Tuesday, October 31, 2006

An Aviation Scrape

CNN reports that a Lufthansa plane damaged its wing after bumping into a parked Continental plane at Newark International Airport. Nearly 300 passengers were on-board, but none was hurt. Lufthansa subsequently canceled the flight. No word yet on what caused the scrape.

Saturday, October 28, 2006

A Savory Union

This article details the increasingly cozy relationship between gourmet chefs and legacy carriers. Competing for business travelers with refined palates, international airlines such as Singapore and New Zealand, as well as domestic carriers such as American and Delta, have hired the help of chefs from some of the world's finest restaurants. In most cases, the airline sends its chefs to the restaurant to learn from the celeb chef; but in certain instances, the celeb chefs actually supervise the preparation of the food before it takes flight. Because the food must be re-heated on-board, certain things are off-limits: no butter in sauces and definitely no souffles!

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

The Grimy Skies

Notice that your favorite airline has begun to look—and smell—like a Greyhound bus? That’s because airlines have been cutting back on the frequency with which they “deep clean” their planes. While the industry standard had been one deep-cleaning (similar to having a car professionally detailed) every 30 days, Delta had let its schedule lapse to one cleaning every 15 to 18 months. The New York Times says “That is akin to cutting your daily shower back to once every couple of weeks.” Delta recently brought its cleaning schedule back up to industry standards, but not all airlines have followed suit.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Air disasters...on the ground...

Tonight I watched a PBS Nova special tonight titled "The Deadliest Plane Crash", which discussed the events leading to the worst commercial aviation disaster to date (in terms of loss of lives due to a single plane crash). Although I have known about this crash for a while, listening to the survivors' accounts of the disaster and the air traffic control problems that still plague airports today, is quite an eye opener for frequent travelers today.

On March 27,1977, a KLM 747 and a Pan Am 747 were both on their way to Gran Canaria International Airport in the Canary Islands, when air traffic controllers at the airport diverted all incoming flights to nearby Los Rodeos Airport on the island of Tenerife due to a terrorist bomb explosion at the original destination at Gran Canaria. Both planes landed safely at Tenerife and deplaned, awaiting clearance to continue to Gran Canaria to continue along their original flight plans. When air traffic controllers at Gran Canaria alerted those at Tenerife that the bombed airport was once again open for traffic, both flights scrambled to gather their passengers and crew for an immediate departure to Gran Canaria.

Due to traffic congestion at Tenerife, both the KLM and the Pan Am planes were requested to taxi down the entire length of the runway before turning 180 degrees and taking off in the opposite direction. This required the Pan Am plane to turn off the runway about half way down the taxi path to allow the KLM plane to take off. Unfortunately, a massive fog bank blanketed the airport during the taxiing process, and the Pan Am crew was confused as to where it should veer off the runway to allow the Pan Am plane to pass. At the same time, the captain of the KLM flight, Jacob Veldhuyzen van Zanten, who was a veteran of the airline and the poster pilot for the airline's ads, decided to begin the takeoff roll before acquiring clearance, before the Pan Am plane cleared the runway. Just before reaching the Pan Am plane, the pilot aggressively tried to make his 747 clear the Pan Am plane, but the two collided, causing the KLM plane to rip the top off of the Pan Am plane and the KLM plane to crash 150 yards later, in a belly-up attitude. All aboard the KLM perished, and 335 of 396 abord the Pan Am plane were killed. There were a total of 583 fatalities.

While initial investigators disagreed on whom to apply the blame, it was later determined that the KLM pilots were at fault for attempting a premature takeoff without proper clearance. Perhaps the single greatest contribution to the disaster was Captain van Zanten's decision to defy air traffic control for the sake of preventing delays. Ironically, a prominent KLM advertisement of the 1970s depicting Captain van Zantenof exhibits the airline's pride on on-time departures:

Since 1977, there have been a number of close calls that could have resulted in a repeat of this accident. In fact, a widely publicized runway incursion occurred at Boston's Logan International Airport on June 9, 2005, when a US Airways Boeing 737-300 and Aer Lingus Airbus A330 were cleared for takeoff at approximately the same time, on intersecting runways. Fortunately, the US Airways First Officer noticed the rolling Aer Lingus flight on the other runway and promptly applied pressure of the control yoke to keep the plane of the ground, when the plane's speed would have normally caused it to lift into the air. The Aer Lingus plane cleared the US Airways plane by 170 feet, and the US Airways plane lifted off the ground shortly thereafter (and just in time before running out of runway), averting a disaster that could have cost the lives of a combined 363 passengers and crew. The pilot and co-pilot both received the Superior Airmanship Award from the Air Line Pilots Association for their heroic actions in averting a disaster at Logan.

With an average of 325 runway incursions (defined as incidents where planes are dangerously located on runways/taxiways when they are not supposed to be) reported each year, many experts agree that it is a matter of time before another disaster similar to that at Tenerife occurs. While measures are being taken to improve runway conflicts, many airports, including Boston Logan and Chicago O'Hare, continue to struggle understanding why such incursions occur despite increased awareness of the problem.

Saturday, October 14, 2006

British Airways Absurdity

A former Heathrow ticket agent is suing British Airways for suspending her for wearing a Christian cross over-top her uniform. BA claims that all religious jewelry and paraphernalia must be worn, when possible, underneath uniforms. Of course, one can't wear religious head-gear and scarves atop a uniform, so those items are permissible--thus privileging certain religious expressions over others. Why British Airways wants to go to bat for this inane policy, I'm not sure. If the woman had been proselytizing or discriminating against customers on religious grounds, then the company would have had every reason to suspend (hell, fire) her. But an unobstrusive necklace worn by millions of Christians--of varying ideological shades--every day? BA should spend more time improving its service and less time writing and enforcing policies that, in the name of equality and neutrality, impose an intellectually vapid nationalism over top religious and cultural diversity.

Friday, October 13, 2006

Major Rail Expansion Between Chicago and Virginia

A major expansion of railroad tunnels will allow modern trains to pass from Norfolk, Virginia’s seaport to Chicago in 48 hours rather than going through Pennsylvania and Cleveland, which takes 60 hours. The federal government is paying the cost of raising tunnels, which are owned by Nofolk Southern, and the project should be completed by 2009. Congressional authors billed the tunnel expansion as part of a campaign to help the economies of Appalachia. No word, though, on whether the new route will bring more passenger rail to southwest Virginia.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

More Amtrak For Illinois

Amtrak's website announces today that additional trains will be added to the Chicago-Quincy route in Illinois. The current train, the Illinois Zephyr, will be supplemented by the Carl Sandburg. Amtrak has already added trains to the Chicago-Carbondale route. These developments bode well for Amtrak's partnerships with states and for the survival of its regional trains. I find it interesting, however, that the Illini train operating between Chicago and Carbondale currently appears among Amtrak's "weekly specials," which the struggling corporation uses to inflate its passenger loads. Accompanying today's Carl Sandburg announcement is a self-congratulatory note about the throngs of people populating such regional trains. But if people are riding these trains for next to nothing thanks to bargain bin prices, can we really call their popularity a success? To be fair, the state has every reason to subsidize these trains; many of the towns they serve lack other means of transportation, especially now that Greyhound, which to my knowledge lacks state subsidies, has pulled out of many locations. Happy riders make happy voters!

Monday, October 09, 2006

Airbus Plummets Again

Patrick reported last week on additional delays and manufacturing problems for Airbus's jumbo jet. Today, the struggling company, owned by parent company EADS, lost its second CEO in the span of a hundred days. The now ex-officer, who promised to turn the company around in a 100 days--rather than pass in and back out the company's revolving door--angered investors, employees and involved governments, Germany in particular, after demanding major spending cuts and blaming factories in particular countries for the manufacturing snafus. As the company's stock took another major hit, and as Boeing continues to sell its 787's at a crisp pace, one wonders if Airbus's glory days are over.

Sunday, October 08, 2006

Road Trip Idea: Virginia Wineries

From CNN...Although California, Oregon and Washington boast the best wines in the US, Virginia wineries, numbering 250, offer an exquisite combination of wine-tasting, sight-seeing and people-meeting. This article, penned by a writer who recently moved from New York to the Shenandoah Valley, where I grew up, profiles wineries in and around Charlottesville, VA--as well as local restaurants boasting knowledgable sommeliers. If you're looking for something a bit more off the beaten path, though, you might travel 20 or so miles west to the Afton/Nellysford area, an eclectic region containing myriad wineries stocked with colorful personalities. I can't promise delight for you palate, but I can promise gorgeous views, a relaxed drive along pleasantly winding roads and a personalized tasting experience you simply can't get at the industrial wineries of Napa and Sonoma. During Evan's visit last weekend, we, along with some out-of-staters--and one Britishman--visited four wineries in this region. Our favorite? Afton winery, pictured below. It's a small winery, but its wines are very popular and have won quite a few national awards. A member of our crew purchased a bottle of Afton's chardonnay--crisp, refreshing and perfect for a mild autumn afternoon.

Friday, October 06, 2006

Private Sleeper Cars

In the first half of the 20th century, business magnates such as J.P. Morgan owned private sleeper cars aboard which they enjoyed the finest cuisine and service as they traversed the country. Today, no such luxury exists aboard Amtrak where, the Empire Builder excepted, meals are prepared off-board and reheated for passenger consumption. But it turns out a few private companies have capitalized on train-buff nostalgia by offering private sleepers boasting private chefs. In certain instances, these private cars are attached to Amtrak trains (I don't know the specifics behind this arrangement); in others, they're attached to freight engines that have been leased. Wealthier train buffs might own their own car, and lease it out when it's not in use, but almost anyone of reasonable means could afford, perhaps with a little saving, to lease a room in a car (not an entire car, mind you) for a short trip. A Cincinatti-based company offers group trips to Chicago for shopping and to Michigan for sight-seeing. Such trips can cost as little at $200/day/person. Of course, these trains stop along the way--making the trips quite long in certain cases--and the cost doesn't include your requirements off-board, but nevertheless, if you're looking for a slightly off-beat, domestic vacation, private sleepers might be just your ticket.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Airbus vs. Boeing

Singapore Airlines announced today that Airbus Industrie, the designer and builder of the monstrous A380 twin-decked superliner, would pay the air carrier compensation for delayed production and delivery of the inaugural aircraft. As Patrick had mentioned in a recent previous post, French-based Airbus has experienced difficulties in meeting the originally projected delivery date, which was set for later this year, due to challenges involved in production, namely the installation of the wiring system for the plane. Singapore declined to reveal the amount of compensation, as it has been held confidential.

It seems these days that Boeing is enjoying a period of positive press, as its new plane designs have directly answered Airbus's challenges over the recent years. Yes, the 717, a modern (and very quiet - definitely the quietest single aisle plane I have flown) update of the workhorse DC-9 and MD-80 series aircraft, was a short-lived flop that culminated in the cessation of commercial airliner production in Boeing's Long Beach plant. However, Boeing's 787 Dreamliner, an updated version of the 767 double-aisle twinjet that has been in service for almost 25 years, is slated to hit the sky for the first time next year. First deliveries are expected in 2008, according to Boeing's website.

I don't know how I missed this, but Patrick also posted about the new design for the 747-8, which seems like a direct retort to Airbus's A380. With improved operating economics, fuel efficiency, and versatility (airports don't need to reconstruct their gates to accomodate the new plane!), it seems like a good alternative to the A380. Time will tell if Boeing will experience the same production issues with the 747-8 that have plagued Airbus in recent months.

Both the 787 and the 747-8 will offer unprecedented passenger amenities, including hued lighting to enhance passenger comfort, a spacious entry lobby (many fearful flyers today admit that their anxiety hits upon stepping into the cramped entry portal of the cabin), quieter engines, and improved (and sleek) swept wing design.

These two companies have battled back and forth over the last 20 years for contracts with United States-based airlines. Although American Airlines has been using the widebody A300 forover a decade, Boeing (and McDonnell Douglas, which Boeing absorbed in 1997) dominated our market until Airbus released in the late 1980s/early 1990s the A319/A320/A321 series, which is now prevalent in United Airlines', US Airways', and Jetblue's fleets. At first, pilots were weary of Airbus's new technology, as these planes use "fly-by-wire" technology where pilots literally fly the planes by turning dials and shifting levers, as opposed to controlling the aircraft with a traditional handheld yoke similar to a steering wheel, which is still found on Boeing's most modern aircraft. In fact, the first fully automated plane prototype, an A320, crashed at the 1988 Paris Airshow due to a computer malfunction. However, the manufacturer worked through its problems to finally release this technology for commercial service just a few years later. We'll see how Boeing's new planes perform in the market in the coming years...perhaps airlines will be attracted to smaller capacities (the 787) and enhanced operating efficiency (the 747-8) over the A380.

Brazil Crash Update

The pilots of the private Embraer Jet aboard which the New York Times Travel columnist was flying, and which collided with the Brazilian commercial jet carrying 150 passengers, all of whom perished, are being held in Brazil indefinitely. An initial investigation has revealed that the private plane was flying at 37,000 feet, when it should have been flying at 36,000. I learned from this article that west-bound flights travel at even numbers (36) and east-bound flights at odd numbers. Why the pilots disobeyed an order from air-traffic control to descend 1,000 feet, we don't yet know. Turns out the NYT columnist's encomiums to the pilots' bravery should have been accompanied by questions regarding their judgment.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

A380 Still Grounded

More tales of woe for the Airbus A380 double-decker jet. First deliveries of the (approximately) 555-seat superjumbo jet have been pushed back two years, until at least 2008, and then only at a trickle. The plane’s electrical system is apparently more difficult to install than was originally thought. Airbus customers are considering withdrawing their orders and switching to Boeing’s 747-8, the 467-seat version of Boeing’s 747 jet that will begin service in 2009. This war is not yet over, but Boeing’s jet wins the battle for the most danceable soundtrack.

Monday, October 02, 2006

Collision at 37K feet

A Boeing 737 collides with a private jet over the Amazon rainforest and only one plane survives. Improbably, New York Times transportation columnist Joe Sharkey was on board the corporate jet and describes the harrowing experience in the Times.

Sunday, October 01, 2006

Bring It On, in Miniature

The TSA has finally and thankfully relaxed its rules regarding liquids and gels brought aboard aircraft. Passengers can now bring miniature bottles of gels and liquids as long as they are fully declared at security checkpoints and stored in see-through, ziploc plastic bags. Many airport stores are selling the plastic baggies, and in one instance donating the profits to local charities. Passengers are also once again able to bring aboard liquor and perfumes purchased at duty-free shops. To avoid hassles, I recommend storing as many items as possible in one's checked luggage. But if you must carry-on your medicine cabinet, at least now you won't be turned away--so long as you keep it small!