The Brancatelli File



September 29, 2005 -- Expecting my usual witty and urbane column-opening banter? Forget it. There's just no room this week because there's so much news to report.

So let's charge wit-lessly on…

Washington/Dulles-based Independence Air is slashing its schedule another 35 percent, laying off 600 workers, dumping planes and desperately searching for cost-cutting ploys and new funding. It will soon be down to about 230 daily flights from its high of about 600 flights and it has admitted to the Securities and Exchange Commission that it is running out of cash.

On October 30, the 15-month-old airline will eliminate service to five markets that it has served with regional jets (RJ): Cleveland; Indianapolis; Louisville; New York/Kennedy; and Newburgh/Stewart, New York. Its West Coast expansion, launched in April with Airbus A319s, is also about to collapse. It dropped flights to San Jose last month. On Saturday, it drops Los Angeles. San Diego goes on November 1. Seattle and San Francisco disappear on December 1. The airline will keep its two daily Dulles-Las Vegas flights, however, and will add Airbus flights in two new markets: New York/LaGuardia (October 31) and San Juan (December 16).

As we discussed in a column last November, Independence has always been an attempt to make lemonade from a couple of crates of flying lemons. The driving force behind the airline was not a logical approach to market opportunity, but a commuter carrier's unhappiness with a Big Six carrier (United) and its ownership of a huge fleet of regional jets and gates at Dulles Airport. Possession may be nine points of the law, but it's a lousy reason to start an airline.

Independence has also been a textbook case of horrendous management. As I mentioned in that earlier column, Independence's actions at my home airport of Newburgh/Stewart is painfully illustrative. Independence poured 300 seats and six RJ flights a day onto the Dulles-Stewart route even though it had been unable to fill the three 19-seat flights it once operated for United. One-way fares fell to as low as $44. A couple of months ago, Independence slashed the Stewart-Dulles route back to three daily flights. Its walk-up, one-way fare tomorrow is $199.

In other words, Independence failed when it more than quintupled capacity and charged $44. It failed when it slashed capacity in half and more than quadrupled the fare. And it'll be gone from Stewart completely in 30 days. Heaven forfend an airline, even an ill-starred one, ever try to forge a rational middle ground.

The strike by mechanics at Northwest Airlines has passed the 40-day mark. We stopped tracking Northwest's daily operations when the airline flew into Chapter 11 two weeks ago, but it's clear that the situation is deteriorating. Here are a couple of highlights from the last few days: a flight from Seattle to Honolulu was delayed 14 hours due to maintenance; a flight from Minneapolis to Tokyo was delayed for 43 hours--yes, that's 43 hours--due to a series of mechanical snafus and crew restrictions; and an in-flight mechanical caused a flight from Minneapolis to Rapid City, South Dakota, to turn back after 20 minutes in the air. Of course, Northwest calls these problems and all the others just part of a "normal" operation. But the truth is otherwise: Northwest isn't operating normally and it's not reliable. Book away if you can.

The French courts have continued what can only be called a witch hunt in the matter of the Air France Concorde crash at Paris/DeGaulle in July, 2000. As you'll recall, the supersonic jet crashed shortly after takeoff and killed 113 people. Investigators have hectored various officials and mechanics at Continental Airlines because an official report claims debris from a Continental jet that departed shortly before the Concorde led to the plane's burst tire and punctured fuel tank. Now they're after Henri Perrier. The 76-year-old Perrier was chief engineer on the Concorde's first test flight in 1969. He later directed the Concorde program for the plane's manufacturer, Aerospatiale, in the 1980s and early 1990s. A French judge this week placed Perrier under investigation--a step short of formal criminal charges--for manslaughter and involuntary injury.

The slow response from FEMA after Hurricane Katrina has many critics demanding that the agency be removed from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). While they're deconstructing Homeland Security, they should remove another box from the organizational chart: the Transportation Security Administration (TSA).

The increasingly bureaucratic and inefficient TSA can't get anything right lately. Tomorrow it officially abandons the Registered Traveler program, a five-airport test that allows frequent flyers to bypass security lines. (A private, for-profit system called Clear is still being tested at Orlando.) A TSA advisory committee has told the agency that it should not proceed with Secure Flight, the government's latest attempt to match all passenger names against terrorist watch lists. A successor to the despised CAPPS II, Secure Flight was supposed to begin testing next month. And Homeland Security's controversial chief privacy officer, who consistently defended CAPPS II, Secure Flight and the TSA's repeated violation of DHS privacy policies, has resigned.

It's long past time to rethink the TSA. Created in justifiable haste after 9/11 to take over airport security screening, the TSA has become a dumping ground for incompetent political hacks. The final straw came last week: No one at the TSA told Houston-based screeners that they needed to come to work so they could process passengers evacuating before the expected arrival of Hurricane Rita. The result: Screeners evacuated along with the general populace, Houston/Intercontinental became a mosh pit and passengers waited hours to clear security.

American Airlines announced another new fee today: a $25 charge for a "confirmed flight change," which is airline speak for charging you for the privilege of standing by and filling a seat that's about to leave empty. This, of course, is in addition to American's recent decision to lower the checked baggage allowance to 50 pounds a bag and charge a fee for luggage weighing between 51 and 70 pounds, the old limit. But you'll be happy to know that all these lovely fees can be collected quickly at the airline's recently upgraded Self-Service Check-in Kiosks. American is also proud that the machine can now also collect the $80 fee if you need to check a third, fourth or fifth bag. Of course, there's one thing the American fee machines can't do: Write a ticket.

Copyright © 1993-2005 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.