Air Travel

Now: fly commercial to Havana

havana-cookies

The first commercial flights between the United States and Havana started flying on Monday, by coincidence just a few days after the death of longtime Cuban leader Fidel Castro.

A 45-minute American Airlines flight from Miami to Havana was the first flight US – Havana flight of the day, followed by JetBlue’s flight from New York’s JFK Airport to Havana.

I joined the JetBlue flight. Here are some snaps from the send-off festivities, the flight and the Havana airport.

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JetBlue crew members had to apply to be part of the team on this inaugural flight, writing letters to try to compete for a spot. This flight attendant was glad to be on the flight so she could bring her doll “Lulu” back to Havana for the first time since 1962.

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There are just a few shops in the post-security area of Havana Airport – but several places to buy cigars.

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View out the window of Havana Jose Marti International Airport

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American and JetBlue were the first airlines to begin flying between the US and Havana, but by January Alaska Airlines, Delta, Frontier, Spirit, Southwest and United should be flying there too from a variety of cities throughout the U.S.

TSA & the things they bring

TSA GUNS

The TSA publishes a report each week on the number of firearms and other prohibited items people try to take with them through security checkpoints at airports.

Last week, March 11-17, 2016, for example, 62 firearms were discovered in carry-on bags at airport checkpoints around the country. 50 of those firearms were loaded and 14 had a round chambered.

Passengers don’t just try to guns with them onto planes. They take inert grenades, really big knives and one person tried to take this with them onto a plane at JFK International Airport in New York:

TSA JFK suspicious can 3-16-16

Looks like something that might explode, right?

According to the TSA Blog, the “organic mass and protruding wires… “ended up being what the traveler described as abstract art.”

Data-driven tips for finding holiday fares

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Hoping to fly somewhere this Thanksgiving or over the December holidays?

As I learned doing this story during a fill-in stint on USA TODAY’s Today in the Sky, you don’t need to give up on finding a great fare.

“Airfares in general are down this year,” said Cheapflights.com editor Melisse Hinkle. “And, while the Sunday after Thanksgiving is still in high demand, travel seems to be spreading out more across the holiday week and weekend.”

A global travel insights report out today from travel-tech company Sojern confirms the “spreading out” trend.

The report found that this year 67% of Thanksgiving trips will last four to five days, compared to 64% last year.

Sojern’s data shows that, with fares 26% above the national mean, New York’s JFK International Airport will be the most expensive airport to fly out of this Thanksgiving, followed by San Francisco International (21% above the mean), Los Angeles (18%) and Philadelphia (11%).

At the other end of the spectrum, Sojern’s report suggests that this Thanksgiving flights out of Atlanta (with fares 33% below the national mean), Fort Lauderdale (18%) and Washington National (15%) may offer some of the best deals.

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Cyber Monday deals

Travel deals are becoming popular during Cyber Monday sales and Sojern found that last year there was a fourfold increase in worldwide flight bookings on Cyber Monday.

“Americans responded the most dramatically to Cyber Monday last year, with an increase of 96% in flight bookings compared to Thanksgiving,” the report says.

Sojern expects the trend to continue this year.

“We expect consumers to continue to be on the hunt for travel deals this year, and, since Cyber Monday falls a little earlier in the quarter (the last day of November), prepare to see November bookings skyrocket thanks to this one magical day,” the report states.

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Pick a place

Kayak’s Holiday Travel Hacker went live this week with a wide range of tips, tools and charts.

The “Escapes” tab is especially useful: It shows the top 10 cities around the world where holiday airfares have dropped the most, compared to last year’s fares.

Hong Kong tops the list, with a 29% drop in airfare prices over last holiday season, and there are two U.S. cities on the list: Chicago, at No. 4, shows a 25% decrease in airfare prices, while airfares to Cleveland, at No. 9, are lower this year by 19%.

Coolest new airline? Maybe.

Livery for Teague's Poppi airline

Can the air travel experience be calmer, cooler and more comfortable?

The big thinkers at TEAGUE, the Seattle-based design consultancy surely think so.

The company helped design Microsoft’s first Xbox and has been Boeing’s key design partner forever. And to float some ideas about what might make air travel better, they created a new – imaginary – airline called Poppi.

Devin Liddell, Teague’s principal brand strategist, walked me through some of the key features and concepts he hopes airlines will adopt now, “instead of when it’s too late.”

TEAGUE’s most “disrupting” idea might be the banishing of carry-on bags and large overhead bins in favor of slimmer models they call “Fedora bins” that would hold hats, jackets and laptop cases.

Slim overhead bins, dubbed Fedora Bins, would only hold personal items

Liddell and his team are certain that technology is now good enough to make sure everyone’s bag gets where it needs to go. And that keeping all those bags out of the cabin would make everything from the security lines to the boarding process a breeze.

“That would sidestep the nightmare that takes place on the cabin when people try to cram their bags into the overhead bins and would make exiting the plane go much faster,” said Liddell.

In 'click-class' carry-on luggage would snap into the seat

For those unable to part with their bags, Poppi would have a “Click Class” option that would allow passengers to use special luggage that stores in the seat.

Poppi's middle-seat passengers would get special perks and gifts.

TEAGUE has lots more ideas about ways to transform all aspects of air travel, but the one they’re likely to get the most applause for is their suggestion that people seated in the dreaded middle seat be rewarded with gifts or special perks.

Read more about Poppi’s ‘promises’ here.

REAL ID act may cause issues for air travelers

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What’s in your wallet?

If you plan on traveling any time next year, the question is a pertinent one. Travelers with driver’s licenses from New York, Minnesota, New Hampshire, Louisiana, American Samoa or another state or territory the Department of Homeland Security deems not-compliant with the federal REAL ID act may soon be barred from using theirs as legal identification at the airport.

Up in the air, however, is whether “soon” means early or late 2016 — or a year or more.

DHS has already completed three separate phases of its REAL ID enforcement plan, which covers access to nuclear plants and a wide array of federally protected facilities. However, the next phase adds commercial aircraft to the agency’s access list, and will take place sometime after the turn of the calendar year.

The exact rollout date will be announced soon, said DHS spokeswoman Amanda DeGroff adding that the agency will “ensure that the traveling public has ample notice before any changes are made that could possibly affect their travel planning.”

Until then, DeGroff said the Transportation Security Administration will continue to accept state-issued driver’s licenses and identification cards from all states.

This means some travelers may be in for an unpleasant surprise at airports  next year.

While almost two dozen states issue driver’s licenses that are compliant with the law, numerous others have raised privacy and cost concerns. They, along with some independent advocacy groups, actively oppose the measure.

Some states, like Oklahoma, have laws on their books that explicitly prohibit complying with REAL ID; meanwhile, about two dozen non-complaint states have been granted extensions.

Turned away?

It’s unlikely the rule will take effect January 1, given the hurdles to compliance and the broad opposition.

“We expect that New Yorkers with standard-issue licenses will have more than a year notice before any change is implemented,” said Casey McNulty, a spokesman for the Empire State’s Department of Motor Vehicles. “New York has also applied for an extension to the law.”

When the final phase does ultimately take effect, travelers age 18 and over from states that remain non-compliant will need to a secondary or alternate form of identification. These include a U.S. passport or passport card, or one of the documents TSA’s authorized ID list, to pass through airport security checkpoints.

Travelers who do a little planning shouldn’t have a problem getting on their planes, but “rushes on passports will likely result in delays in getting applications processed,” noted Andrew Meehan, policy director of advocacy group Keeping Identities Safe and a Real ID supporter.

Still, “airports in noncompliant states will likely see long lines as travelers unaware of the changes will be turned away.”

(My story about the potential issues for air travelers due to the Real ID act first appeared on CNBC)