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More airlines make large passengers buy two seats

Posted by David Landsel, on Friday, January 29, 2010

By David Landsel

You’re paying to check your belongings, so why should other people’s excess baggage get a free ride?

That’s the question being asked by a growing number of travelers. As airlines look for new ways to boost revenue, fees for checked bags are on the rise; so is scrutiny of overweight customers whose baggage is built in.

It’s a touchy subject, has found, and one that airlines have been happy to avoid discussing, where possible. As late as 2008, United Airlines wouldn’t even address the matter with us.

But an outcry among passengers, tired of their seatmates taking up more than their fair share of jealously-guarded seat space, is said to have played a role in the airlines’ new rules for transporting “customers of size.” Where a terse “we have no policy” was once the standard response, United adopted new regulations in 2009. Customers who were unable to confine themselves to one seat would be required to buy a second, should the crew be unable to reseat them.

It’s a policy that’s becoming increasingly commonplace.

To many, the idea seems simple enough – if you can’t fit into one seat, you should probably consider buying two.

It’s not simple at all. Canada’s government takes a dim view of the matter. In late 2008, the country’s Supreme Court upheld a ruling that prohibited airlines from charging the disabled or “obese” for a second seat, affecting Canadian flyers Air Canada and WestJet.  

Here in the United States, some airlines with upfront policies have spent their fair share of time in the courts. Southwest has long been famously transparent about its second seat rule, the one that United and many other airlines have emulated. The company has been sued more than once by disgruntled passengers.

“On the lawsuits, all have ruled on the side of Southwest,” spokesperson Whitney Eichinger points out.

Southwest’s policy is that those who cannot fit in one seat must buy two.  

 “If the flight goes out with empty seats, Southwest will refund the cost of the additional seat,” Eichinger said.

Other airlines have had their share of legal trouble in this area.  

In the past, Air France warned passengers with what they referred to as “high body mass” not to expect to be seated if they have not purchased an extra seat. This is a warning that many airlines, even those who officially have tried to downplay any official policy, have long given to travelers.

Some travelers, however, don’t see the need. That, or the airline and the passenger disagree over what constitutes “need.” An Air France passenger traveling from New Delhi to Paris in 2006 sitting in a single seat was stopped by employees, who wrapped packing tape around him in public to prove that he was too fat. Citing humiliation, he sued, and won.

At the time, the airline had a program in place that offered passengers a second seat at a 25 percent discount, tax-free. It was a move that the airline had hoped would encourage customers to make arrangements in advance.

Last week, Air France made an update to the policy, bringing it more in line with Southwest’s policy, which has been around for decades. According to Air France spokesperson Karen Gillo, the second seat purchase is still optional. Now, however, the cost will be reimbursed if the flight is not fully booked.  

“It’s a way to encourage individuals to pre-plan to ensure their own comfort and safety; it allows them to travel with less stress,” she said.

Gillo stated that “for the mass majority of the cases, the flights aren’t fully booked” and passengers will be reimbursed.

Air France isn’t the only one making tweaks these days. JetBlue spokesman Mateo Lleras said the airline is currently working to refine its policy.

Currently, Lleras said, the airline does its best to accommodate customers free of charge. It will charge if it has to, but says that it approaches the matter on a “case by case basis.”

“We understand this is a sensitive issue,” he said. “Every time we can accommodate a customer we will.”


Did British Airways go too far to "protect" an unaccompanied minor?

Posted by David Landsel, on Thursday, January 21, 2010

One passenger thinks so.

Mirko Fischer probably wasn’t expecting to be singled out as a potential pedophile on his British Airways flight out of London’s Gatwick Airport last April.

Fischer, a businessman who was heading home to Luxembourg with his pregnant wife Stephanie, took his seat on the plane – in the middle of the row, between his significant other and a 12-year-old boy he’d never met.

Just before takeoff and without warning, a flight attendant leaned in and gave Mr. Fischer the bad news: He’d need to change his seat. Refusing to do so, the attendant explained that the plane would not depart until he complied. Understandably humiliated and embarrassed, Fischer moved, but that was just the beginning – the 33-year-old hedge fund manager is now suing British Airways on grounds of sex discrimination.

“This policy is branding all men as perverts for no reason,” Fischer told London’s Daily Mail; the case will be heard next month. Fischer says he will donate any compensation he receives to the UK's National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children.

Does British Airways really have a policy that demands cabin crew arbitrarily reseat passengers it deems unfit companions for unaccompanied minors on its flights? Like all airlines, it no doubt has strict guidelines that include taking special precautions that the child is not lost in the shuffle. The most typical security measure is to seat solo-flying children as close to a galley and cabin crew as possible, in order to keep an eye on them.

JetBlue spokesperson Mateo Lleras says that the airline will generally try to keep the unaccompanied minor “somewhere close to the front of the plane” and in plain sight.

Tim Smith, a representative for American Airlines, says that the airline does “routinely place the unaccompanied minors in seating areas where our flight attendants can easily monitor and interact with the children.”

American would not, he states, “routinely move male (or female) passengers away from unaccompanied minors without cause.”

Then again, there’s always the possibility that British Airways does not do so either.

New York-based BA spokesman John Lampl couldn’t go into details due to pending litigation, but did supply an official statement from the airline saying that there was an internal investigation currently underway, and that the airline had been “looking at a potential settlement by meeting the customer's claim before this issue received any media coverage.”  

But isn't it a bit late for that?

How would you react in such a situation?

Categories: Airline Industry News

Doh! I left my laptop on the plane. Here's how I got it back.

Posted by David Landsel, on Monday, January 18, 2010

The gentleman at United’s baggage service counter in LaGuardia’s central terminal had it right.

“There’s something about the air on those planes,” he teased. I wasn’t really listening. I was too busy admiring my banged-up old laptop.   

It had been approximately three hours since I’d lost my Hewlett Packard DV2500, much missed during that time not because it is the greatest piece of technology ever to fly off the shelves at my local Best Buy, but because, like a fool, I hadn’t backed the thing up for months.

Last seen: In the seatback pocket belonging to seat 26A on my flight from Chicago-O’Hare. At that time, I’d issued myself a stern reminder to not leave it behind. But, like the guy at the baggage counter pointed out, that pressurized cabin air can make you go stupid.

In fact, travel at any altitude or speed can be discombobulating. Just ask Yo-Yo Ma, who famously left his $2.5 million cello in the trunk of a New York City taxi.

Like Mr. Ma, I walked off that plane without my laptop and never looked back. Not, at least, until the unpacking process began at home an hour later.

So many cell phones, wallets, drivers licenses, passports, lucky blue shirts, all gone, all disappeared in my travels. I’m so loss-prone, I’ve now programmed myself to assume that everything’s gone, before I can actually confirm. Sometimes I’m wrong. A lot of the time, I’m right.

This time, however, there was no turning out coat pockets. You either have your busted-up, out-of-date laptop computer with you, or you don’t. I didn’t.

Luggage gets tagged, it gets bar-coded. The possessions are zipped up in a fashionable bag. Sometimes the bag is locked, if you’re smart. If you’re really smart, you shipped your things ahead of you. Either way, all this stuff can usually be traced. There is a system.

A lost item, on a plane, sitting there in the seatback pocket for the cleaners or the next passenger to discover? That’s really tempting the Fates.

To say I felt helpless is putting it mildly. Everything on my computer, gone, just like that. My first reaction was to call United’s baggage hotline, where a computer gave me the number for the lost and found office at LaGuardia, where nobody picked up the phone. It was three days before Christmas, so this was not unexpected. Less expected: The voicemail was full, and not accepting any more messages.

Within an hour or so, I was at the office in person, where – miracle – my laptop had already been turned in. Had it not been there, well, forget calling, I was told. Fill out a form online. Best advice if you ever want to see your valuables again: be more proactive: just turn around and go back to the airport.  

An online form sounded like an easy solution for next time; unfortunately, I could find no such thing on United’s Web site.

According to Robin Urbanski, spokesperson for United, what the folks at LaGuardia had probably meant was that I could send an email reporting my lost item. She also referred me back to the hotline that gave me the number I called that nobody answered. 

Pick an airline, the reporting process appears to be pretty much the same: If you lose something that is not baggage, call the airline’s baggage services at the airport in question anyway. Some airlines will give you those numbers on their Web sites; for other airlines you'll have to call their 800 number. Like United, JetBlue has email addresses for initiating contact online; however, each airport it serves has a dedicated address for lost and found.  See ways to contact baggage offices and lost and found.

JetBlue recommends initiating contact no more than 4 hours after the loss – this turns out to be a very useful recommendation, seeing as found items unclaimed within 48 hours are sent to the airline’s central offices in Salt Lake, according to spokesman Bryan Baldwin. Helpfully, local offices tag each found item as if it were a piece of luggage, enabling anyone with access to the system to track it down for you.

For their part, United would give no time frame for beginning or ending a search – United’s Urbanski said that searches are “indefinite.” As in, cases are open until they’re closed.

Bear in mind, no matter which airline you’re dealing with, recovering your lost items depends a great deal on whether or not the cabin cleaners that tidy up after every flight, a service generally performed by a third-party contractor, and a) find the item you left behind, or b) do the right thing and turn the item in.   

Even if items are turned in and processed, it turns out, there’s no guarantee they will ever be claimed. Urbanski said that United hangs on to what it finds for “several months,” after which time a “variety of things” could be done, including donating them to charity, though she didn’t offer specifics. After 90 days, JetBlue sends unclaimed items on to a third party, which puts them up for sale.

While nobody was able to give hard statistics on how many items are orphaned, retrieved or left behind each year, one LaGuardia insider who asked not to be named told me I’d be surprised at “how many laptops we have lying around.” Maybe some charity is about to get lucky.

One final tip: you do label the valuable electronics (cell phones, cameras, laptops, DVD players, etc) that you bring on board with you with your phone number, don’t you? If not, get out that labeler right now and do it.

David Landsel is the travel editor of The New York Post.

Categories: Air Travel