Who is more to blame for the recent shutdown of Newark Airport: The 28-year old graduate student who jumped a rope and entered the secure area of the airport, or the TSA agent who left his post unguarded?

Some politicians have been quick to choose sides. And friend of the blog, Robert P. — he of the world-famous “You have chunks in your beer” letter to the CEO of Midwest Airlines — calls out one particularly-vocal US Senator for playing the blame game.

The text of the letter to Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) follows in its entirety:

Dear Senator Lautenberg,

I’m not one of your constituents, but still wanted to write a note of disappointment regarding what appears to me to be your desire to publicly hang, draw and quarter Haisong Jiang, the schmuck who shut down Newark Liberty International Airport last week. While it is clear that what he did was wrong, it is wrong in the same sense that speeding or jaywalking is wrong. The terrible ramifications — shutting down the airport — speak much more to the incompetence of TSA staff and absurdity of the rules drafted by TSA leadership than to the actual violation itself.

Think about it just for a second; if Al Qaeda terrorists knew they could shut down an entire airport (and delay air traffic around the world) by skipping through a velvet rope to kiss a girl, they could save a lot of money on explosives and weapons training. Granted, they might have to spring for a dozen roses or a box of chocolates, but I suspect these might still be cheaper (and less painful) than setting ones underwear on fire.

Clearly, the problem here isn’t with Mr. Jiang but with the TSA. And your public statements that the man should face federal charges over the incident are ridiculous. Please direct your attention to the actual problem, rather than a misbehaving graduate student. Instead of absurdly saying that the man committed a “terrible terrible offense” and should turn himself in, why not ask why the TSA has a “no-fly” list that creates hassles for everyone named “John Smith” because some criminal, somewhere, used that as an alias, but nonetheless allows real, identified, terrorists with no luggage, no return ticket, and no winter coat to get on trans-Atlantic flights to Detroit in the middle of winter.

Thank you and Happy New Year.
Robert P……

Got a side to take in this debate? Hit the comments.

Categorized in: reader mail, TSA

emirates Would you fly an airline thats collateral for a loan?

Reader Dawn writes:

My husband and I are flying to Australia in June via Dubai, business class on Emirates. It’s an anniversary trip, and we’ve been looking forward to being spoiled on what has sounded like a great way to fly. But now I read that the airline may go under because of the financial crisis in Dubai. Should I be worried?

No. I wouldn’t worry quite yet.

For starters, the airline is not going under. I don’t know where you heard that. There is chatter that the airline is collateral in a bailout of Dubai’s debt by Abu Dhabi. But even then, collateral doesn’t mean collapse. Far from it.

Emirates has built one of the best brands in global aviation, and it’s actually profitable. (Gasp!) There’s no evidence that the airline itself is in any financial trouble.

And even if it were collateral for another loan, and if it were taken over by creditors, it is implausible that it would just close shop. It’s too valuable as a brand. And did I mention that it’s profitable?…

And in a further effort to calm nerves, the airline has also restated its commitment to its aircraft order book. Recommitment in and of itself is really just talk, and hardly evidence of anything, but at least they’re not canceling orders.

So, Dawn, I wouldn’t worry about your tickets. And I would book on Emirates today, myself. Have a great trip.

How about you, wise and worldly readers? Would you fly Emirates in light of the Dubai crisis?


It’s commonplace to read that airlines will bend over backward for their most loyal customers. There was in fact an article in the NYT this week arguing just that point. But if you waver in your loyalty in any way, or for any reason, you’ll likely see that bending-over-backward ending really quickly. Timely, then, that reader J.R. writes in with a tale of frustration with the policies and practices of frequent flier program elite membership. He wrote to US Airways:

I have been Chairman’s [Preferred, the top tier of elite status on US Airways] for many years. My wife is expecting our first during the fourth quarter and this will stop my travel for a period of about 3-4 months. I am hoping to retain Chairman’s status but am afraid that with the lack of 4th quarter travel, I will come short. Is
it possible to have this waived to continue my status which I have held for many years due to this circumstance? Thank you for the consideration.

Here is the airline’s response:

Mr. ******,
Thank you for contacting US Airways.
We can certainly understand your desire to maintain your status at this level. We do not make exceptions to Preferred levels in fairness to
those who have worked hard to reach the requirements. We encourage you to do all possible to meet the Preferred criteria before the end of the qualification year on December 31st.
We do allow former Chairman’s Preferred members to cover the difference in their Preferred mileage and segments with a purchase option, however, since you are already a Chairman’s Member, you would have to wait until your current Chairman’s membership expires and at that point we would be able to advise the fee to retain your status.
Thank you for your continued patronage of US Airways.
Molly H.
Club Services

By the book, the airline is absolutely right. He’s not meeting the required mileage cutoff for Chairman’s membership. So he doesn’t get it.

Looking forward, though, they’ve shot themselves in the foot with this customer, a top-tier, 100,000-miles-per-year elite flier for 8 years. As J.R. writes, the lack of flexibility feels like betrayal:

Never felt that I got kicked so hard in the teeth after all the revenue I gave them for so long. If they had someone with an MBA or basic business sense enough to do a forward looking cost-benefit analysis, they would likely see things differently. As it turns out, I will be looking for another airline.

So what’s an airline to do? Bend the rules for big money fliers and keep to-the-book to the run-of-the-mill traveler? Doesn’t seem fair to the lower-tier traveler.

The real solution is to keep some flexibility in an elite scheme. One way to ensure that, in my opinion, is multi-year membership. Lufthansa does this: Top-tier “HON Circle” membership in their Miles & More program is measured based on 600,000 miles (!) earned over two years. Low earnings in one year can be made up in the second.

Alternatively, much like “rollover minutes” on wireless plans, airlines could allow miles over a tier cutoff to go toward the next year. (Delta recently introduced this.) It may mean more top-tier elites than now, which could mean a battle for upgrades. But recognizing longevity of loyalty, and not just short-term loyalty, could still pay off for the airline.

But what do you think? Does J.R. deserve some flexibility after eight years of loyalty? Is US Airways being stupid, or fair, in denying his request? What’s the best way to keep rewarding long-term loyalty without harming your business?

Take the poll, and hit the comments.

Should airlines give longtime loyal customers a break if they fall just short of their status cutoff?

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(Reading this via a feed reader or otherwise can’t vote in the poll? Click here to visit the site to vote and leave comments.)

Posted by: Mark Ashley

lego stormtrooper money Summer travel deals: Readers write in

Several readers have sent in e-mails, informing me of airfare deals they’ve gotten in recent days. They’re good, especially to Europe. A few examples:

Reader Diane found a deal from Denver to Amsterdam on US Airways in July: $2068.32 for a family of three, including all taxes and even travel insurance.

Reader Frank is taking his family of four to Paris in June. He’s leaving from the New York area — going over on Open Skies, coming back on L’Avion. It’s costing him more than it cost Diane, but it’s still a decent deal: $1479 per person for a cradle seat, booked on the L’Avion site. (As an aside, I don’t think L’Avion should be calling their product “business class” anymore, especially given that their corporate sister, Open Skies, is categorizing an equivalent seat as premium economy, err, “Prem+.”)  Summer travel deals: Readers write in

If you’re looking for some off-season discounts to Europe (say, February), and coach class is more your speed, then check Air France. $350 base fare ($490 all-in) from New York to Dublin, for example. Summer travel deals: Readers write in

Finally, reader Aurelio booked a sweet spring break fare from Chicago to Last Vegas on United for $119, all-in, round-trip. Those are 2003 prices! Crazy-cheap!

To book some of these deals, you may need to be flexible with your dates or your connections. And be sure to comparison shop. Sites to consider as springboards include FareCompare, Kayak.com, and ITA Software, for starters.

Have you scoped out any good deals of late? Hit the comments with your savvy savings, especially if they might still be available for others to book!


Categorized in: airfare, fare sale, reader mail

suitcases Reader mail: What happens to baggage after an airline accident?

Reader Tom K. asks:

The US Airways landing in the Hudson was amazing. Thank God (and the captain) for such a great outcome. I’m curious, what happens to the luggage that people left behind? I assume they’re not getting any of it back. What’s the compensation they receive for it?

I suppose that luggage is not at the top of your list if you’ve survived a crash. But perhaps, once the euphoria of survival wears off, passengers’ thoughts will turn to the stuff they left behind, both in the overhead bins and the cargo hold. The answers are in the contract of carriage (PDF), the rules governing the ticket.

The contract states the limits of the airline’s liability. From the contract:

Total liability for provable direct or consequential damages resulting from the loss, delay, or damage to baggage in US Airways’ custody is limited as follows:

A. for travel wholly between U.S. points, to $3300 per customer

B. for most international travel (including domestic portions of international journeys), to $9.07 per pound ($20 per kilo) for checked baggage and $400 per customer for unchecked baggage in the custody/control of the carrier.

Since this was a domestic flight, the “A” rules will likely apply to most passengers — $3300 per passenger maximum. That’s not a guaranteed payout (though, under the circumstances, the airline might just go ahead and cut checks in that amount…) Internationally-connecting passengers would be subject to “B.”

That’s not the end of the rules:

Unless protection is purchased (excess valuation), US Airways assumes no liability for valuable/commercial items including but not limited to: money, negotiable papers, securities, irreplaceable business documents, books, manuscripts, publications, photographic or electronic equipment, musical instruments, jewelry, silverware, precious metals, furs, antiques, artifacts, paintings and other works of art, lifesaving medication, and samples.

Only a travel insurance policy might cover such losses. Might. The credit card used to purchase the ticket may have some coverage, too.

And passengers had better file their claims soon, or they’ll get nothing:

No action shall be maintained for any loss, damage, or delay of checked baggage, unless notice is given in writing to the airlines involved within 45 days (21 days international) from the date of incident and unless the action is commenced within two years from the date of the incident.

These rules in this example apply to US Airways only. Each airline publishes its own rules, so check the contract.

Here’s hoping that this question remains purely academic — and no accidents are in your future.


Categorized in: airlines, luggage, reader mail
Posted by: Mark Ashley

emergency exit An upgrade... to the exit row?

Reader David writes in:

Did I miss the memo or is this old news? As plat elite on CO I got an email yesterday on my blackberry alerting me that I was upgraded on my IAH-LGA flight today. I didn’t read the details, but an upgrade to First is always welcome. Upon check in, and re-examination of the email, I was “upgraded” to the exit row! It’s nice but it’s not a real upgrade, is it? How long have they been sending these “upgrade” emails out?

News to me! It’s the first I’ve heard of this, but if readers have had similar experiences, I invite them to share their story in the comments.

Exit rows are generally nice, for the extra legroom, though some travelers dislike that the seats sometimes don’t recline. And they are an improvement, though not technically upgrades according to Continental’s own chart. They should count under the “preferred economy seating” benefit for elites. But that’s still not an upgrade.

I’ve sent a note to Continental media relations, requesting official comment, but it has gone unanswered. Is this a trend? Is it a goof? If they offer an explanation, I’ll post it here.