18th September 2007

Great Airline Service

Dave posts about some great airline experiences and it doesn’t surprise me that the airlines involved are Southwest and Jet Blue. There is this great opportunity for up and coming airlines that emulate these guys to take over and provide a great, efficient air travel system for our country. The main thing holding this back is the lobbying efforts of the old guys. The old guys grew up under the old system of regulated air travel and while they adapted once the industry was deregulated, they never figured out how to escape the trap of their old business models that were based on charging 10x fares to last minute and business travelers compared to everyone else. They also appear to be stuck in a fundamentally hostile management/labor relationship and the combination results in the bizarre poor service that we all see.

There was a thing on the radio yesterday about a movement to create a passengers bill of rights. This appears to be driven by people who are focused on the incidents where they have been trapped in airplanes sitting on the ground for 5+ hours. My feedback would be that there are some good ideas in this movement, but they are missing the bigger picture. Passing new rules that protect passenger rights is putting a band-aid on the gushing wound. What we need to do instead is to stop subsidizing the old-style airlines and let the bad ones fail. In the mean time we need to provide good customer information on how the airlines are doing and try to remove some of the restrictions that are holding them back. I understand Southwest still deals with some bizarre rules about flights into and out of Texas, and if you look at the pain that Virgin America went through to get permission to fly in the US, its just a shame. Another great move would be to pursue a more consistent energy policy that helps the airlines have more predictable fuel prices. One of the cornerstones of Southwest’s strong business performance over the past decade is that they did a great job of locking in fuel prices before they went swinging all over. In theory the government could be helping provide this kind of stability for the whole industry and even making it available to new entrants in the market.

posted in Aviation, Business | 1 Comment

7th September 2007

Aviation Delays

Kevin Garrison writes a good article on AvWeb about Aviation delays and debunking the myth the airlines have put forth that small aircraft are the cause. This from the perspective of someone flying one of the big jets for a major airline.

Two things are worth noting. The first and most important is that the pilots for the big airlines are not the guys at fault in this situation and are usually sympathetic to fighting the con job their management are trying to pull off. These guys have been the biggest victim of the management incompetence of the major airlines as they have tried to deal with the shifts in their wacky business models. Their work conditions get worse, they get screwed out of their pensions, and meanwhile they feel like they are being encouraged to lie to their customers.

The second is that he points out the real cause of these traffic screw ups- the major airlines for some reason tend to schedule just about every airplane they are flying to take off and leave at the same time.

Now, it may make the schedules look clean at your major hub to have every arrival at 3pm and every departure at 4pm. I bet its even easier on the scheduling software. But its not going to actually work. Unless of course your aim is to intentionally make sure passengers miss their connections so you can avoid having the pay the bump-fees. Hmmm…

So just a reminder. Next time you are out on a taxiway in a line of 20 airplanes waiting to take off. Its not the little-guy holding you up. Its unlikely that we are taking off from the same runway and when we do, we tend to slip in between the jet departures (since we can often take off quickly and turn out of the departure path to get out of the way). Anytime there are 20 jets stacked up other than some major issue with the runway, its a clear sign that the folks running the airline you are flying couldn’t figure out how to coordinate schedules to spread things out a bit in a more sensible way. For organizations responsible for billion dollar machines flying through the air, this stuff should be pretty basic.

posted in Aviation | 0 Comments

13th August 2007

Online Aviation Charts

Some time back I posted suggesting that Google do a version of Google Maps with aviation charts. It looks like Sky Vector has done a pretty good job of this, although (for now) its only the VFR charts. I have to assume that whomever created this is local since they mention their favorite $100 hamburger destination is Friday Harbor, but the site has no data that I could find on the actual people involved.

In any case, good work, and I hope the site does well.

posted in Aviation, Technology | 0 Comments

10th August 2007

My Talk from Ignite 3- Maximizing Performance in Aircraft Engines

I finally discovered my talk on Maximizing Performance in Aircraft Engines available for your viewing pleasure on the web.

I’d forgotten how embarrassing it is watching a video of yourself… Also, sorry about the feedback at the end.

posted in Aviation | 0 Comments

6th August 2007

Airlines Record Profits

Slate has an article about how the airlines are seeing record profits while service is at an all-time low. I’d just like to add a few notes to the article.

The article points out that customers can blame others for their misery- the FAA, the TSA, and the weather. Except as far as I can tell the FAA air-traffic system is overall working really well. The airlines try to hype how much of a problem it is, but that is mostly because its their favorite excuse and they hope to make a grab to get other users of the airspace (small airplanes, other carriers) out of their way. As for the weather, it can sometimes be an issue when there are actual big storms, but its not the sort of thing that a well-run airline couldn’t accomodate for. Plus, I’ve caught airlines lying numerous times about either FAA traffic issues or weather as an excuse for late flights. If you are a pilot its not that hard to hear the gate agent blame one of those two for a delay, go sit down in your seat with a laptop and a wireless connection, and check for actual flow-control notices and/or weather issues. So far my experience is that about 50% of the time its a straight-out lie. I’m not saying that the gate agent knows that its a lie, but someone at the airline is spreading false information to pass the blame.

But the article’s main point is true- most people believe this stuff, so the airlines manage to dodge the blame for their mismanagement.

Of course to call it mismanagement in the technical sense would imply that its poor business for the company involved. The amazing thing with the screwed up situation with this industry is that the companies have managed to position themselves so that not only do they make big profits while treating the public like crap, but we also subsidize them to the tune of billions of dollars to do it. I guess when you put it that way, maybe it should be written up as a nice Harvard Business School Case Study “how to treat your customers like crap and make billions”.

My favorite example is what I realized American Airlines is doing with overbooking in my little incident with them. The article points up that the load factor (filled seats) has risen from 66% to 78% over the past decade. Handled correctly this is a good thing for everyone because it results in a more efficient economic system. The catch is that there are supposed to be protections in the system against the airlines pushing it too hard in their favor.

If they overbook an airplane and have to bump you, they owe you some money. So if they do it too much, they start to lose money. Except that American has realized that by causing passengers to miss their connections, even when its 100% the airlines fault, they get out of the bump fees. Everyone misses the flight they were booked on and winds up on the next flight, but with no rights to any compensation. The airline gets all the money from filling every seat in every flight, working their bizarre pricing schemes to maximize the pennies they wring out of every passenger.

And THAT is I guess what you would call good management. Hand out those big bonuses!

posted in Aviation, Business | 1 Comment

2nd August 2007

They Are Here- The Blue Angels!

Probably my favorite moment of the year in Seattle. That first unmistakable roar of F-18s crossing overhead, fast and low.

posted in Aviation | 0 Comments

27th July 2007

Airplane Museum in AZ

News.com has a great story about the Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Group facility in Arizona. It looks awesome- hopefully I can find some time later this year (hopefully when its not so hot) to visit.

posted in Aviation, Travel | 0 Comments

2nd July 2007

Google Maps for Aviation

Here is a feature request for Google. How about supporting Aviation maps via Google maps? The government creates these sectional and IFR (low and high altitude) charts. I believe the underlying images are available for free. Make an aviation mode of Google maps where I can see the normal map views + have extra buttons for Sectional, IFR low and IFR high.

This would be killer. There are several sites that show some of this data but the UI is just terrible.

posted in Aviation, Technology | 2 Comments

25th June 2007

New Rugged 2.5″ HD from Seagate- EE

Via Engadget Seagate has introduced a 2.5″ drive, the EE25.2 that packs 80GB and is good to 16,000 feet. This might be a solution for a drive to use in unpressurized aircraft, although frankly 16,000 feet is a bit low- 25,000 would cover the territory much better since I doubt there are many folks going above 25,000′ without pressuraization. Then again, they brag about the previous generation being used on Mt Everest where base-camp is 17,000 (and the peak is 29,000ft). so they are pretty much advocating using it beyond-spec.

I suspect a SSD will still be a better solution for us pilots although there is no word on the pricing yet.

posted in Aviation, Technology | 0 Comments

14th June 2007

EasyJet Designs a New Airplane

In a reversal of the usual “Boeing or Airbus builds it and the airlines get to pick between the two” model, EasyJet, a European low-cost airline has proposed a new aircraft design. I wonder if this is also a symptom of the reduced competition from only really having two manufacturers. It departs from the traditional of these two organizations in some really important ways and is telling about how the big guys aren’t innovating enough in aircraft design (although the 787 comes close).

EasyJet flies lots of short-hop routes and they presumably know that cruise speed has little impact on gate-to-gate time for most passengers. Fly 50 knots slower and you save a TON of fuel. Also by going with an unducted turbine (its not clear what the difference is between this and a turbine-driven propeller) you get better efficiencies in the mid-altitudes where there is a ton less traffic and less climb and descent times. Those atltitudes are fairly empty because traditional ducted jet engines are really inefficient until you get up almost to 30,000 feet.

Combine that with a composite design (like the 787 but it sounds like they are taking it further more like my Columbia), and a relatively small passenger capacity (for lots of direct flights, shorter bording / exit times) and it seems like you have a real winner. They seem to think they can get Boeing ot Airbus to build it by 2015. I hope those guys are paying attention since it seems like an airplane like this could be a real successor to the 737 (which so far is pretty much the most successful commercial aircraft design in history on a number of metrics from safety to production).

Meanwhile there was an interesting program on NPR this morning about the “overloaded air traffic system”. While I grant that there are some choke points where things get overloaded, it was really disappointing to see the bullshit from the representative of the Airline Transport Association. Most of the time, in most of the country there is plenty of extra capacity (although I’ll grant that the controllers are probably overworked and that we potentially have a serious issue with mass retirements over the next couple of years).

The ATA, representing the major airlines, is creating a “crisis” here to mask the incompetence of their larger members. The big airlines are so out of control for a number of reasons, including poor systems, business model flaws (the crazy pricing system), their hub system, and others, that they are flailing around to blame others.

Let me give some examples- I’ve looked at the arrival schedules at the major airports and the same airline will have 100 airplanes arriving in the same 30 minutes. Go figure they have some traffic problems? They are surprised they have delays from this? They also haven’t figured out how to spread to the other feeder airports in a meaningful way. They love to complain about General Aviation (GA) as being part of the blame, but for the most part we are using the OTHER 5000 airports across the country and are in completely different sets of altitudes (at least until that EasyJet design comes into play).

American Airlines is so incompetent that I have witnessed multiple incidents of an airplane arriving only to have no ground crew to meet it and bring it into the gate. Their overall network of flights is so complicated and messed up that every little delay they have cascades into others. You could hope they could figure out how to not have 40 airplanes push-back to taxi for departure at the exact same time at a major airport, possibly even requiring the different airlines to coordinate a bit? But not only can’t they do that, they can’t even figure it out within the same airline- I don’t get why I frequently see a line of 10 American jets wasting fuel in a line out there waiting to depart.

So the ATA guy blames it on the ATC running on “world war 2 technology”. Scary old stuff like radar. What’s so wrong about radar? The modern radar is displayed on fairly new terminals that give the controller lots of data, that automatically identify aircraft by N-number, and all that stuff. Radar is a very reasonable technology to use in conjunction with other stuff, and while granted there have been hiccups in deploying some of the new systems, its just obnoxious the way they try to pass it off as ancient.

Things won’t really get better for air travel in this country until the old air carrier system dies for real and is replaced by the nimble new-guys. Let’s hope that congress can resist continuing to bail these guys out and prolong the situation.

posted in Aviation, Business, Technology | 0 Comments