Thursday, July 27, 2017

That Airline Seat You Paid for Isn’t Yours: Frustrated fliers discover that paying for a preferred seat on a flight guarantees them nothing

The Wall Street Journal 
By Scott McCartney
Updated July 26, 2017 1:37 p.m. ET

If you buy an assigned seat at a theater, sports or concert venue, you get the seat you picked. But an assigned seat on an airline is radically different: Every so often, you don’t get it, even when you pay extra for it. Premium-seating fees guarantee nothing.

It’s happened to families who see their children reassigned rows away from their parents. It’s happened to single travelers when airline computers automatically shuffle seats on full flights. And it famously happened to political commentator Ann Coulter, who erupted in a Twitter tirade earlier in July after Delta moved her from a preferred aisle seat to a window seat in the same extra-legroom row. Delta roared back, calling her out for attacking employees and the airline over what was at best a minor inconvenience.

Airlines started placing price tags on particular seats—letting fliers pay an ancillary fee for a preferred seat, often with extra legroom—in about 2010. But they didn’t really change their procedures at airport gates to match the marketing. That means passengers’ expectations often don’t match up with reality.

Good gate agents are skilled puzzle-solvers who historically have moved people around liberally. They still have wide latitude despite the seat-assignment advance sales. (In Ms. Coulter’s case, Delta said an agent made a mistake while trying to help another customer. It refunded her $30 fee for the preferred seat.)

Agents try to seat families together, take care of VIPs, accommodate passengers bumped from first class by air marshals, find seats for high-fare or top-tier fliers and squeeze in passengers from canceled flights. Airlines swap planes for particular trips, triggering shuffling of seats when replacement planes have different seating configurations.

When most seats on a plane were similar, passengers knew seat assignments were fluid. Many tried to sweet-talk their way to exit rows or even first class. But now passengers think they can buy the rights to a specific seat. If 15F costs $32 extra and you buy it, you think you own 15F for that flight.

Airlines say that legally, you don’t. They can sell you one thing and deliver something else because the terms and conditions on seat purchases give them discretion. United and American use the same wording in their terms and conditions: “Seat assignments are not guaranteed.” Delta says it can reassign seats, paid or not, “at any time, even after boarding of the aircraft, for operational, safety or security reasons. The final decision resides with the ground staff and operating crew on the day of the flight.”

Airlines say they attempt to assign the same or similar seat type and location when they make changes. They also try to keep traveling companions together when they are booked in the same reservation. (Tip: If you are traveling together on separate passenger records, call ahead and ask the airline to link the two records.)

Delta says it’s encouraging agents to confer with customers and get consent before making a seating change. American says it’s studying ways to address what it recognizes is a source of frustration for travelers.

Doug Greenberg, a co-owner of a San Diego storage business, got separated from his 9-year-old son on a June 24 United flight even though they had confirmed seats together. (His wife and infant were on a separate passenger record.) United substituted a larger plane for a Houston-to-Jamaica leg of the trip and the family was scattered.

When he asked United agents why they seated a child alone when they had the age in the passenger record, the agents blamed an automated system. “This is really just a complete lack of thoughtfulness for the customer’s needs,” Mr. Greenberg says. “A 9-year-old should never be taken and seated in another section of the plane.”

A United spokeswoman says the airline regrets it was unable to seat the Greenbergs together.

Jim Hatch, a Philadelphia consultant, booked a trip to Tampa, Fla., for himself, his wife and an adult daughter with Down syndrome. He paid extra for preferred seats on American so they’d be sure to sit together. In an emergency, his daughter would need assistance.

It turned out the March flight was switched from an A320 to a smaller A319, and American told him seats would be assigned at the gate. The seats were in the last row, where legroom is tighter, but together. He checked on the return flights a week later and discovered they no longer had any seats on that flight, let alone their paid preferred seats. When seats were assigned, they were not together, but a gate agent reseated them to three seats together in the last row again.

“It’s tremendously frustrating,” Mr. Hatch says. American refunded the full cost of the seat fee, $121, after he complained, and they each got 5,000 miles.

American spokesman Josh Freed says the airline reserves a few seats—often the last row, among others—on all flights for gate agents to assign so they can keep families together after changes like aircraft switches or canceled flights.

Lisa Jadwin of Rochester, N.Y., suffered what she calls a “bait and switch” twice on one round trip to San Francisco on Delta. The college English professor selected flights with available Comfort Plus seats. The seats got changed on one flight west to San Francisco and again on one of her return flights east. No extra legroom; not even a seat assignment on one flight.

Ms. Jadwin’s husband, Steve Derne, complained to Delta about his wife’s seating shuffle and received an apology, a refund of $69 for Comfort Plus upgrades and 7,500 miles for her account. He thought a refund should be automatic and quick, not requiring a customer complaint.

Ms. Jadwin says her return trip with a connection in Minneapolis was especially stressful. Not having a seat on the connecting flight meant three hours of wondering if she’d be stranded in the Twin Cities. “They gave no explanation and I had a confirmed seat assignment,” she says. “Why does this keep happening?”

Delta says Ms. Jadwin’s assigned seats were taken away by an automated process that was attempting to seat several passengers for full flights. On the return to Rochester, the system was actually attempting to upgrade her to first class, a spokesman says, “but ultimately didn’t.”

Cessna P210N, N212SB: 560 pounds of methamphetamine, Santa Rosa plane tied to alleged Australian drug scheme

Santa Rosa plane broker says this is the Australian man who bought a plane to allegedly smuggle 560 pounds of methamphetamine to Australia.

This is the Cessna Hugh or 'John' Gorman bought. Sonoma County broker says Gorman was the worst pilot he's ever met.

At least 560 pounds of methamphetamine are seen in this image after being found inside a storage facility in Santa Rosa, California.

SANTA ROSA, Calif. (KGO) -- Drugs and money often go hand-in-hand in a Hollywood script. But this time, the location is the Bay Area. And it's all part of an alleged scheme to fly a payload of drugs from California to a place thousands of miles away.

The alleged plan was to buy a small plane in Santa Rosa, strip the seats, stuff it with methamphetamine, and somehow fly it to Hawaii before getting to Australia. That's 2,480 miles on the first leg. And then, to get to Melbourne, it would have been 5,343 miles more.

The owners of the business had no idea their Australian customer, who they say could barely start the engine much less take off and land unassisted, allegedly planned to fly across the ocean with a payload of drugs.

Robert Nicolas with Propjet Aviation showed ABC7 the type of plane that "Hugh," also known as John Gorman, allegedly planned to fly home to his native Australia with $200 million worth of meth on board.

"In 6,000 hours of flying this model airplane, he was undoubtedly the worst pilot I've ever flown with," said Nicolas.

He's a plane broker based at the Sonoma County Airport. He sold Gorman a Cessna 210 for $630,000 in the spring.

Nicolas says he had no idea Gorman was allegedly trying to smuggle more than 500 pounds of methamphetamine across the Pacific. That is, until Sonoma County Sheriff's officials said the DEA found the drugs during a raid of a Windsor storage facility in June.

"It's unprecedented," said Sgt. Spencer Crum, who said he can't comment on the investigation since the Australian federal police are the lead agency. But Crum noted the Sonoma County Sheriff's Office is thrilled to get the drugs off their streets.

"I've been in law enforcement for 27 years and I've never seen a 560 pound meth bust, ever," he said.

Nicolas adds, "He's the last person in the world that I would think would be involved in drugs."

According to Nicolas, he and his instructors spent hours flying with Gorman and thought the 72-year-old man, who claimed to be an engineer, was just interested in flying their planes.

But, even if he had been an accomplished pilot, his alleged scheme to fly the drugs from Santa Rosa to Hawaii and then onto Australia was inconceivable.

"We didn't know he was going to install an extra 500 to 600 pounds worth of cargo. If he would have done that with the fuel load and taken off here, he never would have left the airport," said Nicolas. "The plane would have crashed upon takeoff."

But Gorman never made it back to the Bay Area to pick up his plane. Instead, he was arrested at the Melbourne Airport.

The stockpile of drugs is worth more than $200 million if sold on the Australian black market.

Anne Arundel County, Maryland

UPDATE 4:36 pm- Accidental activation of a transponder that reported a plane down. There was a hard landing of a plane reported at the airport near the Bay Bridge where the aircraft went from 2000' to zero - no injuries were reported.

UPDATE 4:09 p.m.- - This may be a good intent call. Crews are searching for an aircraft that may or may NOT have been in the air.

Pasadena, MD- A single-engine plane has reportedly crashed in Pasadena, Maryland, on Mountain Road near Schmidts Lane. This is in the area of Mountain Road Airport.

BWI has sent a crash truck to the scene and units are on foot searching for the plane. It is reported that the crash site is roughly 500 yards from a residence. 

Units are on the scene. Use caution in the area and expect delays with emergency equipment in the area.

Multiple football teams will be using multiple planes to travel this year

It’s a new era in the National Football League for travel, and changes to plane availability have resulted in multiple teams switching from one plane to two for road trips.

Pro Football Talk has learned that at least three teams will be using two planes this year: The Steelers, Bills, and Dolphins. (We became aware of the issue via a report from Andy Slater of WINZ regarding the Dolphins using two planes.)

The Bills will be using two planes for most trips, but not of all of them.

Earlier this year, several teams had to scramble to find air service when American restricted access. As one league source recently explained it to Pro Football Talk, the airlines simply have realized that they can make more money by using planes in more traditional ways.

It’s odd to see the NFL at the mercy of the airline industry, because usually it’s pretty much everyone else who’s at the mercy of the NFL. This has sparked some speculation that perhaps the best play for the league would be to maintain its own fleet of planes that would transport teams each and every weekend, when up to 16 teams travel. The planes then would be leased for use in the offseason to corporate groups and muckety-mucks who want to travel in a bird bedazzled with NFL logos.

Aerobatic pilot pays visit to North Idaho High School Aerospace group

SANDPOINT — The colorful stars on "Jacquie B" Warda's red, Extra 300 shone as she flew into the Sandpoint Airport to greet students in the North Idaho High School Aerospace Program, as well as several others who came out to meet the aerobatic pilot and see her moves.

As she rounded toward the group on the runway, the tail of the plane swerving around in true taildragger fashion, the words on the plane, "Ladies, it's time to fly," came into view. Warda said she has been flying for 30 years, and in 2003 she started her aerobatic career, becoming the first female pilot to enter the business at the age of 50. So for some aspiring local female pilots, like 31-year-old Lacey Barlow, Warda is an inspiration.

"Being in this field has been so inspiring to me," Barlow said. "People are following their dreams and, in the most literal sense, reaching for the stars, so it's just been a really energizing group of people to connect with." 

Unfortunately, Warda was unable to show off her skills or give aerobatic rides as planned in Sandpoint due to the width of the runway. She said 75-feet wide is minimum for her to land the plane because it is a taildragger, and adding a passenger in front of her would create some visibility issues. So the students each made plans to meet her at the Coeur d'Alene Airport over the next couple days.

In the meantime, Warda spent some time looking over the airplane some of the students built. The students recently finished the Zenith Zodiac CH601XL, which was a kit airplane donated to the high school program to help teach students the ins and outs of the aerospace industry.

Daniel Spencer, 17, one of the students who helped work on the plane, said they can't fly it because the group is waiting for FAA inspection.

"Hopefully that will happen soon so we can start testing," Spencer said. "It is legal, though, to do taxi tests, so we did some taxi tests to check the instruments and stuff. It went pretty well."

Monday's visit was the first time Warda flew into Sandpoint, but she has Skyped with some of the students who participate in the ground school three or four times over the years. She doesn't just talk to them about flying, though. She talks to them about goals and making choices.

"I would rather spend my energy trying to encourage young people to be good people," Warda said. "The flying is the easy part, but being a good person, being a responsible person, and being the kind of person other people want to look up to is more important to me. If you become that kind of person that others want to look up to, everything will come to you, everything will be easy for you."

Warda met Ken Larson, the program's pilot training and academic instructor, about eight years ago, she said, when he brought one of his former female students, Maggie Kirscher, to an air show Warda was performing in Twin Falls. It was Kirscher's first air show, Warda said, and Larson saw a female was flying. So he called Warda up and asked if she would meet with them at the show.

"I laughed and said, 'That's so silly, of course I will talk to you,'" Warda said. "We just became good friends and I couldn't not support him every time he called me."

Warda said the NIHSA program is "wonderful," and she wishes there were 100 other like Larson, teaching youth all about aerospace.

The NIHSA program consists of three sections — the Aces Aviation Workshop where the students are built the plane, a ground school held at Sandpoint High School where students get credit to learn to the basic information they need for pilot training, and flight training where the students learn how to fly and have the opportunity to obtain a pilot's license.

A sport pilot license, for flying light sport planes like the Zodiac the students are building, requires a minimum of 20 hours of flight training. The model currently in use for flight training is the same model as the plane they are building. A minimum of 40 hours of flight training is required for a private pilot license. Both require a knowledge exam and a checkride with an FAA inspector.

Students from several area schools are enrolled in the program, including Sandpoint Middle School, Sandpoint High School, Forrest Bird Charter School, Northwest Academy and home-school.

Jonah McGlothlin, 17, is a senior at Forrest Bird Charter School and has been working on his license for a couple months through the program. He became interested in the program after getting a free flight through Sandpoint's Experimental Aircraft Association, Chapter 1441, and the pilot let him fly the plane around a bit.

"I really liked it," he said matter-of-factly. "I'm hoping I can get up to commercial license and make a career out of it."

Lilly Falconer, 17, is a home-school student who started in the program in January. Her favorite part, she said, of course, is flying. She comes from a long line of pilots, from her grandfather to her great-great-grandfather, she said. She never really knew her grandfather, but when she was 8 years old, she went to his funeral and flew in a commercial plane to get there.

"When we went above the clouds, it was like a whole new world up there and I said, 'Oh man, I have got to do this for sure,'" Falconer said.

She plans on obtaining her commercial license and becoming a bush pilot in Alaska. Spencer also plans to become a bush pilot in Alaska and is 5.3 hours in on his license. He will initially get his private license, he said, and then build hours to get his commercial license.

Along with the plane the students built, two more small planes have been donated to the program. Most recently, the group obtained a 1945 Taylorcraft, which is now stripped down to the skeleton for the students to begin a new project.

"It's in great shape," said Barney Ballard, community outreach and career guidance for the program. "It has a wooden leading edge spar and it has a wooden trailing edge spar ... So it's a little bit of wood, and then aluminum and a little bit of steel. It's down to the basics and we are going to put it back together after we inspect everything."

Instead of building an engine for the plane, as they did with the Zodiac, they are going to find a used one and, after making sure it's in good shape, the group will install it in the plane, Ballard said. The group also obtained another small single-seat plane, which they plan to fix up and sell to help pay for some of the program's projects.