Fact-Finding Trip Disclosure

I will travel the next two days to Houston and Corpus Christi on a tour arranged by the American Petroleum Institute (API). The tour includes other bloggers, including Bruce McQuain of QandO, who announced it earlier today. We will take a tour of Chevron’s Blind Faith platform before they deploy it — a platform designed to pump a new field in the Gulf of Mexico. We will also tour their visualization center, get a briefing on deepwater drilling, and have a lengthy Q&A session with Chevron representatives.
Obviously, I hope to get a better perspective on oil drilling, the petroleum industry, and energy policy as a result. However, Captain’s Quarters readers should know that API has covered my travel and lodging expenses for this trip. The following disclosure statement comes from API and it constitutes the only stipulation for the trip:

API has underwritten Edward Morrissey’s travel expenses to attend the Chevron location tour in Houston and Corpus Christi, Texas. Edward is not required to blog about API initiatives. The only requirement as a condition of underwriting these expenses was to include this disclosure of this relationship on his blog.

Why take the trip? I have written about energy policy for quite a while, and like any industry that has important public-policy connections, their representatives engage the blogosphere on a regular basis. I have had API representatives on my show in the past, including today. Earlier this year, they attempted to arrange a blogger tour under the same conditions, but it stalled for scheduling reasons. The trip gives me an opportunity to meet some of the same people in person, allow them to conduct a more effective presentation for their position, and give me a look at the facilities themselves.
This does pose a few questions about credibility, which I hope to address. First, no money has made it into my pockets. API doesn’t even buy blog ads for Captain’s Quarters. They arranged my travel and paid for it directly, rather than reimburse me. The value of this travel and lodging will probably be in the neighborhood of $1600, roughly, and I’m flying coach. I expect that they’ll cover a couple of meals based on the itinerary I’ve seen.
Will the free trip make me write something I don’t believe, or pass along information without care to its authenticity? Readers will have to judge that for themselves, but for my part, I will say absolutely not. Given my financial status as non-wealthy, I wouldn’t have spent the money to make the trip on my own, but it’s not a weekend at a luxury resort, either. It’s a working trip with almost no room in the schedule for any other pursuits, and frankly, I’m not that keen on travel in any case.
I’ll have more over the next two days. Keep an eye on me, and I promise to report exactly what I see and hear, and remain honest in my analysis.

What NASA Won’t Tell You

NASA commissioned a study of aviation safety through thousands of interviews with the people with a bird’s-eye view of the industry — the pilots. After conducting telephone interviews with 24,000 commercial and general aviation pilots from 2001 to 2005, NASA had a good picture of the difficulties faced by the industry. Now they refuse to share that information, and have instructed their contractor to erase all the data:

Anxious to avoid upsetting air travelers, NASA is withholding results from an unprecedented national survey of pilots that found safety problems like near collisions and runway interference occur far more frequently than the government previously recognized.
NASA gathered the information under an $8.5 million safety project, through telephone interviews with roughly 24,000 commercial and general aviation pilots over nearly four years. Since ending the interviews at the beginning of 2005 and shutting down the project completely more than one year ago, the space agency has refused to divulge the results publicly.
Just last week, NASA ordered the contractor that conducted the survey to purge all related data from its computers.

What did the report reveal? According to the AP’s sources, the FAA underreports safety-related incidents by at least half. Bird strikes, near-misses, and runway mishaps occur at least twice as often as official statistics note. The number of last-moment approach changes, which can be particularly dangerous according to the report, also outstrips the FAA reporting.
One NASA official went on record to explain the reluctance to release the findings. Thomas Luedtke, an associate administrator at the agency, claimed that the report would undermine confidence in air travel and could impact industry profits, in his denial letter to the AP. Luedtke also noted that the report did provide a “comprehensive picture of certain aspects of the US commercial aviation system,” a combination of assertions that won’t make anyone feel much safer than the release of the actual report.
Most people do not fly on a lark. They fly for business or to see family or go on vacation. Travelers would not end those behaviors if they discovered that the airline industry needs more resources and oversight to improve safety; they would just insist on getting those changes made. Even someone who dislikes air travel as much as I do knows that the American industry has a remarkable safety record, and that the people who operate within it want safety even more than I do — because their lives depend on it.
Since NASA has already spent the money on the survey, we should allow that data to get published so that the taxpayers who footed the bill can find out what pilots actually say about safety issues. Congress should ensure that NASA releases the findings so we can determine what needs to be done to make air travel even safer. For those who fly the airplanes and serve the customers, as well as for the customers themselves, NASA and the FAA owe us no less.

Oh, The Things You’ll See

Apropos of nothing at all ….
When I lived in Southern California and traveled through LAX, I’d usually see a celebrity of one sort or another on every pass through the airport. Living in Minneapolis and traveling mostly to DC or Orange County, though, I haven’t seen any that I recall. So I was a little surprised to see Steve Tyler of Aerosmith coming through the security checkpoint with me here in Reno. It took me a couple of moments to be sure of it, but it’s pretty difficult to confuse him with anyone else.
Many of the women in the terminal were also pleasantly surprised to see him as well. They called out greetings to him, ignoring the woman with whom he was traveling. After a few minutes of that, I can imagine it gets old for both Tyler and his companion. He’s still somewhere in my terminal as I write this, but people have returned to the slot machines and have left the pair alone.
My last airport celeb sighting before had been Fred Willard. Which do you think was cooler?
UPDATE: Chuck Ziegenfuss claims that he’s a bigger celebrity than Steve Tyler, and that I didn’t even realize it when I met him. I’d say Chuck qualifies as a hero, not a celebrity, and I’m more honored to meet him than anyone else in the airport. Heroes are much cooler than celebs. I wish I’d known he was a blogger when we chatted. Chuck also got his picture taken with Tyler in the airport.

Experience The Adventure Of Travelocity

I’ve found that booking my travel for the blog on Travelocity normally gets me good bargains and excellent adaptability. However, in order to use it properly, one has to focus on the details of the itineraries in order to avoid having unusual adventures. Tonight, I’m learning the lesson the hard way in Atlanta’s Hartsfield Airport.
Initially, I wanted to fly back from my Solutions Day trip around midday, and I thought that’s what I’d booked. It would have brought me home in time to do my Heading Right Radio show and then get some rest for more travel. I’ve already booked my flight to DC on Monday for a special event, after which I’ll do my HRR show at the prime-time hour of 9 pm ET to discuss the event, which I can’t talk about at the moment.
However, late last night I realized that I had selected an 11 PM flight for tonight. I had to extend my stay at the excellent and reasonable Hyatt Place Airport hotel for another half-day, and I’ve been here at Hartsfield ever since.
It hasn’t been all bad. I’ve chatted with a few other travelers, done some blogging, and had a drink with my dinner, which is a rare event for me. I don’t usually get a chance to absorb any local flavor in airports, but I did notice that I kept hearing a recognizable voice in a local TV spot for the Atlanta tourism site. After a few (dozen) repetitions, I realized it was Samuel L. Jackson doing the voice-over. I almost expected him to say “Every day is Opening Day in Atlanta …. And I will strike down upon thee with great vengeance and furious anger those who would talk bad about Atlanta.” Maybe that wouldn’t have been all that enticing, but it would have been more entertaining than the ubiquitous CNN feed.
I’m here for another couple of hours, and then I’ll finally head home. Next time, I’ll double-check those departure times….

Does British Airways Only Own One Airplane?

CNN reports that British Airways has had another in-flight engine failure that they ignored to complete the flight on time. Remarkably, the plane involved is the same one that blew an engine on takeoff last week, ran out of fuel, and forced to make an emergency landing in Manchester — and the engine that failed yesterday was the replacement for the first failure:

British Airways jet that continued on an 11-hour flight from Los Angeles to London after one of its four engines lost power also flew on three engines on a later flight from Singapore to London, the airline said Friday.
The Boeing 747 left Singapore on February 25 and landed at London’s Heathrow Airport the next day, arriving only 15 minutes behind schedule, BA spokesman Jay Marritt said.
Three hours into the 14-hour flight, an oil pressure indicator showed there was a problem with one of the engines, which the captain shut down as a precaution, Marritt said. It was the captain’s decision to continue with Flight 18, which was carrying 356 passengers, he added.
“It’s still very safe to fly a 747 on three engines,” Marritt said. “It is certified to do so.”

Yes, that’s what BA kept telling its passengers as it coasted towards Manchester on fumes after having passed up numerous opportunities to land and get serviced in the US and Canada last week. Now we find out that the plane hardly even got a routine maintenance check and got fitted with a faulty replacement for the passengers that BA claims are its first priority. Their spokesman insists that this is just all a strange coincidence, but it appears much more likely that British Airways is simply incompetent to operate a transoceanic service.
I honestly thought when I read this story at first that CNN was reporting on the earlier story and had the facts incorrect. I started thinking about how to fact-check the article when I finally realized that this was a separate incident involving the same plane. I could not believe that British Airways would do the same thing twice in a week, with the same aircraft.
Again, I’d like to see the FAA force BA’s corporate officers or their families to sit on every transoceanic flight for the next six months as a requirement for allowing them access to US markets. Perhaps when their own safety is at stake, British Airways will discover the importance of competent management decisions.

British Airways Passenger Describes Flight

Yesterday, I wrote about the decision by British Airways to continue a flight from Los Angeles to Heathrow despite blowing an engine at takeoff from LAX. The flight almost ran out of fuel due to the lower altitude forced on it by the engine loss and had to make an emergency landing at Manchester. It turns out that BA forced the pilots to continue despite several attempts by American air controllers to get them to land simply to avoid cash penalties for flight delays which kick in at the five-hour mark.
One of the passengers on that flight just happened to be my cousin, Mike Reger, who tipped me to the Times of London article on the flight. Mike followed up with a description of the flight:

As a 50 year old seasoned traveler all seemed fine on this excursion at first …
We lifted off from LAX and all seemed normal but then the plane shook violently and passengers on the left side of the plane started saying, “There are flames coming out of that engine!!!” Seemed to abate and then came back — but worse. Cabin staff was active in the cabin and, after a bit, the pilot came on the intercom and announced that we had a problem [Editorial note: Duh!] and we were going to circle LAX while we figured out what to do. [Editorial note (2): I’m thinking to myself, “I KNOW what to do, pal …”]
After some minutes, the pilot came back on the intercom and told us that we were going to proceed to Heathrow on three engines, the 747 was a safe plane, blah, blah, blah. [Editorial note (3): Thinking to myself, hey, this is America — and a democracy: shouldn’t we get a vote on this? But nooooooooo.]
Eastward ho!
Sometime about when we were over Ireland, the pilot comes back on the intercom and say, “I’m afraid we have more bad news. Coming over on three engines has left us without sufficient fuel to make it to Heathrow. We need to land in Manchester.” So we do and there are emergency vehicles to greet us, etc.
Now, I still need to get to Cambridge … have to wait for another flight to take us to Heathrow. The flight will land at Heathrow at 7:00PM. Instead, we’re still on the tarmac in Manchester at 7:30PM waiting for more passengers to get on the flight.
We finally land at Heathrow around 8:30PM — more than 5 hours after our scheduled arrival time of 2:55PM. I (finally) get a taxi and make it to Cambridge.
Since that time, I have contacted British Air customer relations twice — via their we site and have yet to receive so much as a response.

So after risking the lives of the passengers and crew, British Airways passengers still wound up with the five-hour delay that the airline avoided while purportedly making the decisions with their interests in mind. Not only that, but BA’s overwhelming concern for these passengers somehow doesn’t rise to the level needed to respond to their feedback regarding the risking of their lives for a few pieces of silver.
British Airways needs new management. I’d think twice about getting on board any of their flights while the same people who made these decisions still work there.

On The Road Again …

I’ll be scaling down the blogging significantly for the next eight days, as I will be traveling to Southern California for the Thanksgiving holiday with the First Mate, our son and daughter-in-law, and our granddaughter, the Little Admiral. (She’s 18 months old, and she’s got Grampa wrapped around her little finger.) It’ll be the first plane trip for her, and we’re all praying that she’ll sleep through it, or at least not get all wired up during the 4-hour flight. She’ll be visiting Disneyland for the first time, so Grampa’s bringing the camcorder and lots of film. I’ll post the best picture of it once I get back and have the pictures developed.
I do plan on taking the computer with me — I need something to do on the flight, and the laptop’s got a DVD drive, so it’s my little entertainment center. My father has a wireless network that needs some tweaking, so I’ll be testing it out with my laptop. (How convenient for me!) I suspect I’ll post a few short notes at the end of the day when I check my work e-mail, but nothing like the productivity I’ve been maintaining for the past six weeks. Keep checking in with me, and if you haven’t had a chance to read the featured posts on the right, try a few and see what you think.
Have a happy Thanksgiving!