You would think that a recent rash of serious terrorist and security scares would force the TSA to clean up its act — it would only make sense. Or you might expect that the threat of legislation against airlines behaving badly would inspire them to do a bit of a better job — again, it's only common sense.
But of course we're dealing with the air travel industry, for whom "stop making sense" seems a favorite refrain. Witness the following five tales from the road; I'd like to say I am clever and witty enough to make up a bunch of Onion-like headlines, but it turns out that the truth is more than damning enough. The following recent episodes reported to me by readers, acquaintances and the press prove that once again, things stop making sense once you reach the airport.
You gonna eat that?
On a recent flight home to Minnesota out of JFK airport, passenger Kristin Haraldsdottir was traveling with her new puppy (named Monkey, to complicate things). The small, mixed-breed puppy was small enough to fly as a carry-on in an approved crate, and Delta charged its standard $125 pet fee (each way) to transport the pup.
On the same flight, another traveler was transporting a live animal as well, one that weighed the same as Monkey and traveled in an identical carry-on crate. The owner of that animal, however, paid no extra transport fee whatsoever.
The difference? The second animal was a live lobster, which the traveler said he intended to eat at his destination. Apparently if you are going to feed your live seat companion, you must pay the extra, but if you are going to eat it, no fee is required.
No passport? No problem, hon!
On a recent team trip leaving out of Philadelphia, the adult group leader of a large group of collegiate men's and women's athletes shepherded all her charges into the security lines at the airport, and then got in line last in case anything went wrong. As she and the group got closer to the first security checkpoint, at which they would have to show boarding passes and identification, she became aware of a whispered discussion a little ways ahead in line.
She got the attention of the young men involved in the discussion and moved them toward the back of the line so she could figure out what was going on. She discovered that one of the young men had forgotten his identification back at campus. She quickly realized also that the young man in question was the kid among the group who a.) was a British citizen, and b.) had had his head shaved into a ragged mohawk at a raucous party the previous night.
Clearly, there was no way this kid was getting onto a plane.
As the group leader started to look into options to change his flight and get him back to campus, she arrived at the front of the line. She stood almost dumbstruck as the clutch of young men charmed and flirted with the female TSA agent, and after a few jokes and winks and nudges, the agent let the mohawked British kid through the security checkpoint and into the terminal.
The group leader just shook her head, put away her cell phone, called off the flight changes and transport, and pulled her sunglasses back down over her eyes to block out a stream of sunlight blasting through a nearby window. She stepped up to the same TSA agent, who had this to say, in an abrupt and officious tone:
"Please remove your glasses."
Drunken mohawk, check. No passport, check. Sunglasses on adult chaperone, security risk.
The kicker? This took place on January 23, less than one month after the Underwear Bomber incident, and in the wake of a number of plane scares, including a security breach that shut down neighboring Newark airport just a couple of weeks earlier, and another breach that shut down a terminal at JFK a week previously.
Should have cut his hair
While the TSA is letting passport-less foreign college kids with hacked-up hair on planes, Southwest Airlines is refusing passage to overweight underground actors. Film director Kevin Smith, best known for his role as Silent Bob in the movie "Clerks," was recently removed from a Southwest Airlines flight by the flight crew. Smith had purchased two seats for a later flight, but had taken his chances on flying standby on an earlier flight. When there were not two seats together, the pilot asked him to leave the plane (Kevin Smith Too Fat to Fly).
I flew in the window seat of a Southwest plane just this weekend, and when a fellow passenger set his eyes on the middle seat, my spirits sank. No matter that my fellow passenger was a rowing coxswain who stood about 5'6" tall and weighed about 125 pounds. He still had to wedge himself into that seat and bang elbows on both sides for the duration of the flight. And Southwest planes aren't even the tightest planes I have seen. Big person or not, these planes are not really configured to accommodate anyone except the slight and petite — so it's as much the fault of aircraft configuration as it is the "fault" of a big or tall person. I addressed the issue last spring — have a look: Is it fair for airlines to put the squeeze on big fliers?
Even worse, in attempting to explain themselves, Southwest played the "safety risk" card, a ploy with which many frequent travelers are just about fed up. According to Smith, they claimed that there was a safety issue just to get him off the plane, when there's no evidence that any safety risk was involved; they also said that the pilot asked Smith to get off the plane, although the pilot knew nothing about him. (For more details, check out the link below.)
Unfortunately for Southwest, Smith's status as a celebrity meant that his Twitter feed sent the news into flight almost as soon as Southwest denied Smith his flight; Smith has some 1.67 million followers on the social media service. Smith may be no safety risk, but he sure can create a PR disaster.
(If you have some time on your hands, check out Smith's epic retelling of the story here. Many will recognize airline fallback positions and behavior patterns that drive us all crazy.)
Drink for two
If Smith's story isn't bad enough, how about getting kicked off a plane for being pregnant and thirsty? That is apparently what happened to Dr. Mitchell Roslin and his wife, who was seven months pregnant when Spirit Airlines kicked them off a plane because she wanted a drink of water.
Roslin said the attendants told him it was "against corporate policy" to give him water before the plane was in the air (although subsequent reports also indicate that Roslin overplayed his hand while on the plane, as he was accused of creating a disturbance).
But even if he clearly went overboard before being thrown off board, do you think the good doctor is exaggerating about being denied water for his wife? I don't. I had an almost identical experience on a Continental flight while flying solo with our boy when he was about 18 months old. Before takeoff, our boy drained all the milk we had been able to bring through security, so I asked a flight attendant for some milk to help get him to sleep. The attendant replied that the cart would be by soon enough, and walked away.
Subsequently the plane sat on the tarmac waiting for permission to take off for 40 minutes, during which time the seatbelt signs were on; the attendant saw but ignored my pleading looks. Finally I stood up and walked to the back of the plane and asked for milk; he looked away, and the other attendant give me some milk, although not without letting me know it was against policy for me to get out of my seat, and for her to give my kid a drink.
Most flight attendants would never behave this way, but there are enough who will; we've all seen it. Those attendants who would keep water from a pregnant woman, and milk from a baby, are the ones who need to be thrown off planes, not honest people looking after the health and safety of their families.
Finally: Yet another yield management miasma
I live about equidistant from the Newark and Philadelphia airports, so I always price flights out of both when booking travel. On a recent trip to Boston, direct fares from both Newark and Philadelphia were high, but I could fly very affordably if I endured a connection. The problem was that the connections were through the same cities on which the direct fares were sky-high!
Newark - Philadelphia - Boston: $320
Philadelphia - Newark - Boston: $287
Newark - Boston direct: $787
Philadelphia - Boston direct: $1,011
In the end, I flew Southwest direct to Manchester, NH, instead, and then drove the hour to Boston. It would seem to make more sense for an airline to charge me more to shuttle me all over the place than to fly me direct — but their fare system stopped making sense a long time ago.