Well-Mannered Traveler

Aliens, UFOs & crop circles at the airport

My At the Airport column on USATODAY.com this month – UFOS at DEN? is all about aliens (from outer space), UFOs, crop circles seen at some airport and the secret messages in some of the artwork at Denver International Airport

Scary stuff – but really fun.

Officials insist the 26-foot tall statue of the ancient Egyptian god Anubis now standing outside the Denver International Airport terminal is there to promote a King Tut exhibit opening soon at the Denver Art Museum. But the giant image of the jackal-headed god tasked with protecting the spirits of the dead is alarming some travelers.

“I’m not superstitious, but it doesn’t exactly instill confidence when the god of the dead is staring through the window at you!” says Brian Olson, a Colorado resident who travels frequently through Denver airport.

The Anubis statue, which has also spent time at the Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport, will leave Denver International Airport in mid-August. Staying behind will be several pieces from the airport’s permanent public art collection that some travelers consider ominous and, in some cases, out of this world.

Mile-high mysteries

Matt Chasansky, the public art administrator at Denver airport, has watched all the YouTube videos, answered many e-mails and read all the internet postings about the secret messages allegedly embedded in murals, sculpture and other art pieces in the airport. He’s glad people are responding emotionally to the airport’s collection but insists concerns about strange doings at DEN are just misunderstandings.


(Terry Allen’s Notre Denver, courtesy Denver Int’l Airport)

One traveler wrote to complain about the “demons” in the baggage claim area. Those demons are part of Terry Allen’s work, Notre Denver and are European cathedral-inspired gargoyles meant not to harm people, but to protect them from losing their luggage. Other travelers see a secret code in the words and images in 21st Century Artifacts, the four mosaic floors created by Carolyn Braaksma and Mark Villareal for Concourse B. “The piece is actually about geography, archeology and topography,” says the airport’s Chasansky, “And those are Native American words and symbols for the Colorado River and other sites around the area.”

On its website, the airport notes that “a few fanciful conspiracy theories have been generated” by Leo Tanguma’s mural titled Children of the World Dream Peace, but that none of those far-out theories “were intended by the artist.” And both the airport’s telephone-hold message and brochure for the self-guided art tour make reference to the uneasy feelings some travelers get from the glowing red eyes of the 32-foot tall blue Mustang by Luis Jiménez, who died while working on the sculpture. Dubbed “Bluecifer” by detractors, the sculpture rearing up on the road leading to the airport has spawned Facebook pages and campaigns calling for its removal.

(Mustang by Luis Jimenez; courtesy Denver Int’l Airport)

There are also rumors about the airport’s aliens. The ones that have supposedly come to earth and now live in the hidden underground areas at the airport. “One theory says you can put your ears against the columns in the terminal and hear alien voices from the basement,” says Chasanksy. Another describes how pushing the right combination of buttons on a keypad by the airport’s time capsule will signal the elevators to descend to the aliens’ underground base. Unfortunately for alien hunters, that ‘keypad’ is just a plaque with braille lettering on it.

“All those theories are fanciful and fun,” says Chasansky, “But none of it is true. And the aliens aren’t telling me to say this.”

Unexplained events at other airports

Fanciful or not, Denver International isn’t the only airport said to be visited by aliens. According to Peter Davenport of the Seattle-based National UFO Reporting Center, “There have been many reports which seem to be, in one way or another, associated with airports.”

Larry Bowron, now the Transportation Director for the city of Battle Creek, Mich., says back when he worked at the Scottsdale, Ariz., airport he saw something he still can’t fully explain hover over the runway and then zip out of sight. “It looked like a helicopter, but had no lights on it. All of sudden a white beam of light came on and within two seconds it accelerated and was out of my sight. There was no sound, yet it moved 100 times faster than anything I’d seen in my life.”

Bowron says prior to that experience he was “sort of a skeptic” about UFOs, but “You see something that defies logic and it makes a believer out of you.”

Travis McQueen, manager of Indiana’sHuntingburg Airport, hasn’t seen a UFO, but did jump in an airplane to take some aerial pictures of mysterious crop circles that once showed up on airport-owned land leased to a local farmer. He won’t say whether or not he believes it was aliens or local pranksters who left their mark in the farmer’s bean field, but McQueen did file a report with the local sheriff so that the farmer could file an insurance claim for his lost crops.

(Crop circle – courtesy Travis McQueen)

Then there’s the UFO that may or may not have visited Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport on November 7, 2006. Peter Davenport of the National UFO Reporting Center says he received documents “that left no doubt as to whether the event occurred, or to its bizarre nature.” He estimates that the disc-shaped object seen hovering above Gate C-17 was observed by no fewer than three dozen people, including aircraft mechanics, airline supervisory personnel and others he calls “highly qualified observers.”

The Chicago Tribune and other news outlets published reports about the 2006 UFO incident. Davenport and others call the event “very dramatic” and “very well documented.” The only thing officials at O’Hare have ever said about the possible UFO sighting, though, is “No comment.”

Holiday Guide to Germ-Free Air Travel

ScreenHunter_01 Dec. 03 23.24

While the rest of us were preparing for Thanksgiving, the CDC was kicking off its largest-ever public awareness campaign about staying healthy while traveling.

And not a moment too soon.

Peak flu season coincides with the busiest weeks of the winter travel season. And although the CDC reported this week that flu-related hospitalizations and deaths are on the drop, an agency spokesperson notes that flu cases “are still very high nation-wide compared to what is expected for this time of year.”

So, in preparation for the next big wave of holiday travel, this week I devoted my Well Mannered Traveler column on MSNBC.com to a review of tips for germ-free air travel and an update from airlines about change fees should illness strike.

You can read the Holiday Guide to Germ –Free Air Travel on MSNBC.com and vote on whether or not you think all airlines should waive change fees for passengers who are ill. In the meantime, here are some of the highlights from that story.

Steer Clear of Germs

To stay healthy while traveling, begin your trip well-rested and head for the airport early. That way, you won’t be pressed for time, and the stress of traffic and long security lines will roll off your back.

To help ward off illness, experts suggest boosting immunity with exercise, healthy foods and vitamins and, in case you should begin to feel ill, a supply of prescriptions and cold medications to save yourself the hassle of searching for a pharmacy at an airport or in an unfamiliar city.

A sink in every suitcase
Frequent hand washing remains the best way to avoid germs while traveling, so that kitchen sink in your seatmate’s carry-on bag may actually come in handy.

The CDC says alcohol-based hand sanitizers are fine too, but when you pass through security, those small bottles of sanitizing solution must go in your quart-sized plastic bag. Fishing out the bottles after screening can be a hassle, so keep a supply of individual packets of sanitizing wipes in your pocket. That way you can clean up after touching the plastic bins that have held dirty shoes and other germ-laden items and also wipe down the tray table, armrests and lavatory door handles when you’re on the plane.

Flying with the flu

If you do get sick, CDC suggests you change your plans and stay home. But many travelers will ignore that advice because of hefty change fees levied by most airlines.

Many doctors would like all airlines to waive cancellation and change fees for ill passengers and while some do, you can get dizzy trying to wade through some airline Web sites trying to locate the relevant policy.

To confuse matters even more, some airlines said policies regarding change fees for ill passengers were “under review.”  So it’s sort of a moving target. But for now, here’s what I found out:

  • JetBlue, Northwest and Delta deal with ill passengers seeking changes “on a case-by-case basis.”
  • If you’ve got a non-refundable ticket on American or US Airways, changes to accommodate illness will still cost $150, plus the difference between the old and new fares.
  • AirTran Airways will waive cancellation and rescheduling fees for any passenger with a doctor’s note documenting that they have H1N1, but the policy does not apply to seasonal flu or other illnesses.
  • Virgin America, Continental and United have ongoing policies to waive change fees for customers who can provide documentation of illness from their doctor.
  • And, whether you’re sick, or just sick of flying on airplanes seated next to sneezing, wheezing people, Southwest doesn’t charge for changing or canceling a flight.

Fool at the pool. Don’t be that person.

If you’re lucky enough to go somewhere this summer, even if it’s just to an airport hotel, chances are there will be a pool in the picture. Summer

Do you know what to do when you’re there? It seems like a lot of folks don’t.

That’s why my Well-Mannered Traveler column on MSNBC.com this week is titled: Don’t be the fool at the pool.   You can read the full column on MSNBC.com (and vote on what you think is the most annoying pool behavior) but here’s an excerpt.

As they check into and out of hotels in the course of taking notes for their assigned site visits, staff members of the recently launched site, Oyster Hotel Reviews, take a lot of pictures. Some photos confirm that a hotel’s king-size beds are as plush and as large as advertised. Others, like the shot taken at the Sheraton Manhattan Hotel (below), might make guests think twice before taking a dip in the pool.

pools-sheraton-manhattan-hotel- OYSTER

Ick, right? Do people really need to be told not to poo, pee, spit, or blow their nose in a hotel pool? Evidently they do. And, looking over the results of a recent TripAdvisor survey, it’s clear that there’s an ocean’s worth of other travelers out there who could use some tips on what sort of behavior is acceptable, or not, at the pool.

Travelers told TripAdvisor that loud music, hogging beach chairs, and urinating in the pool were some of the activities they found most annoying. Although 53 percent of the almost 4,000 people surveyed admitted they thought it was OK to pee in the ocean as long as other swimmers weren’t too close by. Other irritating behaviors high on the list included smoking, littering, not showering before entering a pool and letting kids take other kids’ beach or pool toys without asking.

Bad manners, right?

There’s more:

In some places, it’s PDA, public displays of affection. At the Vero Beach Hotel & Spa in Vero Beach, Fla., the pool concierge (yes, that’s a job) says he keeps an eye peeled for couples getting a little too cozy by the pool and, when necessary, steps-in and asks them to tone it down. “Usually it starts out subtle,” says Alex Serkadakis, “but then after a few drinks, they can get a little too frisky. Rubbing suntan lotion on their partner’s back can turn into a seductive massage and then next thing you know, they are rubbing oil all over each other.”

Serkadakis says kids love putting stuff like fish, turtles, etc. into pools, but sometimes people want stuff taken out of the water. Like all the water.

Erin Scheinost, the manager at the Pointe Hilton Squaw Peak’s River Ranch in Phoenix had one mom who demanded that the resort’s 4-acre water park be drained because her 12 year-old son had lost his retainer in the lazy river section of the park. Scheinost couldn’t do that. Nor could she call the woman if her son’s retainer popped up. “My staff finds a lot of retainers and we have no way of identifying the owners.”

To read more pool fool stories and get some tips from experts on proper poolside behavior, see my Well Mannered Traveler column on MSNBC.com: Don’t be the fool at the pool.

Airports and airlines scramble over swine flu

As I reported today on MSNBC.com, airports and airlines are scrambling to respond to the government-issued alerts about travel to and from Mexico in the wake of the swine-flu outbreak there.


It’s hard to know what will happen next, but most airlines with flights to Mexico have posted policies offering to waive the change fee for travelers who want to adjust their itineraries or exchange their ticket for a different destination.  While Alaska Airlines is allowing travelers to make changes to an itinerary through May 20th, most other airlines are asking travelers to make new plans by next Wednesday, May 6th.

Stay tuned though: as the story unfolds and if, for example, the U.S. government places formal restrictions on travel to and from Mexico, the airlines may have to extend those offers.

The TSA’s secret weapon

Last week I joined a group of Seattle airport TSA workers for a two-day class in what I thought was going to be all about patience.  But patience was just a tiny part of it.

Here’s a link to the Well Mannered Traveler column I wrote for MSNBC.com about the experience.  In the meantime, here’s an excerpt:

Don’t be surprised or alarmed if the next time you go through the security checkpoint at the airport you find TSA staff handing out smiles and warm greetings instead of barked orders, mean looks and stern commands. There may even be some TSA-approved hugging and high-fiving going on back there behind the X-ray machines.

It sounds farfetched, I know. Especially if you’re one of the many travelers who regularly ends up feeling demeaned and harassed at airport checkpoints and believes that the TSA only hires sticky-fingered miscreants who are missing the genes for courtesy and respect.

The folks at TSA are well aware of that reputation…. and in an effort to address a variety of problems and improve overall checkpoint security, the TSA in October rolled out a new skills training program. It’s called Engage! (exclamation point included!) and all 50,000 TSA workers are required to attend. The initial system-wide training should wrap up in the next few weeks, so it’s a fair bet you’ve already encountered a few graduates of the course.

Have you noticed any changes? I wasn’t sure what to look for, or what was realistic to expect, so I said yes when invited to join 28 TSA workers from Seattle-Tacoma International Airport in a windowless room at the main terminal for their two-day intensive.

I left feeling both reassured and alarmed.

To read the rest of the column, please go to:  TSA’s new secret weapon on MSNBC.com and be sure leave a comment about your recent checkpoint experiences.