Tag Archives: Transportation Tech

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United pushes economy-class travelers away with new frequent flyer program

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United Airlines recently revealed massive changes to its MileagePlus Program. How much a traveler spends on the tickets is the only thing that matters in the airline’s new frequent flyer program.

Not long ago, United quietly switched from a distance-based rewards program to a fare-based frequent flyer program. Since 2015, customers have earned mileage based on how much they spend on the tickets instead of how far they fly.

For example, I typically earn about 4,000 reward miles for a round-trip ticket between Los Angeles and Asia, even though the distance of the trip usually ranges from 10,000 to 12,000 miles. Nevertheless, the distance I fly still matters because it will be counted towards the “qualified miles” for elite status.

Now, the airline wants to take a big step further to (only) reward those top-spending travelers as their elite customers.

The terms used in the current MileagePlus Program

There are four elite statuses in the United Airlines MileagePlus Program, including Premier Silver, Premier Gold, Premier Platinum, and Premier 1K. There are two factors that contribute to elite status qualification:

  1. Premier qualifying miles (PQM) that a traveler flies in a calendar year, or premier qualifying segments (PQS) that a traveler flies in a calendar year.
  2. Premier qualifying dollars (PQD) that a traveler spends on the tickets in a calendar year. However, travelers spending $25,000 a year on MileagePlus Chase credit cards can waive this requirement, except for the Premier 1K qualification.

To reach Premier Silver status, a traveler must (a) complete either 25,000-plus PQM (i.e., flying 25,000-plus miles in distance on United or United partners’ flights) or 30-plus PQS (i.e., taking 30-plus flights operated by United or a United partner) and (b) spend either $3,000 PQD on air tickets of United or its partners, or $25,000 on MileagePlus Chase credit cards.

For Premier Gold status, a traveler must (a) complete either 50,000-plus PQM or 60-plus PQS and (b) spend either $6,000 PQD on air tickets or $25,000 on credit cards.

For Premier Platinum status, a traveler must (a) complete either 75,000-plus PQM or 90-plus PQS and (b) spend either $9,000 PSD on air tickets or $25,000 on credit cards.

For Premier 1K status, a traveler must (a) complete either 100,000-plus PQM or 120-plus PQS and (b) spend $15,000 on air tickets.

Frequent travelers with elite status can enjoy different levels of benefits offered by the airline, such as free bag check-ins and upgrades. The benefits associated with the elite status make a frequent traveler feel valued.

The terms used in the new MileagePlus Program

Effective on Jan. 1, 2020, the new MileagePlus Program qualifies a traveler’s elite status based on two factors:

  1. Premier qualifying flights (PQF), or how many paid, non-basic-economy flights a traveler takes in a calendar year.
  2. Premier qualifying points (PQP), or how many dollars a traveler spends on the tickets issued by United in a calendar year. Additionally, there are two formulas to convert the mileages earns from preferred partners and MileagePlus partners into PQP.

To achieve Premier Silver status, a traveler must complete 12 PQF and spend 4,000 PQP, or 5,000 PQP alone if 12 PQF is not met.

Premier Gold status requires 24 PQF plus 8,000 PQP, or 10,000 PQP alone if 24 PQF is not met.

Premier Platinum status requires 36 PQF plus 12,000 PQP, or 15,000 PQP alone.

Premier 1K status requires 54 PQF plus 18,000 PQP, or 24,000 PQP alone.

Starting in the fall of this year, United has also made changes to the requirements for premier upgrades for its elite customers.

The reasons behind the changes

The airline industry has been doing really well for years. United Airlines reported $1.02 billion in profit in the third quarter, about a 23% jump from last year’s third-quarter profit of $833 million. Consumer demand for travel remains high. It makes good business sense that United wants to reinvent its frequent traveler program.

Meanwhile, when more people can afford to travel, many airlines face challenges of accommodating increasing consumer demands for airport lounges. Many airport lounges have become too busy to enjoy a real VIP experience.

As the new MileagePlus Program tends to qualify those top-spending travelers for elite status, those who do not spend “enough” money on air tickets can be weeded out, reducing the number of travelers who access airport lounges.

The impact of the new MileagePlus Program

The new MileagePlus Program makes it much more challenging for most economy-class frequent travelers to achieve any elite status. Using myself as an example, I will become a Premier Platinum member by the end of 2019 by flying economy class only, according to the current term used by the airline.

Nevertheless, under the newly introduced criteria, I could barely qualify for the Premier Silver status in 2021, which doesn’t give me much value.

Unless I begin flying business or first class at the cost of $4,000 or over $10,000, respectively, for a round-trip ticket between Los Angeles and Asia, I will not spend $10,000 a year on economy tickets. It becomes very discouraging for those like me who usually only fly economy class even to try to reach an elite status.

But, wait a minute! If I can afford flying business or first class, why would I care for any of the perks that come with the elite status? On the flip side, why would those who spend over $18,000 or $24,000 a year on air tickets bother to stay with United to get the perks as a Premier 1K member?

I hear another voice, proposing to add a frequent flyer tax as a means to lower carbon emissions. Through the massive changes in the airline’s frequent flyer program, maybe United is also trying to encourage its loyal customers to reconsider the real purpose of joining the MileagePlus Program.

What do you think of the changes in the United Airlines MileagePlus Program? Are those changes necessary and helpful in keeping the airlines’ loyal customers happy? Why or why not?

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Williston, North Dakota, is home to America’s newest airport

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America’s newest airport opened to passengers on Oct. 10 when United Airlines Flight 4643 touched down, commencing a new era of connectivity to this growing part of North Dakota and its important oil fields.

Williston Basin International Airport (code: XWA) is located 10 miles northwest of the city, which is itself in the northwestern part of the state. The region is home to the oil fields operated in the Bakken Formation. The area is currently experiencing a boom in output and drives the local economy.

Williston was traditionally served by the much smaller Sloulin Field airport close to downtown. However, this facility, which opened in 1947, could not expand any more, limiting the number of passengers that could be handled by its tiny terminal and the aircraft sizes used by airlines.

A decision to replace the airport was explored as early as 2011, with groundbreaking on the new site taking place in October 2016. Meanwhile, at its peak, Sloulin Field was handling over 120,000 passengers per year in facilities recently upgraded to handle 10,000.

The new Williston airport has been designed to handle much larger aircraft as well as growing passenger demand from the outset. With its opening, Sloulin Field will close down.

It is the first new commercial airport in the United States since Denver International opened in 1995 to replace Stapleton International. Then, as now, United Airlines was the first to fly into the new facility. Flight 4643 from Denver was operated by an Embraer 145, a service which will be flown daily, and will soon be complemented by a Delta Connection link from Minneapolis St. Paul.

Building a new airport on a completely undeveloped site brings enormous costs and challenges. Williston has cost an estimated $273 million.

Commenting recently, Kevin Ploehn, Billings, Montana’s director of aviation and transit, said, “You have to build all that infrastructure underneath, get all the lights and all that — so it’s an expensive deal. And then to build a new terminal from scratch and then try to move everybody over — that’s a challenge, absolutely a challenge — I’m glad it’s them and not me.”

Image: XWA Airport

Built into Williston is the ability to expand, which Sloulin Field could not do. While a couple of daily regional jets is the norm at the moment, the ability to handle larger jets and with greater frequency will enable the city to work with the growing oil industry and welcome more business users and workers, and a growing local population.

“The opening of the Williston Basin International Airport is a monumental achievement that will greatly help to serve our growing population and business community in western North Dakota,” said Kyle Wanner, the North Dakota Aeronautics Commission executive director.

The new airport features two runways, a passenger terminal with four gates (three of them with boarding bridges) and the capacity for 350,000 passengers per year. A short link road connects the airport to U.S. Route 85.

Airport Director Anthony Dudas considers the project an overwhelming success and is looking forward to seeing the airport grow. “While it’s been nine years through its initial infancy to where we’re at today, that is the fastest that I’m aware of that it’s even been accomplished in commercial service airport relocation, from its idea to actual commencement of operations,” he said.

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E-scooters: A blessing or a curse?

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Once serving only as children’s toys, scooters have taken on a new life these days in cities across America. Powered by compact lithium-ion batteries, these stubby little two-wheelers have become the latest adult solution to urban congestion.

E-scooters have become fixtures in more than 100 major cities — from San Francisco to Nashville — and are quickly gaining on usage of other popular “shared micro-mobility” options such as station-based and dockless bikes.

According to the National Association of City Transportation Officials, Americans took 38.5 million trips on shared e-scooters in 2018. Those rides accounted for almost half of the 84 million trips taken aboard all shared vehicles.

The popularity of e-scooters is understandable. Foremost, they are easy and fun to ride. Eco-sensitive riders laud the fact that they produce no emissions and constitute a minimal carbon footprint. Optimally, too, they can help reduce private auto and taxi use — all helping to ease congestion and pollution.

Nonetheless, the massive influx of e-scooters has created a groundswell of controversy. Critics cite safety issues, decrying scooters as risky to both riders and pedestrians. And municipalities across the country have been caught flat-footed trying to establish regulations for their use — a number of them banning the vehicles entirely.

It all began in late 2017 when a startup called Bird introduced an app-enabled e-scooter rental service in the California beachside city of Santa Monica. The scooters, mass produced in China, proved so popular that Bird moved on to other cities, and in less than a year had reached a $1 billion valuation — the fastest that a U.S. company has ever done so. The company is now worth twice that and has provided more than 10 million rides in 100+ cities in America and abroad.

San Francisco-based competitor Lime is nearly matching Bird’s growth, while ride-hailing titans Uber and Lyft and automaker Ford have made major investments in scooters —ushering in something of a “micro-mobility revolution” and in turn literally flooding city streets everywhere with scooters.

To rent a scooter, adult customers unlock them for $1 each ride using a smartphone app, then typically pay 15 cents per minute of use. Most scooters can reach speeds of 15-20 mph and have a range of 20-30 miles per charge.

Scooter companies require users to agree to terms of service certifying they are at least 18 years old and require users to upload a photo of a driver’s license and scan the barcode on the back. Renters signing Bird or Lime rental agreements automatically relieve the companies of any liability — so it behooves renters to consult with their auto and homeowner insurance companies regarding coverage.

Scooter companies don’t provide docks like most bike-sharing services, so their scooters are usually just abandoned wherever a ride ends.

At night, company employees or contract workers round the scooters up, charge them and return them to service. This doesn’t always work as planned, however, and pedestrians and residents resent having scooters left on sidewalks and in the streets, which they see as both unsightly and hazardous.

In some cities, angry detractors have protested the influx by stuffing abandoned scooters in dumpsters, setting them on fire, and smearing them with dog poop.

Although they are trying, city officials have been flustered in efforts to regulate scooters. Contentious rollouts, staged without even consulting local leaders, have led to scooters being banned — either temporarily or permanently — in a number of cities including San Francisco; Denver; Indianapolis; New York (Manhattan); Nashville; Chattanooga; and Columbia, South Carolina.

Others have imposed strict, though inconsistent, regulations on speed limits, parking, nighttime riding and helmet use. Some cities have ruled it illegal to ride scooters on sidewalks, while others have banned their use on city streets.

Rider safety is a universal concern, and reports from across the country are far from reassuring, pointing to a surge of serious accidents since e-scooters were introduced. An ABC News report last June noted 11 scooter-related fatalities and more than 1,500 injuries nationwide since 2018. A third of those injured suffered fractures and 40% had head trauma.

Safety experts say the vehicles are so fun and easy to ride that they promote a false sense of security. The scooters’ small wheels are no match for rough pavement and potholes and can lead to riders losing control.

In commentary accompanying a study of scooter safety published in the journal JAMA Network Open, Dr. Frederick Rivara, a professor at the University of Washington, says the vehicles can play a viable role in the urban transportation mix — if properly regulated and if riders are mandated to wear helmets.

“Electric scooters are here to stay,” Rivara says, “and the problem is only going to get worse. So action is needed now.”

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UK airports introducing new scanners to speed up security screening

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Passing through security bag screening can quickly sour the joy of travel. Arriving at the scanner usually requires removing items of clothing and unpacking items from the bags you spent so long carefully packing.

Now, U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson has announced that new scanners, which have the potential to reduce the stress of screening and the time it takes, would be rolled out across the country’s airports over the next few years.

The new baggage scanning equipment will scan the contents of bags in 3-D, giving screeners an all-round image that can be rotated and examined in closer detail as it is analyzed. Improved algorithms will be able to detect explosives much more easily.

One of the major benefits of the new scanners is in removing the need to remove liquids from luggage, or even to have a 100ml limit on any liquids, aerosols and gels carried.

Passengers will also be permitted to leave electronic equipment like laptops inside their bags.

Johnson said: “We are home to the largest aviation network in Europe, with millions of people passing through our airports every year for work, holidays and family visits.”

London Heathrow, Europe’s busiest airport, is already trialing the new 3-D screening technology. I passed through the airport last week and the process did feel quicker and less onerous.

However, with my journey incorporating two other airports in Europe, the screening process was inconsistent, and travelers will still need to be prepared for the “hassle” Johnson describes on other parts of their journey.

Johnson said: “We’re set to streamline those trips with the rollout of this ground-breaking technology. By making journeys through U.K. airports easier than ever, this new equipment will help boost the vital role our airports play in securing the U.K.’s position as a global hub for trade, tourism and investment.”

The Department for Transport has set a deadline of Dec. 1, 2022, by which all major U.K. airports must have the new technology.

The change will see the UK deviate from EU regulations on screening, and International Civil Aviation Organization guidelines — a sign of the country taking on its own rules post-Brexit.

The news has been welcomed by the traveling public and many travel organizations. However, it should be remembered that this mandatory upgrade of screening equipment will come at great cost for airports. With a significant price tag, this will have a serious impact on smaller airports which still fall under the “major” category mandated to introduce the new equipment.

The Airport Operators Association commented: “It is important to recognise the increasing cost of mandatory security measures like these. Each airport will have to fund the new equipment in a relatively short period of time, which will have a big impact particularly on smaller airports.”

While the UK is taking a lead in rolling out this technology countrywide, airports like Atlanta, Chicago O’Hare, New York JFK and Amsterdam Schiphol have already introduced similar 3-D scanners.

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England’s Manston Airport set to reopen for flights and cargo

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Thankfully, news of airports closing down is a rare occurrence, despite the challenges faced by increasing competition and capturing a slice of the passenger or cargo market.

However, for the historic Manston Airport south of London, closure was a reality and since May 2014 the site has been abandoned, awaiting approval for a very different future.

The plan had been to put housing and other development on the sprawling airport site; some had also hoped a small general aviation airfield might be carved out of what remained of the runway.

Now, in a major shift, the new owners of the airport have plans to restart flights and develop it once again as a center for aviation.

RiverOak Strategic Partners bought Manston — the one-time Battle of Britain and Cold War-era United States Air Force airfield near Canterbury — from previous owners Stone Hill Park, with the intention of restarting flights. Stone Hill had planned for up to 3,700 homes on the site, plus a “hi-tech employment space” and other amenities. The company has now withdrawn its application for the site and decided to sell following “considerable debate over the past five years of our ownership.”

There was a public outcry over the closure of the airport five years ago, and a recent planning application for 2,500 of the planned homes was rejected by the local council.

The sale to RiverOak was completed on July 9 for a reported £16.5 million following a protracted period of negotiations. It sees the transfer of 742 acres of the site to the new owners.

The company’s main intention is to develop Manston as a cargo hub, subject to planning and the new local plan. As one of the closest U.K. airports to mainland Europe, situated close to London and the busy English Channel ports at Dover and Felixstowe, it is ideally placed to develop in this market.

Manston also has one of the U.K.’s longest runways, making it ideal for handling the world’s largest freighter aircraft and long-haul cargo flights. Its development could also take some of the strain off Heathrow Airport which is at 99% capacity.

The reopening could attract a large company like Amazon who do not yet have an airport hub near London and could tailor the site to its needs.

Yet the big question on locals’ lips is whether passenger flights would return to Manston. Prior to closure the airport had seen a short-lived, low-cost operation and sporadic charter flights to leisure destinations. The final passenger service was operated by KLM to Amsterdam on April 9, 2014; the airline had served the airport twice-daily since 2012.

Despite its proximity to London and the affluent South East region of England, Manston never really reached its potential with passenger flights.

Nevertheless, Director Tony Freudmann said: “We bought it to turn it back into an airport and it means the development consent order process will continue.” He added: “The current plan is to have the airport reopened in the spring of 2022 for short-haul and cargo flights. We have shown that it is financially viable.”

While the small passenger terminal remains present and could easily be reactivated, it may take some considerable work by RiverOak to attract an operator to invest in flights from the airport.

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Response to Boeing Max 8 groundings includes new aviation leadership

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The Boeing 737 Max 8 airplane model was the most common plane flying the friendly skies — until recently. After several high-profile crashes killing hundreds of people, this model has been withdrawn from use so it can undergo an upgrade with new safety features for its alert system, which is rumored to have contributed to the crashes.

Costing American Airlines $185 million in the second quarter, this aviation development has sent more than ripples through financial markets and manufacturing hubs. As Boeing moves forward to adjust safety feature software and materials, airlines also scramble to compensate for flight cancellations and groundings.

American reports thousands of grounded flights: 7,800 in a three-month period to be exact. The company currently has 24 737 Max 8 planes, with 76 more on order. These planes are grounded through early September, and the deadline is expected to be extended.

Southwest Airlines also uses this model, and it has seen a major impact as well with the groundings. 150 flights daily have been cancelled through October 2019.

A Texas court is currently reviewing a lawsuit initiated by consumer plaintiffs who claim Southwest colluded with Boeing to cover up a fatal design defect.

This lawsuit has been filed under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, alleging that the companies colluded to cover up faults — resulting in unnecessary deaths, per Bloomberg Law: “More specifically, the complaint alleges Southwest economically propped up Boeing by strategically placing orders for 737s in exchange for early access to new models of the plane. It also claims Boeing rushed the defective 737 MAX 8 to market and Southwest helped to cover up the defect by assuring customers the plane was safe.”

Prior knowledge on the part of both airline and plane manufacturing entities is a hefty charge. Additionally, Southwest pilots are suing the company for losses and legal fees during the grounding.

It’s not just companies involved in these rumored collusions. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is also challenged to provide leadership at such an important time, and it is now undergoing a nomination process. Former Delta Airlines executive Stephen Dickson is President Trump’s choice for the FAA’s top position; however, some Democrats oppose the nomination due to lawsuits and Department of Justice investigations.

One controversial issue here is “a lawsuit brought by a Delta pilot, Karlene Petitt, which alleged the airline retaliated against her by putting her on leave with pay after she reported safety concerns to Dickson and another executive.” Delta denies the allegations.

As the dust settles on Boeing and airline companies’ responses, the FAA will surely have its hands full.

On July 10, the Senate Commerce Committee voted 14-12 to appoint Dickson to the FAA post. Now the nomination must be cleared by the full Senate.

34-year Boeing veteran and 737 program leader Eric Lindblad has also announced his retirement as the recovery light at the end of the company tunnel remains dim.

With lost profits soaring and effective leadership in short supply, the months ahead for aviation remain uncertain — to say the least.

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Phoenix Sky Harbor submits 20-year master plan for improvements

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Phoenix is an airport on the move, and if the FAA agrees, it could soon be spending $5.7 billion on upgrades to achieve a new 20-year plan. With aging infrastructure and a hemmed-in location, its owners have decided that now is the time to deal with the issues hindering its potential.

The airport confirmed that the city’s mayor and council voted on June 11 to send its Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport Comprehensive Asset Management Plan (CAMP) to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) for approval.

In fact, the FAA mandates that airports keep short- and medium-term plans for their future development, and this plan will cover the next 20 years at Sky Harbor as the airport hopes to double its capacity and improve infrastructure for airport users.

Key to the plans is the relocation of some major parts of the airport layout. First, the cargo facilities currently located in the central and southern areas of the site would be moved to the north side of the airport, freeing up space for future passenger terminal development to the west.

The Air National Guard refueling wing would then be allocated space freed up by cargo users on the south side, allowing this military operation to expand.

Image: Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport

General Aviation will also relocate to the north side of the site which, combined with the new cargo facilities, will require some work to trench the major railroad running past the perimeter. The airport already owns the land north of the tracks, so it sees great potential in using it and removing the physical barrier to expansion posed by the railroad.

The roadway serving the central terminal area would also receive attention, with particular attention on improving the capacity of Sky Harbor Boulevard as road traffic has increased.

Finally, the older parts of Terminal 4 would likely be renovated to bring it in line with modern standards, and the old Terminal 2 would be demolished.

This site would initially be used as a site for “bus gates” where aircraft park remote from the regular terminal jet bridges, typically used by low-cost carriers, and to give greater scheduling freedom to grow where physical gates do not exist to park airplanes at.

Sky Harbor presently handles around 45 million passengers per year, but has expectations of this reaching up to 80 million by 2039, as well as increases in the amount of cargo it handles. All of this comes at a cost and with significant logistical planning.

Phoenix Mayor Kate Gallego said, “The best infrastructure projects anticipate the needs of a community far into the future. Sky Harbor is one of our state’s largest economic engines and, with this unanimous vote, it will continue to drive our economy for generations to come.”

The $5.7 billion funding requirement anticipated for the works will come from airport revenues and federal grants, and not local taxes. With it, each stage of the works will require council approval since the airport is city-owned.

As Arizona’s largest gateway, and one of its largest employers, Sky Harbor must continue to capitalize on the growth demand it has experienced in recent years, which has put it in a similar league to Las Vegas McCarran, ranking 41stbusiest in the world and 13th in the United States. It has a $38.7 billion impact on the state’s economy.

Asked why now is the time to expand Sky Harbor, Jordan Field, Deputy Aviation Director – Planning & Environment said: “With forecasted growth, key facilities, infrastructure and roadways will reach capacity over the next ten years. To ensure the airport’s readiness for this growth, we needed a comprehensive roadmap for asset investment and management.”

Approval from the FAA is expected in the fall before work commences next year.

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Airport slot allocation management is about to get better

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A new governing structure over the way airport slots are allocated and managed has been agreed upon by three industry associations. It is hoped that this arrangement will benefit passengers as air travel increases and more airports feel the pressure of demand.

The agreement came at a meeting in Seoul, South Korea, and sees Airports Council International (ACI) World, the International Air Transport Association (IATA), and the Worldwide Airport Coordinators Group (WWACG) agreeing to the new structure for the Worldwide Slot Guidelines (WSG) — a set of standards published by IATA for the management of airport slots.

What are airport slots?

A slot is simply defined as a landing or departure time at an airport. It is allocated to an airline for a particular flight at a particular time, and helps airports manage their runway capacity and available space at the terminal gates so that operations do not become too crowded. It is also a useful way of limiting an airport’s effect on its neighbors and the environment.

Slots are particularly common at busy airports where the supply of available takeoff and landing times is outstripped by demand from airlines who want to operate flights (which in turn are usually driven by demand from passengers or intense competition over routes). Such airports are classified as “slot-constrained,” and at present there are around 200 such examples globally.

In these examples where demand is higher than the available number of slots, an allocation process is implemented, which should ensure a fair and non-discriminatory way of giving airlines access to an airport.

How will slot allocation change

Under the new collaboration, airports, airlines and slot coordinators will work together equally to determine slot allocation. The purpose is to modernize the system that has been put under strain as more airports become slot-constrained.

“For more than 40 years, the Worldwide Slots Guidelines has managed scarce airport capacity fairly, transparently and independently,” said IATA Director General and CEO Alexandre de Juniac.

“This has enabled airlines to make network investments with certainty. But more importantly it has benefitted consumers by ensuring schedule reliability while enhancing competition by providing opportunities for new entrants in even the most congested airports.” He added: “By working together with ACI and WWACG, the time-tested WSG will become even more responsive to evolving market needs.”

With air travel set to double by 2030, and another 100 airports expected to become slot-constrained, this is seen as the right time to improve the system for the benefit of passengers and to provide more transparency in what is often seen as the shady world of slot allocation. How it will pan out in reality is yet to be seen.

At airports like London Heathrow, slots are often traded between airlines or sold for tens of millions, or even used to benefit partners in airline alliances. New entrants can often end up priced out of starting services to these airports, and shorter regional routes using smaller aircraft can rarely make a profit when slots demand such a premium.

The new guidance also must go hand-in-hand with busy airports modernizing their infrastructure to provide capacity for airlines and passengers.

De Juniac added: “It is vital that policy-makers remember insufficient capacity to meet demand forfeits economic opportunities. The new WSG governance will make the best use of what we have — but it is no substitute for investing in modern airports and air traffic management.”

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The thrills and spills of e-scooters create a safety debate

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My co-worker and I stood staring transfixed at the Bird e-scooter. It had been decided that if I were to write about the safety of these things, I’d have to at least ride one.

I wanted to do it, but I didn’t want to do it. Images of my broken and balled up body weighed heavy on my mind. I remember asking, “Are these things even safe?”

And as if answered by the universe, a young woman, wearing sun shades and earbuds — stone deaf and blind to the world — floated down the street in front of us on an e-scooter. Travelling at the speed of “whatever dude,” she coasted by at 10 mph, in the middle of the street, with a caravan of irritated drivers honking their horns behind her.

“Yeah,” I surmised, “this can’t be safe.”

E-scooter infestation

I shouldn’t be operating anything that requires even a modicum of physical ability. Yet that’s what I and countless others are being allowed to do in major cities all across America. The e-scooter trend is exploding and has been for at least a year now.

It was in 2018 when things began in earnest. According to authors Joshua Brustein and Nate Lanxon, in an article for Bloomberg, “One of the biggest stories in technology [in 2018 was] the exploding popularity of Bird, Lime, Skip, Spin and Scoot.”

“These startups allow riders to locate and unlock scooters with an app. When they reach their destination, they just walk away. Some drivers and pedestrians see the scooters as dangerous contrivances that must be stopped.”

Bird, which kicked off the industry in 2017, was started by a former Lyft and Uber executive and is currently operating services in 40 cities. Competitor Lime is in 23. Take a quick walk around the city and you can see how their presence could be likened to an Old Testament cicada infestation; they’re both literally and figuratively everywhere.

“[Bird launched] in Santa Monica, California, and suddenly it seemed scooters were everywhere. Scores of unattended vehicles on city sidewalks have resulted in pushback from people complaining of urban chaos, and some cities have started to cap the number of scooters they’ll allow,” Brustein and Lanxon found.

As it turns out, the voices of dissent city safety concerns aren’t the ramblings of spoil sports. The scooters have proven to be dangerous.

According to an April study by the Austin Public Health Department (APH) in Texas, with assistance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one in three e-scooter riders were injured on their first ride.

“Almost half of the injured riders in this study sustained an injury to the head. A traumatic brain injury was experienced by 15%. These injuries may have been preventable. Only one of 190 injured scooter riders was wearing a helmet. Studies have shown that bicycle riders reduce the risk of head and brain injuries by wearing a helmet. Helmet use might also reduce the risk of head and brain injuries in the event of an e-scooter crash.”

“Perceptions may be that most e-scooter riders are injured because of collisions with motorized vehicles. The findings of this study does not support that perception.”

The authors of the study admitted that their numbers were probably underestimated as they were only able to include people who sought treatment after an injury. Countless others may have chosen to treat themselves, so the true number of those injured may never be known.

Also, to be fair, it must be stated that Bird does indeed provide rules for usage, two of them being “wear a helmet” and “no headphones.” Whether people abide by this rules is another conversation.

“This study was limited to investigating only those injured e-scooter riders and non-riders who sought care at a hospital emergency department or had care provided by emergency medical services. These riders are believed to experience more severe injuries compared with injured e-scooter riders whose injuries did not require care from a hospital emergency department or EMS.”

Just like riding a bike?

“How hard can this be,” I remember asking myself as my co-worker and I walked up on an e-scooter laying lifeless at the corner of Reinekers Lane and Prince Street.

“How does this thing work?” I muttered like an old man, slapping and jabbing at the scooter as if I were trying to get a cathode-ray tube television to work. Meanwhile, my co-worker downloaded the app, worked out my payment and asked one more time, “Are you sure about this?”

“Yeah,” I reasoned, it can’t be any harder than riding a bike.

I would soon find out it is a lot harder than riding a bike. According to Ed Benjamin, chairman of the Light Electric Vehicle Association (LEVA), the reason is simple.

Compared to bicycles and electric bicycles, e-scooters small design can cause problems in of itself. “The small wheels mean that they do not surmount obstacles easily,” he noted in a statement.

He also noted that electric mini-scooters often are being used by inexperienced riders. The mixture of these two factors — design and rider inexperience — and you have a natural recipe for injury. This is unlike e-bikes, which according to Benjamin, “have about the same safety record as normal bicycles.”

Bikes, and therefore e-bikes, were designed for road travel. There are versions that are designed for streets, roads, mountain paths and — in the case of motorcycles — the highway. The design for bicycles have stood the test of time.

Scooters, until recently, have only been seen as toys.

“So yes,” Benjamin concluded, “[LEVA’s] stance is that e-bikes are pretty safe. Electric mini scooters that you stand on … not so much.”

He and his criticisms of the technology aren’t alone. There have been calls in the media for regulation and all-out bans, as well as for scooters to be replaced by the aforementioned bicycles.

We take flight

I waited at the red light, staring across the intersection’s early rush-hour traffic in the bike lane. To my left was a line of idling cars whose drivers seemed mildly uneasy with my presence.

“When the light turns green,” I yelled back at my co-worker, who was filming, “I’m going to go!” While I didn’t have a helmet, I decided to follow the rules I could and stick to bike paths on the road and away from sidewalks. That means riding alongside actual traffic.

I counted down in my head and when the light turned green, I gunned it and off I flew.

I have to say, in that moment, hitting that straight away: I totally understood. The feeling of freedom you have while zipping along with traffic at speeds you couldn’t normally travel was exhilarating.

Sure, the maneuverability isn’t perfect, but the pick-up in speed is great. Once you master the brake and throttle, you can move about as you wish with little to no apprehension.

This was all, of course, before I ran out of bike lane.

Being emptied out into late afternoon traffic, I was suddenly aware I was riding a vehicle that, in the ‘50s, would’ve come with tassels and a milk crate attached. I soon found myself leading a long line of after-work drivers, all becoming increasingly angry at the weirdly large child up front, creeping along at 15 mph toward Duke Street.

That’s when the honking began. I waived some people passed then said screw it, yelling, “bail bail!”

I stopped in the middle of the street, picked the scooter up and began sprinting like a maniac toward and down the sidewalk. I had made it three blocks on the scooter, before my nerves had got the best of me.

I tried to ride with traffic several other times that afternoon before abandoning that plan for fear of being turned into Lots-o’-Huggin’ Bear at the end of “Toy Story 3.” I found myself on sidewalks, going down one-way roads the wrong way, breaking every rule I could for the sake of transport, simply because I could and because — for me at least — it was safer.

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Boeing confirms alert system malfunction in 737 Max 8

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In the grand scheme of deadly airline problems, Boeing’s latest crash debacles rate high on the list. Whenever an airplane crash occurs, there’s wild speculation concerning who and what to blame, and such is the case in the instances of downed Boeing 737 Max 8s.

We first heard of the Boeing 737 Max 8 troubles when a plane went down in Indonesia, killing 189. Then, months later, in Ethiopia, the same plane model killed 157 people in another crash.

As if 346 dead is not enough cause for alarm, take this weekend’s news. In Jacksonville, Florida, a previous model of the 737 slid off the runway into a river.

While it is too soon to determine the cause of difficulties in Florida, the company has come forward admitting to a safety feature malfunction that could have caused the high-profile, high-fatality crashes.

737 Max 8 software includes an alert system that informs pilots about problems and malfunctions in-flight. The problem is that an important alert light feature was sold to Boeing customers as “optional.” Now, Boeing has issued a statement acknowledging the missing light, which is linked to the Angle of Attack (AOA) alert system.

The issue here is whether or not Boeing’s decision to list the light as an optional feature that customers would have to purchase as an add-on is to blame for faulty crashes. It has been reported that the company has had knowledge of the light feature issue for at least one year.

As previously stated, the company acknowledges that this safety feature was listed as optional; however, it denies that it’s a direct cause of the plane crashes.

When activated, the sensor light informs the pilot of discrepancies in the AOA reading, according to Business Insider: “…the company said that AOA indicator and AOA disagree alert were not crucial safety requirements to the 737 Max, and that there were other indicators which identified the plane’s speed, altitude, and engine performance which should have allowed flight crews to safely operate the aircraft.”

Just as more news emerges about missing sensor lights, more Boeing safety news circulates. Before the recent plane crashes, Boeing was changing its quality control plan in a program it has launched called “QA Transformation.”

This plan seeks to restructure how product quality inspections are handled, and controversially includes replacing 900 inspectors with machines that can supposedly do a better job than their human counterparts. At least 451 inspector positions are up for transfers, with another 450 to follow next year.

Boeing employees’ union, Seattle-area Machinists Union Local 751, has responded to the QA Transformation initiative with its own strategy: a Verification Optimization Plan, won in bargaining: “Our VO site reps will be reviewing data for every area Boeing has already or plans to remove inspections. They will perform spot checks in areas where inspections have been or propose to be removed. If, due to verification optimization, quality degrades, our VO site reps will use that information to propose reinstating inspection in those areas.”

The message here is clear: the crashes indicate that just as Boeing should be taking inspections more seriously, the company is moving forward with a new experimental inspections model that has the machinist union nervous enough to institute its own inspection program.

Overall, Boeing has already paid $1 billion since its 737 Max 8 model has been grounded. Some experts have predicted that the world’s most common aircraft may not be back in the sky until October, leaving analysts speculating that this cut in deliveries could cost the company upwards of $10 billion.

Cash shortfalls and the added reputation of a shoddy inspections overhaul pose an uphill battle for Boeing. Meanwhile, the company also faces wrongful death lawsuits from families of recently deceased crash victims.

These lawsuits allege that Boeing rushed certification of its 737 Max 8 model since the company has a cozy relationship with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA): “…the FAA has been captured by the industry it is supposed to regulate. Industry lobbying focused on elevating corporate profits over passenger safety does not promote certification of safe airplanes.”

The FAA has received safety complaints about the 737 Max 8 from at least four different whistleblowers. Now, it struggles to regain an independent image as investigations into Boeing’s mishaps continue.

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