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…

Swiss Air overplays ‘mistake fare’ excuse

Airlines sometimes make mistakes when filing fares — it’s human and understandable. But when major carriers keep erring and then punish paying customers by unilaterally canceling tickets days or even weeks after their issuance, that raises questions about competence and responsibility.

In late September, Swiss International Airlines filed a first-class one-way fare from Burma, also known as Myanmar, to Canada that was between $600 and $800 after taxes, depending on the specific routing. Was that an obvious mistake? Under normal circumstances, an educated traveler would probably say that it was. But there is much more to the story.

That was not the first time such a low fare out of Burma had been published. Just five months earlier, Korean Air issued tickets at similar prices — they were later canceled, but the Department of Transportation eventually forced Korean Air to reinstate them. Although I noticed that fare at the time, I didn’t bother to take advantage of it, suspecting it was, indeed, a mistake that wouldn’t be honored…

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)…

Why airline alliances are good for fliers

The Star Alliance’s 15th birthday this month reminds me that a global airline alliance is one of the most fascinating concepts in the history of commercial aviation. It’s also an example of the airline industry’s creative thinking aimed at increasing revenues. However, unlike some of the questionable practices I described in “Decoding Air Travel,” this one has dramatically improved the customer experience.

It’s fascinating for me personally, because it combines my two passions and areas of expertise, international affairs and air travel. In fact, what alliance executive teams do every day is nothing short of diplomacy. International negotiations and dispute resolution are two of their specialties, and a big part of their duties is selecting new members, not unlike NATO and the European Union.

When Star was formed in 1997, the idea was not only to represent its members’ best interests — that’s primarily the job of trade associations — but to boost business by feeding passengers from one carrier to another in the smoothest possible way. Soon, airline diplomacy began in earnest — first among alliance members, which after all are rivals in a fiercely competitive industry, and then with airports, transportation authorities and governments around the world. The other two global alliances are Oneworld and SkyTeam…

DOT keeps false ‘each-way’ airfare ads

The media was full of stories last week about the Department of Transportation’s (DOT) requirement that advertised airfares include all taxes and fees, which goes into effect Jan. 26. But most stories missed the detail that promoting each-way fares “based on a required round-trip purchase” will still be allowed.

This means that a $220 fare you see advertised may not be the actual final price, after all — despite DOT’s much trumpeted pursuit of transparency and consumer protection. In its ruling last April that finalized the new requirements, it only demanded that the fine print be more prominent. “The department is codifying existing enforcement policy, allowing sellers of air transportation to advertise an each-way price that is contingent on a round-trip ticket purchase, so long as the round-trip purchase requirement is clearly and conspicuously disclosed in a location that is prominent and proximate to the advertised fare,” the final ruling said…

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…

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?…

Is India going too far in curbing airfares?

The Indian government has done what authorities in most market economies would rarely dare to try — it has forced Indian carriers to slash domestic airfares by as much as a quarter, and to publish fare ranges on every route on their websites regardless of travel dates. While helping consumers is admirable, is New Delhi crossing a line?

Angered by the pricing policies of India’s airlines, including low-cost carriers IndiGo, SpiceJet and GoAir, the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) gave them an ultimatum last weekend to lower fares or face severe consequences, the Indian press reported. Within hours, fares dropped between 20 and 25 percent…

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…