Category Archives: Air travel

AIRLINES: No more carrying on?

Frontier Airlines

Frontier joins the ranks of airlines charging passengers for carry-on bags.

If you regularly fly Frontier Airlines, you might want to downsize your backpack.

That’s because Frontier is now charging passengers for each piece of carry-on luggage stored in an overhead bin — $25 per bag if you pay in advance while booking online, $35 on check-in at the airport.

If you wait until you get to the gate, it’s $50.

If you can fit it under the seat in front of you, no charge — but be warned. “Under the seat” means all the way under. If any part of it is sticking out, it won’t count.

Frontier already charges $15 to $25 for your first checked bag.

It’s not exactly precedent-setting to charge for carry-ons. Spirit Airlines broke that ground five years ago. Still, it’s noteworthy.

Charging people for carry-ons, the airline’s executives say, mean fewer passengers cramming all manner of cases into the overhead storage, meaning less chaos and competition over the overhead bins.

Anyone who has traveled by air in the United States since the airlines began charging fees to check passenger luggage knows there’s at least a grain of truth in that assertion.

We’ve all known the frustration of arriving on time at the airport and boarding with our assigned group, only to find no room in the bin by the time we board.

It’s also a safety hazard. I’ve been clocked in the head more than once by some pint-sized passenger trying to heft a bale-sized suitcase up into a bin.

So I’d really like to believe Denver-based Frontier when it says it’s doing this for your benefit and mine.

I’d like to…but I don’t.

This has little to do with your convenience, even less to do with your safety…and everything to do with profit margin.

To put it another way: Who among us consumers does it benefit for Frontier to charge $1.99 for a drink of water?

That’s right. Frontier charges you one copper coin short of two bucks for an in-flight sip of H2O.

If they ever figure out a way to charge for air per passenger, look out.

(I hope I’m not giving some airline executive ideas).

It’s all part of a financial shell game the airlines are playing, one that’s been going on now for nearly a decade.

On the one hand, they make a great, noisy show of lowering their base airfares. Frontier just cut their cheapest Economy fare by 12 percent. On the other, they bombard you with a laundry list of add-on fees.

What am I talking about? Here’s an example of what you’ll encounter at Frontier:

  • Reserve a specific seat? $3-$8.
  • Want to sit toward the front of plane? $5-$15.
  • Want an extra 5-7 inches of legroom? $15-$50.

You pay that extra legroom fee not per flight, but per flight segment. Meaning that if you have a connecting flight on Frontier, you pay twice. Each way.

Isn’t that cute?

All this comes against a backdrop of fewer flights and fewer seats available across the US on airlines in general, especially in smaller markets.

The counterpoint from the airlines is that add-on fees give you, the consumer, more flexibility by allowing you to pay only for those services you want. As the saying goes, there’s no free lunch.

Or in the case of Frontier Airlines, free water.

Lest you think I’m picking on Frontier, the US airline industry is nickel-and-diming passengers to the tune of nearly $6 billion a year in add-on fees.

Spirit Airlines alone has 24 different baggage fees.

The airlines argued that they needed to do this to keep their profits aloft during the recession. All those who believe the add-on fees will disappear once the US economy makes a complete recovery, raise your wallets…uh, I mean your hands.

I fully expect the big players like American, United, Delta and Southwest to follow this trend…but not immediately. I suspect they’ll wait to see how Frontier’s customers react to this change.

If there’s no major backlash — or loss of business — to Frontier as a result of this carry-on charge, look for one or two of the major carriers to belly up to the fee trough.

If this trend continues, it’s going to:

  1. Prompt travelers to travel a lot lighter, which would actually be a good thing.
  2. Make even more consumers despise air travel even more than they do now, or
  3. Lead more air passengers to use luggage shipping services to transport all their bags. They’ll pay more than the airlines’ baggage fees, but get far better service.

The first two are going to happen for sure. With Amtrak setting new ridership records every year for more than a decade and inter-city bus travel growing in popularity, the second may be happening already. The third will depend on whether enough travelers switch to the luggage shippers to justify lower rates.


Airline booking site says, “Take the train!” will now let you make reservations on Amtrak, a clear sign that the travel industry is recognizing consumers’ frustrations with air travel.

It’s one thing for Amtrak to let you reserve seats on its own Web site. But when an aggregator that deals with multiple airlines now says, “You can book trains now, too!,” that’s thought-provoking.

And the thought it’s intended to provoke is that the train is a more comfortable, less expensive and definitely less aggravating alternative to flying.

According to USA Today, is including Amtrak among its listings.

There may be another booking site out there that will let you book flights and rail travel in the United States at the same time, but I haven’t found it yet.

(NOTE: is NOT to be confused with, a completely different outfit — although I suspect the two ARE confused several thousand times a day.)

For now, will only let you book Amtrak tickets on its heavily used and extremely popular Northeast Corridor between Boston and Washington DC.

The company is already planning to do the same on Amtrak routes in the Midwest and on the West Coast.

This link to CheapAir’s blog explains how the new service works.

The fact that it’s being offered at all is eye-opening, especially when you hear the reasoning from CEO Jeff Klee:

“For many markets…it does make a lot of sense to consider rail instead of flights, especially when you factor in all the hassles and transport time to and from the airport.

“If you’re coming from out of town and not used to even thinking of rail, all of a sudden, when it’s presented there and you see it’s significantly less expensive and not that much longer…you’ll see a great option you didn’t know existed.”

Klee’s comments get to the heart of what makes this move worth noting, namely the hell that is now air travel if you’re among the masses who can’t afford to fly in the well-heeled classes.

I suspect it’s mainly an effort by to generate a little buzz and thus distinguish itself from that large and confusing herd of travel booking sites on the Web.

But more importantly for us consumers, it means that the travel industry is not only recognizing, but is now responding, to the growing unpopularity of air travel.

Does this mean that people are going to stop flying en masse? Hardly. But it does show that the industry recognizes that travelers are looking for alternatives, and will make an effort to offer them.

The biggest obstacle to this idea is the site itself. Visually, it’s very dated, the Web design equivalent of 80s chic. Worse, it doesn’t feature this new Amtrak booking option prominently on its home page, forcing users to hunt for it.

But that’s nothing that a little site makeover can’t fix. The idea itself is definitely sound and don’t be surprised to see at least some of CheapAir’s competitors follow suit.

American rail travel may still be lagging behind the rest of the developed world in speed and efficiency, but if an airline booking site finds it worthwhile to help you reserve train tickets, then Amtrak must be doing something right.



The latest abuse of a traveler by federal airport security may have you wondering if things will ever get better. The answer is not encouraging.

This time, it’s a woman, left mute by a stroke, denied boarding by a TSA inspector at Los Angeles International Airport for a flight to Phoenix.

Why? Because the inspector couldn’t get the woman to talk.

She had all her proper identification. Her ticket was in order. She had her sister with her to explain the situation.

No matter. Apparently in the mind(?) of this particular TSA gate guardian, if you can’t talk, you can’t fly.

The unfortunate woman did eventually reach Phoenix — after an eight-hour bus ride.

I’m beginning to think the main purpose of the TSA is to provide late-night talk show hosts with comedy material. I certainly hope so, anyway.

It would mean they were actually doing something worthwhile.

The TSA may not be the biggest reason that today’s air travel is such a miserable experience, but it’s usually the first one you encounter at the airport.

Stand a spell. Take your shoes off. Take your wallet out. Take off that faux leather belt and slowly back away from it while we radiate you a bit.

The federal government calls this security. Countries where they really do airport security, like Israel, call it a joke.

And the airport where this latest minor atrocity took place, is a major case in point.

It was only last year that an unemployed mechanic walked into LAX with a military-grade rifle and started shooting TSA inspectors. He shot three, killing one, before being wounded and captured by police.

These guys were there to protect the traveling public, but stalked by a gunman with a rifle and murder on his mind, they couldn’t even protect themselves.

By its own admission, albeit an unintended one, in papers filed in a federal lawsuit, the TSA itself doesn’t even believe that terrorists are plotting attacks on airliners anymore.

I’ll say it plain: The TSA in reality is little more than air travel theater, created to give travelers the impression — or more accurately, perhaps, the illusion — of airport security.

Where does this all leave the poor TSA inspectors? It leaves them with an important, difficult and largely thankless job, for which they are neither well-prepared nor well-paid.

A starting “Transportation Safety Officer” who graduates from trainee status earns between $29,300 and $44,000 a year. That works out to about $3.30 to $5 an hour.

A supervisor can make between $39,000 and $61,000 a year — or roughly $4.50 to $7 an hour.

Suddenly, flipping burgers at Mickey D’s doesn’t sound like such a bad gig.

Could the United States do better with airport security than the TSA in its current state? Could it attract a higher caliber of candidates as its TSOs? Of course, it could.

For that to happen, however, the requirements would have to be a lot tougher. The training would have to be much longer and more extensive. The salaries offered would have to be a lot more attractive.

And someone would have to be willing to pay for all that.

So who wants to step up with their checkbook? Congress? The airlines? The nation’s airports? You?

Let’s be real, shall we?

Washington is in no mood these days to raise spending on much of anything.

The airlines would rather eat tarmac than cut into their profits to pay for better airport security. The same is also true of the airports themselves.

Of course, the airlines always could raise airfares to cover the added security costs, but with travelers already chafing over a laundry list of costly add-on fees, how far do you think that idea would fly, with anybody?

What all this means is that, barring a major change by the feds in their approach to airport security, the TSA will remain what it has always been, a punchline without a laugh track.


AIRLINES: Africa extends her reach

Six major African airlines acquire new-generation long-range wide-bodied jets. It may be just a matter of time before they’re carrying US travelers to the Mother Continent.

Together, Boeing’s 787 Dreamliner and the Airbus A350 represent the newest generation of jumbo jets — slightly smaller than other twin-engined jumbos and much smaller than the aging Boeing 747, but with longer range than all of them.

And Boeing’s various initial Dreamliner bugs notwithstanding, Africa’s airlines literally are buying into both of them.

Kenya Airways is the latest African flag carrier to begin flying the 787. The first of nine Dreamliners is due to arrive in Nairobi on Friday from Washington state.

The airline also has a larger Boeing 777ER on order, and plans to have all ten of the new jets in service by July 2015.

The “ER,” by the way, stands for “extended range,” the common thread running through all these purchases.

Rival Airbus has yet to deliver its first A350; that should happen sometime this summer, but that hasn’t discouraged the world’s airlines from lining up orders for the latest Boeing rival.

And Africa is in the mix.

As with the Dreamliner, the hallmark of the A350 is a design meant to go farther on one load of fuel, enabling Africa’s airlines to reach more destinations with direct flights to Europe, Asia…and eventually, one hopes, the United States.

Kenya Airways is now one of six African carriers picking up new jets with longer reach. Nigeria’s Arik Air and Morocco’s national flag carrier, Royal Air Maroc, are flying Dreamliners, while two of Libya passenger lines, Afriqiyah and Libyan Airlines, have ordered the A350.

Airbus A350
AIRBUS A35) — Airbus Industrie

Ethiopian Airlines is buying both.

It was the first African airline and the second in the world to fly the 787, considered perhaps the most technologically advanced airliners ever to fly, and it’s already flying them as far as Shanghai, China in the east and Washington Dulles airport on our East Coast.

These and other African airlines are looking first to add more European destinations to their route maps, and strengthen their presence in the booming Asian travel markets, as well. But potentially the most lucrative — and most untapped — market may be waiting for them here.

Before African airlines can start touching down in Atlanta and Dallas and Chicago and LAX, however, both the Dreamliner and the A350 will have to prove themselves. The Dreamliner’s teething troubles are well-documented and the A350 has yet to carry a paying passenger.

But even after both planes shake off the inevitable glitches that come with a new aircraft design, winning permission from US aviation authorities to make more flights to the United States won’t be easy for Africa’s airlines.

Each will have to satisfy Washington that it has overcome the chronic maintenance, infrastructure and security shortfalls that have bedeviled African aviation as a whole for decades.

So far, Arik Air, Ethiopian, South African Airways, Royal Air Maroc and Cabo Verde Airlines (Cape Verde Islands) are the only ones to make the cut.

But they won’t be the last.

Since 1998, the FAA has been working out of an office in Dakar, Senegal with airlines in 48 African airlines to help them meet international safety standards. The program, launched by the Clinton administration, is called Safe Skies for Africa.

Arik Air is one of its graduates.

Even after those hurdles are hurdled, there will still be the matter of finding US airports with enough gate space to handle more international flights — from anywhere.

Even so, there is no reason to believe that African airlines, slowly but steadily growing in confidence and expertise, may one day find their way to an international airport near you.

AIRLINES: A new African bird
Africa’s airlines — going UP, going DOWN
AFRICA — The air game changes


AIRLINES: The “Wings of Nigeria” reach the US

Arik Air Airbus A330
Arik Air Airbus A330

Nigeria no longer needs to rely on Europeans to operate its trans-Atlantic airline flights to the United States.

Amid all the mystery and tragedy of Malaysia MH370, a little good news from the airline world…and it comes from West Africa.

Last week, an Airbus A330-200, flying the colors of Arik Air, touched down at New York’s JFK International Airport after about an eight-hour flight from Lagos, Nigeria.

It wasn’t the Arik Air flight ever to land in the United States; the airline has been making that run since 2009. But it was the first time in 20 years that a commercial aircraft registered to Nigeria had made the trip.

Before that, Arik Air’s other US flight had been operated by a Portuguese company. Now, Nigeria is reaching across the Atlantic on its own, with its own jumbo jets.

Not bad for an airline only seven years old.

It took more than a smile and a nod from President Barack Obama to make this happen. The airline to jump through three years’ worth of hoops from the Federal Aviation Administration and the Department of Transportation before receiving the official go-ahead.

Of the 18 major airlines currently based in Africa, Arik Air, which calls itself “the Wings of Nigeria,” is one of only six allowed to fly to the US. The other five are:

  • Air Maroc
  • Cape Verde Airlines
  • Egyptair
  • Ethiopian Airlines
  • South African Airways

Two US airlines, Delta and United, offer direct flights between the US and African destinations. Others connect to the Mother Continent via codeshare flights with European airlines like British Airways, Air France and Germany’s Lufthansa.

Having US government clearance to operate its own planes to US airport should enable Arik Air to add flights to more East Coast destinations, making it easier for American travelers to visit Africa.

And as new-generation airliners with longer range come into service like Boeing’s Dreamliner and the new Airbus A350, perhaps one day, I’ll see jumbo jets rocking the colors of African airlines at LAX.

Am I dreaming? Sure. But small dreams are a waste of sleep.


AIRLINES: Is Eastern coming back?

Eastern Airlines L1011 TriStar
Eastern Airlines L1011 TriStar

A group of investors is quietly making moves to return one of the most storied names in US airline history back to American skies.

If you’re a “millennial,” you almost certainly don’t remember Eastern Air Lines, one of several US airlines that died off not long after you were born.

But if you’re that 20something’s parent and grew up on the East Coast of the United States, there’s a good chance you do.

Now, it looks as if there are some other folks who remember Eastern, and they’re positioning themselves to bring it back.

Travel Weekly is reporting that “A group of investors and entrepreneurs has acquired the rights to the trademarks of the old Eastern Air Lines and hopes to start a new airline using the old name.”

They’re got the rights to the name, the trademarks and symbols, right down to Eastern’s old “hockey stick” logo that adorned everything from its stationery to its wide-bodied jets.

No dates have been announced yet, but the plan is to start with running charter flights with a single leased Airbus A320, and easing into regularly scheduled passenger service over time.

*U P D A T E*
The new Eastern Air Lines hasn’t made its first flight, but it’s already growing.

Bloomberg is reporting that Eastern 2.0 is already shopping around for more airplanes — up to ten used airliners from Boeing — and eyeing new one from Airbus. These boys are serious.

Even more intriguing is word that Eastern’s new owners have been chatting up the Chinese aircraft maker Comac about possibly acquiring their new narrow-body C919 airliners for use in the United States.

Comac, aka the Commercial Aircraft Corporation of China, is working in tandem with Canada’s Bombardier Inc., on long-term plans to build airliners — and break the grip of Boeing and Airbus on the world’s airlines.

Media reports describe the main mover in this deal as Edward Wegel, an airline industry veteran who worked with Eastern back in the 1980s.

A lot of this country’s aviation history is tied to Eastern. Over the decades, it was owned by a carmaker, bought by a flying ace and run by an astronaut.

Along with American, United and Delta, it was one of the “Big Four,” going toe-to-toe with them in New York, Chicago and Atlanta.

Based in Miami, it pretty much owned Florida, so much so that when Disneyworld opened in Orlando in 1971, it became Disney’s official airline.

Eastern Air Lines first took off in 1934, but it didn’t really seem to take off in the public’s imagination until its owner, General Motors, sold it to World War 1 fighter ace Eddie Rickenbacker, for $3.5 million.

By the time Rickenbacker left with the dawn of the Jet Age, Eastern seemed invincible east of the Mississippi. It could take you north to Canada, west to California or south to the Caribbean getaway of your choice. It was the unofficial airline of the American snowbird.

It was the first to fly the iconic three-engined Boeing 727, the Boeing 757 and was the first US airline to fly the Airbus A300, the world’s first twin-engined jumbo jet.

So what went wrong?

It was slow to embrace change. It staked the company’s fortunes on a jumbo jet that proved to be a dog, the Lockheed L-1011 TriStar.

For a little while, things got better when former astronaut Frank Borman took over as president after leaving NASA, but it couldn’t last.

Airline deregulation threw Eastern against low-cost, low-fare competitors that it couldn’t match. Trying to save cash by forcing wage cuts started an ugly war between labor and management — at exactly the moment when each side needed to have the other’s back.

Bleeding money from multiple wounds, Eastern folded in 1991.

Now, if Wegel and his cohorts get their way, Eastern may soon be taxiing for a fresh takeoff into the 21st century. Can they pull it off? We’ll see.

When Eastern Air Lines closed up shop in 1991, it joined a long list of US airlines that, in the words of a popular New Orleans Christmas song, “Ain’t Dere No More:”

  • Pan Am
  • Continental
  • National
  • Braniff
  • TWA
  • Western
  • PSA
  • Air California
  • Hughes Airwest
  • America West
  • Piedmont
  • Frontier
  • Midway
  • Northwest
  • Ozark
  • Transamerica

And believe me, this is only a small fraction of the actual total.


AIRLINES: All’s fair in love and fare wars

Sunset landing, Los Angeles International Airport
Sunset landing, Los Angeles International Airport

Airline fare sales are a lot like playing the lottery. You have a chance to win big — just not a good chance. You’re better off tracking down airfare bargains on your own.

When I started publishing IBIT almost five years ago, one of the easiest ways to get my heart racing was to find out that Airlines A, B and C were staging a “fare war.”

Airline A would announce these eye-popping airfare reductions “for a limited time only.” Within a day, sometimes hours or even minutes, Airlines B,C — and sometimes through Z — would follow suit. And I’d breathlessly jump on here to spread the word.

Regular IBIT readers will tell you they don’t see such posts here nearly as often anymore. Here’s the reason: Over time, I’ve learned that these “fare wars” too often are far more style than substance when it comes to saving you money.

For most consumers, scoring a major bargain in a fare war is a bit like winning the lottery. Can you hit it big? Theoretically, yes. Are the odds in your favor? Definitely not.

By the time you’ve waded through all the exceptions, exemptions and restrictions, there’s virtually nothing left for you to consider buying. It’s enough to make you wonder why the airlines bothered in the first place.

What am I talking about? Consider:

  1. Time frame
    Usually short to extremely short, the better to try to stampede consumers into making hasty spending decisions likely to cause them to spend more than they planned.
  2. Gimmicks
    That gorgeous-looking fare to your preferred destination either will be based on the purchase of a round-trip ticket or requires you to pay a higher fare for the return leg. You have to spend a minimum number of days or nights, or stay over on a Saturday. In the case of major cities with more than one airport, the fare may apply only to the one that farther from the city center, which means more expense in ground transportation for you. And on and on and on.
  3. Limitations
    The discounts don’t apply to the airline’s entire route system, only to certain carefully chosen destinations — none of which remotely interest you. Your travel must be started by a certain date and completed by a certain date. And there are blackout dates when you won’t be allowed to fly in either direction on that discounted fare.

And those are the catches the airlines tell you about. What they don’t tell you is that there may not be that many seats per flight available at those bargain-basement prices.

Another hidden catch: If the airline thinks its fare-war sale has grown too popular with the public, it can cut it off at any time, without warning.

By the time you’ve waded through all those airline “clauses,” too often you find there’s no bargain left to be had.

When it comes to fare wars, I no longer believe the hype.

When it comes to finding an airfare at the right time to the right place for the right price, you’re better off tracking it yourself. The Web has lots of ways you can do that.

Many of the more popular travel booking sites — including one or more you may be using already — have airfare alerts you can use. Other sites are dedicated strictly to tracking airfares. Both work in basically the same way.

Just enter your departure point, destination and the amount you want to pay. The site will take care of the rest, sending you email or smartphone text messages to “pull your coat” when the fare has dropped to the level you’re looking for.

(NOTE: When setting your alert price, be realistic. I’d love to fly from LAX to Paris for $100 round-trip, too, but the odds of the fare ever dropping that low are slim to none.)

While some booking sites will let you know when fares drop to your chosen destination, there are other sites designed exclusively to keep tabs on airfares that might prove more useful.

Some even track the rise and fall of specific fares over the course of a year or more, allowing you to follow airfare patterns and time your trip to get the best possible fare.

You can find some of the best sites for both airfare booking and fare tracking right here on IBIT:

  1. Go to the AIR-LAND-SEA pull-down menu at the top of this page.
  2. Roll your cursor over the linked marked AIR.
  3. Roll your cursor over the link marked AIRFARES and click.

Look them all over. See which ones work best for you. Then start stalking those bargain fares on your own.

AIRLINES: Changing the game for frequent fliers
AIRLINES: Prejudice takes wing


Reposition yourself, Part 2

Just as the cruise lines periodically have to move their vessels around, so do the airlines. But when it comes to offering bargains on repositioning flights, the airlines aren’t nearly as accommodating.

Once you’ve seen what kinds of deals you can get on repositioning cruises, it’s not unreasonable to wonder if airlines do the same thing.

Well, they do…and they don’t.

Actually, the airlines reposition aircraft all the time. Unlike the cruise lines, however, they don’t make a point of trying to sell seats on them.

An airliner due for maintenance may be flown from its last commercial stop to the city that hosts the airline’s maintenance base. Likewise, a plane that was used to fly, say, the Dallas Mavericks to to New York for a game against the Knicks may return to DFW.

These are known in the airline industry as “ferry flights” and the planes fly empty.

An airlines may list an extra flight when repositioning one of its aircraft and sell seats on it. They call these extra flights “sections.” They are publicly listed and you can find them online.

The trick is finding them because — again, unlike the cruise lines — the airlines usually won’t even tell you when one of their commercial flights is a repositioning flight.

But there is a way to spot one of those “sections” for yourself. According to Airfarewatchdog, the terrific airfare monitoring site led by George Hobica, the key is the flight number.

Regular flights have three digits in their flight number. The repositioning “section” flight has four, often starting with an “8” or a “9.”

It’s a good clue, and also the only one the airlines are likely to give you.

I’ve never tried calling up a reservations clerk and just asking him or her to point me to a repositioning flight. I might try that one of these days, just to see what happens.

Perhaps the most important divergence between the cruise lines and the airlines on repositioning is in pricing. The cruise lines sell cabins at loss-leader prices on repositioning cruises. The airlines, if they sell seats on a repositioning flight at all, will sell it at their standard rates.

There was a time, several years ago, when an airline might cut you a deal every now and again on a “repo” flight, but it was infrequent even when they did it.

Like their airline cousins, charter air services also reposition their aircraft, especially when they need to fly them back after delivering their VIP clients to their destinations on their small private planes.

They call these “empty legs” and are more than willing to sell you a seat on them at discounted rates, perhaps as much as $75 percent off their normal airfares.

With rates for private planes being so much higher than regular commercial airfares, even a 75 percent discount might not be that much of a bargain. But if you can put together a group large enough to fill an empty leg, you just might be able to score a major deal — and an unforgettable flying experience — at the same time.

Reposition yourself, Part 1
CRUISE: Go “repo”


AIRLINES: Crackdown on carry-ons

United has started cracking down on the size of bags allowed on board as carry-ons. Expect other airlines to follow this lead. One more reason to pack lighter.

Sooner or later, the airlines were going to start enforcing the regulations governing the size of carry-on bags. If you’ve ever seen the chaos that ensues when passengers start muscling their bale-sized bags into the overhead bins, you knew it was inevitable.

The only question was which airline was going to do it first.

United answered that question this week when the airline announced that it was tightening up on the rules on what would and would not be allowed as a carry-on.

You know, those rules that almost everyone who flies have been routinely and blithely ignoring for years?

The same way we’ve all been pretending not to see those bag sizing racks in the airport that let you instantly check the size of your bag to see if it meets the regulations.

Don’t look at me like you don’t know what I’m talking about.

For the record, the carry-on baggage rules as stated by United on its Web site are:

  • “Maximum dimensions for a carry-on bag are 9 inches x 14 inches x 22 inches (22 cm x 35 cm x 56 cm), including handles and wheels.”
  • “Maximum dimensions for your personal item, such as a shoulder bag, backpack, laptop bag or other small item, are 9 inches x 10 inches x 17 inches (22 cm x 25 cm x 43 cm)”

If it doesn’t fit in the overhead bins or under the seat in front of you, it gets checked.

These dimensions are standard throughout the airline industry and United isn’t changing them. It’s just getting serious about making us all adhere to them.

It would be easy to presume that this is just a ploy by an airline to squeeze more checked bag fees out of passengers, but United insists it’s acting in response to passenger complaints.

Actually, I can believe that.

After years of watching passengers hog the overhead bins with oversized, overweight bags while trying to evade baggage fees, I think United may be tapping into a vein of genuine discontent.

Cramming too-large bags into the overheads slows down the whole boarding process, unfairly deprives other passengers from using the bins and poses a very real safety hazard when the bin hatches pop open in flight — which they can when airliners hit turbulence.

If you routinely fly one airline more than the rest, check the terms of the credit card that airline offers. Some airlines waive the cost of your first checked bag if you buy your tickets with their card. Combined with the frequent-flier miles or points your get with each purchase, that just might make that card worth having.

On flights with lots of empty seats, this is a non-issue. But with the airlines making a point of reducing the total of flights on their route systems, the words “this is a full flight” are now heard on a regular basis.

We’ve talked about all this before here on IBIT. If United is to be believed, a fair number of its passengers have been talking to them about it, as well.

Don’t be surprised if cabin crews and their union representatives also have been complaining, and for good reason. Dozens are injured every year when one of these oversized bags comes flying out of an overhead bin.

So United has legitimate reasons for cracking down on carry-ons.

Meanwhile, if the crackdown results in more passengers spending more money on baggage fees, I doubt you’ll see much wailing and gnashing of teeth from the United brass.

You also can bet your locked and upright tray table that United’s competitors will be monitoring this very closely, and if it looks as if enforcing the carry-on rules results in smoother boarding, safer flights and a fatter bottom line, expect them to follow suit.

The days of the car-sized carry-on may shortly be coming to an end. And this traveler couldn’t be happier.

Don’t get it twisted. I don’t like paying to check bags any more than the next traveler.

But I like getting nailed in the head by a 40-pound suitcase even less.

Battle of the bins


URGENT: Malaysia Airlines jumbo jet missing

Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777-200

Authorities say they have lost contact with Flight MH370, a Boeing 777-200 from Malaysia Airlines inbound from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing with 239 passengers and crew.

The plane departed Kuala Lumpur (KUL) at 12:41am local time for the 2,745-mile flight to Beijing (PEK). Air traffic controllers lost contact with the flight almost exactly two hours later.

It was due to arrive in Beijing at 6:30am local time.

Four of the passengers on board, including one infant, are Americans. The aircraft is overdue and by now would be out of fuel, according to the airline. A search is in progress.

Meanwhile, the airline is trying to verify a report that the aircraft has landed safely in Nanming, China.

There are two different Chinese cities named Nanming, one in Guizhou province and the other in Fujian province. Both cities are just over 1,000 miles short of the flight’s destination, but the Nanming in Guizhou is in line with the jet’s planned course to Beijing.

The Boeing 777 has been a long-range jumbo jet workhorse for the world’s airlines for 20 years. The 777-200 was the initial version of the plane. Sixty airlines currently fly the “Triple Seven” worldwide, according to Boeing.

Its safety record had been flawless until last year’s Asiana crash in in which a 777 crashed during landing at San Francisco. More information as it becomes available.

8:47pm Pacific
The Associated Press cites a Vietnamese website quoting a Vietnamese search and rescue official that a signal from MH370 was picked up 120 miles southwest of Ca Mau province, the southernmost tip of Vietnam.

9:17pm Pacific
Official Chinese media report authorities there have joined the search for the missing jumbo jet. China’s foreign minister describes his government as “very worried.” More than half the passengers on board — 152 — are Chinese citizens.

9:35pm Pacific
Vietnam media reporting that Flight MH370 crashed into the Gulf of Thailand. “According to Navy Admiral Ngo Van Phat, Commander of the Region 5, military radar recorded that the plane crashed into the sea at a location 15S miles south of Phu Quoc island.”

(NOTE: Until search teams report finding some physical evidence of a crash, this report should NOT be considered confirmed.)

11:53pm Pacific
Malaysian government still considers the flight missing, refusing to acknowledge Vietnam report of a crash. Still no physical evidence yet to confirm a crash. Darkness is rapidly approaching the waters where the aircraft abruptly went off radar, so it may be several hours before we know anything definitive.

(NOTE: While we still don’t know for certain exactly what happened to MH370, two facts raise the possibility of foul play:

  1. The flight disappeared from radar almost exactly two hours into the flight.
  2. There was no contact whatsoever from the flight after the plane dropped off radar.

Aircraft of this size and design do not simply drop out of the sky and vanish. If the Boeing 777-200 has gone down, this one may not have been an accident.)

9:03am Pacific
Media outlets are reporting that oil slicks have been spotted in the search area which Vietnamese officials suspect was made by the crash of MH370. Still no hard evidence that the plane has gone down there. It is just after 1am in the search area, so there will be no daylight in the search area for roughly another five hours.

11:18am Pacific
The Washington Post is reporting that two passengers aboard MH370 were traveling on stolen EU passports, one from Italy, the other from Austria. Both documents had been reported stolen in Thailand within the last two years.



AIRLINES: Changing the game for frequent fliers

Delta Airlines flight landing at Lindbergh Field, San Diego | ©Greg Gross
Delta Airlines flight landing at Lindbergh Field, San Diego | ©Greg Gross

Delta is the latest airline to award miles based on money spent instead of miles flown. It points to the airline pushing the bargain-seeking leisure traveler out of the picture.

If you’ve had the feeling for the last several years that the airline industry would love to get you out of the frequent-flier game, Delta may have just confirmed your suspicions.

The Atlanta-based airline announced Wednesday that it will no longer award miles toward free flights based on the number of miles its customers fly. Instead, it will award those miles based on how much money passengers spend on tickets.

The changes take effect in 2015.

The mainstream media are treating this as a major shakeup in the airline loyalty program game, but in fact, Southwest, JetBlue and Virgin America already were doing pretty much the same thing when Delta made its big announcement last Wednesday.

Of course, none of those airlines are the size of Delta, so in that sense, it is a big deal. And you can bet that the other big boys on the tarmac, especially American and United, are thinking hard about doing exactly the same.

This comes after Delta and United had already made it substantially more costly for travelers to earn elite status, which carries lots of perks, everything from free seat upgrades to the waiving of fees, including those onerous checked baggage fees.

To reach elite status via purchases made with airline credit cards, you now have to spend a minimum of $2,500 per year and fly at least 25,000 miles. And that only gets you to the lowest rung on the elite status ladder.

If you fly only once or twice a year for vacation, seek out the lowest possible fare on every flight and never fly in Business or First Class, all these changes are aimed straight at you — and not for your benefit.

The idea here is to encourage more flights by well-heeled business travelers armed with generous corporate expense accounts, the kind of travelers who can afford to sit in the front of the airplane whenever they wish.

The rest of you: Tough takeoffs.

What all this amounts to is the airline industry trying to slay a dragon of its own design.

When the airlines first launched frequent-flier programs back in the late 1970s, it was done mainly with the business traveler in mind. But once the banks got into the act, enabling consumers to amass miles just by using their credit cards, it caught on with bargain-seeking consumers.

Let’s face it, who among us doesn’t love the idea of free flights?

It didn’t take long for the airlines to realize they had created a monster. Individuals were piling up hundreds of thousands — and in some cases, millions — of frequent-flier miles, which the airlines were obligated to honor. Multiplied by tens of thousands of consumers, the numbers were eye-watering.

Especially to airline beancounters and CEOs.

The airlines countered with a carrot-and-stick approach, creating elite status programs aimed at their business clientele on the other hand, and slapping expiration dates on those outstanding miles on the other. Apparently, however, it wasn’t enough. Hence the latest move to convert the airline loyalty programs from miles to money.

The airline industry is reshaping the frequent-flier concept to lure the people for whom it created those programs in the first place. And if you’re not that aforementioned well-heeled business traveler, it definitely wasn’t you.

What remains to be seen is how the folks who fill the rest of the airplane respond while the perks go increasingly, if not quite exclusively, to the ones up front.


NY to London: Ten bucks?

The king of super-cheap European airlines says it can offer trans-Atlantic flight for $10 or 10 euros, as soon as it gets the right airplanes. Bombshell, bait-and-switch or BS publicity stunt? Color me skeptical.

Among your traveling friends, you may hear some buzz about this:

Ireland-based Ryanair, the McDonald’s of European short-haul, low-fare airlines, says it’s looking to jump into the trans-Atlantic game as soon as it acquires the right aircraft.

When that happens, Ryanair’s CEO Michael O’Leary is telling people the airline could offer fares between the United States and Europe for what the British would call “a tenner.”

New York City to London: $10. London to New York: 10 euro.

Are you packing yet?

The attraction is obvious. Let’s face it, we Americans are addicted to all things cheap. If Walmart had wings, we’d probably fly it.

But before you start booking five-star hotels off Piccadilly Circus or the Champs Elysee with all the money you save on your $10 airfare, slow your roll for a moment.

This is one of those guaranteed conversation starters from an airline that specializes in generating buzz about itself. Reality says this is not going to happen in a matter of weeks or months, if it happens at all.

And if it does, you may want to think twice about going, anyway.

Because while we may love cheap, we don’t love suffering — and nowadays, to fly is to suffer.

Even on airlines that don’t make you pay extra for seats that recline…which Ryanair does.

Indeed, when it comes to Ryanair, you need to look long and hard at what you get — and don’t get — for the money.

Remember the old folk tale about “stone soup?” That’s pretty much the Ryanair approach to airfares. If anything, they pioneered that approach.

By the time you finish paying extra fees for using a credit card to book your flight, making a reservation over the phone, actually choosing your seat, checking a bag or buying a seat comfortable enough to sit in for seven hours, that $10 trans-Atlantic airfare of yours may have ballooned by 30 or 40 times.

Should you opt for a Premium Economy or Business Class seat, you’ll probably wind up paying the same fare as you would have on most other airlines, anyway.

Furthermore, that initial $10 fare is likely to be one-way only. Good luck trying to get a return flight for that price, or anything close to it.

The cattle car approach to air travel might be bearable for an hour or two. How about seven? That’s roughly how long it takes to cross the Atlantic by air.

And this is the airline that actually floated the idea of installing pay toilets on its airplanes and airliners flown by a single pilot.

Still, if the Irish airline could pull that off and sustain it, it would turn a large part of the air travel world upside down.

Mr. O’Leary is in the habit of floating radical ideas publicly, either to gauge public reaction or just to keep the Ryanair name — and his own — in the news. As such, it’s hard to tell when he’s serious about one of these off-the-wall proposals and when he’s just pulling our seatbelts.

The flying public seems to be equally ambiguous when it comes to Ryanair. On the one hand, they’re among the largest air carriers in Europe, obviously they’re doing some things right.

Still, when the London-based newspaper The Telegraph asked its readers in an online survey “Would you fly to the States with Ryanair?,” about 65 percent said “No.”

Maybe we Americans aren’t the only ones addicted to cheap.

Ryanair: Can a sweatshop have wings?
Will GOD be our co-pilot?
Have you ever bum-rushed an airliner?