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Review: Travel Channel's 'Airport 24/7: Miami' series.

The Travel Channel sent me a press kit for a new show that begins airing on October 7th about airport operations.  The show is called Airport 24/7: Miami and is a drama-documentary about the operations at Miami International Airport.  The kit included some literature describing the show as well as two DVD discs with the first two episodes of the show.  After watching the two episodes, here's my two cents.

If you are looking for a 30-minute series that details a behind-the-scenes look at Miami's International Airport with heaps of faux drama added on top then say hello to the Travel Channel's newest member to their prime time line up.

While the show does a decent job of showing the lesser-seen areas of a major airport, the show relies heavily on clever editing and melodramatic characters with big personalities to carry the entertainment value.  Sure, the show is entertaining, albeit quite mindless, but the show relies heavily on the public's perception that any sort of news or situation that occur in an airport are a matter of national importance and high drama.

For example - flights being oversold, or a passenger missing at departure time.  Background music that belongs on a John Williams movie soundtrack.

Yes, there are scenes where there are legitmate dramatic situations - they do happen, its just they happen on almost a daily basis at airport all over the country.  It is tough to convey the frequency of these occurances (more than two guns in carry-ons confiscated per day in the US) in the show but most of the situations on the show feel a bit do-or-die.

Part of me thinks "It is hard to expect an original and thoughtful show about the aviation industry in today's TV programming landscape" but then another part of me thinks that this is the same channel that carries "No Reservations" and "Bizzare Foods".  Neither are of high intellectual stimulation but both have such original and strong narratives that really provide value to the viewers.  In my opinion atleast.

At the end of the day it will come down to what you, the viewer, thinks of the show, and that's great.  But in my opinion, this show is skippable.  Especially when I try to teach people about how these insignificant and seemingly surreptitious situations that occur daily in the world of air travel are not only not a big deal but are also often sensationalized by the media to increase their viewership and revenue.

I would love to hear any and all feedback on the show once it airs on October 2nd.  Let me know what you think!


Welcome back everyone!

- Jesse



Boarding by zone

Boarding by zones is admittedly one of the more counter-intuitive nuances of the commercial air travel industry.  There are three main procedures used to board passengers:  all at once, front-to-back, and outside-in.  Let's get into it.


First, the all-at-once style:  this is where, if zones are even assigned, it is done at random, or done by check-in time.  It does not matter where the passenger's seat assignment (or lack there-of) may be, their boarding zone is not affected by their seat on the aircraft.  Interestingly enough, this is the fastest way of boarding an aircraft but leaves little room for potential ancillary revenue.

Next, is front-to-back.  This is where the vast majority of passengers are boarded from the rear of the plane forward.  The further back in the plane the passenger is, generally the lower their boarding zone is.  Front-to-back allows airlines the ability to offer passengers the option of paying a fee to move up in the boarding process and board before other passengers.  Obviously the ability to collect more ancillary revenue is something that airlines value to a certain degree.  This is also the slowest process of the three, by far in some cases.

Front-to-back also presents a multitude of problems and creates an intense cost-benefit analysis that each individual airline must consider.  The most common issue is passengers who are seated in the rear of the aircraft but stow their carry on luggage in the first open overhead bin they come to.  This occupys space that a passenger towards the front of the plane most likely needs to use but now has to place their luggage towards the rear of the aircraft (more importantly, against the flow of deplaning traffic).  A lose-lose situation.  It also means that an entire row has to stow luggage and get seated within the same small space.  On a 757, for example, where one row is 3 seats on either side of the aisle, that means that all 6 passengers must get situated while being inhibited by each other.  All 6 fighting over the same space.

Finally, outside-in.  This is the same as back-to-front, but instead of all passengers in the same row boarding together, passengers are boarded starting with the outside most seat (window) in the rear, followed by the same seat, one row closer to the front.  After all window seats are boarded from the rear forward, then comes the middle seat, then followed by the aisle.  Again, on the 757 example, only two passengers are getting situated per row at any time.  This one per side allows that boarding process to go much more smooth.  This way also allows room for an airline to incentivise passengers to purchase earlier boarding zones.

A recent twitter inquiry asked "Can anyone explain why 'zone boarding' is an improvement over starting with back rows?"  It has been best represented by the AutoCAD programs featured above - reducing the number of passengers trying to get settled in the same row reduces boarding times.  

But there is a caveat here.  Free-for-all boarding can cause a lot of headaches and issues for passengers and flight crews alike.  There can be a lot of chaos while passengers are trying to maneuver by other passengers in the aisle to settle in a seat further back in the aircraft.  There is also a stop in the boarding flow when a passenger in a middle or aisle seat has to leave their seat and stand in the aisle to make room for a window assigned passenger to get seated.

And there is a quantifiable value to airlines and passengers for the industry to be able to either charge for earlier boarding or allow certain individuals to board earlier at no extra cost.  Passengers traveling with children, or that may need extra time during boarding due to various reasons will always be allowed to board early.  As will frequent fliers who hold loyalty status with the airline - it makes sense to reward your best customers, right?  These two types of passengers, along with passengers in premium classes, who are assigned the coveted "zone 1".

A common argument here is that passengers feel like they are being nickeled and dimed by the airline.  To those critics, I ask this:  do you feel nickeled and dimed when you purchase a vehicle and pay a little bit extra for power windows/locks/seats, etc?  You can choose not to pay for the extra bells and whistles, but the majority of people who do see some sort of monetary value for the convenince of the extras.  This may one of the more consequentialist views of the airline industry.


The Diets of Pilots

It is not secret that a pilot spends a lot of time away from home.  Depending on a pilot's company and seniority, they can spend up to 5 or 6 days at a time away from the comforts of home.  One of the more overlooked nuances that comes with this lifestyle if the type of food that is typically available to pilots away from home.


Most pilots make atleast 3 or 4 trips a day before heading back to their layover hotel.  Their day typically starts extremely early (before sunrise) and ends late into the evening (post sunset).  This means that the food offerings a pilot sees on a typical day is extremely limited and quite unhealthy.

Picture this: You wake up in an airport hotel at around 5 A.M. and have to be downstairs to catch the crew shuttle to the airport at 6 A.M.  That leaves an hour to wake up, shower, get dressed, and foarge for food.  At most, this means some fruit, a bagel, maybe a box of cereal and a cup of coffee, then it is off to the airport.

Once at the airport it is more coffee and right onto the aircraft.

At this point, at best, a meager breakfast consisting mostly of caffeine to prepare for the day.

Next comes lunch.  Obviously a pilot can't leave the airport in search of something to eat.  This means airport food.  While most will agree airport food is better than airline food, that by no means makes it healthy.  This is a neverending repetition of Burger Kings, Chick-fil-a's, Panda Express, and A&W's.  Whenever I think about it a picture of Tom Hanks' character from the movie "The Terminal" pops into my head where he eats saltines and ketchup for a meal.


With flights running all day and into the night, this means dinner is much of the same.  Getting back to the hotel after a full duty day isn't conducive to a pilot seeking out food outside of the crew hotel or airport.  Also, the lack of a vehicle presents the same problem.

For professionals who have their entire livelyhood hinging on the fact that they need to stay healthy (and believe me, pilots are legally required to get medically certified as fit, and certified often) it is physically and mentally straining to only be able to eat greasy, fatty and heavy fast food - in fact it can threaten their readiness if measures aren't taken to workout outside of the "office".  


It isn't all bad though.  Pilots who fly long haul can have a diet that benefit from their flight schedules.  Typically layovers on long-haul flights are much longer (24+ hours) and with a full day in their destination city there is time to leave the hotel and explore for more suitable food options.  Public transportation is much better in other countries as well (compared to overnighting in, say, Fargo, North Dakota) which contributes to the ability to foarge for food.

Corporate pilots can benefit as well.  Working at a jet center in college, corporate pilots would often leave the untouched catering with the line workers (me) to enjoy instead of tossing it out.  If you want to eat expensive lobster and filet mignon on a regular basis as a college student go find a job at the nearest jet center.  Corporate pilots are usually given a more healthy boxed lunch from the same caterers that supply the private jets with their caviar and champagne on top of the leftover catering.

Just about all pilots understand that if they live off the poor airport food and fail to exercise that there is the potential to have their medical standing removed which would pull them off the flight line.  This is the sort of motivation that keeps them healthy, but still a necessary evil that comes with the territory of being a pilot.



The unique air cargo industry

And we are back:

The air cargo industry is quite obviously different from the passenger airline industry. Beyond both offering services that mostly focus on transportation via air the two industries share little else. Let's get into it.

For passenger airlines, the exchange of services (and in some cases, goods) is pretty much entirely contained within the airport or the aircraft. Passenger airlines offer an airport to airport service where travel and accommodation beyond these gateways is ultimately up to the passenger.

The cargo industry offers a very different service. When I worked for a major international cargo service (full disclosure: DHL is the company I previously worked for so my goal is to approach this from an academic and unbiased narrative), we offered what we called "door-to-door" service. That is, a company employee would pick up a package from a customer's home or warehouse and the package(s) would be delivered to the home or final destination of wherever the customer required. Customers were not required to drive to the airport and check their cargo in with the airline and then have another person at the closest airport that the airline served to the package's final destination waiting to pick it up.


Cargo carriers also deal with the logistics of offering a "door-to-door" service. That means massive fleets of everything from vans and trucks to aircraft, bicycles, motorcycles, cargo ships, trains, and I've even seen branded segways. It is easily surmised from this point that there is a lot more overhead and operational costs to be able to maintain these kinds of service. To be able to control these extra costs there are some operational differences that vary from the passenger transport business.

First is the aircraft. Cargo aircraft operate entirely different schedules and have an entirely different set of costs than passenger aircraft. The biggest advantage is the regulations that mandate the amount of maintenance required on the aircraft on a regular basis. Now don't think that these cargo aircraft are deathtraps - they just aren't. They are immaculate aircraft. They just don't require some of the more in-depth inspections that passenger aircraft are required to go through. This provides a benefit to the cargo airlines in the form of reduced operating costs.

This also allows many cargo carriers the ability to operate much older aircraft. This is another huge economic benefit. Buying a used MD-11 with tens of thousands of hours on the airframe is worlds cheaper than a brand new 747-400F(reighter). This directly puts the cargo carriers at another economic advantage. With lower costs for the acquisition of these assets cargo carriers can afford, in many cases, to purchase these aircraft outright instead of leasing them. This is just like purchasing a car and paying in full with cash - it just means no monthly payments, no interest payments, no outstanding liabilities in the ledger, and in a pinch assets that they can potentially liquidate to free up some cash. All of these aspects of the industry are utilized, particularly by the American based cargo carriers.


Cargo carriers almost exclusively operate at night. This provides a multitude of benefits as well. First of all these night operations are essential for their time-sensitive deliveries. The deadline to ship a package is usually in the late afternoon so that people can still drop off packages one their way home from work and still be delivered to the other side of the country before noon the next day. This means mostly having night time operations to move the cargo.

Some cargo airlines deviate from this route though. One way this is done is by contracting out the air portion of cargo movement. Mostly that is done by paying a passenger airline or other carrier to carry cargo for them.You may be surprised to learn that some of the largest cargo carriers (measured by total tonnes carried) are passenger airlines. Delta and Southwest are constantly in the top 10 largest cargo carriers in the world, and it makes sense. Delta operates over 4,000 flights a day and there is cargo on just about every flight where UPS operations only about 1,000. Granted those 1,000 UPS flight are pure cargo and the 4,000 Delta are mostly passengers, they are still comparable.

Another way this is done is by purchasing space on a contract cargo carrier. FedEx does this with one company called Mountain Air Cargo. All of Mountain's aircraft are painted in FedEx logos and fly routes specified by FedEx but have their own non-FedEx call-signs and flight numbers. This is a great way for FedEx to be able to server smaller markets without having to purchase, maintain, and staff the smaller aircraft. This also allows for some cities to receive important and sensitive air cargo that can not be delivered by the large MD-11's or 747's. It is obvious that in some cases passenger and cargo operations are one in the same. The two may travel in different cabins of service but still are essential to quick and on-time delivery.

In some aspects cargo and passenger air carriers are very alike. When it comes to pure cargo carriers though, the air cargo industry leverages important economic benefits to create a very resilient and sustainable industry.

This post was also posted on our friends over at Bangalore Aviation.  Be sure to stop in and check out their aviation postings.


Airlines and the TSA

Admittedly I do not know much at all about the TSA and how they operate but a recent photo that was tweeted by a passenger compelled me to make an editorial post.  Let's get into it.


Apparently this is what a woman found in her checked bag after it came to the curb at the end of her flight.  From what I understand the TSA sometimes manually searches checked bags if there is some sort of discrepancy during their initial x-rays and other checks.  If a manual check takes place then these pre-printed notes are placed in the bag to alert the passenger that their bag was searched.

Evidently an over zealous TSA agent found a very "personal item" in this woman's luggage that they felt warranted a comment.  I think at this point everyone can understand that this isn't a TSA procedure but rather a bad apple among a large group of government employees.

That's where the understanding stops.

If you work in an industry where people are largely unsatisfied with the existence of your job then it is of extreme importance that you act in a manner as professional as possible.  That's because if worse comes to worse you can atleast stand behind the fact that your employees are professional in the way they interact with their customers.

On top of that there seems to be a severe lack of cohesion between the airlines and the TSA.  When the TSA and the airlines should be working together to help improve their overall interaction and reputations with the public, there is a disconnect the width of the Grand Canyon.  

Many of the airlines recognize the fact that before their passengers even board the plane they have been hasseled and are dejected due to their typically negative experience with the TSA.  And because of this, passengers dislike flying even more.  This is a vicious cycle.

I understand the importance and urgency of protecting the skies over the United States and that the jumping off point for that is airport security, but in the world that is air travel where people love to hate on the act of flying commercially (see the headline of this blog) quality customer service and consistent professionalism seems to be lacking.

Again, in an editorial capacity, hearing about this woman's experience with the TSA is frustrating because it is giving people a negative view of air travel and it has absolutely nothing to do with the airline she was flying with or any other commercial air carrier.  The whole point of the post, I suppose, is that I hope readers and travelers alike can notice the difference here; can compartmentalize the fact that this is a TSA issue, not an airline issue.  Yes, they are blanketed by the "air travel" experience that still, admittedly, has ample room for improvement, but these issues are more akin to the way the TSA is mandated by the government and conducts their daily business.

Thanks for tuning in - and don't forget to send me your airline questions!  I am always looking for more "air travel nightmares" so please send away.