Hedging Your Bets – The Price of Oil and Transportation

Who hasn’t watched the price at the gas pump rise in the last few weeks?  The funny part is when it comes to transportation, it is not necessarily the price of oil that wreaks havoc with transportation companies; but rather it is these price changes that are the problem.  According to the US Energy Information Administration, in 2002, when oil was $25 a barrel no one would imagine that the airlines would be profitable when oil is trading over $90 a barrel.  However, here we are in 2013.  Most US airlines are profitable and oil traded today for $107 a barrel.

The reason – oil maybe expensive, but the at least the price has been relatively stable climbing slowly from $70 to $110 a barrel over the past five years, compared to 2007 when oil went from $60 to $130 a barrel in the same year.  In no way is todays price optimal, but at least it is easier to budget for.

Of course, the airlines still spend millions of dollars annually trying to protect themselves from the changes in the price of oil.  For example, according to United’s 2013 1st quarter earnings call United is planning on spending $11 to $12 million on hedge premiums.  This is simply money that is spent by United to help protect its self from price fluctuations and has no other value and is eventually just wasted. It isn’t used to power airplanes, pay employees, or build better terminals; it is simply just to protect what the airline pay for fuel.

Of course, another step United is taking is replacing its fleet with more fuel efficient aircraft.  Again according to United’s 1st quarter earning’s call; United retired five older 757’s & 737-500s this quarter and replaced them with six new, more fuel efficient, Boeing 737-900s. In the second quarter, United is planning on retiring 12 older aircraft and again replacing them with six more Boeing 737-900s.

Then again, we have Delta that went out and actually bought an oil refinery in Pennsylvania for $150 million last year (I am anxiously awaiting Delta’s 2nd quarter earnings call to hear about performance of the refinery).  So airlines will take all sorts of steps in order to protect themselves from fluctuations in the price of fuel.

Of course, then we have trains, which oil prices are turning into both a problem and a blessing.  For operating trains, just like airplanes, operating costs go up as the price of fuel goes up.  However, with higher oil prices fracturing in the US and Canada have become viable, and as a result rail also is reaping the benefits of transporting that oil.  Well, until a pipeline is eventually built.

In fact, every modern form of transportation is pretty much dependent on oil from the lawn tractor to cruise ships.  There are certain exceptions, such as the sailboat or the electric car.  However I think the age of the schooner is over and while I am impressed with Tesla, the electric car still has yet to edge out the gasoline engine.  Then there are public buses powered by natural gas.  However, for inter-city travel we are pretty much at the mercy of oil.

Of course there is one form of inter-city passenger transportation that can actually be powered by natural gas, coal, hydroelectric, wind, solar, or even nuclear.   China has figured it out and so has Japan and Europe.  Even Amtrak gets it, but not the average American.  It is simple –  Electric trains.

Granted the infrastructure costs for electrifying a rail line is enormous.  However, once the infrastructure is built the cost of operating trains over the electrified corridor is a lot less than a comparable line operated by a diesel locomotive.  Think of it this way, a diesel locomotive not only needs to pull its payload; but also the weight of the necessary generators, motors, and the weight of the fuel for the whole trip.  An electrified train need only carry the electric motors and its payload.

However, what is more important is that the price of electricity is much more stable than the price of oil.  After all, for the most part the price of electricity is regulated and can be drawn from different sources.

Not so with oil.

So what do electric trains have to do with the airlines hedging against the price of oil?

It is actually pretty simple. Jet engines are only powered by jet fuel.  We might be able to create jet fuel from other sources than crude oil, but there is no possibility in the near future of a jet airplane being fueled by electricity, natural gas, or nuclear.  However, on flights less than 400 miles high speed rail can be a viable substitute for the airplane.  The only thing that needs to be done is hook up a high speed rail to the airports as Europe and Asia has done.

This way, instead of United Airlines having to hedge fuel or buy brand new aircraft to fly passengers from Minneapolis to Chicago, or Washington to Newark, or even Los Angeles to San Francisco; United could build or simply contract with a high speed rail provider.  United will not only cut its operating costs, but has actually stabilized part of its energy bill.  Again, those trains are now plugged into the grid and can be run on natural gas, solar, hydro, nuclear, or even wind.

Heck, with less demand for jet fuel, it might even reduce the price of jet fuel for that connecting flight from Chicago to Shanghai. Ok maybe that might be a bit far-fetched, but one thing is for sure – the price of fuel is going to continue be volatile and go from $70 a barrel to $170 a barrel, then back down to $80, and then back up even high than $170.  To me, high speed rail is one of the few way airlines can reduce their exposer to the wild oil price fluctuations.Jet Fuel Historical Prices

Trip Report: Beijing to Tanggu (Tianjin) High Speed Train

I can’t begin to tell you how excited I was about this trip.  Here I was going to ride on one of the newest and fastest trains in the world.  A train, in fact, that puts Amtrak’s Acela to shame.A CRH3C

So what was it like – well, a lot like an airplane but with a lot more space, better view, and a lot quieter.

Before I start, let me give you a little background.  This line started operations in 2008, just in time for the Olympics.  While China had sped up a lot of other rail lines, this was the first dedicated high speed passenger line in China.  When this line opened it was the fastest train line in the world with an operational top speed of 330 km/hr. (207 mph).  While the Wuhan-Guangzhou route technically maintains a higher average speed, this CRH3C train set is the fastest rolling stock on the planet (I don’t count the Maglev as “rolling stock”).

The track is completely electrified and from Beijing to Tianjin the track is completely elevated on viaducts, which surprised me.  However the viaducts were understandable once I saw all of the rice paddies we went over. Total cost of the project was ¥20.42 billion (USD $3.3 billion) to build, which equates to about USD $28 million per km, or USD $44.6 million per mile.  So In every way, this is a first class high speed rail operation.

This route is also used by the Beijing-Shanghai high speed rail line, so this route is a primary high speed artery in China.

As for the trip…

After boarding our hotel bus, we headed for the Beijing South Railway Station.  Beijing-Railway-Station Ironically, on the way we passed the original Beijing Railway station, built in 1959, which today is primarily used for conventional trains throughout China, although some Shanghai – Beijing high speed trains do depart from this station, rather than Beijing South Station. Also international trains to Moscow and Pyongyang, North Korea, leave from Beijing Railway station.

Although I would have liked to stop; I never had the chance to walk through Beijing Railway Station on this trip.  Seeing Beijing South Railway Station, however, was the main attraction.

Beijing South Railway station is actually China’s second largest railway station, (Hongqiao Railway station is the largest).  As we approached the station it looked exactly like an airport terminal. Approaching Beijing South In fact, this station is no relic from the 1900’s; rather Beijing South Station just opened in 2008.  It was odd as we got off the bus and entered the large glass terminal, because instead of the jet noise in the background you only hear the sound of road traffic.  Here there are no airplane engines roaring by, but rather all you see is futuristic high speed trains silently departing from the platforms below the entrance concourse.

Saying that this station is impressive is an understatement. Train Platforms Beijing South Station has over 24 tracks, and 13 platforms, making it larger than Los Angeles Union Station or New York’s Penn station; and just slightly smaller than London’s Waterloo station.  Surprisingly this isn’t the first railway station at this site. The current station actually stands 600 feet from the original Yongdingmen Railway station which operated from 1897 until 2006.

As we walked into the station Departure Boardeveryone had to first pass through an x-ray machine.  However, no TSA here; just a simply scan of your luggage followed by a quick, non-intrusive wanding. Past security you walk towards the large overhead departure monitors and into the central waiting area.







What I found particularly interesting is how similar the boarding process is Beijing South Departure Gateto an airplane.  As you enter the station, you locate your platform on the overhead monitors.  Then you wait in this large waiting area until your train is announced.  About 20 minutes prior to departure you then queue next to the platform entrance gates and when the train is ready, you simply show your ticket and your passport to the agent and proceed through the doorway and Michael Schlicting CRH3Cdown to the platform.  The train doors are already open and you just board the car you are assigned.

Of course, I couldn’t just board the train…

Being one of the first of our group onto the platform I needed to take pictures.  So of course I headed to the front of the train.  Standing next to the high Beijing South Platform_3speed train on an immaculate marble platform, and surrounded by the very station architecture; I really felt like I had jumped into some science fiction novel.  However, this is actually China in 2013 and a far cry and distance from the outdoor, grimy, cement platforms of some of the railway stations I have visited in the US.

On China’s high speed rail everyone is assigned a seat.  Since this was only a 30 minute ride, I was booked in Inside the Traina window seat in the 2nd class compartment of car 2.  I was a little hesitant to ride 2nd class, but it was very comfortable (my 2nd class ticket was only USD $8 and First Class was only USD $3 more, but I was part of a group booking).  The seats were the same width as coach on an airplane and laid out in a 2/3 across layout.  The wonderful part, though, was I had about 38 inches of legroom.  So still a heck of a lot better than an airplane.

An electronic chime dinged, which indicated that the door was closing; and off we went.  Granted I was only in the second car, but there was no light jolting as with Amtrak trains.  Rather this whole train set moved as one unit.

BeijingSouthRailyardAs we pulled out of the station, we moved through a very crowded rail yard loaded with local trains and long distance sleepers.  After about ½ mile it was time for us to go faster than any conventional train I have ever been on in (including the Shinkansen in Japan).

What surprised me is actually the track.  It was a silky smooth ride. Except for the occasional “clink” from A CRH3Cthe rails you wouldn’t be able to tell we were moving along at over 100 mph.  Even more impressive, though, is that we were elevated on viaducts.  For nearly the whole trip from Beijing to Tianjin we were riding about fifteen feet above the world.  Or perhaps a better way to look at it– we were flying very, very low.

As the view out of my window turned from the city to rice patties, the car attendant first came around with a cart offering beverages.  HCR3C Key ChainHowever, it wasn’t that cart I was interested in.  Rather it was the gift cart passing by that caught my attention as they offered for sale models of the train and little gadgets.  In fact, my seat mate, Trisha, even flipped to buy me my CRH3C key chain locomotive that also doubles as a flashlight and bottle cap opener.  Thanks Trisha!

It was such a short ride, that I didn’t have a chance to visit the snack car or even the lavatories.  However, I did have some spies with me that said that the lavatories did have western facilities.  Hey, you know you have to ask.  After all when I was on the Shinkasen, I was amazed that they had a mix of western toilets and eastern squat toilets. How does someone “squat” on a train going 150 mph – to this day I still have no idea.

As we traveled above all of the rice patties, it became intriguing to see all of the construction going on.  Here I assumed we were in the country, but then we would pass by a large apartment complex going up.  I am not talking about a few multi story buildings; I am talk about a dozen 30 story buildings going up.  Pretty impressive! I don’t think these rice patties will remain rice patties for very much longer.

In just about 30 minutes (and 75 miles later) we pulled into Tianjin station which looked a lot like Beijing South Station.  However we were continuing on to Tanggu Station.  So I never had the chance to see this station.  Maybe next time.

On this route, there are three schedules (all using the same type of equipment).  All high speed trains between Beijing and Tianjin/Tanggu are classified as “C” series, meaning they are short haul, high speed.  Trains C2001-C2200 are non-stop from Beijing to Tianjin, trains C2201-C2268 make intermediate stops at Wuqing and Yizhuang, while trains C2271-C2298 travel non-stop from Beijing to Tianjin and on to Tanggu.  Today we were on train C2291 from Beijing to Tanggu and C2278 from Tanggu to Beijing.

As we pulled out of Tianjin, the rails changed to a traditional embankment type.  No road crossings here, but we were no longer on a viaduct system.  Also, we were traveling at a more conventional speed of about 130 km/hr (80 miles per hour).

Tanngu Station PlatformBy Chinese standards, Tanggu is a small station; which means only six tracks and two platforms.  However, just like Beijing South Station this place was immaculate!  With the small shrubs decorating the platform, I would say it was even downright pretty.

For the return home, the train was Tanggu-Station-Insideidentical.  In this case, our train left at 17:23. However, this time I was sitting in car 1.  I was hoping to get a view of the driver, but only those who paid to sit in the “Top Seats” were allowed to see the driver while the train was underway.  Otherwise, there was a frosted glass patrician between our 2nd class cabin and this first class cabin.

Although during the route we got a great view of a Chinese Sunset.  Not the same sunset as you see in the rest of the world.  In China today, pollution starts to dim out the sun even though the sun is still very high in the sky.  So slowly we watched the sun high in the sky turn from yellow to a deep red and disappear into the smog. The reason I found this interesting was the comment by my seat mate “Oh, look at the moon!”  Sorry, that Jamie, that’s just the sun.

As we pulled back into Beijing South Station and left the train, this time we were directed from the platform down an escalator to a large meeting area, identical in size to the departure waiting area.  This is exactly like what I saw at Hongqiau Train Station, with the waiting room above is above tracks and an arrival concourse below the tracks.  If only airports could be designed like this as it sure beats the ½ mile haul to baggage claim at the airport.

From there, it was a short walk past several Kentucky Fried Chickens and out the doors to our busses and my first round trip on China’s high speed rail network was over.  As a memory, at least I now have my bottle opener/flash light.  Although, yes, I did buy a model a model  CRH3 train at the Silk Market whose doors open and even says something in Chinese which I think is akin to “welcome onboard your train to Shanghai, if only Americans knew about these great trains.”, but I could be wrong.

The only sticky point about China’s railways station is they are all modern buildings, however, well; they are sticky.  The waiting rooms aren’t air conditioned so it was really warm in the stations.  That really surprised me. Outside of the air conditioning in the stations, America needs to get onboard these Chinese passenger trains!

What I See, from 33D – Bring Back the Conductor

Note: “What I see, from 33D” is a column dedicated to looking at ways of improving the airline experience. Sometimes the thoughts are theoretical and sometimes it is just plain common sense.   It gets its name from the worst seat on the plane; which is that aisle seat, that doesn’t recline, in the last row right in front of the lavatories.  However, the beauty of the seat 33D is you can observe everything that happens on the airplane, and meet (sometimes in unflattering ways) all of your fellow travelers.

Does anyone find it ironic that today the very person responsible for the whole airplane is locked behind a cockpit door and not allowed to interact with passengers.  CockpitEven on a ship, the captain is able to at least leave the bridge and interact with passengers.  However, ever since 9/11 on airplanes the captain and first officer are locked in the cockpit.   Don’t get me wrong, after 9/11 it is understandable, but does this really make any sense.  After all, who is really managing the airplane?  That’s right, the flight attendants.  When you think about it, a flight attendant is really the person who checks tickets (usually off of a manifest), attends to passenger needs, performs safety checks (seat belts please), resolves disputes, opens and secures the doors, and attend to the general operation of the passenger cabin.   In the worse scenarios, the flight attendants also have to deal with passenger medical needs or even defend the airplane.

If you think about it, the lead flight attendant’s job sounds very much like the role of the train conductor.  The only major difference is a conductor is a little more involved in the operation of the train, such coupling and uncoupling cars, performing maintenance while enroute, and directing the train when in reverse.  Otherwise, the job description is pretty much the same.

Except, of course – a conductor is in charge of the whole train.  A flight attendant just reports to the people behind the locked door.

So what is the better solution?

Well, it depends…

Really the current system of flight attendants reporting to the captain works.  The only exception that comes to mind is out of control passengers.  After all, an unruly passenger is more likely to show respect to the person who is in control of the flight, rather than just a flight attendant.    It’s kind of like kids being disciplined by a baby sitter versus their parents.  Kids will show the parents (hopefully) more respect.

However, now think to the future.

In the 1940’s, in the cockpit you usually had a captain, co-pilot, flight engineer, and a navigator.  Then in the 1950’s the navigator was replaced with technology, leaving a flight crew of three.  Then in the 1980’s the flight engineer was also replaced with technology.  This only left the captain and first officer in the cockpit.

Well, I don’t think it is going to stop there.

After all, open any issue of Popular Mechanics and read about drone technology and the ability of an aircraft to fly themselves.  So it’s not conceivable that by 2050 a 300 passenger airplane could be safely flown with one pilot. However, even with advanced autopilot and communication technology there is no way one pilot can be in charge of both the operation of an aircraft and in charge of the passengers.  So what do you do?

Well, the answer is simple, take the captain out of the cockpit, and put them in the cabin instead – IE, bring back the conductor.

Just like a conductor on a train, the flight conductor could potentially still fly the airplane in case the lone pilot has a problem.  Having the flight conductor in the cabin, though, would potentially make the flight safer, better communication between the cabin crew and cockpit, be cheaper, and make for better customer service.

For example, a flight is delayed 45 minutes into Atlanta.  There are five passengers who have 10 minutes to make it to their connection.  As with a train conductor, the hope is a flight conductor could directly assist these passengers by reseating a few key passengers, and coordinating directly with the cockpit and ground crews to get these passengers and their bags to next flight.  I have seen flight attendants today try to do this, however it is very haphazard.  After all, today a passenger must alert a flight attendant of the close connection, the most a flight attendant can do is reseat the passenger closer to the exit door and maybe tell the captain.  If the captain wants to assist these passengers, they must relay a message to operations, operations then relays the message to the gate agents and the ramp agents.  Ironically, the only person who is dealing directly with the passenger is still only the flight attendant.

With a conductor in the airplane cabin, the conductor would work directly with the passenger and be able to call operations directly or perhaps even the gate agent/ramp agents directly.    Again, this would be a lot more efficient than today.

Of course, then there is perceived safety. How many flights have you been on where the cockpit crew forgets to turn off the seat belt sign? The flight is calm and you have nature calling, but that stupid seatbelt sign is illuminated.  Yes, I know there could potentially still be rough air ahead, but we all know the cockpit crew sometimes just forgets.  After all, the cockpit crew is stuck in their seats ALL of the time. Although, as a frequent flier you start to not believe that seatbelt sign.  A flight conductor should be able to control that sign within the cabin.

As for electronic devices, don’t get me started.

Of course, where a decision on a diversion or emergency landing needs to be made; having the head of the whole flight in the cabin makes a big difference.  For example, I think back to April, 2013, and United’s flight 638 from Denver to Baltimore.  Had the captain been in the cabin, he might have rethought his decision to divert the flight and offload the family of four whose only crime was politely asking the flight attendants to turn off the movie “Alex Cross” because they didn’t want their 8 and 4 year olds watching the PG-13 movie.   However, communication obviously broke down and it was communicated to the cockpit that there was a passenger disturbance, when it was nothing more than a polite request.   The result – embarrassment for United, several thousand dollars wasted on an unnecessary diversion, and one very confused family. (United did put them back on the next flight)

So we will see.  Perhaps, when the age of one pilot planes arrive we might see the airlines learning what the railroads knew all along.  Bring back the conductor!

Where Air, Rail and Maglev meet – Hongqiao Airport

Being an American, it is rare that I get to see a domestic airport outside of the US. However since I was flying from Shanghai to Beijing, I actually had the chance to fly out of Shanghai’s domestic airport – Hongqiao Airport.

I have to admit that when I think of “domestic airports” I think of Chicago Midway, LaGuardia, Houston Hobby, or Washington Reagan/National.  Honestly, I really wished I was flying out of the newer Pu Dong International, or better yet taking China’s high speed rail up to Beijing.  After all, I had this vision of Hongqiao being an overbuilt, old, run down airport with just a few dozen gates.

Boy was I wrong.  I was really wrong.

Hongqiao airport mapFirst, a little about the history of this airport.  Hongqiao was first opened in 1907 as a military airport.  Then in 1923 this airport was upgraded for civilian use and formerly named Hongqiao Airport after the small neighboring community.  In the 1930’s Hongqiao was even occupied by the Japanese and was the staging area for the Battle of Shanghai.  In the 1960’s it was further upgraded for jet aircraft and other major upgrades took place in the 1980s.  However, just like domestic airports in the US, the airport was deemed inadequate for future travel needs and construction began on a new airport for Shanghai.  Thereby in 1999 the International opened and nearly all international flights were moved over to the new and very modern Pu Dong International.  In fact, I thought the plan was to eventually close Hongqiao as Denver with Stapleton.

So my expectations were pretty low when we left central Shanghai for Hongqiao.

However, the Chinese government has found this old airport critical to future transportation and has invested heavily in upgrading Hongqiao.  In fact, in 2010 the new terminal 2 opened up.  This terminal alone was four times the size of the terminal 1 and cost over USD $2.5 billion to build.   With the new terminal, the airport capacity was now over 40 million passengers annually.  This puts Hongqiao’s capacity at about the same level as San Francisco international (SFO) or Miami International (MIA) – pretty impressive.  However, remember that this is the second airport for Shanghai – SFO and MIA are the primary airports!

In fact, another interesting face is that between 2009 and 2010, the airport saw over 25% growth in passenger traffic.  Wow!

Hongqiao Railway StationAs our bus pulled up to the airport, I then was totally shocked.  I didn’t see an airport terminal; I saw a railway station!  It turns out Hongqiao is not just an airport; it is a truly intermodal passenger station with air, subway, and high speed rail all under the roof of terminal 2. It turns out the Chinese thought of combing high speed rail and air long before I did.  After all, here is the Railflyer concept in action; which they call the “Hongqiao Integrated Transportation Hub.”

It turns out, at 1.3 million square meters Hongqiao railway station is the largest railway station in Asia. It has 16 platforms with 30 tracks making it larger than New York’s Penn Central Station or Chicago’s Union Station.  Primarily, this station is used for high speed rail service to Nanjing, Hangzhou, and Beijing; and also has subway lines to Shanghai.  It even contains a maglev station, should the maglev be extended from Pu Dong International.

All I can say is this rail station was huge and modern!

The station was composed of three main levels and unlike anything I have seen in the US.Hongqiao Railway Station  The upper level of the station was the waiting area for departures, and I am told can hold over 10,000 people.   The mid level of the station contains the platforms and tracks.  The 3rd level is specifically for arrivals.  Both the upper and 3rd levels had more restaurants and stores than I have seen in most American shopping malls, let alone airports or train stations.

Maglev StationAs for the maglev station, this was a rather empty space between the airline check in counters and the railway station.  However, the only thing that appeared to be missing were the elevated tracks and the maglev train.   The rest of the station has already been built.

As for the airline portion, Hongqiao is the hub airport for China Eastern and Hainan Airlines.  Although just like the rail station the terminal was huge, but well designed.  Ironically after checking in with China Eastern it was a really short walk past the check in counters to security.  However, at security they did something that I never experienced before.  First you wait in a 10 ft x 20ft roped off area.  Then a security guard releases you to a specific security line.  Once in the security line, all you see is an agent checking ID’s with frosted glass partitions behind their desk.  After a document check I was guided past the glass partitions and to the x-ray machines.  No taking off belts and shoes here, although I did have to remove my laptop.  As you passed through the metal detector you had to stand on a block and still be wanded, but it wasn’t as intimate of an experience as when meeting with the TSA.

Finally past security you enter this huge concourse.  Hongqiao Terminal 2 ConcourseAlthough this was only a domestic airport, you can tell the terminal was designed with the A380.  There was plenty of open space, seating, and a large assortment of restaurants and gift shops.  Although, being an airplane geek – the best part was the views.  Everywhere you looked was glass with incredible views of the apron and aircraft.  Unlike America, it appears that the Chinese actually want you to see the airplane before you board it.  What a refreshing China Eastern A330difference from concourse “C” or “D” at Washington Dulles.

The only downside to the airport design is that sound echoes.  So instead of announcements, the China Eastern agents walked around the boarding area holding a sign announcing that boarding can begin.  I actually find this a lot more civilized than the traditional “announcement”, which is really ironic considering that this is China.

However, when the agent with the sign passed by announcing the boarding of my row number – it was time for me to board the brand new China Eastern A321 and to leave Hongqiao Airport.

The irony is that after years of China Eastern, Hainan Airlines, and China Railway Corporation competing, it appears that they final get the Railflyer concept as in 2012 has just started code sharing with each on the Shanghai-Hangzhou and Shanghai- Wuxi  routes.   So we will see what happens.  As for me, Hongqiao will be an airport that I will be watching and be visiting in the future.  After all, I think Shanghai’s domestic airport is now on par with Paris Charles De Gualle, Amsterdam’s Schipol, and Frankfurt.

Plus, I will never think of a “domestic” airport the same way again.

Trip Report: Shanghai Maglev – Pudong Airport to Longyang Road

I know it has been over a week since my last post, but I have a very good reason!

I have spent the last week traveling in China where I had the chance to ride China’s high speed train, visit Shanghai Hongqiao Airport (and Hongqiao Railway Station), fly China Eastern, pass through Beijing South Station, Beijing Capital Airport; as well as just spending over 30 hours on airplanes.   So there will be a few posts about this trip. However let’s start with the coolest seven minute train ride of my life – the Transrapid Maglev. 

Maglev TrainAs a little bit of background, a maglev is train that is lifted above the track by a magnetic field.  The trains DOES NOT touch the rails or anything else.  Instead a magnetic field both levitates the train and propels the train forward.  The beauty of a maglev is because there is no friction; maglevs have the potential to “fly” over 300 mph.  Really its speed is just limited by atmospheric drag.

There is only one commercial maglev out there and it is in Shanghai.  There are a lot of reasons maglev trains haven’t caught on, but the predominant reason is cost.  For example, the Transrapid Maglev is only 19 miles long and travels only from Shanghai Pudong International Airport (PVG) to Longyang Road (which is on the outskirts of the Central Pudong District), but cost approximately USD $1.3 Billion to build.  In no way is the maglev paying for itself and my guess is this is why it has never been extended to its intended destination across Shanghai to Hongqiao Airport.

However, the exciting part about the maglev is its symbolism.  After all, the maglev represents the beginning of China’s transportation revolution.   You have to remember that in the late 20th century, China’s passenger trains ran at an average speed of only 30 mph (48km/h) and bicycles were the predominant form of local transportation. Air travel was very limited to the elite, but for those who could fly it was a mix of Soviet and American aircraft with a horrendous accident record.  Beijing’s subway system was only two lines and until 1995 Shanghai’s subway system didn’t even exist.  As for believing that China could build a viable high speed rail system –  that was as believable  as Amtrak making a unsubsidized profit on its long distance trains.   Although work on several high speed lines began in 1997, when this maglev started operations in 2004, it really became the symbol of the new China.

So let me tell you about riding this beast.

The maglev station is right between the two terminals at Pudong International Airport.  Maglev SignageSo after clearing customs it was just an escalator ride upstairs and a walk down a long corridor to the rail station.  Since I was part of a group our maglev tickets were prepurchased, but current one way prices were RMB ¥50 (just over $8 USD) for an economy seat.

 Note: If you are missing America, don’t worry there is a KFC right next to the ticket booth. 

Maglev BoardingAs we entered the platform we had to have our hand luggage x-rayed.  However, no TSA agents here.  In fact, because we were Americans I think the agent just let our bags pass through the detector as not one person in our group was asked to look into their bag.  Later at the Pearl Tower I would find out that the x-ray and metal detectors are for Chinese radical nationals.  Americans are not seen as threat.

The station is very simple with just two platforms on either side of the tracks.  However, the tracks themselves reminded me of the monorail at Disney World rather than any typical train.  This is because they are just cement, with the magnets installed on the underside.  The entire track is built on pilings about 15 feet about the ground just like Disney’s monorail.

Maglev Train InteriorAs for the train itself, on the outside it was very simple.  Very aerodynamic, but kind of just looked like a block of wood sitting on the rails.  Inside it just reminded me of an older coach bus, but with six abreast seating instead of four.  The seats themselves were a bit worm, but hey we were only going to be on this thing for ten minutes so it didn’t matter.

I was traveling with a group of 50 very jet lagged Americans; so there was a lot of complaining of why we were wasting our time boarding a train rather than taking a bus to the hotel. However, even the biggest complainers changed their tune.

Sitting in the station the train felt very solid.  So I am not sure if the train was sitting on landing gear or was being levitated at that point.  However, without a sound or a jolt the train started to slowly creep forward.  The acceleration wasn’t that pronounced, but rather just felt like accelerating in a six cylinder Honda Accord.  The difference between the maglev and the Honda Accord, though, is we didn’t stop accelerating at 55 mph – we kept going!

I had heard that the maglev was bumpy, but really it was very smooth at first.  Only past 300 km/hr did we start to feel a few bumps, which is understandable considering we were riding just a few inches above the rails.

The best part of the ride was listening to my friends talk.  Here is the whole sequence of what was said:

As the train started to move:

“Why are we doing this?”

90 seconds later:

“This is cool”

60 seconds later:

“Wow, we are going fast”

30 seconds later:

“Holy Cow, this is scary”

430 km/hrWe finally hit our max speed of 267 mph (430 km/hr).  Just then we passed the train going in the opposite direction which shocked everyone on the train.

You couldn’t see the other train coming and at a net speed of 530 mph you couldn’t even see the other train pass by (luckily my camera did, but even then it was just a white flash).  However, the shock wave hitting the windows of our train scared a few people.

Video: Maglev Passing Opposite Train

Unfortunately at that point the train started to decelerate and within a few moments we were pulling into Longyang Station where we were to meet our busses for the final ride to our hotel. As we left the platform I did see there was Maglev Museum, but being part of a group I didn’t have a chance to stop to check it out.  However, next trip to China it will be on my list.

So it was a great ride, however, I am not sure about the commercial viability of the maglev.  After all, besides the construction cost there is concern about the magnetic radiation put out by the trains.  Plus, I would imagine A LOT of power is required to operate the train.  So I can understand why the Chinese went with traditional high speed rail system rather than maglev technology.

However, if ever in Shanghai, the maglev is a must do!

Can’t Fly Past 65 and the End of the Regional Jet

Why a pilot retiring could mean the end of service to such cities as Richmond, Des Moines, Cincinnati, Memphis, and Albuquerque.

It doesn’t make headlines too often, but there is another critical problem facing the airline industry.  This is the pilot crunch.  For anyone not familiar with the airline industry, a pilot must retire from the cockpit at 65.   There is no choice.  However, what does this have to do with flights out of smaller US cities?  After all, these cities are usually served by 50 seat regional jets with young pilots.

Well, first let’s start with supply.  After the turmoil in the last decades, there aren’t that many pilots out there.  After all, if you were a pilot who graduated from college after 1995, you have seen more than your share of layoffs, bankruptcies, and mergers.  For example, my college roommate was a pilot.  When he and I graduated from Southern Illinois University’s Aviation Program in 1997, he first went to work for TWA.  Then he was laid off when American took over TWA.  Then he went to work for America West, but was laid off again in 2004 after that merger.  He briefly worked at USA 2000, but that didn’t last since that airline went bankrupt and ceased operations.  In fact, just a few months ago he was called back to US Airways where his future now lies in the merger between US Airways and American.

I give my roommate a lot of credit. He really stuck with his dream of flying.  In fact out of my graduating class of 50 pilots; he is the only one who I know still flies.  Everyone else gave up on it and moved on to other careers in order to pay off college loans and build families.  Since then it has been hard for aviation schools to lure prospective with the promise of that job with a commuter airline that pays $25,000/year after spending $50,000 + on a four year college education.

Of course, there is the question about the supply of pilots from the military and cargo airlines.  Forget about it.  If you are a military pilot, you don’t leave the military.  The pay and benefits are too good. As for the cargo carriers, such as FedEx and UPS; they pay as well as the major airlines.

Second, let’s look at demand. On January 6th, 2013; Delta spokesman Betsy Talton told USA Today that Delta expects to hire over 3,500 pilots in the next decade alone.  Great news if you are a pilot, bad news if you are an airline manager.

So from here it is simple economics.  The limited supply of pilots can now demand higher pay, and higher pay will attract more college students to become pilots. However, what does this have to do with that 50 seat regional jet?

Well, most pilots want to work for the major airlines.  After all, if you are a pilot for Delta, you are paid well and fly all over the world.  So Delta will steal pilots from the regional carriers; the same carriers that fly those 50 seat jets between Chicago and Des Moines, Indianapolis, Richmond, or Albuquerque.  In order for the regional airlines to then recruit more pilots, they will have to pay more.  The problem is spreading the cost of the pilots among passengers.   After all, it is a lot easier to spread these pilot costs over 100 passengers, rather than 50 passengers.  So what does this mean for those routes where the 50 seat airplanes fly? Well it either means higher air fares, fewer flights with larger aircraft, or discontinuing flights altogether.

This brings us back to those smaller US cities.  For example, from Chicago to Des Moines, United and American combined fly 12 flights a day and 11 of those flights are on aircraft with only 50 seats.  From Chicago to Indianapolis there are 18 flights combined; with 11 flights on aircraft with only 50 seats and the 7 other flights on aircraft with less than 70 seats.   With pilot costs going up, the airlines will no longer be able to fly so many flights with 50 seat aircraft. So instead of 12 flights between Chicago and Des Moines, we might only see 3 or 4 flights with larger aircraft.   Chicago-Indianapolis might see only 6 to 8 with larger aircraft.

However, another problem is in markets with only 1 or 2 flights a day; for example: Chicago to Albuquerque.  United and American together fly 3 flights a day with 66 seat aircraft.   As pilot costs go up, it would become more cost effective to route these passengers through Denver or Dallas rather than flying non-stop.   So we might see the end of several “thin” nonstop markets.

So the irony is, as a pilot hits 65 and retires; there is a trickle-down effect.  The major airline steals a pilot from a regional airline.  To attract new pilots, the regional airlines have to pay higher rates so that more college students choose to be pilots.  In order to pay their pilots higher rates, the regional airlines have to either charge more or spread the pilot’s cost over more seats.  However, smaller markets that cannot fill those extra seats or increase prices lose flights.

What I See, from 33D (part 1)

Why not serving the whole can of soda is a good idea – think of the person in 33D

It was a flight from Los Angeles to Chicago on a brand new 737-800.  However, the airplane was packed so every middle seat was filled.  You can imagine how happy I was when I saw my seat assignment was actually an aisle seat.  What a score, I thought to myself.  Boy, was I wrong.

Once I boarded I realized what I was in for.  I was in the very last row on the aisle.  Every frequent flier knows about this seat.  It is the one right ahead Seat 33D of the lavatories.  More specifically, it is the seat where you meet your fellow 144 economy class passengers; at belt level.   For the first hour of the flight, everything was ok as the flight attendants blocked the aisle with their carts.  I was a little surprised that on a 3 ½ hour flight I was only served a cup of soda, and not the full can.  Really?  However, I soon realized what a blessing not being served that full can of soda could be.

After the fight attendants served the whole cabin, first it was one person standing in line, then two, then four, then six.  It is the most awkward situation with everyone in line looking down upon me in 33D.

However, people standing in line are not the problem.

Granted for those sitting in 33C and 33D, you are just praying that no one had a burrito right before the flight, because you are the direct target. This flight left three hours past lunch time, so I felt safe.  However, the problem started when those lavatory doors opened and that poor person has to swim “upstream” and everyone in line shifts.  More specifically, everyone in line then has to crunch into the poor soul occupying those aisle seats, placing their privates right into the shoulder and face of that trapped seated individual.

So for the next two hours I had the pleasure of meeting nearly half of my fellow passengers in this most uncomfortable and private way.  Luckily, because everyone only received half a can of soda, I had the pleasure of only meeting half of my fellow passengers.

So next time you receive only half a can of soda, and wonder why you can’t have the whole can of soda; think of the poor souls in seats 33C & 33D.  To them, half a can makes all of the difference.

…more stories to come, from what I see from seat 33D.

Trip Report: Chicago – Baltimore – Newark – Chicago

Yes, this sounds crazy, but I wanted to see if I could fly from Chicago-O’Hare to Baltimore, take Amtrak’s Northeast Regional to Newark Liberty International, and then fly back to Chicago.   Well, let’s just say it was an experience.

When I checked in at O’Hare my flight to Baltimore was leaving from gate C7 at 8:40a.m.  I always head to the security at the south end of terminal 1 first.  Everyone forgets about this security checkpoint, so it tends to go faster.  However, I was completely caught off guard when there was NO security line.  Was I dreaming this?  I literally walked right up to the TSA agent and handed him my boarding pass.  I couldn’t believe it.

When I arrived at gate C7 around 8a.m. there was a moment of complete confusion as it wasn’t my flight to Baltimore, but it was the flight to Burlington, VT.  I did a double take as I wondered if I ended up looking at the wrong flight on the departure board. Nope, I was at the right gate, but this Burlington flight was delayed due to “Late Incoming Aircraft”.  Eventually that flight left, my plane arrived and I boarded my Bombardier CRJ700 for the flight to Baltimore, which left only 45 minutes late.

Granted, I was sitting in an economy plus seat so things could have been worse; but the last time I flew to Baltimore I was sitting in a first class seat on a 767.  Today, I am squished into a window seat where the curvature of the aircraft cuts off half of my floor space. My how times have changed.

BWI-Flight-Status-BoardsBWi-Intl-CheckinWhen I arrived at Baltimore, I was really impressed with that airport.  I love the main terminal with all of the glass and the China Clipper hanging in front of the international check-in adds a very nice touch.  What most impressed me, though, was how BWI actually has Amtrak’s train status on the departure/arrival boards.  Wow! This is the only airport I have seen that does it.  Very Nice BWI!

I followed the signs for the shuttle Bus to Amtrak, which ironically was the same pick up spot for the long term parking lots.  But the bus was well marked and I only had to wait 5 minutes.  This is my first time to the Baltimore Amtrak Station, so I had no idea how far the station was.  We left the terminals, drove through the security fenced Northrup Grumman employee parking lot (really?) then finally came to a large parking structure.  Finally behind the parking structure was the Amtrak station.  No matter what they say, I don’t think I was at BWI anymore.

Ok, I realize now that the BWI Airport station is not for air travelers, but rather for commuters. The station itself was a mix of old and new.  The platforms were nice, but the Amtrak waiting room was really dark, windowless, and small.  Also, the Amtrak agents were all separated behind a glass wall.  Not a very welcoming place, to say the least.

Being a beautiful spring day I decided to wait for my train outside on the platform.  First, a northbound Acela raced passed on the center track.  A few minutes later an Amtrak agent started warning everyone waiting on the southbound tracks to that another Acela will be coming by on the track closest to them, but is not stopping – so everyone needs to stand back!  Then a minute later, again, the station agent warned everyone to stand back.  All of these announcements made me wonder how many times did someone, shall we say,  “tried to stop” that Acela train. Luckily this time the Acela Express passed by without incidence.

Train-186-ArrivalOn time, train 186 pulled up to the station and about 50 of us boarded what was an already crowded train.  The car was one of the newly rebuilt AmFleet II cars and I secured a seat at the end of the car which must have had at least 45 inches of pitch between the seats.  Let’s just say that this beats the plane I flew out on hands down.  Although, I thought the Northeast Regional was supposed to have Wi-Fi, but I didn’t see any placards saying the train had Wi-Fi and I couldn’t pick up a signal. Luckily, most of the route has 4G.

As we road along, I was really surprised with how smelly and bumpy the ride was.  Since this was an electrified line, I didn’t expect to smell anything.  However, the smell of oil kept wafting itself into the car.  To this day, I still can’t figure out where the smell came from as we were even five cars behind the engine.  As for bumpiness, there were times I watched as the conductors stumbled as they were thrown about as the car swayed.  Being a high(er) speed rail route I figured that this route would be as smooth as the Shinkansen.  Boy was I wrong; at times I wish I had a seat belt.   Even worse, I went through a bottle of coke, and had to use the bathroom.  Let’s just say I had to use every available limb in order to brace myself.

Train 186 arrived exactly on-time into Newark Airport.  Again, about 50 of us all disembarked the train.  Unlike Baltimore, most people had luggage so I knew I had finally found the crown jewel of air to rail passenger connections in the US. Here I was in the shining example of what Air/Rail inter-modal passenger transportation is supposed to be like in the rest of the nation.  However, this is still Newark International, after all so I couldn’t too excited.

I followed a couple whose roller bag made the worst sounding squeaking noise.  It sounded like a screaming Chihuahua.  Not that I ever heard a Chihuahua scream.  Finally, the guy got the message from our weird looks and picked up the screaming bag.

The AirTrain between the Amtrak station and terminals is convenient; however, it also reminds me of the monorail at Disneyworld.  Worse, it feels really unsteady as it slowly bounces along the rail on its way to the terminal like a bad carnival ride.  As we road along I started to miss the Airport Transit System at O’Hare.  Although the nice part is the AirTrain does deliver you right into the terminal.  More specifically, right in front of that TSA line with over 200 people in it.   Well, this security line made up for good luck this morning.

Being 4:30pm, I figured that the security lines would be long.  However, when will the TSA and Airport Authorities figure out that they have to provide some form of entertainment in line?  I mean come on, the mother trying to carry three kids through line is entertaining to watch at first, but then you just feel sorry for her and want to help. Can’t they add some artwork or a museum exhibit to lessen the boredom?  Just something to look at besides my fellow passengers who are also condemned to the hell we call security.

The good news is once I made it past security purgatory, United has a really nice setup at Newark.  EWRUnited_webEspecially the new international concourse.  However, what made the trip memorable was how clear that day was.  Out the windows I was able to see the spire that was just placed on top of World Trade Center One that very day.  Very cool.

Finally, it took me a while to figure out where my flight was.  I found gate 95 and gate 99, so I figured that they must have put gate 97 somewhere.  Finally, I looked down and found the missing gate 97 in the basement.  So I then boarded by 737-800, watched my free 15 minutes of Direct TV, and waited out the delay as we were now 17th for takeoff.  Ironically, even with the departure delay we still arrived at O’Hare 30 minutes early.  Hmm, I think this schedule is padded.

Looking Back From 2063

Anyone notice how we travel slower today compared to 50 years ago?  Granted you can now fly nonstop from New York to Hong Kong or India.  However, if you look at a flight from Chicago to San Francisco or a drive from St. Louis to Kansas City, things have gotten a lot slower.

For example, in 1963, there was no national speed limit.  So feel like driving 85 mph on those flat roads through Nebraska; that is not a problem.  In fact, the interstate system was still very new and not yet jammed. The Boeing 707 had just revolutionized air travel and the British, French, Soviets, and Americans were all working on aircraft that could fly over 1,200 miles an hour.  The only hold out was the railroad industry, which for over a hundred years was the predominant form of transportation.  By 1963, though, it appeared on its last legs as the government had to create Conrail and Amtrak.

Now jump forward 50 years.  To someone from 1963, my cell phone would astound them, but not my car.   In fact they would probably be appalled that I can’t legally go faster than 55 mph on most interstates in Illinois. This same person would be amazed at Las Vegas or Disney World, but not by the 30 inch pitch between airline seats or having to pay to check bags on the flight to Las Vegas.  They would not believe that I can make updates on Facebook and Tweet, but would be disappointed to see that the Boeing 787 actually goes slower than a Boeing 707 (560 mph versus 620 mph).  They would be amazed…well you get the idea.

So what about 2063?  It is not that far away.  In fact, if you think about it that is only the retirement age for someone now starting high school.  However, what will transportation look like in 50 years?

Well, because of airline economics and the physics of the sound, the dream of airplanes flying faster than 600 mph doesn’t appear to be likely.  Granted there is always the possibility of planes reaching low earth orbit, but that would only work for intercontinental flights. I mean, would you really expect to fly at 120,000 feet for your flight from Chicago to Des Moines?

Cars on the other hand, will probably be electric and self-driven, however, how many lanes of traffic could you actually have?  For example, is the thirty two lane expressway really our future?  There is another possibility, which (in the US) has been forgotten– that is rail.  In fact, while speed limits have been lowered and airplanes fly slower, rail has actually gotten FASTER in the last 50 years!