October 5, 2005
By The AVweb Editorial Staff
Bankrupt airlines may just be delaying the inevitable by walking away from their pricey pension plans, according to a report released last month by the Government Accountability Office (GAO). The report (PDF file) says that even without the pension-contribution burden ($10.4 billion over the next four years) the so-called legacy carriers may remain financially challenged unless they get their costs under control. "... These airlines will have trouble meeting their various financial obligations, regardless of whether they terminate their pension plans," the report reads. Even without the pensions, the average legacy carrier will continue to lose money (and pile up debt), according to the GAO. And while bankruptcy is regarded as a way for companies to not only walk away from expensive obligations, but to reinvent themselves as viable businesses, that hasn't been the case for airlines. The GAO says few airlines that have gone into bankruptcy have survived intact. Indeed, of 22 (!) airlines that have filed for bankruptcy only four (Atlas Air Polar Cargo, Hawaiian, Fine Air and Kitty Hawk) have emerged successfully. US Airways emerged but later re-filed.
Now, there's no news in the GAO's finding that legacy carriers have higher costs than the budget airlines, and the GAO says it's in cutting costs where the so-called big airlines will find their salvation. In broad terms, the unit cost per available seat mile of the budget carriers is 7.3 cents and the legacy carriers are paying 10 cents. With a 27-percent cost advantage, the budget lines can easily undercut their competition. Matching fares with the likes of Southwest and JetBlue is a recipe for losing money and the big airlines are expected to lose up to $9 billion this year. That's not to say the budget lines are awash in profit cash. In fact, as a testament to their rigorous cost control, their modest combined profit of about $1 billion a year has remained constant except for a dip to the break-even point just after 9/11. It's also in decline now, likely because of high fuel costs. In contrast, the legacy lines have gone from a combined profit of $7 billion in 1998 to combined losses of almost $10 billion in 2001 and 2002. They've since "recovered" to losses of about $4 billion but fuel costs are hitting them hard, too.
Just what role do pensions play in the overall financial health of the major airlines? Although the numbers are huge (airline contributions will total about $10.4 billion over the next four years, assuming they're made), the actual effect on the bottom line is minimal and only accounts for 15 percent of the cost spread between the budgets and the majors. However, the impact of default on employees, especially pilots, can be enormous, or it may be negligible, depending on time and circumstance. Pilots take a beating on two fronts. When a plan defaults, it's picked up by the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation, but never at the full amount. Instead of dividing the difference equally among retirees and those whose future pensions will be affected, the PBGC weights distribution of the funds in favor of those who have already retired. It also caps the benefits at about $45,000, far less than some senior captains expect on retirement. And since pilots must retire at 60, their benefits are further cut to about $29,000 if they leave the workforce on retirement.
THE SJ30-2 IS THE WORLD'S FASTEST LIGHT BUSINESS JET
Will racing do for rockets in the 21st century what it did for aviation in the early part of the 20th century? That's the hope of the forward-thinking folks that brought you the Ansari X Prize. X Prize founder Peter Diamandis, along with car-racing executive Granger Whitelaw, have formed the Rocket Racing League, in which rocket-powered planes will square off against each other in head-to-head competition. Diamandis said that while the race series will be tremendous spectator sport, it will also help advance private exploration of space. He called the races "a critical commercial step in opening up the space frontier." He said government has dropped the ball in making space flight accessible to the public and the races are part of his goal to ignite space entrepreneurialism. "I want to spark the enterprise space effort the same way it happened in aviation, computers, and the Internet," he told MSNBC.
X-COR's EZ Rocket is being hailed as the prototype for the race aircraft and it will be put through its paces at the Countdown to the X Prize Cup in Las Cruces, N.M., Oct. 9. The EZ Rocket has been flying for three years and uses a tiny alcohol-fueled rocket motor that can be started and stopped in flight. "Crucial for rocket racing is the ability to turn off and relight the engines," said Col. Rock Searfoss, a former astronaut who will fly the EZ Rocket on Sunday. "I will do multiple shutoffs and relights in Las Cruces to demonstrate where we're headed." The racers will reach speeds of 200 to 300 mph (the piston-powered unlimiteds and most of the sport class aircraft beat that at the Reno Air Races) and Diamandis is promising a spectacle. The alcohol rockets put out an invisible white flame but he expects they'll be replaced by kerosene motors that spew a 20-foot tail of orange flame. "Imagine not one but 10 of these fire-breathing dragons flying around the race course with vertical climbs and sharp turns," he said. The races will be short, however. The engines will only run for four minutes, but refueling pit stops could be part of the action.
As with any other professional sport these days, success depends on sponsorship and media deals. Whitelaw said there's a major TV network interested and a soft drink company is talking with the organizers. Hats, T-shirts and video games are also on the radar. There are even plans for a reality TV series on the selection and training of rocket racing pilots. Even the FAA seems enthusiastic about the idea. "The Rocket Racing League takes the public awareness of rockets to a whole new level," said spokeswoman Patricia Smith. She said the agency is ready "to enable this business through an efficient and responsive regulatory approach." A host of leading-edge technologies will be incorporated into the aircraft and race courses. Pilots will have a head up display showing them a GPS-based "tunnel" to guide them through the vertical 3D course. Viewers at home will also see a 3-D depiction of the action and be shown cockpit and wingtip camera views. Those on the ground will have Jumbotron screens to refer to when the action flies away from them.
VISIT TRADE-A-PLANE TO SEE WHY 96% OF THEIR SUBSCRIBERS CHOOSE TAP
Remember the rage you felt when you heard last month from major news outlets that people were taking shots at rescue helicopters over New Orleans. A Knight Ridder investigation has revealed no evidence whatsoever that any helicopter came under fire during the relief effort. In one news conference, a Coast Guard spokeswoman told reporters that the choppers came under fire every time they landed at a hospital. Trouble is, none of the Coast Guard pilots seem to remember taking fire. Now, it's not that there wasn't gunfire. Rescue workers on the ground regularly heard shots. But directed at aircraft? The Knight Ridder reporters couldn't find anyone who would confirm those reports, which often led to the grounding of aircraft desperately needed for rescue work. Just to add to the confusion, government and military officials contradict each other on whether orders were issued to ground helicopters and whether they were, in fact, grounded. AVweb previously reported that officials coordinating all air traffic in the area were aware of no incidents in which aircraft took fire.
Police in Miami have charged a man who posed as a pilot working night and day to help victims of Hurricane Katrina. The man allegedly set up a bogus Internet donation site that fraudulently solicited donations to buy fuel for rescue aircraft that did not exist. Internet postings by the man claimed he was transporting to safety critically ill children, "Seven months old and smiling the whole way, as if she knew," according to the Miami Herald, and that he had tipped his wings at Air Force One while flying by. The warrant for his arrest stated he spoke by phone with a potential donor claiming he was in the cockpit of an aircraft about to take off. During that call, he was interrupted by "what appeared to be sounds from air traffic control" and told the donor it would be his last flight if more money didn't arrive, according to The Associated Press. Prosecutors say he made no such flights and police say the nine-day scam netted about $40,000 over a two-day peak. People who helped the man told the Miami Herald, "We were under the impression that he hadn't slept for days and he was flying back and forth to New Orleans." Fortunately, much of the money has been returned. The accused posted heart-wrenching stories on a Web site and asked for electronic donations promising "every dollar, every nickel would go directly into the tanks of these pilots' planes on their missions of mercy." The accused allegedly left a long and incriminating trail through e-mail and on online chat boards.
COMPARE HEADSETS, RADIOS, AND GPSs
Cessna has now officially announced what AVweb told you last week -- that it's planning a "brand new, next generation" single-engine aircraft. However, the company claims it doesn't know what such a plane might look like. Spokesman Dick Ziegler told The Wichita Eagle that dealers were briefed on the project last week at their annual meeting and were asked for input on its design. "We are committed to maintaining leadership in the single-engine piston field," Ziegler said. Cessna's grip on that distinction is tenuous as Cirrus Design continues to increase sales of its composite and glass SR series, which may have prompted a comment from Cessna CEO Jack Pelton last month nicknaming the new plane the "Cirrus Killer." Ziegler said the new design will offer improved safety, performance, comfort and economics. It remains to be seen if "improved safety" translates to a parachute. (Cirrus Design -- through stock holdings -- currently owns at least 15 percent of BRS, the company that provides its whole-plane parachute systems.) "We have made no decision -- and I can't stress that enough -- on how the airplane will look, what specifications it will meet or what timetable we'll look at for production," Ziegler said. He also said there has been no decision on systems, materials or features. The company has made one decision, however. The new plane will be built at its single-engine plant in Independence, Kan.
The FAA has approved a procedure called conductive keratoplasty to fix near vision problems in pilots who now must rely on glasses to read charts or the panel. "Certification by the FAA as a vision correction procedure for pilots validates the safety and value of CK as a refractive treatment," said Mitchell Campbell, president of Refractec, which makes the equipment for the procedure. CK is not to be confused with laser surgery. There's no cutting or burning of the eye. CK uses radio waves to reshape the cornea so the eye can focus closer. The radio energy shrinks the collagen on the cornea in a circular band that tightens and reshapes it. The procedure takes about three minutes, uses only an eyedrop anesthetic and, Mitchell said, FDA tests show 87 percent of patients can see telephone-book sized print after the treatment and 98 percent can see magazine-sized print. The treatment is considered "temporary" but the company didn't say how long it lasts.
PROTECT & SHINE YOUR AIRCRAFT
An Australian crop-duster said he was only trying to save his own skin when he landed his burning aircraft, by memory, on a dirt strip near Deniliquin, New South Wales, last week. "I was just interested in getting out," Fred Clipperton told a hospital spokeswoman in Deniliquin. "I just flew her down. I switched her off and got out." But apparently Clipperton is as gifted at understatement as he is at flying. According to witnesses, the only part of the plane not on fire when it landed was the tail and it didn't last much longer. It appears that fuel leaking from an improperly placed fuel cap was ignited by the exhaust as the plane took off from the dirt strip. Clipperton heeled the plane around but by the time he could line up on the runway the flames and smoke obscured his view. A glimpse of a road and power line were his only visual cues as he set up and put the plane back on the runway. "The whole lot was on fire bar his tail wing," said witness John Dargan. Clipperton was able to jump out of the plane and run away before the first helpers arrived. He suffered minor burns. His employer, Nigel Wettenhall, said Clipperton has more than 30,000 hours in crop-dusters.
Your next commuter flight might be helped to its destination by synthetic vision. Chelton Flight Systems Systems has received FAA certification of a new Approved Model List STC that covers all large Part 23 aircraft, including commuter aircraft, for its synthetic vision system. Among the planes that can now be equipped with the "highway-in-the-sky" system are Beech 1900s, King Air 350s, Twin Otters and a host of other jet and turboprop passenger aircraft. The system combines a terrain database with satellite navigation and electronic instrumentation into an Electronic Flight Information System that gives the pilot a virtual view of the world outside. And now NASA is studying the use of similar technology on big airliners. NASA installed the system in a Boeing 757 and will have pilots from airlines, the FAA and aircraft manufacturers evaluate it as they fly into the NASA's Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia. NASA has added a few extras to its system, including an enhanced vision system based on millimeter wave radar images fused with forward-looking infrared. The combination should give the pilots a real-time view of what's going on outside, in addition to the computer-generated image. "Traffic or obstacles may be on the runway, unbeknownst to the test pilot," said a NASA statement. "If the displays work, the pilot will be able to see the traffic and avoid it." If he can't, the safety pilot on board can take over.
|THE COLUMBIA 350 & COLUMBIA 400 HAVE A NEW CORPORATE NAME|
The Lancair Company has re-branded itself as Columbia Aircraft Manufacturing Corporation. The manufacturers of the Columbia 350 and Columbia 400, the world's fastest certified piston aircraft, made the change as part of an ongoing campaign to develop a unique identity for these premium aircraft. The schedule for the Fly Columbia Tour, an interactive Columbia experience, is posted online at http://www.avweb.com/sponsors/columbia/avflash.
Flight attendants trying to save a Cypriot airliner with an unconscious crew on board were locked out of the cockpit -- by the plane -- until it was too late to do anything, according to the Greek assessment of a computer simulation of the flight. More than 100 people died when the Helios Airways Boeing 737 crashed near Athens Aug. 14. The plane had some kind of pressurization problem shortly after takeoff from Cyprus on its way to Athens and the flight crew lapsed into unconsciousness. The plane continued on its programmed route to a holding pattern off the coast of Greece and flew in circles for two hours. Meanwhile, at least two flight attendants had stayed awake using portable oxygen bottles but they couldn't get through the locked, terrorist-proof cockpit door. It was only when one engine failed from fuel starvation that the computer-controlled systems aboard the plane unlocked the door. "Whoever was conscious in the cockpit had only a few minutes to save the plane," Greek Chief Investigator Akrivos Tsolakis told reporters. The third person in the cockpit, widely believed to be flight attendant Andreas Prodromou, likely didn't influence the plane's flight path. After the first engine failed, the autopilot still managed to get the plane back on its racecourse pattern until the second engine went out and the plane simply fell to earth. Tsolakis also told reporters he's looking into autopsy results that indicated both pilots had heart conditions.
It could soon be against the law to point a laser at an airplane. Well, to be clear, it was always against one law or another (interference with a flight crew being the most common one cited) but the rash of laser incidents last year has prompted a Florida congressman to craft a specific bill outlawing the practice. Under Rep. Ric Keller's (R-Fla.) bill, which passed the House Judiciary Committee last week, anyone who "knowingly aims a laser pointer at an aircraft" could face up to five years in jail. Melissa Rudlinger, AOPA's vice president of regulatory affairs, said one or two GA aircraft get lased each month. "Not only is this an annoyance, it also can be a serious safety problem for pilots," she said. There have been a total of 400 laser incidents reported since 1990, more than 100 in the past year. Earlier this year, an airline pilot testified in front of a congressional committee that a laser caused vision problems that prevented him from working for almost a month.
AEROMEDIX INTRODUCES A NEW MINI LOW-LEVEL MONOXIDE MONITOR
Monday, AVweb posted images that showed what happened to key parts of the Airbus A320 that landed last month at LAX with its nosegear twisted 90-degrees from center. Our link may have taken some readers, however, to images showing the aftermath of an earlier twisted-nosegear-landing incident, which also involved a JetBlue Airbus ... one that landed at JFK in 2002. To relieve confusion and enlighten inquiring minds, AVweb now has both sets of photos available for your consideration. The more recent images show damage resulting from a JetBlue Airbus' confrontation with an L.A. runway -- they are available, here. The older set of images, showing damage done in 2002 by a New York runway are available, here.
RedBull's low-level aerobatic air race comes live to San Francisco, Saturday at 12:45 pm (PST) during the Fleetweek Airshow. Those who can't make it can view the spectacle via an online webcast...
NASA is offering an online ground de-icing course aimed primarily at professional pilots who make their own de-icing decisions. It covers general knowledge and also gives pilots clues to the possibility of icing...
A University of North Dakota research Citation made an emergency landing near Fairbanks last week after a double engine failure. None of the four people on board was hurt in the off-airport landing...
Eugene, Ore., pilots had 16 million reasons to cheer last week. That's what the newly dedicated runway at the local airport cost...
The Air Force wants more room to train F-16 pilots in ground attack roles. It's asked to expand the training range it uses in South Carolina to teach pilots how to seek out and destroy surface-to-air missile sites...
Diamond Aircraft delivered the first three of 19 diesel-powered TwinStar aircraft to the PanAm International Flight School in Beijing. The school will eventually have 60 Diamonds in its fleet.
Drop us a line. If it caught your attention, it will probably interest someone else, too. Submit news tips via email to firstname.lastname@example.org. You're a part of our team ... often, the best part.
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Quiz #99 -- Step Up To Twins
Congratulations, Mrs. Hollow, it's twins. Twice the power at four times the expense lures the single-minded pilot into the multi-engine PIC seat with a multitude of multi-faceted questions. So grab a fistful of throttles and answer away.
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*** PREVIOUS RESULTS ***
Last week, AVweb asked readers to peer into the future of U.S. aviation and offer up their best predictions specifically, with regard to privatization, price hikes, and those dreaded user fees.
The biggest segment of our readership (35%) foresaw privatization of both FSS and air traffic control, as well as the advent of user fees.
9% of readers said that, while FSS privatization is on the horizon, user fees won't be coming to the U.S. anytime soon. But a much larger percentage of our respondent (25%) thought U.S. pilots would be paying user fees for something other than avgas in the near future.
20% of respondents even went so far as to predict they'd give up flying because of fees within the next few years.
The remaining 11% of participants in last week's poll were far more optimistic, reminding us that fuel prices and funding shortfalls are only temporary setbacks and that the FAA is investing a lot of time and money in the recruitment of a new class of "Sport Pilots" who aren't likely to pay any user fees.
*** THIS WEEK'S QUESTION ***
Conductive keratoplasty, radial keratotomy, wavefront Lasik options for the visually challenged are widening, but not all are approved by the FAA. How's your vision?
Click here to answer.
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Welcome to another edition of AVweb's "Picture of the Week"! The number of reader-submitted photos has dropped back to usual levels for this time of year, but the variety and quality of pics remain high.
Did all our readers get together and collectively decide to submit only their best photos? And if so, why didn't they invite us to the party? We've been so good to everyone, giving away an exclusive AVweb baseball cap to each week's number-one winner! Sigh. If we can't get invited to reader parties, there's only one way to console ourselves: Time to look through our latest batch of airplane pictures!
You're welcome to join us, but remember: As soon as you're done looking, we'd appreciate it if you'd click here and submit some of your own amateur aviation photos. You may find your name on AVweb next week and a brand-new hat in your mailbox.
Due to privacy issues, AVweb does not publish e-mail addresses of readers who submit photos.
Used with permission of Barry Tempest
"Portugal Air Show Evora EH101"
Stark colors highlight the contrast between awesome power
and everyday labor (see the guy on the tow?) in this photo from
Barry Tempest of Peterborough, Cambridgeshire (U.K.).
Barry took our breath away this week, and as a reward, we're
sending an official AVweb baseball cap across the Atlantic
to his doorstep. Watch your mail, Barry and thanks!
here to view a large version of this image
Click here for a medium-sized version
AVweb continues to receive a large number of excellent images for our POTW contest. Here are some of the runners-up. Click on the links below to view larger versions.
Frequent "POTW" contributor
Gavin Conroy of Blenheim, New Zealand
returns this week with more vintage war planes.
We're starting to see where your interests lie, Gavin ... .
Used with permission of David E. Enochs
David Enochs of Manteo, North Carolina
really knows how to bring out the color in his
aviation photos. We had a hard time choosing
which of his photos to run in "POTW," but this
one from the recent NAS Oceana Air Show
in Virginia Beach finally won out.
There's still a few good photos
to see before we're done!
Used with permission of William Sampler
"Leadville Warning Sign"
One of these days, we may run a special edition
of "POTW" spotlighting the er, interesting signs
you've sent us over the years. Until then, we'll settle
for this sobering warning sign from LXV, "the highest
public airport in the U.S.A.," according to contributor
William Sampler of Centennial, Colorado.
Click the "large" link for a glimpse of life
at 9,927 feet above sea level:
Used with permission of Travis Whittier
"Now That's a Purty Sight"
First Gavin Conroy, now
Travis Whittier of Glendale, Arizona
it's old home week at "POTW" headquarters
as familiar names from past weeks start cropping
up on this week's winning pictures. Whatever your
day job is, Travis, don't tell us. We'd much rather
imagine you living the good life, spending your days
photographing airplanes and occasionally sending
us a really good image out of pity.
Yep. It's good to be Travis.
Used with permission of Richard N. Weber
And finally, Richard Weber of Spring Branch, Texas
takes us out this week with a photo of two bi-planes
"posing" (Richard's word) at the Kingsbury Aerodrome.
The Aerodrome Airport restores and refurbishes airplanes s
and gets a stellar recommendation from Richard, by the way.
Special thanks to Jack Fleetwood, who corrected us when
we incorrectly called the yellow plane a Stearman in our
first publication of this edition of "POTW." In fact, it's an
N3N belonging to Fleetwood's friend Bill Farmer.
Sorry, guys and thanks for setting us straight!
To enter next week's contest, click here.
A Reminder About Copyrights: Please take a moment to consider the source of your image before submitting to our "Picture of the Week" contest. If you did not take the photo yourself, ask yourself if you are indeed authorized to release publication rights to AVweb. If you're uncertain, consult the POTW Rules or send us an e-mail.
AVflash is a twice-weekly summary of the latest aviation news, articles, products, features and events featured on AVweb, the Internet's Aviation Magazine and News Service. http://www.avweb.com
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