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Road warriors can reflect on indignities of '07

By STEVE HUETTEL, Road Life
Published December 28, 2007


Call 2007 the year of the ticked-off traveler.

Airlines committed massive blunders such as the Valentine's Day meltdown, when JetBlue failed to recover from a New York ice storm, canceled more than 1,000 flights and stranded thousands of passengers through President's Day weekend.

Personal slights turned into public embarrassments. Southwest Airlines scored a double, apologizing to Kayla Ebbert for banning her miniskirt, then to Largo resident Joe Winiecki for making him change out of a naughty-but-not-obscene T-shirt to fly home from Ohio.

Most of the problems were grindingly routine as airlines ran later and misplaced more checked bags than during any year in recent memory.

Here are some lowlights and one highlight from a tough travel year.

Worst performance by a big airline

US Airways, hands down. This year kicked off with the carrier losing its bid to take over Delta and chief executive Doug Parker getting busted for a DUI hours later. Remember, Parker and company still haven't fixed problems from the merger of the old US Airways and America West that created the current airline two years ago.

US Airways was the worst-performing major U.S. carrier this year by most any standard. Pilots from the two carriers are still fighting over a combined seniority list. Without it, US Airways can't get a labor contract for pilots to fly routes and aircraft interchangeably, which would improve efficiency. Customers and employees complain about dirty cabins and worn-out seats. Any more mergers like this and I'll stay home.

Don't drink the water or anything else

Ever wonder whether it's safe to drink from those hotel room glasses? You'd better.

Atlanta Fox 5 TV last month hid cameras in rooms at three of the area's brand-name hotels. At an Embassy Suites, the housekeeper rinsed glasses in the sink after spraying them with blue liquid in a bottle marked "Do Not Drink." The Holiday Inn maid rinsed with no more than tap water.

At a Sheraton Suites, the camera caught a flushing sound and the maid emerged from the bathroom wearing a rubber glove. She washed glasses in the sink - holding them with the gloved hand - sniffed a dirty room towel and wiped them with it.

The TV investigation set off a flurry of hotel sanitation horror stories on Web chat boards. Three words of advice: plastic disposable cups.

Wait, some good news

JetBlue's TVs at every seat are a great time-killer. But not too far into 2008, business travelers at 33,000 feet will be able to tap into a more useful tool: a wireless Internet connection. JetBlue launched a limited e-mail and instant-messaging service for free on one plane this month.

American Airlines expects to test Internet service next year on its Boeing 767-200 aircraft, typically used for cross-country flights. Alaska Airlines plans to outfit one plane with Wi-Fi next spring, and startup Virgin America will equip its fleet sometime in 2008. Some travelers worry they'll be seated beside a loud voice yakking on an Internet-based phone service. American and Alaska say they won't allow phone calls, except perhaps for crew and federal air marshals. Virgin is pondering a ban.

Hold it right there

Among America's aggrieved air travelers was one you may have missed. After downing two "really big beers" at the Boise, Idaho, airport, James Whipple boarded an hourlong SkyWest Airlines flight to Salt Lake City.

Not surprisingly, he needed to use the restroom when nature called en route. The captain, however, declared the restroom off-limits because of a broken light. Whipple returned to his seat and urinated into an air sickness bag. No passengers noticed but a flight attendant did and told the captain, who called airport police.

Whipple was released after questioning. SkyWest later apologized and sent him a flight voucher. But no coupons for drinks, really big or otherwise.

Steve Huettel can be reached at huettel@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3384.