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Air Travel Rules FAQ

Ever since September 11, 2001, air travel and security in the U.S. has changed significantly. There are many more rules to follow, and traveling itself takes significantly longer due to security screening. While air travel has become more complicated, it won't be as difficult if you know the rules. Accordingly, here are some guidelines to make your traveling less stressful.

Air Travel Rules -- Security

What kind of security measures should I expect at the airport?

As of January 2010, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) introduced new security measures at all U.S. airports, with an emphasis on international flights. The key differences are increased screenings, as well as new screening procedures and methods. This translates into longer security lines. In general it is recommended that you:

  • Arrive even earlier than before (especially true for international flights)
  • Bring government-issued identification
  • Bring your ticket and have it ready at all times
  • Limit yourself to one carry-on item
  • Don't bring any prohibited items onboard (see below)
  • Avoid baggy or loose clothing (this includes headwear)
  • Don't joke about or take lightly airport security

What kinds of items are not allowed on airplanes?

The TSA breaks prohibited items down into the following categories, and it's easier to understand what categories are prohibited from being carried on and listing the few exceptions to each list, rather than specify every object that is not allowed:

  • Guns & Firearms: you cannot carryguns onto a plane and there are no exceptions, you must check them; some items cannot be checked, so contact the TSA if you are uncertain.
  • Tools: you cannot carry-on most tools (hammers, axes, drills, etc), the exceptions are tools that are smaller than 7 inches such as a small screwdriver or pair of pliers; everything else must be checked.
  • Self-defense & Martial arts items: you cannot carry-on any self-defense items, they must be checked.
  • Explosive, Flammable, Disabling & Dangerous Materials/Chemicals: these items cannot be carried-on or checked with the only exceptions being a common lighter can be carried-on but not checked and small compressed gas cartridges can be carried-on or checked (such as for a life vest).
  • Liquids & Gels: these items cannot be carried on and must be checked, with the exceptions provided in more detail in the next section.

What are the 3-1-1 liquid rules for carrying-on liquids and gels?

The 3-1-1 rule is short hand for the exception to the ban on liquids and gels in the cabin of an airplane. It means that you can carry-on a liquid or gel if:

  • 3: the liquid or gel comes in a 3 ounce or less container, note that the measurement is the container, not the actual liquid or gel. Technically the rule is 3.4 ounces (100 ml) or less, but 3.4-1-1 didn't sound as catchy.
  • 1: your 3 ounce or less containers (you can have several) fit in a 1-quart clear, plastic bag.
  • 1: you are only allowed 1 quart-sized, clear, plastic bag per passenger.

You need to have the bag ready when you go through screening, and separate it from your general luggage when putting your luggage through screening.

The major exceptions to the 3-1-1 rule are medications, baby formula and food, and breast milk. These can be in quantities greater than 3 ounces and do not have to be in plastic bags. However, you need to declare these liquids to the security personnel so they can be inspected.

I'm traveling with food or gifts, are there any special rules to follow?

In general, food and gifts are subject to the same regulations as everything else, which means they have to comply with the liquid regulations above. Gifts in particular should not be wrapped, because security officers will have to unwrap the gift to inspect it. Wrap your gifts at their destination instead.

Typical foods like jams, jellies, wine and oils cannot be brought on-board and must be checked. Note an exception to this are pies and cakes, which can be brought through a security checkpoint, but you must declare them and they are subject to additional screening. Items purchased after a security checkpoint (e.g., coffee, baked goods) are fine because they've already been screened.

Can I meet family members at the gate or have them meet me?

No. Only ticket holders with boarding passes are allowed past the security checkpoint. You will need to make arrangements to meet your family members outside the security checkpoint, at places such as the baggage claim or at airline counters. If your family member needs special assistance, contact the airline to make arrangements.

Air Travel Rules -- Flight Changes

My flight has been canceled or delayed, what can I do about it?

Despite popular belief there is little or no federal regulation mandating what an airline must do or offer if your flight is canceled or delayed. Prior to 1978, "Rule 240" mandated how to deal with cancellations and delays, but due to deregulation of the airline industry, this rule is no longer effective, although many airlines still act according to it.

Today, each airline has its own policies, so investigate the policies of the airline you want to choose and see if they meet your expectations. Despite the fact that it is not required by law, here are some general guidelines:

  • Cancellations: if your flight has been canceled, most airlines will rebook you on the first available flight they have to your destination at no charge.
  • Delays: if your flight is delayed, you can try to book a flight on another airline but you may face cancelation charges from your original airline. Some airlines may waive this fee, or only waive it if the delay is of a certain kind (e.g., due to mechanical failure). Also, you should ask the first airline if they will endorse your ticket to the other carrier as this can save you money.

Typically, discount airlines offer less options and amenities than more expensive full-service airlines (such as compensating you for the cost of meals, a hotel room, etc).

I was stranded on the runway for hours, what can I do about it?

New rules that came into effect in 2010 impose a heavy fine (up to $27,500 per passenger) on airlines that strand their passengers on the runway for more than 3 hours. The rule requires airlines to allow passengers to get off domestic flights that have been on the runway for more than 3 hours, provided that doing so doesn't jeopardize passenger or airport safety. In addition, carriers are required to provide passengers with food and water within the first two hours of being on the runway, as well as let them use the bathroom.

The airline overbooked seats and bumped me, what can I do about it?

Unlike general cancelations and delays, there is federal regulation of airlines "bumping" passengers due to overbooking. The airline will first ask for volunteers and offer some sort of compensation. If not enough passengers volunteer and you are involuntarily bumped, the airline is obligated to find you another flight with these additional rules:

  • 1 hour late: if the airline can make arrangements to get you to your destination within one hour of your original arrival time, no compensation is due.
  • 1 -- 2 hours late: if the airline gets you to your destination within one to two hours of your original arrival time (one to four for international flights), the airline must pay you an amount equal to your one-way fare to your final destination that day, with a $400 maximum.
  • 2+ hours late: if the airline takes more than two hours (four for international flights) to get you to your destination, then the airline must pay you double your one-way fare, with an $800 maximum.
  • Make your own arrangements: alternatively you can make your own arrangements and ask for a refund for the flight.

My baggage has been lost or damaged, what can I do about it?

Dealing with lost or damaged luggage can be a major headache because there are few rules, and it is largely left up to the airlines to set their own policies. Generally, most airlines limit the amount they can be liable for your lost or damaged luggage to around $2,500 per passenger. You can declare a higher value at check-in, but they will charge you an additional fee based on the value you declare.

International flights are also largely subject to the airlines' policies. Although some international law does exist, the compensation is paltry and is based on the weight of your luggage, not the actual value of its contents. Check your airline's policies for lost or damaged luggage, and never pack anything that is extremely valuable or cannot be replaced. Consider shipping and insuring such items instead.

Air Travel Rules -- Tickets

How are e-tickets different than paper tickets?

E-tickets can mean one of two things. Some people refer to e-tickets as the receipt from an airline that includes an airline or reservation code. This is not a formal ticket and is simply a reservation, proof of reservation or receipt. You cannot use this to get through a security checkpoint or to board a plane. Instead, this is what you would present to a check-in agent, or use at an electronic kiosk at the airport to generate an actual boarding pass.

Many airlines, however, now offer the ability to print your boarding pass from your home printer. This printed boarding pass is an actual ticket, just like one that your airline would print out for you at the airport. It will typically have a barcode or similar code and will actually declare itself as a boarding pass. If you are unsure, check with your airline and don't assume what you have will get you through security.

I lost my ticket, what should I do?

Report the lost ticket to your airline immediately. Most airlines will issue you a replacement ticket, but will make you sign an agreement to reimburse the airline if someone else successfully uses your ticket. Usually this is just a formality. A few airlines, however, will make you repurchase a ticket, so make sure you check your airline's policies before purchasing a ticket.

Can I give or sell my ticket to someone else?

No. Largely for security reasons, tickets can only be used by the passenger whose name is on the ticket. This means you cannot give your ticket to someone else to use. You may be able to "refund" the ticket in part or in whole and secure a new ticket for someone else, but you cannot simply give them your ticket.

I have to travel last-minute because of a death or serious illness, are there discounts available?

Many airlines offer bereavement discounts if you have to travel without any advance planning due to a serious illness or funeral. Airlines will also often waive cancellation fees that result from the loss of a family member or serious illness. It always pays to contact your airline to find out what they offer if you are this situation, and what sort of proof they may require.

Air Travel Rules -- Frequent Flyer Miles

Are my frequent flyer points legally protected, or can an airline just take them away?

Frequent flyer programs are essentially a contract between you and the airline, and accordingly are subject to the same set of rules as any contract. In practice, however, this means that the airline pretty much dictates the terms and you can either agree and signup or not. This also means that the airline will usually state that they can change the rules of the program at almost any time with limited or no notice. Accordingly, frequent flyer programs are seen more as a bonus than an obligation. Because airlines reserve the right to make changes to their programs, sometimes on short notice, things to look out for include:

  • The number of miles required for particular awards might be raised, requiring you to use your old mileage (i.e., your current balance) under the more restrictive new rules.
  • The airline may cease service on a route that you were particularly interested in, or it may even stop serving the city you live in.
  • The airline may eliminate attractive frequent-flyer tie-ins with particular airlines or hotel chains.
  • The airline may change the number and length of any "blackout periods" during which awards cannot be used. For example, on some carriers the Thanksgiving blackout may last a week or more.
  • Airlines often limit the number of seats on each flight for which frequent-flyer awards can be used. You may not be able to get reservations on your first- or second-choice dates or flights.

Can I belong to more than one frequent flyer program?

Absolutely, and this is a good way to avoid having to schedule inconvenient flights just to get frequent flyer rewards. However, spreading yourself too thin may reduce the attractiveness of frequent flyer programs, since they generally require you to build up a certain amount of miles to use them. For this reason it is often best to belong to two frequent flyer programs, and no more than three.

Can I sell or give my frequent flyer points to someone else?

This is up to the airline, and can be changed at any time, but many airlines allow you to designate close family and relatives as the beneficiary of your frequent flyer miles. However, most airlines will not allow you to actively sell your frequent flyer miles, and may ban you from the program if they discover you are selling your miles.

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