Ask the pilot

Mobbing the friendly skies: More of you are traveling this weekend, at low cost, than ever before.

Published November 23, 2005 12:30PM (EST)

This will be short and sweet, since almost everybody in the nation is on the move for Thanksgiving. Well, maybe not everyone, if you include those of us who use the holidays as an opportunity to hunker down invisibly, but plenty of people, for sure. Government prognosticators say upward of 16 million Americans will travel by plane over the weekend -- like last year, a new holiday record.

This great and temporary migration gives us the best and worst of the air travel experience. On one hand we can view it romantically: the promise of commercial aviation fulfilled; countless families and friends brought together through the ambivalent magic of high-tech flying machines and rock bottom airfares. In our teeming terminals and overbooked cabins, the familiar feelings of dread and exhaustion mix with a sense of excitement and expectation. On the other hand, a truly egalitarian sky is prone to rain all the miseries and discomforts one might expect. The system, along with the patience of all those who partake, will be stressed to its limits. It's the usual contradictions of flying, I suppose, accelerated and maximized in a four-day holiday melee.

All the bustle is welcome business for airport vendors -- sales of jet fuel, sandwiches from Chik-Fil-A, and copies of "The Kite Runner" all destined to soar. Ironically, the only folks sucking their teeth right now are the airlines themselves. I'll use this opportunity for a preemptive strike -- to head off a question that's destined to form on the lips of thousands of travelers as they sit on bursting-at-the-seams jetliners, wedged in amid rows of colicky kids and the smell of sweat-dampened upholstery: How the hell are the airlines still losing money?

For the answer, check your ticket receipt. While it's true that more people are flying in America than ever before -- 2005 boardings will surpass those of 2002 by approximately 77 million -- it's also true that airfares are cheaper than ever. Roughly a third of those 16 million holiday fliers will be patronizing low-cost carriers. With their streamlined infrastructures and pay scales, companies like Southwest, AirTran and JetBlue are able to transport people at a fraction of the cost of the beleaguered mainline carriers. Even as fuel costs have doubled in the past few years, ticket prices have remained, on average, at their lowest levels in history. The ailing giants like United, Delta and Northwest have had little choice but to match fares and take the hit. They can raise prices and lose passengers, or keep them low and continue bleeding. It's quintessential lose-lose.

What people typically want before diving in with the big airport crowds is advice. Each year the networks make room for their staple holiday-travel segment -- a claustrophobic-looking reporter chiming in from a jampacked concourse somewhere, dispensing the usual dos and don'ts of peak period air travel -- in case there are any remaining Americans who need to be reminded that security lines are long and butcher knives are no longer allowed in your carry-on.

To be fair, Thanksgiving is unique in that it typically records a high concentration of first-time passengers, as well as once- or twice-a-year travelers who might not be savvy with metal detector protocol. These same infrequent fliers tend also to be the most squeamish and apprehensive. If that's you, my chief recommendation is a simple one:

Try to leave your accident-related anxieties at home -- or back on the highway where they belong. This past Nov. 12 came and went quietly, but it happened to be the 4th anniversary of the last catastrophic airplane accident on U.S. soil -- the crash of American Airlines flight 587 in New York City. In the four years intervening 2.7 billion people have flown in this country (more than 7 billion globally) -- almost all of them arriving safely.

That's something to be proud of, and if we're looking for someone to thank, we can start by acknowledging the skill and professionalism of air crews everywhere. Technological advances, regulatory improvements and plain old dumb luck get a nod too.

Whether such an outstanding record exists because or in spite of anything accomplished by the upstart Transportation Security Administration (TSA) is open to argument. Regulars to this page won't be surprised to learn that my criticism of certain TSA procedures is yet to thaw. The agency is presumably working hard on worthy causes like explosives detection, but on the concourse level it continues to waste time and resources by X-raying people's footwear and generally wasting their time with absurd pocket searches at chaotically organized checkpoints. I was set to give the TSA a pat on the back after learning the agency had loosened its lunatic metal object policies, but the shoe rigmarole remains in place, and is a prime contributor to those endless queues at security -- queues that I shudder to envision during these next four days.

The good news is, you can once again bring your corkscrews.

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The pilot's Thanksgivings past:

The best and worst airports for sleeping and a look at "Lost."

Reminiscence of turkey sandwiches at 20,000 feet

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Do you have questions for Salon's aviation expert? Send them to AskThePilot and look for answers in a future column.

By Patrick Smith

Patrick Smith is an airline pilot.

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