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Will full body scanners keep us any safer?

Posted by George Hobica on Wednesday, December 30, 2009

It's great that Amsterdam's airport has announced it will body scan all passengers bound for the US, and Chicago is adding more units, but it'll cost billions to add these high tech machines to every airport security gate from Nantucket to Namibia, and every airport will have to be so equipped, otherwise potential terrorists will find the weakest link in the system and exploit it. There are only 40 scanners in use at US airports currently, with 150 more already purchased but not deployed, and another 300 planned. But with over 2000 security lanes at US airports alone, and thousands more worldwide, that's only a drop in the bucket.

And where will the funds to add thousands more of these scanners come from? Ultimately, from either tax dollars or from an increase in the airport security taxes. Currently, the US charges a 9/11 security fee of $2.50 per segment up to $10 per flight for domestic flights, and foreign governments charge their own additional security fees. You can expect those fees to go up if scanners are added.

And then there are the privacy concerns, with forces on both the right and the left arguing that these full body scanners invade the privacy of passengers, showing as they do the full contours of one's body. Will little children be forced to go through them? If not, will some extremist tape explosives to a child and put him on a plane?  On the plus side, newer versions of body scanners are designed to effectively catch hidden items while not showing as much of the human form.

And besides the cost, will these scanners be totally effective? We've read that explosive material inserted into a body cavity could escape detection, much as contraband cocaine does when swallowed in little plastic bags.

And all this doesn't even address the issue of explosives in cargo or checked luggage.

Our best protection, which will never be 100% failsafe, is to concentrate on intelligence, but in the most recent terrorist attempt, intelligence turned out to be woefully inadequate. I won't go into all the failures, since they've been covered extensively elsewhere, although I have to ask what would have made airport security and our intelligence services take Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab seriously. Carrying just a backback on a long haul flight, paid with cash, on the National Counterterrorism Center's database of known or suspected international terrorists, UK visa revoked....would he have had to carry an AK-47 to get noticed?

To learn more, visit George Hobica's profile on Google+


Fare of the Day: Newark to Palm Springs

Posted by Tracy Stewart on Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Newark to Palm Springs $194 round-trip, incl. all taxes

This fare is valid for Tuesday, Wednesday, and Saturday travel through March 11.

To learn more, visit Tracy Stewart's profile on Google+

Categories: Airfare Tips

Fare of the Day: San Francisco to London, England

Posted by Tracy Stewart on Tuesday, December 29, 2009

San Francisco to London, England $643 round-trip, incl. all taxes

Down from the high $700s yesterday! This fares is available for travel on select days in March.

To learn more, visit Tracy Stewart's profile on Google+

Categories: Airfare Tips

Fare of the Day: Boston to Casablanca, Morocco

Posted by Tracy Stewart on Monday, December 28, 2009

Boston to Casablanca, Morocco $528 round-trip, incl. all taxes

This fare is avaliable for travel in February and March, on select dates.

To learn more, visit Tracy Stewart's profile on Google+

Categories: Airfare Tips

Goodbye frequent flyer miles, hello cash back?

Posted by George Hobica on Sunday, December 27, 2009


$25000 spent on a frequent flyer credit card vs. an Amex Blue Cash cash back card

  Grocery Gas Drugstore All other purchases

Annual Fee


Fee to obtain ticket Total cashback (total miles plus cash cost of "free" domestic flight)
The Spend $10,400 ($200/week)
$3000 $1000 $10,600      
American Express Blue Cash (5% on groceries, gas, pharmacy; 1.25% on everything else after you spend $6500 annually) $520 $150 $50 $132  $0 $0  $852
Airline credit card (miles earned)  10,400  3000  1000  10,600  up to $100  up to $50 (25,000  plus $150 in fees)

To learn more, visit George Hobica's profile on Google+

Categories: Airline Industry News

Fare of the Day: Boston to Palma Mallorca, Spain

Posted by Tracy Stewart on Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Boston to Palma Mallorca, Spain $498 round-trip, incl. all taxes

Here's one you won't find on Kayak. This fare is available for travel through March, on select dates.

To learn more, visit Tracy Stewart's profile on Google+

Categories: Airfare Tips

Finally. DOT promulgates new passenger rights regulations

Posted by George Hobica on Monday, December 21, 2009

Just in time for the holidays, US Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood handed US airline passengers a long-awaited present in the form of new regulations governing excessive tarmac delays. Two proposed airlines passenger rights bills, one in the House and the other in the Senate, have been languishing all year, despite best efforts of supporters in and outside of government. But while we’ve been waiting—and waiting—for Congress to act, Secretary LaHood seems to have taken matters into his own hands, causing much celebration among those who have spent long hours, or an entire night, stranded in a cramped airplane seat without working lavatories, air conditioning, and water. No surprise, the new rules, which are expected to kick in next April, have already been denounced by the Air Transport Association, an industry trade group.

Exceptions to the rules

But as is the case with any regulation, there are exceptions and loopholes, and it’s questionable whether, even if they wanted to, airlines will be physically able to comply with the new rules under certain circumstances.

For example, if air traffic control advises that an attempt to return to the gate or to deplane passengers will disrupt airport operations, then the airlines will be exempt from compliance. Ditto if an argument can be made that airport security or passenger safety will be compromised.

So let’s say the clock is ticking, and the airline wants to return a plane to the gate. But wait: all the gates are occupied. What then? Well, the passengers can’t just jump down those inflatable slides and walk to the terminal, because that would indeed compromise security and safety. And if the delay is being caused by severe lightning or other dangerous weather conditions, passengers are probably safer inside a plane than walking on an exposed airport tarmac.

Airlines can't do it alone

Airports need to get involved to make these new rules workable, and they’re just not equipped yet to do so. Surplus gates need to be set aside, and while that’s certainly possible at airports that have experienced traffic cutbacks, it’s not at others. If no gates are available, then airports need to buy people mover buses with mobile stairways to bring passengers from marooned aircraft to the terminal.

The new regulations do have teeth in them, with a possible $27,500 per passenger fine if a plane is delayed on the tarmac for more than three hours. And in addition to addressing tarmac delays, the rules also prohibit airlines from scheduling “chronically delayed flights” and require them to display on their web sites delay information for each flight. The DOT also promises additional passenger protection rules in the future.

But rather than risk paying thousands in fines, will airlines peremptorily cancel flights that have even a possibility of experiencing severe delays, at airports not equipped to deplane passengers? That seems likely.

And some will argue that rather than punishing airlines for delays, the Obama and past administrations would have done better to have modernized the antiquated US air traffic control system, which many industry observers believe is the root cause of most delays in the first place. Maybe at least they’ll apply any fines they collect towards that long delayed project.

To learn more, visit George Hobica's profile on Google+

Categories: Airline Industry News

Fare of the Day: Seattle to Barcelona

Posted by Tracy Stewart on Monday, December 21, 2009

Seattle to Barcelona $607 round-trip, incl. all taxes

This fare is available from January through March. Please note: Flexible calendar results will list $620 as the lowest fare, but once you've selected it, the fare drops to $607 on the following page.

To learn more, visit Tracy Stewart's profile on Google+

Categories: Airfare Tips

Come fly the polite skies

Posted by George Hobica on Saturday, December 19, 2009

I have a request.

Can’t we all just get along up in the air? Can’t we be just a little—no, make that a lot—more polite?

Consider: I was sitting in first class on a recent flight (yes, I used miles to upgrade) and the guy next to me flagged down a passing flight attendant by shaking his half empty highball glass at her. “More ice!” he bellowed. To which she replied, rather sweetly under the circumstances, “What’s the magic word!” To which he more or less replied, “Don’t try to teach me manners, just get me more ice.” (I mean, really, can you believe this jerk? What is it with some airline passengers thinking they’re grand poobahs just because they bought a $200 airfare and upgraded it with miles?)  So the flight attendant answered him, “Sir, the ice is in the galley. Get it yourself.” If I didn’t have to sit next to this bozo for another two hours, I would have shouted out "woo hoo!"  And had I been she, I would have omitted the “sir.'

My seat mate was lucky that all he got was a well-deserved come-uppance. John Reed, a customer on American Airlines flight 614 from Sacramento to Dallas on December 6, had a less pleasant encounter with a flight attendant. As reported extensively in the blogosphere, Mr. Reed, a first class passenger with executive platinum frequent flyer status, asked a flight attendant for a glass of orange juice, was excoriated for doing so (“I guess you don’t know how this works,” she reportedly told him), and ended up getting a written FAA misconduct notification from the pilot. Reed and his fellow first class passengers all insist that the flight attendant was completely out of line and perhaps mentally unstable, and American has issued an apology to all those affected.

Of course we weren’t on that flight, so we don’t know whether or not Reed used the magic word when asking for his OJ, but even if he didn’t, by all accounts the flight attendant’s behavior was bizarre and inexcusable. 

Even so, I often find the rudeness of airline passengers equally bizarre. When asked, “Can I get you something to drink sir (or ma’am)” by a flight attendant (or by a waiter for that matter), it is not acceptable to bark out “Coke” without looking up from your Sudoku. It’s not acceptable in the air, and frankly, it’s not acceptable on the ground, either. But especially not in the air. Flight attendants are trained to save your life if there’s an incident. Flying is stressful for all concerned. We're stuck together in an aluminum can, sometimes for six hours or more. This is not a flying McDonald's.

And it is not acceptable when handed your beverage to skip the “thank you.” You are not the Sultan of Siam. She is not your girl. I think flyers should all take a lesson from my mother, who, when we flew together, laid down certain rules of decorum. "Georgie," she would remind me near the end of each flight, "when we leave the plane you are to say thank you to the pilot and stewardesses." To this day, I never fail to do so.

Not that all the politeness in the world will save you from the wrath of a flight attendant gone bonkers, and times have changed drastically since my first transcontinental flight with mom, on a TWA 707, as a bowtie-clad 10 year old.

On that flight, my mother suggested I help the stewardesses clear the meal trays, which task I gamely performed (after all, one of them had pinned plastic wings on my blazer, so I was crew, right?). In recognition of my valorous service, one of the stews pinched my chubby little cheek and said, “Oh what a nice little boy you are.” And then I got to ride up with the pilots for a thrilling half hour. As I said, things have changed.

Fast forward to a flight a few years ago when I was sitting in the back of a Continental Airlines 737 waiting in vain for a meal tray to be removed. Needing a lav visit, I got up and placed the tray on an empty counter in the galley, where the flight attendants were busy gabbing away about whatever. “You can’t put that there!” one of them barked at me. Shell-shocked, but ignoring her, I went into the loo and upon emerging looked her in the eye and said, “You know, you could have said that a bit more politely.” She, indignantly: “I wasn’t impolite.” Me, equally indignant: “Oh yes you were, and you know it.” Luckily I guess, I didn’t get one of those FAA warning letters, but while I’m all for politesse in the skies, modern airline travel is fraught enough as it is, and it does take two to maintain a civil atmosphere.

I’m willing to do my part. I wish more people were willing to do theirs. 

To learn more, visit George Hobica's profile on Google+

Categories: Air Travel

Fare of the Day: New York to Honolulu

Posted by Tracy Stewart on Friday, December 18, 2009

New York JFK to Honolulu $498 round-trip, including all taxes

This fare is good for winter travel through early March.

To learn more, visit Tracy Stewart's profile on Google+

Categories: Airfare Tips
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