TIME Aviation

Drones Are Beginning to Pose a Real Threat to Flight Safety Says FAA Data

Agribotix, a start-up in Boulder, manufactures drones for agricultural use.
The Kestrel Cinematix drone takes photos and video from the air. Agribotix, a start-up in Boulder, manufactures drones for agricultural use and hopes to grow the business as restrictions are lifted on their use. Kathryn Scott Osler—Denver Post/Getty Images

There have been 25 near-collisions with aircraft reported since June 1 this year

The small, remote-controlled drones that have recently grown in popularity are beginning to pose a significant threat to flight safety in the United States, according to new data from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).

The data, released Wednesday at the request of the Washington Post and various other news outlets, reveals 25 near-collisions with airborne drones reported by commercial and private pilots since June 1. Many of these incidents reportedly occurred near New York and Washington, and several of them took place at major U.S. airports.

Drones, often mounted with cameras for aerial photography (although Amazon wants to use them to deliver goods as well), are becoming an everyday object. However, people who operate them often exceed the altitude limits set by the FAA, bringing them dangerously close to aircraft and helicopter flight paths.

“All it’s going to take is for one to come through a windshield to hurt some people or kill someone,” Kyle Fortune, a private pilot, told the Post. Fortune said he suddenly spotted a drone 100 feet underneath his aircraft during a Sept. 22 flight.

Other pilots said that drones getting sucked into engines, rotors or propellers could cause potentially fatal accidents.

[Washington Post]

TIME Travel

How to Keep Your Cool Traveling With 41 Million People

If you have to travel this Thanksgiving

There are going to be some 41 million people in motion before and after Thanksgiving, unless they are stopped cold by the weather gods. Looking at the National Weather Service’s color-coded alert map, the glob of warning colors running from Washington D.C. to Maine might be described as Cancelation Red rather than a winter storm warning. It’s gonna be ugly, folks. And inside the crowded airports, lots of passengers who really don’t fly all that much—this is a weekend for amateurs—will be cluelessly waiting in line for the airlines that just canceled their flights to reroute them.

You don’t want to be one of these people. If you are standing on a line, it’s probably already too late to get re-accommodated quickly.

MORE: Inside the strange world of airline cancellations

No matter the forecast, you should always have a Plan B in mind when you travel. Even if you’re not a frequent flier, download the app for the airline you are taking so it can text you with updates. There are also apps such as Flight Aware that will send you alerts—and you can also see how well the entire system is performing. Increasingly, the airlines will rebook you automatically if you give them the opportunity. This happened to me last year while reporting on a story about cancelations—although that 3 a.m. phone call could have waited. Nevertheless, this automatic “reaccomm” as the carriers call it, can be really helpful.

But if the situation goes south when you’re at the airport, you need to figure out your options in advance. Flights are so full that in the event of a cancelation, rebooking the next direct flight might not be possible. Look for connections. Consider the mid-country hubs that might help get you where you are going: Houston, Dallas, Denver, Detroit, Chicago, one of them is bound to have decent weather.

MORE: Holiday travelers rejoice! Thanksgiving gas prices will be the lowest in years

You need to be proactive. When my flight from Tokyo to New York was canceled by a big, disruptive East Coast hurricane a couple of years ago, the carrier offered to fly me to Los Angeles—where I would be stuck for three days waiting for an available flight. I started to look to build unscheduled connections that could get me farther east. By going hub to hub to hub (LAX-ORD-DCA), I got close enough to home so that I could drive or take a train.

MORE: Download these 7 holiday travel apps to get home in time for turkey

Having lots of experience with airline calamity has taught me the scramble drill. You need to be armed with enough knowledge so that in the event you actually do have to deal with an airline agent, you can get what you want, not what they are offering. Be firm and insistent to make your point but don’t scream at airline employees; you can communicate your ire in a civil tone and get better results.

Here are a few other tips for peak travel weeks:

No, you can’t bring that on board

If you don’t travel much, go to TSA’s website to figure out exactly what you can or can’t bring through the security checkpoint. Hint: weapons are a no-no.

Know your rights ahead of time

Every carrier posts a Contract of Carriage (here’s Delta’s, for instance) that explains terms and obligations pertaining to your ticket. Pay particular attention to Rule 240 or its equivalent, which covers delays and cancelations. All the carriers have a Contingency Plan for Lengthy Tarmac Delays, too.

Consider checking a bag

It’s amazing to watch people trying to lug so much stuff onto chock full jets. You hate paying $25 to check a bag, as you should. But the fewer points of friction you create for yourself, the calmer you are going to be on board. And the more space you’ll have under your feet. Keep in mind that very few bags are mishandled.

Consider travel insurance, which can sometimes be purchased last minute

The airlines have now dumped all the travel risk on you: Your airfare is non-refundable, and if weather scratches your flight, you’re on your own if you need to find food and lodging. Travel insurance offsets those risks, but at a price, typically about 5% of the trip cost. The higher the cost, the better the case for insurance, which will pay off from everything from flight delays to emergency cancelations on your part. Seek independent, third party insurers rather than airlines or travel agencies.

Try to roll with it. Easier said than done, yes. People—both adults and kids—tend to lose it more quickly in airports, because we’re not in control of anything. It’s beyond frustrating. If you are traveling without kids, you might make some new friends at the bar—or at the increasing number of “private” lounges open to the public for a $35 fee. (Which includes drinks.) If you are traveling with kids, you might not. Just remember, somewhere in that airport somebody else’s kids are behaving worse than yours.

So if you are one of the 41 million, bon voyage.

As for me, I’m staying put. You have to be crazy to travel on Thanksgiving.

Read next: 5 Ways to Be an Airplane Aggravation

TIME Aviation

This Is Who Decides Whether Your Flight Takes Off This Week

Chicago's O'Hare Airport Snarled In Ground Stops After Fire At FAA Building
Passengers wait in line to reschedule flights at O'Hare International Airport on September 26, 2014 in Chicago, Illinois. Scott Olson—Getty Images

Meet the Cancellator

With the rush of Thanksgiving travel and potentially bad weather, there’s a few people who will have the tougher-than-usual job this week of figuring out which unlucky flights must be cancelled this holiday season.

Meet the men and women operating the Cancellator, a computer system that decides whether or not you’ll be scrambling to make it home for Turkey Day. The Cancellator and systems like it use an algorithm with some human input to decide which flights to delay or cancel in order to preserve as much of an airline’s original schedule as possible. The program’s ultimate goal is to nix flights well ahead of time, that way airlines can notify passengers of the changes before they head out for the airport — giving customers time to make alternate plans.

Want to know more about the software and employees deciding to cancel your flight? Read TIME’s March 3, 2014 cover story on airline cancellations here.

TIME Aviation

JetBlue Is Cutting Legroom From Its Planes

JetBlue Airways Corp. planes sit docked at the gates of Terminal 5 as another of the company's jets lands at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York on Jan. 28, 2014.
JetBlue Airways Corp. planes sit docked at the gates of Terminal 5 as another of the company's jets lands at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York on Jan. 28, 2014. Craig Warga—Bloomberg/Getty Images

And the base fare will not include a checked bag

Jetblue said Wednesday it will reduce leg room and add bag fees for fliers who buy tickets on base fares.

The traditionally low-cost airline, under pressure from investors to boost profits, announced in a call with analysts that it is adding fare levels next year. The new base fare will not include a checked bag.

The airline also said it will reduce average legroom from 34.7 inches to 33.1 inches—still, it says, an industry leader—to allow it to add 15 seats to its standard A320 aircraft beginning in 2016.

JetBlue and Southwest Airlines have until now been the only large U.S. airlines that provide a free checked bag for all fliers, the Wall Street Journal reports.

TIME Transportation

Why Subway Systems Haven’t Installed More Safety Tech Yet

NYC Subway Safety
Wendy Connett/flickr—flickr Editorial/Getty Images

The only safety measure of most subway systems is simple: fear

If you’re already a bit anxious on subways without platform edge doors, the story of people being pushed to their death onto subway tracks isn’t going away anytime soon.

Some variation of that incident—nothing new, despite its shock factor—probably comes to mind nearly every day: when someone teeters off the platform’s edge, for instance, or when you step past the yellow line to circumvent a crowd. The fears over subway deaths, already high after a sensationalized subway murder in 2013, only grew this week with reports of New York’s latest subway accident. In the same way you can’t avoid gawking at a car crash, you can’t avoid reading about a subway death, either.

Hard numbers about subway safety data — New York had only 53 subway fatalities in 2013, a year when it carried 6 million riders — don’t always have a sobering effect on the hysteria following transportation tragedies. Unlike other transportation accidents that get mass media coverage, like a plane crash, a subway accident, especially one so brutal as this week’s in New York City, has a distinct immediacy for a city’s residents. It is not far off in a foreign country, or the result of an extraordinary circumstance. Instead, it’s a few inches and a push, trip or slip away.

That’s a strange concept in an era when new technologies are emerging every day to protect us from death before we’ve even harmed, like cars with radar-based brakes or airplanes with ground proximity warning systems. So why hasn’t technology made subways more safe? Cost.

“[The lack of subway safety] is driven by a cost culture rather than a safety culture,” says former National Transportation Safety Board chairman James Hall. “You will invariably have innocent individuals literally fall through the holes of that type of structure. It’s a matter of priorities, and making safety your most important priority.”

Among the most effective subway safety measures are platform edge doors, which blocks off access to the tracks until a train arrives. However, the cost of installing such doors throughout the New York City subway system is “in the billions,” according to Kevin Ortiz, a spokesman for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which oversees New York City’s subway. Ortiz said a contractor has been designing a door system since last month, while new technologies to detect objects or people on the tracks are being tested in the city’s subway. However, the MTA has no timelines for rolling out the new systems on a broader scale.

Platform edge doors are common sights in major cities around the world, including St. Petersburg, Beijing and Tokyo. But those systems are relatively young, and they were built with the platform doors to begin with. Many subway systems in America (and London’s Tube) are old: New York’s dates back to 1904, Boston’s to 1901, and Chicago’s to 1897. Retrofitting older systems to feature platform doors is a much costlier proposition than building a new one with the doors from the get go. Interestingly, New York City’s “Airtrain,” a light rail-style system connecting John F. Kennedy International Airport with the city’s subway system, has platform doors — but it’s only been open since 2003.

Instead of spending money on costly safety technology to make the subway systems safer, the organizations that run them tap into riders’ fears to ensure they stay safe around the trains. In New York, for example, the MTA for decades has run a poster campaign informing riders how many fatalities have occurred in the past year, a reminder to stay well clear of the tracks when a train isn’t in the station. And last year, members of MTA’s largest employee union distributed flyers designed as fake blood-stained subway cards to demand slower trains, improved braking mechanisms and protective barriers.

And platform doors might not be a necessary expense, anyway, as the data shows subways are actually pretty safe.

“Obviously one [fatality] is one too many,” said the MTA’s Ortiz. “But in the grand scheme of things, when you move six million people a day, you have a greater likelihood of being hit by lighting twice than being struck by a subway train.”

Still, there are statistics to support the other side, too. In New York City, one-third of subway deaths are ruled suicides made possible by the tracks’ easy access; subway operators are trained to expect one death per week; if an operator’s train strikes a person, he or she is given just three days off to recover from the trauma.

As a result, most people who care about subway safety fall into one of two camps: either the subway seems like one of the most dangerous form of transportation, or one of the safest. But if there’s one aspect that’s agreed upon by nearly all subway riders, personnel and experts, it’s that a safer subway system, however expensive, is an expectation within reach.

“Cars without drivers, parking assist, collision avoidance—we’re able to do all these kinds of technologies,” said Carl Berkowitz, a transportation and traffic engineering expert. “We should be able to solve some of the problems we have in the subway system.”

 

TIME Aviation

Plane That Crashed Into Chicago Home Missed Couple by 8 Inches

Twin-engine small cargo plane had just taken off from Midway Airport

A small cargo plane that crashed into a Chicago home Tuesday morning missed hitting an elderly couple residing in the house by eight inches, according to the city’s fire chief.

The twin-engine plane had just taken off from Midway Airport when it began experiencing engine problems, the Chicago Tribune reports. The pilot, who was the only person on board, was attempting to return to the airport but crashed into the home. He was dead at the scene.

The plane collided with the right side of the house, but the couple, an 84-year-old man and an 82-year-old woman, were on the left side of the residence asleep in their bedroom. Neighbors said the couple was “bewildered,” but did not sustain any injuries.

“They were in a bedroom next to the living room and the living room is gone,” Chicago Fire Chief Michael Fox said. “Eight inches. They were very lucky.”

[Chicago Tribune]

TIME Aviation

Virgin America Prepares for IPO Takeoff

The low-cost airline will start trading Friday on Nasdaq

Virgin America, the low-cost airline backed by Richard Branson’s Virgin Group, raised roughly $307 million in its initial public offering on Thursday, according to Reuters.

The airline, which began service in 2007, priced its shares at $23 each after previously setting an expected range of $21 to $24 per share. The IPO values Virgin America at a shade under $1 billion after the airline sold 13.3 million shares.

Shares are expected to start trading Friday on Nasdaq, under the symbol “VA.”

As Time noted, Virgin America is consistently rated as a top domestic airline in public opinion polls, but the airline has also historically struggled financially with more than $670 million in losses over its first five years in existence. Things have improved recently, though, as dropping prices for jet-fuel helped the airline record third-quarter profitsof $41.6 million, up 24% year-over-year.

Last year, Virgin America posted its first-ever profitable year with over $10 million in profits on revenue of $1.4 billion.

Barclays, Bank of America Merrill Lynch, Goldman Sachs and Deutsche Bank Securities served as underwriters for the IPO.

Virgin America is known for its leather seats, cocktail lounge-style lighting and on board Wi-Fi. The airline’s main hub is San Francisco with flights to 20 destinations including Mexico.

This article originally appeared on Fortune.com

TIME Music

Southwest Airlines Is Now Offering Free Beats Music

Beats Music Free Southwest Airlines
Southwest Airlines

Many are wondering about the future of Beats, which was acquired by Apple this year

Southwest Airlines is now offering free Beats Music to passengers connected to in-flight Wi-Fi, the Dallas-based airline announced Monday.

Flyers will see a promotion for the streaming service on their devices’ browsers upon connecting to Wi-Fi, and then will receive a custom playlist based information they provide about their mood, location and preferences, a Southwest Airlines spokesperson told the New York Times. After three songs, passengers will be asked to provide their e-mail, and afterwards they can continue to listen to Beats Music for free.

“We continue to enhance our onboard offerings to remain current as our customers’ needs evolve, and with the addition of Beats Music on our entertainment portal, we’re doing just that,” Kevin Krone, Southwest Airlines Chief Marketing Officer, said in a press release.

Southwest said the Beats partnership had been in the works for a year, months before Beats’ $3 billion acquisition in August by Apple. Apple has yet to disclose its plans for the on-demand music service, but it said in September that TechCrunch’s report of Apple’s plan to shut down Beats Music was not true. Still, some say it’s only a matter of time before Apple’s similar service, iTunes Radio, absorbs the Beats brand.

Southwest’s free Beats deal is the latest example of promotions at 30,000 ft., where busy or bored customers are logging onto the increasingly many in-flight Wi-Fi services. T-Mobile, for example, announced in September that it would offer free texting over in-flight Wi-Fi.

 

TIME People

An Aluminum ‘Window’ May Solve Mystery of Amelia Earhart’s Disappearance

Researchers believe a fragment they found in 1991 likely was attached to Earhart's long-missing plane

Researchers are confident that an aluminum fragment found off a remote island in the Pacific Ocean came from Amelia Earhart’s long-missing plane.

The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery said Monday that the fragment was a custom window added to Earhart’s Lockheed Electra plane while she took a rest-stop in Miami during her infamous final expedition in 1937. Researchers say the piece “ was as unique to her particular aircraft as a fingerprint is to an individual,” and the patch “matches that fingerprint in many respects.”

The aluminum piece was discovered in 1991 and researchers say it could help lead to a definitive answer Earhart’s final resting place. Earhart is believed to have landed on a reef at Nikumaroro, sending out radio distress calls for as many as five nights before the aircraft was swept out to sea. The researchers are returning to Nikumaroro in July 2015 to search for more clues that support this theory.

TIME Saving & Spending

The Secret to Getting a Ridiculously Cheap Thanksgiving Flight

Aerial view of airplane
Stephan Zirwes—Brand X/Getty Images

Every travel agency is saying something different, but there are some tips that aren't up for debate

For years, travel search engines have scoured through their dense databases to determine the best day to book your Thanksgiving flights. This year, like every year, there’s a lot of mixed messages on what to do if you’ve procrastinated on booking tickets. Here’s what the big players are advising for cheap domestic U.S. air tickets:

  • Kayak: Book in early November, about two to four weeks before Thanksgiving.
  • Skyscanner: Two weeks prior to Thanksgiving.
  • Orbitz: This Wednesday, Thursday or Saturday. If not then, then before Nov. 18.
  • Cheapair: It depends on way too many things.

So what’s the takeaway? It’s better to be safe and book flights now, but you if you’re a risk taker, you can wait until the beginning of November to book your flights. But try not to wait until the week of Thanksgiving. It’s also important to weigh the risks of an unexpected fare hike in light of what your benefits of waiting actually are. These hyped “savings” are usually only about 5 to 10% less than the average fare, which amounts to $15 to $30 if your ticket costs $300.

In fact, since airline fares are notoriously difficult to understand, often the better question to ask is what not to do when you’re booking Thanksgiving flights.

Here are a few tips that travel search engines all agree on:

Don’t book a departure flight on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving (Nov. 26), or a return flight on the Sunday after Thanksgiving (Nov. 30).

Airfares increase as flights get fuller, and the Wednesday and Sunday flanking the Thanksgiving holiday are when the most people are traveling. A simple airfare search shows just how much more expensive it is to book travel on one of these days. In some cases, fares are up to twice as high.

If you have to book for Wednesday or Sunday, then book your tickets as early as possible.

If you’re locked into a Wednesday departure flight, aim for a Friday or Tuesday return flight, which is around 25% cheaper than returning on Saturday, Sunday or Monday, according to an analysis by Cheapair.

Booking a return flight on Sunday results in the most dramatic airfare spike, and there’s not really much you can do to save money other than to book your departure flight on Thanksgiving Day. But the tradeoff of sacrificing a chunk of your holiday is a discount of only about 10%, so it may make more sense to pick a different day—even if it’s Wednesday. In general, having a Sunday return flight means you’re stuck with a sky-high ticket price.

Consider booking a departure flight or return flight on Thanksgiving Day—or both.

If you depart and return on Thanksgiving Day, your fare may be up to 30% cheaper than the average price, according to Kayak. And even if you only depart (and not return) on Thanksgiving, those savings are particularly meaningful when applied to longer, more expensive flights. For example, flying the JFK-LAX route departing on Thanksgiving instead of the day before can save you nearly $100.

Don’t book flights in groups.

If you’re booking as a family and there are only a few flights left in the lowest fare category, it’s possible the airline will bump the entire party up to the next fare category, according to Cheapair. That doesn’t mean you can’t travel as a family, though: you just might have to book each person’s ticket individually.

Check other smaller airports nearby.

There’s often regional and even international airports near the ORDs, JFKs and LAXs of major U.S. cities. If you’re in Chicago, for example, consider Chicago Midway Airport instead of O’Hare; if you’re in Los Angeles, consider Long Beach Airport instead of LAX. Both are cheaper airports than their neighboring giants, according to Cheapflights.com, which ranked the nation’s 101 most affordable airports.

Check smaller airlines.

The five biggest U.S. airlines—American, United, Delta, Southwest and JetBlue—all increased their base fares slightly despite lower fuel prices and a worldwide fear of Ebola. While the effect on consumers is not yet clear, it’s also worth checking out smaller airlines like Spirit, Frontier and Virgin.

Read next: The Old Advice on When to Buy Flights Is Wrong (And So Is the New Advice)

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