Your Weekend Reads for March 10, 2017

The roll-out of the Boeing 737 MAX 9. Photo courtesy of Boeing

It was a busy week for Boeing. The Seattle-based manufacturer received certification for its 737 MAX 8 and rolled out the 737 MAX 9 this week, as reported by Airways magazine here and here. But in an interview with Bloomberg, Air Lease Co. CEO John Plueger is pushing Boeing to give the green light to a 737 MAX 10, which would fill a gap in its product line equal to the Airbus A321neo, which is racking up orders.

Airports Council International-North America says the nation’s airports have nearly $100 billion in infrastructure needs between 2017 and 2021 to accommodate growth in passenger and cargo activity, rehabilitate existing facilities and support aircraft innovation, according to its Airport Infrastructure Needs: 2017-2021 report. The $20 billion in average annual infrastructure funding needs for U.S. airports is more than double the funding currently available through annual airport generated net income via Passenger Facility Charge user fees and Airport Improvement Program grants, says the report.

Last week, U.S. airline CEOs had the Big Three Middle East carriers in their crosshairs during the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Aviation Summit, reports Airways magazine. Etihad Group CEO James Hogan announced his departure in January after the carrier was hit with heavy losses caused by a global expansion via investing in more than half a dozen airlines around the world, according to Business Insider. And now Emirates CEO Tim Clark spoke about a “gathering storm” as his airline sees strong competition on its routes by low-cost carriers including Singapore Airlines’ Scoot and Norwegian Air, reports Bloomberg. When asked about changing Emirates’ widebody fleet to better compete, he said while he didn’t see any immediate changes, he did note that  “others coming behind may take a different view,” which was seen as a strong hint that his days in the top spot may be coming to an end.

Skift reports that as Emirates, Etihad and Qatar Airways deal with economic hardship and low oil prices, labor and service cuts are coming soon. Known for the over-the-top amenities offered to their top customers, Skift noted six areas where the three airlines may cut service, including lounges, food and beverage and aircraft orders.

Qatar Airways' new QSuite business class seat. Photo courtesy of Qatar Airways

But Qatar Airways isn’t going down without a fight.  The Runway Girl Network’s John Walton reports on the carrier unveiling its new business class seat, the QSuite. The seat offers families or other groups of four a convertible space a forwards-backwards staggered design that enables fully flat beds with direct aisle access for every passenger — with doors. The seat was unveiled at this week’s ITB Berlin trade show.

On January 10, 2001, American Airlines announced that it was buying the assets of troubled iconic carrier TWA for $500 million. And 16 years after that transaction, American — acquired by US Airways on Feb. 14, 2013 — is now being sued by three former TWA pilots over how the carrier handled a contractual dispute that could see at least 85 pilots demoted from captain to first officer, reports the Dallas Morning News. After the merger, instead of integrating TWA’s pilots into its seniority list, American just tacked 1200 of them to the bottom of the list. Changes were made to alleviate some of this, but they went by the wayside after American’s Chapter 11 filing in 2011, and its subsequent merger with US Airways.

A passenger being screened at Boston-Logan International Airport. Photo by Benet J. Wilson

A passenger being screened at Boston-Logan International Airport. Photo by Benet J. Wilson

I flew down to Fort Lauderdale this week to visit Spirit Airlines. I used Clear for my ID check and went immediately into the TSA PreCheck line. As walked through the metal detector, the device went off despite me knowing I didn’t have any metal in my pockets. I learned that I had been tagged for a random extra screening. But it wasn’t a normal pat-down. In fact it was what TSA is calling “a pat-down that is more involved,” reports Lifehacker. The TSA has warned airport officials, crew, and law enforcement that the new procedure “may involve an officer making more intimate contact than before.” I’ll just say my pat-down was pretty intimate, although the officer was very professional and told me exactly what she was doing during the process.

Here are my six picks for more stories you should read over the weekend. Enjoy!

17096557489_f0c56cdd15_kEDITOR’S NOTE: Benét J. Wilson is a freelance aviation/travel writer based in Baltimore who is available for your writing and branded content/content marketing projects. She’s the Air Travel Expert for About.com. Follow her travel-related magazines on Flipboard: Best of About Travel, a joint curation venture with her fellow About Travel Experts; Travel-Go! There’s Nothing Stopping You, all about the passenger experience on the ground and in the air; and Aviation Geek, a joint magazine sharing everything you need to know about the commercial aviation industry. Check out her travel-related boards on Pinterest and follow her on Twitter at @AvQueenBenet, on her Aviation Queen Facebook Page and on Instagram at aviationqueen.

Strange But True Aviation News

strange store

Armrest wars. Inc. magazine reports on a fight between two lawyers on a Monarch Airlines flight from London to Malaga, Spain. One lawyer took exception when the other fell asleep and intruded on their shared armrest, which led to a shoving match.

You should have checked that map. A British Airways flight from London City Airport to New York JFK — with a stop in Ireland — had to stay overnight after the pilots realized that maps to the U.S. hadn’t been downloaded, reports the Sun. Passengers stayed overnight in Ireland and continued on their flight.

Thin — and young — is in. Russia’s Aeroflot, in an attempt to revamp its image, is allegedly removing “old, fat ugly” flight attendants from higher-paying international flights, reports Radio Free Europe. The airline didn’t comment, but a flight attendant said she was told that “only the young and thin will fly abroad for Aeroflot.”

That landing gear might be handy. An Air India flight from Delhi’s Indira Gandhi International Airport to Cochin was forced to make an emergency landing and was delayed for four hours after two engineers “forgot” to remove pins from the landing gear of the flight, reports Scroll.in. If the pins are not removed, the wheels cannot be retracted while the plane is in flight. The engineers were relieved of their duties while the airline investigates.

Some extra seats would have been nice. A Pakistan International Airlines Boeing 777 flight (with 409 seats) between Karachi and Medina, Saudi Arabia, took off with seven passengers who did not have anywhere to sit, reports Inc. So they ended up sitting in the aisles instead of the carrier turning around and removing the extra passengers.

Invisible Highways: An Inside Look at Air Traffic Control in the U.S.

Photo courtesy of FAA

Guest Post by Annie Flodin

While I love music, these days I find myself listening to air traffic control feeds more often than tunes. On average, more than 400,000 landings and takeoffs occur at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport each year, and the fact that the controllers get them all on and off the ground safely never ceases to amaze me.

So when passengers at Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport were faced with serious flight delays in early February due to a computer issue in air traffic control, it really got me thinking about our own ATC system.

How exactly does it work? Is there a “backup” plan in the event something similar happened here?

According to a video released by the FAA, controllers have two primary jobs: to make sure planes are properly separated from one another, and to keep air traffic flowing in the most efficient manner.

When planes depart, an initial heading is used and then they fan out into their specific routes. When planes are nearing their destinations, they’re sequenced and merged into “arrival streams.” And in the air, planes have both a minimum lateral and vertical distance they must remain from one another.

Near airports, planes flying at the same altitude must be at least three miles apart, but at higher altitudes that jumps to five miles. And if planes don’t meet those lateral requirements, they must remain a minimum vertical distance from other one another. For commercial aircraft below 41,000 feet, the minimum vertical separation is only 1,000 feet. So when you’re at cruising altitude, the distance between your plane and one that’s above or beneath you could be as small as the length of three football fields.

Departures and arrivals also have numerous crossing routes where they must be separated from one another, so controllers are continually managing and separating them throughout the day.

So how exactly do air traffic controllers do their job?

Derek Sorenson has worked at the Minneapolis Air Route Traffic Control Center (ARTCC) for roughly three years, first as a contractor and more recently as a controller. The Minneapolis Center is one of 21 ARTCC facilities in the U.S. and encompasses nearly 400,000 square miles of Midwest airspace.

Sorenson is responsible for an area that covers roughly the northern half of Wisconsin, the upper peninsula of Michigan, and the northern half of the lower peninsula of Michigan. And a lot of planes fly through that airspace on any given day.

“If it were averaged throughout the year, I would estimate something like 2,000 aircraft per day,” he said.

Before departing, pilots file a flight plan with the ARTCC, which includes their requested route and altitude. The controllers do their best to accommodate these requests, but that’s not always feasible. “Sometimes, for traffic situations or a required route to be flown to a busier airport, we need to change things up,” Sorenson said.

FAA-ERAM

There’s no such thing as a “typical day” for Sorenson, and he likes that. “It all depends on many factors such as traffic volume, weather, turbulence, and how many people are working that particular shift,” he said.

On the job, he is in constant communication with pilots via radio, and with other controllers via phone. And when it comes to tracking aircraft, he primarily works off of a radar display that runs on En Route Automation Modernization (ERAM). ERAM technology is a vital component of the Next Generation Air Transportation System, commonly referred to as NextGen, and is helping in the transition from an aging ground-based air traffic control system to a more modern satellite-based system. Previously, controllers could only track 1,100 aircraft at a time, but the use of ERAM has increased that capability to 1,900.

Lucky for him, Sorenson has never encountered a significant system failure akin to what happened in Amsterdam, and he isn’t aware of any past incidents at the Minneapolis ARTCC. The most notable event he could recall here in the U.S. was in September 2014 when a contract worker set fire to the Chicago Center early one morning. As a result, thousands of flights into and out of both Chicago O’Hare and Midway airports were delayed or canceled.

“In the Chicago incident, they lost communication and radar… so they were ATC-Zero,” said Jennah Perry, Program Chair and Assistant Professor of Air Traffic Management at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University.

atc_ERAM

The Independent reports that in Amsterdam, the fault apparently occurred with radar correlation software, which compares and assesses information from primary and secondary radar. Perry explained that primary radar detects anything that has mass, whereas secondary radar only picks up aircraft that are carrying a transponder.

“I would imagine it is the system that puts them together that failed,” Perry added.

According to Perry, the FAA is supposed to have contingency plans in the event of radar failure. In the Chicago situation, even though there were plans in place, they didn’t work. The controllers didn’t have proper training on following the plans and there wasn’t proper infrastructure.

“Due to the high demand of air traffic and the lack of ability to train and be current on those non-radar procedures, those contingency plans are ineffective in the event they have to be used,” Perry said.

The contingency plans in place in Chicago were designed for short-term use, which created limitations and required controllers to discard the plans and instead work with adjacent centers such as Cleveland, Minneapolis, Kansas City, and Indianapolis.

A similar incident happened in October 2015, when record rainfall caused flooding at the Austin-Bergstrom Terminal Radar Approach Control (TRACON), also resulting in an ATC-Zero situation. The damage affected the operations for more than two weeks.

Over the last three years, a number of incidents have revealed a lack of resiliency in the current air traffic control structure, but ultimately, it was the fire at the Chicago Center that led to the FAA’s extensive review of its current contingency plans.

According to a January 2017 report released by the Office of the Inspector General, the FAA’s contingency plans are not yet sufficient to minimize the impact of system disruptions.

Following the Chicago incident, the FAA updated its contingency plan policy to include goals to achieve 90 percent capacity at the top 30 airports with the most passenger activity within 24 hours, and 90 percent capacity at facilities that manage air traffic at high altitude and in the vicinity of airports within 96 hours. But in a crisis situation, that’s just not realistic given the current plans, according to Perry. “The centers will not be operating at normal capacity… they’ll be operating at maybe 30 to 40 percent,” she said.

Additionally, the Air Traffic Organization (ATO) completed a 30-day assessment of the operational contingency plans, which identified five next steps that needed to be completed within one year. However, two of those steps have not yet been fully completed.

“Right now if any major facility went down in the U.S. to ATC-Zero, it would cause major havoc over the whole U.S. airspace system,” Perry said. “It’s a domino effect.”

According to her, our current radar-based system just won’t cut it… the only thing that can bring our centers up to the 90- to 100-percent efficient status they’d need to be at following a crisis is NextGen.

Key site testing for NextGen’s NAS Voice System (NVS) is expected to be complete in 2019. This voice switch capability would allow controllers to talk to any aircraft anywhere in our airspace. So if one facility lost communications, another facility could communicate with their aircraft. Once these systems are certified and available, they’ll be installed in terminal and ARTCC facilities, likely between 2019 and 2026.

Perry said the change in technology is great, theoretically, but it’s timely and expensive.

“It has a lot of advancements that we need in order to keep our system safe and streamlined, but with technology comes failure… redundancy needs to be there.”

So while flying is statistically the safest form of travel, more work needs to be done to keep it that way. The FAA has made progress by establishing goals and working to achieve them, but the January report concluded that until the administration strengthens controller training and implements policies and procedures for transferring traffic within all airspace, they’ll continue to face challenges.

Realistically, in a situation similar to what happened in Amsterdam, we probably wouldn’t fare much better than they did. But in the next 5-10 years, once NextGen is fully implemented, a center’s response to a crisis will almost certainly be much smoother and more effective, making our skies even safer than they are today.

IMG_4438Annie Flodin is a seasoned communications professional and aspiring aviation journalist. She and her husband Scott live in Minneapolis with their two cats. In her free time, she enjoys plane spotting, writing, and spending time outdoors. She blogs at The Great Planes, and you can follow her on Instagram and Twitter: at @thegreatplanes.

Your Weekend Reads for March 3, 2017

A U.S. Customs and Border Protection officer screens an international passengers arriving at Washington Dulles International Airport Photo by Glenn Fawcett/CBP

You may have heard of a recent incident when passengers on a flight from San Francisco to New York were asked to show “documents” to U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents as they deplaned. The big question was whether Customs could require U.S. citizens to produce documents on demand that shows their citizenship. This article in the Atlantic says no, but with further explanation, because the answer isn’t quite so simple.

And on the heels of that, airports and civil rights lawyers are preparing for the next travel ban coming from President Donald Trump, reports Skift. Reports have the revised travel ban coming in the next few days with a promise that it will be rolled out in a more orderly way. It is expected to focus on six of the seven original countries (Iraq was removed) banned, but won’t target  travelers who already have visas to come to the U.S.

A first class Etihad Airways suite with the seat transformed into a lie-flat bed. Photo courtesy of Etihad

A first class Etihad Airways suite with the seat transformed into a lie-flat bed. Photo courtesy of Etihad

Thanks to my work, I’ve had the opportunity to fly in some great first class cabins. But as airlines worldwide have focused on upgrading their business class offerings, it leads to this question from APEX Media: Is the First-Class Cabin Becoming Obsolete? It was noted by attendees at the recent Business Travel Show in London that first-class products from the airlines were “conspicuously underrepresented.” The magazine noted that first class is effectively disappearing as airlines go through their fleet replacement processes.

Eighty-five percent of people who traveled by air in 2016 said they were “very satisfied” or “somewhat satisfied” with their air travel experience, up from 80 percent in 2015 according to a study by Airlines for America, reports Marketwatch. And a new study by The Points Guy reveals that Fort Lauderdale, Fla.-based ultra-low-cost-carrier Spirit Airlines is the worst carrier in America. The study looked at factors including price, convenience, headaches like lost baggage and extras like lounges and frequent flyer programs.

Scott Hamilton of Leeham News and Comment posts about AirAsia X’s long road to becoming profitable. Started in 2007, the long-haul unit of AirAsia was stymied after choosing the Airbus A330-200 and A340-300, two thirsty aircraft during a time when fuel prices were at record highs as it struggled to become profitable.  

32927117661_d6700cd198_z

It was big news when Delta Air Lines announced it was adding the Airbus A350 to its fleet after Boeing lost its battle to sell the Atlanta-based carrier its 787 Dreamliner. Delta recently gave the public a sneak peek of the A350-900 taking shape at Airbus’s assembly line in Toulouse, France. The A350, expected to be delivered this fall, will have 32 Delta One suites, 48 seats in the Delta Premium Select cabin and 226 Main Cabin seats, reports the Delta News Hub.

On March 20, 2012, Arkansas’ Little Rock Municipal Airport Commission voted to rename the city’s airport the Bill and Hillary Clinton National Airport to honor its former governor and his wife, the former Secretary of State. And now state Rep. Jason Rapert (R) has filed a bill that could remove their names from the airport, reports NPR.  The bill would forbid the state from naming facilities built with public money after people who are still alive.

Here are my four picks for more stories you should read over the weekend. Enjoy!

17096557489_f0c56cdd15_kEDITOR’S NOTE: Benét J. Wilson is a freelance aviation/travel writer based in Baltimore who is available for your writing and branded content/content marketing projects. She’s the Air Travel Expert for About.com. Follow her travel-related magazines on Flipboard: Best of About Travel, a joint curation venture with her fellow About Travel Experts; Travel-Go! There’s Nothing Stopping You, all about the passenger experience on the ground and in the air; and Aviation Geek, a joint magazine sharing everything you need to know about the commercial aviation industry. Check out her travel-related boards on Pinterest and follow her on Twitter at @AvQueenBenet, on her Aviation Queen Facebook Page and on Instagram at aviationqueen.

Strange But True Aviation News

Strange hand

Big plane, small route. United Airlines dispatched a Boeing 747 jumbo jet to fly from San Francisco International to Los Angeles International Airport. Why? To help hundreds of passengers affected by record rains and winds that wrecked havoc on the airline’s West Coast schedules causing delays and cancellations, reports Travel Skills.

I guess she really wanted that drink. A woman on an EasyJet flight from England to Spain caught drinking her own vodka was escorted off the plane and met by met by two police officers and three security guards, reports AOL. When she was leaving Spain, the airline had canceled her return, forcing her to buy a ticket on another carrier.

Coke isn’t it. A pilot known as ‘the Flying Dutchman’ is going to jail for 23 years after being convicted of smuggling cocaine worth nearly $3 million, reports the International Business Times. He was caught and arrested while sitting on the toilet in his hotel room.

Armrest wars. Inc. magazine reports on a fight between two lawyers on a Monarch Airlines flight from London to Malaga, Spain. One lawyer took exception when the other fell asleep and intruded on their shared armrest, which led to a shoving match.