Saturday, December 14, 2013

While I Was Out....

Anybody looking at this year’s blogging content could be excused for assuming I had retired from aviation blogging. I haven’t – it’s just been a jam-packed year, one of my busiest ever, with lots of travel and adventure and new writing opportunities. My year in review:
  • In January Dawn and I spent a long weekend in Homer, Alaska. 
  • In February my friend Brad and I spent two weeks dirt-biking down Baja California. 
  • In March I spent an additional week dirt-biking from Loreto to Cabo San Lucas. 
  • In April I returned to the line after 3 months of medical leave and flew back to Cabo to prep and sell my DRZ-400 motorbike.
  • In May I purchased two motorcycles on the east coast and Dawn and I spent 4 days riding the mountains of NC & TN; a few weekends later, my dad and I went back out for more riding. 
  • In June my first article in Flying came out, Dawn and I rode the length of the Blue Ridge Parkway with friends Brad & Amber, and we spent 10 days in Ireland with Dawn’s extended family. 
  • In July and August we spent a month traveling through South Africa, Botswana, and Zimbabwe. 
  • In September my second article in Flying came out, and I spent 8 days in Southern California taking advanced sailing courses. 
  • In October we spent 9 days sailing in the British Virgin Islands at the Interline Regatta with a team composed of crewmembers from Horizon, NewCo, and several other airlines. 
  • In November, Flying began running my new monthly column, “Taking Wing.” 
Whew! Maybe I should have stayed home more often to do more blogging, because it has certainly been an eventful year in the airline business. Many of these stories are ongoing and I’ll certainly return to them both here and in the pages of Flying, but they’re worth summarizing for the time being:

Merger Mania Continues Apace 

United & Continental and Southwest & AirTran are putting the final touches on their respective tie-ups. American & USAirways have made significant progress, especially in reaching a fairly favorable settlement with the DOJ and states’ attorneys general who had sued to stop the merger, and in getting the various unions on board with agreements that will significantly improve their current bankruptcy contracts. There is now widespread speculation as to the future of current niche carriers like jetBlue, Hawaiian, and Alaska, with many believing they will be gobbled up by one of the four remaining megacarriers. I suspect the DOJ’s lawsuit against American & USAirways was mostly intended to signal that the current administration thinks merger mania has gone quite far enough.

The Major Airlines are Making Money! 

The global economy continues to teeter along, but don’t tell it to the likes of Delta and United – they’re making money hand over fist, especially Delta, who recently notched up a $1.37 Billion-with-a-B quarterly profit (they're expecting $2.6B for the year). All of the U.S. airlines have done an admirable job of capacity control, which was the whole point of the mergers to begin with, and so airfares have remained at sustainable levels with few fare-wars-for-market-share breaking out. Meanwhile extra baggage and service fees are sticking and are contributing handsomely to the airlines’ bottom line, and the new megacarriers are increasingly comfortable throwing their weight around, Walmart-style, in squeezing their vendors for additional savings.

The Legacy Airines are Hiring!

Mandatory retirements have resumed after the five year hiatus brought about by raising the retirement age from 60 to 65, new rest rules will require slightly increased staffing at most carriers, and the major airlines are very cautiously adding capacity and shifting existing capacity from regional carriers to mainline. As a result, all the legacy airlines have begun hiring in significant numbers for the first time since 2001 (a few of them did a little hiring in 2007 and 2010). Short of economic meltdown or another 9/11-type event, heavy hiring is expected to continue for the next decade. Of course, in this industry nothing ever goes as expected, but for now the outlook looks quite good. On a related note, in October I got a letter from WidgetCo informing me that I can expect to flow up as early as January. I’ve been running the numbers and it looks like I will probably end up with a hire date of February, and a class date in March or April once NewCo exercises their holdback rights. This is obviously hugely exciting news: getting hired by one of the largest, most stable, most successful legacy carriers, and one that has a significant presence in my hometown, is a dream come true. But I’m trying hard not to count any pre-hatched chickens until my butt is actually sitting in class…and then I have to pass training! Possible aircraft include the B717 and MD88; if it’s the latter, I’m going to have to revert to my freight-dogging steam gauge skills after 10 years of getting spoiled by glass cockpit airliners.

Regional Airlines Continue to Struggle 

Thank God that major airline hiring is providing some light at the end of the tunnel, because the regionals are not a good place to be these days. Most of the trends that I’ve written about in the past few years have continued to play out. The consolidation of legacy airlines, permanently elevated fuel prices, maturing regional labor costs, and aging aircraft with high CASM have all made the regional airline model increasingly obsolete, particularly in the 50-seat segment. The major airlines have been aggressively retiring their 50-seat feed earlier than planned, replacing it with a smaller number of 70-76 seaters. Meanwhile, the majors have been increasingly ruthless with their erstwhile partners, forcing lower profit margins and increased risk-sharing on them if they are to get any new flying to replace their dying CRJ-200s and EMB-145s.

The case of Pinnacle is instructive. In an effort to hedge against their high exposure to the 50 seat market, Pinnacle purchased Mesaba and Colgan in 2010 to gain more access to the 76-seat jet and 70-seat turboprop markets, respectively. When they bought Mesaba from Delta, Pinnacle renegotiated their air service agreement with Delta on terms that were reportedly less favorable than their previous contract. Pinnacle bungled the merger, which came as no great surprise to anybody familiar with Pinnacle management, and began hemorrhaging money. When Pinnacle filed for bankruptcy, Delta swooped in and bought them on the cheap, which must have been horribly familiar to their ex-Mesaba employees; NWA did the exact same thing in 2007. Delta then forced already low-paid Pinnacle employees to take huge concessions (this while they made billions and paid their own employees handsome profit-sharing checks) and changed their name to Endeavor.

This, frankly, is about the best outcome that many regional airlines can hope for. Having been built up so quickly by their mainline partners in the late 1990s-2000s, having been awarded flying on the basis of low costs that could only be sustained through continued growth, the regionals have nowhere left to grow and can only get smaller, further raising their costs, making them even less attractive to the majors. It’s a vicious cycle and the case of Pinnacle shows that the ongoing regional consolidation is not really a viable solution.

Big Regulatory Changes are Ongoing

2013 was a year of sea change in the airlines’ regulatory environment. In August, the ATP rule took effect. It requires all pilots – both Captains and First Officers – at Part 121 carriers to have an ATP, while at the same creating a reduced-minimums “restricted ATP” for military- and college-trained first officers. The change was mandated by Congress, largely prompted by the Colgan crash and by many regionals hiring pilots with the bare legal minimums in 2006-08. I think 1500 hours is probably slight overkill and I would have preferred more rigorous testing rather than creating cutouts for the Riddle and UND kiddies, but the law is preferable to the ridiculous hiring practices of the last shortage. The airlines really brought this one on themselves.

Likewise the new Part 117 flight time / duty time regulations revealed this year and set to take effect on January 4. New rest regulations to combat pilot fatigue have been among the NTSB’s “most wanted” items for over 20 years; until now the industry has successfully defeated efforts to update the current outdated rules. Had the industry willingly refrained from scheduling its pilots to FAR minimums, they likely could have continued to escape the hassle and expense of completely new regulations. With freshly gutted bankruptcy contracts at the majors and increasingly desperate economic circumstances at the regionals, too many players in the industry adopted the idiotic notion that “if it’s legal, it’s safe,” and Congress called them on it. Unfortunately I think the new regs are going to cut down on pilot productivity and therefore quality of life, but at least the usual suspects will not be able to fall back on flying their pilots ragged to cut costs.

The Pilot Shortage is Nigh! Sort of…. 

There’s been a huge rash of articles on the impending pilot shortage this year, and I can’t help but speculate on the extent to which the A4A & RAA lobbies are behind them as they push back against the ATP and rest rules. Of course, it is absolutely true that there is a big increase in retirements coming in the latter part of this decade, and that historically low numbers of new commercial pilots are entering the US job market. That said, the shortage will be confined to rather predictable segments of the industry. The major airlines will never have a shortage of qualified applicants; the fact that the regional airlines account for about 30% of all airline pilots makes sure of that. The regional airlines, however, will have trouble replacing all the pilots that move onto the majors (or better-paid regionals), with a few carriers already feeling the effects.

Great Lakes Airlines, in particular, is cancelling a huge portions of their flights due not being able to hire enough pilots, has lost several EAS routes for the same reason, and looks increasingly likely to go out of business. Great Lakes, however, is in that position because it has refused to consider raising starting pay from its current $15,000/year. Over time, the shortage will likely creep up the food chain until it eventually impacts most regionals. I think starting pay will come up a bit at the regionals, but the long term solution will likely involve major airlines working with their regional partners to create more defined career progression. Eventually, I could see major airlines screening and hiring new commercial pilots contingent on them flying for a regional partner for a defined period. Pilots would be much more willing to sink money into training and put up with regional pay if there is a guaranteed light at the end of the tunnel. I'd personally prefer to see the regionals disappear altogether with the major airlines recapturing that flying, but there's too much money at stake for too many players for that to happen; I rather expect them to head off the shortage with solutions similar to the one I outlined above.

Another Year, another Automation Crash

The NTSB just held a public hearing on the Asiana 214 crash, but nothing groundshaking was revealed outside of the Captain’s own doubts about his ability to fly a visual approach on a clear and calm day. The meat of the case is already well known, and quite in line with the string of automation accidents in the last five years: crew finds themselves in a situation that precludes full use of automation, crew gets confused as they’re more used to flying with everything on, flying pilot bungles the transition to manual flight, gets distracted from basic stick-and-rudder skills until it’s too late, and crashes. That’s been the basic narrative for Colgan 3407, Air France 447, Turkish 1951, and now Asiana 214. The only really notable thing about this crash is just how little it took to throw this crew off their game: a glideslope being out of service on an otherwise perfect day. Increasingly, crews around the world are getting used to flying nothing but straight-in ILSes with autopilot & autothrottles coupled. Many airlines are making things worse by prohibiting manual flying under normal conditions. It makes flying easier for the 250-hour wonders, but does crews a terrible disservice when the automation fails or does things they’re not expecting. The FAA has woken up to this problem and is increasingly encourage US airlines to train and test manual flying skills in their pilots. Perhaps with this crash, the rest of the world will start to rediscover the need for stick-and-rudder skills and practice to ward off automation dependency.

The Gulf Carriers Keep on Growing 

Emirates, Ethiad, Qatar, and flydubai made headlines at the recent Dubai Airshow with their blockbuster $192B, 393 airframe order of Airbus and Boeing products. If all these orders hold firm – and that’s usually a fairly big if – it will roughly double the Persian Gulf carriers’ already-large capacity, and they’ll be looking for a lot of new markets to put it in. There’s widespread speculation, verging on barely-restrained panic, that they’ll be invading US airspace in a big way, destroying all the yields of the US carriers’ oh-so-carefully-managed capacity restraint. The rhetoric has become increasingly sharp including charges and counter-charges of unfair government subsidies, and has pitting Boeing against US airlines and their labor groups.

A few points are in order. First, these carriers are doubling their capacity in the length of a few short years, at great expense, without any apparently concrete plans for where they will fly these planes other than vague noises that currently closed markets "will have to open up." Plenty of other airlines in the last 30 years have fallen victim to their own hubris, expanding without regard for economic sanity, trusting that the expansion itself will keep costs low enough to offset plummeting yields and hoping they put enough other airlines out of business to bring yields up as costs mature. Three major Gulf carriers with already-mature route networks doubling their capacity with expensive new airplanes in a matter of years smacks of "bubble" to my ears. I could be wrong: Emirates in particular has doubled in size in less time several times over, and retained profitability. But there has to be a point of diminishing returns, and I think they are approaching it.

Secondly, I think the European carriers have far more to lose here than North American carriers. The Gulf carriers' main strength is their geographic centrality between Europe, Asia, and Africa. Connections through Dubai take scarcely little more time than direct flights from Europe to Asia or Europe to south & east Africa (FRA-HKG is 17% longer distance than direct, FRA-JNB 29% greater). The Gulf hubs are too far east to be of use for flights from the US to Europe (JFK-FRA is 155% longer via DXB). Africa is fair game only insofar as the US airlines have few direct flights to Africa, preferring to route passengers through Europe. Here, JFK-DXB-JNB is only 17% longer than JFK-FRA-JNB. But where direct routings do exist, as in Delta's ATL-JNB, it is 37% shorter than connecting through DXB. And the absolute best-case scenario for most Asian destinations, JFK-HKG, is 31% longer through DXB. From the west coast, LAX-HKG is 65% longer through Dubai, LA to Shanghai 90% longer. These are all distinct cost and revenue advantages in US markets for the US carriers. The only major markets where the Gulf carriers are really well positioned are India and the Middle East itself.

Which isn't to say the Gulf Carriers can't make money in US markets. They already do - Emirates, for example, already flies to eight US destinations and seems to have no trouble filling airplanes. But I sincerely doubt they can add a great deal of additional capacity flying only to Dubai without severely impacting yields. In order to add a lot of capacity to US markets, in my opinion they would have to do one of the following:
  • Offer flights that originate in the US and stop in major European markets before continuing on to the middle east hubs, as in JFK-FRA-DXB, or simply between the US and other countries (JFK-FCO) This will require negotiating fifth/seventh freedom rights with both the Americans and EU or other countries involved.
  • Offer service on major markets within the US, either standalone (LAX-JFK) or continuing on to the middle east (LAX-JFK-DXB). This would require negotiating eighth/ninth freedom rights with the US government. 
  • Obtain greater feed from minor US markets through codeshares with smaller US airlines, perhaps even desperate regional airlines that have lost their US contracts. I could easily see one of Skywest, Inc's airlines becoming Emirates Connection, feeding Emirates heavies at IAD and JFK from destinations up and down the east coast. On the west coast, we've already seen the potential start of this scenario, as Alaska Airlines has risked provoking its codeshare parners Delta and American by inking a fairly extensive partnership with Emirates at LAX, SFO, and SEA. Suddenly the erstwhile Delta-Alaska partnership is looking rather on the rocks as Delta is adding lots of their own flights on top of Alaska routes from LA and Seattle, and Alaska has just announced plans to follow suit in Salt Lake City.
I see the third scenario as the likeliest way for Emirates to further invade U.S. markets; I don't think there's political will in the U.S. government to cede significant fifth/eighth freedom rights to the UAE. Keep in mind that the combined megacarriers all have hubs in quite a few large states and wield considerable political clout.

My last point regarding the Gulf carriers is that they are not significantly cheaper than US or European carriers; the times that I've checked their prices, they've been fairly expensive. Rather, the Gulf carriers are competing on service, which they are reknown for; the European carriers and especially US carriers, not so much. If the newly revitalized US carriers are concerned about surviving the oncoming onslaught of shiny new Boeings and Airbuses from the Gulf, they would do well to take some of those record profits and reinvest them in their product - and their people.

Monday, December 02, 2013

Adventures with Landy: Zimbabwe Edition

Last installment of the Africa series, I promise!

When I began planning our Africa trip, I was originally thinking we’d visit South Africa, Botswana, and Namibia. Eventually it became clear that doing the best parts of Namibia would be a huge detour given our time available, and that country is best left to a future trip. Simply retracing our steps from Botswana to South Africa seemed a waste, though, and we were already planning to cross into Zimbabwe to visit Victoria Falls. Why not come back to South Africa through Zimbabwe?
Why not, indeed: a thoroughly wrecked economy, a recent history of political violence, a fairly unhinged dictatorship, corrupt government structure, institutionalized reverse-racism and little remaining tourism infrastructure were all potential reasons to skip Zimbabwe. But most of the country’s bad press was from 2008 and before, and a little research showed that the power-sharing agreement between Robert Mugabe’s ruling ZANU-PF party and the opposition MDC in the wake of the disputed 2008 election had slowly stabilized the country. A friend visited Harare earlier in the year and a lot of good to say about it. The owner of our hired Land Rover had no objections to driving through Zimbabwe and said no other renters in recent memory had significant problems. I thought it’d be interesting to get a first-hand look at a country often in the headlines for all the wrong reasons, if only for a few days.

The one potential hiccup was that a presidential election was scheduled for just before our visit. It was the first such election since 2008, had been set under conditions that vastly favored ZANU-PF, and MDC was already crying foul. There was widespread speculation that it could get violent again. Thus our Zimbabwe plans were decidedly tentative when we entered Botswana.

The election took place while we were in the bush and my first task after emerging in Kasane was to look up the news from Zimbabwe. Robert Mugabe had won the election, as expected, and this time ZANU-PF had taken pains to rig it so massively that there would be no bloody aftermath as in 2008 – and no power-sharing agreement, either. Mugabe’s enablers in the South African government and SADC were staying mum on the charges of massive electoral fraud and Jacob Zuma went so far as to publically announce that he had phoned Mugabe his congratulations, so that was that. It was a disappointing result for those who hoped that Zimbabwe would see positive change sometime before Mugabe’s death, but at least the country appeared perfectly safe to travel in.

We reached the Zimbabwe border via a short drive from Kasane early on August 7. The border was loosely organized chaos, as expected, and we received multiple offers from touts to shepherd us through, which we politely declined. Checking out of Botswana was quick and effortless; Zimbabwe’s bureaucracy, on the other hand, lived up to its reputation. We queued in a long, slowly moving line for well over two hours to be issued a visa ($30 US pp, issued entirely by hand with nary a computer in sight), and then huddled in a much less orderly scrum to import the Land Rover. A gracious queue-mate procured the forms I’d need, explained the process, and then insisted I go before him. Our paperwork was in order but the surly customs agent insisted I would need to use the services of a bonded agent since our hired Land Rover was a commercial vehicle. I asked round the queue but none of the Zimbabweans or South Africans present had crossed with a hired vehicle so I had little choice but to enlist the services of a tout-cum-agent, who gamely charged me $50 to fill out the same forms I had just completed myself! And this in addition to $100 in import fees, “carbon tax,” and road use fees. Ah well – with the economy a self-inflicted disaster going on eight years, clearly the state needs to bilk the few remaining tourists for all they’re worth to replenish the coffers. This was not entirely unexpected.

My mood improved 300% when we were clear of the border. The 70km of road to Victoria Falls was quite good, in fact better than most of the pavement we’d seen in Botswana. Vic Falls was an interesting town; it had obviously once been a tourist mecca, but was now very nearly empty. We procured a comfy room at Vic Falls Rest Camp, ate lunch, and went down to the falls. It, too, was quite uncrowded. In fact, many of the people there we already knew from standing in the queue with them at the border! Most of the rest were smartly uniformed groups of schoolchildren, who were enormously friendly and rather keen to have their picture taken with the tourists! We also chatted with a couple from New York; the woman was a Zimbabwe native and was quite surprised that we’d come without knowing anyone and even moreso that we were planning to drive south the length of the country. Clearly, we were already a bit off the beaten path.
The falls themselves were pretty spectacular. They mostly tumble across the Zambian side of the Zambezi River, making for excellent viewpoints all along the Zimbawean side of the gorge. The falls raise such a thick mist – even in dry season - that you can only see a sliver of their length at any given point, so the view constantly changes as you advance along the paved trail. Initially the viewpoints are quite protected, but when you get to the northern end the fences end and the incautious visitor is given every possible chance to fall to his death 100m below. This we avoided by as slim a margin as possible, snapped the requisite photos, and headed back into town. We walked around town for a while and were again struck by the lack of high-season activity. There were plenty of shops open but they didn’t seem to be doing much business. We were approached several times by young men trying to sell us now-worthless $100,000,000,000,000 Zimbabwean dollar notes (worth just $.30 when the US dollar was finally made legal currency in 2009). Back at the rest camp, I asked about the road conditions south to Bulawayo and was told the road was quite good. I was skeptical.

In fact, we made good time the next day on mostly excellent roads that appeared to have been paved fairly recently. There was little development save for some small villages as we skirted Hwange National Park on the 440km between Vic Falls and Bulawayo. There were a surprising number of stands selling large woodcarvings out in the seeming middle of nowhere. Given the extremely high number of unemployed Zimbabweans, I suppose woodcarving is a cheap way for one to pass the time, and if the occasional piece sells on the only highway with any tourists left, all the better. The other interesting diversion was counting the leftover election posters. The area around Bulawayo is the MDC’s stronghold, and by my count about 1/3 of the posters were MDC versus 2/3 for ZANU-PF. Even that number is excellent considering the number of MDC activists that were beaten & murdered after the 2008 election. It takes guts to staple up an opposition party poster in Zimbabwe.

About halfway to Bulawayo we were stopped at a police checkpoint, which we had been waved through until that point. The policeman was signaling Dawn to slow down, and then gave her a “halt” sign just before she reached him; she was slow to brake and rolled to a stop a car-length past him. He came to her window and demanded “why did you not stop!?” and then announced he was arresting her for disobeying a police officer. I figured a $20 “fine” would take care of it, and indeed it did, but I was impressed by how official the extortion was. The arresting officer wrote the ticket, another collected the money, and a third wrote a receipt complete with badge numbers. I supposed the money might end up in their pockets anyways, but almost didn’t mind given the team effort they put into making the corruption respectable!

The Land Rover attracted quite a few stares in the villages and even in cosmopolitan Bulawayo, despite being on one of the country’s main north-south routes. Nevertheless, when we stopped for the night 70km north of the Zimbabwe-South Africa border, there were a number of South African vacationers at our guesthouse, so I presume foreigners aren’t that rare these days – perhaps just foreigners in kitted-out Land Rovers. The guesthouse was interesting; it was built in the 1930s by the current owner’s grandfather. Being white, the owner and his wife have had nearly all of their farm property (5000 acres) taken by the government, retaining only the guesthouse and 53 acres. The government has even tried taking that 3 times, and the owners have had to fight to retain ownership in the courts system nearly continuously since 2004. There is one particular MP that keeps coming onto their property and claiming ownership; they’ve been able to get a restraining order against him, but nobody will enforce it! We stayed up late talking with the owners and their friends (who have managed to keep their land chiefly by being 40 km from the nearest graded road!). Incidentally, they had a pet giraffe who we got to pet.

The next day we were off early for the dreaded border crossing at Beitbridge. It was actually much better organized than I expected; the exit from Zimbabwe was easy and the entry to South Africa fairly efficient once we reached the head of the massive queue (2 hours). After that we made a beeline for Johannesburg, arriving in the middle of a massive thunderstorm, where we sadly said goodbye to the Land Rover and enjoyed our last night out in Melville. We spent the next day poking around the Sterkfontein Caves and then flew out to Frankfurt on Lufthansa’s new A380 (Seat 93F for me!). We’d spent an entire month in South Africa, Botswana, & Zimbabwe – three very different countries – and enjoyed ourselves thoroughly. If I’d had another month or two to spare, I would have very much liked to keep the Land Rover and continue north into Zambia, Tanzania, and Kenya. Another time, perhaps.