I travel a lot. I spend a lot of nights in hotel rooms, a lot of miles in rental cars, and, mostly importantly, a lot of time on airplanes. As I approach my millionth mile this year, it feels appropriate to compile my 10 commandments of air travel.
departure airport - the place where the plane is leaving
destination airport - the place where the plane is going to
gate agent - the lovely people who answer questions before you board the plane; they usually work the ticket counters, help with seat assignments, etc.
flight attendant - the lovely humans who ensure your safety and comfort during the flight
airside terminal - the terminal after security
landside terminal - the terminal before security, usually open to the general public
jet bridge - the long hallway-like thing that connects the plane to the terminal
jet bridge operator - yes, a real job title, these are certified professionals who drive the jet bridge and attach it to the plane; some gate agents are also jet bridge operators, but this is not always the case
ATC (air traffic control) - like a BGP, but for airplanes
IROPS (irregular operations) - when something bad happens, like weather, maintenance, missing crew, etc, that cause the operations to be altered in an unexpected manner
1. Weather Affects Everyone
There are usually three potential reasons why a flight might be delayed or canceled due to weather. Each of these situations carry slightly different caveats about how to best proceed.
Inclement weather at the departure airport
When there is weather at your departure airport, there are very few things that an airline can do to alleviate the situation. Weather at the departure airport affects all air carriers! Asking to be moved to a different airline is not going to solve your problem and may just irritate the agent.
If you are making connections, check with the gate agent to see if you will still make them. If you have tight connections due to a departure weather delay, some airlines will allow you to be "backed up" on a later flight. Check with the gate agents or airline support staff to see if that is an option.
In any event, the best option for departure-related weather is to wait. Weather can change at any time, for better or worse. Hang tight at the gate area or in a nearby lounge. If your airline supports it, enable text messages or push notifications for your flight.
Inclement weather at the destination airport
When there is weather at your destination airport, there are a few more options. If you are connecting through that destination, you could check to see if there exists a different routing to get your to your final destination. For example, if you were flying from PIT-ORD-SFO, but your PIT-ORD flight was delayed due to weather in Chicago, you could ask the gate agents to check for routing through alternative cities. Some airlines may charge a fee for this service while others offer it as a free service to their high-status members.
Another common tactic is to get "close" to your destination. Depending on your final destination, there may be an airport that is geographically or logistically closer to your final destination. For example, if you were traveling to Paris, but there is bad weather in Paris preventing departure, consider switching to a flight that goes to Frankfurt or another European city. From there, you have significantly more options:
- Take a later "domestic" flight on a carrier of your choice
- Rent a car and drive
- Use alternative transportation like bus or rail
Also do not forget to do math. If you have business or meetings on the other end of a trip, make sure you are still able to make them. If you are going to miss all your meetings, it might be better to skip the trip altogether and make alternative arrangements.
Inclement weather in the route that cannot be avoided
This is honestly the best case weather-related delay. Except in the case of severe weather like tornados and hurricanes, ATC can usually find alternative routing around the weather. This happens much more frequently than you think, often in real-time during a flight. Pilots and ATC are in constant communication and constantly update routes to avoid turbulence and other weather - just look at the FlightAware map for any flight.
The dashed lines show the original charted route, and the green line is the actual route flown.
In most situations, the best option is to wait for ATC to find new routing or for the weather to clear. Especially for multi-hour flights, a 15-minute delay is easily recovered in the air.
Lastly, neither the gate agents nor the pilots control the weather. Getting verbally abusive with a gate agent could land you a seat in time out (and off the plane).
2. Gate Agents are Powerful
The contract of carriage (to which you agree when you purchase a ticket on any major airline) grants the airline a number of rights, the most important of which is the right of the airline to refuse service if you are being an asshole.
I was in Denver a few years ago boarding a flight to San Francisco that included what appeared to be a high-school field trip. There were a number of students aged 14-16 and a few instructors and chaperones to accompany them. A small group of the students were being loud and unruly in the boarding area. The gate agent asked them to calm down a few times. On the last time, one of the students shot back a sassy remark like "you're not my mother". At that point, the gate agent calmly told the small group of students that they would not be boarding the aircraft. The chaperones tried to object, at which point security was called and the unruly students were escorted away.
The gate agent was entirely in her right to refuse boarding to that group of students. I have seen gate agents deny boarding to drunk passengers, passengers with carry-on bags larger than the overhead bins, and passengers who are demanding or rude. In all these situations, not only is the gate agent legally allowed to refuse boarding, but the parent airline will almost always back the gate agent in the event of a complaint. If you are being an asshole at the gate, you are likely to continue to be an asshole on the plane, at which point it goes from being an annoyance to a genuine safety concern. If you piss off the wrong gate agent, they can even recommend you be barred from the airline for life.
On the flip side, gate agents can also use their powers for good. Gate agents control the upgrade list, boarding order, and seating assignments. Recently I was flying home from vacation when a man suddenly collapsed in the terminal right before boarding. The gate agent asked if anyone had a water bottle and a woman kindly volunteered hers. The paramedics arrived and treated the man, but the gate agent also went out of her way to thank the passenger that volunteered the bottle of water. Not only was she upgraded to first class (without status), but she was given a number of free drink vouchers for use on future flights.
Before I had any status on an airline, I volunteered to check my bag to save on overhead bin space. I was the only passenger who volunteered, so the gate agent upgraded me to premium economy and blocked the middle seat next to me for free.
If you do nice things for gate agents, they will do nice things in return. They also communicate with the onboard flight attendants.
3. Never, Ever Check a Bag
Did you check a bag? Unless you have some serious status with an airline, you are going to add a lot of time to your trip. Checking a bag will, on average, add about 2 hours to your journey.
First, you have to get to the airport early to wait in line to check said bag. You need to weigh it, tag it, and watch it disappear into the abyss. It might be exposed to extreme elements like weather or angry ground crew where your valuables may be lost or damaged.
Next, you get to your plane and hope you bag has made it too. If you were running late, there is a chance your bag will not make it onto the plane with you.
Last, when you reach your final destination, you have to go to baggage claim and wait for your bag to arrive (hopefully). Most travel magazines recommend you stop for a drink before heading to baggage claim. You can expect to wait up to 45 minutes for your bag to arrive after you de-plane.
But Seth, I have (some special item that needs to travel in checked luggage)! Unless that item is of sentimental value, it is probably cheaper to buy that item at your destination than to check a bag. Most airlines now charge for checked bags. Even if you have status or a credit card that gets you a free checked bag, time is valuable. Most hotels have amenities for free or to borrow. I never travel with shampoo, soap, or shaving cream, since hotels provide these items for free.
Finally, in the previous section, we talked about altering your flights due to weather or IROPS. If you check a bag, most options of switching flights are unavailable. Even if the airport is willing to switch you to another flight, there is a good chance that your bags will not make it. So while you might be able to switch flights and make it to your final destination, you might also be stuck wearing the same underwear for a few days while your bag makes its way over.
4. Airline Reservation Systems are Black Magic
If you have every flown a mainline carrier, you know that you get a confirmation number to correspond to your passenger record. This confirmation number is used to lookup and make changes to your reservation.
Did you ever notice that those confirmation numbers are six characters in length composed the letters A-Z and the numbers 0-9? Coincidentally, that is also the exact length of the memory address of an entry in a mainframe. Hmm... Most major US air carriers use the Sabre Global Distribution System, a mainframe application for reservations. No matter how fancy the front-end, the data is likely ultimately ending up in a bottleneck queue to commit data to the mainframe.
And Sabre is just one of the many backend systems on which airlines rely. They use DOS-based access to crew scheduling. There are complex permissions about who can access systems, when they can access them, and what they can do once they have access. Legally all these changes have to be audited, logged, and stored for historical accuracy.
The point is that airline reservation systems are incredibly complex systems with a mix of bleeding edge technology and the most legacy code on the planet. While airlines are working to update their systems, safety always takes precedence. There are functions and operations that only gate agents or phone agents have access to use. These agents are often working across multiple systems, while dealing with angry passengers, trying to make things as best as possible.
I was recently flying from Munich to Newark on UA31 when we lost an engine and had to make an emergency landing. When I landed, I called the airline to schedule a rebooking. While I was on the phone with the agent, the airport was also in my record, along with another agent with whom I was not on the phone. The end result: I was booked on the next seven flights out of Munich, some on United, some on Lufthansa, in multiple different fare classes. When I tried to open the United mobile app, the whole thing crashed. It had no idea how to handle the "confirmation number matches seven other flights" situation.
On another journey, there was a last-minute airplane swap for the exact same aircraft. Despite being the exact same aircraft with the exact same layout, the system automatically re-assigned everyone seats based on their status and seat assignment preferences. Basically the algorithm was:
DROP ALL seats FOR EACH MEMBER BY_STATUS DESC ASSIGN SEAT PREFER MEMBER.SEAT_PREFERENCE
So I went from 2A to 1A, despite specifically booking 2A. But since the plane had already been marked as boarding, the gate agent could not change any seat assignments.
Oh, and if you go by a middle name, have a suffix like "Dr." or "Jr.", forget it. The airline reservation system will likely merge them and you will forever be known as LASTNAMEJR.
To summarize, there are limits to what airline reservation systems can do. Computers are hard. Expect things to break.
5. Control Shifts with Time
Depending on the time until your flight leaves, different entities have control over the flight. For example, within 24 hours of take off, the departure airport has almost complete control over the flight. They control everything from departure gate, departure time, upgrade lists, aircraft swaps, etc.
Within 24h, even if you contact the airline customer service, they will likely need to put you on hold while they contact the airport ground crew to service your request.
On the ground, ATC has ultimately say over whether a plane can take off. In the sky, the pilot has ultimate say over whether a plane can land. Pilots overrule ATC in the air. ATC overrule pilots on the ground.
6. Middle Seats Get the Arm Rests
This one is pretty self-explanatory. The middle seat is the most undesirable seat on the plane. As such, they get the arm rests. Aisle seat, you lean into the isle. Window seat, you lean into the window. Everyone is happy. Move on.
7. Fare Classes Matter
Across most airlines, the following is true:
- F - full fare first class
- J - full fare business class
- Y - full fare economy class
Other fare classes include strict rules regarding when they can be booked, if they can be changed, how much it costs to change them, and how the fare behaves in the event of IROPS.
For example, you might book an "A" fare. On United, this is a Y fare basis with an upgrade to first class, provided space is available. In the event of an aircraft swap, you will be downgraded to an economy seat if other people booked an "F" fare.
But fare classes can affect more than just upgrade awards. Different fare classes carry different rules for travel. For example, some fares are only available on weekdays. If you have a sudden change in travel, you could be facing to pay a huge difference in fare.
Things get even weirder on international travel. I was traveling to Columbia on a P business fare (which is really an upgraded U economy fare). However, unknown to me, that particular fare class came with an odd rule. Upon re-entering the United States, I had to return to my original port of departure within 24h as part of the round-trip fare. So when I called the airline to ask them to add an extra stop in San Francisco for a business meeting, they were admittedly bewildered as the system refused to make the change. After some escalation and research, they found this bizarre rule in the fare class.
While it has since been removed, in the past fare class rules also determined what the plane would do if you died on board. That's right - the type of ticket you purchased would determine how your body was handled and whether the flight diverted or continued to its final destination.
8. Food is Salty by Design
Have you ever noticed that you feel extra thirsty and bloated when you get off a flight? While that is partially attributed to altitude and radiation, it is mostly likely due to the food you ate. In fact, if you were to consume airplane food at a normal altitude, it would be rather gross!
Believe it or not, our taste buds are incredibly sensitive to pressure. At higher altitudes and under artificial pressures, things taste differently. Because of this, airplane food tends to be extra salty. That added sodium leads to bloating and thirst upon landing.
You can read more about it why in flight food tastes weird.
9. Timeouts Suck
When dealing with delays or IROPS, nothing is more frustrating than a crew timeout. Both pilots and crew are limited as to how much time they can spend per day on the job. Some of it is negotiated as part of their union contract, some of it is mandated by FAA regulation.
It is important to clarify that, especially for regional flights, pilots and crew are not on the same schedule. You may have legal pilots, but illegal crew or visa versa. This rarely happens with long-haul international flights because of how schedule blocking works, but it is very common for regional flights.
Neither the crew nor the pilots want to timeout. Especially for crew, they are only paid when the doors are closed (more on that later). These rules are enforced by their unions and the FAA. If they violate their rules, they get fired.
10. Crew Pay is... Weird
Crew (flight attendants) are only paid during "block time". This time is calculated from the time the door closes until the time it is reopened. All the time in the terminal, all the time helping passengers shove bags into overhead bins, all the time doing safety checks are unpaid. While they are in the air, the flight attendants make a reasonable hourly rate (most start at $25/hr), but they are not working a flight for a full 40 hours per week - they would timeout.
In addition to their salary, some airlines also offer crew per diem, a tax-free allowance while away from their home base. This amount is usually $2-$3 per hour. So yes, crew are "constantly" being paid while away from home, but it's less than 25% of minimum wage. Also keep in mind that most crew, especially regional crew, do not overnight; they return home and thus do not earn per diem.
In short, you probably make more than your crew. Be nice to them.
Seth Vargo is an engineer at Google. Previously he worked at HashiCorp, Chef Software, CustomInk, and some Pittsburgh-based startups. He is the author of Learning Chef and is passionate about reducing inequality in technology. When he is not writing, working on open source, teaching, or speaking at conferences, Seth advises non-profits.