March “lion” slams east coast

From New Hampshire to the Carolinas, March came in, as the saying goes, like a lion. Snow, sleet and wind gusts reaching 30 mph have lead to for motor vehicle deaths, school closings and chaos at airports.

More than 900 flights have been canceled at New York area airports (JFK, Newark and LaGuardia). Hundreds more at Logan International Airport in Boston never left the ground, where the airport closed for more than half an hour to clear a runway. In Philadelphia, more than 40 people were stranded overnight.

Even the bus operators got into the delay and cancellation game. Greyhound and Peter Pan scrapped trips into and out of New York, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts and New Jersey.

So, get comfortable. It’s going to take a while to sort this mess out.

Improve your chances of getting a cab

Sometimes, it’s easy to catch a cab. Three or four pass by, and all you have to do is get the attention of one of them. Contrast that, however, with a rainy day in Manhattan at 5:30 PM. You and the rest of the world want 35 blocks of yellow car bliss, and most will be disappointed. Fortunately, there are now a few ways you can take control of your transportational fate.

I remember taking the train from New York to Boston a few years ago. A blizzard brought LaGuardia to a standstill, and I had no other choices. I realized about an hour from South Station that the entire train would be hunting taxis desperately in a city not known for swarms of them clogging the streets. So, I called a taxi company from my neighborhood (East Boston, at the time) and gave the simple instruction: “Don’t let anyone in unless they give my name.” The driver understood … and promptly let the word out that there was an insane amount of business.

Without that call, I’d still be waiting for a ride from Southie to Eastie.

Of course, that’s an extreme case. Everyday life provides enough challenges. Hailing a taxi on the street is the baseline, though some cities use taxi stands instead. If you’re out in the ‘burbs, reach out and touch some one. Calling for a taxi not only adds a bit of predictability, it lets the driver know a bit about you. Details such as home or work address and phone number can come in handy if a fare turns into trouble.

Instead of using the phone to talk, you could take advantage of new technology (such as Taxi Magic for the iPhone). Tap the screen a few times, and you can book your next ride. Taxi Magic is available in 25 cities in the United States. Sadly, though, New York is not among them.

In any city, iPhone or not, bad weather or periods of high demand could leave you frustrated – and stranded. The temptation to take a ride from a “bandit” (i.e., an unlicensed cab) can be pretty high. After all, you just want to get from A to B. Fight the urge! These rides are illegal … and for good reason. Unlike licensed taxi drivers, bandits aren’t checked for criminal histories and drug use. The cars aren’t inspected, and they may not even be insured. Roll the dice if you like, but understand that the stakes are high. All you get for winning is a trip home.

[Via CNN, photo by Brian Sayler]

Lawsuit leaves airline feeling blue

Bill Baker was mad. This crotchety blogger was so pissed at JetBlue that he took the airline to small claims court. On January 16, 2009, victory was sweet, to the tune of $494. The money, he says, will be donated to charity.

Clearly, one lone nut blogger can make a difference.

JetBlue delayed Baker’s red-eye flight from Portland, OR to New York for five hours, before announcing the cancellation of the flight. The passengers were offered flights out three days later. Meals, accommodations and earlier flights were not offered. So, Baker took JetBlue to Connecticut small claims court. He asked for damages of $722.50 (per his blog, $687.50 per the court record). The airline apparently took the lawsuit seriously, actually sending a representative to the hearing. This was not enough, however, to sway the events to JetBlue’s favor.

The airline has developed something of a reputation for canceling flights and pushing passengers days into the future. When I went to the Ritz-Carlton Golf Resort, JetBlue canceled my flight and simply said that I wouldn’t be able to get into JFK for another two days. I pushed, asking about the many other airports in the New York area – small spots, like LaGuardia and Newark. Finally, I got them to put me on a flight for the next day. Like Baker, JetBlue offered nothing to make my trip easier.

I just sent a letter to JetBlue, which garnered a very weak response from the airline. Baker aimed high, and it worked.Litigation was not his first choice. In fact, he offered to let JetBlue donate the $722.50 for which he was suing to the ASPCA or the Humane Society of America. The airline did not respond to his offer. They did offer some vouchers as compensation, which he refused to use. But, the judge seemed to consider them in his final award, as they account for the difference between the damages requested and those rewarded.

I guess the moral of this story is that airlines should realize that even the smallest complaint can snowball. I found out about Bill Baker’s story on his blog, which was linked to his Twitter account, went to his blog and was entranced. That’s all it takes, sometimes, for one company’s bad news to gain a hell of a lot of attention. One person cruising a series of links at the right time can turn a small story into a big one.

For travelers, the message is that we need to continue to talk to each other. Start your own blogs. Use sites like Twitter. As we saw earlier this week, with the use of the Hudson River as a runway, citizen journalism has become a powerful force. Let everyone know about the best and worst you see on the road. We’re all in this together. Also, the airlines and hotels are starting to pay attention. One tough tweet will be noticed.

And, Baker leaves us with his battle cry, “Ask not how airlines can screw you; Ask how you can screw the airlines back!”

Read about Bill Baker’s lawsuit against JetBlue >>

View the official results of the Connecticut Small Claims Court >>

Learn about blogging, microblogging and travel >>

Read about a suit against Easyjet in Europe >>

Start your own airline lawsuit >>

[Thanks, Bill]