Where is my DeLorean?

August 18th, 2015

Back to the futureThirty years ago, Marty McFly and Doc Brown got into a garage-modified DeLorean, activated the flux capacitor, and took off for…well, this year, to try and save Marty’s son from himself. Back to the Future played on a long-standing wish: flying cars.

As 2015 winds down, it’s easy to wonder why we don’t have flying cars. The easy answer is that the FAA would make such a dream a bureaucratic nightmare. That’s undoubtedly true, and if you throw in the Federal Highway Administration, you can see how such a great idea would be dead on arrival. But let’s take those two entities out of the equation.

Driving is two-dimensional. You move forward, backward, left, and right. Driving is also pretty easy. It’s not totally skillless or brainless, but we’ve done everything we can to make it so. Still, tens of thousands of people die every year on the highways in spite of some pretty impressive safety mechanisms and rules. Seatbelts are required (and their use is enforced, which wasn’t always the case); cars have roll cages, air bags, anti-lock brakes, and more. Still, no matter how idiot-proof we make a car, we manage to find ways to crash.

Flying, on the other hand, is three-dimensional, and that transition to and from the ground is, statistically, the most dangerous part of the flight. In the air, we have to deal with turbulence, even close to the ground. Imagine semis trying to fly next to a Camry. Unlike the DeLorean, we need to accept that a flying car will have wings, and those wings will be sized based on the payload. Semis and Camrys would be at constant risk of hitting each other because of the necessarily long wings on the semi, not to mention the wake turbulence. If you think on- and off-ramps are crowded now, imagine what it would be like trying to merge such disparately sized vehicles on and off the ground.

Infrastructure would be an issue as well, as we’d have to have much longer merge lanes to allow vehicles to get up to rotation speed. Consider that highways are designed to try to contain certain elements of a high-speed wreck (even if the only design element for this is building it in an isolated area). With skyways, we’d have to take into account that an in-flight collision would spread debris over a much larger area—which would necessitate additional safety enhancements for the drivers not only traveling quickly but now also falling to the ground. Buildings would need to be built to account for potential falling debris on the roof or through the windows.

In the end, flying cars just aren’t practical. In fact, if the skyways got too crowded, you’d be better back on the road, which is right where we are now. As fun as it is to daydream about defying gravity in every aspect of our lives, the truth is that without a quantum leap in strong, lightweight materials and powerful engines, it’s just not the way. But if you stick with flying airplanes, then where you’re going, you still don’t need roads.—Chip Wright


August 10th, 2015

It’s early on in your academic training these days when a teacher refers to the GIGO principle. Simply stated, if you are using a computer, it doesn’t matter how great the machine or the program is if you input bad data. If you put in garbage, it will give you garbage results. Garbage in, garbage out: GIGO.

In flying this is a very real concern, particularly when it comes to programming a GPS. It’s one thing if you inadvertently put in a wrong fix that’s close to the right one, but that’s rare. What’s more likely to happen is that you put in the wrong fix or the wrong piece of performance information, only to suddenly find yourself asking what is going on. When the airplane makes a turn you aren’t expecting, you’ll be scrambling to figure out where the mistake is. It’s great if it happens on the next fix. That usually becomes readily apparent. It’s not so great if you programmed in the wrong fix several legs down the road.

This is an easy mistake to make on a GPS that is programmed with a knob, and it’s an easy mistake to make in a crew environment. I’ll give you an example: I was in a simulator event, and I had the airplane doing exactly what I wanted it to do. Trying to stay ahead of things, I decided to program the climb performance, not registering that the performance I was asking for was for the cruise climb. Asking the airplane to change its profile would cause all kinds of problems on the departure procedure. Following our prescribed procedure, I asked the captain to verify what I was getting ready to do. He did. I hit the button and executed the new plan. To my horror, the airplane began to accelerate and climb like it had a date with Mars.

I quickly turned off the autopilot and autothrottles, and I asked the captain to reprogram “the box” while I hand-flew and kept us out of further trouble. In my peripheral vision, I saw the instructor smile and write furiously. In the debrief, we got kudos for catching the problem immediately and fixing it, but we also got a reminder that GIGO can happen at any time, at any place. It was a great lesson, and it happened in the sim, where nobody could get hurt.

I’ve flown now for more than 20 years, and I have a litany of such GIGO examples—some mundane, some not so much. What I can say is that I don’t tend to make the same mistake twice, but I’ve learned that I am never going to be immune to this kind of error, which is good, as it keeps me on my toes.

But if you want to see how catastrophic GIGO can be, just look at the report for American Airlines Flight 965, which crashed into a mountain in Colombia in 1995 because of a flight management system programming error. It’s a stark reminder of how quickly things can go wrong, even for an experienced crew.—Chip Wright

Where are they?

August 3rd, 2015

womens-pilot-shirts-MZMy first real aviation boss, who also became one of my instructors as I added ratings, and later a friend with whom I argued feverishly at times. One former girlfriend (and her mother). Two of my students. A small number of my first officers, and only two of the captains I flew with at my first airline, and so far, none at my current one. Only a few of the pilots in my current base, out of a total of nearly 200.

And that pretty much sums up the majority of women I’ve known in aviation. There just haven’t been that many of them. Supposedly, the FAA register of pilots is made up of around 600,000 pilots, depending on how you do the math. Of those, only 30,000 or so—a measly 5 percent—are women. Five percent! That’s an abomination. It’s also a huge marketing opportunity for general aviation, flight schools, et cetera. The ratio at major aviation colleges often isn’t much better.

I have two daughters, and they have grown up with me being a pilot. They have traveled with me (and because of me), and they’ve seen the benefits of aviation, both in the practical sense and as a means of making a living. If I had to buy all the seats we’ve used, my bill would be triple the national debt. They’ve sat in my cockpits and ridden on my flights for fun, out of convenience, and out of necessity. They have both at times talked of following in my footsteps—maybe not to fly for a career, but to take advantage of the opportunities that being able to fly offers. They often don’t understand why more people don’t fly more often.

They’ve also asked me why more women don’t fly. It’s rare enough that they definitely notice when they have a female crew member. When they recently rode on a 747 with a female captain, they thought it was the “coolest thing ever”—but it also made them mad that there aren’t more of women commanding 747s and 380s.

It bothers me, too. The female pilots I’ve flown with have been among the best I’ve flown with, male or female. One of them, who is one of my best friends and can fly circles around most other pilots, is on the short list (four or five) of people I’d like to have in my airplane in the direst of emergencies.

We need women in aviation. It’s hard enough to be involved in an activity of any sort when it is as expensive and time-consuming as flying. If you don’t have the support of the people in your life, it becomes a dream that can quickly die on the vine. For many of us, those people include or spouses, mothers, daughters, and girlfriends. That alone should be reason enough to involve them.

But it’s more than that. Women are more frequently earning more money, and they need a place to spend it, and they need goals to pursue. Why are we not doing more to entice them to learning to fly? They don’t all need to be on the track to be airline pilots or G-V pilots for a Fortune 500 company. They can fly sport planes, or ultralights, or a Cirrus to visit Mom and Dad. We just need to get them to the airport and introduce them to what we already know, and then let them fully embrace it on their own terms.

Two of the best aerobatic pilots in the world are women. One you’ve heard of: Patty Wagstaff, who can do things with a, airplane that would make most of us sick. The other is Katie Higgins, the first woman to fly with the Blue Angels. Women have commanded the space shuttle and spent months on the space station. At small airports, however, too many are relegated to working at the counter, and not enough are flying or working on the airplanes. Oh, I should mention: Two of the best mechanics at my first airline were ladies.

Women I’ve spoken to have told me that they have a few reasons for not flying: If the airlines are the issue, they are conflicted by the schedules and time away from the kids they want to raise. If it’s general aviation, they are often afraid that they will be treated the same way they often are when they need to get their car fixed (ripped off, played for dumb, sexually harassed, and assumed to be out of their element); and they often don’t have a mentor to guide them. Their perceptions may not be accurate, so it’s up to us to prove that those perceptions are wrong, and make them feel welcome.

We can all do more, and we need to. If we had as many female pilots as male pilots, the pilot population would more than double. Think about the opportunity that presents. Think about opportunity, period. As a group, let’s find a way to provide it to the women in our lives that might enjoy aviation, and let’s do it the same way we want it done for ourselves: honestly, respectfully, and with open arms.—Chip Wright

Money in the tank

July 29th, 2015

Fuel-Management_squareWe are a society that lives and dies by oil and gasoline. Nearly every American has a car, if not two or three, and very few cities have what can be called a robust public transportation system. We think nothing of filling our gas tanks and driving aimlessly or wastefully. This concept also applies to the way in which we fly.

The airlines long ago perfected the art of only carrying enough fuel to get from the point of departure to the point of arrival while landing with the IFR fuel reserve of 45 minutes. In the general aviation world, though, we tend to top off and go. When is the last time that you really made an effort to see how much fuel you burn?

Many of us fly the same routes fairly commonly on our cross-country flights, which means that we are in a good position to get some solid data on our fuel burn habits. Those data should be based on altitude, weight, wind, and temperature.

It’s one thing to guesstimate your fuel burn, or to rely on the numbers in your pilot’s operating handbook (POH) or in the computer software you use for flight planning. But what about keeping more accurate data based on your airplane, and your engine, and your leaning habits? How closely do you maintain the book power settings? Speeds?

I used to flight plan for eight gallons an hour in a Cessna 172, and that was pretty accurate, but I also know that when I paid closer attention to what was going on, or flew a longer-than-usual flight, I could get as much as a gallon an hour more out of the tank—and in the end, that means money in your tank. The difference in total travel time wasn’t enough to worry about, but the efficiency can be nice. It can get you several miles farther down the road or buy you some time to spend loitering over a picturesque area where you just want to sightsee.

Consider creating a table that you can use to more closely track your actual fuel habits, and see if you can’t “buy” fuel simply by changing your habit patterns. For instance, if your tailwind will be greater near your destination, consider delaying your descent a bit. If there is warmer air somewhere, try cruising at that altitude (if the ride is smooth). Get wind reports at various altitudes as you fly. Even if you rent, you can try this across various ships in the fleet to find the one that is best (and worst). These are tricks that the airlines and corporate flight departments use to maximize fuel efficiency and minimize costs, all with little impact on the overall bottom line. Fuel in the tank, after all, is money in the bank.—Chip Wright

The Ercoupe: a must-try for a student pilot

July 7th, 2015
The very thin pilot's operating handbook for a 1946 Ercoupe. Photo by Chris Rose

The very thin pilot’s operating handbook for a 1946 Ercoupe. Photo by Chris Rose

Student pilot Matthew Orloff is an intern for AOPA Communications.—Ed.

At first glance, the Erco Ercoupe may appear to belong in either a vintage aircraft museum or Evel Knievel’s garage, but surprisingly, it’s a very compatible match for a student pilot, especially if you’re just starting out. As a student pilot with a mere 10 hours of flight time, I can say when I started taking flight lessons in a Cessna 172, I was overwhelmed. I wished flying an airplane was as simple as driving a car, where you just start it up, look out the window and go, as the great learning curve certainly intimidated me.

After seeing the Ercoupe for the first time, the last thing I would’ve ever expected was to praise it for how wonderful it is as a training aircraft. It may be easy to judge a book by its cover and conclude that than an airplane from 1946 is unsafe and ineffective to learn how to fly in. After all, it’s an old airplane, with old technology.

In fact, the airplane flies by the same aerodynamic principles, along with being just as smooth and responsive as a 172 minus all the more confusing bells and whistles.

Not to mention, flying with the canopy down is more fun than just about anything. I would compare it to learning how to drive in a classic convertible as opposed to your mother’s SUV. Speaking of which, the Ercoupe was originally intended to introduce people to flying, so when taxiing, instead of steering with the rudder pedals (which may throw you off if you’re very used to using the rudder pedals for taxiing), you actually steer with the yoke as if you are driving a car.

Since the airplane is so small, it is easier to visualize the aerodynamic principles that you learn about. For example, just by sticking your arm out the side of the airplane, you will see that you begin to turn to that same side. It’s the perfect lesson on how the deflection of air affects all the movements of your aircraft, and it’s also just flat-out cool.

If there is one thing I want to stress to other student pilots out there about this airplane, it is that it’s just so easy to fly. Since the cockpit of the Ercoupe is minimal, the likelihood of “cockpit juggling” is lessened. The checklist (another great source of intimidation) is easily accomplished because there are no fancy gadgets. The flight controls are simple, and daunting tasks such as landing are way easier. Landing an Ercoupe will certainly boost your confidence as a pilot, because chances are, you’ll nail it. Right now, I’m absolutely terrible at landing, but thanks to how small, simple, and visually unobstructed your view is in the Ercoupe, I had made my best landing to date.

If you are ever lucky enough to come across the opportunity to fly in an Ercoupe, by all means take it. Your flying skills are sure to improve and therefore your confidence will strengthen. Look at it as a steppingstone before pursuing more complex aircraft. With the student pilot completion rate being relatively low, the simplicity and sheer excitement of flying the Ercoupe is sure to keep your eyes on the prize. It is also worth mentioning you will probably save a bit of money since it’s such a small airplane, and of course, you will have an absolute blast!—Matthew Orloff

Are you interested in learning to fly? Sign up for a free student trial membership to the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association and receive six issues of Flight Training plus lots of training tools and resources for student pilots. Click here for more information.




Scheduling cancellations

June 29th, 2015

This is the last in a short series of blog posts that covers just a few of the business practices employed by the airlines. In the first two I discussed ticket pricing and oversold flights. In this one, we’re going to cover another headline-making topic. It happens every year with snow storms in the winter and thunderstorms (or worse) in the summer: Airline flights get cancelled by the hundreds. How do the decisions get made?

The process has changed a bit because of two relatively new rules. The first was the Airline Passenger Bill of Rights. This is the law that arose because of the JetBlue delayed-flight fiasco in 2007. Passengers were stuck on planes for more than 10 hours, and years of frustration finally bubbled over. The rule that was eventually passed assessed fines of as much as $27,500 per passenger for delays exceeding three hours for domestic flights and four hours for international flights. Many predicted that the new rule would lead to far greater numbers of flights being cancelled ahead of bad weather. Those predictions have been borne out.

The second rule that has changed the way airlines handle cancellations is FAR 117, the new airline pilot duty and rest limits that came out of the Colgan Air 3407 crash in Buffalo, New York. Pilots are much more limited in what they can legally do when delays begin to build up. Further, they are required to have more rest, and more importantly, more rest “behind the door”—that is, rest that is computed based on actually getting to the hotel. There is no more any resting during the van ride to the hotel. This has had huge implications on operational practices.

Taking into account these two rules, the airlines study a number of factors in determining which flights to cancel. Cost is always the bottom line.

“Cost” is measured several ways. High-revenue/high-value customers (or flights) are protected as much as possible, whether domestic or international. Airplane maintenance schedules play a much bigger role than most would imagine, whether it is schedule maintenance or getting the plane in place to fix a single item that needs repair (not every type of spare part is kept in every location). International flights also get a premium because of the expenses involved in accommodating so many people. Also, the rules for inconveniencing passengers vary by country, and in several, the rules are much more passenger-friendly than in the United States.

As you might imagine, having aircraft and crews out of position plays a major role the decision-making process. As weather changes and airlines are forced to deal with diversions, they are sometimes caught between the proverbial rock and a hard place because the weather frequently determines whether or not it is best to continue the flight to the original destination, or to move the airplane to another location to help recover the schedule.

A number of factors go into this kind of decision: airport curfews; crew legality; airplane legality (maintenance again); the availability of alternate transportation for passengers; the availability of hotel rooms; even the availability of fuel.

The overwhelming majority of these decisions are handled by sophisticated computer programs that automatically rebook passengers. However, sometimes the decisions are manually manipulated or controlled. Even when you work in such an environment, it’s easy to scratch your head and ask, “Why are they doing it this way?” Often, there is a big picture involved, and you have no idea how all of the pieces will fit together. You just find yourself hoping that your own inconveniences are minimized!—Chip Wright

Top 10 reasons to volunteer at an AOPA fly-in

June 24th, 2015
Airshow pilot Michael Goulian waves to spectators at the AOPA Homecoming Fly-In on June 6.

Airshow pilot Michael Goulian waves to spectators at the AOPA Homecoming Fly-In on June 6.

Whether jumping out of bed early Saturday morning is part of your weekly routine or not, you’re sure to be thrilled to do just that if it means you’re going to be volunteering at an AOPA fly-in. For aviation fans, the thought of getting up close and personal with a variety of aircraft and the people who fly them is surly exciting, and as a volunteer, the perks of the experience can only be enhanced. Here are the top 10 reasons why:

 10. Free stuff.

It’s amazing to see what people will do for a free T-shirt. If that’s still not enough, you also get a free lunch—and it’s delicious.

9. Golf carts.

Everyone loves golf carts; they are simply a joy to drive and ride around on. Better yet, there’s free food for volunteers on the back of some of them. In fact, there’s so many golf carts running around the event that you may get to drive one.

8. You will feel good about yourself.

There is a sense of pride when you know you devoted your time to doing something good for a cause you truly believe in. It’s an empowering feeling that epitomizes the notion of “helping yourself by helping others.” On top of this, you are outdoors, and just being outdoors is enough to feel like you’ve gotten your daily dose of exercise—even if you’re just gazing at airplanes.

7. Behind-the-scenes access.

Think of it as having a backstage pass at a huge concert. You will see how fun it is to put on such a production, and this includes being up close and personal with performers, aviation toys, and important people…which leads to our next reason.

6. Incredible networking.

Is there an unusual airplane and only one person who flies it? Well, there’s a good chance that person will be at the fly-in and he’d love to tell you everything you wanted to know about his airplane! Perhaps you have an idol who happens to have your aviation dream job? There’s a good chance you’ll find that person at the fly-in too.

 5. You will be recognized.

Free T-shirts and food may be a nice way of saying thank you, but the overwhelming amount of gratitude you get from attendees can’t help but make you feel warm and welcome. The simplicity of a “thank you” can be very rewarding.

4. Eye candy everywhere.

Look up, down, left, and right. There are cool flying toys everywhere. You’ll truly be a kid in a candy shop and the best part is, as a volunteer, you get a thorough experience with them.

 3. Knowledge is power.

There’s a good chance that even if you begin your day knowing absolutely nothing about aviation, then you will walk out of there as a human encyclopedia. An AOPA fly-in is loaded with aviation information, and as a volunteer, it will be sure to rub off on you.

2. Spending time with the nicest people on the planet.

The aviation community is tight-knit, yet overwhelmingly welcoming and hospitable. An AOPA fly-in is populated with exceptional people who want nothing more to inspire you, the volunteer, to be as passionate as you already are about GA.

And finally—

1. The possibilities are infinite.

You may have noticed that there’s a common theme in many of these reasons to volunteer: You never know what might happen. You may meet your aviation idol, you may find out about a dream opportunity you never knew existed, but one thing is certain—the possibilities are endless. Whatever does happen, it’s sure to be memorable and bring a bright smile to your face around the warmest people there are.—Matthew Orloff

Student pilot Matthew Orloff is an editorial intern for AOPA Communications. Orloff volunteered for the AOPA Homecoming Fly-In on June 6.

AOPA is hosting regional fly-ins in Minneapolis, Minnesota, on Aug. 22; Colorado Springs, Colorado, on Sept. 26; and Tullahoma, Tennessee, on Oct. 10. Volunteers are needed! To learn more or sign up, see the website.—Ed.

Oversold flights

June 18th, 2015

In my last blog post, I said that I was going to deviate a bit from my normal career advice in order to cover a few points in the actual business of running an airline. After all, if you’re going to work for one, it helps to understand the how’s and why’s of some of what airlines do. This time, I’d like to delve into another not-clearly-understood practice: overselling flights.

There is no question that it is one of the most frustrating business practices in the United States. Airlines routinely sell more tickets than they have seats (except for jetBlue, which makes a point of not doing this).

This doesn’t happen anywhere else, or at least not by design for a time-sensitive product. It’s one thing for Apple to run out of new phones or tablets because demand exceeds production capability. But those products are not as subject to meeting a need based on a time factor.

A seat on an airplane, however, is about as time-sensitive as it gets, especially if it’s important. And let’s face it, it’s always important to the person getting—or about to get—screwed. I can’t help you feel better when it happens to you, but I can at least give you a bit of insight.

Airlines oversell for one simple reason: because they can. Generally speaking, they know that a certain number of people are not going to show up. We’re not talking about missed connections; we’re talking about the traveler—usually a business traveler—who doesn’t show for one reason or another. Those travelers make up a percentage of the seats on a given airplane, and it is that percentage that is usually—but not always—oversold.

If an airline has data that says that 10 passengers on flight 123 from ABC to XYZ don’t show up on a consistent basis, they will oversell by (usually) no more than that number, and often by less than that number. On the days when everyone shows, they then figure out what to do.

So, how do they determine who is going to get stuck? Each carrier has its own formula to follow, but it usually consists of some mix of the following (not necessarily in this order, and not limited to this list): last ticket sold; cheapest ticket sold; connecting versus non-connecting passengers; vacation package bought from the airline; the last person checked in; does the person getting bumped live locally (thus saving the airline a hotel room)?

The airline may also take into account that the next person who should be losing a seat may be part of a group of passengers, yet they only need to lose one passenger total. Unfortunately, you’ll never know. One thing you can count on: Unaccompanied minors are almost never denied boarding.

How can you fight back if it happens to you? It helps if you can argue persuasively that your travel plans will be unduly disrupted. For instance, if you are trying to make a cruise, you may be able to avoid being pulled. Likewise if you are connecting to an international flight, especially one that doesn’t run every day. Otherwise, you’re at the airline’s mercy.

There is one exception to the above rule of overselling by the number of no-shows, and that is the issue of performance. Sometimes, the airplane isn’t necessarily oversold, but the flight can’t meet performance requirements (usually related to single-engine climb) because of hot temperatures/short runways or runway contamination (snow or standing water).

Other times it may be because the flight is carrying an abnormal amount of fuel for the alternate, or because it’s overweight because of excessive bags or mail. As sharp as the airline reservation computer programs are, they often can’t take such random events into account well enough to try to control sales and loads.

One last trick: If you want to know if a flight is oversold, go through the act of buying a ticket on that flight the day before or the morning of, and see if one is available on the airline’s website. And then just hope that if it is oversold, it isn’t your number that comes up.—Chip Wright

Just ahead in the August issue

June 16th, 2015

 What does your flight instructor pound into your brain this time of year? (At least we hope your flight instructor is pounding this into your brain.) Density altitude.

We’re not going to stray from that path. Hot weather and airplanes have a long and complicated relationship, and you need only look on YouTube to see lots of evidence of what happens when you don’t calculate density altitude. (This clip, which shows in-cockpit footage from a 2012 crash, is particularly educational. The four occupants of the Stinson did walk away from the crash.)

That’s why our Technique and Weather articles this month are devoted to density altitude. You can’t learn too much about it, particularly if you are a flat-land pilot who may be tempted to assume—incorrectly—that density altitude is something you don’t have to think about.

Also in our August issue:

  • Energy management: Does throttle control altitude or airspeed? What role does the elevator play? We break down energy principles of motion control in four steps.
  • Keep yourself sharp: Now that you’re a certificated pilot, just how sharp are you? Here are some ways to keep yourself in the student mindset.
  • Buddy system: Why should you be a safety pilot? We tell you all the reasons.

Also: A marriage made in aviation heaven; an interview with Living in the Age of Airplanes and One-Six Right director Brian J. Terwilliger.

The August digital edition goes live on June 23. Learn more about how you can get the magazine delivered to your tablet, computer, or mobile device here.

In-home delivery begins July 2, and if you’re not yet a subscriber, you’ll find it on newsstands as of July 14.

We welcome your letters to the editor; email [email protected]—Jill W. Tallman

Are you interested in learning to fly? Sign up for a free student trial membership in the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association and receive six issues of Flight Training magazine plus lots of training tools and resouces for student pilots. Click here for more information.

A (very) brief explanation of ticket prices

June 11th, 2015

I’m going to stray a little bit from my typical career advice, and I’m going to discuss a few of the airline business practices that tend to drive everyone crazy. One of those is the issue of ticket prices.

As most of you know, airline ticket prices can vary wildly even on the same flight. It’s very possible to have two passengers sitting next to each other who paid a difference of hundreds of dollars for their tickets. What gives?

512px-NWA_Airline_Ticket_JL2703First of all, it helps if you think of an airplane as a venue for a concert or a baseball game. When you buy tickets to a game, you expect to pay more for a better seat, such as one behind home plate or along one of the baselines. You expect to pay less to sit in the “nosebleed” section.

Flights are similar. First class, business class, and seats with extra legroom demand a higher fare because of the benefits or added comfort of sitting in those seats. That’s simple enough. But what drives the rest of the pricing differences?

American Airlines, under Robert Crandall, perfected the use of modern pricing algorithms (it’s actually a trick he learned working for, of all places, Hallmark). With today’s computerized reservations systems, airlines use sophisticated computer models to adjust the pricing of every seat as soon as a seat is sold. This is one reason why it costs less to buy a seat well in advance of the flight.

The airline already knows what the basic cost of a flight will be, and therefore how much it needs to sell each seat to make money on that flight, which allows it to set the basic fare.

Next, it needs to collect all of the various fees and taxes that might be required—landing fees, passenger facility charges, security fees, et cetera. These can easily add more than $100 to the price of a ticket.

As soon as seats begin to sell, prices begin to change. (In fact, if you use the same computer to check the prices of a flight several times, the website can [and often will] use the cookie it has placed on your computer to gauge your interest and raise the fare.) Prices also change as the date of the flight gets closer.

Because airlines get most of their revenue from business travelers, the prices go up quite dramatically within 14 to 21 days of a flight, since this is when business travelers buy most of their tickets. This is similar to the concert or ball game analogy: Supply has diminished, and demand often rises. The airline is, in effect, scalping its own seats, and it is doing so to its best customers, because roughly 5% of the passengers provide almost 95% of the revenue.

Something else is at play as well. The airline doesn’t collect nearly the revenue from leisure travelers as it does from business travelers on a per-seat basis. So, if the mix gets slightly out of whack, ticket prices will move, especially if the “out of whack” portion of the equation means that more leisure travelers are buying tickets than usual. In addition, if passengers are using frequent flyer miles to buy the seat, either prices will increase or the number of seats available for redeeming miles will decrease or even disappear (think of Hawaii).

Just like a concert or a ball game, there can be a last-minute deal, and it can be great one for the consumer. The Yankees may sell a few tickets in the second or even third inning, but an airline can never sell a seat on a given flight once that flight has left the gate, and even the Yankees won’t sell tickets after the fourth inning or so. Therefore, sometimes they will offer steep discounts just to fill the seat at the last minute.

Ticket prices are maddening at times, but there really is a method to the madness, and a madness to the method. Or something like that!—Chip Wright