TIME Aviation

Air France Flight Had a Close Call With a Volcano

Passengers were said to be unaware of the incident

An Air France flight flew a little too close to an African volcano earlier this month.

Flight AF 953 was traveling on May 2 from Malabo in Equatorial Guinea to Douala, Cameroon, and according to Air France the pilots aimed to avoid a storm by taking a route close to Mount Cameroon. The plane’s proximity to the active volcano set off an alarm, and according to CNN, the pilots quickly responded by flying from 9,000 feet to 13,000 feet. The passengers were said to be unaware of the incident.

Air France says its pilots undergo regular training for this type of scenario. The company is conducting an internal investigation, and is supplying its crews with more specifics on how to land near Douala.

“Air France’s priority is to ensure the highest safety standards in all circumstances,” the company said in a statement. “Air France has always chosen the best equipment for flight safety and places great importance on the monitoring of its crews.”

TIME Aviation

Malaysia Airlines Begins a Huge Makeover, but First Lays Off a Third of Its Workforce

A man views a fleet of Malaysia Airline planes on the tarmac of the Kuala Lumpur International Airport, in Malaysia, Thursday, Jan. 29, 2015.
Joshua Paul—AP A man views a fleet of Malaysia Airline planes on the tarmac of the Kuala Lumpur International Airport, in Malaysia, Thursday, Jan. 29, 2015.

Airline bets on total transformation to help it overcome the legacy of 2014's two air disasters

Malaysia Airlines (MAS) reassured customers Monday that operations would continue as normal as the airline is restructured into a new company and undergoes an overhaul of its brand.

“You can continue to make reservations in full confidence that our flights and schedules are operating as normal, that tickets sold will be honored,” recently appointed CEO Christoph Mueller said in a statement.

The beleaguered airline has struggled to repair its image after two high-profile air disasters last year — the disappearance of MH370 in March and the shooting down of MH17 over Ukraine in July. (Malaysian aviation took a further battering in December, when AirAsia Flight 8501, operated by the Indonesian affiliate of Malaysian low-cost carrier AirAsia, crashed into the Java Sea, killing all 162 on board.)

MAS’ overhaul includes laying off between 6,000 to 8,000 employees — about one-third of its 20,000 workforce — and hiring a senior administrator to oversee the transfer of assets and liabilities into the new company, Malaysia Airlines Berhad, by September.

“All employees will get the termination letters and either a letter to join the new company, or to register … [for] outplacement,” a company spokesperson told CNN.

Last year, Malaysia Airlines was pulled from the stock exchange and taken over by the Malaysian government’s strategic investment fund Khazanah Nasional, which came up with a $1.66 billion restructuring plan.

CEO Mueller, who was hired from Irish carrier Aer Lingus, took the top job on May 1 and told Reuters the new company would be like a “startup.”

“It’s not a continuation of the old company in a new disguise, everything is new,” he said.

But Malaysia Airlines was incurring losses prior to 2014 and had costs 20% higher than other rival airlines. Add not one but two disasters within four months of each other, with a still missing plane, and the restructure may not be enough to repair the damage to its brand and Malaysian aviation in general.

“Those two losses have compounded an already difficult and uneconomic situation,” Jason Middleton, head of the School of Aviation at the University of New South Wales, Australia, tells TIME. He adds that while Malaysia Airlines can argue that the loss of MH17 was not its fault, poor communication from the airline and the government have probably tarnished its reputation regardless.

“Cheap seats and a convenient schedule will still bring passengers to use [Malaysia Airlines],” Middleton says. He adds that selling off old aircraft and trimming down the route network “will help their bottom line, but perhaps not sufficiently that they will stop the losses.”

One of the biggest challenges the airline faces is recovering the public’s confidence. “Air disasters can play a big part in the economic impact of the airline but also the psyche of the traveling public,” Michael Daniel, an international aviation-safety consultant, tells TIME.

Daniel suggests that the airline keep an eye on the emergence of the ASEAN single aviation market, which is expected to liberalize air travel between member states. In the meantime, MAS will simply have to be patient.

“I suspect that the many of the public will take a while to forget, and that there is little they can do except wait and hope that there is not another accident,” says Middleton.

TIME Aviation

5 Days, 5,000 Miles, Fueled Only by the Sun: Solar Impulse Readies for Pacific Crossing

Relying entirely on solar power, the aircraft will attempt to travel from China to Hawaii

On Tuesday morning local time, a Swiss man named André Borschberg will take off from an airport in Nanjing, China, and fly for roughly 120 hours straight. He will travel east and south across the vast Pacific, spending days and nights over deep, dark sea as he hurtles toward Hawaii in an airplane powered by the sun.

An airplane powered by the sun? It’s the type of thing we dreamed about as children — running with our arms outstretched, circling like birds on the breeze. Kids love airplanes and astronauts — even airports, the bane of adults. Grown-ups tend to prefer our feet firmly planted. We’ve lost sight of the magic: a plane is a plane.

Borschberg and fellow pilot Bertrand Piccard want to restore our sense of wonder, which is why they’ve spent more than a decade preparing to fly their fuelless aircraft, Solar Impulse 2, around the globe. There will be 12 flights total, with the pilots taking turns at the helm of the single-seater. The goal of the trip, which started March 9 in the United Arab Emirates, is to inspire interest in clean tech.

“Adventure is where when you learn to be more open to the unknown,” says Piccard. “There is normal life, where we live automatically, we reproduce what we have learned, and [there are] moments of rupture and crisis. It is in these moments that you have to get rid of your certainties and habits.”

Once Solar Impulse leaves Nanjing, there will be few certainties. A flight like this has never been done.

The 5,000-mile leg will be a technical and physical test. Priority No. 1 is marshaling the sun, Borschberg says. During the day, Solar Impulse will fly high while capturing energy. When darkness falls, the engines will be cut and the plane will soar for several hours, losing altitude. At some point, the engine will start drawing on battery power. Then, at daybreak, the cycle begins again.

The flight will not be easy on the pilot. Seated in tiny cockpit, the 62-year-old will be awake for most of the flight, resting only for 20 minutes at a time. The conditions in the plane will be far from first-class comfort: the space is small, and the temperature and air pressure will vary dramatically through the trip. At some points, he will be able to communicate with mission control in Monaco. If things go wrong, he could be on his own.

For Borschberg, this is the flight of a lifetime. He started flying at 15, studied engineering, and spent decades as a pilot in the Swiss Air Force reserves. He is detail-driven and aviation-obsessed, brought to life by talk of aerodynamics. “I feel at home up there, at ease,” he says. “You get access to something that human beings on earth can’t access.”

Flying a plane like Solar Impulse, which is incredibly light, means working with the elements, not racing through them — a change of mind-set for a fighter pilot. “The more extreme the airplane, the more you have to have nature on your side and not the other way around,” Borschberg says. “You can look at the wind as a problem — turbulence, downdraft — or you can ask, how can I make it my ally? How can I integrate with nature instead of fearing it or trying to change it?”

His partner, Piccard, is the dreamer. Also born in Switzerland, the 57-year-old spent part of his childhood living in Florida during the U.S.-Soviet race to the moon. “The entire country was living for the conquest of the moon, and I had the chance to witness the most extraordinary human adventure,” he says. “When this was finished I had the impression that there was nothing else.”

Perhaps to prove himself wrong, he took up hang gliding and ballooning. He also studied psychiatry and hypnosis, fascinated, he said, by how being pushed to the limit could affect the mind. He went on to become, with Brian Jones, the first to complete a nonstop balloon flight around the world. He met Borschberg about 12 years ago and they have been planning, and fundraising, ever since.

Now they face the most difficult and dangerous part of the journey. Both pilots have trained hard for this — even dropping into water, blindfolded and strapped into parachutes, to simulate one possible worst case. They admit to nerves but prefer to talk about planning, preparation and the professionalism of the team that will guide them from Monaco.

Besides, they say, flight is about facing fear — taking a leap. When Borschberg sets out over the ocean, he will be sitting in a cockpit adorned with photographs of his family — a midair reminder of all that awaits him when he, and Solar Impulse, return to ground.

TIME Innovation

Watch: This Real-Life Hoverboard Is Almost Impossible to Believe

But it's real, according to the Guinness Book of World Records

Eat your heart out Marty McFly.

According to the Guinness World Record organization, this video shows the furthest recorded flight ever made on a overboard. (You know, in real life as opposed to in the movies.) This “astonishing world record,” according to Guinness, was set by Canadian inventor Catalina Alexandru Duru.

In the video above, Duru rises 16 feet in the air and then flies forward 905 feet and 2 inches. Under him, only air and a lake. To set the Guinness World Records title, Duru had to achieve a distance of more than 50 meters. The inventor travelled over five times that distance.

“I wanted to showcase that a stable flight can be achieved on a hoverboard and a human could stand and control with their feet,” he told Guinness.

TIME Aviation

This Is Who Decides If Your Flight Takes Off This Memorial Day Weekend

Meet the Cancellator

Summer travel is kicking off this Memorial Day weekend, and major airports around the county are preparing for roughly 3 million Americans who’ll board a flight. Not all of the travelers, of course, will make it to their destinations on time—some will be part of the unlucky bunch whose flights become cancelled or delayed.

The job of determining who will be on time and who won’t falls upon a small group of airport employees who make inputs into a computer program they call the Cancellator. Their goal is to preserve an airline’s original schedule as much as possible. And that’s no easy task—each time one flight is delayed or canceled, other flights using that plane become affected, too.

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

TIME Aviation

These Airlines Get the Most Hate on Social Media

airplane-landing
Getty Images

American Airlines and United Airlines rank at the top

Love to hate the airlines? Sure you do. And a new study by Crimson Hexagon suggests you’re not alone. Raging against airplane travel is becoming a serious national pastime.

The research, which analyzed Twitter posts over three months, finds negative sentiment towards the airlines is significantly higher than positive sentiment, at least on social media. Of the five domestic airlines studied by Crimson Hexagon, average negative sentiment is 47%, while positive sentiment averages just over 20%. And we can’t stop talking about airlines. The firm also found a 209% increase in brand mentions since 2012, confirming that more and more consumers are turning to social media to discuss airlines.

“Social media provides customers an avenue to share frustrations and express disappointment,” says John Donnelly, senior vice president of global sales and marketing at Crimson Hexagon. “Since air travel inevitably brings headaches, it’s no surprise that negative sentiment toward airlines is commonplace on social channels.”

What are passengers saying? Here are a few of the social media callouts mentioned by the report:

“And to top this day off @AmericanAir lost my bag in a gigantic fail of travel arrangements. #worstairlineever #nothingtowear” tweeted Camille S.

(To its credit, the #worstairlineever responded and started looking for her bag.)

“Got yelled by the representative at the desk and she wasn’t even right, made me loose (sic) my flight 😡 #deltasucks @DeltaAssist stuck at HPN,” lamented Jose Sella.

Delta’s response? “Ask a supervisor.”

“love flying @SouthwestAir! Best airline ever, they make traveling to visit my fiancé much more bearable,” raved Nate Carlson.

Southwest didn’t reply to the tweet.

The report, based on data from Jan. 1 through March 23, finds JetBlue has the highest “positive” rating. But that isn’t saying much; only 33% of the total posts were considered positive and 45% of its posts were negative.

American Airlines and United Airlines were tops in the “negative” rating, each with 56% of their total posts. American had only 10% of its posts in the “positive” category and United barely made it past 20%. American and United are also the most talked-about airlines, according to the study.

American Airlines held the largest presence on Twitter, with 594,000 posts during the study. The next-closest airlines are United Airlines, with 406,000 posts, and Delta Air Lines, with over 239,000 posts, according to the report.

For passengers, these numbers tell us what we already know: When it comes to air travel, there’s plenty to complain about.

But for Crimson Hexagon, these findings suggest there’s a missed opportunity for air carriers. “What airlines need to understand is that every tweet from a disgruntled customer is an opportunity to also connect with that customer and strengthen the relationship,” says Donnelly. “Simply replying to a tweet with a canned corporate apology isn’t enough anymore.”

If airlines want to improve — and who doesn’t want that? — they need to adopt a more human tone and consumer-focused approach, both in their companies and through social media.

“Then airlines can genuinely connect with customers and ultimately increase brand loyalty and affinity,” says Donnelly.

If that happens, maybe passengers will have to look for a new hobby.

This article originally appeared on Fortune.com.

TIME Aviation

Why Airline Stocks Just Took a Big Nosedive

2012 AFP

Fears about competition spook investors

Lower fuel prices are leading to growing competition among airlines—and investors are panicking.

Southwest Airlines reported ambitious growth plans this week, and the promise of more competition led to a selloff of airline stocks Wednesday. Southwest said it hopes to increase capacity±the number of seats on its planes—by 8% this year, up from its earlier goal of 7%, the Wall Street Journal reports. It credited higher profitability, which is partly due to cheap fuel lowering costs. But that led investors to predict a market oversupply as energy prices continue to keep overall costs low.

Shares of companies in the industry, including Southwest, United Continental and American Airlines fell more than 9%, while Delta saw its stock tumble by over 5%. Analysts called the selloff an overreaction, the Journal reports, but it still wiped out more than $10 billion in market value Wednesday.

“Investors are taking profits and being cautious, but we think when summer rolls around and airplanes are packed and airlines are back to making record profits, investors will come back,” Jim Corridore, an airline equity analyst with S&P Capital IQ, told the Journal. “It’s my fundamental view that the most pervasive thing is energy prices.”

This article originally appeared on Fortune.com

TIME Aviation

Search Area for Missing Malaysia Airlines Jet Expands Again

New Zealand Air Force looking for debris from missing Malaysian Airlines flight MH370 in April 2014.
Richard Polden—Getty Images New Zealand Air Force looking for debris from missing Malaysian Airlines flight MH370 in April 2014.

But it's "not possible" to know where to look next

Investigators hunting for missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 have widened their ocean floor search to a larger zone and don’t know where else to focus if the jet can’t be found there, authorities announced Wednesday.

The underwater operation has been “modified” and experts have started searching a larger area of the southern Indian Ocean even before a survey of the original zone has been completed.

Until now, the hunt for Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777 had been focused on a 23,000-square mile patch where investigators said it probably crashed.

The expanded zone covers 46,000 square miles — an area about the size of Pennsylvania…

Read the rest of the story from our partners at NBC News

TIME Aviation

China Just Gave Boeing a Big Boost

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Monty Rakusen—Getty Images/Cultura RF Worker examining empty airplane

The airplane manufacturer landed a $6 billion order

Boeing can thank a booming travel industry in China for its latest windfall.

Chinese carrier Ruili Airlines and two leasing companies have placed an order with the Chicago-based plane manufacturer for 60 narrow-body jets, the official Chinese news agency Xinhua reports. The cost of the transaction will total more than $6.1 billion (or 38 billion yuan).

Ruili, the year-old Yunnan-based budget carrier, will purchase Boeing’s planes in order to expand its fleet to 56 jets, up from five, within the decade. The ordered model comes in three flavors: 737 MAX 7, 8, and 9, costing $87.7 million, $106.9 million, and $113.3 million, respectively, according to Boeing’s website.

Minsheng Financial Leasing and Avic International Leasing are the leasing companies that inked the agreement.

Wang Yukui, a Boeing spokesman based in Beijing, told Bloomberg that the company is pleased with the deal. “We are happy Ruili has selected the Boeing 737 MAX airplanes,” he said. “We look forward to finalizing details of the deal with them.”

Last year Boeing invested more than $800 million in China, Xinhua reports, and the company views the country’s fast-growing, decreasingly regulated market as a key opportunity for growth.

“Boeing’s strategy in China will serve China’s national strategy as well as the demand from Chinese customers,” Boeing China president Ian Thomas said late last year. “We not only sell aircraft in China, but we also support the future development of safety and efficiency in China’s aviation industry.”

Boeing sold 80 jets to Shanghai-based China Eastern Airlines in a deal worth $7.4 million last year, its largest order from a carrier in China.

This article originally appeared on Fortune.com

TIME Aviation

Feds Probe Security Expert Who Claims to Have Hacked Numerous Flights

The suspect says he penetrated up to 20 flights during the past four years

Federal authorities have launched an investigation into the actions of a cyber security consultant who claims to have hacked several commercials flights’ computer systems, even causing one aircraft to bank sideways.

According to an official search warrant application, Chris Roberts told the FBI in April that he compromised commercial flights during 15 to 20 occasions from 2011 to 2014 by hacking the vessels’ in-flight entertainment systems.

During one such incident, Roberts allegedly was able to access a plane’s navigational system and caused the craft to veer sideways briefly mid-flight.

On Sunday, Roberts tweeted that his actions were motivated by his desire to help make aircraft security safer, but refrained from commenting further.

In a report published last month, the U.S. Government Accountability Office warned that new aircraft might be susceptible to having their in-flight computer systems penetrated via onboard wi-fi networks.

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