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Alec BaldwinAir travel, as we all know, is stressful. Add alcohol, fear and a celebrity or two, and you’ve got the makings of an industry that churns out more dramatic stories than Jackie Collins.

You’ve likely heard about the latest flight-induced fracas: a tit for tat between Alec Baldwin and the recently-bankrupt American Airlines. On Tuesday, Baldwin, star of the NBC sitcom “30 Rock,” was booted off a plane for refusing to turn off his iPhone. The actor was caught up in a game of “Words with Friends,” which he continued to play as the plane sat at the gate, despite requests from cabin crew to turn off all electronic devices.

What Not to Do at the Airport

Yesterday, American Airlines posted a statement on its Facebook page in response to the hullabaloo. The airline elected not to mention Baldwin by name, lending its scold, er, statement a passive-aggressive tone: “The passenger ultimately stood up (with the seat belt light still on for departure) and took his phone into the plane’s lavatory. He slammed the lavatory door so hard, the cockpit crew heard it and became alarmed, even with the cockpit door closed and locked.” American goes on to accuse “the passenger” of verbally abusing the airline crew and using foul language.

Baldwin released a less ambiguous response, criticizing the airline in a letter on HuffPost Travel, “A Farewell to Common Sense, Style, and Service on American Airlines.” In the essay, which was published yesterday, the actor offers an apology to the other passengers who were on the flight, but derides the airline industry for sub-par service “that would make Howard Hughes red-faced.” Baldwin argues that the airline’s shortage of common sense and customer service was the catalyst to his aggression.

We agree with Baldwin on one point: anyone who’s paid $30 for the privilege of carting a carry-on bag knows there’s an unmistakable demand for common sense in the airline industry. But is the Federal Aviation Administration’s safety rule regarding electronic devices on planes the place to start? John Deiner tackled this issue on our blog earlier this year, writing about his own encounter with a Baldwin-esque passenger. Deiner became nervous when his airplane seatmate refused to turn off his cell phone before takeoff, and subsequently sought out the answer to that industry-old question: Is it really necessary for passengers to turn off our phones and computers during takeoff and landing? Well, according to the FAA, yes. Writes Deiner:

“So what sort of danger were we in? Very little, most likely. I checked the Web site of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), which prohibits the use of cell phones on flights. In 2007, the agency considered lifting the ban, but didn’t. Here’s why: ‘The FCC determined that the technical information provided by interested parties in response to the proposal was insufficient to determine whether in-flight use of wireless devices on aircraft could cause harmful interference to wireless networks on the ground. … In addition to the FCC’s rules, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) prohibits in-flight use of wireless devices because of potential interference to the aircraft’s navigation and communication systems.'”

There’s a slight chance that cell phone waves could cause complications with plane functionality. But just how slight is slight? Deiner cites a Discover Channel “MythBuster” episode that put the odds of such a happening at one in a million. Let’s be honest: If there was a bona fide probability that cell phone waves could take down a plane, we wouldn’t be permitted to bring them onboard in the first place. Or, at least, we’d have to dismantle our devices and carry them through security in clear, quart-size zip-top bags.

When our common sense tells us that a game of “Words with Friends” won’t harm a thing, but the cabin crew is instructing us to power down, should we listen — or keep placing tiles onto our virtual game boards? Your answer ultimately depends on whether you’ve joined Team Baldwin or Team AA in this latest industry feud. Tell us where you stand in the comments.


– written by Caroline Costello

American AirlinesAmerican Airlines’ parent company, the AMR Corporation, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection yesterday; this is certainly dismal news for the carrier’s employees and shareholders. But American’s customers may likewise be worried about what lies ahead. Should fliers expect more fees, cuts to mileage programs and other unfavorable changes from the airline in the near future?

A piece published by satirical online newspaper the Onion in 2008 was oddly prescient. The story, American Airlines Now Charging Fees to Non-Passengers, reads: “[American Airlines President Gerard Arpey] said that non-passengers of American Airlines should expect to pay a small fee when making Greyhound bus reservations, choosing to drive to their final destination, or simply being a citizen of the United States with a valid Social Security number. Arpey went on to note that some additional charges would also apply, including a $15 fee for every piece of luggage customers have inside their bedroom closet, and a one-time payment of $40 for any American whose name is Greg.”

In the wake of a gloomy turn of events in the airline industry, it’s refreshing to have a chuckle. But is there an element of truth in this parody?

For now, everything — including ticket prices, extra fees and mileage programs — will pretty much stay the same. According to a statement posted on the airline Web site,”American Airlines and American Eagle are operating normal flight schedules, and our reservations, customer service, AAdvantage program, Admirals Clubs and all other operations are conducting business as usual.”

Every other legacy airline has gone through bankruptcy in the last decade — US Airways, United, Delta, etc. — and lived to tell the tale. Judging by past bankruptcies, we can predict that American will likely be curtailing its route map down the road. Says IndependentTraveler.com contributor Ed Hewitt, “Bankrupt airlines almost always make changes and cutbacks to routes and flight frequency; staying on top of your flight through e-mail notifications will help you get the word more quickly.” It’s a good idea to sign up for e-mail alerts from American if you have an upcoming flight scheduled.

As for fees, we can’t say whether or not American — or other carriers, for that matter — will roll out more petty charges to squeeze some extra revenue out of the pockets of its customers following this latest airline bankruptcy. As always, travelers should keep an eye on ticket terms and conditions when purchasing a flight.

What do you think of American Airlines’ bankruptcy filing? Take our poll and share your thoughts in the comments!

– written by Caroline Costello

money justiceA few weeks ago, we blogged about three planes that were left stranded on the tarmac for more than seven hours in Hartford. So today, admittedly, we felt a pang of satisfaction when we learned that the U.S. Department of Transportation has slapped a major fine on an airline for, lo and behold, leaving passengers stuck on the tarmac.

According to the Associated Press, American Eagle, a regional carrier operated by American Airlines, was fined $900,000 for weather-induced tarmac delays of more than three hours on 15 flights that arrived in Chicago on May 29. This fine includes damages to be paid to the fliers who were inconvenienced. Up to $250,000 of the $900,000 fine can be credited to passengers in the form of refunds, vouchers or awards miles. There were 608 people onboard the stranded flights.

This is the first tarmac-delay fine to be imposed by the Department of Transportation since the federal agency initiated new passenger protection laws in April 2010; those rules state that passengers stuck on the tarmac on a domestic flight for more than three hours must be offered the chance to deplane. Any airlines that fail to comply will face penalties of up to $27,500 per passenger. (To learn more, read Airline Passengers Get New Bill of Rights.)

A government-issued fine for passenger inconvenience is a fresh change for an industry in which petty fees and crummy customer service are de rigueur. But whether or not the $900,000 fine will serve as a warning for the airlines and save future fliers from the torments of epic tarmac delays remains to be seen. In How Will the DOT’s New Airline Passenger Rights Affect You?, Ed Hewitt suggests that some airlines might simply preemptively cancel more flights in order to avoid having to pay steep penalties for multi-hour tarmac delays. Writes Hewitt, “Clearly not everyone is sold on the tarmac delay rules; if cancellations really are higher as a direct result, then the problem is just being moved around, not solved. However, few will argue with the notion that multi-hour strandings with no relief, no recourse and no basic human necessities is a worthwhile trade-off.” And indeed, according to CNN Travel, cancellations are up since the passenger rights regulations took effect.

What’s your take? Did the airline get what it deserved — or should the government do more to protect passengers? Sound off in the comments.


– written by Caroline Costello

plane on tarmacLast weekend, hundreds of passengers were stranded on the tarmac at Hartford’s Bradley International Airport for more than seven hours. The Associated Press reports that three JetBlue planes and one American Airlines plane, which were originally bound for New York, were diverted to Connecticut and then left on the tarmac for the better part of the day on Saturday.

A JetBlue spokesperson told the AP that the planes were kept on the tarmac due to a series of complications, including equipment failure and low visibility in New York. When the passengers eventually deplaned after an interminable wait, they had to look for spur-of-the-moment accommodations in Connecticut. Many fliers spent the night curled up in an airport terminal.

But here’s the scary part: Toilets were jammed and provisions were low onboard the stranded planes. One passenger told the Hartford Courant, “‘We ran out of water. The bathrooms are all clogged up and disgusting. The power would go off every 45 minutes or so for five minutes or so, and that would freak people out. … I’ve heard about these kind of stories.'”

We’ve heard stories like this too. This unfathomable ordeal would make fine fodder for Airplane Horror Stories, our collection of disturbing-but-true tales from the skies. So what’s the worst headache a person can endure when traveling by plane? You decide:

– written by Caroline Costello

 Jack the CatJack, the fluffy orange feline that disappeared in John F. Kennedy International Airport about two months ago, has finally surfaced.

On August 25, Jack escaped from his pet carrier in the baggage area of JFK. The cat’s owner, Karen Pascoe, had checked Jack and a second cat for an American Airlines flight to California. Shortly after turning over her two pets, Pasco received an alarming call. An airline employee informed Pasco that one of her cats had somehow gotten out of his carrier. Jack had been unaccounted for until yesterday.

A note on the American Airlines Facebook page reports, “Jack was found in the customs room and was immediately taken by team members to a local veterinarian. American’s priority was advising Jack’s owner, Ms Pascoe, which occurred immediately after he was identified. Now we are also happy to advise all other Friends of Jack of this news.”

The “Friends of Jack” to whom American refers include more than 17,000 Facebook followers — many of whom have expressed growing anger toward the airline over the past nine weeks. Supporters declared October 15 and 22 “Jack the Cat Awareness Day,” and volunteers gathered at JFK to pass out flyers and search for the missing pet.

According to the official Jack the Cat Facebook page, Jack is currently receiving medical care at a veterinarian’s office in Queens, New York. The cat has been diagnosed with fatty liver disease, a severe illness that can occur as a result of malnourishment.

Jack’s journey is far from over. Upon recovery, the cat will fly to California to be reunited with his owner. American Airlines has offered to fly Jack home for free. But something tells us Jack might prefer a different carrier.

Traveling with a pet can have its pitfalls, and Jack’s dramatic story certainly serves as a cautionary tale to travelers thinking about checking an animal on a flight. For useful tips on hitting the road with a furry companion, read Traveling with Pets.

– written by Caroline Costello

jack the cat missingWhen the cat’s away, its owner will worry — as American Airlines discovered after a kitty named Jack mysteriously vanished at John F. Kennedy International Airport on Thursday. Jack went missing from the baggage claim area shortly after his owner, Karen Pascoe, checked him and another cat in for a flight to California with AA.

According to Pascoe, when she last saw her cats, an American Airlines employee was putting plastic ties around the kennel door. After she went through security, she got a call from AA to tell her that Jack was gone. Pascoe helped with the search for more than an hour before leaving on a later flight, assured that AA would keep looking for her cat. Days later, Jack is still missing — and no one can tell her how he escaped.

The search has spawned a Facebook page, Jack The Cat is Lost in AA Baggage at JFK, which has more than 9,000 feline-loving fans as of this writing. Many have chimed in with messages of support (“He looks like a wonderful fellow. Hope he’s found safe and well,” writes Laurie Mayer), while others have directed vitriol at American Airlines for, well, letting the cat out of the bag. “AA would not want to deal with my wrath if they lost one of my cats,” writes Stacy Spieker. “I hope, Jack, you are found safe and unharmed. Shame on AA. There is NOOOOOO excuse!!!”

5 Travel Ideas for Pet Lovers

American Airlines has responded to the torrent of bad publicity by posting updates on its own Facebook page about its efforts to recover Jack. To name a few: Humane traps have been set, footage from CCTV cameras in the baggage claim area is being studied and Pascoe will be flown back from California this weekend to help with the continuing search.

Jack may be evading the army of airline employees on his tail, but he’s found the time to set up shop on Twitter. “One thing @AmericanAir hasn’t thought of … litterbox. Hope this green dress wasn’t important. #luggage” tweeted @jackthelostcat yesterday.

Joking aside, the incident offers a troubling cautionary tale for traveling pet owners. While many animals fly safely every year, the U.S. Department of Transportation reports that 17 pets were killed and 5 injured on U.S. airlines between January and June 2011 (the latest dates for which statistics were available). If your pet is small enough, it’s almost always safer to carry him or her onboard with you rather than take a chance on the cargo hold.

See more tips for keeping pets safe while traveling. And if you find yourself at JFK in the next few days … keep an eye out for Jack.

– written by Sarah Schlichter

airplanes travel planes sad suitcasesFrom the moment you book your plane ticket (want to select your seat in advance? That’ll be $10, please) to the day you roll up to the check-in counter and shell out $50 for your checked bags, the airlines leave no fee unturned. And this past weekend, most major U.S. airlines found yet another way to line their pockets at the expense of the flying public.

On Friday, Congress failed to pass legislation to reauthorize the Federal Aviation Administration. As of Saturday, FAA-funded construction projects have been put on hold, all non-essential employees have been furloughed and — most importantly for fliers — the agency has lost the ability to collect various taxes that normally go along with the purchase of a plane ticket.

Hurray! Cheaper airfare for everyone, right?

Well, no. Instead of passing the tax savings on to travelers, most major airlines are raising their fares to offset the cost of the taxes — and pocketing the difference. The Associated Press reports that American, United, Continental, Delta, US Airways, Southwest, AirTran and JetBlue have all increased their fares, typically by about 7.5 percent.

According to an earlier AP report, “Passengers who bought tickets before this weekend but travel during the FAA shutdown could be entitled to a refund of the taxes that they paid, said Treasury Department spokeswoman Sandra Salstrom. She said it’s unclear whether the government can keep taxes for travel at a time when it doesn’t have authority to collect the money.”

Editor’s Note: On August 5, the IRS announced that passengers will not be getting refunds for taxes paid during the FAA shutdown after all. You can read the IRS statement here.

There are a few airlines out there that are giving travelers a break, including Virgin America, Frontier, Alaska and Spirit. Yes, that’s the same Spirit we wrote about a couple of weeks ago as one of the ugliest airlines in the industry. But hey, we can give credit where it’s due. It’s nice to see Spirit making the customer-friendly choice for once.

As for the big guys, shame on them. Really, it’s no wonder we hate the airlines.



– written by Sarah Schlichter

airplaneWho’s the ace in the battle of the airlines? Consumer Reports released its U.S. airline rankings yesterday, revealing which golden carrier claimed the coveted number-one spot. The verdict? Southwest snagged the top trophy, with JetBlue a close second, and Alaska, Frontier and AirTran trailing respectively behind.

A poll of nearly 15,000 Consumer Reports readers ranked 10 airlines based on factors including seating comfort, baggage handling, cabin-crew service, ease of check-in, in-flight entertainment and cabin cleanliness. The airlines’ total scores were tallied on a scale of 0 to 100. Southwest secured 87, while JetBlue got a healthy score of 84. The biggest loser, US Airways, came in last with a score of 61.

Four of the survey’s five top scores were achieved by discount airlines — a verdict likely influenced by major carriers’ abundant baggage fees. Southwest and JetBlue permit passengers to check at least one bag for free, whereas major airlines charge for checked baggage on domestic flights. Customer service may also have played a part in pushing the big airlines to the bottom of the rankings. American, Delta, United and US Airways, the carriers with the lowest scores, all registered below average in the check-in ease and cabin-crew service categories.

But really, is anyone surprised? In The Real Reason Fliers Hate the Airlines, Traveler’s Ed compares most airlines to a bad friend: “Missed a connection or late to the flight due to bad weather? Too bad for you! We can’t fly due to bad weather? Too bad for you!”

Here’s another revelation that failed to shock me: In the seating comfort category, basically every airline save JetBlue and Southwest bombed — and even our winning discount duo scored average at best. Southwest offers 32 to 33 inches of legroom in its economy-class seats, which, according to stats on SeatGuru.com, beats economy-class seats on loads of major airline-operated planes by an inch or two (and sometimes even three: American Airlines’ leg-cramping Aerospatiale/Alenia 72 planes offer a paltry 30 inches of pitch).

An inch doesn’t sound like a lot. But when your knees are in your face and you’ve got four hours to go, even meager units of length become vital.

What are your picks for the best and worst airlines?

– written by Caroline Costello

Editor’s Note: IndependentTraveler.com is a member of the TripAdvisor Media Network. The TripAdvisor Media Network also owns SeatGuru.com.

airplane seatsIt’s nice to snag a seat in the front row of a plane and exit early … but is it worth 20 bucks?

With American Airlines’ recently announced Express Seats service, travelers can now select seats in the front of the plane for quick and easy debarkation. This new program also includes Group 1 boarding, which means passengers who sign up for Express Seats can be among the first coach fliers to board the plane. This is an especially beneficial product for those impatient travelers who bypass the line and slyly sidle up to the gate opening moments before the flight attendant calls their group number (and yes, we see you cutting the queue).

Surprise, surprise: This will cost you. Prices vary based on mileage, but introductory fees start at $19 each way. For example, buying an Express Seat on a flight from St. Louis to Chicago will cost $19, and on a flight from New York to Los Angeles the cost jumps to $39 (the service is available for domestic flights only).

American is one of the last big-name airlines to jump on the pay-for-priority bandwagon. US Airways, Continental, United, AirTran and several others have similar systems, charging coach passengers more for earlier boarding, seats that are near the front of the plane, or window and aisle seats.

Airlines have long been advocates of the class system, forcing proletariat passengers to wait in lines and wedge into shoebox-size seats while the elites fully extend their legs and ponder the in-flight wine list. But we have to wonder: Has this gone too far? In ancient times when checked bags were free and front-row coach seats were first come, first serve, a passenger who purchased a standard-fare ticket was qualified for a comfortable, pleasant flight. These days, a “comfortable flight” costs way more than the airlines’ published fares — and budget-minded travelers who simply wait in line and book ahead are denied the perks once to credited to early birds.

Will the airlines continue to split coach seats into sub-classes, forcing passengers to pay a fee for virtually everything but the smelly row next to the bathroom? Such a scenario isn’t realistic (well, we hope it isn’t), but there are still plenty of free onboard features, from tray tables to reclining seats, that could cost extra in the near future if this trend continues. Tell us what you think!