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…

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…

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?…

U.S. carriers tighten routing rules

Do you sometimes prefer making a connection or two instead of taking a nonstop flight, either to save money or rack up more frequent-flier miles? You might have to change your ways. Domestic U.S. transfers are now allowed much less frequently than before, and making connections on flights between an airline’s hubs is almost impossible.

No big deal, you might say. Wouldn’t any reasonable person choose a nonstop any time? Not necessarily. Different travelers have different priorities — some would rather save time, others money. But the best thing about the previous practice was that passengers had options. Now, that’s no longer the case…

United executive breaks old barriers

Is there an inherent conflict between the desires of loyal customers and a travel company’s interests? For years, executives have been acting as if there is, despite of what they might say in public. One of them, however, has actually shown that what’s good for travelers doesn’t have to be bad for business.

Graham Atkinson has been president of United Airlines’ frequent-flier program, Mileage Plus, for only 16 months, but while some questionable policies remain in place, he has made a big difference for the better. His approach is not simply to please the carrier’s best customers…

Donate miles or money to Haiti?

Are airlines and hotel companies trying to benefit from charity donations to Haiti? When you donate miles or points, how do they decide into how many dollars your contribution converts? Should they be more generous than they are?

Every major U.S. carrier and hotel chain is offering the members of its loyalty program to redeem points in support of earthquake relief operations in Haiti, which was almost totally devastated earlier this month. For many Americans who may be short on cash but have thousands of points in various accounts, that is a rather attractive option…

Continental shows new transparency

As Washington policymakers continue to question the value of global airline alliances, Continental Airlines has shown them a benefit they most likely never suspected: increasing the transparency of sensitive data tightly held by many carriers.

That may not have been what Continental set out to do, but it’s a positive side effect. The very day it officially joined the Star Alliance last week, it uploaded on its Web site “award” seats made available by other alliance members, which its customers can book using Continental frequent-flier miles. It took “nine months of planning and implementation”…

American ends stopovers on ‘awards’

Do you rely on the media to tell you about changes in your preferred frequent-flier program? If you did that when American Airlines introduced its one-way “awards” last week, you missed the loss of a significant benefit — a free stopover previously offered on mileage tickets.

It was no surprise that American omitted that detail in its press release, but it was shocking to see how many mainstream-media reports parroted the corporate line. They apparently didn’t notice the discontinued stopovers — a sign of a successful public-relations campaign. Given the recent rich history of “enhancements” in the airline industry, which has been hit hard by the global recession, one of the first questions I ask when I hear about new features is whether any old benefits are being taken away…

Is ‘award’-seat data held by copyright?

How public is the publicly available information about the limited seats airlines release for mileage redemption on their flights? Can anyone take that information from an airline without permission and publish it on their own Web site, even with the best of intentions?

A frequent flier from the San Francisco Bay Area tried to do just that last month, but he was forced to shut down his site in less than a week. “Mystified by the inner workings of inventory management” at United Airlines, he created a model that searched and analyzed “award” availability on several routes served by United “on a nightly basis,” he wrote in a March 18 self-promoting post on FlyerTalk.com, one of the largest online travel communities…

Air miles’ value drops

Next time an airline offers you 5,000 miles as a “good-will gesture” for something that went wrong on a flight, you might want to negotiate a bigger number.

Miles devaluation is here, and along with rising air fares, service cutbacks and various fees, it is likely to remain a prominent feature of the travel experience for a while. Some U.S. carriers have already increased the number of miles needed for an “award ticket,” and others, no doubt, will follow suit. Airlines have awarded so many millions of miles in recent years, thanks to numerous credit card and other promotions, that they started to weigh on the carriers’ balance sheets…