Mystery In The Air

Are you reading this on a plane? You may want to skip the item about how clean that airline blanket really is.

The airline business is replete with mystery. It starts with basic physics: How the heck does a 400-ton tube of steel get off the ground? Then there's the increasingly dubious business proposition: Exactly why are United Airlines, US Airways, and Delta Air Lines, among others, still with us? But there are myriad smaller mysteries, too -- somewhat less essential questions that most business travelers, inured by now to almost anything, take for granted. Not us.

1. Why can't I use my cell phone?

Can your mobile phone bring down a 747? In 1991, the Federal Communications Commission, worried about interference with cellular transmissions on the ground, barred cell-phone use in the air. The Federal Aviation Administration, concerned that radiation from phones might hinder airline equipment, agreed.

But there's no scientific data to back either claim. The University of Oklahoma's Wireless EMC Center found that cell phones have no effect on onboard equipment. Stig Nilsson, an engineer at consultancy Exponent who has long studied electromagnetism, agrees. The ban, he says, is about "fear of the unknown." He concedes, however, that silencing cell phones is just as well, since "no one really needs them anyway."

2. Has that blanket been washed?

The woman to your right sneezes on her blanket. The guy to your left is drooling on his. Are you sure your own airline blanket is clean? A 2000 report by the Union of Needletrades, Industrial, and Textile Employees (UNITE) revealed that although torn or stained blankets were removed, the rest, including some described as "rotten" or "moldy," were just repackaged and restowed. UNITE says it has been unable to continue its research post-September 11. And most of the many airlines we contacted declined to discuss their blanket policies. The Association of Flight Attendants didn't return calls and Royal Airline Laundry, laundry service for many airlines, refused comment. Our advice: Next trip, pack your own blanket.

3. Why Was I Bumped?

The odds of being bumped from a flight are just 1 in 11,628. So when the gate agent fingers you for ritual sacrifice just before the LAX-to-O'Hare haul, you wonder: Why me? Why, you're a card-carrying platinum elite member! But it turns out that frequent-flier status isn't bulletproof. Same for your need to make a connecting flight. "You may receive priority," says a United Airlines spokesperson. But no promises.

The sad fact is, you probably checked in late. Airlines insist -- and independent experts confirm -- that check-in time most often determines who gets left behind. How to avoid a jetway jettison? Try flying JetBlue, the only U.S. airline that didn't bump anyone in 2003.

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