“All the pathos and irony of leaving one’s youth behind is thus implicit in every joyous moment of travel: one knows that the first joy can never be recovered, and the wise traveler learns not to repeat successes but tries new places all the time.” - Paul Fussel.
We asked a half-dozen insiders to expose little-known facts the airline industry would rather you didn't think about. They shared some pretty eye-opening stuff.
By Alexander Basek, Thursday, September 3, 2009
1. "Airport luggage scales often lie." It's bad enough that the airlines charge a fee for overweight luggage, varying from $39 to $300 per bag industrywide. But it's galling that they may also hit you with the fee by mistake. At JFK last November, New York City's Department of Consumer Affairs found that 14 percent of the airport's scales were not properly calibrated. At Boston's Logan airport, 10 percent of the scales recently inspected gave incorrect readings. The South Florida Sun–Sentinel has discovered numerous busted scales at area airports. And the list goes on. What to do? Stand up for yourself, especially when a scale barely tips the balance into the "overweight" category. Brandon Macsata, executive editor of the D.C.-based lobbying group Association for Airline Passenger Rights advises passengers to weigh their bags at home first, and if the airport scale comes up with a different number, insist that your bags be weighed on a different scale. Yes, it's come to that.
4. "We wouldn't tell you right away if there's an emergency." The FAA leaves it up to the airline to decide if it wants to tell passengers about an engine failure or other significant crisis. And many flight crews opt to keep their lips sealed. The reason? Flight crews don't want to scare passengers or say something they'll regret later. "In one recent emergency, the cockpit crew was faulted for making a public announcement before some of the required procedures were accomplished," explains Kent Wien, a pilot for a U.S. carrier. So attendants tend to err on the side of being secretive to avoid trouble. Last June, passengers traveling from Brussels to Newark on Continental Airlines were not informed when the captain died during the flight. The plane continued along its scheduled route with nary a peep from the rest of the crew, beyond a cryptic question: "Is there a doctor on board?"
6. "Our planes are antiques." Compared to the rest of the world, we're flying the airplane equivalent of grandma's Cutlass Supreme—except Uncle Sam isn't interested in paying cash for these clunkers. American owns 268 MD-80 class airplanes, with an average age of 18 years old. Meanwhile, thanks to a geriatric fleet of DC-9s, Delta and Northwest's average fleet age is 13 years old. In contrast, Emirates has an average fleet age of about 5 years. Singapore Air's is 6 years. And, while Ryanair is often faulted for lacking basic amenities, its planes average less than 3 years of age. Luckily, U.S. airlines aren't having problems maintaining their aging aircraft from a safety standpoint, notes Bill Voss, president and CEO of the Flight Safety Foundation. "There's no real indication of anyone cutting corners," says Voss. "Planes don't age like wine, but they do remain flight-worthy with proper maintenance." The FAA doesn't have a maximum age limit for planes, though it does require more frequent inspections for planes that have flown for more than 14 years. But aside from safety there's just plain old comfort. If you've ever wished you had a personal seatback flat-screen TV instead of having to share a view of a cathode-ray tube in the aisle—well, now you know the reason.
8. "Your ticket might not be with the airline you booked." Two airlines may sell seats on the same flight, a sales strategy called code sharing. You may think you'll be traveling on one airline, but you actually fly on another. The situation seems harmless enough but can cause major headaches for passengers. For example, most major airlines farm out their short, commuter flights to regional airlines. "By and large, you haven't heard of Chautauqua or Republic, but you may be flying them when you click to buy a ticket on Continental," explains Randy Petersen, publisher of InsideFlyer. "With two airlines involved, there's a constant passing of the buck. Worse, many regional carriers operating on code shares are exempt from reporting their on-time statistics. And God forbid if you need to file a claim with them for lost baggage."
The airline seatback pocket may not be spacious, but it has at least traditionally been a place to stash your magazine or water bottle while you snooze. Not anymore.The FAA has decreed that no passenger personal items whatsoever are allowed in the seatback pocket, as Joe Sharkey's "On the Road" column in the New York Times reported. The only things that are supposed to be in the seatback sleeve are in-flight magazines, safety brochures, the air-sickness bag, or other official material approved of by the airline.The ban on personal items in seatback pockets is news to a lot of passengers, and news to a lot of airlines as well. Airline spokespeople have said that they had no idea there was such a ban, and that passengers have always been allowed to make use of the seatbacks. So what's this really all about? As Sharkey's column points out, there is probably some concern that the recent introduction of baggage fees has pushed passengers to carry more items onto the plane and stuff them wherever they can, including the seatback pocket. To some extent, flight crews must also like the ban. They probably don't want the hassle of telling passengers to keep their stuff out of the seatback. But if no personal items go into the seatback pockets, cleaning the pockets out after every flight just got a whole lot easier for the crew. How, and how often, will this ban be enforced? It's hard to tell.
Am I Too Fat To FLY? I had heard about the upset airlines were causing by charging their larger passengers for an extra seat, but it hadn’t happened to anyone I knew. That is, until last Sunday morning.
My first Southwest flight was a 3.5 hour stretch from Oregon to Chicago. I arrived early as always, checked my bags, went through security, and got to my gate. I was sitting a stone’s throw from gate with about 45m to spare when one of the airline staff walked up and sat right next to me. “Do you have a ticket for this flight?” he asked. I had no idea what was going on. My first thought was they might have oversold the flight and were going to offer me something above what they normally did for giving up my seat and didn’t want to make an announcement. I was excited because I didn’t need to be there as early as I’d planned and that meant Ivy would have a freebie trip somewhere.“Yes sir, I do.” I said, ready to hear about my proposed reward.“Well there’s a policy that if you don’t fit comfortably in a seat with the arms down that you’ll have to buy a second ticket. Do you think you can?” he asked. I felt sick. There were 100 things I would have said had I not kicked into self-preservation mode. I just wanted the exchange to be over.“Yes, I can sit in a seat with the arm down.” I said, hoping he would accept it on my word and go away. Of course it wouldn’t be comfortable, but I’d taken full flights before and sat squished into a seat with the arms down. I even made a game of it in my head—I’d pretend I was in a space craft designed for a smaller being. If I got too uncomfortable I could always stand for a bit at the back of the plane; no problem. “It’s a 4 hour flight. You can sit comfortably with the arms down for the entire flight?” he asked, doubt in his voice. Still gripped with embarrassment I couldn’t even think straight. “Yes, I can.” I reiterated. “Okay, we’re going to take you down to the plane shortly to let you get settled and make sure.” he said, finally. I felt mad, embarrassed, and scared all at once. I made my living traveling. There was no way I could ask my company (or the customer) to eat a second ticket because I was overweight. I worked out what a second last-minute ticket for this flight was going to run me and felt sick. He came back and took me down to the plane. I stuffed my carry-ons into the overhead and slid into the middle seat, pulling down the arms and showing that I could indeed squish myself between them. At that point I got a bunch of “we’re sorry, but you understand I’m sure” from the attendant who brought me up and the ones working the flight. So, now you
know someone who has come close to getting charged for a second ticket.
Note: This story was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.