Tidbits for travelers: free buffets at JFK; free flights to nowhere

Volcano-delayed flights to and from Europe and beyond are resuming, but airport closures and flight cancellations may continue on-and-off for weeks. So this NYT tracking map may be handy for a while longer.

NYT volcano cancellation map

In the meantime, people have been opening their homes to stranded passengers and theaters, museums and restaurants have been offering discounted and free entertainment and meals to folks who found themselves stuck at the airport.  At JFK, the company that operates all the restaurants and fast-food outlets in Terminal 4 – SSP America – organized a free buffet meal for about 300 on Monday night. Breakfast for 300 was served Tuesday morning as well.

And no doubt because I spent so much time learning about the ins and outs of some very tiny and unusual airports for a Bing story titled: Easy Flier: 10 airports that reduce the hassle, I was extremely interested in this story on CNN, which discusses some other small airports around the country that end up having to offer free flights in order to maintain federal funding.

Stuck at JFK? Free buffet for volcano-delayed passengers

Many travelers stranded New York’s JFK airport due to volcano-canceled flights have been stuck at the airport’s International Terminal: Terminal 4.  Travelers stuck in other terminals have been bused over to Terminal 4 as well, in part because that’s the only terminal with food concessions located pre-security.

According to SSP America spokesperson Darleen Nascimento, “Many of the stranded passengers do not have the means to buy food at the restaurants and quick service outlets.”  (SSP America is the company that operates all the restaurants and fast-food outlets in Terminal 4.)

So today at 6 pm, SSP America will be offering a free buffet for about 300 stranded passengers. The airport chapel has donated its conference room for the meal.

The menu:

Pasta with marinara, perogies, mixed green salad, toasted garlic flat bread, braised beef in brown sauce, baked chicken wings with citrus and herbs.

If the travel restrictions continue, SSP America may also serve breakfast to stranded passengers tomorrow.

Kudos to them for doing this!

What’s there for you in DOT’s new tarmac-delay rule?

Yes, the Department of Transportation’s new rule taking effect April 29 promises stiff penalties for airlines that strand passengers inside idling airplanes for more than three hours.

But look closer at the 81-page document detailing DOT’s new Enhancing Airline Passenger Protections rule, and you’ll find other regulations that apply more broadly. They require carriers to be more truthful about flight delays and take more responsibility when things go wrong.

No time to read the entire document? No problem. In an column this week Something for everyone in DOT rules, I outline some of the highlights of the DOT legislation that might just make a difference on your next trip.

Make, share and stick to plans

There’s that three-hour rule. There’s also a two-hour rule.

With a few security-related exemptions, an airline must allow customers to get off the plane — or risk receiving fines of up to $27,500 per passenger — at the three-hour point of a tarmac delay.

After two hours, DOT will require airlines to give passengers “some type of food [i.e. pretzels or granola bars], potable water, working lavatories and, if necessary, medical care.”

These rules apply to major U.S. carriers as well as the small regional carriers you might fly due to code sharing arrangements.

Airlines must also have contingency plans in place, and the plans must be coordinated and shared with the airports regularly used by the carriers, as well as with any medium- or large-hub airports likely to receive diverted flights.

Those plans also need to appear on airline Web sites.

No more ignoring passenger complaints

Have a beef about an airline experience?  Who doesn’t?

Recognizing that some airlines make it difficult for customers to file complaints, the DOT will now require airlines to post information about how and where to file complaints on e-ticket confirmations and at ticket counters and boarding gates.

And airlines must now acknowledge a complaint within 30 days and provide “a substantive response” — something that addresses a customer’s specific complaint — within 60 days.

What else is in the rule? And what’s next?

You can read more about the passenger protections the DOT is rolling out in my column  Something for everyone in DOT rules, where you’ll find a link to the 81-page DOT rule itself. Take a look and then you can decide for yourself if you think the rules will make a difference or, as some industry experts predict, will just cause more problems.

And don’t think DOT is finished with its rulemaking for airline consumer protections. According to a statement posted on his Fast Lane blog in December, U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood is determined to protect air travelers even further.

Tidbits for travelers: BWI Twitters, Southwest pampers,

Baltimore/Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport (BWI) used its Twitter account during the recent east coast snowstorm to share information about weather conditions and flight delays and hopes you’ll sign up to get their tweets- including updates on parking – next time you’re headed that way.


And Southwest Airlines rolled out yet another priority security lane for its Business Select and Rapid Reward A-List Customers. There are now “Fly By” lanes at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, Baltimore/Washington International, Dallas Love Field, Phoenix Sky Harbor International, Orange County John Wayne, Denver International, San Francisco International, and Los Angeles International.

Glimmers of hope?

Two items caught my eye today that seem like encouraging steps in the right direction.

From the Airline Biz blog, – a note about Continental Airlines saying they’d make it a policy to let passengers deplane if they’d been stuck on an airplane for more than three hours.

And from the Chicago Tribune: an article about how United and other airlines are (finally? once again?) paying attention to cleaning their airplanes more often.