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10 Secrets Airlines Don’t Want You to Know

Air Travel is becoming as ubiquitous as taking a bus or train — which means it no longer has its traditional mystique. But some mysteries still persist 35,000 feet in the air. There are plenty of things airlines don’t want you to know about flying. Are nonrefundable tickets really nonrefundable? What should you do if your airline cancels your flight? Do free upgrades exist? And how do you actually score the best deals on tickets? The folks at Culture Cheat Sheet have assembled the following answers — and more — to help you become an informed, efficient, and economical passenger.

  1. Did you get bumped from your flight? Only take cash, never a voucher

Chances are good that every flight you take these days is overbooked. Airlines need planes that are at least 85% full to start making a profit on airfare. And they won’t consistently achieve that level if they don’t account for missed connections, people oversleeping, or simply choosing not to show. You’ve likely heard a gate agent announce that the airline is offering vouchers when a flight has too many checked-in passengers. Most times, that takes care of the problem. But don’t take those vouchers yourself.

Only about 10% of people get bumped against their will. If that happens, the airline will have to pay up (unless it can still get you to your destination on time.) If you’re involuntarily delayed for two hours or more, the Department of Transportation requires that you’re compensated up to 400% of your ticket value. Compensation is capped at $1,300. If the gate agent or customer service rep places you on another airline, you aren’t required to pay anything extra for your seat or baggage. (In-flight food, beverages, and entertainment don’t apply.)

  1. Hungry? You’re allowed to take your own meal onto the plane

The food served on airplanes is pretty notorious for leaving a lot to be desired when it comes to flavor and selection. But most of us put up with it. What other options are there? Plenty, it turns out. You’re actually allowed to bring your own food onto the plane. Years ago, the New York Times advised that when flying, “the practical thing to do is to pack your own meal.” USA Today reports there are no formal limits on how much food you can take on board.  You can pack as much food into your carry-on as you want.

Packing your lunch is a pretty attractive alternative to overpaying for a meal on the plane or at the airport. But there are some rules to keep in mind. The most important of those is TSA’s regulation on liquids. Foods such as yogurt and hummus count as liquids. They need to be in a clear bag when you go through security. If you’re flying internationally, you’ll want to check the flight regulations to see which food items you can bring on and off the plane.

Plus, you should think about odors and allergies when you’re choosing what to pack. Although you might love a garlicky pasta lunch, it probably won’t make you popular with your neighbors. Try to be considerate of your fellow travelers.

  1. Flight canceled? You need to get on the phone immediately

Let’s imagine that the worst has happened. The airline canceled your flight, or delayed it long enough that you won’t make your connection. What should you do? Act quickly, time is of the essence! Of course you should stand in line at the gate or the ticket counter, but while you’re waiting, place a call to your travel agent, who can reschedule you, as well, without the line. Keep in mind, seconds matter here. While you are chatting on the phone, your replacement flight’s inventory is falling, as other traveler’s agents snatch those seats up for whoever is on the phone with them. So instead of relating your sob story, give your record locator as soon as you get your agent on the line.

  1. Your smartphone won’t really bring down the plane

It’s standard practice for flight attendants to ask you to switch your smartphone to airplane mode before takeoff. But plenty of us have been tempted to disobey. Would your smartphone really bring the plane down if you continue to send text messages or download emails once the plane is on the runway? Travel + Leisure reports that “there has never been a case of a cellphone causing a plane to crash.” But that’s not necessarily an excuse to keep your phone on throughout your flight.

Kenny Kirchoff, an engineer at Boeing’s Electromagnetic Interference Lab in Seattle, tells CNN the issue isn’t that your phone (or tablet, laptop, or e-reader) could bring the plane down. The issue is interference. It seems that interference from electronic devices can affect aircraft systems. But problems are rare. And the International Air Transport Association found it difficult (even impossible) to replicate them.

The FAA has handed over responsibility to the airlines. So it’s your airline that decides which electronic devices you can use and when. However, using a smartphone that’s transmitting cell signals is banned (both by the FAA because of potential airplane interference and by the FCC because of potential interference with networks on the ground). So while switching your phone to airplane mode is fine, your airline prefers it if you don’t stay connected to voice, text, or data services — even if it’s unlikely to cause any real issues during the flight.

  1. Packing hand sanitizer is just as important as remembering your carry-on

Nobody likes dealing with a baggie of liquids at the TSA checkpoint. But it’s worth the hassle of packing a quart-size plastic bag, so you can carry hand sanitizer on board. The surfaces of many areas in a plane have more germs than a toilet seat. According to one flight attendant, tray tables get cleaned an average of once per day. The crew only replaces blankets and pillows for the first flight of the day — if at all. You can see why hand sanitizer counts as an in-flight necessity.

And yes, you can blame that airplane air for making you sick. The cabin air is filtered. But it’s also pressurized. That strips the air of moisture, HowStuffWorks explains. The low humidity level in the cabin dries out the mucous membranes that fight germs in your body. As a result, you’re more susceptible to the cold germs from the person coughing in seat 12A. You obviously can’t choose your seatmates. But you can opt to carry — and use — a small bottle of hand sanitizer. While you’re at it, consider throwing in a package of sanitizing wipes for that germy tray table.

  1. The airline can’t trap you on a delayed plane forever

Although it might feel like you’ve been stuck on a delayed airplane forever when you’re staring out the window at the tarmac, regulations limit the amount of time an airline can keep passengers on a plane. ABC News reported several years ago that the government had just instituted a new rule that “airlines cannot keep passengers stuck on planes without going anywhere for longer than three hours.”

That sounds good for passengers — but it might not be. As the Chicago Tribune recently reported, a study conducted by researchers at the “Dartmouth College and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology found the tarmac delay rule increased flight cancellations and ultimately the time it takes for passengers to reach their destinations.” Confused? As airlines try to avoid the fines the government assesses if they break the rule, they become quicker to cancel flights. So perhaps waiting in the plane isn’t a bad deal. At least if it means that you don’t have to sleep in the airport instead.

  1. Tell the airline what was in your lost bag, and you’ll likely receive more compensation

Did you fly to Colorado for a ski weekend with lots of gear, or pack your wedding tux in your checked bag, only to have that bag disappear? Airlines have gotten notoriously stingy with their payouts. And according to the Department of Transportation, the airline might owe you more money. For travel in the United States, the payout for lost or delayed luggage can reach up to $3,300. The only catch? You have to show documentation of the value or necessity of the items in the bag.

The airline may owe you even if your luggage is delayed, but not actually lost. “Carriers should remain willing to cover all reasonable, actual and verifiable expenses related to baggage loss, damage or delay,” the department stated in its baggage policy. So if you have to rent skis or buy a new tux in time for the big day, you should definitely complain.

  1. All the annoying things the crew requires? There’s a good reason for each

Have you ever noticed how the cabin lights dim before takeoff? That’s not to kick off your shut-eye. The lights actually dim to ensure that your eyes adjust to the darkness. You’ll want to be able to see in the dark if something goes wrong, a former flight attendant wrote for The Huffington Post. Plus, window shades are supposed to remain open, so the crew can see everything is fine outside of the plane (and so firefighters can see inside in the event of a crash).

But there’s more behind the airline’s procedures. You need to lock your tray table and return your seat to its upright position, so people sitting past you can evacuate in the event of an emergency. It’s a matter of safety, not a reason to wake you while there are still 30 minutes left in your flight.

  1. Flight attendants are doing a lot more than pouring cocktails

Your main interaction with the flight attendants might occur when they give you a drink. But pouring you a Coke or cocktail isn’t the most important part of a flight attendant’s job. Flight attendants’ primary responsibility on board is safety. One former flight attendant shared the training regimen required for the job: CPR, how to use EpiPens, AED, and defibrillators, they take self-defense courses and practice what to do in case someone gets unruly or tries to take over the plane, they are there to guard the cockpit so people don’t get in during the flight, along with what to do in an evacuation. The correct way to position all of the passengers for a emergency landing, taking the emergency exit doors off of the planes, ushering everyone out while being the last ones out themselves.

It’s definitely OK to ask a flight attendant if you need help. But you should always treat flight attendants courteously. That usually means not bothering them with any of the questions you should never ask a flight attendant.

  1. Every airline has a contract with you

Think an airline can do anything it wants? Think again. Each airline actually has a contract with you as a passenger. They’re called contracts of carriage. And the Department of Transportation requires each airline to have one. These documents spell out the policies for flight cancellations. They detail any refunds that the airline will offer. Plus, they explain how the airline handles fare changes. And they also spell out the dreaded carry-on baggage policies.

While most of these contracts will be similar, it’s a good idea to familiarize yourself with them. Although you didn’t sign on any dotted line, these stipulations are technically what you’re agreeing to when you purchase an airline ticket. On the flip side, the contract of carriage also spells out the agreements the airline says it will abide by while you travel. Curious? Check out the contracts for United, American, and Delta.

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