Airport confidential

Travel tips and common pitfalls, from someone who worked behind the scenes


As an airline employee, Gina Cornell saw a lot of common mistakes and pitfalls travelers made at CWA and other airports.

My dream job always has been at an airport—seeing people travel, go off into the world, and come back home. (Plus the personal benefit of world travel for myself!) So when a local job opportunity at an airline came up, I jumped in.

And what an eye opener. Until you’re behind the scenes in the thick of it all, you can’t understand the down-to-the-second logistics that go into getting a single flight off the ground.

According to the Air Transport Action Group, the world’s airlines carried nearly 3.6 billion passengers in 2015. That’s a lot of people flying through the air and navigating airports.

Not everybody knows the ins and outs of air travel, the rules, or that the Minneapolis airport can be trickier and more time consuming than, say, Detroit. I’ve seen people make travel harder than it should be. So with a perspective from the other side, I’m sharing some quick tips and common pitfalls.

Water is a liquid

So is maple syrup. And vodka. So heed the Transportation Security Administration’s (TSA) specific rules for what can be taken in checked luggage, carry-ons, and on your person.

The TSA website is updated whenever there’s a rule change, and it’s recommend to check it in advance of any air travel, domestic or foreign. The site also has travel tips and weekly updates on illegal items that have been confiscated. You’ll see big head-shakers on the list, like inert grenades and loaded firearms. During the week of December 18, TSA agents discovered 73 firearms in carry-on bags; of those, 62 were loaded.

Locally, favorite items flying through Central Wisconsin Airport (CWA) are maple syrup, cheese and sausage. Those are allowed on the plane if within TSA parameters. Solid cheese may be carried onboard, but creamy cheese must follow size guidelines. Maple syrup, cheese, sausage must be taken out of your carry-on because they might look suspicious, says Jim Olson, CWA assistant director. And people forget that maple syrup is a liquid. “I’ve heard people say, ‘But it’s just a bottle of maple syrup!’”

Realistically, maple syrup needs to go into your checked baggage, as carry-on liquids are limited to 3.4 ounces (100 ml)—less than a quarter cup.

We all have baggage

If your checked bag is overweight and items you remove cannot pass TSA carry-on rules… well, you might have to throw them in the garbage or pay a fee. Extra shoes, books, cheese, and large bottles of hair products are typical culprits.

Each airline has its own policies on baggage size, weight and fees. “But the scale at home said it was underweight!” is something gate agents hear daily. While your scale can give a decent estimate, it can be off by several pounds. I’ve seen more passengers than I can count rifle through their suitcase in a panic, exhuming personal items you don’t want to be flashing in front of me, God, and the line behind you. A small extra checked bag may be a cheaper than an overweight fee. Know the airline policy.

Choosing a suitcase is also important. Most are black. If you can, go bold, loud and colorful so there’s less chance somebody will mistakenly grab it off the luggage carousel. If you already own black suitcases, attach colorful tags and ribbons to help your luggage stand out. This also applies to carry-on bags that may need to be valet checked at the gate due to size restrictions.

Always attach your contact info on luggage. Every. Single. Piece.

And be organized. I recommend a handy travel pouch that hangs around your neck to store passports and all other documents in one, easy-to-reach spot. You’ll know exactly where to grab your identification, gate passes and anything else important. I’ve chased down countless travelers who left their phones, passports, and wallets at a public ticket kiosk or at the airline counter.

Tech fails and time to fly

Don’t tempt fate when it comes to arriving at the airport. Leave home with plenty of time to spare. There could be an accident on the highway or traffic may be thicker than expected.

And don’t rely solely on technology, because it can fail. Often. I’ve witnessed several incidents in which a passenger has a boarding pass on their phone, and just as they get to the TSA checkpoint, the phone dies. No gate pass means no entrance. It’s not up for debate.

Each step of air travel takes time: ticket counter, boarding pass, luggage check, security, and finding your gate. Remember, you need to be checked in and ready to board well before departure.

“We tell people traveling out of CWA, get there at least an hour to an hour-and-a-half before their flight departs,” says Scott Hunger, owner of Travel Leaders in Wausau. “In a major airport like Minneapolis, we tell them two hours for domestic flights. For people travelling internationally like on spring break to Mexico or Jamaica for example, we generally advise them to be there at least three hours ahead of time, especially on the return trip.” Hunger points out that in popular tourist destinations, transport companies deposit dozens of travelers all at once at the airport, causing long lines.

You’re too late to the gate when the door to the jet bridge closes, the bridge pulls from the plane, and the plane door shuts. You may see your plane sitting there, but it doesn’t matter. Flight protocol has kicked in. It’s not about you. Airlines run on a down-to-the-second schedule. One late plane causes a domino effect for other flights all over the globe.

Once you get to the gate, stick around. It’s a gate agent’s bane to hunt down a wayward passenger. We know you checked in, you’re in the airport, your luggage is loaded, but where are you?

Since we’re at the gate, let’s talk carry-on luggage and the valet bag check process, a fancy way of saying your carry-on won’t fit (or you want to avoid hauling a bag on the plane), so the airline stows it under the plane at no charge.

Most carriers have sizing rules for what fits onboard. That might vary on different legs of your journey. Smaller aircraft are used at regional airports like CWA to shuttle passengers to hubs with larger planes and more in-cabin space. Gate agents will give you a valet or plane-side check ticket to stow carry-on luggage for that leg of the journey only. The item then is brought up to the gate of the next airport, where you pick it up personally.

Arguing with the gate agent that a carry-on item will or won’t fit usually only causes angst for everybody and a delay later when it has to come off the plane anyway because it didn’t fit.

One tip I’ve learned: If you have a tight connection (“hot,” as it’s called in the industry), retrieving a valet-checked item can take up precious minutes. So choose carry-ons that fit on smaller, regional aircraft. Trust me on this one.

Hunger agrees: “When you think you have fifteen minutes to catch the next flight but then you forget you have to wait five or ten minutes for your valet bag to come up, it can cause problems.”

Lastly, be nice to the airline and airport staff. They truly want you to arrive happily and safely to your destination. Olson reminds passengers that TSA and airline employees have rules and regulations to follow, and if you arrive late, “it’s not the gate agent’s fault that they can’t check you in.”