Fliers Seeking Alternatives

With commercial airliners more crowded and heightened security measures threatening long delays at airports, private charter jet companies and rental car agencies may be beneficiaries of the growing airport headaches.

A Zogby International poll released recently found that 42 percent of likely voters said enhanced pat-down searches and the increased use of full-body scanners by the Transportation Security Administration would cause them to use a different mode of transportation.

The trade groups that represent charter jet and rental car businesses say the switch has already begun.

Demand for charter jets is up 52 percent so far in November over the same period last year, said Joe Leader, president of the Air Taxi-Air Charter Assn., a trade group for charter jet companies.

"The majority of that can be credited to an increase in business travel and economic recovery, but the TSA security hassle factor has absolutely had an additive effect on air taxi and air charter demand," he said.

Meanwhile, the American Car Rental Assn. reported an increase of 6 percent to 11 percent in rental business so far in November over the same period last year, an improvement that association Executive Director Sharon Faulkner attributes partly to the growing hassles of air travel.

You can blame the airport headaches on a rebounding economy and new security threats.

As the economy has begun to pick up steam, business travelers and vacationers who stayed close to home during the depths of the recession have begun to fly again, but airlines have resisted adding planes to accommodate the growth.

As a result, airlines are packing their cabins as close to capacity as possible. In August, the nation's airlines flew at 85.3 percent of capacity, the highest percentage for any August ever, according to the U.S. Bureau of Transportation Statistics.

A passenger's attempt to detonate hidden explosives aboard a Dec. 25 flight also prompted the TSA to toughen security measures at the nation's airports.

Why does Faulkner, the rental car spokeswoman, suspect the new security measures are a factor in the increased rental car rates?

"The last I heard, none of the rental agencies are searching customers before they rent a car," she said. "No one is getting patted down at rental agencies."

U.S gets data on every flier

For all the controversy over enhanced pat-down searches and full-body image scans, the Homeland Security Department is celebrating the addition of a security measure that did not draw public outcry.

The department announced last week that all airline passengers flying in or bound for the U.S. are now checked against government watch lists. The measure was recommended in 2004 by the 9/11 commission.

Under the Secure Flight initiative, all airlines flying in the U.S. must collect the full name, date of birth and gender of every passenger so the government can check them against watch lists before the passengers board.

Domestic carriers were required to comply by Nov. 1, and they all did so by June, the Transportation Security Administration said. And international airlines, whose deadline is Dec. 31, all complied by Nov. 30, it said.

Despite some experts' fear that the requirement would lead to delays at the nation's airports, the TSA said the step hasn't created any problems, even on Thanksgiving.

"The entire process throughout the holiday weekend was smooth, with minimal waits," spokesman Nico Melendez said.

He said Secure Flight is "a key component" of the TSA's efforts to keep airline passengers safer, along with the pat-down searches and full-body image scans.

Passengers still price conscious

The annual Zagat survey of airline passengers acts as a barometer on the attitude of the flying public.

This year, the survey of 8,000 passengers showed that — to no one's surprise — people continue to be careful about spending when booking flights and taking trips.

For example, when asked to select the factors most important in choosing a flight, 55 percent of the passengers surveyed said ticket price. That was down from 61 percent last year but up from 47 percent in 2007, before the recession.

Airline passengers continue to do what they can to avoid fees for checked luggage. Nearly half (45 percent) said they try to book with airlines that don't charge for checked luggage, and 42 percent said they use frequent flier rewards to get the fees waived, the survey said.

And clearly, the best way to spend less on flying is not to fly. Of those surveyed, 30 percent said they now fly less than they did before the recession, and only 9 percent said they fly more. The other 61 percent said they fly just as often.

Health advocate rates airline food

For fliers who worry about their waistlines instead of their bottom lines, a public health advocate is weighing in on the nutrition of airline food.

Charles Stuart Platkin, editor of and a professor at City University of New York's School of Public Health at Hunter College, has rated the snacks and meals offered by the nation's largest airlines.

United Airlines ranked highest on Platkin's list. He praised its turkey sandwich, chicken Caesar salad, fruit tray and yogurt parfait.

Platkin gave US Airways his lowest ratings, saying its French toast sandwich breakfast box is "very high in calories and offers little in terms of nutrition."

US Airways took exception. "We work closely with our caterer to ensure that the food and snack items we serve to our customers are fresh, high quality and healthy," spokesman Derek Hanna said.

Ding! You're free to have a drink

In perhaps an effort to get passengers in the holiday spirit, American Airlines has announced plans for in-flight happy hours throughout December. On every flight in the U.S., Mexico, Canada and the Caribbean that departs between 5 and 5:59 p.m., the airline will sell alcoholic drinks for $5 each.

On American flights departing at other times, liquor and wine sells in the coach section for $7, and beer goes for $6.