Ask the pilot

Leave the claw hammer at home, don't hog the overhead bins, keep cellphone chatter to a minimum and other tips to help smooth out your holiday travel experience.

By Patrick Smith

Published November 26, 2008 11:13AM (EST)

Thanksgiving weekend is nothing if not a circus of ritual. To some of you it means pretending to enjoy football, overeating and socializing with relatives you can't stand. And if you're one of the millions of Americans expected to fly this weekend, it also means some quality time at your local Transportation Security Administration checkpoint, crowded planes and gorging on the meatlike succulence of a Chick-fil-A sandwich  after the agent announces a three-hour ground stop on all flights east of the Mississippi.

For the second straight Thanksgiving, President Bush has authorized the opening of a limited number of military-only flyways for passenger aircraft. The gesture, which a year ago was touted by Fox News as a "gift to the American people," is intended to reduce delays during what is annually the busiest weekend for air traffic.

Last time it pertained only to a pair of military corridors located off the Eastern seaboard along the busy north-south corridor connecting the Southeastern United States with New York and New England. This year's program will include opening corridors in several other regions, coast to coast. (Fox, though, has toned it down, calling it merely "The marquee item in [Bush's] strategy for reducing air traffic congestion.")

There are two ways to look at this:

On the bright side, this particular initiative, unlike others of the outgoing administration, is unlikely to kill anybody or add billions to the deficit. As for the impact on flight delays, however, I hate to be a wet blanket, but allow me to say what I said in 2007: It will have roughly the same effect as, say, organizing a group prayer or rubbing a plastic airplane for good luck.

There is not, despite what the media, trade groups and politicians continue to assert, an airspace crisis in this country. There is, more accurately, an airport crisis. The logjam is localized on and around airports themselves, not between them or high overhead. Freeing up chunks of en-route airspace is mildly helpful but does little good if approach patterns, aprons, taxiways and runways are saturated. In some cases, it makes the problem worse.

To that end, it warrants mention that three major airports in America opened additional runways last week. Seattle, Chicago O'Hare and Washington Dulles all inaugurated new slabs of pavement just in time for the big push. True, there are other locations in more desperate need of real estate (LaGuardia, JFK, Newark), but certainly this will help -- a little.

If indeed delays are down this weekend, trust that it will not be due to Mr. Bush’s magic airspace wand, but rather to a lack of storms, a bit of increased capacity at O’Hare, Dulles and Sea-Tac, and perhaps a lower-than-usual number of fliers. The Air Transport Association predicts that holiday boardings will be off about 10 percent from 2007 -- the first such decline in seven years.

That's still a lot of people -- more than 20 million between now and Christmas -- so may I suggest a few common-sense recommendations to help the travel experience flow more smoothly for you and those around you? Most of what makes flying a tolerable or miserable experience is out of our hands -- and, as a rule, this column stays away from the "travel tips" format, but, hey, it's the holidays, and some of our bad habits have been bugging me.

1. Security sense

Looking around the average TSA checkpoint, noticing the overflowing bins of confiscated items -- soda bottles, knives, tools -- you'd swear that every one of the 2 million or so Americans who flies each day is a first-timer. Are there really that many people who don't know that oversize liquids and sharp tools are verboten on aircraft? What, you mean I can't fly with a gallon of antifreeze (I saw it), my favorite claw hammer or a replica handgun? Since when?

Or perhaps you are well aware of the rules and are rolling the dice in hopes of sneaking through with that extremely dangerous, 4-ounce tube of toothpaste? Not all of us can blame you, but every time a guard yells "bag check," about 50 people look at their watches. You've just added three minutes of queue time for everybody behind you.

And yes, you need to take your shoes and coat off. Do it quickly, please, before you get to the metal detector. Schnell!

The rules are tedious and wasteful, but we're stuck with them. Leave your contraband at home, pack your legal-size toiletries appropriately and have your stuff ready for the conveyor belt. The lines will move faster.

Note: If it should happen that you are allowed to pass with that claw hammer, I recommend it be used for something other than carpentry or assault. Specifically, those CNN Airport Network monitors are, by all measures, in dire need of, um, er, repairs. Sure you'll be carted off to Guantánamo in leg irons, but millions of Americans will thank you. 

2. Cellphone chatter

Make your call quickly and quietly. You know who you are.

I'm going to make my first million by coming up with a system that allows people on airplanes to place automated calls to their loved ones with the push of a button. Press 1, and a call is automatically placed to your spouse or partner, with a prerecorded message that says: "Yeah, hi, we just landed. Just pulling up to the gate. Should be off in about 15 minutes."

Press 2, and the message continues: "Sure, put her on. [pause] Hey, Sweetie, it's Daddy. [pause] Really, all by yourself? [pause] Oh, hey, that's really great. I'll be home in an hour, can you put Mommy back on?" 

3. Bin hoggers beware

We've been over this before, but some of you haven't gotten the memo. When boarding an airplane, try not to put your carry-on bags in the first empty bin that you come to. Use a bin as close to your seat as possible. It drives me crazy when I see a guy shoving his overstuffed Tumi into a bin above Row 6, then strutting to his assigned seat in Row 57. I know it's tempting, but this causes the forward bins to fill up quickly. Because airplanes are boarded back-to-front, there is often no space left for those with seats in the forward part of the cabin. They are forced to travel backward to stow their belongings, then return upstream, clogging the aisle.

Then after landing, the same thing happens in reverse, only now it's worse because everybody is moving up the aisle en masse, hurrying to get off. Heaven help the poor soul who has to navigate rearward to retrieve his stuff. I was that soul on a flight not long ago. Although I was seated in the very first row of economy, I was the last person off the plane. 

4. Getting sleepy 

I am pretty sure I read somewhere that 99 out of 100 pediatricians recommend dosing your infant or toddler with Benadryl prior to flying. One study reveals that it will not only prevent your offspring's hundred-decibel shriek from shattering the windows of a 767 during one of those cute little temper tantrums, but will make your baby even smarter and more adorable than he/she already is. Really. Honest. A few milligrams of Benadryl does not equate to child abuse. Take my word for it. *

4. Take a walk at LGA

If you're going to be delayed, there's a decent chance it'll happen at LaGuardia. With enough time, consider a trip over to the Marine Air Terminal, the former docking point of Pan Am's "Clipper" flying boats during the 1940s. It's the circular building with the flying fish motif and rooftop cupola, adjacent to (and connected to) the Delta Shuttle. A beautiful pair of Art Deco doors leads into the rotunda. This is one of aviation's special places, home to James Brooks' famous “Flight” mural. Completed in 1940, the 235-foot mural traces the history of aviation from Icarus to the flying boats. The style is a nod at socialist realism, and at the height of '50s McCarthyism, in a controversy not unlike that over Diego Rivera's mural at Rockefeller Center, it was seen by some as socialist propaganda and painted over. After an extensive restoration, it was rededicated in 1980. The rotunda has wooden benches and is always quiet -- a good place to relax, free from public address announcements and those infernal CNN monitors.

If you're hungry, the MAT is also home to Rocco's, a cafeteria-style place with good greasy-spoon food and absolutely no corporate affiliation -- one of a dwindling few indie restaurants to be found at a major airport. The walls are decorated with historic photographs from the MAT's heyday. 

6. A sense of perspective

Some of you will have a hard time believing this, but when it comes right down to it, flying isn't so awful. All things considered, it's something of a bargain. For about the same price you were paying 25 years ago, you will be carried thousands of miles, at hundreds of miles per hour, in near perfect safety, on a journey that, even when everything goes right, can take many hours. (These are the same trips that once took days or weeks by land or sea.) I cannot excuse negligent service or incompetence, but in the context of what you are doing, where you are going and how much you are paying, perhaps the hassles of air travel are not as outrageous as they seem. Just a thought.

[* For those who might have missed the pilot's tongue-in-cheek tone: The FDA recommends that over-the-counter cough and cold medicines "not be used to treat infants and children under 2 years of age because serious and potentially life-threatening side effects can occur."]

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Do you have questions for Salon's aviation expert? Contact Patrick Smith through his Web site and look for answers in a future column.

Patrick Smith

Patrick Smith is an airline pilot.

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