Secrets to Stress-Free Flying

Above Image | Steve Craft

Fed up with high prices, endless fees, cramped seats, long lines, and crazy connections? Use our strategies to fly saner, safer, and cheaper.

By Mandy Walker
Infographics by Haisam Hussein

In January 2015 Eileen Dube of Glendale, Calif., spent $2,268 booking round-trip flights online from Los Angeles to Washington, D.C., for her husband, herself, and their two daughters for a mid-March vacation. When she went to select their seats, all that was available were middle seats or ones that required an additional fee. “I called the airline because I was sure there must be a mistake—we weren’t departing for over two months,” she says.

Dube recalls that an American Airlines reservation agent told her that she had “paid to travel, not for your seat” and explained that many seats are blocked off by the airline (for frequent flyers or to sell to passengers for an additional charge). She then suggested Dube pony up an additional $41 per person to guarantee that she and her husband could sit with their daughters, then 8 and 12 years old, on the 5-hour flight.

Dube refused to pay more and registered a complaint on American’s website. A customer relations agent wrote back to say what the reservations agent had failed to mention: that at check-in American could assist the family so that they could sit together without paying more. The day of the departing flight the Dubes were indeed seated together—in the last row of the plane and inches from the toilet, she said.

American isn’t the only airline to make advance seat selection, once free, something you have to pay for if you want a desirable seat. Fortunately, the financial impact that policy was having on families got the attention of Congress. In July it inserted language into the Federal Aviation Administration reauthorization bill requiring airlines to ensure that children 13 years of age and younger are seated next to an adult or an older child traveling with them.

But there are still plenty of other inconveniences and downright indignities to face when flying in economy today. There was a time when airlines competed for passengers by trying to outdo one another with more comfortable cabins, better food, and general passenger pampering. Decades of bankruptcies, consolidation, and competition from low-cost carriers, however, have transformed the airline industry into one with a laser focus on the bottom line and little apparent regard for consumer comfort and convenience. Today, as anyone who flies well knows, economy seats are cramped, flights are packed, and passengers pay an ever-expanding number of fees for things that used to be free. Standing in long lines to check in, board, and use the bathroom (some lavatories have been removed to make room for more seats) has become routine. Not surprisingly, complaints against U.S. airlines were up 34 percent last year compared with 2014, according to the Department of Transportation.

Fee Frenzy

The plight of flyers has caught the attention of the Department of Justice, which in June 2015 opened an investigation into whether the largest U.S. carriers—American, Delta Air Lines, Southwest Airlines, and United Airlines—have been colluding to keep ticket prices high. Perhaps not coincidentally, fares dipped about 3.7 percent last year, the first time they’ve gone down since 2012.

But flyers are seeing little of that savings because fees more than made up for the decrease. “Within the past decade, airlines realized they could sell more than just a flight; they could also sell flight-related services,” says Mark Gerchick, former chief counsel of the FAA and a former senior DOT official. “They started charging extra for transporting luggage; making a reservation by phone; changing or canceling a reservation; having a seat assigned; getting onboard first; providing snacks, drinks, and leg room,” Gerchick says.

Last year, U.S. airlines raked in profits totaling $25.6 billion, a 241 percent increase from 2014, according to the DOT. They earned more than $18 billion in so-called ancillary revenue, which includes all of those à la carte fees, as well as the sale of frequent-flyer miles to the banks that issue their cobranded credit cards, and commissions on hotel and car-rental bookings made on their websites, estimates IdeaWorksCompany, an airline consulting firm.

Another fee, which most passengers aren’t even aware they are paying, is a fuel surcharge. First levied by the airlines in the 1990s, the fee—which can approach or even exceed the base fare on international flights—is still being added to some ticket prices today (sometimes under the generic label “carrier-imposed charges”) even though the cost of fuel has dropped precipitously (airlines spent about 38 percent less on fuel last year than in 2014).

And, as Dube learned, the airlines are also squeezing passengers by reducing the number of fee-free seats in economy. On United flights, for example, 5 to 53 percent of the coach cabin seats offer extra leg room, for which a regular economy passenger pays an additional $9 to $299 per flight (elite frequent flyers can usually book them free).

If other airlines follow American’s lead, the number of no-fee seats may dwindle even more. It recently announced that early next year it will be the first U.S. carrier to offer Premium Economy, a new class of service between coach and business class, on international flights aboard its 787 Dreamliner planes. For a price somewhere between a business and economy fare, passengers will get larger seats; more leg room; seatback entertainment screens; early boarding; and free beer, wine, and spirits. It doesn’t take much imagination to wonder whether airlines are so radically stripping coach class of its former comforts so that all but the most cash-strapped and stoic passengers will pay a premium just to avoid it.

The Good Old Days

Though it’s hard to even imagine it today, there was a time when flying was fun, even glamorous. “Many people refer to the beginning of the jet age in the late 1950s through the late ’70s as ‘the Golden Age of air travel,’” says Guillaume de Syon, an aviation historian who teaches at Albright College in Reading, Pa.

Fares, routes, and schedules were all regulated by the federal government, so airlines competed for customers based on service. Smiling stewardesses took your coat, stowed your bags, and might have offered you a free glass of Champagne. Each seat had a pillow and a blanket, and the captain sometimes even stopped by for a chat. Meals were often inspired or provided by well-known restaurants, including Maxim’s of Paris.

During the early 1970s, American even took seats out of economy on its 747s to make room for piano bars and lounges. Fighting over armrests was unheard of, because at least 40 percent of the seats on most flights were empty, according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics.

But all of that space and pampering came at a price. Flying was expensive. A round-trip coach ticket between New York and Los Angeles was $104 in 1958 ($867.40 in today’s dollars), according to the industry trade group Airlines for America (A4A), while the median household income that year was $5,100.

Merger Madness

The fun started to fade after the Airline Deregulation Act was passed in 1978 and the government ended its control of routes and fares. The immediate result, as intended, was a flood of new airlines and, along with them, an increase in the number of flights and lower fares.

But it was the beginning of a bumpy ride for the airlines that lasted for decades. “They struggled to create entirely new business models, and many low-cost competitors entered the industry,” Gerchick says. According to A4A estimates, there have been almost 200 airline bankruptcy filings since the deregulation began. Prior to 1978 bankruptcies were rare.

In addition to increased competition, airlines faced challenges such as the drop in passengers following the 9/11 attacks, as well as a dramatic rise in fuel prices. To survive, many that remained joined forces. There have been more than a dozen airline mergers since 2000, according to A4A estimates (see “Into Thin Air,” at end of this article), leaving just four major airlines—American, Delta, United, and Southwest—controlling 80 percent of air travel in the U.S. last year—leaving travelers with few choices of what airline to fly and airlines with little incentive to improve the passenger experience.

Before the most recent merger—between US Airways and American—was approved in April 2014, the Department of Justice and attorneys general in six states and the District of Columbia filed a civil antitrust complaint challenging the union. The suit charged that the mergers between major airlines in recent years have “in tandem, raised fares, imposed new and higher fees, and reduced service. Competition has diminished and consumers have paid a heavy price.”

Though passengers have seen fees increase and comfort and convenience decline, the airlines argue that consolidation has made the industry better. “These mergers have allowed airlines to focus on renewing fleets and improving the product at all stages of travel. Fares are affordable, and modest profitability has enabled airlines to buy 388 new planes in 2015...and add 10,600 new jobs,” Vaughn Jennings, managing director of government and regulatory communications for A4A, said in a statement.

Shrinking Seats, Growing Profits

To pack in more passengers and rake in even more money, airlines have rearranged their cabins and shaved inches from coach-class seats. The narrowest seats on U.S. airlines today measure 17 inches wide (16.5 on some foreign carriers), when 18.5 was about as tight as it got in 1985. For comparison, up in the front of the cabin, first class seating on American, Delta, and United measures from 21 to 30 inches.

The airlines have also dramatically downsized the distance between rows of seats—or pitch, in industry parlance—over the last 30 years, effectively stealing away our leg room. Some American, Delta, and United planes now have a seat pitch of only 30 inches in economy, anywhere from 1 to 5 inches less than in 1985. Spirit, the airline rated lowest by Consumer Reports subscribers responding to our airline satisfaction surveys in 2013 and 2015, offers a pitch of just 28 inches on most seats in all of its aircraft.

Empty seats are money losers, so airlines have gotten very good at filling more of them with people than at any time since airlines were troop carriers during World War II. Among U.S. airlines, the average flights were anywhere from around 42 to 58 percent full between 1954 and 1980, according to Department of Transportation statistics. By 2005 flights were 78 percent full; last year 83 percent of the seats on airplanes were filled. As a result, U.S. and foreign carriers flew more than 895 million passengers through U.S. airports in 2015, a record high.

A Question of Safety

The negative effects of those record loads extends well beyond boarding headaches and overhead bin storage shortages. Cramped seating might also increase your risk for deep vein thrombosis (DVT), a blood clot forming in one or more of the deep veins in your body, usually in your legs. If you don’t move frequently enough, especially on flights more than 4 hours long, blood clots can form in your legs, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. They often dissolve on their own, but a serious health problem can occur when a part of a blood clot breaks off and travels to the lungs, causing a blockage—or pulmonary embolism—which may be fatal.

Another concern about cramped quarters is that planes are too full for passengers to safely evacuate in the case of an emergency. Before it will certify a new model of aircraft to enter service, the FAA requires its manufacturer to demonstrate that a full load of passengers can evacuate in 90 seconds with only emergency lighting and with half of the exits blocked. If the airlines add more seats (and consequently reduce seat pitch) after the model is tested, however, the FAA will accept a computer-simulated evacuation, and does not require the airline to do another evacuation test with people as long as the number of seats does not exceed the maximum number it was tested and certified for.

The tight quarters concerned Kevin Zwack, who took a Spirit flight from Denver to Ft. Lauderdale last September. “I’m 6’2” and weigh 280 pounds, and I noticed that the tight seating made it difficult for me and for the people in the rest of the plane to enter and leave their seats. I suspect it would take more than 90 seconds to evacuate a plane with such cramped seating.”

Paul Berry, a spokesman for Spirit Airlines, which has seat pitches of 28 inches on most of the rows in all of its planes, says that all of its aircraft have passed evacuation testing. “If there is a material change in configuration, then there is a new test,” he said in an email.

Consumer groups, including Consumer Reports, have expressed concern that the FAA does not always require additional aircraft evacuation testing, using people, on airplanes already in service with pitches of less than 31 inches, although some airlines—including Allegiant, Frontier, and Spirit—have aircraft with tighter seating. Sara Nelson, international president of the Association of Flight Attendants, which represents almost 50,000 flight attendants on 18 airlines, agrees. “If the seats are smaller and closer together, that makes it harder for people to get out in an emergency, period,” she says. “We urge the FAA to mandate new safety testing of these tighter quarters.” Duquette, responding in an email, said, “The FAA is considering future research to evaluate various main aisle configurations, including various seat pitches, to determine if there are any safety issues.”

Separate amendments to the FAA reauthorization bill were introduced in Congress earlier this year (one by Sen. Charles Schumer, co-sponsored by Sen. Richard Blumenthal, and another by Rep. Janice Hahn and Rep. Steve Cohen) that would have set standards for the minimum amount of seat space airlines must provide passengers. “Shrinking seat sizes isn’t just a matter of comfort but safety and health as well. The Federal Aviation Administration requires that planes be capable of rapid evacuation in case of emergency, yet they haven’t conducted emergency evacuation tests on all of today’s smaller seats,” Cohen said in a statement. All of the amendments were rejected. The airlines donated almost $25 million to congressional members in 2015, according to the nonprofit, nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics.

Behind the Scenes

Regional airlines carried more than 158 million passengers in 2014, up from 41.5 million in 1990 (although down from a peak of 163.5 million in 2010). The major U.S. carriers contract with regional airlines to fly passengers when it makes financial sense (for example, when a route isn’t busy enough to justify using a full-sized aircraft). Unless you check carefully during the booking process, you might not realize you’ll be flying on a regional partner—and not on the airline you think you’re booking with.

United, for example, contracts with eight North American regional carriers, jointly known as United Express, that provide United-branded service: Aircraft are painted with United colors, including the company’s dark blue logo (the word “Express” is painted in a duller gray), and flight attendants wear the standard United uniform.

Though safety standards on regional carriers have improved after earlier concerns over inadequate pilot training and oversight, the low ceilings and narrow cabins of smaller regional planes can make them feel especially cramped. Smaller regional jets might also have little onboard storage and no seatback in-flight entertainment.

As another way to save money, airlines are outsourcing maintenance to third-party companies overseas. There were 344 FAA-certified overseas repair stations in 1994; by October 2015, the number had grown to 716, according to a July 2016 report by the Government Accountability Office.

Although they are required to follow FAA standards, overseas repair and inspection facilities are subject to less oversight than the FAA-run sites operated in the U.S., says Steve Carl, an Aviation Safety Inspector for the FAA. “I looked at the training records at one facility in Africa, and not one of its 36 inspectors was qualified to inspect the aircraft they were working on, based on qualifications outlined in that facility’s own training manual,” he says. “It’s harder to go back overseas and do follow-up inspections than it is for us to follow up on issues we find at U.S. facilities.”

Michael Gonzales, a regional vice president of the Professional Aviation Safety Specialists, the union that represents FAA inspectors, says that the number of overseas inspectors has dropped while workload has grown. “Although the U.S. safety record is admirable, I’m worried that fewer inspectors and less oversight might lead to some safety shortcuts that could cause serious problems in the future,” Gonzales says. FAA spokeswoman Duquette replied in a statement that both foreign and domestic repair stations are subject to rigorous scrutiny. “The FAA and aircraft operators audit domestic repair stations. Foreign repair stations are audited not only by the FAA and aircraft operators but also by international civil aviation authorities. These stations must renew their FAA certificate every 12 to 24 months, and if they don’t meet our standards, we do not approve the certificate.”

It’s true, as Gonzales notes, that U.S. airlines today have an impressive safety record: There have been no accident-related fatalities on U.S. carriers since 2009. Though passengers traveling during the “Golden Era” could sip free Champagne at the piano bar, flying was a lot less safe then: From 1964 to 1973, for example, U.S. airlines had an average of seven fatal accidents per year. So the next time you’re at 30,000 feet with your knees pressed to your chin, at least you can take comfort in the fact that chances are still excellent you’ll arrive at your destination safely and soundly—albeit in need of a good massage.

For more on the state of air travel today—and some crazy cabin seating ideas, go to

Into Thin Air

Though travelers once were able to choose from a number of different carriers, rampant mergers have left four airlines controlling 80 percent of the market, reducing competition and leaving flyers without a meaningful choice when it comes to selecting an airline.

Winging It, Throughout the Years

A look back at some of the highest—and lowest—points in commercial aviation from the time travelers first took to the skies.


The country’s first scheduled passenger service begins between St. Petersburg and Tampa. The 23-minute flight is 11 hours shorter than train travel between the two cities.


The U.S. government begins to use airlines to transport mail, giving the struggling aviation industry the financial footing it needs to start scheduled passenger service. Commercial aviation is born.


Pan Am debuts regular trans-Pacific service aboard Boeing’s “Clipper” flying boats, carrying passengers between San Francisco and Manila in just under 60 hours of flying time.

The golden era of aviation arrives: Boeing Stratocruisers feature pressurized cabins, spiral staircases, sleeping berths, and gold-accented dressing rooms.


42,000,000 passengers are carried by U.S. airlines.


Pan American begins trans-Atlantic service aboard the Boeing 707 jet, cutting flying time from New York to London from 13½ to 6½ hours. The efficiency of jets reduces the cost of flying and opens up air travel to a far wider audience: 53 million passengers travel by air that year.


Hampered by government regulation, airlines compete on frills, not fares: Braniff’s Pucci-clad flight attendants change uniforms three times during the flight; other carriers try to woo passengers with in-flight movies and steaks cooked to order.


Mass air travel begins when Pan Am launches the 747—the biggest passenger aircraft the world had seen, seating up to 400 passengers. Almost 170 million passengers travel by air that year.


Southwest Airlines starts one of the nation’s first low-fare airlines, with discount fares between Texas cities as low as $10 one-way.


Ralph Nader wins a legal battle for the right to sue an airline for bumping him from a flight. Two years later, major improvements in protections for bumped passengers are adopted.


Supersonic passenger jet Concorde makes its commercial debut. Flying 1,350 mph, it can travel across the Atlantic in under 3 hours—less than half the time of a conventional jet.


Congress passes the Airline Deregulation Act, getting government out of the business of setting air fares and awarding routes.


People Express Airlines launches with $23 fares between Newark and Buffalo that it boasts are cheaper than driving. Passengers must pay for food and checked bags.


People Express ceases operations. Dozens of airlines eventually follow. Consumer complaints reach record levels.


Ailing Eastern Air Lines, one of the original “Big Four” domestic airlines, files for bankruptcy. It ceases flying two years later.


American Airlines launches its “more leg room throughout coach” program, removing seats from its planes to give an additional 2 inches of space to all passengers.


Low-cost carrier JetBlue launches, promising to “bring humanity back to travel” with comfortable seats, more leg room, and free TV.


After 9/11, airlines enter a financial tailspin, losing almost $58 billion over the next five years and prompting drastic cuts in flight schedules over the next decade.


Concorde makes its last commercial flight; the maximum speed of a passenger airplane returns to about 600 mph—back to where it was almost 50 years earlier.


American quietly begins phasing out its “more leg room throughout coach” campaign, adding seats back to planes, decreasing leg room.

Major airlines (with the exception of Southwest) begin charging for checked bags.


U.S. airlines begin using an à la carte pricing model, charging for—among other things—desirable seats, early boarding, and meals. Passenger complaints soar an average of 23 percent the following year.


Development of the “slimline” economy class seat allows airlines to pack more passengers than ever onto planes.


Flights average 84 percent full, an industry record, up from 71 percent in 2000.


Delta Air Lines adds an average of nine seats to more than 110 aircraft in an effort to increase seats per departure.


American and US Airways complete their merger, bringing the number of major, full-service U.S. airlines to four, down from 11 in 1983. The federal government investigates airlines for fare collusion.

How to Get the Lowest Fare

We searched for almost 400 airfares on nine travel booking websites to find out which deliver the lowest prices. What we found surprised us— and could save you a lot of money.

William J. McGee

The easiest way to find and compare all of the flight and fare options for a particular route is to use one of the many online travel agencies (which sell tickets) or fare aggregator sites (which direct you to an airline or other website to purchase the fare).

But do any of them offer lower prices than others?

To find out, we spent two weeks looking for the cheapest nonstop airfares on five busy domestic routes using nine popular sites—CheapOair, Expedia, Google Flights, Hotwire, Kayak, Orbitz, Priceline, Travelocity, and TripAdvisor.

We performed four sets of simultaneous searches on different days at different times, for a total of 372 queries. To check for merchants offering different prices to consumers based on their computer’s browser history, we had at least one tester use a browser with a robust history of searching flights (which would be typical of a comparison shopper) and another using a “scrubbed” browser, or one cleared of all of the “cookies,” or data files, that record previous web searches. (Consumers Union has seen evidence of pricing based on search histories in previous investigations, not only with airlines and hotels but also with books and shoes.)

What We Found

The average prices overall ranged from $299 for Travelocity to $335 for CheapOair, which delivered the highest average fare and also failed to provide even a single lowest fare among the five routes in our test. We also discovered that fares varied as much as $138 for the same route at the same time and as much as $238 over different days.

Among the 372 searches, we found 42 pairs of different prices on separate browsers for the same sites retrieved at the same time (in theory there should have been no differences). In fact, all nine sites provided different fares on separate browsers at the same time at least once, although it occurred most frequently on Google Flights (12) and Kayak (8). Out of the 42 pairs that differed, 25 resulted in higher fares (by as much as $121) and 17 resulted in lower fares (up to $84 less) for the scrubbed browser.

“Cookies or no cookies, it is impossible for us to show different prices to different users,” a Kayak spokesman told us when we reported our findings. He suggested that a difference of even a few seconds on simultaneous searches may have affected our results.

We can’t say whether the fare differences we found are due to pricing based on browser histories. But we can say this: To increase your chances of finding the lowest fare, search for flights multiple times and over multiple days, both with and without the cookies cleared from your browser (information on how to clear your browser of cookies can easily be found online).

Other Shopping Tips

COVER ALL THE BASES. Before booking a fare on an online travel agency such as Expedia or Orbitz, search to see all of the carriers that serve the route you’re flying, then check the airlines’ own sites to see whether you can find an even lower fare.

Although we didn’t examine any airline sites in this test, remember that they often provide advantages as well, such as offering frequent-flyer-program discounts, seat selection, and details on optional fees for meals, baggage, etc.

BE FLEXIBLE. We found that fares could vary considerably for flights just hours apart, and at crosstown airports. All of those sites offer filters to help you narrow or broaden such choices, though we found that Kayak’s were best. Use caution when employing the tools, though: We repeatedly found—after opting for specific departure times or choosing nonstop flights—that our preferences were ignored.

USE PRICE ALERTS. Kayak’s, for instance, will email you weekly or even daily notices when the price falls—helpful when you’re shopping for fares well in advance.

DON’T STOP SHOPPING AFTER YOU BUY A TICKET. By law you can cancel a booking without penalty for 24 hours after you pay for it, as long as you’re not traveling for at least a week. “Prices change all the time, so it’s a good idea to check a few sites during that 24 hours to see if you can find an even better deal,” says Carl de Marcken, a former MIT professor and fare expert.

Passengers Feel the Squeeze

Added seats translate into added revenues. Airlines are packing more of them into their planes by shaving inches from seat width and distance between rows, and even by eliminating some restrooms and galleys from their planes.

9 Ways to Save Money and Your Sanity

Following these tips will take some of the sting out of flying in economy, help you stay healthy, and protect you from losses when things don’t go as planned.

Start checking for available seats 72 hours before departure. That’s when airlines may start releasing those that were earlier reserved for people who have been upgraded or have canceled, which means you might be able to select a plum spot—without having to pay extra for it.
Consult the SeatGuru website for seating maps of most airlines’ planes, including seat pitch and width. Green seats have more room; yellow seats have at least one drawback (such as no window, limited recline or leg room, or proximity to a galley or restroom); red seats have multiple drawbacks.
Checking just one bag could cost you $36 to $200 round-trip. Making do with a carry-on is an obvious way to avoid bag fees—unless you’re flying on Allegiant, Frontier, or Spirit, which charge for carry-on bags.
If traveling light isn’t an option, consider signing up for one of the airline credit cards that offer benefits including free checked bags, early boarding, and discounts on food and beverages. American’s AAdvantage Platinum Select MasterCard, Gold Delta SkyMiles from American Express, and United MileagePlus Explorer Card, for instance, all have annual fees less than $100.
Flyers who have registered with TSA PreCheck enjoy expedited screening at more than 180 U.S. airports, saving time and stress. The Transportation Security Administration says that 95 percent of the people going through the pre-check line waited 5 minutes or less in June. Another perk: PreCheck participants are not required to take off their shoes, jackets, or belts, or remove laptops or bottles with liquids from their bags. The cost is $85 for five years. To enroll, go to, fill out a form, then make an appointment to visit an enrollment center listed on the website.
If you’ll be in the airport for more than a few hours, consider splurging for access to a lounge. Most airlines sell day passes to their club lounges even if you’re not traveling with them, and companies such as Plaza Premium Lounge, No. 1 Lounge, and The Club Airport Lounge sell passes at their locations around the world. The cost is usually between $30 and $59 per person, which, in addition to letting you dodge the airport throngs, gets you free food, beverages, WiFi, showers, and assistance with your travel arrangements. Some airline- branded credit cards offer discounted or free passes to lounges. American Express Centurion Platinum cardholders (who pay a hefty $450 annual fee) have free membership to its seven U.S. lounges.
Don’t join the mad rush to get on the plane. The less time you spend in line, the better, says Leon James, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at the University of Hawaii who studies air, road, and pedestrian rage. Don’t get in line until your section is called, then occupy yourself with a book or a game or a conversation: Research suggests that people who do nothing in line perceive wait times to be longer and more frustrating than those who are distracted.
Keeping warm and entertained are necessities for serene travel, James says. Bring along a sweater, a small pillow and blanket (for longer flights), and reading material or audio books, and games. Noise-canceling headphones and eye masks can lend an added sense of calm.
Remaining in a sedentary position for more than 4 hours can increase the risk of developing a dangerous blood clot (known as deep vein thrombosis), according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Our medical experts suggest walking around the plane every hour, if possible, and periodically raising your heels with your toes on the floor, then raising your toes with your heels on the floor. Drink plenty of fluids, especially water, and avoid alcoholic beverages. Wear loose clothing, and do not sit with your legs crossed.
Fill an enclosed space with a steady stream of people (many of them coughing and sneezing) and you have the perfect breeding ground for bacteria and viruses.
Research shows that some of the germiest spots on a plane are the seatback tray table, the overhead air vent, the seatback pocket, and the seat-belt buckle. To ease your mind and maybe avoid picking up a bug, wash your hands frequently with soap and hot water, and use alcohol-based wipes on all of those germy surfaces before you touch them, says Marvin M. Lipman, M.D., Consumer Reports’ chief medical adviser.
Travel insurance can cover the cost of your airfare (as well as hotels, tour costs, or cruise fare) if you need to cancel or interrupt a trip because of unexpected events such as personal illness, the illness or death of a relative or travel companion, or some types of severe weather. Travel insurance will generally also cover the cost of belongings that are lost or stolen, emergency medical care, and also offer a death benefit. Premiums average about 5 to 7 percent of the cost of the trip, according to the Insurance Information Institute.
Trip cancellation and other travel insurance is provided as a benefit of some credit cards, and you may be covered for medical treatment and theft under your own health and homeowners policies (if you’re traveling overseas, be sure to confirm that your health insurance will cover you abroad). It’s always best to be prepared for the unexpected, especially because airlines can take a very hard line regarding their nonrefundable ticket policies.
To review and purchase travel insurance plans, go to an online broker such as InsureMyTrip or Squaremouth, which each sells coverage from 21 carriers.

Combatting Cabin Fever

Experts say that today’s crowded airplanes are ripe environments for conflict between passengers. Here’s how to deal when tempers flare in the air.

Sometimes incidents of air rage are so serious that they make the headlines. A seatback recline battle on a United flight from Washington, D.C., to Ghana in 2011, for example, got heated enough that the plane had to return to the departure airport escorted by F-16 fighter jets. That’s an extreme example, but last year the Federal Aviation Administration received an official report of an incident with an “unruly passenger” every three to four days, on average.

“Our members have to deal with angry passengers hundreds of times every day,” says Sara Nelson of the Association of Flight Attendants.

Passenger anger is largely caused by crowded conditions and a lack of space and services, says University of Hawaii professor Leon James, Ph.D. “The airlines are pitting passengers against each other by toughening their environment and creating less friendly and more competitive interactions,” he says.

So what can you do if you notice a fellow passenger behaving badly?

Speak to a flight attendant. If you suspect someone might be angry enough to act out, or you want to complain about something that’s annoying you, quietly let one of the flight crew know. “Flight attendants are trained on how to deal with and de-escalate these situations,” Nelson says. There’s little they haven’t already seen or heard.

Don’t interfere. The crew will let you know whether they need your assistance. Passengers inserting themselves into tense situations will probably only make them worse, Nelson says. “I did once have to ask passengers to help me restrain a man who tried to open the plane door and was starting a strip-tease,” she says.

Talk it out. If something or someone on your flight is getting you steamed, try talking about it with your seatmates. “Just expressing what you’re feeling and getting support from others who are going through the same thing will help you calm down,” James says.

Your Ticket to Calmer Connections

William K. McGee

Booking a flight with at least one layover can save you $100 or more on a trip, says George Hobica, founder and president of the website Airfarewatchdog. But it also increases travel time—and the chances that a flight delay could foil your connection. If your trip involves a connection, follow these tips to increase your chances of making the plane—and decrease the likelihood of getting stranded far from your destination.


In theory, any ticket that involves a connecting flight should allow you ample time to make that connection. But that’s assuming that you arrive at your connecting airport on time. In reality, things rarely go that smoothly. “I wouldn’t book a ticket that gives you less than 2 hours to connect on domestic flights, or 4 hours on international routes,” Hobica advises.


Sitting near the front of the cabin can easily shave 15 minutes off your deplaning time, Hobica says.


Your airline’s app should give you updated info on boarding gates and on delays for each leg of your journey so that you know where you’re going and can start rebooking, if necessary, ASAP. The apps FlySmart and GateGuru (free for Android and Apple) have terminal maps for all major airports.


If you miss your connection and it’s the last one of the day, you’ll be stranded until you can get another flight to your destination. The airline might provide overnight accommodation—but that’s often not the case. Usually, it will only rebook you on the next available flight.


If you can, avoid flying from or through airports that are prone to delays. Of the country’s busiest airports, these eight had the worst on-time departures performance between January and May of this year: Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International, LaGuardia Airport, Miami International, San Francisco International, Chicago O’Hare International, John F. Kennedy International, Newark Liberty International, and Los Angeles International. You can find on-time arrival and departure statistics data for the largest U.S. airports and airlines on a monthly basis in the Department of Transportation’s Air Travel Consumer Report (

Our Fight to Improve Air Travel

Consumers Union, the policy and mobilization arm of Counsumer Reports, is working with legislators and regulators in Washington, D.C., on a variety of airline safety and customer-service initiatives. Here’s a brief rundown:


Consumers Union has joined with legislators and other advocates seeking to require the Federal Aviation Administration to impose minimum size and space standards for seats on U.S. airlines, because both leg room and seat width have shrunk while average passenger loads have soared. “It’s about more than just passenger comfort,” says William J. McGee, an airline expert who works with Consumers Union. “There are serious health and safety concerns, including the risk of deep vein thrombosis and the risk that passengers won’t be able to evacuate safely in an emergency.”


For years, Consumers Union has called for full transparency of airline pricing and advocated for measures that would make it easier to obtain an airfare’s total cost, inclusive of fees for checked baggage and other amenities.


In 2010, McGee represented Consumers Union as a passenger advocate on the Department of Transportation’s Future of Aviation Advisory Committee. He recommended that the FAA ban “lap children”—kids under 2 who are allowed to fly without proper restraints. The FAA does not require that babies be properly secured, even though both the National Transportation Safety Board and the FAA itself state that restraints are the safest way for babies to travel. Consumers Union continues to urge the FAA to ban lap children once and for all. “Ironically, our most vulnerable passengers are the least secure,” McGee says.


Consumers Union has advocated for vigorous investigation and enforcement by antitrust officials to stop airlines from further consolidating and from engaging in practices that thwart competition and consumer choice.


Every year millions of Americans purchase tickets on what they think are major airlines but are actually regional carriers, which operated 47 percent of flight departures in 2014. Consumers Union has asked the government for greater transparency of such practices.