Trying Spirit-First Time

Posted on: April 15th, 2012 by: Martin J Cowling

A lot of miles to cover this week. Seven flights to three countries with four airlines.

  1. Qantas: Melbourne to Auckland, NZ via Sydney
  2.  Virgin Australia: Melbourne to  Los Angeles in Premium Economy product. Any Virgin Australia 777 flyers have any recommendation as to the better Premium Economy seats?
  3. Spirit: I chose Spirit deliberately so I could see what they are like as I have never flown them. Wish me luck for that flight! Spirit are supposed to be a little like Ryanair (who I hate flying with). I am fascinated to see.

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Qantas the Fading Star?

Posted on: April 14th, 2012 by: Martin J Cowling

Somewhat concerned to see the Australian national carrier described by Smarter Travel as a “fading star” in this article about Virgin Australia. The full sentence reads: “the fading star of Qantas in that part of the world.”

Has someone told the Qantas board this? Certainly many passengers think its true.


Pinnacle Air Reorganised

Posted on: April 13th, 2012 by: Martin J Cowling

There have been so many airline bankruptcies this year that I am struggling to keep up!

These bankruptcies mean a lot of disruption, a lot of passenger inconvenience and many staff job losses. It is concerning that so many have gone this year, already. Of course, India’s Kingfisher is teetering and may not last much longer. The poor economy and rising oil prices are squeezing airlines further. Some collapses also reflect poor managerial decisions.

Now to April. On the 2nd, Pinnacle airlines filed for Chapter 11 Bankruptcy protection. In Chapter 11, the debtor remains in control of its business operations and while, subject to the oversight and jurisdiction of the court can use the situation to streamline and re organise their company. Most passengers won’t notice any changes as Pinnacle does not operate any of its own services. Instead, they provide regional services for United, US airways and Delta. While passengers may not notice much, a lot will occur “behind the scenes”. Pinnacle own Colgan air and Mesaba airways.

In arguing for chapter 11, John Spanjers, Pinnacle chief operating officer, said: “Regional airlines have been forced to bid ever-lower rates and accept increasingly unfavorable contract terms to win the business of major carriers. These sacrifices have drained regional carriers and continue to do so, with frequently unsustainable consequences.”  Chapter 11 means that Pinnacle need to reduce their costs- fast and re negotiate revenues. These comments appear to apply to aviation overall. How many airlines operate on the edge of unsustainability all the time?

What the company intends to do:

  • use a new management team to re arrange things. Sean Menke, CEO came from Frontier
  • stop flying for anyone but Delta, who represent 80 per cent of their business
  • Borrow money from Delta ($74.3 million). Some of this money is intended to fund the re-org and some of it is actually being used to pay back an existing loan Delta gave the carrier
  • Cancel, renegotiate and change contracts
  • Reduce the number of planes they own
  • Cut pilot numbers by 800
One very telling thing for me. On February 24, 2012, Pinnacle invoked a 5% pay cut for all pilots. CEO Menke insisted the cut was necessary to prevent bankruptcy protection.  About a month later and two weeks before filing for Chapter 11, Menke got a 60 per cent pay rise from $425,000 to $675,000.  COO Spanjers received a 45% raise from $275,000 to $400,000. The pilots union claim the majority of Pinnacle pilots are earning annual pay in the $30,000 to $70,000 range. Expect some hard bargaining from the unions in this.

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Malaysian Kids Free Zones -Wacky or Wise

Posted on: April 11th, 2012 by: Martin J Cowling

I have flown 842 times. In that time, one child has kept me irritated for an entire flight. As he bounced up and down the seats with his oblivious mother staring at her video screen, an exasperated fellow passenger asked if she had brought anything for her child to do. She looked up and shrugged her shoulders, saying “No” and went back to watching  her screen. A few babies have disturbed my takeoffs and landings but not enough for me to want children removed from my aeroplane. Most I have met on board have been well behaved or in awe or both. On the other hand, adult passengers that talk loudly on night flights, recline their seats, pack the luggage racks badly, keep the light on on night flights, abuse the flight attendants, dirty the lavatories, or step on my feet when walking across the emergency exits, annoy me more. Besides, for the first 15 flights of my life,  I was a child under 12.

So I was very interested in Malaysian Airline’s announcement  last Wednesday that children and infants under the age of 12 will be banned from the upper decks of their new Airbus A380 as well as the plane’s First Class.

The announcement overshadowed almost every other detail of the new Airbus services. The first plane due for delivery in June will start flying Kuala Lumpur daily into London in July. The second one will double the London capacity. KL- Sydney will follow from 25 September, 2012 as flights MH123/122 replacing the Boeing 747-400 aircraft currently serving the route. This means four airlines will be flying A380s into Sydney  and four into London (Emirates, Qantas, Singapore currently operate the plane at those two airports).

The Malaysian A380  has a brand new livery of blue and metal colours (pictured). No decision has been made as to whether the colours will be rolled out to the whole fleet. I really like the livery. The colour represents a new era as they join One World and fight to keep their five star Skytrax rating which is “under review”. (If Skytrax downgrades them, then that means with the loss of Kingfisher’s status, there will be five carrying the 5 star moniker compared with seven last year).

Malaysian’s Airbus A380 will have 494 seats compared with:

  • Korean: 407  (my report here)
  • Qantas: 450 (not reviewed)
  • Singapore: 409/471 (not reviewed)
  • Emirates: 489/517 (Three airlines A380s compared)
  • China Southern: 506 (not flown yet)
  • Air France: 516/538 (Reviewed January, 2012)
  • Lufthansa: 526 (Review posted October last year)

There was talk of having four classes with a seat count of 503. Instead, Malaysian has dropped premium Economy and  increased the business cabin on the upper deck.  Seven of the seats are reserved for crew giving the plane 487 seats. 420 of these seats are economy, Business and First Class. On the lower deck are 350 Economy seats and the  eight kid free First class seats. The child proofed upper deck will have 66 Business and 70 economy seats.

First-class pitch will be 85 inches. The seats will flatten out to a full 87-inches. In flight entertainment screens are  23-inch. Business class: 74-inch pitch and full flat bed seats each measuring 72 inches in length  with individual 17-inch IFE screens. Economy-class seats will have a 32 inch pitch and an 18 inch seat width with 10.6-inch individual screens. Every seat on board will have a USB port.  AC electrical outlets Ports will be installed at every Business and First seat and shared with every two seats in Economy.

Now for the child ban. Malaysian have instructed travel agents that their booking system will not allow passengers under 12 in First class, or the upper deck. This is hot on the heels of a 2010 US survey identified that nearly 60% of travellers want airlines to create a family-only section on flights. This was a consequence of a confidential settlement between Qantas and a 67-year-old American passenger who sued the airline after a 3-year-old screamed on her flight. Further,  most  survey respondents said they wished to sit as far away from young children as possibleThose who support banning kids, point out that the chance of a small child or baby being disruptive is far greater than that of any other traveller. Those against point out that children likely to fly Business are usually behaved. plus it means all parents seeking to fly Malaysian will have to fly Economy.

So is this policy Wacky or Wise.? What do you think?

Trip Report: Skywest (Australia) EPR-PER

Posted on: April 10th, 2012 by: Martin J Cowling


My report today is about my roundtrip flights from the West Australian city of Perth (pop: 1.7 million) to Esperance (pop 9536), a regional town in Western Australia and return on Skywest Airlines Pty Ltd. This Singapore based carrier flies regional and commuter services across the mining and agricultural state of Western Australia. Flights are operated under their  own colours and some will soon be flown with  Virgin Australia colours. NB This is not the same  Skywest who fly regional services in the USA on behalf of United, US and Delta.

Since 2004, Skywest in Australia have expanded their fleet from  7 aircraft to 18 aircraft. They will soon add more aircraft (ATRs) as part of their new ten year alliance with Virgin Australia. Revenue has risen steadily but fuel costs have also risen rapidly reducing profit by 37% this year so far. Still For a number of airlines. in the rough and tumble world of airlines, this would be a gig that would be envied by many  with a monopoly on most of their routes.


Booking: 7 out of 10

The actual booking engine at is very straightforward and earns them top marks. It clearly shows all the fares available on each flight. There are four flights in each direction between Perth and Esperance, most days. Skywest offers only economy service with four types of fare.

Where they lose marks with everyone,  is the monopoly they have on the Esperance to Perth route. As a result, it is general opinion that fares are very high.Certainly, everyone I spoke to in the town spoke resentfully about the fares. The cheapest fare is their discounted Webbit at around $169 for a flight distance of 360 miles, or 580 km. These fares are pretty much booked out in advance all the time. I scrolled through and I saw little availability for the webbit seats. Skywest do say “get in early!”. The fare then climbs to $359 each way which may be the only fare available at the last minute. My fare to Esperance ended up being way more than my flight from Melbourne to Perth, a 2700km (1600 mile) flight.

Virgin Australia frequent flyers  have been able to earn points on Skywest flights for some time now.

 Check In: 9 out 10

On line check in is available. I have yet to see the point of online checkin for departures out of Esperance as there is only one desk to check in at. You may save a few seconds at the counter but thats about it. Flying out of Perth, the online check in makes more sense.

On arrival at Perth, there were lines of miners ready for their Fly in Fly out shifts. 6 to 730 am apparently is peak hour at Perth airport for these groups. Many of them looked grim faced heading int a nine or ten day tour of duty in dangerous conditions away from families. I was in awe of the efficient way Skywest, were rapidly handling the check in. Staff were positioned at the head of then lines directing customers to the next agent quickly. The lines were moving fast. Staff at Perth were not by any means abrupt.

At Esperance  airport things were a little quieter. The airport is a small building with a baggage unloading space, lavatories, vending machines, small waiting area a check in counter — and free wifi. 26 kilometres out of twin in the middle of scrub and there is wifi very impressive. Thank you Esperance Council! Check always feels a little more harried here because the single staff person always seems under pressure.

My bag weighed (9kg). There is no bag check at the gate so I checked it in. Something I do not do very often!

At Check in, I requested and got front row seats on the Fokker 50m aircraft in both directions:  1G  going to  Esperance  which has some extra leg room and 1A coming back which has a huge amount of leg room.

Boarding: 9 put of 10

Boarding was via tarmac at both airports. At Perth, we were bussed to the plane. At Esperance it is a very short walk from the door of the terminal to aeroplane stairs. Crew were polite in welcoming people on board. Both times, boarding was relaxed, stress free and fast.

There are no airport security checks for passengers at Esperance airport. That will shortly change with new government security regulations. The Esperance airport staff are bracing themselves for a flood of complaints.

On Board: 8 out of 10

The Fokker 50 has 46 seats arranged 2 by 2. Seat pitch is a very comfortable 33″. The planes though older, are in great condition. The flight attendants appeared to very young crew. They were very polite and appeared quite reserved. The passengers on the flight to Esperance were mostly fly in fly out. This and it being an early morning flight meant the plane was very quiet. The return flight was much more boisterous.

There is no entertainment on board apart from a complimentary newspaper on every second seat coming from perth and the remains of the read newspapers of the return flight!

Safety briefing was clear.


630am is peak hour at Perth  airport, it seems. We sat waiting for clearance for 30minutes before taking off very smoothly. We landed ten minutes late but had to wait for another ten minutes for the luggage. Skywest has a service where passnegers can order  a taxi from the crew who radio ahead for waiting cabs.

On the return, we flew out of Esperance right on time,  on a very windy day. The pilot accelerated rapidly. We swayed from side to side down the runway and then bounced through the climb.  I love flying! The rough weather continued for ten minutes into the flight  but we so soon levelled out. Flight crews were very good with announcements. We landed on time into Perth where there was a longish walk back to the terminal and my waiting friend.

I actually really like the Fokker 50 a with its interesting arrangements with the wheels and engines. I am sad that Fokker went broke. This photo of the same plane that I was one, was posted by Bob  on the skywest.blogspot.


Meals: 7 out of 10

Skywest provides free light cold meals on its flights. To Esperance I was given a breakfast (cereal, milk,  orange juice and on the return snacks. Non alcoholic drinks were available free of charge.


The Verdict

My rating: Overall 80% (4 out of 5). My overall rating of Skywest based on six flights is 4.3 out of 5.

Positives:   Roomy, fast check in

Negatives: High fare

Would I fly them again?  Yes. A nice solid product delivered well. The perception of the airline’s pricing is poor. Should any significant competition emerge on Skywest routes and, I think you would see a loss of customer loyalty-fast.

My last Trip Report: March 13: Gulf Air: Bahrain (BAH) to Abu Dhabi (AUH) Embraer 170

This Week: 9 to 15 April

Posted on: April 8th, 2012 by: Martin J Cowling

Remarkably in the week coming: a week at home with no travel! Last week, I flew my 840th flight (Esperance to Perth in Australia – see this Tuesday’s Trip Report). this took  my total time inside planes to 112 days (16 weeks). I have also reached a milestone of five times the distance to the moon! I am closing in on two million kilometres of flying!

What are you up to this week?

Air Zimbabwe Going going gone?

Posted on: April 6th, 2012 by: Martin J Cowling

Air Zimbabwe logo

Air Zimbabwe logo (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In 1996, I spent a glorious ten days in Zimbabwe. Many say that was the last good year for the country. Since then sanctions, corruption, seizure of farms, mines and businesses have made Zimbabwe a no go zone for tourism and business. These same conditions have reduced Air Zimbabwe passenger numbers from 1 million in 1999 to 23,000 in 2005 due to suspension of many of its flights and suspension from  the international financial and booking system by IATA over unpaid fees.

The airline kept flying from 2005 to 2011 and even launched a new service from Harare to Kuala Lumpur.  Last year, however, was a horror year for the carrier with something going wrong almost every month:

  • Feb 2011: South African fights suspended over unpaid landing fees
  • May 2011:  suspended by IATA over unpaid fees
  • May 2011: domestic fights suspended by Civil Aviation Authority Zimbabwe CAAZ over safety concerns – with some resuming in July
  • Mid-June 2011: Flights to London and South Africa  suspended because of a debts to  fuel suppliers.
  • August – September 2011: Pilots go on strike for 50 days over unpaid wages
  • Nov 2011: flights suspended over unpaid fuel bills
  • Nov 2011: Airline debt reaches $US140million
  • Dec 2011: one of the struggling airline’s 767s is seized at Gatwick airport on behalf of American General Supplies over a $1.5 million outstanding debt. The debt is paid with passengers stranded for a week
2012 was not much better:
  • Jan 2012: Air Zimbabwe’s last remaining plane was grounded
  • Jan 2012: the airline suspended all services to London and South Africa fearing any planes may be seized
  • Jan 2012: the airline comes under Judicial management
  • Feb 2012: Pilots refuse to resume domestic services because of unpaid salaries and allowance
  • 24 Feb 2012: Air Zimbabwe was grounded until March
  • 1 Mar 2012: The airline is grounded indefinitely

Will Air Zimbabwe fly again? 

The airline had $140 to $150 million owing. Their average plane was 24 years old. Air Zimbabwe’s reputation was so bad that at the end,  not even government officials were using the carrier. Very strong competition has arrived in the form of Emirates flying five times a week to Dubai. Air Namibia will add services in April so there is not a huge incentive to fly Air Zimbabwe.
Yet, the Government in March formed a new State-owned company, Air Zimbabwe Pvt Ltd, dissolving Air  Zimbabwe Holdings in the process. This meant that the debt of the “old” Air Zimbabwe has been transferred to the Zimbabwe government meaning creditors of Air Zim will need to talk to the national government. An interim board to oversee the operations of the new company was immediately set up. Then Transport Minister Nicholas Goche announced that they had leased an A320 for use on regional routes. There is a rumour that this, 320 that was flown in secretly into Zimbabwe in  January.  There was a suggestion that the two 767s will be leased out to raise cash.  Pilots and flight attendants recently attended refresher courses at the airline’s headquarters at Harare Airport in preparation for flying soon.
So Air Zimbabwe may be dead yet ready to be resurrected?
Stranded Passengers in London

Striking Air Zim Pilots Blame Past Management For Airline Woes thumbnail



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JAL airline #2 for the 787

Posted on: April 4th, 2012 by: Martin J Cowling

Japan Airlines (JAL) received its first two 787s last month out of its total order of 45 Dreamliners. They plan to use the planes to increase international services  by 25 percent by 2017.

On Sunday 22nd April, JAL flew the first scheduled 787 Dreamliner passenger service into the USA, with its new Tokyo to Boston service, the first time ever these two cities have been linked by direct AIR service. JAL will fly the 14 hour hop four times a week: From Boston: Sunday, Monday, Wednesday and Friday. This shows the potential of then plane combining its capacity and range. The carrier says it has bookings for about 98 percent of seats this month and 90 percent for May which is an excellent situation for the airline (less so for passengers who like a spare seat next to them!).

The airline plans to add a new service to San Diego with the Dreamliner. This will be followed by Helsinki in February. They will then replace 767 and 777 aircraft on services to Moscow, New Delhi and Singapore.JAL are suggesting services to London and New York will be boosted and services to Madrid (Hub of One World partner: Iberia), Berlin and Dusseldorf (hub of another One World partner: Air Berlin). They may re open flights from Osaka’s Kansai and Nagoya airports that weren’t profitable with  777s.

JAL has 186 seats on their 787s. 42 are in Executive Class arranged 2-2-2. with a seat Pitch: 60.2″ Width: 54.0″ The 144 Economy sests are arranged 2-4-2 and have a 30-32.0″ pitch and 18.5″ width.


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Trip Report: Train to Toodyay

Posted on: April 3rd, 2012 by: Martin J Cowling

Everytime I said I was taking the train to Toodyay (Too-Jay) a rural town outside of Perth, Australia, people looked at me incredulously! “There is no train to Toodyay” was the usual comment. People offerred to drive me there and told me to call them if I “got stuck”

There have been trains to Toodyay since 1995 using the currrent Diesel Multiple Unit train since 2005. See AvonLink_Map.  The train runs once a day in each direction plus there is an extra service on a Monday, Wednesday and Friday in each direction. There is no weekend service using Avonlink but the Prospeector train service to Kalgoorlie makes a stop at Toodyay. Timetable here.

Booking: 7 out of 10

How you make bookings is not specified on the Avonlink website. I discovered, by accident,  tickets are sold on the train. The Transperth smart-rider card is not accepted which strikes me as odd. The Smartrider is accepted on every bus, train and the South Perth ferry. It would surely be easy to install a SmartRider reader on the train or at Toodyay station. The fare is a little pricey at $16.05.

Boarding: 10 out of 10

The train leaves from Midland station at the end of the Perth suburban network. The train is very wheelchair friendly.

On Board: 10 out of 10

Seats are arranged in a 2/3 layout and are very generous in terms of leg room. Generous luggage racks are available at the end of each of the two carriages and above the seats.There was also plenty of space for bikes.

Chilled water is available in board the train with drinking cups.

The Trip: 10 out of 10

We departed right on time at 5:50pm. The ride was very smooth. Sunset occurred at 614pm and it was dark by 6:30pm. This is a shame as the landscape is very pretty with a lot of bush (forested) areas. We arrived right on time at 6:43pm

Wifi: 7 out of 10

There is also free wifi available on board. Connecting was easy. It dropped out twice. Frustratingly at 630pm,  I got a message  saying that I had used up my free wifi download allowance. I was never told what my wifi allowance was. The system “helpfully” advised me that I could use the system again in four hours. Seeing my trip was 50 minutes, this was a nonsense! Still it lasted most of the ride.


The Verdict

My rating: 90% (4.5 out of 5).

Positives:   Roomy train, easy boarding, smooth ride, free wifi generous luggage room

Negatives: Lack of information about the train, wifi download limits, cannot use Perth Smartrider ticket

Would I ride the train again?  Yes. It would be great if the train was timetabled to make it easily possible to have a day trip on Saturday and Sunday to Toodyay allowing tourist day trippers…

The Heritage Council of Western Australia lists well over one hundred places of historical significance in or near Toodyay, including cottages (some of which are now ruins), homesteads, shops, churches, parks and railway constructions. Well worth an overnight or weekend stay. Now if we can get the train running at convenient times on a Saturday or Sunday.









This Week

Posted on: April 2nd, 2012 by: Martin J Cowling

I am spending most of the week in Western Australia, the largest of Australia’s states with three days in Perth and two days in Esperance, a small rural community  Perth is the most remote city of a population of one million or more in the world. Its nearest large city is Adelaide, Australia  2,139 kilometres (1285 miles) away.

I will then heading 2700km (1500 miles) east to Sydney.

Flights will be with Skywest and Virgin Australia (expect blog posts soon). This week I plan to blog about a recent train trip and whats the latest with Air Zimbabwe.

Have a great week.

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