Or -- next time I'll take a bus.

A while back I read a news posting in one of the software engineering newsgroups I follow bemoaning how the computer industry has simply swallowed a millionfold improvement in performance, with result that a basic computer still costs the same as it does 17 years ago and does the basic things everyone does on a computer less well than in 1984. He's right of course, but he lost his case with me when he went on to proudly proclaim how in his work as an aeronautical engineer he has seen enormous progress in commercial aviation result form dedicated engineering. Fat Chance -- I've been a frequent flier since the early 1970's, and can relate that in those days travel was generally reasonable (for me at least), every airline took every other airline's tickets and had the same rules on fares, space was if not generous at least comfortable, planes were never full and ran on schedule most of the time, and the food and service was something special. Now?? -- if you fly I don't need to spell it out. What follows here is some hopefully useful insights on air travel, airlines, and airports.

Picking Airlines and Flights

Some General Considerations

Usually your destination and schedule will significantly limit your choices, but here are some things to think about in picking flights and airlines:

Connecting -- don't

The above is a good general rule if you can get away with it. Living near a major airport helps. (From Ohare I can go almost anywhere in the world non-stop.) If you are stuck connecting here are some thoughts


Everyone has their own favorites, so these are my opinions, not necessarily everyones. A few years back I would have suggested the big airlines (United, American, and Delta) were a cut above the rest -- sadly this is no more.  All have been in or near bankrupcy and there is little to distinguish service any more among airlines.  Frequent flier programs and miles are a consideration in picking (see below), as is price, but the deciding factor for most people is who has a flight when you want and where you want.  It's worth considering though whether that airline has many flights or only one (in case you miss it). The big airlines aren't likely to stop flying even if they do go bankrupt, but smaller carriers have vanished before leaving passengers to try to convert their tickets to other flights. Finally there's Southwest, in a class by itself in my view. Southwest flights are basically like bus routes, with stops in intermediate cities. They are reliable, cheap, and the people there really do seem to be more enthusiastic about what they are doing than elsewhere. If you fly them, show up early at the airport if you want your choice of seats. First people at the airport get on the plane first.

Frequent Flier Miles -- a legal addictive drug

Many years back I was lucky enough to get a first class upgrade and struck up a conversation with the man in the seat next to me. He was from Bell Labs too, and turned out to be VP of Human Resources. He went on at length on how the frequent flier programs were really illegal bribes, since they influence the choices made by employees taking trips their employers pay for. He's right of course, but after 20 years the industry has shown no signs of giving them up, and threats to tax the benefits have never been carried through. You can't of course pick an airline just because of the frequent flier miles, but many times you are free to make a choice among equal alternatives and the choice you make influences how many miles you keep or how many you spend.

When it comes time to spend your miles, there are a lot of choices to be made. Here are some considerations

Security Checks

After 9/11/2001, Flying got more intimidating.  Not really harder, just more intimidating. It's pretty standard now most places in the US (Security is different in Canada and overseas)  Here's basically what to expect:
Whatever you do, don't be afraid to fly and enjoy being in a country where you can still travel freely easily.

Airports and Cities

While you often have little choice about where you fly, it's worth knowing a bit about the airports. Airports come in one of 3 basic designs:

Beyond the design, it's worth knowing where the rental cars are, and what the transportation system is like in the city. Here's a list of airports and some basic advice:

Baggage -- we all have more than enough.

It would be so much simpler if all the planes had to carry was passengers.  Unfortunately we all insist on carrying  around way too much stuff.  To solve this problem airlines invented checked baggage -- and passengers responded by trying to carry their stuff onto planes anyway.  50 years later it's still pretty much the same, except that now that most airlines charge most passengers to check bags people will do almost anything to avoid it.

Carry on Baggage

"Carry on" is really a misnomer.  Ever since someone put little wheels on suitcases nobody carries anything.  That alone contributes to the problem since someone dragging a bag behind them catching on the seats takes up a lot more room in the aircraft aisle and a lot more time stuffing that little steamer trunk away.  Planes vary a lot in what they will accomodate as carry on bags and keep in mind that those hard framed bags most folks carry are not very adaptable to be shaped to fit in odd spaces.  Some planes (those little regional jets that now get flown on many routes) take very little carry on at all and instead those bags have to be checked at the gate and usually returned there -- not too bad unless the contents are fragile.  Some suggestions:

Checking baggage

If you can't or don't want to carry it on, you have to check it at the desk or at curbside check in.  Be prepared for long lines and a 30-40 minute wait to get the bags back after the plane lands (but often you get "lucky" and it takes you nearly that long to reach baggage claim from a distant gate).  Most airlines now charge you to check a bag, so you will need some way to pay for it when you do.  Some suggestions:

When things go wrong 

Flight Safety

The thing to keep in mind is no matter how chaotic things seem, airplanes are still the safest mode of transport around. They are also much tougher than you would probably expect. Things happen to planes all the time and knowing what can happen is sometimes reassuring. In the years I've been flying I've been on planes:

Delays and cancellations

My one biggest wish for the airlines is more honest about what's going on, and better reporting.Flight delays under bad weather are inevitable, cancellations that throw your schedule into chaos, even when your flight was the only one cancelled, are something else. When (not if) you are on a cancelled flight, consider and use your options:

Some suggestions for the airlines:

All of us have things we wish we could change about the world.  Here's my list for airlines: