Saturday, April 20, 2013

The biggest markets for low-cost airlines

LOW-COST airlines like Ryanair and Southwest Airlines have swollen to formidable size in recent years by offering a very different approach to that of more traditional full-service airlines. With their single-class seating, range of ancillary charges and pared-down approach to all things aviation-related, these budget carriers have become a familiar, often bemoaned, feature of holidays and business trips around the globe. In British airports, for example, more than 50% of all passengers last year squeezed into seats on low-cost carriers. But Britain only comes seventh on a list ranking countries on that criterion. Figures released by Amadeus, a global travel distribution system, show that the Philippine aviation market has the greatest proportion of low-cost flyers. In that country of over 7,000 islands, 65% of all passengers used budget carriers last year. Cebu Pacific, the nation’s biggest low-cost operator, boasted over 46% of the domestic market. Among the smallest low-cost markets are Russia, Japan and China, where budget carriers accounted for just 5%, 4% and 1% of departures respectively. In China, the government keeps strict control of the airline industry and shields the three main state-controlled carriers (Air China, China Southern and China Eastern) from low-priced competition. Shanghai-based Spring Airlines, which launched in 2005, is the country's only low-cost carrier of any size.


The best airport on the planet

NOT ONE American airport cracked the top ten in a ranking of the planet's best airports, released last week by Skytrax, a company specialising in airline and airport research. In fact American airports didn't even feature in the top 25—Cincinnati-Northern Kentucky International was the first to appear, squeaking in at number 30. Denver and San Francisco came 36th and 40th, and at number 48, Atlanta's Hartsfield-Jackson, of which Gulliver is not particularly fond, was the only other American operation in the survey's top 50.

Skytrax's rankings, which are in their 14th year, are based on a survey that asks airline passengers to rank airports across 39 different categories, from shopping to security. Over 12m passengers filled out the survey this year, according to the company. And despite Skytrax's website's suffering from a bad case of Seemingly Random Capitalisations, the awards are worth taking seriously. Some travellers might find the tenth place of London Heathrow surprising, but much of that is driven by the opening of Terminal 5 and the airport's impressive shopping options. (Every London airport except Luton made the top 50.)

American airports are generally fairly awful, so their poor performance in this survey is no great surprise. But it is also worth a response. Airports are gateways to cities and regions, and it's striking that the infrastructure of the world's lone superpower lags so far behind that of the rest of the world. The mood in Washington right now is one of austerity, so any near-term improvements to the country's airports will have to come from state or local authorities—or, ideally, from the private sector. But some of the worst problems can only be solved with federal help. Lengthy delays have a lot to do with America's outdated air-traffic control system, which Washington is trying to fix, but which cannot be upgraded without lots of money. And the lack of good transport links at some of the most important airports (here's looking at you, LaGuardia) is probably only rectifiable with federal money.

Singapore's Changi airport (pictured), which rose from second in the 2012 rankings to the top spot this year, has been upgraded repeatedly since 2000, and a billion-dollar project to replace its existing budget terminal with a new fourth terminal is currently in the works. If America doesn't want to continue to fall behind other countries in terms of airport infrastructure, it's going to have to spend some serious dough.

List of Top 100 airports:

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Google’s own $82 million airport may soon be a reality

In a move that benefits Google executives and other corporate high-flyers, the City Council on Tuesday night approved an elite corporate jet center at San Jose’s airport, without adding an extra curfew provision that had been omitted in the bidding process.

In a 10-1 vote, the council approved a 50-year lease agreement with Signature Flight Services to build an $82 million facility on the west side of Mineta San Jose International Airport.

Only San Jose City Councilman Pierluigi Oliverio was opposed, saying there were other ways the city could help the cash-strapped airport repay its exhorbitant debt without disturbing citizens with more flights.

About two dozen residents who live near the airport’s flight path urged the council to reconsider the project by adding back the extra curfew provision, increasing the curfew violation fines, or reducing the length of the lease.

“If the city approves the Signature aircraft lease, it will accomplish one good thing and two bad things,” said Ed Hodges, co-chair of the Citizens Against Airport Pollution, a community group that has battled the city over airport noise issues for decades.

The airport will get $3 million a year in rent, he said, but also generate thousands of additional flights every year during the curfew hours, and less trust with neighbors.

Residents Tina Morrill and Tom Sawyer both questioned not only the length of the 50-year lease, but what they considered the influence of big money in the process.

“This whole thing really appears to be a 1 percent giveway to the 1 percent corporate jet (companies) against the 99 percent of us who are trying to make a living,” said Sawyer.

Signature’s project includes seven hangars for corporate jets, with five of those hangars to be used by Blue City Holdings, its primary tenant. That company will manage aircraft for Google co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin and Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt, whose private jets are now parked at Moffett Field, where their lease is up next year.

But Mayor Chuck Reed, among others, insisted that neither company had sought to undermine or exempt their companies from adhering to the 11:30 p.m. to 6:30 a.m. airport curfew, which allows aircraft that generate less than 89 decibels to fly during those hours.

Nor had city officials ever given them that impression, he said.

“I have never seen the council waver on the curfew — never — not in open session and not in closed session,” Reed said. “We have fought for the curfew and we will keep the curfew,” he told the council and audience members.

The council last Tuesday had been poised to sign off on the deal, but delayed it after a last-minute memo surfaced from Aviation Director Bill Sherry.

In the memo, Sherry told the council that while all airport leases include a provision requiring compliance with the city’s curfew ordinance at the airport, the bid documents omitted an additional curfew provision that applies only to fixed-base operators at the airport and their tenants.

That added provision, which has been in effect since 2004, requires obeying the curfew, even if the curfew is subsequently terminated. Three other fixed-based operators at the airport have been subject to that provision, which after Tuesday’s council vote will now be dropped from their leases as well.

Like Reed, Sherry stressed that both Signature and Blue City Holdings will abide by the curfew, even without the second provision.

The Signature facility is projected to provide at least $3 million annually in rent and other fees to the airport, which has been working to attract more planes and revenue to pay off the costs of a recent $1.3 billion renovation.


Saturday, April 6, 2013

How can television signals be used to track aircraft?

An experimental radar system, due to be switched on in June 2013, will use ordinary television signals to track aircraft flying over London. How will it work?

Radar, which is an abbreviation of “radio detection and ranging”, detects distant objects by bouncing radio waves off them. In a conventional radar system, these radio waves are emitted by a rotating antenna that sends out radio pulses and listens out for reflected signals that have bounced off aircraft. The time delay between emitting the pulse and detecting its reflection allows the aircraft’s distance to be determined. Its speed and direction can also be calculated, because the aircraft’s motion causes a slight shift in the frequency of the reflected signal due to the Doppler effect (the phenomenon that also causes a passing ambulance’s siren to change pitch).

But this is not the only way to build a radar. Another approach, called “passive radar”, relies on existing signals, such as television and radio broadcasts, to illuminate aircraft. This involves using multiple antennas to listen out for signals from broadcast towers, and for reflections of those signals that have bounced off aircraft, and comparing the two. With enough number-crunching, the position, speed and direction of nearby aircraft can then be determined. Passive radar requires a lot of processing power, but because there is no need for a transmitter, it ends up being cheaper than conventional radar. It also has military benefits, because it enables a radar station to detect objects covertly, without emitting any signals of its own. Lockheed Martin, a defence contractor, launched the first commercial passive-radar system, called Silent Sentry, for military use in 1998.

The new passive-radar system being deployed over London, called MSPSR, is for civilian use. It will be evaluated to see how passive radar might be incorporated into Britain’s air-traffic control systems. The use of television signals might, for example, work better in areas where conventional radar coverage is currently patchy, or where there is interference caused by wind turbines. Will soap operas and news bulletins end up helping to direct aircraft in London’s busy skies? Stay tuned.