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…

DOT should ban fictitious flights

Did you know that hundreds of fictitious flights inhabit airline schedules every day? They don’t exist in real life — just on paper. They are meant to make more money for the airlines by tricking customers and perverting a practice that was actually started to help travelers. In fact, they spell nothing but trouble for passengers.

Those fictitious flights are labeled “direct” by the airlines, which years ago decided to rewrite the dictionary and use that term for flights that weren’t nonstop but made at least one stop on the way to their destination. First, those flights were operated by the same aircraft, but later a “plane change” was introduced. The Department of Transportation has allowed the airlines to abuse the practice any way they like…

United, Continental execs at odds over loyalty program

The management teams of United Airlines and Continental Airlines have never seen eye to eye when it comes to customer loyalty, and that seems to be causing trouble during their merger preparations. My inside sources tell me that Continental executives don’t quite understand United’s big emphasis on loyalty in recent years.

It also appears that Jeff Foland, who last week was named head of the combined carrier’s frequent-flier program, Mileage Plus, will have a tough job selling United’s current philosophy to his new bosses in the Continental team, which will run the company once the merger is completed, most likely around year’s end…

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…

Hilton, InterContinental cross swords

Fierce competition in the hospitality business is nothing new, but last week one of the world’s largest hotel companies took the game to a new level with a bold move aimed at enticing customers of a major competitor.

The InterContinental Hotels Group took advantage of many frequent travelers’ anger with Hilton Worldwide for devaluing its loyalty program, HHonors, last month and offered them bonus points if they also have an account with InterContinental’s scheme, Priority Club. As I reported in November, Hilton decided to increase the number of points required for “award” stays at many of its hotels…

Hotels offer flexibility to earn loyalty

What makes a hotel loyalty program most competitive? Is it the elite benefits it grants its best customers or the variety of options it offers for redeeming earned points? Does it matter who’s asking: a program executive or a traveler?

It turns out, it does. As a customer, if I decide to be loyal to a hotel chain, the first thing I do is look up the requirements for achieving top elite status, and then the benefits that status would give me. Only after that do I consider the value of the program’s points. However, Steven S. Sickel, senior vice president for distribution and relationship marketing at the InterContinental Hotels Group, who oversees the chain’s loyalty scheme, Priority Club, has a different perspective…

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 pilot earns top praise

It finally happened. It took me more than 400 flights on United Airlines, but last week I met the legendary “Captain Denny” — or Dennis J. Flanagan, to be proper. If he was ever your pilot, you most likely still remember the experience.

I had heard a lot about Mr. Flanagan’s rarely attentive customer-service approach from fellow travelers, and even spoken with him on the phone with the intention of writing about him, but not having met him in person always stopped me. Now I have no more excuses. Our encounter wasn’t planned. As I boarded a plane in Phoenix, I saw a pilot greeting passengers at the door and handing out small information cards about the Boeing 757 he was about to fly…

Hilton devalues its loyalty program

Elite members of Hilton HHonors, the hotel chain’s loyalty scheme, have been puzzled for years by its sliding competitiveness. Now the company’s management has stunned them by devaluing the program even more at a time when the industry desperately needs frequent travelers.

Beginning in January, you will need about 25 percent more points on average to book a free night at a Hilton chain hotel, including Conrad, Doubletree and Embassy Suites. That is the combined effect of increased redemption requirements and raised “award” categories of many properties…