Airlines abuse check-in deadlines

SJO 013Have you ever been told by an airline agent that you had missed the check-in deadline, even though you arrived at the airport well before the published cutoff time? That happened to dozens of Spirit Airlines passengers this week, but it’s nothing new. Agents have been abusing customers for years and have even made them pay penalties.

A former intern of mine told me once that he was returning home to Washington from Las Vegas with a friend when an agent declared it was too late to check them in. At least the agent was honest and admitted that the fault wasn’t theirs. Technically, there was still time before the deadline, but the flight was overbooked. Because the two passengers didn’t have seat assignments and the plane was already full, there was no space for them — despite the fact that they were holding confirmed and paid tickets for the flight.

The agent was not only honest but incredibly arrogant, making the students pay a $150 change fee each to get on another flight. The young men didn’t know better as to stand up for their rights and ponied up the penalties. So the airline, which had overbooked the flight and made money from more passengers than there were seats for on the aircraft, ended up making even more money from apparently inexperienced travelers…

17 hours of tax-free airline tickets

Did you manage to outsmart the airlines before they outsmarted all of us on Saturday? Travelers had about 17 hours to book tickets without paying most government taxes, because of Congress’ failure to authorize funding for the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) by midnight on Friday. Most carriers started pocketing that money at the very first opportunity they had.

I did book a ticket and saved about $50, but I must admit I didn’t expect the airlines to raise fares so quickly and deprive customers of any savings. So what exactly happened? Shortly after midnight Eastern time (ET) on Friday, when the FAA lost its prerogative to collect taxes, airline reservation systems began dropping those taxes from ticket prices…

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…

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…

Free hotel Internet for elites slowly becomes the norm

Another domino in the hotel fees game has began falling. Three of the world’s largest chains — Starwood, Marriott and Hyatt — now offer free Internet access to their elite members. Another two, however — InterContinental and Hilton — are holding out. For how long?

Like most frequent travelers, who are usually also elite members of various loyalty programs, I’ve become accustomed to free hotel perks, such as breakfast, room upgrades and lounge access. At the same time, I’ve oddly got used to paying Internet fees that are sometimes higher for one day than my monthly charge at home, and for speed several times lower…

United executive breaks old barriers

Is there an inherent conflict between the desires of loyal customers and a travel company’s interests? For years, executives have been acting as if there is, despite of what they might say in public. One of them, however, has actually shown that what’s good for travelers doesn’t have to be bad for business.

Graham Atkinson has been president of United Airlines’ frequent-flier program, Mileage Plus, for only 16 months, but while some questionable policies remain in place, he has made a big difference for the better. His approach is not simply to please the carrier’s best customers…

Western carriers return to Iraq

Iraq may not be among Western travelers’ most desired destinations quite yet, but some of the world’s leading airlines have decided that flying to the war-ravaged country can be profitable, so they are returning there after a 20-year absence.

Although two of Europe’s major carriers — Austrian Airlines and Turkish Airlines — have been serving Iraq since 2008, their re-entry in that market was viewed as only moderately significant at the time, and none of their peers followed suit. Austrian chose Erbil, the capital of Kurdish northern Iraq, which was never nearly as violent as the rest of the country…

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…

Hidden perils of airline code-sharing

The practice of one airline selling seats on another carrier’s planes with its own flight numbers has been around for years, and many travelers are familiar with the term “code-sharing.” Yet even experienced fliers continue to be surprised by what amounts to false advertising.

It’s holiday time, and I’d love to write columns about how seamless and hassle-free travel is — which is true for me in most cases — but I keep hearing from readers about questionable airline behavior. In the latest example, LACSA, Costa Rica’s national airline, may have misled some customers…

Airlines cut back on first-class service

If you ever wanted to sit in first or business class but couldn’t afford it — and upgrading wasn’t an option — your time may have arrived. While airlines await the return of paying “premium” passengers, some of them are letting lower-class fliers occupy plush lie-flat seats.

On Australia’s Qantas Airways and Germany’s Lufthansa, you can now sit in first class even if you hold a ticket for business — no miles or other upgrade instruments are necessary. Qantas also allows coach customers in the business cabin. The two carriers still offer standard three-cabin service on most of their international networks…