Calling All Travel Nerds

GE wants the public to help solve the mathematical processes applied to flight scheduling. Offering $500,000 in total prize money — $100,000 for the winner — the firm have launched a competition for you to develop a “usable and scalable algorithm that delivers a real-time flight profile to the pilot, helping them make flights more efficient and reliably on time.”
Contest submissions will be judged based on algorithm predictions for plane arrivals at the runway and the gate. Using practice data sets, entrants have to submit a final model in February next year.
The winner’s model will be released as a test-bed on airline systems in March 2013.

flightquestIf you’re a frequent traveler, you’ve probably experienced your fair share of frustrating flight delays and cancellations.  And you’ve probably had fleeting moments when you’ve wondered if the airline was run by a bunch of monkeys.  But did you ever think you could do a better job?  Well, if you’re nerdy enough mathematically inclined, here’s your chance.

General Electric wants the public to help solve the mathematical processes applied to flight scheduling. Offering $500,000 in total prize money — $100,000 for the winner — the company has launched a competition called the “GE Flight Quest Challenge” for you to develop a usable and scalable algorithm that delivers a real-time flight profile to the pilot, helping them make flights more efficient and reliably on time.

Contest submissions will be judged based on algorithm predictions for plane arrivals at the runway and the gate. Using practice data sets, entrants have to submit a final model in February next year. The winner’s model will be released as a test-bed on airline systems in March 2013.

Here’s some more travel news you can use:

  • American Airlines rolled out new airfare “upgrade” packages this week available on all round-trip flights.  For an extra $68, you can now get a checked bag, priority boarding and no fee if you need to change your flight reservation.
  • Hotels chains are upgrading their toiletry lines, believing that a shampoo brand can make a difference to travelers who already stock their homes with high-end products.  Apparently, by upgrading to a fancier toiletry line, a hotel can boost its appeal to travelers – and, in turn, justify higher rates from those who truly appreciate the products.
  • Have you ever wondered what happens to your scissors, knives, snowglobes, or your kid’s Play-Doh after they are confiscated at airport security checkpoints?  It ends up in state-run auctions or stores, where thrifty customers can rummage through bins of objects from the TSA’s no-fly list. Yuuuuuup! Some states are making hundreds of thousands of dollars by selling your stuff.

You’re Surfing Gravity Waves, Dude

gravity waveAccording to a new study, gravity waves, mysterious waves that ripple unseen throughout the atmosphere, may be a major source of airplane turbulence.  Yep, gravity, the source of all my weight and aging problems, is now found to be hitting airplanes in waves (like water).  Gravity waves in the atmosphere can amplify and break , and it’s been determined that’s it’s a major contributor to turbulence in the atmosphere that affects aircraft.

Gravity waves form when air traveling up and down in the atmosphere meets resistance.  For instance, clouds rising in the troposphere, the lower level of the atmosphere where air mixes freely, will bump up against the boundary of the much more stable stratosphere, forming ripples in the process.  Big mountains like the Colorado Rockies often form gravity waves as air flows over the mountains and then overshoots as it reaches the other side.

Gravity waves in the atmosphere can amplify and break, and we’re finding now that’s a major contributor to turbulence in the atmosphere that affects aircGravity waves in the atmosphere can amplify and break, and we’re finding now that’s a major contributor to turbulence in the atmosphere that affects aircraft.

If you think about it, the theory behind gravity waves make a lot of sense.  For example, have you every asked yourself why it’s harder to get out of bed in the morning on some days than others.  Or why your weight fluctuates 5-10 pounds?  It’s not the extra piece of holiday cake.  It’s because you’re being hit with a gravity wave.

Here’s some more travel news you can use:

  • US Airways has become one of the world’s first airlines to accept MasterCard PayPass-enabled cards and devices to make contactless payments for in-flight purchases. Passengers can tap their PayPass-enabled MasterCard or device on a US Airways’ PayPass-accepting reader to complete a transaction without use of a PIN or signature because of the low-value transactions.
  • Those who want to see the TSA go away may have their day.  The agency has been so widely criticized for its procedures that it didn’t even bother to show up for a House aviation subcommittee hearing last week, as officials seemed fearful of having to answer hard questions and wanted to avoid getting publicly lambasted (again).  But the TSA’s absence may have spoke louder than words.
  • YouTube has reached a new agreement with commercial airline Virgin America that brings web video content to passengers during flights. Beginning Dec. 15, passengers can watch videos from five YouTube channel partners on the small screen that’s in the back of each seat’s head rest. The content includes Warner Brothers’ H+ The Digital Series, WIGS’ Blue, Geek & Sundry’s Written By a Kid, Crash Course, and Barely Political’s The Key of Awesome.

Okay to Fly with Medical Marijuana?

flyingwithweedIn the past, the TSA has said that if medical marijuana patients’ paperwork checks out, they can board a flight with meds in tow as long as they are headed to a medical marijuana state that honors such laws.  With the recent vote legalizing medical marijuana in both Washington and Colorado, people are now beginning to question the TSA about the rule.  Does that mean you can now fly between those states with your stash?

TSA spokesperson David Castelveter gave some vague answers this question – but ultimately made it clear that the TSA is a federal agency and therefore doesn’t consider marijuana legal under any circumstances.  That said, the TSA still has the power to ruin your day, regardless of what state laws may say.

So…now that voters in Washington and Colorado have legalized small amounts of marijuana for adults over 21, does that mean you’ll be able to fly between those states with your stash? Yes and no.So…now that voters in Washington and Colorado have legalized small amounts of marijuana for adults over 21, does that mean you’ll be able to fly between those states with your stash? Yes and no.

Here’s some more travel news you can use:

  • JetBlue is offering a 50% airfare savings with the purchase of a vacation package using this offer.  Book by December 9th and travel through December 19th.
  • Emirates, which flies nonstop from L.A. and San Francisco to Dubai, is offering a discount on travel this winter and spring on long-haul routes to the Middle East and beyond.
  • For those of you looking to “dry out” a little this winter, there’s some hotel bargains in Arizona that you can warm up to.  The W Scottsdale is offering fourth nights free, while at the Hyatt Regency, you’ll get either your third or fourth night free plus a $100 (all prices U.S.) dining credit.  The Royal Palms has third nights free and at the Montelucia, it’s fourth nights free plus $50 for the spa, and $50 for dining.  Deals expire Jan. 12, 2013.  For a list of participating resorts see scottsdaleholidayexperience.com.

A New Option for Buying Airline Tickets

a number of companies are starting to sell (or are planning to sell) “options” on airline tickets.
An airfare option works similarly to a stock option. The seller of the option charges a fee to hold your flight reservation at a certain fare, but you’re not obligated to buy a ticket. If your travel plans change, you let the option expire, and you’ve lost only the fee, not the full cost of the plane ticket.
A fare option might work like this: You pay $9 to lock in a ticket at a set fare for three days while you get your spouse or friends to commit to a getaway — or wait for your boss to approve vacation time.
Typically, the longer you hold the fare, the more the option costs. You don’t get your fee back, regardless of whether you make the purchase or let the option expire.

option traderWant to take that trip, but don’t want to fully commit?  Well, a number of companies are starting to sell (or are planning to sell) options on airline tickets.

An airfare option works similarly to a stock option.  The seller of the option charges a fee to hold your flight reservation at a certain fare, but you’re not obligated to buy a ticket.  If your travel plans change, you let the option expire, and you’ve lost only the fee, not the full cost of the plane ticket.

Here’s an example:  You pay $9 to lock in a ticket at a set fare for three days while you get your spouse or friends to commit to a getaway — or wait for your boss to approve vacation time.

Typically, the longer you hold the fare, the more the option costs. You don’t get your fee back, regardless of whether you make the purchase or let the option expire.

Here’s some more travel news you can use:

  • Monday is Veterans Day, and Red Roof Inn is offering veterans and active duty military a 15 percent discount at select properties in November.  Proof of military service is required.  Blackout dates may apply. Visit RedRoof.com or call 1-800-Red-Roof.  Use promotional  code 608455 for the discount.
  • A United Airlines flight from Denver landed safely in Washington DC after its crew reported an emergency because a passenger began praying in an aisle shortly before landing.  (Been there.)  According to United, the male passenger wasn’t following flight attendant instructions for landing – so they alerted authorities.  The plane was then escorted to Dulles airport by military jets.  (I can see the new PSAs now:  ”Hi, this is Tim Tebow of the Jets, reminding you to Tebow responsibly by keeping it out of the aisle.”)
  • I just lost all faith and trust in any poll conducted by Harris Interactive.  I find it extremely hard to believe that nearly a third of Americans with comply with a body cavity search by the TSA.

Scared of Flying? Avoid the film “Flight”

flight-poster-USIf the film “Jaws” made you fearful about swimming – and you currently have your hesitations about flying – then you may want to do yourself a favor and avoid seeing the new feature film “Flight” – which opens this weekend.   The film’s opening scene depicts a catastrophic aircraft malfunction, forcing seasoned pilot Whip Whitaker (Denzel Washington) to make a crash landing.  (Check out the movie trailer here if you’re interested in getting a preview.)  The Huffington Post reports: “The plane crash sequence is suitably intense and realistic, and its almost low-key presentation makes it all the scarier.”

The executives behind the film can pretty much write-off any potential revenue to be had from in-flight movie sales.  It’s a foregone conclusion that it will never be shown on an airplane.  The release of the film has even spurred CNN to spotlight 11 movies you don’t want to watch on a plane.

Here’s some more travel news you can use:

  • JetBlue announced that it will match up to $50,000 in customer donations to the Red Cross in order to assist Hurricane Sandy relief efforts.  The airline is also awarding its members with 6 TrueBlue points for every $1 members donate, now through November 30th.
  • If you need to make a rental car reservation within the next 10 days, definitely consider Hertz.  The rental car company is pledging $1-per-rental-car reservation on November 11 and November 12 (up to $50,000) to support the Disabled American Veterans group.
  • Effective for travel on or after January 15, 2013, Delta Air Lines will no longer check bags to a final destination when multiple tickets are presented at check in.  According to Delta, “if a second ticket is presented for travel on another airline beyond the destination of the first ticket, the passenger will be advised that Delta will only check the bag to the destination on the first ticket(s).  The passenger must collect the baggage at baggage claim for their first ticketed destination, and then re-check their baggage with the down-line carrier for the next flight.” Earlier this year Hawaiian Airlines and US Airways adopted similar policies.

Sandy

If there’s a silver lining for the occurrence of a natural disaster, it’s that they often serve as a reminder that airlines are run by people, not computers.  In response to the fallout of hurricane Sandy, most airlines are allowing affected customers to make one ticket change without the usual change fees.  And for those who had their flight cancelled as a result of the storm – which is reported to be approximately 14,000 – the airlines are refunding them in full.

As a reference for all stranded travelers, here’s an airline-by-airline list of weather waivers.

Here’s some more travel news you can use:

  • Hotels ranging from elite luxury accommodations to budget-priced properties have prepared ahead by stocking light sticks — and in some cases flashlights — specially for the storm.  Even though most hotels have a generator for at least limited lighting, they’re meant to give guests an extra layer of security.  Oh, and they’ll work great on Halloween.
  • The TSA plans to test using a private vendor next year to expand its expedited-security program at airports.  Travelers who aren’t part of an airline frequent-flier program would be able to pay a vendor a fee to undergo a security check based on criteria set by the agency.  The company would notify TSA who gets approved, and applicants who pass a second review by the agency would be admitted to the PreCheck program.
  • Airlines are tapping celebrity chefs such as Suzanne Goin (Singapore Airlines), Michelle Bernstein (Delta Airlines), and Sam Choy (American Airlines) to cook up the kind of meals you don’t expect at 30,000 feet.  American Airlines is going a step further by letting first- and business-class passengers review and reserve their in-flight meal via the airline’s website. You get to choose from among two or three entrees — the same choices you get when you board the plane.
airlines are tapping celebrity chefs such as Suzanne Goin by Singapore Airlines, Michelle Bernstein by Delta Airlines and Sam Choy by American Airlines to cook up the kind of meals you don’t expect at 30,000 feet.
American Airlines is going a step further by letting first- and business-class passengers review and reserve their in-flight meal via the airline’s website. You get to choose from among two or three entrees — the same choices you get when you board t

Flying Coach Is About To Get a Little More Cramped

small airplane seats

If you think flying coach sucks is a cramped and claustrophobic experience, then you’re going to hate what’s coming in the months ahead.  An increasing number of airlines are starting to install more paid-legroom seats on their planes (because people buy them), eating into the legroom of the standard coach seat – which we all know is already limited.

Airlines such as JetBlue, American, United, Frontier, and Spirit are introducing a new class of roomier seats with names such as Economy Plus (United) and Classic Plus (Frontier) that offer passengers more space to spread out but at a higher price tag.  To make room on the plane for these pricier seats, the standard coach experience gets a little more cramped.

In the past, the economy section on an average long-haul plane represented about 90% of the seats, with first-class seats making up the balance.  Today, 10% to 30% of the spots on a major airline are extra-roomy economy seats. To make room for the new seats, airlines have eliminated 10 to 40 standard economy seats per plane.  On some airlines, many of the remaining economy seats got pushed closer together.

Get ready to love thy neighbor.

Here’s some more travel news you can use:

  • There could be changes on the horizon for how you buy an airplane ticket online. Starting next year, a group of airline carriers agreed to start using a new system that could lead to personalized pricing for flyers.  Airlines will begin asking customers for more personal information, travel history, frequent flyer membership and credit card use.  Using this detailed information, they will then produce a customized ticket price.
  • The Chicago Tribune warns, “Procrastinators beware: Don’t put off booking holiday airline travel this year, unless you want to pay more and get stuck in a middle seat in coach.  Holiday ticket prices will generally rise from here. Count on paying $3 more per seat for every day you put off booking.”
  • ABC News revealed that many of the country’s busiest airports also rank at the top for TSA employees fired for theft.  Sixteen of the top 20 airports for theft firings are also in the top 20 airports in terms of passengers passing through.

JetBlue and Southwest Offer Short-Term Sales

JBHero_Airways_BossDaySale (1)

JetBlue has launched a 24-hour sale to celebrate “National Bosses Day“.  Book today (before midnight ET) and you’ll save big on select flights between October 30th and December 12th. There are a number of blackout dates, day-of-week restrictions, and travel window exceptions – but there’s a number of routes that are steeply discounted that you won’t find on Orbitz, Travelocity, Expedia or Priceline.

Southwest Airlines has launched “10 Days of Great Deals” where it’s discounting select flights between October 26 through February 14.  The promotion expires October 25th at midnight ET – and there’s a bunch of other restrictions too – but it could be a good deal for those with flexible travel schedules.

Book October 16, 2012 only (the earlier of 11:59 PM ET or local time).
Fares not available on Orbitz, Travelocity, Expedia, or Priceline.
Travel 10/30 – 12/12/12. Blackout dates 11/16-11/26/12 (Day of week restrictions, travel window exceptions, and additional blackout dates apply and vary by rou”Fly like a boss.  Pay like an intern.”

Here’s some more travel news you can use:

  • Speaking at an airlines conference in Dubai, Tony Tyler, Director General and CEO of the International Air Transport Association (the airlines’ trade group), underscored the need for an overhaul of airport security processes.  He predicted that by 2020, governments will be using a “checkpoint of the future” where passengers can race through without stopping, removing clothing, or taking liquids and laptops out of bags.  One can dream, can’t he.  (Sigh.)
  • A traveling airport exhibit called “Banned Booty” from Artist Steve Maloney has turned items confiscated at TSA checkpoints into high art. The exhibit is currently at The Palm Springs Air Museum from Oct. 17 to May 31, 2013.
  • Over the past two years, OTG Management, an operator of airport restaurants, has spent $10 million putting some 600 iPads in passenger waiting areas and on dining tables. This is just the beginning, too. The iPad project is taxiing for takeoff with 7,000 iPads to be deployed across four North American airports in the next 18 months.

Airport Body-Scanners Now More “Gumby-like”

gumbyDue to privacy concerns and heavy scrutiny from travelers regarding the use of body scanning technology at airport security checkpoints, the TSA has unveiled new machines that will project an identical “Gumby-like” image for each person, detecting weapons and other non-metallic materials – without actually showing the passenger’s body, TSA officials said.  Both TSA screeners and passengers will be able to see the images at checkpoints.

The new image is rudimentary, gender-neutral figure with mitten hands, a halo of hair, and no nose – a marked contrast to the photo-negative-like pictures that are so explicit that they are viewed in private rooms by TSA officers.  (Insert smutty thoughts here.)  The new machines also produce no radiation – which was a concern for a number of travelers.

The machines are already being installed at Logan Airport in Boston, but they will likely be coming to an airport near you sometime soon.

Here’s some more travel news you can use:

  • Think your stuff is secure once it’s safely locked in your hotel room?  Think again.  Hackers have created a device that fits into a dry-erase pen that can be used to instantly open hundreds of thousands of hotel door locks worldwide.  The pen exploits a flaw in lock-maker Onity’s system.  It relies on the fact that the locks have very little security on their memory systems, allowing any device that knows the Onity lock “language” to unlock it.
  • American Airlines grounded 48 of its Boeing 757s for a second time after determining more repairs were needed to keep passenger seats from coming loose.  Earlier this week AA grounded 48 planes after seats had come loose on two of them during three separate flights in the last several days.  Two flights had to make emergency landings.  The airline said the repairs will be completed by Saturday – but some flights will be delayed and others will need to be canceled until the repairs are done correctly.
  • Flying for the holidays this year?  Well, it’s gonna run you a little more than last year.  (What?  Did you actually think holiday travel would get cheaper?)  The average domestic airfare for travel during the upcoming holiday season has risen about 3% over last year.  I wasn’t a math major, but that’s an increase of about $10 on a $300 ticket.  Probably not enough to keep you home, but enough boost airline revenue.  It’s how the game is played.

Fall SaleThe Fall is a great season to catch airfares on sale.  Here’s a few sales that will help you save today:

  • In recognition of the presidential campaigning season, Virgin America is running its “Both Sides of the Isle Win” sale.  Travelers booking by August 20th and willing to travel by November 14th now have some nice fares to choose from.
  • JetBlue has extended its “Turn Over a New Leaf Sale” until midnight tonight (8/17).  The airline is offering one-way fares from $49 to a number of destinations for travel between September 4th and November 14th.
  • Southwest Airlines is conducting a “Nationwide Sale” through August 24th where you can catch low fares (starting at $69 each way) on nearly all flights from August 24th thru February 13th.  Of course, blackout days apply – so check with Southwest.com for details.
  • AirTran is also offering discount fares through August 24th (competing with SWA) on hundreds of flight combinations around the country.
  • Even American Airlines is getting into the sale swing, discounting tickets purchased by August 24th and valid for travel through February 13th.

Here’s some more travel news you can use:

  • Ever been frustrated by fuel surcharges?  Well, try this on for size:  After being forced to take an emergency layover in Syria, passengers on Air France Flight 562 were asked to open their wallets to check if they had enough cash to pay for more fuel.
  • CNN recently spotlighted the “The World’s Top 10 Airport Lounges” which offer first-rate amenities, privacy and calm.  Can you guess which U.S. airport lounge made the list?
  • Planning to travel for Thanksgiving this year?  Well, you may want to start shopping for tickets a little early this year.  A number of reports indicate that airfares are climbing with no leveling-off in sight.  In fact, the cheapest fares are likely the ones you’re seeing now.