Just Plane Silly

Shuttle on 747

No, I’m not going to defend overweight baggage fees. I’m also not going to come right out and call them BS, but I think there’s a lot of good discussion to be had about how arbitrary these fees are. Look here, here, here, and here to find out why. Instead, I want to take a minute to talk about the physics of airplane flight, and to explain why the remarkable Shuttle Carrier Aircraft (SCAs) are not necessarily an argument against overweight baggage fees.

Although the mechanics of flight are tricky, they boil down to four essential forces: lift, weight, thrust, and drag. Weight is Enemy Number One; unless you intend to drive your 747 as a very large bus, you have to generate more than enough upward lift to compensate for the vehicle’s considerable weight. That’s what the wings are for, and there are two ways to increase the lift provided by the wings. The first method involves increasing the angle at which wind strikes the bottom of the wings (the angle of attack), and the second method involves increasing the airplane’s speed. That’s why big heavy airplanes like passenger jets need long runways on which to accelerate. A Boeing 747 has to reach about 160 knots (184 mph), although the necessary takeoff speed can vary considerably depending on weight and weather. People are pretty smart to have figured this out.

Bottom line: increase the weight of the airplane and you increase the amount of lift necessary to get in the air and stay there, which means you increase the amount of fuel the airplane must consume in keeping its speed up. More fuel means higher costs for the airline, which they are only too happy to pass on to you, the passenger, in the form of extra baggage fees. Here’s the controversial part: some of these baggage fees are becoming ridiculous, and baggage fees haven’t gone away – or even been reduced – as fuel prices have dropped. Ah well, I suppose that’s the price one must pay to keep a money-losing business aloft.

So where do the SCAs come into this? The Shuttle Carrier Aircraft are two heavily modified Boeing 747s acquired by NASA in the 1970’s and 1980’s to ferry the Space Shuttle orbiters to and fro. The regular 747s used by airlines are in no way prepared to handle the task of carrying the Shuttle, so the SCAs were gutted of all seats except for those in first-class, which were reserved for NASA passengers (cushy!). The airplanes’ bodies were reinforced to accommodate the weight of the orbiter. Their engines were upgraded to meet the stresses of their unique mission, but the upgrade went to power, not efficiency.

All of these modifications placed limitations on the SCAs’ range and altitude. While the 747s used to ferry passengers have a maximum range of about 7300 nautical miles (8400 miles) and can fly at 0.85 Mach at an altitude of 35,000 feet, the SCAs had a range of only 1000 nautical miles (1150 miles) when carrying the orbiter, at a maximum speed of 0.6 Mach at an altitude of 15,000 feet. An airline’s 747 can cross the continental United States without breaking a sweat, but the SCAs would have to land and refuel a number of times when making the same flight. Needless to say, if passengers elected to travel on a plane fitted to SCA specifications, they’d be paying a whole lot more than a simple overweight baggage fee. Therefore, comparing the airlines’ 747s to the SCAs is like comparing apples to oranges. Oranges that carry freakin’ Space Shuttles!

Speaking of airline fees…

Lower Airfares

Ehhh…this seems like wishful thinking to me. We humans always want to make sense from the senseless, and airline pricing policies seem to be the epitome of senselessness. Some people swear that airline prices jump when they revisit certain search websites, but then plummet to the original offer when they clear their browsing history and cookies. The timing may be suspicious, but that doesn’t mean there’s a causal link. The cost of a single seat on an airplane can fluctuate wildly during the day due to a sophisticated formula and a number of “short-cuts” used by airlines to custom-tailor fare offers. It’s tempting to think that those wily airlines are engaging in bait-and-switch tactics, but the evidence is, in my opinion, scarce and unconvincing.

I leave it as an exercise for the astute reader to determine whether airlines track cookies in order to jack up fees for interested buyers. Consider these opposing pieces, both submitted on USA Today’s website. The first, written by Bill McGee, alleges that airline prices do indeed change in response to your personal browsing history, and advises a level of CIA-like caution in using computers to book flights. On the other hand, Rick Seaney believes the airfare cookie myth is just that – a myth – similar to myths about how car insurance companies charge more for red cars than they do for other colors.

Regardless of whether or not airlines use cookie-tracking technology to adjust fees, it wouldn’t hurt them to make their pricing policies more transparent. As these two memes illustrate, there are already plenty of people who don’t trust airlines. Given their recent financial difficulties, now is not the time to stiff potential flyers.

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One thought on “Just Plane Silly

  1. I wanted to comment on the airfare part of this. I didn’t believe any of that stuff but a friend that flies very often told me that at 3pm eastern USA time, prices are reset on Tuesdays. I scoffed at the idea but the prices I was looking at were insane over the weekend. I decided to hold off. I checked prices several times a day leading up to it. I’m not joking that the prices immediately went $250+ less per seat (this was an international flight) at exactly 3pm on Tuesday. 15 min later they went back up. I did not reset cache, delete cookies, etc.

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