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…

American tries to entice top United fliers

American Airlines has finally decided to take advantage of the problems many United Airlines fliers have experienced since the merger with Continental Airlines was completed on March 3. In an extremely rare move, American is now offering conditions-free top-elite status match to United’s most loyal customers.

Having read and heard about many United customers’ troubles after the carrier adopted Continental’s reservations system — and having encountered some problems myself — I e-mailed American spokesman Tim Smith on March 16. Smith has been the best PR person to deal with at any airline since I started writing my column in the Washington Times in 2008. I asked him whether American had any intention of capitalizing on United customers’ dissatisfaction by stealing some of them away through a status-match offer…

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…

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…

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…

My book ‘Decoding Air Travel’ is out

My new book, “Decoding Air Travel: A Guide to Saving on Airfare and Flying in Luxury,” which aims to help travelers master the increasingly complex and frustrating airline system and to work it to their advantage, has just been published.

The premiere is scheduled for June 29 in Washington, and my book tour begins on July 7. Some of the cities I’ll visit are Santa Fe, NM, Los Angeles, Minneapolis, New York, Salt Lake City, Phoenix, Manchester, NH, Fargo, ND, Charlotte, NC, Portland, OR, San Francisco, San Diego, Hong Kong, Singapore and Tokyo. An updated list, as well a sneak peek at the book’s content, reader comments and other educational materials, can be found on DecodingAirTravel.com, where you can also purchase a copy with a 20 percent discount. Of course, you can also buy it on Amazon, which offers free standard shipping…

Should airline booking codes be secret?

Flying Blue, the frequent-flier program of Air France/KLM, has banned customer service agents from revealing the codes the airlines use when booking awards or upgrades. If you ask them, they will tell you it’s none of your business. Is this misplaced paranoia or do carriers have the right to keep that information secret?

For smart and sophisticated travelers, the importance of having access to raw airline data cannot be overstated. Benefiting from that access has changed my travel life — it has ensured that I always pay the lowest possible fares and fly in comfort and luxury at the same time. Booking codes, of course, use letters of the alphabet…

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…

All your loyalty programs on one screen

Are you tired of logging in to dozens of accounts for your airline, hotel and rental car loyalty programs? It was high time a website came along that displayed all those balances on one page, so you can see quickly when your miles expire or how many more hotel points you’ve earned since your last log-in.

Last year, I received an e-mail message from one of the founders of AwardWallet.com, suggesting I write a column about the new site. I wanted to wait until I’d tried it, and that took a while, but now that it’s been a few months since I signed up, I’m glad it came along. The site supports hundreds of programs, including schemes for credit cards, dining and shopping, such as OpenTable, iDine and CVS’ ExtraCare, and it’s constantly adding new ones…

Talking air travel for an hour on NPR

Air travel is one of those topics that no radio or TV show can go wrong with — it’s certain to touch a nerve with many people and provoke numerous comments and questions. That’s what happened yesterday on NPR’s Diane Rehm Show, which I was on for the first time.

I always thought the reason to be invited would be to talk about foreign policy on the Friday news roundup, where Diane has three Washington journalists discussing issues from the passing week. That never happened, but a couple of weeks ago I suggested to one of the show’s producers that the summer is a good time for a program on travel…