Airlines wake up to benefits of mileage redemption for unsold seats

IMG_0439There are few more frustrating aspects of being loyal to an airline or a global alliance than the inability to redeem the miles you’ve worked hard to earn for what are known as award flights. There is, however, something even worse: Airlines choosing to send out flights with empty seats rather than make some of them available for mileage redemption.

I’m referring to saver award levels, not those that require double or triple miles. As it is, round-trip saver awards require as many as hundreds of thousands of miles these days.

Last week, I called out Air New Zealand, one of the worst offenders — particularly in Business Class — on Twitter. With a few hours left until its Los Angeles-London flight on Feb. 2, there were six unsold Business seats. Yet not one of them was available on miles. On the same flight the next day, 16 Business seats were open — again, no award space. The coach cabin was wide open on both days, so the carrier wasn’t protecting Business seats to accommodate a so-called oversell in economy…

Airlines abuse check-in deadlines

SJO 013Have you ever been told by an airline agent that you had missed the check-in deadline, even though you arrived at the airport well before the published cutoff time? That happened to dozens of Spirit Airlines passengers this week, but it’s nothing new. Agents have been abusing customers for years and have even made them pay penalties.

A former intern of mine told me once that he was returning home to Washington from Las Vegas with a friend when an agent declared it was too late to check them in. At least the agent was honest and admitted that the fault wasn’t theirs. Technically, there was still time before the deadline, but the flight was overbooked. Because the two passengers didn’t have seat assignments and the plane was already full, there was no space for them — despite the fact that they were holding confirmed and paid tickets for the flight.

The agent was not only honest but incredibly arrogant, making the students pay a $150 change fee each to get on another flight. The young men didn’t know better as to stand up for their rights and ponied up the penalties. So the airline, which had overbooked the flight and made money from more passengers than there were seats for on the aircraft, ended up making even more money from apparently inexperienced travelers…

United raises ticket change fees by $50, others follow

MIA 033United Airlines has quietly increased the fees it charges for voluntary changes on tickets for travel within North America, and between North and Central America by $50 to $200. The change took effect on April 18, according to an internal company advisory sent to employees.

The decision makes United the airline with the highest change fees in the affected markets. Other major legacy U.S. carriers, such as American, Delta and US Airways, still charge $150, and smaller airlines like Frontier and Virgin America charge $100. Alaska Airlines’ change fees are $75 online and $100 by phone. Those fees, which Southwest Airlines proudly spares its customers, are in addition to any fare differences. Changing the most expensive — or full-fare — tickets doesn’t incur penalties on any airline.

The United fee increase, coming just a week after the carrier was named worst in customer service in a national ranking tracking airline performance, is certain to anger United fliers even further. Industry watchers will be monitoring very closely whether other airlines follow suit — that has been the trend historically, though customer backlash and social media outrage have forced carriers, including United, to reverse controversial decisions in recent years…

American isn’t changing fare-publishing

EF1American Airlines’ roll-out of a new bundled fare structure this week has created some confusion among frequent fliers about what the change means to the way they book tickets. They have nothing to worry about — at least for now. American is not changing the decades-long practice of how fares are published on an airline tariff, and fears of a lack of transparency are misplaced.

You can still see in which booking class your ticket will be issued, though it’s indeed a bit confusing how exactly one would know the difference between the three new fare types by looking at that booking class, which could be the same for all three fares. So let’s break all this down and try to make sense of it.

First, what has American changed? It has bundled products and services that airlines have been unbundling for a few years, though some of those extras like certain seats are still sold separately. When you search domestic fares in the contiguous 48 states on its website, you now get three tabs: lowest fare, refundable (both coach) and Business/First Class. The default tab is lowest fare. In that category, there are three types of fares, as shown below for a one-way trip from Washington to Los Angeles…

Swiss Air overplays ‘mistake fare’ excuse

Airlines sometimes make mistakes when filing fares — it’s human and understandable. But when major carriers keep erring and then punish paying customers by unilaterally canceling tickets days or even weeks after their issuance, that raises questions about competence and responsibility.

In late September, Swiss International Airlines filed a first-class one-way fare from Burma, also known as Myanmar, to Canada that was between $600 and $800 after taxes, depending on the specific routing. Was that an obvious mistake? Under normal circumstances, an educated traveler would probably say that it was. But there is much more to the story.

That was not the first time such a low fare out of Burma had been published. Just five months earlier, Korean Air issued tickets at similar prices — they were later canceled, but the Department of Transportation eventually forced Korean Air to reinstate them. Although I noticed that fare at the time, I didn’t bother to take advantage of it, suspecting it was, indeed, a mistake that wouldn’t be honored…

‘Gardening’ your airline reservation

Many travelers consider all their flight-planning work done once they buy a plane ticket, and they don’t think about it again until it’s time to fly. In most cases, that’s a recipe for trouble. There are many things that could go wrong and ruin your trip long before you arrive at the airport, and paying just a little attention — I call it “gardening” your reservation — and knowing how to handle those issues in advance could prevent a travel disaster.

Let’s begin with the simple things. As you may have discovered, sometimes there are no seats available for you to select at ticketing. That could be a result of overselling the cabin, or the only seats left may require an additional fee. Many fliers simply leave it at that, hoping for a seat on the departure day.

It doesn’t take much to do better than that. Whether you have no assignment or are stuck in a middle seat, chances are a decent seat will open up before your travel day, as other passengers get upgraded or cancel their reservations. All you have to do is check the seat map from time to time. Convenience and comfort are very important to me during a trip, and I don’t like to leave anything to chance. That means there are certain things I have to do to “tend” to my bookings, so that any potential issues can be resolved in advance…

How airlines could make more money

Even as most flights are packed these days, some planes still take off with plenty of vacant seats, including in First and Business Class, effectively losing the airlines hundreds of thousands of dollars. Offering lower last-minute fares on undersold flights seems a logical solution, and carriers do it sometimes, but those attempts are utterly insufficient.

Let’s look at a recent international flight — most U.S. airlines give away free upgrades on domestic routes to fill their premium cabins. I picked a United Airlines flight on a route with traditionally heavy demand in Business Class: San Francisco to Sydney. As the above image shows, on June 19, that Boeing 747 left with 18 empty seats in Business Class, including on the upper deck.

The lowest Business Class fare on United on that route is — and has been for some time — about $6,400, which requires a 50-day advance purchase. If bought at least 21 days before departure, a ticket costs about $9,800, and about $12,300 at least three days in advance. The lowest last-minute fare is about $12,800. You do the math to figure out how much money United lost as a result of those 18 unsold seats…

Is the airline market really not working?

The travel-agency community has been fuming for years over its inability to sell airline products that used to be included in ticket prices but no longer are, and with good reason. A travel agent’s value is diminished by such a significant limitation. The airlines, in turn, refuse to make those products available through distribution channels they don’t control because of high costs. So what’s the solution?

According to the American Society of Travel Agents, the answer is government regulation. “The airline marketplace is simply not working,” the organization’s senior vice president, Paul Ruden, wrote today on its website. Even though the Department of Transportation (DOT) is considering mandatory disclosure of extra fees for seat assignments, luggage, premium economy seats, etc., it’s unlikely it will force the airlines to sell those products through the currently dominant third-party distribution channels.

Let’s look at the problem through each player’s prism. If you use a travel agency — traditional or online — you expect full service. You don’t want to be told that your agent can only issue a ticket, but for anything else you need to buy, you have to go to the airline’s website. Then why would you want to pay an agent to book your travel? The other option is for the agent to go on the airline website and make those additional purchases, but that would take more time, and the agency would make no commission. Naturally, agents prefer to accomplish all their transactions in one place, and to get paid for what they sell — that place is a third-party Global Distribution System (GDS)…

How to recognize and fight airline tricks

There have been hundreds of media stories in the last week about the Delta Airlines website “glitch” that overcharged members of its loyalty program on airfare across the board, but what none of those stories tells us is how to recognize and fight such airline practices — whether deliberate or accidental.

As this column has pointed out before, airlines try to overcharge customers all the time, and a decade ago, I used to fall for some of those tricks. That’s why I decided to learn the system — and that’s one of the reasons I wrote “Decoding Air Travel.” If you ever needed proof that knowledge means power, look no farther.

So how could you have known that the Delta website was charging you more than the lowest available fare? First, you have to understand what an airline tariff is: A list of all published base fares on a certain route, along with their rules and permitted routing — they carry a code corresponding to a letter of the alphabet. The second thing is the flight inventory, or the number of seats in each booking class made available on a certain flight…

Why airline alliances are good for fliers

The Star Alliance’s 15th birthday this month reminds me that a global airline alliance is one of the most fascinating concepts in the history of commercial aviation. It’s also an example of the airline industry’s creative thinking aimed at increasing revenues. However, unlike some of the questionable practices I described in “Decoding Air Travel,” this one has dramatically improved the customer experience.

It’s fascinating for me personally, because it combines my two passions and areas of expertise, international affairs and air travel. In fact, what alliance executive teams do every day is nothing short of diplomacy. International negotiations and dispute resolution are two of their specialties, and a big part of their duties is selecting new members, not unlike NATO and the European Union.

When Star was formed in 1997, the idea was not only to represent its members’ best interests — that’s primarily the job of trade associations — but to boost business by feeding passengers from one carrier to another in the smoothest possible way. Soon, airline diplomacy began in earnest — first among alliance members, which after all are rivals in a fiercely competitive industry, and then with airports, transportation authorities and governments around the world. The other two global alliances are Oneworld and SkyTeam…