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Long waits can drive travellers mad, but airports can cash in on concession sales. (Peter Power/The Globe and Mail)
Long waits can drive travellers mad, but airports can cash in on concession sales. (Peter Power/The Globe and Mail)

Airport confidential: A new book reveals what you’ve always wanted to know Add to ...

In his new book, Mark Gerchick, former FAA chief counsel and senior aviation policy official, tells all about the industry. Globe Travel found the answers to travellers’ most common questions in the pages of Full Upright and Locked Position: Not So-Comfortable Truths about Air Travel Today.

Why do I have to arrive at the airport so early?

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Airlines and airports tell passengers to arrive at the terminal up to three hours before the scheduled departure time. Unless you’re trying to fly coach to Mongolia on an expired passport with lots of luggage in August at rush hour, that seems like a crazy long time. Perhaps it helps contain airline labour costs by requiring fewer check-in and other airport staff. Sure, tighter staffing can mean longer passenger lines, but you’ll make your flight if you arrive early enough to spend time waiting in those lines. Think of it this way: Airlines are trading their labour costs for your “standing-in-line” costs.

Not that long preflight waits necessarily bother the airports or the concessions that rent space from them either. Getting passengers to arrive hours in advance means more airport “dwell time,” which in turn means more time to spend money at airport shopping malls, food courts and watering holes.

One of the biggest sources of revenue for stores beyond security is bottled water that can’t be brought through the screening line. Telling passengers to arrive hours in advance also reduces pressure on the whole system – for example, baggage handlers have more time to load aircraft – but is it really fair to the infrequent-flying innocents who actually follow the warnings and show up ridiculously early “just to be sure?”

How dangerous is turbulence?

Naturally occurring turbulence almost never brings down modern airliners. Why “almost?” Because the last officially determined turbulence-caused commercial airliner crash occurred three decades ago when an 85-passenger Fokker jet flew into a tornado while at low altitude near Rotterdam, the Netherlands. Lesson: Don’t fly into tornadoes.

And no, turbulence won’t pull the wings off. The FAA will not certify a new plane as fit to fly unless it can provably handle nearly impossible stresses. (Consider that modern jetliners absorb direct lightning strikes on average every year, without a fatal U.S. crash in a half century.) A test aircraft must pass a torture test in the design hangar. Cables attached to the ceiling are fitted around the wingtips of the test jet and yanked upward by powerful pulley motors until the entire wing bends upward – about 25 feet in the case of the Boeing 787 – without any buckling or structural failure. That’s about 150 per cent of the most extreme forces the aircraft is ever likely to encounter in the air.

Can flying make me ill?

The risk of contracting something really bad – tuberculosis, severe acute respiratory syndrome – is tiny. But your odds of catching something – the makings of a bad head cold, a gastrointestinal virus – appear to be far greater aloft than on the ground. In a 2004 Canadian study published in the Journal of Environmental Health Research, one-fifth of all 1,100 passengers surveyed after a series of flights lasting two and a half hours reported having caught a cold. The air travellers were at least five times (maybe as much as 113 times) as likely to catch a cold than non-fliers, though other factors, such as travel stress and exposure to germs before or after flying, could have played a role. Still, how healthy can it be to be sealed for hours in a densely packed, superdry pressurized metal tube with a couple hundred other random folks?

How many people actually pay full fare for first class?

Only a small cohort actually pays the full First Class fare. Airlines tend to treat that precise proportion as top-secret, and it varies widely by flight, route and carrier, but industry veterans estimate that full-fare passengers fill as little as 5 to 10 per cent of most First Class cabins. (Even paying First Class passengers don’t all pay retail, considering corporate discounts and other deals for high-volume purchasers.) The rest of those up front are more likely to be upgraded “elites” risen from Business Class, frequent fliers who’ve hoarded “miles” for the trip of a lifetime, and a sizable cadre of “non-revenue” passengers – including airline employees. All that said, Delta disclosed in 2011 that it sold 14 per cent of its seats in domestic First Class (really a hybrid Business Class named “Business Elite”), and some well-timed business-heavy international flights like New York-London can reportedly rack up double that percentage.

Is the Dreamliner really a dream come true?

The Dreamliner won’t be any less crowded, offer more legroom or make pricey snack packs more satisfying, but two unseen improvements should enhance physical comfort: a lower “virtual” altitude and higher cabin humidity. Both are made possible by the plane’s innovative construction – it uses carbon-fiber composite sections, not the typical sheets of airplane aluminum that are vulnerable to metal fatigue. Passengers should feel more like they’re sitting in a Denver high-rise than in a desert-mountain pass.

At least as noticeable will be the psychic comforts of the interior, the feng shui. The physical dimensions of an airplane cabin can’t change that much, so designers tried to change passengers’ perception of their spatial environment – to leave them a little less stressed, more relaxed and even less bored.

Start with the 787 windows – they’re about 65 per cent larger than on “standard” jets, and they’re positioned higher, at the passengers’ eye level. Forget staring at the mindless sitcom rerun on the seatback screen; welcome to the sky and Earth and clouds.

So, what really happens when you flush a toilet on a plane?

Stories of lavatory ice crashing to the ground are so pervasive that the FAA’s Chicago district office once had to issue an official “blue ice” disclaimer. (“One possible explanation” for the reports, the FAA said, was that Canada geese eat fruit and, “if the fruit is blue, it will come out blue when the bird passes it.”) To set the record straight: Toilet waste is not dumped outside airplanes in flight. That valve is located on the outside of most aircraft so that ground crews can service and drain it; it cannot be opened in the air.

 

Adapted from Full Upright and Locked Position: The Not-So-Comfortable Truths about Air Travel Today by Mark Gerchick. Copyright 2013 by Mark Gerchick. Used with permission of the publisher, W.W. Norton & Company.

This selection may not be reproduced, storied in any retrival system, or transmitted in any form by any means without the prior written permission of the publisher.

 

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