ALL POSTS IN [Airports]

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Good luck on trying to find last-minute deals for any holiday travel this year. Pauline Frommer, editorial director of Frommer’s Guidebooks, says, “This is probably going to be the highest-priced holiday fares we’ve seen in the last decade.”

The average ticket cost for the US and Caribbean is already up 9.4% over last Thanksgiving. Prices for Christmas week are up more than 7% to an average of $337.

What’s the reason behind the airfare hike this year? Travel experts blame it on mergers and consolidated airlines over the past couple years, which has forced some carriers to cut back on flights to many cities. This is the first time that planes are flying at 85% load factor — essentially full — since 1945. And today, more people are competing for fewer seats.

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Travelers flying the friendly skies may be able to use their mobile devices a little longer when taking off and landing. Later this week, the Federal Aviation Administration advisory panel is expected to relax restrictions on in-flight device use as early as next year.

What does this mean for passengers? The new guidelines would ease restrictions on tablets, e-books and previously downloaded podcasts and movies. Phone calls, texts, email and passengers using their own Wi-Fi will still be banned.

Without asking for formal device testing, the FAA will ask airlines to certify their planes can handle any potential interference. The main purpose of the new guidelines will be to create a single policy that covers all airlines. So pretty soon you may not have to be so quick to turn off all your electronic devices come takeoff.

The next time you fly a regional carrier — and chances are good you will given that half of US domestic flights are operated by regionals — chew on this stat: A first-year regional airline pilot makes $18,000 to $20,000 before taxes.

Yes, that’s right: When it comes to regional airlines (these are the connection subcontractors who fly on behalf of the major airline carriers), the pilot manning your flight, as it climbs tens of thousands of feet into the air, earns about as much as someone flipping burgers at McDonald’s.

Ready for more? A fourth and fifth-year regional pilot makes $25,000 to $28,000, also before taxes. Now swallow this: The best of the regional pilots are quickly being snatched up by the major carriers, such as Delta and United, as they begin hiring new pilots for the first time in several years.

That spells one very big issue for travelers: a looming pilot shortage ahead.

Start Road Trippin’?

“The seriousness of the possible pilot shortage cannot be underestimated,” says Henry Harteveldt, a San Francisco-based travel industry analyst. “The pilot shortage won’t happen tomorrow, but it will happen sooner than many realize.”

How soon? Some say it’s already started.

Beyond the major domestic carriers, the competition for pilot talent is coming from abroad, too, as this plush offer from a Shanghai-based carrier shows.

“Foreign carriers are already paying huge premiums to US/FAA-certified pilots, further drying up the domestic pilot pool,” says Bob Mann, an airline industry analyst in Port Washington, NY. “Absent recognition of the problem, the pilot market will only become tighter, and airline service more unreliable,” says Mann.

Others are more optimistic. “One way or another, I figure carriers will figure out a way to find the pilots they need long before there’s a reliability issue,” says Patrick Smith, the airline pilot-turned-blogger of AskThePilot.com and author of the new book, Cockpit Confidential: Everything You Need to Know About Air Travel.

Rising costs, though, may be harder to ignore.

“A lack of pilots means fewer flights — smaller cities will be disproportionately affected,” says industry analyst Harteveldt. “Fewer pilots also means fewer flights, period — flying may become less convenient and more expensive, since the supply of seats may decline.” (And for us at the Travel Channel, that’s about as good a reason as any to start thinking of more Road Trip ideas.)

Cockpit Confidential

How did we get here?

Blame the graying of America (including its pilots), as well as a shortage of younger pilots being recruited from military ranks, which are facing their own dwindling numbers. Then there’s the lousy pay.

“An aspiring aviator has to ask: ‘Is it worth sinking $50,000 or more into one’s primary training?’” says Patrick Smith of AskThePilot.com.

Factor in the FAA’s new requirements, says Smith, which call for new pilots to log a minimum 1,500 flight hours before training with an airline.

“The time it will take to build the requisite number of flight hours to apply for a job, plus, the cost of a college education, only to spend years toiling at poverty-level wages, with at best a marginal shot at moving on to a major [carrier],” says Smith, spell, in his mind, one very big conclusion: This isn’t exactly a safe career path.

Fewer Pilots, Where Now?

No one’s faulting the FAA’s new ruling.

“Airlines can’t compromise on training; it’s essential that we maintain our high standards of safety,” says analyst Harteveldt.

But adjustments on the part of carriers will need to be made, adds Mann. “The new 1,500-hour requirement … will require significant upward adjustments to starting salaries, and generally, to regional pilot compensation.”

More compensation may spell higher ticket prices. But that may be the price consumers pay to ensure greater pilot numbers in the regional ranks.

American-US Airways merger

Grounded: American-US Airways merger (Photo: Getty)

Lower competition and increased ticket costs. That’s the charge being leveled by antitrust officials about the proposed US Airways-American Airlines merger. On Tuesday, the Justice Department, 6 state attorneys general and the District of Columbia filed the suit in DC.

“By challenging this merger, the Department of Justice is saying that the American people deserve better,” said Attorney General Eric Holder in a statement. “This transaction would result in consumers paying the price — in higher airfares, higher fees and fewer choices.”

The lawsuit puts on hold what would have become the world’s largest commercial air carrier — and the DOJ action surprised the bejesus out of the airline industry.

“We Will Fight Them”
“We and our counterparts at US Airways have been working with the DOJ staff for months to ensure that they had an informed view of the merger,” says American CEO Tom Horton, in a memo yesterday to employees. “We have maintained that the merger is complementary (only 12 overlapping routes), that it provides significant customer benefits and that it enhances competition in the airline industry.”

US Airways chairman Doug Parker was even more direct. “We are extremely disappointed in this action and believe the DOJ is wrong in its assessment … we will fight them.”

Costs to You
Whatever the outcome of DOJ’s suit, the larger issue remains: The current business model for domestic airlines is seeing the industry bleed red ink. Increasing jet fuel costs and the investment needed to modernize an aging fleet are the big industry expenses that won’t go away anytime soon. (Learn how to save big on airfare.)

Whether this merger goes through or not, we may all expect to see higher ticket costs in the years to come. Stay tuned.

On an all-new episode of Airport 24/7: Miami tonight at 9|8c, find out what happens when bags are left unattended at Miami International Airport. It might not seem like a big deal if you leave your bag behind, but when the employees at MIA find it, they have to take extreme precautions.

If you’re planning a trip to Miami, make sure to keep your bags with you … but also, check out our Miami Airport Guide to get to know all of the ins and outs of MIA, from tips on transportation from the airport to details on MIA’s onsite hotel. Did you know you can even get a 10-minute manicure while waiting for your flight?

And don’t miss the gorgeous works of art that surround you while you wait in the terminal — MIA is home to many pieces from the Miami-Dade Art in Public Places project.

Tune in tonight to see firsthand what happens when a suspicious bag is left at the terminal!

Over the last 2 months I’ve managed a couple of fun vacation runs — a variation of a mileage run that involves actually leaving the airport and exploring a city — to Moscow, Paris and Johannesburg. My trip to Moscow was a weeklong vacation, while my runs to Paris and Johannesburg were just extended weekends. A little crazy, I know, but the experiences and sights were well worth the expense and travel time. And besides, or perhaps most importantly, I earned a LOT of miles, ate caviar and saw elephants.

Total Elite Qualifying Miles (EQM): 29,043
Total Redeemable Miles (RDM): 58,086
Flying Time to/from Moscow: 23h 13m
Flying Time to/from Paris and Johannesburg: 37h 40m

Saint Basil's Cathedral

Photography by Arthur Hsu

This year, I’m hoping to earn 150,000 SkyMiles in order to book a round-trip business-class award ticket to Australia — a ticket that would normally cost approximately $16,000 (yes, you read right). I was inspired to book both of my recent “vacation runs” after I saw posts about cheap tickets on FlyerTalk. Another great site to follow is The Flight Deal, which gathers airfare deals that make the most of your miles and money.

When booking mileage runs, be sure to check your fare class.  Some fare classes don’t earn miles or only earn a reduced number of miles. For my trips, I flew Delta T class and KLM/Air France R class, both of which earn full Medallion Qualifying Miles (MQM). Both trips also had a low cost per mile (CPM), which is important for a great mileage run. Typically, you want the CPM to be under 5 cents per mile.

Moscow Cost per Mile: $0.0347
Johannesburg Cost per Mile: $0.0420

A mileage run is a trip solely for earning EQM, so oftentimes you never even leave the airport. But in this case, I turned them into vacations.

My trip to Moscow was the first time I used Global Entry, a Customs and Border Patrol program that expedites the immigration process when returning to America, which I was approved for the week before leaving for Russia. Thanks to this program, it literally takes less than 1 minute to clear customs. If you don’t have it, I recommend you apply since it also includes TSA Pre-Check, which gets you through security quicker and with fewer hassles.

Overall, Moscow is a beautiful city with many activities, but in my experience, it is also very expensive. I stayed at the Hotel National, where Lenin stayed while the Kremlin was under construction. It’s also a Starwood property, with which I have Gold elite status, and so I earned 8,852 SPG points thanks to my stay.

Hotel National, Moscow

Photography by Arthur Hsu

While in Moscow, I enjoyed the various sites such as Saint Basil’s Cathedral and a day trip outside the city to Troitse-Sergiev Monastery. If you find yourself in Moscow, be sure to explore the metro system — the various stations are truly beautiful, each with a different design. I also enjoyed proper meals, including a 10-course omakase meal at Nobu Moscow. Don’t worry, I also sampled iconic Russian cuisine such as caviar and borscht.

Komsomolskaya Metro Station, Moscow

Photography by Arthur Hsu

My trip to Johannesburg was a much shorter and farther excursion, with a 12-hour layover in Paris and about 37 hours in Johannesburg. With such a short amount of time in Paris, I made my way into the city and used a hop-on/hop-off tour bus to see the major sites before I returned to CDG and grabbed some food and Scotch whisky in the Air France Salon to await my flight to Johannesburg.

Once in Johannesburg, I took the Gautrain, Africa’s first rapid rail system, to the Radisson Blu Gautrain hotel, and shortly after, my guide arrived to take me on a tour of Joburg. I liked the sound of Cashan Private Day Tours, which offered custom city tours, and I was able to book a half-day tour with Penny Cashan. Our first stop — and most surprising and enjoyable element of the tour –  was the Market on Main, which occurs every Sunday at the Arts on Main in the Maboneng Precinct, with great food and various art galleries. I had no idea that Joburg has such a thriving art community.

The next and last day in Joburg, I booked a 1-day safari with Felleng Tours to the Pilanesberg Game Reserve. This turned out to be a great experience, since we were able to take the time to find 2 of the Big Five– the white rhino and the African elephant — along with many other amazing animals and sights. Fortunately, the daytime temperatures were low, so the animals weren’t hiding in the shade.

Elephant in Pilanesberg Game Reserve

Photography by Arthur Hsu

Back at O.R. Tambo Airport, I headed to the Air France Salon before deciding to check out other lounges in the airport thanks to my Priority Pass membership, which gives me access to lounges around the world where I do not have elite status. Properly hydrated and nourished, I headed to the gate to catch 2 flights home — just short of 22 hours with a connection in Amsterdam. Now I need to start thinking about my next mileage run.

Watch Mommy Points‘ tips to earn airline elite status.

Miami-Dade’s Art in Public Places was not only one of the first public art programs in the country, but it is also one of the most successful. It began in 1973 as a way to get Miami’s art scene out where everyone could enjoy it, and today, it includes over 600 works of art — 24 of which are on display at Miami International Airport. In fact, you may have already seen a few in the scenery surrounding our Airport 24/7: Miami episodes.

Next time you’re in Miami, don’t stop your cultural education at the Art Deco architecture; seek out the county’s public art installations with the help of this map before hitting the party scene.

Can’t make it to Miami? Then tune in next Tuesday at 9|8c when Airport 24/7 returns with a new episode, and maybe you’ll get a peek at some of the art in the airport.

The sequestration this year has affected airports across the country, including Miami International. Tonight, on an all-new episode of Airport 24/7 at 9|8c, see the consequences first hand, as the employee cuts create bottlenecks and frustration across MIA.

Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano pays a visit to MIA to announce the upcoming budget cuts, which is stressful enough for the airport staff … until a passenger attempts to pass a loaded firearm through security.

Find out what happens tonight as the pressure escalates at MIA, and get ready with these behind-the-scenes photos!

Tonight on an all-new episode of Airport 24/7, an accident on the jetway causes a massive water leak. As the water – and the pressure – rises, the Miami-Dade Fire Department scrambles to stop the flooding.

If worse comes to worse, the firefighters will have to shut off the power to the whole concourse, resulting in a major scheduling catastrophe for the airport. Will they be able to shut off the water without resorting to extreme measures? How many thousands of dollars will this cost Miami International Airport?

Find out tonight at 9|8c!

Photography by Getty Images

Before you book your next flight, here’s a word of warning: You may not want to fly on Spirit Airlines. The carrier received the lowest overall scores of any company that Consumer Reports has ever rated.

Today, Consumer Reports released its results from a readers’ survey that ranks the best and worst airlines.

So why didn’t Spirit Airlines make the cut? Industry analysts say that although the no-frills airline charges less than other carriers, customers still take a hit in their pockets by paying other additional fees, including $10 to $19 to book a flight, $3 for a soda or M&Ms, and $35 to $100 per carry-on bag. Readers also claimed that the airline has some of the “tightest” seating space in the industry.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, Virgin America topped the list for the first time, receiving some of the highest customer satisfaction scores that any airline has received in years.  According to the survey, flyers said they like the comfy, leather seat cushions in the airline’s economy class. Readers also gave the airline’s in-flight entertainment high marks.

Other carriers that fared well included Alaska Airlines and Hawaiian Airlines for check-in and cabin staff. American, United and US Airways received the lowest ratings possible for cabin cleanliness, seating comfort and onboard entertainment.

The Consumer Reports National Research Center surveyed more than 16,000 readers — who flew a combined 31,732 domestic flights — in February. Readers were asked to rate their satisfaction with the airlines’ check-in ease, cabin-crew service, cabin cleanliness, seating comfort, baggage handling and in-flight entertainment.

Here’s a quick look at the airlines and their overall score, based on a 0 to 100 scale:

1.   Virgin America, 89
2.   Southwest Airlines, 85
3.   JetBlue Airways, 85
4.   Hawaiian Airlines, 82
5.   Alaska Airlines, 81
6.   Frontier Airlines, 78
7.   Delta Air Lines, 71
8.   US Airways, 66
9.   American Airlines, 66
10. United Airlines, 63
11. Spirit Airlines, 50

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