air travel Archives

August 20, 2006

Profiling at airports: What the Wall Street Journal doesn't get.

The Wall Street Journal thinks it would be a good idea to focus screening resources at airports based on racial or ethnic profiling.

What this means is that -- for the same level of overall screening resources available -- the out-of-profile group gets less screening. I.e., game the profile, and you'e more likely to get something actually dangerous on board. And no, profiles can't be kept secret -- just as frequent flyers learn the profiles applied at their favorite airports, terrorists learn about them. Nothing of this is new; the Carnival Booth paper nicely describes an algorithm for finding the most likely successful attackers given the presence of a profiling system. Racial and ethnic profiling is likely to increase the chances that attackers successfully bomb planes. It's bad for security.

But of course, rational arguments don't count when hysteria is the order of the day.

October 31, 2006

The curse of round numbers: How to get your liquids confiscated.

The air travel industry is in fear of liquids these days, and so the EU is heading for the same bright system that the US has: A small amount of liquids is permitted in carry-on luggage, in small containers, and to limit the total amount, you have to put it all into a ziplock bag. (There go the 3l of bottled water that I normally take on long-haul flights...)

To make things real fun, though, the system isn't really the same: US rules say "no more than 3oz", EU rules say "no more than 100ml"; US rules limit the zip-lock bag to 7.5"×8", EU rules say 20cm×20cm. All of these are nice, round numbers, and they are about the same. But just about the same: That 100ml roll-on deo that is fine in the EU is clearly above the 88ml that you can take aboard a plane in the US, and the ziplock bag dimensions aren't really the same, either.

In reasonble company, the differences are on a scale where it doesn't matter. But would you want to trust airport screeners to be reasonable these days? I'll bet that we're going to see any number of EU ziplock bags confiscated in the US before this gets any better.

February 3, 2007

Checking in in SJC, on a paper ticket

I flew back from San Jose through Minneapolis and Amsterdam this week, on NWA. Luxembourg being one of the few airports around the globe that still haven't decently implemented e-Tickets, I was traveling on my usual paper ticket for the entire trip.

I knew that Northwest has replaced staff at smaller outstations with minimum wage workers. But the experience in San Jose was mind-boggling: The first employee at check-in obviously hadn't ever seen a paper ticket before, and tried to coerce my passport into the e-ticket check-in machine (which first failed because she mechanically mis-handled the thing). When I insisted that I had a paper ticket and showed her the coupons, she mis-took them for boarding passes. "No. I need a boarding pass. This is not a boarding pass. This is a paper ticket flight coupon." Employee number two at least found the right menu on the check-in computer's screen; he then proceeded to get confused as to whether he needed to check for a visum to let me travel to the European Union. "I'm a German citizen who lives in Luxembourg. I'm in the US under the US visa waiver program for a short-term business trip. I don't need a visum to travel back from the US to my country of residence." That was apparently information he was unable to extract from my passport and his system. The next question was then whether the passport's expiration date was 11 February or 2 November. (The date format used on German passports actually can be inferred from my birthday, but once again that was too much for this agent.) When the confusion was over, he didn't even know how to properly staple together a boarding pass and a paper ticket.

As the icing on the cake in San Jose, I got the dreaded "SSSS" on my boarding pass (although I'm a top-tier frequent flyer with a close partner of NWA); funny enough, the TSA agents in San Jose couldn't be bothered and waved me through considerably more efficiently than a lot of other security droids that I have had fun with recently.

Once in Minneapolis, things were mostly done competently -- though agents there almost forgot to take the green visa waiver stub out of my passport. Hadn't I thought of it myself, I might have faced not-so-funny interactions next time at US immigrations.

The morale of the story is that, in times of cost-savings and automation in the travel business, you're increasingly lost if you don't know yourself how things are handled.

August 5, 2007

Baggage loss statistics

If you wonder why your baggage got lost this time, then the Association of European Airlines is a good source, with its statistics about punctuality, lost luggage, and a timeline of events. In their consumer report for the second quarter (found on flyertalk) , the number of times that Heathrow's baggage system simply broke down -- independently of any well-known external difficulties such as terrorist attacks -- is striking, and scary.

Unsurprisingly, British Airways ends up on the last place (23 out of 23) in the baggage handling discipline, "delaying" 28 pieces of checked baggage per 1,000 passengers. To put that number into perspective and see just how far an outlier it is, Swiss was on place 10 (losing 10 pieces per 1,000 passengers), Lufthansa on place 16 (losing 16 pieces per 1,000 passengers -- the European average), Air France on place 18 (losing 16.3 pieces), and KLM on place 21 (losing 17.8 pieces).

In the first quarter, BA had performed slightly less miserable (place 23 out of then 24, and ahead of TAP which is place 22 in the second quarter), losing "just" 24.7 pieces per 1,000 passengers, without any reported baggage system failures at Heathrow.

Note that, when comparing lost baggage numbers, some care is needed: missing baggage reports are taken by the last airline in a chain of connections. Yet, I'm guessing that numbers for the likes of BA, LH, AF and their recent acquisitions are roughly measuring the same kind of experiment, given that all these airlines have lots of connections and large networks.

On the other hand, numbers for some other, smaller airlines are likely to be distorted heavily, and don't lend themselves to an easy comparison. For example, it might seem surprising that an airline like Luxair (which does pretty much exclusively point-to-point traffic between Luxembourg and the rest of Europe, plus some holiday destinations, and should therefore have very little lost or delayed luggage) ends up on place 19 (losing 17.7 pieces of luggage) for the second quarter -- but then again, they provide feeder services for Lufthansa in Frankfurt and Munich, for BA (and others) in Heathrow, and for Air France at Charles de Gaulle.

August 29, 2007

Trying the gods of air travel

Seems I was trying the gods of air travel when I wrote: For example, it might seem surprising that an airline like Luxair (which does pretty much exclusively point-to-point traffic between Luxembourg and the rest of Europe, plus some holiday destinations, and should therefore have very little lost or delayed luggage) ends up on place 19 (losing 17.7 pieces of luggage) for the second quarter, and so on.

While I was on a direct flight with them this morning, my luggage was not -- or at least not on the same one. And that after early check-in, in Vienna...

Later: Seems like I shouldn't blame on Vienna what can be explained by sloppiness here. The suitcase "appeared" two or three hours later at the airport, and was then delivered. The tag on it suggests that it didn't see any planes except for the flight from Vienna to Luxembourg that I was on, too.

August 31, 2007

Flying While Arabic

From the San Diego Metro News:

An American Airlines flight from Lindbergh Field to Chicago was delayed overnight Tuesday because of a passenger's fright over some Arabic-speaking men on board.

The story itself is fairly surreal -- a bunch of men were talking in a language that sounded like (and apparently was) Arabic, some other passengers got hysteric about terrorism for no good reason, and the plane returned to the gate.

Some of the comments make for even more ghastly reading, and justify racist hysteria with the "better safe than sorry", "think of the children", "we're at war" school of argument.

One thing is for sure: I wouldn't want to sit in the same plane as these commenters.

Later: Yesterday's BoingBoing piece on how people react to fear of death -- in particular as their political views are concerned -- relates to this story in an interesting way. Go read it.

November 17, 2007

Great Circle Time

The year is almost over, and Richard Ishida reminds us that it's great circle mapper time again.

Here we go...

About air travel

This page contains an archive of all entries posted to No Such Weblog in the air travel category. They are listed from oldest to newest.

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