Category: Airlines + flying

10 things that are still usually free on planes

A good article here for those struggling to survive economy class service on longer flights. There are some things you can get for free that might help make the flight more bearable.

I think I’ve asked for entire water bottles and extra water bottles instead of settling for a little tiny cup of water. I’ve had mixed luck asking for seconds. Sometimes i can get an extra bag of nuts or something. Maybe once I actually got an extra meal, but I’ve been shot down more than a few times. I had never thought of requesting a cockpit tour, but I might be tempted next time I’m not anxious to get through immigration as quickly as possible. The only problem is that I’m always anxious to get where I’m going.

Sanitizing Wipes
The Whole Can (instead of just that little plastic cup)
Wing Pins for Kids
Basic Medicines and Bandages (painkillers and antacids)
Water-Bottle Refills
Short-Term Babysitting
Help Finding a Doctor
Seconds (since those little snack bags won’t fill you up)
Help Switching Seats
Cockpit Tours (pilots often have a little time after the flight)

Head to the front of TSA’s security line

In US airports, fliers can pay to cut the security line. Why do some get preferential treatment from the TSA? Do they pay the airline for this or do they somehow pay TSA through more than just taxes?

At a growing number of airports, special agents will meet these celebrities, high-powered executives and wealthy vacationers at the curb and will privately escort them from check-in to security to boarding.

American Airlines built a private check-in lobby in Los Angeles for VIPs who are greeted by name, given preprinted boarding passes and then whisked by elevator to the front of the security line.

First, I wonder if it’s fair for richer folks to cut the line. Sure they pay more the first class ticket, but that’s for a big seat in the front of the plane. TSA is supposed to be there to provide security and you would think that their service should be applied equally to everyone. It’s not like a former Miss America should be immune to getting searched so why would someone special get to skip the wait?

Second, I wonder if the elite who get to skip the line are treated differently than the common fliers. If common sense tells you that they do receive special treatment, does that mean they are screened quicker / less thoroughly? Are they less likely to have their bags opened or to be strip searched or whatever is getting TSA in trouble at the moment?

Advice on flying from a 1988 Die Hard character

Do you remember Die Hard with Bruce Willis from 1988?

Well I was recently reminded of a scene where a businessman is giving Bruce Willis’ character some advice, the secret to surviving air travel:

Businessman: You wanna know the secret to surviving air travel? After you get where you’re going, take off your shoes and your socks then walk around on the rug bare foot and make fists with your toes.

John McClane: Fists with your toes?

Just curious if anyone has tried this and if anyone can say whether or not it’s actually helpful. And, if it is helpful, what is it exactly? What does it mean to make a fist with your toes?

Flying for the first time – advice

Reader question: I have no experience and have never been on a plane before. I’m going to visit my friend in Tallahassee, Florida sometime in June for 10 days.

Any “tricks” that I need to look for? As in any particular day is cheaper. Which airline is best? Worst? Anytime of day or night? I’m more than likely flying out of Philadelphia to the airport in
Tallahassee. I’ve heard that its better to order your plane tickets far in advance for them to be cheaper. Also about approx how much would be a reasonable round trip from Philly to Tallahassee? United has a ticket for $450…

I would be going by myself. I’ve always avoided flying, but this time around I do not feel like driving and I just caved in. Thank you

Some advice: Check and similar sites to compare fares. One thing to keep in mind about the aggregator sites like Kayak and Orbitz is that a number of bargain airlines don’t work
with them. Check the list of airlines that fly in and out of Philly (it will be on the airport website), and see if Southwest, JetBlue or AirTran fly from there. They will likely have the cheapest flights to FL. JetBlue would be my first choice.

Many say that Tuesday and Wednesday flights tend to be cheapest. Generally, tickets mid-week are much cheaper than tickets on the weekend. They say 50 days or so out is when you should look to buy.

Flying out of Philly, I would tend to avoid US Air. If you do fly US Air, go in a different terminal and then cut over once you’re past security. Tallahassee is a tiny airport. You might be able to save money by flying to someplace like Jacksonville and driving the rest of the way.

A couple basic things: Pack light. Join a frequent flier program for whatever airline you choose. Wear shoes that are easy to slip on and off. Check the TSA list of things you can’t have in a carry-on – don’t be that guy.

If you’re really afraid of flying, your doctor should prescribe Xanax or another anti-anxiety drug. It works for many who are afraid of flying but I wouldn’t take one for the first time on a plane in case you have some side effects.

What will TSA do with 40 million dollars worth of full body scanners?

TSA will stop using full body scanners because…

“Due to its inability to deploy non-imaging Automated Target Recognition (ATR) software by the Congressionally-mandated June 2013 deadline, TSA has terminated its contract with Rapiscan,” the agency said on its website. “By June 2013 travelers will only see machines which have ATR that allow for faster throughput. This means faster lanes for the traveler and enhanced security. As always, use of this technology is optional.”

This probably means that the 40 million they spent on the machines has basically been flushed down the toilet to fix a problem that didn’t exist since I don’t think you need nude pictures of a person to determine if they have weapons. TSA could have used that money for better training and higher salaries which would draw candidates who don’t do stupid stuff and make stupid statements.

Beyond the jet age? Ion engines and the Sabre engine

NASA’s Ion engine seems to promise space travel with less fuel spent so why couldn’t it be applied to transporting humans on vacation?

This New York Times article discusses a British company, Reaction Engines Ltd, and its new Sabre engine, which could make the longest distance on Earth a 4 hour flight.

The Sabre is a jet engine in this world but a rocket in outer space. It has gotten some recognition from the European Space Agency, but it seems strange to me that the British government (military) isn’t keeping this to themselves if there really is potential here. It’s not like the company has no military ties:

“We are not going to tell you how this works,” said the company’s chief designer Richard Varvill, who started his career at the military engine division of Rolls-Royce. “It is our most closely guarded secret.”

Yet, they still need to raise a few hundred million for further research – small change if the military were interested.

Quote of the day

I like this comment on an article about a new scheme airlines have come up with to encourage fliers to buy from the airline instead of going through comparison sites. Somehow airlines plan to (fairly I hope) personalize the ticket buying process. This will be something airlines and travel agents can do, but that websites won’t be able to do.

Only the airlines could come up with the idea of personalizing rotten service and tailoring their disdain for their customers to each individual.

$20 to $100 for a carry-on with Spirit Airlines

Spirit says charging for carry-ons is a good thing, just like charging dead people for their tickets:

It has helped speed the boarding process, ensured sufficient overhead space is available for all carry-on bags, and it has helped reduce the airline’s fuel consumption rate by the equivalent of nearly six million gallons in the past year alone. The success of the program has allowed customers to pay for only the services that they use and it has permitted Spirit to continue lowering fares for its customers.

But they don’t like that some people wait till they get to the gate to pay up (maybe because they don’t want to admit to themselves that paying for carry-ons is real). I guess charcging people money at the gate is a hassle. Obviously, the answer isn’t to get rid of the charge; the answer is to jack the charge up to ludicrous levels.

Paying for a carry on at the gate = $100 (there’s one we didn’t predict in 2010). But you can save a fortune and do it in advance for as “low” as $25 for a carry-on ($as low as $20 for checked) if you’re a $9 fare club member. Plus $10 if you’re not in the club and you do it online. Plus an additional $5 if you do it over the phone (if that’s even possible since I was on hold for hours the only time I called them), plus an additional $10 if you do it at the airport (so checking in = $50 for a carry-on and $45 for checked bag – I guess it’s better than paying $100 at the gate but still seems pricey).

Seems kind of funny that I was worried about paying $10 or $20 for a checked bag years ago.

Kurt Vonnegut’s flight to Dresden from Slaughterhouse-Five

We took a Hungarian Airlines Plane from East Berlin. The pilot had a handlebar mustache. He looked like Adolph Menjou. He smoked a Cuban cigar while the plane was being fueled. When we took off there was no talk of fastening seatbelts.

When we were up in the air, a young steward served us rye bread and salami and butter and cheese and white wine. The folding tray in front of me would not open out. The steward went into the cockpit for a tool, came back with a beer-can opener. He used it to pry out the tray.

Anyway, Slaughterhouse-Five isn’t really a travel story in the way most of us are used to. The main character does travel to another planet though, in addition to traveling through Germany as a prisoner of war. Good book if you haven’t read it.

Trouble with United Airlines – any advice?

Reader question:

Long story short, in January my son returned to college and one of his bags was lost. It was his ski bag with his helmet, boots, etc., in it. The item was a carry-on which he was told he had to have put in checked baggage, so he handed the bag over in the “jet-way” outside the door of the plane. Upon arrival in Colorado, no bag.

I called United and, after about ten days of the bag not being found, I was told by someone at United that we should go out and purchase the items, we would be reimbursed. I asked a number of times if there would be any problem with reimbursement and both my son and I, in separate conversations, were assured that there wouldn’t. I even asked the name of the person I spoke with, it was Rahul, operator number 062497.

My son purchased, in good faith, only what was missing, we sent the receipts to corporate head quarters in Chicago, as per their instructions, and he received a letter stating that they weren’t responsible for the bags, no refund.

I finally found a way to speak with someone in the US, a woman named Ginger at 847-427-6754, and she said she would look into it.

We actually just received a call from US Air (the first carrier, both United and US Air confirmed it is the final carrier that is responsible) and the bag was found, which alleviates any doubt that the bag ever existed. When I asked, at the time we were told to replace the items, what would happen if the bags eventually showed up, I was told it wouldn’t matter; I guess this is referred to as an “interim expense” meaning a necessary item to be used when your items are unavailable.

I have $850 worth of charges on my credit card and United, just today, told my son the “case was closed” that there was nothing they could do at this time. Ginger, from United, has not returned my recent calls.

I am not interested in giving up so I am looking for a way to contest this. Is this a federal case? Can I just put in a claim in a small claims court? Should I write to someone else at United? It’s really horrible that United would be so unresponsive and unethical.

My answer:

There are a few things you can try but none are real likely to work. You could email the CEO, Jeff Smisek. His email address is jeff.smisek at (public info is their corporate email address construction, not giving anything away here).

Whether you write an email or a letter (or an email, following up with a letter), if you want to get quick resolution, outline the situation like you have, when you placed the calls, relevant information, etc. The more comprehensive your present your case, the more they are not going to want to mess with you and they will simply have it processed by claims as a write off.

if the CEO writing does not work, you can take your issue to social media. A good blog post that gets some traffic and promoting on Facebook (try the United Facebook page) and twitter will get the service department on the case. Comments on well trafficked blog posts about travel and airlines is good too. They do not want that kind of stuff posted out there for bad publicity.

You might contact a local TV station and speak with consumer affairs/investigative reporter.

Unfortunately, you are in a tricky situation here with respect to the contract of carriage.


EXCLUSIONS: UA shall not be liable for the loss of, damage to or delay in delivery of any of the following:

bb) Recreational and sporting goods, including but not limited to, archery equipment, baseball equipment, boggie/kite/skim/speed/skate boards, bicycles, bowling equipment, camping equipment, fencing equipment, golfing equipment, gymnastic equipment, hockey/lacrosse sticks, javelins, oars, paintball equipment, parachutes and parasails, pool cues, skating equipment, tennis equipment, water skiing/snow skiing/snowboards/wakeboards, hang gliding equipment, kayaks/canoes, personal human transporters, fishing rods, sculls, surfboards, windsurfing sailboards, vaulting poles, scuba diving masks and pressure gauges, copes, and sporting trophies.

So, any compensation they would offer on delayed sporting equipment is a ‘courtesy’ and not a legal right. Furthermore, reimbursable interim expenses for mishandled snow skiing equipment typically include rentals for delayed skis/boards/poles/boots/helmet and ‘reasonable’ cold weather gear (e.g. not Patagonia). Of course, if the cold weather items are permanently lost, that will be reimbursable up to the stated limitation of liability ($3,300) since they do not fall into one of the exclusions.

Therefore, a claim for new ski boots and helmet as an interim expense when the mishandled item is ultimately returned will be denied in 100% of instances.

Your best course of action is to try to return the gear and take the issue up with your credit card company. Of course that’s not really fair to the merchant you bought the replacement ski gear from but from a selfish standpoint it’s your best bet.

On the airline end, I would seek compensation for the delay (~$3-400 travel certificate) but there’s little else you’ll be able to do. By purchasing the ticket, you implicitly agree to all terms of the Contract of Carriage, and no employee has the authority to modify the terms of that contract, despite any representations they make to the contrary. Accordingly, you probably won’t get any traction by claiming, “XYZ told me to do it!”