Info

badice.com ~ travel musings for the masses

Archive for

The TSA is a little closer to raising the security fee on airline tickets →

The Senate Appropriations Committee on Tuesday moved forward with legislation to increase airline passenger security fees, beating back a GOP attempt to keep them at current levels.

The 2013 Homeland Security appropriations bill would increase one-way fees for passengers from $2.50 to $5 in order to close a budget shortfall at the Transportation Security Administration.

Yet the TSA has security items going unused and sitting in storage. This is the perfect opportunity to reduce the reach of the TSA by forcing them to come up with a smaller budget and operate within that budget.

Yesterday, news broke that a press conference to take place at Hobby Airport was scheduled by Mayor Annise Parker. It was pretty easy to speculate what it would be about, the future of Hobby Airport and Southwest Airlines’ desire to fly international flights from there. It came as no surprise that the press conference was the confirmation of the speculation, that Hobby would have an international terminal and immigration facility built. What did come as a surprise were a few of the details.

  • Southwest Airlines will pay for the entire cost of construction
  • No passenger service charges will be added to tickets due to construction
  • For Southwest’s part in building of the terminal, they will receive preference on four out of the five gates being built
  • Southwest will pay no rent on the terminal or the customs and immigration facilities
  • Rebates will be made available for other carriers who start operations at Hobby and bring an increase in passengers
  • The City of Houston will be the owners of the terminal after construction

A piece that was kind of mentioned in passing was Southwest’s lease term. It sounded like a 25-year lease but I am not 100% on that.

All around, I’m sort of ambivalent. It is good news that the city is not footing the bill, it shows that Southwest is serious about the international operations. However, I do think the full ramifications of more traffic out of Hobby are not completely understood. None of the studies done looked at car traffic, parking, etc. These are important items for the community and I hope they are addressed before construction is underway.

The other piece is United’s threats of moving flights and how serious they are about following through on them. We may see a few flights announced from other hubs but I have no doubt that United is going to want to compete in the Houston market.

Reason.com takes a look at a bunch of TSA stats, including a heavily redacted document regarding security breaches →

The article pulls out some interesting data from a report compiled by the Republican staff of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform and House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure. Here are a few highlights:

  • 85 percent of the approximately 5,700 items of major transportation security equipment currently warehoused had been stored for longer than six months; 35 percent of the equipment had been stored for more than one year. One piece of equipment had been in storage more than six years—60 percent of its useful life.
  • TSA had 472 carry-on baggage screening machines warehoused, more than 99 percent of which have remained in storage for more than nine months; 34 percent of the machines have been stored for longer than one year.
  • TSA possessed 1,462 explosive trace detectors in storage, each purchased at a cost of $30,000. Of those devices, 492 had been in storage for longer than one year.

We should be utterly dumbfounded by these numbers. Not because we want the technology implemented, but because the equipment was bought in the first place. It equates to the TSA being given a blank check to shop in the billionaire’s version of SkyMall, all while not being completely honest about security breaches.

Even more disturbing is that even though these numbers and a series of “groping” incidents have made the news, the TSA continues to expand their reach. There are reports of TSA pat downs and bag searches taking place at McCormick Station in Chicago during the NATO summit.

I am not sure any of this is going to stop until a number of people in office put their foot down. The TSA seems less concerned with traveler safety and more concerned about the newest, fanciest equipment and which order to put people through the nude-o-scope. The goal is to make travel safer. If the TSA has lost sight of that goal, then it’s time for us to move on, shutter the TSA, and figure out a better way of performing the single task at hand.

I have been spending the last few weeks working on a few projects, one of which is now out in the wild. It is called PointsHoarder and it is a podcast about all things points and travel related. Seth, Fozz, and myself are recording the show every two weeks and I am trying to release them as soon as I can get them edited and ready for the internet.

The three of us have been friends for nearly five years. We fly together, meet up in different cities when we can, and chat in different travel related forums around the internet. The idea for the podcast was thrown around for a little while before I just said, “let’s record one show and see how it goes”. I thought it went well and they both agreed, so we’re devoting an evening every other week to record it.

The content is mostly airline related since that is where our passion really is, but we talk about hotels and rental cars as well. The goal is to share our understanding of different aspects of the travel industry to help listeners create a better trip for themselves.

We are still working on a proper logo and other small items, but the shows are being posted and you can subscribe in iTunes.

I am really happy with what we are doing so far, Seth and Fozz have a wealth of knowledge and they are both fun guys to talk to about travel. Give the show a listen and let me know what you think!

Yesterday, the Star Alliance turned 15. What started as five airlines coming together in 1997 to form a partnership has turned into a massive global network of 25 carriers and almost 1,300 destinations. The current CEO, Mark Schwab, made this video to celebrate the day. The alliance has also released a couple of promotions and contests, including a free trip giveaway.

(view video)

The Star Alliance really is a global network of carriers. Having been a Continental flyer, I have experienced SkyTeam, and now Star Alliance, and I am amazed how much more world coverage there is in the Star Alliance. Happy 15th Anniversary to them.

There is a little bit of a fight brewing in Chicago over the future expansion of O’Hare.

Mr. Emanuel is at odds with airline boss Jeff Smisek over expansion of O’Hare International Airport. The CEO of United Continental Holdings Inc. jabbed at Mr. Emanuel recently, saying there’s no need to finish the multibillion-dollar project launched seven years ago.

Both men have the best interests of their businesses (Chicago is Mr. Emanuel’s “business”) in mind as they discuss the upgrades and expansion of Chicago’s O’Hare airport. Mr. Smisek is trying to control United’s costs by limiting their involvement in the expansion of the airport.

Mr. Emanuel can’t afford to let O’Hare fall behind rival airports. Mr. Smisek, on the other hand, has a different agenda. Unlike airline execs of the past, whose expansionist strategies dovetailed with the city’s desire for an ever-bigger O’Hare, he’s focused on the bottom line. He aims to boost profits by reducing capacity and competition in the airline industry, which has a long history of big spending, bloody fare wars and monumental losses. His merger of Houston-based Continental Airlines Inc. and Chicago’s UAL Corp. advanced those aims while creating an airline with unprecedented market power, the largest in the industry.

The interesting take away here is that apparently Mr. Smisek hates competition, yet none of this came up during the merger of United and Continental, which truly reduced competition. And why is no one bringing this up in the possible merger of US Airways and American Airlines? If competition is so important, then enforce it when carriers try to remove competition directly by merging.

All of this should be a warning sign to those looking at the airline industry from the outside. The airlines are struggling and they are trying to do all they can to survive. For some, that means merging, for others that means looking at operations and reducing capacity and for others it’s a combination of both. And this is not just a problem in the United States, just look at Lufthana’s announcements about reducing regional jets from the fleet, removing first class from some aircraft, etc.

Then there is this article I came across. What stuck out to me was this:

The terms of the debate are different in Chicago, but the bottom line is the same. What’s best for the city may not be best for United Airlines, and vice versa. There’s nothing particularly remarkable about a large company with near-monopoly control in a given market doing whatever it can to keep competition out. What is remarkable is that the argument to allow such competition would somehow be damaging to consumers is given any credibility.

We sure are getting lax with our throwing around of the “m”-word. United and American Airlines both have major hubs at Chicago O’Hare but that has not kept carriers from starting service to the airport. Virgin America has a number of new flights to and from Chicago. And neither airline has tried to limit Southwest’s operations at Chicago Midway. During the city council meeting in Houston the word “monopoly” was thrown around a lot as well. United does not control the Terminal D/E FIS facility. Other airlines are free to come and go as they please. Southwest used to even have gates at IAH. They gave those up to move to Hobby and in doing so, gave up their option to fly international flights. TACA, Aeromexico, and VivaAerobus all fly to Latin America from IAH, clearly, United does not have a monopoly. The other airlines’ operations are not huge but that isn’t because of a monopoly, it’s because IAH is not their hub. By this monopoly logic, American Airlines has a monopoly in DFW even though plenty of other airlines have flights there. Or, heaven forbid, Southwest has a monopoly at Hobby and Love Field.

Let me refer you back to the two posts in which my wife Tiffany Tyler analyzed Southwest’s proposal and the claims United was making at the time, which seem to have evolved somewhat. I understand United’s fear of this proposal. I understand their threats regarding Terminal B at IAH, though given the growth projections for IAH and the fact that they want to close down the former Continental hub in Cleveland it’s hard for me to take those threats too seriously – where else are they going to go? Unlike Southwest, which says it will go to San Antonio for their Latin American and Caribbean business if Hobby is not available to them, they’re pretty much locked in. What I don’t understand is how having more competition, even if it’s just for a handful of Latin American routes, can be bad for travelers. It makes no sense to me, and according to his press release it makes no sense to CM Andrew Burks, either. I hope in the end it makes no sense to the rest of Council.

The problem is not necessarily that there is competition, it’s the fact that the competition is based on false figures ($133 Houston-Bogota fares). Where will United go if Hobby is allowed to have international flights? Denver. They have plenty of gates there and can serve the connecting traffic just as well from there as from IAH. In fact, I’m sure the city of Denver would be happy to have more people flying through their airport. During the city council meeting Southwest offered to build the necessary gates and pay for the FIS facilities at Hobby. I say let them do that. If the city does not have to pick up the cost then there is no reason not to let them try to compete in the Latin-American markets.

Breaching the Perimeter (The Economist) →

Reagan Washington National Airport will soon see new flights to San Francisco and San Diego and a few more flights to Los Angeles and Salt Lake City, with four new round trips set to be picked this month. Good news all around. I love DCA, both for its architecture and design as well as for how easy it is to reach from the center of Washington D.C.

Happily for busy Washingtonians, the Federal Aviation Administration’s recent reauthorisation includes a loosening of DCA’s perimeter rule. The number of services to destinations outside the perimeter will increase by two-thirds. The airport’s four big incumbents, Delta Air Lines, US Airways, American Airlines and United Airlines, will each exchange an inside-perimeter flight for a longer one. San Francisco (United) and San Diego (US Airways) will be added to the destination board, and Los Angeles (American) and Salt Lake City (Delta) will each get a new round trip. Four new round trips will go to airlines with limited or no presence at DCA. Seven carriers have submitted proposals; federal regulators will pick the winners this month.

The Frequent Fliers Who Flew Too Much – A look at American Airlines’ AAirpass and the negative consequences (Los Angeles Times) →

American Airlines offers different forms of an unlimited first class flying pass. When originally conceived its usage potential was not completely understood by American and it came back to get them.

Mike Joyce of Chicago bought his in 1994 after winning a $4.25-million settlement after a car accident.

In one 25-day span this year, Joyce flew round trip to London 16 times, flights that would retail for more than $125,000. He didn’t pay a dime.

There are people always willing to find the different ways of making programs, deals, etc. work for them. The users of the AAirpass were no exception:

Creative uses seemed limitless. When bond broker Willard May of Round Rock, Texas, was forced into retirement after a run-in with federal securities regulators in the early 1990s, he turned to his trusty AAirpass to generate income. Using his companion ticket, he began shuttling a Dallas couple back and forth to Europe for $2,000 a month.

“For years, that was all the flying I did,” said May, 81. “It’s how I got the bills paid.”

The problem is, some of these uses were against the terms of the passes. American had let their enforcement of such terms and conditions slip and now had to react swiftly to stop any further loss.

Cade was assigned to find out whether any AAirpass holders were violating the rules, starting with those who flew the most.

She pulled years of flight records for Rothstein and Vroom and calculated that each was costing American more than $1 million a year.

[…]

On Dec. 13, 2008, Rothstein and a companion checked in at Chicago O’Hare International Airport for a transatlantic flight. An American employee handed him a letter, which said his AAirpass had been terminated for “fraudulent behavior.”

The whole story is a fascinating read and I highly recommend reading it. It is further proof that travel is a bit addictive and being able to pack up and go somewhere exotic is very alluring. And such an attractive hobby means that there always people looking for ways to maximize their value, bend the rules, and skirt attention.