When I moved back to the United States from Romania, where I’d been living for two and a half years, I brought home a new husband and, just as importantly, our cat. We’d rescued her from an animal shelter two years before and there was no way we were leaving her behind. So we jumped through all the hoops presented to us — finding an FAA-compliant crate outside of the U.S., getting our cat micro-chipped, having a vet create a pet passport (basically just a record of her health and vaccines) — before my husband crated her up one November morning and brought her with him to the airport for his Lufthansa flights from Bucharest to Frankfurt and then Frankfurt to New York City.
Fourteen hours later my husband and cat arrived safely at JFK. It never really occurred to me that he would land safely and she wouldn’t. But after reading about a recent investigation by NBC Bay Area, I’m counting my lucky stars it turned out so well.
Turns out lots of animals don’t make it. Most stories don’t get into the news, but some do — like the case of former model Maggie Rizer. Back in September 2012, her 2-year-old golden retriever died during a flight from the East Coast to San Francisco.
Perhaps the most famous of all mistreated pets was Jack, the Norwegian forest cat that disappeared in JFK airport after an American Airlines baggage handler dropped his crate. Though he eventually turned up after falling through the ceiling in a customs area, he was so sick and dehydrated that he had to be put down.
Sadly, these stories are not as uncommon as we’d like to think. According to the NBC Bay Area investigation, 302 animals have died, been injured or disappeared while in the care of commercial airlines over a six-year span. The most common cause of death as determined by the airlines was “unknown.” Other common causes — again, as determined by the airlines themselves — were pre-existing medical conditions, escapes from the kennels, self-infliction and natural deaths.
The investigation even revealed which airlines have the worst record. Delta Airlines saw the most tragic outcomes, followed by Alaska Airlines, American Airlines, Continental and United (those last two are now one single entity).
So, does knowing all this make me think twice about flying my cat in the future? You bet it does! What’s worse than knowing that my animal may not be safe in an airline’s care is reading about how the airlines do everything in their power to deny any responsibility for the deaths. Going forward, if I can’t drive to a destination with my cat, then she’s just going to have to fly coach with me.
Have you ever flown your pet somewhere? What was your experience like? And do you think airlines have a responsibility to get your pet to their ultimate destination safe and sound? Weigh in below.
Today we bring you three stories from around the airline industry, including a viral image of a flight attendant flipping the bird, the possible end of airline fees and an attempt to make airline loyalty programs “sustainable.”
Middle Seat, Middle Finger
The image, taken from a flight attendant’s rear cabin point of view, shows an outstretched arm with a certain finger aimed skyward. The sentiment is directed towards the fliers. Now Tatiana Kozlenko, an Aeroflot flight attendant said to have posted the pic on her Vkontakte page (Vkontakte is a social network in Russia), has been deplaned from the company. Russia-based news and TV outfit RT.com reports that the pic was posted back in October 2011 and had been languishing in relative obscurity until a popular Russian blogger reposted it on Twitter.
Kozlenko says it’s 1) not her in the photo, 2) not an Aeroflot plane and 3) not something she posted herself (she says she just tagged herself to it). Regardless, the airline has still laid down the long finger of the law. Aeroflot tweeted Monday morning that the firing was justified: “The fact of posting a photo shows Tatiana’s attitude towards passengers and her duties. She acknowledged her fault when she spoke to the leadership of the company.”
Airlines Running out of Fee Ideas?
Around the globe, airlines charged an estimate $36 billion in ancillary fees in 2012. But on Time.com, Brad Tuttle ponders whether a la carte pricing may have reached maximum altitude. Simply put, there’s almost nothing left to charge fliers for. What gave him that idea? The CEO of Spirit Airlines, the undisputed czar of deconstruction, recently told American Media Public Marketplace that the wellspring of added-fee innovations is starting to run dry. We’re not convinced. (Still left on the docket are a fee to talk to a human, fines for in-flight flatulence and an up-charge for armrest dominion.)
In the end, Tuttle doesn’t buy it either. He argues that any dearth of new ideas would be outweighed by ascending fees for baggage, onboard meals and the like.
Loyalty Pays Less
Veteran travel writer Chris Elliott reports that Delta is the first legacy airline to bind the value of its frequent-flier program not only to the number of miles passengers fly but also to the amount they spend. From January 1, 2014, loyalists will reach new echelons through a combination of miles or segments flown and annual spending on Delta flights. The key downside, among others: Snagging a great deal will help you less in the loyalty program game.
Naturally, Delta’s new program will help the airline’s bottom line. In the airline’s mind, too many undeserving fliers were benefiting. For Elliott, “As painful as these changes are, they make sense.” JetBlue, Southwest and Virgin America already have programs that reward fliers based on how much they spend, he says. “Air travelers tempted to give their loyalty to an airline like Delta now won’t cling to an empty promise that they can reach elite status any other way than by spending their way there. Some will refuse to participate and will instead purchase a ticket that makes sense for them, and not for their loyalty program.”
Remember United Breaks Guitars, the song that became a social media sensation after a country musician had his instrument destroyed at the hands of an airline? Well, it turns out Delta breaks guitars too.
Dave Schneider, a musician with the band the LeeVees, was carrying a vintage 1965 Gibson ES-335 guitar — worth about $10,000 — on a flight from Buffalo to Detroit last month, reports Yahoo! News. On trips for past gigs, Schneider had always carried the valuable instrument onto the plane with him, but this time Delta employees at the gate wouldn’t allow it. “They said it was their policy,” Schneider told IndependentTraveler.com. “They had let me carry the guitar on [our previous Delta flight] from Portland to Philly, so why not here in Buffalo?”
Schneider reluctantly gate-checked the guitar, even though he told us that there were empty seats on the plane where he could have put the instrument, and that it would also have fit into an overhead bin. (On its Web site, Delta says, “Guitars and other smaller musical instruments, such as violins, will be accepted as your free carry-on baggage item on Delta and Delta Connection carriers flights. These items must easily fit in the overhead bin or other approved storage location in the cabin, based on available space at the time of boarding. Musical instruments may be gate claimed at the discretion of the passenger and as a result of limited overhead space.”)
After the plane touched down in Detroit, Schneider waited at the gate for his instrument to be returned, only to hear a screech from the elevator — where the guitar case was caught between it and a rail on the loading dock. Here’s how it looked when it was finally freed an hour later:
The guitar was damaged to the tune of $1,980 — more than the $1,000 Delta initially offered as compensation. After a whirlwind of media coverage, including an appearance on CNN, Schneider told us that he and Delta finally settled the issue yesterday. “They’re paying for the repairs and more,” he said.
The story has an even happier ending: Gibson, the maker of the damaged guitar, recently reached out to Schneider. The company offered him “a brand new 1963 50th Anniversary Cherry Red ES-335 due to the incident with Delta Airlines,” Schneider wrote on his Facebook page. “THANK YOU GIBSON!”
But what happens the next time Schneider needs to fly? “I might start just using ukeleles,” Schneider joked. “I really don’t know what to do. A lot of people ship their guitars, so that is a good option. But even that makes me nervous. It shouldn’t be that hard. I would pay a $50 fee to bring an instrument on the plane. I think that’s a great idea.”
Those of us who fly frequently don’t usually get too surprised anymore by stories of airlines treating passengers like cattle. Yet the experience of a disabled U.S. Marine aboard a Delta Air Lines flight earlier this week shows that the airlines are capable of sinking to shocking new lows.
The Washington Post reports that Marine Lance Corporal Christian Brown, a double amputee wounded a year ago in Afghanistan, was “‘humiliated’ to the point of tears on a Delta flight from Atlanta to Washington after being clumsily wheeled to the back row of the plane, according to a complaint sent to the airline by an outraged fellow passenger.”
The passenger, retired Army Colonel Nickey Knighton, said that Brown was offered a seat in first class by another traveler, but flight attendants would not allow the switch because the doors had been closed for take-off and no one was supposed to move around the cabin. Instead, Knighton wrote, Brown was “paraded through the aircraft,” leaving him “visibly upset.” The Post reports that Brown was ill with a fever at the time and was traveling to the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center for treatment.
It’s unclear why Brown was brought onboard so late in the boarding process; Delta’s own Traveling with Disabilities brochure says that “Preboarding is offered on any Delta flight if you meet all check-in requirements and notify the gate agent.”
Delta’s corporate communications office responded to the incident with this statement, quoted in the Post: “The story in no way reflects either Delta’s standard operating procedure or the very high regard we hold for our nation’s service members. We are sorry for the difficulties that transpired and are investigating this event to determine the appropriate next steps.”
On Brown’s Facebook page was a comment from another Delta employee that seemed a bit more heartfelt:
“So sorry for your treatment on Delta,” wrote Facebook user Demian David Brooks. “As a pilot for Delta, I just wanted to tell you that we are with you, and when I fly, there are no more important passengers than our military. I personally do everything in my power to ensure all military personnel have a great experience on Delta. I have proudly transported many Wounded Warriors and make it a point to introduce myself and say thank you for your service. I have transported fallen heroes and always stand on the tarmac at full salute to pay respects. A few weeks ago in the terminal, I was fortunate enough to see 3 military personnel in uniform, and secretly paid for their lunch as I slipped away. Again, from one line pilot, sorry. And thank you for your service.”
So many of us spend our lives connected via the Internet. We earn our wages and pay our bills online. With whatever money is left, we shop online. We stay connected to family and friends. We read our news, our books and magazines on electronic devices. We share photos, ideas and snarky comics via social media.
You’d think travel would be the one time we go off the grid, but it’s usually not possible. Travel is often work-related, requiring the posting of content and the reading of emails. We may leave family behind who we have to check in on while we’re away. And a few of us — not naming any names — are addicted to electronics. We panic when there’s no Wi-Fi available. And we don’t like to pay for it.
Yes, Virgin America offered free in-flight Wi-Fi last holiday season, and perhaps will again. And there have been a few promotions where Wi-Fi was offered free or discounted, but for the most part, we pay. When Internet service is provided by Gogo, as with AirTran, Alaska, American, Delta, United and Virgin America, it costs $4.94 to $19.95 for mobile devices (smartphones, tables and e-readers) and $11 to $49 for computer devices (laptops and netbooks). JetBlue and Southwest each have their own Internet service. Southwest’s is not yet widely available, but its free portal contains content such as a flight tracker, shopping and games, all at no charge. Internet access beyond that is $5 all day, per device.
Paying for Wi-Fi annoys us , even if it’s only $5. We have hotspot entitlement syndrome. And we’re not alone. When we asked on Facebook if you’d use Wi-Fi if it was offered in air for free, few of you would take a pass.
Hilary Huffman Sommer said, “I would definitely use it, especially when traveling for work or when work intrudes on my leisure travel.”
Gregory Ellis also would log on to work. “Nothing else to do while in those busses with wings,” he wrote.
“Absolutely,” wrote Michele Cherry. She admitted to the amount of time she can kill on Facebook and that she can’t sleep on airplanes. And she already pays for Wi-Fi on international flights or longer domestic ones.
When Delta first began charging for a second checked bag internationally about four years ago, my husband and I swore we’d never fly them again. My husband is European and every time we go over we bring loads of stuff with us. Eventually we simply got used to the $50 fee. But then it went up to $75 and that was it for us — no more second checked bag. And then it went up again!
Unfortunately, the airline is no longer alone in charging a truly hefty fee for that second bag. United just announced that it too is raising the fee for a second checked bag from $75 to $100 for international flights.
I can’t help but wonder why the airlines are doing this. Do they really hope to make more money from folks who either don’t know how to trim their luggage down or are visiting relatives and therefore expected to lug over boatloads of gifts?
Or maybe they’re aiming for the point of no return at which most fliers will simply throw up their hands and say no more. Are too many second checked bags weighing the airlines down?
Some say this is what Spirit was aiming for when it recently began charging folks up to $100 for putting carry-on bags in the overhead bin. Cranky Flier, for one, said the airlines are penalizing passenger behavior they want to discourage. In Spirit’s case they’re hoping to cut down the number of people who wait until they’re at the gate to inform the airline they’ll be using overhead bin space.
With fuel prices what they are and airlines trying to save every penny, perhaps it’s in their interest to cut down on the number of second checked bags. And for those who aren’t getting the message — or don’t care — I guess the $100 fee covers the extra fuel.
What do you think? Would you pay $100 for a second checked bag?
On my last flight, the gate agent announced that anyone in boarding zone five with a roll-aboard carry-on should go ahead and bring it up to the desk to be gate checked, as there wouldn’t be enough overhead bin space for it on the plane. I wasn’t particularly surprised; it seems that every time I fly, the boarding process turns into a chaotic mess of passengers stumbling down the aisle with their hefty carry-ons, searching row after row for a precious sliver of overhead bin space. (And don’t even get me started on the de-boarding process, when all the people who stowed bags 10 rows behind their own have to fight their way against traffic to be reunited with their possessions.)
Fortunately, the airlines — who created this problem in the first place by imposing fees on checked baggage — are responding by making overhead bins larger. According to a report from the Associated Press, four U.S. airlines are planning or have already begun making changes to the overhead bins on select aircraft: American Airlines, Delta, United and US Airways. These updates include more spacious bins as well as new bin doors with a more generous outward curve, allowing bags to be stowed wheels first rather than sideways.
Jet manufacturer Boeing is also tweaking the bin designs on its new planes to better accommodate standard roll-aboard bags.
On the one hand, it’s about time. Having effectively instituted penalties for checking bags, the airlines ought to be prepared to accommodate more carry-ons. On the other hand, if fliers know the bins are getting bigger, will they just bring more stuff? (According to the AP story, the airlines are going to be more vigilant about policing the size of carry-ons — so it may not be an issue.) Plus, the ballooning bins are just more dispiriting evidence of what we already knew: that those pesky baggage fees are definitely here to stay.
Hate gate checking your bag? Here’s how to prepare in case it happens to you: A Bag Inside a Bag.
We take a break from our regularly scheduled grumbling about the airlines to bring you this toe-tapping video of a Delta Air Lines flash mob, featuring employees shaking their groove things at airports in Atlanta, New York and Detroit. (TOC, the fourth location mentioned in the video, is Delta’s Technical Ops Center in Atlanta.)
Be warned that the first minute is a bit of a snooze — but we promise you’ll be smiling by the end. Take a look:
See the world through the eyes of a suitcase. The “eyes,” in this instance, are six cameras that Delta Airlines attached to a piece of checked luggage. Delta recorded the bag’s journey from check-in counter to baggage claim area and posted the footage on YouTube. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll sway to a spacey New Age soundtrack as you watch the bag hitch a ride on a flight from Atlanta to New York. (I predict a big-budget Hollywood remake to follow.)
Note the teaser at the end: “Now you can track your bag’s journey.” Passengers aren’t permitted to attach spy cams onto their own Samsonites — at least not yet. But Delta’s making it easier to keep tabs on luggage with another kind of gadget. The airline has created a new app that allows travelers to follow the whereabouts of their checked bags on their smartphones. (Be sure that you don’t try tracking your bag during take-off or landing, lest you end up like Alec Baldwin.)
The app follows checked bags much the way postal services track packages, by providing a tracking code along with periodic status updates. In addition, fliers can use the app to get flight alerts, check in, make seat changes, rebook flights and more. Delta’s app is free, and it’s available for iPhone, Android, BlackBerry and Windows Phone. Download it here.
From 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.