The 19 Best and Worst Airline Moments of 2018
As we approach the end of another year, it’s time to survey the airline industry’s highs and lows from 2018. This year’s top airline stories included charity flights and moments of human kindness and compassion. The worst included unimaginable, and possibly avoidable, tragedies. Here’s a look back at 2018 and some of the most memorable stories in the world of aviation.
Let’s start with the bad news…
1. Lion Air Crash: The worst airline story of 2018 was the recent crash of Lion Air flight 610 in Indonesia just minutes after the plane took off from Jakarta (CGK). All 189 people onboard perished. Though the investigation is ongoing, most theories focus on combination of factors: a fault in a sensor, a lack of proper maintenance standards at the airline, and possibly a lack of information from Boeing on new safety systems put in place by the planemaker (Boeing disputes this latter assertion.) The plane was a brand-new 737 MAX 8. We can be sure, however, that the investigation will result in the same type of failure never happening again. That's how commercial aviation has reached impressive safety levels.
2. Southwest Engine Explosion: Another terrible story from the airline industry this year involved an engine failure on Southwest flight 1380 that resulted in the shocking, and frighteningly random, death of a passenger, back in April. One of the jet’s engines exploded mid-flight and a piece of shrapnel shattered a window, depressurizing the cabin and partially sucking passenger Jennifer Riordan out the window. While other passengers managed to pull her back in eventually and the pilots were able to land the plane safely, she died from the trauma, and the accident raised questions over Southwest’s maintenance procedures, although the airline has a very good safety record.
3. Travel Hacks: While hacks of customer information at both British Airways and Delta involved the credit-card information of hundreds of thousands of customers, they weren't as big as the recent Marriott data breach. Still, they are a reminder that all your digital data is vulnerable in myriad ways that you might not even be aware of. All the more reason to monitor your credit vigilantly and protect yourself however possible.
4. Quarantine Quandary: It made international headlines in September when an Emirates A380 carrying 549 passengers (including Vanilla Ice) was quarantined at New York JFK by the Centers for Disease Control due to an outbreak of flu-like symptoms on board. A day later, two American Airlines flights were quarantined in Philadelphia after arriving from Paris and Munich, when a dozen passengers on both flights combined reported symptoms such as fever and nausea. While everyone was eventually released, the two incidents were a reminder of how easy it is to get sick while traveling, and how you can keep yourself healthy on the road.
5. Decompression Sucks: While not life-threatening, it surely must have been terrifying for the passengers on Ryanair flight 7312 from Dublin to Zadar, Croatia, when their aircraft suddenly lost pressurization mid-flight. The pilots brought the Boeing 737-800 aircraft to a lower altitude immediately and diverted to a nearby airport in Germany, but some passengers reported bleeding from both the nose and mouth during the rapid descent. A similar incident happened in India, when a Jet Airways crew apparently forgot to pressurize their Boeing 737 properly, necessitating an emergency return to base after people started getting dizzy and bleeding from their noses.
6. Strike Strife: Speaking of Ryanair, the airline stranded hundreds of thousands of passengers without compensation when its employees mounted a strike in August, canceling over 1,000 flights.
7. Flying Has Gone To The Dogs: One of the news stories making the rounds in November was about a Delta Diamond Medallion member having to contend with dog feces covering his seat on a flight from Atlanta to Miami. All the passenger was offered to clean himself off after sitting in the mess was a bottle of gin and paper towels. At least the airline offered him 50,000 SkyMiles as compensation — but that may not get you very far these days. Far worse was the March case of a woman who alleged that a United flight attendant forced her to put a pet carrier with her dog inside into the overhead bin for a flight from Houston to New York LaGuardia. The poor animal died while on board. The airline claimed it was a misunderstanding and is investigating. Given these stories and the recent crackdown on emotional-support and service animals, everyone should think twice before flying with a beloved pet.
8. Flying Drunk: Even sitting in dog poo beats flying with a drunk pilot. Luckily, passengers were spared potential calamities by vigilant security employees and crew. In November, an Air India employee who was both a senior pilot and a safety operations director for the airline failed a breathalyzer before a flight from Delhi to London. Then, earlier this month, a Japan Airlines pilot was sentenced to 10 months in jail for showing up to a flight with a blood alcohol level that was nearly 10 times as high as allowed. It really highlights the importance of speaking up if you see something suspicious occurring with a crewmember.
9. What the F?: It’s one thing to make a typo. It’s another when that typo is several feet high, as was the case with a misspelling in the livery of a Cathay Pacific jet which left out the “F” so that the airline name read “CATHAY PACIIC.” At least the airline was able to make light of the situation with a Twitter post reading: “Oops this special livery won’t last long! She’s going back to the shop!” Wonder how much that cost to fix…
10. Basic Economy Awards: I don’t want to be too much of a doomsayer, but I suspect the fact that Delta began offering basic-economy tickets as awards is a bad omen of things to come in terms of award charts and availability from US airlines. As with paid tickets, the introduction of awards for these reduced-service, reduced-amenity fares is likely to mean that the cost of regular awards (saver and otherwise) is only likely to go up.
11. Me Too But Not You: Qatar Airways’ CEO Akbar Al Baker is known for outrageous, sometimes sexist, off-the-cuff remarks. But he set a new low for himself when he suggested in June that a woman could not do his job. He said, “Of course it has to be led by a man, because it is a very challenging position.” He later backtracked and claimed it was a joke…only he made it soon after becoming the chair of IATA’s board of governors, which only includes two women among its members. Al Baker has since apologized profusely.
It wasn’t all gloomy news, though. Travel has a transcendent effect and puts more opportunities in the hands of more people than ever. So now for some good news…
12. Record-Setting Flights: This year was a lollapalooza of long-haul flights setting new records. In March, Qantas began flying the first commercial non-stop flights between Australia and Europe with its new Perth – London Heathrow service. Air New Zealand broke its own distance record by launching flights between Auckland and Chicago O'Hare in December. Taking the cake, though, was Singapore Airlines’ new (or rather, renewed) ultra-long-haul between Newark and Singapore, which began service in October with a flight time of nearly 19 hours. It's the longest flight in the world by distance, at 9,500 miles. These new super-long-haul flights are going to become more and more common as airplanes capable of flying them economically become more prevalent, so stock up on your travel necessities. Singapore flies the Newark service with the Airbus A350 ULR, while Air New Zealand and Qantas use the Boeing 787-9 to London and Chicago.
13. Mistake Fare Fortune: While many airlines, including Delta and British Airways, tend to renege on mistake fares, we actually saw one carrier lean into the error, and generate a lot of goodwill to boot. Back in August, Hong Kong Airlines mistakenly sold round-trip business-class tickets from the US to Asia for less than $600. Though the deal quickly disappeared, the airline did the classy thing and decided to honor the tickets it had sold. (And of course, we at TPG jumped on them to review Air Hong Kong's business class.) Now if only the airline had more partners with whom you could earn and redeem miles.
14. Charity Charters: Airlines’ philanthropic efforts often go unremarked, but it’s important to point out when they do good things for their passengers and humanity in general. To wit, TPG contributor Katie Genter was aboard JetBlue’s Destination Good mystery trip earlier this month, which was a volunteer trip to work on several projects in Punta Cana in the Dominican Republic. Editor-at-large Zach Honig flew with Norwegian Air to deliver 13 tons of UNICEF donations to Chad in September. The cargo included school supplies, medicine and water purifiers to help people in need.
15. Holiday Hauls: Several airlines roll out the red carpet for special communities during the holidays. American Airlines partnered with the Gary Sinise Foundation on the Snowball Express to take 1,722 family members of fallen military personnel to Disney World for five days of fun and support. United operated 16 holiday-themed flights from hubs like Denver and Newark to the “North Pole” this year for children nominated by local hospitals and other health nonprofits. For its part, Delta operates similar North Pole fantasy flights for sick and needy children so they can experience a bit of magic and fun via flight.
16. Communication Is Key: One of the most heartwarming travel stories of the year was the tale of a 15-year-old girl on an Alaska Airlines flight from Boston to Portland, Oregon, who was able to help a fellow passenger who was blind and deaf communicate during the long flight. While she was able to make sure the passenger was all right over the course of the trip, another man in his row gave up his aisle seat so the man could sit there instead of the window in case he needed anything from the crew. These were simple acts, but sharp reminders of how much a little humanity can bring us together.
17. Southwest Makes Dreams Come True: A Southwest flight attendant named Vicki Heath met a passenger with Down syndrome on a flight who told her that it was her lifelong dream to be a flight attendant. After that trip, Heath started calling people at the airline to see what she could do, and was able to arrange for the passenger to help out on a flight from Sacramento to Seattle, including greeting customers and helping with service. How many flight attendants have you met that would go the extra mile like that?
18. Flight Attendant To The Rescue: Well, maybe there is one other who would do the same. A story went viral in November about a Philippine Airlines flight on which a mother ran out of formula for her infant. Both the mother and her baby were clearly distressed. That’s when a flight attendant stepped in to help. Patrisha Organo, who was a new mother herself and was onboard to complete her cabin crew evaluator certification, took the baby to the galley and nursed her until she fell asleep, proving once again that flight attendants are there for your safety and comfort.
19. A Kidney For Your Thoughts: Perhaps the most impressive example of fellow-feeling out of the airline industry this year, however, was the case of Newark-based United flight attendant Jair Ripoll. He found out he would need a new kidney when diagnosed with a hereditary disease. After posting about his predicament on Facebook, Ripoll was shocked to get an answer back from another Newark crewmember named Steven Lepine offering to get screened for a kidney match. It turns out the two were a perfect match and the transplant occurred in December 2017, though it took months for the story to surface. The two men are now back at work and flying high.
Let’s all take a few lessons from these extraordinary acts of humanity and kindness. We’re all people and we’re all traveling for a reason. So remember that. Be kind, be caring and consider others. You never know what extraordinary experiences might be waiting for you down that airplane aisle.