Hey airlines, thanks for nothing!

Aaron Kohr/Shutterstock
Aaron Kohr/Shutterstock
What annoys you the most about air travel?

Is it the chaos that awaits when you pull up to the curb at the airport terminal this time of year? How about the indignity of being screened by the TSA? Or maybe just knowing that you’re paying more but getting so much less?

Now take a deep breath and say it with me: “Thank you.”

As we approach Thanksgiving, I, for one, am feeling grateful.

So is Mary Jo Baas, a consultant from Milwaukee. She sees the upside in the deep cuts in services and amenities, particularly in economy class.
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TSA Watch: Pistole tries to soothe holiday travelers as agency silences gun talk

TSA Administrator John Pistole was busy making the rounds during Thanksgiving week, trying to assure holiday air travelers that their screening experience would be better than last year.

Which it was, thankfully.

That’s probably because the agency backed off some of its more absurd practices, like forcing children to take off their shoes. (Ever heard of a two-year-old shoe bomber? Neither have I. Richard Reid was 29 when he tried to take down an American Airlines flight to Miami.)
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Thanksgiving air travel disaster!

Flying somewhere this Thanksgiving? You might want to read this first.

This probably isn’t going to be like past Thanksgivings.

• The full-body scanners issue hit a critical mass this morning when a technology blog released images taken from one of the machines in Orlando and obtained under the Freedom of Information Act. People are upset about the pictures.

• The controversy over the new pat-down procedures for those who refuse to be scanned also climaxed this morning when Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano told a newspaper, “if people want to travel by some other means,” they have that right. In other words, don’t fly if you don’t want to be patted down or scanned.

• TSA didn’t exactly help when it announced it will formally investigate John Tyner, the San Diego-area passenger who who left Lindbergh Field under duress on Saturday morning after refusing to undertake a full body scan. TSA says the investigation could lead to prosecution and civil penalties of up to $11,000.

• AAA added fuel to the fire when it predicted a double-digit increase in the number of Thanksgiving travelers. It projects the number of Americans traveling for the Thanksgiving holiday will increase 11.4 percent from 2009, with approximately 42.2 million travelers taking a trip at least 50 miles away from home. (Fortunately, 94 percent of these trips will be by car.) Separately, the Air Transport Association has said it expects 24 million air travelers this Thanksgiving, up 3.5 percent from a year ago.

I’ve also just learned that several consumer rights activists, including Ralph Nader, have taken a stand against the new body scans and pat-downs, raising the possibility that even more air travelers will participate in Opt-Out Day on Nov. 24, when passengers are being asked to refuse to walk through the machines.

If even a small number of air travelers turn down the scans on Nov. 24, which is one of the busiest travel days of the year, it could significantly slow an already overburdened air transportation system — maybe even bring it to a standstill.

What to do?
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Can this trip be saved? My 17-year-old booked a ticket on Orbitz — actually, two tickets

Booking a flight online may be convenient, but it’s far from problem-free. Just ask Charles Bornheim, whose son is holding an extra airline ticket he booked through Orbitz.

Bornheim is trying to get a refund, but is having no luck. Airlines can be pretty unforgiving with their refund policies, and at some point when you’re booking online, you have to take responsibility for your own actions.

But is this a case where no one is really to blame — and should I try to help him secure a refund?
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Thank you! United fixes “last vacation” for terminal cancer patient

baliHere’s a heart-warming story for the Thanksgiving holiday: James Thomson and a longtime friend, who is suffering from terminal cancer, ran into trouble with their flights from San Francisco to Bali. One leg of Thompson’s flight was canceled, which threatened to end his friend’s final vacation.

Despite repeated efforts to contact United Airlines, he was getting nowhere.

Would Thompson’s friend miss his last trip?
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Thanksgiving on Treasure Island


Thanksgiving evokes memories of cold weather and warm Turkey dinner, but here in Florida it’s a great time to go to the beach.

We spent the weekend before Turkey Day at Sunset Vista Beachfront Suites in Treasure Island, just north of St. Pete Beach. (My daughter Erysse shows me some of the sugary-white sand, with the hotel in the background.)
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It’s holiday travel time! You heard it here first!

snowy roadTake your car in for a tuneup. Give yourself extra time if you’re flying. Oh, and it’s going to be one for the record books.

You’ve read that before, haven’t you?

When it comes to the travel tips you see just before every major holiday, you can count on paint-by-numbers reporting: a AAA prediction followed by a sound bite from one of three travel “experts” (always the same three) followed by that familiar advice, dispensed in easy-to-read bullet points.

But which tips are cliches that should be ignored, and which are bona fide, you-must-do-this advice? If you’ve been reading these stories as long as I have, you must be wondering.
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What’s 1.4 percent, really? A second look at the Thanksgiving forecast

snow at airportAfter a sharp drop last year, more Americans are expected to travel for the 2009 Thanksgiving holiday, although travel by air will decline. That’s how the play-it-straight AP played the just-released AAA Thanksgiving forecast.

How many more Americans? 1.4 percent, which is statistically insignificant. Oh well.

What is statistically significant is the number of air travelers who say they won’t fly — down 6.7 percent. (AAA wasn’t the first to forecast a drop. The Air Transport Association predicted a more hopeful 4 percent decline a few weeks ago.

But do any of these numbers mean anything to you?
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Bad Spirit? Airline reschedules Thanksgiving flight, offers useless vouchers

spirit planeDebbie Gitlan’s Thanksgiving flights, which she booked last March on Spirit Airlines, kept getting rescheduled to the point where she couldn’t take the trip anymore.

Some airlines would offer a full refund under those circumstances. But not Spirit.

The carrier issued a credit that ended up being as difficult to use as her original tickets. Which is when she contacted me.
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Lessons learned from past holiday meltdowns

You can’t talk about the worst holiday travel experiences without mentioning the movie “Planes, Trains & Automobiles.”

The 1987 comedy, starring Steve Martin and John Candy, is about one frazzled business traveler’s struggle to get home in time for Thanksgiving. It’s a textbook holiday travel nightmare, featuring snowstorms, flight diversions and almost every imaginable delay.

Art has a way of imitating life. Or is it the other way around?

Perhaps our fascination and how closely many of us relate with the iconic ’80s flick says something important about us. We expect to have an incredibly negative experience, whether it’s being held hostage by a blizzard or trapped in a taxi that’s taking the scenic route.

What have we learned in the two decades since “Planes,” and what does it say about this year’s holidays?

Learning from our mistakes
One of the worst holiday air travel experiences in recent memory happened in early 1999. About 3,700 Northwest Airlines passengers returning to work after the New Year were trapped on parked planes at Detroit Metropolitan Airport for hours in a blizzard. The planes couldn’t take off or return to the gate, and travelers reportedly suffered inconveniences such as overflowing toilets and running out of food and water.

Some of the passengers sued Northwest and in a 2001 settlement, the airline agreed to pay each passenger an average of $1,300 as compensation. Sadly, the industry didn’t learn back then that trapping passengers on a plane was bad for business. They’ve done it time and again, including JetBlue’s infamous Valentine’s Day meltdown in New York and American Airlines’ stranding of passengers in Austin in early 2007, which led to the latest passenger rights revolution.

Weather turns nasty, roads get dangerous
Many of the worst traffic accidents on American roads happen during the winter holiday travel period between Thanksgiving and New Year’s. Like the 99-car pileup on December 11, 1990, on Interstate 75 near Calhoun, Tenn., which was triggered when a tractor-trailer in the southbound lanes rear-ended another semi in the fog. In the ensuing pile-up, 12 people were killed and 42 injured. Other notable collisions include a 127-car pile-up in San Antonio, Texas(Dec. 2, 1994) and a 100-car pile-up in Central Michigan (Dec. 31, 1998).

Multiple-car accidents can happen any time of the year, but they seem particularly prevalent during the winter holiday period, when the weather turns bad and motorists get blitzed on eggnog before getting behind the wheel.

All the more reason to drive carefully — or not at all.

Holiday headaches on the high seas

True, the biggest cruise ship catastrophe in recent memory happened last April, when 1,200 passengers and a crew of 400 had to be evacuated from the Sea Diamond after she apparently hit a rock near the Greek island of Santorini — and eventually sunk.

But the winter holidays aren’t particularly kind to cruisers, either. On Nov. 23 of that year, more than 150 passengers and crew aboard Norwegian cruise ship MS Nordnorge had to be rescued near Antarctica when their ship is thought to have collided with an iceberg. And who can forget the Seabourn Spirit’s close call with pirates back in 2005? The buccaneers opened fire on the luxury liner with automatic weapons and rocket-propelled grenades a few weeks before Thanksgiving. Fortunately, the attack was successfully repelled.

I’m not saying you should avoid cruising over the holidays. I am saying things happen. Mind the icebergs — and pirates.

Ask for a room on the ground floor
There have been few notable hotel accidents or disasters in the past, oh, 60 years. However, two of the deadliest hotel fires in U.S. history — one at the MGM Grand in 1980 and another at the Winecoff Hotel in Atlanta in 1947 — broke out during the winter holiday period. I know, both happened more than two decades ago, but you might consider staying on the ground floor during your holiday stay.

All aboard!
A review of the major railway disasters in the United States since the turn of the century suggests that statistically speaking, catching the train probably is your safest bet during the holidays.

The worst accidents tend to happen at other times of the year, although there are notable exceptions, such as the head-on collision on Nov. 29, 2004 of two CSX freight trains in Zephyrhills, Fla., which killed one person and injured three. But those were freight trains, so they don’t really count. Lesson learned? The train may be slow, but it’ll get you there in one piece.

Take the forecasts with a grain of salt
Be wary when studying the Thanksgiving travel forecasts — and those issued just before Christmas and New Year’s Day, for that matter. The best-known of the lot is done by AAA (and was released Tuesday), which last year predicted a “modest increase” in the number of Thanksgiving travelers. Nothing against AAA, or any of the other travel companies with predictions and polls, but it’s almost impossible to verify any of their claims. For example, AAA expected 31.2 million people to travel by car last Thanksgiving. Did they? Nobody knows. Truth is, no one counts how many motorists were on the road during the holiday weekend. What’s the point of making a forecast when no one will ever know if it is true? And will the forecasts stop people from making the trip to Grandma’s house? Unlikely.

So what does all of this mean? I think it means that our collective expectation that holiday travel will be a negative experience is both true — and untrue.

Yes, historically the holidays are a difficult time to be on the road. I haven’t even mentioned the long lines at the airport, the delays, the cranky fellow travelers, and, of course, the traffic. But this year may be different, as I recently predicted.

In fact, these holidays may be among the best in recent memory. Airlines, hotels and other travel companies are trying to coax travelers to open their wallets by offering attractive prices. If you’re diligent and flexible, you could find your best deal in years.

I could be wrong. I’ve been wrong before. At the press screening of “Planes, Trains & Automobiles,” I told director John Hughes he should consider a sequel to his cult classic “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.” (I was a know-it-all college film critic back then, and that’s what know-it-all college film critics do. They tell Hollywood directors what to film.)

“Might be interesting,” he said.

Interesting, yes. But unnecessary — just like a sequel to holiday horrors we seem to endure every year at this time. Maybe we’ll get a break in 2008.

Every week, my column takes a close look at what makes the travel business tick. Your comments are always welcome, and if you can’t get enough of my column, drop by my blog for daily insights into the world of travel.