Friday, March 16, 2018

Will the Air Force Ever Get Their New Tanker Aircraft?

Image result for kc-46
KC-46 [Official USAF illustration]
The Air Force has been trying to replace their aging KC-135 tanker aircraft...for decades. There is a replacement aircraft, the KC-46, which is nearly ready to go, but the program has been plagued by scandal and delays for many years. And now, on the eve of the new aircraft's introduction into operational service, more delays have been announced. Let's take a look at the long and sorry history of this program.

First fielded in the late 1950s, the KC-135 Stratotanker has been the mainstay of the Air Force's aerial tanker fleet. Supplemented by the addition of the KC-10 tanker variant of the DC-10 airliner in the early 80s, USAF's tanker fleet has grown advanced in age and maintenance requirements to stay mission ready. A re-engining program which replaced the original Pratt and Whitney J-57 turbojets with modern CFM-56 high bypass turbofans did help to extend the life of the KC-135, but these 1950s era aircraft are entering their seventh decade of service and are in need of replacement.

Enter the KC-767

Starting in 2002, the Air Force explored the replacement of the KC-135 with a tanker variant of the Boeing 767 airliner to be known as the KC-767. Other potential aircraft considered to be used as a platform for the new tanker were the 747, the MD-11, the A-310, which had already been converted into a tanker in Germany, and the C-17. An Airbus version of the A-330 airliner to be known as the KC-330 was also evaluated with the decision eventually made to go with the Boeing KC-767 plane.

After the decision awarding the contract to Boeing was announced, allegations of corruption surfaced. A resulting congressional investigation turned up evidence that the competition had been rigged in favor of Boeing. An Air Force program manager and Boeing executive were eventually convicted and served jail time for their roles in the scandal.  KC-767 aircraft went on to be built by Boeing and sold to the Italian Air Force and Japanese Self Defense Force.

The KC-767 acquisition program was cancelled by the Air Force in 2006 followed by a request for proposals for a new tanker replacement program to be known as the KC-X. Boeing offered a different variant of the 767 airliner after deciding against a 777 version. Airbus partnered with Northrup Grumman to propose an A-330 based tanker now known as the KC-30.

This time the contract was awarded to the Airbus tanker over the Boeing entry. Alleging bidding improprieties, Boeing started a public relations campaign to have the decision reversed. After the GAO confirmed Boeing's allegations, the program was opened for a rebid with Boeing winning the award over Airbus in February of 2011, nearly 10 years after the start of the process.

The KC-46 Pegasus Comes to Life (Sort of)

Design work began on the new aircraft immediately with the contract calling for the first deliveries of operational aircraft in 2017. Snafus in the program followed shortly thereafter. In 2014 it was discovered that a significant amount of wiring had to be redesigned due to safety concerns. Boeing took a $425 million charge in 2014 due to the delays and extra costs essentially guaranteeing that the program would be unprofitable for the company after winning the contract on a fixed cost basis. 

More delays and charges were taken in 2015 due to problems identified in the fuel system. The first flight of the aircraft in its final configuration occurred on September 25th of that year, but delays nearly ensured that an already aggressive test flight program would be difficult to achieve in the allotted time. In May of 2016, another six month delay was announced due to supply chain problems. By that time Boeing had already taken nearly $1.5 billion in cost overruns against the program.

By mid 2016 it became apparent that there was a growing likelihood that Boeing would not be able to deliver the first 18 KC-46 aircraft to the Air Force by the agreed upon date of August 2017. At that point discussions were started as to what sort of penalties would be levied against Boeing. Additional cost overruns by this time had raised Boeing's out of pocket costs for the program to about $1.9 billion.

New technical problems with the boom refueling system and delays in the certification of the centerline drogue and wing refueling pods pushed the projected delivery of the first 18 aircraft into the first half of 2018.

As the program currently stands, ongoing boom refueling control problems, lack of a supplemental FAA certification, and problems with the HF radio system which may result in arcing on the skin of the aircraft (generally bad in a refueling aircraft) are pushing initial delivery well into 2018, over a year late.

In Conclusion

The military procurement system has always been somewhat of  slow motion train wreck resulting in weapons systems designed by committee and costing taxpayers billions of dollars over what they should, but this program should win an award for dragging a simple tanker replacement out decades.

Many times the delivered systems then do not work as advertised or are so laden down with useless features so as to be worse than the systems they replace. Expensive fixes then need to be designed and installed to fix poor initial design. There has to be a better way.

Add to this the overly aggressive bidding and promises made by Boeing in order to ensure that they got the contract and it seems like this decades long disaster will leave no winners on the field. 

Thursday, March 08, 2018

Do I Talk Too Much? A Primer on Airline PA Announcements

The chapter in Tom Wolfe's novel, The Right Stuff, which introduces us to Chuck Yeager, starts with this vignette:

Anyone who travels very much on airlines in the United States soon gets to know the voice of the airline pilot—coming over the intercom with a particular drawl, a particular folksiness, a particular down-home calmness that is so exaggerated it begins to parody itself (nevertheless!-it's reassuring) the voice that tells you, as the airliner is caught in thunderheads and goes bolting up and down a thousand feet at a single gulp, to check your seat belts because "it might get a little choppy"...

Wolfe went on to describe how that drawl, which characterizes the "pilot voice", had its genesis in Chuck Yeager's West Virginia cool-as-a-cucumber mein and delivery.

That southern drawl style of voice can still occasionally be heard over an airline PA, but it seems to have been eclipsed in recent years by the nondescript mid-Atlantic patois of most television news anchors. And that is too bad. A certain cachet has been lost in my opinion, but then again, a fake accent is probably worse than no accent.

My real problem with airline PA announcements, however, has nothing to do with the delivery, but rather the content and timeliness. We actually do talk too much when we should probably shut up and not enough when something needs to be said. Let me explain:

Mandatory versus Optional

Pilot PA announcements are prescribed in our manuals as either customer service announcements, which are mostly optional, or required safety announcements, which are mandatory. There is little that can be done about the mandatory safety announcements such as those required when the seat belt sign is cycled on or off, but it is the customer service announcements which can probably use the most improvement.

We are encouraged to give an opening PA to introduce ourselves and to give some information about the flight. My problem starts right away when pilots introduce themselves using first names only such as  "Bob and Tom". Perhaps I'm just old school, but when I hear that, I can't help but think I've tapped into the Wiggles channel, or perhaps wandered into a birthday party at a Chuck E. Cheese joint. Our informality infection has progressed just a bit far. Professionals should try to look and sound the part.

After the introduction comes a several minute soliloquy about the length of the flight, the filed altitude, the expected ride enroute, the destination weather, and those super gals and guys serving you in the back. Perhaps there was a time in years past when this information was not publicly available to anyone who cared to know, but that time has long since passed. Nearly all that information is now easily available on the iPad that every passenger will now have to put down while Captain America, er, Bob, rambles on for interminable minutes.

Opening PAs should be short, to the point, and only offer information that is not already available through the internet or the airplane's entertainment center. If the destination weather must be given, "partly cloudy and breezy" will suffice rather than well, folks, there's a scattered layer at 3000 ft and a broken layer at 12,000 ft with 8 miles of visibility and the winds at 320 degrees at 8 gust 15 knots. Passengers' heads often cock when hearing such details much in the same way as your dog's head does when you try to explain the theory of relativity. Passengers aren't trained in pilot jargon.

Silence is Not Always Golden

Now if things are going to be out of the ordinary, such as being so turbulent that the flight attendants won't be getting out of their seats, or there's an ATC departure delay, then that is worth passing along. This brings us to the times when something needs to be said and yet only golden silence prevails. If the push time is 0900 and it's, say, 0905 and we haven't pushed, a PA should be made to inform the customers that, yes, we know that we're now late, and here's the reason, and here, also, is when we expect to be moving. Not announcing those things makes it seem like the pilots are hoping that no one notices. They do.

This is especially important during lengthy ATC or maintenance delays. If we're stuck at the gate for an extended period of time, I personally like to give an update every 10 to 15 minutes. This won't be a long announcement but rather something along the lines of yes, the mechanics are still working the problem, but we expect that we will eventually be under way in so many minutes.

Honesty is (Usually) the Best Policy

Many pilots prefer to use euphemisms when describing things like turbulence or maintenance issues. I personally prefer an honest but not too detailed description of weather and mechanical issues. If we're expecting moderate turbulence, I'll use that term instead of "really bumpy". If there is a line of thunderstorms ahead, I'll say that. If those terms scramble someone's eggs, perhaps they should not be flying. 

Likewise, if we have a mechanical issue, I'll mention the system that is affected without going into unnecessary detail. "Folks, we have an electrical problem" is probably better understood rather than the number 2 transformer/rectifier is showing zero amperage (usually followed by a detailed discussion of what a T/R even is).

One thing to be careful about concerning maintenance announcements is the subject of deferrals. Most people expect that their airplane is perfectly functional all the time and will likely not understand the concept of redundant systems and deferred maintenance. In those cases, I'll usually announce that the mechanic has the problem squared away and we'll be departing soon.


Is there anything more annoying than modern day customer care speak? Endless apologies followed by assurances that your experience and well being are of the highest concern have become a ubiquitous soundtrack to life in our deracinated corporate infused existence. A bit of real talk is a great antidote and is usually well appreciated by people trapped in an aluminum tube for extended periods of time. 

If we (the airline) screwed something up, I like to say so, but if that's not the case, I'll say that as well such as "our good friends at the FAA have instituted a flow control program".  Another annoying tic that I hear occasionally on the PA is the airing of dirty internal laundry such as "well, folks, we're ready to go but the ground ops folks are dragging their feet getting the plane serviced." When speaking to customers, you are the voice of the corporation. They don't know or care about internecine tribal spats.

Flight Attendant Announcements

Admittedly, most of the announcements you hear on an airliner come from the flight attendants. Cut them some slack because most of what they say is mandated by either the corporation or the FAA. And I wholly approve of pre-recorded safety videos that are now becoming common. I'd much rather watch a professionally produced safety video than listen to a harried flight attendant rush through a safety demo for the fourth time that day.  Other announcements such as the mandatory seatbelt sign notification are also being automated on newer aircraft.

Humor of course always has its place in airline PAs, but like wearing Spandex, only certain people can pull it off. Unfortunately, most of those that do, probably shouldn't. Perhaps there should be an audition where aspiring comedians can go through their schtick and get feedback before inflicting their routine on a captive public.

 In Conclusion

Airline PAs should convey valuable and timely information to customers who have no other means of gaining that information. Redundant, rambling, or lengthy announcements merely add insult to the injury of modern air travel. And of course, don't forget to bring your noise cancelling headset.

Wednesday, March 07, 2018

When Choosing an Airline, Choose Wisely!

It should not be news to anyone working as a pilot that the airlines are hiring. With many thousands of pilots retiring in the next decade, the major airlines need to hire thousands of pilots just to maintain their current manning levels. Any growth will mean hiring even more.

This hiring binge is causing headaches for the traditional sources of pilots, the commuter airlines and the military. For various reasons I've written about in recent posts, fewer young people are opting for a career in aviation, meaning that as the major airlines hire pilots away from the commuter airlines and the military, those organizations are having trouble maintaining their manning levels.

For the young pilot who has his or her ratings and is ready to make a move to a major airline, times could not be better. All the major airlines are currently hiring and are offering long and lucrative careers as an airline pilot. The question is, which airline is the best to work for?

The simple answer, of course, is that the best airline is the one that hires you. If you only have one offer from a major, then your choice is an easy one. All the major airlines will provide a secure and comfortable flying career. Should you be lucky enough to have offers from multiple carriers, which is increasingly likely, your choice becomes more complicated.

Seniority is Life

Seniority, or the order in which you get hired, determines your quality of life for the next several decades. That guy or gal sitting in front of you in new hire class? He or she will be senior to you until one of you retires and there's nothing you can do to change that. Seniority will determine the days you fly, the quality of your layovers, which base you can hold, and the equipment you will operate. These all add up to quality of life and pay.

Being senior means you get both quality of life and better pay (by flying larger equipment or bidding better trips). Mid level seniority means you can have one of these or the other but not both, and being junior means you get nothing (and like it)! Obviously, being senior is better, but you can choose the airline at which you will gain the most seniority in the least amount of time by doing a little homework before accepting an offer.

The most important thing you will need to ascertain is the number of expected retirements of pilots senior to you when you get hired. For instance, if your prospective airline has not hired for a long while and is now just getting started, that means many of the pilots working there will retire after a short while, thereby clearing the way for you to become senior.

Conversely, if you are getting hired near the end of a long hiring binge, that means the relatively young pilots who were just hired, but are senior to you, will be there a long time before retiring, keeping you in the right seat or working weekends and holidays for a large part of your career. Getting hired at an airline full of old pilots is best.

Other Considerations

You should consider the overall financial health of any carrier you wish to join. Currently, the big four US major airlines, Delta, American, United, and Southwest, make up about 80% of airline capacity and are all in great financial shape. But then again, they should be with a good economy and cheap fuel. You will want to consider what happens when the economy goes south or fuel gets expensive.

Smaller carriers such as Alaska and JetBlue may be positioned less well to weather a substantial economic downturn. Then there are the ultra low cost carriers such as Spirit and Frontier that have carved out niches with a bare bones product. They are small, but at least in the case of Spirit, they are growing fast. I've had several Spirit pilots on my jumpseat say that they are there for the long haul and not considering looking elsewhere.

You will also want to consider the equipment that your prospective airline flies. Widebody international flying will generally provide a better quality of life in terms of days worked and length of layovers, but back side of the clock flying can take its toll on your health over time. Many pilots consider being a widebody F/O as a career destination as the pay is close to narrow body captain pay and the schedules and layovers are good.

Take into account the type of bidding system your prospective airline employs. Preferential bid systems are generally reviled, but being senior under such a system means you always get everything you want. As an example, a good friend of mine, who is the number nine 737 captain at his airline with a PBS system, routinely gets four or more 30 hr Maui layovers monthly because he likes them. I, on the other hand am the number fourteen 737 captain at my airline with a traditional bidding system and can only bid the lines that the company publishes. To get longer layovers in warm locales, I have to suck up things like four day trips and 11 hour layovers in DTW.

In Conclusion

There has never been a better time to be starting a career in aviation. There is a world wide pilot shortage and airlines are hiring pilots as fast as they can. Make sure to project your career aspirations at any carrier you are considering with an eye towards your seniority attainment to make the best decision. Good Luck!

Important Information from the TSA!!

Airport Full Body Scan Status Report
Finally, some useful facts
are coming out about all of those airport full body scans!
TSA disclosed the following
Airport Screening Results
2016 Statistics On Airport Full Body Screening From TSA :
Terrorists Discovered
Hemorrhoid Cases
Enlarged Prostates
Breast Implants
Natural Blondes
It was also discovered that 308 politicians had no balls.

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Will Computers Learn to Fly Well Enough Before Pilots Forget How?

In my job, I get to fly with all different kinds of cats and dogs. And by cats and dogs, I don't mean the ubiquitous emotional support animals now being carried by passengers, but rather pilots. The guys and gals I fly with all have different backgrounds and stories. Over the years I've flown with pilots from every branch and sub-branch of the armed services, pilots with civilian-only backgrounds, and even pilots from foreign countries to include foreign military services. I even flew with a former submariner who managed to get out of a diesel stink boat and into an airplane.

No matter how diverse their backgrounds, we both get into the jet and within a few minutes it's like we've been flying together for years. That is the power of training to a common standard. We run checklists, make callouts, and fly the airplane in such a way that the other person knows exactly what to expect and when to expect it.

Over the years I've flown with some truly amazing pilots who could fly the machine like a virtuoso might play a finely tuned instrument. I've also flown with some, how shall we say, less precise pilots, who, while meeting standards, didn't go out of their way to make my or anyone else's eyes water at the sight of their aerial proficiency. This has usually been a case of lacking not skill, but rather the motivation for excellence. And I get it—it's nearly impossible to be always "on", but over time an average level of effort will be made apparent.

Automation, however, is changing things, and not unreservedly for the better in my opinion. Don't get me wrong; overall, automation is of great value in the cockpit and will be with us for the foreseeable future. The improvements to safety alone are real and well documented. There is, however, a fly or two in the automation ointment.

In today's highly automated aviation environment, it is becoming more difficult to tell who can fly the airplane well or not because we rarely do it. And when I use the term "fly" here, I mean to hand fly the aircraft without the use of the autopilot or automation. Hand flying, like any precise and complex human task, is a perishable skill. If you don't practice for a while, you'll get rusty. Any musician knows this.

Unfortunately, standard operating procedure at nearly every airline in the world to varying degrees is to employ automation to the maximum extent possible. So, if the automation flies as well as or better than a human (and it does, most of the time), what does it matter if pilots are losing their manual flying skills? To these hundreds of people I mention below, it mattered quite a bit. Consider the following.

A New Category of Crash

After any aviation accident, investigators will pour over the wreckage trying to figure out what went wrong. They will also look closely at the pilots' backgrounds, their training, and their proficiency. What is becoming apparent is the discovery of a disturbingly new type of crash where one of the primary causes is either the pilot's interaction with automated systems, or even worse, a pilot's lack of proficiency in recovering an aircraft from an upset or automation failure.

The crash landing of Emirates 521 in 2016 is an example of the first type of failure which I explored in detail here. The pilot expected the automation to perform in a certain manner, but due to circumstances which he had evidently not anticipated nor been trained for, the throttles were never advanced on a go-around. This caused the airplane to settle onto the runway after the gear had been retracted. The aircraft was destroyed in the post-crash fire while luckily, there was only one fatality.

The crashes of Asiana 214, a Boeing 777, Air France 447, an Airbus A330, and AirAsia 8501, an Airbus A320, are examples of a lack of proficiency in basic flying skills. I wrote about those tragedies herehere, and here. Collectively these crashes resulted in the deaths of 393 passengers and crew. The common link between these crashes is that all three airplanes were perfectly flyable when they went down. In each case, the pilots had profound misunderstandings about what was happening to their airplanes and were not equipped to remedy the situations.

Pilots Who Can't Fly?

How have we arrived at this juncture where (some) pilots are lacking in basic stick and rudder skills? The short answer is through years of charging into a technological future without taking the time to think about where we're going, nor planning how to get there.

We can all anticipate a time at some point in the distant future where automation and software are so far advanced that manual flying skills will be relegated to wealthy hobbyists who maintain and fly antique aircraft for fun. We're not there yet and won't be for some time. Even though the automation on today's airliners is quite sophisticated, it just isn't ready for prime time. I find myself having to intervene multiple times on nearly every flight to correct automation generated errors on the state of the art Boeing aircraft I fly. Heck, having the automation attempt to exceed structural limits of the aircraft isn't that uncommon. I suspect my Airbus, Embraer, and Canadair flying compatriots have similar experiences.

Another problem with automation as it is currently deployed finds the machine doing most of the flying while the humans sit on their hands waiting for it to make a mistake. No one seems to have considered that humans are uniquely unsuited to monitor machines, but rather it is the machine which should be assisting and monitoring the humans. Humans become quickly bored and will mentally check out after a short amount of time staring at a machine that may randomly make a mistake at any time.

As alluded to by Sully in the above quote, a better deployment of technology might be to keep the pilots in the control loop as an active participant, and to relegate the automation to the role of watchdog, which machines can do quite well.

As an aside, I am always amused that many sci-fi movies still depict some sort of manual control in futuristic spacecraft. It was Luke's manual flying skills obtained from bulls eyeing womp rats that carried the day in the original Star Wars movie. And while Sulu never had a side stick controller in the original Star Trek, one was added in later incarnations of that franchise. (Be sure not to miss the maiden voyage scene from the Star Trek spoof movie Galaxy Quest.) Perhaps they were onto something. There will always be a certain romanticism attached to the idea of the steely eyed flying ace hand flying the machine.

Back to Basics: The FAA Reacts

Alarmed by the recent spate of accidents attributed in part to the lack of pilot proficiency, the FAA recently created new rules for pilot training to address these deficiencies. Added in 2014, FAR 121.423 now mandates additional training for pilots which they call "Extended Envelope Training" (EET). This new training will now require pilots to demonstrate manually controlled proficiency in slow flight, loss of reliable airspeed, instrument departures and arrivals, upset recovery, and bounced landing recovery. Airlines were given a few years to upgrade their training programs and simulator capabilities to accommodate the new maneuvers.

Here's the sad part. All these maneuvers are Aviation 101, and are taught to beginning pilots. This actually reads like the syllabus I taught to pre-solo nuggets in the T-37 aircraft back in the 80s. What the FAA has inadvertently done is to validate the criticism that modern automated cockpits are causing pilots to become so rusty that they need to relearn basic airmanship.

In Conclusion

Automation, while bringing many benefits and efficiencies to aviation, does have a downside. Over-reliance on automation has caused a gradual erosion in pilots' stick and rudder skills to such a degree that the safe operation of an aircraft can be jeopardized by automation failures. The FAA is now attempting a rear guard operation to restore basic skills to airmen whose acumen has been dulled by years of push-button flying.

There will eventually come a time when automation is robust enough and redundant enough to never need human intervention, but that time is still many years away. During this transition era, pilots will still need to maintain their skill set and be ready to assume control of the airplane with little or no warning. A smarter way to have humans and machines work together would see the machine deployed as an assistant to the humans who remain in direct control of the airplane, rather than the other way around.

Monday, October 23, 2017

Air Force to Recall 1000 Retired Pilots

The Air Force has a pilot problem. It doesn't have enough. The service says that the problem is reaching "crisis" levels with a current shortage of 1500 pilots. Having exhausted all means to convince their current pilot force to remain in the service, and unable to increase the number of new pilots produced, the Air Force appealed to the President to revise an executive order allowing for the recall of up to 1000 retired pilots to active duty. President Trump signed this order last Friday touching off a firestorm of social media commentary.

In many ways, this problem has existed for decades, even stretching back to the 1980s when I first wore the green bag (flight suit). The issues are the same and the same arguments get made over and over. What has changed is simply the intensity of each issue affecting pilot retention. As the saying goes, you can't tell who's swimming naked until the tide goes out. And the tide has indeed gone out.

Inflow Minus Outflow

Air Force personnel managers are charged with managing the pilot force to maintain appropriate force levels. They not only manage the total number of pilots, but also the personnel levels existing at various career stages. They attempt to keep a surplus or deficit from existing anywhere along the career "pipeline". Tools at their disposal are the management of training rates, promotion rates, and incentive programs used to either retain pilots or to encourage them to separate.

Looking at the inflows, the number of pilots that the Air Force can train in a given year, there was a huge reduction in initial pilot training capacity dating from the end of the cold war. Training bases were closed and resources were reassigned. Total pilot production was reduced from about 1500 to 500 pilots annually in the early 1990s. That number has recovered somewhat; about 1100 pilots were produced in 2016. The Air Force is attempting to ramp this production back up, but planners estimate that a maximum of 1400 pilots per year is the ceiling given current numbers of training aircraft and other resources.

It is on the outflow side, however, that the problem becomes clear. In short, pilots are bailing out of the military to take airline jobs—just as they always have when the airlines come a calling. It is here where the pilot retention problem really looks like a rewind of the 1980s. Back in the late eighties, the airlines were on a hiring tear, scooping up as many ex-military pilots as they could get their hands on. 

I specifically recall being asked to participate in a round table discussion with the wing commander to address the issues of why pilots were leaving the service. The complaints I heard back then are eerily similar to the ones being voiced today. Pilots chafed at too many non-flying additional duties (affectionately known as "queep"), not enough flying time, and a lack of leadership. Here is an example of the unrest from the comments of my blog (in the original):

...additional duties that have nothing to do with flying, PME (professional military education-ed) requirements to get promoted that have to be accomplished in off duty spare time, 24/7 on call status, exercises that have little to do with flying, PT (physical training-ed) requirements that have to be prepared for in spare time, mountains of regulations based on a single act of buffoonery with the goal of preventing bad judgement from ever happening again, i.e. The Shotgun Approach to problem solving, time off is time off. Not everyone wants to be a four star general/politician/professional staff officer but, the senior AF brass expect everyone to jump through time wasting hoops to be prepared for that minute possibility.

One factor which currently helps to push pilots out of the service which largely did not exist back in the 1980s is the deployment rate. Deployments, or long term tours away from home lasting weeks or months, are now the rule rather than the exception. Air Force pilots flying tactical or theater based aircraft can expect multiple, lengthy, deployments during their career. No amount of incentive money will likely dissuade these pilots from exiting the service once their service commitment is over.

When the Airlines Hire, Pilots Leave

So are pilots actually leaving the service in numbers greater than they have in past airline hiring surges? A 2015 Rand study which examined the issue of fighter pilot retention, defined a measure of total active rated service (TARS) to measure the retention of pilots. Denoted in years, it measures the average length of time a pilot remains on active duty.

As you can see, the rate at which pilots leave the service (thereby shortening their active duty years) roughly corresponds with airline hiring, verifying that in spite of conditions in the military, when the airlines are hiring, pilots will leave.

This makes sense for many reasons. At the 10 year point of a military pilot's career, there are often many lifestyle changes including marriage and children. The excitement and travel which provide much of the allure of being a military pilot may have lost their lustre. The early part of a military pilot's career involves becoming an expert in the operation of their weapons system, but as time progresses, the focus will switch to grooming for leadership positions and away from flying.

At work here also is the psychology of the airline seniority system. Nearly every measure of quality of life in the airlines is determined by one's seniority, or hire date. Logic dictates that if a pilot has decided to eventually go the airline route, an earlier rather than later departure from the military will be better. This "fear of missing out" no doubt drives many pilots off the fence onto the side of the airlines, but it also presents an opportunity to help solve the problem.

Can it be Fixed?

Anything can be fixed given enough money and imagination, which unfortunately, seem to be in short supply these days. From a merely economic point of view, matching airline pay rates dollar for dollar might help, but the calculus would then be why work harder for the same money? To beat this problem with money will require quite a bit more than the military is willing (or able) to pay.

To their credit, Air Force leadership has recognized the toll that nonstop deployments have taken on the force and are moving to reduce them. Other initiatives include keeping pilots in the cockpit and out of staff positions by utilizing non-pilots for those staff positions.

One possible solution to the airline seniority problem might be for the airlines to interview, provisionally hire, and guarantee military pilots a seniority position based on that interview date. This type of program would mirror the "flow-through" programs which some regional airlines have with their mainline counterparts.

Requiring a longer service commitment seems to be a well that has run dry. Currently at 10 years from completion of training (up from six when I joined in 1982), the length of that commitment will eventually dissuade the best and brightest who have other options. 

Then, of course, there is the brute force method, of which an involuntary recall of retired pilots would be a showpiece. Other levers include the use of a "stop-loss" program which simply closes the door to pilots leaving the service prior to retirement. Invocation of a stop-loss seems the more likely course in lieu of a retirement recall. I have personal experience with that, being prevented from retiring for awhile back in 2003.

The last policy prescription I'll offer is to simply define the problem away. It still escapes me as to why we're deploying state of the art fighters against Pashtun goat herders in the Hindu Kush, especially when the place will look like we were never there a year after we leave.

In Conclusion

The Air Force's pilot retention problem is the same as it ever was. When the airlines hire, pilots leave. The complaints about the service being made today echo not only those I heard back in the 1980s, but also those of Joseph Heller's Yossarian voiced in Catch 22. Creative management and incentives will help stop the bleeding, but the tide of a world wide pilot shortage is a powerful force.

Captain Rob Graves is a veteran airline pilot and retired Air Force officer. He currently flies a Boeing 737 for a major American airline where he has over 25 years of experience. His Air Force career included instructing future USAF pilots in the T-37 primary jet trainer, aerial refueling in the KC-135 Stratotanker, and conducting worldwide logistics in the C-5 Galaxy cargo aircraft.

Saturday, October 14, 2017

The Real Reason that Southwest Just Announced Hawaii

As you probably know by now, Southwest Airlines announced their intention to serve Hawaii this past Wednesday night. There has been speculation about if and when Southwest Airlines would begin service to Hawaii for years. Driving these rumors is the fact that they've been removing many of the obstacles holding them back from flying to the islands.

For instance, flying long distances over water requires specially equipped and maintained aircraft. Known as Extended Operations (ETOPS) certification, the aircraft and crew have to demonstrate an ability to lose an engine and to safely divert to an alternate airport. Southwest has been operating ETOPS compliant aircraft, and trained their crews in over water navigation procedures several years ago. So why did they wait so long to start service?

One reason to not serve the Hawaiian Islands is that it is a very difficult market in which to make money. This may seem counterintuitive as Hawaii is one of the premier vacation destinations in the world, but let me explain.

Leisure or Business?

Airlines rely on two types of passengers to make money: business and leisure. Business passengers are by far the more profitable customers as they are usually on a tight timeline, and are not generally flexible in their travel plans. Many times they have to travel at the last minute. These factors mean that airlines can charge business passengers a lot of money which ends up making them high margin customers.

Leisure passengers, on the other hand, often plan their vacations well in advance, and are more cost conscious as opposed to time sensitive. Add in that money used for vacations is discretionary, meaning that a small increase in cost may mean going to a cheaper destination or not going at all, and you can see that airlines are competing for these passengers on price. The leisure market ends up being a high volume, but low margin business. And Hawaii is the quintessential leisure market.

Another factor in the Hawaiian market is of the airlines' own making. That factor is their loyalty programs. Decades ago, the airlines figured out that giving away free flights to loyal customers was a great way to keep those customers from jumping ship (so to speak) to another carrier which beat them by a few bucks on price. One of the premier destinations for loyalty program redemptions, however, was Hawaii. This meant that the airlines found themselves flying full airplanes to the islands with very few paying customers, a huge number of them being redeemed "miles" flights.

The type of aircraft being flown can also affect the profitability of a particular market. Wide-body aircraft carrying several hundred passengers enjoy an economy of scale which lowers costs. The fixed costs of maintaining gates and ticket counters are essentially the same for all airliners, so an airline flying wide-body aircraft can spread those costs over more customers. This is a disadvantage for airlines with only narrow-body aircraft such as Alaska and Southwest.

All of these reasons have made Hawaii a difficult market that up to now Southwest has elected to forego. But something made them change their mind, and that something was from outside their company.

It's War!

In April of 2016, Alaska Airlines announced their intention to acquire Virgin America creating a west coast powerhouse airline with national aspirations. For decades, Alaska was content to serve their fiercely defended home turf of Alaska from their Seattle hub, along with west coast routes including Mexico, while only occasionally venturing east of the Mississippi.

The addition of the Virgin America network added a robust transcontinental capacity giving the new entity a significant east coast footprint. They also decided that the time was good to challenge Southwest for primacy in one of the largest markets in the country: California.

Southwest has long been the primary carrier for California intrastate travel having wrested the old PSA routes away from USAir back in the early '90s. Flying California intrastate routes as many as six times daily, Southwest has more or less had that market sewn up until earlier this year. Starting in March, Alaska announced new service and frequency to cities such as Burbank and Sacramento, Southwest strongholds. A fare war has subsequently broken out with fares as low as $57 for intrastate travel.

No Holds Barred

Fare wars, while good for airline travellers while they last, can be brutal to the bottom line. Alaska did not start this fight without intending to either win, (unlikely) or at least to grab a good chunk of Southwest's California market share. A war of attrition will batter both airlines' financial results even though Southwest is somewhat better positioned to prevail as they have lower overall costs than Alaska.

Alaska, though, does have some tricks up their sleeve which will keep them in the fight. One is that they have codeshare agreements with 15 other airlines to include large international carriers like British Airways and Emirates. Southwest does not codeshare at all. Funneling passengers into a worldwide network brings in revenue and exposes their product to more potential customers.

The other feature that Alaska has is Hawaii. They've been flying there for years, even though it may not be a huge revenue generator. And this is an ace in the hole when you are fighting for California. As it turns out, over half of all Hawaii tourists originate from California. 

The whole point of loyalty programs is to capture customers who will then fly one particular airline for both business and leisure travel. When you are trying to build brand loyalty, as Southwest is, not serving one of the largest nearby leisure destinations means that you are inviting your customers to fly on your biggest competitor. This is the real reason that Southwest has finally decided to fly to Hawaii.

In Conclusion

A fare war over California means that there are huge consequences at stake. Alaska is attempting to establish a larger presence on the west coast after their merger with Virgin America, while Southwest does not intend to let one of their largest markets be challenged. In order to compete against this new attack, Southwest has to offer their customers access to Hawaii unless they want to see their customers fly on the competition for both business and leisure.

Captain Rob Graves is a veteran airline pilot and retired Air Force officer. He currently flies a Boeing 737 for a major American airline where he has over 25 years of experience. His Air Force career included instructing future USAF pilots in the T-37 primary jet trainer, aerial refueling in the KC-135 Stratotanker, and conducting worldwide logistics in the C-5 Galaxy cargo aircraft. He is the author of This is Your Captain Speaking, an aviation blog. It can be found at He also writes for Any opinions expressed are solely his.

Thursday, September 28, 2017

How Do Pilots Check the Weather Before Flying?

Honeywell's GoDirect Weather Information Service app displayed on an iPad

An old aviation aphorism states that there are old pilots and bold pilots, but no old, bold pilots. Going flying without first checking the weather would be sort of like gambling in a casino but with no way to win and many ways to lose. So it is universally recognized by all pilots that one of the keys to a long and prosperous aviation career involves thoroughly checking the weather before committing aviation.

The methods that pilots have used over the years to investigate the weather along their route and at their destination have been continuously updated over the years through advances in technology. The Weather Bureau, a predecessor to the National Weather Service, first established an aerological department in 1914 to meet the growing needs of aviation.

Since that time, government-provided weather services have been the backbone of aviation weather, but that is changing. With the reality of the internet, aviation weather became more democratized and the advent of wireless connectivity means it has never been easier to have access to high quality weather information and graphics wherever a signal is available.

There are many products currently available for pilots to use as a source for weather information, but one I've been using has been a standout. Honeywell's GoDirect Weather Information Service (WIS) is a fully functioned product for presenting a range of weather observations and forecasts to include high quality graphics for pilots. The app is available for both Windows and iOS, but I've been using it on an iPad. It is available from the Apple app store and installed easily.

It's Fast!

The first thing I noticed about this app is that it's fast. I mean really fast. I have used many other weather apps and it seems that waiting for a radar picture to load can take forever. That is not the case with WIS. Hit the weather uplink button and your weather data is displayed within less than a second. I realize that this time will vary depending on the speed of your underlying data connection, but the uplink was fast in comparison to other products I've used with the same connection.

The data that you get is everything you need to safely plan and fly your trip. Multiple overlays are available on the map display to show as much or as little data as you care to see. Again, toggling overlays on or off is nearly instantaneous with no discernible lag to render graphics. Did I mention that the software is fast?

The available map overlays include terrain, airports, navaids, waypoints, and political boundaries. Most of these are user selectable to provide information when needed or to de-clutter the display when not needed. Another feature of the app that I have really come to appreciate is an automatic map de-clutter feature that displays information based on zoom level.

You would think that such a feature would be standard on most software to be used while performing an intensive task such as flying, but that is sadly not the case. Fumbling through menus to de-clutter a map when you might be trying to avoid a storm is not an optimal use of cognitive resources. The engineers at Honeywell have figured this out, and data such as waypoints, navaids, and airports will automatically change presentation based upon the zoom level. Again, this was quite fast with no lag time for rendering. I found this feature quite useful and it made the software a pleasure to use.

You're In Control

When flying in challenging weather, knowing what has happened in the past can be just as important as knowing what the current conditions and forecasts are. Honeywell has included an intuitive time slider on the map display which allows pilots to easily see conditions up to three hours old. Historical data can be displayed as an animation or statically.

And just as the observations time slider allows a look at past conditions, the app also includes a future time slider to display forecasts up to 24 hours ahead of the current time.

The program presents radar, satellite, and lightning data along with available PIREPS in an easily readable and selectable map format. Clicking on any observation or forecast feature will display a window showing the details of that particular area. All of these features worked together to make the product easy to use while flying.

In addition to knowing the "when" of the current and forecast weather, a Flight Level selector lets you control the "where." Moving this selector will present the clear air turbulence (CAT), winds and icing forecasts for your chosen flight level. Satellite observation is also selectable using this slider. This again reinforces the philosophy of only seeing that information which is of use while not cluttering up the display with extraneous data.

Another powerful tool which I found to be very useful is the Vertical Situation Display (VSD). Showing a vertical slice or profile view of weather along the loaded flight plan, it is easy to determine where icing, turbulence and CB tops lie along your route. These things can be determined without the display, but seeing a graphical display is immensely helpful when planning a route. Again, the Honeywell engineers seem to have really put some thought into how this product will be used.

Flight Plans Made Easy

And speaking of flight plans, WIS makes loading and editing flight plans a snap. Flight plans can be loaded from Honeywell's GoDirect Services, pasted from the clipboard or entered directly. Once loaded, plans are easily edited. It is important to note that the program accepts routing in standard ICAO terms, so don't forget to add "DCT" when proceeding directly between fixes. Plans are then rendered as an overlay on the map display.

The program even has an “own ship” centering feature which can access the GPS signal from the device on which it is installed. Tracking your own progress has never been easier.

A related airports list adds easily accessible weather information from selected airports to a side panel. The best part of this feature is that when refreshed, only data for selected airports will be uplinked, thereby saving data costs.

If you are interested in seeing the weather at any one particular airport, just clicking on the airport symbol on the map brings up a window in which the current METAR, ATIS, and TAF can be instantly displayed. This was probably my favorite feature saving me multiple steps in obtaining this information from several separate sources. It's all conveniently aggregated into one place.

In Conclusion

We are living in a golden age of weather information which is available for pilots to plan and fly. But as with any data stream, the presentation and analysis of that information can be just as important as the data itself. A smart and intuitive interface is essential for proper flight planning and conduct, and Honeywell's GoDirect Weather Information Service provides that in spades. Equally useful for both pros and recreational pilots, it’s an easy recommendation for me to make.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Air Traffic Control Reform: The Battle of the Fat Cats

Should air traffic control be privatized?
Should air traffic control be privatized?

There is a battle royale brewing over the future of Air Traffic Control in the US which could affect much of the nation's air transportation system. While the usual ideologically pro and anti privatization partisans are playing their roles to perfection, there is an array of very well heeled interests on both sides of this legislative food fight. This has scrambled the rich and powerful vs. the little guy narrative which usually attends these sorts of melees.

Some Background

You may or may not have been following the story about efforts to corporatize and privatize the FAA's Air Traffic Control Services (ATCS), so here's the story so far:

Organized under the DOT, the FAA is divided into several divisions which have responsibility for the nation's air transportation system. The major divisions in the FAA are responsible separately for airports, aviation safety, space transportation, and air traffic control services. It is this last division, air traffic control services, that has become a political football in recent years.

The idea of privatizing ATCS dates back to 1985 when an airline industry trade group, the Air Transport Association (ATA), published a paper calling for a federal corporation to take control of air traffic control. Since then, the idea has percolated in think tanks and resulted in various legislative efforts, but has never had enough support to pass into law. Interestingly, there have been efforts on both sides of the political aisle for privatization including a 1994 proposal from Vice President Al Gore's reinventing government initiative.

Fast forward to today and the idea is once again back within striking distance of becoming a reality due to the Trump administration's desire to reduce costs for businesses while both branches of Congress also belong to Republicans. President Trump held a meeting for airline executives shortly after taking office where he stated support for the idea of ATCS privatization, which has been somewhat of a holy grail for the airlines.

The idea is to spin off the FAA's ATC services into a not-for-profit corporation which would be funded by user fees (with some carve outs). This corporation would be controlled by a board consisting of stakeholders from across the industry. Over 50 countries around the world including Canada have adopted a similar structure for their air traffic services to date.

The mechanism by which privatization of ATC would occur is the current FAA spending reauthorization bill. Now working its way through Congress, Senate Bill 1405 does not include provisions for privatization while the competing House Bill 2997, called the 21st Century Aviation Innovation, Reform & Reauthorization Act (or AIRR Act.), does include the privatization of ATC.

Funded through September 30, the FAA will need a short term authorization to continue to function without the passage and reconciliation of these two bills. Whether ATC privatization survives the legislative sausage making process is an open question.

As alluded to above, though, some interesting alliances have been formed for both the pro and anti privatization sides, and they aren't exactly lining up as how you might expect. For starters, there are some very well connected and deep pocketed players on both sides. Shall we have a look?

The Pro Side

The airlines are predictably the most pro-privatization players on the field as they have the most to gain through the legislation. Operating about 27,000 flights daily carrying about 2 million passengers, the airlines see delayed technology rollouts and inefficiencies in the current system as a direct threat to their business model. 

As Southwest Airlines founder Herb Kelleher once put it, "In no other industry does a government bureaucracy have direct control over the production line of a multi billion dollar industry." With about $200 billion in revenue for 2016, US airlines have quite a bit on the line and also the means to advance their cause for a more streamlined ATC system.

An unlikely voice on the pro side is that of the air traffic controllers themselves. The controllers, through their union (NATCA), have come out decidedly in favor of privatization. It is rare that a public employee union would come out in favor of the privatization of their own jobs, but reviewing their materials reveals a rare exercise in realpolitik. 

The controllers complain that their livelihoods are a constant political football subject to the political whims of the day concerning FAA funding and disruptions such as sequestration. In their opinion, a not-for-profit air traffic corporation funded by user fees would provide needed stability and growth to their career field. 

The Anti Side

Some of the most ardent opponents of the privatization of ATC services are the owners of small privately owned aircraft. Known as "general aviation" (GA) and represented by the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA) this group is fiercely opposed to the scheme, and probably with good reason.

With the FAA and by extension air traffic control services currently funded by excise taxes on fuel, the fear is that a new user fee regime would end up sticking GA pilots with higher operating costs. This may or may not be true, but if you are happy with the current arrangement, you will be skeptical of any changes. It should be noted, though, that the legislation currently under consideration keeps the GA funding method through excise taxes on fuel the same as it currently exists.

One argument used against GA owners is the allegation that they consume ATC services in excess of what they pay into the system and therefore like this arrangement just as it is. The airlines, who pay excise taxes on the gargantuan amount of fuel they consume, would allegedly like a change to a user fee system which would shift away some of their cost burden. The challenge of any ATC reorganization will be to determine the amount of ATC services each group consumes and to then apportion the costs in relation to that consumption; no easy task when each side mistrusts the other.

The last group on the anti side are the owners of private business aircraft or business jets. These people are perhaps the fattest cats in the sky. They have thrown their lot in with general aviation believing that the airlines would have undue influence in a new air traffic control corporation and restrict their operations into major airports where a bizjet carrying two or three passengers can take up as much airspace as an airliner carrying hundreds.

In Conclusion

How this fight eventually ends is really anyone's guess. You might believe that because the Republicans control both the House and Senate that passage would be a slam dunk, but that is apparently not the case. The partisans on both sides of the debate have their champions in Congress and very deep pockets to keep them in the fight.

I'll admit to being personally agnostic on this issue. From my perspective as an operator and primary consumer of ATC services, there is little doubt that the system could use a boost in efficiency and a more rapid deployment of promised technology. That said, as currently structured, the system does handle an amazing number of aircraft and is staffed by dedicated and competent professionals.

And it should be noted, that even though the holy cause of safety may be invoked by either the pro or anti side, I don't believe any questions of safety are relevant in this debate. Our current aviation system is about as safe as it can be made short of parking airplanes and it is likely to stay that way in any reorganization.

Monday, July 03, 2017

How the Airlines Infuriate their Customers...By Giving Them What They Want

In the genre of travel writing, bashing the airlines has always been a no lose proposition. Mirroring critiques on the decline of civility and a decaying culture in general, the sorry state of air travel makes for an eye catching lede in the Sunday travel section. A vintage photo of cosmopolitan passengers in a spacious cabin being served confit on fine china used in comparison to today's experience of TSA body cavity searches and knee-chewing seat pitch is de rigeur for this type of exposé.

And they're not wrong. There is little doubt that flying today has become nasty and brutish, especially when compared to the experience of decades gone by. But the part that these articles invariably leave out is that flying is the way it is today because that's exactly the way we want it.

You heard me correctly. We, meaning you and I and the rest of the travelling public, are getting exactly what we want and, more importantly, at the price we want it. Let me explain.

In those pictures of yore, it appears as if the entire cabin was travelling in first class luxury. Given the prices that an airline ticket cost in those days, they in effect were travelling first class. Before deregulation, flying on an airliner was something that only society's elite could engage in with any regularity. No one other than the wealthy would have even considered flying to Chicago for a weekend to see a Bears game and then back to Omaha.

Now, of course, that option is open to nearly anyone. I know this because I regularly sit next to sports fans returning from a game somewhere. I always root for the away team because the only thing worse than sitting next to a drunk fan is sitting next to one whose team has just lost.

In order to understand where the industry is today, a brief history of  the airline business since airline deregulation may be helpful.

The Economics of Air Travel

Air travel in the US was deregulated back in 1978 with Jimmy Carter's signing of the Airline Deregulation Act. Since that time there has been a precipitous drop in air fares accompanied by an explosion in the number of passengers carried. The industry was democratized.

There have also been dozens of airline startups, bankruptcies, mergers, reorganizations, and failures. For a time, economists doubted whether it was possible for the airline industry to ever stabilize. This is because the economics of an airline seat resemble that of over ripe bananas or stale bread at the supermarket.

An airline seat, like day old bread, is what economists call a perishable commodity. That is, its value diminishes as it sits unsold. This is why supermarkets heavily discount their old bread. It is better to get some revenue from the bread than to have to throw it out. They might even sell it below cost as that revenue is better than zero revenue from thrown away bread.

An airline seat is the ultimate perishable commodity as its revenue value drops to zero the second the airplane leaves the gate. The marginal cost of producing these seats is next to zero, so airlines have every incentive to discount their unsold seats. This had the effect of creating price wars between airlines to clear their extra inventory. It also left the industry billions of dollars in debt.

Enter the Low Cost Carrier

In the wake of deregulation, the market was flooded with low cost carriers who could cherry pick the most price sensitive customers from the traditional legacy airlines. With their low costs, they could remain profitable while undercutting the legacies. Airlines like Southwest, People's Express, PSA, and America West made up the new vanguard of the low cost carriers (LCCs).

The legacy airlines found that they were unable to compete on price even though they continued to offer full service such as meals and assigned seats to their customers. They then attempted a competitive response by starting their own low cost subsidiaries such as United's Ted, Delta's Song, and Continental Lite though these efforts bore little fruit and were eventually abandoned.

Part of the problem was that the legacy airlines were hamstrung by their relatively generous union contracts. They could never get their costs down to the level of the LCCs. Their answer to this puzzle was to exploit a hole in their union contracts allowing the outsourcing of airplanes with less than 100 seats.

The Regional Response

The establishment of regional airlines predated deregulation, but as the legacy airlines looked for a way to compete with the LCCs, this model was expanded dramatically. Regional airlines, flying under the brand and colors of their mainline partners, utilized new fast and long range jets to offer service to many smaller and midsize cities that their mainline partners then abandoned.

As they were separate corporate entities, regionals were not restricted by the union work rules and pay rates that covered the legacy airlines. Annual pay for regional jet pilots for example was routinely under $20k, but in the wake of 9/11, the choice was to take that pay or leave the industry. Regional airline flying eventually came to dominate domestic airline flying eventually accounting for well over half of all US departures.

Industry Consolidation and the Big Four

As the 2000s came to a close, a wave of long sought after mergers among the legacy airlines left only three: United, Delta, and American. All three had declared bankruptcy in the wake of 9/11 and had drastically reduced their costs. Joined by Southwest, whose costs slowly crept up to match the slimmed down legacy airlines, the new "Big Four" now controlled over 80% of US domestic airline flying.

With only four large airlines left standing, there has been some measure of stability introduced. By engaging in "capacity discipline", the big four have voluntarily restricted their growth thereby allowing fares to rise and, for the first time since deregulation, to become consistently profitable. Low fuel prices have also helped the big four to return sizable results to shareholders.

Internet Pricing and the Ultra Low Cost Carriers

This would end our story except for the introduction of new ultra low cost carriers (ULCCs) and the quest to get to the top of the search engine price stack. As it turns out, the one thing that airline marketers have learned over the years is that the only reliable way to sell airline tickets is through pricing. This was the reason for the creation of the original band of LCCs, the regional airline response, and now the ultra low cost carriers.

This new model for air transportation embodied in carriers like Frontier, Allegiant, and Spirit, is to take the no frills LCC model to an extreme. These airlines have "unbundled" and added a price tag, to every possible service item to include assigned seats, overhead bin space, and even speaking with an agent. Their basic stripped down fare, which almost no one pays, then gets listed at the top of an internet fare search.

Spirit is universally reviled as having one of the least pleasant airline experiences possible. Their seat pitch is a knee capping 28 inches while their 73% on time arrival rate and second highest number of complaints for 2016 (beating out Frontier) puts them at or near the bottom of airline rankings.

But there is one thing about Spirit that you may not know. They are growing. Fast. For the past several years Spirit has returned margins of at least 15% while increasing capacity 15% to 20% annually. Their low rankings and poor customer treatment don't seem to affect the popularity of this airline with the flying public.

Giving the Customer What they Want

These ULCCs are growing so fast that they now have the attention of the big four. This time, though, the legacies aren't waiting to see how the story ends. Knowing that the airline at the top of the internet search is the airline that gets the sale, three of the big four airlines have introduced a new product to compete with the low price competition. Enter "basic economy" class or what some might call "economy minus".

All three airlines are calling their product Basic Economy, and they have features such as non-changeable and non-refundable fares along with other restrictions. American airlines recently came under fire in the travel press for announcing that they will reduce the pitch on their new 737s from 31 to 29 inches, but only for some rows, not the whole airplane. 

It is easy to see what is happening here. These airlines are carving out sections of their existing airplanes for the basic economy product, but the real contest is on the internet in the fight to get to the top of the price rankings where sales are made. Southwest, one of the original LCCs, is sticking to its guns believing that free bag checking and customer service will carry the day. Time will tell, but if it works for them, they'll be the unicorn in an industry where pricing has always been king.

In Conclusion

Airlines have learned the hard way, taught by their customers, that while everyone says they love roomy cabins and inflight meals, no one wants to pay for them. Those few who do can still get those things by flying first or business class.

This "revealed preference" for the lowest fares has driven the industry to provide their customers exactly what, through their purchasing behavior, they say they want. We have indeed met the enemy--and he is us.