one,  heads skyward from there. United says it expects about a third of its passengers to pay the fee.  But it's not surprising the airlines would be looking for any and all ways to raise revenue; according to the Air Transport Association, the price of jet fuel has risen about 90% in the last year, and now accounts for fully 40% of the average airline's total expenses, up from 15% in the early part of the decade.

Southwest, by the way, which hedged its fuel prices at around $50 a barrel versus the $120-plus others are paying, lets you carry two bags free but does charge for the third bag. 

Further reading:
* Luggage Fees:  Watch the Deals...and Your Wallet
* Baggage Fees: A GOOD Idea

ON THE FLY

Luggage Fees: Watch the Deals...and Your Wallet

Luggage Fees
Reaching for a refund.
AP Photo

by Barbara S. Peterson

However you may feel about the new luggage fees for airline passengers, it didn't take long for some savvy hotelier to smell a business opportunity. Loews and Kimpton have both announced they will reimburse guests who can provide proof they paid an airline a fee to check a bag. Most airlines are charging between $20 and $25 for a second bag, but American has announced that all bags will be subject to a fee. Starting June 15, even your first bag will set you back $15.

Speaking of which, I've been hearing some disturbing reports about fliers forking over the $15 fee before it goes into effect; apparently some unscrupulous skycaps or airport curbside workers are taking advantage of the confusion and pocketing the dough as an unintended tip. An American spokesman said that the company was unaware of any problems with passengers paying the fee prematurely.  The previous $2 per bag fee for checking luggage curbside will be rescinded, however, since it is now considered part of the new $15 fee, he added.

Keep in mind that there are a lot of exceptions to the new fees. For example, international and full-fare fliers are exempt, and so are various strata of frequent flier mileage holders. So don't hand over any money to check your bag unless you've first checked the rules.

Meanwhile, the fee fad is spreading: American is raising the price of onboard drinks from $5 to $6, and US Airways is no longer dispensing free snacks on domestic flights.

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