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FAQ: Advice to Air Travelers
by Edward Hasbrouck, author of "The Practical Nomad"
most recently updated 10 August 2006
Frequently-Asked Questions About Air Travel
What is the status of air travel in the USA?
- Many airlines are cancelling, rerouting,
rescheduling, and combining flights.
More information on what you can
do if the airline changes your flights
or if you want to change your flights:
- Ever since 11 September 2001, airlines have been steadily
reducing capacity by changing
schedules, discontinuing unprofitable routes, cancelling
and combining flights, and switching to smaller planes.
Airlines want to raise prices. Since they can't control
the demand, they are reducing the supply of seats. This
process will continue until airlines go bankrupt and are
liquidated, or average airline ticket prices increase
- You may show up at the airport to find that the flight on
which you made reservations and bought tickets has been
cancelled, rerouted, changed, or combined with a later flight,
or that a different (probably smaller) plane has been
substituted for the type of aircraft you expected.
- If you really must be somewhere at a specific time,
figure out which flight is scheduled to get you there in time,
and make your reservations at least one flight earlier on the same
airline. That way if your flight is cancelled, and you are
put on that airline's next flight, you'll still arrive in
- All airports in the USA and Canada, and airlines serving the
USA and Canada, have operated with new security procedures
since 11 September 2001. These new procedures are similar to
those that have long been the norm in other parts of the world.
What should I expect if I am traveling by air?
What is different from before 11 September 2001?
- Call in advance to reconfirm any domestic or
international flight anywhere in the world. Call several
days in advance, and again the day of the flight before you
leave for the airport. Verify that you have a confirmed
reservation, and the flight number, date, and time -- all of
which may have changed. Flight numbers, times, and
routings are subject to change at any time without warning.
- Don't count on specific pre-assigned seats.
Pre-assigned seats are never guaranteed, and are routinely
changed when the type of aircraft used for a flight is
changed, or when flights are combined. Don't expect to get
your seat assignment until you check in on the day of the
flight. If you care a lot about where on the plane you sit,
check in early.
- Don't plan to have anyone accompany you to the gate,
wait with you, or meet you at the gate on arrival. Only
ticketed passengers will be allowed in departure or arrival
gate areas or beyond security checkpoints.
- If you have an e-ticket, bring a printout of your
e-ticket receipt or confirmation with you. If you can't
produce printed evidence that you have a ticket, you will
not be allowed through the security checkpoint. A
confirmation number will not be sufficient: you'll need a
printed receipt or official confirmation notice. If you
think that having to present an official printed
confirmation or receipt in order to get through security
takes away whatever advantage there might have been to
e-tickets over paper tickets, you're right. I strongly
recommend against e-tickets at all times, but especially if
flights might be changed or you might need to use your
ticket on another airline as a result of a strike, airline
More on why you should insist on paper tickets whenever possible
- Be prepared to pay additional security surcharges when
you check in. Airlines, airports, and governments worldwide
continue to increase ticket taxes, security fees, and surcharges.
Some of these are included in ticket prices, but others are payable
How early do I need to get to the airport? Why so early?
Will it really take that long?
- Get to the airport early. Standard check-in time is
at least 3 hours prior to scheduled departure for most
international flights, at least 2 hours before any flight. In
the current uncertain situation, I recommend that you plan
to check in at least 4 hours before any domestic flight,
5 hours before an international flight.
- Often there are no delays. At other times today lines just
to check luggage have been 4 hours long. It's
partly luck. If you don't allow lots of extra time, you
risk missing your flight.
- You have to go through at least 2 steps, sometimes
3, any or all of which can delay you unexpectedly:
- You have to check your bags. Many people
who used to carry all their bags on, and go straight
to the gate, now have to check their bags. So
baggage check-in lines are much longer than before.
- When you check in, all the information in
your airline reservation is sent to the government.
If you fit the profile, or if you are picked at
random, you will be sent to a more thorough
"secondary security screening". Many people
selected for secondary screening are delayed enough
to miss their flights. This
"Computer Assisted Passenger Sscreening" (CAPS)
system has been in use
on all flights in the USA since 1998, but the
profile has been changed so that your chances of
being selected are higher, the lines for secondary
screening are longer, and the secondary screening
itself -- which may include pat-down searches and opening
and hand examination of the contents of both checked
and carry-on luggage -- is more careful and time consuming.
- You have to go through the metal detectors
and have your carry-on baggage examined. This is
taking much longer than it used to, making the lines
at these checkpoints much longer.
- All security screening is now controlled by the federal
Transportation Security Administration, not the airlines.
If you are delayed by security screening, and miss
your flight, the airline is not responsible and is not
required to transport you on a later flight. They may
have no seats available; even if they have seats available,
you may have to buy a new ticket at the full walk-up fare.
How much luggage can I bring?
Will I have to check my bags, or can I carry them on?
What can/can't I put in my carry-on luggage?
- You will be allowed no more than one carry-on bag,
in addition to a small purse or briefcase, on any flight
to, from, or within the USA. You will not be allowed, for
example, to carry on both a rollaboard suitcase and a
garment bag -- you will need to check at least one of them.
- If you have anything that might be used
as a weapon, or might conceal a weapon, you you will have
to put it in your checked luggage or throw it away, rather
than carry it on.
This includes all knives, all scissors, all metal nail
files, corkscrews, large or sharp metal objects, aerosol
cans of any size, etc. If you have such an item, your only
choices will be to put it in your checked luggage or to
discard it, without compensation.
- Don't count on avoiding the baggage check-in lines by
carrying all your luggage onto the plane with you. Plan to
check at least some of your luggage. Most people have
something in their toiletry kit or elsewhere in their
luggage that might be considered dangerous, and might have
to be checked.
- Nail clippers, safety razors, tweezers, canes, and
umbrellas are supposed to be allowed in carry-on baggage,
although you can't count on it. If you bring them, be
prepared to have to discard them. Metal knitting needles
and crochet hooks are generally not being
allowed on planes. Limit yourself to plastic or nylon
knitting needles and/or crochet hooks, and be prepared to discard them.
- If you have hypodermic needles, syringes, metal surgical
implants or prostheses, pacemakers, etc., bring an original
signed prescription and/or letter from your doctor, on the
doctor's letterhead, describing these items and attesting
that they are medically necessary.
Will all my bags be opened or searched?
- Under orders from the U.S. Departmjent of Transportation effective
18 January 2002, all checked baggage must now either be put through
explosives detectors or be matched to passengers. Since neither the
federal Transportation Safety Administration nor the airlines and airports
have enough explosives detectors, almost all airlines in the USA are
using "positive passenger bag matching". If a passenger checks a bag,
but doesn't actually board the plane, either they have to be located
and put on the plane, or their baggage has to be located and removed
from the plane, before it is allowed to depart.
- Bag matching has been used for years on all international flights,
including those by USA airlines. Removing bags typically takes
10 to 15 minutes, but that can result in as much as an hour's delay
if it causes the flight to miss its scheduled takeoff "slot"
from a busy airport.
- All flights are now at risk of being delayed while missing
passengers are located or their bags are offloaded. If your flight is
delayed, you could miss a connecting flight. I strongly recommend that air
travelers should allow at least an hour, preferably 90 minutes, for any
connection. Regardless of whether the airline says a shorter connection
is "legal", the airline is notresponsible if you don't
make a connection. It's up to you to insist on reserving flights
with an adequate allowance of time to make a connection, even if
the first flight is delayed.
What happens if my flight is cancelled or delayed?
Is the airline responsible for taking care of me?
- If your flight is cancelled, contact the airline on
which you were scheduled to fly to be rebooked on another
flight. Many airlines require that new reservations for
travelers whose flights are cancelled must be made by the
airline, not by travel agencies.
- Airlines are not responsible for
providing alternate transportation or accommodations when
flight cancellations or delays are caused by circumstances
beyond their control, including government orders or acts of
war or terrorism. Airlines may, as a customer service
gesture, help you locate accommodations or alternate
transportation, but they have no legal
obligation to provide any assistance or pay for alternate
transportation or other costs occasioned by delays or
cancellations. Airlines must either refund the amount you
actually paid for your tickets, or allow you to use them on
alternate flights. This is their only
Who will pay for my expenses if my flight is
cancelled or rescheduled?
Will I get a refund? Is this covered by my insurance?
- If your ticketed flight doesn't operate and the airline
is unwilling or unable to accommodate you on acceptable
alternate flights, you are entitled to refund of the amount
you paid for your tickets. Note that the face value of your
tickets is typically the official "published fare". If you
bought a discounted ticket, the amount you paid, and thus
your refund, may be substantially less than the official
fare printed on your tickets. Note also that airlines can
take up to a year to process refunds, especially for
consolidator tickets. If you decide to submit your tickets
for refund, save your original physical tickets or e-ticket
receipts and contact the airline or travel agency from which
you bought your tickets for refund instructions.
- Travel insurance policies vary in whether they cover
expenses from flight schedule changes, cancellations, or
delays caused by government orders or acts of war or terrorism.
Contact the claims department of your travel insurance company for
advice on coverage and claims procedures.
Will some airlines go out of business? What happens
if they do? How can I protect myself?
- United Airlines and Hawaiian Airlines are currently insolvent
(i.e. they have more total liabilities than assets, and
negative net worth). They are operating under the protection
from creditors, and the supervision, of U.S. Bankruptcy Courts,
while they attempt to reorganizae and return to profitability.
and advice to travellers on airline bankruptcies
- Despite the grants, loans, and subsidies of billions
of dollars by the government of the USA to USA-based airlines,
many other USA airlines are also short of cash, and losing money.
(As a result, in part, of their own business decisions
not to maintain larger cash reserves and not to spend
more money in the past on disaster insurance.)
- Airlines based in other countries, many of which depend
heavily on revenues from their flights to and from the USA,
received none of the bailout money from the government of
the USA. Airlines in Canada and Australia, as well as
in the USA, have gone out of business since
11 September 2001.
- No one knows if more airlines will stop flying, or if so,
which ones. Large and long-established airlines may be as
vulnerable as small start-ups, or perhaps more so.
- If an airline goes out of business,
other airlines might choose to accept their tickets, or
offer special discounted prices to holders of tickets on the
bankrupt airline. Under the Aviation and Transportation Security Act of 2001
and the Century of Aviation Reauthorization Act of 2003 (both
scheduled to expire 18 November 2004, unless extended by Congress),
other airlines in the USA are required to accommodate passengers
who hold tickets on bankrupt airlines that flew the exact same route,
if they have space available, for a fee of no more than US$25
per person per flight, one-way. But there's no
guarantee there will be space available, and no way to prove
you had an e-ticket to an airline that uses a different
- Your strongest protection against airline bankruptcy is
to pay by credit card, and not to pay the portion of your
credit card bill for the tickets until after you have
completed your flights.
- If you pay by credit card, you haven't paid your credit
card bill yet, and the airline goes out of business, you can
contest the charge and get your money back. Even if the
airline is bankrupt, and can't pay you back, the bank that
issued your credit card has to pay you back.
- For a comprehensive explanation of credit card
"chargeback" rights and procedures, see the consumer
protection section of my latest book, "The Practical Nomad
Guide to the Online Travel Marketplace".
- Some travel insurance polices will reimburse you if an
airline goes out of business. Many policies won't. Read
the fine print before you buy insurance, and don't assume
anything is covered unless you have it in writing.
Since 11 september 2001, many travel insurance companies
have discontinued coverage for airline bankruptcy, or
have limited it to only certain airlines.
What is the status of surface
- Amtrak (USA) and VIA Rail (Canada) continue to
operate simliar schedules to those before 11 September 2001.
Amtrak and VIA Rail are probably the best alternatives
to flying within and between the USA and Canada. Most Amtrak
and VIA Rail trains require advance
reservations, and they have limited capacity. If you plan to
travel by train, make reservations with Amtrak or VIA Rail
as far in advance as possible. You can reach
Amtrak by phone in the USA and Canada at 800-USA-RAIL
You can reach VIA Rail from Canada at 800-361-1235, from the
USA at 800-561-3949, or at
- Greyhound bus service throughout the USA was
temporarily suspended 11-13 September 2001, and again 3 October
2001, but is currently operating normally throughout the USA.
However, "delays are assured" due to random and profile-based
passenger and luggage searches, and schedules cannot be
relied on. Greyhound buses do not accept reservations.
You can get
Greyhound schedule and fare information at 800-231-2222 in
the USA and Canada, or at
(USA routes) or
- There are a few inter-city buses other than
Greyhound in the USA, but no central source of information
for them. Greyhound is the only mainstream inter-city bus
company with a national route system. The limited other bus
choices include local, regional, and "alternative" bus
- Green Tortoise buses continue to operate some
trans-continental trips, but with limited schedules and
capacity and very different services than Greyhound. Don't
expect Green Tortoise or another "alternative" bus company
to be like Greyhound. See
or call 800-TORTOISE
(800-867-8647) for Green Tortoise information.
Check with local hostels for information on
other alternative inter-city bus services for backpackers
- Don't rent a car for a one-way journey without first
checking with the car rental company to find out the "drop-
off" fee for a one-way rental. Typical drop-off fees to rent
a car in one city and drop it off in another are hundreds of
dollars, but some car rental companies have been waiving
normal drop-off charges.
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