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…

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…

FareCompare guts airfare search tools

The owners of FareCompare.com have apparently decided to destroy what used to be one of the most useful websites for consumer travel. Its best features were removed last weekend, and many of the remaining ones are not working properly. Talk about fixing something that wasn’t broken.

For a couple of years, FareCompare has been talking about catering more to the airline industry than consumers, proposing a system to track mistake fares and alert carriers, so they can correct them. The company has also stepped up advertising — both on the site and in e-mail messages. Could it be that it feels pressure to make it more difficult for consumers to find better deals and spend less money on air travel?…

Airlines still think customers are stupid

While most U.S. airlines have learned to be relatively honest with their best customers, many of their foreign peers have not yet realized that travelers are not as stupid as to fall for their PR spin and questionable practices.

It’s time for those carriers to wake up to the fact that it’s the end of 2011, and much in the airline industry is rather transparent to those of us who pay attention. Trying to persuade customers that bad news is actually good may be an essential PR trick, but in today’s hyper-connected world, it’s not hard to figure out someone’s true intentions. Among the airlines still using the old playbook is British Airways, which is surprising for such a major and quite good global carrier…

Questioning conventional airfare wisdom

I’m tired of all the “low-fare tips” in the media — both hearing and reading about them, and giving them myself. Yes, I’m guilty of feeding the media’s hunger for quick “Top 5 tips,” and not happy about having to dumb down a very complex airfare system, which is actually more misleading than helpful.

Those of us who are trained and experienced journalists know very well how to make a specific or even technical topic accessible to a large general audience. I’ve been doing that during my entire professional career. So it’s understandable that editors and producers across the United States want to write stories or produce TV and radio segments that are easily understood by most of their audience…

U.S. fares now filed four times a day

North American airfares are now published four times a day during the week, after the Airline Tariff Publishing Company (ATPCO) added earlier this month a filing feed at 4 p.m. Eastern time to the already-existing feeds at 10 a.m., 1 p.m. and 8 p.m.

This means that, at any of those times, a certain fare can be put on the market, changed or pulled off the market. It also means that a fare’s entire lifespan can be as short as three hours. The 4 p.m. feed had been planned for months, as I wrote in my book “Decoding Air Travel.” Although the airlines update their data 24 hours a day, ATPCO sends that data out to Global Distribution Systems (GDS), which are used by airlines and travel agencies to book flights, four times a day during the week. On weekends, there is only one feed at 5 p.m. ET…

Is media coverage of air travel helpful?

In my 18 years in journalism, I always believed that the media’s role is to inform, entertain and educate. These days, the education part seems to be missing in many cases, and one area where that’s quite evident is air travel. With the airline system being so complex and frustrating, should the media be more helpful in guiding travelers through the maze?

I asked myself that question as I was preparing for an interview about my book, “Decoding Air Travel,” on NPR’s Weekend Edition last week. The overwhelming positive response to the interview and the sales numbers — more than 500 books sold in two days — show that the public badly needs help in navigating the airline universe…

17 hours of tax-free airline tickets

Did you manage to outsmart the airlines before they outsmarted all of us on Saturday? Travelers had about 17 hours to book tickets without paying most government taxes, because of Congress’ failure to authorize funding for the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) by midnight on Friday. Most carriers started pocketing that money at the very first opportunity they had.

I did book a ticket and saved about $50, but I must admit I didn’t expect the airlines to raise fares so quickly and deprive customers of any savings. So what exactly happened? Shortly after midnight Eastern time (ET) on Friday, when the FAA lost its prerogative to collect taxes, airline reservation systems began dropping those taxes from ticket prices…

American wins first battle in data war

The new airline data distribution model I predicted in February has just become a reality. Expedia, the most popular online travel agency, agreed this week to carry American Airlines data hosted by the carrier’s “Direct Connect” channel. Expedia’s consolation prize is that it will use Global Distribution System (GDS) aggregation technology.

Since Dec. 31, when its contract with American expired and it decided not to renew it, Expedia had been resisting the airline’s attempts to move to a direct channel. Why? Because it wanted to continue to receive sizable kickbacks from Sabre, the GDS it uses to display and book flights. American insists on “Direct Connect” for two reasons…

Proper airfare advertising comes to U.S.

This should not be news, but it is: U.S. airlines have finally begun advertising some airfares properly, meaning they now show round-trip prices instead of the longtime marketing ploy of “each way based on a required round-trip purchase.” But those are just baby steps, as some taxes and fees are still being excluded.

When I wrote about false fare advertising in 2008, my copy editor at the Washington Times put this headline on my column: “Fare sales often lost in translation.” I compared the deliberately misleading airline practice to the mysterious “Twin Peaks” revelation “The owls are not what they seem.” I also wondered, If a round trip is required, why on earth is only half of the actual fare being advertised?…