LaHood touts tarmac rule's success
It's mission accomplished, according to U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, with the success of the infamous airline tarmac-wait rule.
The measure was prompted by the overnight ordeal for 47 passengers who were confined to a plane just a few steps away from the Rochester International Airport terminal on Aug. 9, 2009.
LaHood was that incident's No. 1 critic, when passengers on a Continental Airline-affiliate ExpressJet made a forced overnight stay here because weather prevented the aircraft from landing at its planned destination, Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport.
The flight originated in Houston. In Rochester, the passengers were trapped aboard the airliner for about six hours overnight since they weren't allowed to leave the craft.
According to the investigative account, the pilot repeatedly asked for permission to deplane passengers, but airline dispatchers refused because Transportation Security Administration officials had left for the night and said the airport was closed — which was wrong. Dispatchers apparently didn't realize that the passengers could be released to a "sterile" area in the terminal to await other transportation to their destination.
The incident prompted a huge outcry from officials — mainly LaHood and the Department of Transportation — as well as flyers' rights advocates. The story created worldwide attention.
LaHood blasted the tarmac delay as a "complete lack of common sense" and subsequently imposed a rule that would fine the airlines heavily for future lengthy delays — up to $27,000 per passenger. So, after a year of the rule, which was heavily criticized by the airlines when it was implemented, LaHood announced recently that the DOT has "accomplished our goal" of reducing tarmac incidents where passengers are "stranded without access to food, water or working lavatories for hours on end."
On the first anniversary of the new regulation's effect, LaHood noted that during the first 12 months of the rule, U.S. airlines reported 20 delays of three hours or more on domestic flights, down from 693 during the preceding 12 months. There were no fines for these delays because they presumably were caused by factors — such as the weather — that were exceptions to the rule.
Critics feared the threat of the steep fines would result in a drastic increase in flight cancellations, but that wasn't the case, either. Per the DOT's most recent report, of the six million flights in the past year, there have been 387 flight cancellations, which is only a slight increase from 336 the previous year.
While understandably calling the new rule a "success," LaHood noted that there are still areas in air travel that "need work" — and most air travelers would agree.
Frequent Flier stats
If you're a member of Delta's Frequent Flier Club, it may not surprise you to learn that Delta ranks among the worst airlines when it comes to getting seats from frequent flier miles.
An article in the Wall Street Journal included results from IdeaWorks Co. searched for award seats available at standard break-points of frequent flier miles and reported that the stingiest airlines for FF tickets were Delta and U.S. Airways.
Although IdeaWorks said both airlines have improved since last year, they didn't have seats available about three-quarters of the time in the latest survey. The best airlines? Southwest, which had seats available for nearly all queries made, and JetBlue, which offered seats nearly 80 percent of the time.
But on the other hand, Delta is getting some accolades for its new system of baggage tracking. The airline has introduced baggage tracking on its website that enables customers to see that their bags have been loaded off an aircraft. Also, Delta says it now will text or email customers if the airline misplaces their baggage.
Customers must first sign up for Last Minute Updates on Delta.com or subscribe to have their contact information included in a reservation. Delta says it is equipping 18 of its busiest airports with self-service baggage kiosks by year's end. These will look just like check-in kiosks but will be near airport baggage service offices and bag carousels.
Customers can use the kiosk to view a bag's status and file a delayed bag claim. Delta also reports it is paying a credit voucher of $25 for one bag delayed beyond 12 hours and $50 for two bags.
Dead Sea dying?
Esther Pfeiffer of Rochester took her Post-Bulletin along when she visited the Dead Sea several months ago.
Winter was at its height here when Esther and a group of 26 from Autumn Ridge Church traveled to Israel. Most of the group went into the Dead Sea to try its waters.
You can only float in the Dead Sea because it's so salty — about eight times saltier than ocean water.
The Dead Sea is dying, or so they say. The water level of the fabled salty lake is dropping nearly 4 feet a year. On the other hand, one part of the lake is overflowing, threatening one of Israel's key tourism destinations.
Israel is feverishly campaigning to have the Dead Sea — the lowest point on earth and repository of precious minerals — named one of the natural wonders of the world. At the same time, it's racing to stabilize what it calls "the world's largest natural spa" to hotels on its southern end so tourists can continue to soak in the lake's therapeutic waters.
The Dead Sea is divided into northern and southern basins, which are located at different elevations, largely disconnected and miles apart. That means the rising waters of the southern basin cannot simply pour into the shrinking basin in the north.
The Dead Sea is one of Israel's top tourism draws — half of the 3.45 million tourists to Israel paid a top there in 2010. Locals flock there too — with more than 630,000 spending time at Dead Sea hotels there in 2010. Dead Sea revenues totaled some $300 million last year, propping up an industry that accounts for thousands of jobs in a country that otherwise offers limited employment opportunities.