Wednesday, July 08, 2009

United Breaks Guitars awesomeness

If you have yet to see the above video about United Airlines purposely breaking a passenger's Taylor guitar, I wholeheartedly suggest you take a few minutes and watch United Breaks Guitars.

It is hilarious, and it details the airline's long-standing incompetence and criminal refusal to accept any responsibility for its negligence in purposely destroying a guitar, as witnessed by dozens of passengers.

You would think after this latest public relations blunder, someone at the country's worst major airline would think about taking steps to change the culture of this company. But as someone who has kept tabs on United's horrid customer-service reputation for the better part of a decade, I know it won't change a thing.

United has all the public-relations charm of Nurse Ratched.

It is a company that is irreparably broken.

You can see for yourself by reading thousands of customer-service complaints about the airline at, a web site which provides a courageous public service by shining light on the airline's years-long bumblings with scathing critiques. The vitriol is not only penned by passengers, it's also dished by employees who often tell harrowing stories about the company's complete disregard for safety. SOme of the whistleblowing stories on there are frightening.

One of these passenger letters was my own, a five-page, single-spaced screed, published back in June of 2002 in what was perhaps the angriest letter I've ever written to admonish a company for shabby treatment.

Thanks to the band responsible for the smash-hit United Breaks Guitars for jumpstarting this trip down memory lane. I'm re-printing my letter here:

To: Mr. Jack Creighton, CEO
CC: Aviation Consumer Protection Division

Dear Mr. Creighton:

There is a reason people are flying less nowadays. It has little to do with fear generated by the Sept. 11 attacks. It has everything to do with the fact companies like yours treat passengers like garbage.

Two summers ago, your industry went before Congress and promised to clean up its act after its deplorable performance through the peak travel season. Instead, all passengers face is longer lines, inexplicable delays and a further descent in service.

After that infamous summer, your company printed apologies for its blunders at the bottom of every itinerary. Typed, computer-generated words enhanced the warmth of the oh-so-sincere message.

Clearly, those words were nothing but lip service.

I am writing you today regarding my latest woeful experience on your airline, as well as the general malaise your company's incompetence has created in the flying public.

There are so many problems with your airline, I do not know where to begin. Let us start with my flight, United 428, from Denver to Newark, N.J., on April 19.

Upon arriving at the airport, I find the new security company, hired by United to replace Argenbright, has implemented strict new measures requiring every passenger to be finished with the check-in process one hour prior to departure.

There is nothing inherently wrong with this new procedure, except for the fact your staff is ill-equipped to handle it. And no passengers were ever notified regarding the change.

As is now standard, I arrived at the airport two hours prior to departure. But because you had so few personnel working in the front, I did not make it through this maze of a line until 50 minutes had passed. I was lucky.

An estimated 40 percent of the people in line did not enjoy such success and missed your new one-hour deadline. This resulted in general chaos and well-deserved anger, as passengers were re-booked on later flights to meet this new and previously unannounced change in procedure.

Lets skip that problem for a few moments. Lets pretend your ridiculously strict enforcement of a previously unannounced rule change never happened. Lets skip directly to the problems on board flight 428.

With the flight nearly completed, a freak thunderstorm hit the greater New York area and produced tornado-sized winds. Our flight was diverted to Washington Dulles. As aggravating as weather problems can be, I know they cannot be avoided.

What occurred on the ground at Dulles, however, was a disgrace.

After refueling the Boeing 777 at Dulles shortly after 5 p.m., ground control informed our pilot Newark would reopen at 6 p.m, and that we should be airborne no later than 5:45 p.m. and into Newark by 6:30 p.m.

Instead of making the best out of this situation, the heavy-handed pencil-pushers who run United Operations at Dulles decided to combine two smaller Newark-bound flights onto our plane.

First, we were told it would be one flight. So we watched all the passengers from this first flight climb aboard and find seats. After waiting nearly an hour, we seemed ready to leave.

But then United Operations told us they decided that passengers from yet another commuter flight would be transferred onto our plane. We had to endure the entire process again.

As one of your own flight attendants said shortly after the second announcement, "This isn't a flight. This is a disgrace."

At 8 p.m., approximately two-and-a-half hours after we could have left, we finally left for Newark. Aside from the fact we were denied food during the ordeal, we wasted countless hours on top of the initial weather delay.

Your operations department capitalized on our helplessness.

Your Newark Operations crew fared no better. Although we were only the third United flight to arrive after the fierce storm, according to a baggage handler, it took your ground crew 50 minutes to get our luggage onto the carousel.

Four hours after we were originally scheduled to land, already-flustered passengers had the added pleasure of waiting nearly an hour for their bags.

(And while we're on the subject of Newark baggage claim, I've stood in grimy New York City alleys less seedy than your baggage area. It is a cesspool).

But that is no surprise. From the beginning, starting with the awful security company you hired in Denver, to the end, every aspect of the trip brought nonstop aggravation. All of these problems fostered nothing but animosity toward your airline.

Of course, that animosity has existed since your wretched summer of 2001. But your poorly planned, knee-jerk responses to the Sept. 11 hijackings have only exacerbated these feelings.

Newly implemented measures are nothing more than a big dog-and-pony show, none of which would have stopped the tragedy. For all your PR-spin, you still do not X-ray every checked bag. You still do not bag-match, despite assurances to the contrary. You hassle your paying customers while allowing the real dangers to persist.

And all passengers get for your toothless measures are longer - and unpredictable - lines. An hour at check-in. Two hours in the security line. Another hour at the gate.

By the time I navigate the maze of your disgraceful check-in procedures and arrive at the gate, then fly to my destination, I may as well have driven. I can drive from Denver to Chicago, and arrive only two hours later than if I had flown United.

As more people realize this, many will choose that option, which will only have a worsening effort on your already-poor fiscal health.

Of course, these new procedures only magnified your pre-existing ineptitude. United already flirted with bankruptcy before that day, thanks to years of fiscal imprudence and the crescendo of anger during the summer of 2000.

While I have great sympathy and compassion for United employees who were affected by Sept. 11, I resent the fact United corporate shills milked the sympathy card before Congress and received a $15 billion bailout.

As a taxpayer, I am happy to support a troubled industry after the cowardly attack on our country. As a taxpayer, I am outraged you would request these funds under the guise of Sept. 11 relief, when in fact you are looking to recover from years of fiscal avarice and galling treatment of passengers.

Airlines go bankrupt for a reason, sir. One of which is because they can no longer meet the reasonable expectations of your customers. Why should taxpayers support your anemic airline when well-run companies, such as Southwest, turned a profit through bear-market times?

I have written my elected representatives, urging them not to grant you further financial relief and to let the free market work its course. I have also implored them to revisit the issue of passing a true passenger's bill of rights, which your lobbyists skillfully scuttled two summers ago.

Now, more than ever, passengers deserve that legislation. Two years later, you still treat customers as if you believe we are too inattentive to notice your incompetence or too apathetic to care. I can assure you the latter is not true. We have endured United's shameful conduct for far too long.

Thankfully, Jet Blue and Frontier are finally emerging as legitimate challenges to your monopoly of the Denver market. I am rooting for them to succeed, and will continue to fly them as much as possible.

You are not losing customers such as myself because people are afraid to fly. You are losing customers because you make it inherently inconvenient and aggravating to do so.

I long for the days when the worst complaints about airline service were regarding the food. Now, I hope for the day when United will follow Braniff and Eastern into the bankruptcy courts.

It is not out of any malice these wishes are born. Only when United is gone, however, will we receive efficient and responsible service from a major carrier in Denver. Until then, we can only vent our frustrations regarding your inane procedures, needless flight delays and empty promises.

Please save your canned apology letter for the endless list of affronts.

I've had enough of your company's hollow regrets. If you are not prepared to offer compensatory measures, such as additional Mileage Plus miles or class upgrades on future flights -- measures to show you are genuinely sorry -- than I have neither the time nor the inclination to deal with United.

Mr. Creighton, I understand you assumed the title of CEO only in recent months. I wish you well in your efforts to reverse the sagging performance of your company.

But after more than 50 trips in the last three years on your airline, there is only one lesson that reverberates through my mind.

At United, nothing ever changes.


Squawking VFR

Labels: ,

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Taking a stab at Air France 447

Interesting story by Alan Levin in Monday's USA Today that suggests National Transportation Safety Board investigators could look to a plane crash from 35 years ago to perhaps explain what happened to Air France 447.

What's the connection?

Early focus of the Air France investigation has centered on the plane's airspeed indicators, which could have malfunctioned, causing the pilots to tragically misinterpret the readings of their most-needed instruments.

That sounds similar to what caused a Northwest Orient 727 crash in Bear Mountain, New York in 1974.

The USA Today story offers some nice play-by-play of the Northwest crash, but doesn't really get into the guts of the most important part -- the "why." Why did the pilots reacted the way they did to a malfunction, effectively stalling the plane and sending it into a graveyard spiral.

So we'll do that here.

A quick primer on the pitot-static system

There's six basic flight instruments that makes up what's known as the "six pack" in the instrument panel. Three of these -- the airspeed indicator, altimeter and vertical speed indicator -- receive their information from the pitot-static system.

(In bigger jets, the machmeter also receives its information from this system, which is important to note, given the accidents we're discussing. But in the interests of keeping this relatively readable, I'm not going to get into details that will put you to sleep).

In its simplest form, the pitot-static system is comprised of a pitot tube (rhymes with speedo) and a static port.

The pitot tube is typically mounted on a wing or the fuselage, depending on the aircraft, and looks like a little stick with a hole at the tip jutting into the wind. It measures the direct pressure of the air blowing into it. The static port, which is a little hole on the side of the plane about the size of a pinhead, measures atmospheric pressure.

Airspeed is measured by the difference between the direct pressure and atmospheric pressure is compared.

When the pitot-static system fails

Blockages in the pitot tube and static port, while not common, aren't particularly rare either. Ice can easily gunk up the pitot tube, so there's a heater on most pitot tubes. The static port can often get bug juice in or around it, so there's an alternate static source.

Even with those runarounds on potential problems, all pilots must know how those three key instruments are affected when the static port or pitot tube -- or both -- are blocked.

What happens when the static port is blocked?

Well, this is serious because it affects all three instruments. The altimeter will stop at the altitude at which the blockage occurs. The vertical speed indicator will show level flight, no matter if the plane is climbing or descending. The airspeed indicator will show a slower-than-actual speed in a climb and a faster-than-actual speed in a descent.

What happens when the pitot tube is blocked?

In a way, it's simpler, because only the airspeed indicator is affected. But it's also a more nefarious problem. The airspeed indicator will function as an altimeter, showing an increase in speed as the plane climbs, even if actual airspeed is constant.

Northwest Orient, 1974, Bear Mountain, N.Y.

So far, I've given you a lot of basic theory. Here's how it actually applies in the case of the Northwest Orient flight referenced in the USA Today piece:

Crews are usually trained in some capacity to maintain a constant-airspeed climb at such-and-such a power setting.

So imagine you're the pilots aboard this flight, thankfully a repositioning flight with only three crew members aboard. As you continue your climb through 16,000 feet, you notice that you're climbing at 300 knots when you should be at 200 knots.

(I don't know the actual figures for the 727 climb; I'm just using them as an example).

What are you going to do?

Keep in mind one of the basic rules of flight: Pitch plus power equals performance. These guys did what makes sense. They decreased their power and pitched the plane up in an effort to slow down to 200 knots.

Unfortunately, the Northwest pitot tube had iced over. Their airspeed indicator was showing a faster-than-actual indication, essentially functioning as an altimeter and increasing as they climbed. In reality, the pilots were on their target climb speed.

By decreasing their power and pitching the plane up, they slowed down to something slower than their stall speed -- remember that from our original Colgan post? -- and induced an aerodynamic stall and subsequently spun the plane into the ground.

AeroPeru 603

There's another crash not mentioned in the original article that's worth mentioning here, an accident involving an AeroPeru flight in 1996 that had multiple instruments fail because the nimrods washing the plane beforehand taped over the static ports and forgot to remove the tape.

It was a night flight in instrument conditions. These poor folks didn't know which way was up, how fast they were going, or whether they were headed up or down. They crashed into the ocean 25 minutes after takeoff.

There's a fascinating National Geographic special on AeroPeru 603 that I recommend watching on YouTube if you have a half-hour to kill.

While speculation centers on the pitot tube in the Air France crash and AeroPeru involves the static ports, this could nonetheless be a really strong comparison, in the sense that you have false instrument readings caused by massive problems in the pitot-static system ultimately leading to disaster.


Crews are trained how to spot anomalies between the instruments that would lead a pilot to realistically catch the error. On a typical flight in instrument meteorlogical conditions, there's a constant cross-check of the instruments in the six pack to verify and confirm information.

In the heat of the moment, could you miss something that leads to a crash? Absolutely. There has to be a lot that goes wrong to get to that point, but yeah, it is feasible.

You could make the argument that if the Air France 447 pilots had been distracted by a vicious thunderstorm and alarms buzzing about incorrect airspeed readings that there was enough confusion that they did precisely the wrong thing.

That's an awfully big leap to make at this point. I'm sticking to what I said the other day -- there's so much information still missing from the Air France puzzle, that it's not prudent to even make an educated guess as to what brought it down.

But since USA Today is offering up a theory, we'll dissect how it might have applied to Air France 447. Right now, it's as good a guess as any.

Labels: , ,