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.

So how could you have known that the Delta website was charging you more than the lowest available fare? First, you have to understand what an airline tariff is: A list of all published base fares on a certain route, along with their rules and permitted routing — they carry a code corresponding to a letter of the alphabet. The second thing is the flight inventory, or the number of seats in each booking class made available on a certain flight…

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…

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…