MSP Airport’s Mock Airplane Cabin

(This is a story we first wrote for NBC News)

Long delays, rampant cancellations, and packed planes have turned air travel into an endurance sport for even the most seasoned travelers. And the challenges can be even greater for the more than 25 million Americans with disabilities that make travel difficult even in ordinary times.

 A handful of airports, airlines, and community groups have made an effort to provide certain flyers the opportunity to navigate security, crowded airport terminals, and the boarding process beforehand.

But such programs are limited, and the industry continues to have a poor track record in transporting wheelchairs and scooters and providing reliable and consistent service to passengers with additional needs such as mobility and physical issues as well as sensory and cognitive disabilities. 

 Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport is out to change that. 

 In an industry first in May, the airport  — in partnership with Delta Air Lines  —  installed a mock airplane cabin on-site to give flyers with a wide range of special needs an opportunity to become familiar with a realistic aircraft cabin. 

 “Being able to test out an airplane cabin could help people who have never flown, who use wheelchairs, older adults, people with autism, and anyone who has any reservations about flying,” said Eric Lipp, executive director of the Open Doors Organization, which works with businesses on accessibility issues, “It will recognize that everyone’s needs are different and encourage more people to fly.”

In the two years preceding the pandemic, nearly 15 million people with disabilities traveled by air, generating $11 billion in revenue for airlines. That was up from $9 billion in 2015, according to a report from the organization. And, Lipp said, “The true economic impact is potentially double since people with disabilities typically travel with one or more other adults.” 

 The 33-foot-long cabin had been used to train Delta’s in-flight teams in Atlanta and includes a (nonworking) lavatory and 42 standard coach seats from a retired Boeing 737. Delta shipped it in pieces to the Minneapolis airport, where it was reassembled in an unused retail space. Airport carpenters added cutouts so that every row has a window, and local youth artists painted the cabin and the surrounding walls with blue skies and landscape to make it sensory-friendly. 

 “My 5-year-old son, Remi, has autism and I felt it was important for him to experience the airport before the day we actually had to travel,” said Cassandra Welch, who brought him to the mock cabin recently. “Remi did well and sat nicely in his seat and was able to see what the cabin looked like, and what the airplane bathroom looked like.” 

 Welch also brought along her family and some relatives. “We will be traveling together in August, so it was great that we could all be there for this experience.”

Tiffany Owen, a first responder, also wanted to give her traveling companion a chance to get acquainted with flying before she booked a trip. Hazy, a rescue pit bull, is Owen’s service dog and helps her manage stress and anxiety. The visit was arranged through Soldiers 6, a local nonprofit group that provides service dogs to military veterans and first responders in Minnesota.

“I’ve flown before, but Hazy has never been on an airplane,” she said. But Hazy quickly got the hang of it.  ”When we walked in, Hazy wanted to have her own seat next to me,” she said. “I had to train her to realize she’s on an airplane and would be sitting on the floor between my legs.”

Owen said it means a lot to her that the airport “has gone to great lengths to make sure that both me and my service animal feel comfortable, and that we can go back to the airport again for more training if we need to.”

The mock cabin, which is free and available by appointment,  isn’t just for flyers.  

Airline personnel, flight crews, and companies that provide service to passengers who need help getting to or from their airplane seats have access to the cabin for training, too. 

 The Minneapolis-St. Paul branch of Prospect Airport Services, which provides wheelchair attendants and other services for airlines at airports across the country, now runs weekly staff training sessions in the mock cabin. There is a big focus on transferring passengers in wheelchairs to their seats, which can be a complicated and delicate process. 

Loretta Halligan, the company’s general manager at the Minneapolis airport, said that before the mock cabin arrived, orientation for new passenger service assistants mainly took place in a classroom, with a wheelchair, an airline seat, and a video. The actual training in how to transfer passengers didn’t begin until new hires could shadow someone with experience.

 “Now, new employees can start practicing lifting a person on and off an aisle chair on a ‘real’ plane right away,” she said, adding that watching a video “is nothing compared to having that hands-on experience during your first day of training.”

That training could have been invaluable during the earlier days of the pandemic, “when social distancing made it difficult for people to be lifted and transferred to vehicles or planes,”  Lipp said. “Guiding people who are blind also became more difficult with social distancing.” 

Although the mock cabin has been open for just about two months, Phil Burke, assistant director of customer service at the airport, says sessions are getting booked up far in advance. He also said airports in Houston, Denver, and Kansas City, Missouri, have been in touch with him and are planning to install mock airplane cabins in their terminals, too.

Airport or gin joint? 2 Airports distill gin onsite

As far as we know, there are just two in-airport distilleries in the world.

The first one opened in 2016 at London’s Gatwick Airport and is located pre-security/landside in the airport’s North Terminal.

We’re planning a July visit and will report back on what we find – and drink.

But in the meantime, here’s what we know.

The Nicholas Culpeper Pub & Dining is named for a 17th-century botanist, herbalist, and physician who lived nearby. The pub’s onsite still produces a London Dry Gin using a recipe initially created by master distiller Matt Servini and his team at the Craft Distilling Business (CDB), which also designed and built a special still for the airport site. 

Victoria Int’l Airport’s gin distillery

Victoria Distillers, which has its headquarters in Sydney, British Columbia, opened a small distillery at Victoria International Airport (YYJ) during the pandemic.

The company makes a variety of highly regarded hand-made spirits but is best known for an indigo-colored gin inspired by the legendary Fairmont Empress Hotel in Victoria, British Columbia. The grand hotel opened in 1908 and serves a signature blend of black tea during its popular afternoon high tea service.

That tea is one of the ingredients in Victoria Distillers’ Empress 1908 Gin, which also contains traditional botanicals as well as butterfly pea blossom, the trendy exotic herb that gives the gin its purple hue.

As a nice touch, the gin’s color ‘magically’ changes to bright lavender, soft pink, or fuchsia depending on what mixer is added.

At Victoria International Airport, Victoria Distillers has a still and a shop in the recently expanded departures lounge. Passengers may sip complimentary tastes and watch their bottles be blended, bottled, and labeled onsite.

Those that want to further explore the gin in a full cocktail can order from the menu at the Spinnakers Lounge across from the airport distillery.

Business travel is back. Business travel perks are not.

where should we go

(*This is a story we wrote for NBC News online.)

Business travel is back. The benefits of being a business traveler are not. 

After two years of virtual meetings and remote work, “companies are getting back to doing interviews in person, and even conferences and conventions are coming back in full force,” said Nina Herold, the general manager of TripActions, a travel management firm. Sales teams are hitting the road, and employees are starting to return to headquarters for team building, recognition events, and orientation, she said. 

The industry isn’t at pre-pandemic levels yet, and a recent study from Deloitte, a multinational accounting and consulting firm, predicts business travel overall won’t fully return to 2019 levels for at least a couple more years. 

When the perks of being a business traveler will return to pre-pandemic levels, however, is anybody’s guess.

 “I don’t have any other words to describe business travel right now other than frustrating and inconvenient,” said Ashley Davidson, a public relations consultant in Alexandria,Virginia. 

For years, she flew nonstop between Washington, D.C., and Fort Lauderdale, Florida, where her company is located. Now, due to airline route cuts, she has to make a stop in Charlotte, North Carolina, and ticket prices are up 34 percent over 2019.  “I’ve had to forgo my strategy of sticking to one airline and have been booking whatever flight gets me to where I need to be on time and for the best price.”

Flying multiple carriers makes it harder to amass the hundreds of thousands of miles needed to reach elite flyer status and all the benefits that come with it, including upgrades to business or first-class seats, free checked bags and airline lounge access, and private car service between connecting flights.

“Elite status has been extended at some airlines, ” said travel expert Gary Leff, author of ViewfromTheWing.com. “But some people are starting from zero.” To help flyers regain their VIP status, he says, some airlines are offering bonuses and boosters that award extra points or miles for flights, and in a recent change, some are treating routine credit card purchases the same as miles. 

But even for those who’ve held onto their elite status, the boom in air travel combined with fewer flights overall can mean “it can be hard to get seats at the last minute and harder to get first class seats,” Leff said. Those who do snag a seat may find that first- and business-class food and other amenities haven’t been restored to their pre-pandemic luxury.  

At many airports, for instance, some club lounges are still closed and the open ones are packed. Frequent business travelers who are used to striding past gate hold rooms and directly to the airline club lounge for free food, drinks, desk space, and places to nap or shower, may struggle to find a place to sit down or be turned away altogether.

“Leisure travel is higher than pre-pandemic times and more people are upgrading to first-class tickets and paying for airline club access,” says Mike Daher, vice-chair of transportation, hospitality, and services for the U.S., at Deloitte. Many high-fee travel credit cards also come with admission to airport lounges.

Once at your destination, “good luck finding a rental car,” says travel expert Henry Harteveldt of the travel analytics firm Atmosphere Research. “And when you do, don’t be surprised if the cost is equal to your mortgage.”

With record numbers of leisure travelers making up for lost time, hotel demand is way up, too. But due to labor shortages, rates have soared and reservations can be harder to come by, he said. “In some cases, hotels are not making all their rooms available because they don’t have enough staff to clean them.”

In addition, many hotels have not reopened their concierge levels, and have limited hours for restaurants and bars. Frequent guests accustomed to getting free full breakfast, may instead be offered a credit that barely covers the bill for eggs, coffee and a croissant in the hotel restaurant. 

Ryan Chitwood, a forest products wholesaler from Annapolis, Maryland, recently sent a sales team to an annual trade show, where meetings were scheduled back to back in a hotel restaurant throughout the day. “Our tight schedule was derailed because what should have been brief breakfasts and lunches ran way over because of staffing shortages,” he said. “Also, when you arrive late and want to check in and grab a burger at the bar or via room service and it’s not available, you either need to leave the property — or just go hungry.”   

“For a business traveler, it’s an unknown and it’s not consistent by hotel brand, but rather property by property,” Daher said. 

With virtual meetings an ever-present option, unhappy business travelers, who typically pay full fare, could cost the industry as it tries to bounce back. Before the pandemic, business travel made up 20 percent of trip volume, but accounted for 40-60 percent of all lodging, rental car and airline revenue in the U.S., according to the U.S. Travel Association.

“The airlines and hotels understand the value of these loyalty relationships,” Daher said. “They have armies of people analyzing that and they’re not going to let those relationships go.”  

Business travelers seeking workarounds to inconsistent hotel services may not get much help from their corporate travel programs. Deloitte’s study found that only 1 in 10 companies include nontraditional lodging, such as Airbnb, in their corporate booking tools, and only half reimburse employees for the charges.

Employees who relocated during the pandemic, and want or need to reconnect with colleagues at headquarters, may also find themselves paying their own way. Nearly one-third of companies are requiring employees to shoulder the cost themselves

These and many of the other current pain points of business travel should ease, eventually, Harteveldt said, but for now “it’s a very tough, very complicated, very stressful, and very expensive landscape that is welcoming business travelers back in the summer of 2022.”

Find free doughnuts on National Doughnut Day

Friday, June 3rd is National Doughnut Day!

The Salvation Army created this sweet holiday back in 1938 as a fundraising event. But the day is now celebrated in many places with free doughnuts. 

Here are some of the places around the country where you will be able to score doughnut deals and free circular treats.

Krispy Creme

Participating Krispy Kreme stores will give customers any doughnut free on National Doughnut Day (one per customer). Not enough doughnuts? For $1 you can a dozen Original Glazed doughnuts with the purchase of any dozen or 16 count minis.

At most Dunkin’ shops – and we hope at some airport locations – you should also be able to get a free classic donut of your choice with the purchase of any beverage on June 3.

Free IKEA Meatball Donut

Doughnut lovers will want to know all about the Donut Trail in Butler County, located in southwestern Ohio.

13 mom-and-pop doughnut shops are on the 80-mile Donut Trail. And in honor of National Doughnut Day the Donut Trail is partnering with IKEA in West Chester, Ohio to offer visitors a limited-edition IKEA-inspired meatball donut.

Yes, we said meatall donut.

IKEA’s donut is described as having a light and fluffy base, lingonberry glaze, lingonberry sauce, an IKEA meatball or a plant-based alternative on top. Visitors to this IKEA only will be able to get a complimentary meatball donut on June 3rd and 4th between 11 AM and 3 PM, while supplies last.

No doubt many of the artisan donut shops on the Butler County Donut Trail will be doing something special for National Doughnut Day too. But year-round anyone who visits all 13 donut stores and gets their official donut trail passport stamped can also get a complimentary Donut Trail T-shirt. 

Duck Donuts

Duck Donut locations around the country will hand out free cinnamon sugar donuts to customers on June 3.

You’ll also find free doughnut offers at Shipley Do-Nuts (free glazed, with any purchase) and many other donut shops as you travel around the country on National Doughnut Day.

Let us know what you spot.

Road Trip: Ellensburg, Washington

Far off adventures don’t really need to be that far away from home.

Our road trip team spent the afternoon in Ellensburg, WA, just about two hours from Stuck at The Airport headquarters in Seattle. And while we didn’t get to do everything on our list, we revisited two favorite places with fresh, post-pandemic (we hope) eyes.

Dick and Jane’s Spot

We’ve pulled off the highway numerous times over the years just to see Dick and Jane’s Spot, across from the police station at 1st and Pearl St., and it always delights us.

The art-filled yard of artists Jane Orelman and Dick Elliott (now deceased) has changed a wee bit over the years, but it’s still ” dedicated to the philosophy of ‘one hearty laugh is worth ten trips to the doctor.’

Kittitas County Historical Museum

Some people skip the historical museums when they visit small towns. We start there. And the Kittitas County Historical Museum is one of our all-time favorites, with exhibits on everything from antique cars, and the famed Ellensburg Blue Agate, to medical and military history, and a hallway filled with neon signs rescued from long-gone local establishments.

Bonus: Double rainbow spotted from the hotel parking lot

Nice to end the day with a double rainbow,