Let us reflect back on aviation events of 2010. These are the top ten aviation happenings by media coverage over the past year.
10. Does it Really Exist?
One of the biggest aviation feats of this year occurred without anyone really knowing. The United States Air Force, with help from Boeing and Nasa built a fully automated, robot shuttle. They launched the shuttle into space in August and it returned to Earth, landing at Edwards Air Force Base in late November. For the four months that the shuttle was in orbit, without civilians knowing about it, the craft completed multiple tests and airworthiness directives. When it landed, the Air Force did release a photo and a small article about the vehicle. Little specifics still have yet to be known, but the shuttle is going to be used for ‘cargo’ missions and will remain an entirely lifeless operation. This shuttle, though so covert, shows the marvel in 2010 engineering, not only can we fly to space but we can do it completely from a computer screen on the ground. Space colonization is near.
9. A New form of Identification
In a world where the fear of an aircraft attack is omnipresent, it’s a wonder why pilot’s never had a picture on their actual license. As it stands now, to act as a pilot in command of an airplane, the pilot is required to carry (among other supplies) there FAA license, a picture id, and current medical certificate. The license though just has a few words, explaining the pilot’s certifications, and on the back lays a picture of Orville and Wilbur Wright, but no photo of your own. Recently however, the Federal Aviation Administration has begun implementing a two year process to put a picture and biometric identification on the license itself. This is exciting especially amongst the pilot community because now Pilot’s will be able to use their license as a form of government issued id.
8. The Fate of Nasa
The National Aeronautical and Space Administration was created during the Kennedy presidency to complete a simple mission: put a man on the moon. From its inception in the fifties, NASA has grown into a huge organization under the federal executive branch. In fact, over 1% of national spending annually is spent on NASA. Look at all the accomplishments though; several missions to the moon, telescopic satellites that have traveled the planets charting and sending back information, in fact, the Voyager Space craft is over ten billion miles from our planet and will shortly exit the solar system. These are just some of the major projects of numerous that NASA has worked on over the years. Unfortunately, during this recession, President Obama has made the decision to privatize the space market and drastically cut back the NASA space program. Note that NASA will still be the chief administrator of air and space in this country, but will not be doing everything from start to finish. Only three shuttle missions remain, with the last scheduled to launch in February, meaning that the shuttle program will probably be over by summer of next year. It’s too bad that such an accomplished organization has to go through such drastic change. One of the biggest impacts may be on America’s children. When I was growing up, the astronauts and NASA were such an inspirational image that tomorrow’s generation won’t get. Some hope still exists for space exploration, Space X, one of multiple private organizations that are now trying to fill in NASA’s developing gap, successfully launched a rocket into orbit three weeks ago. The rocket will be used in future years under contract from NASA to transport astronauts to the world’s most expensive single item: the international space station.
7. Not all Airlines Suffer
In time of recession and demise, the airlines are not expected to be doing well. Higher fuel costs and lower passenger travel combined with aging aircraft have created a tough time the airlines. The industry has coped with this by hurting the passenger; less service, more charges, and least helpful, more expensive fares. Within this economic sector, however, there is jewel. Seattle based Alaska Airlines has completed its most profitable year since the company began operations over thirty years ago. Alaska, one of few airlines that remain distant from one of three global alliances, serves primarily the west coast of the United States and the state of Alaska. In 2007, Alaska began its first flights to Hawaii from its hub in Seattle, and today it offers the most flights to Hawaii behind only Hawaiian Airlines. Alaska has also expanded its route network to many east coast cities from Anchorage, Seattle, or Los Angeles, the airlines largest hubs. Currently, Alaska has a stock price around $52.00 a share, one of the highest in the industry. Speculation exists whether or not Alaska will be absorbed by one of the larger, remaining legacy carriers, however Alaska, with its unique route map and high stock price, the airline will likely remain independent for a long time. Hopefully the success of Alaska this year will spread to other airlines in the domestic industry.
6. Boeing: Hope and Failure
Boeing, the country’s largest exporter and industries largest company, has been in the news quite a bit over the last few years, especially in negative nature. The 787, which after a three year delay finally took its first flight in November of 2009, with hopes of a delivery in late 2010. The flight test program for the new aircraft, which has spanned all this year, has gradually declined ending with a fire in one of the test airplanes last month, grounding the fleet. The electric panel that caused the fire has been found and fixed, but, at the expense of yet another delay to the programs first commercial delivery. As of now, first delivery is expected for late 2011, but I personally expect no deliveries until 2012. Despite the 787’s failure, the company as a whole remains in good shape. The next generation of the 747, the -8 freighter and -8 intercontinental both accomplished their first flights this year and are expected to enter service next year, on schedule.
5. Rolls Royce: Whoops
Air Transportation is the safest way to get from place to place, but it is not immune to accidents. The biggest aircraft accident of this year has to be Qantas A380 enroute to Sydney that had to return to Singapore shortly after takeoff because of an engine failure last November. The inboard engine on the left wing, a Rolls Royce Trent 1000, encountered an oil pressure failure within the core of the engine which led to the engine blowing up and sending shards everywhere. A two foot hole even ripped straight through that wing of the aircraft. This catastrophic failure wasn’t able to take any lives as a qualified crew brought the damaged plane back to Singapore and got it on the ground, safely. Qantas has since grounded all of its A380 fleet and have put their 747-400’s on the routes formerly flown by the airplane. Airbus and Rolls Royce have actively been searching for a solution to the problems. The first being solely with Rolls Royce and the engine exploding. The second came as a sort of surprise to EADS subsidiary Airbus seeing that the aircraft underwent significant damage because of the failure. The Trent series engines are used throughout different aircrafts and airlines, including some Boeing products such as the new 787. The British engine manufacture, Rolls Royce’s stock prices tanked after the event and have yet to recover. This event revealed weakness in aircraft design but also a promising resolution with an excellent flight crew.
4. Smaller Skies
Airline mergers in no way should be considered as new news. Successful airline mergers however, have become virtually unheard of, until now. The year began with the completion of the Northwest merger with Delta airlines, forming the world’s largest airline. Planning and plenty of time for preparation can be thanked for allowing such a smooth transition. This merger is considered successful not just for the quality of integration but the fact that Delta reported making a profit again, something the airline hasn’t accomplished since the recession. Since the Delta merger went so well, United and Southwest Airlines decided to jump on the merger plane, too. This summer, United announced plans to acquire Continental Airlines, and in October the Department of Transportation approved the merger. This merger combined two larger airlines with routes and aircraft less complimentary then the Delta and Northwest merger. In addition, the airlines took two okay liveries and combined to make one that looks pretty stupid. Since the plane needs to be repainted anyway, they should have made a whole new livery. Another surprise this year that has gotten plenty of press coverage was budget carrier, Southwest Airline’s decision to purchase Air Tran, another low-cost model operator. This acquisition is probably the most exciting of the three mergers of this year. First, it will add international routes and Air Trans heavy east coast presence to Southwest. Also, for the first time in the company’s history, it will operate an aircraft type other than the 737, choosing to continue operation of Air Tran’s 717 fleet. The massive expansion for Southwest will put even more pressure on the other airlines to keep fares low, overall helping the customer. Though mergers are great for the airlines, they typically raise ticket prices, but, this Southwest one should help keep prices down. In a time of efficiency the airlines look to mergers as a good opportunity, thus far recent mergers have been much more successful than the American absorption of Trans World Airlines earlier this decade that almost pushed the airline into bankruptcy.
3. Failed Bombings
In passenger travel, essentially every piece of baggage as well as every person must be scanned and checked for explosive and dangerous material. The cargo market however remains relatively open, with little screening of the cargo before the flight. This September and October the Middle East released its newest forms of terrorist plots by placing explosive material on cargo aircraft with intention to explode the aircraft over United States soil. Two Federal Express flights originating in the Middle East, with layovers in England, were discovered to have explosives on board in disguise as printer toner cartridges. In an act not really known by the public, international intelligence was able to identify the packages before the planes reached U.S. land and disable them. The origin of the packages remains unknown. A United Parcel Service 747 that exploded over Dubai this summer might have been the result of a hidden explosive. I formally request that the terrorists leave air travel alone, I take these attacks personally.
2. Holy Ash!
Behind the oil spill, nothing packed the news more this summer than the eruption of Mount Eyjafjallajoekull in Iceland. The ash from the volcano spewed into the atmosphere and traveled throughout the atmosphere of the North Atlantic. Canceling thousands of flights over the course of weeks, nothing took a larger toll on the airlines this year. Ash, carrying thick heavy sediment, gets sucked into the aircraft’s jet engine, becoming the equivalent of glue, killing the engine. Ash from a volcano in Alaska caused a British Airways 747 to temporarily lose all of its engines a few years ago. Eventually, the ash cleared and the flights were able to fly again. The impact though was catastrophic, causing delays lasting nearly a month long on some passengers.
1. “You touch my junk; you’ll have a law suit!”
As touched on earlier, security screening of the passengers has become a necessary and now unpleasant task. In response to last year’s Christmas Day underpants bomber, the Transportation Security Administration implemented the use of full-body scanners at the top 100 airports of the United States. Using either back-scatter or low-level x-rays, the body scanners produce a digital image of the individual, head to toe, revealing everything on the person. The scanners are extremely effective but a pretty big change from the metal detector. Time for example is one of those factors. Instead of walking through a metal detector in a few seconds, the full body scanners take about 20 seconds or more per person. Privacy though has become the biggest issue. These scanners, producing a full image of you naked, are revealed to a TSA agent in another room that analyzes the image. It has been described as virtual porn. Not to mention, the scanners do send a little radiation into your body, so gentlemen, protect them testes. Now if you don’t want to get your body scanned, you get an even worse and more invasive, full-body grouping, I mean search that has been described as demoralizing. Since their implementation, the scanners have got a ton of press coverage, especially after a person in San Diego filmed the entire process of him being kicked out of the airport because he didn’t want to be scanned on his iphone. The position of the TSA to keep the skies safe is understandable, but I don’t feel that air transportation is at a point that requires a strip search, virtual or real, for every passenger. The TSA has seemed to quell coverage on the scanners, perhaps considering other options.
Well there you have it. These events are the biggest of 2010, for more information on any aviation matter, I recommend airliners.net and aopa.com.