Air Travel

Flying Cars -- Airport Carshare system

Parking at airports seems a terrible waste — expensive parking and your car sits doing nothing. I first started thinking about the various Car Share companies (City CarShare, ZipCar, FlexCar — effectively membership based hourly car rentals which include gas/insurance and need no human staff) and why one can’t use them from the airport. Of course, airports are full of rental car companies, which is a competitive problem, and parking space there is at a premium.

Right now the CarShare services tend to require round-trip rentals, but for airports the right idea would be one-way rentals — one member drives the car to the airport, and ideally very shortly another member drives the car out of the airport. In an ideal situation, coordinated by cell phone, the 2nd member is waiting at the curb, and you would just hand off the car once it confirms their membership for you. (Members use a code or carry a key fob.) Since you would know in advance before you entered the airport whether somebody is ready, you would know whether to go to short term parking or the curb — or a planned long-term parking lot with a bit more advance notice so you allocate the extra time for that.

Of course the 2nd member might not want to go to the location you got the car from, which creates the one-way rental problem that carshares seem to need to avoid. Perhaps better balancing algorithms could work, or at worst case, the car might have to wait until somebody from your local depot wants to go there. That’s wasteful, though. However, I think this could be made to work as long as the member base is big enough that some member is going in and out of the airport.

I started thinking about something grander though, namely being willing to rent your own private car out to bonded members of a true car sharing service. This is tougher to do but easier to make efficient. The hard part is bonding reliability on the part of all concerned.

Read on for more thinking on it…  read more »

Better forms of differential pricing that don't punish flexibility so much

Differential pricing occurs when a company attempts to charge different prices to two different customers for what is essentially the same product. One place we all encounter it a lot is air travel, where it seems no two passengers paid the same price for their tickets on any given flight. You also see it in things like one of my phones, which has 4 line buttons but only 2 work — I must pay $30 for a code to enable the other 2 buttons.

The public tends to hate differential pricing, though in truth we should only hate it when it makes us pay more. Clearly some of the time we’re paying less than we might pay if differential pricing were not possible or illegal.

So even if differential pricing is neutral, one can rail if it punishes/overcharges the wrong thing. There might be a better way to get at the vendor’s goal of charging each customer the most they will tolerate — hopefully subject to competition. Competition makes differential pricing complex, as it’s only stable if all competitors use roughly the same strategy.

In air travel, the prevailing wisdom has been that business travellers will tolerate higher ticket prices than vacation travellers, and so most of the very complex pricing rules in that field are based on that philosophy. Business travellers don’t want to stay over weekends, they like to change their flights, they want to fly a combination of one-way trips and they want to book flights at short notice. (They also like to fly business class.) All these things cost a lot more in the current regime.

Because of this, almost all the travel industry has put a giant surcharge on flexibility. It makes sense that it might cost a bit more — it’s much easier to schedule your airline or hotel if people will book well in advance and keep to their booking — but it seems as though the surcharge has gotten immense, where flexible travel can cost 2 to 4 times what rigidly scheduled travel costs. Missing the last flight of the day can be wallet-breaking. Indeed, there are many arguments that since an empty seat or hotel room is largely wasted, vendors might be encouraged to provide cheaper tickets to those coming in at the last minute, rather than the most expensive. (And sometimes they do. In the old days flying standby was the cheapest way to fly, suitable only for students or the poor. There are vendors that sell cheap last minute trips.)

Vendors have shied away from selling cheap last-minute travel because they don’t want customers to find it reliable enough to depend on. But otherwise it makes a lot of sense.

So my “Solve this” problem is to come up with schemes that still charge people as much as they will tolerate, but don’t punish travel flexiblity as much.

One idea is to come up with negative features for cheap tickets that flexible, non-business travellers will tolerate but serious business travellers and wealthy travellers will not. For example, tickets might come with a significant (perhaps 10-20%) chance of being bumped, ideally with sufficient advance notice by cell phone that you don’t waste time going to the airport. For example, the airline might sell a cheap ticket but effectively treat the seat as available for sale again to a higher-paying passenger if they should come along. You might learn the morning of your trip that somebody else bought your seat, and that you’ll be going on a different flight or even the next day. They would put a cap on how much they could delay you, and that cap might change the price of your ticket.

For a person with a flexible work schedule (like a consultant) or the retired, they might well not care much about exactly what day they get back home. They might like the option to visit a place until they feel like returning, with the ability to get a ticket then, but the risk that it might not be possible for a day or two more. Few business travellers would buy such a ticket.

Such tickets would be of most value to those with flexible accomodations, who are staying with friends and family, for example, or in flexible hotels. Rental cars tend to be fairly flexible.

Of course, if you’re willing to be bumped right at the airport, that should given you an even cheaper ticket, but that’s quite a burden. And with today’s ubiquitous cell phones and computer systems there’s little reason not to inform people well in advance.

This technique could even provide cheaper first-class. You might buy a ticket at a lower price, a bit above coach, that gets you a first class seat half the time but half the time puts you in coach because somebody willing to pay the real price of first class bought a ticket. (To some extent, the upgrade system, where upgrades are released at boarding time based on how many showed up for first class, does something like this.)

Any other ideas how airlines could provide cheaper flexible tickets without eating into their business flyer market? If only one airline tries a new idea, you get an interesting pattern where everybody who likes the new fare rules switches over to that airline in the competitive market, and the idea is forced to spread.

Added note: In order to maintain most of their differential pricing schemes today, airlines need and want the photo-ID requirement for flying. If tickets (including tickets to half a return trip) could be easily resold on the web to anybody, they could not use the systems they currently use. However, the system I suggest, which requires the passenger be willing to be bumped, inhibits resale without requiring any type of ID. A business traveller might well buy a cheap ticket at the last minute from somebody who bought earlier, but they are going to be less willing to buy a ticket with unacceptable delay risks associated with it.

Beware the Weather Warn

This weekend I experienced an air travel policy that I had not seen before and which I found quite shocking. I was flying on United Express (Skywest)’s flight from San Francisco to Calgary. As we waited for the early morning flight, they announced this “weather warn.” Visibility was poor in Calgary due to low clouds. Below 0.5 miles they plane would not be allowed to land there. They rated about a 1/3rd chance of this happening, 2/3 chance we would land normally.

The catch was this, if, when they got to Calgary, they found they could not land, they would divert to Great Falls, MT. After dropping the passengers in Great Falls, we would be entirely on our own, with no assistance at all with getting to Calgary via ground or air. (United Express and a few other airlines do sell tickets from Great Falls to Calgary, though all via fairly distant hubs like Denver, Salt Lake etc.) The important point about this is that the diversion is to an airport in a different country from the intended destination. This makes ground transportation particularly difficult, as car rental companies are disinclined to offer economical one-way rentals between countries — not to mention the 6 hour drive. (Hertz will do it for about $320/day.)

I just checked and Greyhound will get you there in 1 day, 14 hours via Seattle and Vancouver. Amtrak doesn’t even go there.

Now the other passengers who had seen this before said that it usually works out, so we got on with a sense of adventure. But it would have been a big adventure had we been diverted, and just seemed to be a rather strange state for the airline to leave passengers. Yes, they did say that if we elected not to get on the flight, we could try a later one (with no assurance there would not be the same weather warning on that flight.) Most of the passengers got on, and we did land OK, but a few backed out.

Some international bureaucracy, they said, forbids them from landing at another Canadian airport, such as obvious choices like Edmonton, or even various smaller airports since this was a Canadair regional jet able to land at small airports. But just about anything would have been superior to Great Falls in the USA — some city with a means of getting to the destination. Indeed, the plane after landing in either GF or Calgary would have headed on to Chicago, which while far away, is at least a city one could find a flight to Calgary from, and from which United could certainly have arranged travel for the passengers.

I’m taking a wild guess that this bureaucracy is 9/11 related, but I could be wrong. But if it is, it’s another secret burden of that day.

(The likely result — passengers would probably have formed up in groups of 5 to rent Hertz cars and drive to Calgary. The cost — $320 plus $50 of gas — would have been tolerable shared among 5 people who would know one another much better by the end of the day. Of course we didn’t know this when making the decision.) There are also some slight cheaper but inconvenient tricks involving an in-Montana rental which drives to an Alberta town near the border, where one of the passengers rents a car there, and both cars drive to a Montana drop-off and then the Alberta car continues to Calgary. You would need a sense of adventure to do that.

On forging boarding passes

You’ve seen the flap recently because a student, to demonstrate the fairly well discussed airport security flaw involving the ease forgeability of boarding passes, created a web site where you could easily create a fake Northwest boarding pass. Congressman Markey even called for the student’s arrest, then apologized, but in the meantime the FBI raided his house and took his stuff.

As noted, this flaw has been discussed for some time. I certainly saw it the first time I was able to print my own boarding pass. However, it’s not really limited to print-at-home boarding passes, and it’s a shame the likely reaction to this will be to disable that highly convenient service. Airline issued boarding passes are just thicker paper. I don’t see it being particularly difficult with modern colour printers — which are able to pull off passable money given the right paper — to produce good airline printed boarding passes.

It’s possible the reaction to this will be to simpy add a gate ID check for people with home printed boarding passes, which will at least retain those passes without slowing down the boarding process even more, but it doesn’t actually fix the problem.

The current system of easy to forge boarding passes, combined with ID check at TSA security and boarding pass check at the gate, has the following flaws:

  • You can, as noted, fly if you are on the no-fly list with no problems. If I were named David Nelson I would consider it.
  • You can bypass the selectee system, where they print SSSS on your boarding pass to mark you for “full service” searching. (I’ve been told an additional stamp is placed on your boarding pass after the search, you need to forge this too.)
  • You can transfer your ticket to another person without telling the airline or paying them. You also earn flyer miles even though somebody else got on the plane
  • It allows people to enter the gate area who aren’t actually flying. This is not a big security risk, but it slows down the security line. You don’t want to miss your flight because people slowed down the line to meet their friends at the gate.

Some airports have the TSA ID-checker put a a stamp on the boarding pass. However, this is also not particularly difficult to forge. Just have somebody go through once to get today’s stamp, have them come back out and now you can forge it.

The simplest answer is to have ID check at the gate. This slows boarding, however, which is bad enough as it is. The hard answer is to have unforgeable boarding passes or an unforgeable stamp or non-removable sticker at TSA.

Probably the best solution is that the TSA station be equipped with an electronic boarding pass reader which can read the barcodes on all types of boarding passes, which themselves must be cryptographically secure. Then the name printed on the pass becomes unimportant, except so you can tell yours from your companion’s. The scanner would scan the pass, and display the name of the passenger on the screen, which could then be compared to the ID.

Sadly, I fear this suggestion would go further, and the full panopticon-enabled system would display the photo of the passenger on the screen — no need to show your ID at all.

Though mind you, if we didn’t have the no-fly-list concept, one could actually develop a more privacy enhancing system with photos. When you bought your ticket, if you didn’t care about FF miles, you would provide a photo of the passenger, not their name or anything else about them. The photo would be tied to the boarding record. To go through security or board the aircraft, you would present the boarding pass number or bar-code, and TSA, gate and luggage check agents would see your photo, and pass you through. The photo confirms that the person pictured has a valid ticket. This meets most of the goals of the current system, except for these:

  • It doesn’t allow a no-fly-list. But the no-fly-list is bad security. Only random screening is good security
  • It doesn’t allow gathering marketing data on passengers. But the frequent flyer system does.
  • It doesn’t allow the airline to generate a list of dead passengers in the event of a crash.

As noted, the marketing data goal is met by the FF program. It would be possible, by the way to build a fairly private FF program where you don’t give your name or address for the program. You just create an FF account online, and get a password, and you can place a picture in it and associate it with flights. You can then redeem flights from it, all online. But I doubt the airlines will rush to do this, they love selling data about you.

The dead-passenger problem can be solved to some degree. They would have, after all, pictures of all the passengers so they could be identified by people who know them. In a pinch, identity could also be escrowed, with the escrow agency requiring proof of the death of the passenger before revealing their identity. That’s pretty complex.

There’s no good way to solve the no-fly-list problem unless you have credible face recognition software. Even that wouldn’t work because it’s not hard to modify a photo to screw up what the face recognition software is looking for but still have it look like you. But frankly the no-fly-list is bad security and it’s not a bug that it doesn’t work in this system.

Redesign airline seat backs & pockets for cleanliness, utility

I recently read how airline cabins are getting more and more grotty of late. This is due to having fewer cleaning staff on hand, shorter turnaround times for cleaning, and passengers now bringing aboard more of their own food. This got me thinking on how we might improve the airline seatback.

First of all, to help keep things cleaner, it would be nice if we could divide the stuff the airline puts into the pocket from our own stuff. I would like the airline to put in less stuff — we really don’t need a skymall and inflight magazine at every seat, those can be fetched like the other magazines. The safety card, airsick bag and headpones (if present) could be put in a small plastic pouch that goes in the seat pocket, making it clear what’s yours and what’s the airlines. This makes it easier for you to clean out your stuff, including garbage, or for the airline cleaning crews to identify what’s permanent in the pocket and quickly toss the rest.

But there are some more dramatic improvements we could make here. Many years ago, I adapted one of those book holding stands meant for tables with a book light and velcro straps to hang it on the seat in front of me. (Back then velcro on the seat top was common.) This allowed me to hang my book on the seat in front of me, which I found made for much more comfortable reading. I find reading paperbacks on the plane requires contortion to get the book in good light, or simple arm-tiring labour to hold the book up. My back of seat mount was great, and the airlines could either provide those, or provide a “mounting point” into which a passenger-brought unit could be mounted. The mounting point could be where the tray locks, or on the back of the tray.

The mounting point also could be useful for the design of special laptop holders. Using a laptop in narrow-pitch coach seats is a pain, and a serious pain if the person in front of you wants to recline. In some cases you can’t use your computer unless you recline too. Some laptops are better designed for this, moving their screen hinge inward, at the cost of reducing wrist rest space.

For many people, airline use is one of the most important functions of their laptop, so a little special equipment or redesign could make some sense. In this case, a mounting point on the seat could hold a laptop mount, which would put the screen on the seatback at a comfortable eye level. Should the person forward recline, you would want to be able to adjust the mount to keep the screen at the right angle. For laptops that can’t flip their screen, the keyboard etc. would just hang below, unused.

Instead, you would connect a remote keyboard/mouse device, which could then sit on your lap or the tray for comfortable use. And you would even have some room for papers on the tray. (This requires the mounting point to be above the tray.)

The airline could ideally provide or rent this small keyboard/mouse station, RFI insulated. In fact the arline one need not be so small, it could be full sized. Or stations in the airport (like the flight DVD rental folks) could rent the laptop mount and keyboard/pointer for drop off at the next airport. You want this because it defeats the purpose of having a small laptop to have to carry on a keyboard almost as big as the laptop.

Of course, laptops could be designed not only to hook into the mount, but have a detatchable keyboard/mouse unit so you don’t have to carry anything extra. Makes the laptop a bit bigger of course, but not much. Be nice if you could use bluetooth. Right now in theory bluetooth is not allowed but it’s in a safe band so it should not be a real problem.

This would still be useful in Economy Plus, even though there you don’t have the space crunch problem. A nice keyboard and an eye-height screen is how we like it on the desk. In Biz class, the seat in front might be too far away.

Another alternative would be provision of flat panels in the seat backs, with a VGA/DVI jack. Of course many airlines already are putting flat panels there, but only at TV resolution. Bump to XGA or better and now laptop users could keep their laptop on the table and look at the seatback. Many laptops even have a dual screen mode, so you could get double the screen real estate. Indeed, this is even valuable with a plain VGA class display in the seatback as already found. A port for that screen is also handy for the many people who use their laptops to play DVDs, though for those you want a 720x480 resolution screen which I don’t yet see in seatbacks.

If course power at the seats is a big plus, and some airlines do this, though UAL does not yet provide it in coach. The power should be in the seatback, not the armrest, since the thing we want to power is usually on the tray table.

A snap-out, aimable book reading white LED on the seatback would also be very useful. Aside from being cheap and consuming less power, this more localized light is less likely to interfere with sleepers and movie watchers. And by being aimable, it makes reading the book much more comfortable.

Let’s get to it, airlines.

Complain somebody is suspicious, you miss your flight too.

We should all be disturbed by the story of a man who was questioned and missed his flight because he spoke on his cell phone in Tamil. Some paranoid thought it was suspicious, reported it, and so the guy gets pulled and misses his flight.

This is not the first time. People have been treated as suspicious for speaking in all sorts of languages, including Arabic, Hebrew, Urdo or just being Arabs or Sikhs. Sometimes it’s been a lot worse than just missing your flight.

So here’s a simple rule. If you want to report something as suspicious, then you don’t fly until the matter is resolved. After all, if you are really afraid, you wouldn’t want to fly. Even with the nasty foreigner pulled off the plane, you should be afraid of conspiracies with teams of villains. So you go into the holding cell and get a few questions too.

Now frankly, I would want to do much worse when it turns out the suspect is very obviously innocent. But I know that won’t get traction because people will not want to overly discourage reports lest they discourage a real report. But based on my logic above, this should not discourage people who think they really have something. At least not the first time.

TSA employees are of course in a CYA mode. They can’t screen out the paranoia because they aren’t punished for harassing the innocent, but they will be terribly punished if they ignore a report of somebody suspicious and decide to do nothing. That’s waht we need to fix long term, as I’ve written before. There must be negative consequences for people who implement security theatre and strip the innocent of their rights, or that’s what we will get.

Airline loading followup

I’ve written several times before about airplane loading so it’s worth pointing to the article from Wired News on the subject today. Academics have been running a lot of simulations, and favour the reverse pyramid, which is a system that boards the rear-windows first, then the rear-middle and wing-windows, then rear-window, wing-middle and front-window and so on. Other airlines like a “last 5 of rear, first 5 of front, next 5 of rear, next 5 of front and so on” system and there are various others.

I still suspect my system of drawing the boarding order numbers on the carpet and asking passengers to stand in the square with their boarding number (except for children) would speed up any of these systems, because right now, no matter what boarding order they try, people violate it for the simple reason that violating it works. Having passengers enforce — excuse me, you’re standing in my square — would work in a way that having gate agents enforce doesn’t. The story has some nice simulations, and even shows why Southwest’s take-any-seat approach works well. It blocks at first as the first passengers grab the front of plane (as they do on all airlines because frequent flyers get these seats and early boarding) but then distributions the stowing-and-unpacking load, which is a big part of the load. The more you can stop stowing-and-unpacking from blocking people in the aisle, the better. Unloading seems pretty good, in that passengers stream off the plane pretty constantly, and you can’t do much better than that, except of course by having multiple doors, which is used remarkably rarely.

It’s time for a new airline using all sorts of new ideas, including the ones I have written about here, to restore a little speed to the flying experience.

External laptop batteries, especially on planes

Recently I purchased an external battery for my Thinkpad. The internal batteries were getting weaker, and I also needed something for the 14 hour overseas flights. I picked up a generic one on eBay, a 17 volt battery with about 110 watt-hours, for about $120. It's very small, and only about 1.5 lbs. Very impressive for the money. (When these things first came out they had half the capacity and cost more like $300.)

There are downsides to an external: The laptop doesn't know how much charge is in the battery and doesn't charge it. You need an external charger. My battery came with its own very tiny charger which is quite slow (it takes almost a day to recharge from a full discharge.) The battery has its own basic guage built in, however. An external is not as efficient as an internal (you convert the 17v to the laptop's internal voltage and you also do wasteful charging of the laptop's internal if it is not full, though you can remove the internal at the risk of a sudden cutoff should you get to the end of the external's life.)

However, the plus is around 9 to 10 hours of life in a small, cheap package, plus the life of your laptop's internal battery. About all you need for any flight or long day's work.

It's so nice that in fact I think it's a meaningful alternative to the power jacks found on some airlines, usually only in business class. I bought an airline adapter a few years ago for a similar price to this battery, and even when I have flown in business class, half the time the power jack has not been working properly. Some airlines have power in coach but it's rare. And it costs a lot of money for the airlines to fit these 80 watt jacks in lots of seat, especially with all the safety regs on airlines.

I think it might make more sense for airlines to just offer these sorts of batteries, either free or for a cheap rental fee. Cheaper for them and for passengers than the power jacks. (Admittedly the airline adapter I bought has seen much more use as a car and RV adapter.) Of course they do need to offer a few different voltages (most laptops can take a range) but passengers could reserve a battery with their flight reservation to be sure they get the right one.

It would be even cheaper for airlines to offer sealed lead-acid batteries. You can buy (not rent) an SLA with over 200 watt-hours (more than you need for any flight) for under $20! The downside is they are very heavy (17lbs) but if you only have to carry it onto the plane from the gate this may not be a giant barrier.

Of course, what would be great would be a standard power plug on laptops for external batteries, where the laptop could use the power directly, and measure and charge the external. Right now the battery is the first part to fail in a laptop, and as such you want to replace batteries at different times from laptops. This new external should last me into my next laptop if it is a similar voltage.

Best company in each country to buy a prepaid SIM from

This special forum topic exists to help people identify the best local company to use for a temporary prepaid GSM SIM card when you visit that country. If you research this, put your results here. In particular look for the best results for a short term visitor, who thus won’t care much about when the minutes expire and may or may not care when the number expires. A typical cost to compare would be the cost of the card and say 60 to 100 anytime minutes. However, if there is a major difference for somebody planning mostly night/weekend calling, note that.

Here are things to note in your comment:

  • Company and their URL
  • Price for SIM, price for a cost-effective prepaid card
  • Ease of getting the card
  • Other companies to check if this one isn’t convenient
  • When will cheapest minutes expire, and how long after that does number expire
  • Can you refill from overseas (ie. with non-local credit card)
  • For comparison, cost of a prepaid account including (probably subsidy locked) phone. This bundle can be cheaper than an unlock and a naked SIM.

Important note: If you have any affiliation with a company you talk about or link to you must disclose it. No affiliate links allowed Furthermore, you must post your prices. (Create an account so you can come back and edit your posting when they change) and they must be one of the best deals out there. We want real information on the best deals, not self-promotion or typical vastly overpriced cards.

Enforce the "step in before storing your bag" rule?

Here’s an entry in my new “solve this” cateogry, which asks for reader input on solving problems.

When flying on a very full flight yesterday, we had an example of what my approach for faster airplane loading would have helped with. But until we get that, are there other solutions?

On the full flight, passengers would stand in the aisle trying to store their bags. With the compartments full they took a long time doing it, sometimes found themselves unable to. This blocked the loading and even though we started boarding 30 minutes before the flight, we were not finished by departure time. The flight attendants were on the PA every few minutes telling people not to stand in the aisle, to instead step into the row and let people pass, but very few paid attention to it. We don’t seem inclined to do this, and not just because we are desperate for storage space. (I’m one of the desperate, I carry on fragiles like camera gear that I refuse to let them throw around.) We just don’t believe that our own efforts will slow things much, and we also believe it will take “just a few more seconds” to get the bag in right.

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Sell or rent me a prepaid SIM card at the airport

So if you travel to different countries, you know that cellular roaming can be a pain, even with a GSM world phone, because they ding you for very high roaming charges.

So here’s a service I want. A kiosk in the airport to sell, or ideally rent me a GSM SIM card for a prepaid account, right in the airport. The kiosk would also sell me unlocking service for my phone, and of course prepaid cards. (By renting the SIM card, I mean it would sell it, and then buy it back at a reduced price on the way back out.)

Update Note: I’ve created a Special Forum to share information on the best SIM card sources in different countries. Search there for info on each country or enter your own findngs. …  read more »

Cell phone user airport marshalling area

Update: Well, clearly this was already being done when I asked for it, just not at the airports I flew from. It's now close to universal.

Airport pickup is becoming another nightmare in some cities, with police barring cars from waiting for passengers, causing people to circle.

Airports should take a piece of parking lot and turn it into a marshalling area for people with cell phones. If you are picking somebody up, and you have a cell phone, you go to the marshalling area, where cars wait in parked lines like a parking lot. When you get a call from your passenger saying they have bags and are ready to go to the curb, then you go out and get into a special passenger pickup lane. You go right to the numbered spot your passenger told you. For passengers without cell phones, phone booths will sit at the exits of course.

For those not with cell phones, there is of course short term parking or the endless circling, though generally you want less of that.

Better door to door shuttles

Just back from the nightmare of holiday travel, which started at 5:30am on Christmas morning and a security line snaking all the way to baggage claim. Coming back 6 days later, I braved the door to door shuttles from the airport.

I generally regret the decision to use these shuttles, which seem to average about 1 hour 30 minutes for the 35 minute drive to my home from SFO. This time, they had 10 people waiting for my town (which would normally be a dream as you would not spend all that time wanding around closer towns dropping off earlier folks) but in fact after we saw others had waited an hour for any shuttle to show up, we went to the caltrain, which takes an hour for the trip but is predictable.

The curse of these shuttles is how unpredictable they are. For some they are a quick trip but often they will drive you many times around the airport waiting for passengers, and then on an unpredictable drive. The public hates unpredictability even more than slowness, and would pay for predictability, I think.

So can computers, and some common sense, fix this? Surely you could make reservations which tie your flight number into the database so the shuttle company sees your plane arrive and knows pretty accurately when you will make the curb. (You can confirm that with a cell phone speed dial if your cell number is registered.) If lots of people did this, you could know how quickly a large enough group of people who live close together would be ready to leave.  read more »

Give us appointments at airport security

I've written about a few plans to get rid of the headache (and travel killer) that airport security has become. One of the great curses is that because you can't predict how long security might take, most people end up arriving way, way ahead of their flight in case the line is long, but often they clear it in just a few minutes. (Ditto the immigration/customs line at Canadian airports going to the USA.)

So here's another idea -- appointments for going through airport security. When you use web check-in (which many airlines now support) or even at the gate, you would be allocated an appointment in the latest available slot some period (say 20 minutes) before boarding ends for your flight. Appointments would be spaced at slightly more than the average time to clear a passenger through security.

This would work because there would be two lines at the security gate. One for people with appointments, one for those without (or who missed their appointment.) You could only enter the appointment waiting zone in the 10 minutes prior to your appointment, and presuming 30 seconds per party, that would mean it would hold about 20 people. An agent would check your bar-coded appointment slot in letting you in.

When your time comes (or at any free time) you would be taken through at the head of the security line. If somebody needs extra security (random search, suspect item) that of course delays the station they are going through, but the other stations are free to take the person with the next appointment. Only if all stations got bogged down with problem cases would people in the appointment line not go through at close to their exact appointment time.  read more »

Do we need security on small planes?

We've gotten used to a painful, privacy invading security process when we fly. But why should we do this for shot-hop, small aircraft. Those ones on the 20 seat Canadair Business Jets and similar. Secure the cockpit with a sealed door and arm the pilot so that terrorists can't take control of the plane. Put in sealed transponders so ATC knows if the plane goes astray. Give the pilot a "disable" button that limits what can be done with the plane in the event of attempted hijack.

Other than that, give it no more security than a bus or train. Just show your ticket, or pay cash, and walk on, possibly going through no more than the metal detectors used at things like baseball games and museums. Possibly not even that.

Yes, evil people could smuggle a gun, and suicide terrorists could put a bomb in their luggage. And kill 15 people. Which would be horrible, but frankly there are a lot more dangerous targets out there for the terrorist willing to kill himself, where a lot more damage can be done, and a lot more people killed. Hell, there are more tempting targets where you don't have to kill yourself. It makes little sense to waste resources blowing up tiny planes.

Which means we should not go nuts securing them. This already takes place at small airports and on general aviation. I've seen post-911 stories of people just walking onto small corporate jets with no ID or search, as well as other private planes and charters. Combine that with other ideas on efficient plane operation and you might just have a very popular airline for flights under 500 miles.

Non-metal suspenders

I like to wear suspsenders sometimes, but they have become an added burden when you travel or enter certain buildings because they have metal. Not that there are any accessory-vendors reading my blog, but sadly it's time for somebody to sell belts, suspenders and shoes for people who need them without metal.

Sigh.

The ideal airline

I wrote recently on better boarding strategies. Let me talk about what I really want in efficiency from an airline. Well, it seems we are stymied on getting what we really want, something as easy as a train, due to 9/11 oversecurity, but let's see what we can do.

This airline, at least here in California airports, doesn't use a giant air terminal. Instead, the airport is just the airstrips with a big parking lot running all along the side. (Could still do that at many of today's airports backsides.)

The trip begins as I drive off to the airport. I punch the airline's number on my cell phone. They take the caller-id and check me in, then text message me an electronic boarding pass. (I can also do this from a more advanced device or web browser of course.)

I drive into the parking lot and park right at the "gate." I mean 100 feet from the waiting plane. I grab my bag, hand my keys to the parking valet. I flash my cell phone's screen with the text message in front of their scanner which confirms my boarding pass. I go through the security scan, and into the small structure to sit in the chair with my boarding number on it. I access the free wi-fi.

Not long after, boarding is called, and we stand up from the chairs and walk up the stairs to the plane. (No jetways, at least here in California, though you could have them.) The front and back of the plane are used, everybody gets on in just a few minutes.

We land at a similar airport. When I confirmed boarding, the rental car company (or taxi or shuttle) was informed. As I get off the plane, waiting in the parking zone is my rental car. The scanner in the car reads the text message with my rental code and it activates. I drive away. Or perhaps I take a taxi. Perhaps I indicated that I would be happy to share a cab to the convention center so the cab has a list of 2 people to wait for.

On the way back, again I pull up right at the small valet zone at the airplane's gate. The rental company takes the car and I walk on the plane. My boarding is sent to the parking valets, and when my plane arrives, my car is ready in the valet zone. Off I go.

Of course there are flaws...  read more »

More on plane loading

In thinking about plane loading again, where I suggested they paint the rows in reverse order on the carpet where people line up to board, it occurs to me that in reverse order by row may not be the most efficient boarding order.

When each person gets to their seat, they tend to stop there to put away luggage, blocking other people in their row or further back. If they block the people in their row they make them block the people in the next row and so on, which is not efficient.

The most efficient order might be to do all the windows first (starting with the rear), then the middles and then the aisles. (Modify as appopriate for widebody aircraft.)

This way everybody does the luggage loading in parallel, as nobody is stopping them, then another column moves in. The first-row window passengers might block the last row middles for a short time but it would be minimal.

However...  read more »

Efficient airline passenger loading

Many know that Southwest Airlines has some of the best on-time records and plane turnaround times. Some of this comes from the fact that without reserved seating, people can board the planes more quickly.

It seems to me it should be possible to board planes quickly even with reserved seating. Here's how...

For a simple system, draw on the carpet a diagram of the largest plane that uses the gate. Except put the rear of the plane up by the door, with numbers counting down to the front. Have a 2nd area for 1st class if you need to keep them boardig at their convenience. This can be just a line with row numbers, and a marker that puts window seats near the line, aisles further away.

When boarding is called, passengers stand in the line for their row, and sorted internally as noted, so window seats go first. Then just empty the line into the plane. Being out of place in the line will be very obvious on the plane. If people line up over their row number, you'll never wait while people load their stuff to get to your row, unless you're late for the boarding call -- which few people are today due to crazy security rules.

You hae to decide if premium frequent flyers and "people needing extra time" should go first or not as they do now. My view is that the pre-boarding needs are minimal, and that even a slow child or senior will be better placed with their row than pre-boarding, but pre-board can still be allowed. I also think the frequent flyers would rather have a plane that boards and leaves quickly than get on first, except for one issue -- overhead storage. However, even if you let us get on first, doing this for the rest of the passengers still will streamline things.

You could also just print a series of numbers on the carpet. People would be given a card with their number and expected to stand by it, showing the card. The cards can have a clear colour code making it impossible to hide which group of 12 you are in. In this case, you can assign low numbers to 1st class, pre-boarders and frequent flyers, and just sequence up by seat otherwise. Again, zip on the plane almost as fast as leaving it. That means boarding closer to take-off, and faster turnaround, which is good for everybody.

Airport Check-in on the way there

Transit idea #2. Air travel is getting to be like hell, with searches and the need to get there so far in advance of the flight to be sure you will get through security that it cancels much of the benefit, turning 40 minute flights into 3 hour ordeals. High Speed train advocates point out the downtown-to-downtime time of the train on routes of 300-500km beats or is competitive with the plane, and it's true.

But this would not be true if they could check you in and through security while on the train, bus or ferry to the airport, and then said bonded carrier took the cleared passengers directly to their gates in the cleared section.

Imagine you board the special airport train downtown. Security personel and airline agents move through the car on the trip with wireless terminals, metal detector wands and an X-ray machine. Their machine moves down the aisle (a bit easier in a ferry than a bus I will admit, but it could be designed) and everybody behind them is cleared, everybody ahead of them waiting, until they get to the end, and the whole train/bus/ferry is cleared. Then, if not on a bus, you are dropped where you can transfer to special busses which drive around the inside of the terminals on that little road, dropping you at stops near your gate in the cleared area. Your checked bags were stuffed at the back of your train and are put on the right conveyers.

This was easier to work out before 9/11 but I still think it could be done. And many passengers would happily pay a fair bit extra for this, because the result -- by making use of the otherwise dead time heading to the airport -- would be to have a zero-time trip through check-in and security.

You could even insist on web pre-checkin to smooth the process. Even people who lived closer to the airport than downtown might find it worth the time to get this train.

The handicapped would need a way to get from ground level to the jetway
entry level. Probably require airport staff to escort them to elevators in such airports. Or they would (if the ADA allows this) be forced to use the existing system. Does the ADA forbid improvements for those who can climb stairs and keeping the status quo for those who can't?

It would also reduce congestion at the airport and the existing security stations and free up parking and reduce private car exhaust. A win all round, worthy of the cost of any extra security staff or machines.

Those without checked luggage could schedule to arrive at the gate 15 minutes before take-off the way we used to be able to do on short flights, if using a ferry or train with dedicated right of way. With checked luggage you would need to go earlier to give them time to rape that.

This kills the argument in California that a high speed train from SF to LA would be worthwhile compared to the current downtown to downtown time. You would get the best downtown to downtown time by putting in such rail just from the downtowns (and other places) to the airport, and using the time on the train to advantage.

Update: I have expanded on the idea on this page on transit checkin

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