The Brancatelli File



July 2, 1995 -- Business travelers don't always believe it, but the incontrovertible fact of the matter is that flying remains the single safest way to travel in the United States.

Statistics, the only reliable and objective measure of safety, say flying on a scheduled air carrier was at least 25 times safer than driving on the nation's interstate highway system. In 1993, the last year for which complete figures are available, the scheduled airlines suffered a fatal accident only 0.013 times for every 100,000 departures. In other words, your chance of being involved in a fatal airline accident is about one in ten million.

But business travelers remain especially wary of the "commuter" airlines, the regional carriers that fly smaller, propeller-driven aircraft. And statistics indicate that there is some difference between the safety records of jets and prop planes. The estimated fatality rate of prop-driven planes in 1994 was 0.070 per 100,000 departures, which is about five times higher than the 1993 industry-wide rate.

If you don't like the odds on the props--their fatality rate translates to one in 1.5 million--don't fly them. Your travel agent or the airline reservation clerk knows the equipment used on each and every flight; ask to be booked only on jets.

But be warned: airline economics are forcing prop planes to carry a much greater percentage of the nation's traffic than ever before. More and more routes--especially those between a "hub" airport such as Chicago or Atlanta and an airport in a small city--are serviced exclusively by prop planes. If you refuse to fly a prop plane, you may be forced to drive a long distance to your final destination from the closest airport served by a jet.

There are a dozens of reasons why prop aircraft have a poorer safety record than jets. Some are regulatory: until recently, the government held commuter airlines to less stringent safety rules. Some are technological: prop planes are not always as mechanically sophisticated as jets. Some are economic: commuter airlines are the training ground for jet carriers, so prop pilots tend to be younger, less experienced and less well paid than jet pilots. Some are geographic: the props service smaller airports and those airfields are rarely as well equipped with safety gear as jetports. And some reasons are purely systemic: planes rarely crash once they reach their cruising altitude, yet prop-driven planes are used primarily on short routes--often as little as 100 miles--and almost never cruise.

Weather is also a factor. Because they fly at lower altitudes, prop planes frequently operate in dangerous conditions of wind, rain, snow, and ice. Add the weather dangers to the other factors, and the odds of a prop-plane accident rise. If nervous business travelers can do just one thing to improve their odds of a safe flight, it is avoiding prop planes in any kind of inclement weather.

I know flying in coach is not meant to be a deluxe experience, but is it too much to ask that the seat be comfortable and that I have enough legroom? Are there any coach seats that are better than others?
Yes, in a way. If your plane is a two-aisle widebody aircraft--a 747 or 767, a DC10 or MD11, or an L-1011--book an aisle seat in a center row near the back of the plane. Airlines fill those rows last; if the plane isn't crowded, chances are you'll have an empty seat--or even an empty row--next to you. When you fly narrow, single-aisle aircraft, book an aisle seat in advance. When you reach the departure gate, ask to be reassigned to a seat in an emergency-exit row. For safety reasons, federal law mandates emergency-exit rows be more spacious than standard rows, and that translates into extra legroom.

I am always forced to take a connecting flight through a congested airport hub in order fly to Canada. Why are there so few nonstop flights to major Canadian cities like Toronto and Montreal?
An outdated aviation treaty between the United States and Canada--not to mention years of byzantine politics--artificially restricted the number of flights between the two countries. But your north-of-the-border sales trips should be easier thanks to a new aviation agreement signed in February. The new treaty enabled U.S. airlines to launch 17 new Canadian routes from a dozen American cities. The two major Canadian airlines also received a passel of new routes.

It sounds silly, but I never seem to have access to the office basics--a stapler or a scissor or even a paper clip--when I travel. Do you have any tips on how to keep these items on hand when I'm on the road?
Many travelers carry an ingenious little device called a "Multi Worker." It works like a Swiss Army knife, weighs just 5 ounces, and is less than 5 inches long. Among the office essentials built into a "Multi Worker" are: a stapler, a scissor, a tape measure, a staple remover, a hole punch, and a refillable ballpoint pen. There's even storage space for some paper clips and extra staples. You can purchase this useful gadget from Magellan's (800-962-4943) for $16.85 plus $4.95 shipping and handling.

Every time I check into a hotel it seems that they charge me $5 or $10 more per night than my last visit. Is there any way to keep my lodging expense under control?
Rising hotel rates are not your imagination. Throughout the 1980s, far too many hotels were built and properties were forced to discount heavily to win your business. Now, however, demand for hotel rooms in many cities has begun to catch up with supply, so hotel managers have stopped discounting and started increasing prices.

One way to control your costs is to shop around. In Boston, for example, the Runzheimer International consulting firm says deluxe accommodations cost an average of $269 a night, but the average economy hotel is charging just $94.50. The spread in New York is even more dramatic: an average of $327.50 per night for deluxe rooms as opposed to $129.50 for economy lodging. Surprisingly, economy hotel chains are not only cheaper, but often include perks like continental breakfast and local phone calls as part of the room rate.

I've been told I can save time and money by booking my own airline tickets using my personal computer. How do I get this service?
Two computerized systems are generally available to personal-computer users: Eaasy (sic) Sabre, sponsored by American Airlines, and the Official Airline Guides Electronic Edition. Either or both of the services are available through Prodigy, America OnLine, and CompuServe, the major online services. Whether you save either time or money using these services is a matter or conjecture, however. Neither is intuitive or easy to use--they require a knowledge of the airline and airport codes--and may take weeks to master. And even experienced users sometimes miss the lowest prices available for a particular flight.

Is there any way to get a seat in first class without paying the outrageous fares the airlines charge for the privilege?
Most of the major carriers have "upgrade" programs tied to their frequent-flyer plans. These programs allow members to pay a small fee and upgrade to first class from a full-fare coach ticket. Some other carriers, mostly notably Northwest, offer free upgrades to first class from full-fare coach if your flight connects through one of their "hub" airports.

This column originally appeared in Selling magazine.

Copyright © 1993-2008 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.