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Posts from the Travel Category

A recent United flight from Houston to Portland diverted to Salt Lake City and the pilot had a family removed from the plane. The mother claims the removal was due to discrimination against her daughter’s autism. United claims that the situation became disruptive and the pilot made the decision to divert. The mother is now saying she is planning to sue United for discrimination. That is the simplest way to describe this odd story but, for a number of reasons, I think it only touches the surface of what happened.

Before I jump into the multiple aspects to this incident I want to state a few things that I think are important.

  1. I am not a lawyer nor am I an airline employee. I simply fly a lot for work and leisure and I see a lot of things, some of them crazy, on planes.
  2. I have family members with mental disabilities as well as friends who are the parents of children with mental disabilities. It is not my intention to diminish the fact that raising a child with disabilities is difficult, stressful, and trying. Parents who work so hard to give their children “normal” lives and provide for their needs are definitely not my issue in this post.
  3. I believe there is more to this story than what is being presented by the news outlets. United, being threatened with litigation by the mother, is unquestionably going to be tight-lipped about the entire thing. The story has seemingly morphed since it was originally on television here in Portland as well, with more details coming to light and wording being changed.

With all of that said, where do we even start with all of this? Dr. Beegle, the mother of the autistic child stated that the family had dinner in Houston’s Intercontinental Airport but that her daughter did not partake. The mother, being thoughtful and caring, grabbed some snacks, knowing that her daughter may need them onboard.

The family ate dinner in Houston, Beegle said, but Juliette refused to eat. Beegle brought some snacks on board for her because “if her blood sugar lets go, she gets frustrated and antsy. We try to anticipate that and prevent that.”

When the family boarded, Dr. Beegle asked a Flight Attendant if they had any hot meals due to her daughter being a “picky eater” (her words not mine). The flight attendant let her know what they had a hot sandwich, but then, when everyone was served, the sandwich was room temperature.

The mother is clearly preempting her daughter’s needs, I appreciate that. The flight attendant is working with the information they have. Hot food is usually catered on United afternoon and evening flights, sometimes it is not due to catering screw-ups. What happened here is one of those pieces of information that we just don’t have. Did the flight attendant’s not heat up the meal? Were the hot sandwiches not catered?

Anyway, Dr. Beegle then asked to purchase a hot meal from first class. The flight attendant told her that was not possible.

“I asked if I can purchase something hot for my daughter and [the first class flight attendant] said no” she said. “I called him back over and I said to him, ‘Please, help us out here,'” but he again refused.

“He came back again and I said, ‘I have a child with special needs, I need to get her something.’ And he said, ‘I can’t do that,'” she explained. “I said, ‘How about we wait for her to have a meltdown, she’ll be crying and trying to scratch in frustration. I don’t want her to get to that point.'”

KOIN Screenshot of Mother's Quote

KOIN6 News version of mother’s quote

This is where I see some odd differences in the wording and also the point in the tale where things start to go downhill. First, the original story by KOIN6 news stated that the mother said she’ll “get to the meltdown point” and “maybe scratch someone”, yet the AP story has different wording. I would like to know what was actually said. And if “scratch someone” was used, why was that necessary to say? I would also want to know if this was the first time the mother mentioned the child having special needs. If it was, why did the mother not bring it up the first time when the sandwich arrived cold?

Yahoo! Screenshot of Mother's Quote

Yahoo! version of mother’s quote

After the mother made the above statement the flight attendant brought rice and jambalaya from first class. Again, we are lacking a little detail here. Was it an extra serving, did someone not want their meal, or was it a crew meal? That may not seem important but I have seen a comments stating that the flight attendant was cold hearted and should have just done something to help. If the flight attendant originally told the mother that he couldn’t bring something from first class, it may have been because he was still serving first class and didn’t know if there would be any meals available.

Soon after this occurred an announcement was made that the plane would be making an emergency landing because of a passenger with “a behavior issue”. What happened in between the two events I can only speculate about but for the pilot to make the decision he had to receive the details about the encounter with Dr. Beegle and then decide whether or not to continue with the flight. On domestic flights, when a pilot leaves the cockpit a flight attendant enters the cockpit so that the door can be opened when the pilot returns. This has been a policy since a little after 9/11. At the same time, a flight attendant in the front galley usually blocks the aisle with a food cart. I believe this is a policy on United only but you may see it at other airlines. With these measures, it is not possible for the pilot to walk back to the Beegles and assess the situation himself. He can only make a decision based on the information given to him by his flight attendants.

If the wording used by Dr. Beegle was actually “she may try to scratch someone” and that was passed along to the pilot, then the decision to divert was probably not a difficult one. A passenger who may threaten others can lead to a situation that escalates quickly and dealing with violence on an airplane is not easy. When you are on a plane, the pilot is the final say in safety matters. If he feels something is a danger, whether it be mechanical or human, he makes the decision on what to do with the plane. Diversions are not taken lightly either. It is not like a pilot wakes up one morning and thinks to herself, “you know, today I feel like going to Salt Lake City on the way to Portland, wonder if I can cause a diversion?”.

There are some side notes about the comments made after the plane landed. The medic’s comments I deem unimportant. When flights call in their diversions, there is very little information usually given other than maybe “we have an unruly passenger and would like to be met by emergency personnel”. For a medical professional to come onboard and then find that nothing was wrong medically then proceed to say it was an “overreaction” by the pilot, I think that’s unprofessional. When the pilot stated that he didn’t feel comfortable continuing with Dr. Beegle’s daughter onboard, Dr. Beegle stood up and asked the rest of the plane what they thought. That’s a red flag in my book as well.

In the end I think there is blame to share on both sides. The flight attendants could have done a better job asking what needs the child had when the mother first brought it up to them. The mother could have chosen her words more wisely and tried to explain what was going on more clearly. I don’t read the stories about this and see anything that stands out as discriminatory against autism though. It is not like the pilot came over before takeoff and said “we see your daughter has special needs and we can’t accommodate her, you will need to get off the plane” which would be direct violation of the Air Carrier Access Act.

I also do not see anything that says the pilot’s decision was based on anything physical the girl did, which leads me to believe that it was the mother’s statement about scratching that caused the diversion. The mother’s reason for using that statement bugs me. Someone told me on Twitter “It’s sad to me that people have to watch what they say so carefully now.” when I mentioned the wording being a potential problem. I agree and disagree. You are in a metal tube at 35,000 feet, things can go badly very quickly. Does this mean you need to be completely censored? No, it just means you do not use the potential of violence in your conversations, especially when you are wanting something from a flight attendant. Think about how that comes across, “she needs a hot meal or she may scratch someone”.

Again, there are, I’m sure, plenty of details that we are missing. Those details may fill in the gaps on things such as tone and composure of the mother and the flight attendant. Also, the family was put on another flight on Delta to get from Salt Lake City to Portland and from what I can find, that flight was the same day. In the grand scheme of things, it was an inconvenience for everyone, the Beegle family, the other passengers on the United flight, and the crew. I also believe there was a little bit of overreaction by Dr. Beegle and the flight attendant. Maybe if each had taken a minute to think about the situation and spoken a little less, the plane would have continued on to Portland with no diversion. But, as with most stories, there are two sides, and we are only hearing the one side that has been covered in the news and on social media. Just as with the flight attendant and the mother, maybe we all need to take a step back and understand that not everything about this has been made public and maybe we should reserve judgement for when more information is made available.

I do hope this raises more awareness of autism and the different forms it can take. Alaska Airlines has a program where they invite families with an autistic child experience a day at the airport and on an airplane as well teach their employees how to be sensitive to the needs of such passengers. AIR (Autism Inclusion Resources) also recently teamed up with United and Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport to host a dry run of a travel day for families with an autistic child. So awareness and training is growing.

EVA 777
In March I had a three week work assignment in the Los Angeles area. My Sundays were free so one weekend I headed to LAX and took photos of the mid-afternoon arrivals. The planespotting at LAX is a lot of the same traffic day after day but the experience of it is always a blast. If you have a long layover in Los Angeles I highly recommend making a stop at the In-N-Out on Sepulveda Boulevard, grabbing a burger and fries, and watching the planes come in. You can do this by catching the Parking Spot parking shuttle (Sepulveda location). The Parking Spot is well aware of people doing this and they are happy to oblige. Hop on the bus and at the drop off point inside the garage, just head for the single door, you will be able to see In-N-Out through it.

If you have a bit more time, there is another spotting area called Imperial Hill that is just as great for spotting but does not have the In-N-Out (or restrooms).

Below are a few of the shots I was able to get while at LAX. It really is a fun place to watch really large airplanes land.

American Airlines 77W

Cathay Pacific 77W

Aeroflot A330

Korean Air A380

My arrival at LAX was met with a huge rainstorm. I took the rental car shuttle for Avis and found my name on the board with a “See Preferred Counter Staff” note next to it. I walk inside and I am quickly greeted. The gentleman informs me that he has a number of different SUVs. I ask for a car, to which he replies, “well, the only available car I have for you is on the other side of the lot”. It is pouring outside and LAX rental car locations don’t have covered parking. Why should they, they don’t get enough rain to warrant it, but it’s 11:30pm and I just want to get to the hotel and get some sleep before a 4am wake-up.

I take the SUV, a Hyundai Tuscon. 28,000 miles on it but the Tuscon drives alright. Like most rentals, the windshield is filthy with a film on the inside making it difficult to see in the pouring rain. Rental companies, if you are reading this, clean the inside of the windshields! It’s important!

I end up driving the Tuscon for a few days all around Los Angeles. It guzzles gas like it is going out of style. I do not have to pay for the gas, but the client does and I think having to fill up once a week is a bit excessive, especially since I am only driving 40 miles a day. So, I place a phone call to an Avis location near the office and ask if they will swap out the Tuscon for a car. Nope, only SUVs left. I call another location, same response. I find a place that does have a car but it’s a Hyundai Elantra with 45,000 miles on it. No thanks.

Eventually, I call the Avis counter at Burbank airport and explain that I would like a car. They have some! It is a bit further of a drive but I make it there and inform the counter agent that I had called and requested a car. He thanks me for being an Avis First member, one of the “elite” levels in their program, then informs me that he has a Ford Mustang or a Nissan Altima. I ask if he has a Prius available, I saw three of them when I was walking to the counter. “Nope, they’re reserved”.

This is where I have to speak up. On Avis’s website, I had reserved an intermediate car, instead, they auto-assigned me a SUV as an upgrade. Yet, there is no way for me to specify that I want a hybrid vehicle or fuel efficient vehicle. Avis even touts their Prius rentals, yet there is no way to specifically reserve one.

Then there is the counter experience. If you have a lot full of cars and especially 3 or 4 Priuses yet when I ask to grab one of them and the answer is “they’re reserved”, how is that even possible? How is someone reserving that specific car? And, if they didn’t reserve it but it was assigned to them, why can’t you assign them something else.

I tried to have a little bit of this discussion with the person helping me but he was insistent that the only options he had were an Altima or a Ford Mustang. I took the Altima and it’s better to get 30mpg than the 20mpg I was getting with the Hyundai Tuscon, but the rental car experience is really abysmal. It is not just Avis, but all of the different car companies. Sure, there are “pick your own vehicle” rows with most companies but there is no guarantee those vehicles are not completely beat up inside or don’t smell like smoke. Even my Silvercar rental over the Christmas holiday was mediocre. The car had dings in it, the attendant pointed them out to me, yet he had a bunch of cars sitting around available.

There has to be a better way to do this. Let me look at your inventory and reserve a specific car or even a specific class of car. Let me state “no SUVs” in my profile and have that honored. Let me know how many miles a car has on it before I walk to it.

All of these things would make the entire experience better. I am interested to hear your thoughts on the rental car process. Leave a comment below and let me know what you think.

I think it is pretty obvious that I am airplane nerd, an “avgeek” if you will. My love of planes and flying has been present since I was a little kid. Only in the last 10 to 15 years has my love of commercial aviation come to life, most of my love when I was younger was focused on military aircraft, especially those from the World War II era. Recently, when I visited the Polish Aviation Museum in Krakow, Poland, that love of military aircraft was reignited.

Yak-23
A number of my friends and I were in town and we thought we would plan a tour of the Polish Aviation Museum so I arranged a van to drive us to the location due to it be a little hard to reach via public transit. I was also able to arrange an English speaking guide for a small fee. He ended up being a fantastic guide and he seemed to love the enthusiasm we all had for aviation and thought it was awesome we came to their museum.

The museum is on the site of an old airfield and they have hold an airshow every year by reopening closed taxiways and runways just for the occasion. The indoor exhibits are fascinating with tons of general information about different conflicts as well as Poland’s aviation history. There is even an entire display of aircraft engines, including one of the largest ever built. But, the real gem is the outdoor aircraft display. At first it looks like there are only a few aircraft, but you turn a corner and you see that there are tons of Russian, American, French, and Swedish aircraft scattered all over the property. There is even a “MiG Alley”, a long walkway containing every MiG aircraft produced, including most variants.

If you have a love of aviation and are in Poland or even a country nearby, make a detour to the Polish Aviation Museum. It really is an aviation geek paradise. Enough words, I will let the pictures do the talking. I have a ton of photos to upload and will update this post as I get them uploaded.

MiG-15

MiG Alley

MiG Alley

 

Soviet Missile Systems

MiG-21

Su-17

United’s partner earning rates were posted this morning and on a whole, the numbers aren’t good. If you are flying coach on most of United’s partners, earning rates for reward miles are being slashed. In some instances, reward earning rates go up but the majority of fares will earn fewer miles.

Read through United’s partner earning page to learn more (click on a carrier to find what you will earn when not flying on a United, 016, ticket).

Also, Seth has a great analysis of the new partner earning rates here.

An OpEd in the December 12, 2014 Houston Chronicle by a United Airlines employee really has me scratching my head. In it, Mark Segaloff posits that Emirates’s status as an airline hinges on them being state owned and that they are able to hurt U.S. airlines because of their use of the Import/Export bank to finance their aircraft. He continues, stating that state-owned airlines cause domestic U.S. carriers to lose business and suffer, costing jobs. While my heart is with Mr. Segaloff, my head is not.

Emirates A380 - Mark Harkin

Emirates A380 – Mark Harkin

It is true that there has been some concern about state-owned airlines coming into the U.S. and hurting domestic carriers. Even European carriers have stated that the Middle East carriers pose a serious risk to their business in the region. Here’s the kicker though, the European carriers are really the only ones with skin in the game. They are the ones with multiple flights to multiple destinations in the Middle East. U.S. carriers fall well behind when it comes to service to places like Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Doha, Kuwait City and others. In fact, United could not make their Washington-Dulles to Doha, Qatar (with a stop in Dubai) route work, so they pulled that service.

Mr. Segaloff’s key point is that the Emirates flight will cost Houston jobs. I fail to see any facts in the article as to why that would happen. United offers a once daily flight to Dubai from Dulles. If they want to compete directly for those dollars from potential customers out of Houston, maybe start non-stop service? Maybe offer a product that is not being degraded by installing slimline seats, reducing seat pitch, and generally making the travel experience sub-par. I know that Mr. Segaloff would probably retort, “But they are a state-owned airline with all the money in the world to make service improvements.” to which I would simply give him a link to United making a record profit in Q3 of 2014. There seems to be some money for improvement there, yet United offers 2-4-2 seating in business class on the Dubai flight. No thanks, I would rather take the non-stop from Houston (avoiding Dulles) in 1-2-1 seating on the A380. United does offer a number of one-stop options to a number of Emirates destinations via their antitrust immune joint venture with carriers such as ANA and Lufthansa. Granted, the service standards are not the same as Emirates but there are options that make money for United and their partners.

Something that Mr. Segaloff fails to mention is that the Emirates service to Houston is not new, it is simply bigger now. Truth be told, Emirates used to offer two daily flights to Houston from Dubai and with those two flights they actually had more seats (532) flying to Dubai than they do now with the A380 (489/517 depending on version). Where were the complaints when Emirates was running that second flight?

There have been a number of announcements of service to Houston by carriers that are not state-owned and not from the Middle East but these seem to do little to upset employees. But from an airline business perspective, these new routes are the worrisome ones. Korean has started non-stop service to Seoul, which I had heard was off to a rocky start but is doing better now. ANA announced service to Tokyo, EVA has schedules loaded to Taipei, and there are rumors that British Airways wants to bring an A380 to Houston for one of their two flights a day. ANA and EVA are Star Alliance partners with United, but Korean brings a good product and a fantastic network in Asia. Where is the uproar against that?

The Import/Export Bank is actually a valid concern, especially when the money is not spent the way it was meant to be spent, helping a foreign company grow by buying American goods. However, I do not think Emirates has any problem letting that money fall away. In fact, that money is specifically for Boeing jets, not for the Airbus A380 that Emirates is bringing to Houston.

I think one place where Mr. Segaloff could apply is argument is to the new Emirates flight linking New York City with Milan, Italy. This is a city pair that is served by two U.S. carriers, Delta from JFK and United from Newark. Now you have a third foreign carrier on the route who is trying to bring down the prices but not having much success. But I do not think it’s a question of letting foreign carriers operate routes from the U.S. to their respective hubs but whether or not those foreign carriers should be allowed to operate so called “Fifth Freedom” routes like New York-Milan ad infinitum. A number of carriers do this but use that fifth freedom flight to connect to their hub at the end. Out of Houston, Singapore Airlines flies to Moscow and then onward to Singapore. They are allowed to sell tickets to Moscow or Singapore out of Houston and they fill their plane. It’s a win/win. But when do those flights become anti-competitive? That’s for the FAA and DOT to sort out.

It is one thing to cry wolf when there is a valid concern but to say that Emirates and their A380 is going to hurt Houston is simply fiction. If anything, the Emirates service is helping strengthen the Houston economy by offering one-stop service to places that were previously unreachable without 2 or more stops. It will also continue to keep prices relatively competitive, which is good for the consumer. Sure, United may not like that, but how many passengers are they really flying a day to Dubai? How many are they flying to Europe for Middle East connections? United has a choice to make, they can up their game and focus on becoming a world class international carrier or they can relegate themselves to a middle-tier domestic focused carrier with a product that just barely keeps up with the competition. That decision will dictate the fate of those jobs that Mr. Segaloff is concerned about, not a single Emirates A380 flight a day to Houston.

Just a few days ago it was was announced (speculated) that EVA Air would start service to Houston in June of 2015. On the heels of that, ANA, one of two major carriers in Japan, announced that they will start service to Houston from Tokyo-Narita starting in June of 2015.

ANA Boeing 777-300ER; JA736A@HKG;05.08.2012671eb

ANA 777-300ER By Aero Icarus

Airlineroute.net is reporting the following schedule, which matches what ANA announced in their press release:

NH174 Tokyo-Narita to Houston departing 11:15am arriving 09:30am [Daily]
NH173 Houston to Tokyo-Narita departing 11:20am arriving 03:20pm(+1 day) [Daily]

The service will start June 12, 2015.

Based on the seat distribution that ANA points out in their press release, 8 First Class, 52 Business Class, and 190 Economy Class seats, it looks like they will send the following 777-300ER configuration to Houston. Their economy class seating does have a premium economy section, but more importantly, they have 9-across in regular economy in what most would consider an odd seating arrangement, 2-4-3. This certainly does not mean that from time to time ANA won’t send one of their more denser configurations to Houston, but their schedule has a nicely fitted aircraft planned for the service.

ANA 777-300ER Configuration

The flight will more than likely use Terminal D, which at this point, really needs a makeover when it comes to lounge options and amenities for passengers. The terminal does not have a ton of food options and walking to Terminal E or C, where such options are more plentiful, is not a quick trip. There is also one lounge that is shared by Star Alliance carriers in Terminal D. It is windowless and the last time I was there it was packed to the gills. I have heard it has been expanded but have yet to see the improvements.

Given United’s recent removal of their second daily flight from Houston to Tokyo-Narita, this route announcement is a little surprising. United had trouble making money on the route using a 777-200ER, which is smaller than the plane ANA plans to use, and had trouble again when the service moved to a 787-8, an even smaller aircraft. Clearly United initially saw a need or they would not have started the second flight. So what prompted this shake up?

United and ANA are put of antitrust immunity joint venture across the Pacific. This allows them to share both revenue and risk on new routes. If one carrier thinks it can market a route better or run a route better, then the airlines discuss it and come to an agreement. In this case, I think ANA sat down with United and pointed out that the latter had dropped a number of services out of Tokyo-Narita, namely Bangkok, and that they, ANA, could do a better job of handling a second frequency to Houston while expanding the coverage in Asia. On the flip side, ANA can provide a lot of connecting traffic to United’s mid-morning departures out of IAH to places like Latin America and the southeast United States.

ANA touts this in their press release citing two route increases, Bangkok and Singapore and they include the following table pointing out southern Asia points that can reach the U.S. via Tokyo-Narita using this new service.

Asia-U.S. Network

That’s really the kicker. You can leave Singapore or Bangkok on one of the midnight flights to Tokyo and connect directly to a flight to Houston.

I have to believe that ANA feels that they can market the service better to south and southeast Asian cities better than United can, especially with United’s recent market retreat there. United simply does not have the presence it used to in Asia and if an Asian carrier can convince travelers to fly with them and share that revenue with United, I am sure United is happy to let them do it.

One tidbit not present in the press release is whether or not United will keep their Tokyo to Singapore service. The flight frequently goes out full and for flyers coming from the east coast of the U.S. it’s an easy connection. I can’t imagine United getting rid of the route, but then again, I didn’t see this ANA service to Houston as being possible, so anything could happen.

It is definitely great for Houston to have more international carriers coming into Terminal D. I want to see how it plays out as oil and gas prices continue to tumble. If the market in Houston contracts a little and consolidates, will all of these flights be sustainable? Only time will tell.

*EVA has now made an official announcement of the Taipei to Houston route, so no more speculation.

It appears as though the much rumored EVA Air Taipei to Houston non-stop service is now official. Well, it’s loaded into the schedule it seems.

Airlineroute.net is reporting that the flight will start on June 21, 2015 and will have the following schedule:

BR52 Taipei to Houston departing 10:00PM arriving 11:25PM [Sun, Tue, Wed, Fri]
BR51 Houston to Taipei departing 1:15AM arriving 5:55AM (+1 day) [Mon, Wed, Thu, Sat]

The actual first flight will be on June 19, 2015 and that flight will arrive at IAH at 5:45pm. My guess is that this flight is timed as a positioning flight to get the aircraft to Houston to operate a day later while still allowing daylight for the press and local officiants to give their speeches.

Taipei to Houston is just under 8,000 miles and will take 14 hours and 25 minutes. The reverse, Houston to Taipei, will clock in at 15 hours and 40 minutes due to winds.

As far as service goes, EVA’s product looks really nice with full lie-flat seats in business and a very decent looking economy product. Ben Schlappig has a number of trip reports on his blog at One Mile at a Time and they are worth a look if you are interested in the EVA product.

It is great to have more options to Asia out of Houston and I think this flight is timed perfectly with connections in Taipei to allow you to get just about anywhere in Asia easily. This will also bring a little more competition to United (even though they are Star Alliance members) and maybe we’ll see some fare sales to Asia!

The Financial Times on Why Luxury Air Travel is Taking Off Again

An interesting tidbit:

“Everyone thinks first class must be diminishing, but its quite incredible how more and more airlines are renewing their first-class offer and having more first-class seats on board,” says Nigel Goode, director of the design agency PriestmanGoode, whose recent projects include new first-class cabins for Qatar Airways, Swiss, Lufthansa and Air France. “There is quite a resurgence.”

And yet the picture isn’t straightforward. “Absolute numbers are up, but it’s the composition that is the really intriguing thing,” says John Grant, executive vice-president at OAG. Look at individual airlines and you see big discrepancies. In China, where flying first has traditionally been an important status symbol for executives and politicians, as well as in the Middle East, carriers have rapidly expanded their first-class offering. However European airlines, and US carriers on international routes, have tended to scale back.

Really, it is the Middle East and Far East carriers who are bringing the resurgence. Western carriers are simply trying to keep up and some are doing better at it than others. And I doubt we’ve seen the end of western carriers getting rid of longhaul first class cabins. Maybe the answer is for some western carriers to focus on the business class traveler experience and make it as comfortable and beneficial for flyers as possible while keeping the price in the range of employers.