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Tuesday, January 24, 2012

The Road To Hell Is Paved With Good Intentions

While the news media has been busy lately looking for disgruntled ex wives and off shore accounts, there has been some other news more relevant to the aviation industry.  Yesterday I was reading about the late Rube Goldberg, whose cartoons became well known for depicting complex devices that performed simple tasks in indirect, inefficient, creative and convoluted ways.  I couldn’t help but think about recent events in Europe in the pursuit of environmental nirvana. Their new carbon tax system, ETS, the harbinger of a cap and trade system in the United States, went into effect January 1, 2012.  It has been in effect less than a month it is already having a profound effect on airlines that fly within and without Europe.

IATA, the International Air Transport Assn., has estimated that the ETS will cost the airline industry overall $1.16 billion this year, up to $3.63 billion in 2020.  Passing on the costs to consumers alone will not work, according to a 2007 study commissioned by the aviation industry. It found that airlines would themselves have to absorb a large proportion of the additional costs, estimating that complying with the ETS would cost carriers more than $60 billion between 2011 and 2022.
The ersatz logic of the European carbon tax (i.e. cap and trade) was explained in a World Bank draft report on "Mobilizing Climate Finance.  "…..a modest carbon tax — at around $25 per ton — would be a straightforward way to cut aviation emissions. The tax would raise ticket prices 2 to 4 percent, the World Bank estimates, while emissions would fall by 5 to 10 percent. Slightly fewer people would fly, but most of the gains would come from airlines finding more efficient routes and sending their older, dirtier aircraft into early retirement."  Aviation generates about 3% of the world’s CO2 emissions.  It has been estimated that US carriers are responsible for about half of that percentage. 

Biofuels have been touted as a major part of the plan to reduce CO2 emissions from jet aircraft.  Unfortunately, biofuels are not currently a viable option for the airline industry.  They are not widely available.  They are very expensive, about 9 times the cost per gallon of traditional jet fuel.  The kicker is that for all their negatives, biofuels still emit from 50% to 75% as much CO2 per mega joule of energy as traditional jet fuel.

If understood correctly, it means the airlines will be expected to reduce their emissions by flying fewer passengers on less route, on newly purchased aircraft with a limited supply of expensive fuel.  In pursuit of lower CO2, the already overregulated European Union is going to further burden and further regulate one of the few positive segments of the world’s economy, air transportation.  The U. S. State Department argues that ICAO, the aviation arm of the United Nations is the venue for this issue.  It tried unsuccessfully to get the carbon tax postponed or excluded until ICAO decided the issue. The European Court of Justice dismissed the State Department’s suit in December.  In the mean time travelers can expect to pay US$ 3.00 – 6.00 surcharge to the European Union for their trip across the Atlantic.

Some countries have said they may not pay the tax.  The United States, Russia and China among other countries have threatened retaliatory measures if the carbon tax is not rescinded.  Recently the Chinese news agency, Xinhua, editorialized in The Financial Times: “This is a trade barrier in the name of environmental protection, and it constitutes an attack on the interests of travelers and the international aviation industry. It will be difficult to avoid a trade war focused on a 'carbon tax' for airlines.”  The European Commission then responded, “Airlines failing to follow a new European law requiring them to account for their emissions of greenhouse gases could face a ban from European airports.”

The European carbon tax, ETS, may be successful at generating significant additional expense for the airline industry, but it will do almost nothing to change CO2 emissions.  This is an absurd scheme, not because airline companies are environmentally insensitive, but there is no viable alternative at the present time.  Rube Goldberg, however, would be extremely proud of the plan.

Friday, January 20, 2012

"I'm Here To Help You"

The Transportation Security Administration is the poster child for the incompetence of the federal government.  It's not that they don't do anything, it's that they do it poorly, inefficiently, expensively and insensitively.  We need to demand better of our government.  Protecting its citizens is the fundamental responsibility of the federal government.  It is not that the TSA is not properly funded or staffed.  Screeners are paid very well as unskilled workers.  Requirement for a TSA Screener starting position is the same as a Wal Mart associate.   Screeners generally start at about twice the hourly rate of an employee at Wal Mart and a full benefits package verses the lack of any benefits for the Wal Mart associate.  It's hard to understand why most Wal Mart associates are friendly while most TSA employees do not display a helpful attitude.  When I go through a security checkpoint at the larger airports there never seems to be a lack of TSA employees.  TSA Managers can earn well in excess of $100,000 annually.

In spite of very competitive wages and benefits as well as adequate staffing, there continues to be incidents of screener misconduct and incompetence.  After first denying the allegations of Lenore Zimmerman, 85, of Long Beach, N.Y., and 88-year-old Ruth Sherman, of Sunrise, Fla., the TSA finally admitted this week to improperly screening the ladies medical devices.  In November 2011 these ladies were asked to remove clothing, in an unapproved manner, to conduct secondary security screening.  Ms. Sherman was required to undergo the humiliation of displaying her colostomy bag.  The TSA's justification for these de facto strip searches is to ensure that no weapons get aboard airliners.

On January 18th of this year Judith Kenney, a 65 year old Addison, Texas attorney boarded an American Airlines flight from Dallas to Houston one and a half hours after going through a TSA security checkpoint with a loaded .38 caliber revolver left mistakenly in her briefcase.  There was no intent by Ms. Kenney to carry the weapon aboard.  After an extensive search of Terminal D and considerable disruption to passenger, Ms. Kenney was located on one of the many flight that had been held on the tarmac.  Ms. Kenney apologized to the pilots and passengers as she was taken into custody.  The Ft. Worth Star Telegram quoted Bruce Schneier, an author and aviation security expert about the incident.  "They really made her day miserable, and if she was a terrorist, they would have caught her," Schneier said. "Which means the whole gun system is working great, even if there is a failure."  Mr. Schneier added, "Guns in carry-on bags are spotted 9 times out of 10, so terrorists are unlikely to bring guns into airports given the high chance of being caught." 

I might disagree with applauding a 90% success rate of finding weapons given the lengths some of the screeners use.  The real threat, I believe, is the person not the weapon.  Focus the resources on those individuals that can be reasonably identified as a threat.  If there is something in a person's background or behavior that arouses suspicion, I am all for enhanced screening no matter how old or in firmed they are.  I have always wondered why more canines have not been deployed to airports.  Until the latest technology was deployed post 9/11 dogs were more accurate than machines in identifying explosives.  Today, in all but a few airports in the US, crew members must still be screened at the same checkpoints as the customers.  Over a decade after 9/11 we are just now implementing a system that acknowledges the identity of flight crew members. 

If the TSA is going to base their security strategy on finding the weapons vis a vis identifying the terrorists they need to come up with a system that is more sensitive to the customers and better at locating contraband at the checkpoint.  Unfortunately, the federal government has decided to address aviation security the same way it does everything else, with lots of money, bureaucracy and political correctness, but very little common sense.

Monday, January 2, 2012

One Flight At A Time

The results are in.  2011 was the safest year ever for the airlines.  The safest form of travel is even safer.  As it has been for decades, the most dangerous part of an airline journey is the automobile journey to the airport.  You are still more likely to die by lightning than from an airline accident.  Where do we go from here?

There were still fatalities in 2011, just not very many.  For those fatally injured in airline accidents and their loved ones that fact is not much comfort.  Can we drive the number of fatalities to zero? I believe we can.  We do not need to accept that airline fatalities will always be a reality.  Even when airborne mechanical failures degrade the aircraft’s airworthiness, fatalities are not inevitable.

The strategy to achieve this goal is simple.  One flight at a time is how we do it.  This is not as ambitious as it might seem.  If we were to do a forensic analysis of the fatal accidents of 2011 we would see that there was a point in each flight where the safe outcome was no longer assured.  Circumstance and human factors allowed the potential for disaster to evolve from possible to probable to inevitable.

Terrain does not rise up and strike the aircraft, rather just the opposite.  The runway does not posses the ability to control the aircraft.  The control of the aircraft and the associated decisions are the sole responsibility of the crew.  Crews can relegate most of the functions of flying the modern aircraft except decision-making and aircraft control.  ICAO data shows that the most likely causes for an accident are CFIT, loss of control and runway safety issues.

It is absolutely possibly to report zero fatalities next year.   

For us in North America, we don’t have that far to go.  In some other areas of the world, it might take a more dramatic effort, but I believe the worldwide brother and sisterhood of airline professionals are up to the challenge.  It won’t be the managers or the dispatchers.  It will be the same as it always has been.  Passengers will be putting their lives in the hands of their pilots.  It is an honor to have that responsibility.