Foggy Conclusion:
Everything's Broken
THURSDAY, FEBRUARY 25, 2021 -- I have come to a conclusion: Everything's broken.

Pratt & Whitney engines are broken. Airlines are broken. The United States Postal System is broken. Hotels are broken. Bankrupt Hertz is broken. Politics are broken. The Olympics are broken. Texas is broken. Jeopardy is broken. Leisure travel is broken. Tiger Woods is broken.

Or, as my mother never said: "We can put the Perseverance Rover on Mars with a microphone and a camera, but we can't invent masks that don't fog your glasses."

These conclusions, in fact, came to me in a mask-fogging moment. I was walking down a street, blinded by the fog--sorry, Bruce Springsteen and Manfred Mann--and waving my spectacles about wildly in a vain attempt to dissolve the haze. I literally had to stop dead in my tracks in order to avoid walking into a pole or stepping out onto the street in front of a car

That's broken, folks. Standing on a sidewalk on an icy Saturday afternoon deciding whether to freeze and explode or walk without spectacles into a hard place or a moving conveyance is ultimate broken.

Yeah, I know, a year of pandemic has, um, broken me. Intellectually, I know that we are closer to the end of this than the beginning. I believe that. We will travel again. I've even booked flights! But, emotionally, it must be the lousy Smarch weather affecting my mood.

And, honestly, I'm preparing you for the bad news that begins right now ...

THE FUTURE WILL NOT BE JULY
The people who claim to know what happens in travel have insisted that Qantas, the Australian carrier, was the airline to watch. When the flag carrier of the island/continent/country got ready to roll again, we'd be on our way. And Qantas insisted for the better part of the last year that July 1 was the date of the great travel revival. Over and over and over again, Qantas promised July 1 would be freedom day.

Yeah, um, not so much. Qantas this week admitted July 1 will be a big, fat Kiwiburger. Except for some more service across the Tasman to New Zealand, the airline's international schedule won't be back on July 1. Its previous predictions were, um, broken.

The new date: October 31. Qantas now promises 22 of its 25 routes--no service to New York, Santiago or Osaka--will begin again on Halloween. By mid-2022, however, Qantas now only expects demand at 40% of 2019 levels. Plan accordingly or ignore. Your choice.

THE BIG ENGINE THAT COULDN'T
If these were other times--you know, when things weren't broken--the grounding of Boeing 777-200s and 777-300s due to the fiery failure last weekend of a Pratt & Whitney 4000 engine on United Flight 328 would be devastating. But with so few people flying, putting a few dozen aircraft on the ground, even workhorse widebody planes, barely elicits a shrug. Things are that broken.

Still, there are some scary signs to watch. Initial examination of the uniquely hollow fan blades on the P&W4000 point to metal fatigue. Metal fatigue is not a plane-specific or engine-specific--problem. It impacts every aircraft we use.

Moreover, the required FAA inspection of the engines on the grounded Boeing 777s won't be a wham-bam-thank-you-ma'am kind of thing. There are 22 blades on each P&W 4000 engine. Each blade takes about a day to check, the FAA says. So you're talking at least a 44-day grounding for each aircraft. That is before typical FAA and NTSB fuss and paperwork. At least two months on the turf for each aircraft--United has about 50 copies, half in storage--seems inevitable.

If traffic does pick up unexpectedly, these workhorses will be missed. And there are many in the fleets of All Nippon Airways, Japan Airlines and Korean Air, too.

MR. BUMBLE WAS RIGHT
"The law is a ass," the Dickens character Mr. Bumble explained in Oliver Twist. It's almost as if he was predicting the broken outcome of the Estate of Bernice Kekona v. Alaska Airlines.

A jury on Monday returned a wrongful-death verdict against Alaska Airlines for nearly $3.2 million. On the surface, Kekona's family had a strong case. The 75-year-old, wheelchair-bound Kekona fell down an escalator in June, 2017, at the airport in Portland, Oregon. Kekona was flying Alaska Air on a Spokane-Portland-Hawaii itinerary. The family requested assistance for the woman during the PDX connection. After the fall and subsequent medical treatment, Kekona died several months later. And there was a truly disturbing video of her escalator mishap.

The problem with this seemingly cut-and-dried narrative? Kekona was flying with her own motorized scooter and Alaska Air insists she flatly refused assistance after being helped into the chair on arrival in Portland.

The family didn't really contest Alaska Air's statement, but insisted the woman had cognitive issues, became easily confused and required gate-to-gate assistance no matter what Kekona herself claimed.

That raises the issue of why a person with no mobility and mental issues was flying solo and dumped on an airline in the first place. Does the family bear no responsibility at all? Apparently not, the jury decided.

THE EPICENTER OF BROKEN
Despite what naysayers like pseudo-economist Stephen Moore suggests, New York City is not morose and deserted. Wounded? Yes. Shaken? Yes. Angry? Yes. (New York City is always angry ...) Fractured? Absolutely.

But as I wandered around Lower Manhattan and Chinatown last weekend, the streets were crowded, especially for a guy whose specs were blinded by the fog. Now reopen for indoor service at reduced capacity, restaurants had lines of hungry customers. More businesses were open again. New York City will take time to regain its swagger, but it's been down before and come roaring back. The challenges this time are daunting, to be sure, but people just happen to like New York.

Yet being America's first epicenter of Coronavirus in 2020 has left a mark: New York City's hotels are broken. Perhaps permanently so. The revenue per available room (revPAR), the key measure of hotel health, was down a staggering 85% in the fourth quarter. Eighteen properties, encompassing nearly 6,000 rooms, closed permanently last year. Thousands more rooms remain shuttered until conditions pick up.

Nightly rates? They're so low I almost feel guilty booking them. I told you last month that I'd gotten my vaccine appointments in April at an airport 275 miles from home. But I was able to move to next month at Manhattan's Javits Center. (An airport and a convention center? The Coronavirus gods are mocking me.) However, since my wife and I couldn't book shots on the same day, I've made a reservation at the newish and nearby Hyatt Place hotel. The price: $65 a night in Midtown Manhattan.

I'll take that deal. But that's broken, know what I mean?