Defensive flying

Editorial Notebook

May 26, 2007|By Karen Hosler

It was probably an omen that the subject of luggage came up long before takeoff on a vacation flight when the gentleman of the house suggested the trendy new practice of shipping bags ahead.

Contrary, as usual, the wife scoffed at such foolishness. Mailing suitcases to a Caribbean island! Bags must be kept close, she argued. New security rules make carry-on-only difficult, not least because they don't allow even a week's worth of sunscreen. Checking a bag, though, offered the silver lining of bringing along extra stuff. On a one-flight trip, what could go wrong?

Fellow passengers, don't ever tempt fate with such a question or you, too, could wind up sitting under an almond tree in a tropical paradise with no bathing suit or fresh underwear - not to mention the sunscreen.

Particularly at the official start this weekend of a summer travel season predicted to be the busiest in nearly a decade, the best advice is to fly defensively - expect that whatever can go wrong will, and pack as lightly as possible.

A record number of passengers are expected to be jammed on fewer flights. That means no empty seats, and more baggage both inside the plane and in the hold. And this comes at a time when at least 10 percent more passengers than last year are checking bags because of those three-ounce limits on lotions, gels and other toiletries that can be brought on board.

Complaints about mishandled baggage jumped by 80 percent between March 2006 and March 2007, according to the most recent statistics from the U.S. Department of Transportation.

A big part of the problem is that the struggling airlines are trying to get by with fewer workers to cut costs. So, despite the greater volume of luggage, there are fewer handlers to deal with it. So far, this has not proved much of a problem at check-in, but has taken its toll on the intricate dance of speeding bags on and off and between planes to achieve what sometimes seems the miracle of luggage that shows up at its intended destination at the appropriate time.

Further disrupting the orderly flow of baggage has been the increase in flight delays, cancellations and long waits on the tarmac before takeoff and after landing. Sometimes the problem is weather; sometimes it's a matter of waiting for a flight crew to arrive on another plane. Scheduling problems have driven up flight-related complaints by threefold since last year, the only category to exceed grumbling about baggage, the DOT says.

Despite their whining, American travelers are a resilient lot, which explains their quick return to the skies after commercial planes were used as terrorist bombs on Sept. 11, 2001. The only alarm sounded with enough fury to arouse Congress this year dealt with passengers effectively held hostage on tarmacs for many hours without water, food and toilets.

For most of the routine nightmares of air travel, though, Congress is no help.

In the case of the hapless couple above, the pilot made a choice between keeping his schedule and accommodating baggage. He explained that the fully loaded plane was simply too heavy and that some of the luggage had to be left behind. Not surprisingly, the ejected bags were those big, heavy, wheeled numbers, filled to overflowing with all the shoes and changes of clothes that somehow seemed essential for a week of doing nothing on the beach.

His decision exposed the foolishness of failing to pack essential items such as medicines, spare underwear or even a toothbrush in a carry-on - a defiant act of silent protest against the tyranny of having to condense personal must-haves to the size of a single quart-size, zip-top bag. When the big bag was left behind, there was nothing but a couple of books and some old newspapers until it arrived a day and a half later.

That arrival was anticipated with the eagerness of a child waiting for Christmas morning - followed by the inevitable realization that most of that stuff should have been left home. Next time, it will be.

Unless it gets shipped ahead.

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