Plane Answers: Paying off passengers on weight restricted flights and a question about approach speeds

Welcome to Gadling’s feature, Plane Answers, where our resident airline pilot, Kent Wien, answers your questions about everything from takeoff to touchdown and beyond. Have a question of your own? Ask away!


My girlfriend and I were traveling to Washington D.C. on Delta from Des Moines via Cincinnati. At CVG, the ticket agent said they were looking for volunteers, as the flight was oversold. I eagerly rushed up, since we were just staying with a friend that night, and inquired. He offered $600 each, meal vouchers and a hotel for us. He said there was an issue with weight as well.

We hung around the gate to make sure, and at the last minute, he said “Captain’s ordered everybody on.” The flight was full. Very full. We were the last two seats on the CRJ. My girlfriend had to sit next to the FA in a jumpseat/lavatory door.

My question is: How can weight play an issue? Aren’t they fueled according to the passenger count? How much does luggage weight come into fuel calculations? And lastly, What could have made the pilot change his mind about weight?
I would have jumped at the $600 offer. You were smart to try and nab it.

Very often, flights are weight restricted, which means that after the safe fuel and reserves are added to the flight, there’s only so much weight left over for the passengers and bags. This is more common on the regional jets, but it occasionally happens to the smaller Boeings and MD-80s.

As the boarding is taking place, there are often a few variables that aren’t apparent until the baggage, freight, mail and fuel are added to the airplane. Getting an up-to-the-minute tally of the weights allows the load planner (which may even be the pilots, depending on the airline) to get the maximum number of passengers and bags on the flight. Baggage weights aren’t actually weighed, however. Average weights are used; 30 pounds domestically and 40-45 pounds internationally.

You’re also more likely to run into this situation when the weather is poor at your destination, since the flight plan will need to include enough fuel to travel to an alternate airport after reaching the destination just in case the weather isn’t good enough to get in. So this added fuel reduces the useful load of the airplane. Each gallon of fuel weighs just over six pounds, in fact.

Occasionally, there may be a similar weight restriction based on the maximum landing weight of the airplane. If the airplane must operate again with nearly full fuel, and the distance isn’t enough to burn down below the maximum landing weight, the number of passengers will also need to be restricted.

Clearly it was in the airline’s best interest to look very closely at the numbers, something that can only happen at the last minute, to see if they could get you on. But they didn’t want to find themselves in a situation where at the last minute they’d have to remove two passengers and their bags and delay the flight if the weights came in just over the maximum allowed. So in your situation, they held you two back just in case they needed the weight reduction. I’ve also been in your situation when flying on another airline and just as I was starting to spend the extra cash in my mind, the door opened up we were rushed on at the last minute.

Tom asks:

Hi Kent,

You said that the newer 737-800s are “faster” on final approach than the older 737s. If the flight crew controls the airspeed on final approach then wouldn’t the speed on final be the same regardless of the age of the 737? Please explain and many thanks.

I should have been more specific. You’re right, the age wouldn’t have any impact on the speeds, but the older 737 model, the -200s are able to approach much slower than the -800. Another significant influence is the weight of a particular aircraft which can change the approach speed by twenty to twenty-five knots (23 to 28 m.p.h.).

In a previous Plane Answers, I called a lot of friends who fly a variety of airplanes and they provided me with the approach speed of a variety of airplanes. You’d be surprised which airplanes land the fastest:

747-400: 157 (174 m.p.h.)
737-800: 148 (170 m.p.h.)
A380-100: 145 (166 m.p.h.)
767-300: 142 (163 m.p.h.)
A320: 142 (163 m.p.h.)
EMB-145: 139 (160 m.p.h.)
777-200: 138 (159 m.p.h.)
MD-80: 136 (156 m.p.h.)
A300: 135 (155 m.p.h.)
A319: 132 (152 m.p.h.)
757: 132 (152 m.p.h.)

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 Answers. Check out his other blog, Cockpit Chronicles and travel along with him at work. Twitter @veryjr

People with guide dogs have been denied flights and a hamburger

Guide dogs are nothing new. Most commonly known for helping people who are blind navigate the world around them, they are gaining use in helping people with other types of disabilities. Also called service dogs, some are now being used by war veterans with post traumatic stress disorders. The more service dog use increases, the more likely they will be part of the traveler’s scene. Unfortunately, not everyone who works in the service industry knows the laws and rules that protect service dog owners. This has created a few snafus.

There is a current lawsuit against McDonald’s for a situation that started with the refusal of service. When Luis Carlos Montalván, a former U.S. army captain who was wounded in Iraq, came to a McDonald’s in Brooklyn with his service dog, he was told he could not bring the dog inside. Montalván complained to the company CEO which resulted in a sign installed at the restaurant indicating that service dogs are welcome.

The lawsuit came about after this incident because Montalván claims that when he returned to this McDonald’s after the sign was installed, he was denied service by a different manager. When Montalván later came back with a camera to take a picture of the sign that said he should be able to have service, two employees accosted him.

In another recent guide dog incident, a blind couple and their dog were denied boarding on a Jetstar plane in Australia even though the airline does allow people with service dogs to fly. [Jaunted]

In both of these cases, the problem arose because the people who worked for the organization weren’t aware of the rules of an organization or the law. I would bet they hadn’t come across someone with a service dog before either. As much as a service dog looks like a regular dog, it’s not. Guide dogs are not pets.

What are the laws anyway? In the U.S. the Department of Justice outlines them quite clearly. In essence, a person with a service dog cannot be denied service. Period–except from what I can tell from reading the guidelines, if the dog is barking during a movie or if it acts up somewhere. Since service dogs are taught not to bark or act up, such behavior would be unlikely.

If you do see a service dog, don’t pet it when its harness is on. That means it’s “working” with an important job to do.

Help! I’ve been bumped!

No, bumping is not the latest craze to hit European dance floors, it’s what airlines do when they have more passengers than seats.

Chances are that you’ve been waiting in the departure gate area and have heard the gate agents ask for volunteers for a later flight. Overbooking has become a very profitable thing for airlines, and they have developed pretty smart mathematical systems to determine which flights have the greatest chances of passengers not showing up. Of course, even the best system is wrong every now and then, and your 88 passenger plane may have 110 people waiting at the gate for a seat.

Smart people prepare for bumps, and make a decent buck by taking the generous voucher in exchange for a later arrival. I’ve played the bumping game several times, and once made over $700 in travel vouchers just by accepting a 4 hour delay in my trip home. Grant Martin wrote about the art of fishing for bumps last year, and it’s a great way to learn how to make some extra money off the airline.

Of course, not every “bump” is voluntarily, and especially during busy times of the year, the airline will have a hard time finding volunteers for their offer. In some cases, they’ll keep raising the offer in the hope that someone snags it, but in the worst case, they’ll start calling out names of passengers who will be denied boarding.
This involuntarily denied boarding or IDB is costly for the airline, but only if you know your rights. The compensation rules for IDB changed this year, and passengers now get a better deal than we originally did with the 30 year old rules these changes replaced.

If the airline denies you boarding, you are entitled to $400, but only if the delay gets you to the first stopover of your trip more than 4 hours past your original arrival time. There is of course some fine print; the $400 is the maximum amount, and the true compensation is 200% of your airfare, with a maximum of $400. The whole thing is quite complicated, but is all described by the Department of Transportation in this document (PDF file).

Some other compensation could come from additional vouchers for food and beverages at the airport, hotel accommodation (on overnight IDB’s) and even free domestic US round trip ticket vouchers. If the airline is really desperate, you could even consider asking for an upgrade on your replacement flight.

When you are offered a voucher, be sure to ask the gate agent about the rules attached to it – some vouchers have so many restrictions that you’ll only ever be able to redeem it on a Monday morning between 8 and 8:30 and only on odd numbered days when the temperature is above 85. A free round trip ticket voucher may sound nice, but if it is impossible to redeem, it’ll be a useless piece of paper,

Remember – the law is on your side when you are denied boarding (assuming you got to the airport on time) so make sure you demand what you are entitled to!