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Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Help For Airline Passengers

One of the biggest complaints I hear from travelers is about going through security. Long gone are the days when anyone can go through security. The screening of bags and people is far tighter than what it was before 9/11. Due to the world that we live in today tighter security is necessary. The people who work for the Transportation Security Agency (TSA) have a huge responsibility. Many people complain about going through security. But think of the dangers that would face travelers if precautions are not taken.

The biggest downside to going through security can be the long lines. At larger airports on heavy travel days security wait times can be well over an hour. Planning ahead and being at the airport early is important to being at the gate on time. I have a sister-in-law who found this out the hard way when she missed her flight to Hawaii and had to come back the next day.

There is some relief available to travelers now. TSA has a program knows as Pre Check. A traveler who is on the Pre Check program goes to a line just for them, which is much shorter than the standard lines. Additionally, in this line people are not required to remove their belts, shoes or light jackets, provided these items do not set off the metal detectors. In the standard line people are required to remove computers and liquids from their bags and put these items in a separate bin for scanning. Travelers who are Pre Check approved are not required to remove these things from their bags.

Using Pre Check can greatly reduce time and hassles while going though security when traveling on the airlines. The main qualification for applying for this benefit is the applicant cannot have been convicted of certain crimes. The details can be found on TSA's website, TSA.gov.

Now that you are through security you have to find your gate. Keep in mind that flights can change gates. Even though the gate number may be on your boarding pass check the boards at the airport for any changes. Personally, I use FlightTrack, an iPhone application that gives me gate information on all flights. It is normally up to date, but occasionally has some misinformation. Keep in mind when you get to the gate that if there is a change in gates that the gate agent has nothing to do with the change. I cannot begin to guess the number of times I have heard somebody being rude with a gate agent simply because there was a gate change.

Gate agents have one of the most difficult jobs in the airline industry. These people take horrendous verbal abuse by frustrated passengers for events that the agents have no control over. For people who do not travel often, remember that once you have a boarding pass that you do not have to check in with the agent when you get to the gate. The way to know for sure if you have a boarding pass is that if you are through security you have a boarding pass. No one is allowed through security without a boarding pass. The boarding pass will have your seat assignment printed on it, unless you are standby or traveling on SouthWest airiness. SouthWest does not assign seats and has an open seating policy. A SouthWest boarding pass will have a boarding position on it.

Another way to speed things up at the airport is to print your boarding pass at home. Simply go to the airline's website and find the link for checking in for a flight. This feature is available within 24 hours of departure of you flight. You can also avoid checking bags in at the airport and go strait through security if you take bags that are carry on size. The standard carry on bag size is no larger than 9" X 14" X 22". You are allowed to carry one two bags. If you are on a trip with connecting flights and do not wish to carry your larger carry on bag on and off airplanes you can choose to gate check your bags all the way through to your destination. The gate agents will normally make an announcement regarding this on full flights. You will not be charged a bag fee if you decide to do this. Do not confuse this with a gate check bag on regional aircraft that you pick the bag up at the gate at the end of that flight. Simply ask your gate agent if you gate check where you will pick your bag up when you gate check it.

I hope this information will be helpful for people who do not travel on a regular basis.


Monday, March 17, 2014

Missing Malaysia Airlines Flight

As an airline pilot I have been asked numerous times by friends, family and even passengers what my thoughts are on the missing flight. Normally, I am not one to speculate. Since I am not big on speculation I dance around the topic with people I am close to by joking and asking them if they are trying to cause my wife to divorce me. Of course the give me a strange look of confusion and ask me what on earth I am talking about. My answer is, "Anything I have to say would be pure speculation. Speculation leads to rumors. Rumors leads to lies. Lies are sinful. Sinfulness leads to divorce." Of course I can only use that line with people who know me and my oddball sense of humor.

Okay, so hear goes my speculation for the record. I sure hope this does not lead to my wife leaving me. I have actually not followed the news as closely as many people have regarding this incident. All I know for sure is that a Boeing 777 departed Kuala Lumpur International Airport to Beijing Capital International Airport on March 8, 2014. Somewhere along its route, the aircraft mysteriously disappeared. Unless officials have information that is not being shared with the public, these items are literally the only facts known about this mystery. 

There are some other facts that we could look at though. First, each airline flight is given a distinct transponder code. Actually, any aircraft operating under instrument flight rules (IFR) is issued a transponder code. This code is used by air traffic controllers to identify each aircraft on the radar screen. A controller will know things about these airplanes such as the type of aircraft, its altitude and direction of flight. It gives the controllers the information they need for separation of traffic and allows the controllers to give the pilots instructions as needed for a variety of reasons. 

There are a few reasons that a radar could no longer track an aircraft's transponder. First, is if the transponder malfunctions. However, on airliners there would be a backup transponder. Both of these transponders would have the assigned "squawk" code entered. Secondly, if the transponders were shut off. The third reason is if the aircraft was not flying in a radar coverage area. In this case the missing flight was under radar coverage when it went missing. The fourth reason would be if the airplane went down.

Lets take a look at the possibility that the airplane went down. The last known location was known by controllers. At least the last known location where controllers were able to see while the transponder was still operating. A search in this area would reveal any wreckage of the airplane. Even if that plane went down in a body of water there are many things that would float to the surface allowing search and rescue to find the crash site. Additionally, there is other evidence that indicates the 777 remained in the air for a few more hours after contact was lost.

Some media outlets have speculated that cabin pressure may have been lost and the pilots were unconscious. This is a possibility. However, this does not explain the mystery of the transponder not working or being turned off. If the pilots did loose consciousness they could not have turned off the transponder. The airplane would have continued to fly on the course that was programed into its flight management system (FMS) on the autopilot until it ran out of fuel. This would have allowed search parties to look along the aircraft's planned route of flight. 

Now the media is reporting that the background of everyone on the flight is being looked into, including the pilots'. Some people are speculating that the plane was hijacked, landed somewhere and is being hidden. I have heard some wild conspiracies on this topic. I will not even begin to get in a discussion over some of the things I have heard regarding this. However, lets do look at the possibility of hiding the airplane. First, it has been several days since the aircraft went missing. When a hijacking or kidnapping occurs the group or those responsible do not take long to come out with demands. Known terrorist organizations want to flaunt their evil intentions to the world to prove they are in the right. These people are not ones to be ashamed or hide what they have done.

Also, if the plane were highjacked it would have to land somewhere. This is a huge airplane. It cannot land just anywhere. Even if there was a deserted airport of military base used somewhere for something like this people nearby would have heard the airplane on approach. 

So, lets get back to the question as to what do I think happened to Malaysia Airlines Flight 370. I have no idea. It is a total mystery to me. If I did know I could probably get a huge reward and buy my own jet. But hopefully I have given those who are following this mystery some facts that helps to understand some of the questions at hand. I apologize if I was not more help.

Until next time, keep an eye on the sky,

Collin W. Hughes 

The Prozac Pilot