Interview With Scott McCartney: Author of ‘The Wall Street Journal Guide to Power Travel’

Travel Blog  •  Rob Verger  •  05.21.09 | 11:30 AM ET

Photo by Hodges Photographers

Scott McCartney, who writes the popular Middle Seat column for The Wall Street Journal, has a new book out with an enticing subtitle: The Wall Street Journal Guide to Power Travel: How to Arrive With Your Dignity, Sanity, and Wallet Intact.

The book, which provides a look inside almost all aspects of the airline industry, is full of great advice on how to navigate air travel today. I’ll have my review of the book in a forthcoming item here, but in the meantime, I caught up with McCartney, who is also a licensed private pilot, via email to ask him a few questions.

World Hum: How did your experience and knowledge as a licensed private pilot inform your reporting for this book?

Scott McCartney: I learned to fly because I love it, but it has made a difference in my reporting. It’s a help at several levels. First, it gives me a lot more insight into the problems with the nation’s air-traffic control system and into airline operations. I’m a user of the system and I get to talk the same language as pilots, FAA, airline operations people, etc. That’s a help when reporting stories. In the book, as in my weekly column, I try to explain to people how the system works so they can understand why some flights get delayed and not others, for example, or why weather can affect your flight even when skies are clear where you are and at your destination. I think travelers are keenly interested in how airlines, airplanes and airports work, and being a participant as well as a reporter has, I hope, made my coverage more useful for them.

Secondly, being a pilot has opened doors with various airline and government officials, giving me the opportunity for more detailed reporting. I’ve flown planes with key officials on several occasions—access that I wouldn’t get otherwise. Building trust, spending hours with them and convincing them you understand how things work makes a difference—you get more information to pass on to readers.

Your book takes a close look into air traffic control and how airlines operate. You wrote: “Airlines and the FAA are way behind.” When do you think the long-delayed NextGen air traffic control system might be in place, and, to complement that, do you think we’ll ever see a passengers’ bill of rights in the US?

I think it’ll still be another five years or so before we really see significant NextGen benefits. Some projects are being rolled out now, but so far only marginal things. But I do think the next FAA administrator, Randy Babbitt, understands the importance of getting it done and doing it right, and will speed up the process. The good news is that as air travel starts to rebound again, we should begin seeing some improvements.

I don’t think there’s much momentum for a passengers’ bill of rights in Washington, either in Congress or in the Department of Transportation. It typically flares up in election seasons, so maybe we’ll see more interest in 2010. But on the whole, Congress is reluctant to start legislating customer service in the airline business. And Washington is plenty responsible for problems itself—many times delays result from government goofs, poor management and weak systems and staffing. I’d like to see a more thoughtful approach: Let’s have a blue-ribbon commission with lots of fresh eyes look hard at airline practices and FAA rules and procedures and see if we can’t do more to protect consumers and improve travel.

Since the crash of Continental Connect Flight 3407, a lot has been made about the inexperience or poor training of these specific pilots, as well as the tough life in general of pilots who fly for a regional airline. To you, what are the lessons of Flight 3407?

I think the poor flying skills of the captain, who apparently failed several check rides and yet was allowed to continue flying, raises a lot of red flags for airlines. I was especially concerned when an FAA inspector said he knew of systematic safety violations at the airline and yet took no action. There was clearly a lack of discipline in that cockpit and in how the pilots conducted their work—flying all night to commute across the country or sleeping in a crew room are not proper preparation for piloting any flight and were clearly poor choices made by those pilots. All in all, those pilots should have never been in that cockpit.

Accidents happen because of a series of mistakes, and this one is no exception.

Your book has lots of fantastic advice and information for the frequent flier or for the person just trying to book good tickets to go away with his or her family on vacation. But what advice might you have for the super-budget traveler, the backpacker who might want to travel as cheaply as possible across South America, for example, occasionally booking (or changing) his or her flights as needed?

I think the advice holds no matter who is booking tickets. We are all looking for the best deal we can get. For backpackers, I’d specifically suggest student-booking services if they have a student ID or email address: and One huge advantage is that they often have very cheap one-way prices—fully discounted tickets without round-trip purchase requirements. Works great for backpackers. And make use of the discount airlines which are plentiful on most continents now. It may be a bit more than bus rides, but it can be a lot faster. Another tip (all these are in the book): Use to build an itinerary, keep track of what reservations you do make and share with family and friends. My daughter will be backpacking in Europe this summer—already have her flights and some hostel reservations on her TripIt itinerary. It’s a handy service.

If you had a free round-trip ticket anywhere in the world, and plenty of vacation time to make use of it, where would you go and what would you do?

I’d love to spend more time in Latin America, Asia and the Pacific and Africa. I’m more of an urban explorer than a sunbathing/golfing kind of guy, interested in culture, history and food. And when I do go on vacation, I try to rent a plane and local instructor and do some local small-plane flying—a fantastic way to explore new lands.

Thank you very much, Scott. Happy travels.