Is media coverage of air travel helpful?

In my 18 years in journalism, I always believed that the media’s role is to inform, entertain and educate. These days, the education part seems to be missing in many cases, and one area where that’s quite evident is air travel. With the airline system being so complex and frustrating, should the media be more helpful in guiding travelers through the maze?

I asked myself that question as I was preparing for an interview about my book, “Decoding Air Travel,” on NPR’s Weekend Edition last week. The overwhelming positive response to the interview and the sales numbers — more than 500 books sold in two days — show that the public badly needs help in navigating the airline universe…

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…

Does badmouthing airlines help anyone?

Airlines are consistently among the most criticized companies by both the public and the media. While much of the criticism is deserved, does some of it amount to nothing more than badmouthing that helps no one? Isn’t it time for fliers to learn the air travel system’s ins and outs, and not blame the airlines for all their ills on the road?

In this column, I’ve denounced certain airline practices, such as the fictitious “direct” flights that are simply two flights with the same number but nothing else in common. There is no question the industry has made the system very complex, mostly for financial reasons, and it’s profiting from customers’ lack of knowledge. However, the system is what it is, and there isn’t much we can do to change it to our liking…

U.S. carriers tighten routing rules

Do you sometimes prefer making a connection or two instead of taking a nonstop flight, either to save money or rack up more frequent-flier miles? You might have to change your ways. Domestic U.S. transfers are now allowed much less frequently than before, and making connections on flights between an airline’s hubs is almost impossible.

No big deal, you might say. Wouldn’t any reasonable person choose a nonstop any time? Not necessarily. Different travelers have different priorities — some would rather save time, others money. But the best thing about the previous practice was that passengers had options. Now, that’s no longer the case…

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…

Why new United should have domestic business — not first — class

One of the big questions of the United-Continental merger is whether the domestic premium cabin will be sold as first class, as is currently the case with United, or business class, which is what Continental does. For customers’ sake, that cabin should be sold as business class.

This is not just about a name — it affects booking classes and flight inventory, and the present discrepancies between domestic and international flights can be very confusing for passengers, and sometimes even for agents. The domestic first-class designation is a tradition started decades ago, when all commercial planes had two cabins of service. But then along came business class, and the major network carriers ended up with three cabins on international flights…