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…

Airline agents make up U.S. entry rules

Ever since electronic permits for foreign travelers to the United States who don’t need a regular visa became mandatory in January, I’ve been getting reports about confusion among both passengers and airport agents about some of the new rules. So I thought I’d try to clear things up.

It’s a particularly good time to do that, because after March 20, the Department of Homeland Security will impose fines on airlines that transport visitors with neither a visa in their passport nor approval by the new Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA). The fines will be $3,300 for each non-compliant passenger…

Airlines refuse to honor mistake fares

How would you like to fly to Australia in Qantas Airways’ luxurious first class on its new Airbus A380 aircraft for $1,200? You could actually buy such a ticket last week, but as regular readers of this column might have guessed, that was yet another case of a mistake fare.

Just like 2009, the new year began with a major airline making an error when filing a fare, and then deciding not to honor the issued tickets. As I wrote last January, Swiss International Air Lines published a $300 business-class fare from Toronto to several European and Indian cities. In November, British Airways filed a $560 round-trip coach fare from the United States to India…

Airlines cut back on first-class service

If you ever wanted to sit in first or business class but couldn’t afford it — and upgrading wasn’t an option — your time may have arrived. While airlines await the return of paying “premium” passengers, some of them are letting lower-class fliers occupy plush lie-flat seats.

On Australia’s Qantas Airways and Germany’s Lufthansa, you can now sit in first class even if you hold a ticket for business — no miles or other upgrade instruments are necessary. Qantas also allows coach customers in the business cabin. The two carriers still offer standard three-cabin service on most of their international networks…

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”…

Breezing through U.S. immigration

Going through U.S. immigration has never been easier. I’ve done it three times in less than a month, and not once did I wait in line, see an officer in a booth or have my passport stamped. Instead, I dealt with a rather cooperative kiosk for about a minute.

I’m not in the business of promoting products and services — let alone government initiatives — but the Department of Homeland Security’s new Global Entry program has truly changed my life. There is no reason why it can’t change yours, provided you are a U.S. citizen or permanent resident. All you need to do is go to the program’s Web site, fill out a relatively detailed online application form and pay a $100 fee…

Back to basics of air travel

Many of us have learned the ins and outs of air travel in great detail and mastered the frequent-flier game in recent years, but two incidents this month reminded me that we often take for granted some basics that are unknown to many travelers.

Did you know, for example, that there are still people who have no idea they can check in for a flight online, even though they fly at least once a year? Or that some passengers miss their international flights because they are not aware they need to be at the airport by a certain time? Last week, I was stuck at the Minneapolis airport for hours because of bad weather. The airline I was flying had shut down its business lounge there, so there would be no peace and quiet or free soft drinks and snacks for me…

Keeping track of your trips

How many miles have you flown over the years and how many hours have you spent in the air? What is your most-traveled route? How many times have you circled the Earth or flown the distance to the moon?

Flying today may not be as much fun as it used to be, but many travelers still find it fun to keep track of their flight history. Having such a log can also be practical, in case you need to remember when you were in a certain country, for example. For years, my main frequent-flier account was my only reference to past trips. Airline alliances make it possible to post flights on several carriers to the same account, and being loyal to one alliance pays off in terms of achieving elite status…

U.S. visa-free travel comes with strings

Are you getting ready to welcome friends or relatives from overseas for the holidays? Or perhaps you are one of those visitors. This might be a good time to check the latest U.S. entry requirements, especially if you or your guests are traveling without a visa.

Most citizens of the 34 countries participating in the so-called visa-waiver program think that all they need to board a plane to the United States is a passport and an airline ticket. For the most part, they are right. But what kind of passport and ticket? If your passport was issued before Oct. 26, 2005, it must be machine-readable, with a strip at the bottom of the title page that can be read by a computer when swiped…