United raises ticket change fees by $50, others follow

MIA 033United Airlines has quietly increased the fees it charges for voluntary changes on tickets for travel within North America, and between North and Central America by $50 to $200. The change took effect on April 18, according to an internal company advisory sent to employees.

The decision makes United the airline with the highest change fees in the affected markets. Other major legacy U.S. carriers, such as American, Delta and US Airways, still charge $150, and smaller airlines like Frontier and Virgin America charge $100. Alaska Airlines’ change fees are $75 online and $100 by phone. Those fees, which Southwest Airlines proudly spares its customers, are in addition to any fare differences. Changing the most expensive — or full-fare — tickets doesn’t incur penalties on any airline…

How airlines could make more money

Even as most flights are packed these days, some planes still take off with plenty of vacant seats, including in First and Business Class, effectively losing the airlines hundreds of thousands of dollars. Offering lower last-minute fares on undersold flights seems a logical solution, and carriers do it sometimes, but those attempts are utterly insufficient.

Let’s look at a recent international flight — most U.S. airlines give away free upgrades on domestic routes to fill their premium cabins. I picked a United Airlines flight on a route with traditionally heavy demand in Business Class: San Francisco to Sydney. As the above image shows, on June 19, that Boeing 747 left with 18 empty seats in Business Class, including on the upper deck…

How to recognize and fight airline tricks

There have been hundreds of media stories in the last week about the Delta Airlines website “glitch” that overcharged members of its loyalty program on airfare across the board, but what none of those stories tells us is how to recognize and fight such airline practices — whether deliberate or accidental.

As this column has pointed out before, airlines try to overcharge customers all the time, and a decade ago, I used to fall for some of those tricks. That’s why I decided to learn the system — and that’s one of the reasons I wrote “Decoding Air Travel.” If you ever needed proof that knowledge means power, look no farther…

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…

Carriers lose appetite for Tokyo Haneda

When I landed at Tokyo’s Haneda Airport today, I had one of my easiest, fastest and smoothest international arrival experiences. But I wondered where all those airlines that last year fought and won a fierce battle over the right to fly to Haneda actually were.

It appears the industry overestimated Haneda’s appeal to travelers, and it also might have miscalculated how many passengers remain in Tokyo, as opposed to those who connect to other destinations. It’s true that the March earthquake and tsunami had a negative impact on travel to Japan in general, but traffic to and from the much bigger Narita Airport has largely recovered…

United steps up fake ‘direct’ flights

United Airlines, already one of the biggest abusers of fake “direct” flights before its merger with Continental, has increased further the number of those flights in its schedule. Its oddest decision was to introduce fictitious “direct” flights, which consist of two or more segments with nothing in common but their number, between its hubs.

If you are shopping for a ticket from Chicago (ORD) to Denver (DEN), be very careful which flight you book. In addition to 10 daily nonstops with flying time of about 2 hours, United currently has three “direct” flights on that route, but they make a “stop” in Minneapolis (MSP), Des Moines, Iowa, (DSM) and Kansas City, Mo., (MCI), respectively…

DOT cracks down on airfare advertising

The U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) seems semi-serious about false airfare advertising. It fined several airlines this week for violating its rules of disclosing taxes and fees, but it still tolerates the disgraceful “one way based on a required round-trip purchase” manipulation practiced by some carriers.

Continental Airlines was fined $120,000 for failing to include fuel surcharges in fares listed on its website. US Airways and TACA, the Central American company, must pay $45,000 and $55,000, respectively, for the same wrongdoing — indicating that fares didn’t include taxes and surcharges, but not disclosing actual amounts…

Proper airfare advertising comes to U.S.

This should not be news, but it is: U.S. airlines have finally begun advertising some airfares properly, meaning they now show round-trip prices instead of the longtime marketing ploy of “each way based on a required round-trip purchase.” But those are just baby steps, as some taxes and fees are still being excluded.

When I wrote about false fare advertising in 2008, my copy editor at the Washington Times put this headline on my column: “Fare sales often lost in translation.” I compared the deliberately misleading airline practice to the mysterious “Twin Peaks” revelation “The owls are not what they seem.” I also wondered, If a round trip is required, why on earth is only half of the actual fare being advertised?…

Delta SkyMiles needs new leadership

Delta Airlines has cemented its status as the network U.S. carrier with the worst frequent-flier program, further devaluing its long-cheapened SkyMiles. The leadership of the program or the airline — or perhaps both — doesn’t seem to understand what the loyalty business in 2011 is about. It may be time for a new team at the top.

For more than a year, Delta failed to publish an award redemption chart for most of the world, resulting in lack of transparency about how many miles were really needed for an award ticket. When it finally unveiled a chart this week, the mileage rates on many routes were increased significantly. Many loyal SkyMiles members felt cheated and disrespected, calling Delta’s move a “stunt” in comments posted on FlyerTalk, the largest online travel community…

The risks of third-party airline bookings

Long before the current American Airlines campaign to shake up the data distribution system, airline agents often refused to change tickets issued by travel agencies and third-party websites, such as Expedia and Orbitz. Dealing with those companies’ agents can be frustrating, and many fliers call the airlines for help directly, only to be sent back to the “original booking source.” Why?

Because once the airline takes control of the ticket, it effectively releases the original booking source from its responsibilities as the issuing agent — and when the booking source loses control of the ticket, it will no longer keep track of your reservation. So if there is a schedule change, that source won’t alert you, because it won’t know itself that a change has affected you…