The Insider

Aviation expert discusses the new realities of air travel

Len Spoden

Anyone who wonders why they are always in the last boarding group — regardless of seat assignment — should read “Full Upright and Locked Position” (W.W. Norton & Co., $24.95) by Mark Gerchick. A former chief counsel of the Federal Aviation Administration and policy official of the Transportation Department, he reveals what he calls the “not-so-comfortable truths about air travel today.” We asked Gerchick, now an aviation consultant, for tips on how to best navigate the often confusing and frustrating world of air travel.

Q. Why did you write this book?

A. We have had a major change in the whole air travel industry. I think that we have reached a new, more stable level. It’s not necessarily good or bad, but this is the new normal and we need to understand it. No matter how uncomfortable or difficult travel can be these days, if people have a sense of what the whole system is and how it is working, they feel more comfortable.


Q. What is your most important piece of advice?

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A. It’s advice about the way we look at air travel. As passengers we need to adjust our expectations. Airlines are a business that is finally making a little bit of money. The expectation of flying as a pleasant adventure is an anachronism. That’s just not the case anymore, especially in coach. If you recognize that fact, it is a bit liberating. I’m going to suffer, but I’m going to get where I want to go.

Q. How do you go about researching the best price for a flight?

A. Like most fliers, I go online first. I usually start with one of the broad online reservation systems to get an overview. A lot of sites will let you look three days plus or minus of your date. You may find you can save a few hundred dollars by going the day before or the day after if you have that flexibility. Fliers should also look at nearby alternative airports, such as Hartford or Providence in your area. Once I’ve got a general idea, I’ll go to the website of the airline itself. You can sometimes get more information in terms of seat availability.

Q. Are there models of planes that you prefer?


A. My interest is not so much in the aircraft but in the seat pitch. It is really a question of space. The workhorse aircraft is the 737. One major airline may configure it with 150 seats, an ultra-low-cost carrier may try to get almost 180 seats in it. I go to the website They will give you detailed plans of each airline and its aircraft. You can put in the flight number that you are looking at and they will show you the map of that particular flight.

Q. Are there consumer protections that you would like to see the government enact?

A. I’m sure you are aware of the full fare rule. Airlines have to advertise the entire fare you are going to have to pay, including taxes and fees. That has been very helpful. But at some point, these fees may go over the line. The government may need to take a look and say “Hold on.”

Q. Are there new fees we should be expecting?

A. One that I am watching is a fee for putting your carry-on bag in the overhead bin. There are one or two ultra-low-cost airlines that are already charging for that. So far the major airlines haven’t gone that way. But ... 10 years ago, people laughed at the idea of bag fees.


Q. Do you have advice on redeeming frequent flier miles?

‘As passengers, we need to adjust our expectations. . . . I’m going to suffer, but I’m going to get where I want to go.’

A. The problem with frequent flier programs is that they are infinitely malleable by the airline. There is little regulation. If you have a lot of miles, use them for a long, great trip of a lifetime. I personally use them to upgrade to a different class of travel. You can get a basic fare for not very much money and you can use that upgrade for a different class of value.

Q. Are there airports that are particularly known for delays?

A. The New York airports (Kennedy, LaGuardia, and Newark) are a source of considerable delays. They are trying to improve the air traffic control system, but it’s a huge market and you can get weather issues.

Q. What is the best time of day to fly?

A. I always try to get an early flight. The system is basically a cascading system. A delay that starts in the morning is going to get a little bit larger each hour. Each flight on that airplane will be a little bit later. I’m a big fan of the early flight, but not necessarily the very earliest flight. Some of the biggest crowding is the very first flight of the day.

Q. What is the chance that passengers will be allowed to use cellphones during flight?

A. I think it is low. The government is going to be looking more at loosening up on the use of Kindles and similar devices. The cellphone issue is not so much about safety, but concern about creating a really unpleasant environment where you end up with more air rage incidents. There is something of a generational divide on the use of cellphones. My personal view is that I really don’t want to hear about someone’s romantic issues and political views for six hours flying from New York to Los Angeles.

Q. Is there anything fliers can do to avoid lost baggage?

A. The reliability of bag processing has actually improved. They don’t call them lost bags, they call them mishandled bags. It’s on the theory that there is always hope. If your bag doesn’t arrive, go right to the bag office. Increasingly they are able to tell you exactly where that bag is. It may not be where you want it to be, but they are able to give you more information about when it will arrive. It’s that information thing again. People want to be informed.

Interview was condensed and edited. Patricia Harris can be reached at