Sunday, June 29, 2008

Meanwhile, back at the airline debacle . . .a call to action!

Use up your frequent flyer miles ASAP!

As of Aug 15 Delta will add a $25 fuel surcharge for frequent flyer tickets booked for trips within the U.S. and $50 on tickets booked for travel "elsewhere." Delta says it is also coming up with a "new multilayered award program" in the next 60 days. Look for increased numbers of miles required for a free (?) ticket among other things. American is already charging $5 to book frequent flyer tickets and US Airways will drop the hammer Aug 6 with a $50 fee. Northwest is kind of laying in the weeds on this one as with other "fees" thus far, and is instead encouraging folks holding frequent flyer miles that don't add up to a free ticket to apply what they've got towards a paid ticket. Could this be an effort to absorb as many frequent flyer miles as possible in anticipation of changing the program a.k.a NWA's mother ship Delta?

What else happened. Oh yes. Gary Chase, an industry analyst for Lehman Brothers predicted that air fares, which have already risen about 17% this year may rise another 8% by the end of the year and as much as 40% over the next four years. Destination cities are falling off the map. By year's end roughly 100 American communities will be left without regular commercial air service and that number may double next year. People who live in smaller communities that lose air service will have to drive an hour or two on their own gas to get to a regional airport. Hundreds of airplanes will be parked. Parked planes and fewer destinations mean employee layoffs. Most of us are cluelessly doing our lives as usual during this crisis. We hear what is in store but we haven't seen it yet. A classic state of denial. But when we want our kids home for Thanksgiving and Christmas, or want to take a little break in the sun over next winter, the moment of truth will be here.

By comparison the absolute frivolity of my last post (a little internet ditty about Lutran Airlines) seems like a giggle richly deserved, doesn't it? Oh, and apologies to any Lutheran folks out there who took exception. I guarantee clean stuff, but classy sometimes eludes.

In closing it seems current events in aviation are taking their toll in unexpected ways. A United airlines flight was cancelled because the pilot decided he was "not calmed and focused enough" to fly after an argument at the gate with colleagues over whether or not he had to wear his uniform hat. The pilot announced his decision to the passengers who then emitted a collective groan before they were let off the plane.

More frivolity anyone?

Thursday, June 26, 2008

LOOK! Up in the Sky! Is it a bird? Is it a plane?

NO! It's a Mixed Plane!

I figure we need a little reprieve from the dire, more dire and exceedingly dire news of today's airline industry and its impending implosion.

So I dug in my mixed bag of airline trivia looking for a less ominous distraction; considered and rejected the mixed message and the mixed drink and chose instead a mixed metaphor!

What is a mixed plane you ask? Or, more appropriately, what was a mixed plane? It was not so named because it carried different classes of passengers. Commercial flights were all one class 50 years ago. An airplane held either all first class or all coach passengers, with appropriate service according to class. Everybody on the airplane paid the same amount for their ticket, depending on destination. Then bigger and faster jets came along and we were introduced to economy class, tourist class, business class and no class in addition to the familiar first class and coach. That was when all passenger classes began occupying the same airplane and we coach passengers found out how much fun it was to board just aft of the flight deck and slink along the aisle between those huge comfortable seats while avoiding eye contact with first class passengers on our way to our cheap seats in the tail.

The mixed plane was immortalized in a New York Times article on August 5, 1956. "FLYING VIA THE MIXED PLANE - Airline Freight Flights Also Take Travelers at Reduced Rates." The article announces that Northwest was the first airline to operate a freight-passenger flight in the United States, five nights a week, Mondays through Fridays (except holidays.) It took seven hours and twenty minutes for the eastbound-only flights between Minneapolis-St Paul and New York's Idylwild Airport (now JFK) with stops in Milwaukee and Detroit. The stalwart DC-4's on this run were outfitted with seven rows of removable tourist-type seats placed two and three abreast. A dark-colored curtain separated the passengers from the freight. Stay tuned for more about what lay beyond the dark curtain in a future blog post.

One had to weigh the pros and cons of traveling on a mixed plane. No surprise, the biggest "pro" was a cheaper fare. MSP to New York, one way including tax, was $39.60 or the equivalent to about four gallons of gas in today's dollars and gas prices. This would be a good time to tell you that the regular one-way tourist fare back then, MSP to IDL, was a whopping $52.47. By comparison you would have paid coach train fare of $46.92 or $29.48 for a bus ticket over the same route in 1956.

The biggest detractor on the "con" side was the seven-plus hour flight. And sometimes the loading and unloading of freight interfered with the routine. Extra-large or cumbersome consignments might cause the plane to leave MSP late or stay longer than its alloted 48 minutes in Milwaukee or forty-five minutes in Detroit. Typically the flight left MSP at 10:30 p.m. C.S.T. and arrived at IDL (JFK) at 7:50 a.m. E.D.T. Passengers could be roused from slumber in Milwaukee or Detroit or both and asked to wait in the terminal while a bulky piece of freight was loaded or off-loaded through the passenger portion of the plane.

I flew the passenger-freight schedule a few times. We're talking no frills here, folks. For the most part these all-nighters were quiet, easy flights for cabin crew; sleeping passengers and no meal service. The most excitement came when delivering beverages to the flight deck. One had to pick one's way carefully through the darkened freight section, trying to avoid hazards like ropes and floor brackets while carrying a tray of hot coffee. The eerie glow of distant cockpit instruments helped illuminate the path but lent a decided creepiness to the surroundings. A mixed blessing, metaphorically speaking.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Airline Forecast: Less air . . . and more lines

George Carlin died yesterday. I loved his hippy-dippy weatherman routine. "Tonight's forecast . . . dark, continued mostly dark tonight, followed by scattered light in the morning."

Also yesterday an intrepid group of 28 passengers filed a federal lawsuit alleging that the proposed merger between NWA and Delta would result in "higher ticket prices and diminished service." They could have added "and longer lines."

Well gol-lee, as Gomer Pyle might say. (Forgive me. I'm so last-century. Its all George Carlin's fault.) Anyway, gol-lee folks, ticket prices are going up and service is diminishing right out of sight, regardless. One doesn't need a merger for this to happen. It's happenin' right now, for crying out loud.

Remember that little display that showed the maximum size a carry-on bag could be? It was right in plain sight and we were invited to place our bag on the display to be sure we were within size limits. Then that disappeared along about the time we were confronted with security checkpoints and the hassles of passenger screening, courtesy of the Transportation Security Administration (TSA). I guess they figured confiscating our liquids and making us take off our shoes and empty our pockets and sometimes get "wanded" was enough stress for us beleaguered passengers. So they got less fussy about the size of carry-ons.

Until now, that is.

It has been reported that American and United will station employees and contract workers at entrances to security screening lanes to intercept customers exceeding carry-on limits. American says it will pull customers aside at boarding gates if the airline thinks they have too much carry-on baggage as well as step up announcements about size limits in gate areas and even on airplanes. As far as I can determine they haven't yet said what they will DO to the offenders, but in the time-sensitive arena that is a boarding gate, I'm guessing they would either confiscate the carry-on or charge the hapless soul a fee to check the bag. Standing in line somewhere has got to be part of the deal. Northwest and Delta have so far been silent on the issue. They are too busy "merging" these days.

But Al Sleet, the hippy-dippy weatherman might say that the forecast for the airline industry is less air . . .and more lines.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

The Flying Evangelist

The internet is a marvelous thing . . . but today is the glorious first day of summer in Minnesota and calls me to the porch, so my post today will be brief.

One thing truly does lead to another when one is involved in a research project as I happen to be. In my last post I mentioned Rev. A. C. Valdez, pastor of the Milwaukee Evangelistic Temple, who chartered a NWA Boeing 377 Stratocruiser to broadcast an airborne church service in 1959 and took his 50 member choir along for the ride. I got curious about Rev. Valdez and discovered that long before his innovative Stratocruiser church service at 16,000 ft over Milwaukee, he'd been known as 'The Flying Evangelist.' He earned this moniker in the 30's and 40's when he held revival meetings in tents. To draw people to his meetings he would fly an airplane over a town where a meeting was being held. He would toss out leaflets or soft rubber balls (ouch) with meeting information on them. I haven't been able to determine whether he or someone else was the pilot. And we sincerely hope those rubber balls did not do any damage, human or otherwise. Amen.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Nearer my God to thee . . .

While doing some research for my upcoming book at the NWA History Centre recently I came across this item in the May-June 1959 issue of the Northwest Airlines News:

"Religious Group Holds Services in Stratocruiser

Milwaukee - Church services of the Milwaukee Evangelistic Temple were held April 5 in a chartered Northwest Orient Airlines telephone-equipped Boeing Stratocruiser.

As far as it is known it marked the first time organized worship ever has taken place in an airborne commercial airliner.

The hour-long services were part of a drive to make Milwaukee "God-conscious," according to the Rev. A. C. Valdez, pastor of the Evangelistic Temple. They were broadcast "live" via telephone by Milwaukee radio station WMIL. Rev. Valdez preached his sermon from the plane and was accompanied by a 50 voice choir."

The piece goes on to say that the flight climbed to 16,000 feet and flew over the Milwaukee-Chicago area. Capt. Erling Johnson cut back engine RPMs to insure the best possible ground reception of Rev. Valdez's broadcast. The transmission was termed a "splendid success" by NWA Comunications director Ray Weihe.

I'm not suggesting a revival (no pun intended) of this religious outreach activity of 49 years ago but given the state of commercial aviation today "it couldn't hurt" as they say. Then again, at todays aviation fuel costs can you imagine the tab for lifting a pastor and his 50 voice choir over Milwaukee and Chicago for an hour? Can anybody out there calculate that for me please?

Friday, June 13, 2008

Nickled & Dimed

We knew it was only a matter of time.

US Airways announced yesterday it will begin charging $2 for nonalcoholic beverages on its domestic coach flights beginning July 9. Will other carriers follow suit? The dilemma for passengers here is that they can only BYOB if they bought it at an airport store beyond security. When was the last time you priced a bottle of water or soda at an airport vendor? Right. Suddenly the $2 on the airplane sounds like a bargain. See how this works?

US Airways, like most commercial airlines these days, is in a world of hurt. They have survived bankruptcy not once, like NWA and Delta, but twice since 2001. They will also match American and United airlines in imposing a $15 fee for the first checked bags.

American, currently the nation's biggest carrier (until NWA, the little old airline on the prairie is acquired by Delta to become THE BIGGEST AIRLINE IN THE WORLD) has tried to raise ticket prices twice in the last couple of weeks but their competitors will have none of it. So instead they add more fuel surcharges. More nickle and diming. Wouldn't you rather just pay more for the ticket and avoid the festering fees?

What do you bet the next big thing will be the "carry-on crisis." As people try to avoid the checked bag fees, they will carry more bags on the airplane. There is not an infinite capacity for carry-ons here, folks. As more seats are crammed into fewer airplanes, overhead bin and under seat capacity has shrunk exponentially. When you get hit with a carry-on fee sometime soon, remember you heard it here first. Its only a matter of time.

I'm thinking I'll just travel with what I have on my body. It will be cheaper to buy a new wardrobe at the other end and mail it back home before my return flight.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Airlines are in the toilet in more ways than one

Oh the indignity of it all.

We are now faced with wimpy water closets! Tim McGraw, Northwest's director of corporate environmental and safety programs says the airline is putting 25% less water for bathroom faucets and toilets on its international flights. Water weighs 8.3 pounds a gallon and a gallon of jet fuel weights 6.8 pounds. "Every 25 pounds we remove, we save $440,000 a year," Mr McGraw said according to an article by Micheline Maynard in today's New York Times.

Yes I know - the airlines have it bad and that's not good. They're shaking the trees looking for every possible way to save on fuel costs. Still . . . less hand washing and flushing power? What would our mothers say?

All this "toilet talk" has brought to mind other tales of the lavatory, some airborne, some not:

  • A 19-year-old Woodbury man has been charged with allegedly setting a fire in the restroom during a Compass Airlines flight from Minneapolis to Regina, Saskatchewan. According to a criminal complaint, Eder H. Rojas, a flight attendant upset at having to fly that route, started a fire in the bathroom of the May 7 flight. Flight 2040 made an emergency landing in Fargo. None of the 72 passengers or four crew members was injured. Star Tribune, May 16, 2008

  • In the 1954 film The High and the Mighty, starring John Wayne, Robert Stack, Claire Trevor and Jan Sterling, an airliner loses an engine en route from Hawaii to California. The first inkling of impending trouble takes place in the aircraft's lavatory when the stewardess is looking in the mirror repairing her makeup and notices that the mirror is vibrating. I can still call up that scene in my minds eye, probably because I was a stewardess when the movie came out. When the engine goes out there is much emphasis on the fact that the flight is past "the point of no return," where it takes equally as long to go back to where you started as to continue on to your destination. And in 1960, on my way to Hawaii on my honeymoon I looked for vibration in the mirror when I used the lavatory, and thought I saw some! Were we at the point of no return? Remember folks, we're pre-jetliner here, and it took those Pratt & Whitney propeller engines a long time to churn through the skies over the Pacific. Note to self: I must rent that movie soon.

  • Lastly, and taking place in my childhood home on terra firma, are a couple more: I remember the time I locked myself in the bathroom when it came time to take the cookies out of the oven. My sister was sick of having to take out the cookies when they were done and was "teaching me a lesson." I had a fear of touching hot things from my toddler days when I burned my hand on a kerosene lantern while being carried to a relative's barn to see the kitties. So I cowered in the bathroom while the cookies burned and my sister burned up. Later, when a teenager, my pack of cigarettes was confiscated by a furious mother. I was forced to tear the remainder of the cigarettes in two, 19 to be exact, and flush them down the toilet while my mother stood over me.

I promise, we'll can the toilet talk next post!

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Memo to Airline CEO's: Have you counted the paper clips?

Donald Nyrop did.

Donald Nyrop became the youngest president of a U. S. Airline in October, 1954, when he took the reins of Northwest Airlines at the tender age of 42. Early on, his department heads became aware that cost control and precision in budgeting were the name of the game for Nyrop. He needed capital to modernize the airline's fleet and lenders were dragging their heels, waiting to see how he would do. He needed to replace the old, tired DC-3's and DC-4's with new and more economical DC-6's, DC-7's and Lockheed Electras. He needed snow bird destinations in warmer climates to boost revenue in the winter months. He needed permanent certification of the routes to Honolulu and the Orient.

But first, he needed to get the bankers attention by improving the ratio of operating revenues to operating expenses.

That meant counting paper clips. And staples. And pencils. And cellophane tape. An article in the August, 1956 issue of the Northwest Airlines News*, an employee publication, was devoted to office supplies costs. In it employees were asked, "Have you thrown away a pencil when you could have used it a while longer?" The article then went on to list the costs of various office supplies in the preceding year:

Paper clips: $150.13
Staples: $843.20
Pencils: $8,005.69
Tape: $1,583.31

Granted, it is not 1956 anymore. Deregulation has spawned more airlines flying ever bigger, fuel guzzling aircraft traveling over ever longer routes, criss-crossing the globe. But 24 of those airlines have declared bankruptcy in the past year. Most of the existing "legacy" carriers have emerged from bankrupcy once, only to face it again. Mergers, once seen to be the vehicle to save the day, have become tentative. Alas, it is way too late now to start counting paper clips again. And I don't think we'd have any luck coaxing the legendary Donald Nyrop out of retirement.

*The NWA History Centre has archived copies of Northwest Airlines News going back to the 1940's.

Sunday, June 1, 2008

A long ride . . .a long high ride . . . .

Having heard in the last couple of days that British Airways will be tacking a $400+ fuel surcharge to its "long haul" flights, this 1930's poster advertising a Long Ride for $2.50 and a Long High Ride for $5.00 makes graphically clear that we've come a long way, baby!
Other airline news in the past week reveals that the United/US Airways deal is off the table. This is United's second try after a proposed merger with Continental fell apart. The word is that no more airline mergers are likely in this $130+ barrel oil climate.
What about the merger that threatens to turn the little old airline on the prairie into THE BIGGEST AIRLINE IN THE WORLD? Northwest and Delta both claim that their deal is still on, pending Justice Department approval. Delta president Ed Bastian said that after the merger with Northwest the combined airline would be financially capable of withstanding high oil prices over the long term. Both Delta and Northwest will make substantial cuts in flight capacity this fall and Delta intends to grant voluntary buyouts to more than 3,000 workers. The "big six" legacy carriers have instituted 12 successful price increases since the beginning of 2008 plus fee increases for baggage and flight changes.
No cost is too minor to be overlooked. Southwest Airlines will remove the little complimentary bag of pretzels from its coach flights. Smaller airlines that haven't already gone under are also seeking creative ways to cut costs. Sun Country said this week that it will cut managers salaries by 10%. This was announced by CEO Stan Gadek, who took a 15% cut in his own pay.
Yes, it is becoming a very long ride, indeed!