Air India had no chance with Star Alliance

Air India’s entrenched corporate culture and internal Indian politics cost the carrier membership in the global Star Alliance. Although Star’s leadership went out of its way to help the airline meet the group’s more than 200 requirements, it finally gave up the futile effort last week and suspended accession talks.

Not surprisingly, Air India has been trying to assign blame to anyone but itself, pointing a finger at Lufthansa and accusing it of sabotaging the Indian carrier’s potential membership. Regrettably, it appears the airline has learned little from the nearly four-year experience. It needs to do some serious soul-searching if it wants to survive…

The peculiarities of airline agent training

It’s one of the unavoidable realities of airline customer service that three agents will often give you three different answers to the same question. But I recently discovered a more rare phenomenon: Dozens of agents consistently doing something the wrong way. Was it lack of knowledge or deliberately ignoring the rules?

Before I continue, let me say that there are numerous superb airline agents to whom I’m grateful for unknowingly teaching me the ropes of the complex air travel system for years by satisfying my insatiable curiosity. I’ve also praised U.S. agents for handling rebooking during irregular operations better than their colleagues at foreign airlines…

What are your air travel pet peeves?

There are many things about today’s air travel system that annoy the most patient people — passengers and airline employees alike. It’s easy to encounter rudeness on both sides. I’ve learned to block out most of the noise and avoid hassle or stress, but I realized during a trip this week that I have my own pet peeves list.

1. Passengers demanding upgrades from gate agents, because they are on a “full fare” or have elite status — except that their ticket’s booking class is nowhere near Y or B, and they have the lowest status level.
2. Airport lounge gatekeepers wrongly denying you access and insisting they are correct when you confront them with the actual rules. Worse yet, they find a supervisor who agrees with them — as if repeating a mistake twice makes it right.
3. Passengers trying to hide a bag they put on the floor of an exit row, not to be seen by the flight attendant who warned them that luggage is not allowed there…

U.S. ESTA trouble for SAS passengers

It has been more than seven months since the new U.S. Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA) has been mandatory for airlines that fly citizens of visa-waiver countries to the United States. Yet some carriers’ computer systems are reportedly experiencing serious problems, resulting in denied boarding for travelers with valid ESTAs.

Last week, I received a disturbing e-mail message from an Austrian citizen who had read my previous coverage of ESTA issues. On July 5, she wasn’t allowed on a Scandinavian Airlines (SAS) flight from Stockholm to Chicago, for which the carrier blamed problems with the passenger’s ESTA…

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…

Educating the flying public

Do you find that air travel has become a complex game of numerous airline rules, growing restrictions, oversold flights and never-ending fees? Do you feel knowledgeable enough and prepared to navigate that labyrinth before, during and even after a trip?

I often compare booking travel to a science — with so many different booking codes, fares, upgrade requirements, penalties and other conditions for changes and cancellations, it’s almost impossible for fliers to keep track of it all. That makes them heavily dependent on airline agents, and it’s well known that you can hear different answers to the same question…

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…

‘Tweaking’ airlines’ yield management

Have you been accused by airline agents of trying to “game the system” by asking if they could open up for mileage redemption seats they obviously won’t sell for cash? Now a top airline executive is encouraging fliers to alert agents when the system fails in its predictability, so it can be “tweaked.”

Before you do that, however, make sure you know what you are talking about — learn all booking codes used by the respective carrier, if you haven’t already, and be able to access and understand its inventory data. Just because there are dozens of open business-class seats months before a flight doesn’t mean you are entitled to an upgrade or an “award” ticket…

U.S. airlines handle disruptions best

How many times have you been jerked around at an airport and made to wait in several long lines after a flight delay or cancellation forced a change to the rest of your itinerary? Chances are, that happened abroad. For all their faults, U.S. airlines handle irregular operations better than their foreign peers.

I’ve always wondered why airport agents in the United States — whether at check-in counters, gates or even business lounges — can do almost anything a passenger needs, including rebooking, rerouting and reissuing tickets, while agents in other countries are much more specialized, and thus less helpful…

US Airways’ website fails at basics

This was supposed to be a column critical of US Airways’ rather peculiar Web site, which is unable to perform basic functions, such as retrieving valid and active tickets. But it also became an appreciation of the carrier’s willingness to explain some of those issues and even try to resolve them.

Every airline’s Web site has limitations and various quirks that annoy travelers — some offer odd routings when you search for flights, others show confusing or even misleading prices, and yet others try to get you to buy things you don’t need instead of taking you straight to the final purchase page…