Downgraded: Continental and US Airways add international luggage fees
Following in the steps of American Airlines and British Airways, Continental and US Airways have now also added a fee for a second checked bag on international flights. US Airways also bumped up the fee for domestic luggage fees by $5 per bag.

Upgraded: Japanese car rentals
Travelers renting a car in Japan can now reserve a wireless enabled netbook for about $10 per day. The company, Oryx, includes the cost of the wireless service.

Downgraded: Blaming the victim
A Stamford, Connecticut franchisee operating under the Marriott name stupidly and offensively blamed one of its customers, saying she “‘failed to exercise due care’ before she was raped at gunpoint in front of her children in a hotel parking garage.” Stay classy, Stamford Marriott! Now, the Marriott mothership is distancing itself from the words (and legal strategy) of its franchisee.

Upgraded: JetBlue-Lufthansa partnership
It took a while — I blogged about the possibility of an alliance partnership back in December 2007 — but JetBlue and Lufthansa are finally talking about codesharing. The consequences will be interesting. I’m particularly interested to see if Lufthansa will be selling JetBlue segments on tickets to destinations served as well by Star Alliance members United and US Airways.

Downgraded: SkyEurope
SkyEurope, a European (duh) discount airline, has ceased all operations. This was the airline that at one point offered to pay its customers to fly with them. R.I.P.

Downgraded: Enterprise Rent-a-Car
Rental cars typically don’t have a great reputation, and this doesn’t help: Enterprise saved money on its rental fleet by requesting that GM delete safety features — features that were otherwise standard. The savings per vehicle: $175. 66,000 Chevrolet Impalas without side curtain airbags were rented out, and then subsequently sold as used vehicles.

Downgraded: The word “guarantee”
A week ago, I argued that it was worth looking at Mexico for some good travel bargains, especially 6 or more months out, when H1N1 flu scares will hopefully be behind us. In the interim, Mexican tourism is suffering tremendously. For example, hotel occupancy in Cancun has dropped from 77% to 23% in a matter of two weeks. Cost-cutting has ensued, and one chain, AM Resorts, has rolled out a somewhat misguided “flu-free guarantee” for 10 of its 11 Mexico hotels, beginning Friday: “The company will give three free vacations over the next three years to any customer unfortunate enough to pick up the H1N1 flu virus at one of its Mexico resorts.” It’s hard to vacation — even for free — when you’re dead.

Downgraded: Colgan Air
The National Transportation Safety Board has released transcripts of cockpit conversations before the doomed Colgan Air-operated Continental Flight 3407. The Bombardier Dash 8 Q400 went down in icy conditions. More disturbing: the cockpit recordings showed that one of the pilots felt under-trained for the experience. The quote, minutes before things got a lot worse: “I’ve never seen icing conditions. I’ve never de-iced. I’ve never seen any — I’ve never experienced any of that. I don’t want to have to experience that and make those kinds of call[s]. You know I’d have freaked out. I’d have, like, seen this much ice and thought, ‘Oh, my gosh, we’re going to crash.’” Pilots who haven’t had de-icing training? Flying to Buffalo?? In February???

Downgraded: Your luggage… because it’s been sucked into a jet engine
Passengers on board Japan Air Lines flight 61 got a treat as their plane began its taxi to the runway. Engine number 1 of the Boeing 747 sucked in a misplaced luggage container. Passengers and ground personnel were unharmed, but it made for good imagery.

cargo in engine Upgrades and Downgrades    Flu free guarantee, Colgan Air, shrinking suites, and more opaque hotels

Downgraded: Embassy Suites’ notion of the suite
Embassy Suites is considering shrinking the size of its rooms, but keeping the current price. Then, they’ll charge a premium for the current suite configuration. Somehow, they’ll try to spin this as an improvement, I’m sure.

Upgraded: Opaque booking of hotels
Travelocity is rolling out opaque booking for select hotels. Interspersed with named hotels, you’ll find “secret” hotels whose identity is only revealed after purchase. This sort of sale is typically associated with Priceline and Hotwire, but it’s hardly new. GTA Hotels has done this for ages. EasyClickTravel used to offer “off the record” hotels, but they have discontinued the practice. A company like Travelocity might be able to get this to work alongside its named offerings, because of its size, but the competition from the established opaque booking specialists seems to be pretty strong. We’ll see if it lasts.

Categorized in: airlines, hotels, safety, travel

us airway 1549 in hudson Prepare for impact didnt refer to the birds

The incredible ditching of a US Airways Airbus A320 has been all over the news, and the pictures are truly dramatic. I feel relieved, and amazed, in that no one died on board that flight. I admit I also feel lucky, in that I wasn’t on that plane — New York to Charlotte is a route I’ve flown more than once, and usually on US Airways. Yet, seeing the plane in the cold water of the Hudson River, with passengers standing on the wings or floating in rafts, I feel a strange sense of comfort. A plane went down, and everyone survived. That’s really incredible.

While it’s way too early to definitively describe what happened, the early reports are pointing to a bird strike in both engines. Lucky passengers, unlucky birds.

I’ve gotten some questions about a bird could take down such a big plane. I’m no expert on aircraft engines, but from what I can gather, the impact of a bird on the engine’s turbine fan blades can knock the blades off-track, damaging smaller parts inside the engine. The cascade of destruction can lead to a shutdown.

The force of a bird in flight, when hitting an aircraft engine, is astonishing:

A 12-pound Canada goose striking an aircraft going 150 mph at lift-off generates the force of a 1,000-pound weight dropped from a height of 10 feet, according to Bird Strike Committee USA.
Large aircraft are certified to be able to keep flying after impacting a 4-pound bird, however 36 species of birds in North America weigh more than this, according to the committee. Even smaller birds, such as starlings, can cause engine failure.

The first minute of the following video details how a bird strike can look in real-time. It’s a Thomsonfly Boeing 757 taking off from Manchester, hitting a pair of herons on the ascent. Thankfully, everyone was okay in this instance as well.

Categorized in: airlines, safety

Reader Kim sends in a link to a scan of Sun Country Airlines’ safety card, as found in their seatback pocket. I have to think that they’re trying to liven the cards up, to keep our attention. Why else would they have Willy Wonka making an emergency exit? A “Where’s Waldo” for those bored inflight?

suncountry safety card wonka Sun Country: The official airline of Willy Wonka?

Reminders of the original (and best) Willy Wonka, and another scan from the Sun Country card, after the jump…

Categorized in: bizarre, safety

aa md 82 More planes grounded: Should you be worried?

American Airlines grounded its entire fleet of MD-80 jets to check wiring on the planes. As I write this, 325 flights are canceled.

Delta, also with a sizable MD-80 and -90 fleet, canceled several hundred flights for the same reason.

Earlier in the week, United took a number of its 747s out of service, also to perform maintenance checks, “to ensure compliance with federal maintenance standards.” All of a sudden? “The Federal Aviation Administration ordered the temporary groundings after discovering that test equipment used at a South Korea maintenance station was faulty.”

What’s going on?

After Southwest’s brief grounding of more than 40 737-300 jets because of possible damage to the aircraft’s metallic “skin,” the FAA is cracking down on maintenance. The agency “recently launched spot checks of compliance with safety requirements for all U.S. airlines.”

Well, good. After apparently not doing enough spot checking, the agency is playing catch-up. It’s encouraging, I suppose, that the inspections are being done now. But what does that mean for recent flights, like those, say, a week before these recent groundings? Wasn’t maintenance taken seriously before? Were you taking a risk?

There probably wasn’t much risk to passengers, frankly. I always comfort myself with the notion that the pilots are as much at risk as passengers. If they’re willing to get on board, then so am I.

But, as a matter of principle, I prefer that my airlines don’t cut corners and don’t skimp on maintenance. I also prefer that my government’s regulatory bodies do their job and actually keep companies under scrutiny in a clear, defined, and above all consistent manner. That clearly didn’t happen. And that is what needs to be addressed. The sky isn’t falling, but things could sure be better.

The airlines affected are canceling flights wholesale today, though they promise to be back on schedule soon. That’s the immediate bad news for travelers today. The fact that regulation has been haphazard is frankly of greater concern.


Categorized in: airlines, regulation, safety

armed pilot1 Feeling safe?  Armed pilot discharges pistol in cockpit

After 9/11, there was a debate over whether pilots should be trained in small firearms and permitted (or required) to carry a pistol in the cockpit. From the get-go, I objected. I felt that the risks of firearms exceeded their benefit, especially if the Federal Air Marshals program already had armed law enforcement officers on board.

The risk of an accidental discharge, or worse, a pilot with less-than-honorable purposes, makes guns in the cockpit a substantial risk. And now it’s happened: A US Airways pilot discharged his weapon during approach to Charlotte.

What on earth was the pilot doing with his pistol during the approach? Shouldn’t he have been working on landing the plane? And why wasn’t his weapon holstered, with the safety on? What were they doing up there, talking about their favorite (and still, to this day, most disturbing) scenes in Christopher Walken movies?

The whole thing makes me feel less safe. Both because I don’t like the idea of hot lead flying through the fuselage, and because I like my pilots to be flying, not playing with guns.

The pro-gun argument has always been that armed pilots serve as the last line of defense in the case of a hijacking or other incident. Or that armed pilots are themselves a deterrent to hijackers.

But it’s impossible to prove whether or not the arming of pilots actually improves safety by scaring potential bad guys from trying anything on board a plane. You can’t prove or disprove that proposition, unless you’ve got an al Qaeda focus group that you’re running.

A more concrete case that would support the pro-arming side would be incidents of threats who were subdued by an armed pilot. I haven’t heard of a single incident wherein a pilot was called upon to unholster his or her weapon in flight. If readers have a link to such a case, please send it my way.

As it is, the passengers on this plane were lucky that nothing worse happened. Arming pilots remains a bad idea.

(Thanks to David, Kim, and Richard for sending this one in!)

Here’s a photo of the gunshot hole, via the Associated Press:

us airways bullet hole Feeling safe?  Armed pilot discharges pistol in cockpit

Categorized in: airlines, guns, safety