Air Travel: Southwest Investigation, Potential New Rules for Agents

National Transportation Safety Board investigators examine damage to the engine of the Southwest Airlines plane that made an emergency landing at Philadelphia International Airport in Philadelphia.
National Transportation Safety Board investigators examine damage to the engine of the Southwest Airlines plane that made an emergency landing at Philadelphia International Airport in Philadelphia. // Photo by NTSB via AP, Newscred

The investigation into a deadly incident on a Southwest Airlines flight and potential new rules for travel agents lead this week’s air travel news. 

One woman was killed Tuesday when an engine on Southwest Airlines Flight 1380 from New York - LaGuardia to Dallas Love Field apparently broke apart, sending shrapnel flying into the cabin, blowing a hole in the window and partially sucking her outside. While the full investigation won’t likely be completed for 12 to 15 months, officials are focusing on the possibility that metal fatigue caused one of the engine’s fan blades to snap off, slamming into the engine housing and generating the flying shrapnel, as occurred in a similar incident on a Southwest Airlines flight in August 2016. Southwest Airlines has said that it will inspect all similar engines within 30 days, NBC News reports, and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has said it will issue an order within two weeks calling for all similar engines to be inspected.

Also this week the new FAA Reauthorization Bill drew criticism from the American Society of Travel Agents (ASTA) and the Business Travel Coalition (BTC). At issue were provisions that would eliminate a 2012 rule requiring airlines to disclose the full fare in advertisements, inclusive of taxes and fees, as well as a requirement for travel agents to disclose when customers were traveling to a country that may require aircraft cabins be treated with pesticides, which ASTA said would be burdensome. Also causing controversy were a series of sweeping customer service provisions requiring travel agents to provide prompt refunds in the case of overbooking, hold reservations for 24 hours without charge and disclose itinerary changes, which ASTA said unfairly put the customer service focus on travel agents, when airlines are subject to the vast majority of customer complaints. 

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In other news this week the CEO of Sun Country Airlines addressed an incident when 250 customers were stranded in Mexico after the last flights of the season were cancelled due to a blizzard in Minneapolis. Because Sun Country does not have interline agreements with other airlines, the airline did not have any additional options to rebook passengers, the airline said, and rerouting aircraft to pick up the stranded passengers would have meant canceling additional flights. 

In other Mexico news this week, Acapulco officially opened its new airport expansion during Tianguis Turístico. The new facility expands the airport to 204,514 square feet, and adds new cafes, restaurants and shops. 

In airline news, this week Alaska Airlines became the latest carrier to update its policy for guests flying with emotional support and psychiatric service animals. Under the new requirements, guests purchasing tickets on or after May 1 will be required to provide animal and health behavioral documents, as well as a signed document from a medical doctor or mental health professional, for their support animal at least 48 hours before departure. The policy does not apply to service animals. The move makes Alaska the latest carrier to adopt new rules for emotional support animals, following United and Delta, after a series of high-profile incidents involving unruly animals in aircraft cabins. 

Also this week, Alaska Airlines announced that on April 24 it would discontinue the Virgin America brand. After that date, the Virgin America website will redirect to alaskaair.com; customers will need to book only using the Alaska Airlines app and call center; and flights will be operated only with Alaska flight numbers. There will also be only Alaska check-in desks at airports, and all branding and signage will be for Alaska. The airline has also started repainting Virgin America’s Airbus planes in Alaska colors, although it won’t begin installing new Alaska interiors until the fall, so for the immediate future guests may board a plane with an Alaska exterior and a Virgin interior. Alaska Airlines and Virgin America merged in 2016. 

In flight news, this week Delta announced additional transatlantic flights between the United States and Europe this winter. The airline said it would continue nonstop service between New York - JFK and Lisbon; Los Angeles and Paris and Amsterdam; Indianapolis and Paris; and Orlando and Amsterdam. 

In other flight news, this week JetBlue announced that it would begin nonstop service between Fort Lauderdale and Grand Cayman on October 25. The airline first announced its intention to fly the route back in January. 

Finally, in onboard product news, this week Air Canada said it would start offering lie-flat suites and other enhanced amenities on customers traveling between New York - Newark and Vancouver and on both daytime and overnight daily flights from Los Angeles and San Francisco to Toronto as part of its Air Canada Signature Service. Other amenities will include airport concierge services; expedited check-in and security clearance; priority baggage handling; and preferential boarding, as well as lounge access. Eligible customers connecting onward to international destinations at Toronto-Pearson will have access to the Air Canada Signature Suite

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