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Flying Q&A

©Washington Post

© St. Petersburg Times,
published September 15, 2001


Q. I was scheduled to fly when the airports were shut down. Can I get a refund? If I want to reschedule, will I have to pay a penalty?

A. The government's decision to stop all air traffic is what's called a "force majeure" event, and as a result, airlines must provide another acceptable flight or refund your ticket price, even if the ticket was nonrefundable when issued.

Airline expert Terry Trippler says that airlines may tell passengers to keep their tickets to use within the next year with no change fee, but he advises travelers to opt for a refund wherever possible. "You can always buy another ticket later," he said. And to turn tickets in, Trippler advises consumers to bring them into a ticket office, not send them in the mail. For specifics, contact the airline.

* * *

Q. Even though air service is now resuming, I'm reluctant to fly. Can I get a refund on tickets I hold for future flights?

A. Once the airlines begin operating again, they are not required to give a refund. It will be up to each airline. Most have announced they will waive any change fees for ticketed customers scheduled to travel in the next few days, but very few have agreed to give full refunds without penalty. Southwest is an exception. It has said customers with a confirmed reservation can request a full refund regardless of their travel date.

As of Thursday, United and American offered limited refunds with no penalty -- American on tickets for travel through Tuesday, United for those through Sept. 25. But those dates may change, especially if the carriers are slow to return to full service. Again, check with the airline.

* * *

Q. What are the chances that my flight, as scheduled, will actually take off?

A. At the moment, not great. Thursday, airlines indicated it could take several days for operations to return to normal. Flights to and from small airports could be especially slow to get back on track because these facilities may find it more difficult to meet the new federal security standards.

* * *

Q. I still plan to travel, but it sounds as though the new security rules mean a lot more hassles and waiting at the airport. What's the least amount of time I should plan to spend at the airport?

A. There's so much conflicting information about what is and is not permissible that passengers should be prepared for some inconveniences.

One of those inconveniences will be that you need to get to the airport earlier than ever. Airline and airport officials now advise passengers to arrive two hours before their scheduled departure for domestic flights, 21/2 hours for international flights.

There will probably be longer check-in lines and lengthier security and identification checks, so have plenty of patience.

* * *

Q. Where do I check in?

A. Many more passengers will now need to check in at the ticket counter. There will be no more curbside check-in. Passengers who were once able to check in at hotels, car rental agencies or other venues away from the airport will now be required to check in only at the airport ticket counter.

Passengers with proof of tickets and no baggage to check may be permitted to go through security checkpoints and check in at the gate.

But only ticketed passengers will be allowed to pass through security checkpoints.

* * *

Q. What about electronic tickets. Can I still use them?

A. Yes, although you will need to bring along some proof of purchase if you want to check in at the gate. The exact requirements will depend on the airlines and the airports. Baltimore-Washington International Airport, for example, said that in order to be allowed through security checkpoints, passengers with e-tickets must show an official confirmation number on a piece of paper that bears the airline's logo. Some airlines have set up their Web sites to provide that kind of proof; others have numbers you can call to request a faxed receipt.

E-ticket passengers who don't have that kind of proof will have to report to the ticket counter to obtain a ticket or boarding pass acceptable to security personnel.

* * *

Q. Are there any new restrictions on carry-on bags?

A. The Federal Aviation Administration will still allow carry-ons. Some airport officials were talking about banning them, but that's not likely. The FAA did make one change in what can be brought on board: Any knives and cutting instruments -- including razors -- will not be permitted in carry-on luggage. Until now, the FAA had allowed knives with blades of less than four inches.

* * *

Q. Will unaccompanied children still be able to fly? And if only ticketed passengers can proceed past security, who will accompany children to their gate to wait for their flight, or be there to meet them when they arrive?

A. The FAA has put no restrictions on the unaccompanied minor program, although some airlines, such as Northwest, now say they won't transport children not with adult guardians for at least the next few days. For those airlines that will still accept unaccompanied children, the FAA said exceptions will be made to allow parents to accompany their children to and from the gates.

* * *

Q. You keep saying "contact your airline for information," but all their telephone lines are busy. Any other ideas?

A. For basic information you can try the Internet, but otherwise you'll have to keep trying the phones.

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