Today we bring you three stories from around the airline industry, including JetBlue’s toe-dip into presidential politics, a robot suitcase and a new approach to reducing airplane aisle gridlock.
If That Stupid [Candidate A/Candidate B] Wins…
I’m leaving the country on the next JetBlue flight. Even after Goodwill trucks pack up the last box of “Yes We Can (Again)”/”I Built This!” T-shirts on November 7, the losing side can take some solace. Nonpartisan airline JetBlue is giving away 2,012 flights to destinations outside the United States after the election. Entering is easy: Go to JetBlueElectionProtection.com and pick Obama or Romney. If your guy loses, you have a shot at becoming a temporary expat via one of JetBlue’s international routes, which include the Caribbean and Mexico. All of America wins.
About Time: Robot Luggage
Aussie air travel news site Terminal U is reporting on a new type of robot luggage that could someday hit an airport near you. An inventor has created a prototype of a hands-free suitcase, called “Hop,” which stalks its owner via signals from a cell phone’s Bluetooth. You move, Hop moves. You move, Hop doesn’t move? Hop alerts you by making your phone vibrate. (Hop moves, you move? The TSA bans Hop and you end up on the no-fly list.)
Check out this video of Hop in action:
About Time: Moving Airplane Seats
Reports the U.K.’s Daily Mail: U.S. company Molon Labe Designs claims that its “Sider Seat” — an aisle seat that can slide over and atop the middle seat — will save airlines two hours of extra flying time a day. Molon Labe says the movable seats would expand aisle width from 19 to 43 inches, allowing for whimsical twirling and quicker loading and unloading. The seats are not robots — a passenger or member of the flight crew must physically move them — and they do not recline. As one commenter on the Daily Mail site correctly pointed out, the approach to boarding would have to change in tandem with the furniture. What happens when the already beleaguered middle-seater finds he now has no seat?
IndependentTraveler.com has requested access to the airport bar napkin the idea was originally scribbled on.
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.
Maybe you’re having a disastrous day at the airport, trying unsuccessfully to get rebooked after a canceled flight. Or you’re sitting at home on hold with an airline’s customer service department, listening to hour two of Elevator Music’s Greatest Hits. In growing frustration, you may be tempted to take your complaint to social media — but when you pull up your airline’s Twitter page, you encounter something like this:
“@jetblue doesn’t respond to formal complaints on Twitter. For official customer concerns go to jetblue.com/speakup or call 1-800-jetblue.”
“Have a complaint/compliment to share with us? Go to usairways.com/feedback so we can followup [sic] directly. We aren’t able to provide a proper response on Twitter.”
“Tweeting is short and sweet, but sometimes you need more than 140 characters to get an issue resolved. If you require a specific response: For post-travel issues related to travel [on] a United Airlines operated flight, please contact Customer Care at http://united.com/feedback.”
Why are the airlines on social media if they’re just going to shut down the conversation? Can they really do that?
Turns out that they can’t — and despite what their profiles say, they don’t even try. Even though JetBlue claims not to respond to complaints on Twitter, a quick scan of its Twitter page reveals responses to a delayed traveler (“We hear your frustration. What flight are you on so we can provide the most up to date information?”), a person having problems with the airline’s Web site (“You can either try using a different browser or give our Getaways department a call at 1-800-JETBLUE and they can help!”) and a passenger whose TV didn’t work in flight (“Sorry to hear – per our Customer Bill of Rights, you’re entitled to a $15 credit for the inconvenience”) — all within the past 13 hours.
US Airways, meanwhile, tweeted this morning that it would rebook a delayed passenger, and asked other travelers having problems to DM (direct message) their confirmation codes so that the carrier’s Twitter team could look into the problem. United Airlines answered traveler questions and offered the appropriate customer service phone numbers and Web sites to Twitter followers who needed more in-depth assistance.
It’s clear that despite the airlines’ efforts to discourage passengers from speaking out on Twitter, people are doing it anyway — and the airlines are responding, often within minutes. Really, it makes sense; a tweet that goes viral can turn into a public relations nightmare, so it’s in the airlines’ best interest to resolve issues on Twitter as quickly and effectively as possible.
So the next time you’re fed up with a flight, consider the power you have in those simple 140 characters.
A few weeks ago, problems with the hydraulic system forced a JetBlue flight into an emergency landing at Las Vegas‘ McCarran Airport. As the stricken plane careened into sharp turns and lurched from one side to the other, passengers became sickened and many began vomiting. This went on for several hours, as the plane had to burn off enough fuel to land safely.
Have you ever been on a plane that lurched or dipped or swerved? Have you ever thrown up on a plane?
I have. In fact, my strongest airplane memories involve bad experiences. Like when I was 13 and the plane I was on, flying from San Diego to New York, was hit by lightning. I saw the lightning strike the wing and I felt the plane lurch downwards. I started to cry because I thought the plane would catch on fire — I mean, that’s what happens in movies.
A nice older man a row in front of me turned around to calm me down. The planes are grounded, he said, so nothing bad can happen. (I found out later that this isn’t exactly the case; airplanes are protected from lightning because their exteriors are made of aluminum, which conducts the electricity out into the air, protecting what’s inside. But my fellow passenger’s words were comforting at the time!)
Another bad experience that stands out was flying in a puddle jumper from Punta Arenas in Chile to Isla Navarino, a small Chilean island located between Isla Grande de Tierra del Fuego and Cape Horn. The flight passes over the Strait of Magellan and several channels including the Beagle Channel. For reasons I’m sure a meteorologist could explain, the wind currents in that area are pretty rough.
I won’t go into details, but let’s just say the hot dogs I’d eaten prior to the flight had to be washed off of my sweater later that afternoon. It was one of the most mortifying experiences of my life.
But perhaps the worst flight experience I’ve ever had was also one of only two times in my life I actually thought I might die. It was a flight from Atlanta to New York’s JFK airport. Though the weather was clear when we took off, by the time we’d gotten to Maryland the New York area was experiencing heavy storms. At first they put us into a holding pattern, but then we began to run low on fuel.
Only one runway was open in the New York area and we were told it would take too long to change our approach to reach it. So we were diverted to Stewart Airport, a smaller airport in the Hudson Valley area of New York. Why that was deemed closer I don’t know, but to get there it felt as though we had to fly right through a doozy of a storm. That plane shook and rattled and bumped so violently I honestly thought it was going to crack apart. Overhead bins opened and bags fell out. Dozens of people threw up as the flight attendants passed handfuls of air sickness bags around the cabin. Landing that dark evening in an airport hours away from my original destination was one of the sweetest moments of my life.
What has been your scariest flying moment — or your most embarrassing?
As if we needed any confirmation — there isn’t an ounce of complacency left in fliers.
On Tuesday, passengers on a JetBlue flight from JFK to Vegas used their weight and two kinds of belts — seat and pant — to subdue an unhinged pilot who had what’s being described as a mid-flight meltdown.
After Clayton Osbon was locked out of the cockpit by a co-pilot who told FAA investigators that the captain was exhibiting “erratic behavior,” Osbon fumed and seethed about Iraq, Iran and Al Qaeda, beseeched passengers to pray, and said the plane was in immediate danger of being shot down. He called for a landing.
Osbon got his wish. With four passengers restraining the still-ranting captain, his colleagues, including an off-duty JetBlue pilot who was onboard, made an emergency landing in Amarillo, Texas.
While the fliers-turned-security detail — reportedly comprising a retired police sergeant, a security exec and two others — held Osbon down, another passenger filmed the chaos in the cabin with a cell phone. The grainy visual won’t win any awards for in-flight cinematography, but the audio offers a glimpse into the chaotic scene at 35,000 feet. Following that video is a short clip of Osbon being removed from the plane.
The Christian Science Monitor reported today that Osbon, a 12-year pilot for JetBlue, has been charged with “interfering with crew-member instructions.” A CBS report published before the formal charges were issued now rings bizarre but true — it said that Osban could become the “first airline pilot accused of interfering with his own flight.”
Pending an investigation, JetBlue has suspended Osban from flying. CBS reports that FBI investigators are waiting to listen to the cockpit conversation preceding the incident captured on the plane’s “black box.”
JetBlue CEO Dave Barger, who appeared on NBC’s “Today Show” Wednesday, called the incident a “medical situation that turned into a security one,” said Reuters. Osbon, whom Barger called a consummate professional that he’s known for years, is in federal custody at a medical facility in Amarillo.
This latest incident comes less than three weeks after an American Airlines flight attendant was subdued by passengers and de-planed after ranting about September 11 and saying the plane was going to crash. The AA jet was on the ground at the time.
Do incidents like these make you more nervous about flying?
I never thought I’d say this, but maybe — just maybe — those extra baggage fees are worth it after all. According to a report by CNN, in 2011 the airline industry’s rate of lost luggage was the lowest it’s ever been. Last year also saw the lowest-ever incidence of passengers being involuntarily bumped from their scheduled flights.
The U.S. Department of Transportation, which has collected luggage data for 23 years and bumping data for 16, released last year’s stats for the nation’s airlines on Tuesday.
So what does this mean for air travelers? The quick and dirty is that, overall, airlines reported an on-time arrival rate of about 79.6 percent, just a smidge better than 2010 (79.8 percent). Industry-wide instances of mishandled baggage clocked in at about 3.39 cases per 1,000 passengers (down from 3.51 in 2010), and involuntary bumps came in 0.81 occurrences per 10,000 passengers (down from 1.09 in 2010) — not too shabby.
As for the top-performing airline, AirTran did the best in the luggage-handling department, with just 1.63 reports of lost or damaged luggage per 1,000 passengers. Hawaiian Airlines, blessed with good weather year-round in most of its destination cities, came out on top in the flight delay sweepstakes: nearly 93 percent of its flights arrived on time in 2011. In terms of bumping, JetBlue had the lowest rate, with just 0.01 involuntary bumps per 10,000 fliers.
I know what you’re thinking: “Okay, great. But which airlines performed the worst?” American Eagle, American Airlines’ regional carrier, walked away with the highest rate of mishandled baggage, with 7.32 reported cases of lost or damaged luggage per 1,000 passengers. Then there’s JetBlue, which had the lowest percentage (73.3 percent) of on-time flight arrivals. And Mesa Airlines, another regional operator, took the title for most denied boardings in 2011, with 2.27 involuntary bumps per 10,000 passengers.
The Deal: JetBlue has announced a bargain that both couples and singles can enjoy this Valentine’s Day: a one-day Love-A-Fare sale with flights starting at just $39 each way, including taxes and fees. (Note that the advertised fare on the JetBlue site is $49, but if you check out the list of city pairings, you’ll see $39 and $40 fares in the mix too.)
Flights are available from gateways around the U.S. (like New York, Orlando and Boston), plus a few in the Caribbean (San Juan, St. Thomas, St. Croix). Travel is good between February 21 and April 3.
The Catch: For most destinations, travel is only valid on Tuesdays and Wednesdays (but check the fine print on the JetBlue site for a few exceptions).
The Competition:Southwest is running a U.S. domestic fare sale with flights priced from $65 each way, including taxes and fees. Like the JetBlue deal, this one is also good for travel on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. But you have a few extra days to think about these fares — the deal doesn’t expire until February 16.
Last 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:
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.
Who’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.