Despite fears about the unreliability of air travel, more than 1 billion passengers and 3 billion bags reach their destinations safely every year. 'If you took a scheduled flight daily,' says Carl Vogt of the US National Transportation Safety Board, 'it would take 4,000 years to be in an accident, and still with a 50-50 chance of survival.' Nevertheless, flying is full of irritating pitfalls that could be avoided by knowing the ropes.
Unfortunately, too many of us buy tickets or entire holidays according to the price, paying far less attention to the details than we do when choosing a surgeon, a car mechanic or even a tin of baked beans. Shoppers in supermarkets scan food packets for additives and sell-by dates, but how many air passengers ask about the expiry date of the Ilyushin aircraft that will, they hope, convey them safely across Africa, China or Kazakhstan?
The US Consumer Affairs Office has coined a term for this - 'defensive flying'. It advocates precautions such as keeping a close eye on the labelling of luggage at the counter; confirming bookings direct with the airline, not just the travel agent; and paying by plastic (credit cards are the only safeguard against the bankruptcy of an unbonded travel agent or carrier).
It also advises you to scrutinise your ticket: the letters 'CIA' that stand for Rome's Ciampino airport, for example, could be misread for 'CTA' - which would see you ending up on a flight to Sicily/Catania instead. Dulles airport in the United States had to be renamed Washington Dulles International because so many people landed there mistakenly instead of at Dallas, Texas.
Even if you do ask questions, the answers may not be forthcoming. If you want to know what plane you will be flying in, you will run into a brick wall: no airline or tour operator guarantees that the advertised type will be in service. Other vital pieces of information can be hidden in the small print. Hardly anybody checks, for instance, that their ticket is marked 'OK' in the status box: if it is not, passengers may find themselves on a waiting list. People rarely glance at the back of their ticket either, which carries brief quotes from the IATA Conditions of Carriage. Most of the small print relates to the rights of the carrier, not the passenger.
The full text of the Conditions, which can prove difficult to obtain, contains some startling revelations. For example, the airlines 'undertake to use their best efforts to carry the passenger and baggage with reasonable dispatch' - but not necessarily by air. It is unlikely that they would charter a raft for an Atlantic crossing, or an elephant for a journey across the Alps, but legally they could do so.
The economics of the aviation industry are another mystery. It costs about dollars 250,000 ( pounds 170,000) to fly a Jumbo jet across the Atlantic and back. In a packed aircraft, that works out at dollars 625 ( pounds 431) per seat, yet tickets are touted for a fraction of that price. How do the airlines recoup the rest?
The answer is that they don't. Most airlines subsidise our trips in the hope of breaking their competitors. The more seats they sell, the greater the losses ( pounds 2.5 billion in 1993 for the industry as a whole), though the dent on the balance sheets would be larger if the flights were half-empty. In 1992, five of the top 10 carriers were among the industry's worst losers; one was in bankruptcy protection. Of the major carriers, only BA was among the top 10 profit makers.
Is this cut-throat competition necessarily good for the consumer? Sooner or later airlines will be forced to economise, and this could compromise safety. They could, for example, delay essential repairs and improvements to the edge of the time limit set by law. And in poorer, less advanced countries, the law may be too lax to begin with.
Safety is one area where the defensive flyer can make a difference. Feel free to raise hell if people are allowed to store bottles and heavy objects overhead, or block the aisles: complaining may save lives. On a Biman Bangladesh flight, stewardesses had to lift food trolleys over television sets and huge bags in the aisles; on some flights in the former Soviet Union, there is standing room only for some passengers.
The defensive flyer should also be prepared for bumping: to fill the seats, airlines overbook every popular flight knowing there will be 'no-show' passengers. Find out your rights to internationally agreed compensation if your seat has been taken by someone else. You can also negotiate; in Africa, officials often walk about with fistfuls of dollars and offers of free flights. Dress soberly if you hope to be bumped up to first class.
If you want to grab one of the few seats for smokers, check in very early. On some Far East routes, it is the non-smokers who have to check in early; two-thirds of the aircraft is often
reserved for smokers. If you buy Russian matches for the flight, beware: a new type, coated with napalm, is guaranteed to light - but may be impossible to extinguish.
There are a number of myths about air safety. Many people believe seats near the tail of the aircraft are safest, but this is not borne out by the findings of accident investigators. Though there is fierce competition for aisle seats, window seats and those with at least one private armrest, the middle one in a bank of three is thought to be the safest. It has a stronger anchorage.
On your way through the airport, never try to be funny with security or customs. They are obliged to take jokes very seriously. Even a British MP learnt this the hard way. They searched him until he missed his flight.
If you are determined to smuggle, the best chance you have is when your landing coincides with arrivals from the Balkans, Nigeria or South America: the likelihood of drug smuggling from such areas will divert the attention of customs away from the extra bottle of gin in your hand luggage. There are no new tricks, only young officers - and even then you need luck. I saw a woman who volunteered to pay the duty on a cheap watch, and displayed her receipt as a badge of honesty. She was stopped nevertheless, and the set of expensive golf clubs she was carrying was found to be brand new.
'Cleared for Take-off' by Stephen Barlay is published by Kyle Cathie on 10 March at pounds 9.99.