Top 10 Travel Stories of 2011

Rick Seaney reflects on the year's most memorable travel stories.

Dec. 7, 2011— -- Ouch, American Airlines! Yes, the carrier filed for bankruptcy last week, joining its legacy carrier compatriots in Chapter 11-ville, which is one of our top 10 travel stories of the year, but American (and other airlines) also had a role in the year's worst "PR disasters."

Let's get to it.

Top 10 Travel Stories of 2011

1. Passenger PR Disasters

So many examples, so little time. We begin with Jack the Cat. The feline escaped his carrier in the American Airlines baggage area at JFK in New York, then eluded his captors for two months before crashing through a ceiling (to the great surprise of the airport employees below).

Sadly, Jack ultimately didn't make it, and boy, did American hear about it, thanks to Jack the Cat's Facebook fans and his legion of Twitter followers.

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Honorable mention goes to Southwest for enraging more tweeting celebrities than any other carrier, like "L-Word" actress Leisha Hailey. No, the woman wasn't kicked off her Southwest flight for the brief kiss she and a female friend shared; she was kicked off for the angry argument that followed a flight attendant allegedly telling her, "this is a family airline." Them's fightin' words for some, Southwest.

And let's not forget the TSA officer who found a, um, well, what they used to call a "marital aid" in a woman's suitcase, then left a touching note of encouragement advising, "Get your freak on girl." That officer is now getting his own freak on in the unemployment line.

2. American Airlines Bankruptcy

Okay, these things happen. In fact, after 9/11, most of the legacy carriers filed for bankruptcy with the exception of American. Some say the move is well overdue, but you can't help but feel sorry for all those AA employees who may end up forfeiting pay and/or benefits to help the airline "streamline" itself. I suspect the unusually high number of American pilot retirements this fall was a case of getting out while the getting was good.

3. Banner Year for Airfare Hikes

Hang on, there is some good news: The record breaking number of tries by the airlines to raise ticket prices this year -- 21 attempts compared to just three in 2010 -- could actually be a sign that the economy is reviving. Okay, so maybe that doesn't make you feel better. Still, only nine of the 21 hikes actually stuck. But watch for more in 2012.

4. Airport Security Anger Ebbs

It was just a year ago that angry passengers declared a "National Opt Out" day for body scanners on one of the busiest travel days of the year. However, thanks to improvements like new rules for travelers 12 and under (fewer pat-downs, no shoe removal), quicker security lines in the PreCheck program and new software that eliminates any suggestion of "naked photos," things have cooled off considerably.

However, now that the European Union has banned X-ray body scan machines due to health concerns, I expect we'll hear more voices raised against these machines in the U.S. where they are still in use in more than 200 airports.

5. Transportation Department Continues to Kick A%@#

Activist DOT Secretary Ray LaHood doesn't fool around. So far this year, he's fined Spirit Airlines ($50K), American Eagle ($900K) and Colgan Air ($2 million) for alleged offenses ranging from deceptive advertising to long tarmac delays and lack of proper training. Note that in all cases, the fines can be appealed and in fact, Spirit's fine will be cut in half if the discount carrier follows proper fee transparency rules for a year.

Still, it's nice to know someone's looking out for us.

6. The Airline Ticket Tax Holiday that Never Happened

I was shocked -- shocked! -- when the airlines helped themselves to "our" ticket tax rollback this summer. You may recall that back in July, the FAA re-authorization expired, which meant that much of the federal taxes and fees that make up as much as 15 percent of the price of an airline ticket were no longer being collected. What a nice little price break! Except it wasn't. Almost immediately, most airlines conveniently raised their prices by, yes, 15 percent. Only Alaska Airlines refused to join in the money-grubbing.

7. Bag Fee Freedom?

An end to the first checked-bag fee? Not on this planet, despite the bill proposed by Sen. Mary Landrieu (D - La.) to limit these fees. Face it, those checked bags bring in billions for U.S. airlines and they have no plans to drop the fees. Still, watch the pols piously state that this is an excellent bill. Then, watch the bill quietly die.

8. Tenth Anniversary of 9/11

Ten years have not dimmed the memory of that horrible day. Yes, all the extra security that has become part of the flying experience is painful, but a small price to pay. This is the world we live in and this is how we deal with it.

9. Dreamliner Finally Takes Flight

It took a while -- Boeing's 787 was three years late -- but the cool new jet finally took to the skies this fall on All Nippon Airways (ANA). The aircraft, which can carry almost 300 people, is mainly made out of carbon fiber instead of the traditional aluminum and steel, which means significant savings on fuel cost, plus it has passenger perks like much bigger windows and roomier overhead bins.

As a Boeing exec said, "It's a game-changer." So let the games begin.

10. Celebrity Passenger Problems

I rarely see celebrities on planes, but if I did, I'd never bother them for an autograph because they'd be way too busy texting about the latest outrage that's befallen them.

Like "Jersey Shore's" Jwoww (Jennifer Farley) who tweeted that the TSA treated her "like a criminal." Farley seemed to think her random gate screening was anything but random, suggesting security knew who she was. The TSA stoically denied she was singled out, and I'm with the TSA on this one. But then, I wouldn't know a Jwoww from a Bow Wow or a Gaga if they were lit up with neon.

Then there was the incident involving Green Day rocker Billie Joe Armstrong on Southwest; a flight attendant told him to pull up his apparently sagging pants.

Armstrong's response: "Don't you have better things to do than worry about that?" He used much stronger language in a tweet after he was escorted off the plane. Southwest ultimately apologized.

Hope your next flight is a good one. But, please! Don't forget to retrieve your belt from security so you can pull up your pants before boarding.