Did you hear about the passenger who tried to smuggle live eels in his luggage? He was stopped by TSA officers in Miami last spring but it got me wondering if the guy might have been moonlighting as a celebrity chef. For an airline.
Gourmet food was a pretty big travel story this year - for elite passengers, anyway - as airlines continued to entice big-bucks business travelers with gourmet entrees such as Artichoke Mezzaluna Pasta (American), Lobster Thermidor (Singapore) or Pancetta-Wrapped Beef Tenderloin (Delta). But some airlines went the populist route.
Kentucky Fried Fliers
JAL (Japan Airlines) proudly announced in December a new menu item: KFC! Original recipe, coleslaw and all. But no matter what you think of the Colonel's cuisine, it was a lot more appetizing than what some travelers ran into on a couple of international flights last summer: a strange rash of needles-in-turkey-sandwiches. One passenger was even reportedly stuck.
However, the biggest story of 2012, by far, involved a wounded airline.
American's Brief Flameout
American Airlines and its ongoing struggle through bankruptcy captured our attention through much of 2012 but especially in September when it had a spectacular (though temporary) flameout, racking up more than 21,000 delayed flights in a single month.
American executives seemed to suggest pilots were to blame by sabotaging operations with what they said were pointless delays. The unhappy pilots told anyone who'd listen they wanted a merger with US Airways and while the ending to that particular story has yet to be written, the pilots have a new contract and things have calmed down considerably.
Calamity in the Cockpit
It was anything but calm last March when a JetBlue pilot embarked on a terrifying, midflight screaming rant prompting his co-pilot to lock him out of the cockpit and make an emergency landing. A similar incident took place the same month involving an American flight attendant who began yelling about plane crashes; she was forcibly removed from her plane. But bizarre incidents among crews were much rarer than passenger problems.
Creepy incidents of fliers being accused of molesting seatmates occurred on JetBlue and United flights and strange stuff occurred on the ground, too. One passenger was accused of trying to transport 26 stun guns in his luggage at JFK, while a bag at a small airport in Pennsylvania was found to contain an AT-4 rocket launcher. Then there was the incident gleefully headlined, "Primate in Pants!" in which a New Delhi traveler tried to board a plane with a slender loris in his underwear. In Los Angeles, meanwhile, an allegedly inebriated actor was accused of mistaking his LAX gate area for a restroom (he denied it).
A couple of other big-fee stories this year; Allegiant joined Spirit in charging for carry-ons while Spirit upped its carry-on fee (for those who wait to pay at the gate) to an astronomical $100. Southwest likes to say, fees don't fly with us, but they apparently can live with a new 'no-show' fee and announced they'll add it in 2013. For those keeping score, in the third quarter of this year, bag fees and change fees alone netted U.S. airlines nearly $1 billion.
It wasn't fees plaguing United this year so much as computer glitches; its reservation system merged but failed to mesh with new partner Continental's, resulting in hair-pulling frustration for fliers this spring. United employees weren't exactly thrilled either; for a while there, some even had to resort to Stone-Age tools like pens and paper to cobble together handwritten boarding passes.
Bad as that was, the airlines performed beautifully during the awful double-whammy of Hurricane Sandy and the nor'easter by waiving change fees and getting info to customers fast ahead of time.
We saw airports shine, too. Despite all the dire predictions about travel to the London Olympics, Heathrow did not prove to be a prison for passengers; lines moved relatively briskly and the Games went on without a hitch. Nice of the queen to drop in too, and by skydiving from a private aircraft she cleverly avoided airport security.
There were some grim incidents involving the TSA this year, including thefts of cash and electronics. Newark Liberty International Airport was a particular sore spot; in June, eight screeners were fired for a variety of offenses, including sleeping on the job, and in October the agency announced it was moving to fire another 25 officers (and suspending 19 more). On the plus side, week after week, screeners find and remove umpteen numbers of loaded guns from passenger bags (most common excuse: "I forgot").
Best News of All - Airline Safety
According to a report issued in December by the Geneva-based airline trade group International Air Transport Association, 2012 is on its way to becoming the safest year ever for air travel, worldwide. Nothing I can add to that except, safe travels to all - throughout the new year.
The opinions expressed by Rick Seaney are his alone and not those of ABC News.