It's the end of an era. Or at least the beginning of the end. Soon, the last Concorde will fly. Last year, major carriers lost $16 billion and are flying with staff and schedules reduced even further from 2001 levels, despite billions in congressional handouts. The only major U.S. airlines making money are low-fare carriers like Southwest, JetBlue and AirTran. Almost sounds like the record business.
Numerous readers have asked for an update to last year's (February 2002) story on air travel for road warriors. While much remains the same, some rules have changed as the airlines respond to financial and security pressures.
IT AIN'T HEAVY…
Until late last year, most North American airlines checked bags up to 70 pounds for free. The Big Six account for over three-quarters of the nation's traffic. Five of them — American, Continental, Delta, Northwest and United — have all lowered their checked-weight restriction to 50 pounds per piece, charging $25 extra for bags below 70 pounds; in effect, a new tax of $25 on items over 50 pounds. Though US Airways still allows 70-pound checked baggage for free, its partnership with United has created numerous “Code Share” flights in which United's weight restrictions apply. America West has also followed suit, but charges a whopping $50 for going over the 50-pound limit.
Outside of the Big Six, most airlines — including many foreign carriers flying overseas — were still using the 70-pound rule at press time, with AirTran, Frontier, JetBlue and Southwest allowing three checked items, and ATA limiting those three bags to 140 pounds total. One notable exception is that Continental's first- and business-class passengers are still allowed three checked bags of up to 70 pounds for free, and its OnePass Elite members are still allowed two 70-pound checked items in economy. A little-known unofficial policy of many U.S. airlines is that if you can prove Elite status with any frequent-flier program, then you'll be granted it on another, if you ask. In addition to perks like early boarding and forward-most coach seats, some airports have time-saving express lanes through security for Elite-level members.
How much is 70 pounds? Besides a Samsonite Oyster and a carry-on mic case, my usual one-off kit is a 4U Technomad ProRack (21 pounds) that easily fits within airline-size restrictions. Its 6U rack still makes it by 2 inches, but it's easy to load it overweight. My rack normally holds a Midas XL42 mic pre (8 pounds), a BSS Compact Plus (11 pounds) and a TC Electronic M5000 (19 pounds) for a total of 59 pounds before I've put in cables. This year, I'll change to TC's new Reverb 4000 (6 pounds) to save 13 pounds.
CARRY ON, MY WAYWARD SON
Carry-on limits still range from 45 linear inches on the Big Six — usually 22×14×9 — to slightly larger on other domestic carriers. Many of the 15×10 templates on the X-ray machines in security screening that were installed pre-Y2K by United and others have been removed by the Transportation Security Administration (TSA). Carry-on weight is only specifically restricted with a few carriers, like American and US Air, at 40 pounds; in practice, carry-on bags are rarely weighed. Put your gold bars in your backpack, purse or roll-away.
Despite the airlines' size restrictions for carry-ons, musical instruments that reasonably fit in an overhead compartment are allowed. This has been a bone of contention for many years, and recent attempts to settle this through requests from musicians' organizations resulted in a statement from the TSA late last year. It instructs airlines that musicians “who choose to carry on their instruments will still be permitted to carry one personal item and one bag” and that “no instruments are to be prohibited from carriage beyond the screening checkpoint due to their size.” In other words, TSA will allow you past security, but whether the airline's agents will let a slightly oversize instrument on the plane is another story. A pleasant demeanor and a seat assignment at the back of the plane, where you're more likely to find overhead space, will help. Players carrying on instruments are advised to keep a copy of the AFM letter on them: www.local1000.com/pdf/carryon.pdf.
I GOT THE POWER
In-flight laptop power is another promise that has only been partially fulfilled. Initially, some airlines installed 15-volt power supplies on cigarette-lighter sockets. A newer system, EmPower — a smaller connector with two pins a ¼-inch apart — is available on many late-model aircrafts. Travel adapters like Targus' Universal Auto Air and iGo's Juice provide power conditioning with an EmPower connector and a cigarette-lighter adapter that fits over it for $100, while SmartDisk's solution is a $40 EmPower-only cable for Apple Power-Books.
While many planes have power at first-class seats, American has computer power in most rows, including economy, on all except its oldest jets, and is the only major with enough seat pitch to comfortably allow laptop use throughout coach. Delta is a distant second, providing EmPower connectors at all seats in its newer Boeings. Continental's 767 and 777 have it in the first six to eight rows of coach. US Air has it on all seats of its Airbus 319s and 320s, while Continental and United often have it in the first six coach rows of their Airbus equipment. On United, you'll only find power jacks on the newer Boeings. There's no guarantee that these outlets will actually be working when you do find them.
CALL ME THE BREEZE
On the ground, third-generation (3G) cell phones with Web services can provide faster-than-dial-up wireless connectivity by attaching a cable from a phone to a laptop. The marketing promise of 3G service has been that we'll one day have connectivity at 2 Mbps, rivaling DSL. Don't hold your breath. For now, the 1xRTT technology used in Sprint's Vision and Verizon's Express offer access at speeds of up to 144 Kbps, with plans to double that. AT&T, Cingular and Voicestream phones work on another standard; their 3G, called EDGE, provides a data connection that maxes out at 115 Kbps. Their next version will go up to 384 Kbps when it's rolled out later this year. Contracts with unlimited nights and weekends can make a great alternative to local dial-ups with a 3G phone. Older Web-enabled phones can still get 9- to 14Kbps connectivity, fast enough to send short e-mails with cell service.
Major airports now have excellent cell phone coverage. Web-enabled cell phones can access Internet info on Websites with special pages written for the Wireless Application Protocol (WAP), a simplified, text-based system that displays a few lines at a time, optimized for a phone's tiny screen. Naturally, numerous WAP resources exist for travelers. Travelocity's Flight Schedule section is a real gig-saver; if your flight is suddenly canceled or delayed, it will immediately show all flights to your destination city. I've bookmarked the WAP sites for the Big Six plus Alaska, America West and Quantas to provide all of my airline info. FedEx offers WAP package tracking, and Zagat has WAP restaurant listings. Other favorites include The Boston Globe and L.A. Times, astrology, NFL, ESPN and The Weather Channel. It's important to know when Mercury is going retrograde on a travel day. While you're at it, take 10 minutes to program your Top 10 airline reservation numbers into your cell phone.
HEY, HEY — WHAT DO YOU KNOW?
Allow extra time at Denver, Las Vegas, Miami and New York's JFK terminals. Their baggage cutoff is 45 minutes before departure, instead of the usual 30. The new bag-to-passenger-matching security measures can keep you from your flight if your bags are late. They also reduce your ability to standby for an earlier flight, especially if you've already checked your luggage.
The earliest flights have the best on-time performance, an important detail to note when making a connection, but especially so when checked bags must make the transfer with you. When early flights are canceled or delayed, there's also a better chance of getting rebooked. On the other hand, most airlines operate their first flights simultaneously, so early morning also brings the greatest security gridlock.
This year, JetBlue cancelled only one in 500 flights, while United cancelled one in 33; ATA and Alaska are nearly as bad. The rest of the Bix Six, plus America West, Southwest and AirTran, cancel around one in 100 flights. Alaska has the best record for mishandled luggage, with only one in 500 passengers. Most of the others average around one in 200 to 300, but regional airlines average one in 100. The rate of getting bumped is down to one in 600 this year from one in 450 last year, and the odds are slightly higher with Delta and Southwest. With few no-shows, JetBlue doesn't overbook but tends to have full planes.
Check in early. Pack light. Have your ID ready. Carry water and reading material. Relative humidity in an aircraft cabin is 20%, so the air traveler's rule of thumb is to drink eight ounces of water for each hour of flying. Get a seat assignment as soon as possible as unassigned passengers are bumped first. Get a forward seat any time you're making a connection: 20 rows of slow-exiting passengers in front of you can make all the difference in catching a tight connection when you're late. Check out seating by aircraft type at www.seatguru.com.
The most important thing to remember about air travel is to never lose your cool. Loud, irate passengers have fewer chances of getting their problems solved, and most airlines have codes that they insert into your record to alert other agents to your behavior. If you do not get your issue handled appropriately, then patiently restate your situation to a supervisor.
Airline travel will not return to pre-9/11. And although the Great Search for Pointy Objects continues, TSA now allows coffee, nail clippers and tweezers through security.
Mix sound reinforcement editor Mark Frink is collecting a list of favorite airport restaurants. Send your suggestions to