Tuesday, 21 October 2008

Where is Runway Girl? There she is!

A big "Thank You" to everyone who has left comments on this blog in recent months. As you may have noticed, however, the action has moved. Since February, I've been blogging as Runway Girl at the following URL:
www.flightglobal.com/blogs/runway-girl/

So come on over and join in the discussion about in-flight entertainment and connectivity, regional aircraft programmes and the trials and tribulations of the airline industry.

We're climbing atop seaplanes just for you!

Monday, 18 February 2008

Runway Girl Takes Flight While Playing Ring Girl to AirCell and Row 44

Hello Runway Girl readers,

The time has finally come for me to transition from Blogger to my journalistic home, Flight Global. What better way to celebrate than with a blog post that shows just how competitive the in-flight connectivity sector has become? Many thanks to the CEOs of AirCell and Row 44, Jack Blumenstein and John Guidon, respectively, for their candid thoughts.

Here's the blog - http://www.flightglobal.com/blogs/runway-girl/ - but here's a little taste:

Blumenstein says: "The only thing I know of with Row 44 is temporary authority on a month-to-month basis to do ground trials. They don’t have the authority to fly anything at least from [what we see] on the public record.”

Guidon says: "Rather than engaging in a war of words, we’re circumspect about what we say in our releases to the public and we prefer to let our actions speak for us. We cordially suggest that Jack [Blumenstein] might follow the same policy.”

Who wins round one? You know I'll let you decide. And give me your thoughts about this post, my Flight blog in general, and anything else on your mind, won't you please?

http://www.flightglobal.com/blogs/runway-girl/

Thursday, 14 February 2008

Mesa CEO Jonathan Ornstein Admits "Biggest Mistake" of Career

Say what you will about Mesa's top guy, Jonathan Ornstein, the man speaks his mind. In a candid interview with me today, Ornstein admitted that Mesa's decision not to invest in US Airways during the Star Alliance member's 2005 exit from Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection and merger with America West Airlines was a big ole mistake.

"Clearly the company would be in far different shape if we had in fact invested in US Airways," says Ornstein.

He adds: "I would say probably the single biggest mistake in my career was not making that investment..."

A number of outside investors were involved in the US Airways/America West deal, including Air Wisconsin, which, as one insider puts it: stayed in business, got a new contract and on top of that, made a handsome return on its investment.

There is also no doubt that Mesa has had a rocky time of late. Its profitability has taken a hit, and its reserves have depleted after being ordered to post a $90 million bond as security for a judgment against the company in favor of Hawaiian Airlines (you'll recall how things got rather ugly in court with Hawaiian accusing Mesa's former CFO Peter Murnane of spoiling evidence and the Phoenix-based regional arguing that he was deleting pornographic content from work computers).

Lest you start counting Mesa out, however, the company is vigorously defending itself and feels confident it will eventually prevail. Remember also that Mesa boasts feeder deals with Delta, United and US Airways (it does admit that 50-seat flying for United has been "significantly unprofitable").

To be fair, things haven't been all sweetness and light since US Airways exited bankruptcy. Merged labor deals continue to appear out of near-term reach for US Airways. And the carrier has faced quite a lot of negative press about operational disruptions, etc (especially in Philly). But let's give credit where credit is due. That was one sweet honey-pot of a merger deal.

(Ornstein photo from official bio at http://phx.corporate-ir.net/preview/phoenix.zhtml?c=78947&p=irol-govBio&ID=136195 )

Wednesday, 13 February 2008

Sweet Shiny Cockpit: Boeing 787 From The Inside

Mike Carriker, chief pilot for the Boeing 787 program, in a nice new report lays out the twinjet's flight deck design and features, as well as Boeing's philosophy.

Carriker notes, for example, that more features are provided as basic including: dual HUD, vertical situation display, large format map 1280 NM range, independent TCAS displays, RNP .1, full face O2 masks, triple tuning control panels, ATC uplink preview windows/MCP, electronic flight bag, electronic checklist, enhanced ground proximity warning system, airport map, single SATCOM w/full provisions for dual*, flight deck printer, HF data link*, light interphone system, dual cockpit voice recording (extended recording), auto scan weather radar, full time tactical map, and message based synoptic selection.

*Optional on the 787-3

Tuesday, 12 February 2008

Swift Aviation Completes A Giant Task; Eyes Fleet Growth

If someone asked me to name the winner of the Super Bowl – and told me I couldn’t Google the answer – I’d be hard-pressed to say who played whom or where the event was held (unless the Pittsburgh Steelers were involved). Please don’t judge me. I spent some rather formative years in Ireland and then moved to western Pennsylvania.

But even I admit I was impressed by some Super Bowl stats (and glossy pics) made available by Swift Aviation Group, a fixed based operator (FBO) with a luxury terminal at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport.

Swift, which was the official FBO of the Super Bowl Host Committee last weekend, handled 455 aircraft and pumped over 280,000 gallons of Jet A fuel during this period. The company filled up all of the available parking space at its terminal as well as a special overflow area secured specifically for the Super Bowl (see pic to the right).

It was, by all accounts, a record for the company. In fact, it pretty much blew "the charts off on that", Swift Air VP of flight operations Michael White tells Runway Girl.

Okay, you ask: "What does all of this mean to me, a commerical air transport staffer, executive, enthusiast, avid Runway Girl reader (ahem)?" Well Swift’s charter airline, Swift Air, operates a fleet of 10 aircraft, including Cessna Citation and Embraer Legacy business jets and three 68-seat Boeing 737s (one former Icelandair bird and two ex-US Airways aircraft). It mainly flies for sports teams and corporations. And while Swift isn't interested in competing with scheduled carriers, it is eyeing fleet growth "and is looking at a handful of options right now", including more 737s, reveals White.

Should you be interested in chatting about these opportunities with Swift, you should know that the firm really hasn't looked outside of the 737 in terms of narrowbodies because it "likes the reliability", has a lot of experience with the type and "a lot of support with vendors and partners with that particular model", says White.

However, he adds: "We previously owned a 757 – we might look at that again at some point."

Very light jets might be on the horizon if a business case can be made. "We’re taking an optimistic view on that market until we make a determination. There is room for expansion but don’t know what our role will be at this point. [I'm] not sure that the model is mature enough to support it from a business perspective," says White.

Swift is also studying "other opportunities in other parts of the country"

All this action helps explain why the company recently announced it is one of the “few charter airlines in the country” to reach an agreement with the FAA to establish an aviation safety action program (ASAP), which encourages voluntary reporting of safety issues at airlines and maintenance centres.

“Participating in ASAP not only the right thing to do for our customers, it’s also a strategic business decision that we believe will set us apart from our competitors,” says White.

“In fact, we’re one of only a handful of companies to participate in all four areas of the program – pilots, maintenance, dispatch and flight attendants – even among the major commercial carriers.”

Monday, 11 February 2008

Hot Stuff: Banner Year For In-Flight Technology, Says IMDC

One of the most prominent consultancy firms in the in-flight entertainment and communication industry, Inflight Management Development Centre (IMDC), has released its latest forecast for 2008-2012. And the World Airline Entertainment Association (WAEA), in its own quarterly Avion magazine, has been good enough to break down some of the key points as follows:

  • Over 16,000 commercial jets are expected to be delivered over the period 2007-2012. Over 3,000 of these will be line-fitted with IFE.

  • The total value of line-fit IFE is estimated at over $4.6 billion for the period.

  • During 2007, airline expenditures on IFE hardware alone represented about $1.45 billion.

  • Another key milestone during 2007 was that airline expenditures in the seat market were expected to break through the $1 billion barrier.

  • 2008 is expected to be a very busy year for in-flight technology in general. It will most probably be a record year in terms of airline expenditures.

  • A number of connectivity solutions will enter operation during 2008. We are expecting rapid take-up rates in specific competitive markets such as North America, transatlantic and the Middle East.

  • Portable IFE had a relatively small base of $75 million for 2007. We expect double-digit growth for the next two to three years. Howeer, there will be consolidation in this sector as suppliers implement new business models.

Last September, at WAEA’s annual event, former IATA head – and current Thales Canada chairman - Pierre Jeanniot noted that the entire cabin environment is becoming a “driving force of airline business success”.

Though difficult to quantify an exact return on investment, he said, “investing in premium service is simply mandatory for any carrier committed to remain a credible player in that market segment”.

In light of IMDC's forecast, it appears that Jeanniot’s assessment of the industry was bang-on.

Thursday, 7 February 2008

Hummers, Cocaine and IFE Prove a Skirt-Splitting Good Time

It was September 2003. The World Airline Entertainment Association (WAEA) was holding its annual conference and exhibition in Seattle. As usual I had booked my schedule to max-capacity, meeting with executives from in-flight entertainment (IFE) and communications firms during the day and writing late into the night about their plans. As an added convenience, I was pregnant – perhaps not noticeably so, but enough that I split my skirt while sitting down to a computer at Kinkos, where I was forced to set up residence after my laptop crapped out (pity me yet?).

Needless to say I was keen not to waste any precious time during the event. It turns out that’s exactly what I did when I met with executives from a now-shuttered US firm that called itself SkyWay Aircraft (also referred to as Sky Way).

You might recall this Florida company, venerable subsidiary of SkyWay Communications Holding. It announced it would develop a ground-to-air aircraft communication network built on technology formerly operated by AT&T Wireless Services’ defunct in-flight seat-back telephone service.

SkyWay’s strategy was to upgrade the airborne network - also known as Claircom - to provide state-of-the-art in-flight products, including high-speed Internet, telephone services, and advanced IFE systems. But the plan, in the kindest description, never grew legs.

SkyWay in early 2005 came under fire by certain shareholders, who accused it of falsely representing itself through US Securities & Exchange Commission filings and press releases, and of management for failing to disclose to shareholders that the firm “did not possess the technological capability of transmitting Internet access and voice and data access to commercial airliners as it purported”.

There was also the little matter of an alleged squandering of corporate assets and the purchase of six Hummer vehicles that executives “claimed would be used for ‘marketing’ activities”, among other alleged infractions. SkyWay executives resigned; the company went bankrupt.

Then, in what falls under the “you just can’t make this shit up” category, SkyWay’s former demonstrator aircraft, a McDonnell Douglas DC-9 painted to resemble an aircraft used by the US Government, in 2006 was seized by Mexican customs officials after it was found to contain a mountain of cocaine. The aircraft flew from Caracas with two pilots and cargo of 100 suitcases, marked “private” no less, and each filled with 50kg (11lb) of the white stuff.

The story gets rather convoluted from there and a quick Google search will give you just about all you’d want to know about it (good luck sorting through the fact, fiction and conspiracy theory). An industry colleague of mine was kind enough to alert me to the latest unfolding drama involving the SkyWay name as reported by MadCow Morning News - which brings me back to my interview at WAEA. SkyWay didn’t have a booth at the 2003 event, but its president Brent Kovar agreed to sit down with me at one of the lunch tables (the hunger was on me and I was ready to eat the table. Luckily, I wasn't quite ready to eat the story).

During our conversation, I remember feeling rather sceptical about SkyWay’s whole offering (admittedly one did not need to be rocket scientist to feel that way – hey they were talking “algorithms” for goodness sake).

However, in light of all the action in the in-flight connectivity world today – and all the big claims - I thought it might be interesting to take a look back at the promises of would-be IFE/connectivity start-ups of yesteryear. Check out my original article below; it ran on Air Transport Intelligence. There are lessens here for all of us, including:

1) Don’t try to squeeze into your size six when you’re busting at the seams.

2) Eat your damn lunch.

3) Don’t mark drug-packed suitcases with the word “private”.

4) Don’t buy six Hummers – five will do.

5) And don’t make connectivity claims you can’t meet.

Oh that last one is a good one, eh? Several companies are planning to trial their connectivity systems onboard aircraft in the near-term – those who acquired real air-to-ground spectrum licenses and those who plan Ku band-based offerings. Who’s got the real goods? It won’t be long before we find out.

Sky Way pushes ahead with IFE business plan despite skepticism
Mary Kirby, Seattle (12Sep03, 05:41 GMT, 800 words)
US startup company Sky Way Aircraft insists it will be able to deliver on its ambitious goal to bring ultra high-speed voice and data services inflight by building on technology formerly operated by AT&T Wireless Services’ defunct inflight seat-back telephone service.
But many long-time industry executives attending the World Airline Entertainment Association (WAEA) annual conference and exhibition this week in Seattle are responding to the company’s plan with skepticism.
Sky Way Aircraft’s strategy is to upgrade the former AT&T Wireless airborne network - also known as Claircom - to provide an array of what it claims will be state-of-the-art inflight products, including high-speed Internet, telephone services, advanced inflight entertainment (IFE) systems with audio/video on demand and video monitored security services, among other inflight offerings.
The company recently acquired and is working to upgrade the 166-tower North American airborne telephone network from AT&T Wireless, under undisclosed terms.
About 60% of the US fleet has the Claircom system installed in their aircraft, according to Sky Way Aircraft. The company claims it is talking to all of these airlines to upgrade their Claircom systems with the Sky Way Aircraft solution. It recently signed a contract with US charter carrier Southeast Airlines to install an IFE system on the airline’s fleet of Boeing MD-80s and McDonnell Douglas DC-9s.
Speaking to ATI at WAEA, Sky Way Aircraft president Brent Kovar says the Florida-based company will be able to deliver 15 Mbps to and from a modified NATS equipped aircraft using existing antennas and radios.
“We replace the [Claircom] box with a new Unix server. When we do that, we put our patented algorithm inside, which runs internally,” says Kovar, who invented the algorithm. The result, he says, would boost the old 9.6Kb circuit mode Claircom network “some 1,667 times” to a bandwidth of 15 Mbps.
Kovar says Sky Way Aircraft parent SkyWay Communications Holding has been operating a ground-based wireless business in Florida for a few years, and will use some of its parent’s patented technology for its Sky Way Aircraft venture.
However, Sky Way Aircraft has some hurdles to jump before getting its system off the ground, such as securing Federal Communications Commission (FCC) approval to use some of the spectrum that went unused when AT&T Wireless exited the market.
“We’re working with the FCC and feel we’ll be the second company licensed - after Verizon Airfone,” says Kovar.
FCC hearings are being held to determine the best way to use the spectrum. But Kovar anticipates Sky Way Aircraft will receive FCC approval by the fourth quarter.
Kovar says he and other Sky Way Aircraft executives attended the WAEA show this week “to feel the temperature of the business and to see who the competition is”. So far, he insists, “we haven’t found any competitors ... the only one may be Inmarsat.”
But Sky Way Aircraft’s plan has raised several eyebrows at the WAEA show. Top industry executives question how a fledgling company can transform outdated equipment to provide ultra high-speed connectivity to aircraft, something that the biggest connectivity providers have been working to achieve for years.
“I can’t tell you how many times I've heard someone say: ‘I've invented an algorithm that can do this and that’,” says one source.
But Kovar remains undeterred. “I think they won’t be skeptical for long,” he says. “We have general aviation aircraft [equipped with the Sky Way solution], which we have been showing the airlines ... showing how it works and what it does. A lot of people feel AT&T abandoned [the Claircom system] too early. It had a lot of potential.”
He says the company also has displayed some of its inflight security applications to US government officials.
Sky Way is in talks with several companies regarding partnership agreements. One such company - Boulder, Colorado-based Air Base - has signed a letter of intent to maintain the entire Sky Way system, as well as provide program management, repairs, product support and logistics.
Air Base, which currently provides an array of services to major airlines including in-cabin maintenance, in the past conducted repairs of the Claircom system for AT&T Wireless.
Chad Nimeric, an engineer at Air Base, tells ATI that a contract is likely to be signed with Sky Way “in 45 to 60 days”.
Although Nimeric has seen the Sky Way Aircraft system work in a laboratory, he has yet to see it displayed on a full-scale ground station. “I concur that there is some skepticism [in the industry]. But Sky Way Aircraft seems to have the engineering and the patented technology right on the money,” says Nimeric.
He adds: “I think in the next six months we’ll find out if it is true or not. We’re looking forward to seeing if they can do what they say they can do. We hope they can.”
Source: Air Transport Intelligence news

Wednesday, 6 February 2008

Seeing Stars: EMS and Starling Join Forces to Capture Ku band Connectivity Business in the USA (What About Mijet?)

A few weeks ago Panasonic Avionics revealed it is still shopping around for an antenna for its in-flight connectivity solution, after deciding that Starling’s Mijet antenna was not yet up to its specs. Today, Starling announced a memorandum of agreement with EMS Technologies to offer a new Ku band antenna for the US market. Coincidence? I’ll leave that for you to decide.

But the timing, to say the least, is very interesting indeed. “We want a better overall performance that will meet our requirements not today but meet our requirements down the road,” Panasonic director of strategic product marketing David Bruner told me in January.

Perhaps Panasonic will get its wish. Under the agreement disclosed today, Israel's Starling and Georgia-headquartered EMS’s Defense & Space Systems (D&SS) division will offer an ultra-lightweight (45lb), low-profile antenna that will enable “full-featured broadband in-flight applications, such as the Internet, VPN [virtual private network], PDA, VoIP [voice over IP], e-mail, mobile phones, video conferencing, instant messaging and various entertainment applications, including video-on-demand, live TV, online gaming and multimedia applications”.

But here’s a yummy piece of info for ya. The joint product with EMS is a mature product and will be ready within a few months!!! So says Starling VP marketing and sales Jacob Keret, who was kind enough to call me just before he hopped on a flight. Thank You!

Oh yes, and before you write off Mijet, you should know that it has a customer, thank you very much. Certification is underway, and little sister mini-Mijet will be certified in the third quarter. Stay tuned for more info about this – I’ve got to write some follow-up articles for Air Transport Intelligence and Flight first!

But before I dash off, let me leave you with this thought. EMS direct broadcast satellite (DBS) antenna systems are currently sold through JetBlue Airways subsidiary LiveTV. JetBlue general manager of product development Brett Muney said yesterday at an EMS-sponsored event in DC that a broadband offering is among the in-flight connectivity solutions being studied by the airline. Could LiveTV use a new EMS/Starling antenna to offer satellite-based connectivity onboard JetBlue A320s? What about LiveTV's other customers - Frontier and WestJet (and now Continental Airlines)?

Anyone dizzy yet?

(Photo above right of Runway Girl with Panasonic Avionics CEO Paul Margis and WestJet executive Darren Marchinko at a reception last September during WAEA in Toronto)

Tuesday, 5 February 2008

That's Entertainment: In-flight Connectivity's Top Dogs Don't Mess Around

Put AeroMobile, EMS SATCOM, JetBlue Airways, Inmarsat, OnAir and the World Airline Entertainment Association (WAEA) in one room and what do you get? A helping of in-flight connectivity insight (and a dash of disagreement)! During a National Press Club briefing hosted by ever-more-visible player EMS this morning, some of the top dogs of the industry chatted about everything from satellite launches in Kazakhstan (Inmarsat) and near-term certifications (AeroMobile) to broadband considerations (JetBlue) and US regulatory impediments concerning in-flight cell phone usage.

A key moment came when OnAir CEO Benoit Debains claimed that the Airbus/SITA joint venture is “the only company able to provide Blackberry service onboard aircraft”. Needless to say AeroMobile director, marketing and strategic relations David Coiley had a few thoughts about that.

I’ve love to get into all the juicy details right now, but I’m on deadline with a few stories from the event (and it’s nearing bedtime in the Kirby household, which now includes an over-fed cat and a miniature poodle who has yet to learn not to do her business on my living room floor).

Before I go, however, let me leave you with some advice from EMS SATCOM vice president and general manager Gary Hebb, who was in attendance at today’s conference. In terms of in-flight entertainment and connectivity:

1) Don’t believe any dates – they’re never true.

2) Don’t believe any bandwidth claims. They might be true sometimes but not often enough to make a difference.

3) There are trials and there are “trials”. Some trials are to prove the technology. They might have stuff from Best Buy held together with duct tape. The trials with Air France and Qantas are much more advanced. They're testing passenger reaction and business models.

4) One has to be very smooth to get money out of passengers.

(Photo of Hebb above left)

Saturday, 2 February 2008

Trend Watch: Airline Take-up of Live Television/Connectivity Grows

The adoption by US carriers of in-seat live satellite television – together with connectivity services - is growing leaps and bounds.

This trend is “really exciting”, says Panasonic director of strategic product marketing David Bruner. “The US market could end up in the next couple of years with a totally different experience when you get onboard the airplane than what you saw a couple years ago.”

A strategy launched at inception by JetBlue Airways through its LiveTV subsidiary is being copied on a broad scale. Frontier and WestJet are long-time customers of LiveTV’s in-flight television system. Continental Airlines recently announced plans to install LiveTV across a large portion of its Boeing narrowbody fleet.

Delta Air Lines, through its Song experiment, followed JetBlue's lead when it began offering Panasonic Avionics-manufactured in-flight entertainment (IFE) systems – with live television – onboard domestic flights. It later announced it would extend the offering to its entire transcontinental fleet.

Start-up Virgin America, meanwhile, offers television and (video on demand) VOD onboard its Airbus A320s.

Added to this, JetBlue, Frontier and Continental have all gone public with plans to offer connectivity over LiveTV technology, while Virgin America plans to offer AirCell connectivity.

That the combo of live television and connectivity is proving hard for carriers to resist is evident by the number of requests for quotations (RFQs) in the market right now, say Bruner.

Although LiveTV intends to offer live television and light connectivity to airlines, Panasonic is going a different direction. In addition to television and VOD, the company is offering satellite-based “full Internet connectivity and the broadest broadband in the world”.

A customer has not yet been announced but Panasonic is confident installations will begin on a US airline by year-end. “The airlines are now very focused on not what is the cost of the system, but what is the net cost of the system if it generates revenue. It may pay for itself and make its customers happy and bring you more customers. That's a positive thing,” says Bruner.

So are the Canadians next to introduce connectivity? As mentioned earlier, WestJet's aircraft are equipped with LiveTV. Air Canada, on the other hand, offers Thales IFE.

(Photo above right of JetBlue's LiveTV system)

Thursday, 31 January 2008

Red or Blue…What’s a Girl To Do?

If you’re looking to fly between New York JFK and San Francisco, you’ve got a bevy of airlines to choose from. In terms of in-flight services, however, there are two standouts in the crowd – US low-cost operators JetBlue Airways and Virgin America.

Though located on opposite sides of the USA (JetBlue at JFK and Virgin at San Francisco), the similarities between these two Airbus A320 operators are obvious (and well-reported). But competition is going to get even more fierce in the coming months. Here’s why.

JetBlue CEO Dave Barger today revealed the all-economy carrier is looking at allowing customers to pay more for greater seat pitch in the cabin. Translation - JetBlue wants to provide a business-class seating product (it’s just not clear yet if that is what the airline will call it). The plan will be unveiled by the start of the second quarter.

This development is not entirely a surprise. JetBlue last year reduced capacity on its A320s to accommodate additional legroom in the front of the cabin. But, from an in-flight perspective, it brings the eight-year-old airline into closer competitive range to start-up - and two-class operator Virgin.

Added to that, both carriers are very serious about driving ancillary revenue. Virgin will shortly permit passengers to order a variety of upscale items via its “Red” seat-back in-flight entertainment (IFE) system, which uses Panasonic hardware and has about as many bells and whistles as a domestic traveller could ask for.

JetBlue, on the other hand, recently launched a “cashless cabin” whereby it accepts major credit or debit cards for in-flight purchases using handheld devices. Passengers can currently purchase alcoholic beverages this way, but in-flight offerings will be made available in the future.

There is at least one major area where JetBlue and Virgin will try to differentiate themselves. The former plans to offer a limited in-flight connectivity service for free to the entire cabin via technology from subsidiary LiveTV. The latter intends to charge for broader AirCell connectivity in its main cabin. Time will tell which will be the better path to travel.

Nonetheless, both carriers deserve to be commended for figuring out what US passengers want – live television, connectivity and a credit-card swipe.

As Dave Barger said today at the Raymond James conference in New York: IFE is now “the cost of entry” for airlines. “Eight year old kids are making purchasing decisions” in the cabin!

(Photo above left of Virgin America's IFE system; below right of LiveTV promo shot from Livetvifs.com)

Wednesday, 30 January 2008

Double-Teaming: Runway Girl and IAG's Addison Schonland Talk to Row 44's John Guidon About Southwest Win, Future Plans

This afternoon, I teamed up with IAG's Addison Schonland to interview Row 44 CEO John Guidon for a podcast.

I thought I had covered everything with John last week, when I spoke with him about Southwest Airlines' decision to trial Row 44's satellite-based connectivity solution onboard four Boeing 737s. It turns out there was more to be said.

In addition to addressing future widebody installations and cellular competition, John discusses air-to-ground (ATG) connectivity (and whether this is likely - or not - to be explored in Europe).

Check out the podcast link here: http://iagblog.podomatic.com/entry/eg/2008-01-30T13_24_17-08_00

Interestingly, proposed "global" air-to-ground connectivity provider AirStellar has updated its web site, saying it is "currently offering validation flights for airlines that wish to enter our demonstration network program".

I must admit I'm still not sure how global ATG is possible (it seems like a bit of an oxymoron) but here's what AirStellar told me in September 2007. I just emailed company director John Page for an interview and the message bounced back. A call is in order me thinks.

(Row 44 logo from http://www.row44.com/)

Tuesday, 29 January 2008

JetBlue to Defer Delivery of 16 A320s; Sell-off Six Aircraft This Year

A plan has been revealed by JetBlue Airways to defer delivery on 16 Airbus A320s and sell at least six of the type this year.

JetBlue has been mulling options for its fleet since deciding to slow capacity growth for the year. During an earnings conference call this morning, JetBlue executives revealed that 16 A320s - which had been scheduled for delivery in the 2010 to 2011 timeframe - are being deferred until the period of 2012-2013.

The carrier has also brokered commitments to sell six A320s for 2008, including two sales announced during the previous earnings call.

Additionally, JetBlue exercised three E-190 options in the fourth quarter 0f 2007. These are due for delivery next year.

By year-end, JetBlue's fleet will comprise 110 A320s and 36 E-190s. "This may change if additional sales opportunities are realized," says JetBlue.

(JetBlue logo from www.JetBlue.com)

Monday, 28 January 2008

It's Back On...JetBlue and Aer Lingus CEOs Scheduled To Discuss New Partnership

Six weeks after JetBlue was an apparent no-show at an event to discuss its new partnership with Aer Lingus, the low-cost carrier has confirmed it will join the Irish operator in Dublin on Friday to finally chat about the tie-up.

Lest you get the wrong idea, JetBlue says the arrangement will be more like a "marketing alliance" rather than a full-on codeshare.

But at least the two carriers are now on the same page.

The same could not be said over a month ago, when none of JetBlue’s spokespeople seemed to know about a press briefing scheduled for December 14. That briefing was cancelled after Lufthansa’s planned 19% investment in JetBlue was revealed (a deal that was finalized last week). And Barger was later spotted in Frankfurt at a press conference with Lufthansa chief executive Wolfgang Mayrhuber.

JetBlue confirmed today that Barger will in fact make it to Dublin for the Friday event. I'm sure the Aer Lingus PR staff are grateful that they don't have to print up any more invites, the latest edition of which can be found below.

MEDIA INVITATION
jetBlue CEO to visit Dublin for launch of Aer Lingus alliance

Aer Lingus is delighted to invite you to a media event to confirm details of its industry alliance with jetBlue.

Aer Lingus CEO Dermot Mannion and jetBlue CEO Dave Barger will host a media event at Dublin Airport on the morning of Friday, February 1st as follows:

Part A – tour of a jetBlue A320 aircraft, photos with crew and senior management

Part B – media conference

Media wishing to attend either element of the event should note the following:

Part A - The jetBlue experience Arrival Time: 9.00am

Media will be invited onboard a jetBlue A320 aircraft to enjoy the jetBlue experience first hand. Crew and senior management from both airlines will be available for photos.

Friday, 25 January 2008

American says New-Design Narrowbody Needs to Show “Significant” Step-up in Fuel Efficiency; Actively Searches for MD-80 Replacement

With 300 aging Boeing MD-80s on its books, American Airlines is actively searching for a replacement aircraft. But should the US major wait until Airbus and Boeing launch successors to their highly-successful narrowbody programs (not likely to occur until at least 2015 if not later) to place a significant new order, or should the airline place more incremental orders for current-model types? The latter appears a likely tide-over method. And what about Bombardier's proposed 110/130-seat CSeries? Is that a viable consideration for the Oneworld alliance member in light of its anticipated 2013 entry-into-service?

I asked these questions to American and here is what one of the carrier's prominent spokesmen had to say:

“Obviously [MD-80 replacement] is something we’re in very close contact with all the manufacturers [about]. Of course Boeing and Airbus are our suppliers for the mainline, and then we have relationships with some of the other guys through American Eagle and that sort of thing,” says the spokesman, adding: “I’m sure we’ll look at the timing too with whatever anyone puts out there.”

But a new-design aircraft’s time-to-market is not American’s only consideration. “This is not just a timing question. We want to make sure the decisions we make … are the right decisions," says the spokesman.

American must also “consider fleet commonality, training, maintenance”. It’s “not just when we can get it”, he notes.

Fuel efficiency, for example, “needs to be significant” step up. “I don’t think there is a magic number…but we’re also looking at the potential for … government and environmental emissions issues and less fuel means less emissions. So there is a lot to that and so yes, it has to be significant."

There is a balancing between how many current generation narrowbodies are purchased as MD-80 replacements and “at what point does the actual assuredly of a new generational narrowbody” [prompt] that transition, he says.

While a final decision awaits, American has been pulling forward orders for Boeing 737-800s, and adding incremental orders on top of that. If Boeing sticks with a 2015 launch of its narrowbody successor, it’s clear that American will “need to definitely bring in a sizable number of existing technology types…because with the 300 MD-80s, it took many years for those to arrive and will take several years to replace them all as well”.

(Photo courtesy of American's web site http://www.aa.com/aa/i18nForward.do?p=/aboutUs/ourPlanes/boeingMD80.jsp )

Thursday, 24 January 2008

SAS Claims Bombardier Q400 Construction Error; Canadian Airframer Answers Back

SAS Group, which last year grounded its Bombardier Q400 fleet following three landing-gear incidents, issued a very bold statement this morning.

Clearly not mincing words, SAS says that, following a thorough technical examination of the turboprops' landing gear, it found problems in 63% of the SSV valves on the inspected aircraft, and cannot be blamed for the undetected error that caused the first two accidents in the course of its maintenance work.

What does Bombardier have to say about all of this?

"There is no new evidence published by any investigation authority that alters the conclusions reached by the DAIB [Danish Accident Investigation Board] in its preliminary report, and the EASA in its statements, with respect to the cause of the O-ring blockage that prevented the main landing gear actuator from fully extending," says the manufacturer.

"While investigations into Q400 main landing gear incidents continue, Bombardier will not comment or speculate on specific issues in isolation, such as the SSV valve, without the context of the final reports."

Meanwhile, here is the full statement from SAS:

“We are waiting for the Accident Investigation Board’s final conclusion, and don’t want to speculate about the reason behind the third accident. We can confirm, however, that our technical department has found problems in 63% of the SSV valves on the inspected aircraft that we have permanently grounded after the accidents last autumn. SAS had no possibility of – and cannot be blamed for not – discovering these problems, or the undetected error that caused the first two accidents, in the course of its maintenance work," says executive VP of corporate communications Claus Sonberg.

SAS adds: "The Danish Accident Investigation Board has previously concluded that a construction error in the actuators was the cause of the first two accidents involving a Dash 8 Q400. The Accident Investigation Board has not presented any conclusion on the reason behind the third accident, but has in a provisional report stated that the most likely reason is that an O ring came loose from the SSV valve in the hydraulics system in combination with the following fault-tracing. The SSV valve also has a construction error and is currently being modified by the supplier."

SAS previously requested $77 million in compensation from Bombardier for costs and lost income associated with the accidents.

(Photo from Bombardier's Q400 web page - which it might want to consider updating: http://www.q400.com/q400/en/operators.jsp )

Wednesday, 23 January 2008

Eleven more months? Bombardier Sees CSeries Decision by Year-End, but Stresses Commitment

Amended with further info...

Bombardier director, airline industry analysis and strategy Chuck Evans during an Air Transport World webinair today said the airframer could wait until the end of the year before announcing a decision on whether to launch the proposed 110/130-seat CSeries.

“We expect to have guidance by the end of 2008 on whether to go forward with that," he says.

Evans notes, however, that Bombardier sees the CSeries “as the next logical step for our business”.

He adds: “We’re looking at the CSeries as the future platform to carry us [into the] future.”

Evans' comments come as US majors American Airlines and United Airlines continue to press Airbus and Boeing to speed up development of new-design narrowbodies. Could these major manufacturers' lack of near-term commitment open up a window for the CSeries?

Evans says: "Certainly we're seeing those statements [from American and United] and we're seeing more."

Questions remain whether the program will be launched, however. And Evans' comments might leave more questions than answers. While the CSeries is "still under a lot of study", Bombardier believes it is "quite clear that there is a demand for that size range and that technology", he says.

For some time, Northwest Airlines has been considered the likely candidate to launch the CSeries. The carrier recently confirmed it is pulling down 24 more McDonnell Douglas DC-9s this year, bringing to 68 the number of the type in its fleet. It says it remains in talks with manufacturers on a 100-seater replacement.

Interestingly, Bombardier recently updated its CSeries web page (see copyright...2008). Here's what the Canadian manufacturer is running on its site:

The Bombardier* CSeries* is the only family of aircraft designed specifically, without compromise, for the lower end of the 100- to 149-seat market. CSeries is the perfect balance of proven methods, materials and leading-edge technology to meet the airline needs for 2013 and beyond.

This competitive aircraft family will be built with unmatched operating economics, optimal environmental friendliness, total life-cycle support, unparalleled passenger appeal, superior operational flexibility and mature reliability levels at the entry into service.
*Registered Trademark(s) or Trademark(s) of Bombardier Inc. or its subsidiaries Disclamer: The Bombardier New Commercial Aircraft Program is currently in the conceptual design phase and, as such, is subject to changes in family strategy, capacity, performance, interior design and/or systems. The material does not constitute a guarantee or a warranty of any kind.


All rights reserved. © 2008 Bombardier Inc.

Tuesday, 22 January 2008

Fond Falcon Memories: A Look Back at AirCell's First Press Demo and Latest Achievement

(Amended to include comment from American)
Excitement is building in the world of onboard connectivity after American Airlines today announced it has completed installation of AirCell’s air-to-ground (ATG)-based broadband solution on the first of 15 transcontinental Boeing 767-200s set to trial the system.

The installation is a real achievement for Colorado-based AirCell, which first proved its technology to a group of journalists (including myself) on September 13, 2005. It was a day I’ll never forget. The flight demonstration was conducted on board a specially-equipped Falcon 2000 business jet at an altitude of about 11,000ft (3,400m) near Kansas City, Missouri. That's all of us standing in front of the jet BEFORE the flight. Things got rather bumpy on the ride and I felt certain I would toss my biscuits, as they say. AirCell execs were kind enough to give me a bag (clear and plastic) should I come face-to-face with my lunch. They also brought that plane down – THANK YOU AGAIN!

More to the point, however, AirCell in 2005 demonstrated how its system supports WiFi over a common air-to-ground pipe, providing access to voice, email, Internet and corporate virtual private networks, or VPNs (as well as mobile phones and Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) communications).

Today, American has equipped its first 767 with the solution, and is eyeing a fleet-wide equipage. The carrier previously said it expects the trial to get underway this quarter. It is now looking at offering the service on those 15 767s by the end of the second quarter, an American spokesman says.

The intention at American is to offer Internet to passengers with a couple of caveats. "AirCell is going to block VOIP and also very high bandwidth utilisation applications so that there is a DSL-like experience across the customer base," American manager of in-flight communications and technology Doug Backelin recently told me.

Despite that, this offering looks pretty damn cool (and you could hear me blabbing about it last Friday on New York Public Radio's "Sound Check" show here http://www.wnyc.org/shows/soundcheck/episodes/2008/01/18/segments/92108 )

Customers in all classes of service will be able to access the broadband signal using their own WiFi enabled devices for a fee. American says passengers will get the following:

1) Complimentary access to AA.com including services such as gates and times, fares and AAdvantage information;
2) Access to the Wall Street Journal Digest Edition,
3) Compatibility with VPNs that provide access to corporate intranets and email accounts;
4) And seamless coverage over the continental US above 10,000 feet.

"Access to broadband Internet access on our flights will be a fee-based service throughout the entire aircraft. AirCell will set the price, though specific pricing plans are still in development," says an American spokeswoman.

"Pricing will be similar to what consumers pay on the ground at a WiFi hot spot. At launch, the service will be offered only on longer routes (above 3 hours in duration) and will be priced at $12.95. In the future, the service on more typical length flights can be expected to be around the $10 mark."

Monday, 21 January 2008

A350 Gets Another Shot in the Arm After TAM Firms Order

It seems like only yesterday (well, Paris in June) that TAM was readying to announce whether it would affirm its original order for Airbus A350 aircraft or acquire Boeing 787 twinjets. At that time, TAM president Marco Bologna predicted an announcement would come within 30 days. True to Bologna's word, the Brazilian carrier signed a MOU for 22 A350 XWBs on June 28 2007.

Sadly, about three weeks later, TAM was faced with a tragedy of significant scale, when one of its Airbus A320s crashed on landing at Sao Paolo. The catastrophe claimed 199 lives. In the wake of the accident, TAM's focus rightly shifted to investigating the cause, and tackling a new climate of fear in Brazil (as well as media speculation over the crash), rather than acquiring new aircraft.

Today the carrier reaffirmed its position as a major player in Latin America by firming up its order for 22 A350 XWB models 800 and 900. The aircraft will be delivered from 2013 onwards.

TAM also confirmed the acquisition of four A330-200 aircraft with deliveries from 2010 onwards and of 20 more aircraft from the A320 family. According to the price list, the total value of the 46 aircraft is approximately $ 6.9 billion.

The deal is also very good news for Airbus, which saw TAM order four more Boeing 777-300ERs last year (for a total of eight). During a recent interview with Airline Business, Bologna explained the Boeing purchase. "We had to increase capacity and we could do this only by increasing the size of the aircraft," he said. The airline compared the Airbus A340-600 and the 777-300ER and in August ordered another four 777-300ERs for delivery in 2012.

(Photo courtesy of Agencia Brasil http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/3/36/TAM_Linhas_Aéreas_Flight_3054.jpg )

Thursday, 17 January 2008

ILFC President John Pleuger Discusses Boeing 787 Delay

(Amended: Click here for one of two forthcoming articles on this subject).

You might be struck by the absence of dialogue on my blog about the Boeing 787’s latest delay. It’s not for lack of interest on my part. On the contrary, I have been covering the story as a journalist since shortly after it broke on Tuesday.

At that very moment, I was sitting down to lunch in Alexandria, Virginia with fellow teammates at Flight International, including FlightBlogger Jon Ostrower. Once you’ve read his blog, you can see why there is little sense in my trying to duplicate it.

However, in my quest to take a fresh look at the story, I had the very good fortune of speaking with International Lease Finance (ILFC) president John Pleuger, who was kind enough to give me his two cents on the latest delay.

Since Sesame Street is nearly over, and it’s just about time for my daughter to hit the sack, I’m going to make my blogging life very easy by simply reprinting just a few of John’s thoughts here (you'll have to wait until Flight's next edition for the rest).

With respect to the 787’s latest delay (and when deliveries can be expected) John says:

“I am expecting that our deliveries in 2010 will be impacted.” [ILFC is scheduled to take delivery of 10 787s in 2010]

“None of our first ten are specifically targeted as going into China. [We have] not yet broken out where they are going.”

“I think you have to look at the circumstances for this aircraft. There is so much more subcontractor supplier scheduling that is impacting this program so I actually think it is very truly difficult for Boeing to be able to [give] a really accurate assessment …"

“I think there is just so many variables. I think those variables make it really difficult to really know definitively where we’re going to be. I think Boeing has done their best job of getting a handle on it. And I know they have had many, many really thorough scrub downs…to find out what is a reasonable time estimation.”

“I think what they will do is those [airlines/lessors] that they are sure they’re impacting, they’re going to tell them. The thing about this is that the entire supply chain in aerospace is completely maxed out. It has reached its maximum point of elasticity.”

Wednesday, 16 January 2008

Three Down: Air Midwest, Big Sky and Skyway Airlines Shuttering Operations (Venerable Beech 1900 Takes A Hit)

Three small regional carriers are in the process of winding down operations, as sky-high fuel costs continue to bite.

Earlier this week Mesa Air Group confirmed it is liquidating its loss-making Raytheon Beech 1900 operator Air Midwest. It expects the wind-down to be fully completed by the end of the year.

Today, Midwest Airlines announced plans to begin closing subsidiary Skyway Airlines' Dornier 328JET flight operations in March and April (it started pulling down Beech 1900 operations last year). Skyway’s routes will be flown by Midwest’s new partner, Bombardier CRJ200 operator SkyWest Airlines; its airport services business will remain intact.

MAIR Holdings subsidiary Big Sky Airlines recently ceased operations. It operated – you guessed it – Beech 1900 turboprops.

Okay, so we’ve established a common theme here – 19-seat operations, even those that are subsidized by the US Government under the essential air service (EAS) program, are simply not profitable in today’s environment.

But I must admit I was a tad surprised by Midwest’s decision today to shutter Skyway. Midwest only just expanded the Skyway fleet in 2006, after brokering a deal to acquire two 328JETs once operated by Atlantic Coast Airlines (and its successor Flyi) for Delta Air Lines. Additionally, Midwest seemed pretty certain that Skyway would remain a member of its airline family, even after inking the feeder deal with SkyWest.

Fast-forward to today, and Midwest is citing the economics of operating the current Skyway fleet of 328JET regional jets coupled with rapidly rising fuel costs as necessitating the change in strategy.

A Midwest spokesman says Skyway's closure was by no means a "fait accompli" when the deal with SkyWest was inked. However, Midwest is staying mum on just how many CRJ200s will be added to the SkyWest deal (the original pact called for 15), and calls "speculation" any talk of additional growth for SkyWest at Midwest (above what is necessary to cover the Skyway routes).

That Skyway's fate was not set in stone at the time of the SkyWest deal might not provide a whole lot of comfort to Skyway pilots, flight attendants and mechanics now. A total 380 Skyway employees will be laid off over the new few months.

Monday, 14 January 2008

One-on-one: Embraer VP Sergio Chiessi Talks Shop

Embraer vice-president market intelligence – airline market Sergio Chiessi says the company is moving closer to a launch decision for its C-390 tactical transport jet, a program that could be officially kick-started this year. For more on that, check out this link.

However, during my interview with Chiessi, the Embraer executive had loads more to say about the company’s 2007 delivery accomplishment – a record 169 aircraft – and how it will achieve up to 215 deliveries in 2008. Here is a slightly abridged version of the interview in Q & A format.

Question: Embraer cites adaptations to its industrial processes for the 30% increase in deliveries in 2007. Can you give me any further specifics, such as how many new employees were hired in 2007; what exact production processes received a third shift; as well as any details about the lean manufacturing concept?

Answer: In terms of new employees hired in 2007, the total number is 4,500 - not just here in the San Jose Dos Compos plant in Brazil but at other plants. All of these people didn’t get up to speed immediately. You have to train. [Within] three to six months you have people getting wages but not involved in real production so we have an initial period of training and after that we have supervised it very closely for more experienced employees. In reality the learning curve increased along the year. We are quite assured they [the new employees] will enter 2008 almost with their full capabilities.

We did implement a third shift. We don’t have the third shift implemented in all activities of the plant here, but [we implemented it in] final assembly of 170/190, the mating of wings and fuselages. The painting shop also got a third shift [as did] composites. Those are in a rough way the areas of the production where we implemented the third shift.

One other thing that helped us a lot and we expect is going to help even more in 2008 and 2009 is the lean manufacturing processes that we started implementing in the second half of the year. It is giving very sound results. The lean is something that you start doing it and you don’t stop. We are in very early stages of lean manufacturing techniques but we already have been able to achieve very interesting improvements so people down here are very excited and there are many lean projects under analysis and under implementation.

Question: The robust forecast for 2008 will no doubt reflect the improvements made in 2007. Are any additional changes/improvements planned this year to accomplish the 215-strong delivery goal? Additional employees, etc? What still needs to be accomplished in this area?

Answer: We do believe that it will help us to achieve a 215 aircraft target. You have to consider that some 10 to 15 of those 215 will be Phenoms (very light jets) … Final assembly of the Phenom is much faster, not easier, but faster.

We hired the people along the year and we extend a lot of effort into training so the results showed up a little bit in the third quarter of 2007, much more strongly in the fourth quarter and of course we will see those results along 2008 but we don’t have plans to increase additionally the working force. We believe that with the learning curve and the lean implementation in additional areas, we do believe we can accomplish the 215 without additional manpower. We finished the cycle of hiring. We don’t have plans unless for replacing of some people due to regular turnover. We don’t’ have any plans to increase the working force in 2008.

Question:Can you give a sector breakdown for the 215 aircraft delivery goal for 2008? How many will be in the commercial sector, business aviation sector, etc?

Answer: We don’t do this normally because the finance analysts - they are following every company listed on the stock exchange and we believe it is not wise to open up these numbers. However, what I can tell you … the production rate of 12 to 14 (commercial regional jets) will be maintained per month in 2008.

Question: According to the backlog figures, the strongest seller thus far is the E-190, followed by the E-175. How do you see things playing out for the E-170 and E-195 in 2008? Do you anticipate a similar picture in terms of popularity of the types?

Answer: Of course predicting exactly the breakdown [for] each of the members of the family is impossible. For instance, when we launched the program in 1999, the scope clauses in the United States were at 50 seats and there was a big question mark as to where the scope clauses would go five to ten years after 1999. Now we are able to understand that they go to 75 to 76 (seats). That’s why the 175 is preferred against the 170. [With regard to the] 190 - due to the fact that a lot of the narrowbodies worldwide are flying with flights with full load factor, the 190 (the 100 seater) is getting a strong preference from the marketplace but I personally don’t break down this family in really four different products. To my understanding, and I’ve been in the airline business on the airline side for more than 25 years before coming to Embraer, I see this family with two products. One product is the 170/175 and the second project is 190/195 so. At 32in pitch we have just eight seat difference between the 170 and 175, so by all means I do understand that 170/175 is one product.

Question: Should the CSeries be launched by Bombardier this year, will Embraer counter with a larger type or does the 108-seat E-195 fit this space nicely.

Answer: If Bombardier launches, I understand that … from what they have been telling the press in conferences, they will launch the 110 [seater] first which is smaller, which makes sense and later on they will stretch to the 130. So the 110 is quite equivalent passenger capacity to the 195, and it can be substituted by the 190 in some applications. So, what we see is that we have been doing from the very beginning from the first day of entry into service, we have been putting our engineering towards improving the product and certifying additional capabilities of those aircraft. [We are] continually enhancing the product and we will keep doing this and if they [Bombardier] come with an entry into service in 2013 or 2014 we believe that with the customer base that we have conquered … we believe we can resist the competition with Bombardier.

Of course we respect them as a competitor. We understand that they are evolving slowly with the CSeries, but we are not afraid. We don’t intend to increase the capacity of the 195 trying to be more competitive against them.

Question: Do you have any final comments about Embraer’s prospects?

Answer: I would say two important things from our perspective. We are entering 2008 with almost $19 billion firm backlog, which is really an outstanding result. If we factor revenues in 2007, we have more than three years of production ahead of us, 3.5 years of production so this is quite important for us. It shows the amount of confidence the marketplace has in our products.

The second point in 2008 is the certification and the start and entry into service of the Phenoms. It is a fantastic program. We achieved more than 700 firm orders of the Phenoms even before the entry into service. The entry into service will be the second half of this year. So those are the most remarkable things.

Another important activity for 2008 is the customer service network extension. This is related not only to commercial aviation but also executive aviation expansion for Embraer.


(Photo from Embraer image gallery: http://mediamanager.embraer.com.br/english/content/busca/detalhe_publico.asp?que_pagina=1&pagina_anterior=categorias)

Friday, 11 January 2008

Where's the Love? US Airways Calls ATR Turboprop "Very Old Design"

I wonder if ATR is in any way miffed at the apparent reversal in enthusiasm shown by US Airways for the European airframer's aircraft?

Just this past November the Star Alliance member said ATR’s 72-500 turboprop made a favourable impression on the carrier during the aircraft’s North American tour.

Specifically, US Airways lauded the ATR 72-500’s quiet cabin, headroom and carry-on bin space. It said the aircraft runs “remarkably quiet due to six-blade props and unique airframe design that absorbs prop noise outside of the passenger cabin” and boasts “favourable operating economics and seating configuration runs in the 64-70 seat range”.

That's not quite the same sentiment expressed by senior VP, schedule planning and alliances Andrew Nocella in a January 10 employee newsletter.

Nocella says: "We continue to look at the multiple options available to replace or extend the life of Piedmont Dash 8s. Choosing a successor plane for Piedmont is no small task. The new fleet choice will be something we live with for 15 to 20 years.

“The Q400 made by Bombardier is an amazing plane and is being considered but with its high capacity and fast speed relative to a Dash 8 it maybe more suited to replace RJs than Dash 8s.

“The ATR is slower, smaller and cheaper to fly than a Q400 but at its heart a very old design and much less capable plane on longer mission.”

Ouch! For the record, ATR recently launched the newest version of its turboprop family, the so-called -600 series, and says the aircraft will be progressively introduced during the second half of 2010. New-build ATR 72-500s, meanwhile, now boast some of the latest developments from ATR in communications, navigation tools and passenger comfort.

But these particulars might not matter much one way or the other.

Tellingly, Nocella now says US Airways has "many pros and cons to evaluate with these choices as well as other ideas we intend to explore.”

Other ideas eh? Now that is interesting. US Airways has previously shown interest in the Q300. Could a Q300/Q400 mix be in the offing?

And is the carrier also looking at RJs for Piedmont? It doesn’t appear so.

A US Airways spokesman says: “Regional jets really fit into PSA [Airlines], since they are our all-jet operator. Additionally, as you know, turboprops go places jets can’t bother operationally and economically so we’d like to have an aircraft in the fleet that can still service those types of markets.”

(Photo courtesy of ATR web site http://www.atr.fr/public/atr/html/media/pictures.php )

Thursday, 10 January 2008

Shit Or Get Off The Pot: Post-bankruptcy Majors Said to be Merger Sniffing Again

As reports surfaced today that Delta Air Lines is once again in the merger market, who among us felt a rather nauseating case of déjà vu? One need only Google the words “Delta merger” to see just how much ink has been wasted on the “will they/won’t they” debate (arguably first started when US Airways made an ultimately failed bid for Delta). Is anything different this time around? Possibly!

First of all, if reports hold true, Delta has whittled its choices down to two other post-bankruptcy US majors – Northwest Airlines and United Airlines (hey, at least they all have something in common). The former is a partner with Delta in the SkyTeam alliance, and has been rumoured to be a likely match for quite some time.

Star Alliance member United, on the other hand, is the same United that Delta CEO Richard Anderson rejected as a would-be partner in November.

“There have been no talks with United regarding any type of consolidation transaction and there are no such ongoing discussions,” Anderson said at the time, following calls by common shareholder Pardus Capital management for the two US carriers to consolidate.

Delta’s pilots feel pretty convinced that management is seriously considering a merger this time around. The Delta chapter of the Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA) has written a veritable treatise to members discussing just how calmly they’re going to handle the news - open a strike operations center and mobilize the strike preparedness committee.

Should anyone assume that Delta’s pilots are flatly against a merger, the union assures that “the flexible nature” of the strike preparedness committee will also allow union officials “to task them in support of a consolidation effort - but if and only if it is the right consolidation, a merger opportunity that provides the Delta pilots with the protections and equity we have communicated so clearly and unambiguously from the outset”. Well that’s a mouthful indeed. But the message seems rather clear – you’re not doing anything without our stamp of approval.

It’s a message that American Airlines’ pilots union, the Allied Pilots Association, made loud and clear to management in December 2006. At that time, APA officials approved a resolution to oppose any future company merger that would integrate another pilot group into the employee group’s seniority list. American in April 2001 acquired TWA’s assets. Merging the two carriers’ pilot seniority lists proved a thorny issue during the integration.

Merging the flight attendants’ lists proved a disaster. Thousands of former TWA flight attendants lost their seniority after American acquired the carrier and were furloughed after September 11.

Hoping to ensure that this never happens again, US Senators Claire McCaskill and Kit Bond last month secured a provision to the Senate’s omnibus spending bill – since signed into law - to provide air carrier employees with a base level of protection during mergers. This provision would make it harder for one airline or union to add the employees of another airline or union to the bottom of the seniority list.

Interestingly, the APA did not support the measure. “While this legislation is no doubt well-intentioned, APA does not favour legislative branch involvement in any aspect of labor negotiations,” said APA president Lloyd Hill in a recent statement.

Mega-pilot union ALPA, meanwhile, supports the law, which only applies to mergers going forward. “The legislation does not have any impact on US Airways and America West,” notes an ALPA spokesman. You’ll recall that even though US Airways and America west merged in September 2005, their major labor groups continue to work under terms of transition agreements reached after the merger. You want to talk about thorny!

But despite all the possible headaches stemming from mergers, it seems that major US airlines are hell-bent to come together.

Should Delta merge with current-partner Northwest, it would have access to, among other things, some very nice Boeing 787 delivery slots, some new Airbus narrowbodies and widebodies and a crop of old McDonnell Douglas DC-9s (some as old as 40 years – see one of my first blogs “40 Years Old But Still No Virgin”).

Should Delta opt for a merger with United, it.....SHEESH I'm worn out. Let's tackle this another time. I need a Guinness. Who's with me?

(Photo above right from Delta ALPA portal at http://crewroom.alpa.org/dal/DesktopDefault.aspx?tabid=2421)

Wednesday, 9 January 2008

Body Count: JetBlue and Southwest Eye Aircraft Offload (Plus Titbits on that AWAS A320 Deal)

It’s lucky for JetBlue Airways and Southwest Airlines that the market for Airbus and Boeing narrowbodies remains strong (at least for now). Both US low-cost carriers are readying to offload excess assets to keep capacity growth in check.

JetBlue has confirmed it will only increase capacity this year by between 6% and 9% compared to the 11% to 13% range advised for 2007. To accomplish this, the carrier is considering selling more aircraft (in addition to the two A320s it will sell in the second quarter), returning leased aircraft and postponing deliveries (pretty much what it did last year). Having this sort of flexibility, says JetBlue, is an asset. (Photo from www.jetblue.com/about/whyyoulllike/about_whyairbus.html)

It’s an all too familiar story. Among a bevy of US carriers cutting capacity in the face of rising fuel costs and a potential slowdown in demand, Southwest in December said it will slash as many as 10 737s from its already-amended growth plan (which includes the disposal of some owned 737-700s). The carrier’s new plan calls for a net addition of no more than 10 737s this year.

On a separate note, Irish lessor AWAS - which today placed a firm order for 75 Airbus A320 family aircraft - has confirmed the following:

1) The company can pick and choose the mix (A318s/A319s/A320s/A321s).

2) Deliveries of new Airbus narrowbodies to AWAS will begin in 2010; an end date has not been disclosed.

3) An engine selection for the 75-strong order has not yet been made. AWAS is currently in talks with manufacturers.

So is there room for AWAS to swap out later deliveries should a Airbus narrowbody successor come on board? What do you want - all the answers?

Tuesday, 8 January 2008

Stoking the Fire: Some Folks Find US Airways' "Britney Spears-like Spiral" Admission Unfunny

A blog I posted on December 19 about US Airways admitting a “Britney Spears-like spiral” appears to have had an unintended consequence – it has further stoked the ire of US Airways employees about management’s behaviour (could that fire burn any brighter at this point?).

A veteran member of one of my favourite forums, USAviation, picked up on my story, which reported that a press invite to attend US Airways’ annual media day contained the following admission from the carrier’s corporate communications team: “Yes, we are still here and kicking...and still LOVING our jobs in spite of spiraling Britney Spears-like during the past year!

“With res migration, operational challenges in the Northeast and the slow pace of labor contracts (just to name a few). At least we didn’t shave our heads, though.” (Photo from en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Image:Usair.jpg)

While I’m staying neutral on the content of the posted responses (heck, I’d still like to attend the event!!!), I think some of them are worth being reprinted here, if only to demonstrate just how deeply disenfranchised US Airways employees have become.

From beachboy:
"Wait a second I think I smell a new low by Jethro, Ellie May and the Clampett gang in PHX. Am I to read this correctly that they sent invites to the media comparing our airline to a Brittany Spears episode? Paging Morgan Durant. Could you please report to USAviation and tell us no one did something that tacky and classless. Tell me I am reading this wrong because my jaw is just on the floor. It's one thing to be called a trashy operation. It's one thing to know you are a trashy operation. But it's another thing to put it on engraved invitations to the press and yell it from bullhorns."

From US1YFARE:
"Casual is one thing...this type of self-deprecation is pathetic, unfunny and embarrassing. Who is running this circus?"

From NoMoreKoolAid:
"One less thing to pack in my roller board. Panties! embrace the trashiness! Hey Tempe said it was ok. Can't wait for my next trip on the EMB190"...

Monday, 7 January 2008

Needing More Than a Lubricated Shaft: Bombardier CRJ100/200 Flap Problem Remains Nuisance for Operators

One of the great things about being a journablogger (i.e. journalist blogger) is that I don’t have to adhere to a word count on my blog. Essentially, for better or worse, I can dump the contents of my notebook onto Runway Girl.

That’s an especially nice feature when covering a story like the Bombardier CRJ100/200 flap problem, and its impact on operators (which, as of Jan 3, were to have complied with a maintenance action in a FAA airworthiness directive aimed at reducing the number of stuck flap incidents that have been linked to cold weather operations).

That action called for CRJ100/200 operators to clean and lubricate the flexible shafts and install metallic seals in the flexible drive-shaft. While a clean, lubricated shaft suits certain purposes nicely, it seems it just isn't enough to resolve the CRJ100/200 problem (ahem). To that end, Bombardier has redesigned a seal, and is readying to have it certificated.

A story now running in Flight International magazine, and found here, talks about all of this. However, the world’s largest CRJ200 operator SkyWest had quite a bit more to say about the subject. Now Air Wisconsin has also chimed in, after one of its CRJ200s was forced to make an emergency landing at Burlington, Vermont last week due to a flap failure.

But let's start with SkyWest. Here’s a slightly abridged version of what SkyWest vice-president of finance and treasurer Michael Kruapp told me:

"SkyWest is probably on the forefront of complying with this [AD]. It is important to note that SkyWest actually noted that this was a problem prior to the issue…and sort of had a fix in place already."

"At this time, we are complying with the AD and taking the required changes as noted and specified by Bombardier. We are having some challenges and difficulty in doing that. From our perspective, we’re still having some challenges with the fix - the recommended fix that we’ve got, we’re trying to make sure that it is and it does work, etc. We’re just working through that process and ensuring compliance with the AD as issued."

"It’s interesting to note that when you get into a situation like this, they [Bombardier] are running through and trying to remedy a known situation right now and I think what they are still trying to do is to make sure that this is going to be a long-term fix."

"We operate an awful lot of these RJs (about 250) and we have a very keen interest to work with Bombardier, helping them, providing them with expertise. The challenge [is] in ensuring that it is a permanent fix and that you don’t have failures after that. We’re working with Bombardier to ensure compliance with the AD and do anything and everything we can as a partner and operator of these aircraft to ensure there is a good fix."

"They are working on continuous improvement. They are realizing they have a challenge here with the recommended solution and they are seeking an even better fix from what they have today."

"Obviously we are working on some of these fixes ourselves, and to the extent that we do that, we take our resources, maintenance…I’m sure most of the operators are incurring their own monies to help this fix as well."

And now for Air Wisconsin. On January 2, a CRJ200 operating as US Airways Express from Philadelphia to Burlington made an emergency landing at Burlington after experiencing a flap problem.

“The flaps failed”, says an Air Wisconsin spokeswoman. She says the pilots “discontinued their approach”, did a “go-around” and choose an alternative runway at the airport after determining that wind conditions were more conducive to landing. The aircraft landed safely.

It is unclear if weather had an impact on the flap failure (although it looks like Jan 2 was one mighty cold day in Vermont).

It is interesting to note that the incident occurred after the carrier complied with the maintenance action contained in the FAA’s air worthiness directive. “Two weeks ahead of the required date, all aircraft had gone through what they needed [and] are compliant with the airworthiness directive,” says the Air Wisconsin spokeswoman.

“It’s obvious that with that aircraft there has been an issue," she adds.

As specified in my article for Flight, Bombardier has been working with US manufacturer Eaton to redesign the flap system. The company has “completed testing of a new seal and, very soon, will share the specifics with the certification authorities”, it says.

Bombardier has also engaged Eaton for additional modifications. The work with Eaton, which is scheduled to begin in February, will further enhance the system's reliability, and is being done "in the spirit of continuous improvement", says Bombardier.

(Astroglide photo from "Must Have Site for Men" at http://www.have.co.uk/)

Friday, 4 January 2008

Rockwell on a Roll: Tapped by Mitsubishi to Provide Flight Computers, Pilot Controls for MRJ

Rockwell Collins on Monday plans to discuss an expansion of its relationship with Japan’s Mitsubishi Heavy Industries (MHI). But if you've landed on Runway Girl on this Friday night, I can tell you right now what that expansion entails.

MHI has selected Rockwell to provide primary flight control computers, pilot controls and the horizontal stabilizer trim system for the Mitsubishi Regional Jet (MRJ).

The deal makes Rockwell a key supplier for the 70- to 90-seat MRJ. Rockwell initially helped the MRJ get off the ground by providing its Pro Line Fusion avionics for the aircraft.

You’ll recall that the Boeing 787 uses Rockwell technology. And earlier this week, this blog discussed the likelihood that Rockwell will be selected by Bombardier to provide the flightdeck avionics for the CSeries (if the CSeries is to launch).

Now get on out of here. It's Friday night for goodness sake :)

US Airways Says No Thanks to ex-Maxjet Airways Boeing 767s But Looks to Acquire Some A340s

Where will the all-business-configured Boeing 767s flown by now-defunct Maxjet Airways end up? Well, one thing’s for sure - they won’t be flying under US Airways’ banner.

Flight International's ACAS database shows Maxjet had four 767-200ERs and a single 767-200 in its fleet.

Asked by an employee if US Airways is interested in acquiring Maxjet’s 767s, the carrier's senior VP of schedule planning and alliances Andrew Nocella reports the carrier does not have any interest in the aircraft at this time.

“We understand them to be of a similar age as our 767s and we are happy with the financial performance of the 757s to Hawaii and Europe. With 17 new A330-200s entering the fleet in the next few years we have lots of wide-body long range planes coming soon," says Nocella.

There is no doubt that US Airways has quite a bit of widebody lift coming its way. What it needs, however, is an aircraft capable of flying from Philadelphia to Beijing after last week receiving final DOT approval to initiate the service in 2009 (the same China rights that Maxjet tried to snag after US Airways complained about gate space at Philly…ouch).

It’s no secret that US Airways intends to operate Airbus A340s on the route. The carrier this week reiterated this plan to me. And, if all previous statements hold true, the aircraft will be an A340-300.

Let’s look back at those previous statements, shall we? In July 2007, I wrote that US Airways is looking at adding up to five A340s to its fleet. The article ran on Flight International magazine’s premium service Air Transport Intelligence. Here it is for your consumption:

US Airways considers adding up to five A340s
Mary Kirby, Philadelphia (27Jul07, 16:56 GMT, 204 words)

US Airways may add up to five Airbus A340s to its fleet to support future long-haul markets, the carrier has revealed.

“We are currently exploring used A340 options and expect that we could have four or five units in the fleet overtime,” says senior VP of schedule planning and alliances Andrew Nocella in the carrier’s latest employee newsletter.

ATI this week revealed that US Airways intends to use A340-300 aircraft on service from Philadelphia to Beijing in 2009, if it receives US DOT authority on the route.

The carrier holds rights to convert its 10-strong Airbus A330-200 order to A340s, but is also sourcing aircraft on the open market. These widebodies will be considered interim lift until US Airways’ Airbus A350 aircraft are delivered.

Nocella says a detailed review was done of the A340-300 and A340-500 for China and other future US Airways markets.

“While we would not completely dismiss adding this A340-500 to the fleet, we have found that it is more airplane than we require for Beijing service which we plan to operate with the -300 model in a 269-seat configuration,” he says.

The US Airways executive also notes that “very few -500s have been produced so they are hard to find”.

Source: Air Transport Intelligence news