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ON THE FLY

In-Flight Wi-Fi Report: Flyers Bemoan Loss of Foxhole

Sleepy
Looks like soon, the subway will be the businessman's only safe nap zone.
Photo: muzzanese on Flickr using Creative Commons

by Barbara S. Peterson

With as many as 800 planes in the U.S. morphing into mile-high Wi-Fi hotspots in the next two years, here's a thought that may not have occurred to the airlines: Some fliers are less than thrilled that one of their best excuses for ducking an annoying colleague or a last-minute work assignment may be snatched away from them.

That, at least, was the buzz among some pin-striped business types at an Airfinance Journal conference in Manhattan this week. According to one source, groans were heard when the topic arose. If the boss could fire off a demand while you're trapped in an aluminum tube, you're stuck--can't exactly sneak out to lunch, can you?

It appears that in-flight Wi-Fi providers are aware of this issue. Row 44 president Gregg Fialcowitz recently suggested in an interview that users who would rather read or nap can fall back on that time-honored excuse: "the system is down."   

"We recognize the technology will annoy some, if not many," Fialcowitz conceded.

Continue reading "In-Flight Wi-Fi Report: Flyers Bemoan Loss of Foxhole" »

ON THE FLY

Airlines Haven't Totally Given Up On Edible Food

Bmichef3
How do you take your eggs? bmi has professional chefs on board for premium flyers

by Barbara S. Peterson

Given how hard it is to produce decent tasting food aloft, why don't airlines simply give up the compartmentalized trays and leave us to sup on a pile of greasy fast food we picked up on the way to the airport? Well, most have, at least domestically; my last coach flight reeked of Taco Bell takeout. When I fly internationally, though, I expect to be fed. Quite well. The good news is, this week Lufthansa announced that it is pairing with Ritz Carlton chefs to produce premium-class meals on transatlantic flights.

Starting in May, passengers flying to Germany can feast on dishes dreamed up by Ritz chefs based in Boston, Denver, New York and San Francisco: butternut squash risotto cakes with porcini mushroom sauce, Parmesan-crusted halibut, goat cheese mousse with a Banyuls glaze and crushed pistachio nuts. Sounds much better than Burger King.

When I interviewed Lufthansa's catering team for Condé Nast Traveler a few years ago ("Airline Kitchen Confidential" published March 2006), the chefs spoke candidly about the difficulty of reproducing restaurant meals. The punishing conditions dictated by airline service require, among other things, that components of meals be prepared as much as a full 24 hours in advance. As one chef at the Culinary Institute of America put it, "the reality of airline food is that you're eating leftovers." Yuck.

Continue reading "Airlines Haven't Totally Given Up On Edible Food " »

ON THE FLY

My Stock Swap Caribbean Vacation

Stjames2_2
No, this is not a drawing. This is St. James's Club in Antigua.

by Barbara S. Peterson

On Wall Street they call it bottom-fishing, loading up on absurdly cheap stocks when you sense the price can't go any lower. We're seeing it all over: home buyers snapping up foreclosed McMansions, shoppers getting designer duds at Wal-Mart prices. Travel is no exception.

Does that make us vulture vacationers, as the New York Times dubbed this phenomenon last Sunday? Should we feel a tad guilty that we're profiting from someone else's pain? I mean, we're really just filling rooms and airlines seats that would otherwise go empty. Besides, unlike market players who hope to cash in their cheap shares for a substantial profit later on, we're not holding the investment. We're enjoying it now.

The Times article got me thinking about my own voyage into vulture-dom. In mid-February, I took what amounted to a free vacation to the Caribbean under a novel stock swap deal: I got to dump several hundred shares of battered Citigroup stock in exchange for a week's stay in a beachside room at St. James's Club in Antigua, all meals included.

Continue reading "My Stock Swap Caribbean Vacation" »

ON THE FLY

Lift the Ban on Travel to Cuba?

Cuba
Few Americans have waded
in these seas

by Barbara S. Peterson

Here's the latest stimulus package to come out of Washington: Take one formerly forbidden destination, mix in short, cheap flights and bargain beach resorts, and it's hello Havana, good-bye overpriced tourist traps. Today a phalanx of more than 120 House lawmakers joined a gaggle of two dozen like-minded senators to call for a full repeal of the 47-year-old ban on U.S. citizen travel to Cuba, the only country in the world our government expressly forbids us to visit. (Technically, it's a Treasury Department ban on spending money there--but it's the same thing). 

So it's exciting to hear reports out of Havana that U.S. airlines are already in "regular and direct contact," as one source put it, with Cuban travel industry officials about resuming direct air links between the countries.

Continue reading "Lift the Ban on Travel to Cuba?" »

ON THE FLY

Guess Where Barbara Wrote This Post?

Gogo
Click the image for Gogo's sign-up page.

by Barbara S. Peterson

Yes, I am actually writing these words from a plane. I'm in seat 38C on Delta flight 1483 en route to Orlando. After having written about this for many months, I'm actually writing an email from an airline seat.   

By coincidence, I had coffee with Aircell executive Tom Weigman a few days ago; at the time, I hadn't yet realized that Delta had leap-frogged ahead of the competition. Weigman informed me that the airline has 64 planes wired for access; American and Virgin America each have only 15.

From what I've seen today, it's easy to use: Even with my klutzy typing, I registered with Gogo Inflight Internet in about four minutes and was online moments later. One bit of advice, though: Try to sign up before departure so you don't waste precious battery space.

The cost of connecting on this flight is $9.95 because the flight is under three hours (for longer flights it's $12.95), but Weigman told me that Aircell is rolling out a new lower-priced service soon. You can also connect to Gogo using a handheld device for $7.95.

So what are the drawbacks? I don't see any power ports on the plane, so you'll need to bring an extra battery on a longer flight. And although the captain announced there was information on how to use inflight Internet in the seat backs, I found no such pamphlet.

How many others are using this? There is a huge group of high school kids aboard this plane, and one of them, upon hearing the pilot announce our Wi-Fi readiness, yelped "How cool is that?" But there aren't exactly a lot of laptop- or Blackberry-toting types on this milk run to Orlando.

All in all, it's a great invention--certainly for business travelers like me--but more needs to be done to get the word out.

ON THE FLY

Spanish Fly: Air Europa Returns to NYC

by Barbara S. Peterson

Spanish discounter Air Europa is returning to New York City after an absence of several years and its Web site claims that it is offering some "unbeatable" fares to boot. To promote the start-up on June 1 of daily A330 service between JFK and Madrid, the airline has been touting round-trip fares of around $400 (not including taxes and fees). Tack on those levies, however, and a round-trip flight on the airline's 299-seat Airbus 330 planes will set you back $694. Still a good deal for high season, to be sure, but several other airlines currently have good fares on sale on that route. 

For travel to Madrid this fall, Air Europa has a fare of $159 round-trip for midweek flights booked online if you travel from October 29 to December 13,  but there's the "excluding fees" catch again. This time, the taxes and fees are nearly double that "fare", which will run you $452.34 by the time the government gets through with you.

OK, we understand that airlines didn't ask to be tax collectors. But what ever happened to truth in advertising?

ON THE FLY

Emirates A380 Won't Take Manhattan

A380bathroom
You say hello, New York says good-bye to A380's glorious bathroom.
Photo: Ammar Abd Rabbo on Flickr using Creative Commons

by Barbara S. Peterson

So, you've been hoping to hop a ride on the world's biggest airliner, belly up to that upstairs bar, and climb that double-wide staircase linking the two giant decks? Sneak into one of those shower stalls in first class? Or buy a first-class ticket and laze back in a "private suite" complete with minibar and 23-inch TV screen? If so, mark May 31 on your calendar. That, folks, is the last day the richly appointed behemoth will roll into New York City for the foreseeable future. 

The decision of Emirates to yank the A380 from New York a mere six months after a splashy debut isn't a total shock, what with all those high-flying Wall Streeters grounded for the moment. But it leaves just one U.S. city--Los Angeles--with any A380 service at all, and given Qantas's ongoing technical difficulties with the airliner, and widespread reports of unhappiness with the jet's performance, you have to wonder when--or if--the supersize jet will ever fulfill its self-styled destiny as the plane of the future.

Continue reading "Emirates A380 Won't Take Manhattan" »

ON THE FLY

Airlines Redraw Their Global Route Maps

by Barbara S. Peterson

With the rising dollar a rare spot of good news, that summer trip overseas might not be such a stretch after all. Airlines have just fessed up to how many empty seats they're flying across the pond (or ponds, as both the transatlantic and transpacific markets have been hammered by a falloff in business travel). Too many seats, of course, means more fare deals to come.

But while Delta, United, and American all revealed plans this week to pull back on overseas flights by up to 15 percent, most of the cuts won't take effect until this fall--airlines typically don't like to shrink right before the peak season, even in dire economic times like these.

Continue reading "Airlines Redraw Their Global Route Maps" »

ON THE FLY

Potty Gate, the Sequel: Will Airlines Charge for Lavatory Use?

by Barbara S. Peterson

We figured we should weigh in on the big, important news story of the week, Potty Gate. Today Ryanair confirmed that, in fact, it is dead serious about its intention to charge us "a pound . . . to spend a penny"  (guess you have to be British to appreciate the wit). Ryanair's irrepressible chief, Michael O'Leary, reasons that the Irish discounter operates mostly shorter flights and that the fee (about $1.40) "would reduce an awful lot of the unnecessary visits to the toilet that pisses so many passengers off onboard a plane."

Bad puns aside, though, his logic is flawed: If you don't want to pay for your soda or headphone, you just pass on the experience. If you're using the lav on the plane, though, chances are you don't have much of a choice. And short flights have a funny habit of getting longer--will the airline waive the fee if you're stuck on the tarmac? O'Leary's other argument, that the fees will be returned to consumers in the form of lower fares, is fatuous: Most of us would gladly pay a few bucks more in fares to keep the lavs toll-free. So what's really going on here?

Continue reading "Potty Gate, the Sequel: Will Airlines Charge for Lavatory Use?" »

ON THE FLY

Escaping a Plane Crash Safely

Turkish
Scene from the Turkish Airlines crash in Amsterdam.
Photo:  Radio Nederland Wereldomroep

by Barbara S. Peterson

In the wake of yesterday's Turkish Airlines crash in Amsterdam, in which nine passengers died and dozens were injured but 126 escaped with their lives, people are again asking: Do your odds of surviving an airline accident depend on where you're sitting? 

That question has been posed practically since the dawn of commercial aviation. CNN International asked it of me yesterday in preparation for an interview I did on the Turkish accident. (A 737-800 crash landed in a muddy field several miles from Schiphol airport, smashed into three pieces, and, remarkably, didn't burst into flames, allowing most of the people aboard to flee through the cracks.) I gave the producer the same answer I received when I posed that question to an expert on evacuation safety a few years ago.

"Sure, I can tell you where's the safest place to sit," he had said. "But first you have to tell me what kind of accident you're going to be in."

Continue reading "Escaping a Plane Crash Safely" »

ON THE FLY

The Battle of the Britons Continues

No Way
Branson says, "No Way BA/AA."
Click image to go to his Virgin site.

by Barbara S. Peterson

British Airways' new head exec for the Americas, Simon Talling-Smith, is confidently predicting that the airline's bid to team up with American Airlines--and jointly operate hundreds of flights a week over the Atlantic--will pass muster in Washington within six months. The deal includes Iberia, which also is in the process of merging with BA.

If this all sounds vaguely familiar it's because this mega-alliance was first proposed ten years ago. (In the fast-changing airline business, that's practically the Pleistocene era.) The deal was put off indefinitely when the UK and U.S. governments raised objections to the size of the alliance and demanded, among other things, that BA cut back its presence at Heathrow. But Talling-Smith said that BA is not backing down this time: "We are not prepared to give up any slots" at BA's main hub.

So what's different now?

Continue reading "The Battle of the Britons Continues" »

ON THE FLY

Buffalo Crash: The Hidden Menace of Ice

Buffalo_crash_dt
 Photo: Dave Sherman / AP Photo

In The Daily Beast, Clive Irving, the senior consulting editor here at Condé Nast Traveler, finds connections between last night's crash of Continental Connection Flight 3407 near Buffalo and other incidents involving turboprops and ice. 

There is something hauntingly familiar about the crash of the Bombardier Dash 8 commuter plane in Buffalo. While a lot more information is needed before investigators can be sure of the cause, there are precursors that suggest a pattern.

It begins with the crash of American Eagle Flight 4184 at Roselawn, Indiana, in October 1994. It was a different type of plane, a European-built ATR-72 (the Bombardier is a Canadian plane). The cause was ice on the wings.

For more...read the The Daily Beast.

Further reading:

* 50 Killed in Plane Crash Near Buffalo (NYT)
* Clive Irving on The Radical Future of Flying (CNT/Nov. 2008)
* Flying into the Unknown (CNT/Nov. 2007)
* Clive Irving on Test Flying the Blended Wing (Video)
* On the Fly:  Airline coverage on the Daily Traveler

ON THE FLY

Who's Afraid of Virgin America?

Branson
Let's hope his next costume
doesn't involve stripping bare. 

Photo: Virgin America

by Barbara S. Peterson

The Virgin Group and its frighteningly peripatetic chief, Richard Branson, have been hard to ignore this past week. In the space of a mere six days, they launched both a new airline, VAustralia, with fares as low as $549 roundtrip from Los Angeles to Melbourne (it's also flying to Sydney and Brisbane), and new transcontinental flights on Virgin America. (Fares from the new Boston terminal start at $109 one way with daily flights to SFO and LAX and they've got WiFi on every plane.) The linking of these two networks--VAustralia passengers will be able to connect with Virgin America at LAX--marks the first time travelers can circumnavigate the globe exclusively on Virgin-branded airlines.

So what's the matter with this picture? Other than yet another sighting of Branson in a silly costume, that is? Virgin America is losing money--quite a bit of it--a fact it was only just now forced to reveal under the Transportation Department's disclosure rules. Virgin had tried to keep the information under wraps, arguing that it's a private company, but the DOT didn't buy it.

Continue reading "Who's Afraid of Virgin America?" »

ON THE FLY

Cell Phones on Transatlantic Flights? Yes, If You Don't Talk

by Barbara S. Peterson

The prospect of being able to turn on your cell phone high over the North Atlantic got a lot of people hopping this week. Hopping mad, that is: When British Airways announced it would permit business-class fliers to send text messages from their mobiles on flights between London and New York later this year, you'd think the airline had just come up with a new form of legalized torture.    

Messages popped up on Gadling saying that if BA welcomed texting, it would be just a matter of time before calls would be allowed, turning one of the world's last refuges from inane phone banter into a cacophonous den of claustrophobia. Some of the posts threatened never to fly BA again.

Continue reading "Cell Phones on Transatlantic Flights? Yes, If You Don't Talk" »

ON THE FLY

Air Passenger Rights: It's Baaaack

Jetblue
Click on the image to go to the site.

by Barbara S. Peterson

I just heard from Kate Hanni, who'd seen my recent post on the prospect of taking airlines to court if they don't live up to the service standards in their contracts of carriage. She worries that consumers might get the wrong idea and think it's easy to sue a big airline if, say, the flight attendants run out of pretzels before they get to your seat. Hanni has a good point: The airlines' current contracts have enough wiggle room to drive the proverbial tank through.

"The DOT is only requiring that the airlines have a plan," not what they put in that plan, Hanni told me, adding that she expects the airlines to craft the usual escape clauses such as "reasonable amount of time" rather than a precise time limit on how long they'll hold passengers aboard a plane that's going nowhere. But Hanni points out that may all be moot: Bills to legislate airline behavior in such cases are back in the hopper on Capitol Hill (Senate Bill S. 213 and House Bill H.R. 624), and since President Obama had cosponsored the same bill when he was a senator, she's got high hopes for passage this year.   

Still, a reality check is in order.

Continue reading "Air Passenger Rights: It's Baaaack" »

ON THE FLY

After the Crash: A Tale of Two Airlines

Kennethcole_dt_2

by Barbara S. Peterson

As divers prepare to raise the airplane engine of US Airways flight 1549 from the depths of the frozen Hudson River, the warm and fuzzy--if not saccharine--coverage of the "miracle" on the Hudson continues apace. Unless you've been on Mars, you know what I'm referring to. In the week after flight 1549 averted disaster and splashed down in the Hudson River minutes after taking off from LaGuardia, we've been treated to the christening of a hero--that would be Captain "Sully" Sullenberger, who scored invitations to the presidential inauguration and a key to New York City; hundreds of human interest stories about the remarkable crew and the passengers' bravery in getting off the plane in the frigid waters; a nod to the generosity of the airline--which cut a check of $5,000 for each passenger to compensate them for the inconvenience of waiting what might be months to get their bags back, and some very weird attempts to capitalize on the crash--such as shoe designer Kenneth Cole's billboard over Manhattan's West Side Highway, which today read: "In tough times, some land on their feet (others on the Hudson),"  and went on to thank everyone involved for "all you do."

One of the most unusual aspects of the story so far, however, has to be the admission by a lawyer at a well-known plaintiffs' law firm that there may be few if any lawsuits over US Airways flight 1549.

Continue reading "After the Crash: A Tale of Two Airlines" »

ON THE FLY

More on Ditching Planes and the A320's Water-Friendly Design

Barbara S. Peterson underwent flight attendant training while reporting for her 2004 book on JetBlue, Blue Streak. Here, Barbara recounts one memorable lesson: Learning to ditch in a Florida pool. 

Most flight crews get at least one day of training in a pool in swimsuits for that rarest of airline disasters, a ditching. If you think that sounds fun, you're wrong. Among other things, you have to demonstrate that you're a strong swimmer and that you're capable of climbing into and out of one of those inflatable evacuation chutes, which become life rafts in the water.  That's a lot harder than it sounds--the rafts are huge and slippery--and also consider that the conditions in a real ditching would be far more challenging than those in a pool in Florida's breezy 80-degree weather.

The A320 rafts I'm familiar with are designed to seat 44, but can accommodate 55 in extreme situations. Try to imagine the claustrophobia and panic you might experience wedged in one of these things.

Continue reading "More on Ditching Planes and the A320's Water-Friendly Design" »

ON THE FLY

"In the Event of a Water Landing": What Flight Training Says About Ditching

Bluestreak_dt
Peterson joins a group of JetBlue flight attendants and pilots practicing their survival
skills--including ditching an aircraft--in a Miami swimming pool.

Photo: Mark Greenberg/World Picture News for Blue Streak

Barbara S. Peterson underwent flight attendant training while reporting for her 2004 book on JetBlue, Blue Streak. Yesterday, Barbara dipped into those memories as she, and the rest of us, came to grips with the "Miracle on the Hudson."

Jan. 15: Here are some thoughts written as I sit in the Oasis lounge at JFK Terminal 4, looking at a tarmac that is still covered with a dusting of snow--a reminder of how today, the coldest day of the season, saw the unreal spectacle of 155 passengers and crew ditching US Airways flight 1549, bound for Charlotte, in an ice-cold Hudson River just minutes after it had taken off from LaGuardia. As it happened, I bumped into two people I know at JetBlue, which flies the same type of plane--the Airbus A320--that landed in the drink earlier today. (And wouldn't you know it, apparently the JetBlue PR department is getting calls from TV people interested in talking to one of its own pilots, who made a heroic landing a few years ago--under very different circumstances.) 

Speaking of the media, lots of people in this lounge are hunched over laptops or are watching TV for the latest news of this bizarre episode. As my JetBlue acquaintances put it, the mood in aviation circles is of amazement and relief over the chain reaction of events: a jet lost two engines, which is almost unheard of, followed by a successful ditching in the water with no casualties--an even rarer (if not totally unprecedented) event. 

So what was it like aboard that plane as it descended into the water?

Continue reading ""In the Event of a Water Landing": What Flight Training Says About Ditching" »

ON THE FLY

Take Your Carrier to Court Day

Kate Hanni
Kate Hanni, founder of the
Coalition for an Airline
Passenger Bill of Rights,
in Washington, D.C. last April
(click to enlarge)
Photo:
Stephanie Pfriender Stylander

by Barbara S. Peterson

As President Bush winds up his last week in office, here's something to ponder, especially if you happen to be sitting on a plane held on the tarmac: One of his administration's last acts in the transportation field was to approve a policy that could open the way for consumers to sue airlines in state courts for any action that might violate their "contract of carriage," the pact that, unbeknownst to most travelers, goes into effect each time an airline sells you a ticket.

Few people have ever pored over the reams of gobbledygook in a real contract of carriage; most of us have never even tried to get a copy of one. (If you care, they are available online. Just type in the name of the airline and "contract of carriage." I just tried it for United and got about 50 single-spaced pages of rules.) But if the DOT has its way, you may want to brush up on your legalese. Airlines may soon have to rewrite their documents to include specific pledges on what they'll do for you when things go awry--and if they fall down on the job, you could get more than a lame letter of apology.

Continue reading "Take Your Carrier to Court Day" »

ON THE FLY

Idiocy in the Air

by Barbara S. Peterson

Judging from the latest bout of passenger-versus-passenger profiling cases, it's hard to escape the conclusion that the airlines and the government are as woefully unprepared to deal with these ugly episodes as they were right after 9/11.

The latest reminder is the news that JetBlue and the TSA reportedly paid $240,000 to settle a lawsuit filed by a passenger, Raed Jarrar, who was ordered to remove a T-shirt with a slogan in both English and Arabic as a condition of his being allowed to fly. 

According to Wired.com: "As Jarrar was waiting to board, TSA officials approached him and said he was required to remove his shirt because passengers were not comfortable with it, according to the lawsuit. The suit claimed one TSA official commented that the Arabic lettering was akin to wearing a T-shirt at a bank stating, 'I am a robber.' " (Italics mine.) Both Jaunted and Newsradio WTMJ 620 AM of Milwaukee ran photos of a T-shirt that presumably is similar to the one worn by Jarrar.

Continue reading "Idiocy in the Air" »

ON THE FLY

Air Travel Forecast 2009

Obama_2
How different will things look with Obama at the helm?
Photo: AP

by Barbara S. Peterson

It's a sign of the times: The Air Transport Association recently put off its annual forecast event for the media, saying, in so many words, that any predictions it issued now would be worthless. But that hasn't stopped other pundits and analysts from weighing in. So here, with a giant grain of salt, is a stab at predicting what's in store for air travelers in 2009:

* "It's the economy, stupid": Air travel will continue to slump in lockstep with the economy; the International Air Transport Association (IATA), which represents 230 airlines worldwide, says it thinks that traffic will be down about three percent. So look for airlines to continue to cut flights, at least in the first half of the year. But oil prices are also expected to be down, which should cushion airlines' finances--in fact, IATA says that airline losses should narrow to around $2 billion from $5 billion this year. More mergers and bankruptcies are possible, but in the U.S., at least, most of the major lines have recently emerged from bankruptcy. Delta and Northwest will be formalizing their recent union; in 2009 the Northwest name will all but disappear from the skies.

* Fee-ding frenzy: The conventional wisdom is that in a recession, airlines won't be able to raise fares since they'll be struggling to fill seats. The airlines' new fees will likely stick for the simple reason that consumers appear to have accepted them. But airlines are also getting better at figuring out new ways to extract money from your wallet by giving you something you might actually want, such as the new WiFi capability that will be launched (in a big way) in 2009 by American, Delta, JetBlue, Virgin America, and others. You'll pay for this, of course; the fees range from $10 for a shorter flight to $13 for a longer trip. But most of us would gladly fork over the dough for an alternative to what passes for in-flight entertainment these days. 

Continue reading "Air Travel Forecast 2009" »

ON THE FLY

Worrisome Details of the Denver Crash

by Barbara S. Peterson

Hearing about the horrific crash of a Continental Airlines 737 in Denver this week brought back memories. Remember the Air France crash in Toronto three years ago, when an A340 careened off a slick runway and into a ravine? Or the British Airways accident in Heathrow last January in which the pilot crashed a 777 in a field just across the road from the runway he was heading for? In each of those cases, the 100 percent survival rate was described as "a miracle" or "amazing," although some of the hundreds aboard were seriously injured as they exited the planes on emergency chutes. But, as I wrote in a story about surviving evacuations, it's not a miracle; it's the result of many years of safety research, which have resulted in far more stringent rules covering everything from the flammabilty of seat fabric to aisle lighting.

Everyone is breathing a sigh of relief at the outcome in Colorado (whose cause is under investigation), but there are some worrisome details, including a report that some seats broke loose. In 2005 the FAA required airlines to install stronger seats, but it exempted older planes. Moreover, of the 115 passengers and crew aboard Continental flight 1404, five landed in the hospital and more than 30 others sustained injuries. I know firsthand how hard it is to scramble out of a plane on one of those evacuation chutes--I tried it myself during an evacuation safety training course at the FAA academy in Oklahoma City, and the results were not pretty. I actually bounced off the chute and fell off the side, sustaining rope burns and scrapes on my arms and legs. It's the evacuation that usually causes the bulk of injuries in a crash of Denver's kind, not the accident itself. And it's a reminder of why everyone should pay close attention to those snooze-inducing safety announcements at the beginning of their trips.

Further reading:
* More details from the Denver crash
* Tips for surviving an evacuation
* On the Fly: The airline industry

ON THE FLY

Southwest Comes to the Big Apple

Open Skies

by Barbara S. Peterson

In what has to be the best news for air travelers we've heard in months, Southwest is coming to the Big Apple in 2009. Gary Kelly, CEO of the low-fare maverick, confirmed yesterday during an appearance at New York's Wings Club that the airline will offer flights out of LaGuardia Airport by next June. He hasn't revealed yet what cities the airline will fly to, but those who've followed the quirky carrier's progress for years know that the airline never tiptoes into a market; rather, expect a big splash, lots of flights, and rock-bottom fares. It's been dubbed the "Southwest effect" because when the airline swoops in, the existing airlines are forced to lower their fares to compete--and consumers benefit all around.

But wait: For years, didn't Southwest executives say that New York was the last place they wanted to pitch their tent, given the dismal operating conditions at all three of the city's major airfields? LGA, JFK, and Newark airports are known as the most delayed in the country. Indeed, New York's problems tend to cascade through the system: Last year, its airports were blamed for nearly 70 percent of all the late flights in the country. And Southwest, with its reputation for on-time service and quick airport turnarounds, had prudently avoided the risk of having that record sullied by getting stuck on the takeoff line at LGA.

Continue reading "Southwest Comes to the Big Apple" »

ON THE FLY

Slashed Air Fares for Air Jamaica

Airjamaica

by Barbara S. Peterson

Air Jamaica's new chief was in New York this week to reassure passengers and investors about the airline's future, despite recent speculation that its days were numbered. Bruce Nobles, an airline industry veteran, told reporters that the airline is definitely in the game for the long haul. When I spoke to Nobles earlier this week, the Jamaican flag carrier had just announced a big sale, slashing fares by as much as 40 percent for trips between January 9 and March 31.

The carrier, which the Jamaican government has said it wants to privatize, has been around for nearly 40 years, but lately it's been battered by the same forces sending other airlines into the red. Traffic is down between 10 percent and 15 percent. Nobles, who has run airlines as diverse as the Trump Shuttle and Hawaiian Airlines, said his role now is to get the airline in good enough shape to attract a well-heeled investor. "We're focusing on getting the airline right-sized and profitable," he said. "But our overriding objective is to get the airline back on time"--an allusion to the airline's somewhat less-than-stellar on-time performance. Nobles has already made his mark there: On-time performances were greatly improved in November. 

The airline expects to carry about 1.6 million passengers this year, about the same as last year. But planes should be fuller since the airline stopped flying to London, retiring its A340 widebodied aircraft and leaving itself with a fleet of 14 narrowbodied jets. On the plus side, other airlines are cutting back in the Caribbean and, Nobles said, "we've got a real opportunity here" to strengthen the brand. Its most popular routes are from Jamaica to New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Orlando as well as to Canada.

Further reading:
* Check out Air Jamaica's Web site for major deals
* On the Fly: The airline industry

ON THE FLY

South Asia Air Travel Update

by Barbara S. Peterson

FURTHER UPDATEBBC reports that Bangkok's international airport has reopened. There is a huge backlog of 300,000 stranded passengers in Thailand, so it could take a while to get them all out. Check here for updates on the airport situation maintained by the Tourism Authority of Thailand.

While international airlines serving South Asia are trying to convince the flying public that everything is back to normal in the region, the latest news from the Indian subcontinent is hardly encouraging. Flights are back to normal in Mumbai, where terrorists killed more than 170 in last week's attack on tourist sites, but Indian authorities reported today that a new threat has emerged targeting major airports in Delhi, Chennai, and Bangalore. 

Just how credible this latest threat is is unclear, but the authorities, stung by sharp criticism of their handling of the Mumbai rampage, say they aren't taking any chances. Passengers are required to arrive at the airport three hours before their flight, reports say, and they are being subjected to far more invasive frisking than usual. Screeners are going through all bags, and every vehicle is being checked before entering the security cordon.

Meanwhile, Bangkok's Suvarnabhumi International Airport reopens today after a weeklong siege by anti-government demonstrators. Flights are being restored gradually, though, and thousands of travelers are still without transportation out of the country. Some airlines are taking steps to rescue stranded passengers: Budget airline Air Asia, for example, has been operating extra flights this week out of Bangkok's U-Tapao naval base to Hong Kong, Macau, Singapore, and other destinations in Thailand like Chiang Mai and Phuket.   

What if you have reservations for a flight to the region in the near future but would rather postpone until the picture is clearer? Chances are you won't get a refund: Delta, for example, offered travelers to Mumbai that option for only a brief window right after the attacks. For their policies, check out the Web site of the airline in question and then get on the phone if you're not satisfied. At the very least, you should demand a chance to rebook without penalty for a future date.

Further reading:
* Air India
* Thai Air
* On the Fly: The airline industry

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