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February 22, 2009

The Boeing 747

This month is the 40th anniversary of the first flight of the Boeing 747.

I'm familiar with Bernoulli's principle. I understand how lift is generated. I know that aircraft lift off literally because, at that moment, the forces causing them to do so are overwhelming. Rationally, I comprehend powered flight and am completely comfortable with it.

And yet when I see an airplane like the 747 up close, I can't help but be amazed that it actually flies -- that the thrust generated by its engines is strong enough to propel it down the runway at such a speed that it lifts off the ground. I've been flying in commercial aircraft since I was 9 and I don't think I'll ever get over my amazement.

If you're in Seattle, the original 747 that flew 40 years ago is on display at the Museum of Flight at Boeing Field. Recommended.

Boeing 747 2

My daughter Kelsey in front of the first 747 at the Museum of Flight.

October 07, 2007

Airlines and Congestion Pricing

This article from The Washington Post says something that needs to be said about the US airline system:

Thirty years ago, Alfred Kahn, then-head of the Civil Aeronautics Board in the Carter administration, used this analogy in a speech to the airline industry:

Suppose all meat from a cow was sold at a uniform price per pound: tenderloin, sirloin, ground chuck, soup bones. Demand for choice steak cuts would soar, even as overpriced hamburger rotted on store shelves.

And to meet this new demand for steak, huge swaths of the country would have to be converted to cattle ranching and growing cattle feed, crowding out other uses for that land.

Kahn's message: If you misprice things, you prevent markets from matching supply and demand and wind up misallocating scarce resources. And what is true for hamburgers and land, he argued, also applies to the limited space at and near airports during peak hours.

Kahn recommended that the price paid by airlines for airport and air space in peak periods be high enough so that it not only brought demand in line with supply, but gave officials the money and incentive to add runways or air traffic control capacity whenever the price paid for peak hours exceeded the cost of adding capacity.

This concept of "marginal cost pricing" ought to be familiar to anyone who has taken a basic college course in economics. But what is so astonishing is that 30 years after Kahn laid out his case, a decade after it was proposed by the Clinton administration, six months after it was officially embraced by the Bush administration, and in the midst of a consumer revolt over flight delays and cancellations, "congestion pricing" is no closer to reality...

In a letter last week to Transportation Secretary Mary Peters, James May, the president of the Air Transport Association, said the industry was opposed to any policy aiming to "artificially" constrain demand.

Perhaps it doesn't occur to May that a system that charges the same price for steak and hamburger is the artificial one, by creating artificial demand.

We need to do something about delays in the air traffic system. In August, just 72 percent of flights were on time. For the typical traveler on a two-segment trip, they had only a 51.8 percent chance of both their flights being on time. For a traveler on a round trip of four segments, they had only a 26.9 percent chance of all four flights. Think of it: in the summer of this year -- of 2007! -- only one in four travelers using a hub-and-spoke airline had all their flights arrive on time.

June 18, 2007

Auto Shopping from a Strategic Marketing Viewpoint

I'm in the market for a new car, and I can't help but think about the task in marketing terms.

Two of the requirements on my list are "upscale car" (because I want the service and support offered by upscale dealers) and "foreign make" (because I'm not thrilled with the reliability of domestic makes). These two requirements narrow the list down to:

  • Acura
  • Audi
  • BMW
  • Infiniti
  • Lexus
  • Mercedes
I've omitted Jaguar and Land Rover for various reasons, including reliability; Saab and Volvo because I don't consider them to be true upscale makes; and Porsche because I'm looking for a sedan.

So how do these six makes brand themselves?

  • Acura: Visionary innovation meets exhilirating performance.
  • Audi: Attractive, sophisticated, and technically perfect.
  • BMW: The ultimate driving machine.
  • Infiniti: Vibrant design.
  • Lexus: The relentless pursuit of perfection.
  • Mercedes: (I couldn't find a simple branding statement for Mercedes.)
Just for fun, if I were to rate these statements, I'd give BMW an A+, Lexus a B (perfection of what?), Infiniti a C (design of what?), Acura and Audi a D each (long-winded and boring), and of course Mercedes an I for incomplete.

But the real goal here is to look at how these makes position themselves in their markets. The Germans came first, so let's start there.

  • Mercedes is the gold standard, but they want to be most things to many people, and their image is diluted as a result. Really, what does Mercedes stand for? Luxury? Performance? Reliability? I'd say they want to be associated with luxury, but some of their cars seem very ordinary these days. (The ML series comes immediately to mind.)
  • BMW wants to build drivers' cars, and they're doing a great job of it. Their market position matches their company's focus, and their position and focus both match their marketing.
  • I can't figure out Audi. Do they want to be Mercedes? BMW? Something else?
  • Lexus wants to be the Japanese Mercedes -- that's crystal-clear. And they're succeeding at it. Their cars are luxurious, reliable, and -- to my mind, anyway -- boring, though that's a matter of taste, of course.
  • Infiniti absolutely wants to be the Japanese BMW -- again, that's crystal-clear. And as with Lexus, they're succeeding at it. I note that Consumer Reports' top-rated upscale sedan is the G35, while their top-rated luxury sedan is the M35.
  • That leaves Acura. What does Acura want to be? As with Audi, I can't figure that out for the life of me.
So...
  • Mercedes: German luxury.
  • Lexus: Japanese luxury.
  • BMW: German performance.
  • Infiniti: Japanese performance.
  • Audi: ?
  • Acura: ?
I like some of the individual models made by Audi and Acura -- the A4 / S4 and the TL are nice, compact, upscale sedans. But I'd like my car to come from a company with a clear vision of where it's going and what it wants to be. So for that reason alone -- plus my perception that Acura in particular is a step behind the others on this list when it comes to service and support -- I'm dropping both of them.

As for the remaining four makes, I've come to the decision that I want a driver's car, not something that will coddle me. So Mercedes and Lexus don't make the list. That leaves us with BMW and Infiniti... but that's a story for another day.

June 07, 2007

Flying Is Hell These Days

Duncan and I are flying home from our brief vacation today, and while the vacation itself was great -- mountain biking in Whistler, catching up with old friends in Vancouver and Seattle, seeing The Police in concert -- the flights on both ends have been wretched.

Our plan last Saturday was to fly into Seattle, rent a car there, drive up to Vancouver for dinner, then drive up to Whistler and check into our hotel. We arrived in Chicago to find that our flight to Seattle had been cancelled, and that there were no seats on the next available flight. The best United could do was to get us into Seattle five hours late. By that time, it would have been 5:30 PM, and we would have faced five to six hours of driving plus a dinner break. So, I suggested, why not just fly us into Vancouver instead? There was an earlier flight with seats available, and by not driving from Seattle to Vancouver, we'd end up just about even. They agreed, but it meant (for rental car purposes) that we had to fly out of Vancouver on the way back as well. So be it. My one concern was our bags, but the Red Carpet Club agent assured me that there was plenty of time for the baggage people to change their destination and get them to the right plane. Fine.

Of course, we arrived in Vancouver without bags. The baggage agent assured me that the bags would either be on the next flight to Vancouver, or were on their way to Seattle, and that either way, they'd be delivered to us in the middle of the night. Fine.

Of course, our bags didn't show up during the night. This led to multiple phone calls to United's baggage service line. Unlike the elite flier phone lines, the baggage service call center is located in India, staffed by people who read from apologetic, supplicating scripts, but who are empowered to do exactly nothing. They told me that at least one or two of our bags, and possibly all three, would be delivered that afternoon. Fine.

Of course, our bags didn't show up that afternoon, and anyway, we didn't want to miss our day of mountain biking, so we went ahead and purchased clothing for the day (for which, theoretically, United will partially reimburse us). Our bags showed up in the middle of the following night, almost 36 hours late, and just a few hours before we had to leave.

Today we're flying back home. It has been a long day already -- we didn't get out of the parking lot after The Police concert until after 11:00 PM. With a 6:20 AM departure, and a two-and-a-half or three-hour drive, it didn't make sense to stay in a hotel, so we had dinner along the way, pulled into a rest stop for a bit, and arrived at the airport just after 4:00 AM. The flight to Chicago was fine, but we arrived to discover that for the second time on the same trip, our connecting flight had been cancelled. High winds are causing problems all throughout the East, leading to hundreds of cancellations. We're on standby for a flight at 4:30 PM; if we don't make it onto that, we'll be placed on standby for a flight at 6:00 PM; and if we don't make it onto that, we'll be placed on standby for a 9:00 PM flight. If we don't make it onto that, we're stuck here for the night, with no bags -- they're going onto Raleigh-Durham with or without us. And no hotel voucher, either, since it isn't the airline's fault. And if we have to fly back tomorrow, we won't be flying together -- there weren't two seats available on the same flight until tomorrow night.

Flying really is hell these days. The scary part is that I'm experienced, have been through this sort of thing, have an idea of what to expect, and have elite status with multiple airlines. How rough is this on the average traveler?

June 16, 2006

Oregon Has a Bad Idea

Oregon is experimenting with a new road tax system, and it's a bad idea:

Oregon's 24 cents-a-gallon gas tax, which is used to fund roads, has not increased since 1993. Some at the state Department of Transportation say the money could dry up in future years as hybrids and other fuel-efficient cars become more popular. So the state is investigating other alternatives to pay for roads.

The mileage-fee project was designed by engineers at Oregon State University. The system works by using a Global Positioning System in a car to determine the number of miles traveled inside and outside of Oregon and at what times, which could lead to peak-driving-time fees. When the car pulls into a service station, a radio transmitter sends the data to a reader in a gas pump. The mileage fee is added to the bill, and the gas tax is subtracted...

The cost would be about $33 million to install the equipment in all state service stations, and about $1.6 million a year to collect the taxes, [Jim] Whitty [who is overseeing the project for the transportation department] said.

This is a bad idea in any number of ways:

  • An infrastructure for collecting gas taxes already exists. This would require a new infrastructure to be built, at a cost of $33 million (and who knows what the final bill would be).
  • It would only apply to new cars with GPS systems, meaning that two parallel systems of tax collection would be required for many, many years to come -- unless Oregon were to mandate installation of GPS receivers on older cars, which would be hugely expensive.
  • The opportunities for the invasion of one's privacy are nearly limitless. Every time an Oregonian pulled into a service station, government officials -- whatever their promises, whatever their denials -- would have the opportunity to see exactly that where person had driven, and when.
  • Most seriously, switching from a per-gallon to a per-mile gas tax is exactly what we don't want to do if we're trying to encourage people to buy more fuel-efficient cars. Presuming the per-mile tax were implemented in a revenue-neutral manner, it would be a net tax decrease for owners of Hummers and a net tax increase for owners of Priuses. What are they thinking?
If Oregon's gas tax receipts are going down because people are buying more efficient automobiles, the solution is incredibly simple: raise the gas tax. The impact will be the greatest on those driving the largest, most inefficient vehicles -- which is precisely what we want to be doing.

March 14, 2006

How to Get Exit Row Seating

Via InFlightHQ, a column on Microsoft's Small Business Center on getting the best seat on a plane:

The best seats on the plane are sometimes not in first class. Talk to the most frequent business travelers, and they'll probably agree. The ideal seat is usually in the exit row of economy class. Frequent business travelers dream of having that row, which often boasts more legroom than a first-class or business-class seat, all to themselves. It's also child-free, so they can get their work done in peace and quiet. And what if they don't get it? The bulkhead seat in economy class (that's the one just before the line separating economy from first) is a choice assignment. Beyond that, experienced air travelers normally opt for the front section of economy class (there's less engine noise) or they use their frequent flier miles to score an upgrade into the next class of service.

Tip: As you can imagine, these coveted seats go quickly. They are blocked off for frequent fliers and often, they aren't released until a few hours before the flight is scheduled to depart. It's best to reserve a seat in economy class, arrive at the airport early, and then ask a ticket agent if there's any availability in an exit row.

The author is right; exit row seats are often (though not always) the best seats on the aircraft. But his tips for grabbing those seats are incomplete at best. On most US airlines, you'll have to be lucky to get exit row seating at the airport these days, no matter how early you get there. So how to get it?

If you have elite status with an airline, it's easy. Most (if not all) US airlines allow their elite travelers to reserve exit row seating at any time prior to 24 hours before departure. You don't need super-elite status; any will do. So focus enough of your flying to get at least the lowest level of elite status with one airline -- preferably the airline most convenient to your travel needs.

If you can't do that, or if you have to fly on another airline, here's the secret: most (if not all) US airlines allow Web check-in, and treat it just as if you were checking in at the airport -- in other words, those exit row seats that were formerly unavailable except to elite travelers become available to anyone who meets the safety criteria. And most US airlines allow Web check-in beginning 24 hours prior to departure of the first flight of your trip. So set a reminder for yourself 24 hours prior to departure. When that reminder sounds, go to the airline's Website and check in. You should be able to grab an exit row seat then -- it's your best shot.

Note that these rules change for some non-US airlines. As of this writing, Air Canada, for example, works exactly as described above, while Air France only allows exit row seat assignment at the airport, so it's a matter of getting there as early as you can tolerate to have the best chance at a good seat. Check with your airline well before traveling to determine the rules.

February 17, 2005

Blatant Marketing Exaggeration

Boeing announced the new 777-200LR this week, the world's longest-range commercial passenger aircraft. It carries 301 passengers and can fly 9,420 nautical miles... all well and good. So why would Boeing feel the need to exaggerate about it?

The twin-engine airplane, when equipped with three optional fuel tanks, will be capable of flying 9,420 nautical miles, enough to "connect any two cities in the world today," said Lars Andersen, Boeing's vice president in charge of the 777 program at Boeing Commercial Airplanes.
Any two cities in the world? How about Honolulu-Johannesburg? London-Auckland? New York-Perth? Or Tokyo-Rio de Janeiro?

I don't understand it. Boeing has the undisputed longest-range airliner. Shouldn't that be enough on its own?

February 12, 2005

Congestion Charging "Has Been a Triumph"

From a story in the Economist on the possible spread of congestion charging from London to other parts of Britain:

[Two] years after London introduced one of the most radical road-pricing schemes in the world, other parts of Britain are still hesitating about whether to follow suit. That is not because London's scheme hasn't worked: on most counts, it has been a triumph. Journey times in the central London zone covered by the scheme are down by a third and air pollution has fallen by 12%. Bus usage is up by more than a third, and 80% of the people who pay the £5 charge for entering the zone between 0700 and 1830 say they are happy with the way the scheme is run.
Let's just recap that, shall we?
  • Journey times reduced by one-third
  • Air pollution reduced by 12 percent
  • Bus usage up by over one-third
  • 80 percent of payers happy with the scheme
When are we going to bring congestion charging to the US?

April 12, 2004

This, on the Other Hand...

After writing yesterday about Saab's new 9-7X, it's a delight to be writing about a concept car that looks as innovative as the 9-7X is me-too: the new Lincoln Aviator:

Lincoln's press release can be found here. Wired had this to say:

Lincoln's Aviator concept car mimics an airplane's interior to provide a "first class" traveling experience. All four seats -- including the driver's -- recline and have leg rests, as well as retractable tray tables that slide into place for working on a laptop or dining on the go. The Aviator's interior boasts a chrome-and-wood finish, and the car has an all-glass roof for watching the clouds. The Aviator includes a THX sound system and a touch screen to control the four LCD screens for watching DVDs.

The reaction of industry types was good to say the least. From a poll of insiders on their favorite cars from the New York Auto Show:

Anne Asensio, General Motors

Executive director for advanced design at the General Motors Design Center in Warren, Mich.

LINCOLN AVIATOR CONCEPT: "What was interesting was that Lincoln was working very hard at getting the brand identity. I really like that concept. It is very well proportioned. It was easy to love."

Joel Piaskowski, Hyundai

Chief designer, Hyundai Kia Design and Technical Center. in Irvine, Calif.

LINCOLN AVIATOR CONCEPT: "It was just a very clean statement from Lincoln. Very contemporary, international in its execution."

Ed Welburn, General Motors

The company's new vice president for design, North America.

LINCOLN AVIATOR CONCEPT: "They are doing a lot of vehicles that are built on their heritage with the Mustang and Ford GT, but I would say the most significant from Ford would be the Lincoln Aviator. It's a very fresh proportion, just a very fresh design statement. They brought the elegance and refinement of a sedan to a taller crossover vehicle."

The seating sounds very much like that of the Maybach, but on the order of a quarter-million dollars cheaper. Here's hoping the Aviator makes it to market in something very much like its concept car form.

April 11, 2004

This Is Pathetic

At the New York Auto Show this past week, Saab unveiled the 9-7X, its first attempt at an SUV:

2004-04-11-01.jpg
The early reaction has been ugly, to say the least. From AutoSite:
The 2005 Saab 9-7X may be badged as a Swedish import, but it's actually a good ol' Chevy TrailBlazer (or GMC Envoy, or Buick Rainier, take your pick) with a "Queer Eye" makeover...

Making a silk purse out of a sow's ear is never easy... Given the fact that Saab is a premium brand that has traditionally appealed to well-educated buyers interested in taking the path less traveled, aligning the 9-7X with a run-of-the-mill Chevy spells suicide to us...

While there has certainly been a precedence set for making money hand over fist by slapping luxury features, leather upholstery and a fancy badge on a truck, Saab buyers have traditionally been savvy and proudly quirky. The 2005 Saab 9-7X not only represents the antithesis of this once strong Swedish brand, but its association with plebian workaday vehicles will certainly force huge incentives right off the starting blocks.

As a former Saab owner, I have to say, slapping a Saab front end and cockpit on a TrailBlazer is nothing less than pathetic. As the AutoSite preview noted, Saab owners tend to be quirky (though the savvy appellation is questionable given the notable unreliability of their cars). They won't go for tarted-up Chevys. And does Saab actually think it can lure people away from their Acura MDXes and Lexus RX-330s with this?

As my former boss, the eminently quotable Jean-Louis Gassée once remarked:

At a risk of being called sexist, ageist and French, if you put multimedia, a leather skirt and lipstick on a grandmother and take her to a nightclub, she's still not going to get lucky.

March 29, 2004

And They Wonder Why We Hate Them

I've been an American Airlines elite-level flier since the late 1980s. I have nearly 1.5 million miles as a member, which means I'm AAdvantage Gold for life (and would be Platinum for life if I ever hit 2 million miles, but read on to understand why that won't happen). In the past, I helped recruit plenty of new AAdvantage members among my co-workers, because I honestly felt their service was better than the other major airlines. American recognized the amount of business I gave them and bent the rules for me on a regular basis. When a relative died a few years ago, I called up needing four award tickets with just days' notice, and had my choice of flights. If I needed an upgrade coupon's expiration date extended, it wasn't a problem. If my baggage was overweight, they looked the other way.

Oh, how things have changed.

A couple of months ago, I needed an award ticket from Raleigh/Durham to Hartford, with about a week and a half's notice. American flies directly between the two cities multiple times a day. I logged on to check the Web. No joy -- no award seats available at all. I called to talk with an agent -- no better luck. I asked them to bend the rules. "We don't do that anymore," she said. I ended up having to fly into Boston instead -- not where I had wanted to go.

I needed to fly up to Hartford again not long after that. Again, I checked with about 10 days' notice, and again, no award seats at all. It wasn't that there weren't seats available for purchase; there most certainly were. It was that American had decided to allocate a very limited number of seats for award travel, and those seats were (or, for all I know, that seat was) gone. In fact, there were no award seats available to fly anywhere in New England. But American graciously offered to allow me to spend twice the mileage (50,000 miles instead of 25,000) to pick a seat on any flight I wanted. A first-class seat anywhere in North America is only 40,000 miles, but I had to use more miles for a round-trip, one-and-a-half-hour flight on a puddle jumper.

Then I needed tickets to fly out to Seattle. This, I thought, shouldn't be a problem. There are four different ways to get from Raleigh/Durham to Seattle on American: through Dallas/Fort Worth, Chicago, St. Louis, and New York. Nope, not an award seat on any of them. Not in coach class. Not in first class. I spent an hour on the phone with two different American agents and ended up with the following options:

  1. Spend 40,000 miles to drive three-plus hours to Charlotte and fly first class to Seattle, with a redeye and the drive again on the return.
  2. Spend 25,000 miles to fly to Washington National, then take a bus to the Metro, take the Metro out to the end of the line, take another bus to Dulles, and hope that I made my connection to an Alaska flight to Seattle. Do the same thing on the return.
  3. Spend 50,000 miles to have my choice of flights.
Disgusted, I once again chose to spend the extra miles. Now, after three award trips this year, my account is down 125,000 miles instead of 75,000 miles as it should be.

This past week, my co-founder and CEO Richard Boyd told me that he had called American to try to use some of his upgrade credits on his flights out to San Jose, only to be told that he couldn't because the flights weren't full-fare. It didn't make any sense to me. I called up American for him. I explained the situation. "He no longer has Gold status," the agent said. "You can only use upgrade credits on discounted tickets if you have elite status." As I remembered things, that was a change from the old days, but when Richard said that he had missed Gold by about 1,000 miles without realizing it, I thought, hey, we can fix that. The agent transferred us to customer service to discuss his account status. It was going to be a wait, so as I walked out of his office, I left him with my suggested strategy.

"When you get customer service on the phone," I said, "remind them that you have almost 800,000 lifetime miles with American and were a loyal flier for many years. Explain to them that you didn't travel much last year because of the economy, but that your business is picking up this year and you would like to be able to do most of your flying with them. Remind them that you missed Gold status by only 1,000 miles, without realizing it, and that you would have been happy to put in a flight to make it had you known. Tell them that you're CEO of your company. You won't have a problem."

About 10 minutes later, Richard walked in my office.

"I told the rep that the economy had been tough on our business and so I hadn't traveled much last year, but that I was going to travel more this year," he said. "He answered, 'The economy was tough on our business too, so we can't bend the rules for you.' Then he offered to sell me a Gold membership for $395."

"You're kidding."

"No."

And they wonder why we hate them.

The major old-line US airlines -- American, United, and Delta -- are in a cost-cutting frenzy. Every expense is fair game. No opportunity for revenue is overlooked. It doesn't matter whether cutting an expense or adding a charge impacts their elite-level travelers -- in fact, one imagines they think they can abuse such travelers to a certain degree and get away with it.

The major airlines are telling themselves that if only they can get their costs down within range of those of Southwest, then they can stay competitive. They're telling themselves that people will pay a small premium for the additional services they offer:

  • Fare-shopping on Orbitz and Expedia. Southwest doesn't participate in the reservation systems that would be required for this; you have to go to Southwest's site.
  • Reserved seating. On Southwest, it's first-come, first-serve.
  • Real food on longer flights. It's always snack food on Southwest.
  • Clubs for frequent fliers. Southwest has no such thing.
  • Non-stop flights between popular destinations. On Southwest, one is often changing planes in the middle of nowhere.
The list goes on. If we can just get our fares down close to Southwest, the majors are telling themselves, we'll be okay.

It's a load of bull. Here's why:

  • Fare-shopping on Orbitz and Expedia. Most people I know already check both those sites when they make reservations, as well as Hotwire, and often the airline's own site. I know I do. It's worth a few minutes to me to make sure I'm getting the best deal. So why wouldn't I spend another minute to check Southwest's?
  • Reserved seating. Reserved seating sounds great until you walk up for a flight, the good seats are gone, and you're stuck in a center seat for two or three hours.
  • Real food on longer flights. First of all, no coach-class airline food is real food. Second, the majors are already moving towards charging people for real meals -- $10 for a Wolfgang Puck sandwich on US Airways, I noticed this week. Why not buy it yourself for a few dollars less at an airport cafe before departing? That's what more and more people are doing.
  • Clubs for frequent fliers. If I'm barely on the ground long enough to change planes, as with Southwest, I don't need a club. If I'm flying American and am on the ground for an hour or longer (as I was on my recent flights to and from Seattle), am I to understand that to pay the airline $300 or more a year for a quiet place to use my computer is a benefit to me?
  • Non-stop flights between popular destinations. Not for most people, not to most places they're going.
But this misses the point, really. I'm not a Southwest flier and have no desire to become one. No, the model for the future -- and the true enemy of the major airlines -- is JetBlue.

Like Southwest, JetBlue is non-unionized. Like Southwest, JetBlue keeps its fares low (though not always the lowest on a particular route). But JetBlue has improved on the Southwest model:

  • All seats are reserved.
  • Every seat has 24 channels of DirecTV, no charge.
  • Plenty of cross-country non-stop flights.
  • All fares are one-way -- no round trips required.
  • No Saturday stayovers are required.
  • Free 802.11 access at hub airports.
To my mind, this is the true threat to the majors -- airlines with fundamentally lower costs, but not positioning themselves as pure discount carriers. Instead, these new airlines will compete with and beat the majors when it comes to service.

JetBlue doesn't yet serve Raleigh/Durham, so I haven't yet had the opportunity to fly with them. But I was talking with a long-time friend who lives near San Jose recently, and he talked about how he flies JetBlue now. "American and United and the others like them are going to die," he said. "And they deserve to die." I know that I'm waiting for JetBlue or a similar airline to start serving Raleigh/Durham so that I can switch. Until then, American's antics have made me less loyal, not more so. All other things being equal, I'll probably continue to choose American. But I won't bend my schedule or pay a dollar more to fly with them -- I'll pick the cheapest, most convenient carrier instead. If, in today's world, loyalty to a particular airline is meaningless, then loyalty to a particular airline is pointless.

So what should the major airlines do? I'll write about that later.

August 24, 2003

My Next Car

I've been watching closely news on the 2004 Prius, the redesign of Toyota's successful hybrid automobile.

2003-08-24-01.jpg

Now the New York Times has a review of what I think will be my next car:

[T]he redesigned Prius goes on sale in mid-October at $19,995 -- a price that has not changed since the first version was introduced in the United States in 2000...

Having grown five inches in length, the new Prius is closer in size to the compact Corolla, yet it has more rear legroom than the midsize Camry. It is also more powerful and more fuel-efficient than the old Prius, Toyota says, and its emissions have been cut by nearly 30 percent.

With its larger cabin, the Prius is now classified as a midsize car by the Environmental Protection Agency, albeit at the lower end of the midsize range. The interior looks classier; it manages to be both elegant and a bit futuristic...

The car runs on Toyota's second-generation hybrid-drive system and its third generation of hybrid-battery technology...

Toyota has improved its system so that the Prius can operate more often on electricity only, in stop-and-go city driving. (Hence the gains in gas mileage and emissions.) But you have to keep a very light foot on the throttle to keep the gas engine from cutting in.

Because the Prius relies more on the electric motor around town, and the gas engine at speed, its fuel economy figures are higher for city driving than for the highway - the opposite of most cars. The Environmental Protection Agency's preliminary fuel economy ratings for the Prius -- which comes only with a continuously variable automatic transmission -- are 59 m.p.g. in town and 51 m.p.g. on the highway. The '03 Prius was rated at 52 in town and 45 on the highway.

Although the 1.5-liter engine was carried over from the old model, it is a bit more powerful, with 76 horsepower (at 5,000 r.p.m.), up from 70. The electric motor is also more powerful, producing 67 horsepower from 1,200 to 1,540 r.p.m. and peak torque of 295 pounds-feet from zero to 1,200 r.p.m. That compares with 44 horsepower and 258 pounds-feet for the previous model.

While this doesn't seem like a lot, the 2,890-pound Prius is hardly underpowered, even when merging into fast-moving California freeway traffic. It takes 10 seconds to accelerate from zero to 60 m.p.g., Toyota says, a reduction of 2.7 seconds.

59 miles/gallon on the highway and 51 miles/gallon in city driving? Incredibly low emissions? Plenty of interior space? Cool styling? DVD navigation system? Built-in Bluetooth? Excellent.

This is the car for environmental geeks and geeky environmentalists.

August 23, 2003

Congestion Charging, Six Months In

I've blogged before about London's congestion charging scheme (here and here).

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Now the Economist is out with a six-month update, and the news is good:

Six months after the introduction of London's £5-a-day congestion charge, it has worked better than the mayor, Ken Livingstone, or almost anyone else, expected. Traffic delays are down by a third, while average speeds in the charging zone have increased by nearly 40%. With the critics in retreat, few doubt the mayor's re-election in a year's time. William Hill, a bookmaker, offers odds of 3-1 on. Most of the 100,000 drivers who pay the charge daily are satisfied. Nearly three-quarters of Londoners say it is proving effective.
There are problems, notably a loss of revenue because so many people are choosing not to drive into the congestion charge area. But overall, the scheme is so successful that an expansion of the zone seems likely.

Isn't it time for major US cities to consider such a scheme? What would the obvious candidates be? Cities with highly dense urban cores and severe traffic problems... New York? Washington?

August 09, 2003

Monorails on Parade

Yesterday, I blogged about Seattle's forthcoming monorail. I've been thinking about one of the comments in the source article:

[Architect Don Miles of monorail consultant Zimmer Gunsul Frasca (ZGF)] said the monorail could complement the [Seattle Art Museum] because visitors could look out through tall atrium windows at the moving trains.
Why not take this idea and run with it, making the monorail trains themselves actual works of art? Think of the tail art scheme launched by British Airways a few years ago (now abandoned for political reasons), in which the tails of their aircraft were designed by a variety of artists from around the world:

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(Images found here.)

Imagine this sort of scheme applied to monorail trains, with each train designed by a different Seattle-area artist. To build public support, a process similar to Pigs on Parade could be held, in which artists would submit concept drawings, a hundred or more winners would be provided with scale model monorail trains (say, one to two meters in length), and then the resulting decorated scale models would be put on display around the city. At the end of the display period, a public vote could be held to determine the top choices, which would become official. (Alternately, the public could vote to make recommendations, with a design commission making the final decision.) As with Pigs on Parade, the trains would then be auctioned off, with the proceeds going to charity (Pigs on Parade raised over $500,000).

Not only would this generate some great art, it would get the public involved in the process as well, and give everyone something to focus on while the monorail is being built.

Seattle Monorail Project, you're welcome. I won't even charge you royalties for my idea.

August 08, 2003

Seattle's Monorail

Last year, Seattle residents voted to build a 14-mile, $1.75 billion monorail through their city. Yesterday, the Seattle Times published the first realistic portrayals of how the monorail might look. I have to say that I was pleasantly surprised:

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As can be seen, the monorail will use "iris" columns, which not only reduce the footprint of the tracks (by positioning one partly above the other) but just look cool. The article discusses some of the effects of the design:

Through downtown, planners favor "iris" columns that split like the flower, positioning the northbound track next to and above the southbound track...

That blocks views in two places, but casts less shadow than traditional, side-by-side tracks. Irises make it easier to run the monorail through tight corridors and erect stations next to buildings...

Walking up Second Avenue last week, architect Don Miles of monorail consultant Zimmer Gunsul Frasca (ZGF) wove around through the planter boxes and the bystanders as he explained how a monorail adds a "fabulous kinetic relationship" to busy street corners.

Columns would wipe out a lane of parking, but the good news is that the sidewalks would also be widened by 8 feet, Miles said. That creates space for cafe tables and street trees, he said. Clumps of people at bus stops would no longer block other pedestrians.

"It allows two groups of people having conversations to walk abreast ... without having to go single file," he said.

Well done. If the monorail looks this good in practice, Seattle will finally have not only the beginnings of a mass transit system, but a public work to be proud of.

August 01, 2003

Gutting Alternative Transportation

My ex-co-worker and all-around good guy Michael Morrissey blogs about possible reductions in funding for bike paths and walkways:

Salon reports that the House of Representatives Appropriations Subcommittee on Transportation, Treasury and Independent Agencies has put together a bill that "will entirely eliminate some $600 million worth of annual federal funding for bike paths, walkways and other such transportation niceties in fiscal year 2004." Meanwhile, the bill increases highway spending: they would receive $34.1 billion in fiscal 2004, up $2.5 billion.

This is incredibly frustrating. On one hand, the government (and the people) are concerned about the environment, declining health and rising levels of obesity, our ever-growing dependence on oil, and the lack of community in this country. On the other hand, politicians are worried about being re-elected far more than they worry about long-term goals. And people are more worried about a few pennies missing from their next paycheck than they are about the long term good of their society. (And lobbyists are only worried about one thing: themselves.)

Here's an excerpt from the original Salon article:

Fresh out of subcommittee, a new congressional transportation appropriations bill will entirely eliminate some $600 million worth of annual federal funding for bike paths, walkways and other such transportation niceties in fiscal year 2004...

Members of the House's Appropriations Subcommittee on Transportation, Treasury and Independent Agencies know that what America needs now is fewer bike paths and walkways -- but more highways...

Under the new bill, which the full Committee on Appropriations is likely to consider this week, before it goes to the House floor for a vote, highways would receive $34.1 billion in fiscal year 2004, which is $2.5 billion more than this year, while the Transportation Enhancements program that funds bike paths and walkways would get nothing...

Micah Swafford, press secretary for Rep. Ernest J. Istook, R.-Okla., who chairs the subcommittee that wrote the bill, argues that, with the prospect of a $455 billion federal budget deficit and anticipating declining revenues in the highway taxes that fund transportation programs, the committee had to cut something.

"It's more important to provide the basic funding for roads, before you provide money for enhancements whenever you're facing a shortfall," Swafford says, citing Department of Transportation statistics that there are 6,476 structurally deficient bridges on the national highway system as one of the reasons that highways were the subcommittee's priority.

But Rep. Istook put out a press release on Friday, July 11, the day the bill made it out of the subcommittee, bragging that "$518 million is headed to Oklahoma!" leading one environmental lobbyist to attribute the whole issue to "parochial Oklahoma politics."

"Actually, it's kind of sad. He's basically eviscerating these programs that are important to a lot of other states for the sake of benefiting Oklahoma," says Deron Lovaas, a lobbyist for the Natural Resources Defense Council, another group fighting the cuts.

Representative Istook was also in the news recently for slashing funding for Seattle's planned light rail line (stories here and here), most recently giving Seattle's Sound Transit only one-fifth of the amount requested by President Bush. It would seem he has been a busy beaver.

July 24, 2003

From Majors to Discounters

The Wall Street Journal's Scott McCartney wrote a recent column on the shift in traffic from major airlines to their discounter rivals:

Fewer passengers are going to the old-line hub-and-spoke airlines. More passengers are choosing low-fare carriers. And, at least in the month of June, if you look hard at the numbers, you'll see there's a one-for-one ratio in the shift.

In June, the six biggest full-service airlines domestically flew 1.2 billion fewer revenue passenger miles than in June 2002. That same month, the nation's eight low-fare carriers flew 1.2 billion more revenue passenger miles than a year ago. A revenue passenger mile is the industry's standard measure of traffic, one paying customer flown one mile...

June, it turns out, was a great illustration of the shift that is going on in air travel. JetBlue Airways saw 63% growth in passenger traffic; ATA Airlines and AirTran both recorded traffic increases of more than 20%. Southwest Airlines, already the fourth-largest domestic carrier, notched growth of 5.2% in the month.

At the same time, AMR Corp.'s American Airlines saw its domestic traffic drop 4.1%. UAL Corp.'s United Airlines fell 2.6% domestically; Delta Air Line's traffic declined a hefty 5.3% domestically, and Northwest Airlines recorded a 4.3% drop in domestic traffic. US Airways had the biggest decline at 11.7%; Continental was the only full-service carrier to see its domestic traffic grow in June, with an impressive counter-trend gain of 3.4%.

Add it all up, and the shift is basically one-for-one. What the full-service carriers lost, the discounters gained. Anecdotally, we know lots of travelers say they have switched.

I've flown mostly American for the last 16 years. I have 1.5 million lifetime miles and currently hold Platinum status (I've been Executive Platinum in the past, and at 1 million miles became Gold for life). I've been a paying member of the Admirals Club for most of that time -- at least 11 years, I think. It used to be that all this counted for something. I'm not sure it does anymore.

Earlier this month, using frequent flier miles, I flew from Raleigh/Durham to Seattle and back for my vacation. Here's a quick summary of my experience:

  • Although I didn't want to spend the miles to do so, I had to fly first class because of a lack of coach seats -- and then had only one option on my requested dates in each direction.
  • At the Seattle check-in counter, the automated check-in line was considerably shorter than the first class line. Due to a change in my ticket, however, I couldn't use automated check-in, and instead of having someone simply fix my problem on the spot, I was sent down to the ticket purchase line.
  • When the pre-meal service started on the Seattle-Chicago flight, I was especially hungry and so asked for a second bowl of nuts. Nope, I was told. American used to stock extras, but no more -- now it's only enough for one small bowl for each first class passenger.
  • I try to avoid caffeine. American used to stock Caffeine-Free Diet Coke and Diet Sprite. Now, due to cost-cutting, they don't stock either. If I want a diet drink without caffeine, it's water or club soda.
  • The Admirals Clubs still stock the same old lame snacks, one snack per club. They still force members to go across a large club to a bar and ask for soda, rather than stocking open refrigerators (as do international clubs and some clubs of domestic airlines, like Alaska's).
  • As, I suppose, perverse compensation for the lame snacks, Admirals Clubs now offer overpriced meals -- in other words, members pay to belong to the club and then have to pay again to eat anything beyond snack mix. Of course, bringing food from the outside is banned, giving them a semi-captive audience.
The major US airlines are cutting service to the bone to bring their costs in line with the discount airlines. But if they continue down this path to its ultimate conclusion, they'll end up with horrible service, yet they'll never be able to match the low cost and flexibility of the discounters' non-unionized work forces. In other words, they're on a path to failure.

I'm not anxious to start flying Southwest Airlines. If I fly a lot, and give an airline a lot of business, I'd like my seat selection to reflect that, rather than being based on how early I arrive at the airport. But if JetBlue served Raleigh/Durham, I'd be taking a serious look at it.

July 19, 2003

Cameras on Airliners

From a Wired News story:

Southeast Airlines said it plans to install digital video cameras throughout the cabins of its planes to record the faces and activities of its passengers at all times, as a precaution against terrorism and other safety threats.

In addition, the charter airline, based in Largo, Florida, will store the digitized video for up to 10 years. And it may use face recognition software to match faces to names and personal records, the airline said.

"One of the strong capabilities of the system is for the corporate office to be able to monitor what is going on at all times," said Scott Bacon, Southeast's vice president of planning. "From a security standpoint, this provides a great advantage to assure that there is a safe environment at all times."

How exactly will having cameras "assure that there is a safe environment at all times?" I understand the theory behind surveillance cameras: to enable a limited number of security personnel to effectively guard more territory than would otherwise be possible. But on an airplane? They're tiny spaces, with at least three flight attendants each on standard jets. What will the cameras show that the flight attendants won't be able to see with their own eyes?

The article goes on:

"We can install up to 16 cameras that can be located throughout the plane and could be covert or overt," said David Huy, SkyWay vice president of sales and marketing. "It enables us to monitor the activity in the aircraft in real time. We feel this will be very important. The federal government is looking at mandating some camera security and surveillance."
Now, of course, we know that airlines have been highly resistant to potential safety and security mandates. Are we to believe that an airline wants to spend money on such measures before being forced to do so?
He conceded the system would not prevent determined terrorists from sabotaging a plane, as the terrorists of the Sept. 11 attacks did. The purpose is to help law enforcement identify criminals and keep track of their whereabouts.
Their whereabouts? The criminal is on a plane! It's going from Point A to Point B! He can't get off!
Pilots could check the cabin before opening the cockpit door during a flight.
So I guess the viewing ports in the new reinforced doors are useless.
And, airlines could use the records to defend themselves in lawsuits over situations like air rage.
Now this is starting to sound more like a reason an airline would install cameras. But I don't think it's the real reason. The real reason is that this is a publicity stunt. Southeast is a tiny airline, classified as a charter service. They're looking for a way of bringing themselves some publicity -- and it has worked. Unfortunately, if prods the federal government into requiring such cameras -- "hey, look, the airlines are doing it on their own -- let's mandate it!" -- then Southeast will have done a great disservice in the pursuit of their own ends.

May 28, 2003

Hi-Wi-Fi

According to Bloomberg News, Lufthansa is working with Boeing to offer in-flight wireless Internet access on all its intercontinental flights:

Lufthansa plans to equip its 80 Boeing 747-400 jets and its Airbus A340 and A300 planes with the technology as well as to "become the first airline company worldwide to introduce broadband Internet on board its entire long-haul fleet," the Cologne, Germany-based carrier said.

Boeing expects to have 150 planes equipped with wireless networks by the end of 2004 and plans to charge $25 to $35 for wireless access during international flights. The Wi-Fi networks use radio waves to send data at high speeds. To hook up, a user needs to be within about 500 feet of a so-called "hot spot" with a computer equipped with a card to receive the radio signal.

Does this mean that testing has conclusively shown that Wi-Fi (presumably 802.11b) signals don't interfere with aircraft avionics?

The original press release can be found here. It doesn't have any specifics on the wireless system.

April 23, 2003

Good News and Bad News from Ford

There was good news and bad news from Ford on the environmental front last week. First the good news: a formal announcement of their Escape Hybrid SUV, and a pre-announcement of their Futura mid-size sedan, which will be available with a hybrid engine:

Ford Motor Company is highlighting its commitment to hybrid vehicles at this week’s New York International Auto Show. The company is showing the Escape Hybrid SUV -- which will begin low-volume fleet production at year’s end and retail production in the second half of 2004 -- as well as announcing that the all-new 2006 Ford Futura mid-size car will be the company’s next hybrid vehicle.
Ah, but now the bad news: backing down from a prior environmental pledge:
Executives of the Ford Motor Company yesterday backed away from a pledge to increase the fuel economy of its sport utility vehicles by 25 percent by 2005...

Ford is not abandoning the pledge entirely, said one Ford executive, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, but rather is indicating that it does not know whether it can meet the original timetable.

"Are we still trying to get there? Absolutely," this executive said. "Will we get there by that deadline? It's unclear."

More on hybrid cars soon..

April 10, 2003

Goodbye, Sweet Concorde

From BBC News comes word that the Concorde is to be permanently grounded:

Concorde flights are to end after more than three decades of luxury travel.

British Airways and Air France made simultaneous announcements that they would be permanently grounding the famous supersonic airliners this year.

Passenger numbers have never recovered since the crash near Paris in 2000 and the aircraft no longer makes a profit.

In a statement, BA said Concorde would cease flying in the autumn because of "commercial reasons, with passenger revenue falling steadily against a backdrop of rising maintenance costs for the aircraft".

Flying on the Concorde has long been on my wish list, but it appears I won't have the chance. I suppose this means I'll have to start rooting for its successor to be built, though given that the airlines couldn't bring themselves to purchase the Sonic Cruiser, it's hard to see that happening anytime soon.

March 25, 2003

Congestion Charging Update

According to the Economist, London's congestion charging -- blogged about earlier here -- is going well indeed:

It has been a bad month for those who predicted that London's congestion charge would bring the city to a chaotic halt. Since the £5-a-day ($8) charge for driving in central London between 7am and 6.30pm was introduced on February 17th, average speeds in the area have more than doubled...

According to Derek Turner, boss of the capital's street management department, traffic has been reduced by 20% and delays cut by nearly 30%. Speeds in the charged zone have increased from 9.5mph to 20mph. Delays to buses caused by congestion are down by half. As a result, bus passenger numbers are up by 14%...

Those living on the zone's borders feared that traffic would be diverted on to their streets. Mysteriously, although there is 10% more traffic on the peripheral roads, journey times along them have not increased...

According to a MORI poll, 50% of Londoners are in favour of the congestion charge compared with 36% against. [London mayor Ken] Livingstone's personal poll ratings are now higher than they were when he was elected three years ago. His aides joke that he has peaked too soon.

Mayor Livingstone has promised to extend congestion charging to additional areas of central London if given the opportunity. Let's hope it spreads far beyond just London.

March 07, 2003

So This Is What It Has Come To

Remember the Sonic Cruiser? It was Boeing's proposed aircraft that was going to shave an hour off transatlantic routes and up to three hours off some transpacific routes while using no more fuel than a typical airliner. I blogged about its rumored troubles here and here. Now it's official: the Sonic Cruiser is not to be. Instead, we're going to get the 7E7:

The Boeing 7E7 is being developed as a 200- to 250-seat airplane that will fly between 7,000 and 8,000 nautical miles at speeds similar to today's fastest twin-aisle commercial airplanes -- the 777 and 747...

The airplane will be based on the enabling technologies developed with a global industry team during the company's examination of the Sonic Cruiser concept. In December 2002, Boeing announced that based on customer input and market analysis, it would focus these new technologies on a super-efficient, mid-sized airplane... The company expects to formally offer the new airplane to customers in early 2004, with entry into service targeted for 2008.

The Seattle Times had this to say in an article earlier this week:

Airlines' preference for lower operating costs over higher speeds led Boeing to abandon its proposed Sonic Cruiser in favor of the 7E7 late last year.

In keeping with that emphasis, [vice president of development for the 7E7, Walt] Gillette reasserted the 7E7 will burn 17 percent less fuel per passenger than the 777, and 20 percent less fuel per passenger than the A330-200.

So all those new technologies developed for the Sonic Cruiser will go to make simply something that consumes slightly less fuel. That's it.

By the way, everyone who believes that airlines will put shops, casinos, and gyms on Airbus A380s, raise your hands. (In my best John McLaughlin voice) "Wrong! The correct answer is that every square inch will be used for seating!" Airbus can propose using the extra space of the A380 for passenger amenities, and Boeing can propose using new technologies to make a faster aircraft, but in the end, the airlines simply want to shave every nickel they can off their costs. The problem with this thinking is that the mainstream intercontinental airlines who are A380 and 7E7 customers (American, United, et. al.) are trying to compete on costs with the discount upstarts (Southwest, Ryanair, et. al.). They need to forget it. They can't do it. They're locked into hub and spoke systems, diverse aircraft types, and expensive and inflexible labor contracts. Saving 17-20 percent on fuel costs with the 7E7, or 15-20 percent on operating costs with the A380, won't suddenly make them competitive with the discount carriers. They're deluding themselves if they believe this.

March 02, 2003

Triggering Metal Detectors

Last night was the first time I've flown in two and a half months. My watch, belt buckle, and shoes all set off the metal detector, so I received the personal attention of a now-federalized airport security worker. Now, I should have been smart and put my watch in my jacket pocket when it went through the x-ray machine -- but my belt buckle and my shoes? I can't think of a belt buckle not made of metal, and my shoes were Rockports, which I didn't think would have any metal reinforcing strips. So...

How about a branding program for non-detector triggering clothing and accessories? Some sort of clothing industry council could work on it with the Department of Homeland Security. "FlyReady," maybe, or "WalkOn." There would be a logo associated with it. Clothing and accessories bearing the logo would be certified to have been tested using DHS metal detection equipment and found not to set it off. Shoes could use highly durable plastics as reinforcement. Belt buckles, cuff links, and other jewelry could be made of carbon fiber (which would be cool in its own right). Watches? I don't know. Will the metal in a watch battery inevitably trigger a detector? It may be a lost cause... but we can just get used to taking off our watches, I suppose.

The clothing and accessory industries should be all over this -- it's a chance to sell replacement merchandise to people with disposable income. As for DHS, from their standpoint, it would be a great way to show their concern for the convenience of the traveling public.

February 17, 2003

London's New Congestion Charge

The new London congestion charge goes into effect today.

The Economist offers this description:

On February 17th, [London mayor Ken Livingstone] is introducing a £5 ($8)-a-day congestion charge for those driving in eight square miles of central London. The scheme relies on 700 video cameras, which will scan the rear licence-plates of the 250,000 or so motorists who typically enter the area between 7am and 6.30pm during the working week. This information will be matched each night against a database of drivers who have paid the charge either by phone, via the internet or at shops and garages. Except for those with exemptions (the disabled, taxis, nurses, for instance) or residents (who can apply for a yearly licence at a 90% discount), anyone who fails to pay by midnight will be fined £80.
In an accompanying editorial, while criticizing certain aspects of Livingstone's plan, the Economist praises the basic idea as sound:
Other cities have tried similar schemes, but nothing on London's scale. It is a measure of the city's desperation that a socialist mayor is introducing a practice -- road pricing -- normally advocated by free-market rightwingers, from Adam Smith in 1776 to Milton Friedman in 1951. Mr Livingstone is brave. If the scheme works, it will be taken for granted, and if it fails, he will probably lose the next mayoral election.

All over the world, people are finding themselves increasingly bogged down in congestion. Governments can either choose to leave people fuming in their cars (which wastes people's time and pollutes the air) or they can ration road space by regulation or by price. Regulation -- banning people from driving in certain areas at certain times -- is relatively clumsy. Rationing by price is more efficient because it allocates road space to those who value it most...

With their awful commuter trains and creaking underground, Londoners are used to failures in their transport system. That is no reason to shirk a bold attempt to make things better, nor to retreat if it does not work at the first go.

Many people will be watching this experiment carefully. Could it provide a model for the future, including here in the US? One can hope.

The Transport for London congestion charging site can be found here.

February 11, 2003

Correction

The day after Columbia was lost, I wrote this:

My hope is that our government will treat this tragedy as the impetus to build a new launch vehicle. The first space shuttle contracts were awarded in July 1972 -- over 30 years ago. Much progress has been made since then in spacecraft design. Instead of trying to save money by extending the existing shuttle fleet, as has been done since 1997, we should commit to building a new orbital transportation system. I can't help but think that the men and women who gave their lives yesterday would think it fitting to see the first operational X-33 named Columbia II.
This just goes to show you how out of it I am when it comes to the latest news from NASA. The X-33 program was cancelled long ago. NASA is now focused on the Orbital Space Plane (OSP), a passenger-only shuttle designed to be launched atop a conventional multi-stage rocket. This isn't the breakthrough that the X-33 -- a Single Stage To Orbit (SSTO) vehicle -- would have been, but goodness knows we need something to replace the current shuttle, the design of which is now over 30 years old. More information on the OSP can be found here, here, here, and here.

February 06, 2003

Boeing's Pelican

From Popular Science, an article on Boeing's Pelican, a proposed plane weighing "as much as seven fully loaded Boeing 747s", designed to fly "a mere 20 feet off the water at 300 mph":

Today, engineers at Boeing are designing a cargo plane that... is designed to skim just above the water like a large sea bird. It's dubbed the Pelican, because it will use the same "wing-in-ground effect," or WIG, that the awkward bird does to glide almost effortlessly above the water. When applied to man-made flying vehicles, WIG aerodynamics represent a critical exception to a long-held rule of aviation -- altitude equals efficiency. The reason most long-range airplanes are high-altitude jets is that flying in thick air at lower altitudes normally takes significantly more fuel. But if you get extremely close to the surface -- around 50 feet or below, as a WIG vehicle would -- a cushion of air generated by the plane's velocity helps support it in flight, so that the plane cruises even more efficiently than a high-altitude jet. The WIG aircraft['s] wingspan is about the width of the front of the Capitol. Boeing engineers are counting on the notion that enormous wings will provide more opportunity for the air below them to gently lift and propel the vehicle, allowing it to skate a mere 20 feet off the water at 300 mph.

The idea of an airplane that weighs as much as seven fully loaded Boeing 747s, and that doubles the distance it can travel by scooting over the ocean surface like a waterbug, may seem far-fetched. But the engineers at Phantom Works, the secretive Boeing think tank, have begun designing this enormous machine because the Pentagon has a major problem that has defeated many less harebrained efforts over the past 40 years. That problem? Mobility. The U.S. Army is a powerful force, but it is too large and has too much heavy equipment to move at a pace suitable for a fast-expanding conflict...

But the Pentagon may not be the biggest market. The Boeing team's commercial-airplane colleagues have informally discussed the Pelican with commercial cargo operators. The airplane carries 10 times as much payload as any current craft -- as many as 180 standard 8- by 8- by 20-foot containers -- and is 10 times faster than a ship. Unlike a ship, it could deliver cargo directly between major cities, eliminating sea-to-land transfers.

An end-run around archaic seaport bottlenecks? Sounds good to me. But I wouldn't be eager to fly in a plane skimming 20, 50, or even 100 feet from the surface of the sea, computer control or no. Can you say "rogue wave?" I thought you could.