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The year's top 10 travel stories
Alexander Zaitchik, Forbes Traveler

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January 06, 2009

It was another tumultuous year in travel. The dollar appeared to be bottoming out. The price of jet fuel returned to earth. But financial turmoil triggered a global slowdown that left an industry uncertain. To top it off, a cheetah was found running loose in the cargo belly of a Delta flight to Atlanta in October.

The longest shadow looming over the coming year is the fate of the global airline industry, which analysts agree is on track to continue 2008's spurt of consolidation and restructuring. Some predict up to 30 European carriers could go under by early 2009.

In another clear trend, travel and tourism became a deeper shade of green in 2008. The number of hotels seeking official "eco-friendly" certification exploded, led by mega-chains like Marriot.

In Pictures: The Year's Top 10 Travel Stories

But for now, let's take a quick look back at the year that was. In January, a Dutch firm called EUclaim launched to help passengers claim compensation for delayed or cancelled flights, which is allowed under a little-known 2005 piece of European Union legislation. No word yet on when Americans can expect an equivalent law.

In February, a Virgin Airlines Boeing 747 flew London-Amsterdam to become the first commercial flight fueled by bio-diesel. At least in part: One of the plane's four engines was powered in part by a mix of coconut and babassu oil. The International Air Transportation Association, meanwhile, published a report soon after stating as its goal a "zero carbon future."

A group of British Airways staffers based at London [Images] Gatwick Airport spent the early months of 2008 posting insulting complaints about passengers on the social networking site Facebook. One employee called passengers "smelly"; another said US fliers had "stupid accents." All of those involved were disciplined when the postings came to light later in the year.

 When summer arrived, it was announced that Southwest airlines, a pioneer in no-frills, snacks-for-$5 flights, would stop accepting cash for in-flight amenities in November. Around that time, Czech officials outlawed public drinking near tourist hotspots in Prague, a move many say is clearly aimed at British stag parties that are blights in the cities of Eastern Europe.

Also in the "British tourists" department, in July, a British couple was arrested and charged after being highly indiscreet on a beach in Dubai, where public officials continued the city-state's building spree, putting it on track to become the world's most sought-out destination for marine sports and tourism.

In Pictures: The Year's Top 10 Travel Stories

On the world's waters, the Solstice became the world's biggest cruise ship ever to leave port when it squeezed slowly out of England's [Images] Papenberg water-gates in September. Nearly 1,000-feet-long and capable of carrying 3,000 passengers, the ship was the first of five Solstices scheduled to launch between 2008 and 2012. To give a sense of scale, the Solstice is almost the size of the Empire State Building laid on its side. Perhaps wanting to catch up with their land-based peers, the cruise industry in 2008 funded a study on how to reduce its own energy-footprint. The early consensus: Savings of up to 40 percent is possible, primarily by reducing cruising speeds.

Also in September, Iraqi Airways received the first internationally recognized technical certificate by an Iraqi aviation body since 1990. That same month, another kind of green exploded in certain hotels. The Wealth Bulletin reported that the Four Seasons New York set the standard single-night occupancy rate world record with its $34,000 Ty Warner Penthouse, named after its billionaire owner.

In October, the newest threat to navigation gathered speed -- piracy on the high seas. These were not Johnny Depp [Images] types in pirate ships, but small, heavily armed boats that approach, then board huge oil tankers. Once aboard, they isolate the crew and demand a ransom. Until a solution is found, most ransoms are being paid, and ships have begun to avoid the Suez Canal.

In November, a two-decades-long legal battle was settled in Manila when the Supreme Court ruled that Philippine Air was within its rights to fire a steward for being overweight. And, the incoming president of the island-nation of the Maldives [Images] proposed a new homeland for his people, who he says may soon be displaced by rising sea levels.

Finally, at year's end, frequent US travelers to Mexico, Canada [Images] and the Caribbean were given the option of using electronic passports embedded with Radio Frequency Identification chips. Critics say the RFID chips are insecure and pose a privacy risk, while the government says these concerns are misguided.

In Pictures: The Year's Top 10 Travel Stories


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