Please enable JavaScript to view the comments powered by Disqus.


Flying Doesn't Have to be Such a Bummer

What you can do to make the best of today's unfriendly skies.

by Don Phillips

Leo Prusak, the federal aviation administration official who supervises air-traffic-control facilities at all three New York-area airports, descended from the LaGuardia tower to the terminal one difficult day and saw a young woman who looked distressed and defeated. He couldn't resist walking over.

She had been living in the airport for two days, he discovered, and still had no immediate hope of getting out. Her first flight had been canceled, and there was no room for her on later flights. She was neither a frequent flier nor a first-class passenger.


You Get What You Pay For

SLIDE SHOW: How Far Can You Stretch Your Travel Dollar

Best 30 Travel Sites

She had no pull in the terrible new world of aviation, where losses are measured in billions. Only high-end frequent fliers are valued in that world, and airlines must squeeze a fanny into almost every seat just to survive. The look on Prusak's face as he related this story later was more powerful than words. A man who directs massive hunks of metal was powerless to help one young woman get out of New York City.

You never want to be that stranded passenger, feeling helpless. But before we tell you how to make the best of the new realities of air travel, you need to know what brought the business to this sorry state.


The $5-Billion Bill
Few things in life are as unpleasant as an intrusive medical examination, a divorce or a trip by air. Of the three, only the airline trip seems to be getting worse. Infrequent fliers traveling on cheap tickets must pay for checked luggage. Meals and even free soft drinks seem to be fading into history.

The reason is that high fuel prices have collided with a global economic downturn. Even as the price of fuel moderates, it still accounts for 36% of airline operating costs worldwide, up from 13% in 2002. That and shrinking demand led the International Air Transport Association in Geneva to predict $5 billion in losses for U.S. airlines in 2008. "The situation remains bleak," says Giovanni Bisignani, IATA's director general.

So airlines are in the midst of their first planned, long-term shrinkage in aviation history. Going into 2009, there will be at least 7% fewer seats flying in U.S. airspace than at the start of 2008, and the shrinkage isn't over. It's the equivalent of a moderate-size airline being removed from the country's skies. Small cities are dis-appearing from the airlines' maps. Since the start of the fuel spike, more than 100 have lost commercial-airline service, including Youngstown, Ohio; Rutland, Vt.; Kingman, Ariz.; St. Augustine, Fla.; Santa Fe, N.M.; and Lancaster, Pa.

Why not just raise fares and make up the $5-billion loss? Airline people say that would be suicidal. Like the proverbial frog that jumps out of a pot of boiling water, passengers would flee if they felt themselves being cooked. Research has shown that a sudden rise in fares would chase away at least 20% of airline travelers -- those who could drive or simply change their vacation plans.


Gary Kelly, chairman of Southwest Airlines, the only large airline continuing to turn a relatively healthy profit, is a master at attracting the budget traveler. Says Kelly: "If we can move fares along at a gradual rate, that would be optimal."

Meanwhile, some European airlines are doing quite well. Lufthansa and Air France-KLM, for example, both announced that despite the economic downturn and high fuel prices, they expect to meet their profit forecasts. Other European airlines, even low-cost Ryanair, are cutting some flights and otherwise controlling costs, but they do not seem worried about their immediate future.

Survival Strategies
The big concern is how you, the passenger, can survive in an unfriendly air market. The main solution is surprisingly simple, yet it's an impossible dream for the vast majority of passengers: Be a high-mileage frequent flier on an expense account who must sometimes buy last-minute, more-expensive tickets.

Such fliers sit atop the airlines' food chain. When things go bad, airlines will take care of them first, although not nearly as well as in past years. For lesser beings, the aviation experience goes downhill, bottoming with occasional fliers who search for the lowest possible fare. Airlines gladly sacrifice them first these days.


A longtime United Airlines flight attendant, who asked not to be identified, says airlines have created a clear hierarchy for passengers. "At United, we treat our Premier customers extremely well," she said. "However, it is a graduated system, so the 100,000-mile flier will get an upgrade or a meal choice before a Premier Executive customer, and a Global Services customer will get those perks before either of them. Sometimes the Premier customers don't understand that and feel that they haven't gotten the special treatment warranted."


You Get What You Pay For

SLIDE SHOW: How Far Can You Stretch Your Travel Dollar

Best 30 Travel Sites

Flying with only a few airlines increases your cachet with those carriers. You rack up the frequent-flier miles and may get to board earlier. Says Rick Castaldo, a U.S. Department of Transportation employee who travels 250,000 miles a year: "I am a 1K on United -- more than 100,000 miles last year. I almost always get a great seat, with no bag penalties and mostly no hassles in ticket lines or security. Flash the 1K card and problems disappear."

Flight attendants are worn out and overworked, and it shows. Smart fliers know that the best way to avoid a hassle is to be the nicest person on board. Don't expect favors in return, but you'll at least end the flight in a better mood. How bad is bad? Sandy Allen, a former supervisor of flight attendants at American Airlines, overheard a friend with 40 years of experience as an attendant say, "I hate the passengers. They are so much trouble. I'm learning how to ignore them and to speak to them only when I absolutely have to." Adds Allen: "I'd say this is a woman who hates her job."

Going through security, boarding the aircraft and stowing your bags are by far the greatest hassles of the airline experience among frequent fliers interviewed for this story. Their survival advice boils down to this: First, prepare for the security screening before you get there -- for instance, have those 3-ounce bottles of liquids in a plastic bag ready to be put into a tray. Pick a line with no families or others who obviously fly infrequently, arrive early, and smile at the Transportation Security Administration inspectors, even if they're rude.


At some airports, you can pay a yearly fee to go through a special security screening by non-TSA personnel who then escort you quickly through special TSA lines. You must provide a lot of personal information to the TSA, including counterfeit-proof identification such as an eye scan. Ted Krohn, an international consultant in Arlington, Va., said he and his wife find the security experience to be much better with this system.

In these days of crowded, every-man-for-himself flying, it is often important to be at the head of the line when boarding. For instance, savvy Southwest fliers know to request their boarding passes online, 24 hours to the second before their flight leaves, to be sure of boarding early in the process and getting choice seats near the front of the cabin.

It also helps to have the proper size bag to fit into an overhead compartment. With new fees for checked bags, overhead bins fill fast. Checking a bag and then waiting for it to appear on the baggage belt can easily add 30 minutes to your trip time. For advice on packing light, go to

Getting the Right Price
Finding cheap tickets is a game among passengers, but there's no evidence that any single strategy works all the time. Southwest passengers know to plan their trips far ahead. For example, weekday round-trip fares between Baltimore and Chicago can run as low as $160 when purchased ahead of time, but they sell out fast. If you book last-minute, however, you'll pay more than $400. This strategy may not always work. Southwest is trying to push its fares up on some routes in early 2009 -- between, for instance, Dallas and Nashville.

On other airlines, buying at the right time boils down to one piece of advice: Don't buy too early or too late. The definition of those terms changes constantly, however, as airline specialists play "yield management" games to fill planes. Some fares may go down for only a day or even a couple of hours.

"The yield-management software has gotten very good, and finding a steal is rare these days," says John Craft, a computer specialist in Atlanta. "Months out, prices are high. They trough about a month from a flight, then pick up again within two weeks of the trip. So two to four weeks ahead is usually the optimal time to book. That said, I haven't used any of the last-minute-travel Web sites. My impression is that, to the extent they might save money, those savings come at the expense of choice and increased time en route."

We've found that, which scans more than 140 sources, is quite good at finding low fares. Aptly named US. specializes in bargains that open up literally a day or two before takeoff.

Find a way to use small airports, even if it requires driving a moderate distance. "We fly Southwest out of Chicago because we like the Midway experience versus the O'Hare experience," says Allen, the former flight-attendant trainer.

"When the plane lands at Midway, it's a hop, skip and jump to the gate. We can land at Midway, and 45 minutes after those wheels touch down, we're pulling into our own garage. At O'Hare, we land, taxi around, taxi around some more, wait for a gate, taxi around, and 45 minutes after the wheels touch ground, we are at the gate." In that same vein, JetBlue takes Los Angeles passengers to either Long Beach or Ontario airports, and San Francisco travelers to Oakland.

And rid yourself of the mind-set that vacations have to begin and end on Saturday. Cynthia Riggins, director of leisure-travel operations at Platinum Vacations, tells her vacation-oriented clients that going and returning midweek is often as much as $150 cheaper per person.