Weekend what we’re reading: Solar-powered plane, increased airline change fees, airline capacity drops

Screen capture from takeoff video May 3, 2013


Revel in new technology that allows a solar-powered plane to fly from California to New York. Airlines burden passengers with increased change fees. And, airlines drop capacity to keep prices high.

Solar plane begins cross-country flight
SolarImpulse, the world’s first solar plane that can fly day and night is flying across the United States as a prelude for a future flight around the world. The flight, complete with video coverage and plenty of technical background, can be found on the SolarImpulse website.

Here is the route that the cross-country solar-powered flight will take.Stopover_cities
• Moffett Airfield (Mountain View, CA)
• Sky Harbor International Airport (Phoenix, AZ)
• Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport (Dallas, TX)
• Lambert-St. Louis International Airport (St. Louis, MO)
• Dulles International Airport (Washington D.C.)
• John F. Kennedy International Airport (New York City)

“The crux to flying nonstop around the world with solar energy is being able to fly even when the sun isn’t out, especially at night,” notes André Borschberg, the project CEO. New batteries were developed and super lightweight components help conserve energy.

The most revolutionary aspect of the plane’s design are the materials used to minimize its weight. Every unneeded ounce had to be discarded so that the machine could bear the payload of even a single pilot. “We did a feasibility study and discovered that we weren’t going to be able to get down to the right weight with any available construction materials,” remembers Borschberg. “When we talked to aeronautics companies to see if they could develop this, everyone said it was impossible. So we turned to a boat-building company.”

The company — Decision SA boatyards, which specializes in racing ships out of Ecublens, Switzerland — created rectangular carbon-fiber beams, honeycombed to lighten the plane’s internal structure. Over this skeleton they pulled a specially developed carbon skin half the weight of copy machine paper.

Airline change fees rise to unconscionable $200
The big three airlines (I’m already including USAir with AA as a married couple) have all increased change fees to $200. Why? Because they can and consumers have no other recourse.

Customer service is at the bottom of their wish list. Extracting the most money from passengers is at the top. The airlines were absolutely clear about that when they petitioned the DOT to waive tarmac-delay rules for more flexibility to deal with the possible delays caused by the sequester, while at the same time, they limited passengers’ flexibility by announcing an increase in change fees.

These fees add up to billions.

…the Bureau of Transportation statistics reports that in 2011 (the last full year for which statistics are available), US airlines collected nearly $3.4 billion in baggage fees while reservation change and cancellation fees in 2011 totaled over $2.38 billion (with Delta topping the list at over three quarters of a billion dollars)! No wonder airlines are jacking them even higher.


Airline capacity slashed across the country
One of the best ways to keep airfares high is to keep capacity low. Too many seats chasing too many passengers is bad for airline profits. Now, without price-fixing, airlines have a new way to influence pricing — reduced capacity. It is not a pretty picture.

Airlines survived $147-a-barrel oil, a financial collapse on Wall Street, and a recession in 2008 by doing two things: slashing capacity — fewer flights, different-size aircrafts, recalibrated routes — and charging annoying fees for everything from baggage to “choice” seats.

Nationwide, there are 8 percent fewer airplane seats with passengers in them than five years ago, according to airline analyst Daniel McKenzie, of Buckingham Research Group in New York. He recently analyzed which cities got hardest hit with seat cuts and which had the most growth.

Air-travel markets experiencing the biggest year-over-year decrease in nonstop, one-way seat capacity, second quarter 2013 from second quarter 2012.

Market Seat Decrease Percent Change
Memphis 357,277 -30.4
Denver 180,772 -2.4
Orlando, Fla. 126,304 -2.6
Milwaukee 116,639 -9.6
Philadelphia 83,564 -2.0
Miami Metro 77,402 -1.2
San Juan 63,451 -5.8
Colorado Springs 61,561 -22.7
Atlantic City 59,772 -28.4
Birmingham, Ala. 57,063 -10.4