Ask the pilot

Ah, the airline amenities of yesteryear. Where did they go?

Published March 10, 2006 12:30PM (EST)

There's stirring news afoot courtesy of Delta Air Lines. On several occasions since this column's inception, I've lamented the surprising fact that no U.S. passenger carrier offers scheduled service to any destination in Africa. Beginning in December, Delta intends to change that, inaugurating daily flights between its Atlanta superhub and Johannesburg, South Africa.

Don't uncork the champagne just yet. December is a long way off, and we've already been through one false start. Last spring, Continental Airlines nixed its plans to commence flying between Newark and Nigeria only a few months prior to launch. Continental called the decision a postponement, but has yet to reveal a new timetable.

Atlanta-Joburg covers a whopping 7,334 nautical miles in each direction. (On a list of the world's longest flights, as they exist today, it would place fourth.) That's slightly beyond the capabilities of Delta's longest-range aircraft, the Boeing 777 -- Johannesburg's elevation is another complication -- and the airline has chosen Dakar, Senegal, as a stopover point. In a code-share arrangement with Delta, South African Airways has been operating ATL-DKR-JNB for some time, using the Airbus A340-600.

In a way, Delta picks up where it left off in late 2001, when it abandoned a short-lived route to Cairo, the last African city served by any U.S. major. (Cairo had been a TWA city as well, for 56 years, eliminated after that carrier's acquisition by American Airlines.) By adding both South Africa and Senegal, Delta will open two very different African markets simultaneously, and it will be the first U.S. player to offer flights beyond the continent's northern fringe since Pan Am gave up its sub-Saharan wanderings -- to Monrovia, Freetown, Abidjan, Nairobi, etc. -- more than 15 years ago.

Branching into Africa is part of an ongoing and aggressive Delta campaign to widen its international network. It hopes to secure up to 35 percent of its revenue from overseas markets, on a par with, or in some cases exceeding, the percentages generated by American, United, Northwest and Continental. As of right now, Delta ranks fifth among the so-called Big Five in international RPKs (revenue passenger-kilometers), even as it carries more total passengers than anybody else except American. All five have been energized to increase business abroad -- anything to get away from the relentless competition with low-cost airlines in the domestic arena -- but Delta's expansion is perhaps the most ambitious. San Salvador, Managua, Chennai and Rio de Janeiro are among recent additions to the route map, with Tel Aviv, Kiev, Budapest, Quito, Guayaquil and Copenhagen on tap this spring. According to a company press release, 50 international routes have been added or announced in the past year alone.

(Now, if only it would return to Dubai, a city it let go, along with Cairo, back in '01, and become -- again -- the only U.S. airline flying to an Arab country. The market seems to be there: Emirates has two Dubai-New York nonstops every day.)

With the 2008 summer Olympics in mind, an Atlanta-Beijing pairing is under evaluation, as are routes to other Asian cities. Flights to Asia are subject to government approval (to say nothing of company survival, which we'll get to in a minute), and for now Delta is a comparative lightweight in that part of the world. It once flew to Seoul, Taipei and Bangkok, but today there's only a once-a-day nonstop from Atlanta to Tokyo. New entrants in this realm have their work cut out for them against Northwest and United, who have hundreds of weekly flights across the Pacific, as well as dozens of intra-Asian routes staged through Tokyo-Narita. And for Delta to be taken seriously in the Far East would require something else: the right aircraft. With a token number of 777s currently on its roster, most of them deployed on busy European routes, there isn't much aluminum to work with. The 767, backbone of the carrier's international fleet, lacks the range and capacity to be a viable contender in a market where average flight times are 12-14 hours. Here, 747s, 777s and A340s reign supreme.

While Asia remains a question mark, Delta has a massive and growing presence across that other, somewhat less challenging ocean. I'm old enough to remember the late 1970s, when London and Paris were the airline's most exotic ports of call. Things have certainly changed. By this summer, Delta will offer more flights between the United States and Europe than anybody else, domestic or foreign. What jump-started all of this overseas venturing was the 1990 purchase of almost the entire transatlantic and intra-Europe network of the dying Pan Am, including its hub at Frankfurt. Virtually overnight, this once parochial airline of the American deep South -- founded in 1928, it takes its name from the mouth of the Mississippi River -- became a dominant force over the North Atlantic. In 1987, Delta had merged with the smaller Western Airlines, giving it a stronger, left-of-the-Mississippi presence at home (its Salt Lake City hub is a vestige of Western). Together, those two moves helped position Delta to be what it is today -- one of the world's largest airlines.

Second largest, to be precise, going by the most recent numbers put out by Air Transport World. Whether measured by RPKs or total passengers, the standard gauges of air carrier size, Delta has leapfrogged United to take first-runner-up honors, bested only by the seemingly insurmountable girth of American Airlines. Delta isn't the biggest, but it's very, very big.

And, unfortunately, bankrupt. By 2004 Delta was measuring quarterly losses in the billions, and a Chapter 11 filing came last September (joined by Northwest on the same day). Between October and January, it posted another $1.5 billion hit, wrapping up a year in which losses totaled $3.8 billion.

The industry in whole faces some dangerous uncertainties, and all of the Big Five majors have been walloped by soaring fuel costs and intense pressure from low-cost rivals. But Delta finds itself in a maddening predicament: Although it has the lowest operating costs per seat-mile -- CASMs, a term we looked at last week -- of any of the Big Five, including the lowest labor costs, it also brings in the lowest amount of revenue per mile. Delta's CASMs are a full penny better than the next closest major--- which is fairly remarkable -- with almost nothing to show for it. The airline seems to be doing most of the right things to reduce its bills, but it can't catch a break. Perhaps the biggest reason is Delta's heavy presence in lower-yield tourist markets, especially those between the Northeast and Florida. And talk about a thorn in your side: Atlanta and New York, arguably the carrier's most important hubs, are the home cities for two of the most successful low-cost carriers, AirTran and JetBlue. Another cause is that smaller share of international traffic. Management's transformation plan calls for downsizing the north-south snowbird shuttles and, as we've already seen, going gangbusters overseas.

The strictures of Chapter 11 have a strange way of caressing financially renegade carriers into lean, mean, successful ones. But there will be no flights to Johannesburg, or anywhere else, if the mess isn't fixed. That includes smoothing out a hot and heavy conflict between management and pilots. Crews have been holding informational picketing sessions at airports around the country in response to stalled negotiations. Despite having already given up heavy concessions, the pilots face the possibility of having their entire working agreement nullified. The result, many believe, would be a strike. It's a game of mutually assured destruction similar to the one played out recently at Northwest, where a tentative agreement was finally struck last week.

For us travel addicts who savor the exotica of far-flung destinations -- and those of us disheartened by what seemed to be an isolationist retreat by airlines after Sept. 11 -- Delta's international expansion is very exciting. Smaller improvements, too, are under way on a variety of fronts. One of the most noticeable has been cleaner and better-maintained aircraft interiors. Delta's cabins have been pretty unkempt, but refurbishments are at last under way and the planes are looking spiffier. A revamped business-class cabin, which Delta brands as BusinessElite, will be unveiled later this year.

Granted, resources are tight and need to be spent judiciously, but here are two additional ideas: First, there are thousands of travelers out there who'd love to see an upgrade of facilities at John F. Kennedy International in New York. JFK is Delta's primary European gateway, and it occupies terminals 2 and 3. It's hard to say which of those two buildings is in more dire need of overhaul. Terminal 2 is a hideous modernist box with all the ambience of an abattoir. Terminal 3, slightly more pleasant, happens to be the old Pan Am Worldport, one of the most storied airline terminals in America. This is where the Beatles gave their "bigger than Jesus" press conference, and where Khrushchev alighted from his apocalyptic Tupolev in 1959. (As an adolescent airplane freak, I once made a pilgrimage to this building's oval rooftop to spend the day photographing planes.) Those were the good times. Shabby and overcrowded, Terminal 3 is now terribly unsuited for an operation on the scale of Delta's. "An old confounding warren of passageways and glass partitions," is how it's described in my book. The addition of even more long-haul flights will only make things more claustrophobic. The customs and immigration facilities in the lower level of Terminal 3, and the narrow escalators that lead to and from them, are possibly the dingiest in America.

Just up the road at Boston-Logan, the opposite situation exists. There, last spring, Delta opened a gleaming $400 million facility on the grounds where the old Eastern terminal once stood. Designed for service expansions that never came, the building is badly underutilized. The walkways yawn emptily and shopkeepers are starving for business. Call me crazy, but how about sliding a few of those JFK-Europe flights up to Logan? Boston lacks the immense local customer base of New York, but certainly it's worth considering.

My other recommendation is that Delta bring back those triangular, bicycle seat amenities kits that it used to dispense in business class. I've waxed sentimental about those little zipper cases in previous columns, but I vow never to rest until the day they're returned to duty. The delta-shaped Delta kits had to be worthy of some sort of industrial design award for their clever utility. They were cool to look at, and the three-corner shape made them sturdy and easy to pack away.

A percentage of readers will have no idea what I'm talking about when I say "amenities kit." For those who've never seen one, it's a take-home goody bag given out on longer-hauls, containing any number of handy notions useful during flight. A typical inventory includes earplugs, cabin socks, lip balm, skin cream, toothbrush -- and, occasionally, some pointless and irritating novelty that the airline thinks customers will find cute. For a while, Virgin Atlantic was giving out rubber ducks. Study this photo to see Japan Airlines' version. What ever happened to a deck of playing cards and some plastic wings?

Ritzier airlines hand out amenities bags in all classes, often with separate version for male and female passengers, going so far as to pamper those up front with their own onboard sleepwear. On the rest, it's strictly a premium-class phenomenon. Virgin's economy-class kits, so long as you're a fan of hot pink, are better than those in first class on many other airlines. Even on Air France, the economy earplugs and eyeshades are a welcome way to deal with screeching infants and ugly seatmates.

I've mentioned this before, but for a while Delta's kits were featuring a "Chinese romance card." A kind of in-flight fortune cookie, this was a miniature pamphlet emblazoned with some nonsensical proverb or pseudo-spiritual drivel. Upon landing, thousands of inspired passengers would reach for their cellphones, dialing up loved ones to share the sage ruminations of the Oriental flight-poet: "To the wind and on the wing/Ocean and desert like arrival and departure/All voyages happy and sad."

Or something like that.

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Re: Sensitivity training

Your mention of Air Blue, a popular low-cost carrier in Pakistan, includes the parenthetical "(Pakistan, would you believe?)." Let me assure you that more developed countries of the world do not have a monopoly on air travel trends. As a Pakistani, I take offense to your comment. Care to explain why people should not believe Pakistan can have its own vibrant airline scene? You might also be interested in our flagship carrier, PIA -- the first airline to, among other things, show in-flight movies on international routes, have an all-female flight crew, and fly the ultra long-range Boeing 777-200LR.

-- Ali Zaki

Author's response: Right or wrong, a large number of Americans would be surprised to learn there are Southwest-style upstarts in Pakistan. Acknowledging that surprise was my only intent. I like to think my readers are a smarter and more worldly bunch than average, so my stating "would you believe?" was, maybe, not giving them enough credit. For that I apologize. Overall, as an avowed internationalist, I try very hard to present a globally oriented view of civil aviation, not an Americentric one. As for PIA, I've mentioned the airline in past articles and have been quick to commend it.

And finally, congratulations to John Finn of Winona, Minn., for being first to pick out the blooper in "Hijacked," the Feb. 27 episode of PBS's "American Experience," about the 1970 takeover of five commercial airliners by a radical Palestinian group. Early in the show, the camera view through an aircraft window shows the wing of an Airbus A320-series jet -- a plane that didn't enter service until 1988.

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By Patrick Smith

Patrick Smith is an airline pilot.

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