Air France And KLM Next Up For International In-Flight Wi-Fi

air france planesOne of our biggest pet peeves about long-haul international flights of late has been the lack of Wi-Fi available on board. We can use our in-flight Internet from New York to California, but the minute we head off the coast, we’re out of luck.

The expense of offering this satellite Wi-Fi has proven prohibitive for airlines that see low usage and high costs to outfit planes with new technology. International Wi-Fi isn’t impossible – just infrequently available.

Lufthansa, for example, already offers this service on many of their flights, Qantas has trialed the program between Los Angeles and Australia, and United is set to roll out the service later this year.

Now AirFrance and KLM airlines have joined with Panasonic Avionics to roll out a program of their own. They will begin offering in-flight connectivity trials on long-haul flights beginning in early 2013.

This will enable travelers to stay connected with the world through text messages or emails, and allow for an Internet connection and ultimately live broadcasts of TV programs. On the specially designed in-flight website, a broad range of services will be offered for free, like latest news, TV channels, relevant airline and destination information and unique offers of online magazines.

“Being permanently connected is now part of our customers’ daily lifestyles. This trial run is the first step of Air France’s and KLM’s long-term strategy to offer in-flight connectivity solutions across our long-haul fleet,” said Christian Herzog, senior vice president of marketing for Air France and KLM.

The trial phase will be conducted over the year 2013 on two Boeing 777-300s, operated by each airline. During this period, travelers will be able to hook up to the Internet via their Wi-Fi enabled smartphone, laptop or tablet PC at a fixed rate, as well as use their mobile phone for SMS or email, whatever their travel class.

It sounds like a great program, and one we hope to see more of on other airlines in the future.

[Flickr via slasher-fun]

Cockpit Chronicles: There’s more behind the Air France 447 crash than pilot error

Recently a couple of pilots found themselves in a situation that was foreign and perplexing to them; a scenario the designers of the airplane hadn’t fully expected. They fought their way for 3 minutes and 30 seconds while trying to understand what was happening after a failure of one of the pitot static systems on their Airbus A330. At times the flying pilot’s inputs exacerbated the problem when he assumed they were flying too fast rather than too slow.

Because they hadn’t seen anything like this in the simulator, and the airplane was giving conflicting information, the recovery would have been all the more difficult.

Pilots are taught that an erroneous airspeed indicator can be countered by paying close attention to their pitch and power. It sounds so simple that many pilots wonder aloud, just how anyone in the situation could mess it up.

In the early morning hours of June 1st, 2009, the pilots of Air France flight 447 were working their way around thunderstorms while flying from Rio de Janeiro to Paris in the widebody Airbus A330.

A faulty pitot tube created a situation where any changes in pressure resulted in fluctuations in the airspeed indicator. To understand how difficult it is to recognize this problem and then correct for it, let me use the following analogy:

Imagine you’re driving a car at night. You come down a hill and you feel the cruise control back off on the gas to prevent the car from going too fast. Just as you look down at your speed noticing that it is, in fact increasing, a siren and lights go off behind you. A police car has woken you up from your late night drive.

Instinctively you kick off the cruise control and apply the brakes. The speedometer indicates you’re still accelerating, so you press harder on the brakes. Your car has now decided that because you’re trying to slow so quickly, it will shut off the anti-skid braking system and allow you to use manual brakes. You then skid off the road and into a ditch.

Based on the released information about one of the most mysterious accidents in recent history, it appears the pilots of Air France 447 faced a set of circumstances similar to our driving example.When flying in turbulence, it’s important to watch your airspeed. Flying too fast will result in a situation called mach tuck, where the nose can slowly pitch over and the controls lose their effectiveness.

Flying too slow can result in a stall. Not an engine ‘stall’ as might be incorrectly reported by the press, but an aerodynamic stall where the wings aren’t developing enough lift, and an immediate increase in the airspeed is needed to recover. Here’s a tip for reporters. In aviation, the term ‘stall’ will never be used to describe engines that fail. Ever.

Up at altitude, the difference between flying too slow and too fast can be as little as 20 knots. It’s called the ‘coffin corner,’ a morbid term used to describe narrow band of airspeed that we need to maintain.

In this 767 example above, the airplane has a very safe margin between
too slow and too fast, as shown on the airspeed indicator on the left.

While working their way around clusters of cumulonimbus clouds in the inter-tropical convergence zone that night, our two first officers (the captain was in the back on his planned rest break) did their best to stay away from the weather.

A side note: whoever takes the second break is usually the pilot who made the takeoff and who will also make the landing. So the relief pilot (who’s a type-rated copilot) took over the flying related duties while the captain slept.

Back to the flight: During turbulence, maintaining that speed can be more difficult, much in the way it’s tough to hold the speed in a car going over hills. You may look down after studying the weather only to notice that the auto throttles aren’t holding the .80 mach speed you have selected and the airplane is now at mach .83 and accelerating. In a moment, the clacker goes off, indicating you’re now exceeding the normal cruise speed of the airplane, which certainly gets your attention, much like the sirens of the police car in our example.

In the case of Air France 447, the autopilot kicked off in response to the overspeed, and was followed by a warning Airbus calls a ‘cavalry charge’ sound which is designed to get your attention quickly. About 30 seconds later the auto throttles were turned off manually and the throttles were pulled back, but it takes an eternity to slow down such a slippery airplane, and it may have seemed to the flying pilot that he was still accelerating anyway. So he pulled the nose up, an effective way to slow down in a critical situation like this. (See last week’s post on the eight ways to slow a jet.)

Amazingly, as the airplane climbed from 35,000 feet to 38,000 feet the airspeed continued to increase, at least that’s what it looked like on the flying pilot’s side of the airplane. He must have been surprised then to hear the stall warning activate moments later, indicating that they were flying too slow.

The other pilot likely noticed the airspeed on his side was decreasing, and perhaps because he saw the difference between both airspeed indicators, he’s heard to say on the recording that “we’ve lost the speeds.”

They had slowed from 275 knots indicated to 60 knots, at which point the airplane went into a mode called ‘alternate law’ which meant the automatic protections that kept the airplane from stalling were removed.

To make matters worse, the stabilizer trim moved from 3 degrees to 13 degrees nose up, which meant the airplane may have needed almost full nose down inputs on the stick just to fly level.

And to further confuse and confound the pilots, it’s recently been reported that as the airplane slowed further, the stall warning stopped. When max power was applied and the nose was lowered at one point, the stall warning came back. This is opposite of what the pilots were looking for in a recovery.

The airplane ‘mushed’ in a 15 degree nose up attitude all the way to the water, at a rate of 11,000 feet per minute.

We occasionally train for unreliable airspeed indications, but it isn’t covered during every recurrent training period. Stall training is often limited to the low altitude variety, which is far less critical than one occurring at 35,000 feet. I’m certain training departments all over the world will soon be required to train for high altitude stall recoveries.

Since this will take some time to become a requirement, on a recent simulator session, I asked my instructor to give me a loss of airspeed scenario at altitude. I told him I’d prefer to have the failure at any random point during our four hours of simulator time that day.

When he eventually failed it, causing the airspeed to slowly increase, I immediately pulled the throttles back and raised the nose a bit. The non-flying pilot simply said ‘airspeed’ which I thought was obvious, as it appeared to me that the airplane was accelerating rapidly and I was doing my best to get it back under control.

But on his side, the airspeed was dropping rapidly. When he said “airspeed” he actually meant that the airspeed was slowing and that I needed to do something about it. I finally looked over at his side, and saw that his speed was actually decreasing while mine increased. This all occurred within ten to twenty seconds.

I immediately lowered the nose and told him that I suspected my airspeed indicator had malfunctioned. Since my indicator was useless, I offered the airplane to him.

It’s easy for pilots to harp that “pitch and power equals performance” but it’s not easy to ignore the instruments you’ve trusted for thousands of hours. For the pilots of Air France 447, the incorrect airspeed indications and confusing stall warning sounds that were caused by a failure of the pitot static system proved to be too much to handle.

Furthermore, the Airbus design reinforced ideas that counter everything a pilot is taught, Specifically, these pilots learned that pulling the stick full aft would not result in a stall when the airplane was operating under a condition known as “normal law.” Much of their careers had been flown in airplanes with this feature. That night, after the initial climb, they were operating under “alternate law” which allowed far greater changes to the flight envelope, and removed that protection.

I wouldn’t have wanted to be in their shoes.

Much of the focus of the accident in the press has been to blame the pilots for clearly stalling the plane. One strange headline read “Baby pilot at the controls of AF 447.

The ‘baby pilot’ was actually 32 years-old and had previously flown an A320 for 4 years and the A330/340 for just over a year. He had 2,936 hours of flight time with 807 hours in the A330/340.

The other copilot, at age 37 had 6,547 hours with 4,479 of them in the A330/340. Sadly, his wife was also on board the aircraft as a passenger.

And the 58 year-old captain, who came to the cockpit from his break halfway through the event had 11,000 hours of which 1,747 were in the A330/340.

I’ve said it before; in the eyes of the media, pilots are either heroes or villains depending on the outcome of the flight. These pilots faced challenges few of us have ever come across. Given the mechanical failures that started the chain of events, there’s certainly plenty of blame to go around. Events like these have a profound impact on our training and help prevent future accidents. And at least that is something we can be thankful for.

In case you’re interested in even more details, AvHerald has an excellent summary of the BEA preliminary Air France 447 accident report.

Cockpit Chronicles takes you along on some of Kent’s trips as an international co-pilot on the Boeing 757 and 767 based in New York. Have any questions for Kent? Check out the Cockpit Chronicles Facebook page or follow Kent on Twitter @veryjr.

Airlines offer in-flight menu items at food trucks, pop-ups

airline food trucksIn a marketing move best described as “ironic,” a handful of airlines are now offering land-bound folk a taste of the finest of what they serve in the air. The New York Times reports that Air France, Austrian Airlines, Southwest, and Delta are trying to lure potential passengers by tempting them with samples of in-flight meals “from” celebrity-chefs.

The modus operandi are primarily roving food trucks and pop-up restaurants in cities from New York to Denver (there are also some permanent vendor spots at various sports stadiums). In Washington, passerby were offered European coffee and guglhupf, a type of cake. In Manhattan, crowds lined up for a taste of buckwheat crepes with ham, mushrooms, and Mornay sauce, or duck confit.

I get it. Airline food sucks. Time for an image makeover. But isn’t the airline industry so financially strapped that we’re lucky to get a bag of stale pretzels during a cross-country flight? And just because reknown chefs like Joël Robuchon, Tom Colicchio and Michelle Bernstein act as consultants for airlines and design their menus, that doesn’t mean it’s their food you’re eating on the JFK-to-Paris red-eye.

Most ludicrous, however, is the notion that there’s any basis for comparison against fresh ingredients and made-to-order food versus even the best institutionally-prepared airline crap. I’ve had a couple of decent meals designed by well-regarded chefs when I’ve been lucky enough to fly business class, but in the grand scheme of things, they were still made from flash-frozen, sub-par ingredients whose origins I’d rather not ponder. And if food truck crews are merely nuking actual airline food, then how are they any different from the corner deli with a microwave?

I’m not trying to be a food snob. I just find it interesting that airlines are hopping on two of the hottest culinary trends of the new century–ones largely based upon local, sustainable, seasonal ingredients. Yet by all accounts (to hear airline reps tell it), the plane campaign has been wildly successful. Of course. Who doesn’t love free food?airline food trucksRaymond Kollau, founder of Airlinetrends.com, cites social media as the gateway to this type of “experiential marketing.” “As people are bombarded with marketing messages,” he explains, “real-life interaction with products and brands has become increasingly valuable for airlines to get their message across.”

Valid point, and there’s no doubt this is a clever scheme. But truth in advertising is what wins consumers. What a catering company can pull off on-site is a hell of a lot different from what you’ll be ingesting in the friendly skies. If airlines want to use food to entice new passengers, they need to start by sourcing ingredients in a more responsible, sustainable manner, rather than supporting ecologically detrimental produce, meat, and poultry (talk about carbon offsets). I realize that’s not financially feasible at this time, but supposedly, neither are in-flight meals. As for making it taste good? You got me.

[Photo credit: Flickr user OpalMirror]

Gadling’s favorite airlines for 2011

gadling favorite airlines 2011

Even with airlines falling over themselves in an effort to generate profits out of new fees and charges, flying retains some glamour and excitement. No? Not working for you? Well there are mileage programs to exploit and perks to chase. And even in the direst landscape for customers, there are always new routes to sample, smiling flight attendants to befriend, and reliable pilots to thank for safe landings.

Going into 2011, it appears that Virgin America is Gadling’s favorite airline. Virgin America sails above the competition with their standard of service, their appealing overall product, and their general freshness.

Other airlines we especially like or tolerate for one or another reason include easyJet, Qantas, VAustralia, Air France, Philippine Airlines, Turkish Airlines, Air New Zealand, Cathay Pacific, Jet Airways, Continental, Alaska Airlines, and Porter.

We begin with the observations of Kent Wien, Gadling’s resident pilot-contributor and the motor behind two Gadling features, namely, Cockpit Chronicles and Plane Answers.

Kent Wien. Air New Zealand. I don’t know if I was more impressed with their new line of coach sleeper seats or the friendliness of their flight attendants. Either way, Air New Zealand has managed to capture much of the recent jump in tourism traffic to New Zealand by offering an innovative cabin design and enhanced service which includes an in-flight concierge for the entire airplane. They’ve changed the look and feel of their galleys by hiding them away during boarding, since the first thing passengers see when stepping on to an airplane is the in-flight kitchen. And most of these changes were accomplished even after they were named by Air Transport World as the airline of the year for 2010.

Mike Barish. I continue to love Virgin America. They’re willing to show personality. They have a sense of humor and their use of social media is phenomenal. They have really embraced customer service and care about humanizing their brand.

Annie Scott. Air France has the best coach class of any airline I’ve flown this year, but Philippine Airlines gets ten points for calling their economy class “Fiesta Class.”

McLean Robbins. Virgin America. Am I one of many?

Meg Nesterov. Turkish Airlines has become my default carrier of choice, which is fine given their excellent service. How many other airlines will let you cancel and rebook a flight last minute and only charges a small change fee? Their in-flight meals even in coach are reliably good and always free.

Melanie Nayer. Props to Cathay Pacific. Great in-flight crew, and any airline that makes me a grilled cheese sandwich in flight is tops in my book!

Alex Robertson Textor. Porter, hands down. I like the airline so much I found a way to write a piece for their in-flight magazine. I want two dozen regional Porters around the globe, each with limited route maps, quiet, fuel-efficient planes, friendly fight attendants, and a single class of service.Catherine Bodry. Alaska Air.

Grant Martin. Virgin America & VAustralia. All of that positive press is happening for a reason. These two airlines have the best service out there, and their hard products are equally gorgeous. Get to Australia next year while competition is still high and ticket prices are rock bottom.

Karen Walrond. I fly mostly on Continental because I live in its hub city and that’s where my airmiles are. Here in Houston, we’re nervous about the merger between Continental and United. We hope nothing will be ruined in the process!

David Farley. Jet Airways.

Sean McLachlan. easyJet. Everyone complains about them, myself included, but damn they’re cheap and convenient. And hey, at least they aren’t Ryanair!

Laurel Miller. Qantas for their consistently excellent service, staff, and on-time departures.

[Image: Flickr | LWY]

Search for Air France 447 to resume

air france 447 searchFrench air accident investigators announced yesterday that search teams will return to a remote region of the Atlantic to resume the search for Air France Flight 447 in early 2011. Officials from the airline and the investigative agency recently met with families of the passengers on board that flight, who urged them to continue the search for the missing plane. Those families have lingering questions about what happened to their loved ones and why the plane went down under mysterious circumstances.

On June 1st, 2009, Flight 447 took off from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil on a trip to Paris, France. While crossing the Atlantic Ocean, the Airbus A330-200 encountered stormy weather and was never heard from again. There were 228 passengers on board at the time of the crash. The planes two flight recorders have never been recovered and little wreckage was ever found either.

This will be the fourth search team sent to the region where the plane is believed to have gone down. Previous searches have garnered few results in part because of the remote nature of the crash site. It will take two to four days by ship just to get to the location where the plane is believed to have gone down. Past searches have been hampered by underwater mountains, deep trenches, and thousands of miles of ocean.

The search is scheduled to resume in February of next year with investigators hoping to not only discover the wreckage, but also solve the mystery of why the plane crashed in the first place.

[Photo credit: Pawel Kierzkowski via WikiMedia]