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. 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…

Airlines abuse ‘direct’ flights

At about 9 p.m. last Monday, Delta Air Lines Flight 9 was over eastern Canada on its way back from Cairo. At the same time, Delta Flight 9 took off from New York en route to Los Angeles. That doesn’t make sense to you? Well, it does to the airline industry.

The flight taking off was the “continuation” of the flight that hadn’t yet landed because of a five-hour delay. Delta sells Cairo-Los Angeles as a “direct” flight with a stop in New York, but in reality, that journey consists of two separate flights that have nothing in common except for number 9. The first one goes from Cairo to New York on a Boeing 767 aircraft, and the second from New York to Los Angeles on a Boeing 737. The arrival of the first leg is evidently not a condition for the departure of the second…

Year-end travel deals trimmed

Does elite status with your preferred airline or hotel chain seem elusive this year? The good news is, year-end promotions offering elite fast-track and bonus points are back. The bad news is, they are fewer and less generous than in the past.

That, of course, is hardly surprising, with all the ills that have befallen the travel industry in recent months. What is surprising is the diversity of those deals, depending on the loyalty program to which you belong. No two of them are exactly alike — except that most require registration and end Dec. 15, so holiday travel is not covered. American Airlines is offering its customers who fly a round trip between the United States and Britain a free companion ticket for a future trip to either Britain or the Caribbean…