Archive for the food Category

Your Kids On An Airliner, Flying Alone? Do It Right.

Posted in air travel, airliner, airlines, airport, flight, flight attendant, flight crew, flight delays, food, jet, parenthood, passenger, travel, travel tips, unaccompanied minors with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 26, 2011 by Chris Manno

Little big man standing by the gate, already gone.

Mom’s there, the pain of the thousand miles about to shove themselves between her and the boy draws her eyes into a squint that you know damn well is there for a reason. But he’s already gone, his eyes set elsewhere, the leaving now a mere formality etched in stone beyond his reach or doing. The flight migration of the solo kids: coast to coast, north to south, the sad winds of divorce carry kids aloft.

It’s year round but especially heavy around Memorial Day. Holidays? Summer? Solomon: two halves of one is still less than a whole. But it’s all we got–decreed; so chin up, little nomad.

Way too familiar, and I’m too foolish to pretend I don’t notice. Last minute, before boarding myself and stepping into the cockpit, staying out of everyone’s hair until about ten minutes prior to push, I do what I can. Mom’s there, bereft, dying a little inside, not even hiding her pain. What can I do?

I’ll get to that. But more importantly, what can you do if you’re the parent sending off your child?

According to the Department of Transportation, more than seventy thousand minors will fly unaccompanied this year. Big Fact Two, according to Parenting Magazine, is that parental preparation will make all the difference for those children who do fly solo this year.

There, the authorities have spoken. Now, hear me, the guy standing on the bridge on both ends of the voyage.

First, parents: ante up. All major airlines now have programs to care for kids who fly “Unaccompanied,” or “UM:” Unaccompanied Minor.” They are not not free. But they are essential. Your child will be logged in to the system, your credentials and those of whomever is on the other end will be verified. So whoever picks up your child will be positively identified by official documentation: driver’s license, passport or government issued ID. I watch it every week: our flight attendants will walk your child out and verify that they are delivered to the correct person.

Mid flight? You say you’ve booked them on a thru-flight, meaning no aircraft change enroute? GMAB! I can’t tell you how many times my flight sequence from one coast to the other, same flight number, supposedly same aircraft, gets changed. “Take all of your belongings of the plane,” the agent will say on the P.A., “and proceed from this terminal to the new gate in the other terminal.”

Saved $100 bucks on the U.M. fee, did you, because “TravelSuperDuper.com” promised you a stop but no aircraft change? Don’t even think about it. Because no, the flight attendants won’t take care of the switch because they might not even be scheduled on that next flight. Want to see if your little one can navigate a major airport? Pay the fee.

What you get it this: signatures and verification will follow your child every step of the way. Do I know how many kids are flying alone on my jet? No. Do I know how many officially designated Unaccompanied Minors are on my flight? You bet I do–just as with any special or hazardous cargo or armed individuals, I know who and where they are. And I take it one step further, as I do with armed passengers: I don’t care what I’m “supposed” to be doing, I’ll take the time during boarding to meet eye to eye, say, hello, and tell an Unaccompanied, or “UM” as we call them, by name “we’re glad you’re here. It’s going to be a good flight and if you need anything, you let us know.”

Important to me, hope it is to them. Regardless, when we have the UM vouchers, now my crew knows who they are and where they’re sitting. And someone will hand-carry them to where they need to be.

But even more practical, in my experience, is that the UM process allows you to accompany your child through security and to their boarding gate, as well as permitting someone you designate (have their driver’s license number or other government issued ID info when you check in) meet them at their arrival gate.

Second, send them on board calorized. That is, make sure they’ve eaten recently or have with them some snacks they can manage. Yes, there’s “buy on board” food on many flights–but the transaction is cashless: credit card only. Make sure they have water when they board too–get it on the secure side of the airport because you can’t take it through security.

Pack them sensibly: make sure their bag that they take on board is manageable for them. Don’t count on someone else handling their bag, and make it one that can fit under the seat in front of them, as little ones won’t have much luck with the overhead bins. Anything else you need to send with them–check it at the ticket counter.

Do this: Google “airlines” and “unaccompanied minors,” and be sure to read the airline of your choice’s procedures, plus the many decent parenting articles with tips on UM travel–like this big one I’m going to give you: say your good-byes at home. That’s what the kids are leaving, and that’s where they’ll return. The airport is part of the journey–don’t make it part of the good-bye. Be matter of fact from that point and it will be easier for you and your child.

And finally, show up. I mean on the receiving end, and I mean on time. Flashback, Christmas Eve, a west coast destination, late evening. Our little trooper is standing by the ticket agent as the crew deplanes. The agent has her paperwork, waiting for a late parent. On Christmas Eve. Twenty minutes after our arrival. And we were late.

My crew is tired. Our van is at the curb waiting to take us to the hotel–but nobody’s leaving our little UM. We wait. We hate the parent who didn’t leave two hours early and camp out so as to meet our child at the gate. Be there, whatever it takes.

Back to our departure. Mom ready to crater, her son already on my jet. I approached her from behind.

“We’ll take good care of him. It’ll be all right.” I’m lying. It’s the heart fractured into a thousand shards of smoked glass, hers, that will never be all right ever again. He’ll be okay–the kids usually are once they’re under way. They do their leaving before pushback; the parents are left on the death watch in the terminal. And kids on some level perceive that–so like I said, good-byes are best said at home.

“Look,” I offered, “you want me to call you when we get there? To let you know everything’s fine?’

She put her number into my phone, in tears. I walked onto my jet fighting mine. Parents everywhere get to do this, as some court decreed, over and over till the kids are old enough to decide travel and visitation details for themselves. It’ll never be easy–but make it the best it can be: set them up to be cared for enroute.

I texted the woman after we arrived, watching her little guy walk away with his “other family,” and I imagine she breathed a little easier. Not sure, but I know I did.

Vuelo Loco: Tennyson, Dead Fish and Mexico City.

Posted in air travel, airliner, airlines, airport, faith, fart, flight, flight attendant, flight crew, food, jet, lavatory, layover, life, pilot with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 9, 2011 by Chris Manno

Listen, I’m a fan of Mexico. Really, I am.

What’s not to like about Mexico City? Always looked forward to those downtown layovers–it was part of my job–but they’re scary dangerous. Probably not for the reason you think though.

I mean, sure, there’s plenty of drug violence. And yes, I did have to dodge through four lanes of traffic to evade a scroungy-looking cop trying to shake me down once, but he was either too lazy or too smart to chase me through the insane downtown traffic.

And yes, plenty of people with questionable intent in a city of 20 million, where you could simply disappear, kind of like the city itself  is doing, slowly sinking into its own aquifer. And okay, maybe I did roll the dice in a sense, as an instructor-evaluator taking pilots down to Mexico City every month, showing them the safe way to fly in and out of the mountain bowl.

Well, it’s not even really this “thread-the-needle-through-mountains” approach and usually, through thunderstorm alley that was like playing craps weekly. And it’s not really that I minded the always slick (memo to Mexico City Airport: the rest of the world cleans the reverted rubber off of their runways every year or two, so get a clue) runway with the puddle in the middle that you hit doing about 150 and exit two thousand feet later at about 149.

More, actually, was requiring the qualifying pilot have a beverage and a Cuban at an outdoor cafe on the traffic circle outside the Presidente Hotel. The bar–Karishma–is where a whole crew got mugged one night. They noticed that suddenly the place was empty save the two airline crews enjoying tapas and the generously poured (“Tell me when to stop pouring, Senor”) refreshments there. Then suddenly, watches, rings, wallets–buh-BYE, as we like to say.

So to be on the “safe” side, we sat outside on the traffic circle–maybe more witnesses?–and since it was my idea, I made sure my back was to the building, so the new guy got to sit with his back to the insane traffic, puffing a Cuban (relaxing–but mandatory) and enjoying a refreshment, maybe getting a shoeshine from the roving vendors who’d magically appear, ignoring the demolition derby mere feet away.

Hey, might as well get the full flavor: massive city (did I mention 20 MILLION people?), exotic neighborhoods of jumbled steel and glass elbowing in between with castellated stone architecture, snarled in the clogged highways like the arteries of a fat man. You watch the traffic and muse over your beverage, how the hell do they do this five way intersection without a traffic light?

And then on the side streets of The Polanco, maybe a quieter sidewalk cafe where I actually did much of my doctoral exam study: outside, books piled, good coffee, usually a thunderstorm in the afternoon that made me glad I wasn’t trying to fly a jet in or out at that moment. Out of nowhere, it seemed, in the afternoon towering big-shouldered thunderheads would roll through the mountain pass with raggedy sheets of torrential rain and thunder that echoed through canyons of concrete and steel, the reverberations so fitting to Tennyson’s “Ulysses” marching across the page before me toward the inexorable doom awaiting us all.

Harder to relax at dinner, though, when you were concentrating on the guard dog staring at your plate and whatever you were having for dinner. The armed guard restraining the dog had his eye on you and the plate alternately, and you had to wonder if either or both of them might figure that the dinner and your wallet might tip the scale in favor of mutiny. It was a stand-off in Mexico: the guard and dog making sure banditos didn’t mug you while you ate–but then the silently menacing pair themselves having to resist the hunger and temptation to rebid the transaction in more favorable terms.

And it’s not even the “one-eye-open” sleep in the airport high rise hotel with the un-level floors from the tipped buildings patiently waiting to tremble and topple in the next big quake they know is coming soon.

You wake up the next morning with the feeling of relief: ahh, The Big One they’ve been expecting didn’t happen while you slept, crushing you in tons of rubble that will take about ten years–if ever–to remove.

No, I’m talking about this:

That’ll eat you alive. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

I was heading down to Mexico City for the umpteenth time and my favorite cousin was there with her husband who worked for the U.S. Department of State. “Hey, want to meet for dinner?”

Okay, I already know why not–I’ve been in the airline crew biz a looooong time: relatives don’t get it, you’re not on vacation; time does matter, sleep too.

“Sure, why not?” Because I’m an idiot–and here’s why. We’re going out for Mexican, traditional, right? I mean, we’re in Mexico-friggin-City, right? Enchiladas? Queso? Fajitas?

No.

We’re doing Mexican-Asian fusion, which means I’m eating raw fish in Mexico: salmon carpaccio, pictured above. Delicious. Amazing! Immodium, amen. That didn’t take long.

The fever lasted about a week. The shower nozzle effect (any chance of scheduling a colonoscopy? I’m prepped, just for the hell of it) lasted a couple weeks. Thanks cuz.

Forget banditos. Who cares about high altitude aircraft performance, up-sloping mountainous terrain and treacherous rolling thunderstorms. The real danger’s on the plate.

Yes, I love Mexico City. Just don’t go there unarmed, okay?

The Flight of The Fatass.

Posted in air travel, airline cartoon, airliner, airlines, airport, cartoon, flight, flight attendant, flight crew, food, jet, jet flight, passenger with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 2, 2011 by Chris Manno

Couldn’t come at a worse time, when each cent spent on fuel strains the budget of every major airline. The fact is, a direct operating cost airlines cannot avoid is fuel usage, which is directly linked to the aircraft’s gross weight. Suddenly, there’s this:

That’s right: double-fudge brownie sundaes–in flight. Which brings us back to the jet’s take-off and climb gross weight. Seriously gross, in some cases.

Back in my Diesel-10 days, I flew with a giant of a captain who shall remain nameless but his initials are Big John. He must have tipped the scales close to three hundred pounds, and I admit, as a First Officer doing the flight control check, I’d purposely pull the yoke back far enough to jiggle his big gut (he’d say, “Whatcha tryin’ to do, boy, loop it?”) hanging over his lap belt.

The big mystery early in the month we flew together was why did Big John excuse himself from the cockpit at the top of descent point, for at least fifteen minutes? That’s right before we get really busy with descent and approach.

Mystery solved on our first layover: the “galley wench” (that’s the flight attendant who served below decks in the DC-10 lower lobe galley) said he was downstairs with her, hoovering any uneaten food from passenger meals that were left over.

Maybe that comes from the grand tradition of fat sea captains who had to keep themselves well-marbled to survive months bobbing around on a hostile ocean. You never know when you’re going to have to spend two seasons and an eternity of reruns on an uncharted desert isle.

You never know just how long a three hour tour is going to be, right? We were doing a lot of trans-oceanic stuff in the ten, so maybe John was planning to be the only guy surviving in a life raft.

Regardless, Big John was just one of a growing number–literally growing–pilots who over the span of a career, drove up the fuel burn of the airline as his career dragged on.

Why? Go back to the top of the page and face the brownie sundae–my weakness. Okay, I’ll come clean: I’m six feet tall and weight 182 pounds (today anyway), have finished nine of the 26.2 mile marathons, blah, blah, blah.  Point is, I do take part in the aerial hog call pretty regularly. A tour, you say? You’d like a tour? Prepare yourself.

First, there’s the big guns that announce themselves with a “ding” on the flight interphone: “Hey, we’ve got [insert uber-caloric dessert here] in back if you all want some.” Or, it just comes already on your crew meal. Either way, there’s this:

A dense chocolate cake-like pie. Sure, just eat a bite or two, right? You’ll run it off on the layover, right (in Toronto in January? YOU’RE LYING)? You missed lunch too, see, and this is okay therefore, mangia, right?.

Then there’s this:

Coming out of several Florida airline catering kitchens–it’s really decent Key Lime pie. Somebody actually recognized that Key Lime’s are just like any other limes–added for the citrus flavor for the pie, not the color–and it looks and tastes authentic. Probably about 800 calories, too.

I really like this meringue-ish type lemon pie too:

It’s kind of densely creamy with just the right amount of tartness. And another 900 calories, probably. Sometimes the dessert just looks so innocent sitting there on your tray, small and innocuous, looking up, suggesting hey–eat me.

But word gets out when the inflight menu changes: hey–the cheese cake’s back. Burp. And sure, the salad’s always a sensible choice . . .

. . . as long as you don’t chase down it with another fat bomb:

I’m less vulnerable to the cake, which often is dry enough to suck all of the moisture out of your already parched (from the 2% cabin humidity) body.

That and the hermetically sealed bread item could absorb a fuel spill of considerable magnitude. So I find those non-confectionary things easy to avoid. But then there’s the catering out of Mexico:

Always some type of pastry dessert that face it–you’re going to try some of it. And when you do, you’re stuffing all 900 calories into your pie hole.

So, you might well ask, why not just bring your own food? Right? Yeah, like that’s any better, like anyone could be trusted to manage that. Here’s just a couple of bad choices in that regard.

This is The World’s Most Dangerous Pastrami, slapped together lovingly (“Ey–we don’t got all day here, whaddya want?“) in the employee deli in La Garbage Airport, Flushing (is it just me or are these terms all appropriately suggestive?) New York.

Or The Long Haul Meathead Sandwich, good for at least two thousand miles:

But tofu’s healthy, right? Shut up:

Here’s the Blow Your Head Off spicy tofu, an O’Hare exclusive I can’t resist. The heartburn alone will keep you awake for at least a thousand miles, which is kind of the point.

Regardless of whether you bring your own food, the galley ovens are just on the other side of the cockpit door. When the aroma of freshly baked cookies finds it’s way forward, who are you kidding?

You’re eating them. yes, you can defend yourself from any smells . . .

But you’re not gonna avoid cookies, are you? And never mind in flight, what about the junk you bump into hanging out before the flight? Like the old faves stationed around the nation, waiting:

It’s the best breakfast burrito in the nation, waiting for you at a little shop in the Albuquerque airport. Perfect salsa, will light your hair on fire. And in the Portland Airport, “Good Dog Bad Dog,” with sausages you are going to eat no matter what.

Need a closer look? There’s a video look at “Good Dog-Bad Dog” on the bottom of this page. Go there, try one–you’ll be hooked, too. And speaking of dogs, back to basics in the Oklahoma City Airport–Sonic, headquartered in OKC, offers you the essential foot-long chili-cheese-onion dog right across from the gate for your convenience:

This is all leading to a very scary conclusion, fellow fliers: we are destroying the ozone needlessly because of the bulk–literally, the bulk–of those who must be hefted off the ground and into the stratosphere with the fossil fuel burn increase required to haul their fat asses airborne.

Don’t get too smug, either, if you’re not a big butt pilot–we’re only two of 165 butts on my airplane. Yeah, we notice–

The suitcase will fit under the seat–but what about fitting in the seat? Anyway, that’s what’s driving up fuel costs, along with the constant mayhem in the middle east, hurricane rumors near the Gulf, a flu outbreak at a refinery in Jersey–whatever. Those are things Al Gore says we can’t control. Eating in flight is quite another thing.

But actually, it doesn’t look like Big Al’s skipping any meals either. So let’s just forget it–this is The Land of Plenty, to fly across it is going to take plenty of fuel because of all of the plentious butts on board.

Flying is a tough business, in my experience. You deserve a trip to “Good Dog–Bad Dog” in order for fortify yourself for the journey. So click on the video below and enjoy an up close and personal visit to the place.

Me, I’m heading out for yet another long run. I’m personally too cowardly to follow in Big John’s gigantic footsteps–his heart exploded on a layover and he keeled over dead, face down in his angel hair Carabonara.

Bon appetit!

a

Holiday Travel Weirdness: The Jethead Chronicles.

Posted in air travel, airline cartoon, airliner, airlines, airport, airport security, cartoon, flight, flight attendant, flight crew, food, jet, lavatory, layover, passenger, pilot, travel with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on December 16, 2010 by Chris Manno

What is it about holiday season travel that brings out such weirdness? I’m not just talking about the vagrant standing out in front of our favorite Seattle crew hangout with the helpful sign:

He also offered to be my “bodyguard” for $5, but I was with Ben The Dependable Copilot, and Ben’s about 6′ 2″ and weighs in about 220, so I passed. But still.

And even Pike’s Market Place was a little off the game today as well:

So just getting away from the airport doesn’t seem to limit the weirdness this time of year.

Now, at the airport, odd stuff is a given. That’s because odd people still have very little time and so must go by air, I suppose, to share their weirdness with family and friends.

Some folks just don’t get out much, but this being the holiday season, they’re of necessity heading to “somewhere else” and you know what the fastest way is from point “A” to point “B,” right?

Maybe there’s too much of a good thing on either end–eating, drinking, whatever. Problem is, airline crews are kind of stuck in the middle: between wherever “here” and “there” is for the traveling public, our workplace is the waiting room.

I guess folks just make themselves at home, or forget they’re not at home. Either way, our “workplace” is more bizarre than ever during the holidays as a result. The trick is to not only act like you don’t notice (step around the seemingly dead body for whom apparently stretching out on the floor is fine), but to try to act nonchalant when you do–which sometimes is difficult.

The on-board weirdness is predictable, with holiday travelers who are often infrequent flyers. Go ahead, mop the lavatory floor with your socks, Mr. Seldom Travels By Air. I don’t want to even think about it, but I am grateful that at least somebody’s cleaning that outhouse floor, even if the flight attendants are gagging when you do.

Or, go ahead and ask if there’s food on this flight. Has a nice, nostalgic ring to it, especially since there hasn’t been a meal served in coach this century.

I don’t mind for two reasons. One is because no matter how many times airlines, air travel organizations or even travel agents tell you that you need to bring your own food (and water if you want real convenience), you’d rather be surprised.

And second, the cockpit door is locked from the inside, so you can’t see what I’m eating anyway

Whoo-hoo: hot fudge brownies for the crew!

and really, you wouldn’t want to know anyway.  It’s pretty scary up front. Right?

No, honestly, what it is is peaceful. Darling Bride used to come up to the cockpit when we were flying at night and say how it was a cozy cocoon. It is, and I appreciate that–especially compared to what goes on in the back of the plane.

Phoenix glides by 7 miles below.

Gives you time and silence to put things into perspective. When you do, you realize that holiday travel is the best: it’s more than just business or even vacations. It’s families; it’s reunions and gatherings and children. It’s not just air travel, it’s yearlong anticipation of children and adults alike.

Our Chief Pilot–a true leader who voluntarily flies  on every holiday–uses this example to explain: The CEO of Revlon once said, “We don’t sell cosmetics–we sell hope.” Truly, what we do in these holiday travel weeks is just as magic: it’s hope for many, joy for the kids and for the adults who love them.

Come to think of it, weirdness and all, this is a great time of year to be an airline pilot, to fly families and friends to reunions and holiday gatherings.

I’ll be in the air this week–next week too, looking to make somebody’s travel as quick and easy as possible so they to can be with family and friends for the holiday. Really, it’s the least I can do considering they’ll mop up the lav floor without even knowing it.

Air Bear: Beware.

Posted in air travel, airline cartoon, airliner, airlines, airport, cartoon, flight crew, food, life, passenger, pilot, travel with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 30, 2010 by Chris Manno

Early in my career as a bear, I learned a valuable lesson: reality is flexible, but only from the outside. So not for me, of course, but for those who see me. Let me explain.

That’s me at fourteen years old, wearing a bear suit for minimum wage. My brother had been the bear before me there at “Cartoonland Restaurants, Inc,” mercifully now defunct and swallowed up by larger fast food chains. No more live bears.

And that’s the problem with flexible reality: whatever people see, you get to be–like it or not. And I kind of did, at least for the pay, but minimum wage made even that a little iffy.

Because it was four hours at a whack of sensory deprivation: I could only see a small bit straight ahead from the mesh covered nose.

So it was far from fun and games from the inner-bear perspective. On top of the sensory deprivation and boredom was the external expectations. And not not just talking about the kids who figured, based on the cartoons, that Yogi could take a punch to the nuts. Rather, it was the manager who, from inside the restaurant itself, monitored and critiqued my every move.

On the loudspeaker that blared over the “pick-a-nick” ground: “Bear, move around. Bear, get off the bench. Bear, give out balloons at the carry-out window.”

There was no rest for the bear. Except on the hour, when child labor laws required I be give ten minutes which I took as my brother did: in the walk-in freezer.

There I could take off the unwieldy fiberglass bear head and cool down for a minute and most importantly, have a moment of peace amid the silent burger patties, the produce, and the dairy products shelved there. Plus–you can see it there–the white bucket.

That was the “special sauce” for the burgers. It was also therapy for the bears. As my brother explained, sure, they could hound you over the loudspeaker, drivers on the main drag could honk and yell obscenities, kids could whack you anywhere they wanted to.

But in the coolness of the freezer, silent save a whirring fan and condenser, payback: open the sauce bucket, expectorate; close the bucket.

Then on the hour, back outside for more sensory deprivation and relentless hounding from the loudspeaker.

Life was not as happy-go-lucky from inside the Yogi suit as it was from outside.  And yet, that was the reality for those who enjoyed the restaurant, both adults and kids. Until the day I inadvertently backed into the barbecue pit with its fake logs but very real gas flame. Then the same dull, nagging voice from the speaker: “Bear, you’re on fire.”

And I was, or at least the Yogi suit was. That was pretty much the end of my career as a bear.

Fast forward about fifteen years and a new costume for me: airline pilot. Long after I’d traded the bear suit for an Air Force uniform and ultimately a flight suit, I traded all that in for the current four stripes and wings of an airline captain for the past 19 years.

Mostly fun from the inside and out, but it has its days of dark challenges, long hours and hot airplanes that make one wish for a few moments alone in the walk-in freezer.

But that’s not the only connection between fast-food, costumes, reality and the guy in the suit.

I stopped at McDonald’s in the airport recently for a cup of coffee to go. Had a buck out, ready to pay the usual seventy-some cents. But the clerk says, “that’s one-twenty six.”

Huh? Have you gone up? It’s usually under a dollar. “No,” he answers, with a sly grin, “that’s the senior citizen rate.”

Bear, you’re on fire.

How differently things looked from inside the costume. How flexible, and merciless (I really was on fire) the reality from without. The next time I got charged seventy-four cents for coffee, I saved the receipt. Damn.

This time it was me who’d been fooled by the costume. I felt the same as the day I’d put it on the first time, but that was twenty-five years ago. Well, there’s the flexibility of reality: it depends on which side of the costume you’re looking at it from, and what you’re willing to believe.

I’m not the guy in the bear suit any more, not the young guy in the pilot suit either, except for some days, depending on who’s manning the cash register: some simply charge me for coffee. Others say just give the old bastard his senior rate coffee.

But either way, bear suit or flight suit, seventy cents or a dollar twenty, in flames or not–I’m still just me. That’s reality.

And since I discovered all this as usual at a fast food restaurant, how about a quick break in the walk-in freezer? I’ll cool down and while I’m at it, check on the special condiments. Won’t take but a minute, then I’ll be back out in character with that same secret smile, good as new. Why the smile? Never mind reality–use your imagination.

Air Travel: How to Fly with Children

Posted in air travel, airline delays, airliner, airlines, airport, flight, flight attendant, flight crew, food, jet, lavatory, parenthood, passenger, pilot, travel, travel tips with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 29, 2010 by Chris Manno

Travel season’s here and it’s time to round up the kids and head for the airport. There are many things you need to know to make your trip with your kids smoother. Here are some important tips based on my 25 years as an airline pilot:

1. Educate beforehand: kids need to visualize what’s going to happen at security before they experience it firsthand. Like their first trip to the dentist, they need to be prepared for an unfamiliar, sometimes uncomfortable environment with a different set of rules from their normal life.

The fact that they can be separated from you by the TSA is scary enough unless they understand the process. Plus, whatever stuffed animal or toy they may carry for personal reassurance is going to have to be scanned separately. Talk it up ahead of time! Make it a game–“you’re going to walk through the arch between mommy and daddy.” There may be a magic wand involved (see above). Teddy’s going to ride the conveyor belt inside a duffle bag (please do–I’ve seen stuffed animals caught in the rollers and shredded to the horror of a little one).

Let your child know that you might be singled out for screening, which can be scary for a child.

If possible, tag team: one parent goes through and waits for the child or children on the secure side. Never send a child through first to wait–if you’re detained for further screening, you will be separated from your unsupervised child.

Hand carried items: this is a problem. You’ll have enough to carry just to support a child’s travel, so try to minimize loose items by making sure all hand-carried bags have some type of closing device to keep items inside. Open containers or bags will inevitably spill their toys, crayons, books and food when jostling through the security screening machine. Backpacks for elementary school aged kids make sense: they can carry them and still have hands free, and backpacks can be closed with drawstrings and zippers.

Make a total count of bags ahead of time–“we have three bags and a stroller”–and make it a game: “Mommy said 4 items.” Count and gather items on the secure side.  Tag everything and tie a colored ribbon or string on each item–kids will help find the color or label you choose, so make it distinctive. If you leave anything behind at the security checkpoint by mistake, chances are slim that you’ll ever see it again. In the chaos of gathering clothing, shoes, bags and kids, it’s important to inventory all for items before leaving the area for your gate.

2. At the gate: get a tag from the agent for your stroller. But before leaving home, get a protective bag for the stroller or car seat. Both Target and Baby’s-R-Us have them for around $20, and you do need one to keep the stroller or car seat clean.

Protect your stroller or car seat.

Also, the bag will keep loose or losable parts together, or at least in one bag–we find loose pieces of stroller trays and accesories all over the ramp and in the cargo compartment of the plane.  Cargo handling is an ungentle, dirty business–the cargo hold is not clean, nor are those other bags smashed in with yours or actually, the hands that handle the gazillion bags a day. Cover your stroller or car seat and keep the dirt and grime out of your infant or toddler’s food chain. Plus, on your return trip, you can stuff a world of used laundry into the bag as well as the seat or stroller.

Should your infant be gnawing on any of this?

Find yourself a spot at the gate that allows your little one(s) some space to expend a little energy. Consult the airport guide to find any kids’ playgrounds, a great idea that’s making its way into more and more airports. Usually, they are corralled off from the main traffic areas, allowing kids to run and play–something that presents a tripping hazard for kids and adults in the regular gate area.

Kid's Zone in the Detroit Airport

Check on-line to see if your airport has one, or just ask an agent or passenger service person. Just keep track of time, and be sure to listen carefully for gate change announcements while you’re there.

3. Food and water: here’s a more in-depth discussion of food while flying, but here are a few hints tailored to parents and kids. First, the MacDonald’s Kid’s meal in the airport?

Maybe–but only in the airport food court. Dragging this messy meal in flimsy containers on board–especially given everything else you have to carry–is a bad idea. There’s really no elbow room on board, which kid’s require to eat like kids do, plus there’s no way to contain the mess or clean it up afterward.

In the above-linked discussion, I make this important point: it’s not about eating on the plane–it’s about not being hungry. If you can’t feed your child right before the flight, be sure to have non-perishable, non-crushable or non-spillable snacks stashed in your hand-carried bag. Don’t count on any in-flight snacks which may not be kid-friendly (Does your toddler like beef jerky? Potted meat?) and are subject to the on-board service schedule and availability: once they’re sold out, that’s it.

Bring snacks and water for everyone. Again, don’t count on the inflight service which may be delayed or in case of turbulence, canceled altogether. Bring what you and your child will need!

4. Sanitation: the aircraft is known to many flight attendants as “The Flying Petrie Dish.” This is another good reason not to bring a meal on board: the aircraft isn’t really clean. Bring hand-sanitizer, plus wipes for your seat’s armrests, tray table and anywhere a small child is likely to touch.

$2.99 at Costco

Save yourself a cold or worse down the road: wipe down the common areas within your child’s reach.

5. Ears and pressurization: although modern jetliners have automatic cabin pressure controllers with very gradual rates of change during ascent and descent, little ears can be sensitive to the changes anyway. Be sure that your child is not congested due to a cold or such and if so, consider an over the counter children’s decongestant to ensure they can clear their ears. Some parents have had good luck with having their kids drink during descent, which requires swallowing, which helps equalize pressure between the inner and outer ear.

You’ll need to be prepared: bring something to drink in a container. Flight attendants are required to collect all service items in preparation for landing and so will not be offering or serving any beverages.

6. Deplaning: Inventory time! How many bags? Contents–particularly stuffed animals–returned to the bag (check the floor around your seat) and bags closed! Do this on descent–don’t wait till everyone behind you on the plane is trying to deplane! Be ready.

With my youngest on a trip, we once discovered the tragedy of a missing teddy bear after we got home. So now we actually have roll call of all traveling stuffed animals at the hotel and on the plane.

Much easier than having to call the hotel and prepay the shipping for a somewhat threadbare but much needed bear. Trust me. Check seatback pockets thoroughly too for things you or your children might have stashed and forgotten about.

7. Department of “Duh:” Shouldn’t have to say this, but some people don’t seem to even think about this nastiness, so here goes.

Don’t change a diaper at your seat. The aircraft lavs all have pull-down changing tables for that purpose.

And that’s the correct place to handle that matter. Literally, speaking of that “matter” or material, would you want my Uncle Fred to change his diaper on your row?

The only difference in the “matter” is in quantity, not content (well, Uncle Fred likes anchovies, but still). Yes, it’s your cute little one, but it still is what it is and everyone on the plane wants to not share the experience and scent.

Thanks, Uncle Fred.

And seriously: DON’T hand the used diaper to a flight attendant! Or DO NOT plan to have them dispose of it in the meal cart (I know, it’s incredible, but people do). Put the diaper in a barf bag and dispose of it in the lavatory waste bin. Again, no one on the plane–particularly the crew–wants to get involved with anyone else’s bodily waste. Would you?

You want me to take WHAT?

Actually, there are more helpful travel hints for parents traveling with children, but this will do for now. If you only master these items alone, your trip will be smoother and more enjoyable.

Have a great trip–and if you have any other helpful travel tips, send them to me and I’ll add them!

Inflight Survival: Foodishness at 30,000′

Posted in air travel, airline delays, airliner, airlines, airport, flight, flight attendant, flight crew, flight delays, food, jet, lavatory, passenger, travel, travel tips with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 26, 2010 by Chris Manno

First off, let’s get one thing straight: inflight survival’s not about eating in flight–it’s about not being hungry.

If you’ve been off the planet since the mid 1980s, you may not know this, but unless you have been on another planet, you realize that no domestic airline serves food in Coach.

They’ll sell you something that is somewhat “foodish,” but remember what I said: the mission is to not be hungry in flight. If you are, you’ve failed the mission already: you didn’t eat before the flight, and/or you don’t have an efficient stash of caloric emergency input.

My stash emergency stash in my flight bag.

This is all pocket-sized, crush-proof, non-liquid stuff that will go through security without any problems. No, it’s not really “eating;” it’s doing what I remind you is the mission: not being hungry. Forget the idea of “eating” in flight. Well, unless you’re in the cockpit.

But even then, there’s still the same problem passengers have in back: you’re not getting anything to eat until a certain time in the schedule of the flight–not necessarily when you need it. Hence my stash.

And further, at least in the cabin, you’re going to wait also for the remains to be collected of whatever “foodish” thing you’ve paid for.

Here's a $7 United Airlines "buy on board" snack. How's the potted meat dinner working out?

Given that you’re already crammed into about 2.5 cubic feet, do you really want to sit with your trash and wait for the pick-up cart which is waaaaay after the “serving” cart selling the buy on board junk?

So plan to calorize before you board. Yes, this means you’ll have to spend some money in the airport. Reality check: you indicated through your demand for WalMart pricing on an expensive product (your airline seat is not cheap to produce) that you would not pay for the lunch on board that you know have to buy in the terminal–deal with it.

Even that, though, as I said is a hassle to drag on board along with your hand-carried stuff. The containers are flimsy, the food messy, especially when you’re crammed into you middle seat between one who’s coughing and sneezing all over your food, the other drooling over and eying it longingly.

Forget the messy on-board sky picnic in the filthy passenger seat (no, they seldom get more than a quick wipe off, if that, hence the flight attendant nickname for the passenger cabin, “The Flying Petri dish.)

Now, let’s think of the second survival need: water.

Buy it, bring it, drink it. Do we have to go over the serving cart lecture again? How you don’t want to wait while that trundling inchworm creeps up and down the aisle? In survival school, they teach you to drink your water and ration your sweat. That is–stay hydrated. Don’t wait. The aircraft atmosphere is at about 2% humidity which will dry you like a raisin insidiously: when you notice that you’re parched, it’s too late.

Buy the water in the terminal, schlep it on board, drink it pre-emptively. Yes, you may get to spend some quality time in the filthy on-board out house. But you’ll feel better in flight and at your destination.

Let’s recap:

1. Forget about eating on board. If you must, eat the high cal, uncrushable, minimum mess, compact snacks you were either efficient enough to buy ahead of time, or if not, at least you were smart enough to buy at any airport news stand. Don’t bother with the elaborate carryout.

It’ll be a huge mess, which will irritate those passengers crammed in next to you, breathing all over your food. Plus, you’ll have to sit with a pile of garbage till the inchworm cart creeps past your row.

Bring efficient caloric items that will stave off hunger until you get off the plane.

2. Bring water. And drink it pre-emptively. Sure they’ll eventually get to you with the serving cart so you can have your whopping 4 ounces of liquid. But you need more.

Drink it before and during the flight to stay ahead of dyhdration which causes fatigue and headaches, two things you don’t need when you’re traveling, right?

It’s a jungle up there, trust me. But you can make it survivevable if you think ahead, and think rationally: never mind eating in flight. Calorize, hydrate, and survive the trip so that you can enjoy your destination and maybe, find some real food.

Inflight Insanity: My Top 5 List

Posted in air travel, aircraft maintenance, airline cartoon, airline delays, airliner, airlines, flight, flight attendant, flight crew, flight delays, food, jet, lavatory, travel, travel tips with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 29, 2010 by Chris Manno

Twenty-four years and counting as an airline pilot–the past 19 as captain–have taught me to never say or think “now I’ve seen it all.” Because just when you think you have, something like #1 below happens.

I still expect to have many more years of flying ahead. But I can say that over these flying years so far I’ve seen a lot of almost unbelievably bizarre things that I wouldn’t have thought could ever happen in the airline world had I not seen them myself–even though often, I wished I hadn’t. Here, then, is my list of the top five weirdness, at least so far, and the valuable lessons in each.

5. A short, stocky taciturn man connecting onto our flight south after clearing Customs from Shang Hai boarded our plane early. He headed to the last row, sat down, dropped his tray table and pulled a strange device from his carry-on bag. This calculator-sized gizmo had blinking lights, a few loose wires, and an LCD display that flashed an ever-changing series of numbers. He then draped his jacket over his head and most of the tray table, tenting himself in seemingly intense concentration on the strange device’s number display.

Of course, that freaked out the flight attendants supervising boarding. They called me on the flight deck and reported the whole oddball situation. Sigh. Why couldn’t he be on someone else’s flight? I called operations and requested a Passenger Service agent to investigate what certainly was abnormal passenger behavior.

The guy spoke only Chinese and tried to ignore any requests to deplane. Eventually, law enforcement officers were summoned to ask him a few questions. As he was led off the plane by Passenger Service agents, glaring at everyone and muttering in some Mandarin dialect, I made sure to stand behind the waiting police officers just in case he went Ninja-crazy with some obscure martial arts move from deepest China, ripping out your heart with one hand and showing it to you as you collapse.

Found out at our next stop that investigators–and translators–determined that the man’s strange device was a “random number generator”that he liked to stare at because it “calmed him down” since he was afraid of flying. Lesson here: don’t act like a weirdo-zombie with a strange device during boarding. It freaks out the crew.

4. In flight, I kept hearing a male voice outside the cockpit door. We had an all-female cabin crew on that flight, so I knew it wasn’t one of their voices I heard. I had made the standard P.A. reminding passengers that congregating near the galleys was not allowed. I also heard a muffled female voice sounding urgent in between words from the male voice. The seatbelt sign was on, so no passengers should have been up anyway.

Sigh. Can’t everyone just stay seated when the seatbelt sign is on? Of course not. I called back to the forward flight attendant, asking what was going on. “You wouldn’t believe it if I told you,” she answered, then asked me to make another seatbelt P.A.. That worked–the male voice vanished.

Later, the #1 flight attendant came up to explain why the man was standing outside of the cockpit door and mostly in her galley. “He had just come out of the forward lav and was doing calisthenics of some sort. I asked him what he was doing and he said he’d been feeling gassy, went into the lav to pass gas but couldn’t, so he was trying to work out a big fart.”

Lesson #4: share your gas with your fellow passengers near your seat–not up front. We’re busy flying the plane and breathing is key.

3. During boarding in Puerto Vallarta, a woman with a grating New Jersey accent poked her head into the flight deck and demanded “can you guarantee that there are no peanuts on this plane?”  I thought about it and realized I really can’t guarantee that. We don’t have any peanuts in the catering, but who knows if other passengers may have some with them as a snack? Peanuts are not a prohibited item. “No,” I answered slowly, pretty sure I was correct, “I really can’t guarantee that.”

“Well,” she snapped back, “my son has a severe peanut allergy and if there’s so much as one peanut on this plane, he’ll go into convulsions. So you’d better be sure.” Then she huffed off to the back of the plane where her husband and son were seated.

My first officer looked at me with a raised eyebrow and a sly grin that said what are you going to do, captain?

Sigh.

Sigh. I called Operations on one of the VHF radios and requested a phone patch with the 24-Hour Physician On Duty at Headquarters. After hearing the woman’s story, he made the corporate recommendation: deplane the family. That would be my choice as pilot-in-command as well, because I don’t really want to do an emergency descent and landing on some crude runway in a foreign country with questionable medical help anyway.

I called to the back of the plane and asked the flight attendants to pass along the directive to deplane to the peanut-sensitive family. Within the twenty seconds it would take to stride the 130 feet from the back to of the jet to the front, we suddenly had an irate man with a grating New Jersey accent standing between the First Officer and me.

“We’re not getting off,” he announced, “so you just go about your business.”

I put on my game face. “Well sir, the decision has been made at corporate headquarters. It’s out of my hands–you’ll need to gather your belongings and deplane. We can’t risk your son going into convulsions in flight as your wife warned us.”

“Ignore her,” he said with a wave of his hand. “She doesn’t know what she’s talking about. And we’re not deplaning.” He stomped off.

Sigh. I called Puerto Vallarta Operations and explained that we would need law enforcement to escort some passengers from the flight. “Si, senor,” came the cheery reply,” we will send you some help.”

Good enough. I went back to gazing at the palm-studded landscape, the sunny breeze, the ocean in the distance . . . the dumptruck full of soldiers with semi-automatic rifles pulling up in front of of the aircraft.

Huh? “Looks like the cavalry is here,” my First Officer remarked idly.

I called the Flight Attendants in the back of the plane. “Could you send Mr. Congeniality up front one more time?”

Shortly, the Jersey guy reappeared, looking annoyed. “You can’t make us get off. I know my rights.”

“Well, if you look out there,” I pointed to the twenty-some soldiers fidgeting in the hot sun, now line abreast with their weapons unslung in front of the camouflaged dumptruck. “Those folks there are going to help you off the plane if you don’t go on your own.”

He stomped off with mild cursing; shortly the whole family deplaned with Mr. Congeniality muttering threats about “rights” and “lawsuits.” The soldiers looked disappointed as they climbed back into the truck. No guerilla assault today.

Lesson #3: get your story straight before you board. And try to avoid phraseology like, “you can’t make me.”

2. Flying with my favorite flight attendant of all time as #1 flight attendant. We’re inbound to DFW from somewhere up north, and about an hour from landing, The Gorgeous One calls me on the flight deck.

“Just so you know,” she tells me, “we have a guy in First Class saying he needs oxygen, he’s having trouble breathing, and he’s already had three heart attacks.”

Sigh. So close to home, and yet so far away; imagine the paperwork in this. But no one ever dies in flight, I tell myself–they’re just incapacitated. Much less paperwork that way.

The Most Beautiful Flight Attendant of All Time finds a nurse on board who takes the guy’s vital signs while I query the navigation data base for the closest airport with at least a 5,000 foot runway: Tulsa.

The First Officer starts the divert procedures without me having to say anything. The nurse reports that the guy is having chest pains, too. The corporate Doctor-on-Call concurs: land the plane, get the guy some help. I tell Darling Bride we’ll be on the deck in fifteen minutes. Sorry hon–your day just got longer, but I know you want to get him on the ground before he needs the jumper cables.

Like clockwork, we secure the necessary clearances and point the nose towards Tulsa. Medical help on the ground is standing by, ready to whisk Mr. Cardio off the plane and to a medical center. Good deal? Nope.

The passenger doesn’t want to land in Tulsa. Maybe the thought of dying in Oklahoma–living there would be awful enough–is too much for him to contemplate. Whatever–he’s now livid. That’s not helping his heart rate any.

We land safely and taxi right to a gate were an ambulance waits.

Medics strap him to a gurney and wheel him off the plane, protesting all the way, yelling about the pilot’s (that’s me) incompetence. Well, there’s certainly that, plus the thousands of dollars the divert cost, never mind the inconvenience to the hundred or so other passengers with normally operating central circulatory pumps who would likely miss their connections in DFW as a result of the immediate action to save his life. And to save me the paperwork, but regardless: buh-BYE.

Lesson #4: no good deed goes unpunished. Nonetheless, if you’re going to have cardiac problems, we’re going to try to save your life. So have your heart attack quietly if your downline connection is that important.

And the Number One bizarro experience, at least most recently:

1. We’d pre-boarded a thirty-something individual who had mobility issues. A travel aide whose sole purpose was to attend to this passenger’s needs also boarded. Once they were comfortably settled and we were about to start general boarding, a mechanic announced that a necessary system check would cause a delay. So we stopped boarding, figuring the passengers would prefer the more spacious terminal for their delay. But the pre-boarded folks remained in the cabin.

After about twenty minutes, the passenger sent the travel aide into the terminal to fetch some junk food.

I saw the travel aide leave the jet bridge because I was at the gate counter on the phone with dispatch, coordinating a new flight release.

Then I noticed on the computer screen I was viewing that the crew list had changed: the number one flight attendant position was vacant.

Huh? I’d only been off the plane for a matter of minutes.

My First Officer filled me in when I returned to the cockpit: as soon as the travel aide left, the individual decided a trip to the lav was an urgent necessity. Which couldn’t happen without the travel aide.

So the number one flight attendant, being somewhat of a saint with perhaps a touch of insanity, agreed to help, holding a styrofoam coffee cup for the still seated passenger.

THREE TIMES. And apparently, on the last “cupful,” through some anomaly of aim, trajectory or hydraulics, our flight attendant ended up hosed down.

And so we ended up with a replacement flight attendant.  There’s no “sigh” with this one–just “ewwwwww,” plus see also lesson #4: “no good deed goes unpunished.”

And here’s lesson #5: just when you think you’ve seen it all–watch out. I just don’t say those words any more, and now you know why.

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Everyone Looks To The Blue

Posted in air travel, airliner, airlines, airport, flight crew, food, jet, passenger, pilot, travel, Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 22, 2010 by Chris Manno

Everyone’s looking skyward, because wherever it is they’re going, the sky’s the way there.

The sky looks angry today, with bruised looking billows of scud clouds, tumbling east to west on a wintery gale that is limiting the airport to just two instead of six landing runways. Which slows the normal flight operations pace to a crawl.

Of course it’s chaos in the terminal–it’s Spring break. Snow flurries add to the festive Spring atmosphere, celebrating a freak late-season storm galloping out of Canada (can’t they keep their cold air up there where it belongs?) to poke down into the central United States and wreak havoc on a thousand travel plans.

Spring Break spawns the airport freak show like the bar in Star Wars: apparel matches the destination, not the location. Shorts and t-shirts bound to or from the beach jostle elbows with weary Joe Businessman jockeying for boarding priority, knowing the overhead space on the aircraft is tight, and also knowing that since no one wants to pay to check a bag, everyone wants to drag everything on board.

Looking to the sky outside, the biz guy prays for an on-time arrival wherever it is he’s going that he’d probably rather not be, unless it’s home. He studies the sky absently, thinking beyond today’s steel-gray sky spitting unwelcome snow pellets. Hadn’t the calendar vanquished what’s already been a miserable winter of delays and cancellations everywhere business is done? Still, he’s either wherever he’s going in his head (an exciting Power Point, maybe?) or wherever he just came from (missing family? Swearing to travel less, but the boss wants to stay home too, so . . .), or as likely, wherever he wishes he could be instead.

There’s always a group of teens or early twenties, bound in a group headed for a school team or band or church trip, confusing their “first ever” gang trip with “the first ever” trip of this kind: it’s the illusion of youth that whatever they’re doing, this is it, rather than “this is one more of those done by these” who may dress differently than the last generation but are essentially the same nonetheless. And that’s okay, that’s what they’re supposed to do. Teen boys bound and frisk like restless ponies and show off for studiously disinterested girls; loud voices, weary chaperones, harried agents–it’s all part of the mix.

Families try to carve out a space in the boarding area. Children try not to fidget, but it’s too hard and really, better to get the energy out now rather than in flight. Parents with infants are like roadies with rock stars, schlepping all manner of equipment: strollers as complex as the fold-out Apollo Lunar Rover; food-beverages-diapers-outfits-containers-bottles–the band’s here!

The younger couples in the pre-kid and recent-post-honeymoon phase watch it all and try to project themselves in the family role, but why? You can’t really try it on mentally as if it were a radical fashion departure, nor can you imagine the nostalgia with which you’ll look back on the pre-kids travel when your parenthood days come. Just enjoy the trip–and trust me, you’ll love the kids and the adventures when it’s time.

The older folks with more issues than just reservations and vacations melt into the woodwork. Mobility challenges, hearing, seeing the dang small monitors–it’s less of a lark and almost more important for them; more than from point “A” to point “B,” it’s an odyssey fraught with unforeseen obstacles.

I keep an eye out for them: let me get the information that eludes you, the service person who overlooks you, the answers you need and ways and means to get you where you’re going. Thanks for your patience; we’ll get you through this rolling tide of humanity and into the blue as soon as possible.

Me? I’m whomever you need me to be: for the elderly, I’m Charon, the Ferryman, polling your raft. I’ll take you where you need to be, even if you can’t picture the place yet yourself.

Not just the elderly, but the unaware, heading to places from which there’s no return. It’s not just age, but circumstance as well. I never forget that the journey for you may be beyond my imagination–and possibly yours too–when it comes to the changes in life marked by travel. It will mean something to you, so it’s important to me.

I’m the character at Disney, wearing the costume you want to see in order to embrace the comfort of the story that goes with it.

That’s part of the illusion (I really don’t need a hat and tie to fly the plane–and they often are ditched behind the closed flight deck door) and the story line you’ve paid for enroute. Even in my usual jeans, I still have the thousands of hours of experience and flight time that are what really matter, never mind the costume.

Most of all, I’m the watchman, the Catcher in the Rye, making sure you get where you’re going safely despite the miles high perch and the barely sub-sonic speed in our aluminum island in the sky.

Because I get it, really I do: here, time is nobody’s friend, because this is only a waypoint on the road to where memories are made.

When we finally blast off, it’s no longer the waiting–it’s the going, the doing. We’ll climb that giant staircase and perch miles high for a few hours. You can study the blue above and the dirt below in the moving tapestry of here to there.

Take your time, enjoy the sky. You’ll be “there” soon enough, and too soon back if you’re lucky. For now, just look to the blue.

_______________________________________________________________________________________________

*

The Big 5 Conspire To Ruin Your Air Travel

Posted in air travel, aircraft maintenance, airline delays, airline ticket prices, airliner, airlines, airport, airport security, elderly traveller, flight attendant, flight crew, flight delays, food, jet, passenger, passenger bill of rights, travel, travel tips with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 18, 2010 by Chris Manno

Want to know who to blame for your airline hassles? Here are “The Big 5” conspiring to ruin your air travel:

1. Congress. In an ill-conceived attempt to legislate a “one-size-fits-all” solution to largely anomalous and often anecdotal reports of airline tarmac delays, Congress enacted a law effective April 29th mandating multi-million dollar fines for airlines with aircraft delayed longer than a specified time, hoping to lessen passenger delays. But the law will have the opposite effect: instead of freeing passengers from tedious hours-long delays, this bill will create indefinite delays and cancellations of flights, stranding passengers enroute and at origination airports (for an in-depth analysis of the downside of this disastrous bill, click here).

Continental Airlines CEO Jeff Smisek said his airline will be forced to cancel flights rather than risk fines in the millions for an extended tarmac delay. The ultimate impact of this unavoidable cancellation for the traveler?

You will find yourself along with hundreds of other on the stand-by list for the handful of open seats going to your destination. And there can be only a handful of seats–and they’re not going to be cheap as a walk-up fare–because of number 2 below.

2. Alfred E. Kahn.

Known as “The Father of Airline De-Regulation,” economist Alfred E. Kahn was Jimmy Carter’s Chairman of the Civil Aeronautics Board. His blueprint for airline de-regulation was based on a flawed economic model, and was as misguided as economist John Kenneth Galbraith’s assurance to Lyndon Johnson that the Viet Nam war would be short and wouldn’t affect inflation. Kahn proposed complete de-regulation of airline routes and fares, positing that the marketplace forces would drive down ticket prices and provide the American public with cheap and plentiful airline seats.

What he failed to consider in his economic model is the fact that not only is the product–an airline seat–not inexpensive to produce, it is also linked to energy costs which are both volatile and unpredictable. “Cheap airfares” for the public are incredibly expensive to produce, forcing in the progressive “unbundling” of the airline product: now passengers must pay for each component of the flight–a checked bag, food, beverage, amenities like a pillow or a hard-copy ticket–and the revenue still only marginally covers the price of the product, with the airline industry losing billions nonetheless. Consumers insisted on paying less for an airline ticket, so now

You wanted your ticket for $10 less, now you hand that over to McD's instead.

they can cough up for food and drink at airport prices between flights. Everything must yield revenue or there is no airline, and nothing with revenue potential on board can be simply given away.

Further, Kahn didn’t foresee that many airlines would use bankruptcy as an operating shield for years (thank #1 above for not amending bankruptcy laws) to gain an unfair advantage over the few airlines that didn’t. This abuse of bankruptcy law dealt a financial beating to carriers that paid their bills but still had to compete head-to-head with many who simply walked away from their debt.

3. Airline Capacity. Every airline that intends to survive the high production cost and low revenue stream has cut capacity to the bone. This is common sense: empty seats are an unrecoverable loss and waste, and airline planners have analyzed traffic and passengers in order to minimize such waste and loss. For the traveler, this means less empty seats–seats which are vital when a flight is cancelled due to #1 above, or for the more common cancellations due to weather or equipment. Used to be that the percentage of empty seats was higher, allowing the system to absorb passengers from a cancellation or delay. Such margins are a luxury of the past with airlines having to deal with out-of-control fuel prices with an ever-shrinking revenue stream.

True, Kahn’s brainchild did spawn new entrant airlines–but they don’t have a seat surplus either, or they simply go out of business.

4. Airway Infrastructure. There are only so many take-offs that are physically possible at 5pm at LaGuardia. Although Alfred Kahn’s model says the marketplace will regulate itself, if everyone wants to sell a competitive 5pm departure, it is clearly predictable that there will be massive delays, which are the rule at airports like LaGuardia and many in the northeast, as well as from airports inbound to those airports. Kahn’s leverage, unfortunately, is you, the passenger, and the delays and misconnects you will suffer as a result. But in a free market, what business can afford to not compete in the market that customers demand? And when they do, how do they deal with number 1 above? As Continental CEO Jeff Smisek promised, there will be rampant cancellations and stranded travelers as a result.

LaGuardia’s delays are emblematic of the entire national air route system: despite Kahn’s academic model, the airways are saturated at all of the commercially viable times when passenger demand dictates the competitive environment. Which leads to more delays–and in the face of congress’s newly enacted financial penalties, cancellations and misconnects for you, the passenger.

5. The Big Box Store.

The heyday of the discount “big box store” gave rise to a consumer expectation of all products and services for steep discounts. Everything from home electronics to auto parts to furniture is now sold in bulk at drastically reduced prices by wholesalers with only minimal investment in buildings and equipment.

A new aircraft, by contrast, costs upwards of $50-$100 million per aircraft, and hundreds of such aircraft are required to produce a fleet with a competitive route structure. Further, each aircraft has to earn revenue daily despite upturns and downturns in the travel market, as well as drastic fluctuations in fuel costs which follow oil prices. Face it: the cost of an airline round trip is not the same as a set of tires or a Cowboy’s football game–but the public paradoxically expects to pay less anyway (more details–click here).

Still not convinced that cheap airline travel is an absurd expectation? Ask yourself why “cheap surgical hospitals” aren’t also a consumer demand.

Does anyone really think flight at 7 miles up and the speed of a 22 caliber bullet is any less risky than surgery? Does anyone demand the cheapest bare bones surgical “product?” Is airline pricing too high? Read this and decide.

Regardless, there remains an unrealistic expectation among consumers that somehow ticket prices should fit their budget rather than the actual cost of the product. Part of that stems from the low-overhead “big box” pricing that is the norm on other big ticket items, part from Alfred Kahn’s unrealistic promise to consumers of cheap pricing on an expensive product, and part due to congressional unwillingness to address the disparity between the two.

You tell me. These “Big 5” items have changed air travel from a Nieman-Marcus experience to a K-Mart Death March. Further, the airport and airway infrastructure are badly in need of technological upgrade.

The traveling public can make changes in #1 and #5; it’s time to junk #2, and it’s time to force #1 to make the needed upgrades to #4. The airlines themselves will take care of #3 when that happens.

Until the public and congress fix this, at least now you know whom to blame for your airline woes this travel season.

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