Rules

Travel Tidbits: Free Wi-Fi & More Fees

There’s good news and bad news for travelers this week.
Alaska Electronics

In Japan, rules have been eased so that airlines may allow passengers to use their personal electronic gadgets from gate to gate.

Free, unlimited Wi-Fi was introduced last week at Amsterdam’s Schiphol.

But as of today Allegiant Air follows the lead of Spirit Airlines in adding a fee to have an agent print out a boarding pass for you.

Here’s a link to my story about that Allegiant fee on USA TODAY, where I’m filling in on the Today in the Sky blog.

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Fines set for having pot at Colorado airports

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While it is now legal to possess and purchase marijuana in Colorado, anyone who brings pot to either of the state’s two busiest airports – Denver International and Colorado Springs – now risks the chance of being fined.

On Wednesday, Denver International Airport held a public hearing to formalize a policy it rolled out earlier in the month prohibiting the possession, use and consumption of marijuana for everyone – travelers, meters and greeters and workers – on airport property.

At the same time, DIA officials announced a set of “administrative citations,” or fines that would be issued as part of that policy: $150 for a first offense, $500 for a second offense and up to $999 for a third offense and beyond.

“This is really a last resort for us though,” said DIA spokeswoman Stacey Stegman. “Our primary goal is for people to comply with federal law,” which states that it is illegal to bring marijuana past security or transport it across state lines. See DIA’s new signage below, and then read on.

Stegman said that, as at other airports, if a TSA officer discovers marijuana, local law enforcement is called. “Law enforcement would look at the circumstances and determine what to do—depending upon intent, age, quantity, etc.”

If someone over age 21 is found at DIA airport with a small amount of pot, they’d likely be asked to put it in their vehicle, have someone take it away from the airport or asked to throw it away in a checkpoint trash receptacle. (DIA’s receptacles have lids with small holes, so Stegman isn’t worried about discarded marijuana being retrieved by others.) Those who decline these options would be asked to leave the airport and, before a citation would be given “other options would be explored,” said Stegman.

Signs outlining the rules will be posted at Denver International Airport within seven days, at which time airport and local authorities will begin enforcing the policy.

Starting Friday, January 10, pot is also prohibited throughout Colorado Springs Airport. According to a report in The Gazette, officials have warned the public that possession of pot at the airport could be punishable by a fine of up to $2,500 – and jail time.

Those found with marijuana at the Colorado Springs Airport will have the option to give it up voluntarily, without penalty, by putting it in their cars, giving it to someone to take away from the airport or depositing it in an “amnesty box” to be destroyed.

(My story about pot fine at Colorado Airports first appeared on the Runway Girl Network)

Don’t leave a dead relative at the airport

Each Friday on msnbc.com’s Overhead Bin, I tackle a reader’s travel-related question. This week’s topic was flying with cremated remains.

Dottie Flanagan, an accounting manager from Falmouth, Mass., will be flying to Knoxville, Tenn., in a few months to bury her mother’s cremated remains.

Flanagan isn’t sure yet which airline she’ll fly on or whether she’ll fly out of the airport in Boston or Providence, R.I., but she wrote to Overhead Bin to ask if there might be a problem taking the urn along as a carry-on item.

“The funeral parlor gave me the urn wrapped in bubble wrap and placed in a bag with handles,” said Flanagan. “It is ceramic with pink roses on it, shaped like a ginger gar and about 11 inches high. The lid is glued to the bottom and it cannot be opened. I’m sure I could obtain a letter from the funeral home certifying what was in the container if that would help.”

To help Flanagan with this task, I first reviewed the “Transporting the deceased” section of Transportation Security Administration website. There we learned that while passengers are allowed to carry a crematory container as carry-on luggage, the container must still pass through the X-ray machine. According to the TSA, “If the container is made of a material that generates an opaque image and prevents the Transportation Security Officer from clearly being able to see what is inside, then the container cannot be allowed through the security checkpoint.”

Paperwork from a funeral home about the contents of a container will not exclude it from screening and the TSA states that “out of respect … under no circumstances will an officer open the container even if the passenger requests this be done.”

As a precaution, TSA urges travelers to get a crematory container made of wood or plastic that can be successfully X-rayed. That still left me wondering about Flanagan’s ceramic container and we asked TSA spokesperson Nico Melendez to take a look at a jar similar to the one Flanagan will be carrying.

“Most urns will go through the X-ray machine with no problem,” said Melendez, “and this looks like porcelain, and should be fine. The problems we have are with containers made of lead that are difficult to see through, which is why we ask people to travel with the simplest container possible.”

If an urn is turned away from the security checkpoint, Melendez points out that the TSA does permit urns to be screened and placed in checked luggage. But some airlines specifically prohibit crematory containers from checked baggage.

The bottom line? For the final word on transporting cremated remains to their final resting spot, check with your carrier.

(Photo courtesy Flickr Commons.)

Peanuts on planes: got a problem with that?

Peanuts on a plane.

For a lot of people, that’s a more frightening scenario than snakes on a plane.

And a lot more likely.

And as I wrote in my msnbc.com column this week – Passengers peeved about peanuts on airplanes – a lot of travelers think the best way to enhance airline passenger protections is to ban peanuts on planes.

peanuts

Through September 23rd, the Department of Transportation (DOT) is taking public comment on a wide range of issues affecting airline passengers. Everything from peanuts on planes to involuntary bumping policies to surprise baggage fees.

Of the nearly 1,300 public comments submitted so far, the majority are focused on peanut allergies.

One problem though.

Technically, DOT doesn’t have the authority to change in-flight peanut policies. That’s because an appropriations law from 2000 prohibits the agency from passing peanut rules until a scientific study proves a rule change will actually benefit airline passengers with allergies. And no such study has been completed or commissioned.

Still, the agency is trying to gauge public opinion on ways to handle in-flight peanuts.

“We haven’t said we won’t do anything,” said DOT spokesperson Bill Mosely. “We haven’t ruled anything in or out. So we still do want to hear public comments about peanuts. We plan to read and review them all.”

The problem with flying peanuts

Peanut allergies among children have tripled between 1997 and 2008, and peanut allergies, tree-nut allergies, or both, are reported by 1 percent of the U.S. population, or about 3 million people, according to the Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Network (FAAN), a group that supports discontinuing serving peanuts on planes.

The fear of having a severe reaction from exposure to peanuts while locked inside an airplane keeps some allergy sufferers grounded. Under DOT’s rules, passengers with severe peanut allergies have a qualifying disability covered by the Air Carrier Access Act, which prohibits discrimination by U.S. and foreign carriers against individuals with disabilities.

As far back as 1988, DOT advised airlines to make reasonable accommodations for passengers disabled by their peanut allergies. Most airlines voluntarily comply, but no formal rules have been put in place.

Now, DOT is asking the public to comment on three alternatives to accommodate peanut-allergy sufferers on airplanes:

  • Ban the serving of peanuts and all peanut products on all flights;
  • Ban the serving of peanuts and all peanut products on all flights where a passenger with a peanut allergy requests it in advance, or;
  • Require airlines to establish a peanut-free buffer zone for passengers with severe peanut allergies.

DOT is also asking the public to comment on how peanuts and peanut products carried on board by passengers should be handled.

Peanut protections for airline passengers

If you’ve got a problem with peanuts, here’s what you need to know:

AirTran, Alaska/Horizon, American, Continental, JetBlue and United are among the major domestic airlines that do not serve peanuts. However, most airlines also post notices saying they can’t promise that some items served on board won’t contain nut products or that other passengers won’t bring their own nut products on board.

Two domestic airlines continue to ladle out legumes.

In 2009, both Southwest Airlines and Delta Air Lines served about 92 million bags of peanuts. “That does sound like a lot of nuts,” said Patrick Archer, president of the American Peanut Council, “But the airline portion of the overall U.S. peanut business is really very small.”

If alerted, Delta Airlines will accommodate a passenger with a peanut allergy by creating a peanut-free buffer zone for three rows in front of and three rows behind their seat. The airline’s website also notes that when advised that a passenger with peanut allergies is flying, “Gate agents will be notified in case you’d like to pre-board and cleanse the immediate seating area.”

And while Southwest Airlines can’t guarantee a nut-free airplane, it will suspend peanut service on an entire flight if a passenger with an allergy requests it. See Southwest’s peanut dust allergy page for more information.

Want to share your thoughts about peanuts-on-planes? You can leave a comment below.

You can also file comments for the DOT to read (through September 23, 2010) here.

Paperless boarding passes: benefit or bother?

We’ve all become accustomed to checking in for our flights on-line and printing out our boarding passes at home or at an airport kiosk on our way to the security checkpoint.

Now the TSA is working with five airlines and 70 airports to test paperless boarding passes.

Here’s how it works: When a traveler checks in on-line the airline emails a boarding pass in the form of a 2-D barcode that can be downloaded to a smartphone. The barcode on the phone can be scanned at the security checkpoint and by the airline gate agent; just like a paper pass.

It’s sound great, doesn’t it?

. But as I wrote in my most recent msnbc.com column – Going paperless: Tech-savvy air travelers on board – it’s probably not a good idea to disconnect your printer just yet. Electronic passes aren’t accepted everywhere. And they’re not fool-proof. “One of the first times I used one, my phone browser refreshed and I lost the boarding pass 30 seconds before boarding,” recalls Walter Hopgood, a frequent business traveler from Damascus, Oregon.

Path to paperless

Some airlines in Europe, Canada and Asia have been using paperless boarding passes since early 2007, but the United States has been behind the curve on adopting the new technology.

Why?

“We were slower to get Internet access on cell phones, slower to get affordable data plans on cell phones and slower than Europeans to start using cell phones for accessing data,” said Henry Harteveldt, a travel industry analyst for Forrester Research.  But it’s also because the TSA has been very cautious, says Catherine Mayer, vice president of airport services at SITA, an information technology company serving the aviation industry. “The agency had additional security requirements it wanted airlines to meet before it would allow paperless boarding to be introduced here.”

Continental, the first airline to work up software to meet TSA’s authentication standards, kicked off the TSA’s pilot program for paperless boarding in December, 2007. Now the test program includes five U.S. airlines (Alaska, American, Continental, Delta and United), 71 domestic airports and Frankfurt Airport in Germany.

“Airlines are able to streamline the airport experience for passengers,” said Justin Taubman, the program manager for TSA’s mobile boarding pass program. “And the TSA is able to enhance the security of the boarding passes.”

Good to go?

While electronic boarding passes do save paper and time while heightening the TSA’s ability to detect fraudulent boarding passes, the pilot program is not glitch-free.

Some passengers encounter scanners with spent batteries or security-checkpoint staffers untrained or uninterested in the mobile pass pilot program.  When Justin Meyer of Kansas City showed up at 5 a.m. at a Fort Lauderdale, Fla., security checkpoint armed with his electronic boarding pass, a TSA employee pressed him for paper. “I didn’t have it,” Meyer recalled, “so I had to wait about 10 minutes while they found the scanner and plugged it in.”

Other travelers have stored a paperless pass on a smartphone that has lost its charge. Or they’ve sailed through the TSA checkpoint paper-free, only to discover that an airline is using a gate without a scanner. Or they’ve discovered some airlines only deliver one paperless pass per smartphone — and that won’t work if you’re traveling with a family of four.

“Like any new technology or service, there needs to be a transition period when everyone is learning the way to proceed,” said Steve Lott of International Air Transport Association, an industry trade group.  And so for now, notes Shashank Nigam of the airline consulting firm, Simpliflying, “Paperless boarding may very well remain an early adopter thing until all airlines and airports fall in line.”

That may not be too far off. TSA’s Justin Taubman says the agency is currently working with vendors to develop equipment for a new boarding pass scanning system. “Once the new Credential Authenticating Boarding Pass Scanning System, or CAT/BPSS, is in place,” he said, “the pilot project will become an official TSA program.”

And we’ll have to learn a new acronym.

You can read my original column – Going paperless: Tech-savvy air travelers on board – and see some reader comments – on msnbc.com.