Northwest to disappear this year

Remember Eastern? Pan Am? Well, the next one to join the list of airline has-beens will be Northwest.

Northwest Airlines may have made it to the beginning of 2010, but won’t see another New Year’s Eve. The carrier, which was acquired by Delta in October 2008, has received permission from the FAA to ditch the Northwest name and operate the whole deal as Delta. The cutover process for “legacy Northwest” is expected to be completed by the end of the first quarter.

There are, of course, some kinks to be worked out. The entire Northwest operation needs to be folded into that of Delta, and everything from routes to labor to the codes on boarding passes need to be sorted out. Though some groups within Northwest have sorted out contracts and seniority lists, flight attendants, gate and reservation agents and ramp workers still have some work in front of them. Prior to the merger, Northwest was, according to The Associated Press, “heavily unionized,” and Delta wasn’t.

Fortunately, a lot of heavy lifting has been done already. More than 80 percent of the planes once labeled Northwest have been repainted for Delta, the two frequent flier programs have been consolidated and crews are standardized on one set of uniforms.

White House pushing for answers to airline industry woes

The Obama Administration is taking a closer look at the airline industry with the hopes that something can be fixed. Transportation Secretary Roy LaHood is pulling together a panel that will investigate the problems the industry faces and hopefully come up with a solution. But, I don’t think anyone’s breath is being held.

The airlines are always swamped with criticism, with consumers unhappy about customer service levels, on-time arrivals and departures, the shrinking list of amenities and increasingly cramped conditions. Now, shareholders are speaking louder about declining revenues and profits. Employees are losing their jobs, and regulators and industry observers worry about continued safety violations, including drunk and distracted pilots.

Ultimately, LaHood’s goal is for the panel to put together “a road map for the future of the aviation industry.” The panel is being convened thanks in part to a push from the airline unions, the stakeholders worried most by the layoffs that have now become routine. According to The Associated Press, they believe the industry is “dysfunctional.”

Of course, it didn’t take the airlines to offer their thoughts ask for money — lots of it. They claim that radar technology that dates back to World War II isn’t as effective as a GPS-based alternative. The industry would love to see this upgrade … as long as the government writes the check. The FAA is already prepared to spend $15 billion to $22 billion on this effort, but there is an additional $14 billion to $20 billion currently sent over to the airlines. The upside would be reductions in airport congestion, fuel consumption and carbon emissions.

The Air Transportation Association (shockingly) thinks the taxpayers should pay the bill because the system would benefit the whole country. US Airways CEO Doug Parker wrote a letter to LaHood saying that the airlines simply don’t have the cash to meet their end of this.

Unfortunately, the airline industry has once again asked for money and not offered any solutions of its own. No suggestion was offered as to any of the other difficulties pertaining to the industry, and I tend to become suspicious when there is only one problem identified. It implies that everything could be fixed, in this case, with the replacement of radar air traffic control systems with GPS technology. We’re dealing with an industry that has lost credibility rapidly, so even if this one grand move would address ever gripe, large and small, a willing audience is unlikely to take shape.

[Photo by extremeezine via Flickr]

Drunk pilot arrested in London

After (another) pilot was found drunk in London this week, the issue of pilot inebriation has become a frequent discussion topic. Since 1997, 11 commercial pilots, on average, have tested positive for alcohol every year. According to FAA regulations, pilots can’t fly with a blood alcohol content of above 0.04 percent (it’s 0.02 percent in Great Britain). Last year, 13 pilots tested positive, making 2008 slightly above average.

The FAA conducts more than 10,000 random alcohol tests every year, says spokeswoman Laura Brown. This is approximately 10% of the total, as there are around 100,000 commercial pilots in the United States.

The latest culprit, Erwin Washington of United Airlines, was arrested at Heathrow Airport on Monday, when he was suspected of being drunk in the cockpit — members of his crew reported him to the authorities. Washington could lose his license as a result. Two other U.S. pilots have been arrested in England on charges involving alcohol in a little more than a year.

Though an intoxicated pilot is obviously a danger to the passengers, the National Transportation Safety Board says that no airline in the United States has crashed because the pilot was drunk.

[has video]

Jackson Hole Airport to undergo runway work

Jackson Hole Airport is likely to close for around four days next month because of runway work. The closure is scheduled to begin at 5 PM on May 25, 2009 (Memorial Day), with the four-day estimate coming from the contractors hired by the airport. If the hired help can get the work done according to schedule – and when was the last time that happened? – the airport could reopen as early as May 30, though a range of up to June 2 is proffered.

The good news? The Federal Aviation Administration is going to kick in $5 million for the effort.

Of course, there’s always a critic. Major General Ed Wright, top dog in the Wyoming National Guard, gripes that he and 53 other National Guard generals, and their staffs, where planning to meet in town for a conference for the first five days of June.

He’s quoted in USA Today as saying, “I was more than surprised this week to hear thirdhand that the airport is proposing to close at exactly the time the majority of our attendees are scheduled to arrive.”

Apparently, Wright did not punctuate his concerns with, “Don’t you know who I am?” perhaps because it’s implied.

The general’s true colors are evident in his two statements: (a) generals have tight schedules (even part-time generals, apparently) and (b) “I certainly don’t believe they would purposely single out a military event at a time when our nation is at war and Wyoming is deploying the greatest number of guardsmen in our state’s history.”

Okay, so which is it? Generals are too busy to be interrupted – regardless of what the rest of the world needs? Or, is it that the airport is putting maintenance, safety and reduced scheduling impact ahead of the needs of a nation at war … a war that clearly will be won or lost by the ability of 54 generals to meet in a resort town?

Sorry, Wright. This all seems just a tad disingenuous.

In addition to the esteemed and upset part-time military official, approximately 450 passengers were scheduled to fly into Jackson Hole Airport during the closure. How much of that consists of the generals and their staffs? That information was not revealed.

Passengers inconvenienced by the closure will not be charged fees to change their flights to Salt Lake City or Idaho Falls during the closure.

Pilot sues flight attendants over safety

Three Phoenix-based flight attendants are in the unusual position of defending themselves from pilot-instigated litigation. Of course, they deserve it. I mean, what would you do when people responsible for passenger safety report safety concerns to federal regulators? Either you can fix a problem or you can sue. Since the pilot is obviously a proud American, he chose the latter course. And, he’s now proving his patriotism by messing with the media.

America West Flight 851 was about to leave Calgary, Alberta back in 2003. The flight attendants were worried about frost on the wings, but the pilots saw no need to de-ice before take-off. Eventually, the guys at the front of the plane gave in, but the flight attendants were worried enough by the incident to report it to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). Looking back on the crash in Buffalo a little over a week ago, this looks like a decent idea.

First Officer Ed Gannon didn’t see it that way, even after he was cleared by the FAA (which offered to pick up the tab for some of his legal fees).

Now, I am somewhat sympathetic to Gannon (sorry, Heather). I’m not plane-savvy enough to know if the FAs had a good point or if they were intruding on the pilot’s turf. Even though the FAA cleared the guy, he still had his life at least inconvenienced by the flight attendants. And, let’s be realistic. Being sued is not something you can just brush off.

Assume you feel you’ve done nothing wrong, and you have to spend thousands of dollars to make that point. Yeah, you’d be pissed. You’d want a bit of payback.
If Gannon wanted to make a point, filing the suit was enough. The fact that the judge tossed out some of his arguments (including “infliction of emotional distress”) suggests that he shouldn’t push too hard (the defamation bit is still in play). Instead, however, he’s upping the ante.

The seemingly wronged pilot has subpoenaed reporters’ notes from the Phoenix New Times, not to mention any documents supplied by the flight attendants who are being sued. Gannon has also gone after the FAs’ blog, hunting for information about the people who have posted comments on the site.

Imagine getting a call from a lawyer because you posted a comment on this story … scary, isn’t it?

Gannon’s made his point. It’s time for him to put all this in the past (hell, it happened six years ago). If you feel strongly about this, consider a contribution to the FAs’ legal defense fund.

Check out these other stories from the airport checkpoint!