Public service announcement

CBC: WestJet charges $25 for checked bags in economy:

WestJet is now charging economy-fare customers $25 for their first checked bags on flights within Canada and to the U.S.

The fee applies to any new bookings starting Monday, for travel as of Oct. 29. The Calgary-based airline says it expects only about 20 per cent of its customers to be affected by the new fee.

This is your periodic reminder that the “low cost” part of “low cost carrier” refers to the carrier’s costs, not yours. Thank you for your attention in this matter.

Spit take

I don’t normally have to watch what I’m doing while reading Richard Aboulafia’s monthly commentaries, but November’s might have been a good time to start:

The A350XWB-1000 has since lost some commonality, but has gained market appeal as Boeing keeps pushing out the 777-X, most recently to the early 2020s. But the -800 is best regarded as a practical joke by Airbus to test the theory that some airlines will buy any damn thing no matter how completely preposterous. Looking at the specifications, either the 787-8 or -9 should be able to outperform the A350-800 by a wide margin.

This month, Qatar Airways passed the test, as did Afriqiyah. Both switched their -800 orders to non-stupid versions of the A350, leaving behind just 92 orders for the smaller variant. This list includes five orders for Kingfisher, which Airbus keeps on the books for nostalgia and because Europe doesn’t have an SEC.

There’s a certain je ne sais quoi about those two paragraphs — a lovely, heartwarming combination of snark, amusement, and barely-concealed hostility. It was great. I have diet Coke in my nose.

20 July

I know I’ve written about this before, but I’ll be damned if I can find it, so here it is, once again, for posterity:

Most everyone can quote the first part of Kennedy’s speech, the part that ends, “not because they are easy, but because they are hard.” Most people cannot, however, quote the second part of that speech, which explains why the hard things are worth doing. We like to think of Kennedy as being some bold visionary when it came to all sorts of things — like most historical figures, he was, and he wasn’t — but he was absolutely a pragmatist when it came to goals for Apollo. In the context of 1962, seeing the Russians way ahead of the United States in space, knowing the US would never beat the Soviets in low-earth orbit, Kennedy needed a literal moon shot to get back ahead. That it provided an organizing goal, a task to which the entire nation could rally, was icing on the cake, a perfect win-win.

Starry-eyed fans of the space age sometimes find it difficult to look at the pragmatic, cynical way in which national space policy has been conducted. We look at things like STS and the International Space Station as weak because the political will was lacking, and we’re right, but we’re wrong about why. Great things like Apollo are historical accidents; NASA has spent 50 years pretending that the funding levels of the Apollo program were the normal, and that everything since then has been an aberration. It hasn’t, and they’re finally starting to grasp that, difficult though the concept may be. Those of us who are science fiction fans, who dream of a future in space, are having to face the unpleasant truth that this kind of future probably won’t happen — that barring great national pride issues, we aren’t heading back into space in a big way anytime soon.

Graphic horror

AFR447 pitch order and sidestick deflection, from Bureau d’Enquetes et d’Analyses pour la securite de l’aviation civile

I’m still working my way through the final BEA report into the crash of AFR447. There’s certainly a lot to digest, particularly if you’re got any interest in human factors, and the relationship between automation and pilot training. But the thing that’s struck me so far is the image above, which came as part of the factual summary of the flight.

The image is a depiction of, among other things, the flight director orders to the pilots (where available) and the inputs given to the sidestick by the pilot flying the aircraft. Over the space of 90 seconds, the PF commanded no fewer than 27 significant pitch changes — the only thing I can think of is watching him push the sidestick back and forth without really understanding what was happening (and, given the CVR transcripts, that’s pretty much exactly what happened); perhaps unfairly, it brings to mind a driver who, skidding out of control on an icy road, repeatedly cranks the steering wheel back and forth.

I’m not qualified to comment on what those kinds of rapid pitch changes would do to an A330 in either flight law, or whether that kind of thing is normal.Based on my own experience, I’m guessing that rapidly switching between 1/2 nose up and 1/2 nose down, over the space of a couple of seconds, probably isn’t normal or something they teach you in Airbus Flying School. Having said that, BEA wonders whether or not the flight director’s commands — really, suggestions to the pilots — as represented by the green bands on the graph, might have lead the pilots further astray and been a contributing cause of the accident.

Learmount has more about this, and his point is well-taken:

If the flight management system computers have recognised their limitations and handed back control to the pilots, what are the flight director bars doing pretending they know any better? …

The flight director cross-hairs on the primary flight display are an aircraft-aiming tool that is increasingly irrelevant in an era when pilots, according to airline standard operating procedures, hardly ever touch the controls.

Yet they are a compulsively attractive tool. If they are there, you will follow them, especially if you are flying manually on the very rare occasion when you find yourself having to go manual in IMC. If you are feeling under-confident and out of practice, and are flying at night with no natural horizon, you will find yourself clutching at those crossed straws, even if they are mis-directing you.

We have no idea what the FD was telling the pilots — BEA had to rebuild the FD data based on an assumption about what the A330 would have been thinking, given the same air data inputs — and so we have no idea whether the pilot flying was just manipulating the sidestick back and forth frantically, or whether he was trying to follow a flight path laid out for him by the airplane, even as that path was essentially the exact opposite of what was needed under the circumstances, and even as the airplane itself was literally screaming “I’M STALLING!!” at him.

Automation dependency

I’d encourage anyone with more than a passing interest in the events of AFR447 to take a look at the new Popular Mechanics piece making the rounds. If this is an accurate depiction of what happened on that flight deck, it is incredibly damning. This is rapidly becoming a turbofan-powered version of CJC3407, but arguably worse — Colgan, at least, had horrific working conditions with lousy pay, and exposed the regional airline system as a mostly dysfunctional mess. AFR447 is vastly worse in that three well-rested, very well-paid pilots flying a state-of-the-art aircraft essentially stalled all the way down to the ocean from 34,000′.

It’s not that simple, of course, and there’s loads of blame to go around; Learmount has been particularly good about this, noting that the pilots either didn’t understand, didn’t believe, or didn’t act on the information the flight data computers were feeding them. There are any number of reasons why. I am aware that the pitot probes were iced, and that the airspeed was unreliable, but one would think — hope! — that pilots could look at the other instruments and figure out what was going on, or at least figure out what the safest course of action was. That they couldn’t does not reflect well upon them or their training.

It’s difficult to see how the A330’s flight control systems made things safer. I was particularly struck by the part about how the left sidestick has no information on what the right sidestick is doing, and the motions required to fly with a sidestick aren’t nearly as dramatic as those needed to fly with a yoke or a center-mounted stick. (The article goes into some detail on this point; my executive summary is that if this had been almost any other airplane, someone would have looked at the PF’s controls and said, “Put the fucking nose down,” probably within about 10 seconds of evaluating the flight situation. Obviously, that didn’t happen.) Then again, given the confusion about normal and alternate law in Airbus land, and the uncertainty about what flight mode the aircraft was in, maybe this doesn’t matter — believing that normal law flight protection would keep the airplane above the stall, maybe other peoples’ actions wouldn’t have been much different. I don’t know.

I read the PM report shortly before I encountered this video:

… which I encourage you to watch in its entirety. Pilots will find it fascinating; anyone curious about human factors and automation will find it of value, too. But pay attention to the date on this video — it’s well into its awkward teenage years now, and everything is still true, and the accident record continues to bear this out. For reasons that are difficult to understand, pilots continue to fly perfectly serviceable airplanes into the ground under conditions where the autoflight systems have disengaged, and people die. I don’t know what we’re planning to do about this.

For love of the game

It’s that time of the year again: the time when frequent flyers everywhere start looking at their mileage summaries for the year, checking their numbers against the officially-published lists of requirements for elite status, and everyone wonders what next year’s program is going to be like. It’s also the time of the year where airlines roll out the changes for the next year. Aeroplan recently announced it would be adding fuel surcharges to Star Alliance award flights, where previously it had only done so against Air Canada-operated flights. These surcharges could get ridiculous, to the point where the surcharges made it difficult to justify redeeming miles for the flight: when we went to Japan back in the spring, I was offered connecting flights KSEA-CYVR-CYYJ on Air Canada, and Aeroplan wanted $380 for surcharges and taxes for those flights. Thing is, I could buy the revenue tickets for $365 and take another 1,000 miles for the deal, so yeah, that’s what happened.

This change has meant that a lot of people are modifying their travel plans a bit — I’m certainly looking a lot harder at our travel plans for next year in an attempt to beat the surcharges on Thai, ANA, Asiana, and a few other carriers not called Lufthansa (where it is too late). Even among those who aren’t planning to travel, though, there’s a lot of anger. And there usually is a lot of anger around this time of year: status benefits change, upgrades are reduced, and it seems like everyone else has it just a bit better in a different airline’s program than you do in yours.

Over on FlyerTalk, a member posted a manifesto for those angry at this kind of stuff:

Every year, or several times per year, people seem to worry about switching programs, or where to go, or if to stay, and it all gets very intense.

This is an alternative set of ideas for those who get very anxious about airlines and the programs they offer.

  1. Most important of all: marketing is a powerful tool that airlines have used very effectively over many decades. While it is impossible to completely escape its effects, the most relaxing thing you can do is to realize that your airline-related hysteria is primarily caused by the aura that the airlines still manage to have – notwithstanding the fact there is nothing at all special about them.
  2. Never depend on an airline to do anything properly, such as get you anywhere when you need to be there, or get any of your stuff anywhere at all.
  3. Do you get so anxious about every industry you deal with? Grocery stores? Banks? If you did, I’m surprised you aren’t in the hospital. See #1.
  4. Airlines offer programs involving points, upgrades, and the like, entirely for their own benefit, without regard to what you might get out of it. They are not rewards for your loyalty in any way, shape, or form.
  5. It is the ultimate goal of all airlines to make you think you are receiving benefits when in fact you are not.
  6. The superiority of one airline’s program over another is always temporary.
  7. You are not important to the airline, no matter how much you think you might be.
  8. The following cannot all exist simultaneously, even for any subset of customers:
    • A generous upgrade scheme
    • A generous award flight availability scheme
    • A generous points earning structure
    • A quality product
  9. The best you can hope for with airline programs is a sort of arbitrage situation, in which your above average knowledge allows you to get an above average amount of benefits. The airline will always attempt to reduce your ability to benefit in this manner.
  10. The airline sets the rules. The airline can change the rules whenever it wants, without notice, and should always expect it to do so to its own benefit. Always consider your “assets” (points, upgrade credits) to be worthless, so that when they become worthless you will have lost nothing.
  11. Have no expectations and you will never be disappointed.

I find this surprisingly refreshing. I loves me my status as much as the next person with “AC*E” printed on their boarding pass, and I’m tickled pink I requalified much earlier this year than in the past (no 40-minute trip to Los Angeles or one-way home from Vancouver for me!), but I think zorn makes a lot of sense with zir list, and I’ll endeavor to keep it in the back of my mind when I inevitably start screaming once the Air Canada program for 2012 is announced.

zorn’s point 9, however, has a shocking amount of truth to it, and gets to the heart of what I think drives a lot of FFs: We love the game. We love the system. It reminds me of nothing so much as being a phone phreak — it’s not exactly the places the system takes us, though that matters a great deal, but rather the idea of possessing a body of knowledge about a fairly opaque world that most people don’t care about, and where the details of that world are derived through experimentation and community knowledge sharing. It isn’t about trying to defraud the airlines (or the phone company, for that matter) — it’s about trying to understand something, and I occasionally think my ultimate dream job would be in network or operations management for a major international airline.

I can’t think of any reason why otherwise sane people would spend hours combing through the fare databases looking for mistakes, why our idea of a good time is reading the entire contract of carriage, or why we can describe, in some detail, the route structure of an entire airline alliance. It’s the only way I can explain having an entire list of upgrade and mileage-earning fare buckets at the tip of my tongue, or why I know what the spot price of a ticket to Toronto is on any given day. Much in the same way that a phreak could talk your ear off about MF signalling or the differences between N2 and T-carrier, I can spend hours about the intricacies of clearing a waitlist or how to work the system to your benefit during IRROPs (and why you should always, but always, take a bump if one is offered). This is interesting stuff, but it’s the sort of thing no normal human really needs to know. I know it’s trite to say there are two kinds of people in the world — there always are, but this time it’s true: you either care about this kind of stuff, or you’re not. Chances are if you’re fascinated with the minutia of running an airline you’ve been similarly obsessed about other opaque systems in your life. If not, well, too bad.

As for why the airlines inspire this level of devotion, it’s not complicated. zorn talked about that too. It’s marketing. This is from Delta, about a half-dozen years back:

I loved this ad when it came out, because it captured something fundamental about the experience of travel that’s difficult to put into words, and it manages to illustrate the passion that good travel can inspire. My new hands-down favorite, though, and the one that made me cry like a small child when I saw it for the first time earlier today, is the contemporary British Airways advert:

I know zorn is right: the airlines are no different from any other business I deal with on a daily basis. But they are the vehicle through which many of our dreams about travel, adventure, change, and possibility (and here you’ll have to excuse the expression) find flight. Airline marketing works because they are selling a product that most of us would buy anyway, simply because of what the product represents. Beer advertising makes it look as though you’ll meet lots of attractive women if you drink their product; that doesn’t actually happen. But get on an airplane and you really do end up somewhere else, even if “somewhere else” happens to be Pittsburgh. That’s awfully powerful.

Patrick Smith says that he became a pilot because, as a child, what fascinated him were the route maps in the back of the in-flight magazines, and the possibilities they represented. I was like that, too. Heck, I still am. It is just marketing, a bit of captive advertising, to let you know what the airline could do, if you gave it enough of your time and money, and with that potential comes a thousands dreams of far-away cities, strange lands, and new experiences. You either get this or you don’t, and you can be rational about your engagement with an airline or you can’t.

I’m trying to be rational about my relationship with Air Canada and the Star Alliance. But I’m not sure that it’s possible. Like I said, there are two kinds of people.

Misogynists in the frequent flyer lounge

While I’m on the subject of Air Canada flight attendants, I’m absolutely horrified at the blatant level of misogyny coming from posters on FlyerTalk. In almost every discussion about North American airlines and the in-flight service standards, someone will make a comment that “the crews are old.” This is really a shorthanded way to say “the crews are ugly,” but a more honest statement would be “the chicks aren’t hot.”

It gets worse when the comparison comes in between North American carriers and Asian-based carriers. Because we all know that “Asian chick” = “teh hotness,” and so NA-based carriers should immediately run to Thailand and scoop up the hot chicks to work their cabins, as well as institute mandatory retirement clauses at age 30. And, hey, Asians have better work ethic than Americans or Canadians, and they’ll work for less money, and maybe they won’t know about unions, and we can have a great airline for less with hot chicks serving us drinks.

Hoo boy. I leave it as an exercise to the reader to pick apart exactly how many problems there are in that position. Is it the misogyny? Is it the objectification? Is it the idea of outsourcing? Is it the notion of subservience of Asian women to white men? Oh, the thrills! (I’m not going to provide links to each one of those statements, but trust me, they’re in that forum in the threads dealing with the FA strike. Search at the risk of your soul.)

Ignore the disrespect of the cabin crews and their professional responsibilities. The level of objectification here is just staggering, and anyone who makes a statement like this:

Just wish SQ flew into YYZ so at least I will have smiling dolls onboard.

and thinks that it is (a) a positive comment about Singapore Airlines and their cabin crews and (b) a disparaging comment about Air Canada’s cabin crews and (c) is OK in 2011 is a piece of shit. (I’m posting this rebuttal here, and not over on FlyerTalk, because I’m not sure I can abide by the Terms of Service on that bboard and it isn’t fair to make the moderators delete a lengthy post from me that includes multiple uses of the word “fuck” and its derivatives.) The cabin crew is there for your safety. They are not there to serve you drinks, or for you to look at and think naughty thoughts. If those things happen, fine. But that’s not the primary focus of their role, and if you’re going to switch airlines because you think 110-pound Singapore Girls are better to look at, you’re a fucking asshole. Oh, you’re entitled to hold that opinion, and you’re entitled to make that choice, but you’re still a fucking asshole.

On the littler guys

You might have noticed recently there are a bunch of protests erupting all over the place. The arguments of the protestors are, to be sure, unfocused and confusing. I have some level of sympathy for these guys as a group, but that’s not really what I’ve been thinking about recently. Instead, I’ve been thinking about the people who are on the other side.

(Warning: Long, unfocused rant.)

Continue reading “On the littler guys”