Where are my ex-secretaries of state?

I began the week reminiscing about my travels with four secretaries of state, so I thought I’d end it by answering another question I’m frequently asked: What happened to the three secretaries I covered before Hillary Clinton? Starting with the most recent, they are Condoleezza Rice, Colin Powell and Madeleine Albright.

I’ve also been asked often about the differences between those former chief U.S. diplomats, especially during travel. I usually point out an obvious similarity among them first: None of them is a white male. In fact, the last secretary to fit that description was Warren Christopher, who left office in January 1997, when Albright ended the centuries-old tradition.

9/11 pilot scholarship plans expansion

Captain Dennis Flanagan, the United Airlines pilot I profiled last year, just reminded me about the upcoming anniversary of the September 11 attacks and the scholarship fund in the name of his former colleague, Captain Jason Dahl, who was at the controls of United Flight 93 that crashed in Pennsylvania.

The charity, whose official name is the Captain Jason Dahl Scholarship Fund, was established soon after the pilot’s death by his wife Sandy. Each year, two aviation students — one at Dahl’s Alma Mater, San Jose State University, and one at Metro State University in Denver, where Dahl lived — are awarded $5,000 grants. There have been 16 recipients so far…

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…

When an airfare sale is not quite a sale

How do airlines decide what fares qualify as “sales,” and why do they advertise certain fares, but not other, much lower ones? Why is United Airlines promoting a “sale” between Washington and Boston for $109 each way, when there are currently six published lower fares in that market, beginning with $49 each way?

For the most part, I don’t bother to figure out why airlines do certain things anymore. I just gather all the information I need about what they do and try to work with it — or around it. Years of watching fares have taught me not to fall for those “sales,” because in many cases, I can find a much lower price to the same destination, on the same dates and on the same carrier…

Flight schedule changes overwhelm agents, travelers

Have you been surprised to discover that your flight itinerary has little to do with your originally booked routing or departure and arrival times? Did you accept the changes, even though you didn’t like them? Next time, you could probably do better.

Schedule changes — those made by airline planning departments in advance, not those resulting from irregular operations — have always existed in the industry, but they used to be relatively rare and caused few major disruptions. In recent years, however, they have become so common that I’m actually surprised when a week passes without changes in any of my future trips…

True German unity proves elusive

BERLIN — Most Berliners adore their city and are proud that this former symbol of East-West division has become a modern and united capital, as well as one of the world’s most visited places. But 20 years after the wall dividing Berlin fell, the country is still not nearly as unified as the capital, many Berliners and other Germans say.

“We all underestimated the challenges,” said Friedrich Merz, a former member of parliament from Chancellor Angela Merkel’s ruling Christian Democratic Union and now chairman of Atlantic Bridge, a nonprofit organization. “It takes much longer to unify a country.”

Political analysts, economists and ordinary Germans point to the rapidity of communism’s fall, the legacy of state ownership and mistakes made at different stages of the reunification process as reasons why parts of eastern Germany remain underdeveloped and are still losing people to the West…

When ‘open skies’ aren’t really open

Having covered American diplomacy for a decade now, I’ve received many “diplomatic” answers to my questions — but none more so than “Yes, but not really.” I was reminded of it by the recently negotiated Open Skies aviation agreement between the United States and Japan.

The idea of the Open Skies accords, which Washington has with more than 90 countries, was to liberalize air travel between the signatories, allowing flights from any city in the first country to any city in the second without the previously imposed government restrictions. However, the deal reached with Japan in December has one glaring exception…

Airlines refuse to honor mistake fares

How would you like to fly to Australia in Qantas Airways’ luxurious first class on its new Airbus A380 aircraft for $1,200? You could actually buy such a ticket last week, but as regular readers of this column might have guessed, that was yet another case of a mistake fare.

Just like 2009, the new year began with a major airline making an error when filing a fare, and then deciding not to honor the issued tickets. As I wrote last January, Swiss International Air Lines published a $300 business-class fare from Toronto to several European and Indian cities. In November, British Airways filed a $560 round-trip coach fare from the United States to India…

U.S. warns airlines on fare mistakes

Airlines are among the few businesses that sometimes want customers to pay for their mistakes. Every once in a while, a carrier cancels issued tickets after it deems its own published fare was an “error.” The Department of Transportation tried to teach such companies a lesson last week — sort of.

Both U.S. and foreign airlines have filed mistake fares in recent years, as has been reported in this column. Some of the airlines, such as United Airlines and Alitalia, have honored purchased tickets, but others, such as Swiss International Airlines, have not. The DOT’s Wednesday ruling was directed at British Airways…

United cuts advance domestic upgrades

If you’ve become accustomed to upgrading your domestic flights on United Airlines months in advance, the party will soon be over. The carrier is abandoning its current system of so-called confirmed upgrades in favor of the last-minute upgrades that are more popular in the U.S. industry.

United announced the change last week, although it’s not planning to implement it until spring. The current system apparently was confusing for some passengers, although I prefer to call it sophisticated and not at all difficult to master if you are a semi-frequent flier. However, that’s not why United is making the change. Rather, in trying to maximize revenue from selling first-class seats for cash, it will keep more of those seats open until just before departure…