Richard Havers and Chris Tiffney, co-authors of 'Airline Confidential: Lifting the Lid on the Airline Industry,' answered your questions about what goes on behind the scenes on airplanes.
Richard Havers and Chris Tiffney: Hi, this is Richard Havers & Chris Tiffney and we're sitting in front of a log fire on a very cold Scottish winter's evening. it's the sort of day that makes you want to fly off somewhere warm.
We're looking forward to answering as many questions as we can.
Rosebank, Scotland: I was asked by US Airways if my wife and I would be willing to delay our departure by 1 day and they said we would receive money, hotel, food vouchers and first class seats on all our flights from Glasgow, Scotland to Spokane, Washington. Even though we were told we were in first class when checking in we found that we were, in fact, in economy. We have sent letters and emails about US Airway reneging on their offer to us, plus the outright lies and rudeness of no less than 6 of their agents. Their response is that we have already agreed to compensation. We have never agreed to anything but what was intially offered. We have asked to see with whom, where and on what date this supposed agreement was made but they refuse to give us those details. We also have a fellow passenger who can corroborate most of the details that we claim. Could you advise to where we should go from here? It would be much appreciated!
Richard Havers and Chris Tiffney: Always a tricky thing complaining. However We'd advise checking out the Airliner Users Committee. It's the best place we know to start the ball rolling.
Venice, Fla.: It's often cheaper to buy two coach seats than a single first class seat. I have often wondered about buying an entire three seat row for me and my husband on long flights, to Hawaii for example. Is this legal? Then we know we would have some extra room and neither one of us would be stuck in a middle seat. Should I just say I'm overweight and need two seats in one name? However when I check in would there be a problem because I only really weigh 120 pounds?
Richard Havers and Chris Tiffney: You can buy the whole plane if you like! The only problem we can see is if you don't get your three seats together
St Petersburg, Fla.: Many times I have seen airline employees flying in first class on a less than full plane. Why do not the airlines offer these same seats to paying customers for a last minute surcharge, such as $25 to $50 for willing passengers? Seems to me they are squandering opportunities for additional revenue. No, I am NOT willing to pay $100 or more dollars for an upgrade, but something ($25+) is better than nothing for the airlines.
Richard Havers and Chris Tiffney: This is the eternal debate within airlines as to how on earth to get First Class fares at the level that keeps demand high and yields much more revenue. The problem becomes that all the people who pay the low surcharge end up bragging about it on board and tick off the people who've paid top dollar. When I was in the airline industry I always thought too many non-revs flew up front, and it denigrated the product.
Takoma Park, Md.: What is the best and quickest way to guarantee that, when a flight is delayed for several hours, a ticket holder will be able to schedule an alternative flight on another airline? I understand that too often only those who know their rights actually get the service they're entitled to.
Richard Havers and Chris Tiffney: We increasingly live in a world where knowing your rights is key to just about everything. Of course there's also the question of whether your ticket is flexible or not. We'd certainly advise checking the small print before you book and then re-read it before you fly. There's no question delays are going to get more not less.
San Diego, Calif.: I've had my luggage lost a couple times when transferring flights. What steps can I take to prevent that in the future (aside from carrying-on only) and if it does happen again, what's the best way to maximize compensation from the airline?
Richard Havers and Chris Tiffney: Check out Globalbagtag.com for a start. It won't stop bags from going missing but it'll sure help to get them back. Other than that, always try and book on non-stop point to point flights whenever you can. The compensation is governed by international rules and regulations so our advice would be don't pack too much Gucci.
Houston, Tex.: How do airlines determine the price of a seat? What can I do to get the lowest priced seat?
Richard Havers and Chris Tiffney: Easy, how desperate are they for revenue! Airlines lower prices for several reasons, and one is to try and see off the competition. There are formulae for determining how much a seat actually costs but this is variable by how many people are booked on the flight. The more people the more the average cost of the seat reduces. Sometimes book early, sometimes book late. It's a lottery.
Milwaukee, Wis.: Hi, What's your opinion of Skybus, the start-up airline that offers limited one-way fares as cheap as 10 bucks? Are they the new Southwest airlines? Or is it just a passing fad? Tim from Milwaukee
Richard Havers and Chris Tiffney: Only time will tell. If they're going where you want to fly in the near future, book 'em.
New York, N.Y.: I recently heard about a British Airways flight that went across the Atlantic on only three engines out of four. Was that a rare occurrence for any airline? How many engines does a plane need to have to fly safely?
Richard Havers and Chris Tiffney: This is very rare, the fact is that four engine aircraft are built to fly on three engines but four is better! The reason they did that was that it was closer to fly on than to turn back.
Cleveland, Ohio: If you fly a route frequently, is it ever appropriate to give gifts to flight attendants you see often--and if so, what might be things to watch out for?
Richard Havers and Chris Tiffney: This is a tricky one, but here's a nice story....
But one man has taken his appreciation of the airline staff's hard work to entirely new levels. Mr. Ogg who has been flying regularly for thirty years has spent the time compiling a database of the flight attendants who he has flown with. He checks whether he has flown with them previously and reviews his prior rating of their service. On several occasions when he has been particularly impressed he has sent their airline a letter of commendation and a certificate to recognise their performance. During the 3.2million miles he has flown to date he has encountered many cases of exemplary service and been pleased to dispatch many certificates.
Not content with that, Mr. Ogg always makes sure he carries 4 dozen muffins with him when he travels. One dozen for the skycaps, a dozen for the check in staff, a dozen for the ground crew and the final twelve for the flight crew. Mr. Ogg generally enjoys very, very good service.
Poughkeepsie, N.Y.: What is the best day and time window to shop for airfare? Or does it matter? Thank you in advance for your time.
Richard Havers and Chris Tiffney: The best day is when the airlines release new offers! However, on a slightly more serious note there is no real rule on this. It varies from route to route and airline to airline.
New York, N.Y.: Is Heathrow going to get better for Americans to travel to and through next spring?
Richard Havers and Chris Tiffney: We hope it's going to get better for us Brits too! The opening of Terminal 5 will bring about huge improvements, although with all things new there's bound to be teething problems. The fact is Heathrow has for years been squeezing a quart into a pint pot and to some extent the problems of runway capacity will continue to be an issue.
Whenever I fly from edinburgh to Heathrow these days I'm convinced that the aircraft is parked at least twenty miles away in Hampshire and the complex system of tunnels and walkways have me heading for the terminal via the longest route.
Portland, Ore.: What's the unreported (or under-covered) part of the carbon emissions fees/taxes for airplanes story, for European airlines and/or American airlines?
Richard Havers and Chris Tiffney: This one is worth a book alone. For my part (Richard) I think airlines are a soft target for Governments and others to have a pop at. Big aircraft flying around the place look like they are doing an immense amount of damage, but for the distances they cover and the numbers they carry it is pretty efficient way of transporting people. The fact is that our society has developed in the way that it is and flying is a fact of life. If we are to change it then we have to consider every aspect of the way we live. I'd sooner see people's discretionary car journies limited. Let's also not forget that vast amounts of our food are flown around the world.
Chris thinks Carbon offsetting will expand--but whether it does any good is a whole different question.
Never forget that someone is making money out of carbon offsetting. Added to which it's playing on our guilt. I've heard that some airlines are getting into the Carbon offsetting game on board. You're sitting in your seat and the guy next door says ,"I'm going to off set my journey." What do you say? "Good for you." Then carry on drinking your gin and tonic with the lemon slice in it that was probably flown from some long way off?
It's a really serious issue but politicians and governments are in danger of opening Pandora's box.
Pheonix, Ariz.: How often do domestic US planes fly on autopilot, as a general rule?
Richard Havers and Chris Tiffney: Seldom off it.
Newark, N.J.: Is the Mile High Club a myth? Has there ever been any documented proof of this happening?
Richard Havers and Chris Tiffney: Get any group of people talking about the airline business, and flying in general, and people will mention one of two things. Either it's the great lost baggage story or it's the legendary mile high club. In all honesty there are few who readily admit to being a member of the club. Even those who are keen to brag of their membership are probably lying, and not just because there are, in reality, so few who have actually done it. The fact is that most commercial aircraft fly at closer to seven miles high. In order to be technically correct if you are a member of the mile high club then the chances are you will have needed to have "done it" either during climb or in the descent, which means that you should have been wearing your seatbelt!
A recent survey found that around 9% of people admitted to having has sex on board a commercial airliner. The respondents were evenly split between men and women, perhaps indicating that the traditional wisdom that men tend to brag and women tend to be modest when asked questions about sex may be fading. Before you start checking around you on your next flight to see if close to one in ten people are "at it" don?t forget that only means that they may have done it on one occasion, not every time they fly!
What is it that makes talk of sexual exploits on board aircraft so fascinating? It's possibly linked to the whole romance that used to be associated with flying. In the days when aircraft actually had proper bunk beds, and when air travel was the preserve of the very rich and the very famous; back then passengers were probably both. These days with air travel being more akin to getting on and off a bus the romance has very definitely gone out of flying.
Another aspect of the whole sex and travel routine is the single guy, and particularly the businessman who somehow thinks that every air stewardess, flight attendant, trolley dolly, call them what you like, is going to be instantly attracted to them. Watching lonely business travellers chatting up flight attendants is still one of the saddest sights to behold. New research shows that air stewardesses are facing increasing levels of harassment. Even the British Medical Journal has got in on the act claiming that passengers have pestered one in five stewardesses. The research was undertaken among 2,000 stewardesses who worked between 1965 and 1995 for Alitalia, the Italian airline. We will refrain from making any comment.
Wayne, N.J.: What is the best strategy to ensure that I can use frequent flyer miles for tickets or upgrades?
Richard Havers and Chris Tiffney: Again it's another read the rules and look out for the offers.
To get an upgrade?
A survey in 2003 revealed that of the 1,000 travellers questioned men aged between 45 and 54 were 50% more likely to succeed. Being well dressed is very helpful (in fact British Airways won't upgrade a passenger to business class unless they are smartly attired). The best way to help your chances is to approach a check in agent of a similar age, and above all to be charming and courteous.
That advice didn't stop the 10% of people in the survey who admitted impersonating a celebrity to try to get into the first class cabin, the 20% who faked pregnancy or the 13% who confessed to trying bribery.
Top Ten ways to help your chances of getting upgraded.
1. Be very polite to the check in agent.
2. Be smartly dressed.
3. Be very famous (but why didn't you buy a first class ticket in the first place, you cheapskate?)
4. Be a bit of a celebrity, but if you have to tell them who you are then you've blown it.
5. Work for an influential company, say as a features writer for Harpers and Queen.
6. Fly with the airline often enough to qualify for a high level frequent flyer membership. Taking very full flights helps, too.
7. Bring cakes for the check in staff.
8. Stress your medical condition which is alleviated by your having lots of legroom.
9. Wring your hands in exasperation that your secretary has booked the wrong class of travel. But be prepared to have your bluff called and to pay for the upgrade.
10. Beg. Demeaning, but can be effective.
Toronto, Canada: Which airline's flight crews tend to have the most fun?
Richard Havers and Chris Tiffney: It depends what you mean :)
I've known some crews who have a great time wherever in the world they are. I was once staying in a hotel in Lagos and waiting for the elevator to take me up stairs. It showed it was coming up from the lower level where the swimming pool was located. As the doors opened there were four British Caledonian stewardesses dressed in nothing but their bikini bottoms. I think they had fun!
As a general rule of thumb smaller airlines tend to have crews that have more fun onboard. However, what for us can be an exciting trip away is just a job for them.
Orlando, Fla.: Is there anything you learned in the course of writing your book that made you change the way you fly?
Richard Havers and Chris Tiffney: As we're fond of saying, If God had meant man to fly then he'd have given us tickets. God hasn't given us any tickets lately!
Perhaps the key to enjoying yourself when you fly is to try to relax as much as possible. Most things that happen you have little or no control over, just go with the flow. However, as a rule of thumb be nice to people and they'll be nice to you. If I were still working in the airline business I'd run extra courses for our staff to try and teach them better manners. The pressures that everyone is living and working under just makes for fractious relationships at every level.
Brooklyn, N.Y.: What was one of the most surprising stories you came across when researching this book?
Richard Havers and Chris Tiffney: Don't get us started....Up,Up & Away...
Mr Larry Walters, a resident of California, had long harboured a desire to fly. He joined the air force, but sadly his poor eyesight prevented him from training as a pilot. After leaving the armed services he decided one day to satisfy his urge to fly like a bird. Lacking the traditional means, such as an aircraft, hang glider or even parachute, he decided to resourcefully use balloon power.
He purchased 45 weather balloons, tethered them to a plastic garden seat and set about filling them, one by one, with helium. He reasoned that eventually he would have sufficient lift to float up to the top of the trees in the garden and admire the view enjoying the wonderful sensation of flying. A cautious man, he tethered the chair to his jeep with a thirty-foot rope and he took with him his air rifle to shoot out some of the balloons when he wanted to go back down. He also thoughtfully took some beer and sandwiches to enjoy on the way. What could possibly go wrong?
Well, at first the adventure was a roaring success. He achieved takeoff and began to climb. Once at his target height, the tree tops, he prepared to descend and looked down. And saw his friends cut the tether rope. He began to climb very fast. Petrified by the height and the danger of death if he got it wrong, he couldn?t bring himself to shoot any balloons. So, transfixed by fear, he climbed further. And further. He levelled out at 16,000 feet and began to drift, cold and petrified for fourteen hours.
Things began to get really out of hand when the air currents took him into to airspace of the approach to Los Angeles? airport. Several pilots reported seeing a man in a garden chair dangling below a cluster of balloons bobbing past them at over twenty thousand feet. Finally Larry summoned up the courage to start shooting balloons and effected a fairly controlled descent, until the dangling balloons caught on a power line, blacking out the Long Beach area for 20 minutes.
Unharmed by the current, Larry managed to climb down the pylon to safety and into the arms of the waiting police. As he was led away Larry commented to a reporter "A man can't just sit around." The authorities were not amused. Federal Aviation Administration Safety Inspector Neal Savoy commented "We know he broke some part of the Federal Aviation Act, and as soon as we know which part it is, a charge will be filed."
Richard Havers and Chris Tiffney: Thank you very much from both of us.
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