May 27, 2011 -- Did you hear about the fellow who was on a Continental flight from Houston to Chicago this month when he tried to get off the plane - in mid-flight?
1. MYTH: Commercial jet doors can be opened in mid-flight
He failed of course because he couldn't get the aircraft door open. I don't know what the airlines are stocking on those beverage carts of theirs lately, but there have been a bunch of similar "unruly passenger" incidents over the past year.
A former Playboy centerfold was accused of trying to open an airplane door on a JetBlue flight; an agitated man pounded on the cockpit door on an American flight; another guy tried to open a door on a Delta plane while also allegedly threatening to blow up it up.
Not to worry. Today I am playing "Airline Myth Buster" and I can assure you that opening a door on a commercial jet in midflight cannot be done.
There are a couple of reasons for this, but the big one is cabin pressure which, in effect, seals the doors shut. Plus many aircraft doors are "plug-type" in design meaning the doors are bigger than the opening (unless they are rotated). Again, though, once cabins begin to pressurize, which occurs as the plane begins to taxi, well - forget it. Those doors are shut.
Here's some other myths - and the real story behind them.
2. MYTH: Airlines reimburse you for all losses when luggage is "mishandled"
I love that airline word, "mishandled"; in plain English, it means they lost your bag. If so, they owe you, right? Well, yes: starting in August, you will get your checked-bag fee refunded if your bag is lost, thanks to new rules from the Department of Transportation. As for contents, yes, you're due compensation for that to, but you may not get what you consider a fair deal.
Read the fine print on your airline's baggage policy (found in the carrier's "Contract of Carriage" section): many airlines don't allow you to transport "valuables" in your checked-baggage, such as electronics and jewelry, although many of us do this anyway. By putting that in writing, the airlines are telling you that if they lose the bag, they certainly won't pay for those losses.
Also, you may need receipts to be reimbursed for anything new in your bag; if you have none, or you want compensation for other items, the Department of Transportation says you could be in for weeks (or even months) of negotiations to prove the value of your losses. By the way, do not leave the airport without filling out all those claim forms.
Tip: before you travel, make an inventory of your checked-bag's contents and saving all receipts. Better yet, use a carryon bag and avoid all this insane hassle.
3. MYTH: Big payouts await those who are bumped from flights
You might get a big payout, if you're involuntarily bumped and if you can't be quickly accommodated on another flight. In fact, starting in August when the rates go up, you could get as much as $1,300 in cash for being booted from an overbooked flight, but if you're rebooked on a plane that gets you to your destination within one hour of the originally scheduled arrival time, you get zip.
Voluntary bumping, of course, is a whole other matter, where you accept what the airline offers if you like the offer - or, in the case with a new scheme from Delta, you bid on what you'd accept for being bumped (careful: this method tends to favor the airline).
4. MYTH: Canceled flights mean free hotel/meal vouchers
The good old days are long gone so if you're expecting special courtesies from the airlines when bad things happen, think again. If it's a weather problem, the airline has no responsibility, but even if a cancelation is due to a problem "within the airline's control", don't hold your breath.
For example, from American Airlines' contract of carriage: "[If] we do not get you to your final destination on the expected arrival day, we will provide reasonable overnight accommodations, subject to availability." Note that last phrase.
However, it never hurts to ask. Remember when Iceland's volcano erupted last year, stranding thousands around the globe? European discount airline Ryanair said it would go to court rather than hand out vouchers to its passengers, then did a complete u-turn and handed them out anyway. So you never know.
And you never know what you might get. Recently, some passengers in Dallas were "rewarded" with hotel vouchers last week when vicious storms battered the area. I know, because my editor at FareCompare was there when the American gate agent at DFW handed them out (there were only a few and my employee didn't get one). The vouchers weren't exactly freebies, but they were good for a "special" room rate of $60 a night at a local inn. On a hunch, my editor called the hotel to find out the room rate for regular paying customers and guess what? It too was $60.
By the way, my editor said all the American employees she met during this stressful day were unfailingly kind and helpful. I think that's worth more than a voucher any day. 5. MYTH: Cell phones in flight can cause big, big problems
The answer to this one is a little bit murky; while the FAA (and the FCC) continues to ban cell phones on U.S. airlines, there is a growing body of evidence that indicates they don't cause big problems. In fact, some international carriers including Emirates do allow cell phones on planes with no reported ill effects (though those who must sit through conversations about the latest singer voted off "American Idol" may have a different opinion).
Here's what the FAA has to say: "There are still unknowns about the radio signals that portable electronic devices (PEDs) and cell phones give off. These signals, especially in large quantities and emitted over a long time, may unintentionally affect aircraft communications, navigation, flight control and electronic equipment."
The biggest problem with cell phones on planes? If you don't turn them off, you'll face the wrath of the flight attendant - and quite possibly, indelicate language from your seatmates.
6. MYTH: Shop for flights on weekends to get the cheapest airfare
My regular readers know this one's a myth. Weekends are the worst times to shop, since the airlines know you have extra time to do so and they usually make you pay more.
The best day (and time) to shop? Tuesdays at about 3pm eastern time. According to the historical data we collect at FareCompare.com, one or more airlines usually launches an airfare sale on Monday evening; by Tuesday afternoon, carriers on competing routes match those sale prices since they don't want to risk losing your business. The process is complete by Tuesday afternoon.