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ABCs of Air Travel

May 4, 2023

What is the difference between nonstop and direct? And what are all those letters and numbers on your boarding pass? From booking your ticket to what goes on behind the scenes that can impact your trip, we decode air travel from A to Z. Keep this air travel dictionary handy, quiz your friends and become a travel pro.

Air traffic control: Employed by the FAA, these individuals receive specialized training to monitor the skies. The tower determines when planes take off and land, approve or deny pilot requests to change altitude during flight, and ensure safe travel. It’s a demanding job that requires multi-tasking on a major scale. It’s also a job that is in demand and facing staffing shortages like airline pilots and crew.

Boarding pass: Your ticket to get on the plane (a.k.a. your Contract of Carriage). You can get a physical copy when you arrive at the airport or use a digital version available through your airline’s app. Apple Wallet is also a great tool to keep your boarding pass handy. You can’t board a plane without a boarding pass, so make sure you know where yours is.

Connection: Most regional airports connect you through a larger airport to reach your destination. That’s why flights out of MLI go to Chicago O’Hare, Atlanta, Dallas and Denver. Regional airports play an important role in connecting smaller communities to global travel.

Direct: A direct flight is not necessarily the same as nonstop. A direct flight means you may land at another airport to pick up more passengers or refuel but you’ll stay on board until it takes off again. Nonstop and direct are sometimes used interchangeably even though they have different meanings so check the details of your flight when you book.

Embraer: A type of aircraft commonly used by regional airlines. These planes carry 50-90 passengers and are operated by airlines affiliated with the corporate names you’re used to seeing like American, United and Delta. You can tell when a flight is operated by a regional affiliate because the ticket or plane will say United Express, American Eagle or Delta Connection. Smaller aircraft like the Embraer, are a better, more efficient option for small to mid-sized reginal airports.

Flight Attendant: Highly trained crew responsible for the comfort and safety of passengers on board. While they get beverages and snacks for you, they also go through rigorous training to prepare for emergencies and learn how to safely evacuate an aircraft. You are required to respectfully follow their instructions while on board.

Gate-check: Checking carry-on luggage at the gate (post-security). Smaller planes often have limited space for carry-on luggage so you may be asked to check your bag. Airlines typically seek volunteers before requiring passengers to check bags. While some airlines do not charge you a fee to gate check, some may so it’s important to read all the details with a particular airline and class of airfare. Make sure you keep items like your identification, phone and medication in a bag that can fit under the seat in front of you. If you have any lithium batteries, e-cigarettes or other certain electronic devices, you’ll be asked to keep those in your personal bag because they can pose serious safety hazards.

Hub: Central transfer point for airlines. American, United and Delta operate on a hub and spoke system. Airline hubs determine where crews are based, and where smaller airports, like MLI, feed into. United’s primary hub is Chicago, but they also have hubs in Houston and Washington, D.C. American’s primary hub is Dallas, but they also have hubs in Phoenix and Charlotte. Delta’s primary hub is Atlanta, with hubs in Minneapolis and Salt Lake City. Not all airlines use the hub and spoke system and only offer nonstop flights. This model is especially popular with ultra-low-cost-carriers like Allegiant.

Identification: Travelers 18 years and older must have identification to fly. Driver’s licenses and passports are most common. If you’re traveling internationally, a passport will be required. However, if you’re traveling within the U.S., a state ID or driver’s license will do. Check for a full list of accepted identification.

Jetlag: A term used to describe a type of temporary fatigue after traveling across multiple time zones. One way to beat it is to resist the urge to nap during daytime hours the first couple days. Try to follow as normal a schedule as possible until your body adjusts.

Known Traveler Number: A unique code given to individuals who signed up and are approved for TSA PreCheck. Also abbreviated as KTN, you’ll be prompted to enter this number when you buy an airline ticket. This will give you access to TSA PreCheck lanes at the airport for expedited security screening. It should also be connected to your identification. See PreCheck for more information.

Layover: The amount of time between connecting flights. When you book a flight with a connection, look at how much time is between when you land and when your next flight departs – and keep in mind that boarding usually ends up to 15 minutes prior to the scheduled departure time. Some airports are quite large and confusing to navigate so it’s important to leave plenty of time. There may be other delays to consider, such as waiting for a gate to be available or the amount of time it takes for everyone to exit. How much time you think you need is subjective but anything less than 45 minutes is probably cutting it too close.

MLI: Our airport code. Every airport is given a unique three-letter location identifier. When you book a flight to or from the Quad Cities, you can search using “MLI” and the airline website should automatically populate Quad Cities International Airport for you. If you follow our social media channels we use #FLYMLI and you can too, to tag us in your travel photos!

Nonstop – Nonstop flights mean you’re in the air for the duration of the flight. You’ll find these most often at larger airports, or with certain carriers who don’t use the hub-and-spoke system for their flights (see Hub for more information). For example, Allegiant only offers nonstop flights so if you book a flight to Phoenix, you will go straight to Phoenix with no stops in between.

Operations: Airports are responsible for maintaining the terminal building and airfield, but do not control flight schedules, cost of airfare or baggage. Most concerns we receive from passengers are something only the airline can resolve, but we do our best to help connect you to the right people. Additionally, all airlines pay to land at an airport and an airport’s operations help determine the cost for each plane and passenger – and there are separate calculations for each. MLI regularly assesses both costs to ensure we stay competitive among other airports of a similar size.

PreCheck – A type of security clearance that grants you access to a more efficient screening process. Your shoes can stay on, and electronics and liquids can remain in your bag. In order to sign up for TSA PreCheck, you’ll need to set up an appointment at a participating location where you’ll answer a series of questions, they will fingerprint you, and a background check will be conducted. It costs $78 for five years, and $70 after that to renew for another five years. Assuming everything comes back a-okay, you’ll receive an email with your Known Traveler Number. Enter your KTN when booking an airline ticket and use the lanes marked TSA PreCheck at any airport.

Q, X, Y: We’re cheating and combining Q, X and Y but there’s a good reason! These letters appear on boarding passes and indicate you have an economy ticket. Economy tickets are usually the cheapest but may also have the most restrictions. When you book a ticket, pay attention to the restrictions with each class of airfare available.

Regional Airport – An airport that connects smaller communities to major airport hubs. MLI is considered a regional airport which means airlines concentrate on short and medium length routes and examine regional travel habits to determine which connections would be most useful for passengers.

SSSS: Secondary Security Screening Selection. If this code appears on your boarding pass, you will be separated from the TSA security lanes for enhanced screening, including a thorough check of your bags and person. This code overrides any security clearance you may already have, including TSA PreCheck. There’s no way to avoid having it on your ticket, and TSA is intentionally mum on when it appears, but you can read more about SSSS here.

TSA – Transportation Security Administration. TSA was created following the events of Sept. 11, and is a separate entity from the airport with its own rules, requirements and leadership teams. Their primary goal is to prevent any major safety issues during a flight, so they determine what objects can fly, handle all aspects of the screening process, and conduct routine security inspections at airports to make sure we are compliant.

Upgrade: From the time you book your flight until the time you board, you may be given an opportunity to upgrade your seat. If you booked a basic economy ticket (See Q, Y and X for more info), but there are other seats available, you could switch to an exit row, a preferred location or even business or first class if seats are available. This usually comes at an additional fee, but it never hurts to see if upgrades are available for your flight.

Visit Quad Cities: The airport helps our local passengers fly out of the Quad Cities, but Visit Quad Cities is working to expand our regional brand, so people fly into the Quad Cities as well. Tourism is a gateway to bringing more money into our communities, but visitors also have the potential to become residents. As a region grows, airlines take notice and add more routes. Simply put, we benefit from a strong relationship with Visit Quad Cities and the work they’re doing to put our region on the map.

Weather – Even if it’s blue skies and sunny where you’re at, there may be forecasted weather or weather along the flight path causing delays or cancellations. Always check your airline’s website or app for the latest information.

Zulu: The time zone used in aviation, the military and at sea to standardize the reporting of time. This is also known as GMT (Greenwich Mean Time) or Coordinated Universal Time. This helps pilots avoid confusion as they travel through time zones. However, as a passenger, the time on your ticket is always the local time.

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