Harriet Baskas

Airports go dark for Earth Hour

Courtesy LAWA

Airports around the world will join thousands of iconic landmarks, buildings, attractions, hotels and homes in turning off (non-essential) lights on Saturday, March 25 in honor  of International Earth Hour.

The event began in 2007 with a single lights-off event in Australia and is now observed  in 178 countries and territories – including the International Space Station – with more than 12,700 monuments turning off their lights for one hour in 2016.

Los Angeles International Airport’s (LAX) signature 100-foot-tall Gateway pylons (above ) will glow green – and then go dark between 8:30 and 9:30 p.m.

Courtesy Denver Int’l Airport

Denver International Airport (DEN) will be turning off the lights on the iconic “32-foot-tall Mustang” statue and the “Shadow Array” artwork at the Hotel and Transit Center. Shadow Array is made up of 236 beetle-kill spruce logs that are usually illuminated at night.

Here’s a link to an Earth Hour map of other places going dark around the world for an hour on March 25. Check to see if the lights will be going out where you are at 8:30 local time.

 

Alaska Airlines announces plans for Virgin America

Photo by Harriet Baskas

It comes as no surprise, but Alaska Airlines announced its plans for the Virgin America name and brand and has decided that it’s going to keep the Alaska’s name and logo and retire the Virgin America name “likely sometime in 2019,” according to a company statement.

That’s bad news for those who love the Virgin America overall brand, vibe and amenities. But the good news is that Alaska Airlines is keeping its word and bringing some of the best Virgin America amenities forward.

Alaska says it will adopt “enhanced in-flight entertainment, mood lighting, music and the relentless desire to make flying a different experience for guests” as part of an overall goal to create “a warm and welcoming West Coast-inspired vibe.”

Alaska says it will adopt some other Virgin America touches including introducing music by new artists  on planes, in airport lobbies and at gates (2017); redesigning the cabin with new seats and amenities (2018) and introducing new uniforms by fashion designer Luly Yang (mid-2019) for flight attendants, customer service agents, pilots, mechanics and ground crew.

Alaska also promises to upgrade the Wi-Fi connectivity fleet-wide, add more premium seats, expand the lounge network and offer other new amenities you can read about here.

What do you think?

Tips on dealing with the electronics ban on planes

 

 

Travelers are trying to figure out how to deal with new government rules placing an indefinite ban on electronic devices larger than smartphones from the cabins of commercial aircraft flying to both the United States and the United Kingdom from certain countries.

Canada is also considering joining the electronics ban for flights.

Here are some tips and things to consider if you’re booked on one of these flights, taken from my story on this topic for NBC News Travel.

 

In the United States, the ban covers nine airlines (Royal Jordanian, EgyptAir, Turkish Airlines, Saudi Arabia Airlines, Kuwait Airways, Royal Air Maroc, Qatar Airways, Emirates Air and Etihad Airways) and direct flights to the U.S. from 10 specific airports listed here.

In the United Kingdom, the ban covers inbound flights from six countries: Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt, Tunisia and Saudi Arabia.

“The ban means there is probably intelligence indicating a terrorist group or individual has been planning to detonate a device on board a commercial airplane, using an electronic to either hide an explosive, or as a triggering device for an explosive,” said aviation safety and security expert Jeff Price.

The ban also means that, for the foreseeable future, travelers booked on more than 125 affected flights a day to the US and UK will have to put devices such as tablets, e-readers, cameras, laptops, portable DVD players, portable printers and scanners and video games in checked baggage.

Travelers are concerned not only about how they will spend their time during flights, but the fate of the devices checked in airplane holds.

“Am I seriously going to check a $3-5K dollar camera? Not a chance,” said Washington, D.C. –based writer and photographer Emily Troutman, via Twitter.

As the bans begin to go into effect, experts are sharing advice and tips for those currently booked – or about to be booked – on the affected flights.

“Back up all your data and save it to the cloud, arrive at the airport early, bring your phone charger or buy one at the airport, and bring some good material,” suggests travel pro Johnny Jet in a web post and try switching to connecting instead of a direct flight from one of the affected airports. “If you’re booked on the Emirate non-stop from Dubai to the U.S., you can also see if they’ll move you to one of their one-stops through Milan or Athens,” he said.

Other travel experts suggest loading work files, books, games and other entertainment onto phones and purchasing or bringing along an external keyboard to make typing and accessing the information easier.

“Upgrading to a larger memory phone might be in order,” said Farecompare CEO Rick Seaney, whose research shows the ban will initially affect approximately 126 flights a day to the US and UK, with over 40,000 potentially inconvenienced fliers.

Families traveling with children, who have come to rely on movie and game-filled tablets for entertainment, should make sure to pack “some good old-fashioned unplugged entertainment, such as books, puzzle books, and coloring pads,” said Suzanne Rowan Kelleher, family travel expert at About.com.

And this may be a good time to explore the offerings on the affected airlines’ in-flight entertainment, some of which is quite extensive.

Not long after the ban was announced, Middle East carrier Emirates posted a “Who Needs Tablet and Laptops Anyway?” Tweet with a reminder that the airline offers “Over 2500 channels of the latest, movies, box sets, live sport and kids TV.”

While in-flight entertainment on a long flight is helpful, it won’t replace laptops for many travelers.

The ban “is simply unworkable for most business travelers. They need to be productive during their trips,” said the Business Travel Coalition in a statement, “Many business travelers do not check luggage, even on long flights as it slows them down upon arrival at baggage claim. Now they will have to check their electronics with many paying for the privilege.”

For those concerned about gear getting lost or stolen, insurance coverage from the airlines, travel insurance providers and certain credit cards may be helpful, “But the primary concern for most business travelers regarding the theft of electronic devices isn’t the value of the device itself, it’s the value/sensitivity of the data stored on the device,” said Max Leitschuh, iJET International Airline Safety Analyst.

Another option? Not checking electronic devices at all. “My recommendation is to ship your electronics to your destination,” said aviation security and safety expert Jeff Price, “There’s no way I’d put my laptop in checked baggage. And those little locks they sell can be defeated in about 15 seconds with a good paperclip.”

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Airports add pet potties & play areas; dump pay phones, banks

Modern-day airports no longer concentrate solely on being gateways to help passengers get from here to there.

That’s still their key role, of course. But today the focus is also on making the airport experience efficient and enjoyable for travelers – and profitable for the airports – through an ever-improving mix of dining and shopping options and an evolving mix of amenities.

“Whether engaging with passengers through an animal therapy program to instill a sense of calm in a busy terminal or providing ample electrical charging stations for mobile devices, airports are committed to not only meeting passengers’ expectations but exceeding them.” said Kevin Burke, president and CEO of Airports Council International – North America.

A recent survey by the airport membership organization identified the top 10 airport amenities in North America, the top amenities airports are adding and several amenities many airports say they will likely be eliminating in the next few years.

According to ACI-NA’s Passenger Amenities Survey, the top 10 most commonly offered airport amenities and services are:

  1. ATM Services
  2. Gift Shops / News Stands
  3. Airport Websites
  4. Electrical Charging Stations
  5. Restaurants and Bars
  6. Lost and Found
  7. Parking / Taxi and Limousine Services
  8. Free Wi-Fi
  9. Pre-Security Pet Relief Facilities
  10. Food and Beverage Vending Machines

No surprises there, but among the amenities on the rise are some designed to make traveling with kids – and pets – a bit easier:

  1. Nursing mothers’ rooms and pods
  2. Post-security pet relief facilities
  3. Children’s play areas
  4. Airfield observation areas
  5. Adult changing and washroom facilities.

In part to make way for these new amenities, airports say that over the next three to five years they’ll be phasing out and, in some cases, eliminating a few other amenities.

So get ready to say goodbye to smoking rooms, payphones and bank branches at airports.

ATMs are plentiful at many airports, but staffed bank branches are already quite rare.

One holdout is Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, where there is a branch of Wings Financial.

“The local bank has a built-in customer base, as they began as a credit union for airline and airport employees,” said airport spokeswoman Melissa Scovronski, “So we don’t expect to eliminate that service.”

Smoking lounges still exist at just a handful of major U.S. airports, including Washington Dulles International Airport and Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, but in 2016, Salt Lake City International Airport closed all its smoking rooms and by the end 2018 the last remaining smoking lounge at Denver International Airport will end its contract.

And those once ubiquitous banks of pay phones at airports are being replaced with charging stations or making way for other services.

Seattle-Tacoma International Airport removed the last of its payphones in 2016.

With the rise of cell phones, “Folks simply don’t use pay phones,” said SEA spokesman Brian DeRoy, “And there are hardly any companies now that want to have the financial burden of taking on a pay phone contract for a very limited number of users.”

Austin-Bergstrom International Airport has also ditched all its payphones, but provides a courtesy phone for free local calls next to the information desk on the baggage claim level.

“Our information desk staff can also make calls for passengers when needed, such as when cell phones batteries are dead,” said AUS spokesman Derick Hackett.

The number of payphones is being steadily reduced, but not yet eliminated, at airports in Dallas/Fort Worth, Minneapolis and Chicago, where there are now 503 payphones at O’Hare International (down from 650 five years ago) and 174 payphones at Midway International (down from 180).

“The payphones taken off line were removed because of low usage, requests from the airlines due to construction in their gate areas and repurposing of space for revenue producing ventures,” said Gregg Cunningham of the Chicago Department of Aviation, but some will remain “because they are still a necessary means of communication for some customers.”

At Reno-Tahoe International Airport, free local or toll free calls can be made from any courtesy phone in the airport.

“In 2008, AT&T ended their payphone contract at the airport, at same time they pulled out of shopping malls and other public buildings due to decreases in revenue,” said RNO airport spokeswoman Heidi Jared, “But the airport authority knew an option was needed to fill that void since not all travelers have a cell phone.”

And, totally bucking the no-payphone trend, thanks to a deal dating back to 2012, Denver International Airport still has about 200 payphones in the terminal and on the concourses that provide unlimited free national domestic calls and international calls that are free for the first 10 minutes.

(A slightly different of this story about airport amenities appeared on CNBC)