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…

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…

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…

Airlines neglect non-flying experience

Why do numerous airlines, including those aspiring to be among the world’s best, keep focusing on improving the in-flight experience, but don’t seem to care what kind of service their customers receive before they even step foot on a plane?

It’s high time they understood that travelers are getting smarter, and mediocre reservation agents won’t be tolerated much longer. In April, I wrote about my disastrous experience with Singapore Airlines’ award-booking agents, who were so poorly trained they might as well have worked for a third-world carrier. In May, I mentioned British Airways’ arrogance and refusal to offer the slightest apology after losing the luggage of two First Class passengers who had paid $12,500 per ticket…

ExpertFlyer boosts airfare transparency

The transparency of raw airline data in recent years has been hugely important for our ability to secure the lowest fares and build the best itineraries. ExpertFlyer.com has been a pioneer in that endeavor, and now it has taken an extra step by showing government, military and other fares that have long been a mystery to most travelers.

I first began using ExpertFlyer soon after the website launched in 2005, and was happy to pay the $100 annual fee because it has helped me save thousands of dollars. Last year, when I left the Washington Times and started teaching seminars, I naturally decided to use the site in my classes — and I received a complimentary subscription. In the interest of full disclosure, ExpertFlyer also donated $1,000 to the book tour I’m currently on. That said, I’m not at all obligated to promote the site in this column…

Does badmouthing airlines help anyone?

Airlines are consistently among the most criticized companies by both the public and the media. While much of the criticism is deserved, does some of it amount to nothing more than badmouthing that helps no one? Isn’t it time for fliers to learn the air travel system’s ins and outs, and not blame the airlines for all their ills on the road?

In this column, I’ve denounced certain airline practices, such as the fictitious “direct” flights that are simply two flights with the same number but nothing else in common. There is no question the industry has made the system very complex, mostly for financial reasons, and it’s profiting from customers’ lack of knowledge. However, the system is what it is, and there isn’t much we can do to change it to our liking…

What are your air travel pet peeves?

There are many things about today’s air travel system that annoy the most patient people — passengers and airline employees alike. It’s easy to encounter rudeness on both sides. I’ve learned to block out most of the noise and avoid hassle or stress, but I realized during a trip this week that I have my own pet peeves list.

1. Passengers demanding upgrades from gate agents, because they are on a “full fare” or have elite status — except that their ticket’s booking class is nowhere near Y or B, and they have the lowest status level.
2. Airport lounge gatekeepers wrongly denying you access and insisting they are correct when you confront them with the actual rules. Worse yet, they find a supervisor who agrees with them — as if repeating a mistake twice makes it right.
3. Passengers trying to hide a bag they put on the floor of an exit row, not to be seen by the flight attendant who warned them that luggage is not allowed there…

When an airfare sale is not quite a sale

How do airlines decide what fares qualify as “sales,” and why do they advertise certain fares, but not other, much lower ones? Why is United Airlines promoting a “sale” between Washington and Boston for $109 each way, when there are currently six published lower fares in that market, beginning with $49 each way?

For the most part, I don’t bother to figure out why airlines do certain things anymore. I just gather all the information I need about what they do and try to work with it — or around it. Years of watching fares have taught me not to fall for those “sales,” because in many cases, I can find a much lower price to the same destination, on the same dates and on the same carrier…

Avoiding luggage and other airline fees

A new survey by the Consumer Travel Alliance released this week found that luggage and other additional airline fees increase the average ticket price by up to 50 percent. The truth is, there is a relatively easy way to have most of those fees waived — if only travelers were better educated and more open-minded.

My impression during almost constant global travel for most of the last decade is that people think they know how to travel — but then they complain about being “scammed” by the airlines. My approach has been to learn as much as possible about rules, restrictions and fees, and then to look for ways to waive them and generally make the system work for me…

‘Tweaking’ airlines’ yield management

Have you been accused by airline agents of trying to “game the system” by asking if they could open up for mileage redemption seats they obviously won’t sell for cash? Now a top airline executive is encouraging fliers to alert agents when the system fails in its predictability, so it can be “tweaked.”

Before you do that, however, make sure you know what you are talking about — learn all booking codes used by the respective carrier, if you haven’t already, and be able to access and understand its inventory data. Just because there are dozens of open business-class seats months before a flight doesn’t mean you are entitled to an upgrade or an “award” ticket…