Friday, September 12, 2008

Truckers: Chunnel blaze nearly killed us

LONDON, England (CNN) -- Lorry drivers said Friday they felt lucky to be alive after escaping from a major blaze on board a train deep underneath the English Channel.

Truckers alight from a special emergency train as they are evacuated from the Channel tunnel.

Truckers alight from a special emergency train as they are evacuated from the Channel tunnel.

A freight train emerges from the Channel tunnel in this file photo.

A freight train emerges from the Channel tunnel in this file photo.

They were speaking as firefighters continued to tackle the fire, which broke out Thursday near the French end of the 50-kilometer (30-mile) tunnel, also called the "Chunnel," injuring 14 people and causing widespread disruption to travelers.

Patrick Lejein, 50, from Bruges in Belgium, said he and other truckers had to smash windows to escape from the train after the doors jammed shut.

"There was a burning lorry and a series of explosions -- about 20 of them," he told Le Parisien newspaper.

"Everything was exploding around us -- tyres, fuel tanks, and then there was this smoke which prevented us from seeing and breathing properly."

Lejein added: "The door of our carriage was locked, impossible to open. We had to save ourselves by smashing a window with a hammer.

"We escaped from the train through this window. It was at that moment that we panicked the most. We imagined ourselves trapped there. We really were very lucky."

French firefighters said on Friday morning they had finally extinguished the "major part" of the blaze.

Three hundred firefighters -- 100 British and 200 French -- fought the fire overnight and eventually brought it under control, the UK's Press Association reported.

Traffic in the Channel tunnel remained halted. Eurostar, which operates passenger trains through the tunnel, said it did not expect to run any services between England and France on Friday.

Eurotunnel, the tunnel's operator, said the French and British governments will assess whether it is safe to travel once the fire has been put out.

Eurostar said all passengers who had booked train tickets for Friday can exchange them for travel on a later date or get a refund. Passengers with tickets for the weekend should continue checking Eurostar's Web site for updates, the company said. Video Watch options for stranded travelers »

Jacques Gounon, chairman and chief executive of the French arm of Eurotunnel, said Friday the fire was accidental.

Jacques Gounon, chief executive of Eurotunnel, which operates the tunnel, told The Associated Press he had no reason to believe the fire could have been "criminal."

The fire started on a shuttle train carrying freight about 11 kilometers (7 miles) from the French end of the tunnel. No passenger trains were going through the tunnel at the time of the fire.

Fourteen people were injured in the fire, including six who suffered from smoke inhalation. It was among the most serious incidents in the history of the tunnel, which opened to passengers in 1994.

Thirty-two people were evacuated through a central service tunnel that runs between the east and west tubes, according to fire officials in Kent, on the English side of the tunnel.

Eurotunnel authorities suspended services in both directions to allow emergency vehicles to get to the fire.

Closure of the tunnel will also affect thousands of trucks that transport goods between England and France every day.

The $15 billion undersea tunnel opened in 1994 and has drastically reduced land/sea travel time between Great Britain and mainland Europe.

A massive fire broke out inside the tunnel in November 1996, causing structural damage but no serious injuries. A truck on a Eurotunnel shuttle caught fire before the train entered the tunnel, and the fire spread to nearby cars.

That fire was caused by the vehicle's traction system and had "nothing to do with the cargo or the people," according to Colin Brown, director of engineering at the Institute of Mechanical Engineers.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

AirAsia expands amid downturn

VIEW: If Air Asia's bet goes well, they will stand to capture a large market share, and also establish a strong foothold in other regions of the aviation market.

Sep 7, 2008

Analysts say that if it survives the industry slump, AirAsia could come out a winner with increased customer loyalty and a strong route network. -- STREATS
KUALA LUMPUR - AIRASIA, the region's biggest budget carrier, is making a risky bet.

As soaring fuel prices have forced other airlines to cut back, shed jobs and ground planes, AirAsia is doing the opposite: increasing flights, adding routes and boosting capital investment.

Last month, it even gave away a million free seats (although passengers still had to pay taxes and fuel surcharges). The seven-year-old company is aiming to fill the vacuum as other airlines reduce capacity, betting that more travelers will opt for budget flights amid a global economic downturn.

Analysts say that if it survives the industry slump, AirAsia could come out a winner with increased customer loyalty and a strong route network to catch the growth wave when good times return.

'They are reasonably well positioned for the long run but there's always a trade-off. It's a long term decision, which will cause some short-term pain,' said Mr Damien Horth, Asia transport analyst at UBS AG in Hong Kong.

Of course, the strategy could also backfire badly.

Already there are signs of trouble. Last month, AirAsia reported a 95 per cent plunge in its net profit for April-June quarter to RM9.42 million (S$3.90 million). But the company chalked that up mostly to a RM77 million ringgit foreign exchange loss from a weakened Malaysian ringgit, not weakness in its underlying business.

Average load factor - the percentage of seats taken up in an airplane - dipped to a still relatively strong 76 per cent, from 80 per cent in 2007.

Chief Executive Tony Fernandes remains undaunted.

'We are focused and happy with our strategy. We won't sacrifice long-term (growth) for short-term profits,' he told The Associated Press.

There are doubts, however, on whether AirAsia can fund its expansion.

It has a cash reserve of about RM1 billion but outstanding debts stand at RM5.4 billion, giving it a net debt position of RM4.4 billion. Debts are set to grow as it receives new planes.

The carrier has firm orders for 175 Airbus A320 planes, to be delivered gradually up to 2014, as part of fleet replacement and expansion.

Mr Chris Eng, analyst with OSK Securities in Malaysia, said AirAsia's growth prospects may be curbed while its joint-ventures in Thailand and Indonesia are expected to remain in the red.

'It will be challenging but we believe AirAsia can survive,' Mr Eng said, citing its efficient regional network and good cost control.

As it expands, AirAsia also faces a challenge in filling up capacity as consumer spending slows and competition increases from flag carrier Malaysia Airlines, which recently offered zero fares on surplus seats, analysts say.

'Everybody is now having to dig deeper into the well of consumer demand and the more they compete, the more fares go down,' said Mr Peter Harbison, executive chairman of the Centre for Asia-Pacific Aviation in Sydney.

The International Air Transport Association has forecast a US$5.2 billion (S$7.5 billion) loss this year for the global airline industry. It said crude oil price, currently averaging US$113 a barrel, is still 55 per cent higher than the 2007 average price while passenger demand growth is slowing even in Asia-Pacific.

At least two dozen airlines worldwide have closed down this year.

Many low-cost airlines are also struggling despite escaping the worst of the downturn.

Europe's Ryanair and Southwest Airlines in the US- two of the most resilient budget carriers - have cut capacity this year.

Ryanair, which reported a second quarter loss, said it may face its first full-year losses in 2008.

UBS's Horth warned AirAsia may also plunge into the red for the first time this year with losses stretching into 2009, as its rapid expansion and aggressive pricing policy bite into revenue.

'Assuming oil prices remain around current levels, its certainly going to be tough. The management is taking a long term approach but investors may get scared,' he said. Fuel prices account for half of AirAsia's cost.

AirAsia's stock has plunged by half from a year ago to around RM1, but has risen from an all-time low of RM0.765 in June. -- AP

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Strict diets for airlines as fuel costs soar

VIEW: Times are tough for airlines. Every method is employed to reduce weight. They should consider lighter passenger seats as well.

By Emma Clarke

LONDON, England (CNN) -- A Canadian airline's recent decision to remove life vests from all its planes to save weight and fuel has provoked a torrent of angry criticism.

Shedding pounds: airlines try every tactic to decrease weight and reduce fuel burn

Shedding pounds: airlines try every tactic to decrease weight and reduce fuel burn

Airlines are under increasing pressure to cut costs to cope with rising fuel prices. Routes are disappearing, planes grounded, baggage charges rising, and now airlines are employing every tactic to lighten their loads to save fuel bills. But for many, removing safety equipment was a trim too far.

The decision came from Air Canada's regional carrier, Jazz Air. And the first criticism from Canadian politician, Peter Stoffer, the New Democratic Party MP for Nova Scotia: "This is not where you go to save money", he told Canadian television network, CTV. Life vests add only 23 kilograms per flight, which means they are not a serious hindrance to fuel costs, he said.

Jazz Air is keen to point out that safety remains paramount. Infant life vests will stay on board, and in case of an emergency landing on water, passengers will now rely solely on seat cushions as flotation devices.

As a spokeswoman says, its 885 daily flights all operate within 50 nautical miles from the North American shore which means Transport Canada and Federal Aviation Administration regulations do not require it to carry both flotation devices.

Jazz Air is not the first airline to take this decision, she adds. "The use of seat cushion as the sole means of flotation device has been a common practice amongst regional carriers in the U.S. and Europe for many years."

Several air travel experts on online forums and blogs have supported the decision. "Let's be honest, for the most part, if a plane goes into the ocean, there's not much left of it or anyone onboard," says air travel blog, The Cranky Flier.

Useful or not, life vests are a legal requirement on ocean-bound flights. Which means this is not a cut most airlines can consider.

But there are plenty of other tactics are on hand. As Japan Airlines (JAL) says, it is looking at its operations from every angle to find ways of reducing weight from aircraft, even if it is just by one gram.

The airline has shaved two grams from each spoon used on board its planes; introduced porcelain that is 20 percent lighter to first and business classes; and cut the weight of cargo containers by 26 kilograms using lighter materials.

Hard copy in-flight magazines could also become a perk of the past, as airlines ditch paper in favor of electronic content on seat-back TVs. Emirates was the first to go electronic with its magazine and safety instructions, saving two kilograms per seat, and one ton per 500-seat A380 Superjumbo.

British Airways has a team dedicated to improving fuel efficiency with weight reduction a key concern. The airline has reduced the amount of potable water it holds in on-board tanks; its catering trolleys are lighter and they have switched to an electronic system to replace the paperwork used by staff on board.

But there are no plans to remove the in-flight reading material yet, says a BA spokeswoman. And any changes to menus will be made to suit tastes, rather than weight.

Virgin Atlantic has set itself a target to remove one ton per aircraft for 2007/2008 by using lighter-weight alternatives for products such as carbon fiber for its cargo bins and oxygen bottles.

"Key to this challenge is working with the aircraft interior manufacturers to deliver lightweight high quality products," says a Virgin Atlantic spokeswoman.

Passengers on other airlines must now ask for sugar sachets instead of being provided them in the cutlery set. On others, beer stocks have been depleted. Airlines are also stripping old paint from aircraft and re-spraying to make them lighter.

But what's next? Will passengers be required to visit the bathroom before boarding, or asked to step on the scales at check-in, with heavier travelers paying more to fly? Given the scale of economic crisis the industry is now facing, anything is possible.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

New LRT lines may save billions in fuel costs

Friday September 5, 2008 THESTAR


KUALA LUMPUR: More than a million Klang Valley residents stand to benefit from the extension and new light rail transit lines announced in Budget 2009, a three-fold increase from current levels.

Syarikat Prasarana Negara Berhad (SPNB) said with the new level of public transport usage, the country could save as much as RM3bil in fuel costs.

The construction of a new 42km Kota Damansara-Cheras LRT line as well as extensions to the Kelana Jaya and Ampang LRT lines were announced as part of measures to develop public transport under the Budget.

Other measures include the purchase of more trains and buses.

The initiatives will cost a total of RM35bil.

SPNB chief executive officer, Shaipudin Shah Harun, said the first train from the 35 trains that were ordered for the Kelana Jaya LRT line would be operational by September next year.

Speaking to reporters at a special post-budget briefing yesterday, Shaipudin said all the trains, which were ordered in 2006, would be ready by 2011 while the 15km extensions to the Kelana Jaya and Ampang lines would also be ready at about the same time.

“The extensions are now at the detailed design stage and we need about a year for land acquisition,” he said.

Shaipudin said the detailed design stage for the new 42km Kota Damansara-Cheras line would happen by the second quarter of next year adding that this new line would have 32 stations, five of which would be underground.