Archive for September, 2009

Will Turbulent Times Affect Aircrew Attitude?

Wednesday, September 23rd, 2009

The next time you board an airplane, have a close look at the flight attendant. Is the insincere smile slightly less sincere than usual? Does she have a worried, far-away look in her eyes? If the answer to either question is yes then the chances are she’s a victim of the recession – even though she still has a job

Since the astronomic fuel prices of 2008, the airline industry has been under siege. The credit crunch followed, and many companies went to the wall. For the survivors – and it has become a battle for survival – rapid and Draconian measures were needed.

This is nothing new. The industry is cyclical by nature and undergoes a downturn every 10 years or so. September 11th hit hard, and before that was the first Gulf war. However, each time, executives follow the same map to recovery they cut capacity, cut fares, cut costs.

Unfortunately, this time, most airlines don’t want to lose market share and have slashed airfares to keep it. As the fuel price is out of their control, the only way they can afford this huge loss of income is to cut costs, and cut them hard.

This affects cabin crew in many ways:

Short Term Effects
The quickest way to cut costs is to cut staff salaries and there’s a result within a month. This is the obvious one, and the reason flight attendants might seem a little distracted. Contrary to popular belief, many airlines pay crew a pittance and more cuts could see several of the regionals paying just above minimum wage. Reports exist of some flight attendants, and even pilots, qualifying for food stamps.

Customer service suffers, as people start asking why they should go the extra mile for a company that wants their children to starve. However, there will always be company minded crew (usually those with an eye on promotion) who resent the more militant ones, seeing them as a threat to their future. Working in such close confines, this can lead to open conflict on board. There is strong anecdotal evidence that, during a dispute in the early 90s, two crew from a major US carrier started a catfight in the cabin!

Cost cutting also directly affects staff morale. Aside from cuts in pay and conditions, crews have to tolerate the results of decisions made at head office. An accountant may think that the money saved by reducing the product on board is justified, but after the hundredth time of explaining why there are no more blankets, many flight attendants just lose interest.

This apathy usually means that, when the unions come a-knocking, the crew want to work-to-rule, or even strike, just to get back at the managers who are making their life a misery.

Longer Term Effects
Some of the larger airlines still have crew working on contracts that are over 30 years old. Compared to new contracts, these pay much more money, and have conditions that benefit the worker, not the company. Looking to the future, several airlines have offered voluntary severance in order to reduce costs. The downside of this? By definition, it is the senior crew who are targeted, cutting a huge experience layer from the top.

Couple this with reduced starting salaries, and reduced recruitment standards just to fill vacancies, and the future isn’t orange, it’s green. This lack of experience will tell in the cabin, but not only affecting customer service. It may also affect the crew’s ability to handle emergency situations. When the chips are down, it’s not possible to put a value on having someone who has “been there, done that”.

So the next time you don’t get a smile as you are shown to your seat, don’t assume it’s just because the flight attendant is a miserable cow. She might have a lot on her mind too!

$592: Los Angeles to Madrid

Tuesday, September 15th, 2009

Fly high-class for low quid. Soar to Europe’s top cities this fall and winter on British Airways. There’s a stopover in their hub city of London, but this is a great chance for budget conscious flyers to afford them. I put them in the class of Singapore Airline and Virgin Atlantic in terms of passenger comfort and service.

The destination cities on sale are Amsterdam, Athens, Frankfurt, London, Madrid, Paris, Prague, Rome and Vienna.

Sale fares good for travel from October 22, 2009 through March 28, 2010 (December 21-23, 2009 excluded). Sale ends on September 24, 2009. Read more.

Why is my Flight Stuck on the Runway?

Friday, September 4th, 2009
In August 2009, 47 Continental passengers were forced to remain on their jet overnight…

Apart from sharing an Atlantic flight with a screaming infant, there’s nothing more frustrating than being trapped in a cramped aluminum tube for hours–and going nowhere. Worse still, for shorter commuter flights, it only needs a 90 minute delay and it would’ve been quicker to drive.

Recently, there have been high-profile cases of passengers being stuck on board for several hours. In August 2009, 47 Continental passengers were forced to remain on their jet overnight after it diverted to a regional airport. It seems that the duty manager refused disembarkation because security staff had gone home. Whilst these marathons are quite rare – for now – some airlines have seen the litigation on the wall and done something about it.

In 2007, Jet Blue published a ‘Bill of Rights’ after passengers endured up to 11 hours on their aircraft, unable to disembark. There have been shorter hijackings! With this Bill, passengers are assured compensation. Even so, the trigger point at which the airline actually guarantees to deplane is an amazing 5 hours. With a decent tailwind, that’s the flight time from Boston to London.

So, what are the main reasons for tarmac delays?

Firstly, it’s necessary to understand airline policy. In most cases, they will board even if they know of a delay in advance. Larger aircraft take over 30 minutes to get passengers into the right seats, by which time any potential improvement will have been missed. There’ll be an inbound flight needing the gate as well, so the best place for the delayed plane is on a taxiway, ready to go.

‘Avoidable’ Tarmac Delays:
Although there’s an argument that tarmac delays are unavoidable by their very nature–no airport makes a plane sit there for the fun of it–a bit of common sense could have made all the difference. Take the Continental example above. The passengers weren’t going anywhere until the airport reopened, so why not let them wait in the terminal?

Air Traffic Controllers do an excellent job, but are often let down by their tools. Certain airports operate a ‘slot’ system, where peak hours are divided into timeslots, then allocated to airlines. There’s little flexibility allowed for, and a few minutes’ delay early on can snowball into hours for later flights.

Sometimes ATC is its own worst enemy, too. In June 2000, a new UK airspace system went live one day, and dead the next. The back-up system was paper strips, something designed decades previously, and massive delays were inevitable.

One more ‘avoidable’ cause is the technical delay. Obviously, airlines cannot predict exactly when a part will fail, and would be negligent to depart with a defect. However, if they haven’t the spares available then the delay can be substantial, especially if a part needs to be flown in from the airline’s main base.

Unavoidable Tarmac Delays:
ATC can be responsible for a delay even when they’re doing an excellent job. They occasionally have in-flight emergencies where a stricken aircraft needs to land immediately. In such cases, a runway will be made sterile–closed to all traffic so that nothing can block it. And if that was an active take-off runway…

A more common situation is where a nearby airport has been forced to close. Diverted airplanes will be low on fuel and, unless the diversion airport has several runways, take-offs will be curtailed. Add to this all those planes sitting on the ground that should be somewhere else, and the knock-on effect is enormous.

And so to the big one. Weather.

With her thunderstorms, wind shear, fog, snow and hail, Mother Nature clearly hates the aviation industry. Commercial pilots never willingly fly into hazardous weather conditions, and a big thunderstorm can close even major airports. It’s obvious to those waiting in the pouring rain what the problem is. But passengers 500 miles away, whose flight is sitting in blazing sunshine, might just think they’re being lied to when weather is quoted as the cause.

With passenger numbers increasing, and the airways becoming more and more congested, one thing is certain. Tarmac delays are here to stay.