A monkey, a missed meal and guns

Some of the guns found at airport checkpoints Aug 5-11

I’m on fill-in duty this week on the Today in the Sky blog over at USA TODAY and having fun working up a variety of both serious and off-beat stories relating to airports and airlines.

Monday’s line-up:

An update on the “monkey on a plane” story that was all over the news last week;

A story about British Airways replacing a second meal service with tiny chocolate bars and other small snacks on some longhaul flights between London and the east coast;

And a look at the new record set by TSA for most firearms found at airport checkpoints in one week.

Wild animals at airports

I’ve been collecting photos to go with a slideshow that will go alongside an article about airports and national parks  and wild animals keep popping up.

This one was snapped just outside the terminal doors at Yellowstone Airport (WYS) in West Yellowstone, Montana, by airport manager Jeff Kadlec one night as he was trying to leave work.

Yellowstone Bison

And this one of a moose outside the baggage claim doors at Jackson Hole Airport (JAC) in Jackson, Wyoming was taken by airport employee Philip Bollman.

Baggage Moose_Bozeman

The full story about airports near National Parks – and the slideshow that also includes Mountain Cougar and goats in airports – will be my next At the Airport column on USA TODAY.  I’ll let you know when it posts.





Travel Tidbits: burros & bitcoins

I’ve had the honor of filling in for the vacationing Ben Mutzabaugh at USA TODAY’s Today in the Sky section the past few days.

Here are just two of the 18 stories I posted in his space over five days.

Animals on Duty at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport

OHARE -baby burro

This baby burro – named “Butch” in honor of O’Hare Airport’s namesake, U.S. Navy Medal of Honor recipient Edward “Butch” O’Hare – is part of a herd of rescued animals that include sheep, goats, more burros, llama and alpacas eating their way through hard-to-access, unwanted vegetation on airport land this summer. The crew got a visit from the new airport commissioner.

LOT Polish Airlines_ Image_ akopec_b787

LOT Polish Airlines has joined the small but growing list of airlines and travel companies that allow customers to pay for their tickets with bitcoins. Soon this won’t even be news.

Falcons fly in style on many airlines

Falcom Master

The ancient sport of falconry is so popular in the Middle East that many commercial airlines in that region allow passengers to bring trained hunting raptors into the main cabin, where the birds travel on a handler’s heavy cuff or tied to an adjacent seat.

“If falconers tried that in the states, people would get all worked up about it,” Scott McNeff, vice-president of the North American Falconers Association, “But in the Middle East its part of their culture. Everyone understands that and is around it all the time.”

Etihad Airways, Emiratesand Qatar Airways post falcon policies on their websites, as does Royal Jordanian Airlines, which allows up to 15 properly hooded falcons to travel in wide-bodied economy cabins at a per-bird charge of three times the normal excess baggage rate.

Fans of falconry with private aircraft will soon have a more convenient way to transport their birds.

With input from falcon specialists, the Executive Jet Solutions division of Hamburg-based Lufthansa Technik designed the “Falcon Master,” an easy-to-assemble and disassemble kit that connects to standard aircraft seat tracks and provides both a stable bird perch and stainless steel surfaces that can help “maximize sanitary protection of walls, seats and carpets against dirt produced by the birds,” according to a company statement.

A prototype of the product for private jet interiors is currently on display in Dubai, said Ziad al Hasmi from Lufthansa Technik, “and theoretically, it could also be installed in commercial aircraft in the future.”

Falcon Master - courtesy Lufthansa Technik

The price? Depending on the market response and final design, the Falcon Master could sell for about 50,000 EUR, or about $61,760, and be available in the second half of 2015.

“The target market is private and VIP Jet owners especially from the Mid East, who own these precious birds and use them for hunting,” said Lufthansa Technik spokesperson Peter Isendahl of Lufthansa Technik AG.

U.S. airlines don’t allow falcons in the cabins, so Scott McNeff and his fellow falconers usually drive their birds to events and meetings in other regions. “I’d be content to sit on a plane with my bird on my fist,” said McNeff. “But it would be really nice to have perch on a plane where you can put the bird down, go to sleep and not worry.”

(My story on falcons on airplanes first appreared on

Southwest Air & others urged to cut SeaWorld ties


Shamu-themed plane. Courtesy Southwest Airlines


The documentary film “Blackfish” has created a wave of controversy over claims of animal cruelty for SeaWorld Entertainment’s chain of marine animal theme parks. Amid calls for boycotts, performers such as Willie Nelson and Trisha Yearwood are refusing to play concerts at SeaWorld venues, but some of the company’s marketing partners, such as Southwest Airlines said that, for now, no changes are planned.

Southwest is “in a listening and education mode,” airline spokeswoman Marilee McInnis said last week in blog post responding to the delivery of a petition with 27,000 signatures urging the airline to break ties with SeaWorld. For now, “our partnership with SeaWorld will continue,” she said.

SeaWorld and Southwest have worked together since 1988 in what McInnis told CNBC is a “mutually beneficial partnership” that “is based on travel and bringing families together.”

Co-branded programs include vacation packages and several Boeing 737 specialty jets painted with images of marine park animals. Two planes, Shamu Two and Shamu Three (Shamu One has been retired), feature images of Sea World’s performing orcas. A huddle of gentoo penguins are painted on the newest themed plane, Penguin One.

Southwest Airlines isn’t the only corporate entity being pressured to sever ties with SeaWorld. On alone, there are more than two dozen “Blackfish”-inspired petitions, including one asking Toys R Us to stop selling a SeaWorld-themed Barbie and another asking Groupon to stop featuring discounted SeaWorld deals.

The “Blackfish” documentary by filmmaker Gabriela Cowperthwaite examines the history of killer whales in captivity and, in particular, the story of Tilikum, a captive orca that has been associated with the death of several people, including of a trainer in 2010 at SeaWorld Orlando in Florida. Petitioners have called for the release of Tilikum and changes to the way in which SeaWorld treats animals in its theme parks.

“These campaigns against our partners are generally orchestrated by animal rights organizations whose views are extreme and entirely out of step with U.S. public opinion,” said SeaWorld spokesman Fred Jacobs, who calls them a form of “digital harassment.”

“We do not have any plans at this time to remove the Barbie I Can Be SeaWorld line from our stores,” said Kathleen Waugh, vice president of corporate communications for Toys R Us. Groupon declined to comment for this story.

SeaWorld defends its practices and, in a variety of public statements, accuses the “Blackfish” film producers of painting “a distorted picture that withholds from viewers key facts about SeaWorld—among them, that SeaWorld is one of the world’s most respected zoological institutions, that SeaWorld rescues, rehabilitates and returns to the wild hundreds of wild animals every year and that SeaWorld commits millions of dollars annually to conservation and scientific research.”

Still, citing the “Blackfish” documentary and petitions signed by fans, performers such as Martina McBride, 38 Special, REO Speedwagon, Cheap Trick, Trisha Yearwood, Heart and Willie Nelson have canceled their events at SeaWorld venues.

“I understand there are petitions going around with thousands of people’s names on it, so I had to cancel,” Nelson said in a CNN interview. “Also, I don’t agree with the way they treat their animals, so it wasn’t that hard a deal for me to cancel.”

For other performers and companies being urged to cut ties with SeaWorld, the decision may not be as easy, said Shailendra Jain, chair of the department of marketing and international business at the Foster School of Business at the University of Washington in Seattle.

Some may choose to encourage dialog “to get to the bottom of the matter,” said Jain. Others may need to “examine analytically the costs and benefits of discontinuing SeaWorld as a co-brand,” staying with them for the long run or, in the short run, adopting a “wait and watch stand—as Southwest is doing,” he said.

Meanwhile, the “Blackfish” film controversy doesn’t seem to be having a negative effect on SeaWorld’s bottom line.

On Monday the company, which operates 11 theme parks in locations including San Diego, Orlando and San Antonio, said it reported preliminary revenue for 2013 of about $1.46 billion. That would represent a record revenue year for SeaWorld Entertainment, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year.

For its peak summer quarter, which ended Sept. 30, the parks hosted 8.9 million customers who paid an average $38.38 for admission and an additional $22.36 on food, merchandise and other items, according to the financial filing.

SeaWorldEntertainment held its initial public offering in April and is majority owned by 10 limited partnerships owned by affiliates of The Blackstone Group and co-investors.

(My story about Southwest Airlines and others being urged to sever ties with SeaWorld first appeared on CNBC Road Warrior.)