Airlines wake up to benefits of mileage redemption for unsold seats

IMG_0439There are few more frustrating aspects of being loyal to an airline or a global alliance than the inability to redeem the miles you’ve worked hard to earn for what are known as award flights. There is, however, something even worse: Airlines choosing to send out flights with empty seats rather than make some of them available for mileage redemption.

I’m referring to saver award levels, not those that require double or triple miles. As it is, round-trip saver awards require as many as hundreds of thousands of miles these days.

Last week, I called out Air New Zealand, one of the worst offenders — particularly in Business Class — on Twitter. With a few hours left until its Los Angeles-London flight on Feb. 2, there were six unsold Business seats. Yet not one of them was available on miles. On the same flight the next day, 16 Business seats were open — again, no award space. The coach cabin was wide open on both days, so the carrier wasn’t protecting Business seats to accommodate a so-called oversell in economy…
 
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Airlines abuse check-in deadlines

SJO 013Have you ever been told by an airline agent that you had missed the check-in deadline, even though you arrived at the airport well before the published cutoff time? That happened to dozens of Spirit Airlines passengers this week, but it’s nothing new. Agents have been abusing customers for years and have even made them pay penalties.

A former intern of mine told me once that he was returning home to Washington from Las Vegas with a friend when an agent declared it was too late to check them in. At least the agent was honest and admitted that the fault wasn’t theirs. Technically, there was still time before the deadline, but the flight was overbooked. Because the two passengers didn’t have seat assignments and the plane was already full, there was no space for them — despite the fact that they were holding confirmed and paid tickets for the flight.

The agent was not only honest but incredibly arrogant, making the students pay a $150 change fee each to get on another flight. The young men didn’t know better as to stand up for their rights and ponied up the penalties. So the airline, which had overbooked the flight and made money from more passengers than there were seats for on the aircraft, ended up making even more money from apparently inexperienced travelers…

Is the airline market really not working?

The travel-agency community has been fuming for years over its inability to sell airline products that used to be included in ticket prices but no longer are, and with good reason. A travel agent’s value is diminished by such a significant limitation. The airlines, in turn, refuse to make those products available through distribution channels they don’t control because of high costs. So what’s the solution?

According to the American Society of Travel Agents, the answer is government regulation. “The airline marketplace is simply not working,” the organization’s senior vice president, Paul Ruden, wrote today on its website. Even though the Department of Transportation (DOT) is considering mandatory disclosure of extra fees for seat assignments, luggage, premium economy seats, etc., it’s unlikely it will force the airlines to sell those products through the currently dominant third-party distribution channels.

Let’s look at the problem through each player’s prism. If you use a travel agency — traditional or online — you expect full service. You don’t want to be told that your agent can only issue a ticket, but for anything else you need to buy, you have to go to the airline’s website. Then why would you want to pay an agent to book your travel? The other option is for the agent to go on the airline website and make those additional purchases, but that would take more time, and the agency would make no commission. Naturally, agents prefer to accomplish all their transactions in one place, and to get paid for what they sell — that place is a third-party Global Distribution System (GDS)…

Round the world in a week, without pain

How do you make sure a whirlwind trip round the world in just a week doesn’t wear you out and affect your productivity? Things went surprisingly well for me last week, as I flew from Washington to Munich to Paris to Bangkok to Islamabad, back to Bangkok, on to Seoul and back to Washington, so I thought I’d share the experience.

The first thing I have to say is that I don’t drink coffee or take sleeping pills. My only medicine when it comes to air travel is securing the best comfort and luxury I can — I need my flat beds, gourmet meals, lounges with showers, and sometimes even chauffeur-driven cars to connecting flights. I certainly can’t pay for them, but we’ll come to that momentarily…

Rethinking government air travel costs

It’s no secret that the U.S. government wastes huge amounts of money on airfare, and that waste has been institutionalized. So it’s hardly a surprise that Republican presidential candidate Ron Paul has done the same, as an Associated Press story pointed out yesterday.

The reason for the story was the apparent discrepancy between Paul’s crusade against excessive government spending and his own spending. But while he did waste taxpayers’ money, he didn’t break any rules. So perhaps it’s time for the rules to change. Government employees are usually required to buy full-fare tickets — meaning Y or B booking class — when traveling on business. The main reason for that is to have the flexibility to change and cancel those tickets for free…

FareCompare guts airfare search tools

The owners of FareCompare.com have apparently decided to destroy what used to be one of the most useful websites for consumer travel. Its best features were removed last weekend, and many of the remaining ones are not working properly. Talk about fixing something that wasn’t broken.

For a couple of years, FareCompare has been talking about catering more to the airline industry than consumers, proposing a system to track mistake fares and alert carriers, so they can correct them. The company has also stepped up advertising — both on the site and in e-mail messages. Could it be that it feels pressure to make it more difficult for consumers to find better deals and spend less money on air travel?…

Questioning conventional airfare wisdom

I’m tired of all the “low-fare tips” in the media — both hearing and reading about them, and giving them myself. Yes, I’m guilty of feeding the media’s hunger for quick “Top 5 tips,” and not happy about having to dumb down a very complex airfare system, which is actually more misleading than helpful.

Those of us who are trained and experienced journalists know very well how to make a specific or even technical topic accessible to a large general audience. I’ve been doing that during my entire professional career. So it’s understandable that editors and producers across the United States want to write stories or produce TV and radio segments that are easily understood by most of their audience…

Consider options before giving up seat

Volunteering to get bumped from a flight is an issue often raised by participants in the events on my book tour. As is the case with most situations I discuss in “Decoding Air Travel,” I advice travelers to think carefully before giving up their seat and examine the alternative ways to get to their destination — and to know exactly what they would get in exchange.

U.S. airlines, which overbook flights all the time, offer discount vouchers valued at as much as $400 for bumps on domestic flights, and up to $800 on international flights. Those certificates are very tempting and can save you lots of money. In fact, many travelers take certain trips only because they have vouchers to use. However, unless you are familiar with alternative flights that will get you to your destination, you may be asking for trouble…

Is the travel-agency model sustainable?

When was the last time you used a travel agent? I asked that question in my book “Decoding Air Travel.” Last month, President Obama asked it, too, and the American Society of Travel Agents speedily protested. So let’s examine the modern — or perhaps not modern enough — travel-agency system and the value it brings.

Many young people don’t even remember the time when using a travel agent was the only practical way to book a trip. While many consumers today book their own travel, using travel agencies is still quite prevalent in the corporate world. However, many business travelers I know are unhappy with their company’s travel agency. It’s clear the current system isn’t working well anymore for a variety of reasons. Without taking sides, let’s look at those reasons from the perspective of travel agencies and their customers…