Apr 28, 2010


Today’s terse ASX announcements that Virgin Blue and Air NZ have been in discussions for several months over a potential trans Tasman alliance suggests both want one very badly, but can’t agree as to exactly what it will involve, yet aren’t prepared to let go of the notion.

An alliance would be very potent, given that Virgin Blue is now, by a whisker, the largest jet airline within Australia, and Air NZ is the dominant carrier within New Zealand, and that the gap between them is massively over serviced.

But they have much to dislike about each other too. Virgin Blue’s NZ based Pacific Blue operation, and its joint venture with Samoa in Polynesian Blue, have been very successful incursions into the regional SW Pacific market that was once all but completely owned by Air NZ.

The New Zealand carrier would also feel some concerns about the likelihood of Virgin Blue and Delta Airlines getting the missing US approval to finalise a joint venture affecting the trans Pacific markets, even if the overall focus of that arrangement is to be flights between America and Australia more than to NZ.

But those issues aside, an effective route sharing and network connecting deal between Virgin Blue and Air NZ would make matters awkward for Qantas and Jetstar. It is not hard to contemplate a John Borghetti lead Virgin Blue making sure than any such alliance saw it jointly expand into the business and fuller service market between both countries while leaving Qantas to rely on the Jetstar product, which is forever vulnerable to expectations of very low prices and price attacks from brands with higher consumer profiles.


Apr 28, 2010


Australia's first Cessna, and the fastest of all, the Citation X, image copyright Aeromil Pacific
Australia's first Cessna, and the fastest of all, the Citation X, image copyright Aeromil Pacific

The first Cessna to fly in Australia, and now one of the rarest light aircraft in the world, a Cessna C34 Airmaster, is to be flown-very carefully and on special occasions– from its new home on the Sunshine Coast.

The aircraft has been bought by Steve Padgett, the managing director of Aeromil Pacific, Australia’s Cessna dealership, to preserve a part of the country’s and Cessna’s aviation history.

Early days, a photo in a private collection
Early days, a photo in a private collection

It was the 41st of 42 C34 Airmasters built between 1935-1936, and was shipped to Australia as serial number 339 and registered as VH-UYG in July 1937. It is also one of only two that survive today, the other being in private ownership in the US.

In recent times, private collection
In recent times, private collection

Padgett says the aeroplane is ‘from the golden age of aviation’ and became the design that saved the manufacturer from the ruin of the Great Depression.


It had a long flying career for a variety of private owners as well as the RAAF and the Royal Flying Doctor Service and was extensively restored in 1993, and was owned by a retired Australian airline captain before being bought by Pagett.



Apr 28, 2010


Qantas has hit the front in the race to deploy 2D barcode check-in services for web enabled smart phones, announcing that the service is now available just about everywhere except T2 at Sydney Airport where some of its full service customers can enjoy the Jetstar experience.

Its country wide embrace of the process follows Virgin Blue’s launch of the technology earlier this month for flights departing Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane.

The procedure allows passengers to avoid checking-in at the airport and go straight to the gate where the barcode image showing their details and seat allocation is scanned to produce a small paper boarding pass. Unless they are checking bags, in which case, go back to the 20th century, stand in line and get a checked bag receipt.

Apparently the speed bump with the roll-outs mainly involves getting the 2D bar code readers and printers to the airports that need them, with Qantas yet to get them to other Jetstar strongholds like Newcastle and Cairns.

The Virgin Blue and Qantas mobile check-in processes are otherwise almost identical.

QF mobile

Qantas is also launching its chip enabled baggage tag for Qantas Club members at Perth in July with a view to national coverage during 2011.


Apr 28, 2010


How not to stuff an A380, posed image supplied by Emirates
How not to stuff an A380, posed image supplied by Emirates

The Lufthansa A380, due for delivery to the carrier on May 19, seems to reflect the race for the bottom among European carriers.

The lower deck of their A380 is all economy seating, like the Emirates A380 plan, but with 420 seats instead of 399. Qantas, which shares that deck with first class, fits in 332 economy seats in the same space that Singapore Airlines seats 311 economy passengers (with a further 88 in the second half of the upper deck.)

Air France, the other European A380 operator to have the type in service this year, fits 327 economy seats on the main deck and a further 122 upstairs, but in the same zone where Singapore Airlines seats only 88. Clearly an attempt by Air France to make economy travellers feel like Paris metro commuters at peak hour.

On the upper deck, Lufthansa fits 8 first class sleepers and 96 business class ‘slopers’ of the type Qantas, Singapore Airlines and Emirates already decided would be uncompetitive over a long haul, which is where they deploy the big ‘bus.

The Lufthansa first class suites will apparently be spacious, as they occupy the most forward of three discrete sections of the A380 upper deck, where Emirates, the only other A380 operator to put first class in the same place has 14 suites (and two shower-spas nearby). This is the zone where Qantas and Singapore Airlines put 18 of their business class sleepers, and Air France crams in 26 of its business class slopers.

A comparison of the numbers and space show that Lufthansa will accommodate 96 slopers in that part of the top deck of the A380 which Qantas uses for 54 of its business class sleepers and 32 premium economy seats. The cram factor in the Lufthansa jet for those being flown business class should be obvious.

To recap, we now have three very different types of A380 product lineups being flown by Singapore Airlines, Qantas and Emirates on the Australian routes, and an Air France A380 operating Paris-New York. And we have the figures for the Lufthansa version, which will go into service mid year, timetable yet to be announced.

By carrier and deck this is how they have (so far) chosen to configure the A380.

Singapore Airlines (471 total)

Upper: 60 business class sleepers, 88 economy seats (8 across)

Lower: 12 first class cabins, 311 economy seats (10 across)

Qantas (450)

Upper: 72 business class sleepers, 32 premium economy

Lower: 14 first class sleepers, 332 economy (10 across)

Emirates (489)

Upper: 14 first class cabins, 76 business class sleepers, one large bar

Lower: 399 economy class (10 across)

Air France (538)

Upper: 80 business class slopers, 122 economy (8 across)

Lower: 9 first class open cabin, 327 economy (10 across)

Lufthansa (524)

Upper: 8 first class, 96 business class slopers

Lower: 420 economy (10 across)

Note that the Lufthansa figures have not been officially announced.

In the absence of any Lufthansa cabin photos, shown at the top of this article is the bar area on the upper deck of the Emirates A380, a feature that it alone has incorporated in its version of the largest passenger jet.


Apr 25, 2010


The world's fastest passenger trains, in Wuhan, photo courtesy Xinhau
The world's fastest passenger trains, in Wuhan, photo courtesy Xinhau

In political terms, Senator Bob Brown’s call for a new study on a VFT or very fast train between Melbourne-Canberra-Sydney risks provoking some fierce green negativity.

However it probably says something about the chances for that issue getting an airing that since Friday when he launched the proposal it has vanished into media invisibility, thanks no doubt to inspired or unlucky timing as the case may be. The Melbourne Storm fraud, the ANZAC holiday weekend, and the continued leaking of the Henry Taxation Review  all killed the VFT story in its tracks, so to speak.

Two Eurostars, the fastest international trains, in London  before departing to Paris and Brussels
Two Eurostars, the fastest international trains, in London before departing to Paris and Brussels

But what will the rank-and-file Greens do to the notion? If windmills can cause so much opposition among greens to what in some circumstances can be a useful boost to renewable energy because of the apparently real threats they pose to bird life…and the tranquil views sought by so many tree changers…what exactly are they going to say about 320 kmh trains rocketing through the parrot rich woods and fields of the southern highlands?

Or being powered by electricity generated by fossil carbon releasing coal fired power stations? Railway permanent ways do not just scar the countryside, and areas of natural beauty, but make cuttings that involve the collapsing of hillsides that are of significant durability on a geological time scale, and every bit as invasive as major highway construction. And they create a noise problem as long as the route.

Eurostar in an English cutting, made for the new high speed line
Eurostar in an English cutting, made for the new high speed line

In Europe the environmental impact of high speed railways is diluted by the extensive changes historically made to the landscape by higher population densities, and by layers of development and industrialisation. This is not the case in Australia, even in the south-eastern corner. We live in a place that is emptier and quieter than any other economically developed nation. We generate the vastly greater proportion of our electricity by burning coal and liberating fossil carbon. In France however the trains run on electricity which comes from turbines turned by steam superheated by nuclear fission, which is achieved by ‘managing’ the relative proximity of rods of enriched uranium, or in some cases plutonium. It’s clean, but scary power.

Thus understanding the nevertheless impressive case for railway expansion, whether it is to be very fast, or for rather less money, faster than before, becomes a process of understanding the desperately pressing matter of reducing the release of fossil sourced carbon. We can’t resolve the issues of radically improving rail infrastructure without dealing with the sources of the power it requires.

Rail transport is like fossil carbon reduction, an issue a coal dependant society continues to find all too hard to do anything about. This is different to the situation in air transport, where the pursuit of non fossil carbon releasing fuel substitutes is driven by sensitivity to rising oil prices rather than any other factor, contrary to what the airlines would have us believe.

(The ultimate goal of the airline industry, which is algal grown octanes with zero impact on food crop production, is perhaps two to three decades away from realisation, but it would have obvious benefits in terms of replacing fossil carbon releasing fuels in shipping and surface transport and perhaps even power generation.)

Brown referred to a Melbourne-Canberra-Sydney route. Canberra is a big complication to a VFT in that it involves engaging on a large scale one of the natural enemies of fast rail in general, which is complex hilly terrain.

The fastest passenger railway route on earth, the Wuhan-Guangzhou line, which began services in December 2009, is 922 kilometres long between the major two stations, or coincidentally, very similar to the likely length of an all new high speed line between Sydney and Melbourne that avoids the worst of the natural obstacles caused by high country around and to the south of Canberra.

The Wuhan-Guangzhou link took 4.5 years years to build, including 177 kilometres of twin track tunnelling. The non-stop service between the two large cities is currently scheduled at 2 hours 57 minutes at an average speed of 313 kmh in trains that reach a top speed of 350 kmh, and have in a trial run exceeded 390 kmh.

However most of the scheduling involves services stopping at some or all of the 12 major centres between Wuhan and Guangzhou as those intermediate express markets are considered essential to the overall viability of the state owned line.

The metal wheel on metal rail technology China is using is now going into a speed range which had previously been seen as belonging exclusively to magnetic levitation or maglev systems, but they are currently in eclipse as that contact free technology has failed to scale up into a workable proposition, in China where a short haul maglev link exists between Pudong Airport and Shanghai, or anywhere else.


A photo gallery of what is now the fastest passenger train route on earth is contained in the YouTube above. The one below is a video which mostly illustrates the rail experience.

Both deserve a close study for what they have to say about fast rail, and China.



Apr 25, 2010


An Mi26 swallowing heavy equipment with a C-17 in the background © John Roberts
An Mi26 swallowing heavy equipment while contemplating a C-17 in the background © John Roberts

In almost 600 posts on Plane Talking nothing has generated as much discussion in individual articles as Russian aviation, whether the stories of its airliners, or the Sukhoi PAK FA or T-50 rival (and it seems likely, terminator) of the JSF, closely followed by debate over numerous items solely about the Joint Strike Fighter debacle.

John Roberts, who follows this blog and is now engaged on the civil side of the Somali Peacekeeping operation has sent in some of his own photos of the spectacularly effective giant Russian Mi26 helicopter in operation in Afghanistan where he had been responsible for renovating and maintaining the strip at Tarin Kowt for three years.

20 tonnes, no worries! The Mi26 in action © John Roberts
20 tonnes, no worries! The Mi26 in action © John Roberts

This is the largest and most powerful helicopter to enter production, and is widely used outside Russia because it is the answer to a range of extremely difficult heavy lift challenges in military and civil fields.

A heavy extraction at Tarin Kowt © John Roberts
A heavy extraction at Tarin Kowt © John Roberts

Roberts earlier contributed some dramatic C-17 photos he had taken during his tour at Tarin Kowt (example below).

© John Roberts
© John Roberts

He was also closely involved in the provision of the Mi26 to the Nederlands Defence Force (NDF) to service their remote bases between Kandahar and Tarin Kowt. The contract started in mid 06 and it is still flying at a rate of up to 100hrs a month.

© John Roberts
© John Roberts

Postscript: Below is a higher resolution image of the Mi26-Chinook recovery operation described in the link provided  by Uwe in the comments.



Apr 24, 2010


Schiphol Airport spotters, Amsterdam, photo by Asia-Pacific Aerospace Report
Schiphol Airport spotters, Amsterdam

Among the dumber mindsets in matters concerning security at airports there has been a crack down on photography in general and plane spotters in particular.

The situation is not as bad in Australia as in Little Britain, India, the EU, and the US, but there have been anecdotal reports on sites dedicated to aircraft spotting and air transport photography concerning people, even family or tour groups posing for pictures in terminals, being harassed or threatened with arrest for taking photos or videos.

Which is why, being a rail fan–which is the mature aged version of a train spotter– I thought this column by long time air and rail transport reporter Don Phillips (an American who worked for many years in Paris) is so relevant to the role plane spotters can play in enhancing security.

The key references for Australia comes in the final section concerning the rights of people to take photos in public places, as well as their utility in detecting security breaches.

Trains Magazine column

By Don Phillips

Amtrak off to a good start
talking with rail supporters

The Amtrak/Trains Magazine meeting in Chicago on March
6 was a surprisingly good session for the nearly 300 rail supporters
and enthusiasts who met in a riverf ront hotel. Yes, I was disappointed
in a few statements by Amtrak President Joe Boardman and his
lieutenants, two of which I discuss below. But there was much that
was positive about the meeting, and I want to emphasize that first.

Perhaps the best news of all was that Amtrak’s top management
was there, made itself available, and provided some straight talk and
some useful information. For more than a year, Boardman held almost
no news conferences, but just recently, before the March “town
hall” meeting, he gave two speeches in which he took relatively
tough questions and answered them.

Then, at the town hall meeting, he took numerous questions and
answered most of them satisfactorily. That is a new situation that all
of us should applaud and encourage. March 6 was a great coming out
celebration, and there are already indications that Boardman is
keeping up the pace. Personally, I look forward to it.

But for now, I want to focus on two issues that need further resolution.
The first was a statement from Boardman saying that Amtrak
will scrap the passenger cars it retires in years to come. He was quite
forthcoming in explaining that this would be done to avoid having
the cars fall into the hands of possible competing passenger operators.

I hate to say it, Mr. Boardman, but these are not your cars. They
were partly paid for by us, the taxpayers. If a few pennies of my taxes
could be returned with a sale to someplace other than a scrap yard,
then sell them. I, and millions of fellow taxpayers, have a say in this.

I see one other serious issue, and this one is quite serious: Amtrak’s
insistence on continuing its policy that railfans cannot take
pictures on open-air Amtrak station platforms. This accomplishes
nothing and actually takes one small step in removing some of our
freedoms. A platform is public unless it is blocked off to everyone,
or there is a compelling reason (perhaps a chemical spill) to evacuate
the area, or some passerby does something stupid like walk in
the middle of the tracks.

No one has yet explained why this rule was imposed. Even at the
conference, the “why” issue was danced around. We know lots of
so-called reasons, but we still don’t know the real reason why Amtrak
considers this strange rule so important that it would risk losing
lots of friends and step on our Constitutional rights. Many railroads
welcome rail photographers on their platforms, including
New Jersey Transit. I mention NJ Transit because it owns Newark
station. Therefore, we can go on the Newark platforms and take all
the photos we want of Amtrak trains. (Amtrak owns only one-third
of the stations it uses. How confusing for photographers.)

At the conference, Amtrak chose its wonderful police chief John
O’Connor to break the bad news to us. O’Connor is a pure civil
libertarian and perhaps the best cop I’ve ever known. He cast the
rule as something that Amtrak never claimed till now — a way to let
Amtrak know we are there so local citizens and police can be informed
that we’re legitimate, unthreatening photographers if someone
asks. Sorry, Chief, good try and I know you mean it, and you
may successfully transform this rule into something positive. But
for now, we’re still technically banned from places that have been
open to us for more than a century.

But why listen to me? Let me turn to a note from another veteran
police officer, part of which I repeat below by permission. I will close
with this note because I can’t improve on it. The note comes from
John DeLora, who just retired after 30 years as a police officer with
a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice. For his last eight years, De-
Lora was the Homeland Security Liaison for Detroit Public School
District Police, and was the planning and training officer for 60 fully
sworn police officers and more than 350 unsworn security officers.

“When any kind of criminal incident happens, police need as
much information as possible. As an investigator, I want to know
what cars were parked where, who was in the area, and what was left
where and when. When an incident occurred near one of our buildings,
we’d ask students if anyone got photos on their cell phones. It
is rare that we got a shot of the perpetrator in action, but we did get
photos of people in the area who are potential witnesses, and we
also got photos of cars that were in the area, giving us valuable
sources for further leads.

“Amtrak’s photo policy eliminates these potential investigatory
leads. The idea that these rules will discourage terrorist activity is
pure naiveté. Any potential terrorist can get all the photo information
needed from Google satellite photos or by simply pretending to
take a picture of someone.

“Amtrak should be encouraging as much photography as possible.
Railfans should be encouraged to take photos not just of trains
and stations, but of undesirables who hang around some big-city
stations. This includes panhandlers asking for spare change plus
crackheads, winos, and junkies in the area. Seeing that people are
taking photos will discourage them from hanging around, and can
provide valuable leads to police when break-ins of cars parked in
the station parking lot occur.

“Finally, the photo policy may be Amtrak’s policy, but it is far from
being law. Photography is legal in any public place. Public places include
station parking lots, waiting rooms, concourses, and platforms
without gates restricting access. Amtrak’s photo policy was likely developed
by a corporate law attorney, and in my opinion, probably one
who has never prosecuted a criminal case in a courtroom.”

DON PHILLIPS, a newspaper reporter for more than four decades,
writes this exclusive monthly column for Trains.

The advice given to me is that this is just as true in Australia. While there are laws that can be used to prosecute those who stalk, impede or threaten other people, or trespass, there is no legal basis for preventing any member of the public, including tourists, from taking photos or videos in general in public places, or at public events (although there are some serious copyright issues in relation to the performing arts).

The spotter community is close enough to know what and whom is usual, or unusual or suspicious. While subject to the same rules that apply to everyone concerning anti-social behaviour or creating a public nuisance, a co-operative relationship between plane spotters and the authorities and the airports is highly desirable.

freeze 01

Some postcards have arrived from inside the big ‘fridge’ or the McKinley Climatic Laboratory at the Eglin Air Force Base in Florida of ZA003, the third numbered of the Boeing 787 Dreamliner test and certification fleet doing a cold soak test.

freeze 02

These freeze frames are from a video that should be posted on www.newairplane.com shortly, and are all Boeing copyright images.

freeze 06

The more usual procedure in cold soak tests, which is to do them in the ‘wild’ outdoors in high Arctic locations, is not available before the 787 is due to achieve full certification and begin deliverys to launch customer All Nippon Airways in November.

freeze 05


Apr 22, 2010


There will be four very different forms of ‘smart’ check-in procedures in domestic air travel by the end of this year.

The first of them, the Virgin Blue ‘Check-Mate’ system, was launched today, initially on flights between Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane.

It will be followed by a second trial and introduction of a Jetstar procedure with no snappy name as yet, starting next month on the Sydney-Avalon route, with Qantas introducing Perth as the first port for its ‘Airport of the Future Initiative’ processes, which really is too many words but involves some elements in common with the Virgin Blue process as well as a chip enabled super-tag system for frequent flyers that looks very similar to the one used by Air New Zealand.

Lurking somewhere in the shadows is Tiger’s new work-in-progress web check in procedure, which is apparently more innovative than it has let on so far, since it will bring in ‘Zero minutes’ check-in times, which will have everyone else scrambling to achieve the same result.

In short, this is the year four different airline brands are working toward the same goal of allowing anyone who has checked-in using their newest processes to board their flight right up to the moment the door is sealed. After which your fare is toast if you aren’t on board.

Virgin Blue’s Check-Mate is entirely smart phone oriented, for those phones smart enough to use it and which are web enabled. No-one could answer the question today whether it will also work with an iPad but sooner or later, it will have to.

With Virgin Blue you can book your flight on the smart phone, or a PC. If booking on your smart phone, the process immediately generates a square 2D barcode image which contains all the relevant details. This code can also be sent to your smart phone if you wish while using its regular web check-in to select a seat.

Once the check in process has been completed the passenger without checked baggage can go straight to the gate, where the only paper involved in the process is generated as a seat and flight number stub by a bar code reader pending the perfection of a Virgin Blue process to modify the eyeballs and retinas of staff to decipher 2D images at a glance.

However if you are checking luggage the technological breakthrough ends when you are sent to the manual baggage check in desk where an old fashioned large paper boarding pass is printed together with a receipt that is really useful if you have to fill out a lost luggage claim.

Check-Mate comes with a full set of service options including changing bookings, and even advice on dress requirements, which include approval to wear thongs and singlets. (No, really, this is the truth, go to mobile.virginblue.com.au and you can see the menu for Check-Mate customers for yourselves. )

There is also a special app you can download for a Blackberry, but the system works fine on an iPhone or Blackberry without the helper download. Because Check-Mate relies on  WAP or the wireless application protocol there will be a telephone service provider charge involved when it is used.

The Jetstar system, which had a less than glorious first trial run late last year, begins its second iteration on the Avalon-Sydney route next month, and sources are confident it will prove itself robust and ready for quick deployment network wide.

Instead of generating a 2D barcode the as yet unnamed Jet Txt process produces a text message suitable for dumb as well as smart phones. If it has a screen and can display text, it works.

Bookings are made on a regular computer 24 hours minimum before the Jetstar flight is scheduled to leave. In the booking process you are asked if you want to pre-enrol for the text service, which is sent, with a minimum of 24 hours notice, to your mobile.

At the airport you place the mobile with the text message displayed in a tray in the self check in kiosk or in a special reader which scans it and prints a boarding pass.

If you are making the trip at short notice you will need to check-in at the airport in the normal way.

By this time next year these different approaches to a common goal of lower cost real time automated check-in processes should allow some conclusions to be drawn about which works best for various types of travellers.

In the meantime, make sure your mobile batteries are well charged
before you reach the gate.


Apr 22, 2010


Sydney Airport is refunding the additional parking charges incurred by passengers and air crew who have been delayed overseas by the European volcanic ash crisis and also refunding or allowing free rescheduling of the pre-paid long term car parking bookings made by those who were unable to fly out when they intended.

The airport says the best way to contact them to take up these offers is by email to [email protected] .

A spokesman for Sydney Airport suggested that affected passengers and airline employees might find it easiest to scan and attached their receipts and itinerary details to the emails.

In the second, somewhat startling random act of kindness in the minds of the cynical Ryanair CEO Michael O’Leary ordered the handing out of free in-flight food to customers who were stranded at its airports by the closures.


Apr 21, 2010


Now that the volcanic dust is clearing over London you can see…rip off airfares!

But not if you read The Age or Sydney Morning Herald.

Both papers have killed the link to their exposé yesterday of airlines posting rip-off economy class fares to London as high as $11,429, which is exactly $100 less than this morning’s Qantas.com quote for business class return to Heathrow from Melbourne leaving mid June and returning mid July.

It seems that having lost its grip on real estate dollars in Melbourne there is no way Fairfax is going to let consumer interest stories cost it the travel advertiser dollars as well.

These are the facts. There is always a very high full economy fare in airline tariffs in general which has historically been the basis for calculating pro-rata sector fares where airlines host another carrier’s passenger over part of their route structure.

It should never, ever, be offered to consumers. It is a relic of a past era that makes inherently misleading appearances on some on line retail sites from time to time, sometimes with beguiling references to the added security or benefits of a ‘full’ economy fare over a discount fare.

Crikey could not find such a stratospherically outrageous fare on the main sites this morning, but if the report was in error it would be normal for the Fairfax broadsheets to publish a correction.

In this case, they didn’t correct it. They expunged it. The reasonable conclusion is that editorial and archived copy surgery was performed to keep a dynamite consumer interest topic out of sight, regardless of whether or not the original report was written by someone who was clueless about air fares.

The misuse of extremely high unconditional economy fares to trap the unwary is a recurrent problem in air fare retailing. To their credit both Webjet a major online third party fare retailer, and Singapore Airlines have in the past publicly vowed to prevent their use, inadvertent or otherwise, after these fares caused consternation in consumer circles some years ago.

But there were some stand out rip off fares in circulation today.

For example, a trial booking on British Airways through its Australian site for departures from Melbourne or Sydney in the cheapest available economy category on May 28, with a return on June 23, produced the quote below.

BA quote

However, knowing that the same flights are sold by Qantas.com under its joint services agreement with BA, and have both BA and QF flight numbers, the same flights were then sought from the Qantas site.

QF quote outbound

QF quote inbound

Note that the cheapest of the fare options offered by Qantas were available. The BA operated flights are identified by a coloured dot and are coded QF 301 and QF319 outbound and QF302 and QF320-same fares-on the way back. BA was selling the same seats Qantas was offering for a total $2180 for $4332, which is appalling.

(Another set of quotes produced a Qantas return fare of $2800, which for the high travel season is itself reasonable.)

Be warned. These put-ons with ‘unconditional’ economy fares that are ‘flown’ at an altitude higher than the 747s fly, will rattle around the travel retail scene opportunistically lying in wait for those who are either gullible or desperate to get a confirmed booking in the aftermath of the air space closures.

Singapore Airlines pointedly emphasised this morning that it would not be selling its economy fares at inflated prices in the coming weeks, even though it said getting a seat in economy class would be difficult on its Europe and UK services for some time.

The background to the Singapore position is that Flight Centre, which controls more than half the shop front travel outlets in Australia, and which has been at loggerheads with Singapore Airlines over the commercial relationship between them, yesterday told the travel trade media that the flow on effect of the ash crisis was that fares were set to rise.

Flight Centre may be right, but the alternative scenario is that if there are more disruptions and eruptions, and consumer uncertainty discourages travel to Europe, prices will not go up, but collapse.

This price uncertainty, sky high, or rock bottom, is especially true of other travel products, such as hotel rooms, hire cars and all inclusive packages.

The BBC today is crammed with horror stories about hotels doubling their full or rack rates, and car rental companies hitting those who tried to arrive in Europe from the dust free airports on its edges with €5000 fees for dropping off a vehicle rented in Bratislava in Birmingham.

Which is really daft. You can buy a perfectly roadworthy ‘bomb’ in Slovakia for well under €2000  and just abandon it in the UK. Actually that would be naughty. It could easily be sold for a few hundred quid or even given away at the local Slovak social club. Think like a backpacker at times like this.

If European and British travel does take a dive because of fears about more ash related strandings those travel service providers who have to make monthly payments for rents or loans are going to switch from trying to gouge their way out of trouble by robbing the few, and revert to distressed inventory sales to the many, just to get across the line.

It is too early in the ashen aftermath to work out whether the Flight Centre prediction of higher prices, or a sudden frenzy of deep discounting, will apply to Europe and UK travel.

This is a longer version of a report published in the Crikey email bulletin earlier today.


Apr 21, 2010


Qantas has followed the other major kangaroo route carriers this afternoon and announced a resumption of services from London to Australia later today and the start of flights to London and Frankfurt from tomorrow.

It is still vital for passengers booked on any airline to check with the carrier’s web site before leaving for the airport, as problems may still arise because of displaced jets, but the volcanic ash threat has been officially declared to be gone from European skies for the time being.

Qantas estimates it will be two to tree weeks before the knock on effects of the six day air space closure have been dealt with. Similar estimates are being made by their competitors. For tens of thousands of travellers between Australia and Europe the consequences range from the complete loss of holiday or family trips to severe problems organising replacement flights and arrangements such as car rentals or accommodation.

The fighting between IATA representing many of the carriers, and the airspace authorities who imposed the blanket bans is only just getting into gear.

While no-one is arguing that volcanic ash isn’t very harmful to jet airliners, there is a fierce debate raging over the failure of the authorities to keep the skies open in areas where the concentration of gritty glassy particles from the eruption in Iceland had dispersed to levels where it wasn’t a threat.


Apr 20, 2010


The results from the flights of an Airbus A380 and A340-600 through the volcanic ash clouds over Europe early today Australian time have found no adverse effects on either jet or any of their engines.

These long duration test flights were followed by strip down examinations of engine parts known to be particularly vulnerable to the ingestion of the glassy gritty and acidic particles found in volcanic ash plumes.

An A380 Engine Alliance test aircraft flew for three hours 50 minutes in French airspace while a Rolls-Royce powered A340-600 flew for five hours in German airspace.

The flights deliberately took in as much dust as they could find and at all available flight levels at up to full cruising speeds. According to a ‘phone call, the pilots noticed nothing adverse in terms of performance or handling or systems during the flights, and when the engines were pulled apart and thoroughly inspected there was no evidence of volcanic ash damage.

There seems to be a very obvious lesson from these test flights, as well as the shorter ones carried out earlier this week by a range of European airlines.

That is, while everyone knows from the records, exposure to significant concentrations of volcanic ash are very damaging, and dangerous, to airliners and their engines, the key factor is the actual concentration of particles in the air, and that for at least the last three days, much of European airspace has been safe.

The anger of the airlines over the blanket closures of large parts of European airspace since last Thursday now seems to be justified, and it doesn’t take much imagination to anticipate some demands for major compensation will land on top of the various air space authorities and regulators as soon as they can be drawn up.

However there are still reasons to be cautious. The plumes were sufficiently dangerous to damage the engine of a NATO F-16 early in the week, and after being ‘gung-ho’ about its own test flight results British Airways has been quick to cancel in recent hours many short haul flights as new and denser clouds of volcanic ash spread eastwards and southwards from the Eyjafjallajokull eruption toward the southern parts of the UK.

Many long haul flights are currently operating to or from those European airports that have been closed for the last 5-6 days, but Qantas remains cautious, and has cancelled all flights to London and Frankfurt until at least noon Thursday and a spokesperson has said it is unlikely they will resume before Friday at the earliest.

This could of course change, but the complicating factor is the risk that dangerous concentrations of ash will arrive anew over parts of Europe in about the same amount of time it takes to get an airliner from SE Asia into its air space.

Qantas has also warned that new bookings are currently unavailable on flights to London and Frankfurt until early in May.


Apr 19, 2010


Sydney's Epping underground, what chance has it of ever linking up with Parramatta or a Sydney West airport?
Sydney's Epping underground. What chance has it of ever linking up with Parramatta or a Sydney West airport?

Tiger’s confirmation of a deal with Avalon Airport sends a very sharp message to Sydney, which is ‘build a second airport at Badgery’s Creek.’

No, of course Sydney won’t listen. Nor will the Rudd Government nor the Abbott opposition, nor either side of NSW politics. Sydney is going to continue is slide into infrastructure grid lock, and discourage businesses that generate air travel, and maritime commerce for that matter.

But let’s get this on the record. The Avalon situation, where the Melbourne has a second airport, with different owners, has broken the monopoly pricing power of its main airport, Melbourne International at Tullamarine.

Avalon's wide open spaces today and a glimpse, below, of what it can look like if it follows the low cost carrier growth trajectory of London's Stansted Airport, courtesy BAA.
Avalon's wide open spaces today and a glimpse, below, of what it can look like if it follows the low cost carrier growth trajectory of London's Stansted Airport, courtesy BAA.


The Sydney situation is that of a city held to ransom by outrageous airport charges compared to the the other major Australian cities,with its sole jet airport occupying a constrained site which even the Federal Government has acknowledged is unable to cope with expected growth beyond 2025.

And even though Melbourne’s main airport is seven times as far from its CBD as Sydney’s airport is, the harbour city has surrounded what should be Australia’s most convenient airport with a road and rail shambles that a succession of state governments have been incapable of addressing.

It is a case of the rapacious confined by the incompetent.

Both Sydney and Melbourne are expanding to the west. At the bottom of the areas where housing and business can best expand west in Melbourne is Avalon airport. It has all the room it needs to become a much larger airport, and with a comparatively minor augmentation of the existing Geelong-Southern Cross terminal railway, it can in time have a high speed connection that would integrate easily into Melbourne’s regular public transport options.

In roughly the same location in relation to Sydney, a small but adequate amount of space has been reserved for a second jet airport at Badgery’s Creek. It could be readily accessed from Sydney’s major motorway network by short links to the M7, M4 and even M5. There is a lot of travel demand in Sydney today that could reach Badgery’s Creek airport faster than it can access the Fortress Macquarie Bank airport, and it could be linked to the completion of the Chatswood-Parramatta railway which only made it as far as Epping, except that it is a Sydney project, so this is unlikely to ever happen.

But while Melbourne sees its south-western second airport at Avalon galvanised along the path to major expansion by the competition between the low cost clones Jetstar and Tiger at its facilities, with other carriers likely to follow in the nearer term, Sydney is left waiting for yet another search to choose a site for a second Sydney Airport which won’t even be remotely anywhere near to the Sydney market.

It’s a situation that ensures Sydney becomes perpetually disadvantaged in terms of competitive airport access.

In Melbourne there is no barrier to Avalon being both a domestic and international competitor to Tullamarine in the future. And in serving both of its airports, Tiger and Jetstar demonstrate one of the characteristics of the low cost carrier model, which is to rely on inexpensive point-to-point opportunities to fly, rather than opting for legacy carrier hub-and-spoke concentrations which can on one hand offer lots of connections to travellers, but extract a high price in longer journey times and higher fares, both of which go against the original purpose of air travel, which is to save time and money.

In as little as 10 years from now Avalon will be a busy and useful airport locked in competition with a Tullamarine Airport which will also continue to grow as Melbourne attracts the economic growth that Sydney wilfully discourages.

It would take a miracle in terms of political resolve to fix Sydney’s infrastructure problems and arrest the decline so evident today in all its transport modes.


Apr 19, 2010


Emirates has put a cost of $10 million a day on the volcanic ash crisis, Singapore Airlines says it is too busy looking after passengers to start counting, and Qantas agrees.

This is the Emirates assessment:

EK cost

A Qantas spokesperson says that it is providing whatever assistance it can to passengers, and has been able to find accommodation for the stranded in Singapore, Bangkok and Hong Kong in most cases.

The cost for passengers is going to depend on the fine print in insurance policies, where passengers have them, as well as the likely forfeiture of much or a large part of pre-paid travel arrangements, as holiday arrangements like tours may prove impossible to rebook to a future date.

If the insurance policy has an ‘act of God’ escape clause, well, ‘God’ hates you, and you may well not get anything back. The potential for long and bitter consumer disputes with travel suppliers is obvious and will take a considerable time to be resolved.

On the other hand, many of the stranded are taking up the offer of a refund of their fare and a free early return to Australia. If trips can be rescheduled, the volcano and the clouds relent, and you travel again, some hotels and tour operators may well be very keen to talk a good price as they struggle to make up lost revenue.


Apr 18, 2010


While discussing matters volcanic with a Hong Kong analyst he mentioned that Jetstar Asia had filed late last week its financials for the 15 months to June 30, 2009.

The salient figures for the period, which brings the Singapore based Jetstar franchise into alignment with the financial year of Qantas, which bankrolls it, was a loss of $SIN of 16.5 million, or little more than $1 million a month over the period.

His view was that this wasn’t good, and that the components of the current Jetstar Asia entity, had lost a total in Singapore currency of $239 million in the five years since it began flying in December 2004.

This was made up of accumulated losses of $97 million for Jetstar Australia, $85.1 million for ValuAir, which was folded into Jetstar Asia, and a total of $56.9 million for Orangestar.

Last year’s reconstruction of the company, into Newstar, was almost entirely funded by Qantas, as owner of Jetstar Australia, and saw the exit of Temasek Holdings, the Singapore Government superannuation investment fund which is the major shareholder in Singapore Airlines, which controls Tiger Airways, which it invented to clobber Jetstar both in Australia and Singapore for daring to enter its patch, and so forth, with Temasek also holding part of the Tiger group directly as well as indirectly through Singapore Airlines.

So much for the eye glazing arrangements. If you think they are complex try looking at something really complicated, like the equity structure of Cathay Pacific.

The crucial question is whether or not Jetstar Asia is a lemon, which my friend thinks it is, or actually an investment which has only cost Qantas peanuts for entrée into the big numbers game of trans border low cost airline franchises in Asia, which is by far, the biggest game in airline developments in the world looking well into the future.

Both viewpoints make sense. But only one will prove to be correct.

While Jetstar Asia didn’t lose much on those figures, losses can’t go on indefinitely and the two other players, Malayasia based Air Asia and Tiger are at this moment, profitable, and also expanding like Jetstar Asia and the Jetstar Australia domestic and international operations.

The smartest thing I have heard from anyone about the issue of low cost carriers, as in the pure, much loved Ryanair model, was an observation soon-to-escape Virgin Blue co-founder and CEO Brett Godfrey made while explaining why he had taken the carrier into the middle price range where there were lots of frequent flyers looking for the right combination of savings, service, and frequency.

“Low cost competition is trench warfare”, Godfrey said. “The customers have no brand loyalty other than lowest price, and it turns into a contest to see who can bleed money the slowest .”

That is a point worth considering. It leads inevitably to the realisation that being a low cost carrier for any duration depends on a combination of indulgent owners and a continued expansion of revenue through bargain specials for use in the future to generate more ‘blood’ or cash than is needed in the present to replace the blood being lost today by carrying the holders of super cheap fares purchased well in advance in the past.

It vaguely resembles pyramid selling. It certainly represents a need for continuous expansion and a lot of forward selling.


Apr 18, 2010


Until last Thursday, when the ash cloud swept over the UK and parts of Europe, the mark of a successful airline was high load factors in the aftermath of the global financial crisis.

But those load factors mean that those who were caught between Australia and Europe last week have limited opportunities to get seats on any flights that MIGHT resume on those routes from the middle of the new week.

Today’s notices to air travel are all the same theme and no variation, but here are two of them, from Qantas and Emirates this afternoon.

Currently, Emirates is only accepting passengers for the following European destinations:

• Moscow
• Athens
• Larnaca
• Malta
• Istanbul

These destinations could also be subject to cancellations if the path of the ash cloud continues to spread.

All passengers are advised to check the status of their flight on www.emirates.com before leaving for the airport. We ask that passengers do not go to the airport if their flight has been cancelled.

To date, over 40,000 Emirates passengers have been impacted by the closure of airspace in the UK and most of Europe.

Emirates is working on a contingency plan to ensure that we get flights and passengers moving as quickly as possible once airspace reopens. However, like every carrier, we cannot activate contingency plans until we receive clearance from European Air Traffic Control authorities. Until this happens, we cannot give firm timescales.

Thinking about a train to London from Moscow? Or Istanbul? So are several hundred thousand other people.


QFApr18-2While everyone waits on the winds, and the volcano, some test flights over short stages have been made by airlines including Lufthansa and KLM. The density of the ash cloud varies enormously, over short distances, and both carriers found no signs of damage to the jets in terms of abraded windscreens or engine components on return, opening up the way for them to ferry some of their intra European fleet between airports in anticipation of enough in terms of clear skies to make safe flights with passengers.

The plumes of gritty glassy dust will remain in the atmosphere for up to several years as the particles gradually fall to earth, and once they are spread further by the weather systems they will also thin to below levels where the airlines will again have insurance.


Apr 16, 2010


The volcanic ash crisis is now well into its next stage, which is how to cope with the stranded and restless.

Qantas and other carriers are telling those trying to fly to intermediate airports on tickets with an ultimate destination in Europe that they cannot fly, even though many services to Singapore, Bangkok, Hong Kong, Kuala Lumpur and Dubai are operating and have spare seats.

Those who are trying to position themselves at intermediate airports for a resumption of flights to Europe (and doing so on the costlier fares that allow them to break their journey in this manner) would only exacerbate the quite serious overcrowding being reported by stranded passengers at full or near full airports, in particular in Singapore’s Changi terminals.

Changi has already been compared to a refugee camp, albeit one full of designer labels and people who are bored and jetless rather than frightened and stateless.

The terminals in Singapore and Bangkok are crammed with the stranded, because the hotels are full of of passengers whose flights were prevented from continuing to Europe on Thursday night.

All of the way point airports are being occupied by an aimless army of dispossessed flyers, occupying every flat place or wandering aimlessly through the terminals, twittering their boredom to friends and family.

Cathay Pacific is hopeful at the moment of keeping its Milan and Rome services going, but sees nothing else moving for at least two days.

And this raises another problem. While the ash will eventually relent, maybe even within a day or two, the dominant carriers on these longest routes to Europe, Emirates, Singapore Airlines, Cathay Pacific, Qantas and Thai International, now face an unintended consequence of having successfully slashed capacity at the height of the GFC.

Once the stranded jets start moving, there is little room on flights already booked by those due to fly next week to take in those who didn’t complete their journeys this week.

Already people are complaining that having accepted airline offers of no penalty rebooking of disrupted flights and put off their departure from Australia, they are being quoted vacancies nine or more days into the future.

Which means that at this long haul end of the European log jam, many travellers may have to cancel their trips or holidays.

Friday night Qantas update:

QF Fri 8 pmSaturday update 5.30 pm indicates the position is not improving, and is similar to the situation with other major carriers to Europe.

QF 1704The last line in the latest Qantas update is significant. Many passengers caught out by Thursday night’s closure of UK air space after getting as far as Singapore, Bangkok, Hong Kong or Dubai might not be able to continue on their original itineraries until next Tuesday, or later.