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How to mitigate the miseries of air travel - at least some of them

  • Author: Scott McMurren
    | Alaska Travel
  • Updated: April 14, 2017
  • Published April 13, 2017

(Getty images)

I can't get that picture out of my head. You know the one: the bloodied United Airlines passenger being dragged from the plane in Chicago.

The details of this shameful incident will be played out in court soon enough. In the meantime, United CEO Oscar Muñoz is doing backflips to apologize. All of the passengers on United's Flight 3411 have been offered compensation.

This is not the first customer service meltdown for United. Nor will it be the last. Just last week, a United agent in Lihue, Kauai, came aboard an aircraft and confronted a passenger in first class, telling him to get off the plane.

The flight attendant allegedly threatened the passenger, Geoff Fearns, saying he would be removed in handcuffs if necessary. The reason, according to Fearns, was that they needed the seat "for somebody more important who came at the last minute."

In today's competitive airline business, carriers constantly are operating on the tipping point of customer expectations, investor demands and regulatory requirements. Oh, let's not forget the weather.

Earlier this month, Delta Air Lines' hub at Atlanta was hit with a fierce storm that disrupted the carrier's operations throughout its system. Delta officials still are awarding travel vouchers or bonus miles to travelers as a result of the disaster.

In a quarterly financial update, Delta acknowledged that the storm and the operational meltdown that followed will cost approximately $125 million.

Frequent fliers know that flying on airliners that are increasingly jammed to capacity calls for some adjustments. Most of those adjustments cost money. Your own money. Those travelers who do not fly as often should take heed to avoid nasty travel surprises.

Let's start with your ticket. More airlines charge for things that used to be free. I know — shocker. This has been the case for years now, but it's still upsetting to me when booking a reservation that I must pay to reserve a seat, to check a bag or to reserve a meal.

When I booked a Lufthansa flight last year, they had a special "bundle" that included a checked bag, a reserved seat and a meal. I refused that, but ended up paying extra for a bag and an aisle seat.

On a return flight from Barcelona on Lufthansa, the gate agent insisted on charging $400 for a case of wine. Not for the wine — but only for the box to be shipped first to Frankfurt and then to Anchorage.

It was our third bag, and we were over our weight limit. We went around and around as the clock ticked closer to the departure time. In the end, we paid the fee. After all, it was really good wine. Not that good — but I didn't want to abandon it at the counter.

Being nickel-and-dimed usually is not a deal-breaker for travelers, but it definitely adds extra tension on top of everything else. Just ask a flight attendant who has to tell a passenger that they don't accept cash … only credit cards.

One of the worst tension-triggers at the airports is the TSA checkpoint. I won't get into the metrics of the TSA program. But the whole body-scanning, shoe-sniffing, finger-poking mess puts everyone on edge.

After the TSA checkpoint, there are several bars and lounges at most major airports. Who can blame the hapless traveler for self-medicating with a couple of drinks. Of course, if there's a canceled or delayed flight, the traveler may opt for another drink or two — and that may be a problem later on.

Is your flight overbooked? Many flights are intentionally booked past capacity, and airlines have policies for getting people to give up their seats. That usually involves paying people with vouchers, airline miles or cash. Normally the system works pretty well — until it doesn't.

Once, I was booked in first class on Alaska Airlines, from Seattle to Boston. But when I went to board the plane, I found that I was "reaccommodated" to a middle seat in coach.

Was I upset? Yes. Did I take it up with the airline after the flight? Yes. Was the process frustrating and time-consuming? Yes, but it was worth it to get the airline to acknowledge the foul-up.

These days, in addition to the extra fees and the tension-triggers built into the travel experience, more flights are operating completely full.

So, when you cram people into a small space without much room, someone's going to snap. I was talking to my neighbor Danny Purvis about this. Danny is a captain with Alaska Airlines. "Welcome to high-capacity flying," he said apologetically.

So what do frequent fliers do? First, they take it upon themselves to mitigate their misery if they're flying in coach.

First, consider joining an airport lounge. There's just one in Anchorage, the Board Room. Actually, the new name is the "Alaska Lounge" on the C concourse.

You can have a snack, a cup of coffee or a drink while waiting for your flight. It costs me about $300 per year. You can buy a day pass just to check it out. The room is quiet and staffed by friendly people. It takes the edge off the TSA experience and helps me prepare for my flight.

Speaking of the TSA, it's worth it to get the Global Entry card, which costs $100 for five years. You automatically get the "precheck" line. Those lines move quicker, since you don't have to pull your computer out, or take your shoes off.

Invest in some noise-canceling headphones. Airports are noisy places — and so are airplanes. You can plug these headphones into your computer or music player, or just let the noise-canceling technology blot out some of the background noise, including crying babies.

I like Bose headphones, which cost about $300. There are other brands, including Beats, Sony and Sennheiser.

Pay for better treatment. When I traveled on some cheap airlines in Asia, I was presented with options to purchase extra legroom, which often included the checked bag and a reserved seat.

I took it, since I knew these planes were fitted with seats for people that are, on average, a full foot shorter than me. You should take it too, if you are able. More domestic airlines now offer that, including Alaska, Delta and even United. It costs more, but you'll have more personal space.

Most frequent travelers have their own hacks and tricks on how to get the most for their travel dollar. Some are dedicated cheapskates who refuse to pay an extra dime for anything. But others are willing to part with a few extra bucks if they can just feel a little bit more like a human being when they fly.

I fall into the latter group. Up toward the front of the aircraft is that group of travelers who will pay more to have the best seats and the best service. Airlines strive to keep all of these groups happy. It's an intricate dance.

Will these steps prevent the airlines from stepping on your toes from time to time? No. Sometimes things just go horribly wrong. But if you've taken some of your own steps to improve your travel experience, you'll be in a better mood when you're complaining to the Department of Transportation.

Scott McMurren is an Anchorage-based marketing consultant, serving clients in the transportation, hospitality, media and specialty destination sectors, among others. Contact him by email at zoom907@me.com. You can follow him on Twitter (@alaskatravelGRM) and alaskatravelgram.com. For more information, visit alaskatravelgram.com/about.

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