Flying Unburdened

Today I’m taking a plane flight without luggage.  I’ll have my faithful black satchel to carry my laptop and a few books, but that’s it.  Today, I’ll have no carry-on bags to stuff into the overhead bins.

hqdefaultIt’s amazing how different a trip without suitcases feels.  Yesterday I didn’t worry about getting checked in precisely 24 hours before my flight is to depart, to make sure that I get an early boarding assignment so I can be sure to have overhead bin space.  I also don’t have to fret about whether my bag would exceed weight allowances, or be too big to fit overhead.  I know from hundreds of trips that my satchel will fit comfortably beneath the seat in front of me.

And when I arrive back home, I’ll be able to grab my little bag and zip off the plane without having to wrangle a suitcase from the bin space and worry about clobbering the little old lady across the aisle.  I won’t have to be part of the scrum of travelers clustering in the jetway to get their gate-checked bags — a process that inevitably leaves me in a foul mood about the grace and patience of my fellow human beings — nor will I have to wonder whether my bag will be the last one to come tumbling out onto the baggage claim carousel.

When you think about it, a lot of the angst in travel is directly attributable to our being weighted down by concerns about the possessions we’re carting around in our luggage.  I’m looking forward to enjoying a luggage-free trip for a change.

 

Encouraging Airplane Creepiness

Airplanes are, by definition, strange places.  You’re placed in a metal tube, sitting cheek by jowl with a bunch of unknown people, and the only thing you’ve got in common with them is that, at that particular time on that particular day, you’re taking that flight to get from point A to point B.  Your fellow passengers, for the most part, are probably reasonably decent, up-standing, law-abiding folks, but you never know — they could cover the spectrum from kindly, doddering grandparents to budding serial killers.

delta-coke-napkins-915Most air travelers, me included, are just grateful when the flight ends without incident and they can get out and get on with their life without further ado.  And here’s how you know that that is the prevailing sentiment of virtually everyone — at the end of your next flight, watch how many people dawdle to continue their conversations with the person in the next seat over, and how many grab their carry-ons at the maximum possible speed and hightail it out of there.  You can also reflect upon how many deep friendships you’ve made with random people you’ve met on an airline flight.

So how in the world did Delta and Diet Coke think that it would be a good idea to distribute drink napkins with messages that encouraged passengers to try to connect with other passengers?  The napkins carried weird messages like “Be a little old school. Write down your number and give it to your plane crush. You never know…” and had places for passengers to write down their names and telephone numbers to give to their “plane crush.”  Another napkin’s message was:  “Because you’re on a plane full of interesting people and hey… you never know.”

Gee, what could go wrong with encouraging passengers to even think about another passenger as a “plane crush”?  And what could be creepier than getting a napkin with somebody’s name and phone number on it, knowing that, after the flight is ended and you’re deposited in a strange city, the total stranger who had it handed to you might want to interact and see if you’re interested in something more?  And, possibly, be upset if you aren’t and ready to stalk you to the end of your days?

After passengers commented on the obvious creepiness, Delta and Coke apologized and have withdrawn the napkins.  But it really makes you wonder:  what process is used in vetting airplane napkins, and who in the world was responsible for coming up with the napkin text and approving it?  Doesn’t Delta have any idea that 99.9% of its passengers don’t view airplane flights as a great opportunity for flirting?

Big People On Planes

Modern air travel just isn’t made for big people — or for the people seated next to big people.

On one of the legs of my recent trip I was seated next to a guy who probably weighed about 350 pounds. He had the window seat, and I had the aisle seat. He wedged himself into his seat the best he could, but there was a clear spillover effect; he took up the entirety of our shared armrest and a chunk of my airspace, too. The only way I could accommodate his bulk was to sit twisted sideways. I was very glad I had the aisle space to one side and wondered about how cramped and uncomfortable it would have been if I’d had the window seat. Fortunately, it was a relatively short flight — but even so I was nursing a backache by the time the flight ended.

I’m not dissing big people here, but I think this is an increasing problem with modern air travel in America. Seat space on planes keeps shrinking, and Americans keep expanding. Obviously, that’s a problem, and it’s just going to get worse. Airlines want to pack as many passengers as possible into their planes — as the picture I took on the flight shows — and they aren’t going to reverse course on seat width and leg room, and Americans are, on average, heavier than ever.

What’s the solution? Make passengers disclose their size and, if they are above a certain point, make them buy two seats? Have a special heavyweight section with larger seats? I’m not sure, but something needs to be done. If you draw the short straw and are seated next to a big person on a flight, you just aren’t getting the same experience as passengers seated next to normal-sized folks. Why should somebody who has to endure an uncomfortable sitting position and has their personal space invaded by a stranger for the entire flight be charged the same as somebody who doesn’t? It really isn’t fair.

Tipping, Up In The Air

Next week I’ll be taking my first flight ever on Frontier Airlines.  It’s branded as a low-cost airline that differs from other carriers in that it charges you separate fees for things like your carry-on bag and basic in-flight drink and snack options.  Frontier presents its approach as allowing it to keep base fares low and giving travelers “options that allow you to customize your flight to match both your wants and your wallet.”

flight-crewNow I’ve learned that Frontier differs from other airlines in another, more interesting way:  it’s the only airline that encourages travelers to tip its flight attendants.  Beginning January 1, 2019, individual Frontier flight attendants can accept tips, and if a traveler purchases in-flight food or beverages, they get a prompt from the Frontier payment system notifying them that they have the option to leave a tip — just like you get in many restaurants.  In the article linked above, Frontier explains:  “We appreciate the great work of our flight attendants and know that our customers do as well, so [the payment system] gives passengers the option to tip.”

The union that represents Frontier flight attendants, the Association of Flight Attendants International, isn’t happy about Frontier’s tipping policy and says that the airline should be paying flight attendants more instead.  The union and Frontier have been trying to negotiate a new contract, and one union official has said that “[m]anagement moved forward with a tipping option for passengers in hopes it would dissuade flight attendants from standing together for a fair contract — and in an effort to shift additional costs to passengers.”

I’m not quite sure how I come out on the issue of tipping flight attendants.  Obviously, their job involves a lot more than donning a little apron and serving drinks and snacks, so there’s a bit of a disconnect between the tipping option — apparently presented only when food or drink is ordered — and the actual contours of the flight attendant’s job.  At the same time, many airlines are nickel-and-diming passengers with fees, so perhaps tip income for flight attendants is the wave of the future.  And I’m all for airlines adopting different models — like Frontier’s low-cost approach — as they compete for passengers, and letting the passengers themselves decide which approach they like best.

I’m thinking my flight on Frontier next week is going to be a bit of an adventure.

Standby Status

For the last leg of yesterday’s three-hop trip from Boise to Columbus, I was on “standby status.”  My flight from Salt Lake City was to get in to Detroit at about 7:20 p.m., and there was a flight from Detroit to Columbus at 7:55 that was sold out.  I was put on the standby list for that flight, and the ticket agent told me that I would be number two on the list.  If I didn’t get on the standby flight, I was confirmed for a seat on a flight two hours later.

metro_airport_inside_mcnamara_terminal_20130916171656_640_480Standby status is weird.  It’s by definition contingent, of course, but it immediately spurs analysis of the key factors that will affect whether you will make it on the standby flight, as well as lots of wishful thinking.  I knew the Detroit airport is huge, and the 35-minute time period between landing and taking off was ludicrously tight, requiring the incoming flight to be on time and the standby gate to be within reasonable sprinting distance of the arrival gate.  (Reasonable sprinting distance, that is, for a 61-year-old guy who doesn’t jog for exercise.)  If I was going to make it, all of those factors, none of which were under my control, had to go my way.

But even if those dominoes fell, I still needed some confirmed passengers to not show up for their flight.  Well, sure, that could happen, right?  After all, I was only number two on the list.  Maybe some incoming flight would be delayed by weather or mechanical issues, or a few of the confirmed passengers on the standby flight just wouldn’t show up.  I found myself hoping that some of the faceless passengers on the confirmed flight would just miss their flight so I could get a seat.  I was a bit ashamed of hoping that fellow travelers would experience such misfortune, but the urge to get home two hours earlier overwhelmed all basic instincts of human kindness and brotherhood.

When the pilot on the flight from Salt Lake City announced that we would arrive in Detroit early, it looked like the dominoes might just fall my way.  But when I emerged at my gate, ready to run, I learned that the standby flight was itself delayed and wouldn’t be leaving until after my confirmed flight.  Alas!  I therefore immediately shucked off my standby status and strode forward into the Detroit airport as a confirmed passenger, wishing nothing but good for the world.

Today’s Travel Tribulations

The travel day started uneventfully.  I got to the airport in plenty of time for my flight to Newark.  The plane loaded and left on time, and actually landed in Newark about 20 minutes early.

Then, it all went horribly wrong.

5644ef75112314303e8b4807-750-563Because we were early, and because the airlines never want to leave a gate unoccupied, of course there was a departing plane at our gate.  So we waited for the plane to leave.  Then the captain announced that there were a bunch of other planes looking to use the same runway, so we would have to wait for the runway to clear.  Then — and this was the unbelievable part — the captain came on the intercom again and let us know that the captain of a plane in front of us had pulled into our gate by mistake, and the ground crew would have to back that plane out and reposition it before we could be towed into our gate area.  All told, we sat on the ground at the Newark airport for almost an hour.

It wouldn’t have been so bad but for the guy sitting next to me.  He was one of those guys who answers his cell phone using his hands-free option, so everyone around him can hear his incredibly important calls.  He was upset to begin with, because we all got to hear that there was some kind of billing snafu at his business, and as the delays mounted he got increasingly agitated — first muttering, then loudly complaining, and finally throwing around f-bombs that didn’t exactly have a calming influence on the other passengers.  We all were inconvenienced by what had happened, but this ticking time bomb had to act like it was all about him.

Then my fellow passengers acted like jerks in the scrum to get the gate-checked bags, milling around rather than lining up and not caring if they blocked everybody behind.  And when I got to the taxi stand, a loud altercation between the cabdrivers broke out because one driver was accused of cutting in line.  As I settled into my cab, with a driver who’d just been engaged in a red-faced, gesturing shouting match featuring an unknown foreign language, I wondered what might happen next:  volcanic eruption?  earthquake?  Cats and dogs living together?  Mass hysteria?

I’m going to have to ask the Jersey Girl whether flying into Newark is always like this.

Boarding Pass Breakdown

Anyone who travels much spends a good part of their travel day clutching their boarding pass.  We get it when we check in on-line, we make sure we’ve got it as we head to the airport, we present it to the TSA agent who peers intently at it for a nanosecond, then scribbles on it as we go through the security line, and then we give it to the gate agent.

american_airlines_boarding_pass_aa_198But how much attention do we really give this document that is, briefly, very important to the successful completion of our travel plans?  Other than glancing at it to remember our seat assignment or boarding group, does any traveler actually read their boarding pass?  For most people, at least, it’s as casually ignored as the tags on mattresses or the detailed agate-type agreements you immediately click yes to when you log on to the internet in a hotel.

The New York Post has an interesting article about some of the information on boarding passes — and specifically, how flight numbers are determined.  It turns out that, typically, airlines assign the lowest numbers to their most prestigious, long-distance routes.  Flights heading east or north usually get even numbers, and flights heading west or south get odd numbers.  Flight numbers with four digits starting with the numbers 3 and higher indicate flights operated by airline partners. And some airlines assign special numbers to reflect the destination, like American Airlines assigning the number 1776 to its flight from Boston to Philadelphia.

But I think the most interesting fact is that airlines at least give a nod to superstitions in assigning flight numbers.  If you’re flying to Asia, you’re likely to see an 8 in the flight number, because that number is considered lucky in many Asian cultures.  The numbers 13 and 666 are avoided, and when a flight crashes, the flight number gets quietly retired and replaced with another number.  The airlines might be superstitious, or maybe not, but they at least recognize that some of their passengers are.

Just something to think about the next time you’re twiddling you thumbs at the gate, waiting for your flight to board.

Avoiding An “Airplane Cold”

If you travel much, you’ve probably encountered the scenario where you’re seated next to somebody who is obviously sick.  They’re sneezing like crazy, constantly blowing their noses, or coughing like they’re about to eject lung tissue, or you’re sitting there, acutely conscious that you are in an airborne metal tube where the air is recirculated and every tiny droplet ejected by Typhoid Mary is ultimately coming your way.  And you wonder:  will I leave this flight with an “airplane cold”?

1-101A recent study conducted by Emory University and the Georgia Institute of Technology tried to scientifically analyze the chances of catching an “airplane cold.”  The researchers on the study took transcontinental flights, tested the air and surfaces in the cabin for strains of cold and flu viruses, and carefully tracked the movements of passengers and flight attendants during the flights.  Although the data compiled during the study is limited, and the researchers did not find as many coughing or sneezing people aboard as they had expected — lucky them! — they reached two key conclusions.

First, there is a clear risk of catching a cold from a sick fellow passenger, but the zone of contagion is effectively limited to the people sitting next to the sick passenger or in the adjacent rows to the front and rear.  Those unlucky folks have an 80 percent, or greater, chance of becoming infected, whereas the probability of infection for the rest of the cabin is less than three percent.  And second, if you want to improve your chances of avoiding infection — understanding that you can’t control the identity or wellness of the random stranger who might be seated in your zone of contagion — book a window seat and don’t move during the flight.  By sitting in a window seat, you’re eliminating one of the seats next to you, and by staying put you’re reducing your movement through other contagion zones in the aircraft cabin.

I’m a bit skeptical of strategies to reduce the chance of an “airplane cold,” because so much of airplane travel is pure random chance and you’ve just got to grin and bear it.  I do think the study’s conclusions about the movement patterns of passengers, however, are quite interesting.  The study found that 38 percent of passengers never left their seat, 38 percent left once, 13 percent left twice, and 11 percent left more than twice.  Really?  Eleven percent of passengers left their seats more than twice?  Don’t pea-sized bladder people know you should go to the bathroom before you board the plane?

And by the way:  why do those 11 percenters always seem to be in my row when I’ve got an aisle seat?

What’s Wrong With Our Airlines?

Every time you turn around, it seems like you are reading some disturbing new story about a poorly handled incident on an airline.  The latest is the story of a puppy that a United Airlines flight attendant forced into an overhead bin — where the puppy died.

united-airlinesThe incident happened on Monday, on a United Airlines flight from Houston to New York.  The dog was in an approved pet carrier device when a flight attendant required the dog’s owner to put the pet carrier into an overhead bin.  The flight attendant now says she didn’t realize the dog was in the pet carrier.  Another passenger on the plane, however, says the dog’s owner resisted and told the flight attendant that there was a live dog in the carrier, but the flight attendant insisted and the dog’s owner eventually complied.  When the pet carrier was retrieved at the end of the flight, the dog was dead — perhaps from lack of oxygen.

United Airlines has apologized, and a statement from a spokesperson said:  “This was a tragic accident that should never have occurred, as pets should never be placed in the overhead bin. We assume full responsibility for this tragedy and express our deepest condolences to the family and are committed to supporting them. We are thoroughly investigating what occurred to prevent this from ever happening again.”

In this instance, perhaps the flight attendant was at the end of a long shift and at the end of her rope, or perhaps she was confused about whether there was a live animal in the pet carrier.  (Of course, why else would somebody take a pet carrier on a plane as a carry-on item?)  Whatever the cause, the story is extremely troubling, because it’s another example of airlines treating passengers like cattle.  We’ve seen incidents where ticketed passengers have been forcibly removed from planes, including one instance that raised such a ruckus that United’s CEO sent an email out to me and other United passengers that spoke of passengers being “treated with the highest level of service and the deepest sense of dignity and respect” and that the airline intended to try to live up to “higher expectations.”  I guess that effort still has a ways to go.

 

Air Unfair

Yesterday Kish and I had one of those star-crossed travel days that make you want to grind your teeth into powder and curse the airlines with your dying breath.

The day began with a 90-minute delay of our flight from Bangor to Philadelphia.  OK, no problem — we’d wisely factored in some weather delays, given the fact that we’re in February and it is winter, and we still had plenty of time to make our connection.  We got to our gate in Philadelphia, checked the sign and saw that boarding was supposed to start in something like “42 minutes,” and found a seat and camped out.  When a plane arrived, everything was looking up.

02xp-pilots-master768Then the delay notices and announcements started.  First the flight out was delayed by 90 minutes, then another hour.  We groaned and went to get something to eat, and when we returned they’d changed the sign above our gate to show that the flight for the new time would be boarding in a new, reassuringly specific time, like in “58 minutes.”  They also made an announcement that, due to some kind of special fuel need regulation, they would have to load the plane with additional fuel and, as a result, the flight was oversold due to weight restrictions and some people would need to volunteer to take a later flight.  And, still later, a gate agent was actually giving us a kind of play-by-play about the incoming flight, to be arriving from Richmond.  First she announced that the incoming flight was at the gate in Richmond, then it had pushed back, and finally it was taxiing down the tarmac, ready to take off.

And then, only moments later and after our hours of waiting in the Philadelphia airport, American abruptly cancelled the flight.  Fortunately, we were seated near the gate, so we were able to get in line immediately, where we learned that there were no other flights out and the airline had helpfully booked us for a flight leaving Philly at 1:09 p.m. today.  (Hey, thanks, but I actually work for a living and Monday is, regrettably, a work day.)  No offer of a hotel room or a voucher, either, apparently because the cancellation was deemed to be “weather related,” even though the weather in Philadelphia was just fine.  When we left the gate agent, the line stretched back onto the concourse and was about 40 people long.  I was glad we were able to get the bad news quickly, at least.

So we bagged the flight, rented a car and drove from Philadelphia to Columbus.  Seven hours, a hefty rental car fee, and an outrageous, state-sanctioned-monopoly-gouging “toll” of more than $33.00 to drive from Philadelphia to New Stanton on the Pennsylvania Turnpike later, we rolled into Columbus shortly past midnight, bitching all the while that if the airline had just cancelled the flight right away or at least been honest with us that a cancellation was likely or even possible, rather than providing absurdly hopeful and totally misleading announcements and impending “boarding times,” we might have gotten home at a more reasonable hour.

I understand weather-related delays in winter, and that with such delays crew schedules can become bollixed and combinations of crew service regulations, maintenance issues, and other considerations can cause a legitimate cancellation.  What really galls me, though, is the lying and the misstatements.  Why can’t airlines just be honest with us?

Advances In In-Flight Breakfast Snack Technology

Meet the “Stroopwaffel.” It was handed to me by a flight attendant as the snack item accompanying my cup of airline coffee with cream on my United flight this morning.

What, exactly, is a Stroopwaffel? The package describes it as a “soft, toasted waffle filled with caramel, cinnamon and real bourbon vanilla.” It even comes with instructions: you’re supposed to put it on the top of your coffee cup so the steam emanating from the cup warms the Stroopwaffel. This presumes that airline coffee is piping hot, which is a questionable assumption indeed. I tried this technique this morning, and thereby warmed the Stroopwaffel to about one degree above room temperature. Because the size of the Stroopwaffel is almost precisely the same as the size of the top of the airline coffee cup, I also strongly recommend that you not try to warm the Stroopwaffel if your flight encounters even mild turbulence, or you will either lose the Stroopwaffel entirely as it slides off the cup into airline oblivion or have a mess on your hands.

It’s kind of sad that the introduction of a new airline breakfast snack is worth noting, but such things are the stuff that fill the lives of seasoned business travelers. The Stroopwaffel is just fine as a snack, but where it really excels is its name. Who can resist the sound of “Stroopwaffel”? It blows “biscotti” out of the water in my book.

Back Of The Plane

I seem to always get seated at the back of the plane.  I’m not quite sure why, but the rear lavatory and I are consistently on intimate terms.  On this flight, I was seated next to the window in the last row and was the last person off the plane.  It’s one reason I like flying Southwest, where I can pick a middle seat up front.

Although sitting at the back of the plane stinks — sometimes literally — it does give you time for people watching, and inner heckling.  “Hey Grampa, have some consideration for those of us trying to make a connection and put your freaking sweater on after you leave the plane!”  “Lady, do us all a favor and use baggage check for that oversized bag next time!”  “And Mountain Man, please remember when you turn around that that overstuffed backpack is knocking into the people behind you!”

Airport Stalking

On yesterday’s flights back from San Antonio, there was an odd and somewhat troubling coincidence — on every flight, and in every gate area where I was waiting for a flight, there was a kid crying one of those shrill, keep your nerves on edge cries.

crying babby in airplaneOne crying toddler, I can understand.  Sometimes, your child is just exhausted and is crying for reasons you can’t even fathom.  I get that.

But a crying kid on every flight?  That seems pretty suspicious to me.  It made me wonder whether the crying kid was stalking me.

Now that I think about it, there were some other pretty suspicious coincidences at the airports, too.  Like the hefty guy manspreading to try to discourage people sitting next to him.  Or the woman loudly talking into her cell phone and carrying on an unending conversation apparently heedless of the fact that she was sitting in the midst of a bunch of weary travelers.  Or the young people sitting cross-legged on the floor, even though there are actual seats available, so you can’t simply walk past but have to carefully navigate through the clutter of hunched-over people, backpacks, and cell phone cords.  Or the old people who decide that it’s perfectly okay to stop dead in the middle of concourse traffic so grandma can find her sunglasses.

I mean, what are the odds that would find these same people on every flight and in every concourse?

Prodigious Purses On Planes

The other day I was waiting at a gate area for my flight when the gate agent made the familiar announcement about how passengers would only be permitted to board with one piece of carry-on luggage and “a small, personal item, such as a purse.”

mary-poppins-bag-600x345And I thought:  a purse is a “small, personal item”?  Since when?

As I looked around at the women waiting to board, I saw nothing “small” about the prodigious purses they were lugging around.  The gate agent, and the airlines, clearly have missed the explosive growth of purses into storage devices of colossal proportions and have never sat next to a fellow passenger who is struggling to jam her sprawling, bulging “small, personal item” — i.e., her purse — into the available space under the seat in the row ahead.

The days of “clutches” and dainty “handbags” that could house a tube of lipstick and compact mirror and be placed on a restaurant table next to the glass of wine are gone.  Now “purses” tend to be capacious, multi-compartment sacks carried over the shoulder and used to store laptops, wallets, cell phones, pens, appointment books, food, bottled water, articles of clothing, make-up items, toys and snacks to keep young children quiet, and other assorted paraphernalia, besides.  They’re like Mary Poppins’ magic bag, capable of carrying just about anything.  And forget about expressing wonder at the notion of “purse dogs” — you could probably fit a Great Dane into some of the stupendous purses of the modern era.

I don’t begrudge modern women their enormous purses; when I go on the road, I always carry an over-the-shoulder bag because it’s handy.  But can we please stop with the reference to “small, personal items”?  The “purses” of the modern world really aren’t purses, they’re luggage.

Paper Passes

I recognize that I am an old-fashioned fuddy-duddy in many ways.  I don’t have the latest gizmos.  I don’t keep up on new apps.  And when I travel, I like to have a paper boarding pass.

I recognize that continued use of paper passes is a Stone Age approach to travel.  The airlines are trying to get everyone to use apps.  Delta even puts a plug for “flying paperless” on its paper boarding passes.  And, obviously, avoiding unnecessary paper use is more environmentally friendly.

Still, I prefer the paper pass.  I like its tangible quality.  I’m admittedly the Uptight Traveler, so a paper pass provides the immediate reassurance I crave when I’m on the road.  I can reach into my suit coat pocket, fish out the paper, and see that I’ve got a seat assignment, check my boarding group, and use the flight number so I can find my connecting gate on the overhead monitor without muss or fuss.  I don’t have to worry about thumbing around on my phone or having the boarding pass app time out and the phone screen go dark just as I’m approaching the gate agent.

Increasingly, travelers are using boarding pass apps.  There are still a few dinosaurs out there with paper passes, though.  We’re not quite extinct yet.