On this trip, his fans will witness Schlappig's latest mission: a weekend jaunt that will slingshoot him across East Asia — Hong Kong, Jakarta, Tokyo — and back to New York, in 69 hours. He'll rarely leave the airports, and when he does he'll rest his head only in luxury hotels. ... Schlappig, 25, is one of the biggest stars among an elite group of obsessive flyers whose mission is to outwit the airlines. They're self-styled competitors with a singular objective: fly for free, as much as they can, without getting caught. ... "An airplane is my bedroom," he says, stretching to reach his complimentary slippers. "It's my office, and it's my playroom." The privilege of reclining in this personal suite costs around $15,000. Schlappig typically makes this trip when he's bored on the weekend. He pays for it like he pays for everything: with a sliver of his gargantuan cache of frequent-flyer miles that grows only bigger by the day.
Since pioneering the in-flight Internet business, Gogo has dominated, commanding about 80 percent of the market. And as often happens with near monopolies, Gogo has become a name people love to hate. ... For years, customer perceptions that Gogo is basically Comcast at 35,000 feet didn’t hurt the company’s bottom line. Users were literally a captive audience, and if they didn’t like the service, too bad, read a book. But for the first time since that Louis C.K. rant, Gogo has some serious competition. At least two companies—ViaSat and Global Eagle Entertainment (GEE)—are encroaching on its airspace, winning business by offering faster, cheaper connections that use satellites instead of cell towers. ... It’s spent almost $1 billion developing onboard equipment and a network of transmission towers across North America. Back then, travelers in business class who needed to work used laptops or occasionally BlackBerrys or Palm Treos. ... Today, the company provides service on more than 2,000 commercial aircraft. It employs almost 900 people and had revenue of $409 million in 2014, up almost 25 percent from the previous year. ... What Gogo does in the sky is, indeed, different from what wireless companies do on terra firma. It uses an air-to-ground system that functions similarly to traditional cell service, but its radio towers point up, not down. Gogo’s towers are anywhere from 50 to 200 feet tall and can be located in rather remote locations, such as atop peaks in the Rocky Mountains or deep in the Alaskan tundra.
If you want to understand the nonconformist culture of Southwest Airlines, you’ve got to start with its holiest site: the shrine to Herb. Walk into the company’s headquarters, located in a five-story gray building next to the Love Field airport in Dallas, go past the front desk, and proceed down a broad hallway until you get to a horseshoe-shaped employee lounge with a soaring atrium. There you’ll find a museum of sorts honoring Southwest’s Wild Turkey–swilling, Marlboro-smoking co-founder and former CEO, Herb Kelleher. In one towering poster on the wall he’s shown hamming it up in a sequined Elvis costume; in another he’s arm wrestling an aviation rival for charity. Push a red button and you can hear a recording of three versions of Kelleher’s famous laugh—the guffaw, the chortle, and the roaring belly buster. On the walls there are embossed plaques with a selection of his favorite sayings, none more emblematic than this gem: “If you rest on your laurels, you’ll get a thorn in your butt.” ... The company is in the process of reworking or jettisoning altogether much of Kelleher’s tried-and-true strategy—with plans to fly in a totally new strategic direction. In fact, after years of consistently outsmarting and outperforming the traditional carriers, Southwest is today remaking itself to operate more like them. ... The goal? To attract more of the most lucrative customers: high-fare-paying business travelers flying long distances.
Every airline has its horror stories, of course—air travel is full of opportunities for customer disenchantment. But United has proved an industry leader: On all major performance metrics—delays, cancellations, mishandled bags, and bumped passengers—United has, since 2012, been reliably the worst or near worst among its competitors. In 2012, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation, United was responsible for 43 percent of all consumer complaints filed against U.S. airlines. It finished last among North American nondiscount airlines in the 2015 J.D. Power & Associates customer satisfaction survey. ... It’s been five years since United Airlines and Continental Airlines combined to form what was at the time the world’s largest carrier, and the merger hasn’t gone well. In 2012 and early 2014, when American Airlines Group, Delta Air Lines, and Southwest Airlines reported large, and in some cases, record profits, “the new United” lost money. ... Then there was the coffee, an issue that, while hardly central to its business, symbolized United’s inability to get things right. On Nov. 19 the airline announced it was changing the coffee it serves on its planes and in its lounges from a brand called Fresh Brew to the Italian premium roaster Illy. It was welcome news to customers and to the flight crews used to fielding complaints. It was also a tacit admission that the choice of coffee after the merger, a decision that consumed thousands of man-hours, took nearly a year, and involved everyone from Smisek to the airline’s head chef to the flight attendants, hadn’t worked out.
On New Year's Day in 1985, Eastern Air Lines Flight 980 was carrying 29 passengers and a hell of a lot of contraband when it crashed into the side of a 21,112-foot mountain in Bolivia. For decades conspiracy theories abounded as the wreckage remained inaccessible, the bodies unrecovered, the black box missing. Then two friends from Boston organized an expedition that would blow the case wide open. ... Mount Illimani, a 21,122-foot mass of rocks and glaciers rising from the eastern edge of Bolivia’s Altiplano region, towers over La Paz. The Andean mountain is so textured by ridgelines, high peaks, and shadows that, viewed from the city, it seems to move and change shape throughout the day. ... In all, at least five expeditions have climbed Illimani in search of the wreckage over the past 30 years. None of them found any bodies or flight recorders, nor could anybody establish what brought down the plane. Officially, it was designated a “controlled flight into terrain,” which means it couldn’t be blamed on a bird strike or an engine malfunction or hijackers. The NTSB ultimately filed its own report to supplement the Bolivian one, but it came to the same flat conclusion: the plane was destroyed because it ran into a mountain. ... As time passed, however, details emerged that invited speculation among South American journalists, the families of the victims, and anyone else still following the story. ... Where were the flight recorders? Where were the bodies? ... So here’s another question worth asking: What sort of foolhardy seeker suddenly takes an interest in a 30-year-old plane crash?
For every flight departing Dubai, as cabin crew head to their airplanes, the last room they traverse is a hall with mirrors on one side and windows to the tarmac on the other. The space allows workers to inspect themselves for perfection against a backdrop of government-owned taxiways thick with Emirates jets. That’s the airline, in one image: glamour and ambition in a framework of absolute control. ... Out in the desert, a half-hour drive from the coast’s skyscrapers and malls, the government is building a $32 billion, five-runway megahub precisely to Emirates’ specifications. Its ambitions are consonant with its name: Dubai World Central. The project will have a capacity of 220 million passengers per year, four times the number that New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport serves today. ... the airline is at risk if those emerging markets don’t, in fact, emerge. Emirates in May reported its first-ever annual revenue decline and is cutting some of its plans for growth amid slackening demand from sub-Saharan Africa, Turkey, and Brazil. The slump has industry analysts wondering how Emirates will fill the staggering number of planes it has on order. ... From a fuel and flight-time perspective, the Persian Gulf is the most efficient place on the planet to connect Europe with Southeast Asia and Australia, and the U.S. with India. Strikes and protests aren't an issue—unions are banned, and rights to free speech and assembly are severely limited.
In the summer of 2014, Anthony McGinty and Michelle Sosa were hired by Los Angeles World Airports to lead a unique, new classified intelligence unit on the West Coast. After only two years, their global scope and analytic capabilities promise to rival the agencies of a small nation-state. Their roles suggest an intriguing new direction for infrastructure protection in an era when threats are as internationally networked as they are hard to predict. ... their current operation falls somewhere between a start-up and a think tank. Because she came from an intelligence background, Sosa had an eye for big-picture narratives; McGinty’s 25 years as a street detective and war veteran gave him tactical insights and a deep knowledge of police culture. Together, the two of them have brought classified in-house intelligence analysis to one of the world’s busiest airports ... Their work promises to propel the city’s aging airport to the forefront of today’s conversations about what it means to protect critical infrastructure and, in the process, to redefine where true power lies in the 21st-century metropolis. ... More than 50,000 badged employees report to work there each day, many with direct access to the airfield—and thus to the vulnerable aircraft waiting upon it. More than 100,000 passenger vehicles use the airport’s roads and parking lots every day, and, in 2015 alone, LAX hosted 75 million passengers in combined departures and arrivals.
In the winter of 1951, Alfred Eliasson’s company, Icelandic Airlines, was about to go under. The founder and his executive team had decided to pull out of the transatlantic market just a few months prior, after established carriers like Pan-Am proved to be tougher competition than expected. Low domestic demand in Iceland, a country of just 200,000 inhabitants at the time, also proved to be a challenge. By December of 1950, the airline known as Loftleiðir in Icelandic had only one scheduled route. It was between the capital city of Reykjavik and a small group of islands off Iceland’s east coast. ... That year, most of the company’s revenue came from odd jobs that Eliasson scraped together. He spotted schools of fish from the sky for local fisherman and shipped cargo for local businesses. By New Year’s it appeared the six-year-old airline would have to fold.