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TRAVEL BRIEFCASE

Spirit Airlines' carry-on fee prompts backlash

Also: Cellphones that smell danger are in the works, and good news for depressed pilots.

April 19, 2010|By Hugo Martín

Ever since Spirit Airlines Inc. announced this month that it would add a fee of up to $45 per carry-on bag, the airline's chief executive, Ben Baldanza, has been trying to quell the resulting outrage.

He went so far as to cram himself into an overhead compartment to argue that with fewer carry-on bags, the boarding process would move faster and the overhead bins would be less cluttered. The result, he said in the video of his stunt: "Everybody wins."

It didn't work.

Seven U.S. senators have backed proposed legislation concerning the Florida-based airline's carry-on fee.

"We are going from the sublime to the ridiculous with airlines," Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg (D-N.J.) said at a news conference last week in Washington.

Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) called the fee a "slap in the face to travelers." Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) called it "skyway robbery."

The lawmakers hope to put the kibosh on the fee by imposing a tax on all airline revenue collected from such charges.

Baldanza says the senators and most of the media are looking at the fees the wrong way. He noted that passengers can bring a carry-on bag for free as long as it fits under the seat. Anything bigger will cost $45, reduced to $30 if paid online. The fee takes effect Aug. 1.

George Hobica, founder of the travel tip website Airfarewatchdog.com, thinks Spirit might have added the fee not to make money but to solve the industrywide problem of overstuffed overhead bins.

On Sunday, five of the nation's largest airlines -- American Airlines, Delta Air Lines, United Airlines, US Airways and JetBlue Airways -- promised not to add a carry-on bag fee. For now, anyway.

Teaching phones to smell danger

Today's cellphones have the technology to take photos, record videos, check stocks and play games.

Now the Department of Homeland Security is teaming up with high-tech firms to develop a cellphone that could also thwart terrorist attacks.

The department's science and technology arm is spearheading a plan to give cellphones the ability to sniff out dangerous chemicals. If successful, the phones could help detect chemical attacks at airports, train stations and subway stops, the agency said.

In 2007, the department called on companies to develop the danger-sensing technology. Now it's pushing ahead, working with wireless technology developer Qualcomm Inc., camera lens specialist Rhevision Technology Inc. and NASA.

As they are envisioned, these cellphones would sound an alarm if they sensed a noxious gas such as chlorine.

But if the phone detected something more deadly, such as sarin gas, it could send a message directly to authorities, using GPS technology to pinpoint the location of the gas.

If the idea works, every person armed with a cellphone could become a sentry against terrorist attacks. Nearly 90% of the U.S. population owns a cellphone.

That's about 277 million phones sniffing the air for trouble.

Good news for depressed pilots

Pilots who take antidepressants used to be banned from flying planes altogether. But Federal Aviation Administration rules that took effect this month allow pilots to fly if they have been satisfactorily treated with selected drugs for at least 12 months.

FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt announced the new policy, saying, "we need to change the culture and remove the stigma associated with depression."

The agency had established the ban for fear the drugs would make pilots drowsy.

Some studies say 10% of all adults in the U.S. are taking antidepressants.

If that holds true for pilots, it would mean that about 5,300 of them are on the medications.

The FAA said that for the next six months, pilots who have been taking antidepressants against regulation will not be penalized if they apply for the new waiver.

hugo.martin@latimes.com

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