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July 29, 2014

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Tourism column:

Aviation industry eager for upgraded air-traffic control system

In the early days of flying, when airplanes were contracted to move the U.S. mail, aviators used roads and rail lines to find their way across the country. Pilots would simply fly over established routes to their destination.

But when pilots were asked to move the mail at night it presented a problem since they could no longer see the unlit roads and railways.

But Americans being a resourceful lot, fliers found a solution — they hired people along their route to light and maintain bonfires so that pilots could find their way.

That, American Airlines senior vice president of government affairs Will Ris said, was the core of today’s modern air-traffic control system. The bonfires, he said, were eventually replaced with large guiding lights and those were replaced with radar systems and, finally, today’s ground-based air-traffic control system.

Ris was a speaker at the recent three-day Boyd Group International aviation conference. He was among several airline-industry executives who made presentations on a variety of topics. His goal: to drum up support from the dozens of airport representatives to lobby Congress for money to build the next-generation air-traffic control system.

The NextGen system is expected to be satellite based and would improve safety, reduce traffic delays that inconvenience travelers and enable airlines to operate more profitably.

Ris addressed a good crowd. Even in these difficult times, the Boyd conference drew a record 250 attendees. I try to go to the Boyd conference and other similar aviation gatherings because there is a direct correlation between how well the airlines do and how well Las Vegas’ resort community does.

It seems that when the airlines are riding high, Las Vegas does well. And, when they are suffering, our city suffers. The good news from the conference is that the industry is starting to come around, but won’t be back to its 2008 level for several years. You can take it to the bank that Las Vegas will be on a similar timetable.

But one of aviation’s needs is the NextGen air-traffic control system.

Today’s ground-based system requires controllers to transmit information to the thousands of airliners that are airborne at any given time. The NextGen system would use GPS technology to transmit information directly to pilots. Planes would be able to fly on more direct routes and slightly closer to each other.

The more direct routes would cut fuel usage, and the tighter groupings would improve traffic flow and help flights stay on time.

The aviation industry is convinced an upgraded system would be a big boost — possibly an economic stimulus for the nation — which is why representatives are hoping some stimulus money might be coming their way and efforts are being made to sell it to Congress.

Many industry leaders, frankly, are irritated that the Obama administration is paying so much attention to high-speed rail initiatives while a NextGen system that has been discussed for years languishes. (More on that topic another day.)

The NextGen system is one of several topics on the minds of industry leaders. Always conscious of how new legislation would affect their bottom line, airlines are nervous about proposed climate-change laws such as the ones the European Union has been tinkering with. For sure, airliners are big polluters — not as much as cows, but big. Boyd International President Mike Boyd, one of the nation’s leading aviation consultants and analysts, pulls no punches when talking about how Washington tends to go overboard when regulating aviation.

Boyd, who apparently went to the same school for hyperbole as Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman, calls it “environmental jihad.”

And don’t get him started on proposed passenger-rights legislation. Although well-meaning legislators are trying to right wrongs that have occurred in extraordinary circumstances, the reality is that more than 99 percent of flights go out without any incident that would require a decision on whether to remove passengers from an airliner.

“Airlines have lost control of the situation and irrationality has filled the void,” Boyd lamented. “Those kinds of delays are as big a threat as swine flu. Airlines aren’t flying prisons. They’re your friend.”

Ribs and Air Transport Association President James May concurred with that point in separate panels.

“The perception is that we’re ripping off people when the reality is that we’re providing them a service that in many cases is below cost,” Ris said.

Boyd is suggesting to airlines and their CEOs that they do more to explain how passenger-rights legislation isn’t the answer to solving delay problems.

“Airline CEOs need to let the public know that they are on the public’s side,” he said. “They need to be a little more proactive about defending themselves.”

And speaking of being on the defensive, Boyd suggested that airlines do a better job of telling the public their side on controversial stories. Social media such as Twitter and YouTube enable consumers to grab more than 15 minutes of fame. Boyd cited United Airlines’ battle with Dave Carroll of the Sons of Maxwell, who has produced a YouTube video called “United Breaks Guitars.”

Carroll’s ballad explains how he traveled from Halifax, Nova Scotia, to Omaha, Neb., by way of Chicago in 2008. During the stopover, he said United ground crew destroyed his $3,500 Taylor guitar. Carroll says in his song that he tried to get compensation from United, but he was ignored. So he wrote the song, put it on YouTube and watched as the criticisms of the airline rolled in.

Boyd said not only should United have mounted a counteroffensive, but he pointed out that it wasn’t too smart to send a valuable guitar through as checked baggage.

Although the conference addressed a variety of topics, Southwest Airlines, McCarran’s dominant carrier, came up in numerous conversations. One of the event’s speakers was Bob Jordan, Southwest’s executive vice president of strategic planning.

Jordan offered a few updates about Southwest, Las Vegas’ busiest commercial carrier, but mostly he teased attendees, telling them that there would be a new Southwest city on the route map next year and some major consumer-pleasing changes are on the horizon for the Rapid Rewards frequent-flier program.

Southwest had phenomenal route growth in 2009, adding Minneapolis in March, New York’s LaGuardia Airport in June, Boston Logan International Airport in August and planning to open Milwaukee in November.

The airline accomplished that without adding planes. Instead, it analyzes its schedule, keeping the profitable flights and scrapping the ones that don’t make money. Overall, Southwest has trimmed nearly 6 percent of its capacity, and Jordan said 2010 would look “flattish.” Southwest’s Las Vegas capacity cuts have pretty much mirrored the systemwide operation, but since McCarran is Southwest’s biggest station, a lot of flights are getting slashed. From September 2008 to last month, an average of 39 flights a day were to cut to an average 216 a day.

The airline is working on its code-share agreements with Canada’s WestJet Airlines and Mexico’s Volaris, which could generate additional Las Vegas traffic.

Jordan wouldn’t share any specifics on the Rapid Rewards enhancements, but that program already has seen a number of refinements with the addition of earning credits by patronizing partner restaurants.

One other matter at the Boyd Group’s conference caught my attention. In a survey passed out to conventiongoers, Boyd asked, “On a scale of 1 to 10, how much does a ‘politically correct’ site affect your probability of attending?” It’s a question aligned with the issue of whether organizations should have meetings and conventions in places such as Las Vegas.

Boyd promised to share that survey question with me when answers are compiled.

Checking bags for a year

United Airlines, the No. 3 carrier at McCarran, has a new program that enables passengers to purchase a “subscription” to check two bags on any United or United Express flight for a year.

United’s Premier Baggage program is $249 a year. The service is available under United’s Travel Options section of the airline’s Web site.

The subscription covers the standard checked baggage charge for up to eight companions traveling under the same confirmation number as the subscriber, but it doesn’t cover costs of oversized or overweight bags.

Critics point out that it would take five trips to break even on the deal, given that United charges $20 for the first bag and $30 for the second. And, for a traveler who routinely checks one bag a trip, it would take 13 flights to get your money’s worth.

But on the plus side, a family flying under one confirmation number could pay for the service in one flight and the program also is good for international flights, where checking a second bag costs $50.

Southwest, Venetian partner

Southwest Airlines has announced that customers booking reservations at the Venetian or Palazzo in Las Vegas can get Rapid Rewards frequent-flier credits.

Southwest already has partnerships with Best Western, Hilton, Hyatt, Wyndham, Choice, La Quinta and Marriott, but the new deal with Venetian is the first time the airline has partnered with a Las Vegas resort.

Under the program, members earn points for hotel stays, car rentals and purchases with certain partners. Members earning 16 credits are eligible for free, nonstop round trips on the airline.

Card members staying at the Venetian or Palazzo will get two credits for stays booked by Nov. 5 for stays through Dec. 31.

Richard N. Velotta covers tourism, technology and small business for In Business Las Vegas and its sister publication, the Las Vegas Sun. He can be reached at 259-4061 or at [email protected]

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