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How In-Flight Rage and Knee Defenders Became the Norm of Air Travel

In-flight rage

“Me first!” has replaced “Safety first” as the air travel industry’s unofficial logo, according to consumer advocate and USA Today columnist Christopher Elliot, and it’s driving flyers bonkers.

It’s apparent now more than ever, with the recent three plane groundings in eight days over the most trivial of disputes – reclining seats.

Yes, it’s easy to smirk when hearing the news of the latest silly airline tryst. But, how would you feel if you were one of the hundreds of well-mannered, time-strapped passengers who had to endure an extra four-hour delay all because of a fight that’s pretty much nonsense?

The most disturbing part may be that in-flight rage is actually pretty rare. Last year, airlines carried 826 million passengers, and yet there were only 167 reports of unruly passengers, New York Times travel writer Joe Sharkey wrote.

Passengers struggle to find the slightest bit of comfort in the hellish ordeal that is the modern-day flight, and when they don’t get it, calamity ensues.

Whether it’s due to unanticipated hassles from the travel industry or unrealistic expectations from the customers, selfish behavior flares up during periods of high anxiety, like summertime and the holidays – putting people into “survival” mode, according to experts.

“In this state, people are highly reactive and self-focused,” Erin Olivo, assistant professor of medical psychology at Columbia University told Elliot. “They are hyper-vigilant about potential threats to their comfort or safety, and they don’t care about anyone else.”

Being in a foreign place, away from friends and family, can trigger “me first” behavior in some people, like pushing to the front of a line or hogging arm rests on the plane, Michael Brein, a psychologist who specializes in travel told Elliot.

Two products are even helping to facilitate “me first” behavior among travelers:

Create-A-Space is a $40 portable seat partition that sits on a coach-class armrest and is marketed to help you “feel first class” every time you fly. The Knee Defender, which Americans became more familiar with upon news that flights were being diverted because of it, costs $21 and stops the seat in front of you from reclining.

Is the airline the villain for driving its customers to create a culture of selfish behavior with tiny seats and lackluster customer service? Or are the passengers at fault for their inability to simply behave?

Obviously, since this seems to be a fairly new issue, the airlines are likely to blame, but their revenue management departments probably disagree.

A divide between the “haves” and the “have-nots” provide an even deeper explanation, says Sally Rudoy, a New York-based psychotherapist. It rewards a select few passengers and enriches the travel companies, but is bad for the masses.

“Creating tiers of service for which you can charge premiums – like first class, business class, economy plus, and gold car members – stirs up anxiety about where you (as a) customer rank in the world,” she told Elliot.

So, what’s next? Is it even possible for airlines to remove another inch or find even more “services” (like bathroom usage and carry-on privileges) to charge fees for?

At this point, we don’t even want to know.

How to Find a Good Travel Agent (and When to Use Them)

Good Travel Agent

A great travel agent is hard to come by. He or she must be trustworthy, knowledgeable, attentive and eager to find you the lowest price on the best option for your trip.

The world has gotten to be a much smaller and specialized place. The trick is: no one agent can do it all.

If you’re looking for a discount on Business Class to Europe, don’t consult with a Caribbean cruise specialist. If you want to whale watch in Alaska, don’t work with an agent who books ski lodges every day.

Travel doesn’t apply to the one-agent-fits-all mold. Be sure to find yourself an agent who speciliazes in where you want to go and what you want to do.

But, how do you find a trustworthy agent? Here are three questions to ask an agent you’re considering working with, from consumer advocate and USA today columnist Christopher Elliot:

  1. Ask for references: a competent agent should be willing to supply you with a short list of clients and their phone numbers.
  2. Verify the travel agent’s professional memberships: most reputable agents belong to either the American Society of Travel Agents (ASTA) or the Association of Retail Travel Agents (ARTA). This signals that the agent pledges to adhere to basic ethical and business standards.
  3. Look for accreditation: make sure your travel agency has an acceptable rating with the Better Business Bureau.

But, when is the best time to use a travel agent? Some trips are so simple to book that you shouldn’t bother to use an agent. For a simple transaction like a roundtrip flight or hotel booking, it would be easier to book yourself over the phone or online. Also, travel agents aren’t able to help when redeeming award miles and discounted packages on sites like LivingSocial, Groupon or Travelzoo.

A good travel agent is worth his or her worth in gold for the following situations:

  • Complicated Itineraries
  • Large discounts on long-haul International  Business and First Class flights
  • Large group or corporate travel
  • Theme park travel
  • When you want more options than what you can find online
  • When you don’t have the time to plan an elaborate trip
  • When you don’t know a lot about a faraway destination
  • If you expect to need an on-the-road advocate in case of cancellations, delays or other mishaps
  • If you need an expert for special occasions like a destination wedding or anniversary cruise

For more travel tips, watch Christopher Elliot on USA Today’s Travel channel.

The Gross Truth About Traveling

Sneezing Passenger

If orange juice and multivitamins are your go-to staples for staying healthy while traveling, you may want to rethink your defense strategy.

Research shows that disease-causing bacteria can linger on airplane surfaces for up to a week, according to the American Society of Microbiology in Boston.

The study tested if two types of bacteria that can lead to scary health problems – E. coli and Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) – could survive in various places on a place like window shades, leather seats and plastic tray tables. Researchers exposed the pathogens to airplane-like conditions and found that MRSA survived a whole seven days on the seat-back pocket, and E. coli lasted four days on the armrest.

But, even though porous materials like the seat-back pocket harbor germs for longer, you’re more likely to transmit bacteria to your hands when you come in contact with flatter, less porous surfaces like the plastic tray tables window shades, the study’s author, Kiril Vaglenov, said. The cloth tends to trap bacteria in the small fibers and makes it difficult for the bacteria to transfer to skin.

Another germy place on an airplane is the bathroom, which is typically shared with 50 to 75 people on each flight, said University of Arizona Professor of Microbiology Charles Gerba, Ph.D. The sink and door handle can get pretty gross over the course of a long flight, and a lack of proper cleaning in between flights can contribute to the overall nastiness.

“They turn planes over so fast, and there are no rules or requirements for disinfecting or cleaning airplanes,” Gerba told Women’s Health. “They pick up the litter, but they don’t really disinfect [planes].

Protect yourself on your next flight using Gerba’s tips:

Use Hand Sanitizer

It’s your best line of defense since most germs are picked up through direct contact. Make sure to bring hand sanitizer in your carry on and use it before eating and after using the restroom.

Minimize Contact

One of the most dreaded sounds on a flight is someone in proximity to your seat coughing profusely, but most viruses are transmitted through hand-to-face contact. Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth as much as possible, which adults do at an average of 16 times per hour.

Wipe Down Your Tray

“Everyone uses the trays to eat, drink and play cards,” Gerba said. In another study, he found norovirus and flu bacteria on tray tables. Pack disposable disinfectant wipes and wipe down your tray before using it.

How fare bias is costing you more to fly

Best Price

Now for even more disheartening travel news: if you’ve ever wondered if you’re really getting the lowest price on an airfare, you’ll be wondering for a long while – because it’s almost impossible to know for sure.

Even comparative sites like Expedia, Orbitz and Priceline that claim to do the legwork for you may not be disclosing all fare options, leaving the consumer to feel ripped off.

Which is the why Department of Transportation is concerned that ticket agents have biased their displays to disadvantage certain airlines on their Web sites and is proposing a new rule that would require online agencies to disclose any fare-fixing.

Bias is hard to detect, and while an online agency could be offering an incomplete picture, the consumer might never know.

And the problem extends beyond online agents. Although airlines are required by law to disclose all their fares to travel agents, regulators often don’t enforce the rule. As a result, it’s simply impossible to have every available fare at your fingertips, and the consumer is therefore unable to make a fully informed decision when purchasing a flight.

Biasing also makes it difficult to tell how much money you’ve wasted, and some may argue that consumers are better off not knowing. Those people probably work for the airline industry.

To get the best possible fare, follow consumer advocate Christopher Elliot’s guide to fighting fare bias:

How to fight fare bias

• Cast a wide net. Search more than one online travel agency and check with an airfare aggregator, which queries numerous online agencies, such as Kayak.com and Skyscanner.com.

• Get insider information. Sites such as Google flight search (Google.com/flights) use technology that can search more sites. Also, a subscription service such as ExpertFlyer.com can show you more fares and fare combinations than many online agencies.

• For long-haul flights in Business and First Class, call a knowledgeable travel agent. They have consolidator fares and can save you a considerable amount on non-refundable fares.

• Tell the DOT what you think. Leave a comment about its proposed disclosure rule. Click on regulations.gov and search for rulemaking DOT-OST-2014-0056.

What should be included in the price of a ticket?

Included in Airfare

 

The definition of an airline ticket is changing, and it will continue to change.

What is it you’re paying for exactly, asks consumer advocate Christopher Elliot. Transportation? A seat?

Today’s tickets are stripped of the basics, including food, drinks, reservations, checked (or carry-on in some cases) luggage and the ability to change an itinerary.

Airlines have raked in $2.8 billion in the last year alone by changing the definition of a ticket. While nickel-and-diming its customers, carriers continue to make the outrageous claim that fares have never been lower.

Fliers rightfully feel duped, saying that once you factor in all the fees, flying costs more than expected. A USA Today survey found that 55 percent of polled air travelers say it costs “somewhat more” and 44 percent say it costs “a lot” more.

So what should a ticket include?

The airline industry is pushing to separate even more fees from its tickets with the proposed Airline Transparency Bill of 2014, which would allow them to advertise a ticket price that doesn’t include taxes and mandatory fees.

Although airlines have managed to turn the average ticket into a virtual abomination that no air traveler from a generation ago could understand, omitting the taxes to further market unbelievable bargains is taking it too far, and the government seems to agree.

The Department of Transportation proposed a rule that would define an airline ticket to include two checked bags, one carry-on item and advance seat selection. It would also require all ticket agents and airlines to display these basics at the point which fares are being compared.

Passengers say the fare word-games have gone too far, according to a USA Today survey. When asked to rank the most important components of an airline ticket, 94 percent said they wanted the advertised fare to include all taxes and mandatory fees, followed by the ability to reserve a seat (91 percent), the ability to carry a bag (90 percent) and the access to a bathroom (87 percent).

If airlines want to separate seating option and baggage fees from the cost of a fare, then they should develop technology that allows passengers to choose amenities for comparison. This would allow airfares to be compared apples to apples. Instead, customers are constantly being tricked.

With today’s system, it’s not easy to distinguish what is – and isn’t – included in the price of a ticket without an extensive amount of homework. Peeling away essential features of a ticket only benefit investors and industry apologists, not the consumers who keep the industry afloat.

Christopher Elliot’s Guide to Keeping Airlines Honest:

  • Book a ticket from an airline that doesn’t aggressively “unbundle” its fares. For example, JetBlue and Southwest still include checked bags in their ticket prices.
  • Let the Transportation Department know what you think of its proposed new airfare rules. Click on regulations.gov and search for rulemaking DOT-OST-2014-0056.
  • Tell airlines what you think of their nickel-and-diming. By simply paying the fee and remaining quiet, you are tacitly endorsing these fees.

10 ways travel is better than it’s ever been

Travel Better than Ever

There’s plenty of talk about the Golden Age of travel and how miserable flying is these days. Air travel can take note from the past in plenty of ways, but let these 10 little things from the Independent Traveler serve as a reminder why we’d never actually want to go back in time

1. The demise of paper tickets

It’s enough to redeem the modern travel experience all together: no longer do travelers need to remember to bring their tickets to the airport nor take extra care not to lose their return tickets in a mid-trip frenzy. Especially since replacing a lost ticket overseas was quite the ordeal, thank the lucky stars that you don’t even have to worry about it.

2. Travel is more affordable

Some routes were insanely expensive under regulation, since the government set prices to ensure that airlines were guaranteed a profit on all routes. Although the high prices made the meals, silverware and free booze possible – the profit margins were so high that the airlines could afford to give alcohol away, and only a select few could afford to fly.

3. The birth of rolling suitcases

Sure, old fashioned hard-cased luggage is attractive and chic. But, man, are those things heavy. Rolling suitcases were made for modern-day mobility and are especially useful if you’re lugging a lot of stuff (or need a free hand to lug kids around).

4. No smoking

The idea of a designated smoking section on a plane is almost incomprehensible these days. After the term “second-hand smoke” became common in the 90s, and the harms of third-hand smoke being explored today, travelers can breathe a sigh of relief for the modern no-smoking rules in airports and planes.

5. No dress code

People often long for the nostalgia when flying was a beautiful event, but who wants to dress to the nines to sit in an uncomfortable seat for hours on end? While no want wants to sit next to someone in a bathing suit or daisy-duke shorts, it’s nice to wear leisure clothes for an experience that’s often harried, stressful and anything but leisurely.

6. Booze

Now that people are aware of how dehydrating flying is, they’re generally not throwing drinks back before and during the flight. Considering how seats and rows are steadily shrinking with time, this is a good thing. No one wants to be in close quarters with someone who is half in the bag.

7. More choices, more airports

Flyers have much more to choose from in routes, destinations, flight times, connecting cities and airlines than a few decades ago. The number of alternate airports served by airlines flying commercial jets has greatly increased also. This lets travelers escape the most heavily trafficked airports and put them closer to their preferred destinations. But, mergers between large airlines have been threatening this trend lately.

8. No more stopping for directions

Mapping applications have been ubiquitous and accurate for only a few years, but it’s hard to imagine getting around without them these days. Stopping at a gas station for directions, or asking someone raking leaves in their front yard, was pretty much the only option for finding your way.

Mapping applications are a modern miracle, and travelers may miss out on some quirky experiences by always staying on path. But, it’s a small price to pay for not getting lost every few hours, which was pretty much a common experience for travelers not too long ago.

9. A cornucopia of information

The amount and variety of information available to travelers today was unfathomable before the Internet became widely available. Print guidebooks were the norm, and they’re outdated quickly. These days, you can find out which rooms are the best in any given hotel, the nearest coffee shop, which aircraft seats recline and which don’t, whether parking garages are full, exact monetary exchange rates and heaps more. Think about how much headache, backache and heartache this saves you on every single trip.

10. ATMs

There’s no reason to be nostalgic for the days of finding banks and currency exchange desks to get local currency. Somehow, you had to have enough cash to last your entire trip, as getting money wired to you was not for amateurs or travelers on the move. Typically, this was in the form of traveler’s checks, which no one probably misses either.

Now you can get local currency pretty much within steps of the spot you enter the country, whether by air, train or boat, and they typically have the best available exchange rates. This saves several hours over a course of a trip.

 

How the new DOT rule will benefit air travelers

Ancillary Fees

The Department of Transportation proposed a new rule Wednesday that would force airlines to disclose fees for services such as checked bags and advance seat assignments at the point of sale, rather than later in the traveling process.

The new consumer protection rule comes as the airlines are trying to accomplish the opposite with the Transparent Airfares Act of 2014, which would give them federal permission to lie about the actual price of fares, making them appear lower only to add on a slew of additional fees later. A Change.org petition denouncing the act has garnered almost 64,000 signatures.

As it is, fees are not always clearly stated when buying a ticket, and fees simply listed on the Web site leaves travelers unable to understand the total cost of a ticket before buying it, according to the DOT. Airlines made $27.1 billion in ancillary fees in 2012.

“Knowledge is power, and our latest proposal helps ensure consumers have clear and accurate information when choosing among air transportation options,” says transportation secretary Anthony Foxx.

The rules would apply to all tickets, regardless if booked online, in person, on the phone or with a travel agent. It’s the third of its kind, with rules in 2009 and 2011 that raised penalties for long tarmac delays and required airlines to announce full fares, including taxes, in advertisements.

“Passengers have lost their faith in the travel industry,” says Katrina Roberts, a travel agent at CookTravel.net who specializes in airfares to the South Pacific.

“On a Business Class flight to Sydney, taxes alone could cost $1,000 per person. If I didn’t disclose a fare including the taxes to my clients up front, they wouldn’t trust me enough to handle their travel arrangements,” she says

The proposal would put an end to “unfair and deceptive” practices, says the DOT. But, just as the airlines fought the rules in years past, they will continue to fight this one, despite the benefits it will provide to its customers.

A statement from Airlines for America says the proposal “overreaches and limits how free markets work.”

And it’s no secret why the airlines are upset. Over the next year, the proposal is set to cost them $5.1 million and $24.7 million over the next decade.

“The proposal we’re offering today will strengthen the consumer protections we have previously enacted and raise the bar for airlines and tickets agents when it comes to treating travelers fairly,” Foxx said.

The DOT also wants to extend the rule to cover third-party flight search Web sites like Kayak and Google’s Flight Search. The department will collect public comment for 90 days before implementing the rule.

USA Today rounded up the other goals the rule hopes to accomplish:

  • Expand the airlines that much report information to the DOT about how many times the flights are late, how many times they oversell flights, and how many times they mishandle bags.
  • Require travel agencies to adopt minimum customer-service standards, such as responding promptly to customer complaints and holding reservations for 24 hours without payment.
  • Require airlines and ticket agents to disclose the airlines actually providing flights, under code-share arrangements, on initial itinerary displays on their Web sites.
  • Prohibit travel agents from ranking flights of certain carriers above others without disclosing the bias in any presentation of carrier schedules, fares, rules or availability.
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