Airsnark’s Unscientific Guide To The Airlines – SAFETY

As I start this five part series on my own ranking of the airlines, I have to say that these rankings are all of my own choosing, and have to do solely by my experiences first hand, or because of things I’ve read (from credible sources).

So when you’re ready to go on a trip, be it a once in a lifetime trip or that twice a week slog across the continent, you’re probably not thinking about safety.  As a matter of fact, unless there has been a recent high profile airline crash, chances are that you’re probably not thinking about safety at all.  But safety is, first and foremost, how we can rest assured that our travel is going to get us from point A to point B without any hiccups.

I’m going to break these into the good, the okay, and the “WTF were you thinking?”.  And they are

  • The Good
    • Frontier Airlines
    • Alaska Airlines
    • Southwest Airlines
  • The Okay
    • Southwest Airlines
    • United Airlines
  • The “WTF were you thinking?”
    • American Airlines
    • US Airways
    • Skywest Airlines
    • Delta Airlines

Why did Frontier come out on top?  I haven’t flown them in a few years, but whenever I did, I almost always ended up in the exit row.  And you know that little schpiel that you’re given whenever you sit in the exit row?  Frontier stands heads and tails above the rest, because they didn’t pull the crap that most airlines do, which is, “You’re in the exit row, say yes that you understand your responsibilities. Thank you.”  No, Frontier was freaking serious about what they considered safety.  If you sat in that exit row, you normally got the regular schpiel, but you also got a lesson on how to evacuate the plane.  For instance, did you know that when there are 3 people in the exit row that each has a different job?  The one closest to the door opens the emergency exit (and disposes as needed), climbs out onto the wing, and drops the the ground below.  The person in the middle seat climbs out the window and stands on the wing, just outside the emergency exit.  Finally, the person on the aisle stands up where they are seated.  They are to help direct people to the exit, where the middle-seat person helps them out of the plane, and then sends the pax down to the waiting window-seated person.  The aisle-seated person is technically the last person off the plane.

I bet you didn’t know that, did you?  Unless you’ve flown Frontier.

Beyond that awesome briefing (which should be mandatory on every airline), Frontier mechanics have gotten into trouble for making sure their planes are airworthy.  Who else remembers the Frontier plane that got struck by lightning, and was being inspected between flights at DIA?  And while the pilot pushed to leave, the mechanic didn’t want the plant to take off, for safety reasons.  When he was overruled, he stopped the plane by throwing a chuck (a wooden block that they put under the tires to keep the plane in place) into the engine.  Some see this as illegal or sabotage – but I can see concerned about a potentially unsafe plane taking to the air.  For a young airline (Frontier was still flying 737s back then – they’re now all Airbus), it could have been devastating.

Second, I have Alaska Airlines.  Now if this was just post flight AS261 (the MD80 that went down in the Pacific, killing all on board due to shoddy maintenance), then Alaska may not be this high up on the list.  Thing is, Alaska learned from that, and suddenly proper maintenance and passenger safety became a higher priority.

I’ve actually gotten the whole big “passenger evacuation” schpiel on Alaska a couple of times, but really rare.  The thing is, though, they’ve taken security very serious.  For example, there was an incident that I watched play out, where someone who was seated in the emergency exit row didn’t speak English.  The Flight Attendant actually stopped the plane from taxiing when it was revealed (thus another reason for more than just a cursory  “Yes” at the safety question) and they moved the passenger.  I’ve also watched them move people that they didn’t consider capable of sitting in the exit row.

The “Okay” list includes Southwest and United.  Now there’s nothing really special about either of these airlines, and absolutely nothing sticks out in my mind whenever I’ve flown either.  I know that at one point there was a question as to where Southwest was doing their heavy maintenance (possible outsourcing to Latin America, where the FAA doesn’t certify the mechanics), but I don’t know whatever became of that.  As a matter of fact, I’m going to put out a letter to all the Majors, and ask where B, C, and D maintenance checks are performed (in house, outsourced, etc).

Then comes the “WTF were you thinking?” list.  And this list goes from least to most worrisome in my head, starting with American Airlines.

Now overall, American isn’t really bad, though I’ve had one scary situation.  I flew DFW to LAS for work, and had to spend the 4 hour flight standing.  Why?  Well, I purchased a ticket and was flying on an MD80 in the 2 side exit row.  The man next to me was absolutely ginormous.  Not his fault – I’m not going to be put out because of a large passenger.  But the thing is, he was in the window seat next to me on the 2 side exit row – and the man was so large that A) I couldn’t fit in my seat if we both were seated and B) if that emergency exit had to be opened, he would have absolutely not fit through it.

American handled the situation horribly (more on that in the upcoming customer service post), and the only official word that I had was from a gate agent who said that American couldn’t discriminate against someone just because they were large.  I didn’t care about the man’s size – just that he would have not fit through the emergency exit.  And were there an emergency, I’m not sure exactly what would have happened.

Next comes American’s suitor, US Airways.  Now I can say that there’s still a definitive split here at US Airways, with them and America West.  America West is a more professional, more safety conscious airline – but for all intents and purposes, they don’t exist anymore.  I’ve been on flights (plural) where flight attendants were more interested in standing around talking than checking to see if pax were wearing their seatbelts when the sign comes on.  My last trip on them ended with the lead FA and her “best friend” male FA stood up in the galley, hooting and hollering and just having a fun time – which is fine.  But they never picked up the cabin from a 2.5 hour flight, they never got people to put away tray tables, and it came as a shock to them that we touched down while they were still standing around talking.

Now people don’t understand the big deal about a tray table down during landing – but think of it this way.  Your tray table is out and usually has a metal ring around it (and is comprised of hard plastic), making it rather sturdy.  You land and hit something (not unheard of!) and are forced forward into the seat in front of you.  Think about this – what’s going to give way first – the hard, sturdy tray table, or your squishy organs?  I’ll take being cut in half for $200, Alex.

Then we get to Skywest Airlines.  Now it’s true that they were named one of the 10 most dangerous airlines (though there’s a well deserved refutation of how that came to be).  Thing is, this doesn’t have to do with accidents.  Rather, it has to do with maintenance issues.  Specifically, I was flying Skywest as a regional carrier for United this past Summer, and out of 8 flights, only 3 of them were not delayed by maintenance.  Otherwise every one of the other 5 flights had a maintenance delay of between 15 minutes and 3 hours.  Now it’s just a maintenance delay, right?  Well tell me WTH is going on that a plane needs that much maintenance.  The night of our 3 hour maintenance delay in O’Hare, there were 4 other Skywest operated flights from nearby gates – and every single one of them also had a maintenance delay.  Think about it – five planes at five gates, all with maintenance delays. Exactly what happens to these planes when they’re supposed to be taken care of during routine maintenance?  Or is the airline performing maintenance whenever there’s a flight.  Whatever the case, I had such lack in trust for Skywest that I abandoned flying United altogether – and told them why.

And finally we get to the bottom of the barrel, which in my personal opinion is Delta Airlines.  There are so many damn issues that it’s hard to classify them all.  From pax that get up and walk around during the plane’s taxi (and flight crews not doing anything about it, much less stopping the plane or calling the cockpit), to leaving unqualified people in the exit row.  I boarded a plane to Amsterdam after watching Delta put an elderly couple in a wheelchair in the exit row.  I’ve seen them not even ask people in the exit row if they were okay.  Hell, one of the first picture I ever tweeted was this:

m61

If you can’t make it out, it’s a disabled woman with a cane looking out the emergency exit, which she is seated next to.

But probably the biggest thing was when I watched two passengers get into it.  The person in the middle seat wanted the exit row windowshade opened, while the person at the window wanted it closed.  Everyone knows the most important (and most dangerous) parts of flight are takeoff and touchdown – and that windowshades need to be open.  The middle seat pax contacted a flight attendant to try and force the window seat passenger to open the windowshade, but the flight attendant took the window seat passenger’s side, saying it could be closed if they wanted.

Sorry, but windowshades need to be open at least during takeoff and touchdown.  The only airline that I know that had this as part of their safety briefing was TWA, but when American took them over in 2001, that went away.

So that’s AirSnark’s guide to passenger safety rankings of the airlines – all my own personal opinion.  You may have other experiences, and that’s fine – but this is how I see it.

Next rankings should be less contentious – onboard amenities!

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AirSnark’s Unscientific Guide To Ranking The Airlines!

So my shitty experiences on Delta, and some rather shaky/scary experiences on Skywest (“This is your Captain speaking. I’m sorry about the delay, but when we landed, a piece fell off of the airplane.  We had to find it and figure out what piece it was before we could fix it.”), I’ve decided to put together my own list of airline rankings, mostly for the Majors, but there will be a minor/secondary carrier that will show up here or there.  So far, these are the categories that I’m going to cover:

  • Safety
  • Onboard Amenities
  • Routes
  • Partners
  • Customer Service
  • Reliability

If you want or can think of other categories, let me know!  I’ll be publishing these throughout the upcoming week, so be on the look out!

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So why am I so hard on Delta Airlines?

If you follow my twitter feed, then you’ll note that as of late, I’ve had some not very nice things to say about Delta.  Now don’t get me wrong; they are a big airline, and they have a very nice route map.  But I have to say it’s not the route map or the size of the airline that you get to know – it’s the people that fly with you in the sky.  And I have to say that the experiences I’ve have had over the just the last two weeks is enough to make me say, “ENOUGH, ALREADY!”

It’s no secret that I give each flight crew that I fly with a bag of chocolates.  Just a little $3.50 bag of Hershey’s Miniatures that I buy every week, and then give them to the crew.  As you’ll find out in the official AirSnark book that’ll be out late this year or early next year, I’ve had only a handful of bad experiences.  For instance, I was boarding a flight and handed the lead FA (flight attendant) that was greeting us boarding passengers a bag of chocolate.  They look at it, looked at me, and then said, “Well okay then,” and then tossed the bag in the trash.

I thought that was a one-off, but no, Delta tries to go that much further.  When I flew out of Portland last weekend, I handed the lead FA a bag of chocolates, which they accepted with a smile.  When that FA found me ten minutes later, she turned to the FA behind her and said, “This is the nice gentleman that brought us the chocolates.”

The second FA just looked at me, rolled his eyes, and said, “People’ll do anything for a free drink these days.”

Listen, asshat – screw you.  I don’t do it for a drink.  You can ask FAs that I’ve flown with on many, many occasions; I actually rarely ask for anything, food or drink.  I’m probably one of the most low-key/low-need passengers that you’ll ever fly with.  But no, this guy just knew that I was trying to “gain the system” or something for a free drink, when all I was trying to do was do something nice to brighten up someone’s day.

Coming home Thursday, the unthinkable happened again.  Except this time, the lead FA didn’t say a work – they just dumped the bag of candy in the trash.

Just because you’re one of the biggest airlines, and you have a monopoly on the busiest airport in the world doesn’t mean you have the right to be an asshole to your passengers.  Unless you’re trying to alienate them and get them to fly your competitors.  But at least in my case, it’s working.  I’m going out of my way (and saving the client $450/week in airfare) by flying into a secondary airport for my final destination, all because Delta has probably the worst reputation of any one of the majors when it comes to customer service in the sky – where it matters.

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I am neither a good reporter, nor prognosticator

So I recently had some questions and posited some opinions in the Alaska vs. Delta frenemies shuffle that’s been going on the last few months – and I got some stuff wrong.  But not only that, I got some prognostication wrong as well.  So now I’m here to hopefully fix all that.

First thing is, Alaska has a good presence of people, all wearing Alaska clothing and manning the D8 gate at Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport.  But just because they’re in Alaska clothing doesn’t mean anything.  I talked to one of the people that seemed to be in charge there as we were boarding the ATL-PDX flight, and she said that besides her, everyone else was outsourced.  They may look like Alaska employees, but they gate people are just as outsourced as the people handing the ground operations (tug, pushback, etc).  Well that sucks!

Not only that, but Alaska just recently announced that they are going to nix the Atlanta to Portland routes – I’m assuming because of load factor issues.  I normally travel on busier days – days where business travelers are out in full force (Sundays, Mondays, and Thursdays), and the plane seems to be mostly full.  But I’ve taken the flight on a Tuesday where there are a good 50 empty seats in the back of the plane – not good if you want to keep a route profitable.  And obviously the route isn’t because Alaska just announced – in the small print when they said they were going to add SEA->BWI and SEA->ABQ to the route map – that they were discontinuing four city pairs, including ATL->PDX.

SUCKS!

Okay, so maybe it doesn’t suck for you.  But as someone who is on PDX->ATL on an almost weekly basis, it’s really going to suck for me.  At least I think it’s going to suck; the Atlanta employee said that they were lobbying to try and keep the flight.  I hope Alaska at least keeps the dual round trip frequency in Atlanta, even if they don’t keep it from Portland (the previous frequency was two round trips daily, one morning flight and one redeye).  Whatever the case, I’m going to have to start looking for more options when it comes to my weekly travel.

So there we have it.  A bit mea culpa from me.  But then again, if you’re relying on me to be the standard bearer of news, I’ll be laughing over in the corner.  ::grin::  I’m not bad – I just write that way.

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Who will make the next move in the Alaska Airlines vs Delta frenemies shuffle?

So there’s been a bunch of new developments along the lines of Alaska Airlines and their partner Delta.  When Delta started expanding into Alaska’s territories, things got bad.  Alaska started to retaliate, with some pretty bold moves into Salt Lake City, going from service just from Seattle to nearly every big airport in the West.  And just this morning, Today in the Sky is reporting that Alaska is offering double miles on British Airways flights between Seattle and London – while Delta starts that same route in a few days.

Delta and Alaska terminated their agreement for Delta to handle their ground operations in airports where Alaska isn’t as prominent, like Atlanta, Boston, and the like.  And what was Delta’s reaction?  They were all, “Fine!  I didn’t want to help out anyway.  Let’s terminate this thing early!”  And in Atlanta, they did just that.  Starting 2 weeks ago, Alaska has hired their own people to run the Alaska gate (moved to D8 from D14, though Atlanta airport still gets it wrong on the readerboards), and – I believe – Menzies to run ground operations.

But here’s the curious thing…  Why did Alaska hire their own people for two incoming and two outgoing flights per day in Atlanta?  Wouldn’t it be cheaper if they outsourced it?

Not if they’re going to increase flights to and from Atlanta!

I’m predicting that, like Salt Lake City, Alaska Airlines is going to ramp up their Atlanta flights, especially from Alaska stronghold markets like Boise, San Jose, and the like.  It just makes sense for them; they’re still keeping their partnership with Delta, and feeding passengers to Delta continuing flights, but they’re also making sure that they’re going to stay dominant in the airports that they count as strongholds.

Not sure if I’m right or wrong, but history will tell us.  But thing is, it just makes sense…

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Two sides to every story

So there’s a headline that caught my eye of, “US appeals court revives lawsuit vs United Airlines over wheelchair,” and I immediately did a Scooby Doo “Ruh roh” double-take, then went to the article.  Seems a woman had an issue with asking for a wheelchair from an agent; the woman had back problems and the agent basically told her to deal with it and stand in line.

Honestly, that’s just how United agents are.  Okay, not ALL of them, but I’ve flown them enough to have been mistreated, even flying on a purchased first class ticket (yes, purchased – NOT upgraded to first).

So this lady sued, and the suit has been revived.  This should be interesting…

Thing is, I can see both sides, in a way.  For United, it doesn’t matter – if someone requests a wheelchair, then the answer is ALWAYS going to be, “Yes, we can help you with that,” and nothing else.  I mean seriously – do you want to get your ass fired?

But then again, this person, when they checked in – or even when they purchased their ticket, should have had ample opportunity to alert United that they were going to need a wheelchair. It shouldn’t have been an “out of the blue, at the gate” request.

But ultimately it’s United’s fault here.  Who do they think they are – Delta?  Where they forced a passenger to crawl down the aisle and across the tarmac to their wheelchair?  C’mon!

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Probably the ugliest volley in the Delta/Alaska “frenemies” game

So everyone’s probably already heard about how Delta and Alaska – once great friends, have slowly been turning into enemies.  And while they still are cordial to each other, the heat is getting turned up – but quick.  Delta has decided to expand their West Coast presence with flights going from Alaska hubs Seattle and Portland down to the Bay Area and Los Angeles.  Alaska volleyed back with majorly expanding their presence in Salt Lake City.

But the biggest volley by far (in my personal opinion) is the fact that Delta is going to start a shuttle between Portland and Seattle (end of the article) – a la Horizon Air, Alaska’s sister airline.  The Portland/Seattle shuttle is a breadwinner for Alaska because those that can’t “get there” from Portland (or the surrounding communities), almost always can get there from Seattle.  In my 1.25 million miles, the most popular route that I fly has been between Portland and Seattle.

And while I think at first, if it actually does come to pass (I’m wondering if Delta’s version of the “Seattle Shuttle” will ever really get off the ground), I don’t think it will be all that long lived.  Or if it does, I can’t see Alaska’s partnership with Delta lasting all that much longer.

A quick side note: With Delta coming back for flights between Portland and Seattle, the first thing I thought of was D. B. Cooper.  He’s the man that hijacked a Northwest Airlines (now Delta) Boeing 727 out of Portland, headed for Seattle, then disappeared from the plane and was never heard from again…  Hey – maybe Delta can dub their flights the D. B. Cooper Express!

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The AA/US Merger Is Finalized!

So if you’ve been a frequent flyer of either American or US Airways, you probably just got notice that the merger between the two giants, making the largest airline in the world.  But it’s only done on paper; there are going to be years before anything really substantial happens.

The letter emailed out today says that the biggest change will be that US Airways will join oneworld Alliance on March 31st, 2014.  I knew that was going to be the case, but it’s still good to see it in writing.  Otherwise you’d have two of the three largest US airlines in the Star Alliance network – which wouldn’t be good.  And finally we’re going to see a beefed up answer to Skyteam and Star Alliance with the newly formed AA/US merger and oneworld Alliance.  Other than that, there shouldn’t be too many visible differences for a couple of years.  It took a couple of years for TWA to be fully absorbed by American, so I foresee the same thing happening with US Airways and American.

And now the real speculation begins.

So there’s always been scuttlebutt about the fate of Phoenix.  I think that, like Northwest’s Memphis hub, it will slowly become a focus city, with more flights funneled through DFW.  Whenever I’ve talked to people who work for America West (because AW/US still haven’t integrated crews, etc, even after all these years), they’ve acknowledged that the Phoenix hub doesn’t make a lot of money.  So honestly, I think there will be lesser emphasis on Phoenix, and more on DFW.  That means good things for carriers like Alaska and Southwest, both of which have expanded in the Phoenix market.

Speaking of Alaska Airlines, I’m wondering how this is going to affect them,  especially with the way they are maintaining their ‘frenemy’ relationship with Delta.  Delta is taking aim at Alaska, expanding in their primary Portland and Seattle markets, with Alaska taking aim at Salt Lake City.  Right now in markets where Alaska has a smaller presence, they contract with Delta to do a lot of their groundwork (checkin, luggage handling, boarding, etc.).  But say this merger with American and US Airways goes well, and Alaska – hedging their bets – keeps strategic partners with both Delta and the new American?  Maybe Alaska will move gates in Dallas /Ft. Worth and Atlanta and have American do the work that Delta is doing now?  And with the big expansion in SLC, I can foresee Alaska hiring their own employees in Utah instead of outsourcing to Delta; they’re going from 4 flights a day (2 incoming, 2 outgoing) all the way up to 18 flights a day (9 incoming, 9 outgoing) starting in June 2014.  With that much time to prepare, and with flights coming & going from 7am to 10:45pm, I bet those will be AS employees, and not DL.

Finally, are we done with merger mania?  Or is there any more consolidation to come?  The only thing I could possibly see myself is Alaska taking over Hawaiian – and making a commanding lead in Hawaiian flights (retiring the Hawaiian brand state-side and operating only Alaska 737s between the mainland & Hawaii), while letting a Hawaiian Air subsidiary concentrate on flights between Asia and Hawaii.  And we’ve still yet to find out the fate of beleaguered Frontier Airlines; have they been sold yet?  And what about once-darling jetBlue?  They’d better compliment a carrier like Alaska, but if jetBlue and Frontier somehow combined, that might let Frontier bow out of the super-dominated Denver market and focus more on less hub & spoke, giving jetBlue a better route network.  Or maybe even jetBlue marrying Virgin; might make getting Virgin out of the red a little easier.

So here’s to US Airways and American, and hoping the merger gets off on the right foot.  And I’m raising my glass to all the other speculators out there as well, who probably have their own ideas about what to expect next in the wild & crazy world of commercial passenger aviation.

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Want to know my opinion on allowing voice calls from in flight?

NO!
Wait a minute, let me expand on that.
HELL NO!

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About this electronics stuff…

Okay, so first it was Delta and jetBlue that got the okay to go gate-to-gate with electronic gadgets.  Then it was American.  I had a question from a friend on this new policy, because he flew Delta mainline, where they announced the new policy, and then flew a Delta Connection flight, where the flight attendant nearly came unglued when he wouldn’t put his iPhone away during taxi out to the runway.

Try as they might, airlines aren’t telling their customers the distinction between “mainline” flights and those that are subcontracted.  Indeed, my friend’s Delta Connection flight was on ExpressJet, though it was branded a Delta Connection flight.

Earlier this week I got an email from US Airways saying that they were rolling out gate-to-gate electronic use – but they were actually freaking helpful!  They said that the new policy applied only to mainline US Airways flights, and that the policy didn’t yet apply to US Airways Express flights; that would come at a later date.  And just now, I got an email from Alaska Airlines saying that starting Saturday passengers on mainline flights would be able to use electronics, with sister carrier Horizon coming up soon, as well as subcontractor SkyWest, pending FAA approval.

From what I can tell, US Airways and Alaska Airlines are the only ones to roll out this new policy correctly.

So congrats you guys!  Travel is just about to get a little more interesting.

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