Airline passengers' rights in the US. Also, public road planned across the Serengeti.

By David Tykol
This item appears on page 2 of the June 2011 issue.

Dear Globetrotter:

Welcome to the 424th issue of your monthly overseas travel magazine.

Giraffe in the Serengeti — Tanzania. Photo: Randy Keck

The US Department of Transportation has strengthened airline passengers’ protections, or “rights,” in several small ways. The new rules for the airline industry were announced on April 20, with most changes to take effect 120 days later, around Aug. 20. Here’s a rundown.

• Airlines now will have to include all government taxes and fees in every advertised price. This applies mainly to websites, but soon the DOT may require the same at ticket counters and other points of sale.

All potential airline fees — regarding baggage, meals, blanket/pillow, advance seating, rebooking, etc. — must be prominently disclosed on airlines’ websites (but not necessarily included in the advertised price) and ticket agents must refer passengers to, specifically, baggage-fee information.

• All post-purchase fare increases are banned except for those due to government tax/fee increases. Also, the passenger, at the time of the sale, must be notified of and agree to any potential fare increase.

• Since December 2009, if passengers on a domestic flight aboard a US airline are held on the tarmac for more than three hours, the airline faces fines (unless it’s due to a safety, security or air-traffic-control issue). Now the rule is being extended to international flights and foreign airlines, whose time limit on the tarmac will be four hours.

Previously, smaller airports were exempt, but now smaller airports, including those to which flights might be diverted, will be included.

Carriers must provide food, water, working lavatories and any necessary medical treatments to passengers after two hours’ delay on the tarmac.

• When the origin or ultimate destination of a ticketed flight is within the US, the baggage allowances (limits on weight and number of bags) and fees that apply at the beginning of a passenger’s itinerary shall apply throughout his or her entire itinerary, including on any flight legs with code-share partner airlines, whether domestic or foreign.

• If an airline permanently loses a passenger’s bag, the airline must refund any overweight-bag fee or extra-bag fee that the passenger paid on it, but only up to $25. This does not apply to delayed, damaged or misdelivered bags.

• The possible compensation that can be claimed by a passenger who is involuntarily “bumped” from an oversold flight is being increased.

For short delays, when the airline is able to get the “bumped” passenger to his destination within two hours (domestic flight) or four hours (international) of when the original plane was scheduled to land, the compensation now will be equal to double the value of the airfare, up to $650.

For longer delays, when the airline cannot get the “bumped” passenger to his destination within two hours (domestic) or four hours (international) of when the original plane was scheduled to land, compensation will be four times the ticket value, up to $1,300. (These amounts will be adjusted to inflation every two years.)

• If a reservation is made at least a week before the departure date, the reservation may be held at the quoted fare without payment or canceled without penalty for at least 24 hours. (So if you hit the wrong button on your keyboard and place an order you didn’t mean to, you won’t be penalized so long as you catch your error within 24 hours.)

• Airlines must promptly notify consumers of cancellations, diversions and delays of over 30 minutes. The airline is to do this at the boarding gate area, on its website and via its phone reservation system.

Note: airlines are not required to include their customer-service promises in the “contracts of carriage” (the tickets’ fine print), so passengers still will not be able to sue an airline for breach of contract if it doesn’t live up to its promises.

2010 was the first year ever in which air carriers flew more than five billion people. The statistics came from 900 airports worldwide and were released in a preliminary report by Airports Council International.

Among the world’s busiest airports, China’s Beijing airport jumped to second place. In 2010, more than 73,890,000 passengers passed through it and about 517,582 planes landed there and took off.

The world’s busiest airport is still Georgia’s Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International, which saw over 89,330,000 passengers and 950,119 planes in 2010.

Of the 30 busiest international hubs, 13 were in the US. In 2010, the world’s top 10 busiest passenger airports were, in order, 1) Atlanta, GA [ATL]; 2) Beijing, China [PEK]; 3) Chicago, IL [ORD]; 4) London, UK [LHR]; 5) Tokyo, Japan [HND]; 6) Los Angeles, CA [LAX]; 7) Paris, France [CDG]; 8) Dallas/Ft. Worth, TX [DFW]; 9) Frankfurt, Germany [FRA], and 10) Denver, CO [DEN].

Comparing geographic regions, airports in Asia/Pacific, Latin America/Caribbean and the Middle East had the strongest growth in airport traffic, for both planes and passengers.

The individual airports that saw the largest increase in passenger traffic in 2010 compared to 2009 were those at 1) Shanghai, China [PVG], with an increase of 27.2%; 2) Jakarta, Indonesia [CGK], 18.4%; 3) Dubai, UAE [DXB], 15.4%; Beijing, China [PEK], 13.0%, and 5) Singapore [SIN], 13.0%.

Retired TWA Captain Jim Schmitt of Forest Grove, Pennsylvania, wrote to ITN, “Be nice to your airline crew! They are operating under far more onerous regulations today than my crews ever did back in the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s.

“Now their workdays are scheduled by computer, leaving very little time for extra rest or R&R. Some of them have had pay cuts, retirement plans abolished, airlines going bankrupt under their feet and all sorts of crummy things happen, which have made a once-beautiful profession into one of frequent six-days-a-week periods of hard work with minimum rest (and sometimes that rest is on a recliner chair in a noisy crew room).

“The cabin crew is there for your safety, if not much else these days, and is not responsible for some of the horrid cost-cutting brainstorms hatched by management that have no other consideration than corporate greed. Such a shame!

You probably heard about Steven Slater, the JetBlue Airways flight attendant who — on Aug. 9, 2010, while passengers from Pittsburgh were waiting to debark a plane at JFK Airport — became fed up with, he says, an unruly passenger, used profanity on the public-address system and announced, “I’ve been in this business 20 years, and that’s it. I’m done,” then exited the plane by deploying the emergency inflatable exit ramp and sliding down — but not before grabbing two beers.

In case you were wondering what the consequences of his actions were, at a court hearing in Queens, New York, on Oct. 19, he pleaded guilty to attempted second-degree criminal mischief, a felony, and to attempted fourth-degree criminal mischief, a misdemeanor.

He was fined $10,000, which goes to JetBlue to repair or replace the emergency slide, and, to avoid jail time, he signed up for an “alternative sentencing program,” agreeing to undergo counseling for drug and alcohol rehabilitation. Failure to complete the program can bring one to three years in jail.

The government of Tanzania has announced plans to build a two-lane public road through part of Serengeti National Park to connect the populations along Lake Victoria in the north to the city of Arusha in the northeast. Currently, towns in the northwest are difficult to reach; the only road for commercial traffic runs below the park’s southern side and is 259 miles long.

The planned route will include a 33-mile stretch across the park. So that commercial trucks can pass through, the road and its 164-foot buffer zones on both sides would no longer be designated as parkland.

Conservationists are concerned that the road will negatively impact the annual migrations of wildebeest to and from the Masai Mara in Kenya to the north. It also has been pointed out that the road will give poachers easier access, making antipoaching enforcement more difficult. In addition, such a road likely would lead to rapid growth of smaller towns into cities, creating a need for a larger highway, which would be even more problematic.

A Norwegian company conducted environmental-impact studies of several proposed roads in 1996 and advised against building roads in the Serengeti, but a Tanzanian study in 2007 said the effects on wildlife could be mitigated.

The Serengeti is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and the World Bank and several foreign governments have proposed funding an alternate route. However, the current Tanzanian president promised northern tribes during the 2005 elections that the road would be built, and he plans to follow through.

Construction of the new road is expected to begin in 2012.

Marilyn Stenvall of San Diego, California, wondered why a cruise ship pirate attack she reported to ITN in April 2010 was not among those I listed in my April 2011 column. That was an oversight, on my part, although I’m curious why the official sources we referenced also did not have it listed.

Marilyn was aboard the Voyages of Discovery ship MV Discovery, cruising from Mombasa, Kenya, to Seychelles in the Indian Ocean, when she e-mailed ITN on April 2, 2010.

She wrote, “While eating breakfast today at 8 a.m., I saw, heading toward the port side in the fastest motorboat I’ve ever seen, pirates — all looking like high school students in sport shirts.

“The crew quickly took a ‘high alert’ status, and those of us sitting in the restaurant were moved out and down the stairways. The captain revved up the engines and announced that we should return to our cabins. Sirens rang and water hoses blasted, and many passengers later swore they had heard gunshots ring out.

“A short time later the captain announced, ‘Our reaction was enough to repel the attack. We are being monitored by coalition forces in the area and a vessel is, at this time, dispatched to investigate.’

“The Discovery had repelled the attackers and, at about 26 to 28 knots in rough seas, outrun their small ship. A calm demeanor and an aura of confidence enveloped the ship as a result of the success of its defensive action.”

In her follow-up e-mail, Marilyn wrote, “We went from Mombasa to Seychelles without further incident, but the captain announced that the Royal Navy required the Discovery to alter its course in concern for the safety of passengers, staff and crew. Our stop in Yemen was canceled and we sailed on to Syria and Jordan. The point of my taking this cruise was to go through the Suez Canal — itself, quite an experience. From Egypt we continued up to Istanbul, where I disembarked and the ship continued its world cruise.

“The question was whether or not our ship was armed. I became very friendly with an officer, who, whenever I broached the subject, only smiled and said he couldn’t discuss it. It is against international maritime law for such a ship to be armed.

“One man on board had taken a photo and later sold it throughout the ship. It clearly showed the pirates holding missile launchers and guns.

“I wondered, afterward, about the lack of press coverage on this incident.”

Diane Robbins of Penfield, New York, pointed out an error in my April 2011 column and also supplied the correction. Among the websites I listed that provide global weather information, one of them should have been written as (I left out the “the.”) Thanks, Diane.

Remember, ITN will send any traveler you know a free sample copy of the next-printed issue. And it’s risk-free. Not only does ITN not sell anyone’s name and address to other firms, but ITN offers a 100% money-back guarantee. (Find another publication that does THAT.) See the subscription page.