When Small Airports Aim High – and Afar

Small airports can be a pleasure to fly from. Easy parking. Walkable concourses. Few delays. But behind the scenes and on the balance sheet, they have some economic challenges. It was through this lens that I read about South Bend Regional Airport in Indiana changing its name to South Bend International Airport. The thing is, it has no international flights—just wants them. I suppose they’re following that old adage, “Act as if.” (And they will apply for government money to construct a federal inspection station.)

International flights are key to airport financial stability for a few reasons:

  • Landing fees for international flights are generally higher than domestic flights because they’re based on weight.
  • These flights often draw new domestic traffic, with passengers connecting to the international flight.
  • International routes are increasing as the world flattens.

So it makes financial sense for a small airport to aim high and try to add international routes. Dovetailing with this is the development of smaller aircraft with greater range. Boeing’s 787 Dreamliner has singlehandedly contributed to smallish-airport growth—those that cannot accommodate the wide-bodied aircraft so often used for long-haul and ultra-long-haul routes can easily slip in a Dreamliner.

My hometown small airport, Oakland, does a fair business with Mexico flights, but the world (or at least Europe) has opened up with proposed Norwegian Air 787 nonstop service to Oslo. (There are some complications with this–a big sticky wicket you can read about here.) Similar benefactors of the 787 are smallish San Diego and San Jose.

I’m not of the belief, as some legislators seem to be, that it’s a constitutional right for people in small towns to have a thriving airport. (If you choose to live in South Bend, it seems reasonable to expect you to drive two hours to Chicago for your big trip.) But if it’s a win-win-win for airlines to add a route, locals to travel farther faster and the airport to grow, then I’m all for that.

Good luck with your new identity, South Bend International Airport.

SFO–TPE, or 777s and a Flat World

Saturday I attended a ceremony to send off United Airlines’ inaugural flight from San Francisco to Taipei. It was a party! United decorated the boarding area with paper lanterns and served dim sum and Chinese-style coffee, while brightly costumed characters circulated. United and airport brass spoke, shook hands and maximized photo ops.

Introducing a route like SFO-TPE is more than a marketing play: It’s an economic and political event. San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee spoke and, with seemingly genuine affection, reminded the audience that Taipei and San Francisco are sister cities. The two cities’ and nations’ economies will be greased by expanded air service between them, he said. (SFO-TPE was already served by EVA Air, which is based in Taiwan, China Airlines, US Airways/American and Delta.)

That day, the plane was full, and passengers ranged from business celebrities to just plain folks on vacation (or so I surmise). Mayor Lee planned to travel on the flight but had to back out when he came down with a cold: doctor’s orders. No doubt many passengers were unaware this was an inaugural flight until they arrived at the gate party.

I too often take for granted the fact that air travel fuels our international economy. This event reminded me that the world would not be flat if it weren’t for hundreds of 777s cruising the heavens every day.

Boeing 747 Nostalgia

One of my most memorable childhood vacations involved two weeks in Hawaii. Aside from the allure of the islands, I suppose the reason it was particularly memorable was because my parents required each child to contribute $100 to the project, no small goal when my brothers and I were just 8, 9, 11 and 13.

When we arrived at the airport to begin the trip, we installed ourselves at the gate, and my brothers and I rushed to the window to see our plane. Holy cow: It was a Boeing 747! A jumbo jet! A new aircraft at the time, the 747 was a big deal even to children. Decades later, I can still recall that, ironically, our departure was delayed for several hours: mechanical!

The 747 is such a distinctive aircraft, with its long and illustrious history, that many passengers carry memories of flights and strong feelings about the experience onboard. The look of the plane is unusual enough that even non–Av geeks can immediately ID it. I liken the 747’s beauty to that of Barbra Streisand: ironic, striking, unforgettable, but not conventionally pretty.

However, while the 747 may be passenger-friendly, it is not airline-friendly. It’s expensive to operate and many airlines have already replaced it with the 777. This week I contributed a post to The Bay Area Traveler that looks into the disappearance of the 747, specifically from SFO.

What has been your experience on the 747? Is its move toward extinction tragic or non-too-soon?

Backseat Drivers Not Welcome

I am not a nervous flyer, but every once in a while I will observe something that concerns me.  Inevitably this leads to an internal debate about whether I should second-guess the pros. After all, the pilots have wall-to-wall indicators and sensors to monitor problems. Flight attendants have heard it all, too. What makes me think I have noticed something life-threatening that they haven’t?

Recently, I watched out the window as my plane was de-iced, and there was not a doubt in my mind that a foot-long patch of ice remained on the top of the wing. I worried. I mean, how much experience could de-icer guys in Charlotte really have? And who checks their work? Luckily, the more rational side of my brain restrained me from calling a flight attendant over and looking like an idiot. Ten minutes later (once we were safely in the air), I forgot all about it and lost myself in a book.

When I asked Chris Cooke, Executive Travel’s pilot-columnist, about de-icing, he said the pilots are ultimately responsible for being sure it’s adequate: “After de-icing…during precipitation, the first officer is required to go back into the cabin and look out at the wings to assess the coverage.”

Learning this, I felt a little relieved to know checking procedures are in place. (The fact that the first officer on my flight did not come into the cabin, would have concerned me had I learned this prior to my flight, however.) In any case, I obviously made it home safely.

This is not the first time I’ve noticed something awry on a flight. Once I escorted a colleague to her gate and watched her aircraft taxi away with a burst of flames out the back. There was no one to ask about this as I walked to my own gate, so I breathed a sigh of relief when I knew she reached her destination safely. (I subsequently learned this is not an uncommon or unsafe occurrence.) USA Today’s Ask the Captain column covers a plethora of questions readers ask about sounds on flights that concern them. So I’m not alone.

Homeland Security’s campaign “If you see something, say something,” perhaps makes sense in spotting terrorist activity but would be annoying for airlines if passengers did the same. Backseat drivers not welcome! Have you ever observed something unusual on a flight and thought about ringing the call button?

My Favorite Seat Innovation

Airplane seat design is finally getting some out-of-the-box thinking. I don’t mean flatter lie-flat seats; I mean completely re-imagining coach seats so they are more passenger-friendly, versatile and light-weight. Unfortunately, much of this is speculative thinking, and whether any of these designs will ever come to market remains to be seen. Airlines—the seat customers, ultimately—carefully monitor an important metric: butts in seats. The more seats, the more butts. So airlines eye the bottom line when considering seat innovation, and most of that is about capacity.

Nevertheless, a couple of the designs I’m excited about: the “Morph” seat is constructed of material like the iconic Aeron Chair and can expand or shrink depending on need (next up: buy 1.5 tickets); and this entry in the James Dyson Award competition, the “AirGo” seat, includes a personal overhead bin right above the seat, even the window seat (wouldn’t that be convenient?).

By far the best innovation, though, is JetBlue’s seemingly small but hugely valuable gesture: a seat that includes a cup holder. I’ve wondered for years why this has not been done. I often refrain from buying a coffee before boarding an early morning flight precisely because it will mean putting the drink on the floor before performing the gymnastics of trying to swing my bag above my head. (Doable, but risky and a little icky.) Also, during the flight, I am cramped enough without being forced to keep the tray table down just to hold a beverage. What a luxury to stretch out (I use that term very loosely) with a book or for a mid-beverage nap, with that Diet Coke safely tucked into a holder. JetBlue’s inflight product was indeed in need of a refresh, and this is a particularly welcome innovation.  Thanks, JetBlue.