TIME Aviation

Could Lower Oil Prices Mean Cheaper Airline Seats?

Sen. Chuck Schumer at the National Press Club on Nov. 25, 2014.
Sen. Chuck Schumer at the National Press Club on Nov. 25, 2014. Bill Clark—CQ-Roll Call,Inc.

Senator Chuck Schumer questions high cost of airplane tickets in the midst of decreasing fuel cost

According to Senator Chuck Schumer, you’re paying too much for your airplane ticket home this holiday season.

The New York Democrat put out a statement this morning saying prices should reflect the lower fuel costs airlines have been paying due to the drop in oil prices.

“At a time when the cost of fuel is plummeting and profits are rising, it is curious and confounding that ticket prices are sky-high and defying economic gravity,” he said in the release. “So I’m urging the feds to step in and do a price investigation on behalf of consumers who must buy holiday travel tickets that can break the bank. The industry often raises prices in a flash when oil prices spike, yet they appear not to be adjusting for the historic decline in the cost of fuel; ticket prices should not shoot up like a rocket and come down like a feather.”

Oil prices are currently sitting at around $60 per barrel, the lowest they’ve been in years. Schumer notes that fuel costs can account for up to half of an airlines costs, meaning that the drop in fuel prices could be having huge impacts on their bottom lines.

Airlines for America, a trade organization representing major US carriers, said that falling fuel costs meant that airlines could reinvest in the business, and that lower fuel costs didn’t mean as much as Schumer made them out to:

“While fuel prices have abated from their historic highs, fuel is just one cost, and it’s important to note that for the first nine months for the nine publicly traded U.S. passenger carriers, operating expenses rose 3.1 percent in 2014,” the statement reads. “This is a capital-intensive business, and airlines are making significant investments, including taking delivery of 317 new planes this year alone.”

Requests for comment from American Airlines and Southwest Airlines were not immediately returned. United Continental referred Fortune to the statement from Airlines for America.

Bob McAdoo, an airlines analyst with Imperial Capital LLC, doesn’t think anything legislative will come from Schumer’s challenge, noting that the government hasn’t controlled the airline business beyond safety regulations since the Airline Deregulation Act in 1978.

“From time to time the government has talked about re-regulating pricing,” he says. “Every time its come up its been fairly sounded rejected in Congress.”

This article originally appeared on Fortune.com

TIME Aviation

British Airspace Reopens as Traffic Controllers Resolve Technical Problem

heathrow-arrival-sign
Getty Images

A computer failure at the UK’s National Air Traffic Control Services (NATS) that closed airspace over Europe’s busiest airport has now been resolved

A computer failure at the UK’s National Air Traffic Control Services (NATS) that closed airspace over Europe’s busiest airport has now been resolved, a spokeswoman for NATS confirmed to Fortune.

“The system has been restored and we are in the process of returning to normal operations,” the spokeswoman said.

However, it may be some hours before the affected airports, including Heathrow, Europe’s busiest, can work through the disruption from the incident. The problem effectively stopped flights out of most of the U.K. for the best part of an hour, and Heathrow alone handles roughly 1,300 flights a day.

The spokeswoman said it would be up to the individual airports and airlines to work out how they clear the backlog of flights arising from the incident.

Asked about the possibility of a cyberattack, the spokeswoman said it was too early to rule anything out, but added that there was no information immediately available to suggest that had been the cause.

NATS said earlier that a “technical problem” had affected its center at Swanwick in Hampshire, southern England, from which it controls all flights over the London Flight Infomation Region. The London FIR covers all of the major airports in England and Wales.

Heathrow is one of the most sensitive pressure points in the U.K.’s economy, and has been the target of terrorist attacks in the past, notably when the Irish Republic Army launched mortar bombs at its runways in 1994.

NATS in a statement advised anyone planning to travel through the disrupted region to check the status of their flight with their airline.

The spokeswoman declined to confirm a tweet from Heathrow Airport’s Twitter feed alleging a power outage at the center.

Swanwick has had technical issues occasionally in the past, most recently in December last year, when a problem with its telephone system caused it to run at reduced capacity by over 10% over a period lasting several hours.

This article originally appeared on Fortune.com

TIME Aviation

Airline Profits Are About to Surge Thanks to Falling Oil Prices

Aerial view of airplane
Stephan Zirwes—Brand X/Getty Images

Could hit a record $25 billion in 2015

Airlines will start to see a bump in profit thanks to dropping oil prices and improved economic growth, an industry group said Wednesday.

Profits could increase 26% to a record $25 billion in 2015, said the International Air Transport Association (IATA), which represents most global airlines. One primary factor in the upward trend is the failing price of oil. Airlines are major consumers in the fuel market.

IATA said profits won’t improve overnight since it takes time to change buying behavior, but flyers may eventually see a drop in airfares.

Other factors could still slow this growth. “The industry story is largely positive, but there are a number of risks in today’s global environment—political unrest, conflicts, and some weak regional economies- among them,” Tony Tyler, IATA’s Director General and CEO, said in a statement.

Read the IATA report here.

TIME Aviation

FAA Issues Commercial Drone Permits to 4 Companies

Flying drone with camera
Getty Images

(WASHINGTON) — The government says it is granting four companies permission to use drones for aerial surveillance, construction site monitoring and oil rig flare stack inspections, bringing the total number of companies granted permits for commercial operations to 13.

The drones weigh less than 55 pounds and the firms have said they will they will keep the unmanned aircraft within line of sight of the operator.

Previously the only permits the Federal Aviation Administrational Aviation had issued were to two oil companies in Alaska and five aerial photography companies associated with television and film production.

The FAA said it has received 167 requests for exemptions from commercial entities.

The agency is under pressure from Congress to speed access to the U.S. skies for companies that want to operate drones.

 

TIME Aviation

Drones Are Beginning to Pose a Real Threat to Flight Safety Says FAA Data

Agribotix, a start-up in Boulder, manufactures drones for agricultural use.
The Kestrel Cinematix drone takes photos and video from the air. Agribotix, a start-up in Boulder, manufactures drones for agricultural use and hopes to grow the business as restrictions are lifted on their use. Kathryn Scott Osler—Denver Post/Getty Images

There have been 25 near-collisions with aircraft reported since June 1 this year

The small, remote-controlled drones that have recently grown in popularity are beginning to pose a significant threat to flight safety in the United States, according to new data from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).

The data, released Wednesday at the request of the Washington Post and various other news outlets, reveals 25 near-collisions with airborne drones reported by commercial and private pilots since June 1. Many of these incidents reportedly occurred near New York and Washington, and several of them took place at major U.S. airports.

Drones, often mounted with cameras for aerial photography (although Amazon wants to use them to deliver goods as well), are becoming an everyday object. However, people who operate them often exceed the altitude limits set by the FAA, bringing them dangerously close to aircraft and helicopter flight paths.

“All it’s going to take is for one to come through a windshield to hurt some people or kill someone,” Kyle Fortune, a private pilot, told the Post. Fortune said he suddenly spotted a drone 100 feet underneath his aircraft during a Sept. 22 flight.

Other pilots said that drones getting sucked into engines, rotors or propellers could cause potentially fatal accidents.

[Washington Post]

TIME Travel

How to Keep Your Cool Traveling With 41 Million People

If you have to travel this Thanksgiving

There are going to be some 41 million people in motion before and after Thanksgiving, unless they are stopped cold by the weather gods. Looking at the National Weather Service’s color-coded alert map, the glob of warning colors running from Washington D.C. to Maine might be described as Cancelation Red rather than a winter storm warning. It’s gonna be ugly, folks. And inside the crowded airports, lots of passengers who really don’t fly all that much—this is a weekend for amateurs—will be cluelessly waiting in line for the airlines that just canceled their flights to reroute them.

You don’t want to be one of these people. If you are standing on a line, it’s probably already too late to get re-accommodated quickly.

MORE: Inside the strange world of airline cancellations

No matter the forecast, you should always have a Plan B in mind when you travel. Even if you’re not a frequent flier, download the app for the airline you are taking so it can text you with updates. There are also apps such as Flight Aware that will send you alerts—and you can also see how well the entire system is performing. Increasingly, the airlines will rebook you automatically if you give them the opportunity. This happened to me last year while reporting on a story about cancelations—although that 3 a.m. phone call could have waited. Nevertheless, this automatic “reaccomm” as the carriers call it, can be really helpful.

But if the situation goes south when you’re at the airport, you need to figure out your options in advance. Flights are so full that in the event of a cancelation, rebooking the next direct flight might not be possible. Look for connections. Consider the mid-country hubs that might help get you where you are going: Houston, Dallas, Denver, Detroit, Chicago, one of them is bound to have decent weather.

MORE: Holiday travelers rejoice! Thanksgiving gas prices will be the lowest in years

You need to be proactive. When my flight from Tokyo to New York was canceled by a big, disruptive East Coast hurricane a couple of years ago, the carrier offered to fly me to Los Angeles—where I would be stuck for three days waiting for an available flight. I started to look to build unscheduled connections that could get me farther east. By going hub to hub to hub (LAX-ORD-DCA), I got close enough to home so that I could drive or take a train.

MORE: Download these 7 holiday travel apps to get home in time for turkey

Having lots of experience with airline calamity has taught me the scramble drill. You need to be armed with enough knowledge so that in the event you actually do have to deal with an airline agent, you can get what you want, not what they are offering. Be firm and insistent to make your point but don’t scream at airline employees; you can communicate your ire in a civil tone and get better results.

Here are a few other tips for peak travel weeks:

No, you can’t bring that on board

If you don’t travel much, go to TSA’s website to figure out exactly what you can or can’t bring through the security checkpoint. Hint: weapons are a no-no.

Know your rights ahead of time

Every carrier posts a Contract of Carriage (here’s Delta’s, for instance) that explains terms and obligations pertaining to your ticket. Pay particular attention to Rule 240 or its equivalent, which covers delays and cancelations. All the carriers have a Contingency Plan for Lengthy Tarmac Delays, too.

Consider checking a bag

It’s amazing to watch people trying to lug so much stuff onto chock full jets. You hate paying $25 to check a bag, as you should. But the fewer points of friction you create for yourself, the calmer you are going to be on board. And the more space you’ll have under your feet. Keep in mind that very few bags are mishandled.

Consider travel insurance, which can sometimes be purchased last minute

The airlines have now dumped all the travel risk on you: Your airfare is non-refundable, and if weather scratches your flight, you’re on your own if you need to find food and lodging. Travel insurance offsets those risks, but at a price, typically about 5% of the trip cost. The higher the cost, the better the case for insurance, which will pay off from everything from flight delays to emergency cancelations on your part. Seek independent, third party insurers rather than airlines or travel agencies.

Try to roll with it. Easier said than done, yes. People—both adults and kids—tend to lose it more quickly in airports, because we’re not in control of anything. It’s beyond frustrating. If you are traveling without kids, you might make some new friends at the bar—or at the increasing number of “private” lounges open to the public for a $35 fee. (Which includes drinks.) If you are traveling with kids, you might not. Just remember, somewhere in that airport somebody else’s kids are behaving worse than yours.

So if you are one of the 41 million, bon voyage.

As for me, I’m staying put. You have to be crazy to travel on Thanksgiving.

Read next: 5 Ways to Be an Airplane Aggravation

TIME Aviation

This Is Who Decides Whether Your Flight Takes Off This Week

Chicago's O'Hare Airport Snarled In Ground Stops After Fire At FAA Building
Passengers wait in line to reschedule flights at O'Hare International Airport on September 26, 2014 in Chicago, Illinois. Scott Olson—Getty Images

Meet the Cancellator

With the rush of Thanksgiving travel and potentially bad weather, there’s a few people who will have the tougher-than-usual job this week of figuring out which unlucky flights must be cancelled this holiday season.

Meet the men and women operating the Cancellator, a computer system that decides whether or not you’ll be scrambling to make it home for Turkey Day. The Cancellator and systems like it use an algorithm with some human input to decide which flights to delay or cancel in order to preserve as much of an airline’s original schedule as possible. The program’s ultimate goal is to nix flights well ahead of time, that way airlines can notify passengers of the changes before they head out for the airport — giving customers time to make alternate plans.

Want to know more about the software and employees deciding to cancel your flight? Read TIME’s March 3, 2014 cover story on airline cancellations here.

TIME Aviation

JetBlue Is Cutting Legroom From Its Planes

JetBlue Airways Corp. planes sit docked at the gates of Terminal 5 as another of the company's jets lands at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York on Jan. 28, 2014.
JetBlue Airways Corp. planes sit docked at the gates of Terminal 5 as another of the company's jets lands at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York on Jan. 28, 2014. Craig Warga—Bloomberg/Getty Images

And the base fare will not include a checked bag

Jetblue said Wednesday it will reduce leg room and add bag fees for fliers who buy tickets on base fares.

The traditionally low-cost airline, under pressure from investors to boost profits, announced in a call with analysts that it is adding fare levels next year. The new base fare will not include a checked bag.

The airline also said it will reduce average legroom from 34.7 inches to 33.1 inches—still, it says, an industry leader—to allow it to add 15 seats to its standard A320 aircraft beginning in 2016.

JetBlue and Southwest Airlines have until now been the only large U.S. airlines that provide a free checked bag for all fliers, the Wall Street Journal reports.

TIME Transportation

Why Subway Systems Haven’t Installed More Safety Tech Yet

NYC Subway Safety
Wendy Connett/flickr—flickr Editorial/Getty Images

The only safety measure of most subway systems is simple: fear

If you’re already a bit anxious on subways without platform edge doors, the story of people being pushed to their death onto subway tracks isn’t going away anytime soon.

Some variation of that incident—nothing new, despite its shock factor—probably comes to mind nearly every day: when someone teeters off the platform’s edge, for instance, or when you step past the yellow line to circumvent a crowd. The fears over subway deaths, already high after a sensationalized subway murder in 2013, only grew this week with reports of New York’s latest subway accident. In the same way you can’t avoid gawking at a car crash, you can’t avoid reading about a subway death, either.

Hard numbers about subway safety data — New York had only 53 subway fatalities in 2013, a year when it carried 6 million riders — don’t always have a sobering effect on the hysteria following transportation tragedies. Unlike other transportation accidents that get mass media coverage, like a plane crash, a subway accident, especially one so brutal as this week’s in New York City, has a distinct immediacy for a city’s residents. It is not far off in a foreign country, or the result of an extraordinary circumstance. Instead, it’s a few inches and a push, trip or slip away.

That’s a strange concept in an era when new technologies are emerging every day to protect us from death before we’ve even harmed, like cars with radar-based brakes or airplanes with ground proximity warning systems. So why hasn’t technology made subways more safe? Cost.

“[The lack of subway safety] is driven by a cost culture rather than a safety culture,” says former National Transportation Safety Board chairman James Hall. “You will invariably have innocent individuals literally fall through the holes of that type of structure. It’s a matter of priorities, and making safety your most important priority.”

Among the most effective subway safety measures are platform edge doors, which blocks off access to the tracks until a train arrives. However, the cost of installing such doors throughout the New York City subway system is “in the billions,” according to Kevin Ortiz, a spokesman for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which oversees New York City’s subway. Ortiz said a contractor has been designing a door system since last month, while new technologies to detect objects or people on the tracks are being tested in the city’s subway. However, the MTA has no timelines for rolling out the new systems on a broader scale.

Platform edge doors are common sights in major cities around the world, including St. Petersburg, Beijing and Tokyo. But those systems are relatively young, and they were built with the platform doors to begin with. Many subway systems in America (and London’s Tube) are old: New York’s dates back to 1904, Boston’s to 1901, and Chicago’s to 1897. Retrofitting older systems to feature platform doors is a much costlier proposition than building a new one with the doors from the get go. Interestingly, New York City’s “Airtrain,” a light rail-style system connecting John F. Kennedy International Airport with the city’s subway system, has platform doors — but it’s only been open since 2003.

Instead of spending money on costly safety technology to make the subway systems safer, the organizations that run them tap into riders’ fears to ensure they stay safe around the trains. In New York, for example, the MTA for decades has run a poster campaign informing riders how many fatalities have occurred in the past year, a reminder to stay well clear of the tracks when a train isn’t in the station. And last year, members of MTA’s largest employee union distributed flyers designed as fake blood-stained subway cards to demand slower trains, improved braking mechanisms and protective barriers.

And platform doors might not be a necessary expense, anyway, as the data shows subways are actually pretty safe.

“Obviously one [fatality] is one too many,” said the MTA’s Ortiz. “But in the grand scheme of things, when you move six million people a day, you have a greater likelihood of being hit by lighting twice than being struck by a subway train.”

Still, there are statistics to support the other side, too. In New York City, one-third of subway deaths are ruled suicides made possible by the tracks’ easy access; subway operators are trained to expect one death per week; if an operator’s train strikes a person, he or she is given just three days off to recover from the trauma.

As a result, most people who care about subway safety fall into one of two camps: either the subway seems like one of the most dangerous form of transportation, or one of the safest. But if there’s one aspect that’s agreed upon by nearly all subway riders, personnel and experts, it’s that a safer subway system, however expensive, is an expectation within reach.

“Cars without drivers, parking assist, collision avoidance—we’re able to do all these kinds of technologies,” said Carl Berkowitz, a transportation and traffic engineering expert. “We should be able to solve some of the problems we have in the subway system.”

 

TIME Aviation

Plane That Crashed Into Chicago Home Missed Couple by 8 Inches

Twin-engine small cargo plane had just taken off from Midway Airport

A small cargo plane that crashed into a Chicago home Tuesday morning missed hitting an elderly couple residing in the house by eight inches, according to the city’s fire chief.

The twin-engine plane had just taken off from Midway Airport when it began experiencing engine problems, the Chicago Tribune reports. The pilot, who was the only person on board, was attempting to return to the airport but crashed into the home. He was dead at the scene.

The plane collided with the right side of the house, but the couple, an 84-year-old man and an 82-year-old woman, were on the left side of the residence asleep in their bedroom. Neighbors said the couple was “bewildered,” but did not sustain any injuries.

“They were in a bedroom next to the living room and the living room is gone,” Chicago Fire Chief Michael Fox said. “Eight inches. They were very lucky.”

[Chicago Tribune]

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