Stricklandia

Michael Strickland's blog on all things travel: news, deals, destinations, dreams and more.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Spirit rationalizes their new fee

To close out this series of postings about Spirit Airlines' new carry-on bag fee, I want to share the response I received from the airline when I expressed my opinion about the new fee:

"In order to continue reducing fares even further and offering customers the options of paying only for the services they want and use rather than subsidizing the choices of others, we are progressing to the next phase of unbundling with this introduction of carry-on bag fees. In addition to lowering fares even further, this will substantially reduce the number of carry-on bags, which will improve in-flight safety and efficiency by speeding up the boarding and deplaning process, all of which ultimately improve the overall customer experience."

You could fly the largest plane in the Spirit fleet through some of the holes in their logic.

First, that by bundling the "cost" of carry-on baggage into the price of a ticket, they are making you subsidize the "choices of others." As if to suggest there is a measurable percentage of people who bring only enough baggage that will fit under the seat, and who don't need to check bags or stow bags in the overhead bins.

Second, implementing this new fee will "substantially reduce the number of carry-on bags." Really? If I have to pay a fee whether I check my bag or carry it on, which option am I going to choose? I'm still going to carry on if possible, so that I don't have to wait at baggage claim.

Third, that this new fee will speed up "the boarding and deplaning process." Even if you believe that there will be fewer carry-on bags, do you really believe it will take less time to board and deplane? Perhaps, slightly—if you swallow the fewer-bags claim—but I can think of other, more customer-friendly ways to accomplish that goal than charging this new fee.

And lastly, who among you can believe that anything an airline does in this day and age will possibly "improve the overall customer experience"? That claim flies in the face of 20+ years' worth of trends to the contrary. It will take a sea change in the airline industry to start making a positive impact on customer experience, and nickel-and-diming customers with more à la carte fees is not a step in that direction.

On their website, Spirit Airlines claims to "liberate customers from being forced into paying for services they do not desire or use." In my opinion, they are not following the "spirit" of that mission by charging a fee for something that is as "optional" as a lavatory. (Knock on wood; that may be next.)
 

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Wednesday, April 7, 2010

A Spirited debate

I hope Spirit Airlines' newest à la carte fee is the straw that breaks the air traveler's back. Up till now, these à la carte fees have been optional; you can choose whether or not you want to pay for a checked bag, for a meal, for extra legroom, and so on.

But let's face it: for all intents and purposes, this carry-on bag fee is MANDATORY, because you'll have to pay it for all but the shortest of trips, for which you can pack light enough to fit your bag under the seat.

I urge you to voice your opinion directly with Spirit Airlines, which I just did. Just go to their contact form, and start venting. Let's start a "spirited" debate!
 

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Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Your money: Spirited away

I am continually amazed at the creativity displayed by the airline industry in coming up with new fees. Today, Spirit Airlines announced that it will charge up to $45 each way for a carry-on bag stored in the overhead bin.

Flying truly is becoming a pure à la carte business model. Will this be the fee that broke the customer's back? Or will we keep paying and paying for less and less?


Life vest $15 if purchased online, $25 if purchased on the plane
($100 if purchased after impact)

 

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Friday, March 26, 2010

Interactive urinals and other advertising

Just what is an "Interactive Urinal Communicator," you ask? One of a number of creative ways advertisers are using to engage our eyeballs. (Yes, there is such a thing.) Whether we're peeing, standing in an elevator or pumping gas, we're a captive audience for an apparently valuable part of any given day. And advertisers are increasingly trying to capitalize on that.

Nowhere are we more captive than at 30,000 feet. And advertiser agency Brand in the Hand knows it. They're hoping to earn our goodwill for their clients by hitting us with ads during that brief flash of excitement when the flight attendant hands us a free (for now) bag of peanuts.

But simply slapping ads everywhere isn't the trick. "The challenge for Brand In Hand and any company or marketer entering ambient media is to make sure their brand message is adding value to the consumer," says Andrew Hampp of Advertising Age in the CNN.com article.

I'm a voracious bathroom reader, so I'm looking forward to the day when USA Today sponsors the airplane lavatory and prints the news on each sheet of toilet paper. Talk about adding value....
 

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Friday, March 5, 2010

Bait and switch?

I've expressed some of my airline conspiracy theories in the past, including the ol' "bait and switch." How often have you found a low fare, visited another website to compare, and come back to the first site only to find the fare has gone up? I've even had this happen without leaving the site I'm searching. On Orbitz, for example, it's common to search a route, select a fare that I like, only to get a "Sorry, that fare is no longer available" message.

It seems I'm not alone in my conspiracy theorizing. Frommers.com featured an article today about this phenomenon, which the airline industry is explaining away by saying the lower fares are "cached" to enable faster searching. So even though they show up in search results, they might not actually be available. The recommendation: if you see a fare you like, buy it right away, instead of price-comparing elsewhere.

Hmmm... that recommendation seems to lean a bit heavily in favor of the airlines, no? Or maybe I'm just making up another conspiracy theory.
 

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Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Southwest's baby steps: "optional" fees

Southwest Airlines has so far made a name for itself staying out of the airline industry's Year of the Fees. Last year, I wrote about their marketing campaign in which they bragged about not charging fees to check baggage. That's still the case, even as they lose millions—and other airlines bring in millions with baggage fees.

But now they're taking baby steps into Fee Land, offering an optional $10 fee to get a priority spot in the boarding queue. For those of you who haven't flown Southwest, they do not assign seats; it's first-come, first-served. So your position in the boarding queue is critical if you don't want to sit in a middle seat.

The more people who take advantage of this new option, the fewer aisle and window seats will be available to those who don't. I predict the tipping point will be reached quickly, and the $10 fee will become all but standard. I also predict this is the beginning of Southwest's journey toward charging the same fees as all the other guys.
 

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Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Labor Day fare sale (NOT)

"Don't spend your holiday weekend at home this Labor Day," United Airlines urges. "Take advantage of low Labor Day fares!"

The wife and I have been searching for some last-minute getaway ideas, since my birthday falls on Labor Day this year, so United's promotion caught our notice. A quick glance at the terms, however, revealed that the "Labor Day Savings Sale" was no sale. The valid departure and return dates did not line up with the actual Labor Day weekend dates—at least not in any practical fashion.

Sure, you can leave on Saturday, September 5, and return the next day, if your idea of a Labor Day getaway is spending all weekend flying. Or you can depart and return on the Tuesday or Wednesday preceding or following Labor Day, if you have the vacation time to tack onto your holiday weekend. But if you've got the extra time off, wouldn't you rather use your vacation days in conjunction with a non-holiday weekend, when things are cheaper and places less crowded?

So once again, we have an airline fare sale that is not really a sale. You can find one of these "sale fares" if you're willing to fly on the most inconvenient dates and times; but that's true anytime you fly. If it were a real "Labor Day Savings Sale," the airline would offer a limited number of low fares for Friday and Monday, the preferred departure and return dates for Labor Day Weekend.

Yes, those travel dates are the highest in demand, so why should the airline offer low fares on those days? The answer is, they shouldn't. That's not the issue. But neither should they call a fare sale a "Labor Day" sale if it's useless to anyone traveling on Labor Day Weekend.
 

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Friday, August 14, 2009

AYCJ: An air travel smorgasbord

I have to hand it to my favorite airline, JetBlue, for their creativity. They have just announced the AYCJ (All-You-Can-Jet) pass: fly anywhere you want, as often as you want, from September 8 to October 8. The cost is $599 (domestic taxes and fees included), and you can choose from the more than 50 cities that JetBlue serves. Read the full details here; it really does seem to be as good as it sounds.

But act now; you only have till next Friday—or while supplies last—to buy the AYCJ pass. I'll be picking one up myself. Those friends and family members who live in cities served by JetBlue, better get your couch ready for me!
 

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Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Continental flight "stranding" may be a good thing

If it were a bad made-for-TV movie, it might be called "The Stranding of Flight 2816."

Last week, a Continental Airlines flight spent nine hours on the tarmac while trying to fly from Houston to Minneapolis. Thunderstorms forced the plane to divert to Rochester, MN, where it sat on the tarmac—full of passengers—overnight until it finally deplaned the passengers after seven hours. The airline then waited another couple of hours, reboarded the passengers and completed the flight to Minneapolis.

That's the thumbnail version of the story. But when you start peeling back the layers, more and more outrageous details emerge.

- The Continental plane had only one lavatory, and at some time during the night, it stopped flushing and began to stink up the cabin.

- The plane was only 85 miles from its final destination, which means the airline could have easily put passengers on a bus instead.

- Continental's regional partner ExpressJet (which operated this flight) claimed that the airport was not staffed or set up appropriately at that time of night to deplane passengers safely. According to the manager of the airport, however, there was plenty of staff on hand—ground handlers from Delta Airlines, in fact, repeatedly volunteered to help—and a secure area in the airport was available, where security re-screening would not have been necessary.

- In fact, a Northwest Airlines flight was diverted to Rochester after the Continental flight, and they were able to deplane—and the airline made the decision to bus the passengers on to Minneapolis (where they arrived at about the same time the Continental passengers were just being let off the plane for the first time).

- Tellingly, the flight crew on the Northwest flight had "timed out"—that is, they had reached the maximum time they were allowed to fly. So, if a timed-out crew can be deplaned, but passengers with a crew that isn't timed out have to endure hours of wailing babies and overflowing toilets, it certainly leaves the impression that airline labor issues are more important than concern for passengers' well being.

As the title of this blog posting suggests, there may actually be some good news out of all this, believe it or not. The Obama administration is investigating the incident to determine if any laws were broken. More importantly, the incident may be the final push needed to pass the Airline Passenger Bill of Rights, a bipartisan bill introduced in the Senate in 2007. Among other things, the legislation would mandate deplaning of passengers after a three-hour wait on the tarmac. (Continental already has a policy for doing so "if it is safe," but this incident clearly shows the judgment of the airline's dispatchers can't be relied upon in all cases.)

Enough is enough.
 

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Friday, June 5, 2009

RyanAir: Pay to pee

A few months back, I reported that RyanAir was considering the implementation of a fee that has long been a standing joke when it comes to airline fees: a charge to use the lavatory. Believe it or not, they are making good on their threat.

Starting sometime in the next year or two, Europe's budget airline will charge passengers to take a pee. Not only that, they're planning to reconfigure their planes to remove two of the three lavatories to make room for more seats.

As one reader opined in a comment to one of the news stories I read, someone should investigate whether it's legal to sell beverages without providing a free lavatory. While they're at it, they should investigate some of the airline's other new or proposed policies, such as doing away with airport check-in counters and forcing passengers to pay to check in online; firing their baggage handlers and making passengers load their own bags onto planes; and perhaps even charging for air sickness bags. (No, I am not making this up.)

One has to wonder when enough is enough....
 

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Wednesday, May 27, 2009

$9 nonstop fares - no, really

Do you need to fly between Newark, New Jersey; Melbourne, Florida; South Bend, Indiana; Toledo, Ohio; or Lansing, Michigan? For most of you, the answer is probably "No." But if so, news of America's newest low-fare airline might interest you. Jet America opened for business today, and takes to the skies beginning July 13.

The airline's introductory fares, clearly designed to grab headlines, are priced at $9 each way for the first nine seats on each flight. If you manage to get one of those seats, however, then of course you'll pay more. Based on a sample flight that I looked up, the minimum out-of-pocket cost will be $49 after all taxes and fees. Still, not bad for a nonstop round-trip flight on a 737—if you're traveling between any of the aforementioned cities (which, other than Newark, are not exactly high-in-demand destinations).

From what I've been able to find out, it seems Jet America will follow the RyanAir model of making money off miscellaneous fees, such as a $5 fee (each way) for booking online ($10 for phone reservations), and $10 for a reserved seat assignment.

We're getting closer and closer to that coin-operated lavatory....
 

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Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Surf the friendly skies

The "World Wide Web" is expanding its reach skyward. This year, a number of airlines are launching GoGo's in-flight WiFi internet service, enabling those of us with WiFi-capable laptops and mobile devices the online access we've been dreaming about. The service is already available on many Virgin America flights, and is rolling out on select American, United, Delta and AirTran routes later this year. (United says the service will be available "in summer" on its JFK-LAX and JFK-SFO routes; I'll be flying the former next month, so I'm eager to see if GoGo is available then.)

Not surprisingly, there will be a fee for access; surprisingly, the fee sounds rather reasonable, at least when you remember how much those Airphone calls cost. For laptops, it costs $9.95 for flights of three hours or less ($12.95 for longer flights), and only $7.95 for those of us using iPhones or other mobile devices. That's a much better deal than $5 for a sandwich that tastes like the cardboard box it comes in. As of now, GoGo will only be available on U.S. domestic flights.

I'm sure this is not welcome news to everyone. But I don't see this changing anything (yet) about the in-flight experience. Laptops are already ubiquitous, and people are well-trained to wear headphones when using them. Browsing the Web is a mostly quiet activity, so I don't see it as any more disruptive as someone watching a DVD on their notebook.

What does worry me, however, is the "gateway drug" nature of offering internet in-flight. It seems inevitable for this to lead to cell phone service in the sky. If that ever happens, then I will suddenly become a Luddite. I would rather fly behind a crying baby or in front of a seat-kicking toddler than next to someone who talks on the phone through the entire flight. (The article I read claimed that Skype would not be available through GoGo.)

Yes, I know that, by my own logic, this won't necessarily change the current in-flight experience, when people are free to talk as much and as loudly as they want to each other. But we've all observed the people who talk loudly on their phones in restaurants, pay more attention to their phones than the road on which they're driving, and bump into you on the street because they're too focused on their phone call to watch where they're walking. Do we really want to fly with those people?

Until then, though, I will happily—and quietly—surf the friendly skies whenever possible.
 

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Friday, April 24, 2009

US Airways dipping into your wallet again

Since I'm flying on US Airways tomorrow and have to check a bag, I looked up their latest charges for checked baggage (which they conveniently list on a page titled "Baggage Policies" instead of "Baggage Fees"). Starting on July 9, they'll dip their hands into your wallet yet again.

After that date, if you check in and pay your baggage fees at the airport, they're going to charge you an extra $5 per bag (making it $20 for the first bag and $30 for the second bag). Sure, you can avoid this charge by checking in online and paying your baggage fees over the internet. And we're all already used to the idea of avoiding extra charges by doing things online (such as purchasing our tickets).

But what about those of us who don't have access to a computer while we're traveling? Many of us don't have or choose not to bring a laptop, and many hotels don't offer public computers. So this extra $5 fee per bag will be mandatory for many of us much of the time. How fair is that? And if you have more than two bags to check, their policies force you to check in at the airport; so they'll not only gouge you for the extra fees for multiple bags, they'll also ding you the extra $5 for each of those bags.

US Airways has led the way in the new era of airline fees. They were the first to charge for the first checked bag, and the first to be bold enough to try to charge $2 for a bottle of water. What new and creative fee will they dream up next?
 

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Thursday, April 23, 2009

Fat tax, seat infringement, and other flyer equality issues

Political correctness is finally succumbing to financial pressure, at least as far as airlines are concerned. More airlines—United the most recent—are now requiring overweight people who can't fit into one airplane seat to purchase a second seat. Those of us who have had the misfortune of involuntarily sacrificing part of our own small real estate to a large fellow traveler are secretly celebrating.

No, I have nothing against fat people, overweight people, "weight challenged" people, or whatever term is politically correct. No more than I have against tall people or short people, black people or brown people, old people or young people, or any other people. All I ask from my fellow man and woman is to treat me as they'd like me to treat them, and vice versa.

I am relatively tall, so when I fly coach, I don't have a lot of room to get comfortable. Do I ignore the people sitting next to me, and just stretch my legs as wide as I can? Do I lean over into the seat next to mine to take a nap? No. I respect my neighbors' space, as I would like them to respect mine.

So if I were overweight enough that I could not fly without encroaching on the seat next to mine, I would not feel right about forcing that person to give up some of his or her space. They ostensibly paid the same price as me for their ticket, so they should be entitled to the same amount of space.

And if the airlines are charging extra fees for checked baggage for weight or fuel cost reasons, then the only fair way to charge everyone equally is to weigh each passenger with his or her bags, and then assess fees based on the passenger's total weight, including bags (an idea I proposed last year). RyanAir may soon consider such a "fat tax."

It's easy to be politically correct in the abstract, but where the rubber meets the road—where political correctness has a dollar amount attached to it—common sense will tend to win out. So this is one rare example where I'm in agreement with new airline fees. What's your opinion?
 

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Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Southwest Airlines to service LGA

Exciting news today for New York City-based budget travelers like me: Southwest Airlines—the original budget airline—will begin offering flights from New York's LaGuardia Airport (LGA) beginning June 28. Until now, New Yorkers wanting to fly out of NYC on one of Southwest's cheap flights would have to get out to Long Island's Islip Airport (an inconvenient drive or ride on the Long Island Railroad).

It's too soon to tell if Southwest will offer the cheapest flights out of LGA. A sample roundtrip flight between LGA and San Diego in July came to $456 on Southwest, but $313 on American; a nonstop between LGA and Chicago Midway, however, was less expensive on Southwest ($301) than on Delta ($307), the next cheapest fare. In any case, this is surely good news for Southwest fans and frequent flyers (such as my brother, who now has one less excuse for not visiting).
 

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Thursday, April 2, 2009

ACT NOW! $14 fares between NYC, SFO and LGB

Here's a fantastic (real) deal for TODAY ONLY that might sell out before you even read this. That's right, $14 air fares between NYC, San Francisco and Long Beach on JetBlue. Really! A round-trip fare between NYC and SFO for $49 TOTAL, after taxes.

The catch: you have to purchase your tickets TODAY, before 11:59 p.m. MT, and travel must take place between April 2 and April 8, 2009.

Here's the link. Sorry, no time for commentary; I want to publish this before it sells out!
 

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Friday, March 20, 2009

"Year of the Fees" here to stay

I've blogged aplenty about new airline fees for everything from checked baggage to pillows, even calling 2008 "The Year of the Fees." However you may feel about these fees, get used to them—they're apparently here to stay. This New York Times article outlines ways in which the airline industry is standardizing and codifying these a la carte fees. They wouldn't be doing that if they considered these fees a temporary, stop-gap measure to recoup losses.

So, I hope you've learned some useful skills this past year to avoid these fees—carrying on all your luggage, packing your own snacks, bringing your own pillow—because you'll be using them for the foreseeable future.

Happy flying.
 

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Friday, February 27, 2009

Pee for free? Not for long

In the past year of travel blogging, I've taken my fair share of swipes at the airlines for their nickel-and-diming ways. I even dubbed 2008 "The Year of the Fees." More than once, I jokingly suggested that airlines would eventually start charging for the use of lavatories in flight:

• In No More Free Hot Dog, I wrote, "You can still pee for free at the ballpark (last time I went, anyway), but don't expect that luxury to remain free in flight forever."

• In United to Ground Planes, Cut Routes, I reported, "Yesterday, the International Air Transport Association projected a $2.3 billion loss for the airline industry this year, due to soaring fuel costs. They can't recoup that kind of loss by charging $25 for a second checked bag, or even installing coin-operated lavatories."

• And in Even More Legroom™, I rhetorically asked, "What's next, you're going to levy a fee for the oxygen masks that might drop in case of a decrease in cabin pressure? Add a credit card slot to recline your seat? Tokens for the lavatory?"

All joking aside, it's becoming reality. The CEO of Ryanair, Europe's low-cost airline, told the BBC, "One thing we ... are looking at again, is the possibility of maybe putting a coin slot on the toilet door."

Cocktails make air travel a bit more pleasant; but sure, I understand charging me for them. I have a certain expectation about being fed on a long flight; but okay, I understand the business costs associated with them. Hydration and urination, however, are two fundamental human needs for which I think it's immoral to charge customers.

Not that the airlines are shy about doing so: US Airways led the "charge" by dinging travelers two bucks for water. Now Ryanair may make you pay to pee. If that happens, will they also charge you per sheet for toilet paper? And would this guy have had to pay extra for his seat?

[Thanks to Michele for the Ryanair tip-off.]

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Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Airline fees and other useful charts

Awhile back, I posted a chart outlining the various fees that airlines charge for taking your pet aboard your flight. Today, I came across a treasure trove of other useful charts on AirfareWatchdog.com. Bookmark this page as a jumping-off point to these charts when planning your air travel, as AirfareWatchdog appears to be updating these charts on a regular basis.

Frequent flyer fees. How much will that "free" ticket really cost you?

Baggage fees. These new fees change so often it's hard to keep up with them.

Miscellaneous fees. When it comes to finding new ways to steal your money, the airlines are more creative than Congress.

Shipping luggage vs. checking fees. Yes, Virginia, sometimes it really is cheaper to ship your suitcase.

Rule 240 comparison chart. Which airlines follow a post-deregulation version of Rule 240 to get you on another flight (even on a competing airline) at no charge if they screw up?
 

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Friday, October 17, 2008

Southwest flies into the red

The hard times in the airline industry in particular, and the broad economy in general, finally hit that bastion of airline profitability, Southwest Airlines. Today, they posted their first loss in 17 years—an amazing streak that has finally come to an end.

It's no surprise. With the crazy economic times we find ourselves in, even a savvy, creative company like Southwest is going to find it challenging to maintain profitability. I'm hardly the poster boy for these hard times—I make a decent living, I'm not a homeowner, and I haven't cut back much on my traveling—but even I am trying to fly less. I abandoned several potential trips earlier this year because the air fares were too high; I'm driving to Buffalo this weekend instead of flying; and we're using a combination of auto and train travel to go to Indianapolis for Christmas.

I'm not sharing anything new when I say that the reasons for flying less are more than economical. In my opinion, the airlines might not be having quite as bad a time if they'd tried to offset higher fares and new fees by increasing the quality of customer service. Any reasonable person understands the business need to raise prices when costs increase. But to do so in a way that negatively affects the service experience ($2 for water?) is just dumb. And to not try to ease peoples' pain by offering better customer service (which costs nothing, except for perhaps additional training) is even dumber. You're already turning people off with the higher prices; why push more of them away with bad service?

So again, it was no surprise to read that Southwest went into the red. The real surprise is going to be the news that an airline posted a profitable quarter. Who knows when that will happen?
 

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Monday, September 22, 2008

Flying back in time with Air Jamaica

We just got back from a week in Curacao. Yes, it sucks to fly in this Year of the Fees. Yes, United Airlines has started charging $50 for the second checked bag. Yes, because I was scuba diving on this trip, I had to check two bags.

But all is not lost. We flew on Air Jamaica, which in a way was something like a flight back in time. Remember when you didn't have to pay to check two bags? Remember when you got served a free meal? Remember when you got a free glass of champagne when flying coach? (Okay, maybe the last one has always been an Air Jamaica exclusive.)

I felt a bit like I was in a time warp on this trip. I had no problem checking two bags for free, but it's been so long since I got a free meal on a flight, I couldn't help carving an excited message into my "omelette." Sure, it was inedible. Sure, it was made of something other than eggs (I'm not sure what). But it was FREE!


 

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Thursday, September 11, 2008

The airlines are drinking like sailors

I've been beating this term into you, so chime in: What is 2008? That's right, it's the "Year of the Fees." The airlines have faced some pretty major challenges with high fuel costs and a bad economy, but they've done a fantastic job of passing on those costs to us travelers. A story today reports that Continental expects to bring in $100 million from its new $15 fee for a traveler's first checked bag alone. The airline is seeing fewer people fly, but is making a lot more off those that are.

So what happens when fuel costs fall and the economy improves? Do you honestly think these fees will go away? Hell, no. The airlines are drinking like sailors when it comes to the sudden revenue from the many different new fees. They're drooling over the balance sheets and the projected numbers. No, you might as well try to take the crack pipe from the addict.
 

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Wednesday, September 10, 2008

$50 voucher for travel on JetBlue

Want a $50 voucher good for air travel on JetBlue? This offer won't help a lot of people, but if you are already planning to fly on JetBlue this fall and early next year, then it might work for you.

The details: Register now for the offer, book a flight by September 21 for travel between October 15 and November 15, and JetBlue will give you a $50 voucher—but the voucher can only be used on flights booked for travel between January 8 and February 9, 2009.

Like I said, probably not useful to most, but hopefully one of you will be able to take advantage of the offer.
 

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Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Who rewards your loyalty?

Who rewards your travel loyalty? And, the corollary to that question, Who deserves your loyalty? Airline mileage loyalty programs are nothing new—American Airlines started the first of such programs back in 1981, and other major airlines quickly followed suit. Next came airline-branded credit cards that earn you airline miles for each dollar spent. Now, many credit cards offer you the chance to earn miles that can ostensibly be used on many different airlines.

But just how useful or valuable are such rewards? The answer: their value and usefulness are going down the toilet. In 2008, the Year of the Fees, major airlines have instituted new fees and increased existing ones for redeeming your airline miles. That airline mileage program pioneer, American Airlines, will begin charging a minimum fee of $50 for mileage upgrades. US Airways charges $25 for you to redeem miles. Nickel-and-diming Continental won't even give you a minimum of 500 mileage miles for flights shorter than 500 miles (now, you'll just get actual miles flown).

All of the above assumes, of course, that you're even able to redeem your miles for an award. I won't waste words talking about what a fantasy that is. So I ask you again: who rewards your loyalty? Are all of your airline miles a real reward if you can't use them?

A few years back, I discovered the Starwood Preferred Guest program. It basically works the same as an airline loyalty program, but you typically use your points for free hotel stays at Starwood properties (Sheraton, Westin, W, Le Meridien, St. Regis). The key difference: no blackout dates. If they have a room available, it's yours. They also offer a branded American Express card, which lets you earn Starpoints just like those airline credit cards earn you miles.

And the SPG program just got even better with the debut of SPG Flights. Now, members can redeem their Starpoints for flights on most airlines the same way they do for hotel stays: that is, no blackout dates—even during holidays or last-minute travel. If there's a seat available, it's yours.

So I'll ask you one more time: who rewards your loyalty? An airline that places so many restrictions on the redemption of loyalty points that it's nearly impossible to use them, and then charges you for the privilege when you can? Or a program that lets you redeem your points whenever and however you want, for a hotel stay at a huge network of excellent properties or a free flight on just about any airline?

And lest you pose a question to me, since this reads like an infomercial: no, I am not affiliated with Starwood in any way. I'm just one satisfied member.
 

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Monday, August 25, 2008

Don't get mad (at the airlines), get even

I'm no fan of the airlines, and the inversely proportional relationship between their fees and quality of service. So when I read this Frommers.com article today that offers up some creative ways to stick it back in their face, I thought it was worth sharing.
 

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Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Travel lessons from small claims court

I didn't expect to find inspiration for today's blog posting at small claims court, but that's where I found it. I was there to lend moral support to a friend, and though his case ultimately got postponed, the proceeding that took place while we waited was quite relevant to my recent blogging about airlines.

Last winter, a JetBlue customer arrived at his flight less than 20 minutes ahead of time, and was denied boarding. Tonight, he had the airline before the judge. To me, it seemed pretty clear-cut; the airline's contract of carriage specified the time frame by which ticketed customers have to check in, and it seemed the airline was within its rights to shut him out. But I was impressed that the judge did not take a by-the-book approach in evaluating the case. He chided the airline representative for letting the flight take off early, instead of letting the one-minute-late customer aboard.

The lesson I took away was to be sure to book your entire itinerary together. This guy had separately booked tickets from Phoenix to Denver, and then from Denver to New York. So when his flight from Phoenix was late, and he thereby arrived at the JetBlue gate with only minutes to spare, JetBlue did not know to expect him, and so he was considered a no-show. Had he booked his entire itinerary through a service like Orbitz or Travelocity, he would have been covered—and he would have saved himself the trouble of taking the airline to small claims court.

If you're wondering how the case turned out, you'll have to remain in as much suspense as I did. The judge told them he'd mail his decision, leaving the rest of us in the dark. Maybe I should sue.
 

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Tuesday, August 19, 2008

May United Airlines be the first to bite the dust

We all love to hate the airlines these days. I'm no different. But the reason we hate them is because of their stupid new fees, the inconvenience of delays and rising prices. All of which are annoying, of course—and they're all guilty.

But a story I just read goes beyond the pale—far beyond. It angered me more than any other airline horror story. Enough that I hope United Airlines is the first airline to go bankrupt, bite the dust and sell off its assets. Let it be absorbed by another airline, so that its name, logo and brand disappear off the face of the earth forever.

Here's the story.
 
Update 8/20: Here's a halfway uplifting follow-up to the original story (but still shame on United).

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Sunday, August 17, 2008

Airlines: Pet-friendly or money-hungry?

Last night, a friend told me about the fees she had to pay recently to book a flight on Delta with her Chihuahua as a carry-on companion. I was shocked to learn that the dog's round-trip fare was more than the human's.

According to her experience, Delta's fee for pet travel was only $50 two years ago (it's now $150 each way). So it appears the airlines are also raising pet travel fees in their quest to cover rising costs (read: make more money).

The fees and rules for pet travel are varied and arcane for different airlines, so I advise you to research your preferred airline in depth if you plan to travel with your pet. For example, some airlines don't allow pets as checked baggage during the hot summer months, and many restrict the total number of animals on any given flight.

Following is a summary of the one-way fees (as of this writing) that some of the more popular airlines charge for pet travel. It's clear that, other than pet-unfriendly Southwest, the airlines are making a lot of money on pet travel.

Delta$150 in cabin / $275 as checked baggage
Continental$125 in cabin (does not allow pets as checked baggage)
United$125 in cabin or checked ($250 checked for large kennels)
American$100 in cabin / $150 as checked baggage
U.S. Airways$100 in cabin (does not allow pets checked as baggage)
JetBlue$100 in cabin (unclear on whether they accept pets as checked baggage)
Northwest$80 in cabin / $139-$359 as checked baggage, depending on size of kennel
SouthwestNo pets allowed (except service animals)

 

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Wednesday, August 13, 2008

You are now free to move about the tarmac

Maybe you're tired of reading postings here about the pain of air travel, but I haven't yet tired of writing about the issue. I wish there were no need for me to do so, but since there is, I feel compelled. Especially when my loved ones have to endure the pain.

Cassie just spent a week in New Mexico. She connected through Dallas both ways, and each time had to lay over four hours on what should have been a brief connection. I would specifically call out her carrier (American), but I think the problems she experienced are common across most of the legacy airlines—and the blame for the problem on her return fell to the weather (or, more accurately, to LaGuardia Airport's inability to keep flights on time when anything more than a 2-knot breeze blows across the runway).

While the boredom of being stuck in an airport for hours is indeed painful, it's not as bad as being shut in a plane and sitting on the tarmac for the same amount of time. This seems to be happening more often than ever these days, as airlines board planes and push them away from the gate, knowing full well that the plane is going nowhere.

Sure, from a logistical point of view, it makes sense to load the plane and put it in a standby position on the tarmac, so it can take off on short notice. But how fair is that to the passengers, when it's not known when the plane will be cleared to take off, and passengers are not allowed to unbuckle and use the lavatory?

Quite often, such delays are due to safety-related weather issues, particularly here in the summer thunderstorm-prone Northeast. And in all honesty, I have no idea how dangerous it is to take off in a thunderstorm (or a 3-knot gale at LGA). But I do know that the airlines are taking the easy, convenient route when they fill planes like cattle cars and shuttle them out to the tarmac to wait God knows how long. Thank you for keeping our safety in mind, but how about you keep us all crowded into the terminal instead. We'll be just as uncomfortable, but at least we'll be able to pee when we want.

My father, a seasoned traveler himself, probably echoed the sentiments of a great many travelers when he told me the other day that he has "completely lost interest in traveling, except by car."

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Thursday, August 7, 2008

No more free hot dog

"Customers understand the cost of doing business with these fuel prices," said USAirways spokeswoman Michelle Mohr, quoted in a TIME magazine article. "They don't expect a free hot dog at the ballpark."

So that's where we are. No more free hot dog. Never mind the fact that a typical ticket to a baseball game costs about 10 percent of the average air fare. I guess you don't get a free pillow and blanket at the ballpark either. Or a free soda or bottle of water. You can still pee for free at the ballpark (last time I went, anyway), but don't expect that luxury to remain free in flight forever.

The same USAirways spokeswoman also said the airline expects these new fees to bring in as much as half a billion (with a B) dollars, so you can consider these fees here to stay. Like Congress enjoying the revenue stream from a new tax, the airlines won't cut off this new cash flow without very strong motivation.

JetBlue used to be my favorite airline (now that term is an oxymoron), so I was disappointed to hear about them charging $7 for a pillow and blanket. But if you fly them anytime soon, here's a tip: there may be no free hot dog, but they'll give you as many snacks as you want. Don't settle for just one bag of Terra Blues or Animal Crackers. Eat a pillow-and-blanket's worth. Then you won't want a free hot dog.
 

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Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Airline woes hitting home

I've been quite vocal in this blog about the state of the airline industry, but because I haven't flown since March, I have so far been spared the pain that many fellow travelers have felt since then. (Unless, of course, you count the travel plans I've had to abandon because of prohibitively high air fares.) But now, I too have been touched.

Awhile back, we bought tickets to California for Thanksgiving. The other day, Continental sent an email to inform me that they'd changed our return flight for one that was three hours earlier. Our original flight apparently went the way of free meals and leg room—extinct.

The new flight was scheduled earlier enough in the day to be inconvenient, so I called Continental to cajole them into giving us a better flight. Considering the current climate of airline service, I fully expected to have a fight on my hands. But fortunately, after a brief hold time and an even briefer explanation of my issue, the representative changed us to the next later flight leaving that day.

But wait—it's not quite the happy ending you might expect. The next later flight turned out to be much later: a red-eye, in fact. So, thank you, Continental! (not)
 

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Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Delta takes first place in Year of the Fees

Excuse me while I pick up my jaw—it just hit the floor.

I was all set to write a whimsical posting about my weekend trip to Maine (check back tomorrow), when I happened to log onto CNN.com and learned of the latest indignity in the airlines' Year of the Fees.

It's bad enough that airlines are charging passengers $25 to check a second piece of luggage. To date, US Airways has been the most aggressive with new fees, now even charging $2 for a bottle of water. Now Delta has jumped to the front of the pack, doubling the fee for the second checked bag to $50!

Keep in mind that this charge is for each way. So if you're flying Delta round-trip and checking two bags, you can add $100 to your fare.

I'll reserve the commentary, because the numbers speak for themselves, and are surely enough by themselves to outrage you.
 

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Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Delta adds nonstop service to Bonaire

This news might be of limited general interest, as it applies mainly to Northeast-based scuba divers. But since many of my readers are Northeast-based scuba divers, I thought it worth reporting.

Starting December 20, Delta will add nonstop service every Saturday between New York's JFK airport and Bonaire in the Netherlands Antilles—one of the best diving destinations in the Caribbean.

Better still, the flight schedule seems to have been set with scuba divers in mind:

Departs JFK at 10:35 a.m., arrives Bonaire at 4:25 p.m.
Departs Bonaire at 5:15 p.m., arrives JFK 9:05 p.m.
(Flight time 4:50 each way)

This schedule provides for arrival at a decent hour when traveling to Bonaire, and a reasonably late departure when leaving Bonaire (which allows for extra diving on the second-to-last day).

With all of the flight cutbacks in recent news, I'm pleasantly surprised to be able to report this new service. It probably goes without saying, however, that it's subject to change.
 

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Sunday, July 20, 2008

Perfect for airline travel

Ziploc Easy Zipper: Where government bureaucracy meets mass consumerism. I should have bought stock in SC Johnson when the TSA debuted the 3-1-1 program. Now we all need a Ziploc bag whenever we fly.

I can think of a few more companies that should be promoting their products as "perfect for airline travel":

Capital One No Hassle Credit Cards: Perfect for paying all of those new fees!

Coleman Sleeping Bags: Perfect for those nights spent in the airport terminal after your flight gets canceled.

Balance Meal Replacement Bar: For those cross-country flights, when a bag of peanuts just won't keep you going.

What else can you think of that's "perfect for airline travel"?



 

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Thursday, July 10, 2008

No movie for you!

In a bid to save fuel costs, US Air will eliminate in-flight movies from many of its domestic flights later this year. A US Air spokesperson declined to comment on rumors that the airline also plans to eliminate passengers from its flights in a bid to further increase fuel economy (and customer satisfaction).
 

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Wednesday, July 9, 2008

The new era of air travel

I just purchased plane tickets to California for Thanksgiving. Considering the new era of air travel that we're in now, I made a few observations....

Bargains. I paid just shy of $500 for a round-trip ticket from New York to San Diego on Continental. This was apparently an excellent deal when compared to other airlines, which came to $650, $700, $800 and up for comparable flights. And that was even after exploring a number of flexible options (alternate dates, airports, etc.). I wondered whether I was paying a premium for traveling in the general vicinity of the holiday, but when I checked the same flight several weeks earlier for comparison purposes, the fare was the same. So that's just where we are now: $500 is a bargain for cross-country air travel.

Flight time. Continental quoted a flight time of 6 hours and 22 minutes for the nonstop flight. I've always known cross-country flights to take 5, maybe 5 and a half hours. Sounds like they're padding the flight time, so they can still call it "on time" when we encounter the inevitable delays. Do I sound like a conspiracy theorist? They've already been caught doing it.

"Choice" seats? Continental is not yet charging for those "choice" seats in Economy: the aisle and window seats in the front of the cabin that US Air charges extra for. I was surprised, therefore, when I went to select seats and saw all of those seats marked as "premium." Turns out they hold those seats for their OnePass Elite members... so I guess you have to pay for them after all, in a manner of speaking.

On a more positive note, my father called me from the airport this afternoon, and reported that he got a free bag of pretzels on his flight. Airline miracles can still happen!
 

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Monday, July 7, 2008

For sale: your eyeballs

We used to put up with commercial advertising in exchange for free television programming. Then commercials started appearing in movie theaters, where we paid for the privilege to sit through obvious ads before the less-obvious ads (previews) started. Now, your eyeballs are for sale aboard airplanes too.

Marketing messages used to be confined to the in-flight magazine. Then, when airlines like JetBlue debuted TV programming, commercials wormed their way aboard your flight. The analogous platform made it palatable: travelers watch TV commercials at home, so they shouldn't mind seeing them in flight. And besides, the OFF switch was always available.

But now, as airlines struggle to remain solvent, they're becoming bolder when it comes to selling your eyeballs. On many flights, you'll now find that your tray table is skinned with advertising. As the New York Times editorial that inspired this blog posting notes, flight attendants frequently hawk credit card applications. Perhaps someday soon, lavatories will be wallpapered with advertising from Charmin or Pepto-Bismol.

All this comes as no surprise. Airlines are trying to find any way possible to offset rising fuel prices. But look at the bright side: if the airline can find companies to sponsor lavatories and overhead compartments, maybe the dark future depicted in this brilliant TV commercial from Southwest Airlines won't actually come to pass.
 

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Sunday, July 6, 2008

You can still check luggage for free

If you follow this blog, you know I've said plenty about the new airline fees that are cropping up like weeds this year, even calling 2008 the "Year of the Fees." So when I booked plane tickets to Curacao late last week on Air Jamaica, I was pleasantly surprised to note that the airline still allows two pieces of checked luggage per person (I'm hoping they still serve complimentary champagne too).

That got me wondering what other airlines commonly serving U.S. travelers are still fee-free when it comes to checked baggage. Here's what I found:

No charge for first TWO checked bags under weight limits:
Aer Lingus
AeroMexico
Air France
Air Jamaica
Alaska/Horizon
British Airways
Southwest

No charge for first checked bag under weight limits (fee for second bag):
Air Canada
AirTran
Continental
Delta
Frontier
JetBlue
Midwest
Northwest
Virgin America

If you don't see your preferred carrier here, they have probably partnered with Nickel-n-Dime Airlines.

Note: The new baggage fee policies have many exemptions, not all of which apply only to elite mileage club members (for example, you get a greater baggage allowance for international flights on some airlines). Be sure to check the policy of your specific carrier.

And, if there's one thing the Year of the Fees has taught us, all of the foregoing is subject to change.
 

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Thursday, June 26, 2008

Carry-on bag buyer's guide

With all the new checked-bag fees, your carry-on bag can not only save you time upon arrival, but now it'll save you more than a little money (assuming, of course, you can find room these days in the overhead bins).

Fodors.com just published a great carry-on bag buyer's guide, so check it out if you're ready to upgrade your carry-on.
 

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Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Low fares - no, really

In this Year of the Fees, you can't comparison-shop for air travel strictly by comparing air fares anymore. Now you also have to compare fees, surcharges and other hidden costs (yes, even inconsequentials—how much will it bother you to pay $2 for a non-alcoholic beverage aboard a US Air flight?).

With that in mind, the promo on Southwest's home page made me wish they flew out of an airport closer than Long Island.


 

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Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Tips to maximize your carry-on capacity

On Sunday, I watched a piece on the local news talking about American Airlines' $15 fee for the first checked bag going into effect. The segment offered suggestions on how to pack lightly and maximize your carry-on capacity, so as to avoid checking any bags.

Among their tips was a recommendation to utilize "the space in your shoes." I eventually figured out that they meant to put items in your empty shoes that you pack into your bag, not to stick stuff into the shoes you're actually wearing. However, my initial misunderstanding got me thinking about various other ways to carry on as much as possible.

Pants Pockets. This one is obvious. Besides, your wallet, keys and iPod, think what else you can fit into your pants pockets: several pairs of underwear (clean on the outbound flight, dirty on the return), your TSA-approved 1-quart Ziploc bag of toiletries, even a hair dryer (you can holster it in your pocket and pretend you're an air marshal).

Under Your Hat. Depending on the size of the hat you're wearing, you can probably fit some extra socks or a T-shirt or two underneath. Even if all you're wearing is a yarmulke, you can still hide some emergency cash or stash a pair of nail clippers.

Layering. Wear all of the clothes you're bringing with you at once. This not only frees up extra space in your carry-on bag, but will also help keep you warm in the plane's frigid AC when they run out of blankets after giving them out to the first three rows. This same strategy is also useful for scuba divers like me. Rather than be forced to check a bag with all our dive gear, we can just board the plane wearing our wetsuits and buoyancy control vests.

Underclothes. Your pockets aren't the only space within your pants where you can stash some extra belongings. You can pack half your luggage under your blouse and look no different than your large cabin mate who's taking up one and a half seats. Or you can fit a pair or two of socks in your underwear (men, think of the extra female attention).

Body Cavities. I'll leave it mostly up to your imagination, but this extra space could help you sneak on that 3.5-ounce bottle of contact lens solution that's a half-ounce over the TSA-allowed size.

So don't despair! The airlines may be making your travel more inconvenient, but with a little creativity and imagination, you can avoid that $15 fee. What other ideas can you think of?
 

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Friday, June 13, 2008

Latest "Year of the Fees" news

United and US Air have announced they're following American in charging for a first checked bag. If you fly one of these carriers, you'll have to pay extra if you check any bags: $15 for the first bag (each way) and $25 for the second bag. That's an extra $80 for a round-trip fare if you check two bags! United starts charging the new fee today for domestic flights; you've got till July 9 to avoid US Air's new fee. You'd better check in early to get first dibs at those overhead bins! [Full story]
 

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Wednesday, June 4, 2008

United to ground planes, cut routes

More evidence that the airline industry landscape a year from now will be radically different: to slow financial hemorrhaging due to fuel costs, United will retire 100 planes and lay off more than 1,400 employees [full story]. The removal of the planes from United's fleet will force a major reduction in routes and a 17% decrease in capacity, which is sure to have a ripple effect throughout the industry—which means, for us consumers, fewer seats and therefore even higher fares.

This and other airline news I've reported is only the beginning. Yesterday, the International Air Transport Association projected a $2.3 billion loss for the airline industry this year, due to soaring fuel costs. They can't recoup that kind of loss by charging $25 for a second checked bag, or even installing coin-operated lavatories. Stay tuned for more big changes in the airline industry.

6/5 UPDATE: Continental quickly followed United in cutting 3,000 jobs and grounding 67 airplanes. [story]
 

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Thursday, May 29, 2008

Travelocity picking up the slack

Again, I find myself writing about the airline industry. You're probably expecting me to once again draw deeply from the well of negativity and cynicism that the airlines have tapped within me. But today I can spread a little bit of guarded optimism.

While the airline industry has exercised unparalleled creativity in recent months to come up with new fees for just about everything, it's been status quo when it comes to service. So big kudos to Travelocity, who has been equally creative—and proactive—in finding ways to pick up the airlines' slack.

When people book through the online travel site and encounter the air travel problems that seem so commonplace these days, Travelocity often takes the fall for the airlines' failings. To preserve their customer relationships, they're trying to find creative ways to mitigate such problems. What a concept. I wonder if any of the airlines are listening? Probably not... they seem to be expending all of their creativity coming up with new fees.
 

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Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Sitting on the tarmac, but still "on time"

Turns out at least one of my airline conspiracy theories was right on the money: airlines are indeed padding their schedules to account for chronic delays, so they can report those delayed flights as "on time." Watch the eye-opening video on CNN.com, in which a flight sat on the tarmac for an hour before taking off, yet still managed to arrive a few minutes early.

I guess this is nothing new, however. This practice may seem fraudulent, but I suppose it's no different than advertising that a flight includes a meal and serving an inedible pasty material looks nothing like food. Or selling seats on an overbooked flight, only to routinely bump passengers who didn't expect to spend the night at the airport. When it comes to airlines, truth in advertising seems to be optional.
 

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Wednesday, May 21, 2008

The Year of the Fees continues

As I type this, I'm still having a hard time believing it, but American Airlines will become the first airline to charge for ALL checked baggage. Travelers have only just started getting used to the new fees for a second checked bag (that new rule went into effect earlier this month for many airlines). Now American will charge $15 for the first checked bag. Will the other airlines follow suit, as they did with the second-bag fee? How much do you want to bet?

I've already started calling this the Year of the Fees, but clearly it's much more than that. We're witnessing a sea change in the airline industry, and history will mark 2008 as a radical turning point in how airlines do business—and how travelers fly. It ain't gonna be pretty.
 

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Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Budget fare on JetBlue: Lavatory Class

First Class offers the best possible seat on an airplane. Business Class is pretty dang good too. Economy Class? Well, it's not the most comfortable seat for those long hauls, but it gets you there. But what about Lavatory Class? I'll take that middle seat in Economy, thank you very much.

"Lavatory Class?" you ask. That's apparently the latest innovation from JetBlue. Manhattanite Gokhan Mutlu boarded a JetBlue flight back in February, and an hour into the flight, the pilot made him give up his seat and sit in the lavatory. Yes, I know it sounds like an urban legend, so go read the full story.

I'm a JetBlue fan, and I don't have a lot of sympathy for litigious people. I also happen to think most airline pilots are very intelligent people. But in this case, I think Mutlu's wallet is going to be significantly fatter in the near future, and I doubt the JetBlue pilot who made him give up his seat has the brains to fly a paper airplane.

As with any lawsuit, I'm sure there's more to this story. But no matter how obnoxious Mutlu might have been, no matter what booking snafu led to his buddy pass being honored on that flight, you just don't make a passenger give up his seat and sit in the lavatory unless you want to significantly increase his net worth.

So on second thought, yes—I'll take that Lavatory Class ticket, thank you very much.
 

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Monday, May 5, 2008

Airlines: The only constant is change

Last week, USA Today reported on the dramatic effects that record-high oil prices (and the consequent effect on jet fuel costs) will likely have on air travel. Many of the things we're so fond of complaining about now could become commonplace: fewer non-stop flights, longer layovers, fuller planes—and, of course, much higher fares.

Perhaps it's anyone's guess what the future of air travel holds, but it's hard to argue with the conclusion that things are going to change pretty radically. According to the article, the airlines' cost for jet fuel will rise a whopping 44% this year. United Airlines alone posted a $537 million loss for the first quarter of this year. Oil futures passed a record $120 per barrel today. How does any airline survive the effects of such numbers?

The hard part is finding that balance between making up losses by raising fares, without raising them so high that people will stop flying. Thus, the creative solutions mentioned above: changing routes, fleets, flights and all the other things that will make air travel suck more than it already does.

So while no one knows exactly how things are going to change, it seems safe to say they ain't gonna change for the better.
 

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Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Finding a good air fare can be taxing

When Cassie and I debated whether or not to go to London over Thanksgiving last year (we did), our indecision continually wavered as we searched for reasonable air fares. Time and again, we kept coming across $99 one-way fare specials between New York and London, but we never seemed to be able to find flights that offered that fare.

Or so we thought.

The reasonable person would expect a $99 one-way fare to come out somewhere in the low $200s after taxes. So when we kept getting final after-tax fares closer to $500, we thought we just weren't getting the special fares. But when we looked more closely, we were. The $198 base round-trip fare came out to about $450 when all the taxes, fees and surcharges got factored in.

At first, we couldn't believe it. Could all of the miscellaneous fees really add up to more than the actual fare? The answer was a bitter "yes." I had to dig like a 49er looking for a nugget of gold to find an itemization of the fees, but what I found didn't explain why there were so many different fees.

On a whim, I just checked Virgin Atlantic's site for its current air fares, and I found a $189 one-way fare special (with an asterisk, of course). At least they've gotten a bit more transparent: in the fine print on the very same page, they state that "all passengers must pay the applicable airport taxes, air passenger duties and the September 11th security charges of approximately $250.00." So that $378 fare will actually cost me about $628. I'm no economist, but that calculates out to taxes and miscellaneous fees of 66%.

I think I'm better off just going to the bookstore and buying a book about London. At least I'll only be taxed at a relatively inconsequential 8.375% rate.
 

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Saturday, April 26, 2008

Virgin Atlantic and BA settle price-fixing lawsuit

If you flew Virgin Atlantic or British Airways between August 11, 2004 and March 23, 2006, you probably have some money coming to you. The two airlines settled a class-action lawsuit that accused them of price-fixing fuel surcharges, a charge that the airlines admitted.

Apparently the Department of Justice has been investigating a variety of such allegations throughout the industry. Airlines fixing prices and colluding with each other? What a shocker!

Here's the full story.
 

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Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Airlines: The Year of the Fees

Just when you thought the airline ugliness of recent weeks was past, a TIME magazine article suggests there could be more to come this summer. The guy in charge of protecting the airline whistle-blowers hints that there could be more cases of shoddy inspections coming to light this summer, which could lead to more groundings and flight cancellations.

There's also a new airline fee to report: United has increased the change fee to a whopping $150 (up to $250 for some international flights). Yes, we've all gotten used to the fact that we'll have to pay a fee to change our ticket. It started reasonably: a large enough fee to deter needless changes, but not so large that it penalizes people with a valid need. Now, United will charge you a fee so large that you could buy a whole new ticket to some destinations.

Incidentally, Arther Frommer has an excellent blog article that outlines this year's new airline fees, including increased over-the-50-pound-limit fees for that single bag you're allowed to check for free. It's only April, but I think we can safely call this The Year of the Fees.

On the brighter side, I've been seeing lots of air fare sales lately, so you can still get a good deal if you check only one bag, don't change your ticket, are willing to sit in a middle seat, don't mind living in the airport for several days if your flight is cancelled, and can last a six-hour flight without eating. Happy travels!

Delta: Atlanta & NYC on sale
AirTran: Spring/Summer/Fall sale
Continental: Canada for cheap
American: To/from the Southwest
Southwest: Always easy to find low fares
 

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Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Choice Seats: The latest airline robbery

Every time I get the urge to write a posting about the airlines, I try to resist, because I've been blogging about them far too much, and there are many things about travel that interest me far more than the airlines. But it seems like they provide me with fodder on a near-daily basis.

Case in point: Just as I sat down to write today's posting, I checked my email, and read a press release from US Air. I just about fell out of my seat. As if charging you for a crappy sandwich or checking a bag wasn't insult enough, now they want to make you pay for the privilege of getting a window or aisle seat.

In their own words: "Starting May 7, we'll introduce our new Choice Seats—select aisle and window seats in the first several rows of Coach. You'll have the option to purchase a Choice Seat assignment during Web Check-in. That means aisle and window seats are likely to still be available even for last minute travelers."

I keep wondering where they'll draw the line, and every time I think they've drawn it, they erase it and redraw it a little closer to your pocketbook. Granted, their pay-for-the-privilege "Choice Seats" are in the first several rows of Coach, but even an idiot can predict that this will inevitably lead to a standard extra charge for any window or aisle seat, anywhere on the plane.

So that's where we're heading. Zone 1 boarding? Extra charge. Carrying on a bag? Extra charge. Checking in online? Extra charge. I'm going to throw a party on the day one of these legacy carriers goes bankrupt.
 

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Saturday, April 12, 2008

Dropping like flies

Perhaps "dropping like flies" is not the most appropriate metaphor to use when talking about airlines, but economic realities seem to be taking their toll on the airline industry. American Airlines is hemorrhaging millions of dollars in the wake of failed safety inspections and consequent flight cancellations. United, Northwest, US Air, Continental and AirTran have all adopted a $25 fee per flight for a second checked bag, ostensibly to cut costs. And now, a number of airlines have begun filing for bankruptcy.

Earlier this year, Aloha Airlines, ATA and Skybus Airlines went belly-up, and just yesterday, Frontier Airlines (a carrier I flew as recently as last December) followed suit. Unlike the others, Frontier sought protection under Chapter 11 to remain operating, so hopefully they'll be able to follow through with their pledge to keep their planes flying.

What I'm most curious about is whether all of the major legacy carriers will make it through this year. They somehow limped through the post-9/11 slump, but can they get past the triple-whammy of widespread flight cancellations, rising fuel costs and falling demand due to recession?
 

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Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Flying the painful skies

When I started this travel blog, I figured I'd write about the airlines from time to time by reporting air fare deals, sharing advice on redeeming frequent flier miles, venting the occasional complaint. But lately, it seems like half my postings are about the airlines.

Let's face it: this isn't their year. I'm not sure how long it's been since it was "their year," but the airlines seem to be having an extra hard time of it lately. Fallout from the airplane inspection fiasco has caused more than 1,500 flights to be grounded this week—many with virtually no notice. On last night's news, I saw many travelers who'd already passed through security and made it to their gate, only to find out their flight had been grounded.

Customers of American Airlines are feeling the worst of the pain. Today, the airline grounded nearly half of its flights, leaving as many as 140,000 passengers stranded! My parents flew home last Saturday on American... just in time, apparently. (And I suppose they're lucky they made it home in one piece.)

I can't say I feel the slightest sympathy for the airlines. If they skimped on safety inspections like they have been with their service, then they deserve to suffer a lot more than simply getting flights grounded. Southwest Airlines' $10 million fine is a good start; a criminal investigation would be a great next step.
 

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Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Minimizing the pain of air travel

CNN.com published a useful article today that included advice on ways to minimize the pain of air travel. I recommend reading it, but here's a quick summary:

Flight stats. We all know to check our flight's status before going to the airport, but checking its historical on-time performance before booking a flight can help you avoid a flight that is chronically late. FlightStats.com and FlightAware.com are two sites where you can find such data.

Fly in the morning. I've learned this one firsthand over the past two years that I've lived and flown on the East Coast. The earlier in the day you fly, the less you're likely to be affected by delays elsewhere in the system—and the better your chances of getting on another flight if your own flight gets canceled. This is especially important during the summer months, when thunderstorms play a bigger role in flight delays. Which is more painful: getting up early for that 6:00 a.m. flight, or sitting in the airport for several hours (or worse) because of delays?

Carry-on. This one's a no-brainer. I think everyone knows by now that carrying on your bags will eliminate the possibility of losing your bags—and is an especially appropriate tip, now that many U.S. airlines charge $25 per flight for checking a second bag.

Know your rights. Or, more specifically, know what you're not entitled to. If the airline cancels your flight because of their own mistake, they have to put you up in a hotel. If it's out of their control (for example, weather delays), you'll be sleeping in the airport. Read your Contract of Carriage.

As air travel becomes ever more painful, my best advice to you is to seek out alternatives whenever possible. While the price of gasoline might not make driving all that attractive either, check out trains and buses where feasible. Having ridden both on a number of occasions in the past year, I can highly recommend them as a relaxing leisurely transportation alternative.
[video clip from my Amtrak window last December, passing San Clemente]
 

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Thursday, April 3, 2008

Iceberg, right ahead!

When I first reported on Southwest Airlines' safety inspection violations, I had no idea just what a hornet's nest that would prove to be. First, Southwest grounded some of its planes for which required inspections had not been done. Last week, Delta and American did the same. This week, United has also grounded planes for the same reason.

I have to wonder, is all of this just the tip of a very scary iceberg? The airlines are heavily regulated, so we all assume we're safe when we board a plane. We take for granted that safety inspections and regular maintenance are done. Now it seems that some of the airline maintenance and safety inspection work is no more thorough or exacting as the work your auto mechanic does or the service a local restaurant provides.

Of course, the key difference is that if your auto mechanic has a hangover when he's fixing your car, the worst that will probably happen is that your car will break down on the way home. If your waiter is too indifferent to get your order right, you just have to send it back to the kitchen. But when an airline employee is too lazy or the airline too cheap to pay someone to do required safety inspections, the result might be a plane full of people falling out of the sky.

Let's hope we spotted this iceberg in time.
 

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Thursday, March 27, 2008

Even More Legroom™

I don't mean to continue a rant against the airlines, but a couple of items that I read about last night after blogging rubbed me the wrong way, especially in light of yesterday's blog about the airlines.

You may have already heard this, but Delta followed United's and US Air's example, and now also plans to charge $25 for that second checked bag. So consider that charge all but standard now. I'd go on at length about this "airway robbery," but I've already done so here.

This is old news, but in case you didn't know, JetBlue will offer Even More Legroom™ —for a fee of course (yes, they trademarked "Even More Legroom"). While this is as annoying as every nickle-and-dime tactic that the airlines have been exercising recently, what really incenses me is that they charge extra for the "even more legroom" that you get in the exit row.

Fine, charge me an additional $10 or $20 for the extra four inches in one of the forward rows. But the exit row? Hey airlines! We have an unwritten rule that in exchange for the extra legroom in these rows, we'll help your dumbass passengers find their way out the door in the event of an emergency. Now you want to charge us for this privilege? Guess what? If I pay extra to sit in this row, I'll be the first one off your frickin' plane in the event of an emergency.

What's next, you're going to levy a fee for the oxygen masks that might drop in case of a decrease in cabin pressure? Add a credit card slot to recline your seat? Tokens for the lavatory? Tell you what, next time I board one of your planes, I'll pull down my pants and you can pay me $5 to kiss my ass.
 

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Wednesday, March 26, 2008

My airline conspiracy theories

I've made no secret of my growing disgust with the airline industry. Fares skyrocket while service plummets. Miles are impossible to redeem, as I've commented on before. Michael Craig called air travel "the new bus," but the more I fly, the more I miss riding that D.C. to New York Chinatown bus.

Here are a few of my airline conspiracy theories, secret ways in which I suspect the airlines might be giving it to us without our knowledge:

Misleading departure times. They craftily publish departure times that reflect when the aircraft pushes back from the gate, not when it actually takes off, so that when you wait in a queue on the tarmac for more than half an hour, the flight is still considered "on time." And when they say they'll "make up" delays in the air, you know that means they padded the arrival time to account for such delays.

Arcane mileage programs. It's a great concept to accrue miles for traveling with an airline, and then redeem those miles for free travel. Just don't try to turn the concept into reality. The airlines have created a deeply arcane system designed to make you give up long before you ever find that free mileage award flight. Unless you want to fly a red-eye. Fourteen months from now. Between Charlotte and Paducah.

Bait and switch. More than once, I've checked fares on an airline website, found a good fare, gone to other sites to compare fares, then come back to the first site, only to find out that fare is gone. Sure, you snooze, you lose. But often, that fare reappears later. It's almost as if their website is logging my IP address and what routes I'm looking up, then jacking up the fare the longer I spend searching.

Fuel surcharge. Okay, the price of crude is at an all-time high, fuel costs are rising, airplanes burn a lot of fuel. I get it. But don't raise your fares to recoup these costs, and then also tack on a "fuel surcharge."

If you're as fed up as I am, read about Charis Atlas Heelan's experiences trying to get a decent fare on the common route New York to Paris. The article won't make you feel better, but you'll know you're not alone—and the article contains links to some useful air fare websites that I didn't know about.

Happy Flying!
 

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Saturday, March 15, 2008

Air travel: the new bus

I'm currently in Los Angeles for business, so yesterday gave me an opportunity to experience the most current airline service (in this case, Delta). While I didn't note any earth-shattering changes from when I last flew in January, I did make a few observations.

Beverage service. This is one of the last remaining freebies on flights, and as such, I predict it won't stay that way for long. Airlines can't deny people the ability to stay hydrated, so I'm sure they'll always provide water for free. But I won't be surprised if airlines start charging a buck or more for each soda or juice you request. Already, Delta gives you a plastic cup's worth of soda, poured from a can, where previously they gave you the whole can.

Food service. It's not news that airlines now charge five bucks or more for a soggy, cold sandwich. But what I noticed yesterday is that they're really pushing them now. Instead of offering them on request, they now patrol the cabin with a cart of food, passing out menus that offer a selection of several different types of soggy, cold sandwiches. I guess they're not just trying to cut costs by charging for meals, they're now trying to turn a profit.

Friendliness. I imagine it's no joy to deal with the average flyer day in and day out, but I still can't help wondering why flight attendants have become so surly. I'm not saying they're all rude as a general rule, but it has become increasingly rare to encounter a truly friendly and caring flight attendant. It now seems the norm to feel like you're inconveniencing them if you make any request at all, no matter how trivial (a pillow, a full can of soda, and so on).

Cassie's brother Michael summed it up best when he commented last week that planes have become "the new bus." So get in, sit down and shut up. They'll get you there safely; if you want anything else, you're on your own.
 

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Thursday, March 6, 2008

Is your plane safe?

Today, CNN reported that Southwest Airlines routinely flew at least 117 planes in violation of mandatory safety checks until as recently as a year ago, when an FAA inspector discovered that the airline had missed dozens of inspection deadlines. According to two FAA inspectors (who, as whistle-blowers, were unnamed in the article), the FAA not only knew about the violations, but also allowed Southwest to fly the planes without inspections to avoid disrupting Southwest's flight schedules. Does that mean it's okay to lose a plane here and there, as long as the rest of us arrive on schedule?

The inspections that Southwest ignored or delayed were intended to inspect for fuselage cracks and rudder control system problems, and were mandated because of past fatal crashes and incidents. To put it more plainly, the lapses meant Southwest was knowingly flying planes that had not been inspected for problems that had previously caused loss of life. What does that do for your confidence in the maintenance of our nation's commercial fleet?

Southwest flew more passengers in the U.S. than any other airline last year, which I suppose can now be interpreted to mean they risked more lives than any other airline last year. But then again, I suspect that where one airline is getting a pass from the FAA, others may also be getting the same treatment.

I'm flying next week, so I hope the discovery of these violations served as a wake-up call to the airlines to get their acts together.
 

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Wednesday, February 27, 2008

US Air follows United with $25 fee for second bag

We all knew this was coming. Today, US Air announced that it's following United's lead in charging $25 each way for a second checked bag on all its flights, beginning May 5 (with a few exceptions that don't apply to most passengers). Like dominos, more U.S. carriers are sure to fall in step with this new rule.

When United first announced its rule change a few weeks ago, I debated its fairness via email and in the online travel communities. Interestingly, reaction is mixed amongst travelers. Some applaud the new rule, thinking (naively, in my opinion) that it'll force people to pack better and bring less stuff with them. Others (like me) don't believe the airlines' claim that the change is due to rising fuel costs, and think it's just another way for them to make a buck. Why not give travelers checking only one (or no) bag a $25 discount as incentive to pack light, instead of charging those who check a second bag?

My biggest objection is that it's going to make the boarding process more hellish than it already is. People will try to avoid the extra fee by carrying on bigger bags and more stuff than they already do. Consequently, we'll have to wait even longer for people to stow all their personal items, and overhead compartment space will be ever harder to come by.

This rule also discriminates against parents and certain recreational travelers. People traveling with children are more likely to need to travel with more luggage, and travelers going on golf, ski or scuba vacations have no choice but to check a second bag to carry their sporting gear.

Finally, it just seems like a misguided effort to solve the weight/fuel issue. The fairest solution would be to give every traveler a base weight allowance, with fees applicable for anyone exceeding those allowances. When you get to the airport to check in, you place your carry-on bags, your checked luggage and YOURSELF on the scale.

With a base allowance of 300 pounds, for example, Traveler A—a small woman who weighs 120 pounds—can check two 50-pound suitcases and take a couple of heavy carry-ons, and still stay far under the allowance. Traveler B, a 250-pound ex-linebacker, can check one 40-pound suitcase and have 10 pounds left for carry-ons without paying extra. Traveler C, an obese 340-pound person, will have to pay extra even without checking or carrying on any bags.

Sure, this proposal is not politically correct, but I challenge anyone to tell me it isn't fair. Under US Air's and United's new rule, my slim girlfriend who checks two bags will be penalized for extra weight, while a 300-pound person who checks one bag will not. Which person adds more total net weight to the aircraft's load?

If you feel like I do, voice your objections to US Air and United now. Then start flying another airline.
 

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Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Watch your weight

If you're flying, traveling can be stressful. Arriving to the airport on time (especially if your flight departs at the crack of dawn), negotiating the check-in process, slogging through long security lines with travelers who don't know what "3-1-1" means.... It can sometimes be enough to make you want to turn around and go home.

And nothing compounds this stress like putting your luggage on the scale and finding out it's overweight. As a scuba diver whose bags of dive gear sometimes push the limit, I know what it's like to do the "underwear shuffle," moving stuff between bags at the check-in counter to get under the weight limit. It sucks—though not as much as paying the overweight fee (up to $125 per overweight bag on some airlines).

Here are some practical tips for "watching your weight":

Know the weight limits. First of all, you have to know how much is too much. For many domestic carriers, you're allowed two checked bags of 50 lbs each, free of charge, with a fee if your bag goes over. That's hardly a blanket rule, however. United just announced new rules that allow you to check only one bag for free (the second bag will cost you $25 each way). Some small commuter planes have a "hard" limit at 50 lbs per bag (you can't exceed the limit, even by paying a fee), and the space for carry-ons in the cabin is minimal. And if you're traveling outside the U.S., the international norm is a 20 kg limit (about 44 lbs).

Take an extra empty bag. If you don't have a scale at home, and you're concerned you might be close to the limit, take along a lightweight collapsible bag, empty plastic bag or pillowcase. That way, if you have to do the "underwear shuffle," you can quickly stuff items into the extra bag and carry it on, rather than try to move things between suitcases.

Choose luggage carefully. Do you always find yourself close to the weight limit? Maybe it's your luggage. Pick a bag that's not going to steal 20 percent of your weight allowance before you even a pair of socks in it.

Do you really need it? Of course, the weight of your luggage is directly related to how much crap you bring. The site 43 Folders makes some very obvious but practical observations: the amount of stuff you think you need is directly proportional to the size of your suitcase (i.e. fake yourself out by using a smaller bag); there's little difference between packing for a week and packing for a month; and, a tip I've come across many times: rip out the pages that you'll need from your guidebook, instead of taking the whole 5-lb Europe 2008 book (guidebooks don't have a long shelf life anyway, so don't worry about ruining it).

Lastly, here's a handy chart from USA Today that details U.S. airlines' charges for overweight bags. Watch your weight!

 

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Saturday, February 16, 2008

jetBlue now serving LAX

jetBlue has long been serving the Greater Los Angeles area with flights to/from Long Beach Airport, but they just started flying to/from LAX—and are offering some pretty decent fares to promote this new service.

The airline also offers some cool city guides on their website that include crewmember blogs and recommendations for "best" things to do. Currently, they offer guides for New York, Houston, Orlando, San Francisco and Pittsburgh.

 

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Thursday, February 14, 2008

U.S. Airways changes frequent flyer program

Today, US Airways announced changes to Dividend Miles, their frequent flyer program. Considered without context, the changes themselves are minor: they are eliminating the 500-mile minimum award (you'll receive credit for actual miles flown if your flight is shorter than 500 miles), and you'll now pay a $50 fee to book award travel less than two weeks in advance. But when you think about these changes in the larger context of frequent flyer award travel, they become more rocks on the ever-growing pile you have to climb over to get a free award ticket.

It's not easy to get a free award ticket where and when you want from any of the airlines' mileage programs, but in my experience, US Airways' program seems to be one of the most difficult. Several times last year, I tried to use my miles on several planned trips, without success. I then looked up places I've wanted to visit, to see if I could plan a trip based on availability of a free ticket. Even looking up to a year into the future, I only found a single award flight per day (always a red eye), unless I wanted to use double the number of miles (50,000) for a domestic round-trip ticket. It wasn't until I decided to visit a friend in Mississippi that I found a free 25,000-mile round-trip fare to Jackson (which—no offense to my friend—is hardly a highly-sought-after travel destination).

Mileage programs have historically been one of the greatest tools for airlines to engender customer loyalty. But the more difficult they make it for travelers to redeem their miles for tickets to places they actually want to go, the less value these programs will offer—and therefore, the less loyalty customers will show to any given airline.

I can't speak for anyone else, but I'm already there: I now purchase air fares based almost solely on price and schedule, without regard to which airline I have miles with. It's no longer worth it to pay even a little bit more, just to be able to accumulate miles I'll never be able to use.

What's your experience? Do you have a mileage award horror story? Or praise for a particular airline's program that you want to share?

 

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