In January 2012, the Department of Transportation launched several airline regulations with a strong consumer-protection bent. Passengers heaved a sigh of relief, as the new parameters require airlines to limit tarmac delays and to quickly notify travelers of schedule changes or flight cancellations. Still, some air travel rules come across as confusing, frustrating, or even worthy of a Liz Lemon–style meltdown. Here are ten edicts that raise eyebrows and blood pressures.
The Federal Aviation Administration still bans the use of electronic devices, including e-readers and smartphones, during takeoff and landing. Switching iPads or smartphones to "airplane mode" doesn’t fly, even though their frequencies don’t interfere with a plane's signals. Crews want them stowed; Beth Blair, a writer and flight attendant, explains, “little devices can turn into projectiles if something goes wrong.” But wouldn’t you rather be hit by a Kindle than, say, a Freedom hardcover? There’s a glimmer of hope that this rule may change, though. In March, the FAA indicated that it plans safety tests for some personal electronic devices, including e-readers and tablets but not cell phones or smartphones."
Despite tantalizing rumors that travelers would soon be able to keep their shoes on at security checkpoints, you still have to shuck off your footwear for scanning. Unless, that is, you've hit your 75th birthday or are eligible for PreCheck. In March, the Transportation Security Administration started testing modified security checks for people age 75 and up, letting them keep on shoes and lightweight jackets and sweaters. Other fliers, meanwhile, can sail through security with their shoes on and laptops and liquids in their bags, if they've been accepted to the PreCheck program either as an elite mileage member or by shelling out for government-approved enrollment.
The TSA’s 3-1-1 rule dictates that not only must liquids, gels, and aerosols measure 3.4 ounces (100ml) or less to pass security, their containers must also fit those petite dimensions. If you have a larger container with just an ounce of liquid inside, it can get discarded. Snacks often fall prey to this policy; even cupcakes have been jettisoned for questionable amounts of frosting.
Gel shoe inserts are not allowed through security—but you can wear a gel-filled bra through the scanner. According to Daniel Feldman of Profoot, most shoe inserts include 200 grams total of resin or polyurethane gel. By comparison, some bras plump up with similar amounts of silicone. So while you might make like Charlize Theron and strap nearly half a pound of silicone to your chest, you’ll need foam, not gel, for your feet.
With the DOT’s new rules in place, domestic flights have a three-hour tarmac delay limit. If you’re stuck on the ground, the crew must legally provide water, food, and bathroom and medical-care access. But whether you can actually get out of your seat remains up to the captains. They decide whether it’s safe enough to move around the cabin, so you might still find yourself buckled in for the duration.
The TSA’s Secure Flight requirements crack down on any discrepancy between the name on your boarding pass and on your government-issued ID. If a boarding pass skips your middle name, for instance, or abbreviates your first name, airline or TSA staff may pull you aside to fill out certification of identity forms and go through extra security screenings. Debuting a newlywed family name? Better have a copy of your marriage license handy.
Airlines are enforcing carry-on weight limits, even if bags are within the required size. Each airline sets its own limit; some are as low as 15 pounds. George Hobica of Airfarewatchdog.com sees agents using luggage scales at boarding gates. Heavy bags will be checked, so passengers risk being separated from valuables and necessary personal items. "It can be very fraught," Hobica says, "you really have to check."
If you’re bringing back a snow globe for Great-Aunt Zelda or Nephew Charlie, be sure to pack it in your checked luggage. No matter how small, those innocent-looking souvenirs are still on the TSA’s list of potentially dangerous carry-on items. Even if the snow globe is in its original packaging with documentation, it will get confiscated.
Sports equipment protocol is a bit of a riddle wrapped in an enigma inside a golf bag. Ski poles, golf clubs, pool cues, and lacrosse sticks must be checked. On the other hand, you are allowed to carry on hand weights and ice skates…despite the skates’ blades. Golfers should be especially careful to clean their equipment, since a bomb-sniffing dog might pick up fertilizer traces from a green.
Reward mileage programs are notoriously shifting sands, but Delta’s SkyMiles set a stringent new penalty standard. As of August 2011, SkyMiles members who change or cancel an awards flight within 72 hours or less of departure forfeit that award. The ticket is nonrefundable and nontransferable in that last-minute timeframe.