Safety

Travel Tidbits from an airport near you

Here’s some of the airport news that caught our attention today.

May I help you, virtually?

Our first encounter with a video help desk was at the massive Istanbul Airport in October 2019.

It seemed odd but, then, efficient to step up to what seemed like an unstaffed information desk and then have a live video chat with someone located offsite.

But now video chats are the socially distanced way to get questions answered in an airport.

As of May 2020, volunteer Airport Ambassadors staff the Virtual Information Booth at Louisville Muhammad Ali International Airport (SDF).

And now Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) is running a Virtual Assistance pilot program in Terminal 2.

Travelers can have real-time video conversations with a customer services specialist over a touch-free tablet system installed at the information booth.

As health safety and social distancing concerns continue, we expect to see more airports offering some sort of virtual help desk.

San Jose International Airport shows off its ingenuity

Like most airports now, Mineta San Jose International Airport (SJC) is implementing new health and safety measures in its terminal.

We like the no-nonsense social distancing signage and floor decals.

And we are impressed that instead of waiting months for out-of-stock hand-sanitizing stations and plexiglass barriers, the Facilities and Engineering team at SJC is making its own.

At Your Gate + Grab = Service

Grab, the time-saving app that lets you order from an airport restaurant and then go straight to the pick-up line to get your meal is partnering with AtYourGate, the service that lets you order airport food via an app and have it delivered to you wherever you are in the terminal.

The partnership makes sense on many levels but is perfectly timed for these ‘no-touch’ times.

Grab already operates in over 50 airports in 4 countries. AtYourGate serves 10 airports now, with 40 more to be served in short order.

Wear a face mask at the airport & on the plane. Or else!

Most every airline now requires passengers to wear face coverings in airports and on airplanes.

But now the failure to do so may result in denied boarding or a ban on future travel.

On Monday, the airline trade group Airlines for America (A4A) announced that for the duration of the COVID-19 health crisis its member airlines, including Alaska, American, Delta, Hawaiian, JetBlue, Southwest and United, are stepping up enforcement of face coverings.

The airlines will also now impose “substantial consequences for those who do not comply with the rules.”

Each carrier will be determining its own set of consequences for passengers who do not comply. But those policies may now include being banned from flying on the airline.

United Airlines says in a statement that starting June 18 and for at least the next 60 days, “any passenger that does not comply when onboard a United flight will be placed on an internal travel restriction list. Customers on this list will lose their travel privileges on United for a duration of time to be determined pending a comprehensive incident review.”

United has been requiring passengers to wear masks on board aircraft since May 4 and most passengers have been complying.

But not all. So the new rule “is an unmistakable signal that we’re prepared to take serious steps, if necessary, to protect our customers and crew,” said United’s Chief Customer Officer, Toby Enqvist in the airline’s statement.

United says flight attendants will “proactively inform” customers not wearing face mask of the rules and offer masks, if needed.

Then:

If the customer continues to be non-compliant, flight attendants will do their best to de-escalate the situation, again inform the customer of United’s policy, and provide the passenger with an In-Flight Mask policy reminder card.”

If a customer continues to not comply, the flight attendant will file a report of the incident, which will initiate a formal review process.”

Any final decision or actions regarding a customer’s future flight benefits will not occur onboard but instead take place after the flight has reached its destination and the security team has investigated the incident.

American Airlines says its updated policies will go into effect June 16. Customers who do not comply with the requirement to wear face coverings at the gate will be denied boarding.

“American may also deny future travel for customers who refuse to wear a face covering,” the airline said in a statement.

Other airlines will likely spell out the consequences for not complying with the face mask requirement in the next day or two.

Airports stay open during curfews

These crazy times are getting crazier. And scarier.

When the coronavirus pandemic began taking its toll on travel, it seemed odd that airports felt the need to send tweets reminding us that their facilities remained open. And to encourage and thank people for washing their hands.

But as the number of people traveling dipped dangerously low, it was reassuring to know airports remained opened because, like grocery stores and gas stations, they are essential services to our society.

Now, curfews are being imposed in many cities in an effort to regain order where rioting and looting are displacing the peaceful protests over the death of George Floyd.

And once again, airports are reminding – and reassuring – the public that these essential services remain open.

More stories of wildlife at airports

More stories of wildlife at airports

Courtesy Port of Portland

I’ve been getting more stories about wildlife ‘incidents’ at airports since my “At the Airport” column – “From worms to whales, the wildlife that worries airports,” appeared online and in print at USA TODAY and will share some of them in future posts.

In the meantime – in case you missed it, here’s a slightly edited version of that column that was inspired by the report of a large alligator caught on tape sauntering across a taxiway between two ponds at Orlando International Airport.

Whle the gator’s journey alarmed passengers and slightly delayed a Spirit Airlines flight on its way to the gate, at MCO airport wildlife visitors are not rare.

“For that reason,” said MCO’s Carolyn Fennell, “We have a biologist and wildlife unit on staff to help with planning new facilities, monitoring and relocating, when needed, various ‘critters’ on our property.”

All airports must manage resident and visiting wildlife because  birds (mostly), as well as deer, alligators, coyote, moose and even an excess of worms on the runway after a rain (a feast for birds) can create safety hazards that lead to costly and, in some same cases, deadly collisions between aircraft and animals.

A report from the Federal Aviation Administration and the U.S. Department of Agriculture estimated that in 2015 alone wildlife strikes would ding the US civil aviation industry about $229 million in direct costs and require more than 69,000 hours of aircraft downtime. But despite lingering memories of the 2009 bird strike near New York’s LaGuardia Airport that led to the “Miracle on the Hudson,” Cody Baciuska of Loomacres Wildlife Management says “Passengers should not be concerned about experiencing a strike the next time they fly.”

His confidence comes from the fact that airports are aggressive about managing and monitoring wildlife and constantly network with each other about best practices for deploying a wide variety of tools that include everything from visual and auditory deterrents, fencing, netting and spikes to lasers and all manner of pyrotechnics

In 1999, Southwest Florida International Airport (RSW) in Fort Myers was the first airport to add a Border collie to it wildlife management team to help shoo away birds that might otherwise nest and roost on airport property. (The current dog is named Echo; previous ones were Jet, Radar, Sky and Aero.)

In 2007, Seattle-Tacoma International was the world’s first airport to install an avian radar system to monitor potentially hazardous bird activity near the airport.

Elsewhere, airports team up with airlines, environmental groups, community volunteers and others to humanely trap, relocate and resettle raptors such as hawks, ospreys and owls.

On the east coast United Airlines, Audubon International and the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey work together to trap American kestrels (a climate-threatened small falcon) at Newark Liberty International Airport and send them to new homes on area golf courses with more welcoming habitats.

Each year Seattle-Tacoma International Airport carefully collects and relocates fuzzy baby chicks from the nests of resident red-tailed hawks.

“We actually climb the trees and take the chicks out of the nest and take them up north where we raise them to imprint on a different location,” said Mikki Viehoever, the wildlife biologist for the Port of Seattle.

Portland International Airport, located on the confluence of the Columbia and Willamette Rivers and along a Pacific migratory flight path for birds, has a very active raptor translocation program.

“Trapped raptors are taken to suitable release sites in Oregon & Washington by car or plane,” said Nick Atwell, wildlife manager for the Port of Portland. “We’ve partnered with Alaska Airlines for transport to northern Washington with the intent of increasing the distance from PDX.”

Atwell and his team tag and band each bird they relocate and keep an online database of sightings. “We want to track the success or failure of the program,” said Atwell. “And find out if a bird comes back to the airport and inform other airports what might be the best distance for translocating animals.”

Still, wildlife happens.

Some airports keep special vacuums in their tool sheds or a beekeeper on speed-dial to remove bees that sometimes swarm on airplane wings.

In January 2017, a 15-foot dead whale washed up near the end of a runway at New York’s LaGuardia Airport. “We worked with the Army Corps of Engineers to remove it,” said Laura Francoeur, chief wildlife biologist for the Port authority of New York and New Jersey, “Because you don’t want to leave a dead whale there to attract scavengers.”

Each year during nesting season for Diamondback terrapins, Fancoeur and her team also monitor the turtles migrating between a nearby wildlife refuge and the shores of Jamaica Bay. In past years, hundreds of turtles marched – slowly – across a runway, causing planes to be delayed. Now plastic barriers keep most of the turtles out of harm’s way, while staff swoop in to gather up and relocate any terrapins that insist on taking the shortcut.

Photo_Port Authority of New York and New Jersey

In addition to capturing and relocating alligators – some more than 9 feet long – at some southern airports, wildlife biologists and wildlife technicians from the USDA’s Wildlife Services unit help keep a zoo’s worth of wildlife away from taxiways and runways. Their ‘highlight’ list includes Nile Monitor Lizards, pythons, porcupines (whose quills can damage airplane tires) and loons.

Courtesy USDA Wildlife Services

“What most people may not know about loons is that they are unable to walk on land,” said USDA spokeswoman Tanya Espinosa. Loons may land on a wet runway believing they’re landing on water and are then unable to get back up. “Our employees have had to physically pick loons up in order to release them,” said Espinosa.

At some coastal airports oysters, clams and other shellfish have become an issue, requiring teams to go out with sweepers.

“During low tides, gulls and other birds go hunting for shellfish and then drop them on open areas, such as runways, to crack them open,” said Espinosa, “While this is a great example of bird ingenuity, it is very dangerous for airports as sharp shell parts can puncture tires, get sucked into engines, damage aircraft and cause accidents.”

In Alaska, USDA Wildlife Biologists and Wildlife Technicians also help wrangle musk ox and caribou.

Musk Ox sometimes form defensive circles on the runways, said Espinosa and “And it can be very time consuming to get them out of the way.” Several hundred to several thousand caribou sometimes cross runways during migration. “It can be a beautiful sight, but also dangerous for human safety and air travel,” said Espinosa.

Last year salmon were spotted swimming across a flood-prone runway at Alaska’s Seward Airport and, after several days of storms, crew clearing snow at the Wiley Post-Will Rogers Memorial Airport in Utqiaġvik (the city formerly known as Barrow) came upon a 450-pound Bearded Seal lounging on the runway.

Courtesy Scott Babcock, Alaska Dept of Transportation Public-Facilities

The runway is about a quarter mile from the ocean, but airport staff believe the seal made a mile-long trek around the runway to get to its chosen spot.

“Animal control was called, and they loaded the seal onto a sled and pulled it off the runway with a snow machine,” said Meadow Bailey, spokesperson for the Alaska Department of Transportation & Public Facilities, “We refer to this as the day we warned of ‘low sealings’ at the airport.”

Have you spotted wildlife at your airport? Please share the story in the comments section below.

How a 747 design change proposal spurred the ’60-foot rule’

United Airlines’ final charter flight to say goodbye to the airline’s fleet of 747 airccraft, was quite a party and you can see my story and photos on the event on the Runway Girl Network.

But during all the hoopla, a representative of the flight attendant’s union mentioned to me that debate over a change in the 747 design back in the mid-1980s spurred an important safety rule – the FAA’s 60-foot rule – that applies to just about all airplanes today.

The short version of the story is that in 1984 Boeing proposed taking out a set of exit doors on the 747 jumbo jet to make more room for seats. Flight attendants and pilots – and their unions – raised concerns over the ability to get everyone off the plane in an emergency without those doors and pushed back.

The Federal Aviation Administration ruled on the side of safety.

Read my full story on how this came about in my Runway Girl Network story here.

Photo courtesy Boeing Company