The X Strike

It is January, three years from now. Yesterday an atmospheric river slammed the West Coast, its most violent core centered on the Golden Gate. BART tunnels are still flooded. Waves are still breaking over the pier ends of runways 28L and 28R. Even the threshold of runway 19L is under water most of the time. KSFO has been closed for the last 24 hours.

Today the center of the violence – a 200-knot Jetstream running from Yukon to Cajun Country – has shut down aviation in the Central States. Learning from past years, airlines have cancelled all flights except – as possible – those leaving affected states for safer locales. There is no sense in having half the fleet where it may not be able to fly or even be accessible for a week or more.

The airline business model is still to offer cheap flights and make money, but the arcane ticketing rules that try to achieve that have come under increasing pressure over the last few years, with the result that travellers have a few more protections. If their booked flight does not fly and they choose not to fly on the alternate flight(s) the airline proposes, they have the right to a full and immediate refund. Less well known is that should the airline substitute a different aircraft type, the passenger has a similar right to refusal and immediate ticket refund.

Today, and for the second time this winter, about half of all flights involving a North American airport have been cancelled. Business travellers have been adapting to days like this as they become more common, using the aircraft type change rule to cancel their meeting and the booking without leaving the office or home, saving the time and expense of a trip to the airport.

It is unclear how the pushback started, and how it was co-ordinated on this fateful day. We do know the government had been badly burned by Aircraft X in its original (as the X variant) certification. Then another X variant had a very close call that involved not only manufacturing defects, but also omissions in the Aircraft Manual and concealment of changes made to the type which violated its certification and turned what has become a routine emergency drill into an almost-disaster. To say people in the industry were shocked would be sugar-coating the situation.

Perhaps the pushback spread on one of those business-related social media sites. Perhaps some executives began to feel scammed as they learned more about Aircraft X and its history.

Airlines love Aircraft X. Its spawning – and the direction of its development – were initiated and pushed along by demands from an airline. And Airplane X has turned into one of the best-selling airplanes ever, because with its powerful new engines and triple the number of seats of that first airplane on the Type Certificate, it makes money and cheap seats. What’s not to like?

Maybe the executives thought of their own practices – putting downward pressure on salaries and bashing unions. Maybe they saw themselves as patsies of those same practices. Or maybe not. But they clearly had their knickers in a twist as they spread pushback among colleagues, family, and friends.

On the day after KSFO lay partially submerged, something peculiar happened. Those flights positioning to safer locales ahead of the storm mostly flew as planned. Except that if the flight used an Aircraft X, it had very few passengers.

There were leaks to the media, and the X Strike became bigger news than the weather. People in the industry were sought out for comment. Stuff which had been known for years but stifled by the tactics and spun by the voices of lobbyists – that stuff began to leak.

Passengers realized they had a choice. Sure flying has some risk – although that’s not how the airlines spin it. But now passengers can choose a less risky option.

Airplane X still delivers money and cheap seats, but many of those cheap seats are empty.


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