Welcome to the "The Smart Traveler". Your June 2006 newsletter with tips and information to help make your traveling smoother.


Baggage problems on airlines growing worse

Add this to the nightmare scenario for summer air travelers: the growing chance that their baggage is on another flight, possibly to a different destination.

 

 

 

 

A congressional panel seemed sympathetic, but left the clear impression help is not on the way. "I'm afraid more baggage turmoil is almost an inevitability," said Rep. John Mica, chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee on Aviation.

 

Mica, R-Florida, noted that the number of mishandled bags was 23 percent higher in 2005 than in 2004. For every 1,000 passengers, there were 6.04 reports of bags that were delayed, lost, stolen or damaged last year, according to the Transportation Department.

 

The likelihood that bags will be lost or late increases with air travel volume, and this summer is expected to be the busiest ever. Not only does the Federation Aviation Administration predict record numbers of passengers this year, but airplanes will be more crowded than ever.

 

The airlines are ready for it, said David Castelveter, spokesman for the Air Transport Association, which represents large airlines. "We do not expect a meltdown," he said. John Meanen, the group's executive vice president, told lawmakers that there are not any systematic solutions to the problem of mishandled bags. Some people have suggested, for example, using tags for wireless tracking of luggage.

 

But most of the time, said Meanen, "We know where it is, but it isn't where it's supposed to be." When the number of mishandled bags jumps, it usually is because an airline is having a specific problem, Meanen said. Often the problem is staffing, he said. Too few workers was the reason for massive problems with US Airways passengers' bags over the 2004 Christmas holiday season, according to a report by the Transportation Department's inspector general.

 

That December, 42 percent of consumer complaints about baggage had to do with US Airways, said Samuel Podberesky, an assistant general counsel at the department. Those problems continued into 2005 and may account for much of the increase in the number of mishandled bags that year, Podberesky said.

 

"One-time anomalies are not likely to be repeated on a regular basis," Podberesky told the subcommittee. US Airways has since hired thousands of employees, but many financially struggling airlines have trimmed staff to cut costs. "I'm particularly concerned that airline staffing requirements may be too thin," said Rep. Leonard Boswell, D-Iowa.

 

Security delays also can cause bags to be lost or to arrive late, Mica said.

Last summer at Fort Lauderdale Airport in Florida, Mica said, delays in screening passengers caused "near riots." He believes the Transportation Security Administration ought to speed the screening of checked bags by installing bomb-detection machines as part of the airport conveyor belt systems that move luggage. Only 14 airports have done so, and of those, only three of the busiest -- San Francisco, Boston and Denver -- have, Mica said.

 

The TSA's acting assistant administrator, Charlotte Bryan, told the panel that 29 airports will have the systems in two years. She noted that less than one-tenth of 1 percent of bags were lost or damaged because of TSA's security screening.

Meanen echoed that thought, pointing out that 99 percent of checked bags arrive undamaged and on time. But, he said, as a former baggage handler, "I apologize to everyone whose bag was lost or delayed."

 
More U.S. airports to monitor traveler behavior

TSA will now profile travelers who act stressed, afraid or deceptive.The U.S. Transportation Security Administration will soon use more behavioral profiling at American airports to detect suspicious activity.

TSA Director Kip Hawley said the agency would expand a pilot program that has trained officers to observe passengers' behavior currently at about a dozen airports. He said it will be expanded after the summer travel rush. "We are looking at expanding ... as another layer of security," Hawley said. "We have been very pleased with its effectiveness. We expect it to be an important part of our security going forward."

 

TSA officials would not identify which "highest risk" airports will be included in the expanded program. The program began at Boston's Logan International Airport -- the departure point for the two hijacked airplanes that were crashed into the World Trade Center on September 11. It is also being implemented in Miami among other airports. George Naccara, the federal security director at Logan, said the TSA program is modeled on behavior detection systems used in Israel and some other countries.

 

"It's been very effective overseas," Naccara said, where the effort "is much more confrontational and much more aggressive." Officers are taught to look for abnormal behavior in passengers, such as people wearing coats when it's warm in order to disguise bombs, or people acting fidgety or nervous. Naccara said they look for signs of "stress, fear and deception."

 

"We associate that with people who are doing something wrong -- some kind of criminal or terrorist intent," he said. The officers must be able to differentiate between nervous travelers and those having something to hide, he added.

 

Some civil rights groups have complained the program involves racial profiling. The American Civil Liberties Union has sued the Massachusetts Port Authority over its behavior pattern recognition program.

 

TSA officials said race is not used to monitor passengers. Officers fill out a score sheet identifying behaviors that trigger extra screening for a passenger or police attention. "The vast majority of those referred to law enforcement ... do in fact have something wrong," said Hawley. "They are either illegal for false ID, immigration status, drugs or prohibited items."

 
SHOULD YOU EVER CHECK LUGGAGE?

The bottom line is that all business travelers and frequent flyers should carry-on their luggage at all times and never check a bag. That way, you'll never lose a bag and you'll have the flexibility to change flights or airlines if there are delays. You can sail by your fellow passengers at the baggage carousel waiting for their precious bags to come around. The luggage mantra for all frequent flyers is "Pack light and carry-on."


However, sometimes that isn't possible. The dilemma? You've got a full rollerbag, a computer briefcase and a large portfolio filled with key presentation materials. You may be carrying a pocketbook, or a shopping bag with gifts you picked up on the road for your children. You think you might be able to sneak by the flight attendant with the extra luggage. Then again, you might not. Maybe you should just give in and the check the bags. Here are some factors to consider.

• Is the flight full?

This can work both ways. If the flight is full it's going to be harder to squeeze that extra bag in the overhead. The flight attendants are more vigilant and, depending on when you board, that rollerbag may be gate-checked anyway. A full flight means a lengthy process when everyone leaves - by the time you ultimately get to baggage claim, your bag might be waiting there. A full flight also means that there will be many other bags coming down that chute and it might be a longer wait.

• Are you connecting?

If you have a tight connection, you might make it, but your bag might not. Then again, if you have to dash to make the flight a the last gate of the next terminal, do you really want to drag that heavy bag with you? I've run into most of my lost luggage problems connecting from short haul flights on small planes feeding into long haul flights in large aircraft. It really depends on where you are connecting through, also one colleague finished an eight-stop around-the-world business trip, checking bags at each stop with no problems. Until, that is, the last leg through Denver. The bag dropped of the radar screen and finally showed up two days later.

• Do you have a long layover before your next flight?

If you have time to kill at the airport, you might not want the encumbrance of extra bags. Many airports have been transformed into shopping meccas. If you are connecting through Pittsburgh - one of the best airport shopping opportunities for business travelers - you might want to travel light.

• Do you absolutely, positively have to have what's in the bag?

If you have an 8:00 AM meeting with the CEO at the home office, you don't need your suit and presentation 1,000 miles away. It is a simple rule: if you must have it, don't check it. Keep medication, eye glasses, valuables and key business materials with you at all times.

• How to Get all your Bags on the Flight

The Business Travel team at About is not suggesting that you violate the strict carry-on limits for the airlines. They exist for passenger safety. However, even though airlines are cracking down, there is a great deal of variability in their enforcement. It is easier to get extra bags on board when the flight is not full, you are flying on a larger plane (closets!) and you board early.

• Are you ready to run the gauntlet, past the watchful eye of the flight attendants?

- Don't look overburdened, consolidate as much as possible.

- Drape your coat over the extra bag.

- Piggy-back one bag over another - garment bags are ideal for this tactic.

- Wear business attire and fly first class - somehow the rules seem to bend a little.

- Walk with a minimum of fuss and bother. Be confident, stand tall, don't look guilty.

- If you are caught and asked to gate-check your bags, it is acceptable to try to charm and wheedle - but only for a very brief time. If it doesn't work, be gracious and don't berate the flight attendants. They are only doing their job. Just be sure to get the receipt for your bags.

• Other Strategies

- If you are returning from a convention or large meeting with a great deal of paperwork and presentation material - ship it back to your office. The concierge at your hotel can handle this for you and you can still carry-on your bag.

- If you are traveling with a colleague and they decide to check, you might as well join them. You'll have to wait until they collect their bag anyway.


Fighting germs at 35,000 feet


You're settled into seat 20D when you hear a sniffle coming from seat 20B and a rumbling cough erupts from the occupant of 21A.

 

These aren't the cabinmates you were hoping for? Close contact with illness may be unavoidable if you're flying during cold and flu season.

 

Dr. David Weber, a professor at the University of North Carolina's schools of medicine and public health in Chapel Hill, urges travelers who are feverish and have upper-respiratory-tract infections to stay home.

"Unfortunately, people are often traveling for work or vacations, and if they spent a lot of money, feel they have to go," Weber said. If you are one of those people, or are seated near one of those people on the plane, there are a few simple things you can do to boost your chances of staying healthy in the air and back on the ground.

Wash hands

Since colds and the flu spread through droplets and close contact, it's important to wash your hands frequently with soap and warm water, particularly after touching surfaces others have recently touched or after shaking hands.

Weber recommends washing for 10 to 15 seconds with soap under running water. FDA-approved antiseptic liquid or foam hand cleansers also are effective, he said. Avoid touching your eyes, nose or mouth, because germs are easily spread that way.

Cover mouth and nose

If you're coughing or sneezing, Weber suggested wearing a mask that covers your nose and mouth. "If you don't have that, at minimum it would be nice to use a tissue to cover your nose and mouth when you sneeze," he said.

Containing the infection at the source is easier than trying to avoid contact with germs that are already in the cabin. However, uninfected passengers might also consider wearing a mask if they're seated near someone who is sick.

Drink plenty of fluids

Whether you're sick or not, drinking plenty of fluids is key to feeling good in flight, said Bonnie Taub-Dix, a registered dietitian and a spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association. Low levels of humidity in airline cabins can have a dehydrating effect, particularly on long flights. "It's really, really important to drink a lot of water or club soda," Taub-Dix said. She also advised passengers not to drink too much alcohol, which can cause dehydration.

 

Staying hydrated wards off headaches and the dry noses and throats that may leave passengers susceptible to infection.

Some frequent fliers swear by nasal sprays. Although there's no harm in them, Weber said he doesn't know of any data that show they help.

"You just want to drink lots of fluids, and then the body will keep your membranes moist."

Fortify yourself

A healthy diet rich in fruits and vegetables helps boost immunity all year long. "Having foods that are rich in vitamin C, particularly fruits and vegetables, citrus fruits, vegetables like broccoli, would be a good idea," Taub-Dix said.

"A multivitamin and a vitamin C [supplement] might not be a bad idea for the winter season, in particular," she said. Consuming vitamin C or zinc lozenges before a flight might help fend off illness, Weber said.

"I think they have some benefit, but they're not going to change your risk from 80 percent to 10 percent." Flu shots are one of the best defenses, Weber said.

"Depending on where you're going and what the season is, obviously being properly immunized is important."
 


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