Commercial Airline Travel Strategies

The woes of the modern airline traveler

Flying in the post-9/11 world is not much fun, but there are some strategies you can use to smooth the bumps out of commercial airline travel.

These days flights are a real headache. You need to allow a lot of extra time and consideration for each trip. Extra security measures cause long lines where people of all stations of life stand in their stocking feet waiting for clearance. Passengers must hurdle multiple ID checks and produce official itineraries to get on the plane. Business and first class, which used to be about elite privileges, have now become a kind of refuge for the coarse treatment most people get in coach.

Faced with hard financial realities the airlines are cutting every corner, eliminating a lot of customer courtesies that travelers used to be taken for granted. In-flight meals have mostly gone the way of fee for service. Many airlines have discontinued little trinkets like courtesy magazines. Northwest Airlines recently stormed the last bastion of in-flight entitlement by eliminating free pretzels on domestic routes.

Along with tough security measures and cost cutting, airline service seems to be getting worse each year. The New York Times recently ran a cover story by Micheline Maynard about dismal on-time flight statistics for US air carriers. According to government figures, during the last calendar year ten different US air routes ran late 64% of the time or worse. Six air routes were late 100% of the time for at least one solid month.

Self-help flight check-in protocols make life a little easier

In some ways modern airline customers have advantages that they never would have imagined a decade ago. Congestion at check-in counters has been eased by self-check-in kiosks now widely in use by most airlines. Northwest Airlines was one of the first to adopt self-check-in early during 2000. Within three years more than half of their passengers were using the system.

With self-help kiosks you can use a computer screen to check bags, choose a seat assignment and print a boarding pass on the spot. You only need to slide in your credit card for identification. The computer recognizes the magnetic stripe and finds your flight record.

Even better than printing up your own boarding pass at the airport is printing it up using your own computer at home the night before a flight. Most airline passengers know that airlines allow you to visit their website 24-hours before flight time, check in to the flight and print up an official boarding pass right from their computer printer.

Tools for selecting the best seat available on the aircraft

Now that airline customers can select their own seating, new tools have arrived to assist in getting best seating situation possible. Most airline websites will tell you what kind of plane you will be flying on your trip. Some sites provide complete seating statistics for each major airline, each plane in the fleet of each airline, and even between classes of service in a given plane.

The simple width of a passenger seat varies from plane to plane. Seat “pitch” is another significant variable. “Pitch” is defined as the measurement from a given point in an aircraft seat to the same point in the seat in front of it. The greater the pitch the greater the room you have in your seat relative to the seat directly ahead.

The seat pitch on a passenger aircraft that is generally cited as minimally acceptable is 34 inches, but the airlines are all over the place. US Airways averages 33 inches of seat pitch. Delta averages 32 inches of pitch. Northwest Airlines and United both average about 31 inches.

With such limited room in economy class passengers are looking to find aisle seats and secure assignments in more-spacious exit rows. There is also an interesting specialty product for sale on the Internet called “Knee Defender.” Knee Defender consists of two little wedges of plastic that you jam into the airline seat in front of you to prevent that seat from reclining into your personal airspace.

As passengers find more creative ways to find the best possible airline seats, websites have popped up to help. SeatGuru.com provides a map that lays out every aircraft in service for each major airline. It dispenses tips about which seats are better than others.

The aircraft maps in SeatGuru are color coded. Pass the cursor over a seat and commentary pops up, indicating any special factors that play into comfort and convenience, including extra leg room, special design characteristics inherent to the craft, and even advantages of early airplane exiting because of advantageous seat location. There are also warnings about seat locations near the galleys, lavatories, and where other passengers tend to cross aisles in front of your seat during flight.

Dealing with some common flight wrinkles: why can’t I get the seat I want?

It’s a strange reality of self-check airline seating that sometimes you can get a seat assignment in advance and sometimes you can’t. There are several possible reasons why you may not be able to get your seat ahead of time.

If you book the flight too close to the departure date the airline could prevent your seat assignment and simply freeze you out. If the type of aircraft changes after you book your ticket all the seat assignments are subject to change to meet the new configuration. There are also seats specially blocked for the counter person at the airport to assign based on the circumstances of the moment.

Of course, seats can be held in reserved for passengers with special status. Discount ticket holders are often stuck with seats in the back of the aircraft. People who make flight reservations with small children may be locked out of advance seat assignment and may find themselves banished to the noisiest, rear-most seating.

What if I lose my airline ticket?

If you’ve only flown domestically during the last few years you may have the idea that the paper airline ticket is a thing of the past. At first e-tickets gave airlines an opportunity to economize. Gradually most airlines began to impose special fees for issuing a paper ticket instead of e-tickets.

By now e-tickets are widely accepted by most airline passengers. Most people rely on them and take them for granted. One of the enduring advantages of the e-ticket is that there is no paper ticket to lose. However, most international flights (including Canada) still rely on the old paper tickets with their thick-stock paper and rows of printed codes.

So what happens if you lose a paper airline ticket? The first, thing to do is contact the airline right away. The airline will probably ask you fill out a lost ticket indemnity bond to guarantee that if somebody else uses your lost ticket on the airline you will reimburse the money. You may also have to pay a ticket replacement fee (probably about $100).

The airline may advise you to buy a new ticket on your own, for which they’ll pay you back, but the process can be a lengthy. A year of waiting is not out of the question because the airline wants to be sure the lost ticket won’t come back to haunt them before your business with the airline is completed.

What if I lose my identification when I’m away on a trip?

These days you have to have identification to board a flight. It can happen that you lose your wallet or purse during a trip but still need to get back home via a commercial flight.

A standard protection policy is to have a spare ID and credit card somewhere with you that could serve as a backup if your wallet is lost or stolen. Another idea is to scan or digitally photography your identity credentials and the image files with somebody who could e-mail them to you in a pinch.

If you don’t have the standard forms of ID the airline requires you should call ahead because the policies for letting you on the plane are not standardized. A police incident report may be crucial so think of that first when you realize your property is missing. Let the airline know in advance you’re coming without standard ID and work out what credentials you have at your disposal that they will accept. During your conversations, try to have the airline enter something in your computerized flight record to ease your access on the plane.

What can I do about losing my pen knife or scissors during security clearance?

If you forget and carry a pen knife of scissors in your carry on luggage, you will have to surrender the item. Your option is to put the item in a bag that you surrender to the luggage hold. One strategy is to carry a stamped, self-addressed packet that you can use to mail the offending item to yourself rather then give it up to security.

Related to the mail-it-to-yourself strategy is ReturnKey Systems. This company is putting up automated stations near security screening areas at airports in Houston, LaGuardia, Newark and Washington Dulles. If there is a ReturnKey kiosk at your airport you can use it to mail an item back to yourself that the security people want you to surrender. The cost runs from $6 to $22.

What’s the deal with bereavement fares?

You may have heard that many airlines will grant a bereavement fare (usually about a 50%) due to the death or sickness of an immediate family member. Friends or distant relatives usually don’t qualify for these special fares and small budget carriers may not offer them at all.

Most airlines offering bereavement fares require the name of the deceased or ill family member and contact information for the funeral home or attending physician in order to prove that your claim is legitimate. A copy of a death certificate could be required.

Even after factoring in the discount, bereavement fares are expensive because you are generally pricing a full fare ticket a few days (or hours) before departure. Some studies, including one by SmarterTravel.com, found that bereavement fares can actually come out significantly more expensive than last-minute, non-refundable fare bookings.

But often the advantage of the bereavement fare is the full-fare flexibility you can buy at a reduced price. By using the bereavement clause you can purchase a full-fare ticket and lock in your ability to alter your flight plans as the situation may require. This is a flexibility commonly offered with discount fares.

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