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Tarmac task force offers insights for travelers

Image: Airplane
Hoping to avoid long delays while flying over the holiday? Maybe you should see if you can get a seat on Air Force One. David McNew / Getty Images file

Hoping to avoid long delays while flying over the holiday? Maybe you should see if you can get a seat on Air Force One. After all, as President Bush “joked” at a press conference at the Department of Transportation (DOT) last week, “The past eight years, I have not seen a traffic jam, waited for an airplane or had my bags lost.”

Pretty funny, huh? Unless, that is, you consider that just a week earlier, a government task force originally convened to address lengthy tarmac delays essentially punted on helping the rest of us. You can read the entire 58-page report here, but it boils down to this: Unless your travel companions refer to you as POTUS on a regular basis, well, sorry, you’re on your own.

That’s not to say that the task force didn’t come up with some good ideas. Among other things, the group recommended that stranded passengers be kept informed, that refreshments be made available when practical and that onboard bathrooms be kept in working order.

But recommendations are not the same thing as rules, and by the time the group was finished, all that remained was a set of voluntary guidelines. Several task force members maintained that no single set of rules could cover every situation — and could indeed make some worse — but that doesn’t negate the fact that more than half of the 35 participants were employed by the airline industry. Think of a skulk of foxes sitting outside a henhouse discussing the benefits of a vegan diet and you get the idea.

In other words, don’t count on the government coming to your aid if things go screwy during your holiday travels this year. As noted above, you’re on your own, so it’s more important than ever to know the rules and avail yourself of every opportunity. From mobile boarding passes to midair upgrades, there are some new tricks and tools that can help you improve your odds.

Goin’ mobile, savin’ money

Mobile boarding passes: Print is dead, as they say, at least for certain travelers with Internet-enabled phones and PDAs. Earlier this month, American Airlines became the latest carrier to allow passengers to receive electronic boarding passes on their cell phones. At the airport, passengers simply bring up the message, which contains a barcode that can be scanned at security and the gate.

The system is currently being offered by four U.S. airlines — American, Continental, Delta and Northwest — and is available at 11 airports. For information on which carriers are offering the service at what airports, click here. Check with your airline, as well, as restrictions apply.

Meanwhile, travelers with Web-enabled phones should still check in and get a seat assignment (when possible) before they arrive at the airport. Given the airlines’ capacity cuts this fall, planes are even more likely than usual to be oversold during the holiday, and passengers who check in late in the game are often the first to get bumped.

Baggage bits: Among U.S. airlines, Alaska, AirTran, Delta, JetBlue, Southwest and Virgin America still let you check one bag free (although AirTran and Delta will start charging $15 as of December 5). One small bright spot: If you’re flying United, you can save 20 percent — $3 off the $15 fee — if you prepay the first-bag fee when checking in online.

Look for new rules for carry-on bags, too. Earlier this month, Continental reduced its size limit for carry-on items from 51 linear inches (length plus width plus height) to 45 inches. While that brings the carrier into line with the industry standard, be prepared for increased scrutiny, slower boarding and the possibility of having to check your bag after all.

At the airport and in the air

Saner screening: According to AAA’s latest travel forecast, approximately 4.5 million Americans will take to the skies over the holiday weekend, a drop of 7.2 percent from last year. Barring unforeseen problems, that should translate into faster-moving lines at security.

Better yet, and just in time for the holiday, TSA has expanded its Diamond Self-Select program by adding family lanes to every security checkpoint in the country. By separating veteran road warriors (who presumably know the rules) from families (and others who may need more time), the program has led to faster screening among the former and less stress and fewer tears among the latter.

Affordable upgrades: Finally, if none of the above works and you happen to be flying AirTran, consider this: The airline is now letting coach passengers purchase upgrades to Business Class (when available) during online check in, onboard before departure or once the plane is at cruising altitude. If the price isn’t enticing enough — $49 to $99 based on flight length — the free cocktails should take some of the sting out of flying this holiday season. It may not be Air Force One, but hey, every little bit helps.