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…

British Air, Iberia’s dysfunctional merger

One of this column’s goals is to point out nuisances in the air travel system and help you avoid them or minimize their negative impact. As I welcome the many readers who have become subscribers since my book, “Decoding Air Travel,” came out, I’d like to tell you about one such nuisance.

As my regular readers are well aware by now, I always know in what booking class a future ticket will be issued. I search for availability in that booking class and choose flights with available seats. That’s why, even if I have to make a reservations with an agent on the phone, I know how much the ticket will cost before I make the call…

British Air loses bags on $12,000 ticket

There must be very few things more embarrassing to an airline than losing the luggage of a passenger who paid more than $12,000 for a First Class ticket. Even more shockingly, British Airways, which did just that last week, didn’t try to right the screamingly obvious wrong and offer some sort of a good-will gesture.

Many of us often wonder who would pay $10,000 or $15,000 for a plane ticket, but let me assure you, there are such people. Premium travel has staged a remarkable recovery in recent months. As I look at flight inventory, I’m amazed every day by how full Business and First Class cabins are on various carriers…

Keeping United international first class

Should the new United Airlines have international first class, like the old United, or not, like the old Continental Airlines? Most frequent fliers expect a decision in favor of one of the two models, but why not go with a mixed model? Why not keep first class on routes where it makes business sense, and fly two-cabin planes where it doesn’t?

Since the two carriers’ merger was announced in May, there have been many opinions in online travel forums advocating just coach and business class, but it’s hard to see the world’s largest airline without long-haul first class at all. Continental may call its premium cabin BusinessFirst, but it’s business class…

9/23 is ‘mad as hell day’ over airline fees

Three major travel-industry organizations begin a campaign on Tuesday to compel the airlines to disclose all fees not included in the ticket price at the same time as the actual fare — and before the ticket is issued. But will such a campaign succeed?

The groups — the Business Travel Coalition (BTC), the American Society of Travel Agents and the Consumer Travel Alliance — want consumers to sign a petition to Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood. The text urges him “to require airlines to fully disclose their fees, whether airfares are purchased on an airline’s website or through an online or brick-and-mortar travel agency.” The organizations plan to deliver the petition to LaHood on Sept. 23, which they have designated as “Mad As Hell Day”..

Finnair tries creative customer feedback

U.S. carriers have made major progress in listening to direct customer feedback in recent years, while foreign airlines have been less aggressive in pursuing new creative approaches. Finnair, however, is trying to change that. It’s looking for “quality hunters” — fliers who will spend two months on flights around the world and report their findings.

Product-testing and sampling is certainly not a new concept, but the scale on which Finland’s largest carrier plans to implement the program is rare — as is the public way it has chosen to recruit the four travelers it needs. Finnair, which is a member of the Oneworld alliance, calls them “independent advisers, whose task is to travel to various destinations in Europe, Asia and the U.S. to investigate the elements that determine quality in travel”…

Mexicana embarrasses Oneworld alliance

Global airline alliances are a relatively new concept, and the three existing ones have naturally had to create their own rules. This week’s Mexicana Airlines decision to suspend ticket sales raised serious questions about Oneworld rules and requirements.

Why did the alliance insist publicly that all was fine at Mexicana just a day before the announcement? Did the carrier fail to give Oneworld a proper warning? On Tuesday, Mexicana filed for insolvency proceedings in Mexico and bankruptcy protection in the United States. That same day, Oneworld spokesman Michael Blunt issued a press release, assuring travelers that the Mexicana’s position in the alliance was “unaffected” by the developments…

Round-the-world fare mysteries revealed

Trying to figure out how airlines determine fares is utterly futile, but that doesn’t necessarily dampen my curiosity. On a recent visit to the Star Alliance headquarters in Frankfurt, I sought insights into how the global group sets its popular round-the-world fares.

I always enjoy dropping by the alliance’s modest office — not only because it’s an easy walk from the airport terminal, but also because just about everything it does is unique and pioneering in the industry. With 27 member-carriers, one would think it’s a grand operation, so I was surprised that fewer than 80 people work there…

Who gets first meal choice on board?

Meal choices in first and business class are hardly a concern for most air travelers, who have much more basic things to worry about these days, such as never-ending extra fees. Still, premium fliers are essential for an airline’s well-being, and they have certain expectations from the product they pay for.

It’s true that many passengers end up in the front cabins — especially on domestic U.S. flights — thanks to free upgrades, but they get them because of their loyalty to the respective carrier. Of course, there are also people who pay to sit up front — as few as they may be — so those cabins deserve serious attention…