The TSA and its ever disappointing act

May 26, 2016 on 3:31 pm | In Airline News, Airports, security | 2 Comments

So the TSA doesn’t have enough staff to manage itself appropriately at major airports and expects things to be particularly bad this summer.

Their go-to solution?  Dear Airlines:  Can you drop baggage fees?

Give me a break.  I hate baggage fees at least for the first bag checked and even I think that’s a stupid idea.  The revenue impact that has on the airline is so large that I would actually suggest it more economically smart for the airlines to just fork over money to the TSA to hire people instead.

The TSA hasn’t managed itself competently.  It has a long history of criminal behavior by its officers.   The agency has never competently staffed itself at many airports.

I am reminded of the year I spent one afternoon in San Francisco last fall.  I needed to change terminals at SFO and had to leave the security area to move from the International Terminal to Terminal 2.  That took about 3 hours primarily due to standing in line for security.

Was the hold up due to that many people?  Nope.  If you had staffed the other 4 scanning machines I would imagine that things would have proceeded in a timely manner.  But instead we had a 2.5 hour line wait at a major international airport on a Tuesday afternoon.

We don’t take security seriously and we don’t staff for it seriously.  We don’t even use all the money taxed for it.  Instead, we re-allocate taxes raised for security to reduce the deficit.

Care to guess who is responsible for that exceptionally anti-business move?  That would be the Republican led Congress.

When we don’t adequately staff something like this, it is a billion dollar impact to our economy.  We literally impede commerce within this country.  This isn’t about people who should just shut up and wait an extra 10 minutes before taking a trip to Disney World.

To the contrary, most air travel is business related and contributes heavily to our economy.

We should have a big problem with how travel is impeded in this country.  It’s not a “this is the wealthy” moment.  It’s a “this is an economic driver for this country” moment.  All too often we think the only people using the airlines and airports are the elite 619 Roofing.  That’s just not true.  We think that only travelers are affected by what happens in our airline transportation network.  That’s not true either.

So what are you going to do about it?


Air Marshal photographs up skirts

October 19, 2013 on 1:00 am | In Airline News, security | No Comments

A U.S. Air Marshal was caught taking photographs up women’s skirts with his cell phone and was caught by a passenger who took his phone and then notified a Southwest Airlines flight attendant immediately.  The marshal was arrested by airport police.

The TSA says it is cooperating with the investigation of this man.

Would anyone care to place bets on how long it takes the Transportation SECURITY Administration to describe this as a one-off event and that the officer was terminated and it isn’t anything to be concerned with?

It is events like this that makes me want to create a category in this blog titled “Are you kidding me?”

Let’s examine the problems here.  First, a person who was given great trust violated the public in a manner that increases the public perception that the TSA isn’t there to provide security but, rather, a haven for sex perverts.  If that seems harsh, I won’t apologize.  All too many encounters with the TSA devolve to someone getting groped or inappropriately photographed.

That badly damages public trust and TSA credibility.

Second, the passenger took the phone away from the marshal.  Seriously?  The passenger just grabbed the phone and took control of the situation along with a flight attendant.  Let me point out the irony here:  The passenger and flight attendants did what an air marshal should have done.  Even if the guy was doing something bad, one would kind of hope that he had the presence of mind to not let someone take something from him.

That doesn’t describe the kind of person we want performing air marshal duties, does it?

Third and most important is that these kinds of things happen too frequently.  For several years now, the TSA has promised that it is cleaning up its act.  But, hey, we have air marshals photographing women under their skirts and TSA officers stealing parking placards and re-selling them.  And many more things going on.

If this was the FBI, would we be tolerating this in a security force?

The TSA has not cleaned up its act.  It has not provided security and it is not, by any obvious measure, attempting to build public trust and credibility.

When your security force is assaulting you and stealing from you, my first inclination is that you must live in a corrupt third world country.

But we’re talking about the United States here.

TSA Hijinks

September 10, 2013 on 1:51 pm | In Airports, security | 1 Comment

It’s been a long while since I wrote about anything involving the TSA but I managed to catch wind of an interesting little thing going on at a local (to me) airport.

Evidently 9 people were involved in a theft ring where employee parking passes were being stolen and re-sold at DFW airport.  These passes allowed people to use airport parking a great deal more economically, if you know what I mean.

What does this have to do with the TSA?

8 of those 9 people worked for the TSA.

Am I shocked?  No.  We have real world concerns about security in airports regarding legitimate threats to people.  There are real and tangible security threats that exist and are even focused on the US.

What’s our answer?  The TSA:  Our front line security against these threats.

At least when they’re not stealing from co-workers cars.

How secure is secure?

April 30, 2013 on 11:50 am | In security | No Comments

The wife of a September 11th United Flight 175 Captain Saracini is campaigning for a second barrier to the cockpit and reportedly is gaining some traction with congress.

I think this is security theater.  Since the September 11th tragedies, there seems to be this belief that we must be safe at all costs.  Particularly in an airliner.  I couldn’t disagree more.

The reality is that there is no such thing as 100% safe from hijackings and there never will be.  Safety comes from vigilance and proper screening.  If a hijacker has gained entry to the aircraft and has a weapon good enough to penetrate the cockpit door in flight, you’re security has already utterly failed.  More barriers aren’t going to stop that attack or effectively slow it.

I think the 2nd barrier idea looks great as an issue and I’m sure that everyone is attracted to it because at the end of the day, it scores points against airline management.

But airline management is the one who is right on this issue.

It’s not lost on me that this all surrounds United Airlines and appears to be related to both United Airlines pilots’ union maneuverings.  I feel the union is maneuvering the captain’s wife in this effort to jab at United Airlines for not doing enough.  It’s a way to gain the public eye, discredit management and seemingly get the upper hand.

But what upper hand is really gained?  Scoring points on this subject is silly.  It’s not a poltiical issue and, frankly, the more security is turned into a political issue, the more it will certainly be deficient.

I would ask the question:  Do you want to be secure or do you want to enjoy the illusion of security?

The former means you’ve got to listen to security professionals and properly evaluate your risks and mitigate against them.

The latter means that the wife of a lost pilot from a tragedy that occured 12 years ago and which will be highly unlikely to happen in that manner ever again drives the perception of security.

This isn’t disrespect for the feelings of this wife.  She deserves sympathy and empathy for her losses.  She also is not a security expert and has no business advocating for security on an airliner against those really do know better.  More importantly, the issue here is not “safe at all costs”.  It’s an unrealistic requirement in which the only answer is to never leave your home.

Knives on a Plane

April 8, 2013 on 1:00 am | In Airports, security | 1 Comment

Several weeks ago, the TSA decided to revise its position and allow knives, among a few other things, to be carried onto an airplane.  These knives couldn’t be more than what would be described as a common pocket knife.

Since then, quite a few people have weighed in on this decision publicly and I had decided to leave it alone because I felt the decision was really immaterial to any debate on security.

But I read Bob Greene’s opinion piece on CNN and I’ve changed my mind.  I want to weigh in.

Bob Greene is an idiot.

I say that because Bob Greene essentially calls Janet Napolitano, Homeland Security and the TSA idiots.   Let’s be clear here:  Bob Greene, a journalist and columnist with many years of experience, has decided that he has better judgement than the experts who have exposure to all the facts.

Here is an example of Bob Greene’s good judgement:  Bob Greene Wiki

He also makes a specious argument in his piece when he says that the tragedies of September 11, 2001 were caused by knives.

Well, they weren’t.  Knives were the instrument used by terrorists to take over multiple aircraft and were used to assault and kill flight crew.

Curiously, those terrorists didn’t succeed because they had knives.  In fact, if the tragedy wasn’t so tragic, the reason for their success is nearly comical.  They succeeded because we had spent more than 3 decades telling people to cooperate with hijackers.

Globally, we had told people that their best chances for survival when their transportation was hijacked was to cooperate.  More specifically, to shut up, do as told and to not try to interfere with the hijackers.  We, as a global community, couldn’t have been more of one voice on the subject.

Every airline (with the exception of El Al) told its crews to cooperate fully, get the aircraft on the ground and do your best to provide an opportunity for someone outside the aircraft to solve the problem.

And it was an incredibly successful strategy.  Few people got hurt, there were very few violent episodes and it worked very, very well in getting innocents away from danger.

The terrorists used our policies against us.  It wasn’t the box cutters they carried that killed people on those aircraft.  It was the “cooperate” policies that did this.

It’s actually extremely difficult to kill someone with a box cutter who actively resists.

When we found out what the hijackers did on those aircraft, I made the statement to several friends the first night that we’ll never see another successful hijacking in all likelihood.  I speculated that we may well see aircraft bombed or hit with missiles but that I didn’t think we would see one successfully hijacked.

And so far, we really haven’t.

Passengers immediately began actively responding to threats in the cabin and restraining people who intend harm on an aircraft.  It works, too.  In fact, those passengers have never gotten seriously injured either.

Our cockpits are now guarded with very strong doors that can withstand human force very well.  Our pilots won’t be acting passively either.  In fact, I fully agree with the idea of pilots being allowed to carry weapons in the cockpit and I think it should be encouraged.  Pilots should be trained to use them as a defense if that door is penetrated.

Knives aren’t a threat on aircraft.  No more so than many items that are already on that aircraft.  There are countless items that exist on airplane that could be turned into cutting weapons that are at least as good as a pocket knife.

Now, in a rare exhibition of sanity, the TSA has rightly realized that it needs to focus on real threats in security lines and eliminate some aspects of the security theater that have been going on.  And for their trouble, they get the likes of Bob Greene attacking them.

I have not approved of most of our security theater for the past several years in this blog.  There have been a number of steps taken to drive the perception of security while not providing any enhanced security at all.  I have vocally criticized those moves many times.

If you think you’re safer flying on an airplane in which pocket knives are banned, I have request:

Don’t fly.  You’re really too ignorant to be allowed on an aircraft and, frankly, I cannot trust you to do the right thing should there be a real emergency.  Take a car, please.  Or a train.

And if you think Bob Greene is qualified to call a entire security department of the United States idiots, then I would ask that you definitely not travel at all.  You’re a risk to too many people.

Personally, I would like to urge Bob Greene to go back to what he arguably does extremely well:  Personal interest stories about real people.

Security Fail

May 12, 2012 on 1:00 am | In security | 1 Comment

An 18 month old baby of Middle Eastern descent was removed from a JetBlue flight this week due to this child’s name being on some portion of the No Fly List.  The TSA worked with the airline but also states that it did not put this name on the no fly list and did not play a role in the child and its family being removed from the flight.

All good and fine except that this is clearly a security failure.  Let’s consider the fact that this was an 18 month old BABY.  Then let’s consider that despite the obvious circumstances and despite the fact that the parents were not on a No Fly List, everyone “followed protocol” and did the stupid thing.

Good security comes from good judgement.  Clearly we, as a country, continue to not use good judgement.

Lost Luggage

December 22, 2011 on 1:00 am | In Airline Service, Airports, security | No Comments

Short of tarmac delays, lost luggage drives more hate of airlines than just about anything else I can think of.  I frequently hear stories from people about their bad experiences with lost, misplaced and stolen luggage and, to be honest, I generally discard them as data points to evaluate airlines by.

I’ve been flying since I was 2 years old and I have flown as many miles as any of today’s frequent flyers.  In that time, I’ve had luggage delayed or misplaced maybe as many times as can be counted on one hand.  I’ve had luggage completely lost once and, believe it or not, that was on a train, not an airline.

With a few exceptions, I check my luggage.  I have no interest in making my life more miserable navigating airports and flights with it. 

There are times when airlines not only get it wrong but get it wrong consistently.  US Airways wasn’t particularly good for quite a while in Philadelphia, for instance.  London Heathrow has handled such things very badly at times as well.

To the traveler, I say this:  planning for the event that has less than one percent chance of happening will only stress you out more than a single incident of it actually happening.   And if you can’t afford to check your bag, you can’t really afford to travel. 

Now, with all that said, I also think airlines do an atrocious job of handling these problems.  Airlines have never handled the problem well and they’ve only gotten worse at it by compounding the problem with luggage check fees. 

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again:  No airline should be charging a fee to check at least the first bag and as long as that bag is within some reasonable weight limit (50lbs domestic and 30lbs international strikes me as fair.)  The very nature of getting on an aircraft to go somewhere implies that a passenger is carrying luggage.  It’s silly and insulting to the traveler.

And to charge that fee regardless of whether or not you have delivered the bag with the traveler at the same time is also insulting.  If you want to charge fees, you need to be prepared to answer appropriate for not providing that service.  Airlines aren’t unique in that service sense.  Do we expect to pay for a meal that is 2 hours later at the table in a restaurant?

Furthermore, not doing your job in delivering the luggage with the person can impose an expensive, time consuming and challenging problem upon people.  Denying reasonable compensation in a timely manner is just wrong.  Plan for the expense and fix the problems causing the losses.

Writing complex and unfair clauses in your contracts of carriage is wrong.  I’m not sure the rules in place today are exactly fair to the airlines at times but they are the present rules.  Not following them or trying to sidestep them is wrong.  It’s bad business to cheat your customers.

There should be a time limit to how long an airline has to find your luggage and return it to you.  That should be something like 48 hours for domestic losses and no more than 5 days for international losses.  After that, you pay reasonable claims. 

I don’t think it particularly fair for a person to be able to pack $10,000 worth of items in a suitcase and then claim their loss entirely either.  But my solution would be to suggest to airlines that you charge insurance for any luggage exceeding $1000 in value.  There, I just gave you a new revenue stream and an opportunity to keep passengers happier and more secure.  Want to pack your Apple laptop in your luggage?  Go ahead but take out $1500 in insurance at, say, $10 per trip against this loss. 

And prove you actually put the expensive items in your suitcase. 

The dirty secret in this business is that you, the customer, have a long history of inflating the value of your possessions during a claim.  Suddenly a $200 Canon point and shoot camera becomes a $1000 Nikon in a claim.  That wrong and it’s fraud.

I also think airports and the TSA have a *strong* duty to keep luggage secure while transiting airports.  I know of already too many incidents where luggage secured with TSA approved locks were pillaged for their expensive items and then RELOCKED AND PUT ON THE PLANE.   That’s theft and only people with TSA lock *keys* are able to get into those bags. 

More transparency, fairness and insurance is required on all sides.  Everyone needs to quit addressing the problem with greed and most could stand to quit taking it personally.  Even airlines have a bad problem of acting as if they are victims over any lost luggage and they aren’t.

Security Theater

September 19, 2011 on 1:00 am | In Airports, security | 1 Comment

28 TSA officers were fired in Hawaii in addition to one or two who quit before being fired all because baggage was allowed to proceed to airplanes without screening for explosives.  Reportedly these lapses went on for as long as 4 months.

Just a week ago, it was reported that TSA officers in addition to other law enforcement officers participated in a drug ring that saw thousands of prescription drugs flow through airports from Florida to New York via airlines. 

Tell me again how the TSA is doing a professional and responsible job?

September 11

September 11, 2011 on 1:00 am | In Air Traffic Control, Aircraft Development, Airline News, Airports, security | 1 Comment

There are quite a few blog posts showing up in the past few days memorializing or offering recollections on what September 11, 2001 was like for them.  I frequently struggle on anniversaries like this because I find myself out of sync with many others and with respect to this event in particular.

Make no mistake, it was a very bad day and I felt the trauma as much as anyone.  However, I tend to want to see us move on and do better as opposed to continue to only reflect back on what happened.  That said, I do think some reflection and observation on this particular anniversary is, perhaps, in order.

My day was absolutely normal when it started.  I woke up cranky as I often do, made coffee and drove to work.  I was just a few minutes later to work than perhaps normal but for no other reason than I was tired.

It was my custom to listen to the NPR news broadcast in the mornings (and still is) and I was doing so as I drove into the parking lot of my company around 8:30 or so in the morning.  As I did so, the news broadcaster, Carl Kassell, interrupted his news reading, hesitated and then said that there was a fresh news report that a small aircraft had hit the World Trade Center.

I was a bit surprised to hear that but immediately concluded that New York must be experiencing very low cloud cover and/or fog and someone must have finally done something badly wrong in that airspace. 

But it didn’t stop me at all.  I went into my office, closed my door and began reading emails and doing work.  I generally don’t like to talk in the earliest part of my mornings and my staff was accustomed to me doing those things behind a closed door.  Sometime after 9am, one of my staff opened my door and asked if I did not know that the world was on fire. (or words to that effect.)

I was surprised at her distress, started asking questions and got news going on my computer.  It took just a couple of minutes to learn that one hijacked aircraft had gone into the World Trade Center, not a small civil aircraft and that other aircraft were known to be hjacked as well. 

Then we learned of the second aircraft and things just seemed to get blurry for a while.  Our news feed slowed to a crawl because the internet was overwhelmed.  We were able to get a portable TV going and got some news from that.  I went to my car a couple of times to listen to the radio as well. 

After a couple of hours, there was news that parents were pulling their kids from school and I announced that those who wanted to leave and do the same, could.  I also offered that it might be best for us to stay where we were for a while longer until we knew that someone had a handle on something.  We stayed for a bit longer but it became clear that no work would get done and I let everyone go home.

I went home as well. 

I worked near Addison Airport in the Dallas area.  I lived under one of the normal approach paths for Love Field and DFW airports.  It was immediately striking just how quiet things grew both in the air and on the streets.  Like most of everyone, I watched the news, talked to some family on the phone and felt punched by the events most of all.

I made some calls to business friends in the New York City area to check on them and didn’t reach many but some were answering.  One friend, a jewelry manufacturer, holed up in his facility in lower Manhattan and stood guard over his business for days.  His wife witnessed a man get beaten in their Queens neighborhood for being nothing other than of Middle Eastern descent. 

In the evening, I started to get calls and emails from friends around the world asking if I was OK.   They knew me to be a frequent traveler and from their vantage point, it would be perfectly logical for me to be in New York or Boston or Washington, D.C. 

I sat on my back patio for a good part of the evening and just marveled at how quiet it was.  It was still like an early sunday morning.  No sound of cars, people or airplanes.   When my telephone rang, it sounded abnormally loud every time.

I was as shocked as anyone and probably a bit more upset than some given what I knew of the airline industry.  I deduced what had happened very quickly and never learned anything that truly contradicted my guess that hijackers had taken control of airplanes and most passengers had cooperated in the idea that doing so would get the airplane on the ground.  But the hijackers had broken the model and done the unthinkable. 

I was bitterly proud that those on UA 93 had learned what was going on and had fought back.  When I heard that, I knew that never again would passengers be passive in such circumstances.  I haven’t been proven wrong in 10 years either.

I’m genuinely sorry for those who suffered direct losses that day.  I’m also fairly bitter about where we are 10 years later.

It upsets me that we haven’t raised a bolder building in the World Trade Center’s place yet.  If it had been up to me, we would have finished that long ago. 

I am very disappointed at the losses of personal freedom in the last 10 years.  I’m extremely upset that people went along with it so passively and I’m very upset that Congress continues to cower in political fear rather than eliminate those losses.  I think the Patriot Act was one of the worst things ever done in terms of legislation.

I hate that our airline transportation security is still theater rather than real.  Consider that in 10 years, the TSA hasn’t once thwarted a terrorist threat.  But they have allowed numerous breaches in that time and under circumstances that leave me wondering if anyone is actually doing their job.

It infuriates me that the TSA is more of a problem for us all than a solution.  That the TSA is a source of theft and insult rather than a professional corps of security people doing their job well.  It angers me that the solution to security 10 years later is to invade their bodies with scanners or sexually asssault them with pat downs.  The United States should be a better place than that.

It’s been a horrific decade for the airline industry.  September 11 was the start and the heavy hits have kept coming ever since.  Consider that American Airlines has lost more than $1billion a year in the last 10 years.  Several major airlines have had to declare bankruptcy.  Many others had to merge or die. 

And every time they think they’ve got  a handle on things, another punch comes. 

There have been other disappointments.  The only truly new mainline airplane to be built and delivered in the last 10 years has been the Airbus A380.  In the 1960s, we saw tens of new ones designed and built.  What’s worse, while we’ll see 2 more in the next 10 years, that’s about it.   What happened to innovation in building new airliners?

It’s been a bad 10 years for the United States.  I would like to suggest that we consider just how much we’ve all taken and how we all are still standing today.  I would like to see the next 10 years in the United States to be a decade to rebuilding, growth and facing up to our problems and challenges. 

I would like to have some pride in my government.  It’s been too long now. 

I would like to see my fellow citizens be just a bit less selfish, a bit less political and a bit more focused on cooperating with each and achieving things.  It’s time to get back to achieving success and overcoming challenges presented to us.  It’s time to be leaders again rather than bitter isolationists.  It’s time to wake up and get back to competing. 

It is definitely time to find new leaders.  I want to see people who understand what it means to represent the whole rather than the special interest.  I want to see leaders who work hard, play hard and set sterling examples of looking forward to the future.  I want people who ask us to stretch rather than wait passively. 

Today should be a day to reflect not only on our losses but on how we need to get going with our lives and our country and do much, much better.

Threats on a plane

August 27, 2011 on 1:00 am | In security | 2 Comments

Correspondent James Fallows of the Atlantic wrote this particularly sensible commentary on terrorism and threats on a plane in criticism of his own magazines story found here.  First, let me say that Fallows is dead on right.

After 10 years, we are still engaging in security theater in airports and on aircraft.  After 10 years we still cite “terrorism” as the reason to give up constitutional rights.  After 10 years, people, particularly in the United States, are still being ninnies.

If you’re actually thinking about threats that could originate from the extraordinarily improbably and what they mean to you as a passenger on an airplane, please do us all favor:  Don’t fly.

I’m not kidding.  Stay away from air travel.  You’re too stupid to act in common sense if there ever was an emergency.  You are, no doubt, the person who blocks people trying to exit a burning aircraft while you debate on whether or not to grab your laptop.

If you want to support being sexually assaulted prior to boarding an aircraft, you’re too stupid to juggle a single ball in the air.  And you’re unable to responsible evaluate threats in your life.

Mind you, I’m not telling you the highly improbable can’t happen.  It can.  However, the likelihood of you being a victim of a aircraft hijack is an order of magnitude less than the likelihood of you being the victim of a pigeon pooping on your shoulder.   Are you running around suspicious of a pigeon and its intent to do harm to your suit?

If you take the position that you have a real and tangible probability of experiencing terrorism in the United States, you could do everyone a very big favor by becoming housebound and staying out of everyone else’s way.  You’re an inhibitor of commerce, freedom and the ability to get off the damn airplane in a timely manner.

What is caution?

March 23, 2011 on 1:00 am | In Airline News, security | No Comments

A couple of weeks ago a 31 year old Muslim woman was removed from a Southwest Airlines flight due to a member of the flight crew “feeling uncomfortable.”   The woman, a graduate student flying to San Jose, wore a headscarf and actually had done nothing.  So what instigated this?  The flight crew member “thought” she overheard the woman say “It’s a go.” on her cell phone when, in fact, she had said “I’ve got to go.”  

Quite a common phrase among people using cellular phones as a flight nears departure. 

The TSA searched her headscarf but quickly realized that this wasn’t a situation warranting further searches and left the rest of her possessions alone.  Despite the TSA’s assessment, the woman was kept from the flight and told that the flight crew wasn’t comfortable with her flying with them. 

Southwest Airlines has apologized several different ways and offered compensation for the experience in the form of a flight voucher but the woman says she doesn’t want to fly Southwest after that experience.  I can’t say that I blame her.

For 10 years now, we have treated a class of people very badly when it comes to flying.  Although you may believe that it’s Muslims that I’m speaking of, I’m not.  That class of people is actually those who look Muslim and/or strange or and/or Middle Eastern / Asian.  That’s a pretty big class of people.

This kind of treatment is a direct result of the Bush Administration’s “one percent doctrine” which is, simply stated, that if there is a 1% chance that something is going on, it will be treated as fact rather than speculation out of an abundance of caution.  It is a political response to a terrorist threat.

I usually avoid being political in this forum because I think it serves little or no good when it comes to a dialog about an industry.  In this case, it’s unavoidable.  It’s not that I’m anti-Bush or anti-Republican.  It’s that I’m anti-stupid when it comes to security.   We have ground our Bill of Rights into dust over the perceived threat of terrorism with respect to political considerations in this country. 

We grossly abuse that class of people I spoke of a few paragraphs earlier out of an abundance of caution and I’ll note that that class probably comprises nearly 2/3’s of all people in the world.  It’s a pretty large class of people even in the United States and includes a significant portion of people who are US citizens.  And by grossly abuse, I mean in a way that 20 years ago would have been soundly reprimanded by popular opinion as well as by courts. 

We grossly abuse our Bill of Rights when it comes to unlawful searches and seizures with our current TSA security checks at airports.   I cannot think of another situation where we demand (not ask) that people give up all rights in order to use what is a major and essential transportation system in this country.  People are afforded no protections from these searches whatsoever and the only response to objections to this treatment is “you don’t have to fly.”  Well, yes, in fact, in many cases you do in this 21st Century economy.

Oddly enough, we don’t even protect people from criminal prosecution(s) resulting from these searches which aren’t a security risk to a flight.  We just pursue the perceived “bad people” in every way possible, legal or not.

Most of you who read this are likely *not* in that class of suspected people.  I’ve seen comments in many forums by people saying things like “it is a small price to pay for feeling safe”.  The abrogation of these rights is centered in public opinion that is, at the minimum, based on political responses to security problems rather than fact.

Most of you likely don’t care because you think you’re largely unaffected by this.  Perhaps but perhaps not.  It’s far too easy to use these tactics against anyone by using that very same argument:  “You want to feel safe, don’t you?”  The problem is, you aren’t safe.  As a matter of fact, you’re far more at risk for wrongful prosecution, harrassment and even 1st, 4th, 5th and 9thAmendment rights violations.  

We are and should be a better country than that.  We should behave better than this.  The most shocking thing of all to me is just how easily everyone folded to this one percent doctrine approach and accepted the implications towards citizens and visitors to this country alike. 

As for the airlines who are responding this way towards customers:  You’re better than this.  You all have started issuing apologies publicly because they cost nothing and appear to be the right thing to do.  Apologies for honest mistakes are right and proper.  Continuing to abuse a class of people and then apologizing for it after the fact is shameful.  If your flight crew is so poor at realistically identifying flight risks, I would suggest that they don’t need to be working for you anymore.  They are unable to perform an essential part of their job.  They are reacting to anything instead of being experienced professionals.  

And anyone who has been involved in real security issues will tell you that people who just react wholesale to anything are actually some of the biggest threats to real security.

MDW-DAL on Southwest

March 12, 2011 on 1:00 am | In Airline Seating, Airline Service, Airports, security, Travel Hints | 1 Comment

Returning to Dallas on Southwest from Chicago was a different experience.  First, we neglected to insist on avoiding Lakeshore Drive from downtown Chicago to Midway.  This found us sitting in stop and go traffic with our margin of safety time eroding quickly.  A quick tip and some encouragement to the taxi driver found us suddenly surging ahead when a hole opened and he got us there with time to spare. 

Again, I paid for Early Bird check-in on my flight.  This found me with a seat number of A group, position 37.  This is unsatisfying and I don’t believe the old “A” group went to 37.  What I’m saying is that A37 really translates into roughly B10 when you consider the number of people ahead of you and the fact that virtually every flight departing MDW originated somewhere else and already has passengers on it. I obtained a seat in the back on the aisle and that’s OK.

My security experience at MDW was unpleasant and I would say it was about average for a lot of busy airports.  In this case, I put the blame squarely on the staffers.  They were certainly moving in the Chicago Way.  One thing that found me objecting vocally were the wheelchairs.  While I stood in line with my belt and shoes in my hands, I saw 3 wheelchair bound people go to the front of the line where all three people got up, walked able bodied through the process and then sat down again. 

Sorry but being in a wheelchair does not entitle you to get in front of two dozen people waiting to move through.  I objected and the TSA offered that I was being unreasonable.  I offered that fair is fair and able bodied people in wheelchairs don’t get to go in front of me. Based on the reaction of passengers around me, public opinion was on my side.

Again, this airport is crowded and I walked the full lengths of both A and B concourses where I did not witness an empty Southwest gate.  I witnessed empty Delta gates and empty Porter Airlines gates but not one Southwest gate.  They are bursting at the seems and the gate areas don’t quite have enough space for full flights in my opinion. 

On this flight (via STL again), I witnessed person after person trying to stuff grossly overpacked and slightly oversized rollaboard cases into overhead bins.  This causes many delays when boarding the aircraft.  People move through the aisles slower, they put their things away slower and they fight for overhead bin space near their seat.  Flight attendants numbering just 3 per aircraft are not enough to keep this kind of herd flowing smoothly.  Even a few off duty Southwest staff pitched in to help and made little difference.

One staffer attempted to move my modest briefcase and light fleece jacket all the way to the back.  Uh, no, you aren’t going to penalize me for being efficient in favor of people who are apparently clueless about checking oversized bags.  My stuff took up, at best, 1/5 of the overhead bin.  I’m comfortable with that and it’s notable that just 2 fat bags were able to fit into the bin next to my stuff and the bin lid was only closed after a SWA FA essentially beat the bags down with the lid until it latched.

The flight departure was significantly delayed and I would attribute all of that to people boarding slowly, sitting down slowly, arguing for bin space instead of accepting a gate check of their bag and, last but not least, a 100% full flight.  These 100% full flights are exactly why SWA needs the Boeing 737-800 in its fleet.

Once every got seated, we did depart the gate fairly rapidly and experienced about a 10 minute taxi delay as well.  Once we took off, things settled down and the trip into STL was quick.  Taxiing into STL was efficient and deplaning went quickly.  However, once again, it was 100% full and, once again, we played baggage and seat games far longer than necessary.  This found the plane departing even later. 

Ultimately, I arrived in DAL about 40 minutes late.  That was unsatisfying because it wasn’t weather and it wasn’t the aircraft.  It was the sheer mass of people attempting to occupy too much space on that aircraft.   Southwest needs bigger gate areas to get people organized onto the aircraft and it might be time to consider some variation of assigned seating.  Too many people are jockeying for position on full aircraft and that delays things quite a bit.  Assigned seating would eliminate the jockeying and, I think, speed seating.  Unassigned seating on aircraft that are seeing 70% load factors is one thing but on aircraft that are as much as 89% load factor average, it becomes almost untenable.

All of that said, I still think the experience on both flights was as good or better than what was available to me via American Airlines, DFW and ORD airports.  And about $300 cheaper as well.  I still recommend Southwest but I also recommend that you use flights that are “no plane change” flights into and out of MDW or you may well risk making a connection.  That recommendation stands until Southwest improves its ontime rate at Midway.

One more hint:  Southwest doesn’t charge for checking your bags.  It has an excellent record when it comes to lost or misplaced baggage and it delivers checked bags to its carousels pretty quickly.  Save yourself trouble and just check your rollaboard.  You’ll find yourself able to maneuver on and off the airplane quicker.  You won’t have to fight for overhead bin space near you (and if you don’t get it near you, you’re going to be massively delayed in getting off that aircraft anyway.)  Don’t be vain and insist on taking it onboard when it is completely unnecessary on this airline.

DAL-MDW on Southwest

March 11, 2011 on 1:00 am | In Airline Service, Airports, security, Travel Hints | 2 Comments

Last Saturday, I wrote about a trip I was taking from Dallas to Chicago on Southwest.  This was my first opportunity to fly Southwest between the two cities and I’ve long believed that even though the flight was a one stop flight, it was actually as efficient or more efficient than taking a legacy carrier such as American Airlines from DFW to ORD.

Yes, it was.  Entry into Love Field and moving to the gate was simple and quick.  I don’t know why but they appear to be able to move more people through security at Love Field in shorter time than anything I’ve ever seen at DFW.  I also don’t know why the TSA staffers at Love Field are coherent and focused and polite in stark contrast with the typical TSA staffers I’ve seen at DFW.  The experience at Love Field is better in every way that counts.

The flight departed on time and arrived in St. Louis on time.  I paid for Early Bird check-in and got an excellent window seat in the front of the aircraft.  The flight was about 80% full to STL but I managed to not have someone sit next to me on that segment. 

Departing STL for Chicago, we were delayed a brief while and the Captain announced that they were holding at the gate due to traffic congestion in Chicago.  The weather in Chicago was overcast with extremely light snow falling and temperatures at about 36 degrees.  When we did take off, there was light to moderate turbulence for the first 45 minutes or so but it wasn’t really uncomfortable with a seatbelt on.  As we neared Chicago, the pilot performed a series of “S” turns and I would presume he was asked to do so to fit into the traffic pattern.

Landing at MDW was uneventful and the taxi to the gate was short and quick.  But now we get to the downsides.  It’s clear that Southwest is overtaxed at MDW.  It’s clear by the fact that virtually every gate had an aircraft and when I deplaned, I found every gate area I passed full to overflowing with people awaiting a departure.  The walk from the gate areas to the baggage claims is long(ish) but no more so than at many other older airports.  Certainly not really more than one experiences at Love Field. 

By the time I claimed my baggage, the person I was to meet there arrived and I waited another 15 minutes for him to claim his luggage as well.  Travel into downtown Chicago was efficient and quick but probably only because we insisted on taking the interestate northwards instead of being lead to Lakeshore Drive.  Make a note of this:  You’ll generally always be better off if you insist on the taxi driver not taking Lakeshore Drive to downtown.  They’ll insist that it is quicker, it isn’t.  It’s slightly shorter but much more congested as a rule.

My Southwest service excellent in all respects on that flight but I do understand why MDW is having delay problems.  I don’t think it is the airport so much as it is the fact that virtually every Southwest flight into and out of this airport is full.  By full, I mean full to the brim. 

What makes those full flights worse is the fact that a great many people are business travelers carrying quite a bit of carry-on luggage.  By quite a bit, I mean an obscene amount.  With unassigned seating, these travelers jockey for position, jockey for overhead bin space and jockey to avoid sitting in a middle seat.  I’ll have more on that in my next post on this trip.

Overall, the experience was pleasant and everything Southwest is praised for.  But that said, you’ll find that I see some growing pains in the Southwest model that I think Southwest is going to have to figure out if it expects to continue to profit in the future.

Those TSA guys are up to it again.

February 18, 2011 on 1:00 am | In Airports, security | 4 Comments

Two TSA officers from JFK airport were arrested for stealing $40,000 from someone’s suitcase.  The suitcase apparently contained $170,000 and was destined for Argentina (which is where the owner is now.)

The officers spotted the money during an x-ray of the bag and helped themselves.  The money was recovered (all but $20) after a third TSA officer reported the deed (and may I say kudos to whoever that was.)  Law enforcement are suspicious that the $170,000 was drug related and want to talk to the owner who, as was previously noted, is now in Argentina and firmly outside the reach of the long arm of the law.

Regardless of the origin of money, this points up what I and many think is a continuing problemwith the TSA.  They steal.

They examine contents of bags and steal.  I’ve heard far too many instances from readers of this very blog for this to be characterized as isolated incidents.  Truth be known, your possessions may be far safer locked in a car in downtown Detroit than going through the TSA security system.   And the TSA’s customary response to this kind of theft extraordinarily disappointing because the common response is “Gee.  Sorry.  But we do care”.  Obviously I’m paraphrasing.

More importantly, when thieving is taking place among the corps of people who are tasked with guarding the population against threats in the air system, how do you trust them to do their basic job?  After all, would you trust a guy who stole your prized wrist watch to guard your house against someone who wants to throw a brick through the window?

More Security Theater

December 23, 2010 on 1:00 am | In Airports, security | 3 Comments

Over the past week, I’ve seen several more examples of TSA Security Theater make the news.  First up is the businessman who managed to accidentally carry his personal handgun through security and onto an aircraft where he discovered his mistake during the flight.  To the man’s credit, he reported it upon arrival at his destination.  One has to ask how any TSA agent misses a handgun inside someone’s carryone baggage going through a scanner.

Then there was the small child who was frisked in Salt Lake City, Utah and who had to remove his shirt.  Originally, the reason cited was that he set off the scanner.  Later, it was revealed that it was because he was wearing “bulky” clothing.  One has to ask how a sweat shirt qualifies as bulky clothing. 

Finally, it was reported in the news that a TSA agent who was stealing laptops in Philadelphia has received probation for his offense.  The agent was reported by a baggage handler who saw this man hiding these items.  The irony of a baggage handler reporting theft is left to the reader. 

These aren’t minor, one time occurences.  They’re endemic to the security situation at most airports and representative of just how incompetently our security is being handled.  The government and, more specifically, the Department of Homeland Security has presented the new body scanners and thorough friskings (aka sexual assaults) as necessary to the security of air travel.

There are too many incidents of incompetence and dishonesty on the part of the TSA to see the new procedures as anything but additional layers of inconvenience that, considering who is performing the work, adds nothing to real security.  People have been trying to carry weapons onboard aircraft to commit serious crimes for nearly as long as airlines have been in existence.  After the spate of hijackings in the 1960’s and 1970’s, we introduced baggage scanning and metal detectors.  However, despite being given nearly 40 years to perfect the detection of a handgun, they still get through alarmingly easy at times.

Instead of ensuring that people actually do feel safer, our security apparatus has managed to make people feel even more annoyed at the idea of travel and that is saying something in this day and age.  If anything, we’ve gone from mere annoyance at our security theater to being often humiliated through the process. 

More machines and more procedures isn’t going to make us safer.  Having honest, vigilant and intelligent people run our security processes will.  Instead, we’ve created a new civil service job that pays poorly and attracts the barely qualified instead of the best of the best.   There is no esprit de corps inside the TSA and there is no honor in the job.  All too often we see these agents performing their roles with contempt for the very people they’re supposedly protecting.   Contempt that is justified with “terrorism” as a watchword.

It’s tolerated because the situation is presented in a manner in which people see no alternative.  When you have to travel 500 or more miles, there are few realistic options other than air travel for most people.  What is more insulting is that we have tacitly agreed to let the US government present the idea of air travel as a “privilege” rather than a “right” contingent upon you agreeing to let them do whatever they want to do in the name of security. 

I don’t think any rational person objects to real security work being performed at airports, including me.  What we do object to is the placebo approach to security veiled with threats and intimidation and conditional upon giving up constitutional rights such as the 4th Amendment. 

But as this holiday season goes on, people continue to be bullied, humiliated, insulted and intimidated all for the privilege of getting on an airplane to travel for pleasure or business.

The FAA and the 3 Hour Rule

September 16, 2010 on 1:00 am | In Airline News, Airline Service, Airports, Frequent Flier, security | No Comments

Two days ago, I took exception to a post made by the very popular blogger, The Cranky Flier, over statements made about the 3 Hour Rule.  The dialogue taking place over there highlights the biggest problems with arguments being made for and against the 3 Hour Rule.  Too many judgements are being made on both sides on the basis of incomplete data and emotional arguments rather than facts.

The FAA argued that tarmac delays were dramatically down versus a slight increase in cancellations and, I agree, crowing about it just a bit too much.  Cranky argued that the “slight increase” was in fact a 20% increase and there was an emotional reaction to that.  The problem is, no definition or data is being given for really measuring the impact of the rule on cancellations or the impact of the rule on people. 

Most of the original arguments made for a 3 Hour Rule were derived from exceptionally rare events.  Even when you considered those events in a seasonal context, they were vastly outside the norms.  Indeed, you might have been able to say that 3+ hour delays occurred infrequently enough to be considered statistically insignificant.  What we do know is that if your population of events is large enough, you’re going to have a few that occur far outside the norms. 

Further, we reacted emotionally to the conditions people sat through on many of those flights and really only to the subjective reactions on the part of people who spoke to the press.  We never heard from the person who just sat on the plane quietly for 7 hours and thanked his lucky stars he finally arrived home and got off.   That person doesn’t play well on CNN. 

I do think that there is an argument to be made for limits on the basis of health and welfare of individuals on flights.  I do not think it is wise to hold people on a MD-80 for 8 hours except in the case of major emergencies.

There are health issues to consider such as the close proximity and contact that occurs between a wide variety of people in that environment.  Air quality is another.  Sanitation is also a serious one.  Food and water is really a strong factor as well.  And let me point out that we will divert an entire aircraft to an unscheduled stop when someone is having a medical emergency.  There should be a discussion on how we value the health and welfare of people in these situations.  And just because 4 people want to go at all costs doesn’t mean that rises above the needs of 4 people who have serious health conditions that could well be impacted by a prolonged stay inside an aircraft. 

We should carefully evaluate anything we hear in the media about cancellations as well.  Should we be giving full weight to the person who had a flight cancelled and who suffered a 24 hour delay vs the other 10 people who had a flight cancelled and suffered a 5 hour delay?   Is a businessman’s need to get to the next meeting superior to the mother’s need to get her 2 young children off a plane because of health considerations?  The truth is, I don’t have black and white answers to questions like that but it would be good to see a debate on issues like that.  We, as consumers, should see a bit of argument on both sides and get a more complete picture before we start judging these moments purely on our needs at that particular moment.

As far as the data goes, we don’t know what the impact of this rule is.  We aren’t measuring the impact by the number of people per 100,000 travelers who are getting their flights cancelled specifically because of the 3 hour rule.  We know that cancellation rates go up and down.  Those cancellations can be caused by seasonal events, bad airline operations or, frankly, just a bad week of equipment failures at a particular airline (I believe it was AA who recently saw not one, not two but three 767s go INOP in a single day).  We do know that the overwhelming majority of flights never come close to spending 3 hours delay on the airfield.  Seriously, we do know that.  We know that the frequency of occurrence for delays going past 3 hours prior to the 3 Hour Rule was negligible by any standard. 

What I believe (which is different than objective fact) is that we also have a need for some kind of rule governing those instances that did fall outside all of the norms and which were not caused by major acts of god or major emergencies.  As Doug Parker said, the airlines did this to themselves in many respects.   There were enough instances that we, as a nation, found unacceptable given the particular circumstances around the event.  Airlines and airports didn’t deal with those situations considering what might be humane but instead were making objective decisions based on operational and financial data. 

Objective data and objective decisions are, generally speaking, good to have.  However, we live in a world with human beings who are very subjective creatures.  Yes, you really do have to give consideration to that. 

Statistically speaking, an increase in cancellations that sees a rise from 1.18 percent to 1.43 denotes an exceptionally slight increase from an objective point of view.  The FAA was right.  However, the FAA failed to consider the number of people who were potentially impacted by that slight increase and Cranky was right to point out that these incredibly slight increases do have an impact on a rather large number of people.  By Cranky’s math, that slight increase potentially affected 150,000 more people.  Are we satisfied with the idea that more people than the new Dallas Cowboys Stadium can hold were materially affected by a cancellation?  Well, we can’t even make that judgment because we don’t know all of the “why” behind each cancellation. 

But I think we can agree that it isn’t anything to brag about when 150,000 more people were affected by cancellations.  If nothing else, it is in appropriate to reduce people, human beings, to that kind of statement.

At some point we all should start acknowledging that our airline transportation system is imperfect and cannot delivery you to your destination 100% on time without any cancellations.  If you travel by air, you are going to be affected by a combination of factors virtually every time.  It’s time to be a bit more reasonable in our expectations.

On the other hand, it’s time for airlines to start acknowledging that as well.  One of the biggest causes of uproars over these kinds of situations is an airlines propensity to expect us to adhere to a byzantine set of rules governing our options when traveling while allowing themselves all manner of leeway for those same events.  Airlines want a $20 fee to check a bag but they don’t want to refund that money when they don’t perform.  However, when you miss flight due to a large traffic jam or weather event, you’re often expected to pay penalties and change fees for being affected by something outside your control. 

Not even Las Vegas has a better rigged game than the present US airline industry.  That is what is driving the perception that airlines are abusing people.  And I think it’s manifesting itself in reactions to the more outrageous although exceptionally infrequent events such as a long tarmac delay.  A little more balance between the airline and its customer is called for in my opinion.

Is it right for the government and/or the FAA to regulate some of this behaviour?  Absolutely.  Airlines are using public airways and other public infrastructure while serving the public.  They benefit from a great deal of government investment and expenditures.  The government is not created by the businesses for the businesses.  It’s here for the citizens.  The people who vote and who are ultimately and individually responsible for this nation.  That said, it doesn’t mean that the regulation and oversight needs to be hamhanded or political either.  However, just like no human being or airline is perfect, neither is government. 

Let’s be a bit more realistic about our expectations for all parties involved in this subject area.

Mexico’s Downgrade

August 10, 2010 on 1:00 am | In Air Traffic Control, Airline News, Airlines Alliances, Airports, security | No Comments

When the Federal Aviation Administration downgraded Mexico’s aviation safety from Category 1 to Category 2, people took notice and, no doubt, so did Mexico’s airlines.  Does this reflect on Mexico’s airlines?  Yes, I think so. 

Mexico has joined the ranks of countries such as Haiti, Congo and Serbia & Montenegro.  In fact, the only nation listed as Category 2 that surprises me is Israel and I suspect that has to do more with execution and very specific circumstances than it does with technical quality.  Nonetheless, when you join those ranks, it speaks poorly of your country *and* your airlines.

Is a nation’s aviation infrastructure always indicative of the airlines?  No, of course not.  There are plenty of Category 1 nations who have had airlines that had unsafe operations over the years including the United States.  However, I can’t think of a particularly outstanding airline coming from a Category 2 nation except El Al.   You don’t really hear of the operational excellence of airlines from Honduras, Paraguay or the Phillipines, do you? 

This is bad for both Mexico and Mexico’s airlines.  And with Mexicana trying desperately to leap off a cliff and kill itself, it looks even worse. 

Suddenly, Mexican airlines can no longer codeshare with US airlines because of this.  That means participation in alliances is going to mean very little in terms of revenue. That is going to hurt.  And, let’s face it, Mexico doesn’t have a great reputation for fixing its problems quickly.  The Mexican Way is to bicker about it for as much as a decade before doing something.

It would be in the best interest of airlines in Mexico to start safety audits with IATA immediately and to put political pressure on the government to fix this asap.  Sadly, I think this is going to get much worse before it gets much better. 

I am a huge fan of Mexico.  I genuinely enjoy its people and much of its culture and I want them to succeed every day.  That said, success isn’t going to happen until its current government and, more importantly, its businesses and citizens come together to insist on excellence.  They have, quite literally, a major conflict going on in their drug war and a crumbling financial infrastructure and waning exports to countries like the US and Canada.  This development in aviation puts them at a further disadvantage with its partner trading countries and it needs to get fixed fast.

Mexico needs to ask for help from the US and other countries fast.  Or they can contact Swaziland or the Ukraine and ask for advice on how to dig one’s grave even deeper.

GPS and Air Traffic

August 5, 2010 on 1:00 am | In Air Traffic Control, Airports, security | 1 Comment

Over the past year and particularly over the past 6 months we have heard a great deal about NextGen Air Traffic Control Systems using GPS for guidance.  GPS will allow aircraft to fly more precise routes and permit distances between aircraft to be reduced which should allow more “capacity” into our system.

Increased precision should permit a “redesign” of approaches to airports that will allow aircraft to enter a “pattern” earlier and perform continuous descent approaches that will save fuel and even reduce the workload on pilots.

On flights over oceans, aircraft could use GPS to precisely locate  themselves and then automatically report back their position(s) to traffic control centers which could then “tighten up” routes across those oceans and allow more aircraft to follow an optimal route. 

There is no doubt that GPS is overdue in this game but it isn’t necessarily the “no downside” solution to our problems either. 

GPS signals are provided by satellites and things can happen to those satellites to either block or severely degrade the signals.  Sunspot activity can affect their signals,  for instance.  It’s also not unheard of to suddenly find satellites decommissioned because they were hit by space debris or such intense solar storms.   Suddenly loss of those signals could result in a very intense situation where we find tightly space aircraft without the ability to precisely locate themselves.  The chances for this are, admittedly, statistically very low.  It’s worth an acceptable risk provided aircraft retain guidance redundancy with other systems not dependent on satellites.

Indeed, not all GPS signals are actually emitted from satellites.  There are ground based augmentation systems that permit a finer degree of precision in certain areas.  In fact, one such use is in Instrument Landing Systems being designed for the future.

But there is a security problem with GPS.  First, it is possible to “spoof” GPS signals.  In fact, it’s relatively easy to “spoof” these signals and a reason why the military doesn’t rely completely on GPS signals for guiding munitions and why they’re developing other systems that are not satellite based but which do provide accurate relative navigation.  

Signals by which aircraft would navigate are encrypted but that encryption is somewhat out of date for this era.  While a terrorist wouldn’t necessarily be able to spoof the signal, a foreign country could conceivably do so.  And you can do such “spoofing” by sending a signal from the ground, air or space with equipment that isn’t very costly and not very hard to engineer. 

While aircraft aren’t necessarily going to experience their guidance being impacted by pranksters or terrorists, the risk for it being a target of a foreign nation who decides its at war with the United States or some other country does exist.   Any country capable of doing the math and engineering technology from the 1980’s can potentially engage in this.   That might include countries such as North Korea or Iran.

In addition and quite unfortunately, China has shown its willingness to strike at satellites with missiles.  Again, any country capable of building an intercontinental ballastic missile is now capable of striking at GPS satellites in space.  And don’t think that those won’t be targets in a conflict, they will be.

While we have some safeguards and the United States Air Force works very hard at securing and protecting the existing satellite system, we really need a global commercial navigation system that is secured by a larger, more redundant grid of satellites.  A system that is owned and maintained by responsible nations of the world and one that is designed for air and sea navigation.  A system that is encrypted with modern encryption and upgradeable for the future.   And a system that can be “turned off” selectively for certain regions or countries in times of conflict. 

I’m thrilled we seem to be moving forward with a new generation of navigation systems.  It’s long overdue but I do wish that we would consider the security risks inherent with these systems just a bit more.

A Second Word on the Virgin Atlantic Diversion

July 3, 2010 on 1:00 am | In Air Traffic Control, Airline News, Airline Service, Airports, security | No Comments

Now that more than a week has passed, I want to revisit my first post about the Virgin Atlantic flight diversion to Bradley International Airport last week.  You can read my original post HERE.

First, I think both Congressional and administration officials have grossly overreacted to this event.  This was not a 6 or 7 hour event.  It was a 4 hour event.   And the primary cause of keeping people contained on the aircraft was weather and then no available customs and immigrations officers to process passengers.  You see, it might be called Bradley *International* Airport but it’s “international” aspect derives from relatively short flights to Canada.

Now we have Senators and Secretaries demanding that we impose a 3 Hour rule on international carriers and decrying the inhumanity of what those poor people experienced.   Indeed, the more these people pound desktops, the more they reveal their ignorance.

Folks, I’ve sat in an aircraft waiting 4 hours to take off a number of times.  It’s boring.  It’s tedious but it isn’t inhumane.  The same is true of a flight that likely took about 7 hours from London to the NYC area.  

The real issue here is what we allow when it comes to a diversion and the reason for that diversion.  I said it in my first post and I’ll say it again:  Virgin Atlantic’s chief mistake was in putting themselves into a position to have to use Bradley or choosing Bradley for its relatively low cost to land, refuel and take-off again.  There were plenty of better alternatives and VA didn’t choose one. 

If we presume a 200 nautical mile diversion capability, let’s look at what was in range from Newark (EWR).  Click THIS MAP to see what was available.

This flight could have made Boston, Baltimore, Philadelphia, any of the NYC airports, Washington Dulles and maybe even Pittsburg.  Short of a real fuel emergency, this flight should have made for one of those major airports that has full facilities for a widebody jet carry international passengers. 

The fact that we don’t distinguish what is and isn’t a legal diversion in a non-emergency event is a bigger part of the problem for international flights.  We make any airport that has the ability to land the aircraft a legal airport for diversion and I’m not so sure we should.  Perhaps a better rule would be to insist on the ability to divert (for non-emergency reasons and weather ain’t an emergency in most cases) to a *capable* airport designated as such for an international flight. 

Regardless, one of the reasons given for the delays was lack of customs officials.  The airport would not dis-embark the passengers until they had staff.  I may be wrong but I believe they could have allowed them off the aircraft *if* they were kept in a sterile area until customs officials arrived.  Whether or not they had a sterile area large enough is another question but also reinforces the need for diverting to airports that are properly equipped for these events. 

Who is at fault?  Virgin!  Bradley!  The FAA!  The passengers! No one!

The better question is how do we fix this so that passengers can reasonable expect reasonable treatment in a reasonable time period in non-emergency diversions.  And reasonable really is probably some amount of time between 3 and 4 hours.  

Look, no reasonable passenger is going to be outraged by many hours of delay when the aircraft engine shuts down and the flight has to divert to the first and best available airport during a real emergency.   Sure, there is always the chance of a crank or arrogant passenger being outraged no matter what but in those events, they just don’t count and virtually all passengers understand the nature of a real emergency.

The real failures are in events like these where the pilots gambled (on circling and hoping they could land too long), the airline and pilots choosing a poor airport, the FAA not distinguishing what is and isn’t an appropriate diversion airport in an event like this (and the FAA has no right to be “outraged” at VA since they themselves make an airport like Bradley legal for this kind of diversion) and where airlines continue to be ill prepared to respond to passenger needs during such events.  Might I point out that I would find it extremely hard to believe that someone couldn’t deliver a little food or attach ground air conditioning (if that airport has it) or a ground power unit (which I’m sure they have) to help provide power for air conditioning?

TSA to get access to “Secret” intelligence

February 15, 2010 on 12:00 pm | In security | No Comments

First, read this USA Today article HERE.   It would appear that there is a plan to give 10,000 (or more) TSA staff access to “secret” intelligence for performing their duties better.  On the surface, this decision has some merit in that it *could* guide a professional security agent better on what to look for as a threat. 


But you first have to have professional security agents and I would argue that TSA does not possess many of those.  Just read the posts at the link HERE


Frankly, the last thing we need or want is a large population of TSA agents using such intelligence to refine their justifications for unprofessional behaviour under the guise of “he/she fits the profile we read intelligence about.”  You see, having the intelligence is just one part of the equation in using it.  The other part is having the training and good judgement necessary to use it effectively.  That’s something I don’t think the TSA has proven it possesses given its KeystoneKops behaviour.

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