Did you know that hundreds of fictitious flights inhabit airline schedules every day? They don’t exist in real life — just on paper. They are meant to make more money for the airlines by tricking customers and perverting a practice that was actually started to help travelers. In fact, they spell nothing but trouble for passengers.

Those fictitious flights are labeled “direct” by the airlines, which years ago decided to rewrite the dictionary and use that term for flights that weren’t nonstop but made at least one stop on the way to their destination. First, those flights were operated by the same aircraft, but later a “plane change” was introduced. The Department of Transportation has allowed the airlines to abuse the practice any way they like.

On my way back home from Boston last weekend, I was on United Airlines Flight 897, which the purser announced repeatedly was “a nonstop service to Washington Dulles, with continuing service to Beijing.”

I immediately cringed, because there is nothing “continuing” about the two flights, except for their number. The plane I was on was a two-cabin Boeing 757 and arrived at gate C19 at Dulles. The plane destined for Beijing was a three-cabin Boeing 777 and departed from gate C3. So the passengers connecting to Beijing did exactly what others did connecting to Flight 803 to Tokyo at gate C1 — or any other flight for that matter. They left the first plane and walked to their new gate.

Did the Beijing-bound travelers benefit in any way from the fact that their tickets had one flight from Boston to Beijing? Absolutely not. In fact, many of them were probably surprised to discover they were on two separate flights.

Then why does United even have that fictitious “direct” flight? Because it wants customers to think that they can fly from Boston to Beijing without the hassle of a connection — a competitive advantage no other carrier offers.

Have you tried to upgrade a “direct” flight? That can be a nightmare — not just for passengers but also for those who work in inventory management. They have to create inventory for a flight that doesn’t exist and to balance the load of two separate flights on different aircraft types with a different number of cabins and hugely different number of seats. As a result, the lowest booking classes and upgrades are often unavailable on “direct” flights. Some travelers are willing to pay more to avoid the hassle of transfers, not realizing there is a hidden connection.

Almost every international United flight has a domestic tag attached to it, but United is by no means the only U.S. airline abusing the system. All major carriers do it. Delta pretends to fly “directly” from Minneapolis to Moscow, Continental from Amsterdam to Denver, US Airways from Los Angeles to Zurich and American from Tokyo to Boston.

As I wrote two years ago, United and Delta are the biggest abusers, while American seems to be the most prudent in that most of its “direct” flights are operated by the same aircraft. American is also the only one whose website displays a “direct” flight as two separate segments at the very beginning of the booking process.

In the rare cases when foreign carriers, such as Lufthansa and Singapore Airlines, operate “direct” flights, they are flown on the same plane, so there is no danger you will miss your “continuation,” which happens regularly on U.S. airlines. If my flight from Boston to Washington had been late, United wouldn’t have held the plane for Beijing just because the two flights share the same number.

Related stories:

Airlines abuse ‘direct’ flights

Target: Fake ‘direct’ flights



4 Responses to DOT should ban fictitious flights

  1. Kevin Mercer says:

    There is also a revenue management issue at stake, at least in the case of United. Any flight marketed and sold as “direct” international flight is not eligible for elite upgrades (United’s unlimited domestic upgrade program gives free upgrades providing there is available space) and forces passengers who wish to upgrade to purchase higher fares — the lowest international fares are not eligible for a certain type of upgrades.

  2. Andrew Shepp says:

    A very bad perp used to be TWA. I once took a flight from Washington to Milan, “direct” through JFK. At the gate in New York the announcement was “Now boarding this gate for MXP, TWA flights number 901, 902, 903, 904…”

  3. Jason Carns says:

    I flew from Phoenix to Orlando on a nonstop US Airways flight. I received 1,858 miles for that flight. The nonstop on the way home departed at 7 am, which I was not willing to get up for after a weekend at the amusement parks! So we booked a flight with a connection through Charlotte that left at 10 am.

    Turns out the flight that connected through Charlotte and continued to Phoenix had the same flight number. There was even an “unscheduled” change of aircraft in Charlotte, where we were on the ground about an hour.

    Got home and looked at my mileage statement a few days later to discover that the return flight netted me 1,858 miles — the exact same as the outbound nonstop flight. I called US Airways to ask what had happened. They said that because the flight had the same number, the system views it as if it is a nonstop flight and credits the mileage the same way. So despite a several hundred mile and two hour + detour to Charlotte, I got nothing out of the deal except waking up two hours later and a waste of my time.

    I don’t know if this deceptive and blatantly unfair practice is widespread among the airlines — I assume it is — but you should use your blog to point this out to travelers as well. Don’t get robbed of miles and segments that you flew fair and square. I was livid for a few days after this happened.

    Anyway, thanks for listening. Love your columns and look forward to the Phoenix seminars in November!

  4. Steve Boress says:

    To the uninitiated flier, purchasing a direct flight gives a passenger a false impression that they will be flying non-stop. This practice is particularly troubling when an older passenger realizes they now have to navigate a strange airport and find a connecting flight they did not expect to take. Couple that with a reduction in airline staff to assist needy passengers, and it’s not hard to see why airlines are viewed as villains.

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