Here's our passenger's guide to the ups and downs of scheduled air travel on larger planes. It will get you from the curb, through security, onto the plane and finally to the baggage claim area.
At some airports, a skycap can check in your bags, check up on your identification and check off security questions about who packed your luggage. In return, you'll get some baggage-claim tags, which you check to make sure they are right.
Oh no! Your checked baggage goes above and beyond -- and we mean in a bad way: too many, too hefty or just too darn awkward.
The way it is: Size counts. So does weight, shape and quantity. Bust an airline's free limits -- and every airline is different -- and you pay extra.
Math time: Luggage gets measured in linear inches -- that's the sum of the height, length and width of a bag -- and pounds. For example, American allows three pieces checked free if you have no carry-on bag, or two pieces checked free with one carry-on or one piece checked free with two carry-ons. American's size limits are 62 linear inches for the first, 55 linear inches for the second and 45 linear inches for the third, with a weight limit of 70 pounds a bag. That's only one airline's limits for domestic flights on big jets. Travel internationally, on another airline or on a small commuter plane, and the limits may change. Fly first or business class, and you might get a bigger baggage allowance.
OK. You brought all of these suitcases because you feel secure traveling with half of your household goods. They could, for example, cost you: on US Airways, $50 each for the first three oversize, overweight or over-number bags; on AirTran, $20 for each piece that exceeds its three-bag limit.
Now, suppose you're into bowling, golfing, skiing or fishing. Some airlines, like American, will let you check your gear, appropriately contained, for any single one of those sports in place of one free piece of checked luggage. Some other airlines, like Southwest, will let you check it for free in addition to your checked luggage allowance. If you want to take your surfboard or your bicycle along, that's an extra $25-$45 each way on most carriers.
Airlines usually have a deadline for checked baggage, and it can vary from one carrier to the next and one airport to the next. If you should miss your baggage check-in deadline, a carrier might check your bag anyway but refuse to accept any responsibility for where it goes, or when.
The airlines' NEW promise: Nothing new here.
As a good flier: You I.D. baggage inside and out with personal name and address labels. If you are the paranoid type, use your work address instead of home.
You remove old baggage-claim tags. They may enhance your well-traveled image, but they could confuse busy baggage handlers.
You always lock your bags, remove shoulder straps and secure garment-bag hooks. You make sure the claim tag you are given matches the tag the airline has affixed to your bag, and make sure that if you are headed to Boise, your bags are too.
You never pack your bags so full that they could burst open...
They have to check you out before they can check you in, so get ready to pull paperwork. You should have plenty of time to do that, plus write a best seller and become a grandparent, while you're waiting in line.
You might be able to skip this step if you a.) have checked your bags with the skycap, b.) are traveling only with carry-ons or c.) are running late and plan to check your bags at the gate (if they're small enough to fit through the scanners at the security checkpoint).
But if you are destined for the counter, show your ticket to the airlines agents. Or, if you have purchased ticketless travel, give your confirmation number. You'll also have to show a photo I.D. proving you are the person whose name appears on the ticket. Ticketless travel also requires you to show the very credit card with which you paid for the flight. If you are traveling outside the United States, there's more paperwork to present. Depending on your destination, you might need a notarized copy of your birth certificate or a passport and/or visas.
If you don't already have a seat assignment -- some airlines will reserve them when you purchase your tickets -- you might get it and your boarding pass here.
Or, the airline may assign seats only at the gate.
Oh no! You lost your ticket or ticketless confirmation number.
Your ticket is wrong.
You're flying ticketless and dont have the right credit card.
The way it is: You had better preserve, protect and defend your tickets as if they bore the winning Lotto numbers, because the airlines sure as heck do. If you lose your ticket, you'll have to fill out a lost-ticket application, for which you may be charged a processing fee: $70 is an average tab. Meanwhile, the clock is ticking on your departure. You'll probably have to buy a new ticket, which, depending on the airline, may cost the advance-purchase price you originally paid -- or, worst of all, the walk-up fare -- usually equivalent to a second mortgage. And if you think there was a long pause in the line at the check-in counter, just wait -- and we really do mean wait -- until you see how many months it takes -- maybe three, maybe six, maybe 12 -- to get your refund, less service fee, on the lost ticket. Airlines like to be sure no one tries to use the lost ticket.
Ticketless travel, whether you make your purchase over the phone or the Internet, is supposed to help avoid this very problem -- and save a bundle for the airlines. But you still need your confirmation number. If you don't have it, there are no guarantees, but some carriers might simply accept your photo I.D.
One thing to remember about ticketless travel is that the airlines really, really like it when you show the ticket agent the same credit card you used to purchase the fare. If you can't show it, the airline may accept other identification, but the possibility exists that you might not be allowed to board the flight.
Occasionally, whoever issues the ticket, meaning the airline or a travel agent, makes a mistake. You show up in time for your flight to Portland, Maine, only to discover that your ticket was made out for Portland, Oregon. Or, you wanted to leave on the 13th, but your ticket says the 18th. Airlines are likely to handle this problem on a case-by-case basis. The outcome depends on who made the mistake. Some airlines will correct the problem, perhaps without charging a reticketing fee, if they are at fault; if the travel agent got it wrong, the agent, not the airline, will have to fix things. But don't be surprised if the airline suspects that you've changed your mind about where or when you want to go.
Your itinerary may involve multiple airlines, connections or countries. Some carriers require that you reconfirm your reservation by phone, perhaps by as much as 72 hours. Failure to do so for one leg of your trip might mean that your entire itinerary gets canceled.
Hidden-city ticketing might get you into trouble, too. Suppose you want to go from here to Atlanta, but the best fare you can find is $389. However, you learn that for $150, you can buy an itinerary that flies to Nashville by way of a stop in Atlanta. In this case, Atlanta is the hidden city, the place you really want to go. You get off the plane in Atlanta and skip Nashville altogether, intending to return home from Atlanta. You may discover, though, that when you try to return, your trip home has been canceled because you didn't fly each and every segment, or flight coupon, of the ticket.
The airlines' NEW promise: To reveal the cancellation policies when passengers fail to use each flight coupon -- what we've described as hidden-city ticketing. But you have to ask.
As a good flier: You crack the code. The airlines use a three-letter code to identify airports. Some of them make sense: SFO for San Francisco, MEX for Mexico City. Some of them don't: YYZ for Toronto-Pearson, ORD for Chicago-O'Hare. Some cities have more than one airport, each with its own code.
You repeat, or be sure the agent repeats, names, dates, airports and flight numbers to be certain they are correct when making reservations. You study your tickets as soon as you get them to double-check all details.
You pick up your tickets at a travel agency or airline ticket office or purchase them over the Internet, rather than trusting their delivery by mail.
You make copies of your ticket -- particularly the ticket number -- as soon as you get it, carry a copy as you travel and give extras to people you can reach in an emergency. Knowing your ticket number makes it easier to file a lost-ticket claim.
You arrive at the airport early enough to stand in lots of lines and still get to your gate on time.
You keep all of your travel documents in a secure place that you can open and close conveniently. You'll be showing them more than once to airline personnel as you make your way to the plane.
There's no end of being checked out. Here, you and your carry-ons are scanned for contraband.
Oh no! Security personnel see something suspicious on their various forms of screening equipment and are required to examine your carry-ons by hand. Or, you yourself may not pass the walk-through screenings, and security personnel are required to use a hand wand, and failing that, a pat-down, to check you for weapons.
The way it is: A lot of things just don't fly. Guns, knives, daggers and their replicas are not allowed in the airplane cabin and are subject to confiscation. If you are found with so much as a water pistol in your tote bag, security personnel will either seize it or perhaps allow you to return to the ticket counter, retrieve your checked baggage and pack the thing away. Other items not allowed inside the cabin include -- but are not restricted to -- open knives, most types of scissors, briefcases with installed alarm devices, ammunition and gunpowder.
If you are caught with a firearm or explosives, security personnel will call the police and detain you until the police arrive. You may be arrested, fined or both. Barry Switzer, the Dallas Cowboys coach who was found with a handgun in his carry-on, can fill you in.
The airlines' NEW promise: Nothing new here. The Federal Aviation Administration has jurisdiction over security. The airlines just carry out FAA requirements, usually by hiring a subcontractor.
As a good flier: You don't crack jokes about guns or bombs. The FAA doesn't think they're funny.
You know that you have to remove metal watches, metal jewelry, cell phones and the like from your pockets and person. You dress with them sparingly and hand them to the security guard in one efficient movement that doesn't hold up the rest of us in line behind you.
At the gate
You'll get your boarding pass and seat assignment here if you haven't received them earlier (even if you have, your boarding pass may have to be stamped by the gate agent). Once you have all that, you wait at the gate until your flight is called for boarding.
Oh no! You have to check one of your carry-on bags. You don't like your seats; or your party is assigned seats in different parts of the plane.
You don't have a seat.
Your flight is delayed or canceled.
The way it is about carry-ons: Size still counts. Quantity, too. Airlines limit the number and size of carry-ons. And -- repeat after me -- every airline is different. However, even when your carry-ons meet the guidelines, they are still at the mercy of factors such as passenger load -- airline lingo for how many people will fly on the plane -- or the size of overhead bins, which vary.
Even if you were expecting to go out on a certain type of plane, the airline may have changed equipment -- airline lingo for the type of airplane that will fly your route. If you are making connecting flights, one plane's configuration may be different from another's.
The airlines' NEW promise: Nothing new for carry-ons, but they do say they'll let you know when there has been any change of aircraft on a single flight with the same flight number.
As a good flier: You keep valuables, eyeglasses, prescription medication, keys and so forth with you.
You also pack in your carry-on whatever clothing you may need during the first 24 hours at your destination.
You know you can't count on space in overhead bins, so you make sure your needs will, if they have to, fit in the rabbit hole -- that's our lingo for what the airlines call "under the seat in front of you."
The way it is if you don't like your seats: What do you mean you don't like them? The way things are, you're lucky to have a seat at all. Airlines overbook seats, and it's legal. What you have to understand, and what you really are not going to like, is that when you buy an airline ticket and confirm that ticket, what you are buying and confirming is a RESERVATION, not a seat. Basically, that means there are no guarantees; you don't actually have a seat until you board the plane and are sitting in it.
Cut to the chase: Passengers who pay full fare or have sky-high frequent flier accounts get preferential treatment. For the rest of the huddled masses, the airlines certainly accommodate requests if they can, but make no promises.
The airlines' NEW promise: To give you info on aircraft configuration, including seat size and the distance between rows. But you have to ask.
As a good flier: You request your seat assignments as soon as the airline will let you -- at booking, at check-in or at the gate -- and keep repeating your request at every opportunity, and get to the airport early enough to keep it.
The way it is if you don't have a seat: The airlines overbook seats. This is legal. No, we can't repeat that enough. They expect some passengers to stand them up. When it turns out that there are more passengers than seats, some people will be denied boarding -- that's airline-ese for you're not going to be on this flight. The practice is also called being bumped.
Most airlines bump passengers this way: The gate agents ask for volunteers and offer something in return, usually future-travel vouchers, as incentive. If they run out of volunteers, the gate agents determine who gets bumped, according to whatever pecking order that carrier observes. Bumpees get booked on the carrier's next-available flight.
Usually, the first people to get bumped against their will are the ones who don't have a confirmed reservation -- indicated by an OK or an HK in the flight-status box on your ticket -- or those who show up late. Late means that you did not check in by the check-in deadline or make it to the gate by the be-at-the-gate deadline, which can vary depending on the airline, the departure airport and the destination. If you are late, your reservation, and seat assignment if you've got one, are subject to cancellation.
If you are bumped involuntarily, you are entitled by law to compensation -- that means MONEY, as opposed to travel vouchers -- when ALL of the following hoops have been jumped through: 1. You have a confirmed reservation; 2. You have met the deadlines for ticketing, check-in and gate arrival; 3. The airline puts you on another flight that is scheduled to get you to your destination an hour or more later than your original scheduled arrival time; and 4. Your original aircraft was not replaced with a smaller plane. Whew!
The airlines are obligated by contract to get you to your destination, one way or another. That means the airline will arrange alternate transportation -- either on one of their own flights, on that of a competitor or sometimes even a bus.
Monetary compensation for involuntary bumping is governed by the Department of Transportation like this: If the alternative is scheduled to get you to your next domestic destination one to two hours after your original scheduled arrival, or one to four hours for international destinations, you are entitled to be paid the value of the one-way fare, up to a maximum of $200. If the alternative is scheduled to get you there later than that, you've got twice the one-way fare, up to a maximum of $400, coming to you. Double whew!
(Of course, now that we've told you all these rules on involuntary bumping, we must report the disclaimer: They are only required on wholly domestic or outbound international flights and only scheduled air service on planes that carry more than 60 passengers, though other flights may comply.)
There are plenty of other reasons you may not be allowed to board. Among them: If the only available seat that will physically accommodate your handicap is an exit-row seat, and you are not physically able to open the doors in an emergency; if you are barefoot and over 5 years old; if you appear to be stinking drunk -- our terminology, not the airlines.
The airlines' NEW promise: To handle bumped passengers with fairness and consistency and to establish and disclose policies, procedures and requirements -- but you have to ask -- when they are unable to board all passengers with confirmed reservations.
To inform passengers of check-in deadlines.
As a good flier: You ask when the check-in and gate deadlines are. You allow enough time to get to your gate from the check-in counter. You know it could be quite a hike, and there's a security checkpoint you have to wade through before you get there.
When the airline trolls for volunteer bumpees, you ask for details before you take them up on the offer. Is the incentive cash, check or ticket voucher? If it's a ticket voucher, what are the restrictions on it: Can it be used at any time on any flight to any destination? Can it be used only by you or can you give it to someone else and let them fly on it? And, how and when do they intend to get you to your current destination?
The way it is if your flight is delayed or canceled: The airlines play a game with the clock. This is legal. A flight can depart from or arrive at the gate up to 15 minutes past schedule and still be considered on time. Even given that much leeway, the top 10 U.S. airlines were on-time only 75 percent of the time at the 29 reportable airports in April, and only slightly better, 75.6 percent on-time, in May.
So, say your flight is really delayed. You can wait it out, but don't automatically expect comforts such as meal or hotel vouchers -- something you might be able to get if the problem was caused by the airline itself, as opposed to the weather.
For both delays and cancellations, most airlines will rebook you on their next-available flight. You can also ask your airline to endorse your ticket over to a competitor's flight, provided your airline has a relationship -- called an interline agreement -- with the other airline to do that. Just be aware that airlines are not required to do this. And some airlines, such as Southwest, do not have interline agreements with any other carriers. If you ask your airline to endorse your ticket to another carrier, be sure your gate agent has called Airline No. 2 to ensure that seats are available. Otherwise, you might hoof it to the other gate only to discover the second airline's flight is oversold.
If the weather's to blame, it may do you no good to change airlines; Airline No. 2, and its huddled masses, will be facing the same problems. By the way, if your flight is delayed or canceled, the law does not require that you be paid monetary compensation. One more thing. Airlines have been known to cancel flights for economic reasons -- bean-counter talk for ... well, you can figure out what that means.
Of course, it's hard to know exactly what you're dealing with if the airline doesn't let you know the status of the flight in the first place.
The airlines NEW promise: To announce in a timely manner, both on the aircraft and at the airport, known delays, cancellations and diversions.
To establish and implement policies for accommodating passengers delayed overnight.
As a good flier: You take the earliest flights of the day, whenever possible, or at least avoid runway rush hours -- identified by the International Air Passengers Association as 8:30-10 a.m. and 4:30-6:30 p.m. You know that if your flight is canceled, you don't have to wait in line to get booked on another flight. You whip to a phone and call the airlines reservations number, explain your situation and ask them to book the substitute flight.
On the plane
You've managed to nab a seat and room to stow carry-ons. You're expecting to sit back, buckle up and be on your way.
Oh no! You've been on the plane for ages, and it still hasn't taken off. You've landed, and you're still waiting for a gate.
The way it is: On some airlines, pilots make periodic announcements about the status of the flight -- why you are still at the gate, still on the runway or flying in circles. If they don't give you an update, it's often because they haven't gotten one.
There's no telling from one moment to the next when the airplane may be next up to make a break for it. In the meantime, everyone in Coach is buckled knees-to-chin into a five-gallon bucket of a seat, anticipating that any second now the plane's status will change. For safety's sake, and so the flight won't be further delayed, passengers are barred from the lavatories, and the flight attendants cannot be up and about offering drinks or snacks.
The airlines' NEW promise: To make timely announcements of a flight's status. To make every reasonable effort to provide food, water, restrooms and medical treatment for on-board passengers grounded for extended periods without access to the terminal -- so long as safety and security rules are still preserved. To create contingency plans with other carriers and with the airports to share facilities in an emergency.
As a good flier: You bring a thick book, a bottle of water, a bag of pretzels and a desire to conduct your own personal research on the merits of melatonin. Yes, that stuff still has to fit in your carry-on.
This flight is scheduled to arrive at the connecting airport in ample time to make your next flight.
Oh no! Your plane is late, and you've missed the connecting flight.
The way it is: Most airlines will tell you, in microscopic print, that they assume no responsibility for making connections. That doesn't necessarily mean you're without transportation. It may just mean you've lost your place in line, so to speak, on the connecting route, will have to wait to be booked on the next-available flight and likely won't reach your destination when you wanted.
But -- and this is a very big but -- if your connecting flight was a charter, or was purchased through a bucket shop, you may lose the flight and your money. Charters don't have next-available flights. Tickets from a bucket shop -- an airline-ticket wholesaler -- may be good only for a specific flight; even if that flight is on a major carrier with scheduled service, you may learn that you are the bucket shop's customer/problem, not the airline's.
Of course, on-time percentages being what they are, there's always the chance that your connecting flight has been delayed, and you can still catch it.
The airlines' NEW promise: Nothing new here.
As a good flier: You observe Murphy's Law of Flying: The more important it is that you be at a certain airport at a certain time, the more likely it is that your flights will delay, cancel or misconnect; therefore the earlier you depart, the better.
You try to outsmart the Catch-22 of connecting flights: Do schedule enough time between connections that you've got a little insurance against delays; don't schedule too much insurance time because if the scheduled time between flights is more than four hours domestic or more than 24 hours international, the airlines consider that a stopover and will charge you extra.
Collect your checked baggage, and you're off to the palm trees.
Oh no! Your luggage is scuffed or torn. Wheels or handles are missing.
Your luggage itself is missing.
The way it is: You may have bought your luggage because it all matches and bears a designer label and makes an image statement about who you are. The airlines view your luggage differently. They believe baggage is meant to protect the contents and that scratches, dirt and damage to protruding straps and wheels are part of normal wear and tear. What that means is the airlines won't be liable for things like that happening to your bags, though more dramatic damage may be deemed worthy of repairs or replacement at depreciated value. They also won't be responsible for whatever may happen to oversized or over-packed bags. Two sets of rules cover baggage claims: one for international, one for domestic. International travel is defined as any trip that includes an international destination on its itinerary. That means that if you fly from Chicago to Los Angeles, where you change planes to fly to Sydney, even the Chicago-L.A. leg of the trip is considered international -- and will affect compensation should you file a claim.
Globe-trotting bags are governed by the Warsaw Convention, which allows $9.07 per pound of checked baggage, not to exceed two pieces, or no more than $635 per checked bag.
For all-American bags, the Department of Transportation has a proposal under review that would raise the current per-passenger baggage compensation of $1,250 to $2,500. Pay is on depreciated value.
You can declare excess valuation on your bags if you pay an extra fee to the airline, usually $1 for every $100 of value. But, every airline has its own limits on excess valuation -- Reno Air's is $2,500, TWA's is $5,000 -- and how it interprets "excess."
Forget about cameras, VCRs, computers,jewelry, cash -- anything of substantial value -- or anything perishable in checked baggage. The airlines will not be responsible for it. Not even if you bought excess valuation. Maybe your homeowners policy will.
Each airline sets its own rules about deadlines for filing a lost-baggage claim. Airlines also have been known to pass the buck, each claiming the other airline was at fault when a bag is lost or damaged on a multicarrier trip.
The airlines' NEW promise: To make every reasonable effort to return checked bags within 24 hours, and contact passengers whose unclaimed, checked luggage contains a name and address or number.
As a good flier: You plan on every airline, plane and route being different. When you fly on multiple carriers, you reduce the chance of bags going astray by checking your bags to each airport, claiming them and re-checking them to the next.
You refuse to leave the airport until you have filled out a lost-baggage form, even if the airline promises on bended knee that your bag is on the very next flight. You get copies of everything, make note of everything.
You ask if the airline will reimburse you for emergency purchases -- and for what items that you must make while you are waiting for your bags to turn up.
You take photographs of your bags, which you keep with your travel documents, so your bags can be identified more easily.