The WiFi on planes makes a convincing argument for the in-flight novel

In-flight wireless Internet connections are almost universally available. They’re also almost universally unreliable, slow and expensive.
Read more “The WiFi on planes makes a convincing argument for the in-flight novel”

Ridiculous or not? Your pet isn’t welcome on board this summer

This was supposed to be the best summer ever for pets that fly.

Pet Airways, the upstart air carrier for animals, is just starting to hit its stride. It recently added flight to Orlando and St. Louis, and its revenues more than doubled from a year ago. Not too shabby!

Several airlines have also introduced pet-friendly promotions, most notably JetBlue Airways, with its quirky JetPaws program, which is now in its third summer.

Even the airlines that weren’t exactly pet-friendly appear to have gotten in touch with their animal side. Sure, there are still sporadic pet deaths — here’s a site that tracks them closely — but it’s nothing like it was a few summers ago, when animals were routinely dying the cargo hold, and often under tragic and inhumane circumstances.

So why has this summer gone to the dogs?
Read more “Ridiculous or not? Your pet isn’t welcome on board this summer”

Traveling with pets (but first, a Chihuahua-on-a-plane story)

There’s an unwritten rule in travel journalism that any story about pets on planes must contain at least one Chihuahua anecdote. I know, because I’ve written many of them. So let’s get right to Charlotte Coan and her travel companion, Cricket.

Coan, a retired educator from West Yellowstone, Mont., frequently packs her nine-pound dog in her carry-on luggage. But like an increasing number of travelers, she doesn’t tell anyone. She’s been caught twice, and the airline has forced her to pay a $150 surcharge for the pet.

“When I asked why I had to pay a fee in order to stuff my dog under the seat in front of me, I was told it was their policy,” she said. “I concluded that it’s really just a ploy to charge another fee.”

A lot of travelers have been arriving at the same conclusion lately, although exact numbers are difficult to come by. Instead of paying extra “pet fees” to hotels or airlines, they’re spiriting their animal companions into their bags or under blankets in the hope of saving a few bucks.
Read more “Traveling with pets (but first, a Chihuahua-on-a-plane story)”

Daddy can’t fly: Parents who shouldn’t be allowed on a plane

During a recent 2 1/2-hour flight from Portland, Maine, to Charlotte, N.C., Tom Meador heard nothing but crying.

“The baby in the back row screamed bloody murder,” he remembers. “Its mother did everything she could think of to quiet the baby. She actually was dripping with sweat because you could tell she worried about what it was doing to the other passengers. I think she had reason to worry, too, because there were some very sour fellow passengers.”

The problem is as old as air travel itself: Adults seated next to misbehaving kids while confined to a pressurized aluminum tube. But it seemed like until now, at least, we knew whose side the parents were on. Like the mom on Meador’s flight, they did everything they could to keep their offspring from driving the rest of the passengers quietly mad.

Today, you can’t be so sure.
Read more “Daddy can’t fly: Parents who shouldn’t be allowed on a plane”

Doggone airlines! 4 reasons pets shouldn’t fly

At just two pounds, Natalie Maldonado’s teacup Chihuahua weighs less than her purse. But on a recent AirTran flight from Tampa to Atlanta, as she tucked the dog under her seat, a crewmember stopped Maldonado because the pet had been improperly tagged, she says.

“I was surrounded by four agents, a gate agent, the flight attendants and another crewmember,” she remembers. “They demanded that I pay a $70 pet carry-on fee.”

That’s when her flight went to the dogs. Although she reluctantly agreed to pay the surcharge, she was walked off the flight after an attendant told her she was committing a “federal offense” by interfering with the flight schedule. She and her Chihuahua were allowed to take the next AirTran flight to Atlanta.

“The manner in which I was treated was completely unacceptable and the pet policy fee is ridiculous and excessive,” she told me.

In their struggle to turn a profit, airlines have piled on a lot of fees in the last year, from surcharges for checked luggage to extras for confirmed reservations. And just when it seemed they had found every last fee, it looks as if they’ve turned up one more: They’re looking to Fido and Fluffy for a little extra cash. Specifically, to their owners.

Maldonado’s pet problem may sound like a tempest in a teacup. But it isn’t to her. She alleges AirTran employees intimidated and humiliated her and her dog. When she tried to take names, one flight attendant told her he “wasn’t allowed to give last names.” I was sure the airline would respond to her complaint, so I suggested she send a polite letter describing the incident.

AirTran’s response? A form letter saying it regretted “to learn of your disappointment with our pet travel policy” but pointing out that pet fees are “standard” in the airline business. It promised to pass her comments about the crew’s behavior along to a supervisor.

Here’s the kicker: When it comes to pet transportation fees, AirTran is widely considered to be one of the most reasonable airlines. Its competitors, who at some point must have caught wind of the fact that close to two-thirds of Americans have traveled with their pets and exclaimed, “Ah-ha — there’s money to be made there!” routinely charge twice what this discount airline does.

Call it pet fees gone wild. To get an idea of how crazy these charges have become, consider what happened to Richard Grove, who was asked to pony up $300 to transport his 7-pound cat roundtrip on a recent Delta Air Lines flight. “That’s more than I paid for my own ticket,” he complained. Grove wrote Delta to protest the absurdity of paying more to fly his kitty than himself. The airline replied with a form letter thanking him for letting them “know how you feel.”

It would be tempting to see this as yet another airline industry money grab. But aviation analyst Michael Miller says pet transportation charges differ from other so-called “ancillary” fees charged by airlines today in a few important respects. Pets represent more of a liability than a revenue opportunity, for starters. If a dog or cat dies in the luggage hold — more on that in a minute — the company may face an expensive lawsuit. Although that’s far less likely to happen to animals in the passenger cabin, pets of any kind are essentially unwanted guests on a plane, from an airline’s perspective. Miller says airlines aren’t just “charging whatever they want” to make more money, but to discourage people from bringing animals on board.

That’s not to say there isn’t a market for airborne pets. This summer, Pet Airways, which is billed as an alternative for pets traveling in cargo holds, is scheduled to begin flying between New York, Washington, Chicago, Denver and Los Angeles.

Still, this may be one of those rare times when I agree with the airlines. If dogs and cats belonged at 36,000 feet, they would have wings. But the current system, whether it’s a moneymaker or a deterrent, is hopelessly broken. Here’s why:

Air travel can kill animals
Literally. Pets die on planes, particularly when they’re in the cargo hold. According to the Web site ThirdAmendment.com, a total of 109 animals have perished since 2005, most of them dogs. Airlines must report deaths, injuries and losses to the Transportation Department, but the numbers are thought to be artificially low, since animals that aren’t kept as pets or carried on an all-cargo or unscheduled flight aren’t counted. Continental Airlines had the most deaths (34) followed by American Airlines (21) while Delta Airlines and United Airlines tied for third, with 12 casualties. Delta lost the most pets (11) while Continental had the most injuries (14) according to the government.

The price isn’t right
Why does it cost AirTran $70 to carry a pet one way, but Delta charges $150? Does the cumulative weight of these creatures make planes consume more fuel on one airline, necessitating a higher fee? You don’t have to be an airline employee to know the answer: of course not. Then again, when have airline prices ever made sense? A seat bought two weeks before a flight costs just a few hundred bucks, but buying it the day before your trip can set you back a few thousand. Madness!

Some animals are more equal than others
Jacking up the prices for man’s best friend exposes one of the last remaining airline subsidies: lap children. On domestic flights, airlines don’t charge parents with kids under two who sit on their lap. Fido flying under the seat pays $150. Junior sitting on the lap pays nothing. Does that make any sense? No. When you account for all the extra stuff that you have to bring along, like diapers, formula, snacks and toys, lap kids account for far more weight than most pets stowed under the seats.

No self-respecting dog would subject itself to air travel, anyway
Southwest Airlines used to have the right idea. It didn’t accept live animals in the cabin or cargo compartment other than those trained to assist people with disabilities, until it reversed itself this spring, citing the soft economy. (Here’s a handy list of airline pet policies.) Think about it. What self-respecting cat or dog would intentionally lock itself in a pressurize aluminum tube for several hours? I don’t know of any.

Full disclosure, here: I am owned by two cats that I love dearly. And I interviewed Miller as he was taking his Australian Shepherd, Nikki, for a walk. So it’s safe to say neither of us have a problem with pets in general.

But flying with them is a terrible idea, at least for now. “I would never put Nikki on a plane,” Miller told me.

My cats Max and Pollux are grounded, too. At least until airlines can come up with a better and fairer way to transport their animal passengers.