Airline policies

Horizon Air president apologizes to mistreated passenger

Over the weekend, a Bend, Ore., man took to Facebook to describe the incivility he alleged was inflicted on a fellow passenger on an Horizon Air flight out of Oregon’s Redmond Municipal Airport.

Cameron Clark witnessed what he described on Facebook as “the worst of humanity” when airline staff on duty appeared to ignore and refuse special assistance to a couple he thought was “disabled/mentally and physically challenged.”

Clark estimated the couple to be in their 70s and said that the man later told him he had late-stage Parkinson’s disease, that his companion had MS and that he was trying to get to Bellingham, Wash., to see his daughter.

“He had a hard time walking,” Clark wrote on Facebook, “No one offered him a wheelchair or asked how they could be helpful. He stumbled off toward the safety inspection line. Predictably, he didn’t understand/comprehend their restriction of his luggage, and got stuck in security.”

Throughout the weekend, Clark’s Facebook post created a flurry of negative and outraged comments, which Alaska Airlines responded to with a series of Facebook posts of its own.

I spoke with Alaska Airlines spokesperson Paul McElroy on Monday morning and he told me that while the passenger did not get on his Friday flight, he did fly Saturday and is visiting with his daughter at an alternate location. McElroy said the airline refunded the passenger’s initial ticket price and provided complimentary round-trip transportation for his trip.

“There are things we should have done better,” said McElroy, who added that the president of Horizon Airlines was preparing a post to that effect. (Regional airline Horizon Air and Alaska Airlines are both owned by the Alaska Air Group, which is based in Seattle.)

Coincidentally, on Monday the airline was meeting with Eric Lipp, the executive director of Open Doors Organization, an independent disability advocacy group. “We’re going to leverage their visit and ask them to help us review what we did with this customer to see if we could have done better,” McElroy said.

Lipp said there are laws to help passengers with disabilities and extra services that airlines can and are willing to provide. “But the law says the passenger has to self-identify,” said Lipp. “Otherwise, it’s a puzzle. The breakdown here is that the passenger didn’t self-identify and the airline didn’t have the right codes in the system to get him services he was entitled to.”

Lipp had other advice for passengers with disabilities and much of it was rolled into the apology Horizon Air president Glenn Johnson posted on Facebook on Monday afternoon. Here’s part of that statement, which includes some helpful tips.

“…First and foremost, we’ve determined that we could and should have handled this better and I apologize to our passenger on behalf of all of us at Horizon Air and Alaska Airlines. This experience has reminded us of the importance of assisting passengers with disabilities and making sure every one of them receives the special care they may need.

The information we’ve gathered during our review will certainly improve our efforts going forward.”

…Alaska and Horizon have partnered with Open Doors Organization, an independent disability advocacy group, to review employees’ handling of the situation and suggest improvements in the airlines’ disability, awareness and sensitivity training. Eric Lipp, Open Doors Organization’s executive director, advises passengers with a disability who are traveling to:

  • Self-disclose to the airline any assistance you may need before you arrive at the airport. This could include an escort or wheelchair assistance through security, to the gate, and while boarding and exiting the plane.
  • Ask the airline if you prefer to have a personal assistant escort you to the gate. Most airlines will issue passes to personal assistants to help passengers with disabilities get to or from the gate area.
  • Plan ahead and arrive at the airport at least 90 minutes before your flight departs, which allows time to check luggage, obtain wheelchair services, get through security and board the flight.

(Part of this post first appeared in my NBC News story Witness blasts Alaska Airlines for treatment of fellow passenger.

Proper flying attire: baggy pants or hotpants?

I really can’t tell you what thrilled me more today. The photo (above) that Jill Tarlow took of a fellow airline passenger and shared with The San Francisco Chronicle as part of the national discussion about proper flying attire – or all the other photos of this man people began sending me after I wrote about about him on msnbc.com’s Overhead Bin (What will get you kicked off US Airways? Saggy pants or underpants?)

Jessica Villardi took this photo in May

Sean Stecker spotted him in Phoenix around Christmas

And someone else snapped him in this fetching outfit in Baltimore.

You can read more about the mystery man here, but no matter what you think of his outfits, he – and the University of New Mexico football player recently arrested at San Francisco International Airport for allegedly refusing to follow a US Airways crew members’ request to hike up his saggy pants – are fueling a fresh debate about the rights of passengers at the airport and in the air.

Hats off – or on – for airline pilots


[Photo: Brian Losito/Courtesy Air Canada]

 

Next time you’re at the airport, keep a close eye on the pilots heading to work. Like the Air Canada pilots pictured above, they all look pretty snappy in their uniforms.

But are they wearing their caps?

It could depend on whether or not that pilot is worrying about hat hair. Or looking dorky.

Or whether or not their employer still makes that hat an optional uniform accessory.

Here’s the Capless Captains story I wrote about the topic for msbnc.com.

 

Airlines to airline pilots: You can leave your hat on. Or not.

Last month, American Airlines changed its operations manual to let pilots know it’s OK to go hatless. The carrier is just the latest among North American airlines that have made the hat an optional part of airline captains’ and first officers’ uniforms.

“The reason we made it optional is because it got to be too hard to police,” said George Tucker, American’s chief pilot at San Francisco International Airport. “Hats just seem to be slowly fading away.”

The rule about wearing a hat “is determined airline by airline,” said Doug Baj, spokesperson for the Air Line Pilots Association, International. “However, there are some uniform manual policies that still technically require it.”

For several years now, wearing hats has been optional for flights crews on Alaska, Southwest and several other airlines.

United Airlines changed its hat policy about four years ago. “Hats are part of our pilot uniforms, but are not required,” said spokesperson Megan McCarthy.

Hat hair and mistaken identity
Pilots have a range of opinions about hats, with some saying it makes them look more professional and others saying that they are frequently mistaken for skycaps.

Mike Cingari, a San Francisco-based pilot for American, is delighted that after 27 years, he’s now free to leave his hat at home.

“I’m against hats. They mess up your hair, promote baldness and it looks really stupid to be walking around with a hat on,” said Cingari. “Plus you have to remember it.”

Cingari has found that sometimes his hat causes confusion inside the airport or out on the curb. “Passengers ask you directions to the bathroom or think you’re a skycap and ask you to take their bags,” he said.

Karsten Stadler, an assistant chief pilot at Southwest Airlines, has also been mistaken for someone else when wearing his pilot’s hat. “I once had a man get very angry with me for not bringing the van around in time. But as many pilots say they’ve been confused for someone else, there are others who say the hat helps them get recognized,” said Stadler.

Although his employer now allows pilots to forgo their hats, Kent Wien says he’ll probably continue to wear his pilot cap to and through airports.

Wien, who writes the “Cockpit Chronicles” column for the Gadling.com travel blog, said: “It kind of finishes off the uniform and gives a more professional appearance. I think passengers want to see that. Otherwise, you don’t look much different than the ticket agent or a crew member.”

There’s also the issue of safety. American Airlines’ Tucker makes sure his hat is always with him. “Because if, God forbid, I have that day when I have to do an emergency evacuation on my airplane, part of my responsibility is to get passengers together and move them away from the plane. The hat is a visible symbol, and we know customers respond to authority,” said Tucker.

Hatted vs. hatless
“It’s like the white coat on the doctor,” said Janet Bednarek, a history professor specializing in aviation history at the University of Dayton in Ohio. “You want to be able to tell the captain from anyone else.”

While some airlines are just now ditching the pilot hats, others, such as JetBlue and Virgin America, never had hats as part of the official uniform. “Our pilots’ all black uniforms are functional yet hip,” said Virgin America spokesperson Abby Lunardini. “We do not require caps … but we have found that our pilots do prefer a uniform shirt that has epaulettes or markings that differentiate them from in-flight and guest service teammates.”

At least two North American airlines still require a pilot to wear a full uniform, including a hat, whenever they’re in the public’s view: Air Canada and Delta Air Lines.

“The hat helps identify the pilots and makes them stand out from other crew members, passengers and business people,” said Captain Jay Musselman, director of flight standards and quality for Air Canada.

Hats reflect “leadership and professionalism,” said Delta Air Lines spokesperson Gina Laughlin. “The hat and double-breasted blazer give Delta pilots a sharp, professional appearance.”

Frank Abagnale thinks the airline pilot hat can also be a test of authenticity.

He should know. In the 1960s, Abagnale gained notoriety for forging more than $2 million in bad checks and for adopting a variety of fake identities, including a doctor, a lawyer and, most famously, a Pan American World Airways pilot. Abagnale, whose exploits were depicted in the movie “Catch Me If You Can,” is now a fraud prevention consultant for corporations and the FBI and explained, via e-mail, why he thinks pilots should keep their hats:

“The emblems on their hats, as well as their wings, are actually two of the most difficult things for someone to obtain … removing the requirement of the hat makes it one step easier to assume the role of a pilot.”

 

Cellphones on airplanes? Debate continues.

Should passengers be allowed to use their cellphones on airplanes? In the U.S. it’s not allowed. Outside the United States, some carriers already allow it.

Here’s my recent msnbc.com article on the topic.  After you read it, please add your vote to the on-line survey .

(Last time I checked, 85% of voters said “On airplanes, everyone should just shut up and fly.”

What do media magnate Arianna Huffington and Hollywood heartthrob Josh Duhamel have in common? They’ve both been busted for using their cell phones on airplanes.

Over the weekend, on a New York-bound flight from Washington, D.C., Huffington reportedly failed to turn off her mobile device, inciting the ire of an unimpressed cabin mate. Last month, Josh Duhamel was escorted off a plane in New York because he wouldn’t turn off his BlackBerry.

These high-profile skirmishes are two of the latest examples in the debate over whether to allow in-flight cell phone conversations.

In Europe, the Middle East and Asia, airlines that wire planes for connectivity can install special equipment to allow passengers to use their own cell phones to make and receive calls.

Domestic airlines own about 90 percent of the world’s connected planes, but federal regulations still ban the use of in-flight mobile calls.

And while Uncle Sam doesn’t outlaw mid-air communications made using Skype or other Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) services, every U.S. carrier offering broadband has directed service providers such as Aircell/Gogo and Row 44 to block all voice calls and disable the VoIP function.

The disconnection may get wider.

At the end of 2010, more than 2,000 airplanes were wired for connectivity. “We expect that number to increase by 50 percent this year, to roughly 3,000 planes worldwide,” said Amy Cravens, a market analyst for In-Stat.

With more international carriers jumping on the connectivity bandwagon, much of that growth will likely be represented by jets owned by airlines planning to, or already providing, mobile phone service.

And unless something changes in the U.S., some analysts worry the only travelers who will be unreachable by mobile phone will be those flying in U.S. airspace.

International travelers chat away


After deciding that mobile phones posed no threat to safety, the European Aviation Safety Agency lifted its ban on in-flight cell phone use in 2007.

Since then, OnAir, AeroMobile and a variety of their equipment partners have been working with many international airlines to install equipment that allows mobile phone calls in addition to other entertainment and communication services.

Oman Air, Egypt Air, Libyan Airlines, Qatar Airways and Royal Jordanian are among the airlines that currently offer in-flight voice calls on many of its aircraft. British Airways allows mobile phone use on a single route: an all-business class flight between London and New York. Malaysia Airlines and others are conducting trials before committing to a formal rollout of a mobile phone service.

“Emirates is the airline everyone is watching with regard to passenger acceptance of in-flight calls; and of course, whether the service is commercially viable,” said Raymond Kollau, a market and trend analyst for Airlinetrends.com. The carrier operates 90 jets equipped with in-flight connectivity.

“People have been able to use their mobile phones on our planes for about three years now,” said Patrick Brannelly, Emirates’ vice president for product, publishing, digital and events.

Cell phone users made between 15,000 and 20,000 calls per month from Emirates flights in 2010, Brannelly said. “Each call averaged about two minutes. And during that year we had only one complaint,” he said. “Now the complaint we’re hearing from passengers is why we don’t have the mobile phone service on every aircraft.”

But not all international carriers are rushing to provide the service.

Based on feedback from a 2008 test of in-flight mobile phone service, Air France spokesperson Karen Gillo said the airline now considers mobile phone calling “a future option … [We] don’t have any current plans to implement it fleet-wide.”

Ryanair offered in-flight mobile calling for a while on 50 aircraft, Kollau said. “However, OnAir, who provided the service, decided to stop the partnership reportedly because of a dispute in revenue sharing.”

While Lufthansa recently relaunched its FlyNet onboard Internet system, which could allow voice communication, the airline’s research suggests it’s not a good idea. “Repeated surveys among our customers show that our passengers value a quiet environment without cell phone usage,” said spokesperson Christina Semmel.

Cathay Pacific Airways, though, is determined to offer voice calling to passengers. The airline offers broadband Internet service, and supports BlackBerrys and other smartphones. “When we tested this suite of services with our passengers, all were popular, but voice calling was certainly the most polarized,” said Alex McGowan, head of product for the airline. “We recognize that some passengers are against the concept, and we will ensure that their fears around the ‘nuisance’ factor are not realized.”

Calling U.S. carriers


Back in the states, the regulatory ban and public debate over in-flight phone calls continues, but opposition may be waning.

In 2005, the Bureau of Transportation Statistics asked about 1,000 households if, barring safety issues, cell phones should be allowed on airplanes. Thirty-nine percent said “definitely” or “probably.” Four years later, nearly 48 percent of respondents gave the same answers.

The “Halting Airplane Noise to Give Us Peace” Act of 2008, the so-called Hang-Up Act, was approved by the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee but never became law. However, parts of that proposal, which sought “to establish prohibitions against voice communications using a mobile communications device on commercial airline flights” could end up in another bill that comes before the new Congress.

The Association of Flight Attendants opposes the use of cell phones in the cabin. “As first responders, we must be able to assess the cabin for any suspicious activity. If 50 passengers are on their cell phones, holding 50 separate conversations, it makes it increasingly difficult to identify any potential threat to the safety and security of the cabin,” said Veda Shook, president of AFA International.

Those phone conversations may be taking place before the jet takes off, but Mary Kirby, senior editor for Flight International, said flight attendants won’t have to deal with them in the air. “There are a finite number of communication lines — typically six to 12 lines per aircraft — which limits the number of simultaneous calls at any one time,” she said. “And aircraft noise drowns out much of the sound.”

As for passengers worried about having to listen to a seatmate yapping away on the phone, costly roaming charges usually dissuade long phone calls. And although a Southwest passenger was recently charged with misdemeanor battery for striking a teenager who didn’t turn off his iPhone when requested, Kirby said: “I am not aware of a single issue of air rage due to in-flight cell phone use.”

Airlines want your money, but not your cash

moneybags

In researching my Well Mannered Traveler column for MSNBC.com this week, I discovered that just about every U.S. airline has gone “cashless” in the cabins.

Those that haven’t surely will.  So if you think you’ll want to buy a snack, a sandwich or a headset on your next flight, make sure you have your credit or debit card handy.

Continental, Delta and Northwest (Delta’s new partner) recently joined United, AirTran, Virgin America, Alaska, Frontier and Midwest in the cashless cabin movement.  Now that flight attendants are equipped with card readers, cash is no longer accepted for onboard purchases.

The airlines say they’re doing this for the convenience of passengers who will now “not have to deal with the hassle of fumbling for money.” Flight attendants say they like the new policy because it means no more having to keep track of cash and rushing around trying to make change.

money

But many passengers aren’t so sure.  TripAdvisor.com recently did a survey on this topic and found that 54% of the 1,918 respondents would prefer paying for in-flight food and services with cash.  In the thumbs up/thumbs down survey that accompanies my column, 81% of the more than 5,000 people who voted in just the first twelve hours thought airlines should continue to accept cash.

Andy Johnson, of LeRoy, Ill., is one of those cash-only customers who’d like airlines to continue accepting cash on board. “Cash is king,” she said, “but people also need to carry appropriate bills. Whenever I travel, I always check out the costs and prepare in advance so that if I want to purchase something, I’m ready.”

moneysign_

Cashless cabins also have some parents concerned. “I don’t like it,” said Colorado mom and family travel writer Amber Johnson. “I understand the convenience of not having to deal with counting out change. But what happens when my kids fly alone to see their grandparents? I really don’t want to have to go through the hassle of sending a credit card with them.”

She may not have to.

Snacks are complimentary for kids and adults on JetBlue Airways.

Complimentary meals are still served on some Continental and Hawaiian Airlines flights.

Some carriers, including Delta, Northwest, Frontier, Midwest and United, officially include the cost of a snack or meal in the unaccompanied minor fee. (On Frontier, the fee also includes use of the TV.) On Virgin America, which has been cashless since the airline’s 2007 launch, in-flight teams will provide an unaccompanied minor with complimentary snacks or meals “if they are hungry onboard and didn’t plan ahead,” said spokesperson Abby Lunardini. Alaska Airlines has had an unofficial practice to provide a free meal to unaccompanied minors who don’t have food with them, but a spokesperson says the policy will be formalized in early 2010.  And US Airways, which plans to go cashless in the first half of 2010, is “looking into things like vouchers, so unaccompanied minors without cards can purchase snacks or food,” said spokesperson Valerie Wunder.

To read the full column – and cast your vote on the whether or not airlines should continue to accept cash, please see: Airlines want your money, but not your cash on MSNBC.com.