The year 2013 started off with a bang as a jaw-droppingly "bad passenger" incident played out during a flight from Iceland to JFK.
Ah, duct tape. The other passengers used it to tie the guy up (and stick him to his seat), then took photos of their handiwork for the rest of us to enjoy. But this "whoa" moment was not the biggest story of the year by a long shot, so let's press on.
Whoa: The Will-They-or-Won't-They-Merger
When American Airlines and US Airways announced their engagement back on Valentine's Day 2013, it looked like smooth sailing for the merger-to-be. Then the U.S. Department of Justice said not so fast. The feds sued to halt the union, claiming it would mean higher ticket prices for passengers, which raises the question: Where was the DOJ during the mergers of Delta and Northwest, United and Continental or Southwest and AirTran? In any event, the romance wasn't doomed; a settlement was eventually worked out with some airport slots swapped and promises made about keeping hub cities going for a few more years, and by year's end, the two became one. Well, in a strictly legal sense only; don't look for the US Airways name to disappear completely into the New American for at least another year.
Whoa: Dreamliner Is Grounded
Back in January, the Federal Aviation Administration told airlines to quit flying the innovative (but oft-delayed) 787 "Dreamliner" aircraft until Boeing figured out the problem with its batteries, and how to fix it. They figured it out all right, but it took a while and the "temporary" grounding lasted for months. It wasn't until May that United Airlines got its Dreamliner back in the sky, but passengers give the plane high marks for its quiet cabins and tall ceilings.
Whoa: The Bad and the Ugly
Two terrible incidents that must be mentioned: The first is July's Asiana Airlines crash landing in San Francisco; ultimately, three passengers died, and the plane was left in pieces. The National Transportation Safety Board held hearings on the crash in December, drawing attention to the pilots' supposed "automation addiction."
The other incident: The November shooting death of a Transportation Security Administration officer at LAX. Paul Anthony Ciancia, the 23-year-old man accused of killing the veteran agent, has since been indicted in Los Angeles on 11 felony counts.
Whoa: Electronics and Cellphones
Interesting developments in the ever-changing world of personal hand-held electronics (such as smartphones and iPads): The FAA said yes to using these gadgets throughout flights, including during take-offs and landings, and several airlines immediately jumped on the bandwagon, saying we're good to go. Phone calls, however, are still not allowed.
But just a minute. Now the Federal Communications Commission says it would reconsider its ban on voice calls. But this time the reaction from carriers is very different, with airline after airline saying they're not onboard with cell calls on planes. We can only assume they've gotten an earful from passengers.
Whoa: Free Fares from United
On Sept. 12, online shoppers noticed a glitch (or was it a dream come true?) on United's website when the carrier began offering dirt cheap fares on select routes throughout the U.S., including Honolulu. Some of these tickets cost just a few bucks, and some were even free. Turns out it was a dream come true for some; against all expectations, United said it would honor the fares. Nice move, United.
UPDATE: Whoops! The same thing happened to Delta right after Christmas when its computerized system also briefly posted nearly-free fares. Delta reps also said the fares would be honored.
Whoa: Southwest Remains Change Fee-Less
The Texas-based carrier remains the lone U.S. holdout against the expensive and incredibly annoying "change" fee. While other airlines charge as much as $200 for this fee, Southwest charges zip, and for that we salute you.
Whoa: They Flew Us to the Wrong Continent
You're flying Turkish Airlines thinking you're heading to Dakar, Senegal, when all of a sudden you land in Dhaka, Bangladesh, which is about 7,000 miles away. This happened to a married couple from California and all involved seem to bear some blame for the comedy of errors. The money quote (as reported by the Los Angeles Times) had the husband stating, "When the flight attendant said we were heading to Dhaka, we believed that this was how you pronounced 'Dakar' with a Turkish accent." It was a nightmare trip but eventually things were sorted out (though that did take some time). An airline rep was later quoted as saying it would use the incident as a "training exercise" for employees.
Whoa: Airlines Try but Fail to Hike Fares
Good news for U.S. travelers in 2013: the failure of U.S.-based airlines to make much headway in raising ticket prices. Will this scenario continue into 2014? Stay tuned for next week's column on New Year's Predictions.