Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Bye Bye, DC-9

Delta Air Lines recently announced the termination of McDonnell Douglas DC-9 from its fleet in January 2014 (the exact date is still unconfirmed by Delta, although widely speculated to be January 6th), ending nearly five decades of the aircraft's existence of American commercial service. Of special significance is that the same airline that first launched the DC-9 in 1965 will also see its end, and Delta may commemorate the moment by marking the final two flights as 1965 and 2014.

One of the most popular commercial planes ever in existence, the several variants of the DC-9 have always served its niche purpose of providing service on short and medium routes and mostly to the smaller airports in a carrier's network. When utilized to its utmost efficiency, these planes were a workhorse, possibly flying up to six legs within a given day.

The DC-9 was born of a new jet age, before the attention to fuel consumption and noise disruptions were the primary concerns that we know of today. They made jet travel available to those living in smaller communities where previously, only propeller-driven aircraft could accommodate such facilities. And man, were those jets loud! If you had the (dis)pleasure of sitting in the rear of the fuselage, it would be hard not to notice the sound of the two Pratt & Whitney JT8D turbojet engines, each spitting out 16,000 pounds of thrust. The DC-9 also represents one of the last of a dying breed-engines mounted on the rear of the fuselage. They still exist in subsequent McDonnell Douglas aircraft; the MD-80, MD-90, and MD-95 (Boeing 717) however, all are no longer in production.

The last DC-9 (Series 50) was produced in 1982 but they have maintained a presence in the skies. Since acquiring them during the Northwest merger in 2009, Delta installed Wi-Fi on the airplanes and have primarily used them on short to medium legs out of their Atlanta, Detroit, Minneapolis, and (the now-defunct) Memphis hubs. What a passenger may fail to notice is that these planes never saw an upgrade in the flight deck. They continue to use their original systems, without a Flight Management Computer (FMC), requiring pilots to fly using ground-based navigation systems like a VOR. A lack of a FMC often meant that DC-9s were commonly slightly off course, more than other modern airliners.

What piqued my interest in writing about the retirement of the McDonnell Douglas DC-9 was the special attention given to these final flights by my fellow avgeeks. Plans are being made by many to be onboard the final legs, and Delta has not failed to notice the draw. Flight 2014 for January 6, 2014 is almost completely full and it appears that a special event is planned before that last flight departs Minneapolis for Atlanta. The attention to this historic event has placed within me a feeling of regret. I cannot, with conviction, tell anyone if I have ever flown on a DC-9 of any type. I just don't remember. It's only now that I appreciate what this aircraft has meant for those of us who love airplanes and it's too bad that I will not have the pleasure of recognizing this special occasion for myself and with those in the aviation community.

For the Delta DC-9s, I wish you a happy afterlife in desert heaven or wherever your next call takes you.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Walking Around History - The TWA Flight Center

Inside the TWA Flight Center - Sunday, October 13, 2013
As part of the annual citywide Open House New York event, the Trans World Airlines (TWA) Flight Center at John F. Kennedy International Airport is open to the public for just one day. Decommissioned in 2001 following the demise of the airline, it now holds a place on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places (a status which other classic terminals of the airport failed to gain). Now that I live in New York, it would have been remiss of me (aviation geek that I am) to miss an opportunity to visit this revered piece of aeronautical history. And I'm so happy that I did!
Passenger Departing/Arriving Tube

After first arriving at the Flight Center's passenger tube from JetBlue Airways' Terminal 5, I immediately felt a sense of nostalgia. The subdued lighting in the curved tube complete with deep red carpeting provided a dramatic entry into Eero Saarinen's architectural masterpiece. Within the building, quotes from the architect are displayed throughout. Saarinen (who died before final completion) said of the design, "We wanted passengers passing through the building to experience a fully-designed environment in which each part arises from another and everything belongs to the same formal world." It was easy for me to imagine that his goal was achieved, as the event was packed with fellow aviation and architecture enthusiasts and almost resembled what a typical day may have been during normal operations at the Flight Center.

I was somewhat aware of the uniqueness in design involved in this building: the outside shell indicative of a bird's wings and the curvilinear roof that is held together by malleable curved tiles created by Saarinen himself. They're specifics that anyone could have known before setting foot inside the building but to see how it all came together visually is even more remarkable. The smooth, contoured lines and the openness within is very evident. Plenty of seating areas and lounges provide images into those golden years of commercial airline travel. Clearly missing from the terminal are the advertisements that are now so commonly placed on the wall or hanging from ceilings. Here, the ads were restricted to the duty free shop (including one for Marlboro cigarettes). The differences are more than just subtle nuances. They highlight the logistical changes that have occurred in transporting people through airports.

Curvilinear Concrete Roof and Exits
As beautiful and storied as the TWA Flight Center is, it is evident as to why it would not work for today's air travel demands. It's closure came a few months after the September 11th attacks and the subsequent changes to airport security. A larger traveling public called for larger security checkpoint zones. American Airlines tried to utilize the terminal during the merger of TWA into that airline, but after a few months they found that it worked against their needs. Planes are larger and take up more space, and there are more of them than there were in 1962. Feasibility alone rendered the TWA Flight Center useless for its intended purpose (JetBlue passed on using the existing space and built its T5 complex behind the Flight Center). Still, there are some ideas being discussed for future use of the building. A hotel, conference center, or some future use by JetBlue Airways have all been proposed at one time or another. Whatever will be the next chapter of the TWA Flight Center, I am grateful that its existence is assured (for now) and judging from the attendance at the event, many share that same sentiment. Including this building, only Terminals 2 and 7 remain as original footprints to JFK. From a business perspective, expansion or a complete rebuild of an airport terminal based on operational need is sometimes necessary, but we are fortunate to have a physical representation of what air travel was like so long ago. For those of us who we're never able to experience it for ourselves, it's the next best thing.
Check-In Counters
Shoe Shine

Saturday, October 5, 2013

The Bi-Coastal Battle (In the Skies)

This week, JetBlue Airways opened the book a bit more on what they will offer to enhance their position in the lucrative and highly competitive markets of New York (JFK) to Los Angeles (LAX) and San Francisco (SFO) with the announcement of their premium product known as "Mint," which will roll out on their new Airbus A321 aircraft starting next summer. Mint will include the longest and widest domestic premium seats, 16 in all (four are personal suites with closing doors). The seats will feature a massage function and adjustable firmness levels and will include two 110-volt outlets, two USB ports, and an indicator that allows the seat occupant to be woken when it's time for service. Additionally, there will be new 15" video screens featuring many more channels of DirecTV and SiriusXM programming. Food and wine gets an upgrade as well: a pre-departure drink and a cocktail once airborne, and a tapas-style menu from New York restaurant Saxon + Parole. Mint travelers will also leave the aircraft with a gender-specific gift from Birchbox. With this announcement, JetBlue has made their latest play in the battle for those precious premium travelers.

Five airlines compete in both markets and offer multiple flights daily: Virgin America, JetBlue, United, Delta, and American. It's a crowded field and understandably so, as first and/or business class passengers are likely to pay for the higher level of service versus relying on upgrades through a frequent-flyer loyalty program, which is more commonplace. On a typical flight from JFK to LAX, roughly 10% of occupancy is premium passengers and those same passengers account for about 30% of the flight's revenue, on average. If you're in the business of transporting people between the two largest urban centers in the country, it's a statistic they would be remiss to ignore. In the past year, the players have announced changes to their offerings (save for Virgin America which arguably now finds itself behind the pack), including brand new airplanes with new lie-flat seating, enhanced wi-fi, improved in-flight entertainment systems, and more to their business and first class cabins. It's an interesting game to watch for followers of the airline industry.

It is this focus on the premium traveler that places a larger spotlight on the changes for New York-based JetBlue, who has always abstained from providing a tiered-level of service - until now. Mint reflects the airline's shift to embracing the coveted business traveler in these two specific markets, while not forgetting about what made it one of the darlings in the airline business: an egalitarian approach to service centered on the leisure traveler. It's a model that has been successful for JetBlue in their 14-year existence and has gained them a solid fan base in the New York area and beyond. Now the airline must do a balancing act of sorts and it appears that they will be successful at doing so.

Along with the new Mint class of service, upgrades are coming to coach as well. Self-serve snack bars complete with sodas and water, larger and softer seats, added channels of live television (from 36 to 100) and free and fast wi-fi can be expected in the economy class cabin. Perks for all that should go over well with fliers but again, only for those A321 flights from JFK to LAX and JFK to SFO. This represents a small number of flights within JetBlue's total network, but they are significant from an economic and perception standpoint.

It's notable how aggressive this airline has become in their response to the recognition that they've lost a bit of a foothold in the premium transcontinental market. Mint will be a formidable choice among the flying elite, we'll just have to wait until June 2014 to see to what extent that is. The airline announced introductory one-way fares of $499 for the first four days with an expected increase to $599 after that (at least in the short-term). That all sounds good and should have the competition shaking at least a bit.

So, what are your thoughts, agreeable or contrary. I would like to hear them. Thanks for reading!

Friday, October 4, 2013

My Introduction

My eyesight and lack of sufficient coin kept me from pursuing a career as a pilot however, I still follow the industry. Introductions of new airplanes by manufactures, airline network changes and competing markets, mergers and acquisitions. I like the business and operations side of the airline industry; the give-and-take between competitors, airplane purchases and leases, the strategy behind it all. Now my aim is to provide another voice of opinion to the crowd

Since you've read this far, may I make a request for your help and participation? Through engagement of the discussion, new ideas and opinions can be introduced and shared and I'm sure a little learning will follow as well!

With that said, I hope the information that I present is informative and at least somewhat interesting (especially to those who are not self-described avgeeks). I accept all forms of criticism, as I would like to improve upon the writing, construct, and presentation of the entries presented. Thank you for taking the time to read this first post and if you have anything to add, feel free to comment.