Tuesday, June 21, 2011

The Official Airline Guide

For those of us in the aviation business, the Official Airline Guide is the Bible of air travel. Perhaps it's more correct to say it's the CRC Handbook of Air Travel. It was about the same size, thickness and weight as a Boston metropolitan telephone book. In the days before electronic reservations systems, it listed every scheduled flight made by every airline known to the travel industry worldwide. It also listed fares. It also identified every aircraft and every airline, and it had the itineraries of every flight number. In short, it had everything anyone would ever want to know about air travel (you are wrong, Kerosene Breath; some of those obscure Soviet and African airlines were not in there, but that's because they were on the blacklist).

When I was growing up, the Guide was published in three flavors. The Green Cover listed all the North American flights in effect at the 1st of each month. The Tan Cover listed the flights in effect at the 15th of the month. The Purple Cover listed all the global flights. There was also a Red Cover (maybe it was a Blue Cover) that listed the all-freight schedules, and another that listed hotel rates. The folks who made the Guide also offered data tapes with flight schedules that they sold to the airports and the consultants; these were data files that could be sorted by chronological order, by airline or by aircraft, depending on need. This was important because the FAA in 1978 had made available to the consulting community a simulation model that purported to run a day's worth of flight operations through an airport coded into it using numbers and letters. In 1988, the FAA made available to the consulting community an even better model that showed a graphic representation of a day's worth of flights traveling through an airport coded by using numbers, letters and lines on a grid. The one element both models relied on was a complete schedule of the day's flights, coded in an ASCII delimited format, which only the Official Airline Guide, or OAG, could supply.
I wasn't interested in that; I simply wanted to count how many flights went through a particular airport on a particular day. But around 1995, the airlines started sharing codes on flights, which meant they could sell tickets on the flights of other airlines with whom they had a code-sharing agreement. What was a revenue-generating convenience for them quickly became a counting nuisance for me; when the Guide showed Continental Airlines flight 27 and Northwest Airlines flight 27 and Cathay Pacific Airlines flight 27 and Bashkirian Airlines flight 27, all departing Chignik, Alaska, for Cabumsk, Alaska, at the same time of day, they were all the same airplane, one airplane instead of four. It was exhausting weeding out the duplicate flights.

Not only that, but the publishers of the Guide wanted an arm and a leg for their flight schedules. When the Internet got to be a household convenience, there were soon other ways to get the same sort of flight information. Many airports took to listing their daily flights in chronological order, though they still listed every single duplicate code-share flight. So other sites sprung up. The first was Flightarrivals.com, which listed every flight at an airport within a two-hour time window. They were helpful, but the two-hour limitation was, well limiting, and they didn't always identify the type of aircraft in service. Another site, Flightaware.com, offered a chronological listing of flights at each airport, including a history going back at least a week. It also showed flights in the vicinity of a particular airport, on what looked like a radar monitor. Again, the site showed everything...but the flights at airports outside the United States. A third site, Flightstats, completed that piece of the puzzle, showing arrivals and departures at every airport in the world (it even had a button that allowed users to "hide" the codeshare flights). And the information could be downloaded onto an Excel spreadsheet, where it could be sorted and filtered. The Promised Land had been reached. I now know that during the Summer tourist season, the airport in Antalya, Turkey, handles more flights daily than Boston Logan.

So why am I boring you with all this? Because I am an aviation consultant and I do this for a living. And I am Pud Stickles.

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