Tuesday June 7th, 2005

Continental backs down from fare increase…Houston ranks 28th in free wireless Internet access…OSHA alleges 34 violations at Marcus Oil and Chemical plant… The latest fare increase by the nation’s airlines has fallen apart, including a limited price hike put in place by Houston-based Continental Airlines. United Airlines initiated the increase last Thursday night, and others […]

Continental backs down from fare increase…Houston ranks 28th in free wireless Internet access…OSHA alleges 34 violations at Marcus Oil and Chemical plant…

The latest fare increase by the nation’s airlines has fallen apart, including a limited price hike put in place by Houston-based Continental Airlines. United Airlines initiated the increase last Thursday night, and others followed. Many round-trip fares increased $10 for flights under 1,000 miles and $20 for longer flights. But by Sunday afternoon, American and Northwest pulled back, and Continental followed on Monday morning. Carriers have been raising domestic prices all year, usually citing continued high fuel prices.

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Charles Grassley is comparing United Airlines to Enron as he calls for changes in pension funding rules. He says United’s pension plans were allowed to book ”phantom investment gains.” Grassley says the financial deception allowed under current law enables companies to ”take off the green eye shades and put on rose-colored glasses.” United Airlines was allowed to dump its pension plans as part of the effort to emerge from bankruptcy. Executives from Northwest and Delta Air Lines warned a Senate hearing that if Congress doesn’t quickly change the rules, the pensions of more airline employees could be slashed. The hearing came as lawmakers are increasingly concerned that the federal agency that insures private pension plans already has a $23 billion deficit because of defaults.

Intel is reporting that Seattle and San Francisco are the most “unwired cities” in America. That means they’re top spots for computer junkies who send e-mail and surf the web at restaurants, libraries or public plazas. Houston ranks 28th on the third annual list, while Austin is third. Intel makes chips for wireless devices. The company ranked cities based on the number of commercial or free “wi-fi” points from January to April 15th in the 100 largest urban regions of the U. S. McAllen, Texas is included in the list’s lowest-ranking regions. The survey finds diversity in the types of places where wireless Internet accessibility is being offered, including Dirtwood Skatepark in Houston.

Federal safety regulators allege 34 violations at the Marcus Oil and Chemical plant, where an explosion last December damaged nearby homes and businesses. Two firefighters were injured in the blaze, and nearby residents report hearing loss and headaches. The report by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration proposes $107,250 in fines for violations. The violations include improperly stored equipment, lack of safety training regarding certain chemicals and equipment operation, and unsafe operation of equipment. The city ordered operations at the plant to cease in March, but the company plans to reopen after meeting city and OSHA requirements. The company makes polyethylene waxes used in paints, asphalt, polishes, printing inks and high-gloss fruit coatings.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration proposed $190,800 in citations and fines for Pearland-based Roeber Masonry, alleging failure to protect workers from scaffolding and fall hazards. The infractions are for a worksite on South Kirkwood in Stafford.

The San Antonio-area’s largest supplier of Caterpillar construction equipment has been fined for training failures. The U. S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration fined Holt Cat $14,200 after an accident that left an employee blinded by a steel hook. OSHA cited five safety regulation violations related to the December accident. A welder, surgeons, firefighters and paramedics spent hours to detach a ten-inch hook from a backhoe and then remove it from Wayne Gail Creek’s head. The OSHA citations say Holt failed to follow its procedures, but cleared the mechanic and a co-worker beside him of blame. Holt Cat did not concede fault but settled the claim by negotiating the penalties down from a maximum of $28,000. It also agreed to correct the oversights.

European Union antitrust regulators have OK’d the purchase of plastics- and polymer-based products maker British Vita by Texas Pacific Group. The EU said the deal “would not significantly impede effective competition” in the 25-nation bloc. Regulators say the British company and Texas Pacific’s Kraton Polymers business have only minor overlaps and wouldn’t limit the choice of specialized synthetic products. The Federal Trade Commission cleared the deal May 26th. Texas Pacific is paying $1.2 billion in cash for the company. British Vita’s products include automotive components, foam for furniture, and synthetic fabrics used in disposable diapers. Fort Worth-based TPG manages over $16 billion and has investments in the United States and Europe.

Houston-based Enterprise Products Partners is building a new natural gas liquids fractionator near Hobbs, New Mexico at the interconnection of the Mid-America Pipeline System and Seminole Pipeline System. Enterprise will construct a high-rate purity ethane storage well near the new fractionator. The project is estimated to cost about $130 million and is expected to be operational by mid-2007.

Rowan Companies is selling one of its LeTourneau 52-class jack-up drilling rigs to an undisclosed buyer for $52 million. The rig will be renamed and will depart from the Gulf of Mexico.

Texas Southern University breaks ground June 23rd on the $15 million Barbara Jordan-Mickey Leland School of Public Affairs Building, with construction expected to be complete by August 2006. The four-story structure is being built at Tierwester and Cleburne.

The former home to Saba Blue Water Cafe is being renovated into a new restaurant and bar on Main Street. Partners in the project are M Bar owner Joe Martin, chairman of the Downtown Entertainment District; John Zotos, owner of St. Pete’s Dancing Marlin and vice-chairman of the district; and Jeffrey Yarbrough, president of the Texas Restaurant Association.

Texas Instruments is replacing thousands of school calculators in Virginia after a sixth-grader noticed a flaw. The Virginia Department of Education two years ago asked Dallas-based TI to disable a function that converted decimals to fractions. Agency official Lois Williams says students need to know how to do fractions with paper and pencil on Virginia Standards of Learning tests. The calculator had passed muster in Virginia and many school divisions ordered them. But in January, 12-year-old Dakota Brown of Chesterfield County, Virginia noticed the function. Brown figured out that by pressing two other keys, he could change decimals into fractions. The “fraction” label had been removed, but the programming still worked. TI is replacing the calculators with models whose fraction keys are truly disabled.

Officials in the Brazoria County oceanfront village of Surfside Beach will test a more natural way to replenish the sand on its beaches. However, this sand will come from the Colorado River basin. The river sand has bigger grains than the beach sand it replaces. Officials hope it will stand up better to storm tides and not wash away as quickly. The new plan to rebuild the protective dunes came as a result of the increasing cost of fabric tubes, which the village had used in the past. City Secretary Kelly Hamby says the high-tech system of stair-stepped, sand-filled tubes was to cost almost $2 million more than the village had in its budget. So the village scrapped the fabric-tubes plan and decided to go with river sand and vegetation.