As we learn more about how Asiana Airlines’ Flight 214′s crash landing at San Francisco Airport wasn’t as tragic as it could have been, the water cooler debate on network chat shows today is focusing on whether some airplane seats are safer than others.
Conventional wisdom has long theorized that the safest seats are in the back of the plane. And yet, as we report in How Flying Coach Could Save Your Life, studies (and airline experts) don’t necessarily agree. One study, carried out by the British Civil Aviation Authority in partnership with Greenwich University, concluded that passengers are safer in the front of the plane. But Popular Mechanics did an in-depth examination of flight crash occurrences and determined that the rear is a safer place to sit. The Discovery Channel came to a similar conclusion in Curiosity: Inside a Plane Crash, which put cameras inside a Boeing 727 as it crashed in the Sonoran Desert. (The video is worth a watch, though the scientists’ fascination and excitement as they watch the crash footage may strike some as a bit macabre in the wake of the Asiana incident.)
Clearly, there’s no one prevailing view on the safest place to sit on an aircraft, which is understandable when you realize that part of the reason studies are in conflict is that not all crashes — or airplane models — are the same. In the Asiana incident, for instance, the angle of impact severed the plane’s tail, and CNN noted that many injured passengers were seated in the rear.
Boeing’s own Web site simply says, “One seat is as safe as another, especially if you stay buckled up.”
The good news is that the aviation industry, as ABC World News Tonight reports, has made major and life-saving improvements to protect passengers during emergencies, including sturdier seats, improved flame retardancy on planes and enhanced rescue efforts. But for the moment, as the post-Asiana crash news continues to emerge — and we anxiously await updates on both the status of passengers who were injured and the cause of the crash — we can take some comfort in this, also from ABC News:
“Riding on a commercial airplane has got about the same amount of risk as riding on an escalator,” says MIT International Center for Air Transportation Director John Hansman, Jr.
Are the days of disconnectivity at 35,000 feet numbered? They just might be as airlines respond to passengers’ growing demand for Wi-Fi in the air. Already, 38 percent of domestic flights offer the service.
Another nine percent of flights are in the midst of rolling out Wi-Fi, with most rollouts expected to be completed within 18 to 24 months, a Routehappy report revealed. Routehappy.com is a flight search Web site that incorporates information about types of seats available, onboard amenities and flier ratings into its search results.
But how do you guarantee that you’ll pick one of the 38 percent of flights with Wi-Fi when you travel? For starters, choose a Virgin America or AirTran flight if you can. The entire fleets of both airlines are fully Wi-Fi-enabled.
If neither of those lines is an option, look for a Delta or Southwest flight. Delta offers 3,443 domestic Wi-Fi-enabled flights (about 63 percent of the fleet) daily. The majority of Delta’s non-Wi-Fi-enabled flights are on regional jets used on flights under an hour.
Southwest offers 2,320 (about 74 percent of the fleet) Wi-Fi-enabled flights with another 800 rolling it out.
US Airways is another line to check out; it offers Wi-Fi on 1,293 domestic flights a day (a little over 40 percent of its fleet).
Lagging further behind are: American with 541 Wi-Fi-enabled flights a day and 908 rolling out; Alaska with 393 flights a day; and United Airlines, which is in the midst of rolling out Wi-Fi on 494 daily flights.
Where you’re flying from can also be a determining factor in whether your flight has Wi-Fi. Because Delta’s main hub is in Atlanta, you’re almost guaranteed Wi-Fi if you fly a Delta plane out of ATL.
And, certain routes, like Los Angeles-to-San Francisco, Los Angeles-to-New York and Atlanta-to-Orlando, are highly connected, with 31, 27 and 26 Wi-Fi-enabled flights offered on each route, respectively.
Another thing to look for when seeking out a Wi-Fi-enabled flight is what type of plane you’ll be flying on. Boeing 737s offer the most Wi-Fi, with 3,546 flights operating daily and another 800 in the midst of rolling it out.
When’s the last time you transferred from an airport into the heart of downtown without paying a dime? And when’s the last time you got drinks and snacks at an airport — for free?
I did both of these things on a recent trip to Toronto via Billy Bishop Toronto City Airport. Unlike the much larger Toronto Pearson International Airport, which is about 17 miles outside of town, Billy Bishop is located in the heart of Toronto — specifically, on an island across a narrow strip of water from downtown. It’s currently served by only two carriers, Porter Airlines and (in a more limited capacity) Air Canada.
I flew Porter from Newark to Toronto and back, and was struck by how different this airport felt than any other I’d ever flown into. First off, you get there via the world’s shortest ferry (the ride is just 90 seconds across a 132-yard stretch of water), after riding a free shuttle bus to the ferry terminal from downtown. No need to take a pricey cab.
Following a quick trip through security, you settle into a lounge with couches and cushy chairs arranged around coffee tables, looking out through large windows at the Toronto skyline. The Wi-Fi is free (albeit slow), and you can help yourself to complimentary bottled water, soft drinks, tea, coffee and snacks. All in all, it’s a pretty decent place to wait out a flight delay.
Of course, such a small airport has its drawbacks. This isn’t the place to go if you want to browse a bookstore, shop for duty-free goodies or eat a full-service meal; there are no stores or restaurants, just a quick-stop cafe. And you can forget about fun extras like massage chairs or play areas for kids.
Billy Bishop isn’t the world’s most entertaining airport. But after my last flight through New York JFK — where the service was sour, the customs line stretched for miles, and I had to shell out $10 for a measly bottled water and yogurt — I’d go back to that laid-back lounge in a heartbeat.
Every so often you see a travel article about people who think babies and kids should be banned from air travel or moved to a separate section of a plane. These curmudgeonly business travelers assert their right to a library-silent, no-wails-allowed flight. They outline a mile-long list of grievances from squirmy infants grabbing their iPads and magazines to kindergarteners kicking the backs of their seats. As if the disappearance of people under 12 — make that 18 — would make flying so much more pleasant.
To everyone who has shot daggers at the bedraggled parents with the crying baby, daring them to even think of sitting in their row, I’d like to present the view from the other side. As a travel professional, who has flown many times with my son in his two years of life, including a solo cross-country flight without Daddy, I have learned many new things about flying since I became part of the diaper set. Here are some tidbits I’ve gleaned that might make you think differently about flying with babies onboard.
Families need to travel. I spend 40 hours a week writing/editing/talking about travel. I would be a hypocrite if I suddenly stopped flying just because I had a kid. My family lives across the country, I love to explore new places, and I want my son to be exposed to a variety of people and cultures. I’m not going to do that solely within road trip distance — and nor are many other families.
You can predict where babies will sit. Smart parents choose seats in two locations on a plane — the back of a domestic flight and the bulkhead on international flights. While most travelers avoid the back of the plane, parents flock there for easy bathroom access and extra time to hunt for dropped pacifiers while everyone else deplanes. International travelers book bulkheads because this is where the in-flight bassinets hook up so babies can sleep on long-haul itineraries. Kids will be scattered throughout airplanes, for sure, but avoid these two areas or you’ll really be in the baby zone.
Babies will not scream the whole flight. Except in rare cases of illness or colic, babies do not scream nonstop for an entire five-hour flight. They’re most likely to cry while you’re still on the ground, likely because parents are delaying their next meal until the airplane takes off because nursing or sucking on a bottle helps with the pressure change. Once the airplane levels off, it actually becomes baby heaven — white noise plus vibration is the magic combination that makes most children sleepy.
It’s toddlers you really have to worry about. Babies can be soothed and older kids understand threats (and the power of in-flight movies and video games), but if you’re going to fear anyone, be afraid of toddlers. They’re willful, mobile and vocal, and do not respond to logical arguments. And they love to throw things.
Don’t blame the parents. At least, don’t blame them until you see them ignoring disruptive children. Most moms and dads I know freak out about being “that family” on a flight, so they come prepared with new toys, stickers, coloring books and toddler apps to distract young ones, and they’ll start shushing the instant a disgruntled peep emerges from their child. I’ve even heard of parents handing out goodie bags and drink coupons to their neighbors on long flights. So please don’t judge sight unseen.
Airlines don’t make it easier for families. Airlines might roll out the red carpet for their super-duper-elite fliers, but kids don’t have expense accounts. Many carriers will not guarantee families seats together in advance, seating 3-year-olds with strangers while Mom is two rows back. Frazzled parents are left to beg the gate reps or flight attendants to facilitate swaps. (Please move if you’re asked. If you think flying with kids is bad, try sitting next to a preschooler who is half a plane away from her parents.) Also, not all airlines let families with small children board first. We are really trying not to bump into you as we drag kids and carry-ons down narrow aisles, and don’t mean for our children to be in your face as we quickly stow our bags, but there’s nothing we can do about our Group Four boarding placement.
Kids are curious. You may think it’s annoying that my son is staring at you over the back of the seat, but he’s likely fascinated with your beard or your colorful shirt or your electronics. Babies love to stare; they’re not trying to be rude. If you’re feeling friendly, engage a kid who finds you fascinating — peekaboo is a winner every time. It will buy a harried parent a moment of peace, and you’re guaranteeing no screams for at least two minutes.
Kids are just acting their age — please act yours. Little kids aren’t miniature adults. Their growing brains can’t understand the need to sit still and be quiet in public. They learn by being curious and exploring their environment, and don’t understand why certain things and people are off limits. And, depending on their age, the only way they know to express themselves is by crying. You, on the other hand, are old enough to hold down a job and book your own plane tickets. You should be mature enough not to throw a tantrum when your seatmate isn’t to your liking, to understand that a kid being a kid is not the parents’ fault, and to realize that making someone else feel bad will not make you feel better or improve your flight. So grow up. I’ve been more bothered by adults’ B.O., rude manners, snoring and incessant attempts at conversation than any baby’s vocalizations — and you don’t see me trying to get those people kicked off my flight.
Two recent announcements from the hotel and airline industries may signal new travel trends — neither of which is particularly a good sign for consumers.
In a move reminiscent of when airlines began cutting services, a handful of hotel companies have said they will be reducing or dropping room service. According to Fox News, the New York Hilton Midtown revealed it will be getting rid of room service, replacing it with a cafeteria-style eatery. The hotel blamed a decline in demand, but will undoubtedly be saving money with the move. Another New York City hotel following suit is the Grand Hyatt 42nd Street, which reduced room service hours. Outside of New York, the Hilton Hawaiian Village eliminated room service as well.
While I’m not a frequent room service customer, I do appreciate the option … especially if I have arrived at my destination late, feel grungy and am too tired to trudge out to the hotel’s restaurant.
And it’s not like it’s a free service the hotels are eliminating. Room service is notorious for being expensive, so if customers are willing to pay, I don’t really understand why hotels can’t always have it as an option.
Fortunately, not all hotels are jumping onto the bandwagon. A Marriott International, Inc., spokeswoman told Reuters the company has no plans to eliminate room service.
Going in the other direction (at least on the face of it), United Airlines is trying to make it easier for passengers to take advantage of all the “extra” services the line offers, like additional legroom and checked bags. The airline has launched two subscription services that enable fliers to pay one fee to get access to some of the services it normally charges extra for. For instance, from $349 a year you can get “free” checked bags on every flight you take. Or, from $499 a year, you can guarantee yourself an Economy Plus seat. For either subscription, you must select the region you’ll be flying in; the more destinations you want to include, the higher the price.
The subscription service is supposed to save passengers money in the long run. But you have to fly at least 14 times (or seven round trips) in order to start saving on checked bags, assuming you’re only checking one bag in North America.
The exact number of flights you need to start saving on Economy Plus seats is much more vague, as the pricing of those seats varies by travel distance and when you purchase them.
So unless you’re a very frequent flier within the United States and Canada who wants to check just one bag, you’re probably not going to save a dime by taking out a subscription. Instead, United will just make more money off of you.
It seems to me that’s exactly what both of these companies are trying to do: make more money and reduce expenses by eliminating traditional customer services or continually charging more for them.
Following an outpouring of opposition from flight attendants and government officials, the Transportation Security Administration recently decided to scrap its plan to allow passengers to carry small knives (of 2.36 inches or less) once again on planes — a practice that’s been prohibited since the attacks of September 11, 2001.
It got us thinking: while some travel-related policies are meant to keep us safe — like the in-cabin knife ban that has been upheld — there are others that seem to serve no purpose whatsoever for consumers. Below, we examine four of them.
Currency Conversion Charges
If you’ve ever used your credit card abroad and been hit with fees for currency conversion, you’re not alone. In some cases, the fees are a percentage of the amount charged — which can add up to a heck of a lot if you’re paying for something expensive like a hotel room. Does it really cost anything for card companies to convert the charges, or is it just one more way for them to make money?
Airport Security Shoe Removal
If I’m wearing tall, cavernous boots that could hide a bomb or stilettos so high they might double as weaponry, I understand this rule; if I’m wearing flip-flops, I don’t. But wait! The TSA is making exceptions of late. If you’re really young or really old, you can leave your shoes on. As we all know, terrorists are only between the ages of 13 and 74.
It’s a concept that’s so rigid it serves only to sell more seats on planes. Life happens, and, sure, airlines can accommodate changes … for the right price, of course. Spelled your name wrong during the booking process? Perhaps you’ll get a sympathetic ear on the phone, and you’ll be allowed to change it without too much of a hassle. Or maybe you’ll be forced to pay a change fee or, worse yet, rebook completely. But forget about simply switching the name on your companion ticket if your flaky friend decides she can’t accompany you on that expensive vacation after all.
Mandatory Extra Fees
Raise your hand if you’ve booked a hotel or a rental car for one price and been slapped with “mandatory extras” after the fact. I recently took a trip to the Dominican Republic, where the driving conditions are so perilous that I was forced to pay for insurance on my rental car, even though my insurance provider back in the U.S. had me covered. And let’s not forget about the time I went to Las Vegas with friends, only to be pummeled with a “resort fee” because — gasp! — our hotel had a pool (which, to be honest, is a standard amenity at any hotel worth its salt). Let’s get it straight: if something is “mandatory,” it’s not an “extra” — it’s part of the price.
Which travel policies do you think are silly, unfair or outdated? Post them in the comments.
My greatest weakness as a travel professional? I can’t sleep on planes.
If you’re like me, then you know the feeling of dread that washes over you when you realize that nothing stands between you and an incredible trip to Europe (Asia, South America, etc.) but 12 hours of red-eye misery, cramped in coach class, a hard, unyielding armrest digging into your hips, head banging against the windowshade, legs going numb as you try to contort yourself in the one miracle position that will bring on sleep. And you almost don’t go.
But if you love travel as much as I do, you suck it up and go. In a desperate attempt to make long-haul flights more bearable and find a miracle cure for the sleepless flight, I took four travel pillows with me on a recent trip from San Francisco to Germany and the Netherlands. I chose products that seemed unusual or intriguing. Here’s how they ranked. (Spoiler alert: I barely slept a wink.)
Kuhi Comfort Travel Pillow The Pillow: The Kuhi Comfort Travel Pillow is not your standard-shaped neck pillow. It’s made of two soft cylindrical balls, attached by a strap. The selling point is that you can use it multiple ways. Turn it one way and the curved part is by your neck; flip it around and the flat part is against you. Straighten the strap and you can tuck one end over your shoulder and cuddle the other, put it behind you for back support and place it in your lap to rest a book.
The Flight: I was pretty excited about this one — the design is original and the materials feel high-end. To my disappointment, the fit is just off. The strap is too short and the balls are (ahem) too big. When the pillow was around my neck, I felt surrounded by material. Trying alternate positions didn’t work — the pillow is too bulky for good back support and too short to sling across your body. The final blow: Because the pillow isn’t inflatable, you have to carry it around in its little stuff sack, which attaches nicely to the handle of your rollaboard but dangles awkwardly if you’re carrying a backpack or other bag.
Final Verdict: I wanted to love it, but I just couldn’t make it work.
Cabeau Evolution Pillow The Pillow: The Evolution Pillow is an enhanced version of the standard, plush (non-inflatable) neck pillow. It’s made of memory foam and has raised side supports to cradle your neck — or you can wear the pillow backwards to support your chin. It even has a pocket for your MP3 player. It comes with a travel case and memory-foam earplugs.
The Flight: I was the least excited about the Evolution Pillow, but it was actually really comfortable. I used this one while dozing on an early-morning flight, and I did appreciate the extra head support, the soft material and the absence of the inflatable-pillow plastic smell. However, I would like to see a step-by-step video of how the designers scrunched the pillow down to a quarter of its size and fit it into the stuff sack. I couldn’t even get the entire pillow into the bag, so I couldn’t use the Velcro straps to attach it and it just dangled awkwardly, threatening to fall out.
Final Verdict: Until someone can show me how to make this pillow travel-friendly, I’m sticking with my blow-up model. (Editor’s Note: Cabeau recently offered us the following instructions for packing the pillow.)
EZ Sleep Travel Pillow The Pillow: Imagine a miniature version of an inflatable pool mat that you could stand up like a wall between airplane seats, attached by a Velcro strap around the arm rest. What you see in your mind is the EZ Sleep Travel Pillow. The concept is to create a support structure for you to lean against as you catch some in-flight Z’s, so your body isn’t flopping about like a rag doll.
The Flight: It hit me in the airport — if I have the aisle seat and someone else has the window, I may be too embarrassed to set this inflatable wall up. It’s big and it encroaches into shared territory. Luckily for me, I had two seats to myself. The pillow does not seem as sturdy as the claim — if I really fell asleep on it, I don’t believe it would hold my weight without collapsing onto my seatmate. What it was great for was putting against the armrest or the window to create a soft surface to lean against — preventing hard metal and plastic plane parts from bruising my body as I tossed and turned.
Final Verdict: If you and a family member are sharing adjoining seats, by all means, set this pillow up. Otherwise, it might not be worth packing the EZ Sleep to use in conjunction with another pillow for your head or neck.
Travelrest Travel Pillow The Pillow: Here’s a new one — an inflatable pillow shaped like a banana, or possibly an apostrophe. It’s larger on the top, so you can rest your head, and then tapers into a slight curve (this part slings across your body). A long string at the bottom lets you attach the two ends to secure the pillow around you or your airplane seat.
The Flight: This pillow was hands down my favorite. I contorted my body into all sorts of positions trying to sleep across two airplane seats, and whether I was sitting up or half-lying down, the pillow cradled my head and gave me something to wrap my arms around so they didn’t just dangle uselessly. The only downside was the plasticky smell that plagues all inflatable travel pillows, though perhaps that would go away after a few uses.
Final Verdict: While it didn’t help me sleep, the Travelrest pillow made my attempts more comfortable. I’m keeping this one and will definitely use it again.
Next time you’re in Beijing, don’t ask anyone behind the China Eastern Airlines desk which gate your flight is leaving from. They might just strike out at you for being so impertinent!
At least that’s what happened back in March when freelance journalist Matt Sheehan filmed an angry airline worker trying to hit several customers with a steel chair.
Now, I’ve heard of angry airline employees yelling at passengers and, of course, there’s the infamous case of Steven Slater, the JetBlue flight attendant who deployed the emergency slide after claiming he was verbally abused by passengers. And I fully appreciate how difficult it must be for airline workers to rein in their anger when passengers are yelling at them — but this story takes the cake.
According to Sheehan, passengers waiting for a flight were ping-ponged back and forth between several departure gates as their flight was delayed later and later. After the departure gate was changed yet again, he and several other passengers went to the counter for information. Sheehan admits many of the passengers were angry.
Enter the manager who tried to calm the crowd down, but also refused to acknowledge that the departure gate had been changed numerous times. And that’s when things got ugly. Two of the angry passengers lashed out; one threw a wadded newspaper at the manager, while another threw a plastic water bottle.
Take a look at how the manager reacted:
Okay, yes, the passengers shouldn’t have thrown anything. But the manager’s reaction was way out of proportion. Maybe if the passenger had thrown a knife, it would have been appropriate. But wadded newspapers and plastic bottles do not rate a steel chair response.
You’re stuck on a plane sitting in between two people hogging both armrests, one of whom hasn’t stopped trying to talk to you the entire flight; what do you do? Do you ignore it? Say something? Passively fight back?
A new survey of travelers by the franchise travel agency company Travel Leaders found that whether people will say something or not depends on the infraction. For instance, nearly 70 percent of 1,788 travelers surveyed would say something directly to a passenger in front of them if their personal space were “invaded” with an article of clothing or someone’s hair. But slightly less than half would sit quietly and say nothing if they were stuck in the middle seat and had no access to either armrest.
Personally, when I have a woman with long hair sitting in front of me, I do the passive-aggressive thing. If her hair is hanging over the seat, I blow on it or “accidentally” tug it when I’m putting down the tray. Without fail the woman gets the message. As for being stuck in the middle seat, yeah, I do sit quietly and do nothing (though I’ve challenged myself to do it differently the next time I’m in that situation).
I’m not alone in my hesitancy to say something to someone impacting my comfort on a plane. In only two hypothetical situations did more than half of respondents say they would say something directly to another passenger. Both involve the person in front of them: the passenger invading personal space via clothing/hair (as above) and the person whose chair is so far reclined that you can’t lower your tray table or open a laptop computer. In the latter case, 55.4 percent of respondents said they would say something directly to the person.
In some cases, calling on a flight attendant for help is a popular option, though by and large, survey respondents did not indicate eagerness to “tattle” on another passenger.
In only three hypothetical situations did more than a quarter of respondents say they would turn to flight attendants for help:
- 28.1 percent said they would call a flight attendant if the person in front of them ignored crew member instructions to have their seat back upright for takeoff and/or landing;
- 27.9 percent would hit the call button if someone on the plane were talking so loudly everyone could hear;
- 46.7 percent would ask a flight attendant to speak to a parent of a screaming child who was making no attempt to comfort or control the child.
Travelers were also asked what they would do if the person next to them on a flight insisted on trying to talk to them the entire flight. Most (38.1 percent) said they would use a book or other reading materials to limit the conversation, while 18.9 percent said they’d put on headphones and use reading materials. Some (12.2 percent) said they’d actually engage in conversation for the entire flight. Just over 10 percent said they’d be honest and tell the person they prefer not to talk.
Rafael Nadal is a traveler after my own heart. After more than a decade of crisscrossing the globe to play in one tournament or another, the pro tennis player from Spain has learned a few things about travel.
In a recent interview with CNN (see the video below), he reveals that, like me, he prefers to pack light. For a two-month trip, he brings only three bags, including his tennis rackets. (He carries those rackets as hand luggage rather than checking them — a wise move. Remember when Delta wrecked a $10,000 guitar that a musician had checked?)
Like most of us, Nadal appreciates a hotel room with a comfy bed that’s easy on his back. And he admits to an endearing propensity to be late to the airport — something I’ve personally improved upon after missing a flight a few years back.
Of course, a man ranked at No. 16 on a recent Forbes’ list of highly paid athletes probably isn’t jetting around in coach class the way I am — nor am I the part owner of a beach resort. (If you want to stay at Rafa’s digs, check into the Secrets Aura Cozumel.) And I can’t say I’ve ever tried to get a more spacious room at a hotel to make room for my massage table. Must be nice.
That said, Nadal and I have one other thing in common, whether we’re sitting in first-class or the back of the bus. Even after so many years and so many miles, he still gets nervous on bumpy flights. “If the plane moves, some turbulence, I am nervous flier,” he says. “My hands start to sweat.” Me too, Rafa. Me too.