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FAQ: Advice About Air Travel after 11 September 2001

by Edward Hasbrouck, author of “The Practical Nomad”

last updated December 2001; maintained as a historical reference

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 substantially.
  • 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 time.
  • 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 bankruptcy, etc. 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 at check-in.

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:
    1. 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.
    2. 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.
    3. 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. Department 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 travellers 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 travellers 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 legal obligation.

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 reorganize and return to profitability. FAQ 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 computer system.
  • 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 transportation?

  • Amtrak (USA) and VIA Rail (Canada) continue to operate similar 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 (800-872-7245) or 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 (Canadian routes).
  • 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 companies.
  • 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 and hostellers.
  • 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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