Sunday, December 27, 2009

Pulling a Gun At a Schwarma Stand

So here I am in Tel Aviv, and I am about to ingest the holy grail of middle eastern street food, shwarma.   Actually, I am in Lod, a small, mixed Arab/Jewish village near the airport where I am staying.   Just as I order my food, the guy next to me pulls out a hand gun, and starts saying something to me in Arabic.

While true, the story is not quite as dramatic as it sounds.   He was smiling and was actually trying to hand me the gun to hold for some reason.   My wife suggested what I was already thinking, "don't touch that."    Needless to say, had that scene played out at a restaurant in Denver, people would have screamed, hit the deck, and called the cops.  In Tel Aviv, it didn't seem to draw any reaction at all.

Eventually this character decided to put his gun away and went back to his business of being a weirdo hanging out at a schwarma stand.     Later, he seemed to be showing off his handgun to all sorts of people who walked by.   Upon closer inspection, the guy really seemed to be mentally challenged in some way.    My wife remarked, "I can't believe they gave this guy a gun permit" and we decided to take our meal to go.   

In a country where automatic weaponry is as common as umbrellas in Seattle, you still need a permit to carry a gun, unlike in the US.   Of course, in the US you still need a permit to drive a car, but that doesn't seem to limit the number of cars there.   Fortunately, most of the heavy weaponry is in the hands of soldiers, which brings to mind the picture below, titled, "Why nobody robs a 7-11 in Israel"

Friday, December 4, 2009

Super Cheap First Class

I know that I have not been posting much to this blog lately.    It is not that I have stopped writing, it is just that I have been keeping busy over at the AskMrCreditCard Blog where I write an extensive post almost every day.

There, I am finding and sharing some really great frequent flier mile earning and redeeming strategies.   The latest one I have found is a little promotion with US Airways that can get you First Class award to ticket  to Europe on any Star Alliance airline for about $1,000, less than the price of a coach ticket most of the year.

I am not talking about business class, which is pretty cool by itself., but an international First Class ticket on an airline like Lufthansa or Swiss.    For reference, most domestic airlines like Delta and Continental don't even have an International First Class.     Check out this article about Lufthansa First Class.

So How Do I Do It?

Read my article at AskMrCreditCard.    I have to say, that this type of award earning strategy has a big drawback, capacity controls.   A lot of awards, like first class seats, may only be obtainable if you are flexible, and can book far in advance.    Ideally, you really need to book 11 months out, at the moment the seats are released.     If you can, the rewards are tremendous!

Stay tuned for more great travel savings.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Flaunting A Legal Claim As Genuine As This Photo

In one of the early posts on this blog, I expressed my frustration with bogus legal claims, which is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to my exasperation with our country's legal system. A little background here: for most people, sitting down at a table full of lawyers is their idea of a nightmare, for me it is a typical Thanksgiving. Nevertheless, they are proud that I was one of the first in my family not to attend law school.

Back to the picture. A blog called PhotoShop Disasters posted the above image with the comment, "Dude, her head's bigger than her pelvis". I learned from this article at the great blog Techdirt that Ralph Lauren's lawyers issued a legal notice called a "DMCA takedown" against the blog. DMCA is the "Digital Millennium Copyright Act", a hideous piece of legislation that, among other things, requires ISPs to remove any content that someone accuses of being infringing of their copyright.

Of course, this commentary is clearly Fair Use, which is exempt from copyright by both common law and the 1976 Copyright Act. Fair Use exemptions include reproductions for the purpose of criticism and commentary, as was the purpose of the original post, as well as the one you are reading now.

Here is the copy of the notice that Ralph Lauren's attorney sent to another site that reproduced the image as I am doing in the post.

The brilliant lawyer who signed this bogus threat, G. Roxanne Elings of the law firm Greenburg Traurig should probably be fired and/or disbarred.

This nonsense threat is an abuse of the legal system and is, of course, bringing tons of attention to this otherwise obscure blog, against the supposed interests of their client, Ralph Lauren. Note to Ms. Elings, this is known as the Streisand Effect.

On the other hand, I would think that their client would want people to see their advertisements, right? Isn't that the purpose of an ad? Maybe she is craze like a fox? Probably not, as the original blog post was taken down by the ISP, in unfortunate compliance with the bogus threat.

Here's hoping Steele Street also gets a takedown notice from Ralph Lauren.

I would be honored.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Shomlypics Update

Chicago lost it's bid for the 2016 Olympics. Initially, I was disappointed. Not because I really care if they got the games, but because some people in Denver indicated that they wanted to bid the 2018 winter Olympics if Chicago lost.

That horrified me. The Olympics is a corrupt, greed infested, commercialized fiasco/extravaganza traveling circus with major corporations acting as the "carnies". I am proud to live in Denver, the only city that was ever awarded the Olympics, but turned it down.

Denver was to host the 1976 winter Olympics, but the voters wisely cut off funding in a 1972 election. The Olympics then went to Innsbruck Austria, which had just hosted the games in 1964.

Fortunately for us, the US Olympic committee has decided not to submit a bid for the 2018 games, so Denver is safe from the international Olympic cronies until at least 2022.

Good riddance.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Delta Does The Right Thing, Eventually...

Looking forward to my next "Falafel Run" to Israel this winter, I ran into a few problems with Delta's schedule changes.

Read all about it and how I was able to resolve the situation over at AskMrCreditCard.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Peak Oil?

There are two articles in the New York Times today that mention Peak Oil.

One article, is about supply, and the technical debate as to whether or not the worldwide annual production of oil has peaked, as it has in many individual countries such as the United States.

The other article mentions a different kind of peak oil, peak consumption. This article is about how upset the Saudis are that oil consumption in the United States has peaked. The price shocks of the last few years is the largest contributor, but our election of a president who has made a commitment to reducing consumption over the long term has is terrifying them; "the Saudis know that any attempt to reduce gasoline consumption is a threat to the future of the Saudi economy."

This really isn't all that complicated. We produce 7% of the world's oil, while consuming 24%. Simple economics say that we can have a lot more influence on price of oil by managing our demand rather than our production.

In the election last year, you had a candidate who's party was promoting increasing supply ("drill baby drill!") vs. a candidate focusing on reducing consumption. You would think that all of the business people and free market advocates in the Republican Party understand these basic facts, but they are so co-opted by big oil that they are literally being paid not to.

Since the election, the winner has actually been focusing on long term consumption reduction, and the Saudi's are scared shitless. They are now worried about peak oil consumption more than we are about peak oil production. With 230 mpg hybrids and pure electrics on sale next year, they should be.

One final quote from the second article: "the former Saudi oil minister, Sheik Yamani, once said that the stone age didn’t end because the world ran out of stones, and the oil age will not end because the world runs out of oil. It will end when something replaces it."

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

A380 at Oshkosh

The Airbus A380 is, by far, the largest commercial passenger airplane in the world. Unless you visit London, Dubai, Sydney, Singapore, L.A. or a few other cities, you probably are not going to see one anytime soon.

At the Oshkosh Airventure air show last month, I was fortunate enough not only to see the giant bird, but to witness an aerial demonstration. The demonstration culminated with a particularly interesting landing, to say the least.

The following is a video of the landing:

A critique of the landing can be found here (just fast forward through the 30 second commercial at the start).

Below is my photo of the aircraft right before landing. Note that the aircraft is actually landing to the left side of the picture, even though it is pointing to the right side of the frame. That is how much it was crabbed into the wind.

Finally, here are some shots of the demonstration and the aircraft taxiing past me.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Snowstorm In Denver in August! *

Ok, it wasn't a snowstorm, just some flurries, and it wasn't in Denver, but up around 12,000 feet of elevation in Rocky Mountain National Park. It was August 16th, and I personally witnessed the snow!

Sorry for the misleading, but cool photo of Denver International Airport after an actual blizzard.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Southwest Fail

The aviation experts were wrong, Southwest failed to purchase Frontier. I suppose that is good for the Frontier people, who will not be assimilated into the Southwest collective.

I still predict that Southwest will announce service to Atlanta later this year, potentially by bidding to acquire AirTran.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Why I Am Not An Airline Pilot

I often refer to myself as a "commercially licensed" pilot rather than a commercial pilot, as I hold a Commercial Pilot's License, yet am not currently employed as a commercial pilot, with the exception of occasional flight instruction.

I have flown commercially on a scheduled charter airline which flew both passengers and cargo between Colorado and Wyoming. In Wyoming, we had a "crash pad" in the basement of some house where we would attempt to sleep during the day.

Today, the Washington Post has an article about underpaid pilots for regional airlines and their crash pads. From the pictures and description of the crash pad they visited, it seems vastly superior to the one I used to stay in at Rock Springs, Wyoming.

The article points out that "..first-year pilots in the industry can make as little as $20,000". Actually, that is a little optimistic. I was once offered a first officer job by Mesa Air. According to their web site, their current starting salary for first officers is $19.26 an hour for turboprops. That sounds great, until you realize those are only flight hours. The time you spend at the gate and in the airport doesn't count. Your contract specifies a minimum of about 76 hours a month. Do the math, and you are looking at $17,565 dollars a year. No wonder they live in $200 a month crash pads. Word has it that many airlines include applications for public assistance in their new hire packet. Something to think about when you book a ticket on Delta/United/American that is "operated by" Skywest, Mesa, Colgan, Pinnacle, etc. More data on region airline pilot salaries is here.

This current scrutiny stems from the aftermath of the Colgan Air flight 3407 crash in Buffalo, in which pilot fatigue seems to have been a major factor. Let's just say that I can understand how that can happen, having worked flights departing at 4 AM. My only problem with the article is that it makes it seem like crash pads and pilot fatigue is a recent phenomenon caused by current events, when this has been the situation for decades. I will grant that it probably has gotten slightly worse over time, but it is not new.

Amazingly, you will periodically read about pilot shortages, not just from people selling flight training, but from serious publications like Aviation Week. There is no pilot shortage, just a shortage of people willing to fly airplanes for less than $20,000 a year, especially when they can be located anywhere in the country based on factors that are out of their control.

Most people would be surprised to know that being a pilot is one of the most dangerous jobs in the country. It is usually listed second or third behind fishermen in stories like this. Police on the other hand, despite their high and mighty claims that they must taser children, great-grandmothers, and pregnant women to protect their saftey, rank only 10th.

It is the final quote of the article that made me remember why I ultimately turned down the job offer from prestigious Mesa Airlines. The article quotes the wife of one of the pilots:

" has been difficult for their children. "My little girl, she says, 'When is Daddy coming to visit us again?' I said, 'Daddy doesn't come and visit us. This is his home.' "

Thursday, July 16, 2009

The Secret Credit Card Menu

Over at the AskMrCreditCard blog, I have written a post on the Secret Menu available to you when you call your credit card company.

It is an interesting read if I do say so myself.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

The Many Lessons Of "United Breaks Guitars"

The more I think and read about this, and the more the catchy tune plays in my head, the more I realize how many conclusions that can be drawn from the Dave Carroll video, and his story, aside from the astonishing fact that Country Music exists in Canada.

1. The song is not really about trying to get money out of United, the singer has moved on. In light of his new found fame, his guitar has been replaced by the manufacturer for free, and his career will likely take off.

2. United's failure was not in breaking the guitar, it is in how he was repeatedly mistreated by them.

3. United is as clueless in social media relations as it is with customer relations. Read this article for more.

4. This is not going to blow over as a temporary internet phenomenon. It will remain alive in the upcoming songs 2 and 3 that Dave promised. Dave might become an actual star and be known for years as the "United Breaks Guitars" guy.

5. United is fundamentally screwed up. Dave later explains that the person who ultimately denied his claim is a nice person who was just doing her job. This sounds good for United, but it is actually the most damning thing about them. If she was some nasty, rogue employee, United could fire her and be done with it's troubles. The truth is that United is a nasty, rogue company who's insane, the 'customer is always wrong', policies must be executed by otherwise nice, sane people who are just doing their job. As I wrote, it is a company that is structurally designed end engineered to fail it's customers, stockholders, and it's employees.

Thankfully, it's only redeeming quality is it's exemplary safety record. The seemingly appropriate picture above was from a crash in 1973.

Friday, July 10, 2009

United Airlines, Designed To Fail?

The story of singer Dave Carrol's guitar being mutilated by United Airlines has been making it's rounds all over the web. I am not much for country music, so I went to his website to read what happened.

The story is all too familiar. Few people, if anyone, at that company has any interest in helping you. They sometimes pretend to be helpful, but you later realize that they were just trying to make you go away. I am not talking about a handful of rogue employees, I am talking about the vast majority of their staff.

Read this quote from Dave's site immediately following the incident:

I immediately tried to communicate this to the flight attendant who cut me off saying: “Don’t talk to me. Talk to the lead agent outside”. I found the person she pointed to and that lady was an “acting” lead agent but refused to talk to me and disappeared into the crowd saying “I’m not the lead agent”. I spoke to a third employee at the gate and when I told her the baggage handlers were throwing expensive instruments outside she dismissed me saying “but hun, that’s why we make you sign the waiver”. I explained that I didn’t sign a waiver and that no waiver would excuse what was happening outside. She said to take it up with the ground crew in Omaha. When I got to Omaha it was around 12:30 am. The plane was late arriving and there were no employees visible.
And then again, when he tries to file a claim:

When I got home to Halifax I was told that United doesn’t really have a presence there and that Air Canada is their partner.....When I called the number United said I had to return to the Halifax airport with the guitar to show the damage to someone and open a claim. When I returned to the Halifax airport I met with an Air Canada employee, because United has no presence there, and that person acknowledged the damage, opened a claim number but “denied” the claim because Air Canada would not be responsible for damage caused by United employees in Chicago (which still makes sense to me).

I took the claim number and called United back. They never seemed to be able find the claim number on several subsequent phone calls but at the last minute it would always surface. I spoke several times to what I believe were agents in India who, ironically were the most pleasant, and seemed genuinely sorry for what had happened. Three or four months later I got directed to the Chicago baggage offices of United and after several attempts to speak with someone was told to simply bring in the guitar for inspection…to Chicago…from Halifax, Canada.

When I explained that Halifax is far from Chicago someone then said my claim needed to go through Central Baggage in New York and they gave me a toll free phone number. I phoned that number and spoke to someone. She couldn’t understand why someone in Chicago thought she would be able to help me but she seemed to feel for me and asked me to fax her all the information. I did and a few weeks passed with no reply. I called back and the lady said she’d never received the fax. Then I asked her to look for it and surprisingly, there it was. When she found it she asked me to give her a couple of days and to call back. I did, and by the time I phoned again two days later, the number had been discontinued.

I had to start all over again with the same 1-800 # to India,...

Compare this to my experience trying to get to sit next to my wife and infant child in their business class:

The agent was unable to give us seats together, but assured us the staff at the gate would be able to resolve this matter. The staff at the gate, asked us to speak with the staff on board. The staff at the entrance to the aircraft asked me to speak to the staff in the cabin. The staff in the cabin actually told us to ask around ourselves to see if anyone would switch seats with us! It was only the generosity of a fellow passenger that allowed me to sit with my wife and assist with the care of our infant child.
I can understand that humans are not perfect, and that their are unhelpful and indifferent people in any large organization.

The situation is different than that at United Airlines. Incompetence is the norm, and helpful people are a rarity.

Usually, when you encounter incompetence in front line staff, a supervisor is there to resolve the issue. Not at United.

When booking the previously mentioned flight, we had a similar experience to Dave. We ticketed the trip three months before our daughter was even born, and we were told at that time that we couldn't book the ticket until she was born and had a name, and that then we would just have to pay taxes for her. The agent said repeatedly that it would be "less than $100." When she was born and we called to have her ticketed, we were told that we would actually have to pay over $800 dollars to ticket her as a “lap child” with no seat!. United’s actual policy, contrary to what we were first told, is to charge parents of a lap child an additional %10 of the highest possible price for the seat in the class that the parents are ticket in. Needless to say, I was not happy at the fee, and for being completed misquoted.

The supervisor refused to honor their original quote, so I told him that my wife and I would make it our mission in life to ensure that the whole world knows that United screws young families traveling with infants on their lap. We promised to write every travel, parenting, and consumer affairs newspaper columnist, web site, magazine, and TV Show. The supervisor still refused to do anything.

Sound familiar? Again from Dave's web site:
In my final reply to Ms. Irlweg [supervisor] I told her that I would be writing three songs about United Airlines and my experience in the whole matter. I would then make videos for these songs and offer them for free download online, inviting viewers to vote on their favourite United song. My goal: to get one million hits in one year.
In fact, I didn't go to the press, what I did was write the same threat in an email to United's entire executive staff. Within 24 hours, we received a call from a senior customer service manager who wanted to resolve the matter by charging us what they originally quoted. From the Chicago Tribune:
Rob Bradford, managing director of customer solutions at United, called Carroll Wednesday to apologize for the foul-up and to ask if the carrier could use the video internally to help change its culture.

In both my case and Dave Carroll's, problems with them can only be fixed after:

1. Going through an endless runaround

2. Generating extremely generate bad publicity, or merely threatening their management with bad publicity.

I can't say if their organization was purposely designed that way, or if it just got their through terrible management. I can say that I have concluded that I no longer have neither the time nor the patience to subject myself to United Airlines ever again.

I imagine that Dave has probably reached the same conclusion by now.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Final Note On Jackson

I was in Atlanta last Thursday, and I had the occasion to speak with a writer for CNN. I initially offered my polite criticism of his employer, which he seconded with a far more scathing rebuke. He was embarrassed to be associated with them, and hoped to leave as soon as possible. In fact, he didn't even get CNN at home.

One of my criticisms was that CNN should start an entertainment news network, and cover all of those stories there, leaving the core channel for actual news.

It was only a few minutes later that I was to hear about the death of Michael Jackson. Today, we learned that "Fully 93% of cable coverage studied on the Thursday and Friday following his death was about the King of Pop."

For days, their top story was: "Michael Jackson is still dead."

Jackson death also killed any remaining interest the world had in the Iranian election, let alone hiking trips conducted by southern governors.

Monday, June 29, 2009

One Rabbi's Experience With Michael Jackson

I don't follow much celebrity gossip, and I am not particularly interested in reading that Michael Jackson is still dead.

That said, I found this article in the Jerusalem Post by his onetime confidant, Rabbi Shmuley Boteach sufficient to put his life in perspective. Ultimately, Rabbi Boteach was unsuccessful in helping this talented, yet deeply trouble person. In death, he humanizes Jackson in a way he was unable to do in life.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Talk Nicely, and Carry a Big Stick

Obama is not a simple person. Depending on who you talk to, he a Communist, a Muslim, a Christian, a foreigner, or perhaps even a centrist Democrat (no way!).

This article seems to nail his political strategy to a T. Obama corners his opponents in public by being conciliatory, and then kills them in private. A great strategy, especially when you agree with his policies.

Good Riddance to "Clear"

The "Clear" registered traveler program went broke and is no more, and that is a good thing. Not only is was it unprofitable, it set a terrible precedent for paying for security.

With paid screening programs like this, the incentive is for the alternative to get worse and worse. I am sure it bothered them to no end when the TSA added new lanes or opened up the existing ones at peak times.

Fortunately, their fatal flaw was that they really didn't do anything but allow you to cut in line. Passengers were subjected to the same security, just possibly with slightly less waiting beforehand.

Actually, the precedent was set a long time ago when they established separate lines for elite members of airline's frequent flier clubs. Of course, membership in these "elite" programs can be obtained through some credit cards without even stepping on a plane. In other instances, a promotion offers the opportunity to take one or two flights that will give you status. So much for the idea of a "frequent flier". And really, how the heck does a private company give you some card that determines your access to a federal security screening? Why can't I use my Blockbuster or Starbucks card?

Ultimately, less ability to bypass security will make the problems of the TSA more noticeable to some of the country's most frequent fliers, our members of Congress.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Air France Tragedy and Fernando de Naronha

Fernando and Me

This tragedy really struck both my wife and I on a personal level. While the rest of the world is unfamiliar with the area off of the coast of Brazil where this plane disappeared, we remember it fondly as the place where we spent the first week of our honeymoon in July of 2005. The island of Fernando de Naronha (pronounce naron-ya) is an amazing place, often referred to as the Galapagos of the Atlantic.

The Middle of Nowhere

This is an island that is so remote, that it's meager population of a few hundred are the only inhabitants of it's entire time zone, making it the least populated time zone on the entire planet. From that description, and the picture above, you can see why it was such an attraction to us as a honeymoon destination.

The island is incredibly well known throughout Brazil, yet very few Brazilians have ever visited there. It is expensive, by Brazilian standards, and as a National Park the number of visitors is tightly restricted. Very few people outside of Brazil have heard of Fernando, and at the time, it was extremely hard to get there. From Denver, we flew via Miami, Sao Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, Recife, and finally to the island of Fernando. Five flights traveling a great deal out of our way were required since at that time, there was no service from the United States to northern Brazil. Today, Delta and American Airlines serves Natal and Recife from Atlanta and Miami, which are both much more direct routes to the island.

The island is only a few miles across, just large enough for a tiny commercial airport in it's interior. It receives only two flights a day, and it's "terminal" is about the size of a small cafe. Nevertheless, it is easy to see how any distressed pilot in the central Atlantic would immediately turn towards Fernando in the event of an emergency, as there is nothing else out there for hundreds of miles between South America, Africa, and Europe.


It is said that there is no such thing as bad publicity, and in the wake of the Air France 447 disaster, billions of people know of Fernando de Naronha who would have never known of it's existence. If .0001% of them ever visit there, it will be a major influx of people.

This New York Times article explains some of the islands history, and references the fact that the paper hasn't written an article about it in nearly 20 years.


What brought the plane down? For some informed information, I would refer your to the website of pilot and former CNN correspondent Miles O'Brien. Now that Miles is no longer with CNN, I believe they now cover aviation stories with whoever on their staff happens to have the most frequent flier miles at the time.

Here is an interesting article about the chances of a meteorite hitting an airplane. Of course, who is to say that a small meteorite would be instantly disastrous?

I personally am leaning towards some kind of turbulence induced structural failure, like American Airlines 587.


This kind of accident scares us in part, because there is not yet a known cause. It has been so long since a large jetliner was lost without survivors, the scope of the tragedy seems to have receded from our memory. The last major aviation disaster was actually the aforementioned American Airlines 587 that crashed in November of 2001. This article about the people who accidentally missed boarding that flight shows the random forces that continues to choose between life and death in our modern world.

Few things bother me quite as much as when people say "Everything happens for a reason". It doesn't. There is no reason some people made that flight, and others didn't. When the people who skipped work at the twin towers on 9/11 started saying nonsense like, "I think god wanted me to live", what did those statements imply for the thousands who did show up for work that day?

It is scary to live in a world where the most casual of decisions can ultimately determine life or death. The upside of this realization is that it reminds us to live life to it's greatest extent. That was our motivation for taking three weeks off of work in July of 2005 to visit Brazil, and explore paradise in the Central Atlantic.

Blogging Update

As some have noticed, I have taken a break from my personal blog. I have also stopped blogging as the Denver Local Expert over at PlanetEye. PlanetEye was a fun gig, but they have restructured their once generous payment system so that I would hardly be getting paid at all there.

All of the while, I have been contributing to the blog at AskMrCreditCard. I have actually learned a lot about the credit card and banking industries while producing lengthy posts nearly every day. If you don't currently read it, I highly recommend that you check it out.

I am now ready to resume some more blogging here on Steele Street.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Investigating Continental 3047

Sadly, America's run of over two years without a domestic airline fatality has come to an end. In looking at what happened over Buffalo, what is amazing is that anyone with access to the internet can be an accident investigator, as I have shown.

FlightAware is an incredible tool that will show the flight path of any airplane flying on an instrument, or IFR flight plan. This includes many private aircraft and all commercial flights. I frequently use it to track flights of family and friends arriving in Denver as it is far more accurate than the airline's guestimated arrival times. When tradjedy strikes, it can also be used by the public to try to understand what happened.

In the case of Continental 3047, here is what Flight Aware is showing today:

From this page alone, we instantly know far more than the news anchors are able to grasp. The flight was on a Bombardier (DeHavilland) Q400 operated by Colgan airlines. The Q400 is a highly advanced version of the Dash 7, a type that has been operating since 1983.

Lets zoom in at the weather at the crash site:
You can see that redish patch that the flight passed through shortly after disappearing from radar. Every viewer of the local news "weather center" knows that it indicates an area of maximum intensity of precipitation. Every pilot knows that icing is so dangerous that even large jetliners must exit heavy icing conditions as soon as possible.

I am not the accident investigator, and I am not drawing any conclusions. That said, if I were the accident investigator, icing would be the first thing I would look at.

Update: Former CNN science and aviation correspondent, Miles O'Brien has a great post on the same subject in his blog. Miles is an active general aviation pilot, and his dismissal from CNN is another reason that they stink, especially when covering aviation stories like this.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Atlanta Calls Delta's Bluff

A couple of weeks ago, Delta, the world's largest carrier, told Atlanta's airport, "lower your fees or we will reduce service".

Today, rumor has it that my new favorite airline, Southwest, the largest domestic airline, is speaking with the Atlanta people about taking some of the gate space there.

I am sure Delta will complain a little less in the future.

For me, Southwest service to Atlanta would be a dream come true. As an Atlanta Refugee, I fly there several times a year.. As Southwest currently serves almost all major cities not named "Atlanta," this is indeed a welcome development.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Trip Report: Southwest Airlines

For years I have heard of the legend of Southwest Airlines. Their prices are great, you sit wherever you want, and the company has been by far the most profitably airline in the United States for decades.

Unfortunately, I have spent most of the last 30 years of my life living in cities that did not have service with Southwest Airlines, specifically Atlanta and Denver. That is the thing with Southwest, historically, they have been very picky with which cities they fly to. While airlines like Delta are constantly seeking new service to fly to every paved airstrip within 8,000 miles of Atlanta, Southwest, the largest domestic airline (by passengers), doesn't even serve Atlanta, the busiest airport in the world. That is because they expand slowly and only wish to fly to cities that they could make a profit from. That policy is changing as they have recently announced service to New York LaGuardia and other cities that once lacked their service.

Two years ago, they decided to start a hub in Denver. Interestingly, almost every city they fly to is a hub of some sort. You can connect between almost every city they serve, unlike most airlines that only have a handful of major hubs.

On our trip last week, we went from Denver to Ft. Lauderdale and continued on to Tampa before returning to Denver. Each leg of the trip was priced and purchased separately. After I booked it, I realized that I had entered one of the dates wrong. With any other airline, this error on my part would have incurred a hefty change fee at best. With Southwest, there are no change fees at all. You always have the option of booking a new flight, at whatever price is currently available, using the money paid for your existing reservation as a credit. If the new flight is less than your reservations, you receive a refund as a credit towards a future flight.

Before you say that Southwest is giving away money with this policy, consider my experience: The price drops on my Florida trip, so I received a credit towards a future flight. I actually did this twice in the three months between my initial reservation and the trip, as airfares plummeted with the price of crude. The credits were part of our payment for our next trip on Southwest to San Diego. Just today, the price dropped on our San Diego trip to an incredible $59 each way, resulting in a further flight credit. I am now just starting to wonder how I can fly Southwest again using that credit! It appears to be a win-win policy for everyone, yet no other airline I know of works like this.

I have to say that our first impression with Southwest at the airport was a little strange. We are traveling with our 18 month old daughter, as we have many times before. At check in, Southwest insisted on documentation of her age, unlike Airtran, United, and Frontier have when we flew them domestically. They relented, but it was odd that they would not take the word of the child's parents, as every other business does. They even tried hard to blame FAA regulations that required a seat to be purchased for children over 2 years old, but it seemed like a revenue enhancement meausure to us. We were later able to get our pediatrician's office to fax us her immunization records, so the problem never came up again.

That experience behind us, we were treated to exceptional service by the flight attendants on all of our flights. To our shock, they actually seemed to care about their customers, even showing us extra consideration as we were traveling with an infant.

On each flight we were warned repeatedly that the flight was full, yet on each occasion we were able to have a whole row of three seats for my wife and I as well as our "lap child". My only complaint would be that Southwest mimics the practice of most other airlines in this country of leaving the seat belt sign on for most of the flight. They announce it is for safety as they are expecting turbulence, even when a half an hour goes by without so much as a jiggle. Throughout the whole time, flight attendants are walking about, apparently immune to the laws of physics.

That said, every flight departed and arrived on time. We actually chose a flight from Denver to Ft. Lauderdale that stopped in New Orleans. They offered a non-stop flight, but the price was $80 greater. The quick stop, with no change of plane, was easily worth the $160 saved.

Another great benefit of flying Southwest is their "no fees" policy. There are no telephone booking fees, no fuel surcharges, no curb checking fees, and each passenger gets two free checked bags. I used to travel alone for business, and I rarely checked a bag. Now, it is an absolute pleasure to be able to travel with a child without worrying about the cost of checking luggage. On each flight, our luggage was promptly delivered intact.

Every now and then, I hear someone attempt to justify their company's stupid policies by explaining that they do it their way because other companies in their industry do it that way too. I have also heard people explain weird practices by saying that if there was a better way, someone would have figured it out by now. After flying Southwest, I now see that 1) not every airline is run by idiots, and 2) Southwest has already figured out how to do it better.

So whenever your travel plans call for air travel, consider Southwest. They provide excellent service to every major city in the United States not named Atlanta.

My Thoughts On US Airways 1549

Most pilots find the initial mainstream media coverage of aviation accidents humorous. We chuckle when the local news reporter recounts the amazing story of a plane that somehow lands without being able to put it's wheels down (this is perhaps the most frequent aviation accident and almost never causes injury). Our eyes roll when we hear about the incredible pilot who lands on the highway after running out of gas. We know the pilot was a moron for running out of gas in the first place and that landing on a highway is no big deal for any decent pilot. Then there was the case of the "hero" pilot who was caught on camera attempting to land in severe conditions. I exposed the fact that he was wrecklessly trying to land on the wrong runway in a dangerous crosswind.

As a commercially rated pilot and a certified flight instructor, I was still quite amazed when I heard about this accident.

I had just landed on a commercial flight to Ft. Lauderdale when I saw the coverage. I immediately assumed that the pictures of an intact airliner in the water in New York City occurred when it skidded off a runway at LaGuardia. Frankly, most pilots had considered the possibility of a commercial airliner landing in the water intact to be somewhat of a joke. The crash scene from the movie Castaway or the fate Ethiopian Airlines Flight 961 seems a more likely outcome for this scenario. I was astonished to find out that the plane had actually landed in the Hudson River, not Long Island Sound.

Over at Meadow's Lane, Eric has rightfully commended the entire crew for their bravery, not just the Captain.

As for Captain Sully, I believe that his brilliance was not merely the landing itself, but his timely decision to attempt the landing. I think that that any professional airline pilot should have been capable of making such a landing, however very few would have chosen to do so in time to have the chance to save everyone on board. This has always been a consideration for me as a general aviation (light aircraft) pilot. When I flew a four seat plane to Alaska, I always anticipated landing in the water if I were to have an engine failure, rather than impacting the forests or mountains. Water landings in small aircraft are much more survivable than most dry landings other than on a road or a field.

The truth about being a great pilot is that it is more about making the right decisions quickly than having superior hand/eye coordination. In making the decision to land on the Hudson, his actions went beyond bravery into the realm of chutzpah. In fact, aviation experts are now reconsidering their recommendations for when a "water landing" might be the safest alternative for a stricken airliner.

Finally, for all of my criticisms of domestic airlines terrible customer service, and blatant hypocrisy, there is clearly one area in commercial aviation where the United States leads the world, safety. Having now gone over two years without a fatal accident, we are currently setting historic new milestones for commercial aviation that we can be proud of.

Monday, January 12, 2009

2 Airlines, 2 Bizarre Policies, 2 Different Results

We have all run across airline policies that clearly make no sense. In fact, as I have documented, airlines in this country have serious credibility problems as they compete with automakers for the title of the worst managed industry.

Recently, I read two different articles about these type of ridiculous price gouging policies, both of which I have had personal experience with.

Problem Number One: United Airlines insists on charging 10% of their highest possible fare for infants traveling on your lap on international flights. When my wife and I flew to Israel last year, using United frequent flier miles for a business class ticket, they wanted to charge us over $800 to carry our infant on our lap. I was able to resolve the situation to my satisfaction, as the representative I initially spoke with quoted us a price of under $100. When asked later to pay $800, I launched an EECB that resulted in a reasonable payment of taxes and fees.

When another flier encounters the same absurd policy and complains, here is their account of United's response via Chris Elliot's blog:

This is a policy they’ve had in place that they will charge 10 percent of whatever cabin that the parents are in. She is not willing to budge as this is “not negotiable” and it is what it is.

She did say that she agrees that this is strange but that the policy has been in effect for a very long time.

They know this is stupid, but that is how they do it, so tough crap.

Problem Number Two: Airlines want to charge fliers enormous fees for carrying a bicycle, even if it folds or can be disassembled to fit in the same size of a normal suitcase. Using the word "bicycle" to describe your luggage's contents triggers both the fee, as well as a waiver of all damages. They can run over it with a truck, and they are not liable for a penny.

I have solved this problem in the past by putting the wheels in one box, and the frame in the other. I mark the large, flat boxes "photography" so that the baggage agents do not consider they contain a bicycle.

A contributor to the Consumerist complains about this absurd policy to JetBlue, and JetBlue replies:

"Thanks for helping to bring this to our attention. We pride ourselves on our customer service and when we’re faced with a situation where policy doesn’t make sense in practice, we’re always ready to correct or clarify......Our bicycle policy has now been updated to reflect that Customers traveling with a folding bikes in a bag that fits within the standard checked bag weights and dimensions (62 inches in overall dimensions and 50 pounds in weight — see our baggage requirements here) will not be charged the Bike fee and will be treated like any checked bag."

Conclusion: When faced with absurd policies, United says "Too bad, that's how we do it.", while JetBlue says, "The customer is right, we are changing our policy".

Which airline would you fly? Which airline do you think will be around in the future?