Downgraded: Ryanair paying its fines
Ryanair is appealing a 3 million euro fine levied against it by Italian regulators, for failing to meet obligations to passengers during the first round of the Icelandic volcano delay fiasco. You may recall that Ryanair has argued that the EU rules requiring airlines to compensate passengers for delays and cancellations are tilted too far in the consumer’s favor.

Downgraded: Volcano scams
For those who really have had their travel plans affected by the volcano, be aware that there is a scam afoot that seeks to bilk you out of your money. Spam e-mails suggest that passengers are eligible for a substantial claim if they file an application fee with the British Civil Aviation Authority. Of course, the site is bogus, and the money goes to a scammer. Avoid.

Downgraded: Spirit Airlines
Spirit Airlines pilots are threatening to strike, and now the company is threatening to lay off up to 1583 of its 2300 employees. It’s an oddly precise number. The pilots’ union has taken their fight with management public, by purchasing billboards warning customers not to book with Spirit.

Upgraded: Fuel efficient aircraft design
MIT scientists are working on an aircraft design for NASA that would burn 70% less fuel than current-generation Boeing 737s, emit 75% less nitrous oxide, be quieter, and take off from shorter runways. A design is being floated:
mit nasa plane Upgrades and Downgrades: Volcano fines, volcano scams, Spirit strikes, eco planes

In today’s commercial airplanes, air flows directly into the engines located on the plane’s wings. That undisturbed, high-speed air flow drags on the plane, and requires more fuel to overcome the design inefficiency.

MIT’s design changes all that. By moving the engines to the plane’s tail, they take in slower moving air present in the wake of the fuselage. Less drag means less fuel is needed to get the plane the same distance.

Categorized in: Ryanair, Spirit Airlines

The PBS investigative series “Frontline” used the one year anniversary of the February 2009 crash of a Colgan Air Q400 (flying under Continental colors) as a springboard for an hour on the issue of regional airlines, their safety, and their relationships with their affiliated airlines and the FAA.

Much of it isn’t news to travel geeks, but for many, the report will be a revelation. It’s a disturbing report, and well worth watching.

The biggest takeaways:

  • Fatigue
    Many regional airline pilots aren’t paid very well, which leads them to live wherever it’s cheap (i.e., with their parents). But that isn’t necessarily close to their base of operations. This means long commutes, sometimes across the entire continent. So there’s a link between low pay and fatigue.
  • Risk-Taking
    The airline operating the regional jets and turboprops — and a pilot up front — typically gets paid only when the flight actually arrives at its intended destination. Diversions to another airport? No paycheck. That can encourage risk-taking.
  • Coziness
    The FAA, it’s argued, is too closely wed to the idea of “promoting” aviation, rather than regulating it. The airlines and their regulators are too close.
  • Obfuscation
    The mainlines try to sell subcontracted flights as if they’re their own, by putting the “Operated by…” in the fine print. Consumers who aren’t obsessive about travel aren’t necessarily aware that they’re technically flying a codeshare on another airline.
  • Inconsistency
    The regional airline industry has the gall to say, with a straight face, that their inflight services are on par with their mainline partners, for a “seamless” experience. Puh-leeze. When I don’t have to gate-check a regular-size carry-on when boarding a Canadair Regional Jet, then we’ll be closer to parity.

Personally, I’ve always avoided regional airlines when possible, preferring to fly on mainline planes, primarily because of comfort and convenience issues, rather than safety concerns. Wherever possible, I choose the larger plane, because they’re typically quieter, less cramped, less smelly (some of those CRJs smell just awful), and less likely to be delayed or canceled. (If air traffic control has to control the flow of aircraft into an airport, they’re more likely to bump a CRJ than a Boeing, if only because of the number of people served.) And that’s not even taking upgrade opportunities into account…

Watch the video below. It’s nearly an hour in its entirety.

(If you’re reading this via the feed, or can’t view the video above, click here to (re)load the post or head to the PBS site.)

Categorized in: airlines, regulation

washing wine down drain Upgrades and Downgrades: BA wine disposal, shady baggage fees, one way myths, TSA jokes
Downgraded: Teamwork, Wine, and Cost-Savings on British Airways
Management vs. labor (or labour, if you will) on British Airways is getting nastier. Take this quote, for example: “No-one is doing anything to help save costs any more. Whereas we used to keep unfinished bottles of wine in first-class to save money, now they’re routinely poured down the sink.” Pouring good wine down the sink? That’s a sin!

Downgraded: Traveling Value, Thanks to Fees
Delta upped its checked baggage fee again. $8 more for the first bag (now $23), and $7 for the second bag (now $32). And that’s if you pay your fees online. If you wait until you show up at the airport, add another $2 ($25 total) for the first bag and another $3 ($35 total) for the second. What I don’t understand is this: The policy is effective today, January 12, for anyone who purchased tickets on or after January 5. But the policy was only announced on the 11th. How is this legal, especially in light of the DOT “crackdown” on post-purchase changes to the contract of carriage? I smell a rat.

Upgraded: Travel for People with Nut Allergies
Travelers with nut allergies may soon find a nut-free-zone on Canadian airlines. Complaints filed against Air Canada yielded the ruling, which requires the airline to create a buffer zone within 30 days of the early-January ruling. What other cordoned-off areas will we see on planes now?…

Downgraded: The One-Way Ticket Myth
Mythbusting on the details: Umar Abdulmutallab, the crotch bomber, did not travel to Detroit on Christmas Day on a one-way ticket, despite nearly every major news organization’s reports to the contrary. He might have set off a thousand other warning flags if the data mining and information sharing within the US security community were up to full speed, but a one-way ticket was not one of those flags.

Upgraded: Jokes about TSA drug use
Jimmy Fallon: “Four TSA workers at LAX were videotaped snorting drugs. It was the first time people had ever seen lines go that fast at the airport.” Hey-ohhhh…


Upgraded: The notion of a contract in air travel
Downgraded: Airline logistics

The Department of Transportation has revealed sweeping new rules that govern airlines’ conduct, but implementation and enforcement will not be as easy as passing a new rule. Most headlines read that this is a big victory for passenger rights, with the bulk of the attention focused on a new 3-hour limit on time spent aboard a plane, pushed away from the gate. That’s something but this won’t please everybody. (If your flight would be able to take off 3 hours and 5 minutes after pushback, tough luck, you’re heading back to the gate at the 3 hour mark…) Ground delays suck. No doubt. But There will be unintended consequences, and airlines will find ways to address these logistical challenges.

More importantly, in my view, the rules include a provision that airlines can’t retroactively change the contract governing your ticket. This has always struck me as patently unfair: You buy your ticket in January for a March flight, and the airline changes its rules in February; until now, you’ve been stuck with the February contract. Now, the federal government has ruled that you’re covered by the original contract in effect when you made your purchase. Good.

Chris Elliott has pulled the highlights from the actual rules, if you want to review.

Downgraded: Globespan Airlines
Potentially Downgraded: Credit card processors

Scotland’s Globespan Airlines shut down abruptly over the weekend, stranding 4500 travelers mid-trip. For the time being, guidance from the company on rebookings, is available on the former airline’s website. But questions now turn to whether or not the airline’s credit card processor was to blame for the immediate death knell. The processor, E-clear, apparently held back between £30m and £35m due to Globespan. You may recall that Frontier Airlines blamed their credit card processor when they declared bankruptcy in 2008 (though they didn’t halt all operations at that point).

Upgraded, after days of being Downgraded: Eurostar
English Channel rail firm Eurostar had a miserable (and well-publicized) weekend, with a complete shutdown of all their trains, midway through the Channel crossing. And the company handled things rather poorly. For example:

When worried passengers [aboard the trains] challenged Eurostar officials they received a cursory shrug. Some became so desperate for information that they banged on the train driver’s door but could only hear him sobbing inside.

Awesome. That’s the kind of leadership in a crisis I look for… But the company is resuming service and has promised to make it up to the thousands of passengers it stranded, not just in the tunnels, but on both sides of the channel. They’ve vowed that “the company would reimburse them for expenses incurred while they were stranded.”

Upgraded: The number of stars in the Parisian hotel sky
Four stars? Not enough. Bring on the fifth star. At least they haven’t gone the way of the absurdist 6 and 7 star hotel…

Upgraded: Biofuels
A Seattle company has put in motion plans to create a large-scale biofuels operation aimed specifically at airlines. AltAir Fuels has signed up 14 airlines to be launch customers for jet fuel and diesel made from camelina, a mustard-like weed whose seeds can be refined.

virgin atlantic upstairs Upgrades and Downgrades: Virgin Atlantic, mistake fares, TSA SOPs, Continental upgradesDowngraded: Upper Class, upstairs, on Virgin Atlantic
Upgraded: Economy Class, upstairs, on Virgin Atlantic

Like many airlines, Virgin Atlantic has been cutting seats in business class, in response to the economy’s woes. But the upstairs section of the 747 has always been sacred space for the premium-cabin travelers. Until now. The airline will slowly roll out “configuration 4,” which moves some regular economy seats to the back of the upstairs cabin. Virgin Atlantic Upper Class loyalists will object to the lack of exclusivity. Which, in turn, should be an improvement for economy customers who get the service boost of a small cabin.

Upgraded: Consumer rights for “mistake” fares
As I’ve argued in the past, it’s sometimes impossible to know if a low fare is an error, or just a deal. (1 cent fares, anyone?) So I’m pleased to read that, in the U.S., the federal government is warning airlines that they’re (at least partially) on the hook for mistake fares. The DOT ruled: “We believe that all airlines should accept some responsibility for even the erroneous fares they publish.” Customers with canceled tickets must now be “made whole,” though this doesn’t mean that tickets will be honored. Still, a good move.

Downgraded: TSA’s mad redacting skillz
Seth, over at the Wandering Aramean has been digging through a document detailing the TSA’s standard operating procedures. The document was redacted, but Adobe Acrobat doesn’t delete the text hidden behind the black boxes. Oops. Now the TSA says the policies were never implemented, after all. (Then why were they posted, and redacted?) Seth has links to the original documents on his site.

Upgraded: Continental systemwide upgrades for top-level elites
In a further alignment of Continental OnePass with United MileagePlus, Continental is systemwide upgrades and a double-secret invitation-only ultra-elite level for high-spend elite frequent fliers.

Upgraded: United’s long-range aircraft… eventually
After slicing and dicing their fleet over the years, and recently killing off their 737s, it’s finally time for United to look at renewing their fleet. They’re ordering 25 Boeing 787s and 25 Airbus A350s, which will replace their 767s and 747s, respectively. …in 6 to 9 years.


thanksgiving travel Upgrades and Downgrades: Pre Thanksgiving Edition

Upgraded: Knowing what to do when you’re traveling for the holidays
Before you head to the airport, consider this post on five ways to get an edge on other travelers during the holiday season. The TSA has also published an updated list of do’s and don’t’s for bringing items through security, which includes references to the infamous issue of pies. Don’t let anyone say you weren’t warned.

Downgraded: Your health in the sky
Contracted H1N1 or another nasty contagion? Got travel plans? Unless you’ve got good travel insurance, be prepared to pay a fee if you want to change you flights if you’re sick. From several reports (see here and here), it’s clear that being contagious doesn’t make you any less desirable aboard America’s airlines. Medical waivers be damned! Give them your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to cough up a lung onto their seatmates. It guess that’s freedom.

Upgraded: Regulation of frequent flier miles?
Senator Chuck Schumer of New York is pushing for an inquiry into frequent flier programs, with particular attention to the phenomenon of expiring miles. Airlines, of course, argue that an inquiry is unnecessary by the government in the affairs of private business. Much like Congress is looking to regulate credit card fees and other business practices of the banks, this could get interesting.

Downgraded: Lufthansa intra-European economy seating
Lufthansa is shrinking the legroom in its economy cabin on shorter flights within Europe, to jam in more people. Thankfully, they’re leaving the big birds that fly across the oceans as they are, for now.

Upgraded: Communing with animals while you travel
A man with 15 lizards strapped to his chest was caught at LAX. For those keeping score, it was two geckos, two monitor lizards (!) and 11 skinks.