Know Your Spring Break Legal Rights

Spring Breakers, did you know that anyone boarding a plane is covered by a “passenger bill of rights?” Or that in Mexico you’re guilty until you can prove yourself innocent?

Lawyers.com’s editor in chief, Larry Bodine, has some legal insights that Spring Breakers should digest well before their first Jello shot – particularly the 120,000 students heading to Mexico this year.

What can I do right this instant to be safer on Spring Break?
Sign up for the U.S. government’s Smart Traveler Enrollment Program. It’s free, and in the feds’ own words, “It allows the State Department to assist U.S. citizens in an emergency and keep you up to date with important safety and security announcements.”

What’s another thing?
Look up the U.S. consulate or consular agency closest to where you’re staying. At travel.state.gov, check under Country Specific Information for a list of agencies in your destination. Print copies for you and your travel mates and enter the information in your cellphone.

Is there an app for that?
Yes! There’s a Smart Traveler Program app for iPhone and Android.

American laws apply to me everywhere, right?
Wrong. Bodine says many college students think American citizenship grants them immunity from laws in other countries. This isn’t true. If you’re in Mexico or Jamaica or the Dominican Republic or anywhere, you are subject to that country’s laws and punishments. “There are a lot of semi-innocent things we do the U.S. that are crimes in Mexico,” Bodine says. “Walking on the street with an open alcohol container is a crime. Getting off the bus without paying. Taking off your clothes on the beach.”

In another country you can’t count on something like Panama City’s Spring Break Court to minimize the repercussions. “The laws in Mexico are very different,” Bodine says. “If you’re charged with a crime, you are presumed to be guilty, and you have to prove you are innocent. If you are arrested, you’ll be held for 48 hours before you get to make a statement. If they want to charge you, you can be held for a year without bail.”

Check the most recent edition of a reputable guidebook for laws.

How can I find out about open-container laws?
In Mexico, it’s illegal to walk on the street with an open container of alcohol. Costa Rica made it illegal last year. The law varies by country, so ask a bartender, a hotel manager or concierge or a security officer about your destination’s law once you arrive. Ask about public intoxication laws, too. And research them before you go.

Why do the police seem cool with the “anything goes” thing?
Police might let the good times roll – but they often crack down when there’s a car accident, a fight breaks out, someone gets belligerent with the cops or danger otherwise looms, Bodine says. You don’t want to be anywhere near these incidents. Find someone fun and rational to hang out with if you want to make sure to stay out of jail.

I’ve been arrested. Whom should I call?
Bodine says your first call – and only call, if just one is allowed – should be to the U.S. embassy or consulate in the area where you’re staying. Consular officials can provide information on the local legal system and help you find a local attorney, but they can’t get you out of jail.

What will happen if I get caught smoking pot in Mexico?
The U.S. State Department’s website says: “The importation, purchase, possession or use of drugs can incur severe penalties, including imprisonment without bail for up to a year before a case is tried, and imprisonment of several years following a conviction.” Don’t even risk having some in your pocket.

I’m 18 and can drink legally in Mexico. Can I also bring home alcohol?
No. Once you land in the U.S., it’s illegal for you to have it. Chances are it will be confiscated when you go through Customs after you land.

What should I do if I am the victim of a crime?
“Notify the authorities,” Bodine says, “but don’t let the hotel or tour company or restaurant make the report. You should also call the U.S. embassy.”

What rights do I have at the airport?
If you’re bumped from a flight because it is oversold or canceled, the airline is required to give you a paper detailing your rights. The airline employees rarely offer it, but you can ask for one. Bodine says the law requires the airline to rebook you on a different flight, and if that flight isn’t scheduled to arrive within two hours of your original flight, the airline is supposed to pay you 400 percent of the one-way fare for that leg of the trip. But again, don’t expect the airline to be upfront about this. “Ordinarily, they’ll offer you as little as possible,” Bodine says. “They’ll put you up in a hotel and offer you a $300 travel voucher. If you don’t ask for [your full entitlement], they won’t give it to you.”

If your flight is canceled or delayed by weather, the airlines don’t owe passengers any compensation.

Going to Mexico? Read the U.S. State Department’s “Know Before You Go” page for Spring Breakers, and brush up one more time with this video:

[Editor's note: Got legal questions? This isn't legal advice. Try reaching out to the folks at Lawyers.com!]

[Photo credits: top, Mnadi via Flickr; bottom, Spengu via Flickr]

Jeffersonian dorm rooms in Charlottesville

What’s the hardest part about living in a dorm room designed by one America’s founding fathers in the early part of the 19th century? Braving the elements when nature calls in the middle of the night.

“But guys have it easier,” says Anne Allen, a fourth year student at the University of Virginia (UVA), who lives on The Lawn in Thomas Jefferson’s Academical Village at the University of Virginia, along with 53 other students and several faculty members, in a dorm room with a sink but no toilet or shower. “They just pee in the sink.”

Allen and her neighbors are the only college students in the country whose dormitory rooms are a tourist attraction. I met her and several other “lawnies” recently and our conversation was interrupted three times by groups of tourists who saw that her door was half open and asked to come inside for a look around. Why the fascination surrounding some 12 * 13 dorm rooms?

The village retains its allure largely because it remains true to the ideals Jefferson had in mind when he designed it in the 1820′s. Each year hundreds of third-year students apply for the honor of securing one of 54 lawn rooms, which feature a fireplace, a rocking chair and a framed list of the room’s inhabitants over the last century but no A/C, and no nearby parking.

Students are given bathrobes and have to brave the elements to get to the showers and toilets. Interspersed among the 54 dorm rooms are nine beautifully appointed “pavilions,” which serve as the homes for deans and professors. According to Allen, there is never a dull moment living on the Lawn. Streaking across the Lawn stark naked is a UVA tradition, and “lawnies” have front row seats for the action.

The construction of the University was Jefferson’s obsession in his twilight years and most of the architectural flourishes, including Doric-style columns, triple-sash walkout windows, and Chinese trellis railings, were his ideas. “Lawnies” are extremely proud of this rich architectural heritage and some go to great lengths to make smart use of their small but unique spaces in this UNESCO World Heritage site.

Charlottesville is one of the best college towns in the country and the grounds at UVA are stunning. And if you walk the Lawn, Anne or one of her neighbors will be glad to show you around. Provided you have some clothes on.

Best college restaurant: Good Morning America wants your vote

pizza college missouriFor most of us, college was a low period in our culinary lives. Ramen, macaroni and cheese, beer for breakfast. . .ah, the memories!

When we got tired of contributing to our freshman fifteen with junk food, there was always that one place that served up something a little better, a little special. If you’ve been to college, or even if you haven’t, I bet you just thought of that place right now.

As an undergraduate in Tucson my favorite was a grimy dive bar called Mike’s Place. It served its last under-aged drinker years ago, closing down in the face of “urban renewal”. In graduate school in Columbia, Missouri, my fave was Shakespeare’s Pizza, which serves up delicious pizza right next to campus. It’s the best I’ve ever had, and I’ve been to Rome. Even The Pizza Files gave it a good review.

Now Shakespeare’s is one of four finalists in Good Morning America Weekend’s Best Bites Challenge. On this Saturday’s show they’ll announce the finalists and tell you how to vote for your favorite. They’re not very good at keeping secrets over at ABC, because the Columbia Tribune revealed the finalists to be Sandwich University in Morgantown, W.Va.; Öl Stuga in Lindsborg, Kan.; Camellia Grill in New Orleans; and Shakespeare’s.

Personally, I know Shakespeare’s is the best because I’ve never been to those other places. How can they compete?

What was your favorite college hangout? Reminisce in the comments section!

Plane Answers: So you want to be a pilot? Here’s how.

Michael asks:

I am an aspiring airline pilot and I was wondering what were the steps you took to get hired with the airlines. So far I am 15 and starting my flight training with the Civil Air Patrol.

So you want to be a pilot? You’ve probably read the stories of the expensive flight training, years of instructing followed by long working hours at a regional with shockingly low pay rates. Perhaps you aspire to eventually make it to the ‘majors’ or a secure corporate jet job, where you might find some stability and decent pay if the airline doesn’t restructure in bankruptcy or the corporate flight department doesn’t shut down during a cutback.

There’s plenty of turbulence in any flying career. That fact hasn’t changed since the ’70s, to be honest. But pilots are still attracted to the job for a variety of reasons. It’s hard to beat the view or the flexibility in your schedule, and some carriers will take you to places you probably wouldn’t have flown to on your own. And for anyone who loves to fly airplanes, you’d be hard pressed to land another career where you can still afford to fly a jet and still be able to accrue enough flight time in to be competent. So even with all the possible hardships, you’ve decided to chart a course to becoming a pilot. But where do you start?

By far, this is the most frequently asked question we get for Gadling’s Plane Answers column. Since it’s been twenty years since I was acquiring my ratings and looking for a job, I’ll do my best to offer some suggestions to help you along in your career path, and I’ll save the story of my climb through the civilian process for another post.

I’d also like to see some suggestions from those who are learning to fly now, as well. So if that applies to you, leave a comment or two about your path.

This post will deal with the more common paths to an airline pilot job in the United States. I hope to tackle some of the steps needed in the U.K., which is representative of the process in Europe, in a future post.

Let me warn you, not only is the process to becoming a pilot a long one, but because of the different choices available to you, this post may be almost as protracted as your career track. But don’t get discouraged. Having a variety of options is a good thing.

So let’s begin.
In the United States, there are two categories of pilots hired at airlines, and they both involve a few different choices.

Military

If you’re young enough and you have close to perfect vision with no other disqualifying medical issues, the military route offers flight training in high performance aircraft at no monetary cost to you. It will, however, mean a commitment to fly in the Air Force, Navy, Marines or Coast Guard for a number of years after you get your wings.

You are smart to get a head start by joining your local chapter of the Civil Air Patrol. The CAP offers a taste of the military way of doing things and, most more importantly, offers you a way to get some flight time, often taking you to your first solo flight and perhaps even more. You’ll be required to put in time at meetings and even volunteer for search and rescue missions, but you will also have the opportunity to fly some of their aircraft, such as a Cessna 172 at significantly lower rates than you could through a flight school.

If the CAP isn’t in your area, go to www.beapilot.org and sign up for a $100 into flight at a local flight school. It may be all you need to get hooked on flying.

Military flying almost always requires a bachelor’s degree and you may prefer to attend a university under the ROTC program, which may pay for a portion of your schooling as well. After school, you’ll start your flight training with whatever branch you chose. If you’re qualified, you can also aim for the Air Force, Navy or Coast Guard Academy where you’ll have a good shot at a flying position upon graduation, and you’ll get an amazing education at their University.

Landing an academy position isn’t easy. You’ll need a recommendation from a member of Congress at the very least. But it’s worth a try if you have the grades.

If you already have a college degree, you can also try the National Guard in your state. Once your training is finished, your commitment to the Guard is usually limited to a weekend or two a month for a few years. But you should be prepared to find yourself activated with short notice for a much longer tour or tours should your services be required.

Guard pilots often fly F-16s and military transports such as the C-130, C-141 and the C-5. The Army Guard also has helicopter units and airlines have been known in the past to hire these pilots as well, since many of them have fixed wing (airplane) experience as well.

Regardless of your military path, active duty or reserves, make sure you’ll be able to secure a flying spot in the military before agreeing to a long term commitment. I’d also look into the odds of becoming a drone pilot, something airlines aren’t likely interested in anytime soon.

Since I went the civilian route, I’m hopeful we’ll get some comments here with even more helpful advice on the best way to land a military flying position.

Civilian

My civilian route involved going to college while flying and scrambling for ratings at a nearby airport that was not associated with the university.

Today, a college degree in just about any subject is usually required by the major airlines. Mine was in management, but l’d encourage you to major in something that you could use for an alternate career if you can’t find a flying job right away or if you are ever furloughed. Many pilots have side businesses or interests, so think about some of these options when you consider your degree.

You may want to accomplish your solo flight and your private pilot license as soon as possible. The minimum age to solo is 16, but you must be 17 for a private license (PPL in Europe), which will allow you to take passengers up in the air.

Getting from the 60 or so hours you’ll have at the end of your private to the 190 to 250 hours needed to get a Commercial license can be challenging. I borrowed some money and bought a very inexpensive ($5,500 in the ’80s) 1946 two-seat Luscombe airplane that burned less than five gallons an hour. The same airplane today would sell for around $20,000, but you’ll likely get your money out of it when you’re ready to sell it, provided it was in decent shape when you bought the plane.

Building flight time is something you can do while working at a job, preferably at the airport or in some way involved in aviation. Your CAP work is very helpful when you want to rent one of their airplanes to build time.

Now you’ll need to be focused on getting the trifecta of ratings you’ll need-the commercial, multi-engine and instrument ratings-to fly for a living.

You can start with the instrument rating after you have 50 hours of pilot-in-command cross country time.

Upon reaching about 220 hours, you can work on your training for a commercial license. By the time you finish the training at a Part 61 school (more on that later) you will have reached the 250 hours needed. The multi-engine rating can be added on at this time, as well as a Certified Flight Instructor rating.

Part 141

The FAA allows pilots to get a commercial license at 190 hours if they train at what is called a part 141 school. These schools are audited and certified by the FAA and are required to provide a structured course of training that meets certain minimum hours of ground school instruction, its instructors follow an approved syllabus and the school must follow a specific set of requirements defined by the FAA.

Part 141 schools are good at leading you through the process, but if you are training with a freelance instructor or you want to fly at your own pace, a part 61 school may be preferable. I earned my private license through a part 61 school and picked up my advanced ratings with a 141 school. Do a little shopping around when you’re ready to decide.

It might surprise you to learn that most instructors have recently secured their ratings and are instructing as a way to build flight time while being paid. They’re not getting rich, but at least they’re no longer paying $100+ an hour for flight time.

Most pilots would then find themselves flight instructing for a while, before possibly moving on to another odd flying job such as light twin-engine charter flying or even traffic duty for local T.V. and radio stations.

There have been times-as recently as last year-when regional airlines were hiring pilots with the FAA minimum requirements to get their commercial, multi-engine and instrument ratings. However, there’s a congressional push since the Colgan Air accident to require 1,000 or 1,500 hours for anyone flying passengers for a regional airline. If this were to happen, the pool of candidates would dry up quickly once the hiring begins again.

Your seat?

Universities and Academies

Many have heard of Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, a school with campuses in Florida and Arizona that offers a college education while also providing an immersive flight training environment.

But there are others as well, such as the University of North Dakota, Western Michigan University, Purdue, Daniel Webster College, and Parks College in St. Louis. There’s a great aviation university discussion thread from ten years ago at Airliners.net that is rather enlightening.

You may have also seen ads for the Delta Connection Academy (formerly the Comair Aviation Academy), Gulfstream International, Mesa Airlines Pilot Development and ATP. These outfits will take you from zero time all the way through your ratings and even up to an ATP in some cases. A few are affiliated with regional airlines and promise an interview at the carrier after a period of flight instructing with the company.

Be sure to do a search on these companies before jumping in. I wouldn’t, for example, recommend Gulfstream International or Mesa after doing a bit of research. The others had some positive reviews, however.

This is a really tough time to be looking for any type of job. In December of 2012 airlines will again see a number of job openings after retirements dropped to almost zero after the mandatory retirement age was raised by five years from sixty to sixty-five in 2007. I’m hopeful that we’ll start to see an uptick in the economy and movement that will make all your efforts now worthwhile.

It’s not the job for everyone, and there will certainly be speed bumps along the way, but unlike Sully Sullenberger, I would still recommend an airline pilot job to my kids or anyone who’s addicted to flying.

I stumbled across a post from Varrin Swearingen, a pilot who worked his way through the Comair Academy, flew for Comair as a co-pilot and captain on turboprops and jets and then went to work for World Airways. Varrin, like myself, knew he wanted to fly for a living. He was well aware of the challenges that goal presented, including the potential for less than stellar schedules and anemic pay rates.

If you have realistic expectations going in, you’ll be able to see the job for what it is later-a great opportunity to fly to places you wouldn’t have otherwise seen, in an airplane you enjoy flying, and with people you consider good friends. Oh, and the view exceeds that of any CEO’s corner office.

If you made it this far into the post, and you’re seriously considering a flying career, I have one last bit of advice. When you get the job, don’t get too spun up over contract negotiations or the latest rumors and rants posted to online pilot forums. Always try to remember just how much you wanted the job when you went in for your interview. And take a moment when you’re flying a visual approach at night over Boston or New York to glance out the window for just a second and think about just how amazing it is to fly.

If you’ve recently been through some of the above process, please comment below. I’d love to hear about your experiences. And if you’d like to hear about others who have ‘caught the flying bug’ and where they are now, take a listen to episode 24 of Joe d’Eon’s incredibly well produced and entertaining free podcast, “Come fly with me.” [itunes link]

So good luck Michael and let us know in the comments how your CAP experience is going.

Do you have a question about something related to the pointy end of an airplane? Ask Kent and maybe he’ll use it for the next Plane Answer’s Plane Answers. Check out his other blog, Cockpit Chronicles and travel along with him at work. Or follow on Twitter: @VeryJr

Sarah Palin and Hawaii don’t mix? About comfort zones vs going rogue

Here’s a tidbit about Sarah Palin that caught my attention. According to her dad, Palin left college in Hawaii because being around too many Asians made her feel uncomfortable. Interesting. Sarah Palin attributes her leaving the Aloha State after just one semester to too much sunshine for an 18 year-old—as in beaches and academics are not a great mix for an Alaskan gal. Read Palin’s book Going Rogue:An American Life and you’ll get Palin’s version.

Whether Palin found hitting the books in Hawaii too difficult– or the number of Asians there too disconcerting, either option brings up the topic of comfort zones travel and going rogue.

People like Andrew Zimmern of Bizarre Foods and Bizarre World thrive on traveling outside of their comfort zones. To them, outside of the comfort zone is a comfort zone. A place where most people feel comfortable might cause them an unsettled feeling. Put a person like Zimmern in the middle of a Wal-mart in the U.S. and he or she might feel creeped out.

Places like a Disney theme park, McDonald’s, Las Vegas and some cruise ships have popular appeal because they have found the magic formula that fits the needs of the masses. They are comfort food with a dash of something that feels like excitement. At these places you know what to expect and can feel safe in the crowd.

How many people don’t travel outside of what they know because of the feeling of the unknown and the discomfort of sticking out in a crowd?

If Sarah Palin’s father is accurate in his assessment that her discomfort with being in the midst of too many Asians sent her to college in Idaho, I’d say Palin’s attitude takes her out of the rogue category and plops her into the main stream. It’s not a matter of being prejudiced either. It has to do with a tolerance for what is different. For some people it’s hard to feel comfortable in ones skin in an environment that is unfamiliar. Feeling comfortable takes time, practice and travel.

As anyone who has traveled extensively in other countries has discovered, travel helps stretch the skin. The more one travels past ones comfort zone, the more ones skin expands. What once felt disquieting feels as comfortable as a well worn shoe. The process of going from discomfort to comfort is one of the joys of travel. It’s one of the elements that pushes world travelers towards new horizons– to a state of going rogue.