Charting the ups and downs of aviation

Sim Kok Chwee offers a window seat on the airline world in 2014, tracking a year of significant breakthroughs and tumult

19-december-airplane-goodFOR far too long, hotels and airlines have levied hefty charges on Wi-Fi and Internet connection. Interestingly, small hotel chains were among the first to offer free connectivity and over time, the larger ones have followed – albeit mostly for “loyal premium guests”. In commercial aviation, it is an LCC – Norwegian Long Haul AS – that has extended complimentary Wi-Fi connection to its passengers and Emirates has followed suit.

Emirates is investing US$20 million to equip its Airbus A380s and Boeing 777-300ERs with Wi-Fi connection, and passengers will initially receive the first 10MB of data for free and a token charge of one US dollar levied on the next 600MB. But the best is yet to come – the airline’s ultimate objective is to offer unlimited Wi-Fi access to all passengers on board its planes.

Airlines that have for years been polling their passengers for hints of the service innovations they wish to see on board planes need look no further – this is it. Now that the precedence has been set by an LCC and a full-service carrier, it is about time others follow or be overlooked by the ever-so-connected customers.

THE aviation industry has been unfairly blamed for climate change, noise pollution and other environmental issues. Great strides have been made by aircraft and engine manufacturers, and in 2014 more A380s and B787 Dreamliners have been delivered to airlines worldwide. The Dreamliner did not get off to a dream start but with most of its woes behind it, these quiet and fuel-efficient airplanes are now criss-crossing the globe and will soon be joined by the first Airbus A350s in 2015. Together with the B777-300ER, these airplanes have been instrumental in allowing airlines to retire their less efficient workhorses like the B747-400s and MD-11s.

Perhaps it is time for the aviation industry to be better at articulating the fact that it is now responsible for far less emission than ever before but continues to facilitate valuable movement of trade, commerce and people.

19-december-airplane-badMALAYSIA Airlines’ loss of a B777-200ER along with 12 crew members and 227 passengers on March 8 mystified and intrigued the entire world for months, and the world is no closer to finding remains of the airplane and its passengers as 2014 comes to a close. All the satellites hovering above the Earth and radars along its flight path have not been able to definitively pinpoint its location. As governments and air forces deployed assets to search for the missing plane, first in the South China Sea and then the Straits of Malacca, Andaman Sea and Indian Ocean, valuable time was lost and with each passing week, hopes of finding any debris grew more remote.

The disappearance of an airliner this size is unprecedented and even as MH370 has gained more familiarity than any other flight number in history with the exception of Pan Am 103, there is a nagging and troubling fear that it may eventually prove more convenient and less costly to simply declare this B777 as lost.

SPACE travel has in recent years generated a significant buzz with much hopes riding on Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic. Many have registered their interest and paid huge deposits to be among the first to skim the edge of Earth’s atmosphere, possibly as soon as in the spring of 2015.

On October 31, the space vehicle crashed on a test flight over the Mojave Desert killing its co-pilot. Although it was believed that human error might have been the cause of the crash, investigation could take more than a year. This could derail the planned launch of space travel but more importantly, it has shaken the confidence of some who have previously signed up for this bragging right. Unless the space craft is absolved of any form of technical failure and pilots are trained

to a level that bolsters the confidence of this segment’s high-profile and high net worth customers, the notion of space travel could once again be just a nebulous vision.

19-december-airplane-uglyON July 17, the ground war between Ukraine and Russian-backed rebels took an ugly turn when Malaysia Airlines’ (MAS) flight MH17 on a B777-200ER was shot down, taking with it the lives of 15 crew members and 283 passengers. Rescue efforts were hampered as the ground war continued unabated in spite of assurances that rescuers could enter the crash site to retrieve human remains and belongings. Even as late as November, retrieval of aircraft parts was ongoing.

MAS could not be faulted for flying over Ukraine as international bodies such as the International Civil Aviation Organization and the Federal Aviation Administration have only warned of potential risks and advised airlines to exercise caution, the air route over eastern Ukraine was never closed. In the week preceding the shotdown of MH17, about 900 international flights transited above eastern Ukraine.

Following the incident, international airlines have completely amended their flight routings and skirted around Ukraine. As 2014 comes to a close, nobody is any wiser about the origin of the missile that downed MH17, and the aviation industry – and MAS – may carry this mystery into the next year.

IN recent years, air rage and assault on airline personnel and properties have become more common. Even when flights were delayed by inclement weather (in China), passengers have staged sit-ins on board airplanes. In one instance, safety was severely compromised when passengers staging a sit-in on board an airplane in China ran onto the airport tarmac, but none faced charges and they instead received cash compensation from the airline.

In August, a United Airlines flight from Newark to Denver was diverted to Chicago after a lady passenger threw water on a male passenger behind her for using a Knee Defender, a device that enables a passenger to “lock” the seat in front and prevent it from being reclined. Both passengers were removed from the flight at Chicago and neither faced any charge as Chicago police and security agencies deemed this a “customer service issue”.

And just last month, The Cranberries singer Dolores O’Riordan wearing heavy boots stamped on the foot of a cabin attendant, causing the latter’s foot to swell significantly. During her arrest, she head-butted a law enforcement officer and spat in his face. The singer was subsequently released into the custody of her mother and the case is pending.

Unless governments and law enforcement agencies are more willing to exercise their vested power to protect airline employees and travellers, air rage in airports and on board planes are likely to be more common.

This article was first published in TTG Asia, December 12, 2014 issue, on page 22. To read more, please view our digital edition or click here to subscribe

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