Travel topics > Transportation > Flying > Flying in the United States
With vast distances and many "holes" in the rail network, air travel is a necessity for any traveller in the United States wishing to see more than a handful of places in a manageable amount of time.
The United States was a pioneer of aviation; the Flyer was famously flown by the Wright Brothers at Kill Devil Hills, North Carolina in 1903, becoming airborne with the help of a catapult. While the US initially lost some ground in aviation to Europe, especially France, due to the Wright's business practices and litigious nature, they soon caught back up and by the end of World War II were without a doubt among the leaders in all fields of aviation in no small part due to wartime investment.
The years between the two world wars saw the birth of commercial aviation, with the development of the first transatlantic routes. This era gave rise to many of the first commercial airlines, including Pan American World Airways (Pan Am) and Trans World Airlines (TWA), which would re-define commercial air travel in the years following World War II and become global icons. The United States invested gargantuan sums of money into civil aviation as well as "dual use" military aviation facilities that could be used by civil aviation in peacetime, even taxing the railroads (which were an all private affair until the creation of Amtrak) to fund airport and highway expansion. Lucrative military contracts also propped up numerous aerospace companies, which produced among others the behemoth that is Boeing, the only company besides Airbus to still produce large passenger jets. The 1950s and 1960s are often called the "Golden Age of Air Travel", with the aforementioned Pan Am and TWA known for their luxurious on-board service and young, attractive stewardesses.
A series of court cases in the late 1960s and early 1970s eventually led to the end of the practice of only hiring young, attractive and unmarried women as cabin crew, and also led to the hiring of male cabin crew, as the courts ruled that such hiring practices constituted gender and age discrimination, hence violating the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The Airline Deregulation Act of 1978 then led to the end of government-controlled pricing, thus allowing the airlines to set their own ticket prices. While this led to a sharp decrease in the cost of air travel, making what was once a privilege for the filthy rich now accessible to the middle class, it also meant that airlines no longer needed to compete solely based on their onboard service, thus leading to a decline of service standards in economy class. The icons of the Golden Age, Pan Am and TWA, were not able to adapt quickly enough to this new environment, and eventually closed down in 1991 and 2001 respectively.
The United States never had a "flag carrier" in the classical sense of the term, and while public investment played and continues to play a large role in the infrastructure of aviation, no major airlines are or were publicly owned to any significant extent. However, Pan Am came to be seen as a representation of all good and bad things American and thus was a target of terrorism aimed at the US, just as Lufthansa was for terrorism aimed at Germany or El Al for terrorism aimed at Israel. Pan Am had already been in financial trouble due to deregulation and a severely overpriced attempt to buy a "feeder network" when the Lockerbie attack showed that America's proudest airline was vulnerable to terrorism. This combined with variations in fuel prices ultimately brought the airline to its knees with bits and pieces sold of, in part to Delta, America's oldest airline left in the air.
Following the 9/11 terrorist attacks and growth of budget carriers with the dawn of the 21st century, there was consolidation of the airline industry on a grand scale. United Airlines, American Airlines and Delta Air Lines emerged from among the legacy carriers to become the global aviation giants that we know today. To compete with the budget carriers, the legacy carriers emulated them by stripping the frills from economy class and selling those tickets at prices competitive with the budget carriers. Thus, flying domestically in the United States today, while relatively affordable, is a largely no-frills affair: service standards are only a shadow of what they once were during the Golden Age, often lagging behind those of the major legacy carriers in the rest of the world. Still, air travel is the fastest and most convenient way to travel long distance in the United States. Safety standards have improved dramatically since the Golden Age, and the United States has one of the best commercial aviation safety standards in the world. The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) is widely regarded as the world's foremost authority on the investigation of aviation incidents. Likewise for a long time the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) was regarded as so credible an authority that FAA approval was seen almost as ipso facto enough for approval by other authorities like the European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA). However, severe oversights regarding the Boeing 737 Max have led to a crisis of confidence in the FAA and have led to other aviation authorities announcing more rigorous testing before they approve FAA recommendations.
Unlike in Europe where airlines face increasingly stiff competition from fast, cheap, popular and ubiquitous high speed rail, airlines in the US have had little serious competition from other modes of transit since the 1950s, and have in fact been successful at lobbying against government funding for building high-speed rail lines. A frequently cited example is Southwest Airlines successfully lobbying against a high speed rail project in Texas in the 1980s, then their core market. This means that where demand is too low for more than one airline to profitably operate (or in fact where air service has to be subsidized to be offered at all), airlines often engage in a "take it or leave it" attitude in terms of customer service, price and onboard comfort. Of course the picture is different on busy routes or along the Northeast Corridor, where the Acela Express is at least a somewhat credible alternative to aviation.
The quickest and often the most convenient way of long-distance intercity travel in the United States is by plane. Coast-to-coast travel takes about 6 hours from east to west, and 5 hours from west to east (varying due to winds), which would take several days by land. The longest domestic flight in the U.S., Hawaiian Airlines' flight from Boston to Honolulu, takes a whopping 11 hours and 25 minutes, and more than 9 hours in the opposite direction (due to winds). Most large cities in the U.S. are served by one or two airports; many smaller towns also have some passenger air service, although you may need to detour through a major hub airport to get there. Depending on where you are starting, it may be cheaper to drive or take a bus to a nearby large city and fly or, conversely, to fly to a large city near your destination and rent a car (or take another bus) to your final destination. Rail travel may be a cheaper option, either for the last leg of your journey or for the whole trip, particularly on the East Coast, in and around major hubs like Chicago, or in California. In some cases coach class on Amtrak may be similarly priced to relatively long flights, but it involves sitting in coach for hours, sometimes one or two days.
Shopping around carefully is certainly a good idea, as neither distance nor travel time nor the "remoteness" of a destination is a 100% trustworthy predictor of the price you will pay getting there through different modes of transport, including bus travel. The best fares tend to be 7 to 14 days in advance of travel while the worst are less than 7 days in advance or showing up at the airport and buying a ticket on the spot. This is the most expensive way to fly as most business travelers tend to make last-minute or short-notice travel plans. If you are traveling through the Thanksgiving period (last week in November) or the Christmas/New Year holidays (Dec 15-Jan 2), the fares also tend to be the highest.
Unlike most other countries, the United States has never had a state-owned flag carrier, and the aviation market is a highly competitive one that has always been served entirely by several privately-owned airlines. Major carriers compete for business on major routes, and travelers willing to book two or more weeks in advance can get bargains. However most smaller destinations are served by only one or two regional carriers, and prices there can be expensive. Prices do not always follow any discernible logic and very often longer flights can be cheaper than shorter ones.
In the US, the term “First Class” can be misleading to foreign visitors, and for domestic flights, First Class is typically more similar to domestic or short-haul business class elsewhere in the world. Unlike in most other countries, flying in a premium class or having gold status in a U.S. airline’s frequent flyer program does not automatically grant you lounge access when flying domestically. Instead, you’ll have to either purchase lounge membership, buy a single-use lounge pass, or have gold status in the frequent flyer program of a foreign airline in the same alliance.
There are several types of airlines flying in the United States today:
Due to bankruptcies and mergers, there are only three major and two minor mainline (or legacy) carriers left. Each of these airlines has hubs in several U.S. cities, meaning most of the airlines' flights originate or terminate from those cities:
- American Airlines: hubs in Charlotte, Chicago, Dallas, Los Angeles, Miami, New York City, Philadelphia, Phoenix, and Washington, D.C.. (Member of the Oneworld Alliance)
- Delta Air Lines: hubs in Atlanta, Boston, Detroit, Los Angeles, Minneapolis, New York City, Salt Lake City, and Seattle, with focus cities in Cincinnati and Raleigh/Durham. (Member of the Sky Team Alliance)
- Eastern Airlines (operated by Swift Air) operates mainly as an international carrier from the East Coast to South America, the Caribbean, Mexico City and Guatemala City in Central America. They also offer limited domestic flights within the U.S. Hubs are in Miami and New York City; Focus cities in Philadelphia and Boston.
- United Airlines: hubs in Chicago, Denver, Guam, Houston, Los Angeles, Newark, San Francisco, and Washington, D.C.. (Member of the Star Alliance)
- Alaska Airlines: hubs in Anchorage, Los Angeles, Portland, and Seattle, with focus cities in San Diego and San Jose (CA). Their service is focused primarily in Alaska and the West Coast. They also offer flights to Hawaii, transcontinental flights to the East Coast (and anywhere in between) and international services to Canada and Mexico. Alaska has alliances with American Airlines and several foreign flag carriers who are either members of Oneworld and SkyTeam alliances. Virgin America has been merged into this carrier. (Member of the Oneworld Alliance)
- Hawaiian Airlines: hubs in Honolulu and Kahului. Service primarily between the Hawaiian Islands, and between the Hawaiian Islands and the West Coast.
These carriers used to be full service, though these days they have stripped most of the frills away from economy class and are virtually no different from low-cost carriers. On a domestic flight in economy class, expect to pay extra for anything beyond a seat, one or two carry-on bags, and soft drinks. Some flights to/from Alaska or Hawaii still offer a few perks, but check for your particular airline and flight. At times their fares may even undercut the "low-cost carriers" fares too!
Mainline carriers also offer first class (which is a marketing term; it's more like "premium economy" on most other countries' airlines) for a larger seat, free food and drinks and overall better service. Round trip fares can run over a thousand dollars, even for short flights, making the added cost not worth it for the vast majority of travelers. (Most travelers in first class get their seat as a free frequent flier upgrade or similar perk.) You may also be offered an upgrade at a much lower cost during check in or at the airport if there are open seats available. Depending on the cost for a last minute upgrade, the savings in checked bag fees alone may make this a worthwhile option (and you'll also get priority boarding, the bigger seat, more legroom, free beverages and food.)
True international-style "business class" and "first class" — with lie-flat seating or suites, substantially upgraded dining, and dedicated premium service — is slowly reappearing after decades of absence. Carriers brand it with unique names (e.g. American's Flagship, Delta's Delta One, JetBlue's Mint, and United's Polaris), and it's only available on certain international and domestic flights. Upgraded transcontinental service is usually only available between New York JFK and Los Angeles or San Francisco, although Delta also offers it on some flights to Seattle. Flights between the East Coast and Hawaii along with all flights from the mainland to U.S. Pacific territories (Guam, Northern Mariana Islands, etc.) typically feature international business class.
The most famous low-cost carrier in the U.S. is ubiquitous Southwest (Focus cities in Atlanta, Baltimore, Chicago Midway, Dallas-Love Field, Denver, Houston-Hobby, Las Vegas, Los Angeles (they also serve the other LA airports), Oakland, Orlando, and Phoenix-Sky Harbor); with Allegiant (focus cities in Allentown, Asheville, Bellingham (WA), Cincinnati, Concord (NC), Des Moines, Ft. Walton Beach, Fort Lauderdale, Grand Rapids, Indianapolis, Knoxville, Las Vegas, Nashville, Orlando/Sanford, Phoenix/Mesa, Pittsburgh, Punta Gorda (FL), Savannah, and St. Petersburg (FL)); Avelo (hubs in Burbank); Frontier (hub in Denver Airport; focus cities in Atlanta, Chicago O'Hare, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Las Vegas, Miami, Orlando, Philadelphia, Raleigh/Durham, and Trenton); Spirit (Focus cities in Atlantic City, Chicago O'Hare, Dallas-Fort Worth, Detroit, Ft. Lauderdale, Las Vegas, and Orlando), and others becoming formidable competitors. Amenities vary greatly by carrier. On one end, Southwest is the only airline in the United States that lets passengers check two bags free of charge, and have done away with some of the formality of air travel – with no travel agents (all reservations are through their website or call center), assigned seating or buy-on-board programs (free soft drinks and snacks for all passengers.) At the other end of the spectrum, Spirit Airlines sells seats as low as $9, but charges for everything beyond the seat: checked and hand luggage, advance seat assignments, checking in at the airport, on board refreshments, etc. LCCs usually do not offer a premium product, but Spirit offers its "Big Front Seat" with a bit more legroom.
Don't assume low-cost carriers are always the cheapest. In economy class, the mainline carriers offer the same level of onboard (no-frills) service on their domestic routes as the low cost carriers, and their cheapest fares are usually very close to or sometimes lower than what the low-cost carriers are offering. Even on a long-haul domestic flight with a mainline carrier (e.g. from Hawaii to the East Coast), it is still the same level of no-frills service such as no free meals and no free check-in bags in coach class. So never assume anything and always shop around as no one airline is always the "cheapest".
While Southwest pioneered the "all one type fleet" flying an exclusively Boeing 737 fleet to cut costs and have more streamlined operations, Allegiant flew a lot of "old metal" before finally retiring its McDonnell Douglas planes in favor of the Airbus A320 series in the late 2010s. Spirit meanwhile has an all A320-series fleet and Frontier likewise relies on the A320 series.
- Southwest, Frontier and Spirit serve destinations nationwide and internationally (Caribbean, Central America, Colombia, Mexico and Peru), although they sometimes use smaller or alternative airports such as Chicago Midway instead of the larger O'Hare International Airport; Houston Hobby instead of the George Bush Intercontinental Airport in Houston; or Fort Lauderdale instead of Miami International in South Florida. In other places, such as the Los Angeles metropolitan area they can be at all airports.
- Other low-cost carriers such as Allegiant and Sun Country (Hub in Minneapolis, with focus cities in Dallas-Fort Worth, Las Vegas, and Portland (OR)) focus on "vacation destinations" (Florida, Mexico, the Virgin Islands, etc.) In some places, Allegiant may only serve an alternative airport but not the principal airport such as to Bellingham (WA) but provide no service to the busier Seattle Tacoma International Airport (80 mi/128 km south) and Vancouver International Airport (45 mi/72 km north). Another example is that they serve Mesa Phoenix Gateway Airport 32.5 mi/52 km southeast of the Phoenix Sky Harbor Airport where they don't fly to for travel to the Phoenix metropolitan area. Check their schedules.
Hybrid carriers offer more amenities than low cost airlines but with fares lower than the legacies. The most famous of these is JetBlue Airways (focus cities in Boston, Ft. Lauderdale, Los Angeles-LAX, New York-JFK, Orlando, and San Juan), which has an extensive network covering primarily major airports, one free checked bag, 34 inches between seats (very generous for an American airline) and free satellite TV in every seat. On some routes, JetBlue offers "Mint" a service comparable to business class but at usually much lower cost.
Regional airlines come in three varieties:
- Regional subsidiaries are operated by Skywest, Mesa Air Group, Republic Airways for a mainline carrier under brands such as American Eagle, Delta Connection, Alaska Airlines/Horizon and/or United Express in smaller regional jet or turboprop aircraft (seating 60-70 or less) to locales where it is not economically or technically feasible to operate a larger sized Boeing or Airbus jet, though some routes are served by flights on both mainline and regional carriers. These flights are booked through the parent company of the mainline carrier partner (e.g. Delta Connection through Delta.com), either by themselves or connecting to a mainline itinerary via a major airport. The regional subsidiaries also offer international services to the neighboring countries of Canada and Mexico. On-board services are very basic. From a practical perspective, flying these airlines is almost no different from flying with the mainline carriers apart from the smaller size of the aircraft, meaning that the usual frequent flyer program rules apply.
- There are also independent regional airlines which are not affiliated with a mainline carrier and operate on their own brands, these are usually found in major airports and in more out of the way places, and in or near island communities (Cape Cod, Hawaii, U.S. Virgin Islands, etc.) using propeller driven aircraft. They are Air Choice One, Boutique Airlines, Cape Air, Mokulelea (only over Hawaii and Southern California), Pen Air, and Silver Airways (mainly over Florida and to the Bahamas). They can operate solely in one area like Hawaii or they can operate in several regions (adjacent states) in different parts of the country but don't offer contiguous routes across the country between these regions. Some of them also offer "essential air" services to rural locales (see below under Essential Air Service).
- Commuter airlines primarily serve the business travel market, with 10–30 seat turboprop planes. If you can work with their schedules and choice of airports (usually private aviation airports and municipal airfields) – their consistent fares can be a bargain compared even to low cost carriers. Additionally, since fares are the same whether you buy a month in advance or the day of, tickets are also flexible with no cancellation or change fees.
Services to remote regions are provided by various small, local or regional carriers:
- Bush planes are named for their ability to reach otherwise difficult-to-access points, such as remote settlements in the Alaska Bush. While some are small general aviation or charter flights, others are scheduled; many mixed passenger/cargo runs carry U.S. Postal Service bags (scheduled a few times weekly) to rather inaccessible points along with a few paying passengers.
- Essential Air Service, a subsidised intercity service, reaches more than a hundred small cities and towns which would have otherwise lost all service to airline deregulation. Small (9-35 passenger) scheduled aircraft run two or three times daily to a single major domestic city. These flights are typically operated by small, privately-owned regional carriers such as Boutique Air, Cape Air, and Via Air and they serve communities more than 70 miles from a major airline hub. Alaska Airlines operates as a sole major airline for many remote cities and towns throughout Alaska in Boeing 737 aircraft, some of which are a combination type of aircraft with a cargo hold in the front half and a passenger cabin in the rear half.
Quoted prices, from airlines themselves and from consolidators, generally include all taxes and other mandatory fees, and there is no fuel surcharge. However, extra services tend to incur extra fees. The main ones are listed here, along with strategies for avoiding them. Even baggage fees can be avoided with careful planning.
- Checking in with an agent — In today's age of online and kiosk check-in, most air travelers have no need to see a counter agent, apart from bag drop. Hence some low-cost airlines charge $3–10 to check in with a human being, although this fee will be waived if there is a legitimate reason preventing you from using other options (for example, a passport check is required or if you are physically disabled and require assistance). Spirit Airlines also charges for using a kiosk at the airport rather than checking in online. Some airlines accept emailed boarding passes displayed on smart phones, obviating the need to print them, although many smaller and regional airports do not support mobile boarding passes yet.
- Checked baggage — Expect to pay $25–35 to check a single bag, an additional $50 for a second bag, and up to $100 or more for a third bag. Particularly large or heavy bags can easily double or triple these fees. Shop around, as some discount carriers give a free baggage allowance; e.g. JetBlue (one bag) and Southwest (two bags).
- Each passenger's cost-free cabin baggage allowance is generally one small suitcase or garment bag and one item such as a briefcase, backpack, or purse. If you can get all your belongings into your cabin baggage, this is the best way to avoid baggage fees. Spirit Airlines charges $20–35 per carry-on bag, making it often cheaper to check in these bags. Don't forget the standard security restrictions regarding cabin baggage: liquids and gels must be in containers under 3.4 ounces (100 mL) and be presented to security inside a transparent zip-lock bag. Razor blades, electric shavers, scissors, or anything else with a blade or sharp edge must not be carried in cabin baggage.
- Pre-paying baggage charges online may give you a slight discount.
- Frequent flier programs may give a limited free baggage allowance and additional weight allowances to those with elite status. Some airlines have a branded credit card that offers similar perks.
- Shipping luggage via UPS, FedEx or the U.S. Postal Service can work out cheaper than checking in bags.
- Seat selection - Unless you're flying on a full fare ticket or have elite status in an airline's frequent flyer program, there may be a fee to select seats toward the front of the economy cabin. Airlines have different names for this: on American it's called "Main Cabin ExtrAA", Delta advertises it "Economy Comfort", JetBlue's "Even More Legroom", and United's "EconomyPlus". You'll typically get 3-4 inches of additional legroom and a slightly better position in the boarding queue for earlier access to the overhead bins, but usually no other benefits (although Delta offers free alcoholic beverages and on-demand movies to transcontinental and international Economy Comfort passengers). If there are no free economy seats remaining, you may be assigned a premium seat at check-in for free, although this is not guaranteed. If you are flying more than 2 hours or so, seat comfort and location may be especially important. Consider the Wikivoyage section of "Flying" Planning your flight#Choosing your seat, and such web sites as SeatGuru, SeatMaestro and others for specifics about seats in aircraft of any airline(s) you're considering.
- Curbside check in — $2–10 on top of any baggage or check-in fees, plus a gratuity is usually expected.
- Food — Small snacks (e.g., peanuts, potato chips, pretzels, cookies) are generally free on all flights. On domestic and North American flights longer than 1½–2 hours, packaged sandwiches and snacks boxes may be available to buy at inflated prices. Hot food for purchase is available on some cross country flights. Some airlines allow you to preorder for your meals and pay online when flying economy, guaranteeing that there will be a meal available for you and that it's your first choice. International flights outside of North/Central America and the Caribbean feature complimentary meals, and oddly enough some international flights with meal service are actually shorter than the longest domestic or regional flights without it. New York to London takes 6 hours and still features complimentary meal service in coach, New York to Honolulu on the other hand is an 11-hour domestic flight and does not feature complimentary meals! Even if food and soft drinks are complimentary, there is always a charge for alcoholic beverages in economy, even on long-haul international flights.
- All airlines allow you to bring your own food and non-alcoholic beverages on board. All except the smallest airports have an array of fast food and quick serve options in the terminal – but you can't bring liquids through the security checkpoint (and some airports do not allow food either). Airside food will inevitably be more expensive than that before security but will be far cheaper and better than what's available on board. Some cities, such as Philadelphia, regulate airport food vendors and limit how much air-side restaurants can markup.
- Drinks — Free coffee, tea, water, juice and soft drinks remain standard on flights. Spirit Airlines and Frontier Airlines are exceptions and charge for anything other than water. Alcoholic drinks cost $5–7.
- In-flight entertainment — Most U.S. carriers offer entertainment of one kind or another on longer domestic routes. JetBlue and Delta (on mainline medium and long-haul flights only) offer free seatback satellite TV to all passengers; United charges $6 in coach to watch TV. Delta, JetBlue, and United also offer on-demand movies on flights with satellite TV, typically at a cost of $4-8 each unless the flight leaves U.S. airspace (where satellite reception is unavailable), then they're free. Some airlines (American, Southwest, and select Delta and United aircraft without personal screens) offer streaming entertainment to your laptop, smartphone or tablet via the aircraft's Wi-Fi system. Expect a selection of older movies (mid-2000s and earlier) and TV shows (primarily sitcoms from the 1990s); newer content generally can't be shown on streaming services due to higher licensing costs. American is charging for streaming; other carriers are not at this time.
- In-flight Wi-Fi — Delta, JetBlue and Southwest offer in-flight Wi-Fi on nearly all their domestic fleets; American and United offer it on select flights. Prices range from $5 to $20, depending on the airline, length of flight, and device (tablets and smartphones get a discount as they use less data), but the Internet connection is good for almost the entire flight (at least until told by crew to switch-off your devices). Daily and monthly passes are available for less than $50/month. Most airlines do not offer power ports in economy, so be sure you're charged up or have extra batteries for your device. Mobile phones are usually permitted to be operated in-flight as long as they have been set to flight mode (which effectively shuts-off the mobile phone signal from your provider) before being airborne.
- Pillows and blankets are disappearing rapidly. Some airlines don't have them at all; some will charge you for them (but you get to keep after you pay); and one or two offer them for free (but you have to ask for them). Red-eye flights and those longer than 5 hours are more likely to have free pillows and blankets. As always, check with your airline, and bring your own from home if you think you'll need them.
- Lounge passes: Each mainline carrier operates a network of lounges, such as Alaska Airline's "Board Rooms", American's "Admirals Clubs", Delta's "Sky Clubs" and United's "United Clubs", offering a quieter space to relax or work in, business amenities such as free Wi-Fi, fax services, conference rooms, free finger foods, soft drinks, beer and wine. Frequent flyers buy annual memberships to these lounges or hold access through a credit card perk, but any passenger can buy a day pass during check in or at the club itself, usually around $50, although sometimes less if you buy online. Only you can decide if the fee is worthwhile, but if you're in the upper elite tiers of a foreign airline in the same airline alliance (One World Sapphire or Emerald, Star Alliance Gold or SkyTeam Elite Plus) you may have access to these lounges for free with your frequent flyer card. For members in the highest tiers, this privilege may be extended to a traveling companion. Additionally international Business and First Class passengers can also access these lounges for free, as do international passengers on the upper elite tiers of the respective airline's frequent flyer program. Unlike in other countries, lounge access is typically not provided for travellers in domestic first class, or for upper elite tier members of U.S. frequent flyer programs on domestic flights. Note that lounge day passes are becoming a much rarer option as airlines strive to combat overcrowding in their "exclusive" spaces, and even domestic Business- or First-class travelers will find it difficult to gain entrance. Delta no longer offers Single visit passes for their lounges.
- First-class upgrades: Delta, United, and American sell upgrades on a first-come, first-served basis at check-in, if first class has open seats. This is one to actually consider, especially if you're checking bags – "day of" upgrades can sometimes be as low as $50 each way, less than the cost of two bag fees. You'd may be paying less to check your bags and additionally getting priority security screening, boarding and baggage handling, along with a larger seat and free refreshments on board.
Most mainline carriers feature "cashless cabins", meaning any on-board purchases must be paid with either Visa or MasterCard (Delta also accepts American Express). Regional subsidiaries generally do still accept cash on board, although flight attendants may not be able to break large bills – hence the traditional request "exact change is appreciated." If you paid in advance for first class, checked baggage, meals, and alcoholic beverages are all included with the price of your ticket, as well as priority access to check-in agents and boarding.
- See also: At the airport#Security check
Security at U.S. airports is onerous, especially during busy holiday periods. Allow plenty of time and pack as lightly as possible. Adults must show approved picture ID (a passport is sufficient). Ensure that any liquids are held in containers no bigger than 3.4 ounces (100 mL). The containers must all be placed within a single zippered plastic bag that is 1 quart (946 mL) or less in size. Only one such bag, with however much liquid, is allowed per passenger.
If arriving from international destinations all passengers must go through security screening to continue on the onward flight, after clearing immigration and customs inspections. That means all liquids and prohibited items (per TSA rules) that were purchased in a Duty Free shop or allowed through as carry on from a foreign airport must re-packed into checked luggage after coming out of the customs area and before re-checking luggage. In most airports there is a check-in desk outside or conveyor belt outside of customs for transiting passengers to re-check their luggage. Items cannot be re-packed or re-arranged before customs inspections in the luggage reclaim area.
Passengers connecting from a domestic flight to another flight do not need to re-clear security and they simply just have to proceed to the gate of their next flight unless the next flight is in a terminal which does not have airside access to the terminal they would arrive at.
At security, all passengers must remove shoes, belts, jackets, and anything from your pockets and submit personal belongings to X-ray screening. Full body scans using millimeter waves are now standard for most U.S. airports, though they also have metal detectors to use at busier times and for passengers with TSA Precheck. Experts say that the millimeter wave scanners don't pose health risks, but if you'd rather avoid them for health or privacy reasons, you can opt for a pat-down instead. You may have to wait a few minutes for an agent to be available to do the pat-down. Should you opt for a pat-down, the TSA agent will offer to do it in private, and you also have the right to demand that it be conducted by an officer of the same sex. No clothing other than shoes and belts will normally be removed, although the agent will feel some private areas through your clothes. Random passengers may also be selected for additional screening. This may include an "enhanced pat-down." Do not assume that you are in any sort of trouble or that you are even suspected of causing trouble, simply because you are being subjected to these screenings.
There are limitations on liquids (including gels, aerosols, creams, and pastes) in carry-on baggage. Liquids must be in individual containers each no bigger than 3.4 ounces (100 mL). The containers must all be placed within a single zippered plastic bag that is 1 quart (946 mL) or less in size. Only one such bag, with however much liquid, is allowed per passenger, and must be removed from your luggage and placed separately. Liquids in excess of these limits will be confiscated. (Liquids in checked baggage are not restricted.) Medications (including saline solution for contact lenses) and infant and child nourishment (formula, breast milk, and juice for toddlers) are exempt but subject to additional testing; notify TSA agents if you are carrying these items, store them separately from your other liquids, and if possible clearly label them in advance.
U.S. citizens and permanent residents should consider applying for TSA Precheck. This allows you to used an expedited security screening lane, and exempts you from having to remove your shoes, having to take your laptop and liquids out of your bags, or going through the full-body scanner, if flying from a participating airport with a participating airline. It costs $85 for 5 years, and requires a background check and in-person interview by TSA officers. If approved, you will be assigned a Known Traveller Number (KTN), which you need to provide your airline with prior to checking-in. Alternatively, members of CBP trusted traveller programs such as Global Entry and NEXUS regardless of nationality are automatically granted TSA Precheck benefits by entering their PASSID as their KTN, and do not need to go through any additional application procedures or pay any additional fees.
If you wish to lock your checked baggage, the TSA requires you to use special locks that have the Travel Sentry TSA lock system. These locks can be opened by TSA officials using a master key should they wish to inspect the contents of your bag. If your lock is not one of the TSA-approved locks, the TSA will break it open and you will not be entitled to any compensation for the damage.
By private plane
The cost of chartering the smallest private jet begins at around $4000 per flight hour, with the cost substantially higher for larger, longer-range aircraft, and cheaper for smaller propeller planes. While private flying is by no means inexpensive, a family of four or more can often fly together at a cost similar to or even favorable to buying first-class (or even economy class) commercial airline tickets, especially to smaller airports where scheduled commercial flights are at their most expensive or unavailable, and private flying is at its cheapest. Though you may find it cheaper than flying a family of four first-class internationally, it is rarely the case, except when traveling from Western Europe.
Air Charter refers to hiring a private plane for a one-time journey. Jet Cards are pre-paid cards entitling the owner to a specific number of flight hours on a specified aircraft. As all expenses are pre-paid on the card, you need not concern yourself with deadhead time, return flights, landing fees, etc.
In some large cities, general aviation and private planes are served from a secondary airport where the main airport is crowded with frequent scheduled airline flights. These facilities occasionally bill themselves as executive airports to market themselves to large corporations who acquire their own small aircraft for business travel or resource exploration. General aviation facilities also serve flight schools, parachute clubs, aerial photographers, mapmakers or agricultural "crop dusters" and the lucky few individuals who can afford ownership and operation of one small plane as a very expensive hobby.
Many small-town airports on America's borders welcome individually-owned small aircraft; points like Ogdensburg, Watertown and Massena, with just a few scheduled domestic Essential Air Service flights daily, fill the rest of their time with general aviation. Give them an hour or two advance notice so that they can fetch border officials to meet the tiny private plane from exotic and foreign Brockville, and you've provided just the excuse they needed to add "International Airport" to their names.
- The term "stewardess" is today considered outdated and sexist. The preferred term since the late 1970s has been the gender-neutral "flight attendant".
- Economy class on U.S. airlines is typically cramped with little leg room, and confrontations have occurred between passengers over reclining seats. If you want to be extra respectful, consider asking the passenger behind you for permission before you recline your seat in economy class.
- U.S. airlines prefer that you use the call button sparingly. Because one of its main purposes is for emergencies, flight attendants have to promptly stop whatever they're doing to answer it; using it frivolously as though it summons a personal butler will quickly annoy them. If you can't wait until the next drink service, for example, you can walk to the galley to ask for a drink. However, you should still feel free to use the call button when it makes sense (e.g. if you can't get up due to sleeping passengers).
- While it's usually fine to visit the galleys for a minute or two to stretch or request a drink, don't linger there; it's also the flight attendants' seats and the only place they have to themselves.