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Surviving The Unfriendly Skies

Airport3_2It’s hardly news that flying is no fun anymore. Blame it on cramped seats, disgruntled airline workers and fellow passengers on the verge of air rage. Airports are jammed, security lines are lengthy, and onboard service is rudimentary at best. Chances are you’ll spend longer than ever on your flight these days. Only 73% of flights arrived on time in the 12 months ending July 2007, according to the Department of Transportation (DOT). Four airlines — ATA, Aloha Airlines, Skybus, and Oasis — have recently stopped flying, while Frontier Airlines just filed for bankruptcy protection. Then there were the hundreds of flights canceled by American Airlines and other carriers this past week. But you don’t need statistics to tell you that there’s turmoil up in the skies, do you?

Flying these days is all about survival. And that means planning carefully, from choosing the right seat and creating your own comfort zone to knowing how to improve a bad situation. It’s also about cultivating a little patience, because there will be times when there’s nothing you can do except stay calm.


Play the numbers game by looking at DOT stats to see, hour by hour, the monthly on-time performance at major airports throughout the country. (Visit airconsumer.ost.dot.gov/reports/index.htm.) For example, a flight departing Boston’s Logan Airport had a 94.3% chance of leaving on time between 6 a.m. and 6:59 a.m. last May. But by 6 p.m., it was a radically different story; your flight would have a 63.8% chance of departing on time. It makes sense: A day’s worth of weather delays, mechanical snafus and airport backlogs significantly reduces performance. It pays to be an early bird.


Many airline Web sites will give you as little as 30 minutes to connect between flights. But with today’s rampant delays, that’s often cutting it too close. The problem is compounded if you’re switching terminals at some of the country’s largest hubs, such as Atlanta, Denver, Chicago or Dallas/Fort Worth. Give yourself 60 to 90 minutes between flights and you’ll take a lot of the stress out of your next trip.


When you book, find out what aircraft you’ll be flying on. That information is on every airline and travel booking Web site. Then consult SeatGuru.com to see not only how a given plane is configured but how each airline configures its aircraft. For example, on some American Airlines 757-200s, the window seats in row 16 won’t recline because the exit doors are right behind them. But on a Continental 757-200, it’s the seats in row 14 that won’t recline.

Speaking of exit row seats, they invariably have more legroom than other seats in coach, and there are three ways you can snag one of these prizes. Jet Blue will let you book them when you make a reservation. Some other airlines sell them at the time of booking for a premium. (Northwest charges $15 extra.) They’re available on United flights to members of its Economy Plus Access program (which costs $349 annually) or to nonmembers on the day of travel for anywhere from $14 to $100, depending on the length of the flight. Other airlines, such as American, don’t charge more for these seats but they won’t release them until shortly before the flight. The only way you can get them is to ask at the gate, not at check-in.


This is not quite as crazy as it may sound, especially on international flights. For example, many of the traditional carriers from New York to London, such as British Airways and American Airlines, fly with tightly packed planes. But not Air India. Its flights to London from New York are rarely full because these flights are picking up the rest of their passenger load in London for trips to the subcontinent. Air New Zealand flies from Los Angeles to London with a similarly light load. And Cathay Pacific has a nonstop between JFK and Vancouver that offers wide-body 747 comfort and less than full plane loads. Again, that’s because the bulk of the passengers are getting on in Vancouver for the flight to Cathay’s home base in Hong Kong. And when I flew Qatar Airways from Newark to Geneva this winter, I easily found an affordable seat.


Find out how long you may have to wait in an airport security line by visiting the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) Web site (tsa.gov), which offers historical wait times at major airport security checkpoints for each hour of the day. If you’re flying out of LAX at 9 a.m. next Monday, the site will reveal the average wait over the previous four weeks.

Nothing seems to hold up a security line more than the confusion over liquids that can be taken on board. So make sure you’ve followed the TSA’s 3-1-1 regulation (three-ounce containers, one-quart clear plastic zip-top bag, one bag per flier). Most TSA checkpoints make a bigger deal of this one rule than almost anything else these days. If in doubt, just put your liquids in your checked luggage.


In July 2007 alone, there were 466,250 complaints about mishandled baggage (which means luggage lost for a matter of hours or forever) by passengers on the 20 leading carriers, or 5.93 complaints per 1,000 passengers. With the airlines losing more suitcases than ever, there’s no better time to travel light and just take a carry-on bag. But how big is a true carry-on? Generally, this is a bag that does not exceed 45 linear inches (add up the length, width and height) and weighs no more than 40 pounds. Both Magellans.com and ebags.com are good sources for regulation carry-on bags.


Had it with baggage delays and baggage loss? Companies such as Sports Express (800/357-4174) and Luggage Free (800/361-6871) will pick up your bags or golf clubs and ship them to a hotel or resort before you leave home. Figure at least $100 per bag, including pickup, for three-day delivery.


It’s a mean world out there. And by “there,” I mean the airline cabin. Your best offense is a good defense. That starts with noise-cancelling headphones connected to your favorite tunes on an iPod. Bose makes terrific but admittedly pricey headphones, at $299 a pop, so consider a less costly alternative like the Audio-Technica ATH-ANC7 QuietPoint Active Noise-Cancelling Headphones, for sale on Amazon.com for around $129. I also recommend bringing along a fleece for warmth and an eye mask and even earplugs for when you want to sleep. And yes, bring food and beverages (just make sure you purchase them after you’ve cleared security). Food is in especially short supply these days, and you could become parched waiting for an attendant to dole out a small cup of water. As for reading material, bring enough for a multihour delay: think War & Peace, not People magazine. Also travel with slip-on shoes, which you can remove easily. If you’re a pillow person, pack a small one in your carry-on.


This is the no-brainer approach, but money talks and can buy you a bigger and better seat in business or first class. Miles can buy you a better seat or an upgrade, too, though spending them is harder than ever. And pay attention to the new breed of all-business-class carriers on transatlantic routes. Silverjet and Eos are flying between the U.S. and London, while L’Avion flies between Newark and Orly in Paris. British Airways is likely to enter the field soon with all-business-class jets. What sets these carriers apart are their fares, which are a fraction of standard transatlantic business-class prices. A round-trip ticket can be as low as $1,663 on L’Avion, while Eos can come in at $2,880. Clearly, they’re more expensive than coach, but if you have the wherewithal, why not?


Crowded carriers involuntarily bumped more than 19,000 fliers from their flights during the first three months of 2007. If it happens to you, don’t jump at the first offer and always try to negotiate for more. Will the airline pay for your meals, a hotel room and ground transportation should you have to stay overnight? And how about a pass to enter their airport lounge while you’re waiting? As for compensation, always opt for a dollar voucher over a “free ticket,” which can be highly restricted.


Stuck in the airport when your flight is cancelled or severely delayed? Rather than stand in a long line, use your cell phone to book yourself on another flight or to get wait-listed.


Okay, so the kid behind you is kicking your seat and the person in front of you has put his seat all the way back. You could suffer in silence. Or you could address each issue with the offending party, being reasonable in your request. Ask the person in front of you not to recline quite so much, or tell the kid’s parent that you do not want your seat kicked. Sure, you could see if the flight attendant will intervene, but his or her actual job is to assist you in the event of an emergency, not to handle a five-year-old’s tantrum. So I would approach the attendant only in a worst-case scenario. In the meantime, use a little charm and diplomacy.


If things seem unbearable but can’t be resolved, count to 10, breathe deep yoga breaths, or distract yourself with your headphones and iPod. Get out of your seat and walk up the aisle to release some tension. If the kid in the next seat continues to annoy you, make a mental effort not to take it personally. The flight may seem endless, but eventually — take this on faith — you will walk off that plane.

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