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Huh?? FAA rule bans storing anything in seatback pockets

A couple weeks ago, Joe Sharkey posted a tale on his blog of a flight attendant requiring passengers to keep their personal belongings out of the seatback pockets. He thought it was an overzealous airline employee. He was wrong.

The original story (that prompted him to do further digging) has strangely disappeared from his BoardingArea blog, but still appears on a (legacy?) blogspot site:

Here’s a new one, at least to me. As we taxied before takeoff on a flight tonight from Denver to Tucson, the flight attendant announced that no personal possessions could be placed in the seat-back pocket, because of “FAA regulations.”

Nothing, she said. Not a pair of eyeglasses or a newspaper or a paperback book. Only “company-printed materials” were allowed in seat-back pockets, she said, and of course I quote her precisely.

What were these strange new “FAA regulations”? My seat-mate — a hard-core business traveler and until then a stranger to me — and I looked at each other. Surely this could not be a new law. But before takeoff, here the flight attendant comes marching down the narrow aisle on inspection, and right away she spots the books each of us had tucked into the pockets, as we had done thousands of times before.

She was on us like a prison guard. “Gentlemen, I told you, nothing in the pockets,” she said. Sheepishly, we put our books in our laps, while the “company-printed materials” (the crappy in-flight magazine, the sales catalog, the barf bag and who knows what else) rode merrily alone in the seat-back pockets.

One does not argue with a flight attendant if one wants to get where one needs to go.

Like Joe, I would have assumed that the flight attendant who was telling passengers that use of the seatback pockets was prohibited was on a power trip. I would have thought the same. Apparently, I would have been wrong, as Joe wrote in yesterday’s NYT column.

The Federal Aviation Administration said Monday that airlines whose flight attendants had been telling passengers that no personal items of any kind could be placed in seatback pockets were “following our guidance, if they are enforcing this with travelers.”

The agency’s response came after numerous inquiries following a flight I made from Denver to Tucson operated by SkyWest Airlines, on which the flight attendant announced before takeoff that, as a safety measure, nothing could be placed in seatback storage pockets — no eyeglasses, no ticket stubs, no iPods or bottles of water or magazines.

What. The. Hell.

I understand the ban on sticking your laptop computer into the seatback pocket. That’s a big item that peeks out of the pocket and can hurt someone if it flies out.

But a book? A sheet of paper? A ticket stub? Have we lost all sense of logic?

If the contents of the pocket are truly dangerous then ban everything. Ban SkyMall catalogs. Ban the safety cards. Ban barf bags (with ads, or with art, or anything on them.) Ban “American Way,” “Hemispheres,” and the (oh-so-creatively titled) “US Airways Magazine.” They’re a threat to your safety! Hide the kids!

For the time being, it doesn’t appear that airlines are actively enforcing this. Most appeared to be unaware of the rule — which originated in a 2007 cabin safety directive put out by the FAA — so for now, it’s still going to be the exception, not the rule, to hear this rule announced. But once is too much. This is just plain stupid.

I’m reminded of Ryanair. The much-maligned Euro-WalMart of the skies, has never had seatback pockets, as a way to save money on cleaning expenses (and restocking those magazines).

Apparently, we are all Ryanair passengers now.

(Thanks to reader Nicole Rowan for drawing the column to my attention!)

Airlines, unable to manage risk, scapegoat oil markets

The e-mail blitz was on this afternoon. Several airlines sent out their bulk-mails, announcing their opposition to “speculators” in the oil market. In an orchestrated letter signed by 12 airline CEOs, the airlines blamed the oil market for their companies’ woes. It’s a maddening piece of propaganda.

The airlines’ efforts to blame the oil market’s participants for causing the price of oil to go up is a red herring. Speculators exist, sure, but unlike the housing market’s speculators, in which investors actually bought physical properties to affect market pricing, oil futures market participants aren’t actually taking delivery of oil. They’re effectively wagering on the direction of prices, but that doesn’t directly affect oil supply or real consumptive demand.

The letter is chock full of misinformation and dumb logic. For example:

A barrel of oil may trade 20-plus times before it is delivered and used; the price goes up with each trade and consumers pick up the final tab.

The price goes up every time? If so, why would anyone sell? No one has ever lost money on a trade? What market is this, and how can I participate?!!

Our country is facing a possible sharp economic downturn because of skyrocketing oil and fuel prices…

It’s a smidge more complicated than that, guys. War in Iraq and Afghanistan, mortgage meltdown and uptick in foreclosures, trade deficits, currency devaluation, bloated consumer debt, runaway derivatives markets… But anyway…

…speculators who trade oil on paper with no intention of ever taking delivery…

Umm, that’s an argument against futures markets in and of themselves, and not against speculators per se.

The Economist has a good breakdown of the “blame the speculators” logic this week. Forgive me for quoting them at length:

[Blaming the speculators] holds obvious appeal for those looking for a scapegoat. But there is little evidence to support it. For one thing, the surge in investment in oil futures is not that large relative to the global trade in oil. Barclays Capital, an investment bank, calculates that “index funds”, which have especially exercised the politicians because they always bet on rising prices, account for only 12% of the outstanding contracts on NYMEX and have a value equivalent to just 2% of the world’s yearly oil consumption.

More importantly, neither index funds nor other speculators ever buy any physical oil. Instead, they buy futures and options which they settle with a cash payment when they fall due. In essence, these are bets on which way the oil price will move. Since the real currency of such contracts is cash, rather than barrels of crude, there is no limit to the number of bets that can be made. And since no oil is ever held back from the market, these bets do not affect the price of oil any more than bets on a football match affect the result.

The market for nickel provides a good illustration of this. Speculative investment in the metal has been growing steadily over the past year, yet its price has fallen by half. By the same token, the prices of several commodities that are not traded on any exchanges, such as iron ore and rice, have been rising almost as fast as that of oil.

Bottom line: The airlines are whining. Suck it up. It’s your business. Manage it.

One surprise: Southwest signed the letter. By the logic of the letter, Southwest is one of the “speculators,” and in fact it’s a major reason Southwest has been eating everyone else’s lunch. Yet they signed the letter decrying their own business practices. Huh.

Less surprising: The signature of United. Despite having a CEO who previously worked at Texaco, these guys couldn’t figure out how to manage fuel prices. When they emerged from bankruptcy, they based their business plan on an unrealistic $50/barrel oil. It was trading around $65/bbl at the time, and it hasn’t gotten any cheaper. ($142/bbl today.)

The airlines who today whine about the oil market moving higher are complaining about their poor past decisions. They’re hatin’ the player and the game.

That said, if you want to check out the airlines’ “campaign” to stop investment, or “speculation,” they’ve got a website which I am loath to link to, but offer up for the sake of fairness and equal time. It’s StopOilSpeculationNow.com.

Feeling safe? Armed pilot discharges pistol in cockpit

After 9/11, there was a debate over whether pilots should be trained in small firearms and permitted (or required) to carry a pistol in the cockpit. From the get-go, I objected. I felt that the risks of firearms exceeded their benefit, especially if the Federal Air Marshals program already had armed law enforcement officers on board.

The risk of an accidental discharge, or worse, a pilot with less-than-honorable purposes, makes guns in the cockpit a substantial risk. And now it’s happened: A US Airways pilot discharged his weapon during approach to Charlotte.

What on earth was the pilot doing with his pistol during the approach? Shouldn’t he have been working on landing the plane? And why wasn’t his weapon holstered, with the safety on? What were they doing up there, talking about their favorite (and still, to this day, most disturbing) scenes in Christopher Walken movies?

The whole thing makes me feel less safe. Both because I don’t like the idea of hot lead flying through the fuselage, and because I like my pilots to be flying, not playing with guns.

The pro-gun argument has always been that armed pilots serve as the last line of defense in the case of a hijacking or other incident. Or that armed pilots are themselves a deterrent to hijackers.

But it’s impossible to prove whether or not the arming of pilots actually improves safety by scaring potential bad guys from trying anything on board a plane. You can’t prove or disprove that proposition, unless you’ve got an al Qaeda focus group that you’re running.

A more concrete case that would support the pro-arming side would be incidents of threats who were subdued by an armed pilot. I haven’t heard of a single incident wherein a pilot was called upon to unholster his or her weapon in flight. If readers have a link to such a case, please send it my way.

As it is, the passengers on this plane were lucky that nothing worse happened. Arming pilots remains a bad idea.

(Thanks to David, Kim, and Richard for sending this one in!)

UPDATE:
Here’s a photo of the gunshot hole, via the Associated Press:

Poll: Should you lower the windowshades during a daytime flight?

The International Herald-Tribune’s Roger Collis gets a question from a reader regarding the etiquette of windowshades on longhaul flights.

Great question, but he doesn’t really answer it.

Instead, Collis proceeds to describe the windowshade policy on British Airways and Air France. All well and good, but he nonetheless fails to address the reader’s question about the etiquette of windowshade use.

To be fair, it’s not a cut and dried answer. So let’s try to answer it ourselves.

Here’s the original question:

On a recent trans-Atlantic flight with Air France, I was asked to pull down my window shade by a stewardess. I refused as it was daytime and I had no desire to sleep. She insisted, but I held my ground and told her to take the matter up with the captain. She left me alone after that. Was I within my rights to keep my window shade open? Philip Cokkinos, Athens

Collis’ answer just describes the airlines’ rationale for wanting to lower the shades, but it ignores the passengers’ preferences. So how about a passenger who says no? The etiquette on this could go any number of ways.

The body’s internal clock and the amount of sunlight outside aren’t necessarily in sync, so your body could be tired and ready for sleep even though you’re flying in bright sunlight. (This is an issue on eastbound trans-Pacific flights that depart at night, for example. But on a daytime trans-Atlantic flight, your body shouldn’t necessarily be expecting sleep. You could take a siesta, sure, but it’s not quite as necessary as on the eastbound flight.) Regardless, if people are trying to sleep, keeping your shades open could be disturbing to others.

But if you selected a window seat specifically to look outside, to see the beauty of the world from above, why should you sacrifice that? Does it matter what you’re flying over? What if it’s cloudy?

What about people trying to watch a movie? Should you give up your view so someone else can get a better resolution on their 5 inch screen showing “Norbit”?

And of course, if you’re claustrophobic, you’ve got a good argument for keeping the shades up.

So was the reader within their rights to keep the windowshades open? Or should the cabin be dark in flight? Let the people have their say. Vote!

Mythbustin’: Is Wednesday at night the best time to buy airline tickets?

Yesterday, the site Seeking Alpha posted this tip for getting the best price for airfares:

What’s the absolute best time to purchase a ticket directly from the airlines? Turns out it’s Wednesday from midnight to 1 am in the time zone of the airline’s “home base.”[…] Why? That’s when the computer systems of most airlines get rid of the reserved but unbooked lower fare reservations.

Several blogs — at least 36 of them as of this writing — picked up on this tip. The problem is it’s completely wrong. It’s pure, unadulterated bunk, a long-running myth of the airline industry.

I consulted with the good folks at FareCompare.com, who reaffirmed my view. The Wednesday midnight rule is a myth. Rick Seaney, CEO of FareCompare.com sets the record straight:

Held reservations don’t all expire Wednesdays.

“Held inventory is released every day at midnight so Wednesday is nothing special. Agencies who use Sabre, Worldspan, Galileo and/or Amadeus [the major GDS’s — the global computer networks used for booking tickets] can hold DOMESTIC inventory (sold status SS) without ticketing up to 24 hours during the day, and the carriers at their choosing come in the evening at Midnight and release un-ticketed inventory. The hold for international inventory is normally longer than 24 hours but is at the discretion of the airlines. Some airline websites have a hold feature, but it acts the same way as an agency: the inventory is lost at midnight if not ticketed, and the itinerary is repriced at the current inventory for that flight at time of purchase. For the most part all airline sites use the same policy.”

Most fares that are put on hold aren’t that cheap to begin with.

“It’s not the low fare inventory that opens up at midnight. Low fare inventory is almost always ticketed immediately. Un-ticketed inventory is normally high priced business inventory held by a corporate agency for business travelers who are on the fence about going, or by government workers who have a special ‘hold until travel’ feature for negotiated routes.”

Midnight isn’t necessarily the best time for new fares, anyway.

“New fares (lower or higher) are distributed at 10:00 am, 12:30 pm, and 8 pm EST and loaded about 2-6 hours later in the GDS and airline sites. Seat inventory is controlled by automated revenue management systems, which continuously monitor current sales and consult historical models to decide on whether to release the lowest price seat inventory. The 8 pm domestic ATPCO [Airline Tariff Publishing Company — the clearinghouse (owned by the airlines) for raw air fare/rule distribution] fare feed (5 pm weekends) is loaded into the GDS and airline sites between 12:15 am and 1:30 am, which has the changed fares. But there is no correlation to getting a good deal, just because some inventory might be freed up at midnight. It is just as likely to free up at 2 pm when the yield management system decides sales are soft in a particular inventory price bucket for a particular flight.”

SHOCKER: Some agencies will try to get a better price than the fare they sold you. You just may not find out.

“Large volume non-online agencies do have a practice of ticketing later at night and trying to re-price all un-ticketed items to see if any fares or inventory have changed on a particular flight (sometimes they pocket the difference, sometimes the customer gets the benefit).”

This is not news.

“There is nothing special about this process. It has been this way for years.”

There you have it. Myth busted. It’s Wednesday night as I type, and though midnight is approaching, I’m not banking on any airfare deals tonight. Neither should you.

Big thanks to Rick Seaney for the insights.

UPDATE: SmarterTravel.com took on the same question today, and they suggest that Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday (especially Tuesday) are more likely to have lower fares. I don’t buy it. The explanation is purely anecdotal; I’ll go with the boys at FareCompare who track airfares obsessively, who say the low fares can come on any day.