Politics’ role in U.S.-Canada diplomacy

Do politicians make good diplomats? On this week’s episode of “Conversations with Nicholas Kralev,” meet the Canadian ambassador to the United States, Gary Doer, a longtime politician who was most recently premier of the province of Manitoba.

UAE mixes aviation and foreign policy

As U.S. and other NATO troops continue to die in Afghanistan, one of the main questions being asked in foreign policy circles is this: How committed are Arab governments to defeating al Qaeda and the Taliban? The United Arab Emirates showed last week that fighting violent extremism is less important than its commercial airlines’ well-being.

Most governments around the world help their carriers in various ways, not only out of national pride, but because a strong airline has a positive impact on a country’s economy. One of the missions of every U.S. embassy is to promote trade and commerce that benefit American companies. That has become an organic part of modern diplomacy.

U.S. should change ‘international airport’ designation policy

I’ve always been puzzled by the grand “international” designation of numerous small airports throughout the United States, just because they boast the odd flight to and from Canada.

While Canada is, indeed, a foreign country, this week’s incident with a Virgin Atlantic plane at Bradley Airport in Hartford, Conn., provides sufficient justification for my bewilderment. The image on the left is the official logo of the airport at issue, with the word “international” displayed very prominently. Yet, when the Virgin flight from London to Newark, N.J., was diverted to Hartford because of bad weather further south, about 300 passengers were forcibly confined to the aircraft for four hours without water or food…

Free hotel Internet for elites slowly becomes the norm

Another domino in the hotel fees game has began falling. Three of the world’s largest chains — Starwood, Marriott and Hyatt — now offer free Internet access to their elite members. Another two, however — InterContinental and Hilton — are holding out. For how long?

Like most frequent travelers, who are usually also elite members of various loyalty programs, I’ve become accustomed to free hotel perks, such as breakfast, room upgrades and lounge access. At the same time, I’ve oddly got used to paying Internet fees that are sometimes higher for one day than my monthly charge at home, and for speed several times lower…

When ‘open skies’ aren’t really open

Having covered American diplomacy for a decade now, I’ve received many “diplomatic” answers to my questions — but none more so than “Yes, but not really.” I was reminded of it by the recently negotiated Open Skies aviation agreement between the United States and Japan.

The idea of the Open Skies accords, which Washington has with more than 90 countries, was to liberalize air travel between the signatories, allowing flights from any city in the first country to any city in the second without the previously imposed government restrictions. However, the deal reached with Japan in December has one glaring exception…

U.S. warns airlines on fare mistakes

Airlines are among the few businesses that sometimes want customers to pay for their mistakes. Every once in a while, a carrier cancels issued tickets after it deems its own published fare was an “error.” The Department of Transportation tried to teach such companies a lesson last week — sort of.

Both U.S. and foreign airlines have filed mistake fares in recent years, as has been reported in this column. Some of the airlines, such as United Airlines and Alitalia, have honored purchased tickets, but others, such as Swiss International Airlines, have not. The DOT’s Wednesday ruling was directed at British Airways…

Customers gain sway over airlines

If you thought complaints about a policy of your preferred airline would fall on deaf ears, last week proved you wrong. As travel companies struggle to survive the economic crisis, they are increasingly listening to their most loyal customers.

As I reported in this column, United Airlines announced last month that it soon would end advance domestic upgrades, which could be confirmed using electronic certificates top elite travelers get if they fly at least 10,000 miles per quarter. Though United tried to mask that huge loss for its best customers with the promise of automatic “free upgrades” if space in first or business class is still available a couple of days before a flight, the outcry against the new policy was overwhelming…

United cuts advance domestic upgrades

If you’ve become accustomed to upgrading your domestic flights on United Airlines months in advance, the party will soon be over. The carrier is abandoning its current system of so-called confirmed upgrades in favor of the last-minute upgrades that are more popular in the U.S. industry.

United announced the change last week, although it’s not planning to implement it until spring. The current system apparently was confusing for some passengers, although I prefer to call it sophisticated and not at all difficult to master if you are a semi-frequent flier. However, that’s not why United is making the change. Rather, in trying to maximize revenue from selling first-class seats for cash, it will keep more of those seats open until just before departure…

U.S. flights likely to Tokyo Haneda

Here is some good news for those of you seeking an alternative to Tokyo’s vast and faraway Narita International Airport: The Japanese government will likely soon allow nonstop flights between the United States and the city’s much smaller and nearby Haneda Airport.

There is, of course, some not-so-good news. Unless U.S. negotiators manage to pull a rabbit out of a hat, those flights will arrive and depart only between 10 p.m. and 7 a.m. — which means that takeoffs and landings at U.S. airports may have to occur in the middle of the night, too. Access to Haneda is one of the issues being discussed between the United States and Japan as part of ongoing negotiations of an Open Skies Agreement…

Should airlines honor fare errors?

Have you ever taken advantage of a suspiciously low airfare — say $300 to Europe in business class — that turned out to be a mistake? Did the airline cancel your ticket or did you fight to keep it? If you gave in, it might have been premature.

Like any human activity, filing fares is prone to errors once in a while — a few times a year at most, which is too much for the airlines, but not enough if you ask bargain-hunting travelers. In the most recent reported example, on Dec. 27, a traveler looking for a ticket stumbled upon a Swiss International Airlines business class fare of $0 plus tax from Toronto to several European cities. It was available on various booking engines, including Swiss’ Web site and Travelocity…