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8 Things an Airline Would Never Tell You

By Alexander Basek
August 27, 2009
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We asked a half-dozen insiders to expose little-known facts the airline industry would rather you didn't think about. They shared some pretty eye-opening stuff.

1. "Airport luggage scales often lie." It's bad enough that the airlines charge a fee for overweight luggage, varying from $39 to $300 per bag industrywide. But it's galling that they may also hit you with the fee by mistake. At JFK last November, New York City's Department of Consumer Affairs found that 14 percent of the airport's scales were not properly calibrated. At Boston's Logan airport, 10 percent of the scales recently inspected gave incorrect readings. The South Florida SunSentinel has discovered numerous busted scales at area airports. And the list goes on. What to do? Stand up for yourself, especially when a scale barely tips the balance into the "overweight" category. Brandon Macsata, executive editor of the D.C.-based lobbying group Association for Airline Passenger Rights advises passengers to weigh their bags at home first, and if the airport scale comes up with a different number, insist that your bags be weighed on a different scale. Yes, it's come to that.

2. "Our air may make you sick." The Federal Aviation Administration is investigating whether potentially harmful fumes have been circulating in airplane cabins. Between 1999 and 2008, air became contaminated on 926 flights, reports the FAA, without specifying any possible health risks. Currently, the agency is looking at a particular type of "fume event" that involves "bleed air," or air that's been compressed by the airplane's engines. If there's a malfunction in plane equipment, the air that's fed into the cabin can be contaminated with chemical residues from engine oil—specifically TCP, or tricresyl phosphate. "Passengers may have symptoms like tremors," says Clement Furlong, a research professor of genome sciences and medicine at the University of Washington. So far, federal reviews of the research have been inconclusive about whether bleed air actually endangers the health of passengers and flight crews, though two civil lawsuits about fume events are under way.

3. "That nonstop flight you booked? We can add a layover to itwithout explanation." Think you scored a sweet fare on that transcontinental flight? Think again. You may be making a previously unscheduled layover. Airlines can cancel your nonstop and rebook passengers onto flights with connections, which are obviously less desirable. Advises Brett Snyder, author of The Cranky Flier and a former pricing analyst at America West: As soon as you find out that your nonstop flight has been canceled, check to see if there's another nonstop option. If there is, call the airline and ask—nicely—to be put on it. But if nonstop service on the route has disappeared, threaten to switch to another carrier for the trip. Major airlines will typically agree to refund your money without any fees if you refuse to accept a new, multistop flight that will arrive at your destination more than two hours later than you were originally scheduled.

4. "We wouldn't tell you right away if there's an emergency." The FAA leaves it up to the airline to decide if it wants to tell passengers about an engine failure or other significant crisis. And many flight crews opt to keep their lips sealed. The reason? Flight crews don't want to scare passengers or say something they'll regret later. "In one recent emergency, the cockpit crew was faulted for making a public announcement before some of the required procedures were accomplished," explains Kent Wien, a pilot for a U.S. carrier. So attendants tend to err on the side of being secretive to avoid trouble. Last June, passengers traveling from Brussels to Newark on Continental Airlines were not informed when the captain died during the flight. The plane continued along its scheduled route with nary a peep from the rest of the crew, beyond a cryptic question: "Is there a doctor on board?"

5. "When we let you pick your seat assignment, we were only joking." As the airlines decrease the number of seats they fly in an attempt to eke out a profit, they're swapping out larger planes for smaller ones more often. Whenever fliers are put on a new plane, seat assignments are scrambled. A traveler may end up in a middle seat he or she would never have selected. If it happens to you, there's not much you can do—airlines aren't obligated to honor any seat assignment. "Passengers are actually purchasing a fare and not a seat," says Macsata of the Association for Airline Passenger Rights. Checking in online 24 hours prior to departure is often the best you can do to boost your chances of getting the seat assignment you want. Print your boarding pass with your seat assignment on it before you get to the airport as proof in case you need to argue with a gate agent over a last-minute switcheroo.

6. "Our planes are antiques." Compared to the rest of the world, we're flying the airplane equivalent of grandma's Cutlass Supreme—except Uncle Sam isn't interested in paying cash for these clunkers. American owns 268 MD-80 class airplanes, with an average age of 18 years old. Meanwhile, thanks to a geriatric fleet of DC-9s, Delta and Northwest's average fleet age is 13 years old. In contrast, Emirates has an average fleet age of about 5 years. Singapore Air's is 6 years. And, while Ryanair is often faulted for lacking basic amenities, its planes average less than 3 years of age. Luckily, U.S. airlines aren't having problems maintaining their aging aircraft from a safety standpoint, notes Bill Voss, president and CEO of the Flight Safety Foundation. "There's no real indication of anyone cutting corners," says Voss. "Planes don't age like wine, but they do remain flight-worthy with proper maintenance." The FAA doesn't have a maximum age limit for planes, though it does require more frequent inspections for planes that have flown for more than 14 years. But aside from safety there's just plain old comfort. If you've ever wished you had a personal seatback flat-screen TV instead of having to share a view of a cathode-ray tube in the aisle—well, now you know the reason.

7. "Our crew is totally exhausted." Airline jobs are famously hard on the Circadian rhythms, and flight crews simply aren't getting enough rest. Pilot fatigue has been a factor in crashes that have led to over 250 fatalities in the past 16 years, including the recent crash of a Colgan Air flight to Buffalo, according to the National Transportation Safety Board. The night before that accident, the copilot commuted from the West Coast to Newark while the pilot slept on a couch in a crew lounge at the airport. Crews on reserve (that is, crews readily available for service on short notice) don't have it much better. "On reserve, we don't have control over what we're doing," says Heather Poole, a flight attendant for a U.S. carrier and a contributor to travel blog Gadling. "One day we're flying a 5 a.m. departure, and the next day we're working a red-eye. Do this for a few trips in a row—add the delays in there—and that's when it gets bad." Working reserve can stretch crews to the limit. "Once during a terrible reserve month, I remember staring at my emergency exit door, thinking, Is it armed? Is it armed? Is it armed? I could see that it was, indeed, armed (the evacuation slide was attached to the door properly). But it wasn't clicking in my brain because I was so tired."

8. "Your ticket might not be with the airline you booked." Two airlines may sell seats on the same flight, a sales strategy called code sharing. You may think you'll be traveling on one airline, but you actually fly on another. The situation seems harmless enough but can cause major headaches for passengers. For example, most major airlines farm out their short, commuter flights to regional airlines. "By and large, you haven't heard of Chautauqua or Republic, but you may be flying them when you click to buy a ticket on Continental," explains Randy Petersen, publisher of InsideFlyer. "With two airlines involved, there's a constant passing of the buck. Worse, many regional carriers operating on code shares are exempt from reporting their on-time statistics. And God forbid if you need to file a claim with them for lost baggage."

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I Bought an Offset and I Feel...

I bought an offset and I feel... VINDICATED I had always assumed that it would be too expensive—and time-consuming—to buy a carbon offset for a trip. But when I bought my first offset through leading U.S. seller TerraPass (terrapass.com), the cost to cover a round-trip flight between Kansas City, Mo., and New York City was a piddling $6. And I was happily surprised to find that it took only about 10 minutes to complete. Before I clicked to buy an offset, TerraPass provided a quick overview of where my money would go, with a reminder that it conducts annual third-party audits of the programs it funds. This information reassured me that my money would actually go toward a wind-power project as promised. I never feel too guilty when I fly, but this time around, I did sleep better on the plane knowing I had offset some of its destructive fumes. Given how affordable offsets are, I'm sure I'll buy others. I also expect that my next purchase will be faster given that I have already done the hard work of setting up an account with TerraPass. —JD Rinne I bought an offset and I feel... RIPPED-OFF I gave $60 to myclimate (myclimate.org). Based on the simple drop-down menus, I learned that my nonstop flight from New York City to Oakland, Calif., was the equivalent of 1.833 tons of carbon dioxide. I was flying JetBlue, which has a young fleet compared with the industry average, and it bothered me that the myclimate calculator didn't seem to factor that in. I'm pretty sure newer models have better fuel efficiency. Shouldn't that reduce the emissions by a little bit? The whole process left me with more questions than answers. But what bothered me most was the lack of transparency. I wanted to know how the money would be spent. What project would my money contribute to? What percentage of it would go to administration? The site didn't provide satisfactory answers to those questions. When the final invoice arrived, it said: "Your contribution to carbon offsetting goes toward myclimate carbon offset projects in developing countries and emerging markets. All projects reduce emissions by replacing climate-impacting fossil fuels with renewable energy or energy-efficient technologies. For example, you support the local production, distribution, and use of solar cookers and efficient cookers in southwest Madagascar." That's just way too vague for me, and I won't be purchasing a carbon offet again anytime soon—through this organization or any others that offer similar services. —Amy Chen I bought an offset and I feel... AMBIVALENT Because of a confusing layout, it took a few moments for me to find the American version of JPMorgan ClimateCare (jpmorganclimatecare.com)—by clicking on a tiny U.S. flag icon—so that I could pay in U.S. dollars. I plugged in my travel info: one passenger flying nonstop between New York (JFK) and Rome (Fiumicino). The carbon calculator tallied 8,531 miles traveled, 1.92 metric tons of carbon dioxide emitted, and an offset cost of $24.74. That was less than I had expected to pay, especially considering that my airfare had cost $667. On the next screen, the company promised to put my money toward greenhouse-gas reductions through an array of projects that meet international standards. It hadn't dawned on me until then that if my $24.74 went to one project exclusively and that project fell through, my offset would fall through with it. I was pleased by the notion that my money was being spread out among a variety of projects, which seemed a safer strategy. I paid by credit card in U.S. dollars, and the confirmation—which immediately landed in my inbox—included two brief examples of the types of projects that might get my money. A second e-mail arrived with a certificate. I appreciated the company's enthusiasm, and the certificate made me smile a little sheepishly because the whole thing required so little effort—which didn't make me feel particularly certificate-worthy or deeply involved in improving the environment. I didn't understand, either, how the company had calculated the emissions of my trip. The print explanation didn't say much beyond "calculations are based on the best available information." —Kate Appleton

How to Be a Perfect Houseguest

Finesse an Invite Sue Fox, author of Etiquette for Dummies, suggests a subtle approach to feel out whether a family member might be up for hosting you. You could start by asking, "Gee, when I'm in town, maybe I can come by? Can you suggest any hotels in the area?" "It's not OK to hint that you should be invited to spend the night," says Lizzie Post, great-great-granddaughter of etiquette authority Emily Post and author of lifestyle guide How Do You Work This Life Thing? "But it can happen through conversation. You might call a friend and say, 'Hey, we're coming through town and we'd really love to see you. Could we get together?' Then, leave it up to them to take the next step. Don't get upset if they're not rolling out the welcome mat." Keep Your Visit Brief "At the very start, deal with the exact start and end date of the visit," says Post. "Personally, I think no one should stay more than three days—you know the saying that both fish and houseguests stink after three days. It's true." If you want to visit the area longer, bite the bullet and split your stay between your friend's place and a hotel. Be Clear and Up Front About Everything Hosts do not deserve to be surprised that you've brought two German shepherds and your latest biker boyfriend, when they expected only you. "Never assume that bringing your pets, children, friend, or family member is acceptable if you're not directly told or invited to bring them," says Fox. "You must also be up front about any dietary issues. It's awful when a guest shows up and says, 'I forgot to tell you I'm a vegan,'" says Norine Dresser, author of Multicultural Manners: Rules of Etiquette for the 21st Century. Maintain Contact in Advance "Check in a few days before the visit to get directions and double-check the dates," advises Post. "And most definitely touch base on the morning of the day you're supposed to arrive. If anything changes your planned arrival time, you absolutely must call your hosts. It's rude to have people waiting around for you." BYO Amenities "Hosts will generally provide you with towels," says Dresser. "But ask before you take just any towel from the closet. In some families, each person has his or her own towel, and you don't want to upset anyone by drying off with the wrong one." As for pretty much everything else you'll need in the bathroom—shampoo, toothpaste, toothbrush, a special soap if you're particular—bring your own. It's OK to ask to use some toothpaste if you've forgotten yours. Acknowledge Everyone in the House Pet the hosts' dog, say hello to their aunt who lives above the garage, and most of all, make an effort to be nice to the hosts' children. "You don't have to get on your knees with the kids or play board games the entire time you're there," says Post. "But you should pay attention to the kids, even if you're not a 'kid person.' Every parent loves it when other people enjoy spending time with their kids." Make It Look Like You're Not There Wipe down the sink after you shave. Make the bed. Tidy up every chance you get—especially if you have children. "Don't leave toys in a pile, or worse, scattered all over the place," says June Hines Moore, author of Manners Made Easy for the Family. If you're in a makeshift bedroom in an office or the living room, fold up the futon. The goal is to make it look like no one is even visiting. Offer a Helping Hand This may be your vacation, but the host is not a combo cook-maid-butler-concierge. Offer to pick up groceries, do the dishes, mix some margaritas, chop vegetables for dinner, or take the dog for a walk, and make your offer an earnest one. "Let me help with that" is better than "You're all set in the kitchen, right?" But don't be pushy. "Some people are weird about their kitchens," says Post. "They don't like other people messing with their spices. So if they turn down your request to help, back off." Respect House Rules and Schedules "Watch what the host family does," says Dresser. "If they take off their shoes, you take off yours." Be especially respectful if your hosts have to work during your visit. "Ask about your host's morning routine," says Post. "Then stay clear of the bathroom when your host needs the shower." Spend Some Time With Your Hosts "It's assumed that guests and hosts will hang out and share some meals together," says Dresser. "The host's house is not a hotel. It's not just a place to crash. It's offensive if you show up, disappear, and only come back to sleep and shower." You should still be able to find plenty of time to sightsee, with or without your host. Get Out of Your Host's Hair Don't expect your host to be a tour guide for the entire visit. When you arrive, plan a rough itinerary for what you want to see and let the host know that he or she is welcome to come along. Include some downtime in the itinerary, along with some time apart. "If your host has work to do, or even if you just feel like everyone needs a break, disappear for a little while," says Post. "Read a book, explore town by yourself, or go for a walk." Give a Good Gift "Do you have to show up at the host's house with gift in hand?" asks Post. "No. Absolutely not. Do you have to buy something? Again, no. A nice gift could be something you make—a pie, a scarf. Taking your hosts out to a nice dinner can also count." Fox suggests bringing a bottle of wine, a flowering plant, or some gourmet chocolates. "Special blends of coffee and tea are acceptable too," she says. The key is knowing what your hosts like and don't like. If you're unsure what to give, listen for cues during your visit. Make a mental note when your host mentions loving a restaurant or shop, and get a gift certificate. Handwrite the Thank You "An e-mail thank you is still a no-no," says Post. "It's OK to jot off a quick thanks on your Blackberry from the airport, but you must follow that up with a handwritten note within a few days afterward." It's also nice to return the hospitality by extending a hearty "If you're ever in our neck of the woods..." invitation to the folks who just graciously hosted you.

Port Report: Cruise Terminals Across the U.S.

Baltimore Port of Baltimore's Cruise Maryland Terminal, 10 minutes from downtown Baltimore, operating year-round (800/638-7519, cruisemaryland.com). Google Map Cruise Lines: American Cruise Lines, Carnival Cruise Lines, Celebrity Cruises, Norwegian Cruise Line, Royal Caribbean International. Regular Departures to: The Caribbean, New England, and Canada. Sample Itinerary: Royal Caribbean's Grandeur of the Seas departs in August, with five-night itineraries to Bermuda. The same ship also does nine-night sailings in September with stops in Bar Harbor, Maine, and Nova Scotia. The ship has a huge six-story atrium, and the dining room is decorated in a lavish art deco style. Parking: There are three lots next to the terminal with 1,500 spots total; it's $15 per night including taxes, and you can prepay. Latest News: The remodeled Cruise Maryland Terminal (which opened in 2006, the Port of Baltimore's tricentennial) has more than doubled its cruise offerings since last year. And in April, Carnival inaugurated year-round service from the port; Royal Caribbean will begin year-round service in 2010. Cape Canaveral, Fla. Port Canaveral, about an hour from Orlando, operating year-round (321/783-7831, portcanaveral.com). Google Map Cruise Lines: Carnival Cruise Lines, Disney Cruise Line, and Royal Caribbean International. Regular Departures to: The Caribbean and the Bahamas. Sample Itinerary: Seven nights on the Disney Magic with stops in Key West, Grand Cayman, and Castaway Cay (Disney's private island), departing August through April 2010. Included in the itinerary is a classic character breakfast, or go for the adult-exclusive dining. Parking: The six-level parking area is next to the cruise terminal and costs $15 a night, including taxes. Latest News: Royal Caribbean launched one of its biggest ships in the Freedom class here in May. Carnival's Dream—the line's newest and largest ship at 130,000 tons and holding 3,652 passengers—will make its permanent home here in December. Norwegian Cruise Line is coming to the port in 2010, and Disney will add two new ships—Disney Dream and Disney Fantasy, in 2011 and 2012. L.A. The Port of Los Angeles World Cruise Center, Pacific Cruise Ship Terminals, 25 miles outside of downtown L.A., in San Pedro, operating year-round (310/514-4049, portoflosangeles.org). Google Map Cruise Lines: Celebrity Cruise Line, Crystal Cruises, Holland America Line, Norwegian Cruise Line, Oceania Cruises, Princess Cruises, Regent Seven Seas, Royal Caribbean International, Silversea, The Yachts of Seabourn. Regular Departures to: Alaska, Australia, Hawaii, Mexico (Cabo San Lucas, Puerto Vallarta, and Ixtapa are some of the stops), the Panama Canal, and elsewhere. Sample Itinerary: Seven-night cruises on Princess's Sapphire Princess (with the nightlife-friendly Club Fusion) go to the Mexican Riviera, with stops in Puerto Vallarta, Mazatlan, and Cabo San Lucas, and leave September through May. Parking: More than 2,500 spaces available; it's $12 per night, including taxes, with a complimentary shuttle to the terminal area. Latest News: Royal Caribbean recently moved its 3,114-passenger Mariner of the Seas to the port. The 964-foot Disney Wonder will move here in 2011. And Nearby Is... If you have your heart set on sailing Carnival, you can catch a ship in the neighboring Long Beach Cruise Terminal, the cruise line's L.A. base. Parking is a little more expensive, at $15 per night including taxes. Mobile, Ala. Mobile Alabama Cruise Terminal, in downtown, operating year-round (251/338-7447, shipmobile.com). Google Map Cruise Lines: Carnival Cruise Lines. Regular Departures to: The western Caribbean. Upcoming Departures: Three- and four-night sailings to Cozumel, Mexico, leave in September and October on the Carnival Holiday with a nine-hole golf course on deck. Parking: The 500-space parking deck is adjacent to the terminal; cost is $15 per night, including taxes. Latest News: Carnival will offer new six-night cruises to Mexico with stops in Jamaica and Grand Cayman in 2010 on the Carnival Fantasy . The 10-deck ship just got a multimillion dollar renovation, including a brand-new water park. New Orleans Port of New Orleans, less than two miles from the French Quarter on the Mississippi River, operating year-round (504/522-2551, portno.com). Google Map Cruise Lines: Carnival Cruise Lines, Norwegian Cruise Line, American Canadian Caribbean Line. Regular Departures to: Mexico and the Caribbean. Sample Itinerary: Seven-nights on Norwegian Cruise Line's Norwegian Spirit, with stops in Costa Maya, Mexico, and Belize City, leaving January through April 2010. The 13-deck ship has a walloping 11 restaurants and 10 bars and lounges. Parking: There are two parking structures with more than 1,000 spots, including a structure by the Riverwalk Marketplace shopping area; parking costs $16 per night, including taxes. Latest News: This November, Carnival inaugurates the newer, larger Carnival Triumph with a weeklong Caribbean itinerary. The Triumph has a 22-foot LED screen on an upper deck. And one to watch... The Port of San Diego, already a huge power in the cruise industry (almost 300 ships docked there in 2008), will open a new $21 million cruise terminal in late 2010. The 52,000-square-foot structure has a glass façade and is designed to use less water and energy, which will likely gain it LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification—the standard bearers in sustainable design.

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